Posts Tagged ‘Flaubert’

“La Regenta” by Leopoldo Alas

Late to the party, as ever. La Regenta by Leopoldo Alas, a massive novel written in the 1880s (i.e. slap bang in the middle of what is possibly my favourite era for literature – at least as far as novels are concerned), translated from the Spanish by John Rutherford (whose wonderful translation of Don Quixote I recently commented on), was nominated as a “group read” amongst various book bloggers. Now I know why I am so reluctant to take part in these group-reads: I am invariably way behind everyone else. However, undaunted by the 700 and more pages of sight-destroying print, I did dive in, and I am glad I did so. It proved an exhausting read, but sometimes, exhaustion can be a price worth paying.

Before I go on to put together my personal impressions – for that’s all these blog posts of mine are – I should direct the reader’s attention to some other very perceptive posts on this novel in other blogs. In no particular order:

A Commonplace Reader


Wuthering Expectations

Six Words for a Hat

Tredynas Days

(Please do let me know of any others I have inadvertently omitted, and I shall add them.)

I have gained much understanding from these blogs, and, in what follows, will be plagiarising without acknowledgement many of these bloggers’ ideas and insights.

Now that these preliminaries are over, let me dive in again – this time, to try to make some sense, hopefully, of this massive work. And I suppose I should add here what is known as a “spoiler alert”:

*** SPOILER ALERT: The following inevitably reveals some aspects of the plot of La Regenta ***


I once formulated a theory that characters in Russian novels have souls, but characters in French novels don’t. It seemed quite neat to me at the time, even with the modification I had almost immediately to make, to the effect that when Russian novelists do create characters without souls, they are shocked by their soullessness – in Gogol’s case, sufficiently so to draw attention to the fact in the title.

But a little more thought convinced me that I had best shelve my theory – at least, before someone brought up Andre Gide’s La Porte Étroite, or François Mauriac’s Thérèse. The problem is, I think, that I tend see Flaubert as an exemplar when it comes to French novelists, and easily forget that not all French novelists were so uncompromisingly cynical. But, for better or worse, when I think of the French novel, it’s Flaubert who comes first to mind. And although La Regenta is a Spanish rather than a French novel, Flaubert’s Madame Bovary seems to me to be stamped all over it.

This is not a very original observation. Indeed, it often seems that Alas had deliberately set out to invite comparisons with Madame Bovary. Once again, we have the central character, a woman, married to a ninny and suffocating in a provincial town; we have the townspeople – empty, vapid, pompous, shallow, trivial, self-regarding, venal, tedious, dull, corrupt – all depicted with great cynicism, and, frequently, a quite savage irony; and once again, we have a central plot involving adultery – adultery as a much sought-for release from all the frustrations of daily tedium, but which, inevitably, ends badly. The presence of Madame Bovary in the background can hardly be ignored, and Alas must, indeed, have been aware of it.

But of course, this is no mere re-run of Madame Bovary: that would have been pointless. For all the apparent similarities, there are significant differences – in the narrative technique, in the characters’ psychologies, and also, I think, thematically.

For one thing, this is a much longer novel: it is more than 700 pages in John Rutherford’s translation, and, if the print had been of a somewhat more reasonable size, I suspect it would have been nearer a thousand. This is the sort of length one would expect of epic novels – Les Misérables, say, or War and Peace; that so many pages are taken to narrate what is, in essence, a provincial and domestic story, the outline of which may easily be summarised in a few sentences, imparts to the reader – to this reader, at least – a sense almost of suffocation. We too seem, like Ana, the regenta (judge’s wife) of the novel’s title, to be inhabiting this endlessly tedious, soulless waste.

But one person, at least, does have a soul, and that is Ana. She is the only character in the entire novel whose soul is specifically referred to. In this, the novel is very different from Madame Bovary: there, Emma was as empty and as vapid as all the others, and the terrible irony was that her rebellion was every bit as shallow and stupid as that she was rebelling against. Here, in contrast, Ana really does have a soul, albeit a soul that is parched and empty; and she is in search of something – she barely knows what – that would provide her soul with sustenance.

But there seems to me to be an uncertainty here – an uncertainty that Alas carefully leaves unresolved. What really is the nature of Ana’s religious yearnings? Is it a mystical longing, or mere hysterical religiosity? Is it a search for spiritual grace? Or could it be that it is but a sublimated form merely of sexual desire? Could the cynicism of the narrator (whose voice may or may not be the voice of Alas himself – we can never be quite sure) extend so far as to see Ana’s spiritual yearning, and, by implication, all spiritual yearning, as no more than a craving for sex – an essentially animal craving that we dress up in fancy clothes to convince ourselves of our essential seriousness?

This was not, I think, among Flaubert’s concerns in Madame Bovary, but it seems to me here a major theme. This entire novel is drenched with a sense of often quite raw sensuality, which is all the more potent for being repressed: a glimpse of an ankle, the outline of a female form apparent behind a dress – the slightest thing, indeed – is enough to set off the good people of Vetusta into the most febrile imaginings, the most prurient fantasies. Don Alvaro Mesia, the local Don Juan, is celebrated and looked up to for his many conquests. In one particularly distasteful scene, Don Alvaro tells admiring members of the town’s gentlemen’s club of one of his many “seductions” – in reality, nothing short of rape. And how the assembled gentlemen of the club all lap it up! Physical sex, sensuality, is the focal point of all their aspirations, all their yearnings.

Amidst all this prurience, all this salaciousness, Ana’s spiritual yearnings and passions – generally regarded as a bit unseemly, as “overdoing it”, and, despite the example of St Teresa, as something not really appropriate for a lady, and a judge’s wife at that – may well be a yearning for something more beautiful, more uplifting. But the nagging suspicion persists that, at bottom, it may be nothing more than the same desire for physical sex that everyone else in the town seems to feel. Married to a man much older than himself, who does not sleep with her, and who treats her as a daughter rather than as a wife, Ana is, sexually, deeply frustrated; and, during that brief period when her sexual desires are satisfied, her spiritual yearnings seem altogether to disappear. But Alas – or his narrator, should the two be different – refuses to commit himself on this point. Perhaps because there can be no definite answer to this: the wellsprings of human motivation are, after all, obscure.

If it is at least possible that Ana mistakes her physical desires for spiritual yearnings, there is no doubt that Don Fermin, the canon theologian, makes the same mistake. He is introduced as proud and ambitious, strong, powerful, and virile. But he takes his calling seriously enough not to break his chastity. (At least, not with Ana: women from the lower orders- maidservants and the like – are fair game.) When he becomes Ana’s confessor, he falls head over heels in love with her: indeed, he becomes quite besotted. But he convinces himself, and convinces Ana, that theirs is a “spiritual” union. He is grossly mistaken. When Ana betrays him to form a less-than-spiritual union with Don Alvaro, the canon theologian’s reaction, too,is less than spiritual: it is, indeed, quite volcanic. Here, again, Alas’ fictional world diverges from Flaubert’s: the eruptive force of Don Fermin’s fierce passions has no place in the world of Madame Bovary.

The third member of the triangle here is, of course, the lover, in this case, the experienced “seducer” – and, indeed, rapist, as rape counted as “seduction” in this proper and moral society – Don Alvaro. He is a “man of the world”, as they say; Ana, on the other hand, has led a very sheltered life, both before and after her marriage. Once Don Alvaro gets the opportunity, he knows precisely what to do to get her into bed, to convince her that in him she would find the true object of her aspirations, her desires. She is putty in his hands. It is an expert seduction, to be sure, and how ironic it is that so high-minded a lady as Ana, so demure, so far above the salacious gossipmongering and sexual flaunting of the other ladies, should fall for someone such as Don Alvaro. But fall she does, and to Don Fermin, the sense of betrayal is earth-shattering: his entire being, which he had invested in Ana, collapses; his belief that he had with her a “spiritual union”, disintegrates. He could not have reacted more violently had he been her husband.

It is unusual to have a love triangle from which the husband is excluded, but the husband here, an elderly retired judge, seems almost completely sexless. Even when presented with evidence of his wife’s infidelity, he seems almost incapable of summoning up the passion that he knows he should, under the circumstances, feel. His interests lie elsewhere – in hunting, and in classical drama, from which he would delightedly recite the most passionate of lines, without being able to feel any of that passion himself in his real life. It would have been easy to have turned him into a mere comic figure, but, despite the unremitting cynicism of the narrative, he emerges – to me, at least – as curiously sympathetic: he is a man so immersed in his own little world, and so unthinkingly happy in it, and so utterly blind to anything outside it, that when that outside world intrudes into his own, he is lost. A nincompoop he may be, but this judge, so helpless because he is so incapable of judgement, does, I think, arouse more pity than disdain.

So this, then, is the story, and a fairly simple story it is too. And yet, it is of epic length. Indeed, I can think of many a novel whose content may be described as “epic” that are, nonetheless, much shorter than this.

The length is accounted for, I think, by the meticulousness of Alas’ approach. Not for him to give a rough impression of the town Vetusta (a fictionalised Orvieto), or to drop suggestions into the reader’s mind and leave it there: he has, meticulously, to bring the entire town to life, detailing its streets, its social institutions, its citizens, and give them all weight and solidity. And he delves into his characters’ minds – what they think, what they feel, how they view themselves and each other. Even minor characters do not escape his detailed scrutiny.

Of course, he knew that he was risking writing a very boring novel: it cannot be an easy thing, after all, to depict tedium without being tedious oneself. And in his constant use of irony – it is impossible to ignore the influence of Flaubert here – he further risks alienating the reader from the characters: irony, after all, invariably distances. But, although the novel is (or, at least, seemed to me) frequently suffocating, it was never dull. The sense of suffocation is, I think, deliberate: it is not enough to be told of the sense of suffocation felt by Ana – we have to experience it also. But tedium is kept at bay by the sheer polish of the writing, and by the vitality he manages to inject into even the most insignificant of the characters. Flaubert managed to make his readers interested in even someone such as Félicité (“Un Coeur Simple”), a character who, in real life, we’d probably find too dull to want to spend much time with; Alas has the same ability to arouse interest in characters who, in real life, are likely to arouse in us little but a sense of tedium. And, to be entirely honest, I’m not quite sure how either Flaubert or Alas pulls this off. But it is fascinating to see them do it.

The first of the two halves into which the novel is split is virtually all expository. The exposition is what we need to know for the story to make sense, and most writers try to get it out of the way as soon as possible, but not Alas: for him, the exposition is not merely there to make the story intelligible – it is for him as integral and as important a part of the novel as is the central drama. For his interest here is not merely in the principal figures of the drama, but also in the environment they live in, and in others who share that environment. These three hundred and fifty pages of the first part take us through only three days, but Alas has no interest here in giving an impression of time moving forward: what momentum there is comes from a sense of mass rather than of velocity. What matters here is not a sense of the story moving forward, but of the realisation of an entire town, of an entire body of people inhabiting that town. Even at the end of that first half, at a point where a great many novels would already have run its course and ended, we are given a detailed flashback telling us of Don Firmin’s mother, his birth, and his childhood: we are still, in other words, in the exposition.

As I finished the first part, I couldn’t help wondering how the novel would progress in the second. Tchaikovsky once said of Brahms’ violin concerto that Brahms had built a good, solid plinth, but, instead of placing a sculpture on it, he had merely gone on to create yet another plinth. Although I have the temerity to disagree with Tchaikovsky on this point, that does seem to me as striking image. In the first part of the novel, Alas had, indeed, created an immensely strong expository plinth; but what was he going to put on top of it? Would his focus still be on mass rather than on velocity?

The focus does indeed alter in the second part, but Alas was too fine a writer to change gears too suddenly. But slowly, almost imperceptibly, the central characters and their drama become increasingly prominent, increasingly take centre stage. We find, to start with, that each new chapter, though beginning with some other set of characters, inevitably gravitates by the end towards Don Firmin, Don Alvaro, or to Ana. After a while, chapters begin with these figures, and they begin to stand out more strongly in relief from the others. The pace gathers slowly, but the cumulative effect, though still carrying more mass than speed, is tremendous. And the climactic section, prepared for so meticulously and over so long a span, does not disappoint: all the passions that had been simmering so long under the surface seem suddenly to explode. The effect is tremendous.


La Regenta would not have been possible, I think, had Madame Bovary not been written, but, despite the many parallels, Alas’ concerns are different from Flaubert’s. Where Flaubert shook his head sadly at the sheer futility of all human activities, and at the humanity’s desire to transcend the limits imposed by human stupidity, but its inability, because of that very stupidity, to do so, Alas was more concerned with spiritual aspirations in a doggedly unspiritual world, and with sexual desires in a society that, though fascinated by sex, represses these desires, so that eroticism degrades into mere prurience. And he wonders to what extent the two are indeed one and the same thing – to what extent our spiritual yearnings are but sublimated forms of our animal appetites. He is interested also in human passions that, however we try to hide them under civic structures and civilised customs, refuse to remain hidden. The result is a novel that is not, perhaps, the easiest to read, but is worthy to take its place amongst the finest products of a most illustrious literary era.

[8th October,2016: edit made to correct a misleading passage regarding the plot.]

On reverence

Many people have a very strict definition of reality: only that which exists as a physical entity in the real world may be considered real. Turgenev’s Bazarov may have agreed: twice two is four, and everything else is nonsense, he gleefully proclaimed, though it may be worth asking the Bazarovs of this world (and there are many) if, given that definition, “two” and “four” can themselves be considered real, given that, when not attached to objects – e.g. “two trees” or “four cars” – numbers do not have a physical presence either. But if this is indeed an adequate definition of reality, what are we to make of our emotions – those things we all feel, such as fear, anger, joy, contentment, anxiety, apprehension, delight, and so on? I’m sure that the definition of reality is a complex philosophical issue, and one that I, as a layman, am not qualified to comment upon, but if our definition of reality does not accommodate our emotions, then, it seems to me, such a definition doesn’t come close to describing our real lives as we live them.

So let us grant that, however we choose to define reality, our emotions are “real”. Let us, for convenience if nothing else, cut through the various philosophical subtleties and complexities, and proclaim that what we feel must be real. For, without such an assumption, our thoughts, our actions, our very lives, would be based merely upon illusions.

We may describe most of our emotions by ascribing to them labels: we may label certain emotions as “anger”, or as “fear”, or as “contentment”, and be confident of being understood when we use these terms, since these emotions have been felt, we can be fairly certain, by most, if not all, other humans. There’s no point trying to formulate definitions when a general understanding already exists.

But what about those emotions that one has felt for which there is no handy label, no descriptive term or word? And which we cannot even be sure have been universally experienced? I mean those experiences that, for want of universally understood terms, we tend to refer to as “spiritual”, or as “transcendental”, or something similarly vague. Those experiences that, in Wordsworth’s words, give us a “sense sublime of something far more deeply interfused”. Such emotions may be straying too close for comfort to religious experience, but even diehard atheists often admit to having felt this kind of thing. We may feel these things in the presence of a resplendent sunset, say; or on viewing some majestic vista from atop a mountain; or on viewing the glory of a star-emblazoned sky on a clear and cloudless night.

We may, indeed, describe the experience of these emotions as “sacred”, but here we run into difficulties: the sacred is usually defined as that which is related to divinity; however, though belief in divinity has declined sharply over the last few decades (at least, in the western world), our capacity to experience those feelings that we may describe as “sacred” hasn’t. And neither, I’d argue, has our need to experience them. So, if the concept of the “sacred” continues to hold meaning for us even if we have stopped believing in God, or even if, like myself, we’re agnostic, we must question whether the “sacred” need necessarily be tied to religion. But how can we define “sacred” otherwise? If we decouple the “sacred” from religious experience, and describe it in more secular terms as anything to which we feel we owe reverence, then the concept of the “sacred” loses all objectivity, and, can, indeed, be anything. To Félicité in Flaubert’s story “Un Coeur Simple”, even a stuffed parrot becomes “sacred”.

However, if what may be deemed “sacred” is not purely objective, it is not, I think, purely subjective either. For what gives rise to these feelings are generally not stuffed parrots, but, rather, resplendent sunsets and mountain-top vistas and the like. And, also, certain works of art. This last I know for a fact, because I have felt this emotion myself when I have come into contact with certain music, certain poems, certain paintings. And, if we deem emotions to be real, then this emotion, too, must be real.

And these emotions are, I’d argue, very precious emotions, whether we feel them in the presence of starry skies, of Michelangelo’s Pietà, or even, for that matter, of stuffed parrots. Towards the end of Flaubert’s story, Félicité, her mind never too strong to begin with and now further weakened by age, as she breathes her last, has a resplendent vision of a gigantic parrot hovering above her. It is utterly absurd, yes, but at the same time, this passage has about it a sense of gravity, of solemnity, that, given the ludicrous nature of the image, is hard to account for. I find it hard to tell whether Flaubert intended to debunk the very idea of religious experience, or to elevate Félicité’s absurd vision into something significant, something that gives a meaning to her otherwise meaningless life. Perhaps there are elements of both: literature can signify many things, even contradictory things, simultaneously. But either way, the sense of rapture Félicité feels is real, even if the gigantic parrot hovering above her isn’t. That sense sublime of something far more deeply interfused exists even here, and is precious, even though there is nothing here interfused, far more deeply or otherwise.

I think this accounts for the often quasi-religious zeal many of us feel for the arts: the arts provide, or, at least, are capable of providing, experiences generally considered to belong to the realms of religion. The idea that art can, or should, give rise to such feelings remains, however, hotly disputed. There are those who insist, often quite aggressively, that the arts exist for one purpose and one purpose only – to give pleasure. The arts, we are told, traditionally existed for no other reason, and that we only started to become precious about it in more recent times. For instance, Alan Bissett, in the article linked to above, solemnly tells us:

Stretching back to oral folk culture, stories were democratic in their nature, bonding communities in a shared experience. Everyone had a tale to tell around the fire; the audience could decide for themselves if it was good or not.

Tempting though it may be to picture our distant forefathers seated around a communal fire and entertaining themselves, purely for pleasure, with recitations from The Book of Job, it doesn’t seem to me an image that rings particularly true. From even the earliest of our surviving literature, it is obvious that the creators, even when they set out to entertain, had set out also to achieve more.

Bissett starts his piece by telling us that there is “art appreciation” and “art worship”, and while he allows the former to be acceptable, the latter he doesn’t. Which would be fine if he could at least explain to us what the difference is between the two, but he doesn’t. And since he doesn’t, I can only guess at what he means: I’d guess that what Bissett refers to as “art worship” is the reverence that some of us may feel for a work of art. And that, according to Bissett, is a Bad Thing. For the purpose of art, he solemnly informs us with all the earnestness of a conscientious hedonist, is to provide pleasure. Nothing more.

The claim that there can be no other point to art than to entertain and to provide pleasure, and that, by implication, anyone who claims to have obtained from art anything other than that must either be fooling themselves or are lying, strikes me as, frankly, gratuitously insulting. Even if one does not feel certain things in the presence of art, the contention that no-one else can or should feel these things either, is presumptuous, to say the least. It also strikes me as boorish and ill-mannered.

The idea that the arts can give rise to certain feelings that are close to religious emotions has long, I think, been acknowledged. Religion itself has recognised this: various religious institutions have either outlawed the arts from the act of worship, considering the quasi-religious feelings derived from art as unwanted rivals to true religious feelings; others have done the opposite, and have incorporated the arts into the act of worship, welcoming the quasi-religious as a legitimate means of approaching the religious. And in recent times, with religious beliefs receding in the West, the arts have in many cases become a sort of secular religion in themselves – a replacement for religion, providing experiences that we can no longer obtain from religion, but which we nonetheless require to prevent our lives from sinking into triviality. For a mortality in which there is nothing serious, in which all is but toys, is, we instinctively realise, a sort of hell.

Yet this hell of triviality is what many seem to recommend to us. Here, for instance, is pianist Charlie Albright, who tells us in a well-meaning article that to bring audiences back to classical concerts again, we must make it fun, and take the seriousness out of it.

Breaking down such “classical” rules will kill “classical” music — and thus save it. It will make the artform more accessible, more entertaining, and more disinhibiting … It will welcome those of us who are interested yet apprehensive about making the leap to buy a ticket to a concert.

But could it not be the case, I wonder, that the “seriousness” of classical music may well be the very reason why so many of us are drawn to it in the first place? Albright is not gratuitously offensive, as Bissett is, but interestingly, he too conjures up a picture of music once being fun, until we unnecessarily burdened it with all our deplorable seriousness. But once again, this does not ring true. The oldest music I know of are the choral music of medieval composers such as Josquin des Prez, or Hildegard of Bingen, and I can’t say it is music that makes me want to get up and boogie. Beethoven wrote above the score of Missa Solemnis “From the heart – may it go to the heart”; the piece itself is eighty minutes of very knotty and immensely demanding music. Some may disagree, but I do not get the impression from this that Ludwig had set out to give his audience a bit of fun. What the music does give us, however, is something I do not have the words to describe, and for which I need once again to borrow from Wordsworth – that “sense sublime of something far more deeply interfused”. I feel, indeed, a reverence. And if anyone tells me that I am but fooling myself, and only imagining that I feel this; or even that I shouldn’t feel this; then, frankly,I don’t know that we need take them too seriously.

I do not know how to describe these emotions, but since I can feel them, they are real. If these emotions I feel aren’t real, then no emotion I feel can be real either. And yes, the music – or the painting, or the poem – that can give rise to such emotions is indeed something to which we owe reverence. And if that is a definition of the sacred, then yes, it is sacred, and will continue being so no matter how many Bazarovs there may be in our world telling us that twice two is four, and all else merely nonsense.

Affirmation and denial

I was moved by a story I read recently of a terminally ill lady who had wished, before she died, to see for one last time her favourite painting by Rembrandt. A photograph showed this lady, still in the bed that she presumably could no longer leave, in front of a late Rembrandt self-portrait; and the sense of reverence – for I know no other word more suitable in this context – that I felt on seeing this picture seemed to go even beyond the respect that is due to those of us facing the fact of our transience.


Now, to admit to such feelings is to risk being labelled “sentimental”, but I have long found that a troublesome word. The “sentimental” is usually defined as that which exhibits “false emotion”, but I don’t know if that will do: for how can one be sure that any emotion displayed is necessarily false? Most of us do not have the ability to express adequately what we feel most deeply, and when we try, what comes out, all too often, is merely vapid, but this vapidity does not in itself necessarily betoken falseness at the source, where the emotion is felt. And in any case, we don’t really deem anything as “sentimental” on the basis of what we think was intended, but, rather, on the impression it makes on us, and this, inevitably, is to a great extent subjective. However, try as I might, I cannot come up with an alternative definition that is independent of the subjective reactions of the viewer. None of this to say that sentimentality does not exist – not everything that exists can be adequately defined, after all: but it does mean, I think, that we should be careful about bandying that term around too freely. And if my being moved by the picture of the ill lady in front of the Rembrandt painting does indeed appear “sentimental”, I can only appeal to the reader’s generosity in this matter: whatever falseness of emotion the reader may detect is in the inadequacy of my expression, rather than in the sincerity of my feeling.

And somehow, the picture this lady asked to see just had to be a Rembrandt. Now, I do not claim to be any great expert on the visual arts, and my lack of knowledge possibly reflects my relative lack of perception: I have long felt that I am less keenly receptive to the visual arts than I am to literature or to music. Nonetheless, if there is any artist whose work looks unblinkingly at life, that refuses to shirk anything that may be deemed unpleasant or unattractive, and yet affirms what it sees, that artist would be Rembrandt.


“The Jewish Bride” by Rembrandt, courtesy Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

I have stood in front of Rembrandt’s The Jewish Bride, currently hanging in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, in a state of inarticulate wonder. It depicts two figures, a man and a woman, surrounded by darkness. He is looking at her, his left hand placed upon her shoulder, and his right hand upon her breast – not lewdly, nor roughly, but with the utmost gentleness: how Rembrandt could depict the tender softness of a touch merely with paint I do not know, but there it is: the miracle is there for all to see. She acknowledges his touch by laying her hand, equally softly and gently, upon his. And she gazes, not at him, but into the distance: whatever vision it is she sees there, we do not know. The strength of the emotions felt by these two people is reflected in the richness of the paints: not even the finest reproduction can convey the thick, opulent impasto (I believe that’s the correct term, but would be happy to be corrected if it isn’t) which Rembrandt’s applies to the man’s sleeve; or that deepest hue of red that Rembrandt uses for the woman’s dress – a red that is neither shocking nor garish, but is, somehow, utterly consonant with the still serenity of the composition. What we see in this painting is an earthly love, a human love, not transformed into something other than what it is, nor even perhaps transcending what it is, but as it is, where it is, justifying itself merely by being, and defying with its presence the surrounding darkness.


Detail from “The Jewish Bride” by Rembrandt, courtesy Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam. “The miracle is there for all to see…”

More than this I fear to say, for fear, once again, of appearing sentimental. So afraid are we of this terrible charge, we prefer to present ourselves as hard-bitten cynics, as sceptics and detractors, and misanthropes and sneerers, rather than try to express, however inadequately, what we sometimes most long to say. But this lady whose last wish it was to see her favourite Rembrandt painting was, presumably, beyond all this. She did not have to say anything, of course, but she knew that what Rembrandt conveyed was more than just a momentary diversion, more than just a fashionable currency of lifestyle. For this is what a great artistic vision can come to mean: it justifies itself merely by being. And if that sounds sentimental, I have to ask, as ever, what precisely we mean by the term.

However, even while I was moved by the lady’s dying wish, I could not help wondering whether the affirmative nature of Rembrandt’s vision is among the principal factors – or, indeed, whether it is a factor at all – in determining the immensity of his artistic vision. For not all works affirm. Many, indeed, deny. I do not necessarily mean tragic works, for it is a commonly acknowledged truth that even the most despairing of tragedies can affirm. And conversely, there are comedies that can deny: what better than the comic mode, after all, to deflate, to reveal our aspirations as mere affectations, our beliefs as delusions, and to tell us that there is nothing serious in mortality? The dichotomy that increasingly seems to me more important than that of the tragic and the comic is that of affirmation and of denial. The self-portrait that the lady so wanted to see in her dying days is, in many ways, a tragic work: Rembrandt paints his failing flesh as it is, with no attempt to hide the nearness of his own extinction; and yet, despite the tragic foreboding, it affirms: even when that extinction comes, even if there is no afterlife that is promised us by religion, the very existence of that flesh, failing though it is, is, in Rembrandt’s vision, its own justification. This painting, however tragic we may take it to be, is a defiant affirmation of the significance of life. But there is another kind of art that does quite the opposite – that denies; and I am not sure that this art is any lesser. At least, not for this particular reason.

We may find in literature also this dichotomy between affirmation and denial. Tolstoy, in War and Peace, wrote, effectively, a hymn to life; Flaubert, on the other hand, saw all human activity as futile. (Except for his recording of that futility: that, if nothing else, was important.) But does that difference alone make Tolstoy a greater artist than Flaubert? I don’t think so. And this leaves us with a conundrum: it is easy to understand, or even feel, reverence for works that affirm; one may understand why it may be one’s dying wish to experience again, for one last time, such works of art. But can any reverence be felt at all for the naysayers? And if so, why?

I have puzzled over this for many years now, and, not having come across any answer yet that satisfies me, have convinced myself that there is no answer. However, I was fascinated by a characteristically thoughtful essay I came across recently by Theodore Dalrymple that seemed to me to touch on these very themes. In the course of this essay, he compares a charming painting by Joshua Reynolds of a child, her arms around her beloved pet dog, smiling at the viewer, with the extremely disturbing images of contemporary artist Marlene Dumas. Dalrymple is, I think it fair to say, a cultural conservative, but the essay is far from an easy and predictable praise of the past and condemnation of the present: or, at least, if that was what Dalrymple had intended, he doesn’t make things easy for himself. The painting he has chosen from the past is one that many nowadays may describe as “twee” or – that word again – “sentimental”; and the contemporary artist whose work he has chosen is, in Dalrymple’s own words, “unquestionably … an artist of great talent”. He refuses, however, to see tweeness or sentimentality in Reynolds’ painting – and rightly so, I think: the charms and the delights of childhood, the uncomplicated happiness and innocence of one who has yet to experience much that disturbs either, are aspects of human life that are every bit as important as are the darker elements, and every bit as worthy of the artist’s attention. But it is when we come to the works of Marlene Dumas that the whole issue becomes considerably more complex, because her images of childhood seem drenched in a pervasive sense of evil. Dalrymple describes these images eloquently, and, following the link he provides, I was reminded as nothing so much as Dickens’ horrific and horrified description in A Christmas Carol of a similar evil lurking in the forms of children:

Where graceful youth should have filled their features out, and touched them with its freshest tints, a stale and shrivelled hand, like that of age, had pinched, and twisted them, and pulled them into shreds. Where angels might have sat enthroned, devils lurked, and glared out menacing. No change, no degradation, no perversion of humanity, in any grade, through all the mysteries of wonderful creation, has monsters half so horrible and dread.

Dalrymple pays generous tribute to the power of Dumas’ art, but questions the value of presenting in one’s art such unremitting horror and ugliness. While I am broadly in sympathy with him on this matter, it does seem to me that Dumas’ art, for all its ugliness, has an important place. After all, presentation of such horror and ugliness is nothing new in art: as we have seen, Dickens himself – that epitome of all that is warm and jovial – was no stranger to it; and neither, of course, was Goya, whose “Black Paintings”, and series of prints The Disasters of War, take us into a physical and spiritual hell in which, to judge from the stories still dominating our news headlines, we remain still mired. To insist that artists must turn away from such ugliness and horror is no better than the insistence that Reynolds’ painting, focussing solely as it does on beauty and charm, is somehow “sentimental”.

Of course, Dalrymple does not insist on this at all: he is too sophisticated a writer for that. But his questioning of what value there can there be in an art that only denies is, I think, entirely legitimate. Is it possible, after all, to imagine anyone close to death wishing to see for one last time Marlene Dumas’ art – or, for that matter, Goya’s Saturn Devouring His Son? No, I don’t think so. But that does not make it inferior art. Goya’s denial has, it seems to me, as much a claim to artistic greatness as does Rembrandt’s affirmation. But why this should be, I do not know. It is possible, I think, to understand why even the darkest of tragedies may inspire in us the reverence that is due to the greatest works of art; but why any reverence should be due at all to that which denies, remains, for me at least, a mystery.


“Saturn Devouring his Son” by Goya, courtesy Prado, Madrid

It is the conclusion to Dalrymple’s essay that I fiund particularly striking:

While some would no doubt accuse Reynolds of having avoided the less refined aspects of his society (a charge that could be levied against hundreds or thousands of artists), Dumas is guilty of a much greater evasion, caused by a fear of beauty. In a perceptive note in the catalog of her exhibition, by the critic Wendy Simon, we learn of this fear. Simon draws attention to “the extreme ambivalence we now feel towards beauty both within and outside art,” and continues: “We distrust it; we fear its power; we associate it with compulsion and uncontrollable desire of a sexual fetish. Embarrassed by our yearning for beauty, we demean it as something tawdry, self-indulgent, or sentimental.”

Is it true that we nowadays fear “beauty”, that we have “rejected” it? We still, after all, swoon to colourful sunsets; many are prepared to travel half way around the world to see the Taj Mahal. But in art that we produce? After all, no serious artist would paint like Reynolds nowadays. I do not mean this merely in terms of style: styles, of course, can and must change. What I mean is that no serious artist would nowadays depict the uncomplicated innocence and charm that Reynolds depicted, without even the slightest hint of the shadows that lie in wait. I am, of course, far from being an expert in modern art, and would be happy to be corrected on this point, but, when I consider all the various branches of the arts, it strikes me that there has been very little produced within, say, my own lifetime, the last half-century and more, that could rightly be called “affirmative”. It is not denial per se that perturbs me: for whatever reason, denial has its rightful place, in even the very greatest of the arts, and is nothing new. What perturbs me more (and I think it perturbs Dalrymple also) is our shutting out of affirmation.

It seems to me very much the case that when it comes to our artistic endeavours, we are, in critic Wendy Simon’s words (quoted by Dalrymple in his essay), “embarrassed by our yearning for beauty”. Indeed, it seems to me to me that, in many cases, we take a delight in ugliness, as if mocking this yearning for beauty that so embarrasses us. And should any of us dissent from this unremitting denial, there is that term that always shuts us up, that accusation to which there is no answer: sentimental. Even when trying to express what we feel about something as ineffable as Rembrandt’s Jewish Bride, we find ourselves compelled to use the word “unsentimental”, as if pre-empting the criticism we know is bound to crop up.

Some readers may be wondering at this point why I am so glibly conflating beauty with affirmation, and ugliness with denial. It is a fair point. Beauty does not, of course, always equate to affirmation: after all, Flaubert’s great novels of denial are undoubtedly “beautiful”, however we may define that term. But ugliness, it seems to me, can be nothing other than a denial. Of course, much depends upon our definitions, but since even the finest of philosophical minds have struggled in defining these terms, I don’t know that I would like foolishly to rush in here. Nonetheless, I can’t help feeling that anything that affirms is, inevitably, beautiful: it is beautiful precisely because it does affirm. The couple in Rembrandt’s The Jewish Bride are not particularly beautiful as people: neither has what we may call “film star looks”. Of course, there’s beauty in the composition, the colours, the handling of the paint, and so on: without Rembrandt’s genius in such matters, the painting would merely be an attempt at affirmation rather than the real thing. But Goya, too, displayed the very finest of genius in all of these areas, and yet I don’t think anyone could ever describe his “Black Paintings” as beautiful without stretching the definition of the word to something beyond everyday recognition. If we can think of The Jewish Bride as “beautiful” and withhold that term when describing Saturn Devouring his Son, the reason is purely in terms of the respective visions these two paintings convey: the affirmation in one case is “beautiful”, but the denial in the other isn’t, cannot be. The relations between affirmation and beauty, on the one hand, and between ugliness and denial on the other, are complex, and while the correlation may not be perfect, it does, I think, exist. The embarrassment that Wendy Simon had noted about our yearning for beauty seems to me to be an embarrassment for the very concept of affirmation itself.

Dalrymple further says:

Our view of the world has become so politicized that we think that the unembarrassed celebration of beauty is a sign of insensibility to suffering and that exclusively to focus on the world’s deformations, its horrors, is in itself a sign of compassion.

Indeed. And the “celebration of beauty” that seems to us a “sign of insensibility to suffering” seems to me identical to the affirmation that, when it comes to the arts at least, we seem no longer able to believe in.

In the introduction to the old Penguin Classics edition of Flaubert’s L’Education Sentimentale, translator Robert Baldick tells a revealing anecdote. Once, when approached by an admirer of that novel, Flaubert, though pleasantly surprised by the admiration, expressed his feeling that his novel would never be widely liked. What people expect from art, he said, is this – and he brought together the fingertips of both his hands to form a peak; “but I,” he continued, “gave them this” – and he turned his fingers downwards to indicate a bottomless chasm. Flaubert, I think, was wrong on this point: we are all children of Flaubert nowadays, and that bottomless chasm, the denial, is what strikes us now as the only truth: everything else is merely sentimental.

But this is not, I think, the whole story. Even the greatest of naysayers can, if they are sufficiently great artists, affirm. Even Dickens, having presented to us children in whom angels may have sat enthroned but in whom devils lurk, could end that same novel with untrammelled joy. I, for one, cannot deny him that joy (though many do) because it has been hard won: Dickens had looked unblinkingly into the abyss before he could reach this point. Goya too, perhaps the greatest naysayer in all art, painted towards the very end of his life The Milkmaid, a work that seems to radiate a beatific and visionary light. I have only seen this painting in reproduction, but, sentimental old fool that I no doubt am, even reproductions can move me beyond words. In his “Black Paintings”, in The Disasters of War, Goya had travelled through Hell itself: we cannot now deny him this hard won joy. And if we can respond still to such joy, if some of us can still as our last wish ask to see again a painting of Rembrandt’s, then, it seems to me, there is still room even in our modern world for art that affirms. We need that affirmation now as much as we ever did – not the easy affirmation of the feelgood movie, which is as insubstantial as the easy denial that is so often mistaken for the truth – but an affirmation that is deeply felt, and hard won.


“The Milkmaid” by Goya, courtesy Prado, Madrid

Some notes from my Ivory Tower

I have always tried to live in an ivory tower, but a tide of shit is beating at its walls, threatening to undermine it.

– Gustave Flaubert, from letter to Ivan Turgenev, November 13th 1872

There are times when a piece of music circles endlessly around the mind. Earworms, I think they’re called. It can happen also with lines of poetry. Of late, these few lines by Auden have been battering consistently at my inner ear:

The Ogre does what ogres can,
Deeds quite impossible for Man,
But one prize is beyond his reach,
The Ogre cannot master Speech:
About a subjugated plain,
Among its desperate and slain,
The Ogre stalks with hands on hips,
While drivel gushes from his lips.

There’s been a lot of drivel gushed lately, from various ogres’ lips. Possibly no more than usual, I suppose, but I am, for whatever reason, noticing it more these days. I shall not list here the various idiocies I hear every day from politicians and from political commentators of every shade: this is not a political blog, after all, and it’s best saving my political rants for my drinking cronies on a Friday evening, who are by now quite used to me and my ways, and don’t mind my ranting as long as I buy my rounds on time. But, as this is a literary blog, a few literary rants aren’t, I trust, out of place.

However, in this instance, I don’t much feel like a rant: I write with a countenance more in sorrow than in anger. And in any case, one develops after a while what may be termed “rant fatigue”. Let the whole world go hang, it’s tempting to feel, as long as I have my own library to retreat into. But, much though one may wish it, one cannot, as Flaubert observed, remain ensconced in one’s ivory tower: there is always this tide of shit eating away at its foundations.

The latest tide of shit comes in the form of a headline: apparently, Russell Brand and Dizzee Rascal are to appear on the A-level reading lists for English. Admittedly, I had never heard of Mr Rascal: it may well be that the Collected Works of Dizzee Rascal are well worth studying for English literature. But quite frankly, I can’t be arsed to find out. Rant Fatigue has set in too deeply, I suppose.

Reading through the comments below the line in the Guardian, and elsewhere for that matter, is generally a pretty depressing experience: there is little that dissipates so quickly one’s faith in humanity. But I do gather from some of what I read there that the works of Russell Brand, Dizzee Rascal and Caitlin Moran or whoever, are not intended as set texts for English Literature: rather, they are examples to be studies as part of the English Language course, as students need to learn to analyse various uses of the English language in various different contexts. Fair enough, I suppose. Any old excuse will serve for bringing in the mindless trivia and ephemera of the célébrités du jour into the classroom. Let us, by all means, analyse drivel so that we can see it’s drivel. But the problem is that we are so inundated with the stuff, that after a while we become inured to it: far from recognising it as drivel, we exalt it.

So it’s back to the ivory tower for me. And I intend staying there till the tide of shit actually does wear down the walls.

(Incidentally, now that the joke in the title of this blog has worn off somewhat, I am wondering whether it’s best to rename this blog “Notes From the Ivory Tower”.)

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.

Initial impressions of Dante’s “Inferno”

It is presumptuous to set out to “review” something such as Dante’s Inferno. Even at best, what one reviews is not so much the poem itself, but one’s reactions to the poem. Entire  books can be written – indeed, have been written – about how this poem, or the larger poem of which this is but the first part, has echoed through the arts and literatures of the Western world through the centuries; it is so permanent a fixture in the culture of the Western world that anything other than scholarly exegesis appears pointless. For what can I, a mere novice to this work, encountering it for the first time (and in translation at that) in my 50s, say anything at all that could possibly be of interest to anyone else?

But that is one of the beauties of the internet: one may make the most vapid and thoughtless statements about the most intricate and complex of works, and it can count as a “review”. During my first forays into the cyberworld all those years ago, it used, I remember, to irritate me to read that Hamlet was not too bad once you sort of got into it, or that Anna Karenina had boring patches that really sucked, or that it was really kind of hard to get into Great Expectations, or identify with any of the characters in Madame Bovary, and so on. Nowadays, such comments tend to amuse me, although I still wonder why people who appear to have so little understanding of what literature is should feel the need to pass judgement on public fora on matters that clearly go far above their heads, and be so utterly lacking in humility as to imagine themselves capable of seeing through works that generations of the finest minds have revered to the point of idolatry.

But now, it seems, I am about to join their ranks: I am about to write what passes on the net as a “review” of a work that, frankly, went over my head, but which has been intensely admired across generations and across cultures by the most refined of tastes and by the most acute of intellects. So yes, Dante’s Inferno really was kind of hard to get into, the boring patches really did suck, it was hard to identify with any of the characters, but, for all that, once you did get into it, it really wasn’t too bad. And if that reads like a poor attempt at satire (which it is), it’s only fair to warn the reader beforehand that what follows is unlikely to be much better. But I did set up this blog to record my thoughts on my reading, and so I might as well get down to it.

The first issue I had to grapple with was how I should take this. Taking it literally was, of course, quite out of the question: indeed, Dante himself used the word “allegory” to describe this poem, although I am not sufficiently knowledgeable about early 14th century Italian culture to know what Dante may have meant by the word. But that still leaves open the question: as a reader in the early 21st century, if I cannot take this work literally, how should I take it? If it is indeed an allegory, what is it an allegory of?

The question remained an open one in the early cantos, in which one is carried along by the sheer vividness of the images: that fearful forest in which the poet is lost half-way through the path of life; the wolf and the lion, and the leopard that allures even as it terrifies; these are all, even at first reading, striking, to say the least. And, famously, the pagan poet Virgil is Dante’s guide. As with every other aspect of this poem, this has been endlessly discussed, but one reason for making Virgil his guide is surely to acknowledge Virgil’s influence. As in Milton’s poetry, the imaginative world of this poem seems at least classical as it is Christian: the Styx, Charon, the Gorgons – all these figures from classical mythology reappear, and the Sixth Book of Virgil’s Aeneid, with its depiction of a journey into the pagan Underworld, never seems too far away.

But somehow, the world medieval Christianity seems more distant to us now than does the classical world. What are we nowadays to make of all these people – many of them real people – assigned by a Christian God to everlasting torment? I think I got a semblance of an answer to this in the famous fifth canto, in which the adulterous Francesca and her lover Paolo, clasped tightly together, whirl aimlessly in the winds. Dante’s reactions are sympathetic: he records that he swoons after hearing Francesca’s story. There is certainly no indication that he approves of the divine punishment meted out to the guilty lovers: and yet, here they are in Hell: no matter how sympathetic Dante may be, God presumably isn’t.

But this does not seem to me so much a critique, nor even a vindication, of God’s judgement: that’s more Milton’s theme than Dante’s. For Francesca’s fate brought to mind another literary adulteress – Emma Bovary: I remembered particularly that scene where she, clasped close in sexual embrace to her lover Léon in a carriage with the blinds drawn down, whirl aimlessly for hour after hour through the streets of Rouen.  And it seemed to me that Dante was depicting in his allegorical manner what Flaubert depicted a few centuries afterwards – the Hell we make for ourselves by our own actions. Sometimes, the Hell we make is made by evil deeds; at other times, as with Francesca da Rimini, or, indeed, with Emma Bovary, the Hell is created by foolishness, by failure to understand things rightly. Some other times, as with Anna Karenina, Hell is created because these people, being who they are, could not do otherwise.

This, I am sure, is far from the only way to read the Inferno. It may not even be the most rewarding way to read it, as it no doubt obscures other equally important approaches. But, at my first reading, it worked for me. Only by relating this poem to literature with which I was already familiar could I make some sense out of it. The sins that have brought these people into this Hell are, to a lesser or greater extent, a betrayal of their potential as humans: Francesca, for instance, did not understand the meaning of love. She speaks the word “amor” often – “amor”, love, has brought her, she says, to this, but, like Flaubert’s Emma, she has but a faint understanding of what the word means. And even out of this is Hell created.

We later meet with characters who have committed deeds far more heinous, but at each instance, they either misunderstood or ignored or pretended not to know the diverse potentials of humanity. I was even reminded at times of Ibsen’s late masterpiece John Gabriel Borkman, in which Ella Rentheim accuses Borkman of that one crime for which, she says, there can be no forgiveness – the killing of love in another person. In their different ways, the inmates of Dante’s Inferno have all killed love – even Francesca, who insists that it was love that had brought her here.

We meet with all sorts of evil here. Shakespeare’s Macbeth had been happy to “skip the life to come”: he had been concerned only with “here, but here, upon this bank and shoal of time”. Lady Macbeth too had been concerned with “here, but here”: she had desired so complete a darkness to descend upon the earth that even her knife should not see the wound it makes. But by the time the play ends, they are both in Hell: existence for Macbeth is a meaningless tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow, this bank and shoal of time no more than a futile eternity, with each day undifferentiated from the day that had preceded it, or the day that will follow; and Lady Macbeth, who had called upon darkness to envelop the world, has to have a light always about her, for her Hell, as she knows, is “murky”. To experience this play is not to take satisfaction of two wicked characters getting their come-uppance: rather, it is to share in the overwhelming horror of the Hell these humans have made. And it is this same sense of overwhelming horror one finds in the Inferno in its most sombre passages. It is the Hell we create when we fail to understand what we, as humans, may be.

Reading over that last paragraph, that final sentence strikes me as too schematic a summary of a work of great complexity. However, complexity cannot be grasped in its entirety – at least, not at first reading; so simplification, sadly, is inevitable. But how can such simplification account for those many passages of crude, knockabout humour and comic-strip horrors that are also apparent here? I wish I knew. For Dante’s Inferno isn’t always sombre, and if some parts make us laugh, it may be reasonable to infer that Dante intended us to laugh.

But if the Hell we make for ourselves is the Hell that comes about when we betray our human potential, then how do we account for the famous Canto of Ulysses? In Canto 26, we meet the great hero of Homer’s Odyssey, and who is also, suitably transformed, the hero of Joyce’s Ulysses. But unlike the other classical figures, he is not in Limbo: he is in Hell. Why? His lines are some of the most magnificent in all literature, and, in a famous chapter in If This is a Man, Primo Levi’s account of his experiences in Auschwitz, Levi relates how, even in the midst of the very real Hell which he had inhabited, these lines had suddenly seemed to him the most important thing in the world:

  “O frati”, dissi “che per cento milia
perigli siete giunti a l’occidente,
a questa tanto picciola vigilia

d’i nostri sensi ch’è del rimanente
non vogliate negar l’esperïenza,
di retro al sol, del mondo sanza gente.

Considerate la vostra semenza:
fatti non foste a viver come bruti,
ma per seguir virtute e canoscenza”.

   “Brothers”, I said, “a hundred thousand
perils have you passed and reached the Occident.
for us, so little time remains to keep

   the vigils of our living sense. Do not
deny your will to win experience,
behind the sun, of worlds where no man dwells.

   hold clear in your thought your seed and origin.
You were not made  to live as mindless brutes,
but go in search of virtue and true knowledge.”

(Translated by Robin Kirkpatrick)

This is the voice of the questing Faust, of Prometheus. It is not hard to see why a passage such as this should have made so great an impact on the Romantics. Here is the origin of one of Tennyson’s most splendid poems, but Tennyson’s view of Ulysses was unambiguously admiring: Dante’s isn’t. His Ulysses, after all, is in Hell.

It is not, I think, that Dante does not see the glory or the heroism of Ulysses’ striving:  were that the case, he couldn’t have given Ulysses lines so magnificent and so heroic. But Dante also knows that Ulysses, in his heroic striving, has broken bonds that should be precious:

né dolcezza di figlio, né la pieta
del vecchio padre, né ‘l debito amore
lo qual dovea Penelopè far lieta,

vincer potero dentro a me l’ardore…

   … no tenderness for son, no duty owed
To ageing fatherhood, no love that should
Have brought my wife Penelope delight, 

   Could overcome in me my long desire… 

(Translated by Robin Kirkpatrick)

This image of the man who sacrifices all for his striving towards an ideal is also familiar to us: he may be heroic, as is Ibsen’s Brand, or Dr Stockmann in An Enemy of the People; but he is also dangerous. By the time this figure appears in The Wild Duck, he is Gregers Werle, a fanatic, a man who is, perhaps, mentally unstable. And all these aspects are in Dante’s Ulysses: the striving is heroic, magnificent, but, as Ibsen was to know, even that can create its own Hell.

In the final canto, Dante and Virgil come face to face with the Devil himself. But this is not, I think, the climactic section of the poem. The Devil here is not like Milton’s Satan: there is nothing about this figure that intrigues of fascinates. Later generations could speak of Milton being on the Devil’s side without knowing it, but such a comment could not be made about Dante. To Dante, evil is unremarkable – mere brute, lumpen stupidity, lacking in any feature that may, even superficially, be considered attractive. The climactic point of Inferno had, I think, come in the previous canto, with its grotesque picture of Count Ugolino and Archbishop Ruggieri in the frozen lake, the former gnawing for all eternity into the latter’s brain. Such an image may be so grotesque as to appear comic, but it there isn’t a trace here even of black comedy, any more than there is of fascination. For Dante, evil wasn’t fascinating: it was merely nauseating, disgusting, a perversion of all that humans are capable of  being.


Given my very limited acquaintance with a work one could spend one’s entire life studying, I really don’t know that I can give anything more than a record of some initial impressions. Having come to this work relatively late in life, I doubt I’ll ever get to know it as well as I should. Certainly, there was much at this first reading that I found puzzling, that went way over my head. But one has to live with that: one can’t give everything the attention they deserve. In the meantime I think I’ll give Dante a bit of a rest before moving on to the Purgatorio. No doubt, there will be much there also that will go over my head, but perhaps a little learning need not be so a dangerous thing when one is aware of how little that learning is!

“Great Expectations” and “L’Education Sentimentale”

Authors are often drawn to the story of growing up, and its not hard to see why. For one thing, this is one area where everyone may write from their own experience; and this naturally attracts lesser writers who lack imagination to enter the minds of those very unlike themselves. But many writers of quality also find themselves drawn to this theme. Some are unashamedly autobiographical e.g. Wordsworth in The Prelude, the first part of which describes how the poet had rejected various grandiose themes for the one that interested him most – himself. Others are more loosely autobiographical. But one suspects that there are reasons for the popularity of this theme beyond mere self-regard.

For one thing, the growing-up story allows the author to explore the theme of developing perceptions. It also allows the author to explore the values of the world, of the society in which the protagonists are expected to take their rightful part. It offers the author the opportunity to view the world, as it were, afresh, and contemplate the very nature of life itself.

We find all of these, and more, in two remarkable novels written within a few years of each other in the 1860s: Great Expectations by Charles Dickens, and L’Education Sentimentale by Gustave Flaubert. Dickens and Flaubert were, temperamentally speaking, poles apart, and the two novels, as may be expected, are very different in all sorts of ways. But beyond the differences, what is remarkable are the similarities. The titles may quite easily be exchanged: Flauberts protagonist, Frédéric Moreau, certainly has great expectations, while Dickens’ Pip undergoes a sentimental education. The plot elements are also remarkably similar. In each case, a protagonist who has little to look forward to beyond a dull, mediocre future unexpectedly receives a legacy; and in both cases, they set out to enter society, with all sorts of dreams of what the future holds for them. Both act foolishly, and even meanly; and for both of them, the dreams collapse, leaving merely disillusion. There are further similarities: both protagonists invest the best part of themselves in love for a woman – a love that is destined from the start to be unconsummated; and in both novels, long after the main action, the protagonists meet once again, in scenes of almost unbearable poignancy, the objects of their still unquenched passion. And both novels end with a clear-eyed picture of the lives that we lead, and with a great sadness that things must be so.

Although Great Expectations was written earlier, it is very unlikely that Flaubert knew about it. And even if he did, one may hardly accuse him of plagiarism: for all their similarities, the two novels and the two novelists are very different. Dickens’ imagination tended towards the Gothic: the unforgettable description of Miss Havisham in her faded wedding gown, shut away from the sunlight amidst the crumbling remnants of her aborted wedding feast, is perhaps the last great flourish of the Gothic tradition. Flaubert’s outlook tended more towards naturalism, although his insistence on the solidity of the here-and-now barely hides the profound yearnings of a Romantic spirit. Dickens was interested in the moral growth of his protagonist, of the search for values in a society that judges human worth purely in terms of wealth and of social status; Flaubert, on the other hand, focuses on the impossibility of achieving happiness, or even contentment, in a world where moral values are too elusive even to be worth searching for. Pip, eventually, redeems himself morally; in Flaubert’s world, even that is not possible.

But Great Expectations is no mere morality tale. No matter how badly Pip behaves, we suspend our moral judgment because, under the circumstances, it is hard to imagine him behaving otherwise. He longs to be a gentleman for one reason only: Estella. There is nothing to indicate that he enjoys leading the life of a gentleman. When he had been a boy, Estella had referred to him as common, and had expressed distaste for his lowly social status. If Pip is ever to win Estella, he must first become a gentleman; and if he cannot become one, he must remain profoundly unhappy and unfulfilled for the rest of his life. Of course, Pip is not to know then that Estella is incapable even of responding to him, let alone of returning his love. So, when the opportunity to become a gentleman presents itself, and when, further, it seems deliberately designed as a step towards the winning of Estella, Pip, naturally, jumps at it: he could hardly have done otherwise. But there is a terrible twist to it all – a twist I shall not reveal here in case anyone reading this is in the fortunate position of still having a first encounter with this wonderful novel to look forward to. The terrible irony at the heart of the novel is contained in this twist, and it turns all Pip’s expectations to ashes. But it is from this collapse that Pip has to raise himself once more, not in terms of wealth or of social status this time, but in terms more fundamental than that: Pip must redeem himself morally. But there can be no happy ending: the final scene of this novel is uncertain and ambiguous, and leaves Pip’s love for Estella hanging still in the air. Perhaps no other novel has depicted with such immediacy the terrible pain of unrequited love.

We’re in a different world entirely with L’Education Sentimentale. Strictly speaking, it isn’t really a novel about growing up, as its protagonist Frédéric Moreau, is already a young man when we first meet him. But, as the title suggests, he is still to be educated about the realities of life. In the first scene of the novel, he sees for the first time and falls in love with Madame Arnoux, a married woman older than himself. And, through all else that happens, this love, unrequited though it is, stays with him. Indeed, he views it at times with a sort of religious awe, afraid even to push it towards its much desired consummation for fear that this, too, might collapse in disillusion like everything else.

But, apart from his feelings for Madame Arnoux, there is little else to recommend Frédéric to the reader, or to encourage empathy, or even sympathy. Indeed, Flaubert seems to do everything he can to alienate the reader from Frédéric. Frédéric welcomes his legacy because he is too indolent to wish to carve out his own path in life. And once he has the money, he gives himself up to mere hedonism, with little sense of aspiration. He is, further, weak-willed, untrustworthy, selfish, and lacking any sense of purpose or dynamism. He is, in short, lacking virtually any quality we usually consider heroic. The one factor in his favour is his love for Madame Arnoux, that one element of honour and altruism in his character.

There is no sudden revelation here, no dramatic event. (At least, the drama does not occur in the foreground: in the background, we are presented with various political upheavals culminating in the revolution of 1848, and its subsequent collapse. But, with a technique that is as brilliant as it is unobtrusive, Flaubert never allows the background to eat up the foreground.) Above all else, Flaubert presents life as drift: the characters merely drift from year to succeeding year, and this passage of time does not make them wiser: merely older. And even this change creeps upon them imperceptibly. And whatever hope for happiness they may have harboured in their youth comes to nothing, because happiness is not possible. It is a vision of utter futility that would be quite unbearable were it not for the exquisite beauty of the writing, a beauty that survives even translation. But the novel does not leave us with a sense of despair. Rather, it ends on a note of what some may consider gratuitous cynicism. In the very last scene, Frédéric, now in his middle age, is with an old school friend, and they reminisce about the time when, as young teenagers, they had ventured into a local brothel, only to take fright at the last moment and run away. And that, they agree, was the happiest time of all.

What did Flaubert mean by ending this novel on such a cynical note? One would be hard pressed to think of any ending further removed from the heart-aching uncertainty we find at the end of Great Expectations. By my reading, Flaubert seems to be saying that we are at our happiest when we are still to cross the threshold, before we have gone in to taste the pleasures; for, once tasted, we realize only how far from our expectations these pleasures really are. The only true happiness lies in the future, or in the past. It is a deeply pessimistic outlook on life, and it seems to me the pessimism of a yearning Romantic spirit who has realized that there is nothing really to yearn for: the apparent cynicism is really an expression of a deep sorrow.

It is hard to imagine a time when Great Expectations will not be a deeply loved novel. It is equally hard to envisage a time when L’Education Sentimentale will hold a similar place in readers’ affections, although its extraordinary literary qualities will guarantee it at least a small band of devotees. But it may confidently be said, I think, that these two supremely great novels, written only a few years from each other, so similar and yet so different, will continue to be regarded as two of the greatest peaks of the novelist’s art. And those who write semi-autobiographical novels about growing up simply because they find it hard to move beyond contemplation of their own navels would be well advised to read these two novels, if only to learn what masters of the art can make of such themes.