Posts Tagged ‘Henrik Ibsen’

“A Doll’s House” and “The Maltese Falcon”

It occurred to me while taking a morning walk earlier today that Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, which I was blogging about only yesterday, is surprisingly similar to The Maltese Falcon –  both Dashiell Hammett’s novel, and John Huston’s film version. I don’t know why I hadn’t thought of this similarity before, but now it’s in my head, it seems quite obvious really.

No, please, do bear with me. Let me, at least, explain.

In A Doll’s House, the principal theme (the relationship between Nora and Torvald, and the state of their marriage) is introduced quite early. But then, Ibsen introduces new strands of the drama – forged signature, blackmail, and all the rest of it. And he develops these new elements, ratcheting up the dramatic tension in the process. And then, suddenly, almost too easily, these elements are resolved. And once they’re resolved, the true central theme of the work, which had been introduced right at the start but which had been allowed to simmer away only below the surface, emerges, bringing with it a shift in tonality. And we realise, to our surprise, that this had been at the centre of the drama all along, and that the shift in tonality,  though perhaps unexpected, is perfectly in order, because this seemingly new tonality had never really been too far away.

And I couldn’t help wondering: I knew there was another work in which something similar happened, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. And then it came to me. Of course! It’s The Maltese Falcon!

[ At this point, I suppose I should issue a spoiler warning for those who have neither read Dashiell Hammett’s novel, nor seen John Huston’s film. And issue also a recommendation either to read the book, or to see the film, or, better, do both, as both book and film are absolute dynamite. ]

At the start of The Maltese Falcon, Sam Spade’s partner, Miles Archer, is killed while on a case. But then, Spade finds himself embroiled in all sorts of shenanigans, with a wonderfully colourful cast of crooks and villains and murderers all in search of the fabled, jewel-encrusted statuette of Maltese Falcon. It all builds up superbly towards a tense climax. But then, the tension just seems to dissipate: the issue of the Maltese Falcon is resolved, almost too easily. And once that’s out of the way, we come to the real thing – the murder of Miles Archer. Sam didn’t particularly like Miles, but he was a partner, and, as Sam says, when your partner is killed, it doesn’t matter whether you liked him or not, you’re supposed to do something about it. And we realise that this is what it had all been about, all along. Sam has to do something about the murder of his partner, even if he has to sacrifice what is dearest to him.

***

Now, I don’t know whether this similarity between these two masterpieces has ever been commented on before. I somehow doubt it. Unless someone tells me otherwise, I flatter myself that this is my unique contribution to the field of literary criticism. Now, some may tell me I’m talking rot, and they may well be right. But, rot or not, I offer it, free, gratis, and for nothing, to any literature student out there searching for a theme for a dissertation. No fees charged: just a little mention in the acknowledgements will do.

Thank you for your attention.

Nostalgia, the ache for home

It is hard to understand why some cheesy piece of pop music we used to jump up and down to as a teenager, and which we know in our adult years to be but a cheap and shoddy piece of tat, should, nonetheless, when heard in some café or in a busy mall, affect us so powerfully. The obvious answer is “nostalgia”, but that is merely to put a label on something that remains in essence mysterious.

It is not that nostalgia overrides all other considerations. I may feel nostalgic about the time I used to enjoy books by Enid Blyton, but I don’t think I could read them again with any pleasure. But I know that the pleasure I take in revisiting Treasure Island or The Hound of the Baskervilles is immeasurably enhanced by memories of childhood encounters.

Most strange is the resurgence of feelings for things one had thought one had left behind. I had thought I had left behind my Bengali heritage, dominated as it was, and still, I think, is, by Rabindraculture. I am sure Westerners often wonder why Bengalis keep banging on about Rabindranath Tagore all the time, as if there were no other cultural figure of note. I used to wonder this myself. In my teenage years, I was frankly fed up with his ubiquity. He had been, in effect, an extra member of our family: his poetry, his stories, and, above all, his songs, were omnipresent in our house. And I had thought I had walked away from all that. I had discovered the plays of Shakespeare, the great Russian novels, the operas of Mozart and the lieder of Schubert, and I felt, with some justification, that I had absorbed, and was continuing to absorb, all the culture I would need to sustain myself through my life. But then, one evening some twenty and more years ago, I was in an Indian restaurant with some Western friends; the background music, rather unusually even for Indian restaurants, was instrumental arrangements of Tagore songs (Rabindrasangeet), and all of a sudden, completely out of the blue, a melody appeared that almost reduced me to tears. Not that I physically cried: I don’t cry too easily. But I felt something unexpectedly welling up inside me. It wasn’t merely a resurgence of childhood memories: it was a recognition of something from my past that was beautiful and valuable, and which I had not left behind at all. To borrow an image from a great work of Western art, Ibsen’s Little Eyolf, what I experienced then was like those water-lilies that shoot up from the unfathomed depths of the waters and bloom suddenly upon the surface.

The song that had such an effect on me that day was Gram chhara oi ranga matir path: it is a song about the compulsion to leave one’s village behind, and the lure of the world outside:

The red-earthed path leading out from the village
holds the heart enthralled.
Oh, who is it for whom the heart pines
even as it wilts into the dust?
Who is it who calls me out from home,
pleading with me at every step?
Who is it who leads me out
to heaven knows where?
At what bend in the path will I see riches?
Where will I find myself washed up?
Where this path will culminate
my thoughts cannot encompass.

The irony of such a song arousing in me nostalgia, an ache for home, was not lost on me, but that red-earthed path leading out from the village leads back into the village also. And exploring that village, the one I thought I had left behind, is also enriching. That sudden revelation in that restaurant was for me a first step in a journey back. For revelation it was: moments of epiphany aren’t restricted merely to James Joyce’s short stories.

Was this merely nostalgia, and nothing more? I don’t think so. I can listen to Mud’s Tiger Feet playing in the background in some café, enjoy the memories it reawakens of early teenage years, but feel no desire whatever to revisit 1970s British glam-rock music. Nostalgia may be a potent force, but I don’t think it necessarily blinds us to questions of worth and of value: true, it allows us to enjoy what we know to be valueless; but when it reawakens in us feelings for that which is indeed of value, the effect is quite different. It is like those water-lilies of Ibsen, shooting up from unfathomed depths and blooming suddenly on the surface.

I haven’t completed that journey back yet. I’m not sure I ever will. And in any case, the metaphor of the journey breaks down here quite quickly, as this journey back does not entail abandonment of the journey out. But at least I no longer wonder why Bengalis keep banging on about Tagore all the time: I now know, and, indeed, do a fair bit of banging on myself. So, while I’m still in the banging mood, let me indulge myself a little further.

Last weekend, I watched, after many years, Satyajit Ray’s 1964 film Charulata. I had long known this film to be a masterpiece, but on this viewing, it resonated particularly strongly, more so than it had done before. The film is steeped in Tagorean culture, and not merely because Ray had based the bare bones of the story on a novella by Tagore, Nastanirh (“The Damaged Nest”). While the outline of the story is Tagore’s, the motivations of the characters are very different, and the drama presented is almost entirely Ray’s creation rather than Tagore’s; but Ray himself was steeped in Tagorean culture, and one can sense Tagore’s presence throughout the film.

Over the title sequence, we hear what is effectively a fantasia, composed by Ray himself, based on a Tagore song; but where the Tagore song is upbeat and joyful, Ray slows down the tempo and casts it in a minor key: the result is heart-achingly melancholy and wistful.

(There are two more Tagore songs featured in this film – rather anachronistically, as the action takes place, we’re told, in 1879, when Tagore would merely have been eighteen years old. But it doesn’t really matter: only a pedant would object to such things.)

charulata

Madhabi Mukherjee as Charu in “Charulata” dir. by Satyajit Ray

And I found myself utterly captivated, from opening frame to last. It is set in an aristocratic Bengali household. The husband, a wealthy liberal, spends all his time on his newspaper: he sees the dissemination of his liberal politics as the principal purpose of his life. However, his wife, Charu, is utterly isolated inside her mansion. The opening sequence is a virtuoso piece of film-making: we see Charu wandering from room to room aimlessly, seeing the world outside through her opera glasses. When the husband eventually notices that his wife is a bit lonely, he invites Charu’s brother and her sister-in-law to come over – the brother to help with the financial management of his newspaper, and the sister-in-law to keep Charu company: he doesn’t realise that the presence of the sister-in-law – a frivolous airhead – is no companionship at all for an intelligent woman such as Charu.

As with so many ladies from the 19th century literature, Charu has no outlet either for her intellect, or for her passions. Under similar conditions, Hedda Gabler turned psychotic and destructive. Emma Bovary is arguably in a similar situation, but, unlike Hedda or Charu, she is deeply unintelligent: her rebellion is as stupid as that she rebels against.

But the drama here is very different either from that of Emma Bovary, or of Hedda Gabler. Charu’s husband’s younger brother arrives, and there develops a relationship between them that, from his point of view, is but bantering, but, from her point of view, is something far deeper and far more intense: here she finds, as she thinks, a long sought-for outlet both for her passions and for her intellect. In both, she is mistaken.

The film has all the depth and complexity of a great 19th century novel. Much of it is very elegant, with an intricacy that one does not normally expect from a film; but there are powerful passions simmering underneath, and I had not remembered just how powerfully the passion bubbles up to the surface towards the end. But despite this, it remains a very subtle film. Among the major themes is betrayal: Charu’s brother betrays Charu’s husband; Charu’s brother-in-law, to Charu’s mind at least, betrays Charu; and Charu herself betrays her husband. But there’s no adultery, as such: the “action” is almost entirely what happens in the characters’ minds.

It is not a film that appears in any of those lists of “Greatest Ever Films” with all the Vertigos and Citizen Kanes. Most people, even self-proclaimed film-buffs, have not seen this film, or even for that matter heard of it. Why is this, I wonder? It is not because this film is quiet and slow and refined, whereas we prefer in our times the loud and the fast and the brash: Tokyo Story, as quiet as slow and as refined a film as can be imagined, regularly takes top spots in these lists.

I suspect that its relative neglect is due to its being steeped in a particularly Bengali culture – more specifically, a Tagorean culture – that makes it difficult for uninitiates to take in. But I may be mistaken: I am really not sure. All I know is that if I were asked to name my favourite film, right now, I’d name this, although, even were I to enumerate its many merits, I would find hard to account for the strength with which it resonates with me. I suppose it is all part of my “journey back”.

If I didn’t know better than to finish a post with a cliché, I’d write now “the apple never falls far from the tree”, but far be it from me to end on so weak a note! And I don’t really hold with what it expresses: far from being merely apples falling helplessly close to the tree, we have both the ability and the freedom to explore far and wide, and make what we like our own; and the currently fashionable principles of identity politics that question this ability and deny this freedom are, to my mind, mischievous and harmful. But I do feel that what we take in during our formative years – not necessarily consciously, but often, as it were, through the very pores of our skin – retains for us a particular significance: even when we think we have left it behind, it comes back, and takes us by surprise.

Christmas with Charlotte and Emily

There are certain works that are so very familiar that we tend to take them for granted: we think we know them even though, in many cases, we don’t. Jane Eyre is one such work. I read it when I was 13, and haven’t revisited it since – although that hasn’t stopped me from pontificating on it as and when the occasion has arisen. So I thought it might be pleasant to re-acquaint myself with this book, so that, at the very least, when I next pontificate on it, I know what the hell I’m talking about.

And the Christmas-New Year break seemed the ideal time. This is a time when one wants to read something if only to get away from what passes for festive cheer on television; and, while one doesn’t want to read tripe, neither does one necessarily want unduly to tax the intellect. Or, at least, I don’t: some people may positively welcome the idea of settling down after a heavy Christmas dinner with a copy of Spinoza’s Ethics, but, intellectual lightweight that I no doubt am, I am not amongst them. Not that Jane Eyre makes no demand on the intellect, I hasten to add: as with any book worth reading, the brain should be in at least some sort of working order if one is to take it in adequately. But, as in so many things, there are different shades of grey between absolute black and absolute white, and Jane Eyre, I imagined, occupied a position on this spectrum ideal for a good holiday read. And when that holiday is spent in the north of England, only some thirty or so miles from Haworth Moor; and when, in addition, a bitter and keening wind howling outside almost continuously places the Gothic firmly in one’s mind; then the Brontë sisters do seem ideal companions.

(In the event, I finished Jane Eyre more quickly that I thought I would, and decided to indulge myself somewhat – it was Christmas, after all – by reading also its sister novel, Wuthering Heights. Rarely are sisters so dissimilar from each other: but more of that later. Given my reading earlier last year of Sister Anne’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, 2013 has been a bit of a Year of the Brontës for me.)

***

It is hard to imagine a time when Jane Eyre will cease to be popular. No matter that the position of women within society is now quite different to that depicted in the novel; no matter that the moral imperatives that drive Jane’s actions have largely fallen by the wayside; the story itself hits upon a number of what one may call “archetypes”. It encompasses the archetypes of the Cinderella story (the wicked stepmother and the ugly stepsisters are easy to identify; a dissolute step-brother is thrown in also for good measure); and also of the Bluebeard story, with the inquisitive wife discovering her husband’s terrible secret behind a locked door in his castle. And many other myths too, I imagine.

Not surprisingly, a story that hits upon so many mythical elements is bound to spawn many others: a full list would be tiresome, and, since I am not well read in stories of romance, it would be beyond me to compile such a list in the first place; but, apart from Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, which is a conscious homage to the earlier novel, one may note works as diverse as the Sherlock Holmes story “The Copper Beeches”, which features a governess in a mysterious house and a terrible secret behind a locked door; and Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw, in which the governess, her unspoken love for her employer frustrated by the latter’s absence, finds instead, as a sort of diabolical compensation, spirits of the most unspeakable evil. And one may also cite in this context Ibsen’s Rosmersholm, which also features an outsider entering a house, displacing the mistress of the house, and winning the affections of the master. Sigmund Freud, in his essay “Some Character-Types Met with in Psycho-Analytic Work”, analysed the character of Rebecca West in this play, and identified this displacement as a powerful archetype; he may have added – although he didn’t – that this archetype had already appeared, very powerfully indeed, in Jane Eyre.

I’ll leave it to those more familiar than I am with the principles of psychoanalysis to carry out a Freudian analysis of Jane Eyre: I’m sure they’ll find rich material there. What interested me more was the moral framework of the novel. For Jane, despite her often overwhelmingly passionate nature, undertakes here a moral journey. In a sense, Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress seems a sort of antecedent to this novel: it belongs to the same Puritan tradition. Jane’s painful travel to the Celestial City is punctuated by two great temptations, in each of which she has to pit her moral conscience against her own desires. The first of these temptations, of course, is the temptation to become Mr Rochester’s mistress when it becomes clear that she cannot marry him: while it is true that Jane doesn’t even pause to consider Mr Rochester’s offer, her intense passion for Mr Rochester, her hurried and secret escape from Thornfield Hall, and a state of mind so disturbed that she forgets to take anything with her that might have sustained her in the wilderness, all indicate that the decision to resist this temptation is not one easily made. But it is the second temptation that I find even more interesting: it is a subtler temptation than that of merely gratifying one’s desires – it is the temptation of sainthood.

Over the years, I have been in the habit of saying that Jane Eyre is let down by the final section; that, after Jane leaves Thornfield Hall, the novel slows down at the very point when it should have been accelerating towards the end. I think I said this because when I last read this, inexperienced as I was in reading serious novels, this part of the novel had bored me. And it may well have been that I had skipped some passages. Reading it now, some forty years later, it seems to me that Charlotte Brontë has superb control over the pacing; and that, furthermore, the entire sequence involving Jane and St John Rivers is a high point of the novelist’s art. For St John Rivers is more than merely a foil to Rochester: he is a fanatic. If Jane has sacrificed her desires for the sake of her moral code, we see St John Rivers doing the same – except in a more extreme, more fanatical manner: so single-minded is his moral purpose, that he does not allow his mind even to become perturbed by his rejection of Rosamond, to whom, it is made clear, he is attracted. And he tempts Jane: he tempts her not with desire, but with the opportunity to achieve sainthood by jettisoning the last remaining elements of her desire; to carry her own sense of moral purpose even further than she already has. He tempts her to renounce completely any earthy desire she may still have.

For St John’s fierce fanaticism cannot accept compromise on anything, either from himself, or from anyone else: it is, for him, all or nothing. He is, indeed, Ibsen’s Brand. There is, as many have commented, something a bit inhuman about sainthood – something cold and implacable about its absolute refusal to compromise with the fallen nature of our human selves.  To achieve sainthood, to follow St John in his missionary work, Jane would have to amputate away from herself earthly desires, just as St John himself has done. I think I failed to appreciate when I was thirteen that Jane resisting this temptation is, indeed, the climactic point of this novel, and that, far from this entire sequence being a boring irrelevance that served but to slow down the narrative, this is what the entire novel had been leading towards. After Jane’s rejection of the temptation of sainthood, St John leaves for India on his own to carry out his missionary work, that fanatic glint still in his eye. (The final paragraphs of the novel suggest that, in India, he becomes very ill, and is unlikely to survive. I couldn’t help looking beyond these final paragraphs and hoping that he would survive, and become caught up a few years later in the Indian Mutiny, in which all sorts of fanaticisms on all sides combined to produce one of the most appallingly blood-drenched episodes in human history. St John in the Indian Mutiny could potentially be a great novel: I’d write it myself if only I had a talent for that sort of thing.)

What we get after this climactic rejection scene is a sort of coda: Jane returns to Mr Rochester, and finds him to be the protagonist of Milton’s Samson Agonistes – blind, in despair, painfully aware of his own guilt and bewailing his hopelessness. He is given here some of the most tender of lines that recall another work of Milton’s:

…but I cannot be so blest, after all my misery. It is a dream; such dreams as I have had at night when I have clasped her once more to my heart, as I do now; and kissed her, as thus–and felt that she loved me, and trusted that she would not leave me … But I always woke and found it an empty mockery; and I was desolate and abandoned–my life dark, lonely, hopeless–my soul athirst and forbidden to drink–my heart famished and never to be fed.

Would I appear very sentimental if I were to say that I find these lines wonderfully moving? Very well – sentimentalist I am.

***

Unlike Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights has long been a great personal favourite of mine, and is a novel I have revisited frequently. The two are often mentioned alongside each other as if they were two of a kind, but they seem to me very different. A major theme in Jane Eyre is morality: in particular, it explores how moral integrity may be reconciled with our human needs and desires. But rarely if ever has there been a novel so devoid of a sense of morality as Wuthering Heights. It is not even that this novel takes a subversive delight in turning up-side-down conventional concepts of morality: rather, it refuses even to acknowledge the very existence of such a concept. Here, the id is set utterly free from all moral restraints, and the result is utterly demonic. It is a tremendously violent novel, but the violence isn’t merely physical: anyone can depict physical violence, after all. What this novel depicts, more disturbingly, is a sort of spiritual violence, a violence of the mind: it depicts a world where a state of extreme violence appears to be the natural condition of the human soul. “The action is laid in Hell,” Dante Gabriel Rossetti once famously said about it, “only it seems places and people have English names there.”

Repeated encounters with this book never diminish the sheer strangeness of it, nor mitigate its savagery. Yes, it is passionate, but where the passion of Jane or of Mr Rochester is often expressed in terms of tenderness, here, expressions of passion are more like howls of wild beasts. Here, for instance, is the famous depiction of Heathcliff mourning Cathy’s death:

He dashed his head against the knotted trunk; and, lifting up his eyes, howled, not like a man, but like a savage beast being goaded to death with knives and spears. I observed several splashes of blood about the bark of the tree, and his hand and forehead were both stained; probably the scene I witnessed was a repetition of others acted during the night. It hardly moved my compassion – it appalled me…

Could anything be further, I wonder, from the infinite melancholy of Mr Rochester’s longing for the lost Jane? Unlike Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights makes no appeal to our compassion: instead, it appalls. And it seems to me quite unique. That is an adjective we often apply to works that are merely distinctive, but here, I think this adjective is justified; for while, when thinking about Jane Eyre, all sorts of other works can come to mind, from Milton’s Samson Agonistes to Ibsen’s Brand, I cannot think of a single other work that sheds light on Wuthering Heights, either as a parallel or as a contrast. It is out on a limb, quite distant, as far as I can see, from any of the main trunks of literary traditions. Yes, it appalls, but so extraordinarily vivid is the imagination, and so brilliant its unorthodox craftsmanship, it also enthralls.

***

I am usually uninterested in authors’ biographies: I do not believe they tell us more about any work than we need to know, and that, further, should we succumb to the temptation of allowing what we know of the author to influence what we think of the work, we are likely, I think, to be led astray. But it’s hard not to wonder what the personalities of these sisters may have been. Perhaps I should overcome my aversion to literary biographies and reach for Juliet Barker’s much acclaimed biography of the Brontës.

“The Bronte Sisters”, painted by Branwell Bronte
Courtesy of National Portrait Gallery, London

I don’t know to what extent the personalities of the sisters may be gauged from the portraits. In Branwell Brontë’s famous group painting of his sisters, Anne, on the left, strikes me as a bit querulous and restless, while Charlotte, on the right, is a stolid, matronly, and somewhat severe figure. But of Emily in the middle, I can make nothing at all. Rather surprisingly, given that Branwell was a professional portraitist, she doesn’t even seem very well drawn.

Charlotte Bronte, by George Richmond Cortesy of National Portrait Gallery, London

Charlotte Bronte, by George Richmond
Cortesy of National Portrait Gallery, London

There is a later portrait of Charlotte by George Richmond, but it is clearly an idealised version: not a beautiful face, perhaps, but quite a pleasant one I think, and, though not quite as severe as she appears in Branwell’s group portrait, nonetheless giving the impression of someone with a considerable strength of character. But it’s hard to say much from so sanitised a portrait as this.

Emily bronte, painted by Branwell Bronte Courtesy of National Portrait Gallery, London

Emily bronte, painted by Branwell Bronte
Courtesy of National Portrait Gallery, London

There exists also another portrait by Branwell of Emily. Here, she is presented in profile, with no expression discernible in her features. As a consequence, she appears remote and distant, her personality inscrutable. Given how unsuccessful Branwell had been in capturing any kind of personality at all of Emily in the group portrait, this is possibly a sensible way of painting her; but what we have here is a sort of icon rather than the depiction of a personality. From the internal evidence of her only novel, all we can really infer is that hers must have been a strange personality indeed: perhaps that personality was too elusive for Branwell Brontë to capture.But whatever the personalities of the sisters, the last two weeks spent in their company have been quite fascinating. I must do this more often.