Posts Tagged ‘Ibsen’

Future reading plans: Wagner, Ibsen, “The Mahabharata”, and other matters

I am not at all sure why I make plans for reading. I never stick to them anyway. Something always pops along that takes my fancy, and, like the best laid schemes of mice and men, all my calculations gang aft agley. Which reminds me: I have never actually bothered looking up what “aft agley” literally means. But whatever it means, that’s where my best-laid schemes invariably gang.

I realise also that the time for making plans is at the start of a new year, but I have always thought that a bad custom, as, quite apart from anything else, the gentle inebriation that is so salient a feature of the festive season is hardly conducive to sensible planning: whatever plans are made at such a time are likely to gang very much aft agley much more quickly than plans made in a more sober frame of mind.

In any case, some reading plans do need to be made now. I have just finished La Regenta by Leopoldo Alas (of which more in a later post) – a deeply impressive novel, but, at seven hundred and more pages of sight-destroyingly small print, it took me over three months to read. (I never was a particularly fast reader, and I seem to be slowing up in my old age.) Now that it is finished, I can’t help but feel a sense of freedom. This is not to disparage Alas’ novel, which really is magnificent, but, rather like the ageing roué whose eyes wander even while engaged in a fulfilling monogamous relationship, I couldn’t help looking longingly at all those unread titles, both on my bookshelf and in bookshops, as well as at various old flames whose charms I find myself keen to revisit.

Not that the relationship with La Regenta had been strictly monogamous: there were, as ever, clandestine assignations with various poems and short stories, and, between the two parts of the Alas’ novel, a serious fling with Tony Harrison’s version of Aeschylus’ Oresteia (of which, too, there will be more in a later post). And now that I have parted company with La Regenta, I am currently engrossed in Roger Scruton’s new book on Wagner’s Ring Cycle, which, despite its somewhat cheesy title (The Ring of Truth – whose bright idea was that?), is a fascinating read. I am not sure yet whether I should write a post on this: the themes of the Ring Cycle, and Scruton’s interpretations of them, though lucidly explicated, are so complex, and lead to so many areas of thought that are to me relatively new, that I don’t know I could express very much in a post beyond merely a partial understanding. But perhaps it’s worth recording even my puzzlement: sometimes, the very act of posing questions to which I do not know the answers can lead to a better understanding.

One may certainly argue that, like any major work of art, the Ring Cycle, at least to an extent, is intended to puzzle: life, after all, is puzzling, and any work of art that seeks to address life seriously has to convey something of its profound mysteries. One understands such works not by plucking out the heart of their mysteries – even if such a thing were to be possible – but, rather, by coming to some sort of understanding of, and a settlement with, the nature of the mysteries depicted. As I read about the profound mysteries addressed by Wagner, I cannot help but make connections. The connections with The Oresteia are obvious: I have long been aware of (though I haven’t yet read) Michael Ewans’ thesis (referred to in Scruton’s book) that the Ring Cycle is a sort of inverted Oresteia – that where The Oresteia consists of three tragic dramas followed by a satyr play (now lost), the Ring Cycle consists of a satyr play followed by three tragic dramas; and where Aeschylus depicts the emergence of civic society and the concept of law from the primeval murk of our unreasoning instincts, Wagner depicts the very fabric of law and of civic society collapsing under the weight of its internal contradictions. (It’s all very complex, and perhaps I should allow these ideas to settle in my mind for a while before exhibiting my ignorance and lack of understanding for all to see on this blog.) And there are two other connections as well that Scruton doesn’t mention, but which, since my own mind is already saturated with certain things, I could not help making. One was with the novels of Dostoyevsky; the other, with the plays of Ibsen.

Now, Dostoyevsky I have waffled about a few times on this blog, but, in all the six and more years this blog has been going, I have rarely touched on Ibsen. I am not sure why, since Ibsen is within the foremost circle of writers whom I most value. Not his early plays, which are conventional and rather stiff and boring historic dramas, and which would be utterly forgotten now had he not gone on to write greater stuff; but, say, from The Pretenders onwards. The Pretenders is the last and by far the best of those early plays, and, while I don’t think it matches some other historic dramas such as, say, Georg Büchner’s Danton’s Death, it is, nonetheless, a play not unworthy of a great dramatist. But then, something strange happened. Ibsen, freed by a government grant from hack-work in the theatre, wrote two masterpieces – Brand, and Peer Gynt. Heaven only knows where these plays came from: nothing he had written earlier would have led one to believe that he was capable of this. These two plays were written to be read rather than performed – they are both way too long for a single evening in the theatre, and need to be cut for performance – but Ibsen seemed to have the theatre in his blood: even when not writing specifically for the stage, he couldn’t help but write works that were thrillingly theatrical. Despite some notable later attempts to revive verse drama (by Yeats and Eliot, for instance), these were the last great verse dramas. Things were changing, and Ibsen was at the forefront of these changes. But if these plays do indeed mark the end of verse drama (and I realise that some may disagree with my contention), then the genre died with a bang rather than a whimper: I personally do not think there has been drama so powerful since Shakespeare.

Then, curiously, Ibsen devoted several years of his life writing a very exotic two-part drama Emperor and Galilean, about the Byzantine emperor Julian the Apostate. Ibsen himself felt – at least at the time – that this was his most important work, and I have never been able to figure out whether this indeed is a key work in his oeuvre, or whether it is a mistake, an aberration – a wrong turning that he afterwards rectified. I really ned to revisit these plays, and read them carefully: they seem such an anomaly in the context of his other work – but it could be that I have not yet come to an adequate understanding of them.

But other things were brewing in Ibsen’s mind. And while these other things were brewing, Ibsen kept the pot boiling with a comparatively light work – the comedy The League of Youth. But then followed those twelve great prose dramas, from The Pillars of Society to When We Dead Awaken, that Brian Johnstone – not entirely convincingly, to my mind – describes as “The Ibsen Cycle”. Ibsen himself, towards the end of his life, referred to these plays as a cycle, but it seems to me highly unlikely that they were initially conceived as such, and, other than these works being linked by similar themes, I cannot really detect much of a unity. But the thematic unities across these plays are themselves of interest, and, cycle or not, reading them in chronological order – and keeping in mind Brand and Peer Gynt, which are in many ways harbingers of these late plays (although they are much more than that also) – should, I think, be rewarding. For if we do regard these twelve plays as a single unified cycle (and I am prepared to be convinced that they are), then they may well challenge Wagner’s Ring Cycle as the most insanely ambitious artistic achievement of the nineteenth century.

So that is what I intend to do: over the course of next year, I shall read, in various translations, all the plays of Ibsen in chronological order, starting with The Pretenders, and hopefully, in the process, come to a better understanding of Ibsen’s developing artistic vision. And, of course, record my thoughts here for anyone who cares to read them. If, after all, this blog is primarily about those things that are dear to me, it seems crazy giving such short shrift to Ibsen.

But Ibsen is for next year. I have another scheme that I most certainly hope won’t gang aft agley, and which should keep me busy between now and the end of the year. I want to read The Mahabharata.

I don’t think there has ever been a time within the reaches of my memory when I haven’t been at least aware of the stories of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata: growing up as I did in an Indian Hindu family, these are things that enter the bloodstream at a very early age. I remember the comic strip books I had retelling some of the stories from these two national epics: I was introduced them at so early an age that I did not even bat an eye when Draupadi simultaneously married five brothers. But these stories did not enter the bloodstream fully: when I was five years of age, I left India and came to Britain, and exchanged the stories from The Ramayana and The Mahabharata with Greek myths, Arthurian legends, Bible stories. Inevitably, a residue from early childhood remains, but I now want to come to a better understanding of all this. A few years ago, I read Ashia Sattar’s abridged translation of TheRamayana, and was surprised by the extent to which Valmiki’s original version deviated from the stories I had taken in. I suspect it will be much the same with The Mahabharata.

Not that I am going to read the whole thing. Unlike The Iliad or The Odyssey, The Mahabharata is not a unified work: Sanskrit scholar Wendy Doniger refers to it as a sort of Wikipedia of the ancient world, with various voices adding to it over time. What we have now is, effectively, a series of accretions overlaying whatever may originally have been the core, and, as is to be expected, not all the accretions are equally of interest – at least, not to a casual reader such as myself. Under the circumstances, abridged editions in which the wheat is sorted from the chaff by expert hands are to be welcomed rather than regretted. So, to this end, I have got myself the single volume edition in Penguin Classics, translated by John Smith (an appropriate name for the translator of a work created by anonymous writers); a much-acclaimed verse retelling by Carole Satyamurthi, published by Norton (if what Carole Satyamurthi has done for The Mahabharata is in any way comparable to what Christopher Logue did for The Iliad, it would certainly be worth pursuing); and, finally, W. J. Johnson’s translation of the eleventh book of The Mahabharata, published by Oxford University Press – one of the shortest, but, I gather, among the most significant books of the massive epic. I doubt I’ll ever be a scholar of The Mahabharata, but reading this books will, at least, acquaint me with one of the major works of world literature – one that should be, but isn’t quite, in my bloodstream.

But before I leap into all that, I may as well continue my Turgenev project, and not let that gang aft agley with all the other schemes. After my encounter with the massive La Regenta, a few novellas may not, perhaps, go amiss. First Love I read many years ago, and don’t remember very well; and Spring Torrents and King Lear of the Steppes I don’t know at all. So, the plan is as follows: once I’ve finished reading about the Ring Cycle, I’ll move on to the three Turgenev novellas, and then tackle The Mahabharata. And if that takes me to the end of this year, I can embark at the start of next year on my Ibsen project.

And, anyone who has stayed with my ramblings so far may be pleased to know, I shall record my thoughts here on this blog, both the worthy and the unworthy, the perspicacious and the downright idiotic. But before I do all that, I had perhaps best find out what “gang aft agley” actually means.

When Henrik nearly met Fyodor

According to Michael Meyer’s biography of Ibsen, when Ibsen was staying in Dresden in 1870, a near neighbour of his was Dostoyevsky. It is unlikely that Dostoyevsky would have heard of Ibsen at that time, even though Ibsen had already written the two great verse dramas Brand and Peer Gynt. Ibsen would, most likely, have heard of Dostoyevsky, who had, by 1870, written Crime and Punishment and The Idiot, but he would not have known that Dostoyevsky was at the time in Dresden; and even if he had known, he would have had no particular reason to seek him out. In 1870, Ibsen would still have been working on that vast two-part historic play Emperor and Galilean, which he, if not posterity, thought his most important work; and soon afterwards, he would start on that series of twelve prose plays beginning with The Pillars of Society, and ending in 1899 with the visionary When We Dead Awaken. Dostoyevsky was working at the same time on Demons.

According to Meyer, the two both enjoyed long walks in the Royal Gardens, and they both frequented the cafés in Brühl’s Terrace. It would have been surprising indeed if they had never at least passed each other. But, attractive though the idea might be, it would have been even more unlikely for them to have met and conversed.

One could, of course, easily imagine that they did. That, after exchanging initial civilities, they had engaged in talk on literature, exchanged ideas, spoke about God and the Universe and Man’s Immortal Soul, and spurred each other on, each casting new light on all the great thoughts and ideas that were whirling so tumultously inside the other’s head. One could, without too great an effort, make of this possibility an engaging play for radio.

What intrigues me even more, however, is the possibility that they had sat near each other in some café, without the first idea who the other was, and that the only words exchanged were when Henrik had asked Fyodor to pass the salt. And that after the salt was passed, they had both returned to their respective thoughts, barely aware of the other’s presence.

Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” at Sam Wanamaker Playhouse

Of the three late plays – Cymbeline, The Winter’s Tale, The Tempest – it’s The Tempest that I find the most difficult: it has seemed to me – and seems to me still, even after having seen this fine production – almost entirely lacking in dramatic tension. Prospero the magician appears, through his faithful servant Ariel, to be in perfect control: neither Caliban’s threat on his life, or Sebastian’s and Antonio’s threat on Alonso’s, generates any tension at all: the audience is assured that these attempts are doomed to failure. And by the end of Act Three, what little dramatic tension there was dissipates as Alonso acknowledges his guilt. As for the strand with Ferdinand and Miranda, we know that Prospero is but testing Ferdinand, and everything Ferdinand says and does assures us that this is a test that he will pass with ease. So where is the tension?

I had not, till this production, seen this play on stage, and I had thought, or hoped, that a stage production will reveal a drama that my readings had missed: but no – there was little tension in performance either. But I have learnt, over many years’ experience with Shakespeare, not to be too hasty in criticising: that only leads to a presumption that embarrasses me when I read my posts over again a few years afterwards. Shakespeare knew what he was doing, and if he has drained this play of dramatic tension, it is for me not to criticise the play on that score, but to try to understand why he did so. For, despite the lack of dramatic tension, the play held my attention throughout the performance: there must have been something else in the work that held my attention so powerfully – though what that something else is, I am even now not entirely sure.

And yet, this most undramatic of plays starts with the most dramatic of scenes: we are plunged into the heart of things right away, with a fearful tempest at sea, and with the mariners and the passengers fearing imminent death. At the end of this scene, the ship appears to sink, and then, as we move to an island near the shipwreck, an entirely different music comes to the fore. It is a strange and solemn music, mysterious, elusive, and very beautiful, but also curiously static. Even as late as The Winter’s Tale, Shakespeare had given us verse of the utmost dramatic power that had moved the play forward in surges of untrammelled passion, but we seem here to be in a rather different world: we seem almost to be at the bottom of the sea itself, with the drowned mariners and their passengers. And maybe that’s where we are: maybe what we experience here is some vague dream world between life and death – a communal fantasy experienced at the very moment of death itself. There’s something similar, I think, in the final act of Ibsen’s Peer Gynt: at the start of this act, we see Peer in a shipwreck. A fellow passenger tells him not to worry, as the protagonist of a play is never killed off at the start of the final act, but Peer does, I think, die here, and what we see in the rest of the act is Peer’s life unreeling at the point of death in a grotesquely transfigured form; and it is in this unreeling that Peer has to try to find some semblance of meaning, of significance, in the life that he has led. This final act of Peer Gynt is often seen as Ibsen anticipating much later movements in theatre, but I can’t help wondering whether, in The Tempest, Shakespeare had anticipated Ibsen.

It may be objected, of course, that by the end of The Tempest, no character is actually dead: on the contrary – the ship is magically rigged and ready to sail back to Naples, to the reality of the physical world. If what we had witnessed in the course of the play is indeed the unravelling of minds at the point of death, it is not death but to a renewed life that the characters return to. But the effect of the ending is very much to suggest a return to the real world, of a resurfacing; and if we are returning to reality, and resurfacing back to the light of common day, we have to ask ourselves which regions we are returning from, and from which uncharted depth of our unfathomable minds we are resurfacing. We cannot begin to conceive of a Naples or a Milan being anything like the magic island of Prospero: Naples and Milan are real – and Prospero’s magic island isn’t, quite. Shakespeare had done this kind of thing before – in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, where, once again, the characters seem to enter an enchanted dream world that isn’t quite the world of reality, and where mortal sensibilities are translated, much as Bottom is, into some region where, accustomed as we are to the everyday world of reality, there is no foothold for us to hold on to. But here, the tone is different: the thoughts are not on the absurdities and the vagaries of human love, but on other things – on the nature of Man, on nature and on nurture, on transgression and on reconciliation, and, indeed, on death itself. In one of the most famous passages in the entire canon, death is likened to a sleep (“our little life is rounded with a sleep”), and if we extend that metaphor, the magic dream-world of this play, suspended between sleep and wake, can be seen as suspended between life and death also. If there is no dramatic tension here, no dramatic movement, it is because this is not what Shakespeare is interested in: what he is interested in, however, though easy to be affected by (especially when performed as wonderfully as it is here), is less easy to articulate. Perhaps Shakespeare’s miraculous poetry is the only way there is to articulate it.

The Tempest has been seized on by post-colonial schools of criticism, which – to summarise – see Prospero as a tyrannical colonialist, and Caliban as the downtrodden and exploited native; but I am unconvinced that this is an adequate way of looking at the play. For one thing, the island is no more Caliban’s than it is Prospero’s: Caliban says “this island is mine” because he had inherited it from his mother, the witch Sycorax; but Sycorax was no more of the island than Prospero is. The island had been uninhabited, except for the spirit Ariel, whom Sycorax had imprisoned in a tree, and whom Prospero had rescued (although he threatens in one of his frequent fits of rage to imprison Ariel again). And Caliban himself is a deeply enigmatic figure. At one level, he is earthy and brutish, and proposes killing Prospero by driving a nail through his head while he is sleeping; and he credulously imagines the drunken Trinculo and Stephano to be gods, and is happy to abase himself before them. But he is also given lines of quite unearthly beauty:

Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises,
Sounds and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not.
Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
Will hum about mine ears, and sometime voices
That, if I then had waked after long sleep,
Will make me sleep again: and then, in dreaming,
The clouds methought would open and show riches
Ready to drop upon me that, when I waked,
I cried to dream again.

Such realms of poetic imagination are worlds removed from the drunken baseness of Trinculo and Stephano: only a character of fine sensibility could speak lines such as these. And at the end, Caliban vows to “be wise hereafter, and seek for grace”. It is hard assembling together these fragmentary aspects of Caliban into one coherent whole, but I get the impression of an unrefined creature who nonetheless has the potential to rise to a higher state of being. “This thing of darkness I acknowledge mine,” says Prospero, allowing the possibility that Caliban is an aspect of Prospero’s own mind, much, perhaps, as Ariel is – that these two are his slaves not merely in literal terms, but also metaphorically, representing as they do different aspects of his psyche. But of course, in a work such as this, they may be seen simultaneously as both literal and as metaphorical.

It is, perhaps, not Caliban, but those denizens of the civilised world, Trinculo and Stephano, who are so base that nurture can have no effect on their natures. Unlike Caliban, Trinculo and Stephano cannot even conceive of “grace”, let alone seek for it. And neither is Caliban the true monster of the play: the true monsters are Sebastian and Antonio, who remain to the end unrepentant and unreconciled. If, in these three late plays, Shakespeare had looked beyond the ruptures of tragedy, and had tried to explore the possibility of reconciliation, he had painted very different pictures. In Cymbeline, the reconciliation seems complete, with repentance and atonement one on side, and unreserved forgiveness and love on the other; in The Winter’s Tale, matters are a bit more complicated: the repentence and atonement are sincere, and the forgiveness loving, but the events of the past continue to cast their shadows upon the present, and what rejoicing there is must inevitably be subdued: the sorrows and evils of our lives cannot be wiped clean even by the Resurrection itself. In The Tempest, Shakespeare seems to go one step further: now, he seems to show the impossibility of reconciliation. Prospero decides not to punish, but that is hardly the same as forgiveness. For what kind of forgiveness is this?

For you, most wicked sir, whom to call brother
Would even infect my mouth, I do forgive
Thy rankest fault

Whatever Prospero may say, this is no forgiveness. Antonio and Sebastian remain silent: there is no repentance there either. The evil remains, ready to burst out again. Even Miranda’s famous lines about the beauty of mankind are immediately undercut by her father’s more experienced voice:

O, wonder!
How many goodly creatures are there here!
How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world,
That has such people in’t!

‘Tis new to thee.

And what of Prospero himself? I generally try to resist interpretations that are based on the author’s biography; the suggestion that Prospero is Shakespeare’s self-portrait, and that the passage in which he abjures his art is effectively Shakespeare’s retirement speech, may or may not be true, but either way, they cast no light on the play itself. Interpretations of Prospero may, of course, vary, from the good and kindly main driven to rage by the wrongs done upon him but who finally triumphs over his vindictive side, to a man cruel and bitter and almost psychotic in his hatred, but who nonetheless manages to rein himself in for the greater good. Tim McMullan’s fine performance wisely charts a course somewhere between these two extremes, neither underplaying his frequent fits of rage, nor depicting a man beyond the reach of human pity. The turning point seems to me to come when Ariel, but a spirit, feels compassion for the human condition:

Your charm so strongly works ’em
That if you now beheld them, your affections
Would become tender.

Dost thou think so, spirit?

Mine would, sir, were I human.

And mine shall.
Hast thou, which art but air, a touch, a feeling
Of their afflictions, and shall not myself,
One of their kind, that relish all as sharply,
Passion as they, be kindlier moved than thou art?

Prospero seems at this point to be shamed into compassion, though there are bounds even on this: to call Antonio “brother” still infects his tongue. Even in a world as magical as this, complete reconciliation is not possible: the ruptures of tragedy are too great ever to be healed. Such a view does not necessarily negate the visions of reconciliation we had seen in Cymbeline and in The Winter’s Tale: it merely gives as a different perspective.

This magical play works particularly well in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse: lit by candle-light only, there was little scope for fancy lighting techniques or for special effects, but with Dominic Dromgoole’s sure-footed direction, it didn’t need either: although there must be an element of the spectacular – as indicated in the stage directions – it is that miraculous verse that conveys so much of the magic of this play. At the end, they all sail back to the now united kingdom of Naples and Milan, with the marriage of Miranda and Ferdinand carrying a promise of a better future. But by the same token, the unrepentant presence of Antonio and of Sebastian also threatens further outbreaks of evil. Such is our human condition, that even a spirit such as Ariel may feel compassion for, and to which, ultimately, there can be no reconcilement. If this play is indeed Shakespeare’s last word, then I am afraid I can see in it at best a guarded optimism, and at worst, a profound pessimism. But no mystical vision: for all the magic of Prospero’s island, Shakespeare’s interest remained very much of this world, and of human affairs.

See here for my post on Cymbeline at Sam Wanamaker Playhouse

See here for my post on The Winter’s Tale at Sam Wanamaker Playhouse

“The Portrait of a Lady” by Henry James

This post is not primarily about the plot of The Portrait of a Lady, but inevitably, elements of the plot do emerge. So it is best to issue what is commonly known as a “spoiler warning”.

             Some think it a matter of course that chance
Should starve good men and bad advance,
That if their neighbours figured plain,
As though upon a lighted screen,
No single story would they find
Of an unbroken happy mind,
A finish worthy of the start.

  • From “Why Should Old Men Not be Mad?” by W. B. Yeats

Flicking through a printed copy of The Portrait of a Lady, one finds long sections that are on the page intimidating blocks of print, with what little clear white space there is only visible at the end of the paragraphs, alternating with equally long sections of dialogue, with clear white space in abundance. Of course, most novels contain sections of narrative and sections of dialogue, but rarely are they quite so distinct from each other as they are here. James liked dialogue: much of the novel can read like a play, with important information conveyed to the reader through what the characters say. Take, for instance, the climactic scene towards the end as Isabel discovers Madame Merle’s secret:

“Ah, poor creature!” cried Isabel, bursting into tears.

It is a surprising reaction in many ways, even given what we know of Isabel’s generosity of spirit: it’s a remarkable person indeed whose immediate reaction on learning that she has been betrayed and abused is to feel sympathy for her betrayer and abuser. But we get to know what Isabel thinks at this point purely from what she says and does – much as we would do if she were a character in a play or in a film.

James makes his dialogue do much of the narrative work throughout the novel. It may be objected that no-one really speaks as these characters do – that no-one, James himself possibly excepted, could be so precise and so articulate in their verbal expression. But if we can accept Shakespearean characters speaking in blank verse, I think we can accept also James’ characters speaking in exquisite Jamesian prose: it is part of the convention, part of the pact we make with the author. There are a few other things we need to agree as part of this pact: we need to agree that the author is an omniscient narrator, but that he won’t always give us the benefit of that omniscience; that he is happy to enter into the minds of different people, but that he will choose whose minds he wishes to enter into at any given time; that he can show us whichever scene he wants, but that the choice of which scenes to show and which he prefers to suppress will, once again, be entirely at his discretion; and so on. These are the rules of the game, as it were. So of course the narrator knows from the start the secret of Madame Merle; many readers, I think, will guess the secret for themselves long  before it is revealed, and may even wonder why Isabel is so slow in guessing what is so obvious; but the narrator, omniscient though he is, confirms the secret only when it is presented to Isabel, and not earlier. What the reader learns, which of the reader’s suspicions are confirmed, and when, are all strictly controlled by the author, and the ground rules are that we, the readers, must submit to this.

James’ felicity with dialogue, idiosyncratic though that dialogue may be, makes it perhaps surprising that he fared so badly as a dramatist. As is well-known, he tried, presumably inspired by Ibsen, whom he admired, to refashion himself in the mid-90s from a novelist to a dramatist, but failed miserably. I should try to get hold of some of his plays just to figure out why they are, by common critical consent, such failures as drama, but it seems reasonable to suspect that the scenes of dialogue only work in his novels because of that one element novels have but plays don’t – the narrative passages. All that is so remarkable about his passages of dialogue – the registering in what is said of the subtlest shifts in perception, or the finest alteration of the balance of power between the characters – seems to rely on the narrative around it to set it off: without all those pages blocked with print, and with barely any clear white space visible to relieve the reader’s eye, the dialogue would, I think, have fallen flat; but, once set in the context of the narration, it’s a different matter entirely. The dialogue in the early chapters is little more than conversation, but as the novel progresses, it becomes far more than that: it depicts the intricate interplay of the characters, and of the seemingly intangible shifts in the way they perceive each other, and themselves. And it is these long narrative passages that alternate with the dialogue that make this possible.

These narrative passages are almost purely internal: they describe what is going on in the characters’ minds – what they perceive, what they think they perceive. There is very little description, if any, of what the characters look like: what impression we get of their appearance we get merely from what they say and do, and from how they react to each other. And neither does James seem very interested in a sense of place: he will give us a few lines to set the scene, in the manner, as it were, of stage directions in a play, but once the dialogue starts, there’s where the interest lies – in what the characters say and think and perceive, and not in where they are. Quite often, in the middle of these scenes of dialogue, I’d quite happily forget whether the dialogue is taking place in an English country house, or a terrace of a Florentine villa, or amidst the ruins of Rome. That may, of course, be because I am a bad reader, but the point is, I think, that in this novel, it doesn’t matter much: when, say, Myshkin and Rogozhin exchange crosses in The Idiot,  we are always aware, and, indeed, it is important to be aware, that the scene is taking place in Rogzhin’s vast, gloomy old house; but when say, Ralph Touchett warns Isabel about marrying Gilbert Osmond, it matters little where this takes place: James’ interest seems focussed almost entirely on people, not on places.

James’ shaping of the novel is also curious. Most readers will agree that at the centre of the novel is a dissection of a bad marriage, so it is rather surprising that the man Isabel marries doesn’t make his entrance till almost half way through. The novel is in roughly three movements (it seems appropriate here to borrow terminology from music), each of these movements ending with an important scene between Isabel and Caspar Goodwood, the disappointed suitor who remains nonetheless devoted. In the first movement, we are mostly in Gardencourt, an English country estate somewhere near the Thames in Berkshire, and the choice of the name is far from accidental: it is a clear reference to the character Grandcourt in George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda, a work to which this novel clearly owes much (as it does also to George Eliot’s Middlemarch); but it is also a reference to a prelapsarian state in the Garden, a state both of innocence and of inexperience: Isabel Archer here, though intelligent and independent of thought, is also innocent, and lacks experience of the world; and this world is, indeed, all before her. Isabel must make her decisions on how, and where, to take her place in it. For Gardencourt is also a court – a place where judgements and decisions are made, with far-reaching consequences.

At the start of the second movement, the serpent enters the garden, in form of the very charming and accomplished Madame Merle, and Isabel, now wealthy (thanks to the manoeuvring, unknown to her, of her cousin Ralph Touchett), soon leaves the Garden to engage with the evils and temptations that reside outside. The decision she eventually makes, we can see quite clearly, is a wrong decision – a disastrously wrong decision; and James does not hide from the reader its wrongness: we are actually given scenes of Osmond and Madame Merle conspiring with each other like conventional villains from melodrama on how best to entrap the innocent Isabel. There are shades, certainly, of Mary and Henry Crawford in Mansfield Park, and  of  the Marquise de Merteuil and the Vicomte de Valmont in Les Liaisons Dangereuses; and also, I think, of the Gothic thriller: the innocent heroine who marries a villain, and who is then persecuted and terrorised by her husband, is a staple of the Gothic mystery novel, and is, indeed, the basis of the plot of one of the most famous examples of the genre – Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White. (Later in James’ novel, the villain even has his daughter locked up in a convent! It is indeed astonishing how happy James was to use motifs from the old-fashioned melodrama even while pushing forward the art of the novel.) But although we can see all this villainy clearly, Isabel can’t, and James, in this movement of the novel, has the hardest of tasks: he has to show us his heroine acting foolishly, and against the best of advice, and yet convince us somehow that she is nonetheless intelligent; he has to show Gilbert Osmond both as a villain of a Gothic novel, and yet also as someone whom Isabel can credibly accept. This is not an easy task for the novelist to accomplish, but, as one of his own characters might say, James brings it off quite beautifully.

Of course, we do have to accept that someone who lives in a villa in Tuscany and does not have to work for a living is actually “poor”, but once again, that’s part of the pact we have to make with the author: in the milieu he is depicting, Gilbert Osmond is, in comparative terms at least, “poor”. He is also middle-aged, a widower, generally undistinguished, and in every sense, one would have thought, an unsuitable match for the wealthy, young, and beautiful Isabel (at least, one thinks of her as beautiful, though I don’t think James says so himself directly); but his very seeming unsuitability is among those things that draws Isabel to him. Back in Gardencourt, she had rejected the extravagantly eligible Lord Warburton – wealthy, young, handsome, titled, and by nature kind and generous – at least partly because, one suspects, he was so very eligible: Isabel wanted to experience life on her own terms, and make her own decisions, and so, to this end, any decision determined by conventionality and approved of by custom is from the start dismissed. This determination not to abide from the stultifying demands of conventionality, and to make her own way, does indeed, in James’ hands at least, indicate on Isabel’s part an independence of mind and a certain intellectual pride that indicate intelligence, even when, as here, both that independence of mind and that intellectual pride are so woefully misdirected.

Not that Gilbert Osmond is a stereotype villain: James is happy to use elements of the Gothic thriller, but that is not the genre in which he is writing. Osmond does indeed woo and marry Isabel for her money, but her money, though a necessary criterion for Osmond, is not in itself a sufficient criterion: he wants power – power over other people; and the idea of power over Isabel, who, it is thought, had turned down even a wealthy and handsome English aristocrat, excites Osmond’s sensibilities. Osmond is an unforgettable portrait of a man who lives primarily by his ego, and whose principal delight lies in having that sense of ego heightened by exercising power over others.

It is in the third and longest movement of the novel, which begins some years after the second movement had ended, that it all unravels: it is here that we are given the anatomy of a failed marriage. Isabel is, predictably, unhappy: in the patriarchal society she inhabits, her husband has easily assumed a dominant role. And Osmond too is unhappy with the marriage: Isabel, her pride still intact, keeps aloof as best she can, and does not flatter her husband’s ego as he had hoped she would. They generally tend to keep out of each other’s way.

This third part begins not with Isabel or with Osmond, but with Edward Rosier, a character we had only very briefly glimpsed earlier, and whom I certainly did not remember by this stage. It is almost as if Isabel’s story has ended, as all good stories should, with a marriage. We do see Mr and Mrs Osmond after a while, though they seem at first more supporting characters rather than leading characters of the drama; but even here, we sense how unhappy Isabel is, and how dissatisfied Osmond is, despite having had his way: she does not openly defy him, but neither does she submit to the power he wishes to wield over her. It is many more chapters before we actually see them together: the person whom we see with Osmond, close to Osmond, is not is wife, but, rather ominously, Madame Merle.

Things come to a head with the various machinations around the marriage of Pansy, Osmond’s innocent daughter now on the verge of adulthood. Edward Rosier wishes to propose to her, but Osmond, while not disapproving, has higher things in mind for his daughter: she, too, exists, as far as he is concerned, primarily to serve his ego. So Osmond is casually and calculatedly rude to Rosier. He has bigger fish in mind: Lord Warburton, a few years older than when we had first seen him, but still very eminently eligible. And Lord Warburton appears interested in Pansy, although Isabel suspects that the interest not to be wholly sincere, and, observing all proprieties though he may be, his chief aim is to be close to her, Isabel. And Isabel has too much pride to yield to this.

This situation sets up a series of tremendous scenes in which the dialogue is more, much more, than the somewhat inconsequential conversation it had been in the early chapters of the novel: the more James tells us about his characters, the more we find every word they speak weighted with meaning and significance. The balance of power is intricate: the slightest thing can alter it. And perceptions of where one stands in the struggle for power can be as powerful as the thing itself.

Isabel warns off Lord Warburton. Not explicitly, but she knows how to do this kind of thing without being explicit. Osmond senses Isabel’s part in Lord Warburton’s withdrawal: he has no hard evidence, but does not require it. All this brings about a series of conflicts between husband and wife that are among the most dramatic scenes in all fiction, though very little, as such, happens. Everything relies on the reader being aware of the shifting balances of power between the characters.

It all leads leads to a denouement that frankly breaks the heart. I did not remember from my last reading some thirty or so years ago just how affecting this ending was: I suppose that, as with so much I read in my younger days, I had not been a good enough reader, nor had been sufficiently mature emotionally, to take it in adequately. This time round, I found an emotional directness that I had not expected from James. In his later fiction, he often allowed emotional scenes to take place off-stage, such as, say, the final meeting between Milly Theale and Merton Densher in The Wings of the Dove; but here, James presents directly scenes of the deepest of emotions, of the most tender of feelings, with a lack of embarrassment I am tempted to describe, despite James’ own well-known aversion to Dickens, as “Dickensian”. I really had not remembered this ending being quite so affecting. However, this ending did not spring out of nowhere: it could not have been so affecting had James not laid the necessarily groundwork for it with such painstaking care earlier in the novel. And so exquisitely is the novel structured, that to understand properly what happens at the end, we must consider it from the very beginning: James’ decision to delay the entrance of Gilbert Osmond till almost half way into the novel is, after all, no mere whim: this novel is, one must remember, the portrait of a lady, rather than the portrait of a marriage.

It is in the prelapsarian and innocent wold of Gardencourt that we begin. The very opening sentences suggest a sense of calm and inactivity that quite belies what is to come afterwards. I have often wondered whether there has been another novel of comparable stature that has so unpromising an opening:

Under certain circumstances there are few hours in life more agreeable to the ceremony known as afternoon tea.

This is what, on this side of the Atlantic, we would describe as “twee” – self-consciously arch and affected and cloying. It suggests a world where everything is delightful and lovely, where nothing really changes, where even the drinking of tea in the afternoon becomes a “ceremony”. This could almost be the opening of a Wodehousian idyll. The setting is right for Wodehouse – an English country estate, wealthy Americans, and so on. But James is not writing a country house comedy any more than he is a Gothic thriller: instead of Bertie Wooster, we have a somewhat different kind of English aristocrat – Lord Warburton. It is into this static situation that Isabel Archer emerges, and, quite literally, sets the novel in motion.

These early chapters proceed at an extremely leisurely pace, as if nothing of any great moment lies on the horizon. A flashback tells us of Isabel’s background, and of how she came to be where she is; and a flashback within a flashback gives us some more detail of Isabel’s past. Isabel is characterised in these early chapters principally by how the other characters react to her: all three men in Gardencourt fall in love with her. Mr Touchett is an old man, but he almost from the start develops for her a deep paternal affection. Meanwhile his son, Ralph, finds himself utterly entranced by his cousin; but he knows he is seriously ill and dying – this prelapsarian garden contains its shades – and he doesn’t even pause to consider a future for himself with Isabel – or, indeed, a future for himself at all. And there is also Lord Warburton, who makes possibly the most delicate of proposals in all literature, and is turned down: Isabel is looking towards other horizons. If the world is all before Isabel, she will explore it, and find her own place in it, on her own terms.

The pace is so leisurely here, that the reader may well wonder where, if anywhere, all this is leading. There are elements of humour, it is true, and some of that humour is – quite surprisingly, once again, given James’ aversion – “Dickensian”. Henrietta Stackpole is a name – like Caspar Goodwoood –  that could easily have been invented by Dickens, and her general air of uncouth brashness provides a much needed contrast to the endless refinement of moneyed and aristocratic England that James presents. And as for the brusque and peremptory manners of Mrs Touchett, there seems to me more than a touch of Betsey Trotwood about her. There’s an element of Dickens also, I thought, in the cameo appearance of Mr Bantling, and the talked about, though never seen, Lady Pensil (how Dickens would have loved these names!) But despite this occasional touch of Dickensiana, we are unmistakably in Jamesworld – a world of moneyed and leisured people, whose work, should they work at all, is of no interest to anyone (and certainly not to James); a world where the young and wide-eyed visitors from the New World meet the more cynically sophisticated environment of the Old. Not that James’ characterisations are in any way schematic: Lord Warburton, of the Old World, is principled and very much a man of integrity; while the villains, Gilbert Osmond and Madame Merle, are expatriate Americans; but the novel turns on the encounter between moral innocence and moral corruption, and in James’ fictional world, these states are represented respectively by the New World and the Old.

The first movement of the novel ends in London, with Isabel’s meeting with Caspar Goodwood, who is devoted to her, and has followed her to Europe, despite there being little hope of his being accepted. He is everything lord Warburton isn’t – rough-edged, energetic, vigorous, and all the other qualities befitting a denizen of the New World. Isabel’s rejection of Caspar turns out to be more difficult than her rejection of Lord Warburton: she did not even have to think about rejecting the English aristocrat, but after declaring her final rejection of Goodwood, she sheds tears. But she has a sense of her own destiny, and Ralph, already under a death sentence, and the only one not to declare his love for his cousin, persuades his father to leave to Isabel much of what had been marked out for him. So, soon into the second movement of the novel, Isabel finds herself not merely searching for her destiny, but with the means to do so. The world is indeed all before her; but beside her is Madame Merle, and in her calculated coils, Isabel, although she doesn’t realise it, is helpless.

The pace is slow; nothing much appears to be happening; but all the seeds are carefully planted that are later to flower to such devastating effect. It is only after all these seeds have been planted, after all these elements have so carefully been put into place, that James allows Gilbert Osmond to make his entrance. And, with an insidious sense of inevitability, the unthinking happens: the proud, intelligent Isabel, who had turned down Lord Warburton and even Caspar Goodwood, who is loved hopelessly and selflessly by her cousin Ralph, falls prey to, of all people, the scheming Gilbert Osmond. He and Madame Merle engineer Isabel into accepting.

The second movement ends as the first had done, with Caspar Goodwood once again meeting with Isabel, this time to ponder uncomprehendingly on the proud, independent searcher coming to this of all ends. And once again, the meeting moves Isabel to tears.

But the story is not over yet: we have the final tragic movement yet to come. And the drama that is let loose here is electrifying. In scene after scene, James tightens the tension, knowing precisely to what extent to turn the screw at each scene; and in between these scenes are those passages of narration, increasingly metaphor-laden. One metaphor in particular struck me:

After he had left her, Madame Merle went and lifted from the mantel-shelf the attenuated coffee—cup in which he had mentioned the existence of a crack; but she looked at it rather abstractedly. “Have I been so vile all for nothing?” she murmured to herself.

  • From Chapter 49

The coffee-cup in which there is a crack is an image that very obviously foreshadows the central symbol of James’ later novel, The Golden Bowl. There, the crack had been a fine in an otherwise exquisite bowl of gold, but it was a fatal crack: the bowl was bound eventually to break. It is a mysterious and enigmatic symbol purely because its most obvious interpretations are too banal given the weight James gives to it, and we are forced therefore to peer further. Why does this crack in the coffee-cup resonate so powerfully both with the reader and with Madame Merle at this point?

For Madame Merle has been vile, and she has known it. James, rather disconcertingly, refers quite frequently to the “horror” and the “terror” felt by Isabel, almost as if she really were a protagonist in a Gothic horror novel. And the adjective “evil” is used to describe Osmond and Madame Merle. This may seem somewhat over-the-top to some readers, just as the use of the same word in Mansfield Park in relation to Mary and Henry Crawford is seen also to be a gross overstatement, but James is as serious as Austen was: to seek to exert power over others is indeed, both to Austen and to James, an evil, and that it happens in a real world rather than in some Gothic world of dungeons and torture chambers does not make it any less evil.  Gilbert Osmond and Madame Merle are clearly, without any exaggeration, forerunners of the evil spirits Peter Quint and Miss Jessel in The Turn of the Screw, who also seek to “possess” other human beings for their own ends.

But by the end, Madame Merle is defeated. Isabel has a sudden intimation of the evil in the relationship between Madame Merle and Gilbert Osmond when she enters a room, and is struck by the way the two are positioned with respect to one another:

Madame Merle sat there in her bonnet, and Gilbert Osmond was talking to her; for a minute they were unaware that she had come in. Isabel had often seen that before, certainly; but what she had not seen, or at least had not noticed—was that their dialogue had for the moment converted itself into a sort of familiar silence, from which she instantly perceived that her entrance would startle them. Madame Merle was standing on the rug, a little way from the fire; Osmond was in a deep chair, leaning back and looking at her. Her head was erect, as usual, but her eyes were bent upon his. What struck Isabel first was that he was sitting while Madame Merle stood; there was an anomaly in this that arrested her. Then she perceived that they had arrived at a desultory pause in their exchange of ideas, and were musing, face to face, with the freedom of old friends who sometimes exchange ideas without uttering them. There was nothing shocking in this; they were old friends in fact. But the thing made an image, lasting only a moment, like a sudden flicker of light. Their relative position, their absorbed mutual gaze, struck her as something detected. But it was all over by the time she had fairly seen it.

  • From Chapter 40

It is a simple impression made in a split second, which contains nothing really to alarm, or even to disconcert, but which nonetheless strikes Isabel as somehow wrong, although what precisely is wrong she would not have been able to explain. It is a sudden glimpse into a previously unseen world, and, although what is glimpsed is vague and intangible, it sets off a “sudden flicker of light” in Isabel’s perceptions. She knows, she senses, that she is, somehow, the victim of these two. But Isabel is unarmed, because she lacks knowledge: she does not know enough to pinpoint even to herself the nature of that which she so powerfully senses.

Later in the novel, when she does have the knowledge, when Madame Merle’s secret is known to her, the balance of power shifts. Madame Merle now senses that Isabel knows something of her secret, but how much Isabel knows, she cannot tell:

The person who stood there was not the same one she had seen hitherto; it was a very different person—a person who knew her secret. This discovery was tremendous, and for the moment she made it the most accomplished of women faltered and lost her courage. But only for that moment. Then the conscious stream of her perfect manner gathered itself again and flowed on as smoothly as might be to the end. But it was only because she had the end in view that she was able to go on. She had been touched with a point that made her quiver, and she needed all the alertness of her will to repress her agitation. Her only safety was in not betraying herself. She did not betray herself; but the startled quality of her voice refused to improve—she couldn’t help it—while she heard herself say she hardly knew what. The tide of her confidence ebbed, and she was able only just to glide into port, faintly grazing the bottom.

  • From Chapter 52

In The Golden Bowl, when Maggie Verver faces the adulterous Charlotte Stant, she senses that she now has power over her: not only does she know of Charlotte’s affair with her husband, she knows also that Charlotte is aware of her knowledge; but what Charlotte isn’t aware of is how much she knows. And Maggie enjoys the power she now has over Charlotte by deliberately not telling her, and leaving her to the agony merely of conjecture and surmise. I think something similar happens at this point between Isabel and Madame Merle: Isabel senses that it is she who now has power over Madame Merle, and, like Maggie Verver, enjoys the enjoyment of this power by remaining silent:.

Isabel saw all this as distinctly as if it had been a picture on the wall. It might have been a great moment for her, for it might have been a moment of triumph. That Madame Merle had lost her pluck and saw before her the phantom of exposure—this in itself was a revenge, this in itself was almost a symptom of a brighter day. And for a moment while she stood apparently looking out of the window with her back half turned, Isabel enjoyed her knowledge.

  • From Chapter 52

Madame Merle is retires from the fray: Isabel has won. Like Charlotte Stant in The Golden Bowl, she returns to America: in Jamesian terms, she gives up the fight. Like Princes Eboli in Schiller’s Don Carlos (and in Verdi’s opera of the same name, based on Schiller’s play), Madame Merle is shamed into defeat. Isabel is triumphant.

But it is a strange sort of triumph. There remains still her deeply unhappy marriage. Gilbert Osmond had, on his last meeting with Isabel, taken the moral high ground: it is he who is, both in his own eyes and in the eyes of the world, in the right, and Isabel in the wrong for even thinking of defying her husband’s wishes. Isabel had lost in that particular confrontation: the balance of power had been all on Gilbert’s side. But she had defied him nonetheless: she had travelled to England on her own, to visit her dying cousin Ralph.

And it is in the magnificent scene at Ralph’s deathbed that we reach the culminating point of the novel. Here, as in the scene in Anna Karenina where Anna lies close to death, there is no room any more for dissimulation: in the presence of death, so solemn and so majestic, all involved seem to share a higher state of consciousness. The love between Isabel and Ralph is perhaps the only one in the entire novel that has been, and is, entirely sincere, and entirely mutual. Isabel had previously been careful not to reveal to Ralph that she was unhappy in her marriage, as the satisfaction Ralph would receive on being proven right would have been far outweighed by his unhappiness on the same score; but there is no room for untruths now, not even kind untruths: Ralph and Isabel speak to each other from the deepest recesses of their hearts. It is a scene I had not expected from James. It is almost as if he is daring the reader to feel embarrassed by so unadorned, so naked a depiction of the most deeply felt of human emotions.

“He married me for my money,” she said.

She wished to say everything; she was afraid he might die before she had done so.

He gazed at her a little, and for the first time his fixed eyes lowered their lids. But he raised them in a moment, and then—

“He was greatly in love with you,” he answered.

“Yes, he was in love with me. But he would not have married me if I had been poor. I don’t hurt you in saying that. How can I? I only want you to understand. I always tried to keep you from understanding; but that’s all over.”

“I always understood,” said Ralph.

“I thought you did, and I didn’t like it. But now I like it.”

“You don’t hurt me—you make me very happy.” And as Ralph said this there was an extraordinary gladness in his voice. She bent her head again, and pressed her lips to the back of his hand. “I always understood,” he continued, “though it was so strange—so pitiful. You wanted to look at life for yourself—but you were not allowed; you were punished for your wish. You were ground in the very mill of the conventional!”

“Oh yes, I have been punished,” Isabel sobbed.

  • From Chapter 54

I was caught up short at the point where Ralph declares himself to be happy: I was sure I had read another scene in another novel where a man, in the throes of the greatest of griefs, also declares himself happy, but I couldn’t remember at first which novel it was. Then, eventually, it came to me: it is in a novel written by that author James professed to dislike – Dickens; and it occurs when Bob Cratchit, grieving for his dead child, calls around him the rest of his family:

“… But however and whenever we part from one another, I am sure we shall none of us forget poor Tiny Tim — shall we — or this first parting that there was among us?”

“Never, father!” cried they all.

“And I know,” said Bob, “I know, my dears, that when we recollect how patient and how mild he was; although he was a little, little child; we shall not quarrel easily among ourselves, and forget poor Tiny Tim in doing it.”

“No, never, father!” they all cried again.

“I am very happy,” said little Bob, “I am very happy!”

  • From Chapter 4 of “A Christmas Carol” by Charles Dickens

We may say that Ralph is “happy” because he can speak to Isabel before he dies, and that Bob is “happy” because he still has the rest of his family, but in both cases, I think, the author is encouraging us to peer deeper: the “happiness” in both cases comes, I think, from their having been, and continuing to be, so close to another human being as to be able to experience emotions of such depth, even though that experience is so full of pain.

The death scene is the novel’s emotional high point: it doesn’t so much put human affairs in their context, but, rather, heightens them; the presence of death confirms the moral seriousness of human affairs, and of what humans do to each other. But the novel isn’t entirely finished yet: there is still some unfinished business to attend to. As at the end of the previous two movements, Caspar meets and speaks once again to Isabel; and this time, he offers a way out. Much has been written on why Isabel refuses. I think this ending is inevitable: one has only to imagine Isabel accepting Caspar Goodwood’s proposal to realise how unsatisfactory an ending this would have been. Isabel has to refuse because, despite all that has happened, she has still her pride, and her self-respect. In The Lady From the Sea, a play written by Ibsen some four years after the publication of this novel, the title character, Ellida Wangel, had chosen well: her husband is a decent and kindly man; but given that the choice had not been entirely free, Ellida finds herself questioning its validity. Now, it is unlikely that Ibsen would have read James’ novel, but, whether by design or by accident, Ibsen had presented in Ellida Wangel a corollary of Isabel Archer: where Ellida questions even a correct choice because it had not been free, Isabel accepts an incorrect choice because it was: wrong though that choice was, in every respect, it was made in absolute freedom, and Isabel known that she is honour-bound, to herself if no-one else, to accept the consequences of what she had chosen so freely.

And neither is she choosing, I think, to remain a victim: armed now with knowledge she had previously not possessed, she is now capable of resuming the struggle with Gilbert Osmond, this time on equal terms. And I do not think it is merely wishful thinking on my part that she will emerge triumphant – that she will vanquish Gilbert Osmond as surely as she had vanquished Madame Merle. The real struggle is still to come: we are only at the beginning.

“The Cricket on the Hearth” by Charles Dickens

An elderly, kindly man is married to a much younger woman. Then, out of nowhere, a stranger appears, and it seems that he is a figure from the young wife’s past, and that she is in love with him. The older husband is stricken by jealousy, and even considers killing the stranger. But then, having considered the situation, comes to feel that it is he who is in the wrong – that it was wrong for him to have married a woman so much younger than himself, and possibly, in the process, have thwarted her own desires and aspirations. So, although he still loves her – indeed, because he still loves her – he offers her freedom.

I could be describing a play by Ibsen here. Indeed, this is, more or less, the central dramatic action of The Lady From the Sea. But no – I am describing here one of the strands of The Cricket on the Hearth, the third of Dickens’ Christmas Books, a series that had started with A Christmas Carol. Dickens never did recapture the genius of that masterpiece: The Chimes, that followed the year after, was a dark and angry work – very powerful in its way, but lacking much sense of festive cheer, or any of the whimsy or exuberance we associate with Dickens at Christmas. Here, in The Cricket on the Hearth, he seemed to go the other way: the darkness is effectively banished, and we get nothing but the whimsy and the good cheer: even John Peerybingle’s jealousy dissipates almost as soon as it starts, and, unlike the Ibsen play where the possibility of the young wife leaving her husband was all too real, there is little danger of that here: it is all a misunderstanding here, and is wiped out quite painlessly. There is little danger, indeed, of anything: and there, perhaps, is the problem. The sense of joy at the end of A Christmas Carol was convincing because it was hard-earned; here, it is hardly earned at all. In A Christmas Carol, on the way to all that joy and rejoicing, we had been allowed to glimpse into the abyss: here, the abyss doesn’t even exist. There are very few shadows in this work, dark or otherwise: even the Scrooge-like figure, Tackleton, doesn’t seem that monstrous, and is easily accommodated into the general rejoicing at the end. Of course, this is a fairy tale, and a very whimsical fairy tale at that, but fairy tales, no matter how whimsical, need more than their fair share of darkness, and Dickens’ refusal to supply any – possibly as a reaction to the excessive darkness of The Chimes – results in a sort of flatness, a lack of those contours that mould figures and give them shape.

And yet, the themes were there, and, as A Christmas Carol demonstrates, neither whimsicality nor a fairy tale format need inhibit serious treatment of serious themes. But in his depiction of the Peerybingles, there doesn’t seem to be much awareness at all of the potential thematic richness: it’s not that I was expecting an Ibsenite dissection of marriage; but I was entitled to expect, I think, something not quite so superficial as this. Even the night where John Peerybingle wrestles with his conscience – a passage that really should have been the climactic point of the work – is dispatched in a quick couple of pages or so.

And then, there is the motif of the blind girl. The very motif of a young blind girl who imagines her world to be something grander than it actually is may appear sentimental to modern taste, but once again, there is potential here – as Chaplin demonstrated so triumphantly in City Lights. But Dickens makes surprisingly little of it. Even the scene where the blind girl is told how shabby everything really is around her does not make much of an impact. The problem is not that it is “stagey”, or “sentimental”, or “melodramatic”, or any of those other epithets that are regularly aimed at Dickens by his many detractors: it is, rather, that neither the staginess, nor the sentimentality, nor the melodrama, seems particularly well handled. It’s almost as if Dickens’ heart wasn’t in it. I frequently got the impression reading this that he was merely going through the motions; that, indeed, he was producing another Christmas Book for no better reason than that the public expected it of him. Perhaps.

And yet, The Cricket on the Hearth was immensely popular in Dickens’ own lifetime. Since I do not subscribe to the idea that public taste necessarily improves over time, I couldn’t help wondering whether I had approached this work in the wrong frame of mind – whether I had not been ideally responsive to this because I had failed to make the leap of the imagination that any fiction requires from the reader. That, too, is possible.

The next in the Christmas Books series was The Battle of Life – a real Christmas turkey that I’d prefer not to re-read: there’s nothing quite so depressing as a favourite writer writing badly – in this case, very badly. The year after that he gave it a rest, but then returned the next year with The Haunted Man, a splendid piece that was excessively florid even by the standards of Dickensian prose, and which was, like The Chimes, almost unrelievedly dark. It seems that the man who had given us Christmas at Dingley Dell could now see little in the world worth celebrating, or rejoicing over.

Well, we needn’t repine: The Cricket on the Hearth may be a bit of a flop, and The Battle of Life even worse; but The Chimes and The Haunted Man, dark though they both are, are wonderful works, and A Christmas Carol is a work beyond compare – a work one can return to year after year without ever feeling it has become stale. And anyone who says otherwise gets a punch on the nose from me – season of goodwill or no!

“The air is thick with ghosts…”

Ghosts by Henrik Ibsen, translated and directed by Stephen Unwin, at Rose Theatre, Kingston.

Please note that the run at Rose Theatre Kingston has now finished, but this production will be touring with the English Touring Theatre. See here for venues and dates.


“The past is never dead. In fact, it’s not even past.”
–        William Faulkner, from Requiem for a Nun

“The past is the present, isn’t it? And it’s the future too.”
–       Mary Tyrone in Long Day’s Journey into Night, by Eugene O’Neill

The “exposition” is traditionally that part of the play in which the audience is provided with the background information that is required to follow the action. Usually, this required information deals with events of the past, and is generally imparted as quickly and as unobtrusively as possible, so as not to hold up the main action of the drama. But there is a certain type of play in which the past is itself the essence of the drama – where the “main action of the drama” is the process of understanding, and of coming to terms with (or, more frequently, of not being able to come to terms with) the events of the past. In these instances, the entire play becomes, in effect, one long exposition. Such plays aren’t new: Sophocles’ Oedipus the King is a prime example. And these plays continued into the twentieth century – Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night, for instance. But perhaps no other dramatist more insistently explored the impact of the past on the present than did Henrik Ibsen: Rosmersholm, The Master Builder, John Gabriel Borkman, and, in particular, Ghosts, all see the present as something that has been shaped by the past, as something in which the ghosts of the past continue to haunt, and from which they cannot be banished. There is no escaping these ghosts, much though we may long to. “The air is thick with ghosts,” says Mrs Alving early in the play, possibly not realising at the time the terrible implications of this.

This focus on the past from which there is no escape gives these plays a sense of constriction, of being trapped in a machine that cannot be anything other than infernal. The scene here is the middle-class drawing room that certain later critics and playwrights have seen fit to mock as “bourgeois”; but  the contents of this particular “bourgeois drama” did more to  “épater la bourgeoisie” than just about any other play one can think of. It’s not just the mechanisms of the plot – inherited syphillis, proposed incest, possible euthanasia – that were shocking: the very basis of the audience’s moral compass was subjected to an unremitting assault. Nowadays, of course, we aren’t so rigid – at least in the Western world – about moral codes of behaviour: we are far more likely now to laugh at the conventional morality of Pastor Manders, or, indeed, to see him as a caricature, than to nod away in agreement; but nonetheless, as this production amply demonstrated, this play’s ability to shock remains undimmed. And it is still there because, I think, it is only superficially about the inadequacy in our lives of conventional morality: considered at a deeper level, this play is about the ghosts that continue to haunt us – that terrible burden of the past from which none of us can ultimately free ourselves, and only in the context of which can we come to any self-understanding.

The past emerges in fragments as the play progresses. First, Pastor Manders tells us of the time when Mrs Alving, then a young wife, had left her husband and had sought refuge with him. He had wrestled with his own desires (although he does not, can not, tell us this), and had persuaded Mrs Alving back to the path of duty: he had persuaded her to returning to her husband to whom she has been united by God. This is a world in which duty is all-important; there is no room here for joy:

To pursue happiness in this world is to be governed by the spirit of rebellion. What right do we have to happiness? No, we must do our duty, Mrs Alving. And your duty was to cleave to the man you’d chosen and to whom you were tied by a sacred bond.

Her husband, Captain Alving, is now dead. And an orphanage, named after him, and financed by the wealth he had bequeathed, is soon to open. But this version of the past, of Captain Alving as a good and respectable man, is a lie, and Mrs Alving is now capable of telling Pastor Manders the truth: Captain Alving had not stopped being a dissipated man, and their marriage was an empty and a desperately unhappy sham. She had sent away her son, Osvald, at an early age, not as a dereliction of duty, but to prevent him associating with his debauched father; she had not wanted him to inherit anything of his (has ever a dramatic irony been so devastating?) With the money spent on the orphanage, the association with Captain Alving is now, Mrs Alving believes, finished: a line can now be drawn under it, and life can start afresh.

In the play The Father, Strindberg, objecting to what he regarded as feminism on Ibsen’s part, has his principal character say sarcastically that, some day, he would like to hear Captain Alving’s side of the story. Ibsen, however, had been ahead of the game on this score. Of course, since this is a realistic drama (at least on the surface), Ibsen could not bring back, Rashomon-like, the ghost of Captain Alving to give his own perspective; but the ghost is there all the same, and, towards the end of the play, before the final catastrophe, in an extraordinary moment of revelation, Mrs Alving begins to see a picture wider than the one that has so embittered her:

MRS ALVING:  … You were talking earlier about joy in life, and what you said shed light on everything in my life.

OSVALD (shaking his head): I don’t understand.

MRS ALVING: You should have known your father when he was young. He was full of joy in life, I can tell you.

OSVALD: Yes, I know.

MRS ALVING: It made me feel like Sunday weather just looking at him, full of such tremendous life and energy.

OSVALD: So what happened?

MRS ALVING: Well, this boy – so full of joy in life – he was just a boy back then – well, he  had to live in a small town with no joy, just diversions. He had to live a pointless life out here, as a government official. He had no real work, just routine. And not a single friend who could appreciate joy in life; just layabouts and drunks…

OSVALD: Mother…

MRS ALVING: And so the inevitable happened.

OSVALD: What inevitable?

MRS ALVING: You said earlier what you’d turn into if you stayed at home.

OSVALD: You mean that father – ?

MRS ALVING: Your poor father never found an outlet for that great joy in life inside him. And I didn’t bring much either.

OSVALD: You didn’t?

MRS ALVING: I’d been taught duty, and all the things I believed in so long. Everything came down to duty – my duty, his duty and – I’m afraid I made your poor father’s home unbearable, Osvald.

–       Translated by Stephen Unwin

[Incidentally, I’m pleased to see Stephen Unwin retain “Sunday weather”, which, I presume, is in the original. Other translators I have consulted replace it with something more idiomatically English, and I can see why; but “Sunday weather” has a good sound to it. Some other alternative are: “It was like a sunny morning just to see him” (Michael Meyer); “It was like a holiday weather just to look at him” (Rolf Fjelde); while Peter Watts avoids the expression altogether with “He was so full of vitality and boundless energy that it did your heart good just to see him”.]

Mrs Alving comes to recognise here her own part in this immense tragedy: she too now realises the terrible toll taken on the human spirit when the claims of joy are not acknowledged, and the very right to pursue happiness denied (“What right do we have to happiness?”)

The truth is arrived at slowly, and its final, terrible manifestation comes as the sun finally breaks through the gloom. And the truth, as so often in Ibsen, brings no relief. The truth is something that much exercised Ibsen’s imagination: in his very next play, An Enemy of the People, written, possibly, as a response to the virulent criticism Ghosts had received, Ibsen proclaims loudly the importance of acknowledging the truth; but even while proclaiming this, awkward questions remain unanswered, and in his subsequent plays, Ibsen addresses these questions. In The Wild Duck, he ponders on those truths that we cannot live with; and in Rosmersholm, he examines the elusive nature of truth itself, and the uncertainty of our perceptions. Here, in Ghosts, the truth is brutal, and inescapable. All attempts to deny the past, to draw a line under it, are doomed to fail: the ghosts of the past cannot be laid so easily. The name of Captain Alving was intended to grace an orphanage, but this attempt to deny the truth about the past goes up, quite literally, in flames; his name ends up gracing, more appropriately, a “sailors’ home” – videlicet, a brothel. The truth is indeed a terrible thing, and when the sun finally breaks through in the final scene, it reveals a scene of devastation, and of utmost terror.

We may no longer object to this play on moral grounds, as past generations have done; our moral perceptions have certainly changed since 1882, when this play was first performed to predictably outraged critical response. But in a world that, like the town in which Captain Alving lived, appears not to believe in joy, and sees mere diversion as an adequate substitute, this unblinking stare into the truth of our condition retains its terrifying power.


I have seen this play twice on television (once with Dorothy Tutin as Mrs Alving, and another production with Judi Dench), but this is the first time I have seen it on stage. It certainly makes a difference. The atmospheric sets, designed by Simon Higglett, are based on the designs made by Edvard Much for a 1906 production directed by Max Reinhardt, and they enhance superbly the claustrophobic horror of the work. Stephen Unwin’s direction presents the work with his customary clarity, respecting the integrity of Ibsen’s text without sacrificing anything in the way of dramatic immediacy. And the performances I cannot imagine being bettered. It is important, for instance, not to present Pastor Manders as a caricature, as he could so easily become: he is a hypocrite, yes, but by no means a conscious hypocrite; and Mrs Alving, on stage through virtually the entire play and having to sustain its terrifying intensity, must surely be among the most demanding of all stage roles: Patrick Drury and Kelly Hunter, respectively, play these very difficult parts superbly. And the smaller parts – smaller only in terms of the number of lines spoken rather than in terms of their importance to the drama – are expertly taken by Mark Quartley, Florence Hall, and by Pip Donaghy. In short, if this play tours to anywhere near where you live, and you do not object to an evening of nerve-jangling drama that is as far from traditional “feelgood” as may be imagined, then this production is most strongly recommended. It inspires terror, yes, but perhaps we need to experience such terror from time to time. I left the theatre shaken, even though I knew what to expect. But yes, for whatever perverse reason, I would gladly experience this all over again.

“Thunder in the Air” by August Strindberg

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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