Posts Tagged ‘literature’

“The Member of the Wedding” by Carson McCullers


It might seem a trifle absurd, perverse even, to preface a brief discussion of a novel as plotless as this with a spoiler alert, but, given the few disgruntled e-mails I’ve received when I have previously failed to provide such an alert, it’s best to stray on the safe side in these matters.

For plot appears to be the least of Carson McCullers’ concerns. Which raises questions about what her concerns actually are, and I wish I knew how to answer that. I deliberately delayed writing anything about this novel till a few weeks after I had finished reading it, hoping that its various powerful resonances would settle in my mind somewhat, and allow some sort of coherent picture to emerge; but, so far, that has not happened. It continues, however, to resonate, and if, as T. S. Eliot famously said, a poem may be appreciated even before it is understood, it may, I thought, be worthwhile articulating some of my uncomprehending appreciation. It may even be worthwhile merely to register my bemusement.

Part of the reason why themes and concerns of this novel are so difficult to articulate is that Carson McCullers herself leaves them unarticulated. Much of the novel is filtered through the consciousness of its principal character, the twelve-year-old girl Frankie, or F. Jasmine as she likes sometimes to style herself, or the conventional Frances as she becomes at the end; quite frequently, she does not have the ability to articulate what she thinks, or feels. Throughout the novel, we are told that she feels things that she does not know how to name, and Carson McCullers is happy to leave these feelings unnamed. And there is much unfinished also: the only plotline of sorts that develops concerns a soldier who, mistaking Frankie for a girl somewhat older, tries to have his way with her in a hotel room, whereupon she strikes him on the head with a glass pitcher, and runs off. She does not know how badly hurt the soldier is, nor, indeed, whether she has killed him. And we, the reader, never get to know either. It is left as unfinished and as unresolved for us as it is for Frankie. To introduce a narrative line and then refuse to resolve it may seem a cardinal crime in the art of storytelling, but here, it is quite deliberate: the narrative strands, such as they are, remain unresolved, because they are, by their very nature, incapable of resolution.

And yet, the novel is certainly about something. Edmund Wilson, presumably frustrated and bemused by it all, declared the entire work to be “pointless”, but it seems highly unlikely that so fine an intelligence and so subtle an artistry as Carson McCullers’ would labour so many years over a narrative that is ultimately “pointless”. Leaving that aside – for, of course, biographical details of the author should play no part in literary criticism – the novel, whatever may lie at its centre, resonates far too powerfully for “pointlessness” to be a valid option. If the novel refuses to articulate its themes clearly (under the cover that Frankie herself cannot articulate them), we must conclude that they cannot be articulated – that they are, essentially, as incapable of being articulated as the narrative strands are of being resolved.

What we can say with some confidence, I think, is what this novel is not. This is not a coming-of-age novel. Neither is this a novel about teenage angst (or, more accurately, pre-teenage angst): Frankie Addams is not a female equivalent of Holden Caulfield. We may say this with confidence because neither of these pat explanations can account for the effect the novel makes upon the reader. (Well, this reader, at least.) The appreciation that Eliot spoke about that precedes understanding is, in this instance, an appreciation of certain vague, mysterious regions that are well outside the scope of novels of adolescent angst.

We are taken at some length into Frankie’s thoughts, and, at the centre of her thoughts, it seems to me, is a vaguely glimpsed concern for the nature of her individual identity. Here, I think, we need to be careful, because there is so much guff currently spoken and written on the question of “identity”, that it might be easy to see this novel as a comment on what is currently termed “identity politics”; but such a view of the novel would be even more facile and reductive than to see it as a coming-of-age novel, or as a novel about adolescent angst. What concerns Frankie, though expressed with a childlike naivety, is that age-old philosophical issue of our consciousness of our own individual identity, as distinct from the individual identities of others:

“Doesn’t it strike you as strange that I am I and you are you? … And we can look at each other, and touch each other, and stay together year in and year out in the same room. Yet always I am I and you are you. And I can’t be anything else but I, and you can’t be anything else but you.”

What is it that fixes us in our own, personal identity? Is there some sort of essence of self, of “I”, that is independent of this person whose body I happen to inhabit, and whose name I happen to bear? If not, why not? And if so, why am I stuck, constrained, to be this person?

Frankie wonders also about our perceptions. Are they consistent from person to person, from “I” to “you”, from “I” to, perhaps, another “I”?

“I see a green tree. And to me it is green. And you call this tree green also. And we would agree on this. But is this colour you see as green the same colour I see as green? Or say we both call a colour black. But how do we know that what you see as black is the same colour I see as black?”

If we are indeed, each one of us, an “I” and nothing but “I”, how can we be confident of a commonality of perception? And if we cannot be confident of this, how can we even communicate with each other?

Frankie is isolated from others. Her father works in a store, and barely appears in the novel. She is what is known is a “tomboy”, and appears, for reasons not entirely made clear, to have no friends of her own age. She spends most of her time hanging out in the kitchen with Berenice, a black cook, and John Henry, her six-year-old cousin, and much of the novel is taken up with scenes set in the kitchen with the three of them – a child, an adult, and Frankie, on the borderline between these two states – talking to each other, seemingly inconsequentially. But their conversations, while believable as conversations between a small child, an adolescent, and an uneducated adult, always seem to be pointing towards something else – towards something none of them can articulate, and which Carson McCullers refuses to articulate on their behalf.

Frankie longs to inhabit identities other than her own. John Henry would like everyone to be half-boy, half-girl. Berenice, a black woman with a blue glass eye, wants a world where people are all the same colour – a light brown, “with blue eyes and black hair”. These characters may not be able to articulate or even perhaps recognise it as such, but all three of them, in their own ways, feel constrained by the fixed nature of the world, that allocates them but one identity that they must regard as uniquely their own.

For Berenice, a black woman living in the Deep South in the 1940s, her identity – however fluid she may like it to be – is certainly fixed: she is “black”. This one simple fact of her identity condemns her. And yet, she had been happy once. Her first husband, Ludie Freeman – whom, we learn with a shock, she had married when she was only thirteen, just a year older than Frankie – she had loved, and had been happy with. And the memory of that happiness remains for her something precious, something she did not at first wish to share with Frankie. But then he died, and she married again, three more times, with each marriage more disastrous than the previous. She had chosen her later husbands with no better criteria than that they had shared certain superficial resemblances with her beloved first, but these resemblances did not define them: identity, despite its fixed quality, remains an elusive and unnameable matter. Her fourth and last husband had been the worst: he was violent, abusive, possibly mentally unstable, and had gouged out one of her eyes. This horrible detail is imparted to us in an almost casual manner. Although Bernice still dreams of a world in which all racial identities are merged into one, her first husband, whom she continues to love even beyond his death, had an individual identity that cannot be replicated: “he” was “he”, and no-one else.

Frankie, however, longs for a fluidity within which individual identities may merge. Her older brother, a soldier (this novel is set during the final stages of WW2), is to marry his girl-friend, and Frankie dreams of, and, eventually, becomes obsessed with, leaving behind her home town, which restricts her in ways she cannot articulate, and go off with her brother and his newly-married wife. Frankie is not satisfied being a “member of the wedding” only in the sense of being the groom’s sister: she longs for nothing less than to be one of the wedded parties herself, to merge her own personal identity with those of the married couple. This obsession she develops of merging her personal identity with those of others soon takes centre-stage in this novel. Thoughts of the wedding begin to obsess to such a degree that even the sudden death of an uncle barely makes an impact on her, because, after all, it’s nothing to do with the wedding, is it?

Typically, the wedding itself is not narrated directly: resolving narrative strands in terms of “what happened next” is not what this novel is about. We are given to understand, however, that Frankie had had to be physically restrained and pulled back when she had tried to leave with the newlyweds. She is utterly disgraced, humiliated. The world of fixity may be questioned when one is a child, but as an adult, it has to be accepted. But with this acceptance comes a loss:

She was sitting next to Berenice, back with the coloured people, and when she thought of it she used the mean word she had never used before, nigger – for now she hated everyone and wanted only to spite and shame.

Everybody is caught, one way or another, as Berenice says at one point.

Frankie makes one final attempt to escape this world of tyrannical fixity: she tries to run away, she knows not where. But the police are alerted, and she is soon found, and taken back home. In a novel such as this, where everything seems charged with meaning, it is no accident that the police are referred to as “the Law”, with a capital “L”. She has tried to escape, but the Law returns her to where she had been.

All through this, the war, now in its final stages, is raging in faraway Europe, and forms a sort of discordant background music. News from the distant war comes through – the horrors of the fields of combat, the slaughter of civilians, the unimaginable and unnameable abominations of the newly liberated death camps. Berenice muses on a perfect world that – who knows? – may be possible still, if only the Law would allow for it:

“No killed Jews and no hurt coloured people. No war and no hunger in the world. And, finally, Ludie Freeman would be alive.”

The very ending of the novel is as enigmatic as the rest of it. John Henry has died suddenly and horribly, from an attack of meningitis: this is related so directly, and so casually, that it is brutal. Frankie is now Frances, older and more mature, no longer yearning for a fluidity that the Law will not allow. The final paragraph seems charged with meaning:

Frances turned back to the window. It was almost five o’clock and the geranium glow had faded from the sky. The last pale colours were crushed and cold on the horizon. Dark, when it came, would come on quickly, as it does in wintertime. “I am simply mad about – “ But the sentence was left unfinished for the hush was shattered when, with an instant shock of happiness, she heard the ringing of the bell.

The sentence, like so much else in the novel, is left unfinished, and we don’t know what it is she is “mad” about – or, indeed, whether her “being mad” refers to her loving something, or being angry with something. Neither is it explained what the bell signifies at the end. It’s possibly just someone at the door. For, after all, what else can it be?

This is a novel I shall be returning to.

Penny-in-the-slot criticisms

TRIGGER ALERT: This post contains some intemperate views, and expresses no small degree of irritation on my part regarding various comments I have seen online over the years. If such things trigger you, then I would advise giving this one a miss.

There is a kind of criticism that I have heard referred to as “penny-in-the-slot criticisms”. Which means that these criticisms are automatic reactions, instinctive and unthinking – reflexive rather than reflective.

When it comes to literature, and to books in general, there is a set of criticisms that, I think, could come under this category. Perhaps the worst thing about these criticisms is that they are immutable: no matter how vehemently you may argue against them, you won’t change anyone’s mind, because your argument will not be engaged with. Not that your argument was necessarily right: one is – or, at least I am – grateful when one’s argument is shown to be flawed, and one is forced either to refine one’s ideas, or to rethink them, or even to withdraw them altogether. But no, in an environment in which even to questions someone’s opinion is viewed as an act of aggression, that kind of thing doesn’t happen. It’s not even a case of one’s argument not being countered: it’s simply not engaged with. But nonetheless, as sure as night follows day, that penny-in-the-slot criticism you had argued against will re-appear, as if you’d never said anything at all to counter it.

Here are a few such criticisms I’ve picked up over the years (in bold), along with brief arguments against them (in italics) that are regularly ignored.

“People don’t really enjoy reading difficult books: they only read books such as Ulysses to show off.”

If it were true that it is not possible to enjoy anything that is difficult, it’s hard to explain why so many are attracted to chess, say, or to difficult cryptic crossword puzzles.

And show off to whom? We do not live in a world where erudition is much valued. Reading something like Ulysses in order to “show off” seems like an awful lot of hard work for very little in return.

“People who write difficult books – again, like Ulysses – are just showing off how clever they are.”

Once again, showing off to whom? And why?

And if you don’t like “clever” writers, do you really prefer stupid ones?

“Male authors couldn’t/can’t create convincing female characters.”

Odd, isn’t it? Good writers of fiction can imagine themselves into the minds of all sorts of people different from themselves – children, old people, people from different walks of life, people from different social class, and all the rest of it. But the one barrier that is, seemingly, insurmountable is the barrier of gender. Not sure why: no-one has bothered explaining.

And in any case, how do you know that men writers cannot create women? Do all women think and feel in the same way? And are you privy to all their thoughts and feelings?

A good many of these penny-in-the-slot criticisms refer to Dickens. Some do lead to a bit of an exchange, but they never really get anywhere:

“Dickens really couldn’t create women.”

Miss Havisham, Betsey Trotwood, Sarah Gamp –

“Yes, but those are caricatures.”

But caricatures are not failed attempts at portraiture. You did not specify –

“You know what I meant. Dickens could not depict real women.”

Esther Summerson, Lady Dedlock, Harriet Beadle, Rosa Dartle, Lizzie Hexam…

“Dickens could only create caricatures.”

As said previously, a caricature is not a failed attempt at portraiture. It takes skill to create a memorable caricature. And as for Dickensian characters who are complex people and most definitely not caricatures, we have Steerforth, John Jarndyce, William Dorrit, Pip, Miss Wade …

“But Dickens’ heroines are awful”.

Some of Dickens’ romantic heroines, especially in his early novels, are certainly bland and colourless. But so are his romantic heroes. Nicholas Nickleby is as colourless as Madeleine Bray, the adult David Copperfield as colourless as Agnes Wickfield, Martin Chuzzlewit as colourless as – and so on. It’s not just his heroines. The convention that romantic heroes and heroines had both to be spotless created all sorts of problems for writers. Dickens later overcame this and created heroes and heroines who are genuinely interesting – Pip and Estella, Bella Wilfer, Louisa Gradgrind, etc.

Silence. No response. And then, soon after:

“Dickens couldn’t create female characters, and all his characters are merely caricatures anyway.”

And also, for good measure:

“Dickens was just soap opera of his day”.

Just for clarity, could you define what you mean by “soap opera”, and specify how it differs from other (and presumably superior) forms of drama?

No, of course they can’t. At least, they don’t. The whole point of these criticisms is that you don’t need to follow them up.

And then you get the killer one:

“Dickens is sentimental.”

Sentimentality is a difficult thing to define adequately. Yes, in many of his works – especially the early ones – he can be genuinely mawkish. But that is by no means the full story: there is also much in his novels that has real emotional depth and complexity. For instance …

And you put together a long, detailed catalogue of examples, but no-one is listening. They have demonstrated how superior their taste is to yours by proclaiming that they are above Dickens and you aren’t, and that’s the end of the matter. They may even add, for good measure:

“I don’t have to like something just because the critics say I must.”

The implication is that I am blinded by the authority of these “critics” (whoever these mustachio-twirling pantomime villains may be), but they, being more independent in their thought, aren’t. And you might as well stop there, unless you want to create a scene.

Dickens certainly gets more than his fair share of penny-in-the-slot criticisms, but other writers aren’t exempt either:

“The Brontës were the bodice-rippers of their day.”q

“Austen was the chick-lit of her day.”

You can write entire essays trying to refute these claims, safe in the knowledge that no-one will engage with anything you may have to say. Well, some might, I guess – but you know that the same comments will come up again, and from the same people.

And then, on Shakespeare, there is that old bugbear of mine:

“Shakespeare’s plays were meant to be seen, not read.”

How do you know this? Are you privy to what Shakespeare intended? And even if that is what Shakespeare had intended, why deny ourselves the experience of reading these plays when reading them can be so enriching?

Then there is that perennial one:

“I read to enjoy myself.”

My protestations that I, too, read to enjoy myself pass unnoticed.

“At the end of the day, it’s all just a matter of personal opinion.”

This is the point where you decide you’ve had enough of book boards, and create your own blog where you can let off steam to your heart’s content. As I have done here.

(If anyone has been triggered by any of this, please do bear in mind that I had placed a Trigger Warning at the start of this post, and I don’t think I can be held responsible for any distress or trauma caused.)

Dostoyevsky in Europe

Winter Notes on Summer Impressions by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, translated by Kyrill Fitzlyon, published by Alma Classics. All quotes in the post below are taken from this translation.


Among the many things in life I find myself utterly at a loss to account for is the tremendous attraction I feel for the writings of Dostoyevsky. When his many faults are listed to me, I can do little but nod away in agreement. Yes, his novels are hysterical, irrational – indeed, he seemed to laud irrationality; they are loosely structured baggy monsters. He was also a fervent Slavophile, while I despise nationalism. He was politically conservative, and hated liberalism and liberals with a vengeance, whereas I tend to describe my politics as “liberal”. (Indeed, I was amused to find recently that I had described my politics on my Facebook profile as “Turgenevian liberal”. I don’t remember writing this, and suspect I was drunk at the time and not entirely serious; but I did laugh at what was presumably my own joke, and decided not to change it.) Dostoyevsky hated those Russians such as Turgenev who had adopted the values of Western liberalism, and I can’t help but see my own adherence to these same Western liberal values, despite my Indian background, as a sort of parallel (even though I have, I suppose, the excuse of having lived most of my life in the West). I suspect that if Dostoyevsky had known me personally, he would have despised me, and my values. And, by rights, I should also be repelled by Dostoyevsky, who stood for so much that I do not, and who loathed so much that I do. And yet, I find myself irresistibly drawn to Dostoyevsky. Which, I suppose, demonstrates Dostoyevsky’s dictum that we are far from being the rational creatures we like to imagine ourselves.

Dostoyevsky had not always been a right-wing Slavophile, of course. In his youth, he had been very left-wing indeed. He had been member of a revolutionary group, had narrowly avoided the death sentence (he had, famously, been led out to be executed before it was announced that his sentence had been commuted), and had served many years in a labour camp. His early works had been of a somewhat sentimental nature, focussing on “poor folk”, on the “insulted and the injured”, and lamenting the social injustice that cause so much suffering. But then, in the early 1860s, a very profound change took place in his outlook. As translator Kyrill Fitzlyon says in his preface to Winter Notes on Summer Impressions:

His earlier novels aim at the entertainment of the reader; undeterred by considerations of verisimilitude or psychological probability, they glide over the surface of life without stopping to take soundings of what goes on underneath; they shun deep analysis and they lack the later Dostoyevskian eagerness to reconcile the actions of men with their consciences, conceived in terms of spiritual anguish.

It was in the summer of 1862, at what we may see as the turning point between Dostoyevsky’s earlier viewpoints and his later, that Dostoyevsky visited Europe for a few weeks. That winter, he wrote of his travels in Winter Notes on Summer Impressions, and here we may see quite clearly his mature thoughts and ideas taking shape.

The West was what liberals, such as the hated Turgenev, pointed towards: it was in the liberal values of the West that Russia must seek salvation; by looking West, and adopting its values, Russia, so far from the major centres of civilisation, could, at long last, civilise itself. But Dostoyevsky was not having any of this. This is not necessarily because of his Slavophilism: what he saw in the few weeks he spent in Paris, and the week he spent in London, did not suggest to him a Heaven to be aimed for. That Russia was no Heaven he already knew: but salvation did not lie in emulating the West.

Before he goes into all this, he writes a preface, to which he gives the title “Instead of a Preface”. This sense of playfulness is apparent throughout the book. Dostoyevsky tells us right away that he is not a reliable narrator. He has spent only a few weeks in London and in Paris, he tells us, and his views are not only based on limited exposure, but are also, no doubt, biased and jaundiced in all sorts of ways. As he goes on to expand on this, he seems to create an authorial persona that may or may not be himself. At times, he seems almost to present himself as of those Gogolian grotesques who can’t stop digressing into all sorts of irrelevancies. The narrator he presents is, in short, a comic character, the first of the many weird and unreliable voices who come and go in the narration of his later novels. Giving the authorial voice such a persona allows Dostoyevsky to pursue his ideas into unexpected areas, and explore thoughts and concepts that may appear eccentric or whimsical, but without necessarily giving these ideas the seal of authorial approval.

He spends some time in London, and presents it in almost apocalyptic terms. He is shocked by the level of extreme poverty and vice. This may be surprising: as is apparent from his own novels, extreme poverty and vice aren’t exactly unknown in Russia. But perhaps he had expected better from London. What shocked him, I think, was the open acceptance of these things. He gives a description of a pathetic half-starved young girl, a child, openly trading herself in Haymarket, right in the centre of fashionable London. The English are often chided for their hypocrisy, but it seems to be the lack of hypocrisy, the openness of such moral depths, that seemed particularly to strike Dostoyevsky.

He has more to say about France, and, rather interestingly, he seems shocked by the very aspects of Russia that had shocked Europeans of that age – the lack of freedom, adulation of the Emperor, police informers, and the like. And he considers especially the middle classes, the bourgeoisie. The inspiring slogans of the French Revolution – liberty, equality, fraternity – are, he feels, an immense sham: all that has happened is that the middle classes have now taken on the power to exploit the lower classes. All ideals, all morals that people pretend to live by, are sham:

Paris has an unquenchable thirst for virtue. Nowadays the Frenchman is a serious and reliable man, often tender-hearted, so that I cannot understand why he is so afraid of something even now, and is afraid of it in spite of all the gloire militaire which flourishes in France and which Jacques Bonhomie pays so much for. The Parisian dearly loves to trade, but even as he trades and fleeces you in his shop, he fleeces you not for the sake of profit, as in the old days, but in the name of virtue, out of some sacred necessity. To amass a fortune and possess as many things as possible – this has become the Parisian’s main moral code, to be equated with religious observance.

Dostoyevsky keeps probing: what, exactly, are the bourgeoisie afraid of?

Whom should he fear then? The workers? But the workers are all of them capitalists too, in their heart of hearts: their one ideal is to become capitalists and amass as many things as possible.

This is not the solution, Dostoyevsky felt, for Russia. Rational precepts, and noble sentiments – liberté, égalité, fraternité – end up meaning nothing, and not merely because humans are not rational creatures: as he goes on to examine in Notes From Underground (which was written shortly after this book), humans are, if anything, anti-rational creatures, who, far from accepting ideas because they are shown to be rational, would choose, rather, deliberately to reject them in order to proclaim their freedom from the tyranny of reason. All he can see in the great cities of Europe are “anthills”: any attempt from above to bind humans into a unity is bound to fail disastrously, because they misunderstand the essentially paradoxical nature of humanity.

I can understand Dostoyevsky’s argument – at least, up to a point. Our lives have, if anything, become worse in certain respects: they have become “atomised” – to use the word popularised by the title of Michel Houellebecq’s novel – as never before. Not only do we not have fraternité between the classes, solidarity even within the social classes is becoming more problematic. But I don’t really understand what Dostoyevsky’s own solution is. Are we to expect a mystical fraternité to spring up spontaneously?

Of course, Dostoyevsky was not so foolish as to think that. His novels are not didactic novels: they are multi-voiced works, in which many of the voices rebel against their author and speak out against him, unanswered; and where, furthermore, many of the voices articulating some of Dostoyevsky’s own most deeply held beliefs are presented in a ridiculous light. Those great novels are seething cauldrons of ideas and counter-ideas, endlessly contesting and intermingling with each other, never resolving; but never are these ideas presented as something abstract: they are, as Kyrill Fitzlyon says in his preface, “conceived in terms of spiritual anguish”.

I still do not know why I am so drawn to the writings of Dostoyevsky, when, all things considered, I shouldn’t be. But there is something about these very strange books of his that has about it the air of prophecy.

Turgenev’s shorter fiction

I’m never quite sure what the difference is between the short story and the novel – whether the difference is merely a question of length, or whether there is something else involved. For if it is merely a question of word-count, the borderline isn’t clearly defined: where exactly is the demarcation line between the two? And if there is no clear demarcation line, how do we classify those works that seem too long for short story, and yet not long enough for a novel?

To resolve this issue, a third category was introduced – the novella. But this doesn’t really improve matters, as where, previously, there had been one undefined demarcation line, now there are two. And even if we know roughly – since all questions of taxonomy in these matters are inevitably imprecise – where these demarcation lines lie, we may question why they lie where they do, and not elsewhere. For instance, we can all agree that Conrad’s “The Secret Sharer”, say, is a short story, Heart of Darkness a novella, and Nostromo a novel. Yet, although we take the trouble to separate out these works, we lump  together Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons and Tolstoy’s War and Peace in the same category, even though the latter is some seven times as long as the former. It all seems so arbitrary that I can’t help wondering whether these classifications purely in terms of length serve any purpose at all.

So maybe it isn’t merely a question merely of length, but of scope. But if we follow this line of thought, we run into even greater problems:  length is, at least, quantifiable; heaven only knows what we mean by “scope”. And yet, it does seem reasonable to assert that War and Peace has a broader scope than Fathers and Sons: the former addresses a great many themes, and the latter only one. (Or, at best, only a few.) Tolstoy’s novel has a great many narrative strands and focal points of interest; Turgenev’s doesn’t. This is not to say that Turgenev’s novel is, for this reason a lesser work of art: a songwriter is not attempting to compose a symphony, and it would be foolish to judge a song and a symphony by the same criteria. But a distinction along these lines may, perhaps, give us an insight into why we feel it natural to distinguish between the short story (or the novella) on the one hand, and, on the other hand, the novel. The former contracts, focusing our attention on a single issue, or on a small handful of issues: the latter expands to take in more.

Such a definition does not, I fear, stand up too well to close scrutiny. Many of Chekhov’s stories, for instance, imply so much more than is directly stated, that they seem to have the scope of novels. On the other hand, a novel such as The Golden Bowl by Henry James spends its immense length focusing on the interactions of just four characters – although such is the significance that James finds in the course of his painstaking dissections, that the few focal points upon which he closes seem to imply an entire universe. In short, differentiating the short story and the novel in terms of scope is fraught with all sorts of difficulties and inconsistencies. But in discussing the short fiction of Turgenev, it is, I think, useful. For Turgenev’s literary imagination was such that it eschewed vast canvases, with its intersecting strands and multiple themes: he preferred limiting his focal points, concentrating on fewer things, and achieving, in the process, a unity and a perfection of form that is usually denied those writers whose scope is broader. Turgenev is, in short, a songwriter rather than a symphonist.

This is apparent even in his full-length novels. If many of Chekhov’s short stories seem like novels in miniature, Turgenev’s novels often give the appearance of long short stories. Indeed, I am not entirely sure why Rudin is counted as a novel, and The Torrents of Spring a novella: although I haven’t counted the words, they seem to be of similar length, and in neither is the scope particularly broad. In both, Turgenev deals with the theme of the sadness of life – of our inability, due either to fate or to the weaknesses in our characters, to seize happiness when we can, so all we are left with in the end is a regret for what might have been. This, indeed, seems to be a running theme in virtually all of Turgenev’s work, and it usually presents itself in the form of a sad love story. For Turgenev delighted in writing love stories: he had a natural gift for lyricism; he could write prose as exquisite as any nocturne by Chopin (and this lyricism survives even in translation); and he could describe with a disarming openness and poignancy the most tender and intimate of thoughts, feelings, sensations. The battlefield of Borodino may well have been beyond his range, but there aren’t many who could depict so perfectly the gentle, nocturnal musings of a pained and stricken heart.

If all this makes Turgenev sound a bit twee, perhaps, a bit precious, then yes, our modern sensibilities, hardened as they are by the abrasive and the garish, may well perceive his writings as such. But I can’t help thinking that that is our loss, and that we should, at least for a while, put the neon lights out of our minds so as better to perceive the softness of a moonlit night.

In the course of pursuing his theme of the sadness of unfulfilled lives, he strikes upon another theme that is often regarded as archetypally Turgenevian – that of the “superfluous man”, the man who, despite being intelligent and even gifted, is, nonetheless, for reasons not easy to articulate, curiously ineffective. Indeed, one of his novellas is actually titled The Diary of a Superfluous Man, and, once again, it takes the form of a love story – in this case, a rejected love. Both the title and the form recall Gogol’s “Diary of a Madman”, but the content could hardly be different. Gogol’s story is phamtasmagoric, garishly coloured, and nightmarish: Turgenev prefers pastel shades, gently probing into the seemingly unanswerable question of why a human, not noticeably deficient in any obvious way, should nonetheless be “superfluous”.

The theme of the “superfluous man” has political and social implications as well of course, but, while Turgenev explored these implications in some of his novels, I distinctly get the impression that he was drawn into political themes simply because, as an intelligent man living in those times, he could not very well avoid them; but that he was happier focusing on the personal, the intimate. In Asya, we see the narrator too indecisive to respond adequately to a love that is offered him: the narrator is ostensibly at the centre of the story, but, very subtly, it is the title character, Asya, whom we see purely through the narrator’s eyes, who is really at its centre: the focal point is not the narrator’s “superfluity”, as such, but the pain of rejection experienced by Asya.

First Love too is about unrequited love – in this case, of a teenage lad, unused to and puzzled by the sudden stirrings of the heart. It is often regarded, with good reason, as a perfect example of Turgenev’s art: the narrative line is clear, uncluttered, and elegant; the psychological depictions are acute; and, in terms of form, it is about as close to perfection as is possible. But perhaps the best of all – at least, the one that affected me most – is the late novella Torrents of Spring. This was one of Turgenev’s last works, and the narrator, like the author, is a man in his late middle age, and lonely. He tell of his youth, when he might have found the happiness that he now lacks, but which, through the weakness of his own character, he threw away even as it was within his grasp. The story itself is deeply poignant, and the storytelling is absolute perfection: the uncluttered elegance of the narrative line, and its sense of artless ease, could only have been achieved by the most refined and sophisticated artistry; and its evocation of sadness, regret, and of loneliness, continues to haunt the mind long after one has finished reading. Fathers and Sons is often held to be Turgenev’s masterpiece, partly, I suspect, because of its political and social implications, but I am not sure that his masterpiece isn’t The Torrents of Spring: here, Turgenev isn’t concerned either with politics or with society: he focuses instead on what, I think, interests him most – the vagaries of the human heart.

There are two novellas that aren’t love stories – Mumu, a heart-rending story of a mute serf (i.e. slave) forced by his unfeeling and uncaring mistress to kill his own dog, because its barking disturbs her. (By “mistress”, I don’t mean, of course, a woman with whom he is having an affair, but, rather, the woman who owns him, body and soul.) And there is King Lear of the Steppes, a late masterpiece, which tells a story the narrator had witnessed when still a young lad, and not mature enough to understand the significance of what he sees. It is a tale of a peasant family, told with Turgenev’s characteristically direct and uncluttered style. However, it lacks his usual lyricism: we have here, instead, a story of immense power. It is also bleak and pessimistic: the “Lear” of this tale, an aged peasant, does not even have the consolation of a Cordelia. Turgenev was not always the soppy romantic he is sometimes made out to be.


Turgenev is often ranked with his great contemporaries Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy, but this comparison does him no favours. For trying to compare Turgenev’s fiction with that of the other two is, essentially, comparing songs with symphonies: inevitably, the song is drowned out. But Turgenev’s voice, though quieter and less powerful, and, perhaps, more difficult to appreciate in our more abrasive times, remains potent. Certainly, few writers have conveyed with such artistry and refinement the sheer sadness of our unfulfilled human lives.


The translations I read:

“First Love and Other Stories” translated by Richard Freeborn, Oxford World Classics (contains The Diary of a Superfluous Man, Mumu, Asya, First Love, King Lear of the Steppes, The Song of Triumphant  Love)

“The Torrents of Spring” translated by David Magarshack, published by Folio Society (originally published by Hamish Hamilton)

“La Regenta” by Leopoldo Alas

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

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

A Commonplace Reader


Wuthering Expectations

Six Words for a Hat

Tredynas Days

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

On reverence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Farting around with literature

It may seem a bit odd to provide a link in the first sentence to an article I do not intend to comment upon (other than to say that I agree with the author’s position, and am glad he has articulated it); but nonetheless, I would like to draw the reader’s attention to this piece in The Spectator by Scottish composer James McMillan. It is well worth reading.

What this piece lacks is a good sub-editor. When McMillan writes “[Andrew O’Hagan] was subjected to a tirade of abuse that inferred he was a disgrace to Scotland”, he had presumably meant “implied” rather than “inferred”. I do not want to make much of this: it’s an easy slip to make, and, God knows, I’ve done far worse myself. But one might have hoped that the Spectator’s sub-editor would have picked this up. More seriously, the sub-editor should have provided links to the various bits of evidence McMillan gives in support of his argument. Of course, a bit of Googling can satisfy the reader that the evidence McMillan cites is depressingly real (although I do confess I haven’t checked all of it), but the absence of references, which could so easily have been provided, does seem a bit odd in so prestigious a publication as The Spectator.

It is one of the pieces that should have been linked to, and which I found on googling, that I felt deserved some comment here. In his piece, James McMillan quotes Alan Bissett, whom he describes as “one of the emerging court jesters of the new political establishment”, opining as follows on James Joyce:

… lucky enough to write baffling, unreadable prose during a period in which it was the vogue to elevate baffling, unreadable prose.

The quote comes from this article published in the Guardian (where else?) some nine years ago. I had missed the article at the time, but, so egregious are its arguments – where they exist – that I find it difficult to let it pass without comment. Reading the full quote in context enhances rather than mitigates its contentious nature:

I have a first-class degree and a masters in English Literature, and I’ve read plenty of difficult books, so if I can’t enjoy Finnegan’s Wake, or large parts of Ulysses, where does the fault lie? With me? Or with an author who was lucky enough to write baffling, unreadable prose during a period in which it was the vogue to elevate baffling, unreadable prose? Ditto various other modernist works designed principally to exclude the masses.

Let us ignore the errant apostrophe in Finnegans Wake: that may, once again, be the sub-editor’s fault rather than the author’s. Let us focus instead on the idea that many modernist writers deliberately wrote “baffling and unreadable” prose in order to exclude the masses. This contention was made at some length by John Carey in two books, The Intellectuals and the Masses, and What Good are the Arts?

That much modernist literature is difficult is clearly true. So, for that matter, is much pre-modernist literature. Many find Milton, for instance, rather difficult: some, I know, even find him “baffling and unreadable”. If difficulty is a good reason for rejection, then Carey should certainly be rejecting Milton: instead, he is a world authority. Given that he is a noted scholar of some very difficult literature; and given further that, presumably, he personally likes those areas of literature in which he is so noted a scholar; one may conjecture to what extent his derision of difficult literature may be a form of self-hatred. Not that I am saying that Carey is a self-hater: it would be absurd, after all, to state as well-established fact what is but an idle and frankly insulting conjecture. But that make me wonder why Carey, and, in his footsteps, Bissett, should declare with such confidence, as if it were a well-established fact rather than mere idle and frankly insulting conjecture, that “various … modernist works [were] designed principally to exclude the masses”.

(My own take on Ulysses, incidentally, maybe found here. In summary, I argue at some length that it is not in the mere fact of its difficulty that its greatness lies.)

The basis of Bissett’s argument is the following contention, unsupported by any evidence or argument:

Art exists for one reason: to bring pleasure.

It is easy enough to think of various works that are indisputably works of art, but which provide little if any pleasure – Goya’s Black Paintings, Wilfred Owen’s war poems, Richard Strauss’ Elektra, and so on. It may, I suppose, be argued that even these works, harrowing though they all are, provide a “pleasure” of sorts – an aesthetic pleasure; but if “pleasure” is deemed to be an underlying principle in all works of art, from Pickwick Papers to Crime and Punishment, from Strauss’ waltzes to Mahler’s 6th symphony, then, it seems to me, we are stretching the meaning of the word “pleasure” to cover far too much: we are taking it to the point where it is no longer capable of distinguishing; and, hence, it ceases to be useful.

But there is a more fundamental objection to Bissett’s contention: he has at no point argued that there needs to be a reason in the first place. Why should art need to justify itself? Why can it not be seen as an end in itself? To argue either side of this issue requires argument: Bissett does not think it worthwhile to offer any, taking it as a given – as, indeed, did John Carey in the very title of his book What Good are the Arts? – that art is a means to some end rather than an end in itself. That may or may not be the case: I do not presume to judge on this particular point. But what I do know is that this point isn’t axiomatic: if one is to insist on this point, on either side, supporting arguments need, at the very least, to be advanced.

But logical argument does not seem to be Bissett’s strong point. He starts by comparing love of art to religious belief, declaring confidently at one point that “faith means nothing until you can prove it”, seemingly failing to realise that once something is proven it ceases to be faith, and becomes fact. Then he asks:

So what does art prove?

The question is meant rhetorically, but I think I can answer that:

Nothing, nothing at all.

Did any artist worth his or her salt ever set out to prove anything in a work of art? What a question to ask!

Then, this follows:

We talk about the soul, the truth, the spirituality, the uplifting or transcendental qualities of great works. But these only exist in so far as we supply them ourselves. Thom Yorke once sang, “Just ‘cos you feel it, doesn’t mean it’s there.” Our atheist would argue that the spirituality that we sense in a cathedral is a combination of spectacle, belief and atmosphere. They’re designed that way. There is a performance, but not the essence, of spirituality.

Yes, it takes the reaction of a reader, or of a listener, or of a viewer, to complete the work of art: truth, spirituality, transcendental qualities, etc., may all lie latent in a work of art, and are only realised once we respond to them, and feel,these things. But then Bissett quotes a line from a song that says quite the opposite – that even if we feel such things, they do not necessarily exist. So what side is Bissett taking here? That these things exist if we feel them? Or that, even if we feel them, they don’t? He seems to be saying both as far as I can see, and it doesn’t make sense.

The two sentences that complete the paragraph are utter gobbledegook. What the bleeding hell is “performance … of spirituality” as opposed to the “essence … of spirituality”? And this is a man complaining of other writers being “baffling and unreadable”! The whole passage is so confused, both in its thinking and in its articulation, that once one has taken the trouble to unpick it, one realises it wasn’t worth unpicking in the first place.

It would take far too long to unpick the whole wretched piece, enjoyable though it may be to do so. But one more point, and this the last – I promise! It’s about this bit:

I remember a lecturer at university who banned us from saying that we had enjoyed a novel, since enjoyment was not what literary study was about.

Bissett says this assuming, I think, that we’d all sympathise with him on this point, and take sides against the lecturer. However, the lecturer is perfectly correct. As a reader, one may nor may not enjoy a book – however one defines “enjoy”; one may or may not take pleasure in it – however one defines “pleasure”. One may then take the trouble of going to the review section of Goodreads or of Amazon, say how much one did or didn’t enjoy the book, and give it mark out of ten, or out of five stars. One may say it was awesome, or, conversely, that is sucked. One may go on discussion board to impart one’s opinion that it was awesome, or that it sucked. That is fine. But when you are at an institute of further education, where you have chosen to study literature rather than merely pass your opinion on it, then, whether you enjoyed it or not, whether you took pleasure from it or not, you are compelled to examine the work in a systematic manner. You are compelled to learn how to do so.

In short, there is more, far more, to the study of literature than merely farting around. This should be inscribed on the walls of all literature faculties: “The study of literature is more, far more, than merely farting around.” And if you are studying literature at an advanced level, you should try at least to understand what this “more” consists of.

And if you can’t, or won’t, then I guess there’s always a future writing about literature in the arts pages of respected newspapers.