Posts Tagged ‘literature’

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, from, 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 an 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 was never dull. The sense of suffocation is, I think, deliberate: it is not enough to be told of the sense of suffocation felt by Ana – we have to experience it also. But tedium is kept at bay by the sheer polish of the writing, and by the vitality he manages to inject into even the most insignificant of the characters. Flaubert managed to make his readers interested in even someone such as Félicité (“Un Coeur Simple”), a character who, in real life, we’d probably find too dull to want to spend much time with; Alas has the same ability to arouse interest in characters who, in real life, are likely to arouse in us little but a sense of tedium. And, to be entirely honest, I’m not quite sure how either Flaubert or Alas pulls this off. But it is fascinating to see them do it.

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

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

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


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

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

On reverence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Translating poetry

My beloved spake, and said unto me, Rise up, my love, my fair one, and come away.

For, lo, the winter is past, the rain is over and gone;

The flowers appear on the earth; the time of the singing of birds is come, and the voice of the turtle is heard in our land;

The fig tree putteth forth her green figs, and the vines with the tender grape give a good smell. Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away.


Here with a Loaf of Bread beneath the Bough,
A Flask of Wine, a Book of Verse—and Thou
Beside me singing in the Wilderness—
And Wilderness is Paradise enow.

The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,
Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it.


Endure what life God gives and ask no longer span;
Cease to remember the delights of youth, travel-wearied aged man;
Delight becomes death-longing if all longing else be vain.

Even from that delight memory treasures so,
Death, despair, division of families, all entanglements of mankind grow,
As that old wandering beggar and these God-hated children know.

In the long echoing street the laughing dancers throng,
The bride is carried to the bridegroom’s chamber through torchlight and tumultuous song;
I celebrate the silent kiss that ends short life or long.

Never to have lived is best, ancient writers say;
Never to have drawn the breath of life, never to have looked into the eye of day;
The second best’s a gay goodnight and quickly turn away.


The passages quoted above have one thing in common: they are all poetry in translation. The first, is, of course, from the Song of Solomon in the King James Bible, and, though formally set out in prose, is, effectively, poetry: few, I imagine, will deny its poetic qualities. For the second excerpt, I have chosen two of the most famous stanzas of all English poetry – except, of course, it’s Persian poetry: the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, translated by Edward Fitzgerald. My third choice, a magnificent poem in any language, is Yeats’ rendition of a chorus from Sophocles’ Oedipus at Colonus. I think it fair to say that English literature – by which I mean literature in the English language, rather than literature originating from England – would have been immeasurably poorer without any of the above.

In my last post here on translations, I focussed on certain aspects of poetry that resist translation, and may have given the impression that translation of poetry is not possible, and should not even be attempted. If that is indeed the impression I have given, it was entirely inadvertent on my part, and I apologise. The quote attributed to Robert Frost – that poetry is “what gets lost in translation” – is, Tom from the Amateur Reader blog tells me, a misquote; but, misquote or not, it does, I think, articulate part of the truth: there certainly are aspects of poetry that, for various reasons, resist translation. This is, possibly, particularly true of lyric poetry, where, to a great extent, much of the meaning is rooted in the actual sounds of the words, i.e. the very thing that is specific to a particular language. But while this misquote of Frost’s may articulate part of the truth, it is very far from articulating the whole truth; for it is demonstrable that poetry in translation can be of a very high quality, and can, as the above excerpts illustrate, become great poetry in its own right.

In short, the statement attributed to Robert Frost should not deter us from reading poetry in translation. If one wishes to have a grasp of 19th century French literature, say, one needs as much acquaintance with Baudelaire, Verlaine and Rimbaud as one does with Balzac, Stendhal, and Flaubert; Pushkin’s verse is every bit as important as Tolstoy’s novels, and Rilke every bit as important as Mann. To miss out on such great pillars of Western literature as Homer, the Greek tragedians, Virgil, Horace, Dante, Goethe, etc. is to leave massive holes (assuming holes can have mass, which, I realise even as I am writing, they cannot) in one’s grasp of what literature is; and the innumerable lesser pillars are also worth pursuing, and getting to know.

Having dabbled a bit at translating poetry myself, I have come across a few conclusions about the nature of the English language, and what it can, and cannot, convey. For the purpose of translating poetry is, after all, to create poetry in the target language: if a translation of a poem into English does not read like a poem in English, then no-one will read it, and the translator will have fallen at the first hurdle. But I do sometimes wonder whether my conclusions are correct. For instance, I had decided quite early that English cannot take too much alliteration – that if one overdoes the alliteration, one simply sounds contrived, and a bit silly. Shakespeare himself, after all, had taken the piss out of excessive alliteration in A Midsummer Night’s Dream:

Whereat, with blade, with bloody blameful blade,
He bravely broached his boiling bloody breast.

But if it is indeed true that the English language cannot take too much alliteration, it is hard to explain why lines such as the following, from Gerard Manley Hopkins’ The Wreck of the “Deutschland”, should be so powerful and affecting, and so self-evidently great poetry:

I whirled out wings that spell
And fled with a fling of the heart to the heart of the Host.
My heart, but you were dovewinged, I can tell,
Carrier-witted, I am bold to boast,
To flash from the flame to the flame then, tower from the grace to the grace.


Of course, Shakespeare’s lines are, intentionally, bad poetry, whereas Hopkins’ lines clearly aren’t, but since insistent alliteration is common to both, it cannot be that alliteration in itself determines the quality of the verse. There’s something else there – but damned if I can see what it is. Perhaps what makes poetry great is a mystery that ultimately defies analysis, but there is no reason why a good translator should not be capable of creating a mystery in the target language that is equivalent to the mystery created by the poet in the original. At the very least, Edward Fitzgerald, William Butler Yeats, and the anonymous translators of the King James Bible, demonstrate that it is, at least, possible.

The Knight of the Lions: the second part of “Don Quixote”

The excerpts quoted from Don Quixote in this post are taken from the translation by John Rutherford, published by Penguin Classics.

In the first part of Don Quixote, Don Quixote had dubbed himself The Knight of the Sorry Face. This was how literal-minded Sancho had described him after one of their many misadventures, but Don Quixote, with his mind ever ready to transform literal plainness into something strange and wonderful and resonant with meaning, happily takes on that sobriquet for himself, and forces it to signify far more than Sancho could ever have imagined. But in this second part, Don Quixote chooses for himself a different name: The Knight of the Lions.


“Don Quixote and Sancho Panza” by Honore Daumier, courtesy of National Gallery, London


This new name Don Quixote adopts in the second part, written some ten years after the first, signifies a somewhat different concept of the character. Earlier, Don Quixote had developed from being merely a joke figure into something more significant: he had developed into a figure who had, of his own free will, rejected the tyranny of reality, preferring to live by his fantasy instead, in his own mind and in the real world. And Don Quixote actually knows he is insane:

That is the whole point … and therein lies the beauty of my enterprise. A knight errant going mad for a good reason – there is neither pleasure nor merit in that. The thing is to become insane without a cause …

He has chosen to be insane, but not for any cause: it is not because reality is too painful, or too dull, to face. In my post on the First Part of Don Quixote, I had suggested that Don Quixote had chosen fantasy over reality for such reasons, but I think I was wrong: there is nothing whatever in the text to suggest this. As Don Quixote says himself, there is no cause – no reason, merely his own will. In the First Part, this rebellion against the brute facts of reality did not, and could not, result in triumph: Don Quixote knew, or, at least, must have known, that these brute facts of reality are not negotiable, that windmills really are just windmills, that flocks of sheep really are just flocks of sheep, and that defeat in the face of these brute facts is, ultimately, unavoidable. It is this underlying awareness of ultimate defeat that made for the Sorry Face. But in the second part, he is more ebullient: defeat is not here, to his mind, inevitable. Indeed, at several points in this second part, we see the power of his imagination conquer reality – we see Don Quixote triumphant. Here, he is no longer the Knight of the Sorry Face: he is the resplendent Knight of the Lions.

It is all too easy to say that Cervantes in this novel questions the nature of reality, but the nature of reality is such that it does not admit questions: two plus two is always four, and no flight of the imagination can make it otherwise. “Questioning reality” is one of those things postmodernist writers seem always to do – to what end, I’m not entirely sure – but what Cervantes does in this novel is to explore the nature of our human reaction to this brute force of reality, this ultimate tyranny of reason that will brook no dissent. And in order to do this, he sets up a dizzying series of levels – not of reality, since there is and can only be but one level of reality, in which windmills are but windmills and sheep but sheep; but of fantasy, of fiction. He had set most of these levels of fiction up in the First Part, but, for whatever reason, had made very little of them there: but in the Second Part, there’s no escaping them.

We had been told in the First Part that the author – who may be Cervantes, or who may be an invention of Cervantes’, thus introducing a new level of fiction – had found a manuscript in Arabic, telling the story of Don Quixote. And since the author – Cervantes, or an invention of his – knows no Arabic, he has had to employ a translator, and what we are reading is his translation: this sets the narrative of Don Quixote at yet one further remove. Cervantes doesn’t make any more of that in the First Part, but here, in the Second Part, we are constantly reminded that the narrative we are reading is not the author’s invention, but, rather, a translation by an unnamed translator of an Arabic manuscript written by a Moorish author called Cide Hamete Benengeli. Who this Cide Hamete Benengeli is, and how he came to know in such close detail – even down to what was going on in the characters’ minds – we are never told. It may even be that the whole thing is an invention of Cide Hamete Benengeli’s. (Should he exist, of course.)

In any case, what we are reading is not a pure translation from the Arabic: there are many passages that couldn’t possibly have been written by Cide Hamete Benengeli, such as the several points where incredulity is expressed – either by the translator, or by the author, or by Cervantes himself should the author be fictional – at some of the events narrated.

On top of all this, the characters in the Second Part have read, or, at least, know of the contents of the First Part. So, presumably, the action we read of in the Second Part must have taken place at some time after the publication of the First Part. And that First Part, as we know, is a translation of a manuscript written by Cide Hamete Benegeli, and it is this translation that has made famous the exploits of Don Quixote. However, this Second Part also appears to be a translation from Cide Hamete’s Arabic, and where the author of this Second Part (or Cervantes) has got hold of Cide Hamete’s manuscript of the Second Part isn’t made clear. And it certainly makes no sense that a Second Part should be promised in the First Part when the events narrated in the Second Part have not yet taken place.

As if all this weren’t enough, there had appeared, between Cervantes’ publication the First Part and his writing the Second, a volume published under a pseudonym (the real author has never been identified) claiming to be the Second Part of Don Quixote. This volume is often referred to by Cervantes in his own Second Part, and denounced as inauthentic, although what the criteria of authenticity are in this context seem impossible to identify (other than the obvious fact at the most basic level that Cervantes was not the author of this volume). Cervantes very quickly makes of this volume yet another level of fiction, and soon, these different levels of fiction interact with each other to quite vertiginous effect. At one point, Don Quixote changes his plans – refusing to go to Saragossa as he had intended, simply because the other Don Quixote had done so – simply in order to demonstrate that he is not the Don Quixote of the spurious publication, but is, on the contrary, the real Don Quixote – although what he, or we for that matter, understand by “real” in this context is buried under all sorts of competing levels of fiction.

In another chapter, Don Quixote and Sancho Panza actually meet a character from the spurious volume, and Don Quixote presents himself to this character, who, though a fictional character in a world declared to be fiction, is somehow real enough in a world declared not to be fiction. Don Quixote compels this character, fictional but real, to admit that it is he, Don Quixote, who is the “real” Don Quixote, and not the other Don Quixote whom he had known in some unreal fictional world. The mind swims, and all sorts of impossibilities seem suddenly to open at one’s very feet. If this man whom Don Quixote addresses is real, does it not also follow that the “other Don Quixote” whom he had previously encountered must also have been similarly real? What, if anything, could possibly distinguish the two? What is “real” here, and what is “fiction”? But maybe this incident did not take place. Maybe it is but an invention of Cide Hamete Benengeli’s. Or maybe of the translator’s Or of the author’s. Or of Cervantes himself. Who knows. It’s all fiction anyway.

But for all this playfulness, for all the sheer sense of fun, it is not reality that is questioned for the simple reason that reality is beyond questioning: it is always there, like the repeated ground bass of a passacaglia, constantly underpinning the glorious melodic and harmonic inventions. But it is the very fact that reality is impervious to questioning that compels us to challenge it: if all tyranny is to be challenged, then the tyranny of reason, that ultimate unnegotiable tyranny that underpins reality and gives us no choice but to concede that twice two equals four, and cannot possibly equal anything other than four, must be challenged also, even in the knowledge that the challenge is pointless and futile.

Turgenev’s Bazarov, a sort of anti-Don Quixote, revels in this absolute tyranny of Reason, and disdains any challenge to it: “What’s important is that twice two is four”, he says, “and all the rest’s nonsense.” And it’s nonsense not merely because, in the face of such absolute tyranny, any challenge is bound to be defeated, but because, to Bazarov (at least, at the start of the novel), this absolute tyranny is a fine and desirable thing. But to Dostoyevsky’s Underground Man, it is something which, even if it cannot be defeated, can, and should, be resented: he knows that twice two does indeed equal four, but insists that “twice two equals five” is also a fine thing.

Don Quixote, like the Underground Man, is loath to accept that twice two is four, that windmills are but windmills and not giants; but he has a Spanish temperament, not a Russian, and, rather than sit in an underground cellar embittering his soul with resentment, he creates, in his own mind, of his own volition, and without a cause – without reason – an alternative, competing world – a world of the imagination. Even if he knows that his challenge is bound to fail, it is still, for him, worthwhile to make this challenge; even though he knows that reality will win in the end, because reality is implacable and non-negotiable and cannot be overcome, nonetheless, till that end comes, it is, for him, worthwhile to say “bollocks!” to that implacable reality. He rebels against reality not because reality is too painful to face, as it is, say, to Hjalmar Ekdal in Ibsen’s The Wild Duck; nor because it is too dull and mundane: nowhere in either of the two parts is there any indication that it is the dull and mundane nature of reality causes Don Quixote to become a knight errant. He rebels against reality simply because it is reality; he challenges it simply because it is impervious to challenge.

The question remains to what extent he believes in his own fantasy. His comment to Sancho in the First Part, where he praises becoming mad “without a cause”, suggests that he knows he is mad. But if he is indeed aware of his own madness, that would, by a Catch-22 kind of logic, make him madder still: a man tilting at windmills because he thinks they are giants may certainly be considered mad, but what can we say of someone who tilts at them actually knowing that they are merely windmills?

In every other aspect, Don Quixote is not merely sane, he is also knowledgeable, intelligent, and eloquent. The man dressed in green, whom Don Quixote encounters in Chapter 16 of the Second Part, is impressed, and is, indeed, taken by surprise by the intelligence and the eloquence and the sanity of Don Quixote’s conversation. But, just at the very point where he finds himself impressed by the fineness of Don Quixote’s mind, they encounter lions being transported in a cage, and Don Quixote, who had been till that point speaking with the most perfect acuity, demands that the cage be opened so he could face these lions. It’s almost as if his sanity and his insanity both occupy in his mind the same place: his insanity, far from being an aberration, seems almost an aspect of his sanity.

Sancho’s character has also deepened in the Second Part. Previously, he had been little more than greedy and venal, following his master even though he is aware that his master is crazy, simply with the rather simple-minded hope that, despite his master’s craziness, he will eventually be made, as promised, governor of an island. But here in the Second Part, we have a character considerably more complex. In the first place, he follows his master primarily because he loves him. There can be few protestations of love in all literature more sincere or more touching than Sancho’s:

“…… he’s as innocent as the babe unborn, he couldn’t hurt a fly, he only wants to do good to everyone, and there isn’t an ounce of malice in him – a child could make him believe it’s midnight at noon, and it’s because he’s so simple that I love him from the bottom of my heart, and I couldn’t bring myself to leave him, however many silly things he does.”

This is a Sancho astute enough to know not merely to know that his master is mad, but also to know how to handle his master’s madness. When charged with finding Dulcinea, rather than tell his master to his face that he is mad, he finds a lusty peasant girl, and claims she really is Dulcinea … but Dulcinea enchanted. And this introduces yet another level of fantasy: Dulcinea is an imagined figure even in the context of various levels of fantasies, but here she is made “real”, made flesh, through yet another fantasy. And the fantasy this time is Sancho’s, not his master’s.

While this particular fantasy helps Sancho get out of a tight corner, not all his fantasies are merely for the sake of expediency. After the magical ride through the air on the flying horse Clavileño (they stay on the ground, of course: Cervantes knows better than to banish reality from the proceedings), Sancho makes up all sorts of fantastic stories about what he had seen on his magical flight. And he fervently declares them to be true. It’s almost as if he has joined Don Quixote in his battle against reality. The Don immediately understands:

…and Don Quixote went up to him, and whispered into his ear:

“Sancho, since you want people to believe what you saw in the sky, I want you to believe what I saw in the Cave of Montesinos. I say no more.”

It is a pact. I will accept your fantasies, says the Don, if you will accept mine. Only a man who knows his fantasies to be but fantasies could even propose such a pact. One may not be able to defeat reality, but to give in to it without a challenge, without defiance, is, to Don Quixote, shameful, and, such is the attractive force Don Quixote exerts, that even the practical, down-to-earth Sancho is drawn into his master’s orbit.

And Sancho Is not the only one who is drawn into his master’s orbit. Much of the Second Part is taken up with Don Quixote’s and Sancho Panza’s residence with a Duke and Duchess, who have read the First Part, and who are so amused by knight and squire that they play along with them, gratifying their own fantasies, purely for the sake of amusement. So far do they take matters, and with such meticulous planning, that one begins to wonder who is the more insane – Don Quixote, or the Duke and the Duchess. For they too, after all, are living out a fantasy: they too are challenging reality after their fashion, although the essential cruelty and heartlessness of their amusement contrasts most sharply with the nobility of Don Quixote’s mission to right the wrongs of the world.

Then there’s Doña Roderiguez, a duenna at their court, who actually comes to Don Quixote not in jest, but as a genuine damsel in distress. What exactly she had been expecting from Don Quixote, heaven knows, but she too finds herself sharing something of Don Quixote’s madness.

And, in some of the most amusing chapters of the novel, Sancho does indeed become governor. And he is actually a very good governor – possibly far better than any the Duke and Duchess may have appointed for real. But Sancho at this stage is a very different character from the merely covetous blockhead he had been in the First Part: it doesn’t take him long to realise that, riches or not, this is not for him, and that what he valued more was the simple companionship of his beloved master.

Indeed, so successful is Don Quixote in infecting others with his fantasies, that at times he really does seem triumphant – the Knight of the Lions. But defeat is inevitable. Perhaps Don Quixote had always known it. And the way Cervantes presents this defeat is curious: he places it in the background, while filling the foreground of the canvas with all sorts of seemingly trite and irrelevant matter.

Near the start of the Second Part, there had been a passage where the literary merits of the First Part had been discussed, and all the flaws and shortcomings openly listed: there can, indeed, be no criticism of that First Part that Cervantes does not make himself at the start of the Second. Among the shortcomings discussed are Cervantes’ frequent interruptions of the narrative with frankly rather dull and irrelevant love stories – of maidens unsurpassed in beauty bravely seeking out their loves from whom circumstances have separated them, and so on, and so forth. Having ridiculed such stories at the start of the Second Part, Cervantes, unsurprisingly, keeps them out of the narrative. However, towards the end, he brings back just such a story of the kind he had ridiculed. And he spends considerable time with this, despite knowing that such stories are absurd and tedious; and despite knowing further that the reader knows they are absurd and tedious. And while he keeps this absurd and tedious story in the foreground, he allows Don Quixote to be defeated. It is almost as if the defeat of Don Quixote – which, in Richard Strauss’ tone poem, is nothing short of cataclysmic – were merely a passing detail, and no more. Like the Fall of Icarus somewhere in the background, it is something that happens somewhere in the distance while everyone else is getting on with their day-to-day lives. As Auden observed, about suffering they were never wrong, the Old Masters.

And the defeat is handed out, ironically, by a fantasy: it is Don Quixote’s fellow villager Sampson Carrasco, who delivers the final blow, while pretending to be a knight. So immersed is Don Quixote in his own fantasy that it takes time for the implications of his defeat to sink in: only after he has reached his own village does he have the time to pause and think what it means. It is not so much that he can no longer believe in his being a knight errant: there was always at least a part of him – I think a very large part – that never believed that anyway. It is more that he is no longer capable of pretending that his fantasies are real. And with this loss of his ability to pretend comes the loss of his will even to live: without his knight errantry, Don Quixote must now face the ultimate reality of all from which none of us can escape – death. A brute fact, a tyrannical fact, but a fact nonetheless, and one that cannot be circumvented, any more than can the fact of twice two equalling four.

And so we have possibly the most moving death scene in all literature.

“Oh no, don’t die, master!” Sancho replied crying. “take my advice and live for a long, long time, for the maddest thing a man can do in this life is to let himself die, just like that, without anybody killing him or any other hands except the hands of depression doing away with him.”

And with these simple but deeply felt words, Sancho turns the whole world upside-down: now, it is accepting reality that is “the maddest thing a man can do”.

But it is over. Reality is not challenged, cannot be challenged, because it is impervious to challenge. Don Quixote’s defiance of that reality – for no reason, no cause – was, simultaneously, glorious, ennobling, futile, and absurd. Twice two is four, always has been, and always will be: that has never been in any doubt. But perhaps it is no surprise that this novel, in which the brute fact of twice two being four is, if not challenged, at least defied, was the favourite novel of Dostoyevsky’s, creator of the Underground Man; and that he went on describe it as “the saddest of all books”


Previous posts on Don Quixote:.

Starting again on “Don Quixote”

The Knight of the Sorry Face: the first part of “Don Quixote”

Akutagawa’s visions of Hell

“Rashomon” and Seventeen Other Stories by Ryunosuke Akutagawa, translated by Jay Rubin, published by Penguin Classics


There’s more than a whiff of the demonic about Akutagawa. His visions of life, whether set in ancient days or in contemporary times, seem to be set in a moral darkness, and depict various types of agony, both physical and spiritual. In the very first story, “Rashomon” (1917), which gave the title and the setting (though not the storyline) to Kurosawa’s film, takes us into the upper storey of Rashomon Gate, where bodies of those killed in those lawless times have been deposited, and where, amidst the hideous stench of physical corruption, an old woman is plucking the hair from the corpses in order to make wigs: she has to live, after all. But in the world that Akutagawa presents, there doesn’t seem much reason to want to live. Akutagawa himself, whose mother had died in an asylum, and who was haunted by the fear that his mother’s mental illness may be hereditary, committed suicide in 1927, aged only 35. The autobiographical stories grouped in the final section of this collection do not give the impression of a particularly happy or contented life.

His most famous story, thanks to Kurosawa using it as the basis of his film “Rashomon”, is “In a Bamboo Grove” (“Yabu no naka”, 1927). A woman has been raped, and a man has been killed; the story consists of the various narratives given in evidence by the people involved in the matter – including one from the dead man himself, speaking through a medium. These stories all give contradictory accounts accounts of what really happened, each participant in the affair putting his or her self in a good light, and the others in a bad. That there is a truth out there somewhere, an absolute truth, is not questioned: what is questioned is our ability to get to that truth, given that all we have to go by are our fallible perceptions, and given also our ability, indeed, our propensity, to deceive – to deceive both other people and ourselves, to deceive both deliberately and unwittingly, such that, beyond a point, we can no longer distinguish between reality and fantasy.

Distinguishing between reality and fantasy is not, after all, an easy thing to do. In one of the stories, a monk invents a myth about a dragon. He knows it to be a myth: it’s his own invention, after all. But when everyone starts believing in it, he curiously starts believing in his own fantasy, and at the climactic point of the story, he too glimpses, along with the vast throng of the faithful, the mythical dragon, his own invention, rising into the sky. Akutagawa did not seem to have much time for religion: the human imagination may indeed be a thing of wonder, and can create its own reality, but, for Akutagawa, that’s where Heaven resides – in our imagination, and in our imagination only.

Hell, however, is all too real, and nowhere more so than in the story “Hell Screen” (“Jigokuhen”, 1918). But Akutagawa’s Hell is not of the other world: it is right here, on earth. We are, once again, in ancient times, and the lord, the local potentate, is an evil and cruel man. The narrator, though, is very obviously a foolish man, who cannot see his master’s evil. The court painter, Yoshihide, however, can, and when the lord graciously makes Yoshihide’s daughter a lady-in-waiting, Yoshihide knows exactly what that means, although the narrator doesn’t. He tries his best to rescue his daughter, but he cannot.

The situation is similar to the one we find in Verdi’s Rigoletto (which was based on Victor Hugo’s play Le Roi S’Amuse, an English version of which I have been trying for years to track down, though without much success): in that opera, Rigoletto, the hump-backed court jester despised by all, and his innocent daughter Gilda, find themselves victims of an evil and lascivious ruler; but the terrible irony is that Rigoletto himself is very much part of the moral corruption to which he and his daughter eventually become victims. Similarly here: Yoshihide is very much part of the evil and the cruelty of the society he inhabits, and which claims both his daughter, and, eventually, himself. But dark and pitiless though the entire story is, I must admit to being taken by surprise, and, hardened reader though I think myself to be, genuinely shocked by the ending, where all the horrors of Hell itself seem to irrupt with the utmost force and violence. Why look for a hell in the other world when it is right here, under our very noses?

Akutagawa is renowned in Japan as a great stylist, and, assuming translator Jay Rubin’s English version reproduces at least something of Akutagawa’s writing style, one can see why. The prose is spare and precise, with all excess fat trimmed off. It is not without humour, but the humour is invariably grim, and dripping with irony. Gogol sometimes comes to mind – not least because that both he and Akutagawa seem to have an obsession with noses, and both have actually written a story called “The Nose”; but Akutagawa has none of Gogol’s whimsy, and there’s no hint here of Gogol’s eccentric and highly idiosyncratic digressions, which seem so often to displace the principal story itself as the major focus of interest. Akutagawa always has a story to tell, and he tells it directly. The images he chooses are clear-cut, and to the point: they never take a life of their own, as Gogol’s frequently do. And yet, despite the precision of the writing and the orderliness such precision suggests, the world depicted is one that is most disordered, bordering on the Hellish, and sometimes, indeed, crossing over the border into some Hell right here in this world. It is the Hell-on-earth depicted by Kurosawa in his cinematic masterpiece Ran (which, I am told, means “chaos”): we all know that this film was Kurosawa’s take on Shakespeare’s King Lear, but I cannot help wondering to what extent Kurosawa’s demonic vision was informed by Akutagawa’s. At the start of the unforgettable battle sequence in the film, a dying soldier informs us that we are indeed in Hell; and what follows is a vision of Hell that seems at least as close to the world of Akutagawa as it is to the storm-swept heath of Shakespeare’s play.

Hell is particularly apparent in the last few stories in this collection. Akutagawa never wrote an autobiography, but some of his stories are so clearly autobiographical, that, grouped together as they are at the end of this collection, they serve as an autobiography of sorts. The last two stories he did not publish: they were found amongst his papers after his death. One of them, “The Life of a Stupid Man” (“Aru aho no issho”), is startling: rather than a continuous narrative, we are presented with a series of vignettes and passing thoughts and seemingly random ruminations – some as short as a mere couple of sentences or so –all of which come together as in a mosaic to form a whole. And in the last story in this collection, “Spinning Gears”, the pretence, flimsy to start with, that this is really a work of fiction, is quickly dropped: the narrator is depicting his own disintegrating mind, and, as he mentions by name some of his earlier work, there can be no doubt that he is no fictional character: the narrator here is Ryunosuke Akutagawa himself. And here again, we have a depiction of a Hell right here on earth, as he realises that he can no longer exert any control over his own mind. But no matter how febrile the content, no matter how little control he seems to have over the workings of his own mind, the writing throughout remains firmly focussed and controlled. The disorder of his mind is expressed with the most exemplary literary order, and feeling for form.

In “The Life of a Stupid Man”, he had described – writing about himself in the third person – an unsuccessful attempt at suicide:

Taking advantage of his sleeping alone, he had tried to hang himself with a sash tied over the window lattice. When he slipped his head into the sash, however, he suddenly became afraid of death. Not that he feared the suffering he would have to experience at the moment of dying. He decided to try to again, using his pocket watch to see how long it would take. This time, everything began to cloud ever after a short interval of pain. He was sure that once he got past that, he would enter death. Checking the hands of his watch, he discovered that the pain lasted one minute and twenty-some seconds. It was pitch dark outside the lattices, but the wild clucking of the chickens echoed in the darkness.

It is hard to figure out just what state of turmoil his mind must have been in while writing something like this, but that mind could still pick out the “wild clucking of chickens”, and place it with absolute precision.

The final story, “Spinning Gears”, ends with this:

– I don’t have the strength to keep writing this. To go on living with this feeling is painful beyond description. Isn’t there someone kind enough to strangle me in my sleep?

This is followed only by translator Jay Rubin’s laconic note in parentheses:

(1927: Posthumous manuscript)