Posts Tagged ‘Mark Twain’

Aida on the M6

We hadn’t been looking forward to the long drive south down the M6 motorway on New Year’s Day. To relieve the tedium, we decided to put Verdi’s Aida – a favourite opera of us both – on the car stereo, but it wasn’t a good idea. I’m not really sure how people manage to listen to music in the car: the quieter passages are all but inaudible, and the lower register is inevitably drowned out by the rumble of the engine. The soft opening strains of Aida were virtually inaudible, but we kept it on anyway, listening to what we could, our musical memory filling in what we couldn’t. We had heard it often enough, after all, over the years.

I remember that when I first encountered it – many decades ago now – I was a bit puzzled. I was puzzled why Verdi, having created dramas of great complexity, should choose for a subject so simple – one may even say “simple-minded” – and so conventional a story. I was puzzled why, having created in his previous operas characters of such intricacy and detailed nuance, he should now settle for characters that were, once again, simple and straightforward. Verdi had, I knew, intended this to be his last opera, so I put it all down at the time to his wanting to bow out with a big popular hit; the simple-minded nature of the drama was something that had to be put up with, I felt, for the sake of the beauties of the score. But really, that won’t do. First of all, whatever one may think of the quality of Verdi’s art (and he has many detractors, I know), the seriousness of his artistic intent is surely not in any doubt. And Verdi had searched far and wide for a plot for his opera before settling on this one; he had also given extremely detailed and precise instructions to his librettist Antonio Ghislanzoni, so there can be little doubt that the final libretto is precisely what he had wanted. And in any case, given his stature at the time – no-one had greater claims than he of being a living legend – anything he cared to compose would have been a box office hit. If Aida does not present us with a complex drama or with complex characters, it is not because such things were beyond Verdi, or because he made do with whatever was available, or because he had lowered his artistic standards: it is because dramatic complexity was not what he wanted here. To point to all the conventional elements of this piece as evidence of Verdi’s lack of artistic ambition is fail to address what Verdi actually did achieve.

And yesterday, despite the inadequacy of listening in the car, it struck me – somewhere around M6-M5 interchange north of Birmingham, I think – just how profoundly anti-nationalist the work is. This in itself is surprising. For, while I am sure that Aida cannot be the only major work of nineteenth century art that is anti-nationalist, I found it difficult to think of others. Amongst composers, Chopin was a fervent Polish nationalist; Smetana and Dvořák were Czech nationalists; Mussorgsky, Balakirev and co. (the group known as “The Five”) looked to create a specifically Russian music; Wagner’s strident Germanic nationalism is notorious; Brahms kept a portrait of Bismarck above his desk. In literature, things were hardly any better: Dostoyevsky was extremely nationalist, and even Tolstoy in War and Peace could barely restrain his pride that it was the Russians who gave Napoleon his come-uppance. Of course, there are exceptions – Turgenev is an obvious one – and it’s best not to make any hasty generalisations (as I fear I am prone to do): but it’s safe to say, I think, that nationalism was a fairly widespread phenomenon in nineteenth century Europe. And it is fair to say also, I think, that it would have been no surprise had Verdi been a fervent Italian nationalist, especially given that by the time he composed Aida, he was, in effect, the living representative of the entire nation’s culture. The Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves, from his early opera Nabucco, had been enthusiastically taken up as an anthem of Italian patriotism; Verdi himself had fully supported Garibaldi’s campaign, and had celebrated joyously the emergence of Italy as a new, unified nation (in 1848, when the occupying Austrians had temporarily been forced to retreat from Milan, Verdi had actually written in a letter “Italy will yet become the first nation of the world … I am drunk with joy! Imagine that there are no more Germans here!!”); after unification, Verdi had supported Cavour; had been elected to the Parliament, and later, appointed to the Senate (although, despite his patriotic fervour, he preferred to keep a distance from political activity); and so on. In short, Verdi was a very unlikely candidate for the composer of an anti-nationalist work. And yet, that is what Aida seems to me to be. It seemed to me so obvious yesterday, driving through the rain and the winter murk, that I wondered why this had not struck me before.

The story is of lovers from across a divide, and thus, looks back very obviously to Romeo and Juliet. Which, in turn, looks back to the story of Pyramus and Thisbe in Ovid’s Metamorphoses; and, no doubt, that too looks back on something from even earlier. It’s a time-honoured story. But here, the divide is not between feuding families, but, quite explicitly, between nations – nations furiously raging together. Aida is an Ethiopian slave girl in Egypt, captured in war; but what the Egyptians do not know is that she is actually the Ethiopian royal princess. She is in love with the young Egyptian soldier Radames, and he loves her too. But Radames is also loved by the Egyptian princess, Amneris, and so, the two princesses (one still a slave girl) find themselves unequal rivals. Things get really complicated when Radames is chosen to lead the Egyptian army against their old enemies, the Ethiopians – against Aida’s people. And so on. It’s all fairly standard stuff, unlikely to be of any interest to anyone nowadays were it not accompanied by Verdi’s music. Even at the time of writing (in the 1870s), it was probably already old hat.

But this tired old plot nonetheless encapsulated Verdi’s theme – individual human love set against the hatred of nation unto nation. Of course, individual love doesn’t stand a chance, and is crushed. But in that ineffably beautiful final scene, we do not hear the tread of doom: we hear, instead, the most ecstatic outpourings of the human soul, as Aida and Radames expire in each other’s arms as only characters in opera can do, discovering in their defeat a nobility and an exaltation that the irrational armies clashing my night could never even envisage. And as these two sing of waking into Eternal Day, they are joined by the grieving voice of Amneris, nominally the villain of the piece, but who too had loved, and had lost: Verdi’s generosity of spirit does not leave her out.

And how far all this is from the crude and violent shouts of war (“Guerra! Guerra! Guerra!”) we had heard in the opening scene. The soldiers are ultimately the victors, of course. That is inevitable. And they will go on fighting. In Romeo and Juliet, the warring factions are reconciled by the deaths of the lovers, but things had moved on from Shakespeare’s time: in Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn (written only a few years after Aida), there’s a parody of Romeo and Juliet, but here, the lovers from two feuding families do not bring the warring factions together: once they elope, their respective families, far from being reconciled, merely slaughter each other. In Aida, too, there is no hope of reconciliation: the ignorant armies will continue to clash by night, urged on by equally ignorant cries of “Guerra! Guerra! Guerra!” But in the defeat of Aida and of Radames, a defeat they both willingly accept in preference to anything the outside world may consider victory, Verdi gives us a different music. Like Shakespeare’s Cleopatra, they make Death proud to take them.

The villain of this opera turns out not really to be Amneris, although she may seem, superficially at least, to fit that role: for she too is driven by love. The villains here are collective. They are the theocrats – the priests who urge the war; they are the Egyptian empire, the war machine. And among the villains is also the defeated Ethiopian king, Amonasro, Aida’s father. For he too is a man of War. It is he who insists that his daughter must betray her personal loyalty and embrace instead the collective identity that has been pre-determined for her: she is, above all, an Ethiopian. In our modern world, with people from very different cultural backgrounds living cheek by jowl with each other to a far greater extent than ever before, the Amonasros have not disappeared: quite the contrary, they have multiplied. But their clamour and their stridence must not be allowed to drown out the very different music that Verdi gives us – a music that is both fragile, and also of a surpassing radiance.

This opera no doubt lacks the complexity of character and the intricacy of drama that we may find in various other operas by Verdi, but it gives us, I think, a vision of something else – something that is important for us to hold on to. We may take the easy way out and dismiss it all as merely “sentimental” or “naïve”, but I think we would be wrong to do so. Verdi, too, in his time, had been a patriot, a nationalist: possibly, he remained so even to his death. But he knew there is also that within us that can surpass and transcend such matters, and in Aida, he gives this its fullest artistic expression. And not even the rumble of the engine and the roar of the motorway could quite drown that out.



On opening lines

In this post, I consider what makes for good opening lines.

That wasn’t really very good, was it? Not only does that opening line not impart much beyond what the title has already said, it establishes a tone of voice that is unlikely to engage the casual reader. Or even, for that matter, an interested one. It presents a picture of an author who is scrupulous and correct, but also bland and boring; and who – as Wilde said most unfairly about Henry James – sees writing as a “painful duty”. Perhaps it might work better if expressed as a rhetorical question:

What makes for a good opening line?

A bit better, perhaps: it opens the prospect of a discussion that could lead to some sort of answer. But it’s not much better than the first attempt, to be honest. Many of my earlier posts in this blog started in this manner, but once I made the effort to read through some of my older posts in a critical frame of mind – a salutary though frequently dispiriting thing to do – I realised quite soon how irritating a mannerism this is. I take care never to start any post like this nowadays.

For openings are difficult, and also important, especially in our attention-straitened times. If you haven’t captured the reader’s attention within the first few lines – sometimes within the very first line – then the prospective reader has gone: that extra “view” on your blog statistics does not translate to someone who has bothered to read what you’ve written.

This obviously puts at a disadvantage writers such as myself whose natural style tends towards the prolix rather than the snappy. But snappy opening lines are not without their problems either. All too often, they seem designed to capture the reader’s attention: it’s sometimes a sort of metaphorical throat-clearing – a call to attention which, once delivered, clears the way for the piece really to begin with the second sentence. This is not necessarily a shortcoming: one can sometimes find this sort of thing even in very fine works. Take, for instance, the opening of Joseph Heller’s brilliant Catch 22:

It was love at first sight. The first time Yossarian saw the chaplain he fell madly in love with him.

Instantly, the reader (well this reader at any rate) is hooked. But the paragraph that follows has nothing to do with the chaplain: it tells us that Yossarian was in hospital, and explains why. The writing is still brilliant, the reader is still hooked, but that first sentence does not lead to what immediately follows: there is a disjoin.

Of course, that isn’t a problem here – especially as this novel delights in comic artifice, and constantly, and quite deliberately, draws attention to itself. But if that opening line were to be omitted, there would be no hole in the narrative. Writers lesser than Joseph Heller (which is just about all of us, I guess) would, I think, be well-advised to be careful about using this sort of throat-clearing opening gambit. I try not to use it myself: I know my limits, and, badly done, it could become as irritating a mannerism as starting posts with rhetorical questions.

Of course, opening lines don’t have to be snappy to capture the reader’s attention: take for instance the famous openings sentence of Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye:

If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.

Sixty-three words, by my count, which could easily be cut down dramatically while still retaining its sense; but, as written, it captures the reader’s attention because it establishes a very distinctive tone of voice: the “David Copperfield kind of crap” is a particularly felicitous touch. The model for this sort of thing is, I suppose, the opening of Twain’s Huckleberry Finn:

You don’t know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain’t no matter.

Once again, it captures a very distinctive tone of voice. The “don’t” rather than the grammatically correct “won’t” helps capture the tone, but the real touch of brilliance here is, I think, the word “without”. Most of us would have written something along the lines of “You won’t know about me unless you have…”; or “You won’t know about me if you haven’t…”; but anything along those lines would have disrupted the distinctive rhythm of Huck’s manner of speaking. I don’t know how much time and thought Twain had given to that opening sentence, but I suspect it was the product of hard work rather than a spontaneous effusion. And how he must have rejoiced when he finally came up with “without”, and realised that the opening sentence was now absolutely perfect.

But one can also create arresting openings without being snappy, and without establishing an engaging and distinctive narrative voice: but such openings arrest the attention only of a certain kind of reader. Here, for instance, is the opening sentence of Henry James’ The Wings of the Dove:

She waited, Kate Croy, for her father to come in, but he kept her unconscionably, and there were moments at which she showed herself, in the glass above the mantel, a face positively pale with the irritation that had brought her to the point of going away without sight of him.

Of course, this is unlikely to attract readers who are not prepared to take their time and to engage closely, but James is not writing for such readers anyway. Here, all in one sentence, we are given a sense of the passage of time (Kate Croy is waiting “unconscionably”); the detail of the glass above the mantel gives us a sense of place; the irritation that brings Kate Croy to the point of leaving without seeing her father conveys a sense of her character, and also a sense of tension for reasons as yet unspecified; the face “postively pale” implies a sense of crisis either impending or apparent; and even the four opening words (“She waited, Kate Croy, …” rather than “Kate Croy waited …”) places the emphasis on the act of waiting rather than on the more mundane matter of the naming of the character; while the two commas punctuating these first four words make for a halting, stuttering rhythm that conveys admirably a sense of strain and of unease. All this in a single, harmoniously constructed sentence. Admittedly, this is unlikely to make the Flavorwire or Buzzfeed (or whatever) list of great opening lines, but if ever there were a finer opening to a novel than this, I don’t know it.

And only yesterday, on starting for the first time the essays of Francis Bacon, I came upon this opening line:

“What is truth?” said jesting Pilate; and would not stay for an answer.

The essay is entitled “On Truth”. In the gospels, Pilate does indeed ask the captured Jesus this most profound of questions, “What is truth?” (John 18:38); we do not know if Jesus had answered, for no answer is recorded. In Bacon’s version of this story, Pilate did not stay for an answer – either because he did not think there was an answer, or because he did not wish to hear what he thought (or feared) the answer may be. And Pilate, according to Bacon, was “jesting”. Not that he asked the question “in jest”, but that his entire person may be described as “jesting”; that he either refused, or pretended to refuse, to take life too seriously. The two possibilities put forward in this brief sentence are intriguing: either Pilate did not take life seriously, and had asked “What is truth?” fully convinced that no answer was possible; or that he pretended, for reasons we may only guess at, not to take life too seriously, and did not wish even to hear any possible answer to his question.

What wondrous vistas of thought, rich in possibilities, are brought to view by this seemingly simple opening line! It draws me into this meditation on the nature of truth as surely as if it were a thrilling adventure story. Now, that’s how to start an essay, and, to judge by the generally mundane opening lines of my posts here on my blog – the critical reading of which remains, as I said, a frequently dispiriting thing to do – I clearly have some considerable distance yet to go…

The tone of voice

Literature in many of its branches is no other than the shadow of good talk; but the imitation falls far short of the original in life, freedom and effect.

–          From “Talk and Talkers” by Robert Louis Stevenson

Orwell, in his famous essay on Dickens, spoke of seeing in literature the face of the author, even when he did not know what he author looked like. Possibly my imagination is less visually oriented than Orwell’s, but when I read, it is not so much a face that I see, but a voice that I hear; or, rather, a tone of voice. I suppose it comes to the same thing: whether we imagine a face or a voice, an author’s personality is evident in what the author writes. It may be that the personality that emerges from the writing is quite different from the personality that is apparent to those who knew the author in real life; but since, as a reader, I have no access to the latter (even biographies can offer no more than the biographer’s interpretation), it is the former that I find of greater interest.

There are, of course, authors who attempted to efface their own personalities, but I can’t help wondering how seriously intended these attempts are. Flaubert’s personality, for instance, is very evident in his novels. At times, he even speaks to the reader directly – such as in that famous passage in Madame Bovary where he speaks of language being a cracked kettle on which he beats out tunes for bears to dance to, when, instead, he wants to move the stars with pity. I say Flaubert “speaks” of this, for, when I read it, I feel as if this line were spoken. And it is spoken to me in a tone of resigned heartbreak.

That is the tone of voice I get in much of Flaubert – resigned heartbreak: and the cause of the heartbreak is that there is no option but to be resigned. Austen, who is as deeply ironic as Flaubert and as aware of human stupidity, has, however, a very different tone of voice: although she could be deeply serious, and even at times, as in Mansfield Park, sombre, her tone of voice is amused, happy to batter the cracked kettle with a virtuosic verve and gaiety without any thought of moving the stars with pity; or, indeed, without any thought of pity at all. On a personal level, I like the sound of Flaubert’s voice, even through the services of an interpreter (since I do not know French well enough to read the originals); Austen I am a bit frightened to sit too close to, in case she chooses me as the next object of her pitiless wit: and if she does, she would veil it in such subtle shades of irony, that I might not even notice. In any case, there are far too many people as it is sitting around Austen, enjoying her wicked wit, so there’s no point my adding to the throng.

Milton is on a platform, orating. It is a grand and sonorous voice, with a wide tessitura; it has a depth to it, reverberating across the room even when he is speaking softly. He has many devotees, admirers in thrall to that voice which is by turns turbulent and serene; and for some time, I, too, am mesmerised. But after a while, my ears start hurting, and I wander off to listen instead to the blank verse of Wordsworth. He does not speak at me, but, rather, to me: far from orating from a platform, he sits next to me, conversing eloquently. And I realise why it is that I reach for The Prelude far more frequently than I reach for Paradise Lost, even though Mr Wordsworth, himself an admirer of Milton, professes himself shocked by my preference.

To hear Dickens, one must go to the theatre: there he is, holding the stage by himself, performing his one-man show. He loves playing to the gallery. One moment he will make ’em laugh, the next he’ll have ’em in tears, and then, for good measure, he’ll freeze their blood with terror. Many dismiss him as a ham, and, since modern taste does not care so much for tears, accuse him of sentimentality; but no-one doubts his charisma, or the flamboyance of his personality: and that in itself is enjoyable. And those listening closely soon find that putting on a performance need not exclude seriousness of intent, or depth of utterance. Indeed, as the curtain comes down and the lights come up in the auditorium, one finds even such revered practitioners as Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy applauding enthusiastically. It’s a damn fine trick to pull off.

Most affable of all is the voice of Mark Twain. He is sitting in a saloon bar with a bottle of whiskey, and he offers me some as he regales me with jokes, reminiscences, anecdotes, tall stories. Of course, one can’t get a word in edgeways with him, but one doesn’t want to stem that marvellous flow. And yet, despite all his boisterous high spirits, one senses at times a man struggling to come to terms with what he knows humans are capable of; and who, by the end – by the time, in other words, he came round to writing Pudd’nhead Wilson – throws up his arms in despair and admits it is too hard a knot for him to untie.

Henry James, however, specialised not so much in attempting to untie knots, but in tying them: and what intricate knots they are! He sits by the window, polishing with meticulous care the circular lenses of his pince-nez ; he speaks very softly, and very slowly, and very precisely, pausing frequently in mid-sentence to ensure his listeners have taken in what he has said so far, and taking care to give every word its correct weighting and its correct intonation. For all that, he engages; indeed, once one accustoms oneself to that insidiously softly-spoken voice, he is compelling. But after a while, I do find myself  wandering off once again to Mark Twain’s table.

Nietzsche, I admit, I find myself avoiding: I do not doubt his extraordinary intellect, nor his visionary flashes of genius, but he seems continually to be screaming into my ear. Musil I avoid as well: it’s like being lectured to at great length by an extremely clever man who unfortunately has bad breath. Of the German writers, I prefer the refined, civilised charm of Thomas Mann, or even the bleak comedy of Kafka, who is forever expressing surprise that his nightmarish flights of fancy don’t make us laugh more often.

The presence of D. H. Lawrence can be wearing. He is angry, very angry, about something or other, and I keep getting the curious feeling that, for whatever reason, he is angry with me for, apparently, not living my life as he feels I should. But when I try to find out precisely what it is that angers him, either he rants incoherently, thumping the table with his fist; or he expresses some profound vision of what it is to be human that I don’t really understand: it has something, I believe, to do with our sexuality, but that’s about as much as I can take in. He does, though, have some ecstatic moments of poetic intensity, and if there were to be some award for seriousness of intent, old DH would win it hands down. But, I must admit, I do find it difficult staying with his outsize personality for long stretches.

Even dramatists, who speak for ever through other peoples’ voices, can make their presence felt: it would be difficult, for instance, to mistake The Master Builder for a Chekhov play, or Three Sisters for an Ibsen. Only Shakespeare remains inscrutable: he is whoever one may imagine him to be – even the Earl of Oxford, if one so wishes.


One of the main reasons why we read is, I think, the companionship of the author. And, just as there is no accounting for our instinctive likes and dislikes of people we know, so there seems no accounting for similar preferences amongst authorial personalities. I, for instance, take far more readily to Dickens’ personality than I do to Austen’s, whereas many friends of mine, whose tastes and judgement I respect, feel otherwise. In a recent post, I had suggested that one could, to a great extent, choose what one likes and what one doesn’t: does this apply also to our likes and dislikes of authorial personae? Or is this aspect of our taste more instinctive, and, thus, something over which we have less control? Or could it be that I am mistaken (it has been known to happen!) in placing so much weight on the reader’s reaction to the authorial personality? I know it is stylistically wrong to finish an essay with questions rather than with a conclusion – even a tentative conclusion – but since I do not have the first idea what the answers are to these questions, I don’t really see how I could end otherwise.