Posts Tagged ‘Tagore’

My unfortunate partiality for “colonising texts”

When I first came under the spell of Shakespeare some forty and more years ago, I failed to realise that I was siding with a tool of colonial oppression. And now, it’s too late to do anything about it: I am too stuck in my ways.

I suppose it has much to do with my family background. One never escapes the cultural ambience one grows up in; even those elements we reject define us: they define us by the very fact that we have rejected them. And there are other elements that one rejects, but later comes back to. And, finally, there are those elements in one’s family background that, consciously or unconsciously, become integral parts of one’s very being. My love of Shakespeare belongs, I think, to the third category.

Not that my parents read Shakespeare: my late father, who loved and had an encyclopaedic knowledge of Bengali literature, often lamented to me that his English wasn’t good enough for him to read and appreciate Shakespeare’s plays. I think he was wrong in this: his English most certainly was good enough to enable appreciation to a significantly high degree, but, given the level to which he understood and appreciated Bengali poetry, the standards he set himself were high. He did love watching the plays though, and never spoke of Shakespeare with anything other than respect. As a man steeped in Bengali culture, and who had lived the first twenty-one years of his life under British rule, if there was any resentment to be felt about “cultural imperialism”, he was well placed to feel it: but he didn’t. Yes, it did distress him that the Bengali culture he loved and valued so much was so little known outside the Bengali-speaking world; but the idea that Shakespeare was a colonial imposition was something that never even had occurred to him.

And this, I think, is only to be expected from someone who was so steeped in Tagorean ethos as was my father. In the first decade of the twentieth century, when Indian nationalist sentiment, though in its infancy, was establishing itself as a potent force, Tagore wrote possibly the most startling of all patriotic poems. (It is No. 106 in the Bengali Gitanjali, for those who have access to it.) He does not here proclaim the greatness of India; and nor does he speak, as he was fully entitled to do, of India’s violation by foreign powers. Instead, he calls for people from all around the world, of all cultures and all backgrounds – even, quite explicitly, the imperialist rulers, the British – to bring to India their cultural riches, and thereby enrich the Indian mind and the Indian soul. The very concept of “cultural imperialism” was to Tagore utterly alien.

Looking back, that was the ethos in the household in which I grew up. My parents obviously thought it important that I, a five-year-old newly arrived in the country and unable to speak a word of English, should learn the language, but their motives were by no means purely utilitarian: even before I knew who Shakespeare was, I knew that this strange language I was to learn was “the language of Shakespeare”; and that if I learnt it well, I would have the privilege of being able to read the original works. This reverence – which, contrary to popular belief, does not preclude critical engagement – that was inculcated into me remains with me still. And, somewhat absurdly I suppose (since it reflects no credit on me personally), I find myself rather proud of this: my love of Shakespeare, far from being a foreign cultural imposition, is an aspect of my Bengali, Tagorean heritage.

And so, when I see an article in the arts pages of a prestigious newspapers that tells us, with obvious disapproval, that “in India and countries in Africa, Shakespeare’s works were made compulsory in schools, as they were seen as a mark of civilisation”, I struggle to understand what there can be in any of that that the author finds objectionable: does the author think these plays aren’t a mark of civilisation? And when the author then goes on to refer to these plays as “the master’s colonising texts”, something inside me, I confess, dies a little.

There are many other aspects of that article that I find – to put it politely – puzzling. The author, Preti Taneja, says of a recent Catalan film, Otel.lo, that it is “genuinely far more entertaining, political and provocative than many contemporary productions of Shakespeare in the UK”. Presumably, she is stating her own personal opinion here, and if so, that’s fair enough. There’s no arguing with personal opinion: de gustibus, and all that. But I can’t help wondering what the point of this comparison is. For one thing, comparing a Shakespeare play with a film in which a Shakespeare play is used as the basis for a new work of art is not a like-for-like comparison. And secondly, while I am sure that there are indeed productions of Shakespeare in the UK that are mediocre or worse – quality, after all, varies in all areas of human activity – the standard of Shakespearean performances in British theatres remains, despite the often desperate state of theatre finances, very high. Preti Taneja’s slur seems to me frankly gratuitous and churlish.

And there’s more. “It’s time to break this national monopoly on Shakespeare,” the headline proclaims. What “national monopoly”? The article itself tells us of the various productions and adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays from all around the world. Translating Shakespeare into other languages, adapting Shakespeare, seeing Shakespeare through different cultural prisms to arrive at new levels of meaning – this has all been going on for a few centuries now, and none of it requires special pleading. From Verdi’s Otello to Kurosawa’s Ran (Italy and Japan both countries in which Shakespeare looms large, despite the rather inconvenient fact that neither has ever been colonised by the British), the plays of Shakespeare have formed the basis of new works; and often (as is certainly the case with the works of Verdi and Kurosawa), these new works themselves are widely acclaimed as masterpieces in their own right. So, once again – what national monopoly? What, in short, is Ms Taneja complaining about?

Personally, I welcome new adaptations of Shakespeare. I can’t imagine any lover of Shakespeare who doesn’t. Otel.lo may no doubt be a very fine film, and I would be keen to see it. But it remains somewhat dispiriting that in order to praise new adaptations of Shakespeare’s work, Preti Taneja feels the need to disparage the very fine work that is going on in theatres all around Britain. And it is equally dispiriting to see these endlessly enriching works characterised as tools of colonial oppression.

As for me, I shall go on revering the plays of Shakespeare. I owe it to my Bengali heritage, after all.

My Ideal Bookshelf

It’s nearly Christmas. Let’s indulge ourselves a bit.

There is a book, and, inevitably, a website, called “My Ideal Bookshelf”. In this book, various celebrities are asked to list up to twelve books that are particularly important to them for various reasons. Now, as I like to think I am something of a celebrity myself, I was a bit miffed at not being asked to contribute to this. Sure, we lesser mortals are invited to contribute our ideal bookshelves to the website mentioned above, but I am loftily ignoring this: it’s celebrity or nothing for me!

Fair enough, nothing it is…

If you are thinking that this is an excuse for yet another dreary list, you’d be perfectly correct. But as I say, it’s nearly Christmas. Let’s indulge ourselves a bit!

Here’s my ideal bookshelf:

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The reasoning behind the choices of most of the titles is self-explanatory. First of all – going from left to right – comes the Complete Works of Shakespeare. I was eleven when my parents took me to see King Lear at the Edinburgh Festival: Timothy West, then only in his 40s, played Lear on the bare stage of the Assembly Rooms in Edinburgh. Obviously, at that age, I took in but a fraction of it, but I was so excited by what I had seen, that I remember I could not get to sleep that night. That Christmas, I asked my parents for the Complete Works. There are at least a dozen or so of these plays that remain a constant presence in my mind. To celebrate – if “celebrate” is indeed the word I am looking for – my 50th year, I read through all these plays, in the order (as far as can be ascertained) in which they had been written. And I try to read at least one play each month. Life without these works would be unimaginable.

Then comes Rabindranath Tagore. Someone asked me once whether, given my obviously Bengali name, I knew the works of Tagore. Some of it, I replied: he wrote prolifically for decades, and I certainly haven’t ploughed through it all. Did I like his work? Well, I replied, as an educated Bengali, I don’t really have an option. His songs were probably the first music I ever heard; that extravagantly bearded visage was as familiar to me in my earliest childhood years as were pictures of my own family. Later in life, it did, I admit, come as a surprise to discover that, despite all the idolatry – which for many years put me off – his works actually are rather good. Extraordinarily good, indeed. Despite translations (which I am not qualified to judge, as they are not intended for me), the true extent of his literary greatness will be accessible only to native speakers. And for those native speakers who have come under his spell (and it is hard not to), a volume of Tagore’s poems is virtually a mandatory choice on the Ideal Bookshelf. But which volume? Even restricting oneself to poetry, his vast output cannot be contained in a single volume. After much thought, I chose Geetbitan, a collection of all his song lyrics. Literally thousands of them, covering just about every shade and nuance of human feeling imaginable. Tagore was among the greatest of songwriters (he composed the melodies as well as writing the words), and even when you don’t have the tune running round your head when reading them, these exquisite lyrics stand up perfectly well as poetry. There aren’t many song lyrics that do that.

Then comes Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, which I won’t write about here as there is already a fairly long and recent series of posts in this blog about this extraordinary novel. And speaking of extraordinary novels, there’s also Dickens’ Bleak House: I won’t write about this either, as I have done so only quite recently. Tolstoy and Dickens are the two novelists whose works mean most to me personally.

Next, I have chosen the Collected Ghost Stories of M. R. James. I have always wondered why it is I so dislike fantasy literature, find myself bored by science fiction, and yet enjoy the unreality of a creepy ghost story. Not any type of ghost story, though: the ones I like are the ones in which the solidity of the real world is very strongly projected, so that that the intrusion of the irrational, when it appears, is transgressive. The sort of story, indeed, of which M. R. James was the master. Why do I enjoy these stories so much? Well, let’s not go too deeply into self-psychoanalysis: that sort of thing is bound to be a load of simplistic tripe anyway. But the Collected Ghost Stories of M. R. James remains a constantly on my bedside table.

Piled on top of these books in my picture are six paperback volumes of the major plays of Ibsen, in the translations by Michael Meyer. Yes, I know, it’s cheating: they’re six volumes. But each volume is so indispensible that I couldn’t leave any of them out. And in any case, these volumes could easily be stitched up together into a single large volume.

I came to Ibsen in my twenties, and was fascinated by the strange world he created. He is known primarily as a “social dramatist” – i.e. as a dramatist who dealt mainly with social issues. That is indeed how I used to think of him myself. But reading his plays, I found myself transported into the deepest and most mysterious regions of the mind itself: worlds opened up that were new to me, and which fascinated me. I still probably don’t understand what many of them are about, but, perhaps for that very reason, they continue to fascinate.

Then come two more novels – Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov (which I read again some two years ago, and on which I have written a series of posts on this blog) and Joyce’s Ulysses. The latter is widely considered a sort of High Altar of Modernism, and has a reputation of being excessively difficult: that’s rather unfortunate, since, quite apart from anything else, it’s about as fun as any book I have read. I can still dip into it and read passages purely for enjoyment. Dostoyevsky, on the other hand, I have rather a difficult relationship with. I first encountered his works as a teenager, and was overwhelmed: the impact these novels had on me was almost visceral. But as I became older, doubts started to creep in: Are these novels not merely hysterical? Aren’t they unstructured, rambling, undisciplined? Was not my love of these novels merely a consequence of my teenage immaturity? And yet … and yet, scenes and themes and characters and images from these novels remained seared into my mind when other novels, apparently much better-written, had vanished without much trace. These novels, in other words, left behind the strongest of aftertastes. So I started, rather guiltily I suppose, to re-enter Dostoyevsky’s world. And I realised that these novels have to be taken on their own terms, and that there is no other novel that is even remotely comparable. Yes, I still frequently find myself wondering what the hell certain passages are about; I still find myself shaking my head at other times and thinking this won’t do. But that excitement I had experienced as a teenager remains. And I’m not sure why,

I suppose if I love Tolstoy because his vision of the world I find enriching; if I like Dickens because I love entering into that idiosyncratic fictional world of his; then I love Dostoyevsky because I enjoy having a fight with him. And I have had some good fights with him, and have come away from them bloodied but invigorated. Dostoyevsky’s novels are exploratory rather than declamatory, and, as with the plays of Ibsen, they explore regions that, had it not been for these works, would have been completely closed to me.

Now, the Sherlock Holmes stories. In the picture above, these appear in a lavish three-volume set (a birthday present from my wife on my 50th birthday); but since they can also be found contained in a single volume, I’m claiming this as one choice. I still have vivid memories of checking out The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes from Bishopbriggs Public Library when I was about 12 or so, and it was love at first sight; and this love hasn’t flagged since. These stories have been a constant companion to me for many, many years now, and, as with the ghost stories of M. R. James, have become the best of old friends, and lifelong companions. I tried in this post to explain why I love these stories, but I think I gave up after a while: there are certain things that resist explanation.

I finish with two volumes of poetry – by Yeats, and by Wordsworth – sandwiching Eugene O’Neill’s play Long Day’s Journey Into Night. It strikes me writing this post that a great many of the books that mean most to me reach back into my late childhood, and my teenage years: I suppose those are the years during which my literary taste was formed. And I certainly remember watching on television, aged twelve, the National Theatre production of Long Day’s Journey Into Night featuring Laurence Olivier in one of his legendary roles. I was mesmerised. That play has a hold on me still that I cannot explain: even other plays by Eugene O’Neill don’t resonate with me the way this one does. Once again, I am not sure I understand why.

And, of course, I want some poetry on by ideal shelf. I already have the song lyrics of Tagore, and the plays and poems of Shakespeare; add to these Wordsworth and Yeats, and I think that would keep me happy. As I explained in an earlier post, I like Wordsworth’s tone of voice – civilised and eloquent, the voice of someone conversing with me rather than of someone declaiming to me. But with that conversational tone, he can depict emotions and states of mind that seem transcendent, and contain intimations of immortality. Yes, we all know that we wrote much, especially in his advanced years, that was mediocre and worse; but we should judge each writer by their best, and the best of Wordworth – “Tintern Abbey”, “Ode on the Intimations of Immortality”, “The Solitary Reaper”, the 1805 text of The Prelude, some of the finest sonnets since Shakespeare, etc. etc. – would quite easily fill a good-sized volume. And despite their apparent plainness of diction, they affect me more than I think I can explain.

I do not write much about poetry on this blog, and that is mainly because I am not sure how to write about it. Poetry tends to affect me like music: I know what it makes me feel, but am not sure why. I suppose the only way to write about poetry is to provide close analysis of the rhythms, the sounds, the imagery, etc. – but there are many who can do that sort of thing far better than I possibly could. I did try to write about some poems by Yeats once on this blog, but I’ll not provide a link to it: it wasn’t, shall we say, among my best posts on here. So I will restrict myself here to giving some rough impressions of what Yeats’ poetry makes me feel. There’s the early stuff, of course – the “Celtic twilight” poem: these are products of the fag-end of Romanticism, with their alluring sensuality and the infectious folk rhythms. But even here, those rhythms aren’t always what one would expect from folk poetry: they are considerably knottier; and the themes became increasingly complex and ambiguous, the mythology more arcane. And it is fascinating tracing the development of Yeats’ poetic style as it moves almost seamlessly from a youthful Romanticism into a personal and very passionate form of modernism. For the older Yeats got, the more passionate he became. “Give me an old man’s frenzy,” he says at one point; and there is indeed a sort of frenzy in his poetry, a passionate striving and longing for he knows not what. Perhaps he remained a Romantic after all.

***

Well, that’s it folks – that’s my pre-Christmas indulgence done with. Now, the real indulgence starts: I already have bottles of malt whisky and Armagnac lined up for a most convivial and alcoholic festive season, and am looking forward to two idyllic weeks with the family.

And with my books, of course!

On joy: a scene from “Anna Karenina”

When Levin had gone to Moscow to propose to Kitty, he had met her at the ice rink. He had tried “not to look at her for too long at a time, as one avoids looking at the sun”. But, as with the sun, “he saw her without looking at her”.

But Levin was rejected. Returning to his farm, he had tried to forget about her by throwing himself into his work. And he thinks he has succeeded. A simple life of toil on the land. Perhaps he might even marry a peasant woman. And the hurt he had received would be forgotten. But even as he thinks about such things, after a night spent out in the open, in the early hours of the morning, a carriage passes by. And inside the carriage is her.

Bright and thoughtful, filled with a refined and complex inner life to which Levin was a stranger, she was looking beyond him at the glowing dawn.

Just as the vision was about to disappear, her truthful eyes glanced at him. She recognized him, and a look of surprise and joy lit up her face.

He could not be mistaken. There were no other such eyes in the world. There was no other being in the world able to focus for him the whole world and the meaning of life.

Levin looks up at the sky which, that last night he had spent in the open, had seemed to him somehow sympathetic to his thoughts. But now, it seems different:

There, in that inaccessible height, a mysterious change had by now taken place … Over half the sky was spread a carpet of fleecy clouds growing gradually smaller and smaller. The sky turned pale blue, became brighter and answered his questioning glance always with the same tenderness and the same remoteness.

And Levin realises that living a simple life of toil, married to a peasant woman, however good and virtuous, is not for him: it is she he loves.

***

Of the many passages of Anna Karenina that have haunted my mind since my most recent reading, this one particularly haunts me. What I think particularly strikes me about it is that the sight of Kitty awakens in Levin a sense of joy, and also, at the same time, re-opens his wound, sharpens the pain.

And the two emotions do not, I think, contradict each other. We tend to think of joy nowadays as but as an excess of pleasure; we think the difference between the two is but a difference in degree, and label both with that banal and vapid coinage “feelgood”. But joy, true joy, is, as Tolstoy reminds us, something quite different: it is something that can strike us even as it causes pain. After all, one of the most heartfelt expressions of grief in the English language opens with the words “Surprised by joy”.

For Wordsworth too knew of the complexities of joy:

And I have felt
A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused

A joy can bring pain, and it can also disturb. Not much of the “feelgood” here. And it can take us also by surprise. In his sonnet “Surprised by joy”, Wordsworth does not tell us what had occasioned his joy – merely that he was “surprised” by it. And when he had turned instinctively to share his joy with his daughter, he remembered what he had known all along: the joy could not be shared with her, for she was dead. It is not her he had forgotten: far from it – she had been continually present in his mind. What he had momentarily forgotten was her absence from the real world.

Rabindranath Tagore, in one of his most famous poems, also meditates on this: if one is absent from this world, but present in one’s mind, then in what sense, if any, does she, can she, exist?

You are not before the eye,
You have made your home in the midst of the eye itself.
[Translated with startling inadequacy by myself]

And from here to the closing lines, the poem soars with a sense of ecstasy – with a sense sublime of something more deeply interfused. (And this I will not attempt to translate: the sounds and rhythms Tagore uses to communicate this ecstasy are not available in English, and to fall short would, to my mind, be to misrepresent it.) The joy that is depicted in the closing section of this poem does not wipe out the pain, nor even mitigate it: but it is a joy nonetheless. And similarly with Wordsworth’s sonnet: it is significant that this almost unbearably poignant expression of grief and pain is introduced with an evocation not of gloom or of despair, but of joy.

In our modern times, we tend not to believe in the concept of transcendence: if the material word is the only world there is, then there can be nothing to transcend to, and all feelings, all emotions, are either merely “feelbad” or “feelgood”: “feelgood” is what we should all strive for, as this, after all, is the sole purpose of living; and “feelbad” is what you take anti-depressants to ward off. This is perhaps why I come away from so many modern novels with the sense that I have witnessed merely small, insignificant people experiencing small, insignificant feelings. But with Tolstoy, I feel I am in a much bigger world. No other writer, I think, has depicted the physical surfaces of our lives so meticulously; but Tolstoy depicts also a sense of transcendence, even though we can but vaguely know what those regions may be that we are transcending to. He depicts that sense sublime of something that is more deeply interfused – something that refuses to be pinned down, but which we cannot ignore without diminishing ourselves. It is in that sense of joy we feel even as we grieve, even as we feel pain – even as we are disturbed. It is certainly what Levin feels when he unexpectedly catches sight of Kitty in the carriage.

[All passages quoted from Anna Karenina are taken from the translation by Kyrill Zinovieff and Jenny Hughes, published by Oneworld classics]

The late greats

Liszt’s famous summary of Beethoven’s career – “L’adolescent, l’homme, le dieu” – accords well with what we perhaps feel ought to describe the career of any great artist: for surely, the more an artist experiences of life, the more profound and wise their vision of it must be; and the closer they are to death the more clearly they must see beyond. Even though a moment’s reflection reveals such thoughts to be sentimental drivel, we find it difficult to escape that vague notion that there is, that there must be, something special about the late works of an artist. We almost imagine that closeness to death confers upon a great artist the ability to glimpse beyond, and we look in those late works for a greater awareness of mortality; a sort of transfigured farewell, of sense of the ethereal, of the other-worldly.

For those readers who have read the paragraph above thinking “Speak for yourself, mate!” I suppose I should offer an apology: it is possibly not “we” at all who look for other-worldly wisdom in late works – it is “I”. But it is not unusual to substitute the first person plural for the first person singular as a means of pretending that one’s personal concerns are of more general interest, and I certainly am not above such a cheap trick. So “we”, I think, remains. We look for transcendent wisdom in late works; and what we look for, not unsurprisingly, we often find.

Take late Shakespeare, for instance: leaving aside those inconsequential late collaborations – Henry VIII, The Two Noble Kinsmen – Shakespeare finished his dramatic career with three plays – Cymbeline, The Winter’s Tale, The Tempest – that look beyond the tragic towards a state of almost mystical reconciliation in which all losses are restored, and sorrows end. Surely there’s something a bit other-worldly about that, no? Or late Beethoven, when he had entered his dieu stage, according to Liszt’s formulation: who has ever listened to Beethoven’s last three piano sonatas, the Missa Solemnis, or those late string quartets, without hearing sounds that seem to come from some other world? There’s Mozart as well – writing music of transcendent serenity in his clarinet quintet, his last piano concerto, his clarinet concerto, and meditating on death as only a dying man could in his unfinished Requiem Mass. There’s Schubert, who composed a string of masterpieces in his last year when he must have known he was dying, each of these masterpieces haunted by the shadow of death. There’s Mahler, whose Das Lied von der Erde and 9th Symphony seem almost to depict a passage from this world to the next. Ibsen’s late plays, too, seem increasingly to move away from the realism he had himself pioneered into a world where all solidities seem to melt away. Or there’s Tagore, whose very spare, almost minimalist final poems, written in extreme old age on what he must have realised was to be his death-bed, express a spiritual turmoil and an anguish that render them almost too painful to read. All of these artists reacted to death in different ways – but can it be doubted that they were all, in these late works, meditating on their mortality? Similar observations can no doubt be made in the visual arts: could Titian’s Pietà, for instance,have been painted by anyone other than by a man of genius on the point of his own death?

We must, of course, be careful here. Any artist who practises his or her art over a long period of time undergoes changes in style, in approach, and even in themes: this is because we all change over time, we all have new concerns, new perspectives. That an artist’s style in old age is different from that of his younger self is nothing too surprising. Artists renew their art: those who cannot inevitably decline in their artistry, and are eventually remembered primarily or even solely for their earlier work (Wordsworth is a very obvious example of this). And yes, artists may – as, no doubt, we all may – consider death more intently as they closer they come to it, but it is sentimental to imagine that mere proximity to death can give one greater insights into its nature. Yes, it is true that the works of Schubert’s last year, written in the shadow of death, were haunted by it: but then again, so is his D minor string quartet (“Death and the Maiden”) which was written some five or so years before his death when he was still in his mid-twenties. It should really not be surprising that people who think profoundly about life should think profoundly about death also, and that closeness to death is not a necessary condition for the latter. For instance, I cannot think of any novel that more closely concerns itself with death than does Anna Karenina: and yet, it was written in Tolstoy’s vigorous middle age, in his late 40s, when he was in his prime of health and still had another thirty and more years to live.

There are so many other examples one can think of. Beethoven’s late works were written in his 50s, and, as far as I know, there’s nothing to indicate that Beethoven was aware of his approaching death at the time. Indeed, the great slow movement of his late A minor string quartet explicitly celebrates his recovery from illness. (it was composed shortly after recovery from illness, and in the score, the movement is headed “Heiliger Dankgesang eines Genesenen an die Gottheit, in der lydischen Tonart” – A Convalescent’s Holy Song of Thanksgiving to the Divinity, in the Lydian Mode). Neither is there any evidence to indicate that Mozart, aged only 35, was aware of his impending death when composing what we now think of as his late works. And if Mahler’s final works are about death, it is hard to think of any of his works, even his very first symphony, that isn’t. That his late style was different from his earlier style does not necessarily make it more profound: great though that 9th symphony is, is his magnificent 2nd symphony any lesser a work of art simply because it was composed earlier?

But despite all that, we – all right, if you insist, I – cannot help but look for that extra wisdom and profundity that we – I – feel ought to be present in late works. Hell, I even listen to Wagner’s Parsifal once in a while to see if this final masterpiece (for masterpiece it clearly is) makes sense this time round. I listened to it again lately: but once again, it eluded me. Obviously the old bore meant something by it all, but I can’t get anything more out of it than a series of extraordinarily beautiful sounds. I tried reading up on it a bit this time: I found buried away in that cluttered little room I call my library Lucy Beckett’s much acclaimed Cambridge University Handbook on Wagner’s Parsifal; and I also came across this very interesting website on the opera. But I must admit, I am none the wiser. Somewhat better informed, perhaps, but none the wiser. (Nonetheless, I do recommend both book and website to those who are more receptive to this strange work than I appear to be.)

But what can one say about a late work, written by an artist approaching his eighties and who knew that this work was to be his last, but which, far from wandering awe-struck into the ethereal shades of the other world, rejoices all the more firmly in the solidity of this one? Of a work written by a man who has known personal grief and tragedy, but who, on leaving life, could only express for it his unreserved love? Who meditates not on what may or may not come, but looks instead to what is, and celebrates it with all the vigour and vitality and exuberance and unshadowed joy that one more usually, though perhaps erroneously, associates with youth? Yes, I am thinking about Verdi’s Falstaff. And I am thinking also that I must write a post on this miracle some day – if only I knew where to begin…

Translations of Tagore: a retraction

Back in the early days of this blog, I wrote a piece on Tagore, and, in the process, made some rude comments about translations into English. I made similar comments in the Guardian books blog recently, in response to certain denigratory comments about Tagore made by certain other posters who did not have access to the original. (I posted under the name HimadriC, an abbreviation of my own name, Himadri Chatterjee.) And, quite rightly, I was taken to task by Ketaki Kushari Dyson, who has translated Tagore’s poetry to much critical and public acclaim. Needless to say, I apologised profusely and unreservedly. I apologised not merely for the sake of politeness: I realised that I had been wrong.

One problem is that when something that is precious to me, something that I value – indeed, something that I know is of inestimable value – is denigrated, and unfairly denigrated at that, it is difficult not to point out that the denigrator knows the work only at second hand, and, thus, is not in the best position to pass judgement. Another problem is that those of us who are so in thrall to the mesmerising verbal music of the originals – a verbal music that is impossible to convey into another language, not due to any shortcoming of translators, but because of the inherent differences between languages – are always reluctant to consider alternative versions of that which they love so much. We are too close to these works, too emotionally attached to them, to judge translations with any objectivity. For instance, I love what I have read of Rilke’s poetry in translation, but I am sure that those who know Rilke in German will wonder  why the hell I am applauding these works, not knowing them in the original versions. And were I to be critical of Rilke, I am sure I would be told not to judge merely on the basis of translations.

But, as Ms Dyson quite correctly points out, the translations aren’t intended for those who do not need them. It is not to be expected that the poetry of Tagore can find an exact equivalent in another language – any more than, say, the poetry of Donne or of Leopardi or of Heine. But if translations can convey even something of the originals, then, however much those who love the works in the original may cavil, the effort is not only worthwhile, but to be applauded.

And yet it hurts all the same to see these works denigrated or belittled by those who have never encountered their magic at first hand. To commemorate the recent 150th anniversary of Tagore’s birth, JC asked rhetorically in the Times Literary Supplement: “Who reads Rabindranath Tagore now?” Well, only a few million Bengalis mate, but presumably they don’t count. And similarly, I guess those who read the translations don’t count either. I wonder if JC would ever have posed the question “Who reads Akhmatova now?” It would have been equally foolish. But, presumably, Tagore is fair game because he is only an Indian writer who insisted on writing in one of those funny little languages they have over there.

It is distressing to read denigratory comments not merely from the JCs of this world, but also from the distinguished literary figures such as Vladimir Nabokov, or Jorge Luis Borges, or Graham Greene (who wondered whether there was anyone apart from WB Yeats who still took Tagore seriously). Philip Larkin writes in one of his letters: “An Indian has written to ask what I think of Rabindrum Tagore. Feel like sending him a telegram: ‘Fuck all. Larkin.’” Anyone close to these works is bound to feel some degree of hurt, and, under such circumstances, translators, very unfairly, become suitable scapegoats.

So I would like, as a sort of apology for my previous comments, to retract publicly what I had said previously, both on the Guardian Books blog and here, about translations of Tagore. One should applaud and welcome further translations: each translation is, after all, an act of interpretation, and with literature of such quality, no single interpretation can be definitive. These translations won’t be for Bengali-speakers, so our opinions on the matter really don’t count: we have the originals to read, after all. What does matter is the number of non-Bengali-speakers who, thanks to the efforts of Ms Dyson and her colleagues, are brought closer to this astonishing body of work.

Choose your own Desert Island Discs

It’s such a simple idea, but so effective. If you were stranded on a desert island, and had, miraculously, some machine on which to play music, which eight pieces of music would you choose? And which of those eight would you keep if you could keep only one? The answers are so very revealing. Some choose music for reasons of nostalgia; some for the quality of the music; and some, one suspects, to make a certain impression, or to project a certain image. But whatever the reason (and one can usually tell from listening to the programme) it is a fascinating idea, and extraordinarily revealing of the guest’s personality and cultural preferences. So successful has this simple formula been, that the programme will shortly celebrate its 60th anniversary. 

In addition to the eight pieces of music, they are allowed to pick one luxury, and one book apart from the Bible and the Complete Works of Shakespeare – which, we are told, are already on the island, it being assumed by the programme creator Roy Plomley that these two choices were so obvious that just about everyone would go for one or the other. Of course, things have changed since Roy Plomley’s days: on being told they’d be given the Bible, some guests nowadays react as if they’d been told they’d be given a dog turd. A few seem quite shocked that they’d have to pick a book at all, and try desperately to think of some book they’ve heard of. On the other hand, there are those delighted to be getting the Bible and Shakespeare: I remember Robbie Coltrane on this programme commenting that if some alien life form wanted to know what humanity was like, the best thing one could do would be to hand them a copy of Shakespeare. (His own choice apart from the Bible and Shakespeare was a Raymond Chandler novel – obviously a man of good taste and discernment!) But however they react, it’s revealing. 

In preparation for the 60th anniversary celebrations, the BBC has put up on its website all the choices ever made by various guests since the programme started. It makes, I find, for addictive browsing. I like seeing the surprising choices – such as Oliver Reed showing his sensitive side by choosing Debussy’s “Jardins sous la pluie” from Estampes (I wouldn’t look too closely at his luxury choice, mind you!); or the distinguished historian Sir Martin Gilbert choosing Abba singing “Super Trooper”. 

The BBC will soon be broadcasting a special programme to celebrate Desert Island Discs, and as part of the celebrations, we, Joe Public, can send in our own choices. The rules are a bit odd: we can choose a song, but not collections of songs or albums; and if we choose classical music, we may choose either one complete work if it is a non-vocal work (i.e. if it isn’t opera or oratorio or something similar); or, if it is opera or oratorio, we may choose an excerpt from it – an aria or ensemble or chorus or whatever. Well, it’s their game, so I suppose they can make the rules. For the record, these were my choices: 

Mozart: “Dove Sono” from “Le Nozze di Figaro”

This would be my one choice if I were restricted to one.

I have written on this blog before about my love of Mozart’s music, so I won’t go through all that again. But, quite apart from that, this is a work my wife and I particularly love, and it has many personal associations for us.

Tagore: “Bhara thak” from “Shapmochan”

This is music I grew up with at home. Tagore’s songs (Rabindrasangeet) are, effectively, the national music of Bengal. Growing up in Britain, I was picking up and absorbing all sorts of Western influences, but this was the culture I had at home. It’s hard to say whether I enjoy listening to this music because it brings back childhood years so vividly, or because the music itself is very good: a bit of both, I think. After all, glam rock of the early 70s was also part of my growing up, but I can’t say I make any special effort now to seek it out. This, however, is different.

Shapmochan (literally “The Breaking of the Spell”) is either a traditional folk story, or a story made up by Tagore in the folk style: I’m not sure. The story is narrated by a speaker, and is interspersed with some of Rabindranath’s loveliest and most moving songs. Since I can’t pick all the songs, I’ll pick the first – a tender, haunting melody of farewell.

(If anyone wants to hear this for themselves, do a search on Spotify on the word “Shapmochan”, and pick the track called “Shapmochan” that lasts about 45 minutes; this is the very famous recording made some 50 or so years ago, and featuring Suchitra Mitra and Hemanta Mukherjee. The first song – my choice above – is sung by Suchitra about a minute or so into this track.)

Brahms: Piano Concerto 2 in B flat major

I’ve always felt personally close to Brahms’ music, and this, effectively a symphony with a piano, is one of the old boy’s best.

Ravi Shankar, Ali Akbar Khan and  All Rakha: Raga Sindhi Bhairavi

This was recorded live from a concert given in 1972 inNew York, and it is the most exhilarating piece of music making I think I have ever heard. All three of these very great musicians – Ravi Shankar (sitar), Ali Akbar Khan (sarod) and Alla Rakha (tabla) – were on red-hot form that night. This piece is about half an hour long, and is, effectively, one continuous accelerando. Just when you think it can’t get any faster, it does – and the precision with which these three toss around musical phrases of great rhythmic complexity at ever-increasing tempi is mind-boggling, and takes one’s breath away.

Schubert: “Am Meer” from “Schwanengesang”

Schwanengesang was Schubert’s last collection of songs, and they are songs of pain and longing and desire. It’s virtually impossible to pick out just one song, but since them’s the rules, them’s the rules. This particular song is a setting of a poem by Heine, and, as with the Tagore song I picked earlier, it’s a song about a parting. But the mood here is deeply ambiguous. I don’t think I’ve ever heard anything quite so haunting.

Beethoven: Diabelli Variations

We all know the story of how Beethoven took a simple and trivial little theme composed by Anton Diabelli – a music publisher – and wrote 33 variations on it, transforming something utterly trivial into a massive work that communicates all moods and all states of mind imaginable, and, by the end, seems to transcend everything as it moves into new regions of sound. It seems to me sometimes a metaphor for creation itself: it’s the emergence of an entire universe out of nothing.

Nirmalendu Choudhury: “Naiya Re Sujan Naiya”

This is something else I grew up with at home. Nirmalendu was a singer of Bengali folk songs, and had the most phenomenal voice and singing technique. This song is a traditional boatman’s song (“bhatiali”), and contemplates the immensity of the river. (And you can put on that whatever metaphoric interpretation you want.) It starts quietly, but develops towards a climax of tremendous passion. The adjective “soulful” may almost have been invented just for this song.

(And if you want to sample this, I’d suggest going into Spotify again, and searching on “Nirmalendu”.)

Bartók: String Quartet 5

I would like some modernist music as well on my desert island, and I have long loved the wild passions and the passages of weird nocturnal stillness in Bartók’s string quartets. I have picked the 5th – but really, I could just as easily have picked any of the other five.

So, those are my eight. The BBC doesn’t ask us to choose a book or a luxury, which is just as well, because I really wouldn’t know what to choose. I’ll have the Bible and Shakespeare, which are both welcome, but then what? War and Peace? A Dickens novel? The poems of Tagore, perhaps, or of Wordsworth? The plays of Ibsen? I think I may just choose the complete Sherlock Holmes stories instead, but … who knows? 

Well, those are my choices. And I’d be interested in any other personal Desert Island Discs choices from anyone else out in the blogosphere.

These are a few of my favourite things…

Who hasn’t wanted to appear on Desert Island Discs? Or on Private Passions? Who hasn’t wanted to fill in a questionnaire all about one’s own self? Well, when one has one’s own blog, one can. Can’t one? So, without any apology or preamble, I shall take a leaf out of the blog Somewhere Boy, and press ahead. (And I would encourage anyone else out in Blogland to put up something similar: it’s fascinating finding out about other peoples’ tastes!) 

1. A few works of classical music that you adore:

One’s taste is always evolving, but even so, there are some constants. Mozart is my desert island composer: those three da Ponte operas, the wind serenades (I particularly love that very dark C minor serenade), the late symphonies, the piano concertos (especially the slow movement of the 17th), the divertimento for string trio, the clarinet quintet, the sinfonia concertante, etc. etc. – I adore them all.

As for other works I adore – the ones that immediately come to mind, in no particular order, are Handel’s Giulio Cesare, the 4th symphony of Brahms, Bartók’s 4th string quartet (with that haunting nocturnal movement at its centre), Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations,  Verdi’s Requiem Mass, Schubert’s G major string quartet, Mussorgsky’s epic opera Boris Godunov… I suppose I could go on and on, but that’s enough to be going on with, I think.

“What about Bach?” I hear you ask. Well, frankly, much of the time, he intimidates me. But when I do get his music, there’s nothing quite like it, and I wouldn’t think of leaving for Roy Plomley’s desert island without a recording of those wonderful Brandenburg Concertos.

2. Classical music recordings that you treasure:

Perhaps I love good singing more than anything else – there’s nothing quite to match a beautiful voice, combined with imaginative phrasing and colouring. And when all this is in the service of music that I love, that’s just heaven. Just listen to that ethereally beautiful voice of Gundula Janowitz singing the role of the Countess in Le Nozze di Figaro: is there really anything better than that? (Indeed, that whole recording is pretty damn good!) Or to Stuart Burrows singing Don Ottavio in Colin Davis’ recording of Don Giovanni. Or Lucia Popp singing the title role in Janáček’s The Cunning Little Vixen. Or Janet Baker singing the finale of Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde in that live recording conducted by Rafael Kubelik, Or, if you want emotional intensity, try Jon Vickers as Tristan, or Plácido Domingo as Otello, or Fischer-Dieskau singing Schubert’s Winterreise. And for sheer unmitigated pleasure, Jussi Björling and Victoria de los Angeles in Thomas Beecham’s recording of La Bohème. Yes, these are all famous recordings – and they’re all famous for good reason.

Even in instrumental music, it is often the singing quality of the playing I enjoy most – Yehudi Menuhin’s fiddle singing ecstatically in the recording of Beethoven’s violin concerto conducted by Wilhelm Furtwängler; or Evelyn Rothwell on the oboe and Adolf Busch on the violin making their instruments sing like angels in the slow movement of the first Brandenburg Concerto; or Pablo Casals phrasing that melody at the start of the slow movement of Schubert’s B flat trio; and so on.

I suppose I should mention a few much loved recordings of a different type: Mravinsky’s searingly intense recordings of the last three symphonies of Tchaikovsky are high on most people’s lists of greatest classical recordings, and one can see why; the Hungarian Quartet’s recordings of Schubert’s late quartets and the string quintet aren’t quite that famous, but surely deserve to be; and finally – the most jaw-droppingly beautiful orchestral sound I’ve ever heard is in that wonderful recording of Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande, with the Berlin Philharmonic conducted by Herbert von Karajan.

I think I’d best stop there.

3. Favourite non-classical musicians and/or recordings:

As I was growing up, my parents played Bengali music at home. And mostly, this meant Rabinrasangeet – i.e. songs by Rabindranath Tagore, which constitute, in effect, the national music of Bengal. Of course, it is mandatory for teenagers to reject their parent’s values, and I rebelled by conforming to this pattern. But the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, as they say, and I now find myself moved by the same songs I had once rejected. And I don’t think it’s mere nostalgia for childhood: these songs really are quite wonderful.

Another record I remember from childhood is a collection of Bengali folk songs sung by Nirmalendu Choudhury, who is little-known outside Bengal, and, from what I gather, seems now to have been largely forgotten in Bengal also. That is inexplicable, as he was an extraordinary singer: his intonation was immaculate in even the most complex of passages, his breath control and  dynamics things to wonder at, and he could put a smile in his voice, or express the most profound melancholy, with apparently the greatest of ease. I am fortunate enough to have got hold of a few CDs of his recordings (they’re not easy to get hold of), and they are very dear to me. Particularly remarkable, I think, is his singing of bhaitali – which are traditional boatmen’s songs (Bengal is situated on the Ganges delta, and the river is a significant presence): the adjective “soulful” could almost have been invented specially for these.

As for Indian classical music – the term is a bit of a misnomer: the very concept of “classical music” is Western, and its application to the music of India is approximate at best. What is usually referred to as “Indian classical music” is the system of ragas, and although I love listening to them, I do wish I understood them a bit better. As it is, I can’t tell one raga from another, and have difficulty distinguishing even between types of raga. But for all that, I treasure the recordings I have of the likes of Bhimsen Joshi, Bismillah Khan, Vilayat Khan, etc etc. And if I had to choose the most exhilarating piece of music-making I have ever heard, I would unhesitatingly choose a live recording from New York, 1972 of Ravi Shankar (sitar), Ali Akbar Khan (sarod) and Alla Rakha (tabla) playing Raga Sindhi Bhairavi.

4. Music that makes you cry – any genre:

I don’t think I cry physically, but I do often find myself very moved by music. I find this increasingly the case as I become older. And also, when I go through emotionally difficult times, it is in music that I tend to find a focal point for what I feel. Just about all the music I have mentioned so far moves me in some way or the other.

5. Definitely underrated work(s) or composer (s):

There are certain major works by major composers that seem surprisingly little known. Mozart’s divertimento for string trio, say. Or, for that matterm anything by Handel except Messiah. (How many recordings are there of Samson, say, or of Belshazzar? How frequently are they performed? And yet, they’re supreme masterpieces!) As for lesser-known composers, I don’t know that I know the works well enough to comment, although, after watching the film The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, I’ve developed a great affection for Miklós Rózsa’s violin concerto (the music from this concerto was recycled for the soundtrack of that film). But I wouldn’t make any claim for it other than that I personally enjoy it.

6. Possibly overrated work(s) or composer (s):

I have not had a musical education, and am happy to defer to those whose understanding of music exceeds mine. There is much that is highly rated that has little effect on me, or which I find myself disliking, but if musicians of the calibre of Lenny Bernstein, Yevgeny Mravinsky, Rostropovich, Haitink, etc. admire, say, the symphonies of Shostakovich, then who the hell am I to say they were wrong? I’m happy to put it down as a blind-spot. Other musical blind-spots include Berlioz, French baroque (Rameau, Couperin, Lully), Liszt, minimalist composers, etc.

7. Live music performance(s) you attended – any genre – that you’ll never forget:

Goodness!- where do I start? There’s Pierre Boulez conducting the LSO in Mahler’s 6th symphony; the concert performance of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg at the Edinburgh Festival featuring Robert Holl as Hans Sachs and a then relatively unknown young tenor called Jonas Kaufmann as Walther; Le Nozze di Figaro at Covent Garden with Carol Vaness and Thomas Allen, and with Jeffrey Tate conducting; an equally good Figaro at Covent Garden a couple pf decades later, this time featuring Barbara Frittoli and Ildebrando d’Arcangelo, and with Charles Mackerras conducting; a phenomenal sarod recital by Ali Akbar Khan at Queen Elizabeth Hall; Vladimir Jurowski conducting the LPO in Tchaikovsky’s Pathetique symphony; Tatiana Nikolayeva playing Bach’s preludes and fugues at the Wigmore Hall; the Belcea Quartet playing all six Bartok quartets over three concerts spread out on a single day; Maurizio Pollini playing the Hammerklavier Sonata; Claudio Abbado conducting Die Zauberflöte …  

8. A few relatively recent films you love:

I’m very much out of sympathy – and, consequently, out of touch – with modern films. That is not to say there aren’t any good modern films: just that there is too much that is mediocre or worse that is highly acclaimed, and I don’t really have the time or the patience to wade through them all to dig out the few good ones. Every now and then I’ll see something that has been highly acclaimed, and wonder why I bothered. So I think I’ll pass on this one.

9. A few films you consider classics:

For me, Satyajit Ray’s Apu Trilogy (Pather Panchali, Aparajito and Apur Sansar) – based on two quite wonderful Bengali novels by Bibhuthibhushan Banerji – is among cinema’s finest artistic achievements: they move me possibly more than I think I could explain. These three films do, however, overshadow other films by Ray of comparable artistry – most notably Charulata, Aranyer Din Ratri (aka Days and Nights in the Forest) and Ashani Sanket (aka Distant Thunder).

But my greatest love is Laurel and Hardy. With a couple of exceptions (Way Out West and Sons of the Desert), they were at their best in the two-reelers. When we first acquired a DVD player, my first priority was to get myself those classic Stan & Ollie pictures, and when I finally am invited on to Desert Island Discs and Kirsty Young asks me what my luxury is, I won’t hesitate.

Other than that, I think I love classic Hollywood best. Of course, there are many European and Japanese films I love dearly – from La Grande Illusion to Bicycle Thieves, Fanny and Alexander to Ran, Fitzcarraldo to Stalker – but ultimately, the films I tend to love best are film noir, the Jimmy Cagney gangster movies, screwball comedies, Marx Brothers, the films of Billy Wilder (Double Indemnity, The Lost Weekend, Sunset Boulevard) and of John Ford (The Grapes of Wrath, They Were Expendable, My Darling Clementine), and so on. And yes – Citizen Kane, which is wonderful despite everyone saying it is.

I am also a great fan of Chaplin. People queue up to say he isn’t funny, but if that’s the case, I really don’t know why I’m laughing. City Lights and Modern Times, especially, are wonderfully moving films.

I’m not sure why I enjoy being scared, but I do. I grew up with Hammer horror films, and love them still. But the film that unsettles me most, even after multiple viewings, is The Innocents, Jack Clayton’s superb adaptation of Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw.

The 70s were really my era. British cinema was in decline by then after a peak in the 60s and early 70s (films like This Sporting Life, Kes, Sunday Bloody Sunday etc.) but outside Britain, directors of the calibre of Ray, Kurasawa, Bergman, Tarkovsky, Buñuel, Herzog, Fellini, etc. were still active (and often at their best) in the 70s. Meanwhile, from the US, we had films of the quality of The Godfather & The Godfather Part 2, Chinatown, Mean Streets, Five Easy Pieces, The Outlaw Josey Wales, The Last Detail, etc. But it all went downhill from the late 70s onwards: the phenomenal success of the Star Wars films, and of the big-budget kiddies’ movies from Spielberg, heralded a juvenilisation of cinema, and we still haven’t recovered. Clint Eastwood continued to make films of distinction, but he was something of an exception: even directors who had done good work in the past seemed to go off the boil (Coppola is a conspicuous example of this). But I’m glad that my teenage years coincided with what, in retrospect, may be seen as a golden era.

 10. A book (or two) that is important to you (and why):

It’s a good job that I’m restricted to “a book (or two)”, otherwise, I’d be here all day. But I’ll take the liberty of extending ithe one or two books to four. The first is The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, for reasons that really are too obvious to be stated, and too difficult to articulate; War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy, because, as Someone-or-other once put it, it’s about everything that is important in life; The Poems of Rabindranath Tagore because, as a Bengali, I don’t have a choice on the matter; and, finally, The Complete Sherlock Holmes Stories, for what would I read at bedtime otherwise?

 11. Thing(s) about yourself that you’re most proud of:

My extraordinary ability to fold my tongue simultaneously along two perpendicular axes.

 12. Thing(s) about yourself that you’re embarrassed by:

My utter lack of physical co-ordination, which manifests itself spectacularly when, at weddings or at similar functions, I am persuaded against my better judgement to take to the dance floor.

 13. Three things you can’t live without:

Should I embarrass my family by nominating them in this category? Will they be pleased by the nomination, or will they feel insulted that they are nominated alongside my collection of malt whiskies? All right, let’s leave family members out of it. I nominate my library, my CD collection, and my malt whiskies.

 14. “When I want to get away from it all I…”

Get into my dressing gown and slippers, curl up in my armchair with a glass of deep, satisfying malt whisky, and put on a Hammer horror film – something classy, like Taste the Blood of Dracula – on my DVD player. Or I read a Sherlock Holmes story.

 15. “People are surprised to find out that I…”

…genuinely enjoy watching football. I don’t know why that should surprise anyone: maybe I don’t look like a footie-loving person. But I am. (Note: If there’s any transatlantic reader out there, please read “soccer” instead of ”football”.)

 16. “My favorite cities are…”

Having grown up in Glasgow, I shouldn’t really mention Edinburgh here, but I will, as it’s a spectacularly lovely and characterful city. I have also developed an attachment to my adopted city, London. And, having come back from a holiday there, Venice must be high on any list.

17. “I have a secret crush on…”

Doesn’t Kirsty Young have a really sexy voice? The way she says “Time for your fourth record …”  Damn! – it isn’t a secret anymore!

18. “My most obvious guilty pleasure is…”

Malt whisky and Hammer horror films. But I don’t really feel very guilty about either.

 19. “I’d really love to meet – or to have met…”

Kirsty Young, with that sexy voice of hers, interviewing me as guest on Desert Island Discs. Come on Kirsty – what are you waiting for?

 20. “I never understood why…”

… why there is anything at all instead of nothing.

BONUS QUESTION:

21. Question you wish someone would ask you (and the answer to that question):

Q: Why do you think Tolstoy is the greatest of all novelists?

A: Now, I’m very glad you asked me that … [cont. P 873]