Posts Tagged ‘Tolstoy’

Affirmation and denial

I was moved by a story I read recently of a terminally ill lady who had wished, before she died, to see for one last time her favourite painting by Rembrandt. A photograph showed this lady, still in the bed that she presumably could no longer leave, in front of a late Rembrandt self-portrait; and the sense of reverence – for I know no other word more suitable in this context – that I felt on seeing this picture seemed to go even beyond the respect that is due to those of us facing the fact of our transience.


Now, to admit to such feelings is to risk being labelled “sentimental”, but I have long found that a troublesome word. The “sentimental” is usually defined as that which exhibits “false emotion”, but I don’t know if that will do: for how can one be sure that any emotion displayed is necessarily false? Most of us do not have the ability to express adequately what we feel most deeply, and when we try, what comes out, all too often, is merely vapid, but this vapidity does not in itself necessarily betoken falseness at the source, where the emotion is felt. And in any case, we don’t really deem anything as “sentimental” on the basis of what we think was intended, but, rather, on the impression it makes on us, and this, inevitably, is to a great extent subjective. However, try as I might, I cannot come up with an alternative definition that is independent of the subjective reactions of the viewer. None of this to say that sentimentality does not exist – not everything that exists can be adequately defined, after all: but it does mean, I think, that we should be careful about bandying that term around too freely. And if my being moved by the picture of the ill lady in front of the Rembrandt painting does indeed appear “sentimental”, I can only appeal to the reader’s generosity in this matter: whatever falseness of emotion the reader may detect is in the inadequacy of my expression, rather than in the sincerity of my feeling.

And somehow, the picture this lady asked to see just had to be a Rembrandt. Now, I do not claim to be any great expert on the visual arts, and my lack of knowledge possibly reflects my relative lack of perception: I have long felt that I am less keenly receptive to the visual arts than I am to literature or to music. Nonetheless, if there is any artist whose work looks unblinkingly at life, that refuses to shirk anything that may be deemed unpleasant or unattractive, and yet affirms what it sees, that artist would be Rembrandt.


“The Jewish Bride” by Rembrandt, courtesy Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

I have stood in front of Rembrandt’s The Jewish Bride, currently hanging in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, in a state of inarticulate wonder. It depicts two figures, a man and a woman, surrounded by darkness. He is looking at her, his left hand placed upon her shoulder, and his right hand upon her breast – not lewdly, nor roughly, but with the utmost gentleness: how Rembrandt could depict the tender softness of a touch merely with paint I do not know, but there it is: the miracle is there for all to see. She acknowledges his touch by laying her hand, equally softly and gently, upon his. And she gazes, not at him, but into the distance: whatever vision it is she sees there, we do not know. The strength of the emotions felt by these two people is reflected in the richness of the paints: not even the finest reproduction can convey the thick, opulent impasto (I believe that’s the correct term, but would be happy to be corrected if it isn’t) which Rembrandt’s applies to the man’s sleeve; or that deepest hue of red that Rembrandt uses for the woman’s dress – a red that is neither shocking nor garish, but is, somehow, utterly consonant with the still serenity of the composition. What we see in this painting is an earthly love, a human love, not transformed into something other than what it is, nor even perhaps transcending what it is, but as it is, where it is, justifying itself merely by being, and defying with its presence the surrounding darkness.


Detail from “The Jewish Bride” by Rembrandt, courtesy Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam. “The miracle is there for all to see…”

More than this I fear to say, for fear, once again, of appearing sentimental. So afraid are we of this terrible charge, we prefer to present ourselves as hard-bitten cynics, as sceptics and detractors, and misanthropes and sneerers, rather than try to express, however inadequately, what we sometimes most long to say. But this lady whose last wish it was to see her favourite Rembrandt painting was, presumably, beyond all this. She did not have to say anything, of course, but she knew that what Rembrandt conveyed was more than just a momentary diversion, more than just a fashionable currency of lifestyle. For this is what a great artistic vision can come to mean: it justifies itself merely by being. And if that sounds sentimental, I have to ask, as ever, what precisely we mean by the term.

However, even while I was moved by the lady’s dying wish, I could not help wondering whether the affirmative nature of Rembrandt’s vision is among the principal factors – or, indeed, whether it is a factor at all – in determining the immensity of his artistic vision. For not all works affirm. Many, indeed, deny. I do not necessarily mean tragic works, for it is a commonly acknowledged truth that even the most despairing of tragedies can affirm. And conversely, there are comedies that can deny: what better than the comic mode, after all, to deflate, to reveal our aspirations as mere affectations, our beliefs as delusions, and to tell us that there is nothing serious in mortality? The dichotomy that increasingly seems to me more important than that of the tragic and the comic is that of affirmation and of denial. The self-portrait that the lady so wanted to see in her dying days is, in many ways, a tragic work: Rembrandt paints his failing flesh as it is, with no attempt to hide the nearness of his own extinction; and yet, despite the tragic foreboding, it affirms: even when that extinction comes, even if there is no afterlife that is promised us by religion, the very existence of that flesh, failing though it is, is, in Rembrandt’s vision, its own justification. This painting, however tragic we may take it to be, is a defiant affirmation of the significance of life. But there is another kind of art that does quite the opposite – that denies; and I am not sure that this art is any lesser. At least, not for this particular reason.

We may find in literature also this dichotomy between affirmation and denial. Tolstoy, in War and Peace, wrote, effectively, a hymn to life; Flaubert, on the other hand, saw all human activity as futile. (Except for his recording of that futility: that, if nothing else, was important.) But does that difference alone make Tolstoy a greater artist than Flaubert? I don’t think so. And this leaves us with a conundrum: it is easy to understand, or even feel, reverence for works that affirm; one may understand why it may be one’s dying wish to experience again, for one last time, such works of art. But can any reverence be felt at all for the naysayers? And if so, why?

I have puzzled over this for many years now, and, not having come across any answer yet that satisfies me, have convinced myself that there is no answer. However, I was fascinated by a characteristically thoughtful essay I came across recently by Theodore Dalrymple that seemed to me to touch on these very themes. In the course of this essay, he compares a charming painting by Joshua Reynolds of a child, her arms around her beloved pet dog, smiling at the viewer, with the extremely disturbing images of contemporary artist Marlene Dumas. Dalrymple is, I think it fair to say, a cultural conservative, but the essay is far from an easy and predictable praise of the past and condemnation of the present: or, at least, if that was what Dalrymple had intended, he doesn’t make things easy for himself. The painting he has chosen from the past is one that many nowadays may describe as “twee” or – that word again – “sentimental”; and the contemporary artist whose work he has chosen is, in Dalrymple’s own words, “unquestionably … an artist of great talent”. He refuses, however, to see tweeness or sentimentality in Reynolds’ painting – and rightly so, I think: the charms and the delights of childhood, the uncomplicated happiness and innocence of one who has yet to experience much that disturbs either, are aspects of human life that are every bit as important as are the darker elements, and every bit as worthy of the artist’s attention. But it is when we come to the works of Marlene Dumas that the whole issue becomes considerably more complex, because her images of childhood seem drenched in a pervasive sense of evil. Dalrymple describes these images eloquently, and, following the link he provides, I was reminded as nothing so much as Dickens’ horrific and horrified description in A Christmas Carol of a similar evil lurking in the forms of children:

Where graceful youth should have filled their features out, and touched them with its freshest tints, a stale and shrivelled hand, like that of age, had pinched, and twisted them, and pulled them into shreds. Where angels might have sat enthroned, devils lurked, and glared out menacing. No change, no degradation, no perversion of humanity, in any grade, through all the mysteries of wonderful creation, has monsters half so horrible and dread.

Dalrymple pays generous tribute to the power of Dumas’ art, but questions the value of presenting in one’s art such unremitting horror and ugliness. While I am broadly in sympathy with him on this matter, it does seem to me that Dumas’ art, for all its ugliness, has an important place. After all, presentation of such horror and ugliness is nothing new in art: as we have seen, Dickens himself – that epitome of all that is warm and jovial – was no stranger to it; and neither, of course, was Goya, whose “Black Paintings”, and series of prints The Disasters of War, take us into a physical and spiritual hell in which, to judge from the stories still dominating our news headlines, we remain still mired. To insist that artists must turn away from such ugliness and horror is no better than the insistence that Reynolds’ painting, focussing solely as it does on beauty and charm, is somehow “sentimental”.

Of course, Dalrymple does not insist on this at all: he is too sophisticated a writer for that. But his questioning of what value there can there be in an art that only denies is, I think, entirely legitimate. Is it possible, after all, to imagine anyone close to death wishing to see for one last time Marlene Dumas’ art – or, for that matter, Goya’s Saturn Devouring His Son? No, I don’t think so. But that does not make it inferior art. Goya’s denial has, it seems to me, as much a claim to artistic greatness as does Rembrandt’s affirmation. But why this should be, I do not know. It is possible, I think, to understand why even the darkest of tragedies may inspire in us the reverence that is due to the greatest works of art; but why any reverence should be due at all to that which denies, remains, for me at least, a mystery.


“Saturn Devouring his Son” by Goya, courtesy Prado, Madrid

It is the conclusion to Dalrymple’s essay that I fiund particularly striking:

While some would no doubt accuse Reynolds of having avoided the less refined aspects of his society (a charge that could be levied against hundreds or thousands of artists), Dumas is guilty of a much greater evasion, caused by a fear of beauty. In a perceptive note in the catalog of her exhibition, by the critic Wendy Simon, we learn of this fear. Simon draws attention to “the extreme ambivalence we now feel towards beauty both within and outside art,” and continues: “We distrust it; we fear its power; we associate it with compulsion and uncontrollable desire of a sexual fetish. Embarrassed by our yearning for beauty, we demean it as something tawdry, self-indulgent, or sentimental.”

Is it true that we nowadays fear “beauty”, that we have “rejected” it? We still, after all, swoon to colourful sunsets; many are prepared to travel half way around the world to see the Taj Mahal. But in art that we produce? After all, no serious artist would paint like Reynolds nowadays. I do not mean this merely in terms of style: styles, of course, can and must change. What I mean is that no serious artist would nowadays depict the uncomplicated innocence and charm that Reynolds depicted, without even the slightest hint of the shadows that lie in wait. I am, of course, far from being an expert in modern art, and would be happy to be corrected on this point, but, when I consider all the various branches of the arts, it strikes me that there has been very little produced within, say, my own lifetime, the last half-century and more, that could rightly be called “affirmative”. It is not denial per se that perturbs me: for whatever reason, denial has its rightful place, in even the very greatest of the arts, and is nothing new. What perturbs me more (and I think it perturbs Dalrymple also) is our shutting out of affirmation.

It seems to me very much the case that when it comes to our artistic endeavours, we are, in critic Wendy Simon’s words (quoted by Dalrymple in his essay), “embarrassed by our yearning for beauty”. Indeed, it seems to me to me that, in many cases, we take a delight in ugliness, as if mocking this yearning for beauty that so embarrasses us. And should any of us dissent from this unremitting denial, there is that term that always shuts us up, that accusation to which there is no answer: sentimental. Even when trying to express what we feel about something as ineffable as Rembrandt’s Jewish Bride, we find ourselves compelled to use the word “unsentimental”, as if pre-empting the criticism we know is bound to crop up.

Some readers may be wondering at this point why I am so glibly conflating beauty with affirmation, and ugliness with denial. It is a fair point. Beauty does not, of course, always equate to affirmation: after all, Flaubert’s great novels of denial are undoubtedly “beautiful”, however we may define that term. But ugliness, it seems to me, can be nothing other than a denial. Of course, much depends upon our definitions, but since even the finest of philosophical minds have struggled in defining these terms, I don’t know that I would like foolishly to rush in here. Nonetheless, I can’t help feeling that anything that affirms is, inevitably, beautiful: it is beautiful precisely because it does affirm. The couple in Rembrandt’s The Jewish Bride are not particularly beautiful as people: neither has what we may call “film star looks”. Of course, there’s beauty in the composition, the colours, the handling of the paint, and so on: without Rembrandt’s genius in such matters, the painting would merely be an attempt at affirmation rather than the real thing. But Goya, too, displayed the very finest of genius in all of these areas, and yet I don’t think anyone could ever describe his “Black Paintings” as beautiful without stretching the definition of the word to something beyond everyday recognition. If we can think of The Jewish Bride as “beautiful” and withhold that term when describing Saturn Devouring his Son, the reason is purely in terms of the respective visions these two paintings convey: the affirmation in one case is “beautiful”, but the denial in the other isn’t, cannot be. The relations between affirmation and beauty, on the one hand, and between ugliness and denial on the other, are complex, and while the correlation may not be perfect, it does, I think, exist. The embarrassment that Wendy Simon had noted about our yearning for beauty seems to me to be an embarrassment for the very concept of affirmation itself.

Dalrymple further says:

Our view of the world has become so politicized that we think that the unembarrassed celebration of beauty is a sign of insensibility to suffering and that exclusively to focus on the world’s deformations, its horrors, is in itself a sign of compassion.

Indeed. And the “celebration of beauty” that seems to us a “sign of insensibility to suffering” seems to me identical to the affirmation that, when it comes to the arts at least, we seem no longer able to believe in.

In the introduction to the old Penguin Classics edition of Flaubert’s L’Education Sentimentale, translator Robert Baldick tells a revealing anecdote. Once, when approached by an admirer of that novel, Flaubert, though pleasantly surprised by the admiration, expressed his feeling that his novel would never be widely liked. What people expect from art, he said, is this – and he brought together the fingertips of both his hands to form a peak; “but I,” he continued, “gave them this” – and he turned his fingers downwards to indicate a bottomless chasm. Flaubert, I think, was wrong on this point: we are all children of Flaubert nowadays, and that bottomless chasm, the denial, is what strikes us now as the only truth: everything else is merely sentimental.

But this is not, I think, the whole story. Even the greatest of naysayers can, if they are sufficiently great artists, affirm. Even Dickens, having presented to us children in whom angels may have sat enthroned but in whom devils lurk, could end that same novel with untrammelled joy. I, for one, cannot deny him that joy (though many do) because it has been hard won: Dickens had looked unblinkingly into the abyss before he could reach this point. Goya too, perhaps the greatest naysayer in all art, painted towards the very end of his life The Milkmaid, a work that seems to radiate a beatific and visionary light. I have only seen this painting in reproduction, but, sentimental old fool that I no doubt am, even reproductions can move me beyond words. In his “Black Paintings”, in The Disasters of War, Goya had travelled through Hell itself: we cannot now deny him this hard won joy. And if we can respond still to such joy, if some of us can still as our last wish ask to see again a painting of Rembrandt’s, then, it seems to me, there is still room even in our modern world for art that affirms. We need that affirmation now as much as we ever did – not the easy affirmation of the feelgood movie, which is as insubstantial as the easy denial that is so often mistaken for the truth – but an affirmation that is deeply felt, and hard won.


“The Milkmaid” by Goya, courtesy Prado, Madrid

A damp squib and a thing of wonder to start the New Year

I didn’t want to write about the new BBC dramatisation of War and Peace – really I didn’t: I wanted to start the New Year on a positive note.

That’s very prejudiced of me, isn’t it? But we all have our prejudices, and it’s perhaps better admitting to them than pretending that we come to everything with an entirely open mind. But I don’t know that my negativity on this score is completely a matter of prejudice: the dramatisations that have appeared on television in recent years of classic novels have not, after all, been such as to inspire much confidence. Not in me, at any rate.

One may justly say “So what?” I don’t need to watch if I don’t want to. And, as Bogart didn’t quite say, we’ll always have Penguin Classics. But it seems to me, nonetheless, a question worth posing: why is it that these classic novels, so crammed with dramatic potential, make for such poor television drama?

Of course, not everyone will agree that this is poor television drama: just browsing through Twitter, I see that reactions to it are, on the whole, quite favourable. So let’s rephrase the question slightly: why is it that these classic novels, so crammed with dramatic potential, make for what seems to me to be such poor television drama? Now, no-one can object to that, surely!

It’s not the acting: there really is no shortage of acting talent. Neither is it the cinematography or the set designs: just about everything on television these days looks superb, and far outstrips the BBC productions that I grew up with back in the 70s and 80s, with their cardboard sets, and their handful of actors doing their best to teem in the crowd scenes. I’m afraid it’s the script. The underlying assumption appears nowadays to be that any individual scene that lasts longer than a minute or so will bore the audience, weaned as they all are on pop videos and on computer games; and so, before any scene is given a chance to get going, we have to be whisked off elsewhere to stop us reaching fro our remote controls.

This approach to drama has many problems. For one, it becomes very difficult to characterise to anything beyond a superficial level; and when the characters are profound and complex, and the relations between them intricate (as they generally tend to be in novels of any quality), all the profundity and complexity and intricacy are ironed out, leaving only a skeleton outline of the plot. Now, I have myself written a part-by-part synopsis of War and Peace (I did this many years ago when I was leading a group read of the novel on a now defunct books board: I have put these synopses up here), but let’s not pretend that mere synopses of the plot can be in any way representative of the novel itself. All they can convey is a sequence of events: the various complexities of character and of situation that have given rise to these events; and the significance of these events; don’t even reach the surface. In short, the very features that make these novels such towering works of the human imagination go missing.

On top of this, it becomes impossible to control the pacing. In any well-paced drama, there are finely judged rises and falls in tension, giving the drama its shape. But when the pace of editing is more or less the same throughout, all that emerges is a mere shapeless sequence of events, each following the preceding with the same monotonous plod.

And, of course, there’s the assumption that the modern audience, being ever so much more sophisticated than the readership Tolstoy had written for, needs sex. And lots of it. Sex, rumpy-pumpy, screwing, shagging, bonking, how’s your father – whatever we modern sophisticates choose to call it. In the novel, Tolstoy hints, only in passing, of an incestuous affair between brother and sister Anatole and Hélène, but modern sophisticated minds such as ours can’t handle hints. So, while so much of vital importance in the novel was cut in this adaptation, room was made for a scene in which Anatole frolics in bed with his naked sister: for, of course, only when sex is presented explicitly can it get through our thick modern sophisticated skulls.

Well, let’s not labour the point: this latest adaptation is obviously not aimed for me, so what I may have to say about it is quite irrelevant. But it saddens me, nonetheless: it was, after all, the BBC dramatisation from 1972 that first aroused my enthusiasm for this novel. I was only twelve or so at the time, but I remember fondly saving up my pocket money in an old biscuit tin, and, once I had enough, triumphantly marching into a Glasgow bookshop and taking the Penguin Classics edition up to the sales desk. I read through the whole thing that summer: as with my first encounter with Shakespeare a few years earlier, when I had seen Timothy West play King Lear on stage at the Edinburgh Festival, my reading War and Peace in the summer of ’73 was one of the turning points that helped make me, for better or for worse, the person I now am.

The adaptation that had so inspired me was marvellous: true, the sets indeed look very cardboard these days, and the battle scenes, done on a 70s BBC budget, are less than spectacular; but Jack Pulman’s script really set standards for transferring a great novel to the screen. As for the acting – Morag Hood’s rather stylised performance as Natasha didn’t quite come off (possibly Natasha, as described by Tolstoy, is an impossible character to bring off convincingly in performance), but the rest of the cast, including a then relatively unknown Antony Hopkins as Pierre, was without exception superb.

Well, that’s enough nostalgia for one post. I always fear I’ll come across as some crabby old git who automatically damns anything modern in favour of what things used to be like back in my days … and, no doubt, such an image is not too far from the truth. But it’s not, I hope, the whole truth. After all, I have nothing but praise for an audio version of War and Peace that was broadcast on BBC radio only ten years ago (and yes, ten years ago counts as “modern” in my book!). And, lest it be thought that I am too curmudgeonly in starting a new year of blogging with a “why oh why?” piece, let me try to balance that a bit: for, only hours before the first part of the BBC War and Peace, I saw in the local cinema a broadcast of The Winter’s Tale that was simply a thing of wonder.

The production was by the Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company, and Branagh himself played Leontes. I had never actually seen Branagh play Shakespeare on stage before: his stage production of Twelfth Night was just wonderful, but he only directed that, and didn’t appear in it. There are the films he made, of course, but, whatever Branagh’s talents, film direction doesn’t appear to be amongst them. But no matter: the performance he gives here on stage is as remarkable as his direction (he co-directed with Rob Ashford). And the generally young cast is well supported by such experienced old hands as Judi Dench and Michael Pennington.

The play itself is a miracle. It is about love and jealousy, about irrational evil that breaks out for no apparent reason and destroys all in its path; it is about guilt and atonement, and forgiveness and renewal; it is about the cycles of life, about pain and grief, and about joy and hope; it is, indeed, about everything that is important in our human lives, all encompassed in its fairy tale form. And finally, it is about the Resurrection itself. A rational explanation is suggested towards the end to explain away the miracle, but we don’t believe it: as Chesterton’s Father Brown put it, it is easier to believe in the impossible rather than the improbable:

“I can believe in the impossible, but not the improbable … It’s what I call common sense, properly understood,’ replied Father Brown. ‘It really is more natural to believe a preternatural story, that deals with things we don’t understand, than a natural story that contradicts things we do understand. Tell me that the great Mr Gladstone, in his last hours, was haunted by the ghost of Parnell, and I will be agnostic about it. But tell me that Mr Gladstone, when first presented to Queen Victoria, wore his hat in her drawing–room and slapped her on the back and offered her a cigar, and I am not agnostic at all. That is not impossible; it’s only incredible.”

  • From the Incredulity of Father Brown by G. K. Chesterton


Shakespeare knew this, of course: he knew everything He knew that we wouldn’t attach any credibility to that absurd story of Hermione living apart for all those years: far easier to believe that she was brought back like Alcestis from the grave. That final scene, which never fails to strike me with a sense of wonder, is Shakespeare’s vision of the Resurrection itself. But there is no triumph here: the joy is subdued, and sorrowful. In Shakespeare’s vision, the sorrows and griefs we experience in our earthly lives cannot all be wiped away: they continue to cast their shadows even in eternity, and the best we can hope for is a forgiveness and a sorrowful understanding that is, at least, a sort of joy. It is an ending that leaves me in tears every time I experience it, whether in the study, or in the theatre, or, as here, in the cinema.

And this would not have been possible in those good old days of my childhood that I look back on so fondly. Thanks to modern technology, the glories of our theatres – where standards seem to me as high as they have ever been – and of our opera houses can now be beamed worldwide to far greater numbers than previous generations could have dreamed possible.

So there – having said that, I think I can safely say that I am not a curmudgeonly old sod after all. Not completely, at any rate.

A Happy New Year to you all!

“Women in Love” by D. H. Lawrence

Note: I suppose I should preface this post with what is known as a “spoiler warning”, as it is impossible to discuss this novel even superficially without mentioning certain particulars of its plot, such as it is. However, this novel is not by any stretch of the imagination a plot-driven novel, and the question “what happens next” is not what keeps the reader reading. As such, any prior knowledge of what the plot offers does not, in my opinion, detract from the experience of the novel in any way, even for the first time reader. But if you haven’t yet read this novel, and are planning to, and would prefer not to know what happens next, it’s probably best to give this post a miss.

Towards the end of Women in Love, shortly before the narrative hurtles towards its catastrophic climax, Lawrence treats us to a scene of rare comedy. Gudrun and Gerald, on their way to an Alpine resort, are in a smart London café, the Pompadour, and at a nearby table sit some people they know from the arty, bohemian set. These people are laughing very loudly: they are much amused by the rather absurd figure of Rupert Birkin, who is absent from this scene, and who is a friend of Gerald’s, and, at this stage of the novel, the husband of Gudrun’s sister Ursula. Birkin, a thinly disguised portrait of Lawrence himself, feels things very passionately, and speaks his mind openly and frankly. And he speaks about things that matter to him, things that are, to him, of vital importance: love, mortality, sex, passion, our place in the universe, the future of humanity itself – in short, all those things one normally doesn’t talk about in polite society, except perhaps superficially. These people find Birkin’s po-faced earnestness dreadfully funny. One of them produces a letter Birkin has written, and, to everyone’s great amusement, starts to read it aloud. Gudrun, who has never herself been particularly close to Birkin, is nonetheless irritated, and offended on his behalf. Why does he write to these people? she asks herself. Why does he so expose his very soul to their superficial jeers? Eventually, she walks up to them, and asks if the letter is genuine. Oh yes, they tell her, perfectly genuine. “May I see?” Keen, perhaps, to share the joke with her, they hand her the letter, whereupon she politely thanks them, and calmly walks out of the café, letter in hand.

It is a surprising scene in many ways. For one, it displays a comic streak in Lawrence’s make-up that I, for one, had not suspected. But more intriguingly, I think, it indicates that Lawrence knew perfectly well how his work was likely to be received in many quarters, of the mockery and laughter his earnestness would invite. And, at that specific moment, I understood Gudrun. At other times in the novel, I found it difficult to enter her mind – to relate to her, to use current book-group parlance. But at that moment, I could very much relate to her: for Lawrence’s earnestness, his seriousness of purpose, his very intense perceptions of this world, whether one sympathises with them or not, are not things to be jeered at. Quite the opposite: in times such as ours when superficiality is so prized, these are things to be thankful for.

For this novel, like its predecessor The Rainbow, is unashamedly about serious matters. It is not surprising that Lawrence’s stock, which was so high back in the 60s and 70s, has now fallen: modern taste prefers its serious dough to be leavened with a bit of wit and humour and a lightness of touch, but Lawrence will have none of it. Even if it meant appearing ridiculous.

The four protagonists of this novel are all driven by ideas. They speak about these ideas openly to each other, baring their very souls in a manner many readers find disconcerting. Of course, it may be objected, people in real life don’t speak like this, but that seems to me a pointless criticism: people don’t speak to each other in Jamesian prose either, nor in Shakespearean blank verse, but that does not prevent us appreciating The Wings of the Dove or Othello.  Lawrence was not aiming for photographic realism, any more than Henry James or Shakespeare were. The realism he was aiming for was clearly of a different order, and, in order to get closer to it than I have previously managed, I had, I felt, to trust the author, to put behind me my modern impatience with high seriousness. Better at least to be Gudrun in the Pompadour than that arty bohemian set ridiculing that which they do not even make the attempt to understand.

But, it will be objected, much of what these characters say is meaningless – gibberish, even. Especially much of what Birkin says – and, he, after all, is a self-portrait, and hence, Lawrence’s mouthpiece. What’s he on about anyway? What exactly is Birkin trying to say? Even to ask such questions is, it seems to me, to misunderstand the nature of the book. For this is a novel, not a tract: it is a book not really about ideas, as such, but about people who are driven by ideas, and this, I think, is an important distinction. The ideas these people have are often inchoate and incoherent, and sometimes even preposterous: none of the characters here has a grand comprehensive message to impart to the world, and neither, I think, does Lawrence himself. But they are all searching, grasping, exploring different possibilities; trying desperately to articulate what they feel so intensely, to pin down that which cannot be pinned down in a world in which nothing seems solid; failing, trying again, failing better. They are not consistent: their thoughts ebb and flow depending on their state of being, whom they are with, and any number of other factors. And they come into conflict with each other – often bitter conflict. There is no lovers’ tiff in literature to compare with the ones Ursula has with Birkin:

‘This is a degrading exhibition,’ he said coolly.

‘Yes, degrading indeed,’ she said. ‘But more to me than to you.’

‘Since you choose to degrade yourself,’ he said. Again the flash came over her face, the yellow lights concentrated in her eyes.

You!‘ she cried. ‘You! You truth-lover! You purity-monger! It stinks, your truth and your purity. It stinks of the offal you feed on, you scavenger dog, you eater of corpses. You are foul, foul, and you must know it. Your purity, your candour, your goodness—yes, thank you, we’ve had some. What you are is a foul, deathly thing, obscene, that’s what you are, obscene and perverse. You, and love! You may well say, you don’t want love. No, you want yourself, and dirt, and death—that’s what you want. You are so perverse, so death-eating. And then—’

And even by the end, as those startling final lines make clear, the conflicts aren’t resolved. Resolving conflicts, presenting clear, reasoned arguments, conveying a coherent message – not only are these all beside the point, they are quite antithetical to the heart of the matter. For it is not really the ideas that matter: the novel is far, far more than the sum of its characters’ ideas, such as they are. What this novel depicts is people locked in these ideas, in conflict with them and with each other, struggling desperately to find something they know not what. It is a depiction of four very different people struggling to make some sort of sense of their lives.

Much of this had emerged also in The Rainbow, but Women in Love, we know almost from the first sentence, places us in a world which, though physically the same as the world presented earlier and featuring some of the same characters, inhabits a very different fictional landscape. The Rainbow had taken the form of a sort of family saga: not a traditional family saga, perhaps, but the links with tradition were still visible in the depiction of the majestic progress of generations succeeding and supplanting each other. But here, the break with tradition is more apparent. The novel opens with two sisters discussing marriage, and we could be in Middlemarch say; but these sisters seem already weary with the world; from the very start, they seem to have no illusions to lose:

“Don’t you find yourself getting bored?” she asked of her sister. “Don’t you find that things fail to materialize? Nothing materializes! Everything withers in the bud.”

“What withers in the bud?” asked Ursula.

“Oh, everything – oneself – things in general.” There was a pause, while each sister vaguely considered her fate.

What it takes Dorothea Brooke bitter experience to realise, these sisters seem already to know. But vaguely, only vaguely. Everything in this novel is in a state of flux: nothing can be pinned down for sure.

Soon, the men are introduced to complete the quartet: there’s Rupert Birkin, a school inspector; and Gerald Crich, eldest son of the family that owns the local coal mines. All these characters are on edge in their different ways, their nerves frayed.

Gerald is energetic and powerful, and manages the coal mine with a ruthless efficiency. And he is masterful: he is determined to master the world around him into usefulness, as he has mastered the coal-mines. When his horse is frightened by passing of a train, Gerald pits his will against the horse’s, forcing the creature to stand by the tracks despite its intense terror. (This episode of Gerald attempting to impose his will on the horse may remind the reader of Vronsky in Anna Karenina: for all their obvious differences, Tolstoy and Lawrence do cross paths at times in quite surprising ways.) As Ursula says, Gerald has “plenty of go”. But then, Gudrun asks ominously, “where does his go go to, what becomes of it?” As the novel progresses, this question resounds more insistently: Gerald has go, yes, but seems aware of a profound emptiness within himself. It is here his mastery stops: he is frightened even to look inside.

When he had been a boy, we are told, he had accidentally killed his brother with a gun he hadn’t realised was loaded. The sisters disagree about the import of this incident:

‘Perhaps there was an unconscious will behind it,’ said Ursula. ‘This playing at killing has some primitive desire for killing in it, don’t you think?’

‘Desire!’ said Gudrun, coldly, stiffening a little. ‘I can’t see that they were even playing at killing. I suppose one boy said to the other, “You look down the barrel while I pull the trigger, and see what happens.” It seems to me the purest form of accident.’

‘No,’ said Ursula. ‘I couldn’t pull the trigger of the emptiest gun in the world, not if some-one were looking down the barrel. One instinctively doesn’t do it—one can’t.’

Gudrun was silent for some moments, in sharp disagreement.

The incident is reported rather than depicted, and the reader has to decide which of the two sisters is nearer the truth – to what extent, indeed, Gerald may have had, or has still, the desire to kill.

He certainly desires Gudrun. Immediately following the death of his father, unable to make sense of the great mystery he has witnessed, his mind in turmoil and only half aware of what he is doing, he finds his way into the Brangwens’ family home at night, and presents himself in Gudrun’s bedroom. He does not know why he has come, why he has so risked being caught. “What do you want of me?” Gudrun asks, in a voice described as “estranged”.

“I came – because I must,” he said. “Why do you ask?”

She looked at him in doubt and wonder.

“I must ask,” she said.

“There is no answer,” he replied, with strange vacancy.

Gudrun takes pity on him, and they become lovers, but pity is hardly an adequate basis to satisfy the needs and desires of these people, needs and desires the nature of which they cannot even begin to articulate, even to themselves. And that “strange vacancy” within Gerald becomes ever more apparent: where, indeed, does all that go go to? The question resounds all the more strongly in the final section of the novel, set in an Alpine resort, where, surrounded on all sides by blank walls of icy whiteness, Gerald, now openly despised by Gudrun, finds that there really is nowhere for that go to go to: it can only turn in upon itself, and embrace death, the icy chill of the outside world reflecting the icy chill of his own inner emptiness.

As in Anna Karenina, the strand of this tragic couple is intertwined with a strand featuring a happier couple – Ursula Brangwen and Rupert Birkin; but, also as in Anna Karenina, happiness, if such it is, is a complex thing: it is not final, it is not absolute, for nothing here can be final or absolute: they are forever locked in conflict, Ursula disagreeing with and fighting bitterly virtually everything Birkin says, everything that is important to him. But this conflict does not imply unhappiness, or even incompatibility, for in this of all novels, people’s motives, the dark roots of their words and their actions, remain inscrutable and mysterious, and elude comprehension: these people don’t themselves understand why they say or act as they do. When questioned, they can only answer, as Gerald does to Gudrun, “there is no answer”. Birkin knows that the life he leads is hateful, and that there must be an alternative: he wants something, but does not know what. He is fumbling, feeling his way, shattering the placid reflection of the moon in the water only to see the broken fragments of that shattered reflection forever re-establishing themselves. He needs the opposition that Ursula presents. But he is aware, as indeed, are the other three of the quartet in their own way, that there is something irredeemably rotten about the life he lives, and the life everyone else lives, and, indeed, the very world he lives in: something else must at least be searched for, even if it is not found. Several times he muses on a world in which humans have ceased to be, and wonders if this will necessarily be a bad thing: won’t something better than humans replace us? Life won’t stop just because we have, after all. And even if nothing should replace us, why not leave the world to the birds? He finds this curiously comforting.

And yet he is not depressed, or in any way depressive. For all his dissatisfaction, he loves life too much. It is, one suspects, precisely because he loves life so much that he cannot endure its imperfections, its shortcomings – that he must always be searching for new ways of being. And in Ursula, too, as we know from those ecstatic closing chapters of The Rainbow, runs some mysterious vital force, that same force that in the earlier novel had so frightened Anton Skrebansky. And so the two remain at the end of the novel, together, happy (if we allow ourselves to use that word), but locked nonetheless with each other in an unending conflict.

At the end of the novel, Rupert weeps for the dead Gerald. They had brought his body back from the cold waste of snow and ice, curled up and frozen: they had to wait for the body to thaw before they could straighten him. And Rupert weeps.

“He should have loved me,” he said. “I offered him.”

It is not merely, or even perhaps primarily, Gerald’s death that Rupert laments, but that emptiness, that “strange vacancy” inside Gerald, that prevented him from accepting, let alone returning, Rupert’s offered love. Rupert contemplates the inert mass that had once been Gerald:

Birkin looked at the pale fingers, the inert mass. He remembered a dead stallion he had seen: a dead mass of maleness, repugnant. He remembered also the beautiful face of one whom he had loved, and who had died still having the faith to yield to the mystery. That dead face was beautiful, no one could call it cold, mute, material. No one could remember it without gaining faith in the mystery, without the soul’s warming with new, deep life-trust.

And Gerald! The denier! He left the heart cold, frozen, hardly able to beat. Gerald’s father had looked wistful, to break the heart: but not this last terrible look of cold, mute Matter. Birkin watched and watched.

Again, like Tolstoy, Lawrence had a fascination not only with death, but with also the physical nature of that great mystery, that ultimate loss of human consciousness, and that inexplicable transformation of a vital force into matter (here strikingly capitalised).

Birkin had on several occasions protested that it was not love that he wanted; or at least, that love was not enough. But he had loved Gerald, and Gerald had succumbed to the blankness that was death without having accepted it, without being capable even of accepting it. And it is this Birkin laments – this “strange vacancy” in Gerald, all that go that ultimately had nowhere else to go to.

No degree of familiarity could ever reduce this great mystery of death, and here, Lawrence presents it with a terror and a grandeur that belongs only to the greatest of tragic works. But this is not the end. In the very last page, Birkin tries to express to Ursula why he had wanted Gerald’s love: she is all that he craves for in a woman, he says, but he wanted a love with a man that would be equally powerful, equally important. We may or may not interpret this as homosexual love: it hardly matters. Ursula replies that what Birkin wants is unreasonable; that he cannot have such a love because it is impossible. “I do not believe that,” says Birkin, and on that fractious note this mighty novel ends.


Reading Lawrence is not easy, but I suppose one should expect it to be easy in the first place. As with any work of literature that is worth one’s attention, it attempts to express that which language is not really designed to express, and in the process, language is stretched to its limits, and it sometimes fractures. Lawrence is not afraid to take risks; he isn’t even afraid to be thought absurd. One may, as that arty set at the Pompadour café, find it all merely ridiculous – and, to judge from various comments I have seen on the net that pass as “reviews”, the Pompadour set are still very much with us. Well, one can’t dictate how readers should feel about any novel. I still find Lawrence extremely difficult, but on loosening my scepticism and my resistance, trusting him as an author, and going, as it were, with the flow, I found here a fearsome tragic magnificence, and a sense of some great and irreducible mystery. Lawrence may be troublesome, but he is worth the trouble.


How about this for a plot of a 19th century novel?

A young man of independent means, not particularly handsome as such but extremely polished and self-confident, eminently eligible and unutterably vain, delights in winning the hearts of ladies. Not that he cares a whit for any of them: he is utterly cold-blooded and unfeeling. He does it because it flatters his vanity. His sister, beautiful and vivacious, is a confidante of his, advising and helping where she can. It is a thrilling power game. Once, out of boredom, he decides to have a go at a rather prim, quiet and softly-spoken young lady – a ward of a family, at that, and not likely to be endowed with a large dowry. It is a challenge for him – something a bit different to re-invigorate his jaded sense of pleasure. But far from being bowled over by such eminent attention, she keeps her distance. He is a bit puzzled at first: no-one had ever resisted him before. But he sees this as a challenge: he is determined to win her heart, as his vanity will not allow him to walk away unsatisfied on this score. But in the process, a strange thing happens: he really does find himself in love with her. It is something he had never felt before. He ends up proposing, but she, unaccountably, and to the great distress of her guardians, refuses. He keeps open his offer, sure that eventually he is bound to win her affections. He behaves, for the first time in his life and despite himself, with honour and with sensitivity.

But then, away from the young lady to whom he has proposed, he meets up with another lady whose heart he had won earlier. This second lady is married now, to a rich young booby whom she despises. Our hero, unused to letting anything stand in the way of instant gratification, begins an affair with her, and the affair is discovered. The future for the lady, whom her great booby of a husband soon divorces, is blighted; but as a man, he can escape without too great a stain on his character. However, his prospective marriage with the woman he had despite himself come to love, comes to nothing, and this once proud heart-breaker is left pondering on what might have been.

This is not my plot, of course. It is from Austen’s Mansfield Park, slightly embellished and with the centre of gravity moved from Fanny Price to Henry Crawford. But just that shift makes for what could be a very different but equally great novel. A meta-novel, if you like. Imagine what Henry James could have made of such a plot! Or, for that matter, Jane Austen herself!

I have already speculated on how Anna Karenina might have been had Tolstoy focussed on Dolly rather than on Anna. And I can’t help wondering what sort of novel Austen might have written had she focussed, say, on Charlotte Lucas rather than on Elizabeth Bennet: a young woman, handsome, intelligent, and sensitive, knowingly marries a man she knows to be a complete idiot for the sake of her future security. Could this have developed into one of the great 19th century novels of adultery, I wonder?

Or how about this for a plot:

A young lady of a passionate nature, orphaned and without means, is invited to become companion of a recently widowed distant cousin of hers. Having no other option, she accepts. This widow has a young teenage son, pampered and handsome. The young lady, intense and passionate, is violently attracted to him. The violence, if not necessarily the passion, is returned: in one incident, the pampered boy, in a fit of rage, throws a hammer at her. He is immediately horrified by what he has done, but the scar, both real and symbolic, remains upon her lip. Later, when the boy comes of age, they embark on an affair: the sex is intense and violent. She fantasises about displacing the boy’s mother as the Lady of the House, as surely as she has displaced her from the boy’s heart.

But the boy is not as attached to her as she likes to think. For all the passion and the excitement, he finds her exhausting. Despite being the spoilt son of a rich mother, he is actually quite a decent, easy-going chap at heart; and, given his good looks and his natural charm, he is popular with the ladies. He eventually leaves home, and is happy and relieved to get away from his mother’s companion. She, noticing this but refusing to accept, is eaten up with jealousy. A violent jealousy.

And then, the storm breaks. The young man has eloped – not with a society lady, but with a girl from the working classes. An orphan at that – a fisherman’s niece. He has genuine feelings for her, and she is dazzled the idea of becoming a lady, but society will not, of course, accept a union across such disparate social classes. He cannot even bring her home to his doting mother, who is now heartbroken. So he travels around Europe with her, pretending to be husband and wife; but even there, they cannot mix with English expatriates, as her social background is all too apparent. As for her, this life is not what she had expected: she is desperately lonely, and is torn with guilt and remorse. She spends all her time grieving, and becomes severely depressed. The young man eventually becomes fed up with her constant moaning, and deserts her. But his mother’s companion, who loves him still with a passion as violent as ever, is determined to seek out this presumptuous upstart, and punish her for having, as she thinks, destroyed her happiness.

Now, wouldn’t this have made a terrific novel? Instead, Dickens keeps Rosa Dartle, Steerforth and Little Em’ly in the background, while filling the foreground with the dull David Copperfield, the even duller Agnes Wickfield, and the unbearably tedious Dora Spenlow, who is a sort of Madeleine Bassett without the laughs.

Any other ideas for meta-novels?

Tolstoy’s darkening vision

When comparing War and Peace and Anna Karenina – and it is hard for Tolstoyans not to compare – it becomes clear purely from the internal evidence of these works that, between the writing of these two novels, Tolstoy’s vision had darkened considerably. But it is not easy to identify exactly why we should think so. After all, War and Peace has more than its fair share of darkness, both on a personal and on a wider historical level. And there are passages in Anna Karenina that are luminous with joy. And yet, for reasons not entirely obvious, it is hard to imagine anyone who has read both these novels who fails to perceive a greater darkness in the latter.

An obvious explanation is that War and Peace culminates in marriages, and with the promise of propagation of a new generation; while Anna Karenina culminates in death. But, undoubtedly true though that observation is, it tells us little. The culminating point of a novel – at least, of a novel of such quality as these – is not something random that is tacked on to the end, but is, rather, a consequence of all that has gone before. Why should marriages be an appropriate culminating point of one, while death the appropriate culminating point of the other?

Despite having given this matter some thought, I am not sure I have come across a satisfactory answer. But it seems to me that the answer lies not so much in the course of events depicted, but, rather, in the different conceptions in the two novels of human character. In both, Tolstoy is fascinated by why it is different characters behave, think, and perceive as they do; in both, Tolstoy tries to delve as deeply as he can into these reasons. But whereas in War and Peace the characters’ behaviour and perceptions are always conditioned by reason, in Anna Karenina, they are not.

It’s not so much that we can always understand the reasons behind human behaviour. In trying to establish the chains of causality that make the characters behave as they do, there comes inevitably a point where even Tolstoy concedes that he can go no further. This is not because causality fails to hold: rather, it is because, as Tolstoy argues in the often-skipped second part of the epilogue to War and Peace, the causes underpinning any effect are often seemingly infinite in number, and each infinitely small. It is not that the chains of causality do not exist, but, rather, the human brain is simply not capable either of collecting or of processing the data required to establish these chains. This of course implies that humans can have no freedom of action; Tolstoy, at the end of War and Peace, accepts this. We may have the illusion of freedom, he says, because we are incapable of analysing all the causal factors; but it is an illusion only: in reality, we do not have any freedom.

I can’t help feeling that even as Tolstoy was writing this, he was not satisfied with it. Amongst other things, this would imply that no person can be held morally responsible for anything; and this Tolstoy could not accept. When he started Anna Karenina, only a few years after finishing War and Peace, his ideas about why and how humans perceive and behave as they do had changed considerably. Once again, he tries to delve as deeply as he can into the roots of human action; but now, over and over again, he comes to a point where no explanation of human behaviour is possible. It isn’t that we are not capable of understanding all the causes: it is rather that we find ourselves in a world where, all too frequently, there aren’t any causes to begin with. We are in a world where attempts to explain human behaviour all too frequently run up against the tautology “People act as they do because they do”.

Compare, for instance, the passage in War and Peace where Lise Bolkonskaya dies in childbirth to the passage in Anna Karenina where Anna nearly dies in childbirth. They are both passages of tremendous intensity, and of profound psychological intricacy. But in War and Peace, no matter how complex the psychologies of the characters, they are amenable to rational analysis; in Anna Karenina, they aren’t. Here, the characters behave as they do because they do: it is not that their reasons for doing so are difficult to understand – but, rather, there is no reason, and any attempt to understand the roots of human motivation ends merely in tautology. Human behaviour is not a purely rational thing.

This takes Tolstoy’s fictional world closer to Dostoyevsky’s. Dostoyevsky insisted that all his characters have complete freedom, and as a consequence, all his characters, at all points, act as if utterly unhinged and demented. It is an extreme fictional world, admittedly, and, frankly, not entirely sane: it is not something all readers can respond to. (And even those, like myself, who do respond to it, often find themselves harbouring grave doubts, and feeling deeply uneasy about it all.) But I do find it quite astonishing that the rational author of War and Peace should, within only a few years, come even within touching distance of the insanity of Dostoyevsky’s fictional world.

And it is this, I think – this picture of humans as precariously placed, driven as they are by forces susceptible neither to reason nor to understanding – that imparts to Anna Karenina so profound a sense of darkness, and, indeed, of terror.

Dostoyevsky himself, despite the resentment and envy with which he viewed Tolstoy’s literary reputation, described Anna Karenina as “a perfect work of art”; and one can only imagine how much pain it must have cost Dostoyevsky to concede this. But perhaps it is not surprising that Dostoyevsky should have reacted in such a way to this novel, which comes closer to the ethos of his own masterpieces than is generally, I think, accepted.

“Les Misérables” by Victor Hugo

This book is a drama in which the leading character is the Infinite. Mankind takes second place.

– from Les Misérables, part 2, book 7, translated by Norman Denny

Not many novelists, I imagine, would have the nerve to make, and be so unembarrassed about making, so grandiose a statement of intent. Not even if they thought it. But such a statement (made at the beginning of one of the longer and duller of Hugo’s many digressions – so long and dull, indeed, that the translator of the volume I read felt it best to detach it from the main body of the narrative and place it in an appendix) seems perfectly in keeping with the general tone of the novel. For Hugo’s vision was nothing if not grand – megalomaniac, even. Not for him piddling little subtleties, or those minutiae of everyday that the likes of Austen or Flaubert seemed so preoccupied with; not for him those infinitely small brush-strokes that aim for precision, for exactitude, or even for that matter, shading and nuance. Hugo seems loftily above all that. His brush is broad, and he applies his strokes with vigour and with energy, if not necessarily always with grace. He has the confidence of one who sincerely believes that nothing is beyond him – not even Infinity.

Generally, I am tempted to think that such matters as Infinity, Eternity, the Soul, Transcendence, and all the rest of it, are best left to the Russians: the French are too down-to-earth for that sort of thing. At most, they will lament, as Flaubert did, the inability to achieve transcendence: language, even when applied with infinite care and with the greatest genius, is, Flaubert famously lamented, but a cracked kettle on which we beat out tunes for bears to dance to, when what we really want is to move the stars with pity. But Hugo has no such misgivings: moving the stars with pity is precisely what he set out to do. None of old Gustave’s pessimism here: Hugo is convinced that once he rolls up his sleeves and get down to it, damn it, those stars will move with pity! Just see if they don’t!

There is a certain naivety – and I do not use that word in a pejorative sense – both in Hugo’s ambition and also, I think, in his execution. On grounds of strict realism, one may take issue with all sorts of things. For instance, is it very likely for a man so saintly as the Bishop of Digne to have led so untroubled a life? (One may be tempted to think that a man of the cloth determined so unequivocally to live by the principles of the Beatitudes is more likely to resemble the eponymous hero of Nazarin by Pérez Galdós.) Is it at all likely that Monsieur de Madeleine could be so unstintingly generous to all who are needy, and still make a fortune? Or that Javert, no matter how devoted he may be to his duties, should spend so much time and resources tracking down one man over so many years when there are surely any number of felons with far greater crimes on their heads who have eluded justice? If one is to pick holes in the plot, there is no end to it, but picking such holes is, I think, to miss the point. For this is not a realist novel such as Flaubert’s (although written a few years after Madame Bovary), far less a slice of gritty naturalism in the manner of Zola: the world presented here is realistic certainly on the surface, and its depictions of historic events is clearly the product of immense study, but the moral world it presents, and the psychology of the characters, seem to me entirely products of Hugo’s fantasy. And none, perhaps, the worse for that: so much of this novel, after all, has now become mythic – part of the consciousness even of those who have not read it.

Given its vast dimensions of this novel, and its huge ambition, Les Misérables is sometimes compared with War and Peace, but the comparison seems to me misguided. A more apt comparison is surely The Count of Monte Cristo. The opposition between these two masterpieces by Tolstoy and by Dumas is instructive, for if War and Peace is the closest the modern world has come to Homeric epic, The Count of Monte Cristo is surely the closest we have come to A Thousand and One Nights. Like the anonymous authors of the A Thousand and One Nights, Dumas’ interest is purely in plot: the development and motivation of the characters – that were so important to so many novelists of the nineteenth century – are restricted to only so much as is required to make the plot intelligible. The delight comes from the sequence of events – or, rather, the sequences of events, as Dumas, like one of those plate spinners who delight audiences by keeping a seemingly impossible number of plates spinning on sticks simultaneously, thickens his narrative texture with more plot strands than one might have thought feasible, keeps them all spinning, and, somehow, uncovers the most unlikely connections between them to link them into a unity. It is an extraordinary display of the art of the storyteller – never, to my mind, bettered, or even equalled. In War and Peace, on the other hand, we are in a very different fictional world: here, characters have feelings and motives that do not necessarily serve the plot; they grow and develop over time as they interact with each other; and perhaps above all, they have inner lives – they have souls. Infinity is indeed depicted – the Russians, as I said, are good at this kind of thing – but not by putting Mankind in second place.

In the spectrum between Dumas and Tolstoy, Les Misérables seems to me far closer to the former than to the latter. Hugo’s characters are memorable, certainly; at best, they are what is generally termed “larger than life” – i.e. they have about them a mythic quality. But their motivations are generally straight-forward and uncomplicated – naïve, if you like; and, more significantly, none of them have an inner life. What you may see on the surface is really all there is to them.

Purely in terms of plot, there are many similarities between Dumas’ novel and Hugo’s – far too many, indeed, to be put down merely to coincidence. In both novels, the principal character is a former convict (Edmond Dantès had been framed, Jean Valjean imprisoned for stealing a loaf of bread during hard times) who, once out of prison, take on new identities, acquire wealth, and devote the rest of their lives to what they regard as their life’s mission. In both novels, various characters re-emerge in different environments and often under different names, and are not identified immediately to the readers. Both novels are punctuated by big, dramatic set-pieces; and, at one particular point, Hugo unashamedly recycles one of Dumas’ finest plot devices: just as Dantès had taken the place of a dead person to escape from the Château d’If, so Valjean takes the place of a dead person to make his way out of the convent without Javert noticing. (Well, to be fair, it is too good a piece of plotting not to recycle!) It is true that Hugo doesn’t match Dumas in his plate-spinning act: while, admittedly, Hugo does have quite a few plates spinning, they aren’t all spinning at the same time, and when a particular strand of the plot takes centre-stage, the others retreat into the background, and are effectively put on hold. Indeed, even the central character, Jean Valjean, barely appears for a few hundred odd pages in the central sections of the novel when the spotlight is on Marius.

But unlike Dumas, plot for the sake of plot is not really what Hugo was aiming for. He wanted to put into this novel everything that was important to him, everything that he found interesting, so that, piece by piece, it would build up, as he states, into a depiction of Infinity itself. One may personally prefer dumas to Hugo, but it cannot be denied that Hugo aimed much higher.

Amongst other things, the missions taken on by Dantès and by Valjean are very different in nature. For Dantès, the mission is revenge, while for Valjean, converted to sainthood after his encounter with the Bishop of Digne, it is to look after the unfortunates of the world as best he can; and, in particular, to ensure the happiness of Cosette. In short, Dantès’ mission makes for an exciting plotline; Valjean’s makes for reflection on the moral natures of our lives.

Of course, the theme of revenge could also lead to moral reflection, but that is certainly not Dumas’ aim; Hugo, on the other hand, cannot stop moralising. He is happy to interpolate polemics on whatever topic takes his fancy, at any point of the novel he fancies. Even at some of the most exciting points of the storyline – and indeed, it is very exciting at times – Hugo is happy to break the narrative line with digressions. Except that these aren’t really digressions; or, rather, they are digressions only if one thinks of the plot as being the principal point of the book. But Hugo has set out to depict Infinity itself, and to that end, nothing can be considered digressionary.

Some of these “digressions” are, indeed, fascinating. I particularly enjoyed, amongst others, his essay on the nature of revolution, and his thoughts on the circumstances under which revolution may be morally justified. As well as his polemical digressions, we get also narrative ones – pieces of narrative that have little if anything to do with the central thrust of the story. The flashback depicting the Battle of Waterloo, for instance: apart from the little incident narrated near the end, the entire sequence – taking up about fifty or so closely printed pages in my edition – has absolutely no bearing whatever on the central plot. But Hugo includes it because he finds it interesting: he needs no further reason. And it is interesting: it is among the finest depictions of the field of battle I have encountered in fiction. Tolstoy had famously chosen Stendhal’s depiction of Waterloo (from La Chartreuse de Parme) as the model for the battle scenes in War and Peace, but what Hugo gives us here is just as impressive as the battle scenes either by Stendhal or by Tolstoy; but unlike the other two writers, Hugo depicts the battle not from the perspective of any of the participants, but, rather, an objective “God’s eye” view. It is magnificent, yes, but in his mad attempt to depict Infinity, Mankind does indeed – at this point, at any rate – take second place. And it shouldn’t: when, as the title itself suggests, one’s principal theme is the injustice of human suffering, it is Mankind, and not Infinity, that should take centre stage.

Or take the description of the Paris sewers. Admittedly, this does come at one of the most exciting points in the story, but the evocation of place is extraordinarily vivid (although I suppose I could have done without those extra chapters detailing Hugo’s view on how sewage should ideally be processed); and once the story does get going again after this, we have those magnificent chapters of Valjean carrying the half-dead Marius through the sewers – as fine a piece of pure storytelling as I have come across.

But sadly, all these “digressions” are not equally interesting. The problem with Hugo is that he never knew when to leave something out. I generally try not to make that penny-in-the-slot criticism “it needed a good editor”; indeed, I find this unthinking piece of criticism generally quite annoying; but I cannot think of any other novel I have read – certainly not Moby-Dick, to which this criticism is all too frequently applied – where I have been so tempted to resort to this. For Hugo can often be tiresome. As a completist, I do not like to leave out any bits – not even the bits translator Norman Denny has placed as appendices – but in retrospect, I really should have left out those huge chunks of Hugovian pontificating, and that rhetoric of his that all too often slips over into bombast.

Which, of course, raises the question of what it is precisely that distinguishes rhetoric from bombast. After giving the matter much thought, it seems to me that it is rhetoric if you like it, and bombast if you don’t. So when I speak of Hugo’s rhetoric often shading into bombast, I suppose I should make it clear that I am offering it only as a record of my personal reaction, and not as a piece of literary criticism.

But bombast or rhetoric, as you will, once the story gets going, it is fine stuff. Whatever higher ambitions Hugo had, he could spin a rattling good yarn; and some of the purely narrative sequences in the story are such that even Dumas would have been proud of. Admittedly, when he had to depict pure and innocent young lovers, he was no more successful than Dickens had been on that score, but when one considers, say, Valjean’s escape from the ship; the sequence where Javert tracks him across the streets of Paris; or the big showdown at the Gorbeau tenement; or the scenes at the barricades, or the splendid sequence set in the sewers (clearly the inspiration for Grahan Greene for the finale of The Third Man); we are left in no doubt that we are in the hands of one of the greatest of all storytellers.

It is difficult by the end to know quite what to make of this vast and often unwieldy novel. The storytelling is magnificent, and the characters as vivid and colourful as one is likely to encounter in any novel. But those longueurs are – well, long. The mad ambition of depicting Infinity is nowhere near achieved – it never was likely to be achieved anyway – but what we get on the way, though frequently dull and frustrating, is also, even more frequently, exciting, and even, at times, mythic, and magnificent. But I must confess that after some twelve hundred and more pages of this, I do long for something a bit more deftly shaded, a bit more subtle and nuanced. A bit more Flaubertian, perhaps, with its sad admission that the stars cannot really be moved with pity, rather than a mad and megalomaniac attempt to do so.

It was a dark and stormy night

Well, it was a dark and stormy night last Sunday. Not, perhaps, quite as stormy as had been forecast, but stormy enough. In the context of natural disasters worldwide, five fatalities in the entire country may not seem like much, but I doubt the grieving families of those five would agree.

We had to drive down from Lancashire that Sunday, and, since they couldn’t forecast with any certainty whether the storm would begin on Sunday night or in the early hours of Monday morning, we tried to get back home as early as we could, to be on the safe side. And, once home, it was but a matter of waiting. It could be that the winds would be so violent as to carry away our very roofs; but since there was little we could do about it even if it did, it seemed best merely to pour ourselves a civilised drink, and wait.

I have never quite decided whether ghost stories are most effective when read in the unearthly silence of a preternaturally still night, or in the tempestuous turbulence of a violent storm, with the wind is howling outside like the voices of the dead. Either way, sitting in my armchair with a dram in hand, a ghost story seemed like a good idea. Hopefully, I thought, the storm would begin while I was reading. But no – I finished the story, the clock ticked away, and still, all I could discern outside was a mild breeze. I couldn’t stay up all night, I thought to myself: I had to get up for work the next morning. And with that, I retired to bed, thinking – as one does – of the various storms I had encountered in books.

Strangely enough, storms are not so common in ghost stories as one might think. At least, the only one I could think of off the top of my head was the high wind that blows up in M. R. James’ “Oh, Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad”. Perhaps writers of ghost stories feel it is too hackneyed a device – that its use would appear so contrived an artifice that disbelief would become difficult to suspend. But even when we move away from the genres of the ghost story or the horror story – the former being, of course, but a subset of the latter – storms are not used in fiction as much as one may think. I lay awake that night trying to think of the various storms in fiction. The most famous fictional storm, I’d guess, would be the one that occurs in the third act of King Lear, but even here, Lear assures us, it is the tempest in his mind that affects him more. It is also the tempest in Prospero’s mind that seems to provide the title of Shakespeare’s late play: the actual physical tempest, seen only in the brief first scene, is no more than a plot device to shipwreck various people on to Prospero’s island; and, once that tempest has served its purpose, there follows a stillness so profound that even dramatic tension, it seems to me, vanishes. In what follows, we have some of the most beautiful blank verse that even Shakespeare ever wrote; but unlike the blank verse in his earlier plays, this blank verse is not dramatic, let alone tempestuous. It is a work of extraordinary beauty, but as drama, I must confess I continue to find it puzzling.

Of course, Shakespeare had used the storm as a plot device before: to bring characters into a strange and unknown land, a storm is about as good a plot device as there is – from the early The Comedy of Errors to the late The Tempest, taking in Twelfth Night on the way. There is good precedence for this – from Odysseus in The Odyssey to Sinbad the Sailor in A Thousand and One Nights.

There is a storm and shipwreck in the third act of The Winter’s Tale also, but here, it seems more than a mere plot device: it seems, rather, a measure of divine anger in the face of man, proud man, dressed in his little brief authority, playing such fantastic tricks before high heaven. For there is something about storms, something about the helplessness to which the forces of nature reduce even the most civilised and seemingly secure of humans, that suggests divine wrath. As with Lear or Prospero, a storm may reflect the tempest in our own minds; it may serve also to remind us of the precarious nature of our very souls, balanced so finely between the heaven and hell of our own making. It is through a snowstorm that Ivan Karamazov, his soul tormented, staggers back to his room, where he meets with the Devil in the guise of a shabbily-dressed gentleman; and, as the Devil goads him further into the abyss of insanity, the blizzard outside intensifies. And it is in a snowstorm also that Vronsky, on a railway platform somewhere between Moscow and Petersburg, declares his love to Anna:

“I didn’t know you were travelling. Why are you here?” she said, letting fall the hand which had been about to grasp the handrail. And her face radiated irrepressible joy and animation.

“Why am I here?” he repeated, looking straight into her eyes. “You know I am travelling in order to be where you are,” he said. “I cannot do otherwise.”

At that very moment the wind, as if it had overcome an obstacle, showered down the snow from the carriage roofs and rattled a loose sheet of iron while, somewhere ahead, the deep whistle of the engine gave a mournful and gloomy wail, All the terror of the storm struck her now with even greater splendour.

[From Anna Karenina, translated by Kyrill Zinovieff and Jenny Hughes]

And in that one scene, the entire human tragedy of Anna and of Vronsky – the terror and the even greater splendour of it all – seems encapsulated: the rattling of that loose sheet or iron has only just begun. Vronsky cannot do otherwise. None of the characters in this novel can do otherwise: they all seem driven by forces they cannot even begin to understand, forces as irresistible as the storm itself.

Storms feature frequently in the poetry of Tagore – hardly surprising given that he hailed from a land lashed annually by the monsoon. It features prominently also in Bubhuthibhushan Banerji’s Pather Panchali (and also, of course, in Satyajit Ray’s film version). The depiction of the storm is impressive enough in the translation by T. W. Clark and by Tarapada Mukherji: in the original, it is a thing of wonder. That this wonderful novel seems to little-known outside the Bengali-speaking world I find unaccountable and saddening in about equal measure.

Perhaps the most terrifying and elemental of storms occur in the various sea stories of Joseph Conrad – Youth, Typhoon, The Nigger of the ‘Narcissus’. The storm in Moby-Dick, where the lightning sets fire to the tops of the mast to make them resemble giant candles, is also magnificent. Perhaps it is not to be wondered at that writers who have experienced storms at sea should be able to present them in all their terror: no-one can be so vulnerable to the brute power of a storm as those at sea.

There was also a most impressive storm in Pasternak’s  Doctor Zhivago, I seemed to remember, that is presented as a sort of harbinger of the revolution that was to come. But I couldn’t remember exactly where in the novel this occurs, as, by this time, tired of waiting for the wind to howl outside like the voices of the dead, I was already half-asleep. And next morning, my thoughts were far from the elemental upheavals in Conrad, from Ivan Karamazov sinking into madness, from Lear and Prospero enduring tempests in the mind, or from Anna and Vronsky driven to their doom by tempestuous forces they cannot even begin to understand: my first thought on waking was to check that the tiles on our roof were still in place.

Ah – what mundane lives we lead!