Posts Tagged ‘Tolstoy’

“Eugene Onegin” by Alexander Pushkin

The extracts from Pushkin’s “Eugene Onegin” given in this post are taken from the translation by Tom Beck, published by Dedalus.

In Chapter 6 of Pushkin’s verse novel Eugene Onegin, the young poet Lenski is killed in a duel (and no, I am not prefacing this post with one of those tedious “spoiler warnings”: the effect made by this poem does not depend on discovering “what happens next”). It is, possibly, the most famous duel in all literature. Lenski goes into the duel with presentiments of his own death, and, the night before, writes a poem lamenting his lost youth and his possibly shortened life, and imagining that Olga, to whom he is betrothed, will mourn for him afterwards, and remember him. It is, inevitably under the circumstances, a deeply felt poem. But immediately after giving us this poem, the narrator mocks it:

That’s how he wrote, “obscurely”, “limply”,

(“Romanticism”, I believe,

though what’s romantic here I simply

am quite unable to perceive!

but then, who cares?) As dawn approaches …

This seems cruel and insensitive. Lenski may not have been a great poet, as Pushkin undoubtedly was. He possibly wasn’t even a very good poet. But given the situation, this is hardly, one might feel, the right time for literary criticism, and Pushkin’s scathing lines do seem harsh and insensitive. But here’s the point: a poet as harsh and as insensitive as these lines suggest would not have been capable of writing a poem so delicate and so sensitive as Eugene Onegin. We must, I think, in this of all books with its various different levels of irony, learn to distinguish between Alexander Pushkin the narrator, and Alexander Pushkin the author: the author Pushkin has created the narrator Pushkin as a sort of alter ego of himself – not entirely separate from himself, but not entirely the same either.

Of course, Cervantes had played with this sort of thing quite spectacularly in Don Quixote (especially in that dazzling second part), and Nabokov, a fervent admirer of Eugene Onegin, also made use of this technique: in Pnin, for instance, there is a remarkable passage where the eponymous Pnin breaks down in despair, and the narrator, who presents himself as a Russian émigré named Vladimir Nabokov, pokes fun at him mercilessly. But we must, at points such as this, learn to see beyond what this narrator is telling us. The real author Nabokov (as distinct from the Nabokov who is the narrator) is no more mocking Pnin than the real author Pushkin is belittling Lenski’s deeply felt emotions: the narrator’s mockery enlists our sympathy for the subject of the mockery.

But it remains a fact nonetheless that Lenski’s poetry is pretty poor stuff, and, however much sympathy we may feel for him, neither the author Pushkin nor the narrator Pushkin is going to pretend otherwise.

Those of a more romantic disposition have begged to differ. In Tchaikovsky’s operatic version of Eugene Onegin, Lenski’s poem forms the basis of an exquisitely beautiful and passionate tenor aria: the Lensky in the opera really is a poet, and, indeed, a great poet, for only a great poet could sing an aria so heart-stoppingly lovely. And the tragedy in the opera is that so great a poet should be cut down in his prime. But the tragedy in Pushkin’s poem is subtly different: here, for all Lenski’s depth of feeling, he never would really have amounted to much as a poet even had he lived. And he doesn’t even leave behind much of a memory: after his death, even his beloved Olga quickly forgets about him and marries someone else. The tragedy here is that Lensky’s death is as inconsequential as his life had been, and, most likely, would continue to have been had he lived. The tragedy here is that his fate isn’t even perceived as tragic.

When Pushkin comes to describe he duel itself, he adopts for a while a quite objective stance, almost as if he was writing a technical handbook on how to load a pistol:

The pistols gleam, the priming hammer

resounds against the ramrod head;

the bullets drop, pushed by the rammer,

The lever clicks, the powder’s fed

in little greyish streams to trickle

into the pan; the rough and brittle,

securely fastened flint is raised

again …

The duel takes place, and the expected happens: Lenski is killed. And then, Pushkin gives us an unforgettable poetic image that is way beyond anything that Lenski himself might have come up with – an empty house, bereft of people:

… but here, as in a house, unlightened

And bare, where all is empty, chill,

The heart forever remains still,

The shutters closed, the windows whitened …

This, one suspects, is Pushkin the author of the poem rather than Pushkin the narrator. But it isn’t always easy to distinguish.

The plot, such as it is, is built around what are, in effect, two non-events. The young, naïve Tatyana falls in love with Eugene, and writes him a love letter: nothing comes of it. And towards the end, it’s the other way round: Eugene this time falls in love with Tatyana, and writes her a love letter, but nothing comes of that either. In between, Tatyana has a very weird and surreal nightmare that seems to take us into the world of folklore and of mythical monsters; a duel is fought and the poet Lenski is killed by his erstwhile friend Onegin; and then, Tatyana visits a real empty house – that of Onegin’s, who, full of remorse and self-disgust after killing Lensky, has left the place.

This empty house is clearly a metaphor for Onegin himself, the man she still loves despite his having rejected her. But what the metaphor reveals about him is not entirely clear. Tatyana goes into his library, and finds an image of the almost stereotypical Romantic. There is a portrait of Byron, and a bust of Napoleon. The books are of Romantic literature. Tatyana herself has been moulded by literature of a pre-Romantic era (“… she read and then stayed staunchly loyal / to Richardson and to Rousseau …”), and by the traditional folklore she had taken in from her peasant nanny, and which had informed her strange dream. We are all moulded by our experiences, after all, and what we read is part of our experience: the relationship between fiction and reality, of how the former affects the latter, and, in particular, our perception of the latter, is, as in Don Quixote, one of the major themes of this work. Tatyana is still very much a simple and rather naïve village girl, and Onegin, as Tatyana discovers here, is a Petersburg sophisticate, a dashing dandy, almost a stereotypical restless Romantic. But also, perhaps, like the now empty house, Onegin is a frame without a soul. Perhaps. It is dangerous to impose so apparent and so fixed an interpretation on this most subtle and elusive of works, a work that so consistently pulls the rug from under our feet.

It is the titular character Onegin whom we meet first in this poem. He lives a dissipated life amidst the sparkling ballrooms and salons and theatres of Petersburg, and he is bored. He has a friend who is the poet Alexander Pushkin, the narrator of what we are reading. Onegin has to go out into the sticks to look after his ailing uncle, and that makes him even more bored. But it is worth it: the uncle dies, and Eugene becomes a man of property as well as the man of idle leisure he has always been. But the country life doesn’t suit our man about town. He is terminally bored. His friend in the country is the local landowner Lenski, and this Lenski introduces him to the Larins – the mother, a somewhat foolish widow, and her two daughters, Olga and Tatyana. Olga is betrothed to Lenski, and Tatyana, to whom we are now introduced, is a naïve and sensitive girl, and she soon has her head turned by the dashing Onegin. But the love letter she rashly writes him earns her only a stern and cold lecture from its recipient: she is well put in her place. Later, Tatyana has a strange dream in which she is at first lost in a fearful tumultuous winter night, but then a bear who at first frightens her leads her into a cottage, which is inhabited by all sorts of weird and wonderful monsters; and among these strange monsters is Onegin himself. One could have lots of fun trying to analyse the dream: Pushkin himself refuses to do so.

It is then that the duel takes place. Motivations are not clear: Pushkin refuses to spell anything out. Onegin is unhappy to be there among these uncouth country people who are so clearly far beneath him; and he is annoyed with Lenski for having brought him here. But why he should start flirting with Olga deliberately to make his friend Lenski jealous remains obscure. But there appears to be a sort of inevitability about it all – about little things leading to bigger things, until the sequence of events acquires such momentum that it becomes impossible to stop. Here, what starts off as no more than little annoyances lead to tragedy.

The last of the eight chapters forms a sort of epilogue. Once again, the central event of this chapter is in essence a non-event: a love letter is written, but nothing comes of it. But it rounds off with an almost formal symmetry the events that had occurred earlier. This time, it is Onegin who finds himself attracted to Tatyana. He has returned from his wanderings, and finds Tatyana no longer the naïve village girl, but a married woman, and a society hostess. And this time, it’s her turn to reject him. Her rejection isn’t cold and unfeeling, however, as Onegin’s had been: she freely admits she still loves him; she insists that she has not changed, and that the sophisticated front she now puts on is but a front. But nonetheless, she will not stoop to becoming Onegin’s mistress.

As ever, Pushkin does not delve into the psychology of these characters: he lets us do that. Why exactly does Tatyana reject Onegin? We have to piece that together. Why exactly does Onegin now fall in love with the country girl he had once rejected? Has he now changed, and become capable of loving that country girl that Tatyana insists she still is? Or does he now love the sophisticated society hostess he now sees, and which Tatyana says is but a front? Can we actually believe Tatyana when she says she hasn’t really changed? Would the Tatyana we had first seen have been capable of carrying out such a role? These are all questions we, the reader, can puzzle over, just as we puzzle over the imponderable questions of life itself.

Pushkin ends the poem leaving Onegin thus stranded, but not before he has given us an understated climax which, on repeated reading, strikes me as among the most moving things I’ve encountered in literature. As he is reading in his room, “between the lines there kept appearing / quite different lines …”

And then a kind of slow stagnation

Comes over him and dulls his thoughts,

And to his mind Imagination

Deals out a hand of cards … of sorts:

He either sees, as if reposing

Upon a melting snow and dozing

A youth, and then he hears with dread

A voice remark, “Well, well, he’s dead.”

Or else he finds long-gone detractors,

Base cowards and old enemies,

Young ladies famed for treacheries,

Departed, charming malefactors,

Or he espies a country place

And at a window sees … her face.

I remember well that sense of exaltation I felt when I had first read that scene in War and Peace in which the wounded Andrei is in the surgical tent at Borodino, and, in his delirium, seems to relive all sorts of feelings and sensations from his past; and finally, just before he passes out, he sees in his mind’s eye Natasha’s face. It remains one of the most wondrous chapters in fiction, but I hadn’t realised at the time just how much Tolstoy had taken from Pushkin. Having now read Pushkin’s novel in verse, I find echoes of it resounding through the entire range of Russian literature. Take, for instance, that scene in the final act of Chekhov’s Three Sisters, where Tusenbach, before going to the duel where he knows he will be killed, meets with Irina, but, not receiving any encouragement from her, fails to say anything of what he wants to say, and, after a few inconsequential words, leaves: this is Lensky meeting with Olga the night before his duel. This is not to say that either Tolstoy or Chekhov (or any other Russian writer) stole from Pushkin: it means that Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin was a permanent presence in their minds, a presence from which none of them could escape

For the poem itself is a marvel. It seems at times a series of contradictions: the narrative tone often appears casual, but the whole thing is very carefully structured; and it is written as a sequence of sonnets (only the two love letters escape the strict sonnet form). Each sonnet follows the same formal pattern, consisting of three quatrains followed by a concluding couplet. The rhyming scheme is abab ccdd effe gg. Each line is an iambic tetrameter, although the lines denoted above as a, c, and e have an extra unstressed syllable at the end. This form is applied strictly, and, for all the apparent looseness of the narrative, is never varied.

It is a product of Romanticism, but not really in itself Romantic: Pushkin was satisfied seeing the world for what it is, and wasn’t interested in the Romantic sense of striving for the transcendent, for something beyond. He plays all sorts of games with the narrative, and includes long rambling digressions – all in the manner of Byron’s Don Juan, or (an even greater influence, I think) Sterne’s Tristram Shandy. But Eugene Onegin is very different from either Don Juan or Tristram Shandy: alongside all the playfulness, and all the verve and gaiety and even the seeming mockery, there lies a sadness – a sadness all the more effective for not being stressed or pointed out. And it’s not a case of there being passages of gaiety and passages of melancholy: they all seem, somehow, to co-exist. The touch is of the lightest, but its impact, especially on repeated reading (this is one of those works that need to be lived with rather than read just once) is immense. The three principal characters, – Onegin, Tatyana, Lensky – haunt the reader’s imagination just as, clearly, they have haunted the imaginations of all Russian writers since. Indeed, Pushkin himself, in the course of the poem, often refers to these characters as “my Onegin”, “my Tatyana”, “my Lensky” – and one may suspect this is Pushkin the Author just as much as it is Pushkin the Narrator. It is a taffeta-like work, changing tints every time one looks at it, thus making it impossible to pin it down. In the end, as with all great art, one can but stare and wonder.

Marks out of 10

No matter how you look at it, no matter what criteria of literary excellence you apply, it has to be conceded that King Lear is a play with severe shortcomings.

Let us consider a few of these criteria. The construction, say. Shakespeare welds together a plot and a subplot that are so similar in nature, that the climactic point of the subplot (Edgar revealing himself to his father) has to take place offstage to avoid repetition. Or what about the characterisation? Once again, it seems lacking. Edgar’s motivation in keeping his identity from his blind father for so long is never explained. (Edgar is given a somewhat clumsy aside at one point to say “Why I do trifle thus with his despair is done to cure it”, but it isn’t at all clear how his trifling with his father’s despair will help cure it.) Cordelia’s sullen behaviour in the first scene is also unexplained: clearly, she finds Lear’s game distasteful, but since she has been in court long enough to know of the dire consequences of crossing the king in front of others, and since, further, she has been with her father long enough to know his volatile character, her lack of the most basic tact seems frankly weird. The character development isn’t always too coherent either: in Act 1, we see Goneril expressing entirely legitimate concerns about her father and his retinue; next thing we know, she is a raving monster, with no intermediate step. None of the characters here may be analysed to the depths to which we may analyse Hamlet and Claudius, Othello and Iago, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, Antony and Cleopatra: in comparison to such characters, those in King Lear are rather straight-forward.

And there’s little sense of time or of place. There is a lot of travelling in the play, and yet, we have no idea how far Goneril’s castle is from Gloucester’s (or how long it takes or Lear to make the journey between the two); how far Gloucester’s castle is from the cliffs of Dover (and how long it takes Edgar to lead his father there); and so on. We do not know exactly at which point in the temporal scheme of the drama the French armies invade England, or how much time passes between the invasion and the battle.

Or let us consider the influence the play has had, and how powerfully it has entered our collective consciousness. Even here, I think, King Lear may be lacking. Hamlet is notoriously a play made almost entirely of well-known quotations; everyone has heard of the “green-eyed monster” of Othello; we all know that age cannot wither Cleopatra, nor custom stale her infinite variety. Is there anything in King Lear that has entered the public consciousness to such an extent? Even if there is, we may safely say, I think, that it does not surpass all those elements of those other plays that have also entered the public consciousness. And given that King Lear is sorely lacking in all those other respects discussed above, once we tot up the scores, the conclusion seems inescapable that King Lear is a lesser work of art.

And so on. Take all of these criteria of excellence into consideration, add a few more that I haven’t thought about, and it must be admitted that, compared to the other major tragedies of Shakespeare – Hamlet, Othello, Macbeth, Antony and CleopatraKing Lear is an inferior work: whatever criterion one applies, it is found wanting. We may even wonder why it is classed among his major plays in the first place.

But here’s the twist: not only is King Lear almost universally acclaimed as a towering masterpiece – one of the greatest manifestations of human genius and worthy to take its place alongside the best – if one were to take a poll of Shakespeare scholars and Shakespeare lovers, it is likely to be the Shakespeare play that is most highly regarded. Somehow, all those criteria of excellence, which we may like to think of as objective, go for nothing. So the play has grave shortcomings: who cares?

This seems to me to cast doubt on the validity of what we may consider to be objective criteria, or, indeed, on the very concept of objectivity itself. And yet, if we are to reject objectivity in these matters, what are we left with? I used, many years ago now, to contribute to a public board on books – any book, of any height of brow – and there were many on that board, I remember, who used to insist that, in the words of Hamlet, there is nothing good or bad but thinking that makes it so; that there isn’t, nor could there ever be, any objective standards in these matters, and all that matters is one’s subjective opinion, and that’s it. I used to try to reduce this to absurdity and ask whether my causal doodles could be deemed better art than Rembrandt’s drawings if I thought them so, and the answer I received was “yes, if they seem better to you, then they’re better, and there’s no more to be said”. It was a difficult proposition to argue against, but I found myself dissatisfied with it; for if it were indeed so, then the very concept, not merely of artistic greatness but even of artistic merit, becomes irrelevant. For how is one to judge that merit when there is no objective measure?

So one could, perhaps, analyse a novel or a play, say, in all sorts of ways – in terms of structure, of characterisation, of the use made of language, of the thematic development, and all the rest of it. And maybe, one could give each of these constituent elements marks out of ten. To make it more objective, we could ask several knowledgeable and perceptive readers to give their marks out of ten, and take the mean of these scores for each identified category. And then we could sum these marks up to give us an objective a score as it’s possible to devise.

But these additive utility functions can be very awkward. Even if we try to apply such a model to something so simple as rating a meal, we run into difficulties. For instance, I may enjoy a pizza, and award it 8 out of 10. And when the waiter offers to sprinkle parmesan cheese on it, I agree, for a pizza is even better with parmesan cheese. So I give the parmesan cheese 1 point, and hence, judge pizza with the parmesan (8+1 = 9 points) to be even better than pizza without the parmesan (8 points). But then, for afters, I ask for an ice cream, which too I love (I’ll give that 7 points, since I don’t love it quite as much as the pizza). According to the model of the additive utility function, ice cream with parmesan cheese (7+1=8) should be even better than the ice cream on its own. Which is nonsense, obviously: the whole thing is a crap idea. And if such a model doesn’t work with something so relatively simple as a meal, how can we hope to introduce something like this into literary criticism?

Of course, utility functions do not need to be additive. One could devise all sorts of complications – if X, theN A*log(B); if not X, then exp(A) +B, etc. – but I think we may agree that the sheer level of silliness is quite overpowering by this stage. No, we might as well face it: if we break up a work into its various different aspects (including that of the influence it has exerted on subsequent writing), and either try to combine them into a utility function or place them into a checklist, we’re unlikely to reach any kind of meaningful measure. We’ll certainly not find anything that will rank King Lear alongside the likes of better constructed works such as Hamlet or Othello, even though the overwhelming consensus of critical opinion seems rather to insist on this point.

So I find myself in a bind. I cannot accept that there is no objective criterion whereby Rembrandt’s drawing may be rated higher than my doodles; and yet, at the same time, there seems no means of objectively rating a work of art.

But it’s not, perhaps, one extreme or another. There is a middle ground, I think, between pure objectivity and pure subjectivity, but a middle ground so very messy and so full of ifs and buts that it is hard to describe. The purely subjective approach fails because of its inability to distinguish my doodles and Rembrandt’s drawings; and the purely objective approach fails because no objective measure can be devised to measure artistic merit as we feel it. For art has to be felt: it must produce what Nabokov described as a “tingle in the spine”. But every major work of art has at its core a great mystery, which resists measurement; and sometimes, as in the case of King Lear, this mystery can be so profound that all other considerations, all perceived shortcomings, seem irrelevant.

It seems to me that the only realistic measure of artistic merit is what I call the consensus of the cognoscenti. For such a consensus does exist. If all were purely subjective, and if our individual subjective responses were unrelated to each other, then such a consensus would simply not be possible. The very fact that a consensus exists – that King Lear is considered a great play, Middlemarch a great novel, The Waste Land a great poem – indicates that our various individual subjective responses have a curious tendency to converge.

(I add “of the cognoscenti” to my formulation, because, quite clearly, the opinions of someone unused to reading classic literature, but who fancies trying some out for a change, and who reads – and gets bored by – Anna Karenina, and gives it a dismissive two-star “review” on Amazon or on Goodreads, is neither here nor there. I personally know nothing about Ming vases, say, and I appreciate that my opinions on the quality of Ming vases is fairly irrelevant to everyone except me – and even, perhaps, to me.)

Of course, the consensus will never be unanimous: even among the cognoscenti, there will be those who may dislike Anna Karenina, say, and have good reasons to do so. But a consensus is rarely unanimous: it exists all the same.

And neither will the consensus be stable over time. Some things, however, are: Homer and Sophocles, Virgil and Horace, Dante and Shakespeare, have all been admired by a very large consensus for quite a few centuries now, and it’s hard to envisage a time when they won’t. But one may easily point to other writers and works that have drifted in and out of the consensus across the ages. But, at any given time, a consensus – of the cognoscenti: let’s not forget the good old cognoscenti – most certainly does exist, and the very fact of its existence argues strongly against the view that everything is purely subjective.

And such a consensus can apply with comparisons as well, I think. For those who take an interest in the novel as literary form, there is a strong consensus concerning the greatness of Anna Karenina. There is a further consensus that Oblomov, say, by Ivan Goncharov, is also a very fine novel, perhaps even a great one; and a third consensus also exists, I think, that no matter how great Oblomov may be as a novel, Anna Karenina is even greater (although, accompanying that view, there will be entirely reasonable objections that such a comparison is ludicrous, since novel-writing is not a competitive sport). Of course, one may legitimately prefer Oblomov to Anna Karenina – even if one is part of that cognoscenti I spoke of – but that preference will generally be seen as a bit eccentric.

Like it or not, it is in our nature to compare. And most of the time, it is a pretty harmless parlour game. Who is the greater writer – Homer or Shakespeare? Shakespeare or Tolstoy? Tolstoy or Proust? One may protest that such comparisons are meaningless, and that they devalue literature itself: I wouldn’t argue with that. But at the same time, unless one subscribes to pure subjectivism in these matters – that the quality of any work is determined purely by one’s subjective reactions and by nothing else – then comparison becomes important: if we cannot state with some confidence that Henry James was a greater novelist than E. L. James, we might as well forget about the very concept of literary excellence.

So, as I say, it’s all very messy. Just about everything one may say on this matter is beset by ifs and buts, with reservations and objections. We are still torn between, on the one hand, our desire to measure, and, on the other, our awareness that certain things resist measurement; and further, our conviction that the unmeasurable can still be of the greatest importance. I could – and indeed, have done, right here on this blog – write page after tedious page explaining why King Lear means the world to me, and why I would rank it among the very greatest works of literary art, despite all its flaws and shortcomings. But could I demonstrate it beyond doubt to a sceptic? No. There is no way to quantify the great mystery at the heart of it.

“The Europeans” by Orlando Figes

There’s something about the mid-19th century that fascinates me. Or rather, to be more precise, there’s something about the arts and the culture of the western world of the mid-19th century that fascinates me. But that’s too cumbersome for an opening line.

Pick just about any decade or two any time in history, and it would be easy to reel off the great writers, painters and composers who were active at the time, and the great works that were produced; and the mid-19th century is no exception in that regard. But what makes this period exceptional for me is that there were so many works of that era that mean so much to me personally. Let us, for instance, consider the single decade, the 1860s. It was Dickens’ last decade, and saw the publication of his last two complete novels – Great Expectations, and Our Mutual Friend; George Eliot weighed in with The Mill on the Floss, Lewis Carroll published the first of his two Alice novels, Robert Browning published Dramatis Personae and The Ring and the Book, while Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s last poems were published posthumously after her death in 1861; Tennyson wrote Enoch Arden, and Trollope … well, a quick glance at the reference books indicates that he was, as usual, scribbling away like no man’s business. Across the channel, there was the publication of the final edition of Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du Mal, Flaubert published Salammbô  and L’Education Sentimentale, and Zola made his mark with the wonderfully lurid Thérèse Raquin. From Russia, we have Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons and Leskov’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, while Dostoevsky was keeping himself busy with From the House of the Dead, Notes from Underground, Crime and Punishment, and The Idiot. Tolstoy only wrote one major work in that decade, but that major work was War and Peace. And in the meantime, Ibsen, after many years churning out plays that are now only remembered because he went on to write better stuff, got off the mark as an artist with Brand and Peer Gynt, possibly the last great plays written in verse. And all this time, across the Atlantic, the two great American poets of the 19th century, Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman, were writing some of their finest works.

And this is just literature. There were revolutions happening in the other arts too. Music could not be the same again after Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde: composers who came afterwards were either influenced by Wagner, or reacted against him, but they could not ignore him. Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg was also composed in that decade, as were Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov, Verdi’s La Forza del Destino and Don Carlos, some of the later works of Berlioz and some of the earlier works of Brahms … and so on, and so forth.

Meanwhile, in the visual arts, the two giant canvases exhibited by Manet – Olympia and Le Déjeuner sur l’Herbe – were arguably as revolutionary in painting as Tristan und Isolde was in music. The artists now known collectively as the Impressionists (rather misleadingly, since they were all very different from each other) – Manet, Degas, Monet, Pissarro, Renoir – were all establishing their distinctive styles and artistic visions.

Even acknowledging that we can find significant artistic activity in just about any decade we may care to look at, this seems to me quite exceptional. And if we look at the decades before and after the 1860s (don’t worry – I won’t be providing more boring lists!) we can find similar flowerings of artistry, in all areas. It could well be that I find this era particularly fascinating merely because I am personally attached to so many of its artistic creations, but I do find it hard to escape the conclusion that there was something in the air – something special was happening. But it’s hard to put one’s finger on it without making crude generalisations.

It seems to me that, around the mid-century – 1850, say – Europe, culturally, was between, as it were, two “-isms”. Romanticism wasn’t quite dead – indeed, I don’t think it ever died – but the writers who flourished in the latter half of the century cannot really be described as “Romantic”: indeed, many, such as, say, Flaubert, may rightly be described as rebelling against Romanticism. Similarly in art: the label “Romantic” may easily be applied to Turner, say, or to Delacroix, but not to the artists now known as the Impressionists, nor to the next generation who are labelled (not too imaginatively) as the post-Impressionists. Like the writers of that era, they were neither Romantic, nor Modernist. The composers who flourished in the latter part of the century are still known as Romantic – Wagner, Verdi, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, etc. – but many of the earlier generation of romantics (Mendelssohn, Weber, Chopin) were already dead by 1850, and Schumann died shortly afterwards in 1856 (although his productivity had been tragically cut off towards the end by severe mental illness). Although some of the old-timers did continue into the latter half of the century (Berlioz, Liszt, Wagner, Verdi), styles, inevitably, had moved on from the early days of Romanticism: Berlioz had already done much of his best work (Les Troyens excepted), while the best work of Wagner and of Verdi was yet to come. In short, whether they had labels or not, artists of the later half of the 19th century, despite the lack of an “-ism” to characterise them, were, I think, producing works that were significantly different from what had come before. And it is this period – this “inbetweenism”, in between the first wave of Romanticism and the emergence of modernism – that fascinates me. While there are, of course, many artists from outside this era whom I revere – Shakespeare, Rembrandt, Beethoven, and various others who carry that terrible stigma of being “dead white men” – it is this in-between era to which I most feel drawn.

And so, when a trusted friend recommended me to read The Europeans by Orlando Figes, I had little hesitation. It is, ostensibly, the story of Russian novelist Ivan Turgenev, and the somewhat curious ménage à trois he had with famous opera singer Pauline Garcia-Viardot, and her husband, the art critic and translator Louis Viardot; but Figes hangs on this narrative line a fascinating cultural history of Europe in that period. He considers all kinds of factors that shaped the direction of the arts – political, economic, social, technological, even legal: the establishment of copyright laws, for instance, and the various bilateral agreements between nations, transformed the direction not only of literature, but also of music publishing. The greater ease of transport not only made travelling between countries easier, it increased the catchment areas of opera houses, and an increased potential pool for their audience meant a decreased requirement for a constant supply of new works. And so on. Within a few decades, the world changed in all sorts of very important ways, and the arts, to survive, and, quite often, to flourish, had to adapt and change along the way.

The narrative of Figes’ book begins in 1843, when Turgenev and Pauline Viardot first met, and continues till 1883, with the deaths of Louis Viardot and of Turgenev. An early chapter fills us in on the events before, and a concluding chapter on events afterwards – focussing, naturally, on Pauline Viardot who lost the two men in her life within a few months of each other. Their story, fascinating in itself (all three were remarkable figures) is particularly appropriate for a book that is essentially about European culture, since they were the most cosmopolitan of people. Turgenev was Russian, Louis Viardot was French, and Pauline Garcia was Spanish, but they all seemed most at home in Germany, and travelled and lived extensively around Europe. Pauline Garcia wasn’t, to judge from her portraits, particularly beautiful, but she possessed, apparently, an extraordinary personal charisma, and her singing was, from all accounts, mesmeric. At one point, we are told of Turgenev observing Dickens in the stalls, listening to Pauline singing Orfeo in a revival of Gluck’s opera (the revival was organised by some chap called Hector Berlioz) with tears streaming down his eyes. Turgenev met briefly with Dickens on the way out, and Dickens was sufficiently moved by the performance to write what is effectively a fan letter to Pauline Garcia-Viardot.

Throughout, one gets what could be called “cultural name-dropping”: there goes Manet, there’s Wagner, there’s Tolstoy – and look over there! – there’s Brahms, there’s Flaubert. The entire book, apart from anything else, is a veritable Who’s Who of major cultural figures of the time. There are some, admittedly, who remain on the fringes: Turgenev appears never to have met with Verdi, for instance, despite Verdi’s immense stature, even at the time. Although we are told Pauline Viardot had performed in Verdi’s Macbeth and Il Trovatore, we are also told of her antipathy to Verdi’s music; and Turgenev himself had been a bit rude about La Traviata in his novel On the Eve. The tastes of Turgenev and of the Viardots tended to run more towards the Germanic rather than the Italianate: Pauline Viardot was, like many others, entranced by the music of Wagner, though she was (much to her credit) outraged when Wagner reprinted his notorious pamphlet “Judaism in Music”. Another of my great cultural heroes of that era, Ibsen, doesn’t really get much of a look in either, despite having spent most of his best productive years in Europe.

The two events that most shook the lives  of Turgenev and the Viardots were the revolutions of 1848, and the Franco-Prussian War of 1870. (The unification of Italy doesn’t appear to have touched them much, as their focus was more on the north than on the south.) For the latter Turgenev and the Viardots sided strongly with the Prussians, despite Louis Viardot’s French nationality: this was partly because they were living in Baden at the time, but also because they felt this war would help bring down the hated monarchy of Napoleon III.

Interestingly, Verdi, another great artist with liberal leanings, sided with France in this conflict, saying in a private letter that whatever the Italians knew about freedom and liberty, “we have learnt from the French”, and expressing great unease about growing Germanic nationalism. It has long seemed quite curious to me that, despite his own position as a sort of cultural representative of Italian nationalism, he chose for his next opera, Aida, a storyline that was very explicitly anti-nationalist. It is of course wishful thinking on my part that so great a cultural hero of mine should share my own political biases, and I think I should read up a bit more to see if this was indeed the case. But I continue to think it remarkable, nonetheless, that at a time when various types of nationalism around Europe were on the rise, Verdi should compose a work that so eloquently depicts human love overcoming the barriers of nationhood that separate and divide us.

For, while this era was an era of greater cosmopolitanism, it was an era also of increased nationalism: perhaps one cannot have one without the other. People became increasingly worried that with nations coming closer together, local traditions would be erased, and all different cultures homogenised. Perhaps the most notorious expression of this was the monologue Hans Sachs is given towards the end of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, where German artists are encouraged to keep German art “pure”. This feeling was echoed by all other nationalities – the Czechs, the Russians, and the citizens of the newly united Italy. (Even Verdi urged that Italian composers should be true to the spirit and the traditions of Italian music.) There seemed to be a genuine fear that individual national characteristics will be swallowed up by the international whole – a fear that is still, incidentally, very much with us. This feeling was particularly acute in Russia, where Slavophiles and those who looked to western liberalism were virtually at each other’s throats. This conflict was very apparent in relations between Turgenev and Dostoyevsky. They met when Dostoyevsky, in Baden, visited Turgenev: he had not wanted to, but the two had met accidentally in the street, and, since Dostoyevsky owed Turgenev money, he did not want Turgenev to think that he was deliberately avoiding his creditor. There are conflicting reports on what exactly passed between the two men, but it was certainly most acrimonious, with Dostoyevsky angrily denouncing Turgenev’s last novel Smoke, and Turgenev (according to Dostoyevsky) claiming that he was proud to regard himself as a German rather than as a Russian. Turgenev later denied he had ever said such a thing. And Dostoyevsky’s debt to Turgenev never did get paid.

Like many others at the time of the Franco-Prussian War, Turgenev and the Viardots found themselves refugees in England, and the picture that emerges of England at the time reads almost like a catalogue of every single stereotype about the coutry: bad food, a highly polluted foggy and dismal London, and the like. Prices in England were much higher than elsewhere in Europe: despite the shocking levels of poverty, there was clearly much more money circulating in England than there was elsewhere in the continent. (Although Figes doesn’t mention it, one suspects that the rather extensive British Empire may have had something to do with that.) And there was the cultural insularity. The British book trade depended far less on translations than did the book trades of other countries, and when Turgenev spent a few days as a guest of Tennyson’s (yes, he pops up as well), he was surprised to find that not only did this eminent man of letters know nothing of any literature written in any of the countries across the channel, he wasn’t much interested in finding out about it either.

Turgenev had his personal flaws, as does anyone, but he does emerge as a very kind and decent person. So, indeed, does Louis Viardot. Pauline Viardot, in many ways, does appear to be a stereotypically temperamental prima donna, but Figes captures the immense personal charisma that drew so many people to her. Both Louis Viardot and Ivan Turgenev died in 1884: Viardot was some twenty years older, so his demise was perhaps not so unexpected; Turgenev died after a very painful and distressing illness. Among other things, he wrote on his deathbed a touching reconciliatory letter to Tolstoy (with whom he hadn’t always been on good terms), telling him that he considered it a privilege to have lived at the same time. Turgenev, his great friend Flaubert, Wagner, Distoyevsky, Manet and Liszt all died within about five years of each other: culturally, it did seem like the end of an era. And of course, a new one was just around the corner. But what an extraordinary few decades these were! We could see this era, of course, as a sort of bridge between Romanticism and Modernism, but really, beyond a point, labels are pretty meaningless: they may help us see patterns amid all the chaos, but sometimes, these labels create patterns don’t really exist. This Inbetweenism that existed in the years covered by this book – roughly, 1843 to 1874 – remains, for me, one of the most wonderful periods of artistic and cultural activity, and The Europeans I found a quite enthralling guide. Among other things, it makes me want to revisit the works of Turgenev (“the novelist’s novelist” according to Henry James), and of his friend Flaubert. On the whole, this is the cultural era in which I feel most at home.

“A Christmas Carol”, Tolstoy, and Dostoyevsky. And a bit of Henry James.

In a recent post, I pointed out what seems to me a striking similarity between a passage in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, and a passage in Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Illyich. In both instances, we see a group of men speaking in indifferent terms about the recent death of a colleague. Of course, this similarity could be a coincidence, but I think not: first of all, Tolstoy openly loved and admired Dickens; and secondly, Dickens was here addressing a theme that was obviously very close to Tolstoy’s heart – What meaning, what significance, can we find in a human life in the context of its inevitable end? This is a question that Tolstoy had returned to throughout his life, and nowhere with greater insistence than in The Death of Ivan Illyich. And Tolstoy is not the only artist to have addressed this question, and echoed A Christmas Carol in the process: Ingmar Bergman’s film Wild Strawberries also addresses this question, and here too, we see an elderly misanthrope reliving his past, and becoming reformed in the process.

The echoes of Dickens in Bergman’s film are, most likely, accidental; but there was another great artist who, quite consciously, I think, had echoed A Christmas Carol. Consider Bob Cratchit’s speech to his gathered family in the Christmas-Yet-to-Come episode:

“…But however and whenever we part from one another, I am sure we shall none of us forget poor Tiny Tim—shall we—or this first parting that there was among us?”

“Never, father!” cried they all.

“And I know,” said Bob, “I know, my dears, that when we recollect how patient and how mild he was; although he was a little, little child; we shall not quarrel easily among ourselves, and forget poor Tiny Tim in doing it.”

Now let us consider Alyosha’s speech to the boys (also while mourning the death of a child) at the end of The Brothers Karamazov:

“Boys, my dear boys, let us all be generous and brave like Ilusha, clever, brave and generous like Kolya (though he will be ever so much cleverer when he is grown up), and let us all be as modest, as clever and sweet as Kartashov. But why am I talking about those two? You are all dear to me, boys, from this day forth, I have a place in my heart for you all, and I beg you to keep a place in your hearts for me! Well, and who has united us in this kind, good feeling which we shall remember and intend to remember all our lives? Who, if not Ilusha, the good boy, the dear boy, precious to us for ever! Let us never forget him. May his memory live for ever in our hearts from this time forth!”

(from the translation by Constance Garnett)

In both cases, the speaker is urging other children to remember a departed child, and, whatever happens in life, be inspired to be good by the memory of that dead child’s goodness.

It’s all too easy to dismiss Dickens for being sentimental (especially in something like A Christmas Carol, which is generally regarded as no more than a feelgood piece of whimsy, and not, perhaps, the deepest expression of an artistic and moral vision); but when Dostoyevsky places a passage that is almost identical in sense and feeling at the very end of what is generally taken to be the most comprehensive statement of his own artistic and moral vision, we should, I think, take it a bit more seriously.

For I don’t think the passage in Dickens is “sentimental” at all. Quite the contrary.  It comes in a scene that is, I think, at the very heart of A Christmas Carol. It depicts, to my mind very convincingly, a loving and close-knit family grieving for a dead child. It’s only a few pages long: Dickens, contrary perhaps to expectations, doesn’t milk it. But the context in which he places it is remarkable. For, earlier, Scrooge had been made to see a world utterly devoid of any human feeling: some cleaning women have robbed a dead man of everything, including the very blankets the corpse had been wrapped in, and are now trying to sell these stolen goods for as much as they can get. A world so devoid of feeling – and not too far removed, incidentally, from the indifference of the men Scrooge had seen earlier discussing the dead man in indifferent terms – is indeed Hell. And Scrooge, by this stage, knows it: he refers to it as “a fearful place”. And he knows why it is such a fearful place: there is no room here for human feeling. He asks to be shown some feeling in relation to the dead man, and he is shown a young couple who are merely relieved, because the death of their creditor has given them an unexpected respite. But this is not what Scrooge wants to see: and he finally articulates what it is that he wants to see – tenderness. He wants to see that which makes of our lives something other than the Hell he has just witnessed. And this is when we are shown the grieving Cratchits.

The mother tries not to show her grief:

The mother laid her work upon the table, and put her hand up to her face.

“The colour hurts my eyes,” she said.

The colour? Ah, poor Tiny Tim!

The father is less successful, and at one point, spontaneously bursts into tears. Dickens tells us, in a narrative intrusion of a kind very unfashionable these days:

He broke down all at once. He couldn’t help it. If he could have helped it, he and his child would have been farther apart perhaps than they were.

Far from being sentimental or mawkish, as is often alleged, this seems to me to get to the very heart of the matter. For whatever pain the mother and the father may feel, the very fact that they can feel this pain is what makes them human. This is the tenderness that Scrooge had longed to see, and without which our lives are very literally Hell.

At the end of Bob Cratchit’s speech, he says something very unexpected:

“I am very happy,” said little Bob, “I am very happy!”

I think Dickens is challenging us here: he is challenging us to understand how a man can profess himself “very happy” even when undergoing the greatest mental anguish. And I think the answer lies in what had come earlier: were it not for the pain that the Cratchits feel, they would be even further from their dead child than they already were. It is this ability to feel that makes us human, that makes of this terrible world something other than merely Hell.

A few years ago, I read The Portrait of a Lady, and was struck by a passage at the climactic point of the novel, where, as Ralph is dying, and as his beloved Isabel tells him how unhappy she is in her marriage, he says:

“You don’t hurt me—you make me very happy.” 

And I remember trying to figure out where else I had come across a character in the depths of sorrow claiming to be happy. And it took me a while to figure out it that the other book I was thinking of is A Christmas Carol.  Perhaps it’s not surprising that it took me a while: after all, Dickens and James are about as radically different as writers as it is possible to imagine. Indeed, James deeply disliked Dickens, and attempted to make his own novels as different from those of Dickens as possible. And many readers still, I think, tend to think of James as the serious novelist, and of Dickens as a mere entertainer – good fun, perhaps, but not really possessing much depth. Well, Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky certainly didn’t think so: both were happy to pay their tribute to Dickens in their most deeply felt work. And James – entirely unwittingly, I am sure – at the most grave and most solemn moment in one of his very finest works, seems to make contact with a sort Christmas novel still thought of in many quarters as no more than piece of feelgood seasonal whimsy.

I really do think we should take A Christmas Carol as a serious and very deeply felt work of literature.

The “Six Degrees of Separation” meme

How about one of those book memes? Yes, why not. It’s nearly Christmas, after all, so let’s indulge ourselves. I found this lovely post in Marina Sofia’s blog, and thought to myself “that looks fun!” The meme is hosted by Kate in her blog, and the rules are described here. The idea is that we start off with a book of Kate’s choosing (this month, it’s Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol), and find some connection with another book. And then, we take that other book, and find some connection with yet another book. And so build up the chain, ending up with six books.


I’ve posted about Dickens’ Christmas Books (including A Christmas Carol) quite often in the past, so I won’t repeat – yet again – how much I love that book, and why. But let me draw attention to the following passage, from the fourth part of A Christmas Carol, describing a group of businessmen talking about a recently deceased colleague:

`No,’ said a great fat man with a monstrous chin,’ I don’t know much about it, either way. I only know he’s dead.’

`When did he die.’ inquired another.

`Last night, I believe.’

`Why, what was the matter with him.’ asked a third, taking a vast quantity of snuff out of a very large snuff-box. `I thought he’d never die.’

`God knows,’ said the first, with a yawn.

`What has he done with his money.’ asked a red-faced gentleman with a pendulous excrescence on the end of his nose, that shook like the gills of a turkey-cock.

`I haven’t heard,’ said the man with the large chin, yawning again. `Left it to his company, perhaps. He hasn’t left it to me. That’s all I know.’

This pleasantry was received with a general laugh.

`It’s likely to be a very cheap funeral,’ said the same speaker;’ for upon my life I don’t know of anybody to go to it. Suppose we make up a party and volunteer.’

`I don’t mind going if a lunch is provided,’ observed the gentleman with the excrescence on his nose. `But I must be fed, if I make one.’

Another laugh.

`Well, I am the most disinterested among you, after all,’ said the first speaker,’ for I never wear black gloves, and I never eat lunch. But I’ll offer to go, if anybody else will. When I come to think of it, I’m not at all sure that I wasn’t his most particular friend; for we used to stop and speak whenever we met. Bye, bye.’

Speakers and listeners strolled away, and mixed with other groups.

Now, consider this passage, describing a group of lawyers speaking of the recent passing of a colleague:

“Gentlemen,” [Peter Ivanovich] said, “Ivan Ilych has died!”

“You don’t say so!”

“Here, read it yourself,” replied Peter Ivanovich, handing Fedor Vasilievich the paper still damp from the press.

… on receiving the news of Ivan Ilych’s death the first thought of each of the gentlemen in that private room was of the changes and promotions it might occasion among themselves or their acquaintances.

“I shall be sure to get Shtabel’s place or Vinnikov’s,” thought Fedor Vasilievich. “I was promised that long ago, and the promotion means an extra eight hundred rubles a year for me besides the allowance.”

“Now I must apply for my brother-in-law’s transfer from Kaluga,” thought Peter Ivanovich. “My wife will be very glad, and then she won’t be able to say that I never do anything for her relations.”

“I thought he would never leave his bed again,” said Peter Ivanovich aloud. “It’s very sad.”

“But what really was the matter with him?”

“The doctors couldn’t say — at least they could, but each of them said something different. When last I saw him I thought he was getting better.”

“And I haven’t been to see him since the holidays. I always meant to go.”

“Had he any property?”

“I think his wife had a little — but something quiet trifling.”

“We shall have to go to see her, but they live so terribly far away.”

“Far away from you, you mean. Everything’s far away from your place.”

“You see, he never can forgive my living on the other side of the river,” said Peter Ivanovich, smiling at Shebek. Then, still talking of the distances between different parts of the city, they returned to the Court.

This is from Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Illych, in the translation by Louise and Aylmer Maude. Plagiarism? Perhaps. I prefer to think of it as a homage. Tolstoy, after all, revered Dickens. (As indeed did Dostoyevsky: Alyosha’s speech to the boys at the end of The Brothers Karamazov is almost word-for-word the same as Bob Cratchit’s address to his family when they are mourning Tiny Tim. But that’s another story, as they say…)


So that’s my first connection: The Death of Ivan Illych by Tolstoy – a short novel (novella is, I think, the preferred term) – describing an ordinary man, who had never so much as given a thought to his mortality, suddenly confronting the prospect of his imminent extinction.

The shadow of Tolstoy’s short novel seems to me very apparent in one of Ivan Bunin’s finest short stories, “The Gentleman of San Francisco”. A very wealthy American gentleman is on holiday, on a cruise, when he dies of a heart attack, and is transported back home in a coffin. At the risk of giving away spoilers, that’s about all there is to the plot. But as in Tolstoy’s work, albeit in a very different manner, we are made aware of the very basic and terrifying facts of our mortality lurking beneath what is but a thin veneer of civilisation – a civilisation which prefers, for the sake of decorum, to downplay that which is most important in our lives – that is, its end – and pretend it doesn’t really exist. Or, perhaps, that it doesn’t really matter too much.


Bunin was an émigré Russian writer. Which takes me to my next choice – Pnin, by Vladimir Nabokov, perhaps the most famous Russian émigré writer of them all. However, unlike Bunin, Nabokov, in his exile, started writing in English, the language of his adopted country. Pnin, which I wrote about recently on this blog (and a quick link saves me the trouble of repeating myself) I found among the most eloquent and touching accounts of the state of exile.


Exile, exile … that brings me to my next choice, Poems of Exile, Peter Green’s wonderful translations of Ovid’s Tristia, and the Black Sea Letters (Epistulae ex Ponto). (When I say “wonderful translation”, I mean they read very well in English: not having the benefits of a classical education, I cannot of course comment on how close they are to the originals.)

Ovid was, for reasons still obscure, exiled by Augustus from his beloved Rome to what was then the wild and dangerous frontiers at the far end of the Roman Empire – to what is now Romania, at the edge of the Black Sea. From there, in these poems, Ovid laments all he has lost. In my last post, I spoke of homesickness: perhaps there is no more powerful testament than these poems of the pain of that condition.


Fast forward to the twentieth century: the Russian poet, Osip Mandelstam, also wrote a collection of poems named (no doubt evoking Ovid) Tristia. Sadly, I have not read those poems. Mandelstam himself became an exile later in life, of course, and became one of the many millions (the numbers are so astronomically large that the mind reels) who died of cold and of hunger in Stalin’s gulags.

My next choice, though, is Nadezhda Mandelstam’s memoirs of those unimaginably terrible years, Hope Against Hope and Hope Abandoned (I am counting these two volumes as a single choice). These heartbreaking books rank with Anne Frank’s diary, or with Primo Levi’s If This is a Man, as among the indispensable testaments of what it means to be human amidst the most unthinkable inhumanity. And yes, books such as these are particularly important now, when certain comfortable activists (known, I believe, as “tankies”) attempt to downplay and even whitewash the horrors of Soviet Communism.

I said at the start of this post that this meme looks like “fun”. Well, most of my choices haven’t frankly been “fun” choices. Let’s face it – I’m an overly serious, miserable, po-faced old grouch, whose idea of an enjoyable evening is to pour myself a large vodka, watch Ingmar Bergman’s Cries and Whispers, and follow it up listening to Mahler’s 6th symphony. And then, maybe, retire with some Samuel Beckett for a bit of bedtime reading. So let’s finish off with something lighter. That’s difficult: how can Nadezhda Mandelstam’s books be connected to anything light? Well, let’s try…

Hope Against Hope … hope … hope … yes, I have it! Sir Anthony Hope’s The Prisoner of Zenda! A splendid swashbuckling adventure story, of the kind I used to love as a boy. And still do, in between my viewings of Bergman, my listenings of Mahler, and my readings of Beckett.


And that, I believe, is my sixth choice. If you have a blog, why not give this meme a go?

Bypassing thought

“I’d rather people feel a film before understanding it” Robert Bresson once said in an interview. T. S. Eliot had said something similar: “Genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood.” Art can, in other words, bypass thought, and still affect us.

In one way, I rather like this. After all, I’m damned if I can understand Bresson’s Pickpocket, say, or Eliot’s “Little Gidding” – at least, I’m damned if I understand these works well enough to account for the effect they have on me. And yet, they do have an effect on me: I can’t deny it.

But in another way, it bothers me. If one can respond, even respond powerfully, to something before one understands it; or even, perhaps, without ever understanding; can one then not respond to any old thing? What then of our powers of discrimination that we so pride ourselves on?

Of course, I tell myself, there is much one can love deeply without understanding. If, after all, one had to understand the principles of counterpoint to enjoy listening to a Bach fugue, poor old Johann Sebastian wouldn’t be left with too many admirers. And similarly with visual arts. Earlier this year, as I stood in the Musée de l’Orangerie in Paris, in those great oval rooms, surrounded on all sides by those vast water-lilies of Monet, by those dazzling, resplendent splashes of colours, I felt quite transported. But were I imprudent enough to try to write a blog post about them, I don’t know that I could say anything more interesting or more meaningful than “I like them, and think they are very good”.

Indeed, now I think about it, much of writing on arts, perhaps most, could be reduced to that. “I like it. I think it is very good.” Or maybe “It rocks”. Or, conversely, “It sucks”. For who needs articulacy when you don’t have much to say in the first place?

And this, I admit, bothers me, because, while I do accept the truth of Bresson’s dictum (and of Eliot’s), the logical end of their pronouncements seems to be the death of dialogue. If understanding is not the point, then why go beyond “It rocks” and “It sucks”?

I pose these questions rhetorically, of course, but if I cannot at least attempt an answer, much of what I write on this blog would be quite meaningless (if, indeed, it isn’t pretty meaningless as it is). And I think my answer may be along the following lines:

While gaining an understanding may not be essential to appreciation, it surely helps.

Recently, I watched Robert Bresson’s last film, L’Argent, made when he was an old man in his 80s. It is a challenging film, as I think the expression is; which, in other words, means it’s hard to figure out what the hell it’s about. Bresson seems, towards the end both of his career and indeed of his life, to take his trademark austere style to its very extremes. The narrative line is elliptical, with the causes of the various effects we see never quite made clear; the actors have clearly been instructed merely to speak their lines clearly, without the slightest hint of expression; and it is left entirely to the viewer to figure out what these characters’ motivations are, or, indeed, what it all signifies. For, presumably, it all does signify something: it is clearly not a set of random events strung together arbitrarily. But how do I know this? I mean, how do I know that this is not merely a set of random events strung together arbitrarily, when, to tell the truth, I can’t make too much sense of it all? I’d answer that the film affected me. Rather strongly. But is this enough? Is a mere subjective response on my part, a response I cannot account for in any objective terms, a sufficient criterion of artistic merit?

Well, yes, it is, if one believes that the very concept of artistic merit is merely subjective. But I don’t believe that. And there’s my problem.

For whatever reason, I cannot leave it there. I cannot just say “I like it” (“It rocks”) and leave it at that.  I had to think about the film as best I can, allow it to enter into my consciousness. The plot is based on a late novella by Tolstoy, The Forged Coupon. In that story, the simple act of passing on a forged coupon has all sorts of unexpected knock-on effects, and Tolstoy shows us a small act of evil – so small, indeed, that “evil” may seem too strong a word for it – escalating into something enormous. And then, in the second part of the story, Tolstoy shows the opposite effect: a single small act of human kindness similarly escalates, and has knock-on effects, but in a different direction. Tolstoy’s work is, of course, a moral fable, and while some, I know, think of it as evidence of the decline of a once great artist, I personally think of this novella as among the world’s greatest literature. But be that as it may, Tolstoy’s purpose, unlike Bresson’s, could not be clearer.

Bresson takes this story, and shows us only the first part. Two boys pass a forged banknote, and the cumulative effect of this thoughtless action grows, until it seems to engulf humanity itself. But the counter-action – the spreading of Good – Bresson does not show. He takes the spread of evil to its end – omitting quite deliberately many of the links in the process – and then leaves us there. So yes, Bresson’s film, unlike Tolstoy’s story, is a deeply pessimistic work: it sees evil as triumphant, and humanity helpless. But if this were all, it would not have affected me so very powerfully. “Evil is all-powerful and we are helpless” seems too trite an observation to be the basis of a great work of art.

So what else is there to this film that affected me so? To get a better grasp of the film, I needed not merely to feel, but to understand – to understand why the characters act as they do. And yet, those are the very aspects of the film that Bresson chose to leave out. So, naturally, it was up to me to try to fill in those gaps. I have felt the film, as Bresson had wanted me to: but I found it deeply unsatisfactory to leave it there. I needed also to understand. And maybe, if I did, I could feel even more intensely.

It isn’t easy: Bresson was not merely a devout Catholic, he was also a Jansenist, and the modes of thinking this implies are very alien to my sensibilities. But it does seem to me that the principal character, having already attempted to kill himself, becomes so filled with hatred of his own self that he wants to damn his own soul. Mere physical destruction isn’t enough: through some strange workings of his mind that are outside the normal orbit of my own, he has to destroy himself spiritually too.

Now, there is no point in wondering whether or not this is the correct interpretation: since Bresson himself refuses to explain, any explanation that is not inconsistent with what is in the film is valid. A work of art isn’t, after all, a crossword puzzle – a code one has to solve to arrive at a correct answer. However, having reached at least some sort of understanding, however inadequate and superficial, I needed desperately to know what others have made of it. For the perspectives of others can but deepen my own.

I searched on Google, but I must admit I didn’t really find anything that was particularly valuable. Maybe I was looking at the wrong places. But I am not looking for a solution: there aren’t solutions to these things. What I am looking for is dialogue – something a bit more substantial than “it rocks” or “it sucks”. For the more one can understand, the better one can feel.

Ultimately, all works of art, of any substance at all, ultimately lie beyond our understanding. Even works we are well acquainted with. I have known King Lear, say, since I was eleven: I have seen many performances, both on stage and on screen; I have read it and re-read it for nearly 50 years now; I have even read books and essays about it. But do I really understand it fully? Could I account for all this play makes me feel? No. Ultimately, these things remain a mystery. But without making the effort at least to understand what I can, I would not have been able even to approach this mystery.

Looking back at the quotes with which I started this piece, I notice there is one word they both use. “I’d rather people feel a film before understanding it.” “Genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood.” (My italics.) Feeling may indeed come before understanding, but that is not to say it replaces it. And nor does analysis (which is no more than structured thought) destroy feeling, as so many seem to think. Quite the opposite. True, we may never pluck out the heart of the mystery that any work of art of any substance, I think, possesses; but not even to make the effort reduces us merely to passive spectators. And to engage adequately with a work of art, we need to be far more than that.

Presenting oneself

Tell me, good Brutus, can you see your face?

No, Cassius; for the eye sees not itself,
But by reflection, by some other things.

There appear to be increasing numbers who insist that authors write about themselves. And about no-one but themselves. That writing about people of different races, from different cultural backgrounds, different sexualities, and so on, is oppressive. “Cultural appropriation”, a term concocted fairly recently to reflect a cultural ideology also concocted fairly recently, is now bandied about with reckless abandon, while the argument that it is the fiction writer’s job to imagine themselves into the minds and hearts of other people, often very different from their own selves, seems to fall on deaf ears. Issues specifically affecting a certain group of people must not, it is insisted, be addressed by writers who do not belong to this group. And should they do so, they may well find themselves facing a generally inarticulate but nonetheless potent rage. This rage should not be underestimated, for it may hold hostage even our literary judgement: recently, the influential literary magazine Kirkus, faced with such rage, withdrew its approval from a fiction that it had initially reviewed favourably. Authors beware.

The logical end of the arguments against “cultural appropriation” – fulminations rather than arguments, perhaps, for I do not find them well argued – is that we must write only about ourselves, or, at best, about people very much like ourselves, sharing our racial origin, our gender, our sexuality, and all the rest of it; and that we must concede that those who may enter our fictions who are unlike ourselves fall outside the range not only of our experience, but also of our imagination. There seems, however, to be an underlying assumption here I find questionable, and that is that our own selves we do understand. But do we? As Brutus rightly observes, the eye sees not itself.

I’m not a reader of autobiographies. I don’t think I’ve read a single one, although I suppose I should try out some of the more notable examples of the genre – the autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini, say, or the Confessions of St Augustine, or of Rousseau. However, despite my not having read even the finest examples of the form, I find the form itself troubling. Could I write my own story? I have joked in the past that if I were to try my hand at autobiography, then, given how much I have absorbed of Western culture throughout my life (or “appropriated”, some may say); and given further that, as a newly arrived five-year-old immigrant from India (or, rather, émigré, a term far more distinguished-sounding than mere immigrant), I had found myself typecast as the Second King in school nativity plays; I should perhaps call my autobiography Westward Leading, Still Proceeding. But that joke is a bit tired now, and the “if” itself is highly problematic: I could never, I think, sit down to write an autobiography. For there is no point writing an autobiography if one is not to be honest, and to be honest about people whom I have known and liked, or even loved, and lay bare to public gaze their inevitable faults and shortcomings, would be on my part a gross betrayal. And to be similarly honest about myself would be simply embarrassing. In any case I don’t know that I can be honest with myself: however I may see myself, my perspective is inevitably distorted. The eye sees not itself. So either I would end up flattering my ego in self-admiration, or flagellating my character in self-hatred; and neither, I fear, would be a spectacle likely to edify. Except, perhaps, as a cautionary example of that which should, for reasons of good taste, be avoided.

But without going as far as autobiography, a great many writers have introduced themselves into their novels in fictional form. And here, too, I think there are difficulties. It is no surprise, for instance, that the only character in David Copperfield who lacks colour and vitality is the adult David himself, the central character in an avowedly autobiographical novel: Dickens would not, or, more likely perhaps, could not, endow David with his own vitality or genius. We never believe that the David we see in this novel would himself be capable of writing David Copperfield. Levin, in Anna Karenina, is a much finer piece of characterisation, but even here, Tolstoy cannot invest this autobiographical character with his own genius: however much Levin may have resembled Tolstoy in other matters, it is impossible to imagine him writing Anna Karenina. This perhaps confirms what lesser mortals such as myself have often felt about genius – that it is so mysterious a quality, it eludes the understanding even of those who are possessed of it. Or, perhaps, especially of those who are possessed of it.

There are other writers who present, quite deliberately, a certain carefully calculated version of themselves in their novels. Fielding, for instance, frequently speaks to the reader in his own voice, thus making himself, in effect, one of the characters in his own novel. The voice he speaks in is companionable – wise, witty, magnanimous, tolerant, admiring of virtues, and generally tolerant and forgiving of vices. Whether Fielding was really like this matters little: what matters is how well the characterisation works in the context of the novel. For once one puts oneself into fiction, one becomes a fictional character, and it is in the context of the fiction that the success or otherwise of the character must be judged.

Nabokov went in the opposite direction from Fielding: the narrator of Pnin turns out to be Nabokov himself, except that he isn’t quite Nabokov himself: he is a version of Nabokov with all warmth and compassion expunged, and with the cruelty and heartlessness accentuated. An unpleasant parody of Nabokov, in other words. For the real Nabokov, the real author of Pnin, leaves the attentive reader in no doubt that the title character is a gentle and dignified man, indeed, a saintly man; and such a man, one suspects, would have been beyond the scope of the parody Nabokov, the fictional author of Pnin. The real Nabokov demands we read between the lines; the parody Nabokov is seemingly unaware that there exists anything at all between the lines worth reading.

Nabokov could pull this off because he was well aware of the impossibility of putting one’s self into one’s work; he was aware that when one tries to do so, all one puts in is a parody of one’s self. And being aware of this, he deliberately shaped the parody to serve his artistic ends. As, no doubt, did Fielding, although Fielding went in the opposite direction by presenting the best rather than the worst of himself. But both Fielding in Tom Jones and Nabokov in Pnin are fictional characters; and both writers – the real writers, that is – know it.

This is why I think I find myself suspicious of autobiography as a form. If one puts oneself into a fiction, one immediately becomes a fictional character; and when one puts oneself into what purports to be fact, the factual nature of the self-representation is, at the very least, questionable.

And similarly, I think, with those things one writes about because they are close to one’s self, because writing manuals have told us to write about what we know: the closer a subject is to the author’s own life, the less I find myself trusting it. One’s own experiences are the very things that are most difficult to write about with any great degree of objectivity. And where objectivity is questionable, so too, I think, is authenticity.

Since I am not myself a writer of fiction, I feel I am well qualified to dispense advice to aspiring fiction-writers. I’d say – don’t write about what you know. Forget your own self: imagine yourself into the minds of people very different from yourself. For, if you cannot imagine that, you really have no business even trying to write fiction. Best to write some trifling blog instead, as I do.

On re-reading “Middlemarch”

This is not intended to be a review.

Indeed, nothing on this blog is intended to be a review. Since I want to write on this blog about all the various things I love, I have found myself writing about some of the most exalted of literary creations – Hamlet, Don Quixote, The Brothers Karamazov and what not. For me to claim to review such works seems a trifle presumptuous. If I am reviewing anything at all, it is myself: I am merely recording how my own individual mind responds to these works – sometimes, I hope, with insight, but more frequently, I fear, with incomprehension.

It is with this in mind that I come to Middlemarch, a novel that has not really been very close to my heart. I first read it some twenty-five years ago, and I remember admiring it greatly. But, in contrast to many other novels I have admired, I have not in those intervening years felt the desire to revisit it. And furthermore, the memories I had of it were vague: nothing from it seemed have lodged very firmly in my mind. These facts in themselves I found intriguing. For, after all, there are a great many readers, highly intelligent and cultivated and with unimpeachable literary taste, who not only think very highly of this novel, they refer to it as the novel they love best. Even as the “greatest novel” they have read. Of course, we don’t need to go into tedious disquisitions on the redundancy of the concept of “best” or “greatest” in such matters, or of literature not being a competitive sport: when someone speaks of Middlemarch being the “greatest” novel they have read, I understand what they mean – that not only is it a novel of surpassing merit, but that it is also the novel that speaks to them most directly, most profoundly; that it is the novel that resonates most insistently in their minds and hearts, that provides most that unmistakable tingle in the spine that Nabokov speaks of as being the ultimate arbiter of literary greatness. That Middlemarch is a novel of surpassing greatness I have never doubted, but I was curious to see whether, after so long a gap, this novel would now resonate with me – whether I, as a reader, have developed sufficiently since my earlier reading to allow this novel to enter my consciousness in a way it had not done before. Whether, in short, it would now give that tingle in the spine.

And if not, why not.

That it is a magnificent creation, I already knew. Even at that first reading, I was struck by its breadth and depth of vision. But that may be a strange thing to say about a work that remains doggedly within a single location (the Warwickshire town of Middlemarch, a fictional version, it is believed, of Coventry), dealing with everyday people in this everyday setting, and not finding, nor even seeking for, any sense of transcendence. All that is solid remains solid: the light it is seen in is no visionary or ethereal light, but very much the clear light of day. Wider national politics enter into it, but only insofar as it affects local people going about their daily business: there is no overarching political vision, any more than there is an overarching religious or spiritual vision. Eliot gives us small people leading small lives, and refuses to look beyond this.

In a very fine essay of Wordsworth’s The Prelude (“The Noble Community of the Living and the Dead: Community in The Prelude”, included in The Cambridge Companion to Wordsworth) Lucy Newlyn draws a parallel between Eliot’s work and Wordsworth’s, quoting two surprisingly similar passages from each:

The morning was, a memorable pomp,
More glorious than I ever had beheld.
The sea was laughing at a distance; all
The solid mountains were as bright as clouds,
Grain-tinctured, drenched in empyrean light;
And in the meadows and the lower grounds
Was all the sweetness of a common dawn—
Dews, vapours, and the melody of birds,
And labourers going forth into the fields.
Ah, need I say, dear friend, that to the brim
My heart was full? I made no vows, but vows
Were then made for me; bond unknown to me
Was given, that I should be—else sinning greatly—
A dedicated spirit. On I walked
In blessedness, which even yet remains.
– From The Prelude (1805 text), iv, 330-45


She opened her curtains, and looked out towards the bit of road that lay in view, with fields beyond outside the entrance-gates. On the road there was a man with a bundle on his back and a woman carrying her baby; in the field she could see figures moving—perhaps the shepherd with his dog. Far off in the bending sky was the pearly light; and she felt the largeness of the world and the manifold wakings of men to labour and endurance. She was a part of that involuntary, palpitating life, and could neither look out on it from her luxurious shelter as a mere spectator, nor hide her eyes in selfish complaining.
– from Middlemarch, Chapter 80

The parallels are apparent, quite apart from the similarity of what is described – human figures within a larger landscape. In Wordsworth, the landscape is perceived first, and only then the figures (the “labourers going forth into the field”), with the grandiloquent diction in the earlier part of the passage giving way to more everyday speech. In Eliot, the process is reversed: the people are seen first (“the man with the bundle on his back, and a woman carrying her baby”), and only afterwards the largeness of the landscape they are in, and the register of the diction moves this time from the everyday to the magnificent. But both the poet in the first excerpt, and Dorothea in the second, feel it to be a moment of revelation. Wordsworth tells us that although he did not himself make a vow, vows were nonetheless made on his behalf: what these vows were he does not spell out: he tells us that he must be a “dedicated spirit”, but dedicated precisely to what he does not tell us, because, given the context, he does not need to. Eliot is more explicit: Dorothea realises she is not detached from the life around her, that she could not merely look on with a disinterested eye. This is the “bond” Wordsworth speaks of – the bond with life, with one’s fellow beings, an awareness of being, ineluctably, a part of something larger than oneself.

And for Eliot, what was larger than one’s individual self was humanity – other individual selves, collectively forming a greater unit. And this greater unit is not restricted merely to those now living. Wordsworth had written in the eleventh book of The Prelude:

                        There is
One great society alone on earth:
The noble Living and the noble Dead.

To which Eliot would probably have added “and the noble Unborn”. For the bond that Wordsworth speaks of links us not only to generations past, but also to generations yet to come. The famous last lines of Middlemarch make this clear:

… for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.

However seemingly mundane and quotidian our lives may be, however seemingly insignificant, we are part of a living bond both with generations past, who have prepared the ground for us, and for generations yet to come, for whose sake, whether we realise it or not, we are living now. To recognise our part in this noble community of the Living and the Dead and the Unborn is to be part of the “involuntary, palpitating life”; it is to “feel the largeness of this world”.

So far, so Wordsworthian. But Eliot’s view is nonetheless, it seems to me, somewhat different from Wordsworth’s. For Wordsworth was concerned also with intimations of immortality, with that sense sublime of something far more deeply interfused, that sense of a presence that is both immanent in humanity, but which also transcends it: but these concerns weren’t Eliot’s. There are no “spots of time” in Eliot’s fictional world; or, rather, if there are, they do not look beyond humanity. The sense that Dorothea gets of an attachment to, and an active involvement with, something larger than her individual self, is not so large as to transcend humanity or to point towards eternity. This is not to say that Eliot’s vision is smaller than Wordsworth’s – merely that, for all its apparent similarities, it is differently directed. For, to Eliot, there was nothing larger than humanity; and this “involuntary, palpitating life”, this great human chain of generations succeeding each other, not only leaves no time to contemplate eternity, it makes such contemplation redundant.

We often speak of nineteenth century fiction as “realistic”, but this is mere lazy generalisation. It is not merely that so many giants of nineteenth century fiction had little or no interest in photographic verisimilitude – Gogol, Dickens, Melville, Dostoyevsky, etc. – it is also that there are many different shades of what we lazily term “realism”. Tolstoy and Eliot, for instance, may both be described as “realist” writers: they both depicted the solidity of this world, the chains of cause following effect; they tried both to come to at least some sort of understanding of the endlessly complex rules that govern our lives, our minds. And yet, in Tolstoy, there are times when these rules, however fascinatingly complex they may be, seem to be suspended: when, for instance, Andrei, wounded on the battlefield of Austerlitz, sees that vast overarching sky above him, and wonders why he hadn’t seen it before; or when Anna is close to death, and she, Karenin, and Vronsky, all seem to enter some strange heightened plane of consciousness. There is absolutely nothing like this in Middlemarch. Andrei’s moment of epiphany in seeing that sky seemed to make all human affairs appear small. Similarly, much later in the novel, when the dying Andrei resigns himself to death, all of human life, even that of his own sister and son, or of Natasha whom he loves, appears insignificant. Such a sense of human insignificnce is very alien to the world of Middlemarch: here, Dorothea’s moment of epiphany connects her to the rest of humanity, which is the highest truth there is, or can be. And as for the heightened state of consciousness that Anna, Karenin and Vronsky find themselves in, there is no room for that in Eliot’s world; here, our everyday state of consciousness, with all its “involuntary, palpitating life”, is rich enough.

Once again, none of this is to say that Eliot’s artistic vision is necessarily narrower or smaller than that of Tolstoy, or of Wordsworth: it is merely, once again, differently directed. Tolstoy too had depicted this involuntary, palpitating life in all its dizzying variety, but had searched for some underlying and unifying principle, that Wordsworthian “sense sublime … that rolls through all things”. He had possibly not succeeded in that search, but the sense of questing seems to me unmistakable. In Eliot, even that questing is absent. If Tolstoy had missed that sense sublime, Eliot does not even think to look for it.

Flaubert had also missed this sense sublime that rolls through all things. He missed it not because he could not find it, but because he was convinced it did not exist. And this saddened him. All language could do, he famously lamented in Madame Bovary, was to batter away at an old, broken kettle, when all the time he longed to “move the stars with pity”. But Eliot had no thought of moving the stars with pity, or any such nonsense. This involuntary, palpitating life, far from being a battered and broken old kettle, was the thing itself: one need not search for anything beyond, as Tolstoy did, nor even lament, as Flaubert did, the absence of anything beyond. Taken for what it is, it is enough in itself: the everyday little events, taken just for what they are, are enough to fill out a novel of epic proportions. That a thousand-page novel, each page engrossing, could be created out of what Flaubert regarded as a battered and broken old kettle, is in itself a powerful statement of Eliot’s artistic and moral vision. Eliot presented this world, neither searching for any other, nor lamenting its absence. In this sense, Eliot was, perhaps, the most realist of all the realists.

Eliot is often judged, correctly, to be a writer of profound moral sensibility, but is also often judged, this time incorrectly, of being finger-wagging and judgemental. After all, if we are to take our part in this involuntary and palpitating life, then we must extend our imaginative sympathies to understand those who form that greater humanity of which we, as individuals, are a part. To understand is not necessarily to forgive or even to excuse, but it is something to be aimed towards for its own sake. Take Bulstrode, for instance. A man who has made a fortune by questionable means, who has deprived others of what is rightfully theirs to enhance his own wealth and standing, and who now parades his apparent respectability, and indulges in all sorts of religious humbug: it is hard to imagine any author extending to so despicable a person any sympathy. But even Bulstrode Eliot tries to understand, insisting that he is not really a hypocrite:

There may be coarse hypocrites, who consciously affect beliefs and emotions for the sake of gulling the world, but Bulstrode was not one of them. He was simply a man whose desires had been stronger than his theoretic beliefs, and who had gradually explained the gratification of his desires into satisfactory agreement with those beliefs.
– from Middlemarch, Chapter 61

I suppose it can be said that Eliot was harsh on Rosamond (Eliot never did care for self-centred airheads, especially if they were also pretty and blonde), but even here, there is an attempt to see things from her perspective: she too, after all, is someone who has entered into a marriage with unrealistic expectations, and has found herself disappointed; and, unlike Dorothea, she doesn’t even have the consolations of contemplation and of introspection, being by nature incapable of either.


I said at the start of this post that I was not going to “review” Middlemarch. I think I have kept my promise: after some two and a half thousand words, I find I have barely mentioned Dorothea Brooke, and haven’t mentioned at all Tertius Lydgate – the two principal characters whose two parallel lives form the backbone of this novel.

Fortunately, Middlemarch is possibly the most blogged about of all classic novels, and there is no shortage either of plot synopses, or of analysis. (And if it is detailed analysis you are looking for, may I recommend this by Rohan Maitzen: it is excellent.) I started this post merely trying to understand, by talking to myself here, why it is that, despite admiring this novel immensely, and thinking it a majestic achievement, it did not make my spine tingle in the way Nabokov thought a good novel should. Even in this my second reading, that spine resolutely refused to tingle. It’s not because George Eliot’s vision is too small, or too narrow: far from it. And it’s not because of her moral sensibilities. I suppose it’s because George Eliot is way too sensible and level-headed; and because I, personally, prefer those writers who have about them that touch of madness. But if I do not place Middlemarch amongst my own favourite novels, I can at least understand why so many do. And with that, I am more than satisfied.

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!