Posts Tagged ‘Tolstoy’

“Women in Love” by D. H. Lawrence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What withers in the bud?” asked Ursula.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gudrun was silent for some moments, in sharp disagreement.

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

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

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

She looked at him in doubt and wonder.

“I must ask,” she said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

Or how about this for a plot:

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

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

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

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

Any other ideas for meta-novels?

Tolstoy’s darkening vision

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Les Misérables” by Victor Hugo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was a dark and stormy night

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ah – what mundane lives we lead!

“Sense and Sensibility” by Jane Austen

Sense and Sensibility could serve as title to all Austen’s novels. In each, sense and sensibility – reason and emotion, reflection and instinct – contend with each other, the question of the proportions to which they should ideally be blended forming the backbone of the narrative. But, as the very clear dichotomy of the title implies, in no other novel are the two presented in such clear contradistinction to each other. Elinor Dashwood clearly represents sense, and her sister Marianne sensibility: there appears little if any intersection between the two. Most of the other characters, too, are presented as being on one side or the other of the divide, and if the purpose is indeed to find a judicious balance between the two, the dice does frankly seem somewhat weighted: for sensibility, even when belonging to people who are decent and likable – the Dashwoods’ mother, Mrs Jennings, Marianne herself – invariably leads people astray: it inevitably leads to the forming of wrong judgements, misperception of reality, and seeing the world, disastrously, for what it is not. And, inevitably, it is left to sense to make amends.

Misperceiving reality is, of course, a recurring theme in Austen. Catherine Morland in Northanger Abbey misperceives reality – not necessarily because she is foolish, but because she is inexperienced, and trusting; but she grows through experience, and, by the end of that novel, can temper her youthful sensibility with a grown-up sense. As ever, it is left to sense to make amends, to put things right. But this is not to disparage sensibility: far better, after all, the trusting and affectionate sensibility of a Catherine Morland, helpless and vulnerable though it is, than the mercenary sense of an Isabella Thorpe.

In Sense and Sensibility, however, the two qualities are presented as a clear-cut dichotomy, and this creates certain problems – the principal one being that it becomes very difficult to present sensibility as anything other than merely silly and frivolous. Not that sense is always admirable: the Dashwood sisters’ half-brother and his wife display a “sense” of sorts in their money-grubbing meanness, and are repulsive. Equally repulsive is the vulgar Lucy Steele, possessed, as was Isabella Thorpe, merely of a “sensible” self-interest, unmediated by a humanising sensibility. But the principal representative of sense here is Elinor Dashwood, and so irreproachable is she in all that she says and does and thinks that, in comparison, the characters on the “sensibility” side of the divide cannot but appear foolish. By the end, Marianne, like her predecessor Catherine Morland, acquires sense to balance her sensibility: Elinor, however, requires nothing to complete her person; and the symmetry promised by the title seems, as a consequence, inevitably compromised. For while Austen could understand the importance of blending the two, her own sympathies, one strongly suspects, remain on the side of sense rather than of sensibility.

In her later novels, Austen knew better than to be so schematic. Elizabeth Bennet or Emma Woodhouse are allowed to misperceive reality not because excess of sensibility has rendered them foolish, but because they are complex, fully-rounded characters who, like the rest of us, can be blind in certain respects, though intellectually vivacious in others. And in her last completed novel, Persuasion, Austen allows sensibility to triumph and to bring fulfilment where, previously, mere sense bereft of sensibility had provided but unhappiness and barren frustration. But there is little here of any of that: here, sensibility leads one astray, and sense puts things right. However, it is easy to forget that, for all its accomplishment and sophistication and passages of often starling psychological insight, Sense and Sensibility is but the writing of one still starting out on her literary career: although the novel was published in 1811 when Austen was 36, an early version of it had existed when she was merely 20, and it seems more than likely that this early version had been drafted out when she was but a teenager. The precocity of such an achievement is breathtaking, especially when one considers that Austen was breaking new novelistic ground. Of course, since we do not have that early draft, there is no way of determining what elements of the novel we have now are the product of a teenage prodigy, and what is the product of a more mature artistic sensibility: I rather suspect that the schematic nature of the characterisation is a leftover from the earlier work. But the depth of insight that overlays the schematic outline is exceptional. Take, for instance, that startling moment when Mr Willoughby explains why he cannot be reconciled to Colonel Brandon, whom he has injured:

“… But I will not stay to rob myself of all your compassionate good-will, by shewing that where I have most injured I can least forgive.”

Perhaps, in a later novel, Austen would not have made Mr Willoughby so self-aware as to realise this truth about himself, but the insight that we are least capable of forgiving those we have most injured remains remarkable, and one of which even Tolstoy may have been proud. Indeed, it crops up in one of Tolstoy’s later masterpieces:

[Tsar Nicholas] had done much harm to the Poles and to explain this it was necessary to believe all Poles were scoundrels.

– Chapter 15 of Hadji Murat by Leo Tolstoy, translated by Paul Foote

The entire chapter in Sense and Sensibility where Mr Willoughby explains himself to Elinor is extraordinary. A character previously shown merely as a heartless cad is now shown as a flawed being aware of his flaws, and suffering as a consequence. This could easily have appeared an afterthought on the author’s part, an extra chapter gratuitously added to make the characterisation somewhat less schematic than it would otherwise have been; and, indeed, this is how it would most likely have appeared in the hands of a lesser writer. But not here. The depiction of Mr Willoughby as a man who himself suffers is certainly unexpected, but its effectiveness and credibility indicate that this revelation of depth had indeed been prepared for.

Like Mr Willoughby, Colonel Brandon also has a scene in which he reveals himself to Elinor – her ever-present sense forever inspiring trust in others – but the person he reveals is one who is suffering not for flaws in his character, but, rather, for cruel circumstances in the face of which his rectitude has been helpless. Colonel Brandon’s narrative, like Mr Willoughby’s later in the novel, is deeply felt, but, unlike Mr Willoughby’s, his sense keeps his sensibility in decorous check. And Edward Ferrars, too: he had, some years ago, contracted himself unwisely as a consequence of a youthful infatuation, and, as with Catherine Morland, it was his inexperience rather than his lack of intelligence that had led him astray; but he is determined to accept, as honour dictates, the consequences of his error, even though he is aware that this determination can lead only to unhappiness. In short, as with Colonel Brandon, his sensibility is held permanently in check by his sense. Austen does, very subtly, allow us to see the extent to which both these characters suffer as a consequence of their moral rectitude, but in neither instance is there any danger of sensibility overturning sense; and this is presented as entirely admirable. As ever, it is sense that is seen as bringing order to the world, and sensibility as unbalancing it.

There is another respect in which sense and sensibility stand in opposition to each other: Austen was writing at the height of what we now term the “Romantic era”, and, although an admirer of Walter Scott, Austen’s outlook was closer – much closer, one suspects – to the ethos of classicism. In an earlier post on this blog (to which I will not link as I have changed my mind significantly on certain matters since writing it), I had described Austen as a writer who, despite the times in which she lived and wrote, had not “a single Romantic bone in her body”. This is not true: an author utterly lacking in Romantic sensibility would not have been capable of writing Persuasion, which depicts romantic love and sexual attraction vividly, and with utter conviction. But it is true, I think, that her leaning was towards classicism: it was this leaning that led Charlotte Brontë famously to dismiss Austen as “bloodless”. Of course, compared to the Brontës, just about any writer could be described as “bloodless”. The criticism is unfair: Austen had the finest understanding of human emotions, and even, perhaps, of human passions, but her aesthetic preferences were, I think, classical, and she would have regarded too open and too uninhibited a display of emotion – such as Romantic writers had no scruple in depicting – as indecorous.

In this context, it is not hard to see sense and sensibility as representing, respectively, Classicism and Romanticism. Austen had already poked gentle fun in Northanger Abbey at the excesses of Romanticism, and here, she allows the very sensible Edward Ferrars to disapprove of various Romantic tropes:

“You must not inquire too far, Marianne — remember, I have no knowledge in the picturesque, and I shall offend you by my ignorance and want of taste, if we come to particulars. I shall call hills steep, which ought to be bold! surfaces strange and uncouth, which ought to be irregular and rugged; and distant objects out of sight, which ought only to be indistinct through the soft medium of a hazy atmosphere. You must be satisfied with such admiration as I can honestly give. I call it a very fine country — the hills are steep, the woods seem full of fine timber, and the valley looks comfortable and snug — with rich meadows and several neat farm houses scattered here and there. It exactly answers my idea of a fine country, because it unites beauty with utility — and I dare say it is a picturesque one too, because you admire it; I can easily believe it to be full of rocks and promontories, grey moss and brush wood, but these are all lost on me. I know nothing of the picturesque … I like a fine prospect, but not on picturesque principles. I do not like crooked, twisted, blasted trees. I admire them much more if they are tall, straight and flourishing. I do not like ruined, tattered cottages. I am not fond of nettles, or thistles, or heath blossoms. I have more pleasure in a snug farm-house than a watch-tower — and a troop of tidy, happy villagers please me better than the finest banditti in the world.”

Unmistakably, sense here is enlisted on the side of Classicism, and against Romanticism. Given how sense is allowed to triumph over sensibility in virtually every aspect of the novel, and especially in characters who are presented as admirable, it is hard not to conclude that this is where Austen’s own sympathies lie.

But what then of sensibility, which Austen knew had to be part of a well-balanced life? We have, I think, to wait for her later novels for this. The proper integration of sense and sensibility is, at this stage, still work in progress. What we do get here is, nonetheless, a novel of tremendous charm and of acute psychological insight, and a pointer to greater achievements still to come.

Gogol’s “Dead Souls”: a comic inferno

A preamble
I first read Dead Souls when, as a teenager, I developed a mania for 19th century Russian literature, and determined to read everything I could lay my hands on. The version I read then was the work of an anonymous translator, and probably one of the many versions that had been so mercilessly attacked by Nabokov as “worthless”. Nabokov did, however, praise the translation by Bernard Guilbert Guerney, a revised version of which is still available. Since Nabokov’s critique, a good many well-received translations have appeared. I re-read Dead Souls a few years ago in the highly rated modern translation by Robert Maguire published by Penguin Classics. This third and latest reading was in response to a mini-group-read organized by Richard, who blogs in Caravana de Recuerdos, and by Scott, who blogs in Six Words for a Hat. I have, till now, deliberately avoided reading their posts on Dead Souls until I had put my own reactions down on paper – or, at least, on computer screen. I’ll remedy that once I have posted this.

The translation I read this time round was the older version published by Penguin Classics, by David Magarshack. All quoted passages in this post are taken from this translation.


Anyone familiar with 19th century literature will know the landscape. An unutterably dreary, drab little town, somewhere in the provinces, miles from anywhere, riddled with filth and poverty and decay and corruption, and stinking of moral stagnation and decay. It is the place from which any person of sensitivity longs to escape – like Chekhov’s Three Sisters; those who don’t, like Chekhov’s Ionych, become embroiled in the corruption; or, like Dr Ragin in Chekhov’s “Ward 6”, become victims of it. It is this town that forms the grey setting of Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, and it is this town we see collapsing into psychopathic violence and an almost apocalyptic disorder in Dostoyevsky’s Demons; and it is this town also that is revealed in Tolstoy’s Resurrection as containing behind its shallow façades of faux-respectability the most unutterable institutionalised cruelties. Meanwhile in Saltykov-Schedrin’s The Golovlyov Family, this town seems to stand for Hell itself, from which no-one can ultimately escape. This town is as much a landscape of the mind as it is a real landscape, and it looms large in Russian literature.

The earliest appearance of this town, as far as my admittedly limited reading allows me to judge, is in Gogol’s play The Government Inspector. And it reappears in the novel Dead Souls. In the play, an ordinary man, at a loose end and unable to pay his hotel bill, is mistaken by the corrupt town officials for an inspector, and is larded with all sorts of bribes; by the time the truth is realised, he is away with his gains. And even as we’re laughing, the mayor of the town breaks the invisible fourth wall of the stage to tell us directly, the audience, that we are laughing at ourselves: we all inhabit this Town of the Mind. In Dead Souls, which Gogol referred to as a “poem” rather than as a novel, we once again have a visitor from outside, who causes consternation. But it is not the outsider, Chichikov, who seems at first to be the centre of the reader’s attention: it is the rather eccentric narrator. Chichikov is described, and yet not described, so that we, the reader, get no mental picture of him:

The gentleman in the carriage is neither too fat, nor too thin; he cannot be said to be old, but he was not too young either.

And having given us this piece of non-description, the narrator veers off for no apparent reason to tell us about two peasants speaking about Chichikov’s carriage. What they say is not quite nonsensical, but it doesn’t really seem to make much sense either:

“Lord,” said one of them to the other, “what a wheel! What do you say? Would a wheel like that, if put to it, ever get to Moscow or wouldn’t it?” “It would all right,” replied the other. “But it wouldn’t get to Kazan, would it?” “No, it wouldn’t get to Kazan,”” replied the other. That was the end of the conversation.

The narrator is in no rush to move things along. We are given a leisurely account, seemingly overloaded with utterly irrelevant detail, of the filthy inn, and of the people working there; and then, of the town itself. The details the narrator fixes upon tend towards the eccentric, or even the downright bizarre; much of what he says seems like non-sequiturs. And when the narrator uses a simile or a metaphor, the image takes on a life of its own, quite overwhelming that which it purports to describe:

As he entered the ballroom, Chichikov had for a moment to screw up his eyes, dazzled by the blaze of candles, the lamps, the ladies’ gowns. Everything was flooded in light. Black frock-coats glided and flitted about singly or in swarms here and there like so many flies on a sparkling white sugar-loaf on a hot July day when the old housekeeper chops or breaks it up into glittering lumps in front of an open window, the children gather and look on, watching with interest the movements of her rough hands raising and lowering the hammer, while the aerial squadrons of flies, borne on the light breeze, fly in boldly, just as if they owned the place and, taking advantage of the old woman’s feeble eyesight and the sunshine that dazzles her eyes, cover the dainty lumps in small groups or in swarms.

Whew! But we aren’t finished yet:

Already satiated by the abundant summer, which sets up dainty dishes for them on every step, they fly in…

And so on for another few hundred words, the reality this image has been set up to elucidate by now more or less forgotten. It is fair to say, I think, that I have never come across a narrative voice quite like this one. Dickens too loved eccentricity, and one often wonders about the sanity of some of his characters; but here, one is left wondering about the sanity of the narrator himself.

In the second chapter, Chichikov sets off to visit local landowners. The landowners and their estates are all described by that same affable but seemingly demented narrative voice. And what that voice tells us is just as bizarre as the voice itself. These elements of the bizarre are dropped in as if they were perfectly reasonable and everyday. For instance, Chichikov, having lost his way on a stormy night, and his carriage having overturned, is put up by elderly widow, who sees to his comfort:

“Take the gentleman’s coat and underwear and dry them first in front of the fire as you used to for your late master, and afterwards have them well brushed and beaten.”

“Yes, ma’am,” said Fetinya, spreading a sheet over the featherbed and laying down the pillows.

“Well, here’s your bed all ready for you, sir,” said the old lady. “Good night, sir, sleep well. Are you sure you don’t want anything else? Perhaps you’re used to having your heels tickled for the night. My late husband could not get to sleep without it.”

As the novel progresses, an extraordinarily vivid cast of characters appears – each bizarre and eccentric beyond the bounds of sanity. There’s the impossibly effusive Manilov; the bear-like, deliberate, and somewhat madly methodical Sobakevich; the disgustingly filthy and threadbare Plyushkov, surely the most grotesque and repulsive of all literary misers; and Nozdryov, the colourful braggart, bully and compulsive liar – except, of course, no-one outside a Gogol novel could lie with quite such uninhibited flamboyance and gusto. Chichikov visits these landlords to buy from them, at as cheap a price as he can, serfs (or, not to put too fine a gloss on it, slaves, which is what they were) – serfs who are dead, the “dead souls” of the title, but who are still listed from the last official census as being alive, and for whom, consequently, the landowner is continuing to pay taxes. When Chichikov’s curious business activities are known, the town is in turmoil. All sorts of strange stories start up, and are believed: it becomes common knowledge, for instance, that Chichikov had been planning to elope with the Governor’s daughter (shameless hussy that she is!) A meeting of worthies discuss who Chichikov may be. The postmaster knows: Chichikov is none other than Captain Kopeikin! And who is this Captain Kopeikin? The postmaster launches on a long story – fully reproduced, in all its Gogolian bizarreness – of a Captain Kopeikin who had lost an arm and a leg in the 1812 campaign. Only after the story has progressed through several pages does someone think of mentioning that Chichikov has both arms and both legs. The postmaster admits that he was wrong, and sits down; Kopeikin is not mentioned again. Why the postmaster had thought Kopeikin was Chichikov in the first place is not explained.

The pace of the narration is slow – for modern readers, perhaps, too slow for a comedy: but it is in the narrator’s eccentric voice that so much of the comedy resides – a voice apparently gentle and friendly and even reasonable, and yet, we suspect, utterly insane. And for that voice to establish itself, a slowness of pace is required. The narrative, such as it is, unfolds at a leisurely pace, and that leisurely pace may perhaps suggest a certain gentleness: but the sheer bizarre nature of the content, full of mad non-sequiturs and irrelevant and often grotesque details, belies any sense of the gentle. Gogol had seemingly intended this narrative to be the first part of a trilogy that was to reflect Dante’s vision of Inferno, Purgatory and Paradise: what we see here is no less than Gogol’s vision of Inferno itself. The Dead Souls of the title are not merely the dead peasants.

It is hard to imagine how these Dead Souls presented here could be redeemed, as Gogol had intended: it is hard to imagine what Gogol’s Purgatorio and Paradiso may have been like. Gogol never completed his grandiose project. Towards the end of his life (he died when still in his early 40s), he became dangerously insane, developed a sort of religious mania, and seemingly starved himself to death. And, during these last terrible days, he burnt what he had written of the second part of Dead Souls. (There exists a quite horrific painting by Ilya Repin of Gogol burning the manuscript.) Some fragments of this second part have, however, survived, and all modern English editions dutifully include these chapters, but I find them distressingly banal and uninspired. Gogol may have aspired towards redemption, but it seems to me unlikely that his imagination could conceive of anything but the hellish. The rather hellish last days of Gogol’s own life are perhaps not surprising.

What we get in this novel – or this “poem”, as Gogol insisted it to be – is a vision of Hell itself. But things are never simple with Gogol. From our viewpoint, we may think this to be the Hell of a slave-owning society; and yet, Gogol was firmly in favour of serfdom (slavery by another name), and opposed strongly liberal campaigns for emancipation. It is hard, at least for me, to imagine what really went on in that very strange mind of his. I generally try to heed the well-worn advice of “trust the book, not the writer”, but it becomes difficult here to try to put out of mind details of Gogol’s own life and opinions.

In this third reading, the sense of an Inferno seemed more apparent than had previously been the case. It’s a comic Inferno, certainly, but comedy and seriousness are by no means mutually incompatible. Somehow, the comedy renders this Inferno all the more disturbing: as with the farting devils of Dante, the comedy, if anything, intensifies the horror. Here is world that is utterly grotesque, but presented with such vividness and, despite its slow pace, animated with such vitality, that the effect it had on Russian literary culture, and, one suspects, on the Russian mind itself, is tremendous, and can hardly be over-estimated. That drab Gogolian town became for succeeding writers – for Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy and Chekhov, for Saltykov-Schedrin – the very image of Hell itself. I know of nothing quite like this outside Russian literature: in no other literature that I know of has a physical location become so firmly entrenched as also a moral and psychological landscape. But Gogol could not transcend this landscape, much though he longed to, any more than could the characters of Saltykov-Schedrin’s utterly bleak and desolate novel The Golovlyov Family. This is a Hell in which we still remain trapped.