About Me

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Having reviewed over 1200 books on this blog, I have now written two myself. Motherdarling is a story about a search for a missing Will which reveals long-hidden family secrets. The Kids of God is a thriller set in a dystopia ruled by fascist paramilitaries. Both are available as paperbacks and on Kindle through Amazon. I live in Canterbury, England. I lived for more than thirty years in Bedford. Having retired from teaching; I became a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Liminality. I achieved my PhD in 2019. I am now properly retired. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. Follow me on twitter: @daja57

Tuesday, 29 December 2015

"Songs of innocence and of experience" by William Blake

More poetry!

Songs of Innocence

First, etymology. Gnosis is the Greek word for knowledge; the gnostics were a quasi-Christian sect who believed that the path to heaven was through learning secret spiritual knowledge. One of the founders of gnosticism was traditionally held to be Simon Magus, a magician who confronted St Peter (Acts 8) and lost. Thus gnosis is often held to be bad in Christian tradition and alchemists and those who summon demons such as Faustus are, um, demonised. After all, the devil was released when Adam and Eve ate the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. The words innocence and ignorance both mean not-gnosis; thus if gnosis is bad innocence is necessarily good. (Bizarrely the word 'nice' which derives from gnosis means exact and has only recently been made equivalent to its opposite, innocence.)

Blake himself believed that "Innocence dwells with Wisdom but never with Ignorance".

Gothic literature, such as The Monk, is predicated on the idea that the secret knowledge that Matilda uses to summon demons is inherently evil (and that virginity, lacking carnal knowledge, is inherently good).

So there is a poetic predisposition to assume that a Song of Innocence is about something that is nice and Blake plays on this. For example The Echoing Green depicts a rural village green with sun, church bells, singing birds and children playing while the old folks look on. But when the sunset comes (is this a metaphor for old age and death?) we find "sport no more seen / On the darkening green." Rural innocence and pastoral pleasures. Where is Baudelaire when you need him? He would add the counterpoint of rural poverty, of peasants fighting to make the sullen soil productive, of the essential insecurity of agricultural life as the vagaries of the weather take the community on the rollercoaster between plenty and famine, of cold and hunger and disease and old people struggling against arthritis to keep ploughing and planting and harvesting.

The Little Black Boy is a poem that raises interesting questions: is it racist? On the one hand, lines such as:

  • "And I am black, but O my soul is white!"
  • "But I am black, as if bereaved of light."

sit uncomfortably with today's political correctness as does the ending in which the black boy offers to shade the white boy from excessive heat and stroke the white boy's hair "And be like him, and he will than love me."

On the other hand, Blake's intention was probably to suggest that black boys and white boys were equally alike, a sentiment borne out later in The Divine Form "And all must love the human form, In heathen, Turk, or Jew". In fact, Blake is probably a political radical and these poems are intended to be progressive.

So the next question is: is a text racist because of what it says to us or should we fonsider the intention of the author? And this is complicated by the assertion by some that the meaning of a text is what it says to the reader no matter what the author intended.

Furthermore, the definition of racism arrived after the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry suggested whether something was racist or not depended upon the perception of the victim.

But the western tradition is that whether and action is sinful or not (or criminal or not) depends upon the intention of the actor. These are difficult questions.

Blake's choice of metre is always interesting. Holy Thursday is written in iambic heptameters although 6th and 8th lines start with trochees. This can be used to emphasise a line, as can a missed beat (as in line one, after the word 'Thursday') and added syllables (for example, 'innocent' in line one needs to be pronounced inn'cent to keep in with the metre). Such variation of an overall metre can be used to great creative effect or can just be there to prevent the metre of the poem overpowering the words and the sense. However, in this poem it is difficult to see why Blake should be emphasising these particular words or lines; one is left to conclude that he was a little cavalier about the metre. I always think the poet has a choice: if it is going to be free verse fine but if you are using metre either use it all the time or, if you do alter it, do so for a purpose.

For example, in the next poem, Night, Blake sets up a kind of call and response effect by having two different metre schemes within each verse. The first four lines are the argument, the second the counterpoint; the first four set the scene and the second four comment on the scene. This poem works well because of the metre.

Blake seeks simplicity. He rarely uses a difficult or complicated word, preferring the multiple repetition of simple words. In Infant Joy the poet uses the simplest of language to create a conversation between a narrator and a two-day-old baby!

Personally, I prefer it when Blake explores his vocabulary:
Troubled, wildered and forlorn,Dark, benighted, travel-worn
in The Dream describes an 'emmet' (an ant) who has lost her way in the grass.

It is often difficult to judge whether a rhyme is good or bad because the pronunciation of vowel sounds can change with time, region and class. Nevertheless, it seems likely that Blake is as cavalier with rhyme as he is with metre. For example, Nurse's Song has internal rhymes between 'children' and both 'green' and 'down'; A Dream rhymes 'shade' and 'bed'.

The Problem of Evil
On Another's Sorrow suggests that God cannot watch someone suffer or be sad without sympathising. Was Blake really not aware of the theological Problem of Evil which asks why a supposedly good God can watch, for example, an innocent baby suffer without doing anything about it?

Dodgy images
Some of the images Blake uses seem to be plain wrong. Although 'the starry floor' in the Introduction to Songs of Experience could refer to dewy grass, to suggest that 'into the high dome of Paul's they like Thames water flow' in Holy Thursday (the Songs of Innocence version) seems to confuse up with down.

Songs of Experience
Many of these poems have the same titles as in the Songs of Innocence and thus, presumably, are intended to be reflections of counterpoints or commentaries on the previous poems.

Suddenly, however, we are into territory that I at least understand better and, perhaps because of this, I can start to appreciate the poetry more. In Earth's Answer, Blake asks:

Does the sower

Sow by night,
Or the ploughman in darkness plough?
It is a strong image and the first two lines break the rhyming scheme of the rest of the poem making them stand out.

There is another nice image in The Sick Rose in which a worm:
Has found out thy bed
Of crimson joy,
And his dark secret love
Does thy life destroy
which seems to suggest that the serpent of sexual love is also the worm of death.

Blake seems to have had a bit of a thing about roses and their thorns. In My Pretty Rose Tree Blake describes how he resists temptation only to be punished by jealousy:
A flower was offered to me,
Such a flower as May never bore;
But I said, 'I've a pretty rose tree,'
And I passed the sweet flower o'er.

Then I went to my pretty rose tree,
To tend her by day and by night;
But my rose turned away with jealousy,
And her thorns were my only delight.

There is a clever little conceit in The Clod and the Pebble. The clod says:

'Love seeketh not itself to please

Nor for itself has any carer,
But for another gives its ease,
And builds a heaven in hell's despair.'
To which the pebble replies:
'Love seeketh only Self to please,
To bind another to its delight,
Joys in another's loss of ease,
And builds a hell in heaven's despite'
Two sides of the coin!

And then, suddenly, wham! We are into politics. Blake, for his time, is astoundingly radical:

The Holy Thursday in Songs of Experience starts by asking:
Is this a holy thing to see
In a rich and fruitful land, -
Babes reduced to misery,
Fed with cold and usurous hand?
We might ask David Cameron and George Osborne that question.

And The Chimney-Sweeper blames his father and mother who are praying in the church:
'And because I am happy and dance and sing,
They think they have done me on injury,
And are gone to praise God and His priest and king,
Who made up a heaven of our misery.'

The Garden of Love makes the point so sharply that it is worth quoting in its entirety:
I went to the Garden of Love,
And saw what I never had seen;
A Chapel was built in the midst,
Where I used to play on the green.

And the gates of this Chapel were shut,
And 'Thou Shalt Not' writ over the door;
So I turned to the Garden of Love
That so many sweet flowers bore.

And I saw it was filled with graves,
And tombstones where flowers should be;
And priests in black gowns were walking their rounds
And binding with briars my joys and desires.
This, incidentally, makes my point about rhyme and metre. The final two lines of the poem adopt a different, internal, rhyming scheme and a different scansion. This makes them stand out like a sore thumb. They also seem to require another line, so that the poem feels unfinished, which adds to the edgy atmosphere. It is a tremendous poem.

His next poem, The Little Vagabond, has the delightful idea that if churches were alehouses not only would attendance be a lot better but God would be a rather more jovial (OK, wrong god) character:
And God, like a father, rejoicing to see
His children as pleasant and happy as He,
Would have no more quarrel with the Devil or the barrel,
But kiss him and give him both drink and apparel.

The comes London, the final stanza of which was deemed too revolutionary to make its way from Blake's notebook into print. Again, I give it in full:
I wandered through each chartered street,
Near where the chartered Thames does flow,
A mark in every face I meet,
Marks of weakness, marks of woe.

In every cry of every man,
In every infant's cry of fear, 
In every voice, in every ban,
The mind-forged manacles I hear
I adore the mind-forged manacles!

How the chimney-sweeper's cry
Every blackening church appals,
And the hapless soldier's sigh
Runs in blood down palace-walls.
Wow! That is revolutionary.

But most, through midnight streets I hear
How the youthful harlot's curse
Blasts the new-born infant's tear,
And blights with plague the marriage hearse.

And in A Little Boy Lost, a priest overhears a son talking to his father about love, decides it is blasphemous
And burned him in a holy place
Where many had been burned before

Songs of Experience includes the famous Tiger poem which is deservedly classic but more people should know about the radical politics that this slim volume espouses. It scarcely seems credible that the song Jerusalem, whose lyrics are by Blake, should be adored by the establishment to the extent that many people would like to see it as a national anthem for England. Are they aware of Blake's politics?

Sunday, 27 December 2015

"Out of time" by Lynne Segal

I was delighted to receive for Xmas a book about getting old. It captured me from the off when it pointed out that very few old people thought that they were old ... so if I protest that I am not yet old enough for this book I suppose that means that I probably am. I am 58. Judge for yourself.

More challenging is that the book is written from a feminist perspective. I am a man. So I have to be careful not to feel alienated and to try to listen to what this book is saying with an open a mind as too much testosterone will allow. Well, I tried. But what annoyed me more than anything else was how slender her evidence base was when it came to making generalisations about all men: most of what she says about men is based on the work of a handful of novelists. A different selection may have given a different result although I feel sure that it would have changed her opinion: she believes men are obsessed with their penises and that this leaves them little room to think of anything else. Her discussion of ageing women, on the other hand, scarcely mentions vaginas.

Chapter One: How Old Am I?

Segal's refusal to cast her net wide is emphasised on page 13 when she points out that there are many terrifying old women in myth: "the hag, harridan, gorgon, witch or Medusa". Firstly, Medusa was a gorgon and therefore included in the list twice. Secondly, Ovid describes Medusa as a beautiful young woman and a brief glimpse of Google Images for Medusa confirms that she is generally thought of as young. Thirdly, why has Segal restricted herself to the myths of the classical ancient world? There are certainly old men (and old women) to be found in Voodoo; Odin is usually an old man.

I love the idea Segal floats on page 19 that old people have access to "all the selves we have been". She develops this idea on page 24 in gterms of people being haunted by their memories (and by the memories that others leave with us).

I am less happy with the ideas that old people are less creative and "educable" than young people. Segal mentions these myths without aligning herself for or against. How true are they? I am presently studying for a PhD at the age of 58 and I think I am learning as fast as I was when I was 20. I have more stamina than when I was younger, I am better at organising my time and I am more patient (although I am, perhaps, quicker to discontinue a non-productive activity so in a sense I am less patient; I think I am more easily bored whan I was; I certainly am less tolerant of trashy TV). I also have far more experience to compare new learning with; until a few years ago I could never have invoked the Voodoo counterexamples above and therefore I think that I can do the 'mix' bit of 'rip, mix and burn' learning better than I could. Since I believe that creativity is governed by similarly 'mixing' experiences, the more experiences that I have the more creative I can now be. At the same time, I am better able to endure the hard and boring work that is need to transform mixed ideas into burned new products.

On page 35, Segal says that on the whole "men see themselves faced with the challenge of how to keep desire visibly alive, many seeking assistance for maintaining the sexual potency of youth." It is certainly my experience that erections are slower to arrive and harder (not quite the right word!) to maintain as I get older. But desire, lust, is still strong. In fact, this year I have experienced upsurges in horniness such as I cannot recall since puberty (but perhaps that is just my autobioheimers kicking in).

Chapter Two: Generational Warfare

The inescapable truth is that the old are luckier than the young because the old have been young while the young might not grow old. This is not how Segal sees it.

She kicks off, in both senses of the phrase, by describing "the war between the generations, or the baiting of older people" (p 40), immediately signifying her bias. In Greek culture, she remarks (and it is surprising how monocultural her references seem to be), "all heroism, beauty and sweetness resided in youth" (p 41)although wisdom was seen as a preserve of the old. Perhaps different generations do indeed have different strengths.

But on the whole, in the past, old people were better respected than they are now. A reason for this might be that "where there is a mass of elderly people there is less respect than in societies where there are few, especially when in the past it was more likely to be only the relatively powerful and affluent who survived into old age." (p 40) That seems a valid point worth investigating.

A point she never makes is that all old people are enfranchised while many young people are not. Recent UK referenda point out the implications of this: the Scottish independence referendum controversially extended the franchise to 16 and 17 year olds on the basis that they would be affected by the decision; the UK/EU referendum will equally controversially deny the franchise to 16 and 17 year olds despite the fact that they will be affected by the decision. Perhaps we should remove the franchise from everyone over a certain age (85? 90?) on the basis that they will only be affected by any electoral decision for a very short time while young people might be affected for longer. If the argument is about competence to make decisions it might easily be argued that a bright 16 year old is more competent than a 90 year old suffering dementia.

But her arguments do not need evidence. To argue about the unfair representation of old women in Hollywood (p 43)she relies on three films made between 1950 and 1968: hardly a representative selection of the hundreds of films made during that period or the thousands made in the 47 years since.

She talks about the "chorus of men blaming women" for the deterioration in their privileged positions without realising that feminism itself represents a chorus of women blaming men: what is sauce for the goose is indeed sauce for the gander. Clearly it is more reasonable for those without power (eg women) to fight to gain power than for those with power to fight to hang on to it. And the voices of the weak are often louder and angrier than those of the strong. But is this not the very reason why young people at the moment are angry with the old: because the old tend to be wealthier and more powerful? There are clear biases in the UK political system towards the old. The 'triple lock' guarantees that pensions will rise faster than inflation but there is no such protection for young people on low wages who rely on benefits to help them (Segal remarks that "the issue of pensions is indeed one in need of serious attention" (p 48) but she wants even better pensions than now). And is not that the reason why young people have always been resentful of the old? Isn't this exactly what happened in the Sixties?

She believes that the activists of the Sixties were defeated. But were they? In some things they lost; Thatcherism saw to that. But in other areas they were triumphant. While racism still exists it is nothing like the blatant casual racism of fifty years ago. Whilst homosexuals still suffer homophobia, gay culture is celebrated and gay rights are enshrined in law. Sexually we are much more free than before the era of 'free love'. Women have much more power and wealth than they had. In my youth, every office had girly calendars. Nowadays they have been almost completely replaced by hunk calendars and male nudity on stage is now more common than female nudity. I am not saying that the journey is complete, only that we have come a long way.

Segal believes (p 57) that "Many boomers have no good fortune at all to feel guilty about". Well they should not feel guilty. But healthcare is far better than it ever was and this is reflected in the increased life expectancy. In my youth there were regular famines in India and Africa; now these famines are fewer. Far more households around the world have access to running water and in this country far more people have refrigerators. We are much better off than we were. To say we have "no good fortune at all" is ridiculous.

Chapter 3: The Perils of Desire
Segal turns her attention to sexual desire, focussing again on "those who have a far stronger sense of their extensive past than of how they should relate to their much shorter future" (p 77) which is a lovely way of saying 'the old'.

Although she does acknowledge that the 'mid-life crisis' is essentially male and involves "periods of dramatic self-doubt, anxiety and worthlessness" (p 79), some of which relates to retirement (or when still in employment being overtaken by younger men) she does spend a lot of time looking at men's "faltering erectile capacities" (p 78), the "useless 'spigot of wrinkled flesh' between their legs" (p 84), men as "lecherous mavericks" (p 85)  full of "phallic longings" (p 86), "mortified by the 'pathetic shrunken wreck' his beloved penis has become (p 87), "chronically depressed, self-destructive and, of course, impotent" (p 87) "as their erectile capacities falter" (p 89). In other words, she essentially defines masculinity in terms of sex. Old women, on the other hand, find themselves "free of the shackles of sexuality" (p 91); she claims that "Viagra wives" are not thrilled to be asked to resume sex lives (pp 94 - 95). Indeed, she seems to feel that while male homosexuals usually discover their homosexuality in their teenage years, lesbianism begins over a much wider age range and some seems to be a result of being less desired by men (just as some male homosexual behaviour is due to the denial of female company eg in prisons). (pp 117 - 118)

But Segal does quote Doris Lessing as suggesting that "Older women ... lose men of their own age to younger women, because such men are the inevitable prey of these younger women." (p 107)

Men, of course, kill themselves more than women. "Women on average are most miserable at age forty, whereas men's blues kick in when they hit fifty" (p 82) which may be something to do with the differing ages of menopause.

In other words, Segal's arguments on the effect of ageing on sexuality do not offer a clear cut message. Although for men ageing is all about impotence it is much more complicated for women. Again, I feel that Seghal is not even-handed. For example, her evidence about ageing men derives almost entirely from the fictional works of Roth, Updike and Amis whilst she has a much broader evidence base, both fictional and non-fictional, for women. And if men are essentially playthings of biology with the urge to reproduce at every opportunity, can we use that same biology to analyse women after reproduction is no longer possible? Segal doesn't attempt this.

Chapter 4: The Ties that Bind
I was less interested in this chapter although it was again noteworthy that her understanding of the male perspective relies entirely on her analysis of fiction writers, here expanded to include Julian Barnes, whilst her feminine perspective is largely based on factual writings, especially memoir. Why is there this difference? And to what extend does such a limited and anecdotal evidence base devalue the validity of her conclusions?

Chapter 5: Flags of Resistance
There were some very interesting points made, although the evidence base is still rather thin. Does she really think that a handful of novelists represent the spectrum of opinions across all men?

"Biologists have revealed that ... (Class) differences are clearly evident even at the cellular level." (p 175). I'd love to see the evidence for this. She cites Thomas von Zglinicki (ed) Aging at the Molecular Level, New York, Springer, 2003

"Striving for agelessness is thus in one sense a rejection of life ... it is also quintessentially shallow, self-centred and elitist in its refusal to engage with the suffering and helplessness of others ... It is a form of imaginative impoverishment to refuse to accept the tragic." (p 179) This is a nice counterblast to all those 'think positive' self-help people.

"pondering over all the ways the past has impacted upon the present." (p183)

"Contemplating ageing might include mourning the roads not taken." (p 183) It's not so much regret because it is not possible (nor desirable) to take every road but a gentle sense of the inevitability of one's limitations.

Take a stoic view: "the fleeting strength or beauty of youth ... Is best seen as something that never truly belongs to its bearer, who should remain indifferent to it." (p 190). Perhaps stoicism is a sensible, non-religious, westernised alternative to Buddhism. Perhaps I should read the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius.

Chapter 6: Affirming Survival
One of the problems of old age is that one's kids may have moved away and one's partner may have died; this of course is a fundamental flaw of the nuclear family and Segal explores alternative living arrangements, concluding that communal living rarely works after one has reached middle age. This reflects her own experience: she lived in a shared household (although she owned the house) until her son was in his late teens and about to move away when she started living in a couple with a man who, fifteen years later, left her to have his own children so she was then alone. She realises that 'coupledom' is what most people want (she rather regrets that gays want to get married) and hypothesises that "The comfort of marriage, or long-term partnerships, in so far as they remain monogamous, is precisely that they usually remove us from the intense jealousies that always shadow desire, even if they inevitably moderate or dramatically decrease desire in the process." (p 246)

She quotes Samuel Beckett: "Fail again. Fail better" (p 247)
and Quentin Crisp: "If at first you don't succeed, failure may be your style." (p 247)

"When you are seen as 'dependent' you are always in danger of being ignored, patronized or pitied, seen as having no secrets."  (p 260) It is this last that Segal most deplores.
She does recognise the difficulties involved in a son or daughter switching roles to become the carer which can be "all the more challenging if the earlier relationship with the parent was tense or ambivalent". (p 261)
Dependents "may feel simply a burden on those very people whose wellbeing was always dearest to them." (p 261)
She quotes John Moore, Thatcher's Secretary of State for Social Security as stating: "A climate of dependence can in time corrupt the human spirit. Everyone knows the sullen apathy of dependence and can compare it with the sheer delight of personal achievement." (p 262)

This book had some great points in it but it is a very personal viewpoint.

"Rooftoppers" by Katherine Rundell

This children's book is a masterclass on how to say a lot with very few words.

Sophie is pulled from the wreck of the Queen Mary as a one year old baby by Charles, a scholar, who becomes her guardian. They live in Victorian London. When Sophie reaches twelve, the authorities believe that Charles, a single man, is unsuitable and so they plan to put Sophie into an orphanage; the pair escape to France because Sophie believes her mother may live there.

On the roof of their hotel in Paris, Sophie meets Matteo, a wild boy who lives on rooftops (and speaks remarkably good English). Matteo guides Sophie across the rooftops in her quest to find her mother. The  life of the rooftoppers is explained in unglamorous details: when Matteo explains that feet must be bare so toes can help to grip the roofs, Sophie asked whether his toes get cold and he answers: Yes.

This book is remarkable for its imagination but chiefly for the brilliance of its prose. Impossible, nearly magical things are written about with such simplicity that it reads like truth. And the descriptions are pared down to nearly nothingness but the few words left are exactly the right ones: when Sophie attends her first classical concert the pianist "made the sorts of faces that Sophie associated with being very itchy."

The book I was most reminded of as I read this was Jeanette Winterson's Lighthousekeeping whcih has the same sort of simple way of describing impossibilities. These are barefaced lies made convincing by the lack of artifice. It is the way the Bible is written: this happened and then that. And it helps when the prose is as lyrical as that of Wycliffe.

Wednesday, 23 December 2015

"The Monk" by Matthew lewis

This classic of Gothic romance was written in ten weeks by a nineteen year old and to some extent it shows: he throws everything at this story and is always ready with some new deus ex machina to extricate his characters or to plunge them deeper into torment and despair.

After this immediate best seller, Lewis left the novel in favour of the theatre, producing best-selling plays and melodramas (he was also an MP!). You can see the influence of Shakespeare. A young girl is given a potion to make her unconscious and put into the burial chamber where her seducer will be waiting for her with a knife: a beautifully dark twist on the already dark Romeo and Juliet. He also quotes Measure for Measure. Faustus by Marlowe may also be here: when one character is to be killed she pleads for "another month, or week, or day" as Desdemona in Othello pleads: "Kill me tomorrow, let me live tonight ... But half an hour ... But while I say one prayer" and also as Faustus pleads "let this hour be but / A year, a month, a week, a natural day"; perhaps the more obvious parallel with Faustus is the summoning of demons (although in The Monk it is Lucifer rather than Mephistopheles) and the signing away of the soul in blood.

Lewis was rather sceptical of religion. In many ways The Monk is an attack on Roman Catholicism (although, it has been remarked, Lewis's sense of the dramatic  could only really be fuelled by the showy Roman tradition rather than the more lacklustre Anglican church) from the point of view of Whig Protestantism but he also has a wonderful bit (which had to be removed for later editions after a criminal trial) where Elvira (the heroine's mother) preserves her innocence by only allowing her to read a bowdlerised Bible which has been rewritten to take out the naughty bits.

The plot revolves around Ambrosio, famed preacher and abbot of a monastery, who is tempted by a woman in a scene straight out of the Garden of Eden (and then another one) and the evil Mother Superior of a convent who seeks to punish one of her nuns who has got herself pregnant. Damned if you do and damned if you don't. Inevitably everyone ends up in the catacombs where imprisonment, starvation, rape and murder, not to mention satanic rites, jostle for room amidst the corpses of long-dead nuns and monks. Within this narrative is also the story of a traveller waylaid by robbers in a lonely forest and the tale of the Bleeding Nun.

One of the things that marks this story out is the way that Lewis confounds our expectations. We expect the villains to be caught, tried, punished and eternally damned. This doesn't necessarily happen. We expect our innocent heroines to be rescued seconds before their rape or at least before their murder. Not always! In fact the innocent suffer more than the less innocent and this applies both to heroes and villains. Lewis seems to be saying that to be innocent (in the true sense of ignorant) is not a very good defence in a wicked world.

Two things life this novel above pulp fiction. First is the obvious relish and gusto with which the story is told. This leads to brilliant plot twists that came completely out of the blue and consequences which one is sure won't happen, do. The second is the wonderfully comic characters of two minor characters: the Aunt and the Landlady both of whom are garrulous lower-class (by birth) women who cannot keep to the point of a discourse. In contrast the young romantic leads are stock characters and the only really interesting characters are the female victims and the male and female villains. I'd love to see Alan Rickman give an over-the-top portrayal of Ambrosio.

Brilliant quotes:

  • "None sleep so profoundly as those who are determined not to wake."
  • "The delirium of passion being past, He had leisure to observe every trifling defect." This is a bit like the 2nd verse of Bring Back That Loving Feeling: "Girl you're starting to criticism little things I do."
  • "Possession, which cloys Man, only increases the affection of Woman."

For an old book this is wonderfully easy to read.

December 2015; 442 pages

Friday, 18 December 2015

"Old Filth" by Jane Gardam

Sir Edward Feathers has retired to Dorset from being a Judge (nicknamed Old Filth) in Hong Kong. After his wife, Betty, dies, a new next-door neighbour arrives, another Hong Kong lawyer and the man Sir Edward detests most in the world.

This is the preliminary and it lasts 19 pages and I was drifting through it but I wasn't particularly interested. But then we begin to flit through the episodes in Filth's life. He is born in Malaya and his mum died a few days after giving birth; his grieving father ignored him and let him be brought up by the Malay villagers till he was five when he was sent to foster parents in Wales with his cousins Babs and Claire. This dreadful neglect by his father and the rupture of his relationship with the young Malay girl who is the daughter of his wet nurse and the only mother he has ever known began to make me interested but it is another 19 pages on.

As he is taken away to prep school  by Sir (a wonderfully eccentric character; apparently a brilliant teacher of the old school if you'll pardon the pun) from the Welsh foster parents there are hints of something that has happened in Wales. Slowly this book begins to draw you in.

Most of what we learn is of Teddy's early life before he became a judge. This is mixed into a wonderful road trip he undertakes shortly after Betty's funeral (to the great concern of cleaning lady and gardener) when he goes to see mad Babs and horny Claire. But of his married life and his life in Hong Kong we learn almost nothing (I suppose this is because it aims to explore his childhood; Gardam quotes an inscription on a statue in the Temple Gardens which says 'Lawyers, I suppose, were children once'). Throughout, little hints are dropped of the dreadful thing that happened in Wales but since Filth will not even allow himself to think about it we learn almost nothing until he finally confesses to a priest.

There are some brilliant characters in this book. Their humanity is to the front. Being a judge, so important in so many people's eyes, is difficult because you are always being faced with wickedness (and condemning men to death is especially hard). But being a Raj orphan is immensely harder. Filth chose not to have children because he had never experienced parenting and knew that he wouldn't know how to be a parent. There is a lot of heart ache in this book.

I found the plotting a little strange (there are a number of threads that just don't go anywhere and the mysteries of Filth's later life are terra incognita) but the story is exceptional because of the wonderful characters and the compassion that is shown to our human condition.

December 2015; 257 pages

Thursday, 17 December 2015

"The Tempest" by William Shakespeare

The Tempest was probably Shakespeare's last play. In the epilogue the old magician seems to be saying goodbye to his audience.

It is all about magic. The tempest itself is conjured up by magic. The magician is Prospero, who was Duke of Milan until his brother usurped his place (usurping brothers seems to be a Shakespeare theme, eg Hamlet and Claudius); Prospero was sent out to sea and landed on this enchanted island where he used his spells to command spirits, such as Ariel, and to usurp, in his turn, the island from Caliban, deformed monstrous son on Sycorax, a witch. The magical tempest brings those involved in Prospero's usurpation to the island; with them at his mercy he can begin to wreak his revenge.

So there is a fundamental theme of usurpation. Prospero's brother usurped the Dukedom of Milan. But Prospero in his turn has stolen the enchanted isle from Caliban. Stefano, with the assistance of Trinculo and at the prompting of vengeful Caliban, hopes to kill Prospero and become king of the island. And Antonio prompts Sebastian to usurp the kingdom of Naples by killing Sebastian's brother Alonso while he lies sleeping. Even Gonzalo, the goody who saved Propsero and Miranda when they were sent to sea in a small boat, dreams of becoming king of a Utopia based on the island.

On the other hand, in some ways this is a Jacobean revenge tragedy except that at the end Prospero forgives everyone.

Yet, apart from Ferdinand and Prospero's daughter Miranda falling in love, nothing much happens.

In terms of drama, this is a full Shakespearean play. There is a shipwreck. There is planned murder. There is a magical banquet at which dishes appear and disappear. There is a courtly masque. And there is drunken clowning. But the only character who develops, it seems to me, is Alonso, King of Naples, who regrets his part in Prospero's usurpation and sees this as the cause of the death (he thinks) of his son Ferdinand.

Perhaps I need to see it to appreciate it. I only ever saw a youth theatre production (which was abridged but very well done and enjoyable) and a filmed version. 

Perhaps I'm not the sort of person to get beguiled by spirits. And I did feel so sorry for poor Caliban.

I have now seen this play on Saturday (matinee) 25th June 2016 at the Royal Theatre in Northampton. It was an interesting production. Several of the male roles were played by women and the gender of the character was changed; thus, Duke Prospero of Milan became Duchess Prosper. This was fine except that the children of the old characters became younger siblings so that Ferdinand was the younger brother of the King of Naples and Miranda the younger sister of Duchess Prosper. This lost the patriarchal force of the Prospero-Miranda relationship and (more seriously in my view) weakened the King of Naples overwhelming grief when he is bereft of his son and heir (somehow losing a younger brother doesn't have the same primeval appeal).

I also saw this play in an RSC production at the Barbican with the brilliant Simon Russel Beale as Propsero on 5th August 2017.

I have also seen a Lazarus  production at Greenwich Theatre on Saturday 16th February 2019. This was another gender swap production with a female Prospero and a male Miranda while retaining a male Ferdinand so that the marriage of M & F became a gay marriage. This led to one awkward moment when Prospero warns Ferdinand against breaking Miranda's "virgin knot" before the marriage is solemnised which was rescued by Miranda saying "Mu-u-u-m" when he heard this said. The outstanding actors in this production were Prospero and Trinculo.

Ariel was played by six spirits who sang his songs in harmony and shared his lines and business. This actually worked quite well, even when Prosper was reminding them of how they had been released from the cramping cleft in which Sycorax had imprisoned them: they lined up and barked 'yes mistress' at appropriate places. It also helped when the food had to magically appear and disappear.

But this play is about usurpation and colonialism; it is about revenge; it is about an old man imposing his will on his slaves, including his daughter; it is about manipulation. This production played up the magical elements brilliantly but the raw power of the human relationships were sometimes lost.

This is a scene by scene synopsis of the play.
Act 1
Scene 1: A dramatic start; a storm at sea.
Alonso, the K of Naples, his younger brother Sebastian and Alonso's son Ferdinand, together with Antonio, D of Milan and Gonzalo, a nobleman from Naples are on board a ship. The Boatswain, trying to keep the ship afloat, tells them they are in the way; when a ship is endangered all men are equal, in fact the Boatswain is the more important man: "What do you here? Shall we give o'er and drown? Have you a mind to sink?" he asks. The confusion of the storm and on board the ship is echoed my the mixture of prose and blank verse; the play starts with prose and the blank verse only begins after the soaked seamen cry that all is lost "To prayers, to prayers!" But Gonzalo's last speech is back in prose.

In the Northampton production I failed to hear a single word of the dialogue because of the noise of the storm.

Scene 2: This long scene is mostly used to tell the back story.
Miranda's first words are to accuse her father, Prospero, of creating the storm by his magic. We are immediately moved from the realism of S1 to a realm of magic. Perhaps the storm has been our entering into the liminal experience.
Prospero admits the accusation but reassures the gentle, kind and empathetic ("I have suffer'd / With those that I saw suffer") Miranda that no one has been harmed in the storm. Then, raking his magic cloak off, he tells her his reasons.

This long speech is punctuated by regular accusations that Miranda is not paying attention to him: what a teacher he is! This is brilliant Shakespeare, breaking up a long speech so that the audience have time to gather their wits and regroup (and the accusations of not paying attention are levelled at the audience, perhaps). She repeatedly reassures him that she is: "Your tale, sir, would cure deafness."

Prospero's story is that he used to be the Duke of Milan but, when Miranda was a little girl, just three, Prospero's brother Antonio, to whom Prospero had delegated most f the actual business of government, form a treacherous alliance with Alonso the King of Naples and overthrew Prospero who was sent out to sea with his baby girl in a small ship. Fortunately a "noble Neapolitan", Gonzalo, gave them what was necessary as well as Prospero's magic books.

But now is Prospero's opportunity for revenge. The ship in the storm contained all his enemies: Antonio and Alonso, as well as the good Gonzalo, and Sebastian, the younger brother of Alonso, King of Naples, and Ferdinand, son and heir to Alonso. These passengers on the ship all jumped overboard and have been safely washed up on the ships; the mariners stayed with the ship which is now safe in harbour.

Miranda, after this long tale, falls asleep. Prospero puts his cloak back on (back to magic) calls his magic spirit Ariel, who created the storm. Ariel is a sort of puck. He describes how Ferdinand was first to leap from the ship, "hair up-staring" and is now sitting with his arms folded ("in this sad knot") "in an odd angle of the isle", painting a picture of awkwardness.

Then Ariel reminds Prospero that he has been promised his liberty. The blank verse here is fractured, jumping backwards and forwards as the two discuss and argue, a long way from the end-stopped complete line blank verse that Shakespeare's early plays are written in. Prospero is angry with his slave, reminding him that he freed him from being painfully trapped in a "cloven pine" for twelve years, a fate he had been doomed to by Caliban's mother, the witch Sycorax (who then died so was unable to release him). Ariel reluctantly (very curt end lines: "My liberty"; "No"; "I do not sir"; "Pardon, master" etc) accepts he will continue to obey Prospero. This is the piece which, in the Northampton version, was acheieved with a line up of Ariels all barking their answers like soldiers.

Now Prospero wakes Miranda and calls Caliban. While Ariel is a spirit of the air, of fire, of water, Caliban is an ugly misshapen brute, a spirit of the earth (his name is cognate with both the Caribbean, where the Tempest is more or less set, and 'cannibal' which were both in turn named after the violent Carib Amerindian tribe rather than the gentle Arawaks). Caliban is also Prospero's slave and he resents it, pointing out that he was the son of the witch Sycorax who originally ruled the island; ironically Prospero the usurped has become Prospero the usurper. Prospero bullies Caliban, calling him names: slave, earth, tortoise, poisonous slave, lying slave, filth; and threatening him with pinches and side-stitches. He claims that he looked after Caliban in his own house (although presumably it would have once been Caliban's own) "till thou didst seek to violate / The honour of my child" and Caliban smirks "O ho, O ho! Would't had been done / Thou didst prevent me - I had people else/ This isle with Calibans". So at some stage Caliban tried to rape Miranda.

But now Caliban is a slave and all that Prospero has taught him is dust and ashes: "You taught me language, and my profit on't / Is I know how to curse." But he has to obey.

So Prospero, the protagonist, is actually a usurper who bullies Ariel and Caliban to be his slaves. Not a nice man!

Ferdinand enters, accompanied by an Ariel he cannot see, who sings to him; he thinks it is the sounds of nature. Despite these soothing sounds, Ferdinand is mourning his father whom he thinks has drowned. This should be made much more of but as soon as Miranda sees Ferdinand she is smitten and he with her: "At the first sight" they are in love. But Prospero recognises (in an aside to the audience; this was very well done in the Northampton version) that (if only for the sake of the play!) he can't make the path of true love too easy: "I must uneasy make lest too light winning / Make the prize light." Calling Ferdinand a traitor he manacles him (despite Miranda's protests) and takes him prisoner.

Act 2
Scene 1: another long scene: the ship-wrecked aristocrats:
Gonzalo, the good courtier, who helped Prospero, is cheerful and optimistic. Sebastian, brother to the King of Naples, and Antonio, the usurper of Prospero's dukedom, are a pair of moaning pessimists who make fun of Gonzalo's panglossianism. And Alonso, King of Naples, is grieving the death of his son (younger brother in the Northampton version). Strangely, he rejects the suggestion that Ferdinand may have survived the shipwreck; most bereaved people cling to any hope long after it is reasonable. Cruelly, Sebastian blames Alonso for Ferdinand's death: "The fault's your own" and Gonzalo chides him. Then Gonzalo launches into a description of the Utopia that this island could be; he envisages a communistic commonwealth with himself as King; this is full of ironies as he is talking to his boss the King of Naples and being quite radically republican; perhaps Shakespeare wanted to emphasise how much the old order had been disrupted by the chaos of the storm on this enchanted isle.
Then Ariel arrives and puts all but Sebastian and Antonio to sleep. Taking advantage, Antonio now seeks to persuade Sebastian to usurp Naples and offers to kill Alonso there and then with his sword. Sebastian remembers that Antonio usurped his own brother and asks about the state of Antonio's conscience: "I feel not/ This deity in my bosom" replies Antonio. So Sebastian agrees to treason. 
This is a bit quick and then they have to whisper together at the side of the stage to give Ariel time to wake the sleepers up; this is a bit clumsy.  In the Northampton version Ariel was given time because, just before they slit the throats of the King and Gonzalo, they kissed (Sebastian was played as a woman called Simona), got into a passionate embrace and left the stage for a quickie! Antonio returns buttoning up his flies.
Antonio and Sebastian draw their swords but before they can use them the others wake up; Sebastian has to pretend they hear wild beasts and wanted to protect his brother, the King. The party wanders off to search for Ferdinand.

Scene 2: A comic interlude
Caliban is bringing wood for Prospero. He curses P and then, at the sound of thunder, worries about the little pinches that Prospero torments him with. Hearing a voice, afraid it is one of P's devils, C hides.
But it is Trinculo, jester to the court of Naples, and we switch to prose. He sees the hiding Caliban who smells of fish but he decides he is not a monster but an islander killed by a lightning strike. The storm coming, Trinculo hides under the cloak with Caliban.
Stephano arrives, drunk and drinking. Caliban thinks he is P's devil and he begs S for mercy; S seeing the cloak and Caliban and Trinculo underneath it thinks he has come across a strange monster having fits which, if he can cure the fits and tame it, he could enslave and then sell. So he feeds Caliban alcohol but is himself scared when Trinculo calls out to him.
The two friends are reconciled, using the bottle as Bible, and drinking together. Caliban, enamoured of the strange new taste of this new drink, pledges himself to serve Stephano. Thus are the Caribbean natives seduced with alcohol and enslaved.

Act 3:
Scene 1:
Love scene

Ferdinand has been told to stack wood by Prospero and he is labouring to obey. He is happy to be a slave because of Miranda. Miranda is upset for him and offers to carry the logs for him but he refuses her. In the Northampton version he is labouring over a great barrel that she can pick up quite easily. He woos her, telling her he is a Prince and would despise this base labour were it not for her. She asks, directly, "Do you love me?" and he says, beating around the bushes a bit, yes. The pledge to marry and join hands. Prospero, eavesdropping, is glad.

Scene 2: Another comedic interlude
Stephano and Caliban and Trinculo are all drunk. Stephano and Trinculo quarrel and Caliban, having pledged himself to Stephano, takes the part of his master. Ariel (invisible but audible) intervenes from time to time saying 'thou liest'; Caliban and Stephano attribute these words to Trinculo though he denies it and they beat him. Good slapstick stuff.
Caliban attempts to persuade Stephano to murder Prospero by hammering a nail through his head, braining him, sticking a knife in his paunch or slitting his throat. He reminds Stephano to burn Prospero's books first because without them P cannot summon any spirits; they all hate him. As inducement C offers S the bed of Miranda. S agrees to assassinate P and they plan to do it in half an hour when P will take his normal afternoon nap. Ariel, of course, has overheard all of this.

Scene 3: A magical banquet
This scene is based on the Aeneid (book 3) when Virgil and his companions prepare themselves a banquet only to have a flock of Harpies (the Ariels in black) swoop down upon them and devour it. Prospero watches the action from high above the stage. He was in one of the boxes, in Northampton, but his lines were voiced by one of the Ariels with an echo box. This scene was really well done.
King Alonso with good courtier Gonzalo, and the two wannabe usurpers Sebastian and Antonio, with two other lesser courtiers Adrian and Francisco are still searching for Ferdinand. But old Gonzalo can go no further and King Alonso too is tired. He despairs of finding his son: "He is drown'd ... Well, let him go."
Antonio and Sebastian are still resolved to assassinate the King the next chance they get, tonight, when the King and Gonzalo will be tired.
Suddenly spirits bring a banquet onto the stage. The shipwrecked noblemen discuss this strange event and resolve that other tall travellers' tales may also be true.
But then Ariel, dressed like a harpy, comes on stage, claps his hands and the food disappears. He then accuses the "three men of sin" (Alonso, Antonio and Sebastian) that they "did supplant good Prospero"; for which they will be punished by hellish torments.
After Ariel (and Prospero) goes, Alonso realises that his son has been killed because of his own guilt: "Therefore my son i' th' ooze is bedded; and / I'll seek him deeper then e'er plummet sounded, / And with him lie there mudded." He goes and is followed by Sebastian and Antonio. Gonzalo is fearful that they may do something rash and asks Adrian and Francisco to follow them.

Act 4: A single scene act.

At the start, Prospero permits Ferdinand to get engaged to Miranda whilst repeatedly warning him not to get too lustful and not to touch her before they are married. This doesn't work as well when Prosper is the elder sister. Then, as if to celebrate the engagement, he treats them to a masque in which Ariel plays Ceres and other spirits play her sidekicks. This 'play within a play' is a sort of liminality within a liminality; it ends when Prospero remembers that Caliban, Trinculo and Stephano are on their way to kill him. And he ends it with these famous lines:
Our revels now are ended. These our actors

As I foretold you, were all spirits, and

Are melted into air, into thin air,

And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,

The cloud-capp'd towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,
And like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.

Then Caliban, Stephano and Trinculo enter. They have been led by Ariel through thorns and a stinking pond and they are grumbling. Then they see "glistering apparel" which Ariel has hung on the near lime tree and are distracted from their murderous intent with the fripperies, much to Caliban's disgust. Spirits in the shape of dogs and hounds enter and drive them away.

Prospero and Ariel leave the stage only to reappear in the next Act.

Act 5:
Scene 1:

Ariel, still hinting that his release is due, reports to his master that the Alonso and Gonzalo ans much chastened by their experiences and ready to seek forgiveness. He says: 
Your charm so strongly works 'em
That if you now beheld them, your affections

Would become tender.


Dost thou think so, spirit?

Mine would, sir, were I human.
This was almost my favourite moment of the Northampton interpretation. Of course, Ariel is a spirit. He can't feel emotion. And he recognises that this makes him less than human. Those last three words, "were I human", were spoken with such regret! It was brilliant. 
Prospero stage manages the revelation of himself to Alonso, Gonzalo, Sebastian and Antonio. They stand, charm-struck, within his magic circle whilst he tells them off. Alonso, still reeling from the supposed death of his son and made a better man by his experiences, announces that he will restore Prospero to his Dukedom if his story is true; Gonzalo of course is good. But Sebastian and Antonio, though forgiven by Prospero, are not so redeemed.
Now Prospero reveals Ferdinand and Miranda, in love and playing chess. Gonzalo remarks that Prospero lost his Dukedom so that his descendants should rule Naples.
The Boatswain and Master of the boat appear.
Finally Prospero lets Caliban, Trinculo and Stephano out of their captivity in the lime grove.

And, promising to free Ariel, that's it.

In this scene, during his renunciation of magic, Prospero says "I'll drown my book". In The Genius of Shakespeare, Jonathan Bate points out the similarity to the end of Marlowe's Faustus when, just before he is carted off to damnation, the Doctor promises "I'll burn my books".

Prospero addresses the audience in ten rhyming couplets, with lots of enjambing, and asks the audience to set him free from the Enchanted Island. In Northampton she then waited for the first claps before leaving the stage.

December 2015, updated June 2016, February 2019

Other Shakespeare plays reviewed in this blog include (productions mentioned in parentheses; RSC = Royal Shakespeare Company; NT = National Theatre):

Wednesday, 16 December 2015

"Camera Lucida" by Roland Barthes

This bizarre book is an utterly subjective attempt by Barthes to explain to himself how some photographs have an effect on him and others don't. I can live with that. I find it less comfortable that he then dresses his thoughts up in philosophical language, including italicised neologisms from Latin, with which he attempts to generate some sort of generalities which I presume he expects to apply to me. Or else why write the book?

He states "I make myself the measure of photographic knowledge". Very pre-Socratic; Parmenides would be proud. But you can't make yourself a measure and then assume that anything you say applies to me.

For example, he claims that there is a clear distinction between pornographic photos and erotic photos: erotica "does not make the sexual organs into a central object." This is reasonably objective. But he goes on to argue "the pornographic body shows itself, it does not give itself, there is no generosity in it". It seems he wants to have his cake and eat it: he is prepared to dichotomize photos of naked people for himself and then to claim that this distinction can be generalised. This seems dodgy to me.

In some ways Barthes is firmly in the Cartesian tradition, using introspection to identify his clear thoughts because he seems to assume in some way that what he can conceive of clearly must in some way be true.

But Barthes is fundamentally a phenomenologist. This presupposes an external reality but then discards it in favour of subjectivity. There are "two experiences: that of the observed subject and that of the subject observing ..." This is like those literary theorists who claim that the meaning of a novel resides only in the readers' interpretations and not in the author's intentions.

There were some moments when I sat up and thought, that is interesting, I wonder ...
  • The essence of photography is the pose
  • Most communicative signs are arbitrary representations of reality, for example bread and pain are both alphabetical representations in different languages of something made with flour that we eat. A photo, however, is unique in being a non-arbitrary representation of its reality.
  • A photograph can show someone alive who is going to die who is already dead.
But much of this seemed to me to be self-indulgence.

December 2015; 119 pages

Sunday, 13 December 2015

"Othello" by William Shakespeare

I saw the Tower Theatre Comany's production of Othello at the Bridewell Theatre on Saturday 12th December 2015 (matinee), reading the play on the train to London and back again. It was a great production; I thought Emilia and Iago were the highlights. The death scene at the end was truly tragic.

(They were very inventive with the 'trumpet calls' in the text; characters carried mobile phones which rang to convey messages.)

Othello is essentially a revenge tragedy. Iago believes that his wife, Emilia, slept with Othello, Iago's boss. For this (and, possibly, other reasons; Iago has been passed over for promotion in favour of Michael Cassio who also may have slept with the generous Emilia, Iago displikes Othello's blackness) he determines to destroy Othello's happiness.

But Shakespeare elevates Othello head and shoulders above any other revenge tragedy with his masterly portrayal of Iago. The audience knows, almost from the outset, that Iago is a villain. He explains how he intends to deceive. But all the characters are deceived by him; they call him 'Honest' Iago repeatedly. He plays his part magnificently, telling the truth but twisting it, giving sound advice but manipulating things to make the good advice have a bad consequence, warning Othello against jealousy even as he ensnares him.

There's plenty of classic Shakespeare in this play including a punning clown and a sword fight but it is the style that makes Othello special. For example, there is the repetition and repetition and repetition of key themes like the ironic 'honest Iago' mentioned above. There is careful foreshadowing in early scenes (including where Iago warns Othello against jealousy). There is the careful structuring of the act/ scene structure: the two, heartbreakingly intense scenes set in Desdemona's bedroom are separated by a fight scene; the scene in which Iago begins to develop Othello's jealousy and talks about the handkerchief is immediately followed by Desdemona and Emilia wandering the streets, accosting a punning clown, and then talking about the handkerchief. The whole play is beautifully timed so that it starts with a bang, the turning point happens dead centre and the tension rises and rises to the end. And a number of scenes, including the very first, begin in media res.

But it is the dialogue that is exceptional. Dialogue is used to establish dominance: the dominant character tends to have the longest speeches and in Act Three when Iago the servant manipulates Othello that balance dramatically switches with cat's paw Othello getting a few words to respond to Iago's carefully articulated arguments. Shakespeare is best known for the vaulting speeches with their incredible poetry. But in Othello, Shakespeare never lets a speech go on too long. In Desdemona's singing of the Willow song she even interrupts herself when she sings the wrong line. And Shakespeare uses fractured lines to express fear, anger, dismay and bewilderment (Emilia's repeated 'my husband?' queries in the final scene).

Brilliant. December 2015

Othello was derived from a source called Gli Hecatommithi by Giovanni Battista Cinthio. In this a Moor working in Venice marries a lady called Disdemona despite the fact that her relatives try to make her marry someone else. They travel to Cyprus where the Moor becomes Commandant; the Moor's Ensign, a wicked man, accompanies him with his own wife, who spends a lot of time with Disdemona. The Ensign then falls in love with D but becomes jealous that she is in love with the Moor's Corporal and plots to make the Moor believe that the Corporal is the adulterer of D. After the Moor deprives the Corporal for having drawn his sword and wounded another soldier; the Ensign keeps stirring the pot including telling the Moor that D dislikes his blackness. The Ensign then steals D's handkerchief, given to her by the Moor as a wedding present; prompted by the Ensign the Moor asks where the handkerchief is and she has to confess she has lost it. The Ensign then has a sword fight with the Corporal (and cuts his leg off); the Moor then beats D to death with a stocking filled with sand. Shakespeare didn't change much!

Other Shakespeare plays reviewed in this blog include (productions mentioned in parentheses; RSC = Royal Shakespeare Company; NT = National Theatre):

Monday, 7 December 2015

"Selected poems from Les Fleurs du Mal" by Charles Baudelaire translated by F. W. Leakey

Gosh. I had heard of this work from its scandalous reputation but ...

I rarely read poetry, particularly not poetry with neither rhyme nor rhythm but ...

Baudelaire contrasts the joys of sexual love with the terror of old age, decay and death. It is a bit of an obsession with him ; you might say he was a one-trick pony. But what redeems the poetry is the original images he develops in this interface:
sweet dreams of evil

...massive shapes
Break free at dusk from their deep, spectral shrouds

Goya: that nightmare landscape of the unknown,
Where foetuses hang skewered over cauldrons, to the sound
Of Sabbath rites, where crones cackle at mirrors, and young girls,
Stripped naked to their stockings, lure the demons on

... age to age to age

Youthful, untamed and wild - the scent of fur

...wild-eyed dancers, endlessly revolving,
Their faces taut with empty, frozen smiles.

In faded armchairs, ageing courtesans, 
Pale-faced, with painted eyebrows, ogling eyes,
From shrivelled ears their jewellery cascading;

Around the green baize table toothless gamesters,
Mouths feverishly working, pallid-lipped,
Convulsive fingers clawing frantically
At empty pockets

Au lecteur (To the reader)
B suggests that we enjoy sin: 
Creatures of Satan, that expert artificer,
We yield to all his wiles, gladly sink back
Upon his pillow, lull ourselves
Into sweet dreams of evil.
As someone said (Rentboy in Trainspotting I think): no one would ever become a heroin addict if it didn't give pleasure.

B blames Boredom and suggests that the 
Dear, hypocritical reader - fellow and brother in sin!
knows this "delicate monster".

It's a nice start to the book.

Correspondences (Correspondences)
B sees describes scents in terms of feelings, sounds and colours:
Take scents: some fresh and cool as delicate children's skins;
Others sweet as oboes, or green as meadow-grass;

The Beacons (Les Phares)
In the first 8 stanzas, B describes the paintings of 8 artists:
Rubens: that river of forgetfulness ...

That deep and sombre mirror, Leonardo
Where charming angels. clothed in mystery,
And wearing each their sweet, mysterious smiles,
Keep vigil in a landscape darkly fringed
With glaciers and with pines

Rembrandt, that sad asylum swept with sighs ...

Michaelangelo, whose
... massive shapes
Break free at dusk from their deep, spectral shrouds

...angry, impudent ruffians ...

Watteau's ... fluttering butterfly-figures ... 

Goya: that nightmare landscape of the unknown,
Where foetuses hang skewered over cauldrons, to the sound
Of Sabbath rites, where crones cackle at mirrors, and young girls,
Stripped naked to their stockings, lure the demons on

... Delacroix, that blood-red lake,
Haunted by evil presences ...

In the final 3 stanzas, B extols these beacons and suggests:
By these, O Lord, if by naught else, we testify,
As our wave breaks upon your farthest shore,
To our transcendent dignity, summed up
In this creative, this vast, ardent sigh,
That gathers strength from age to age to age.

I love "age to age to age": that really is eternity!

The Ailing Muse (La Muse malade)
B talks to his muse. But unlike other poets, his muse does not inspire him with her beauty or her wonder. She is "haggard" and "affrighted", horrified, mad.
Have nightmares wreaked their havoc, and drowned you in their wake?

The Enemy (L'Ennemi)
B compares his life to a garden. There was a thunderstorm in his youth which destroyed many of the flowers. Now he "must turn wearily to fork and spade" to repair the damage. But he can't be certain that he will be able to cultivate his flowers.

A Former Life (La Vie anterieure)
B imagines lying on an island surrounded by "naked, scented slaves".
There are some brilliant images:
tinged by the sun

The ocean swell, as it rolled round the images from the sky

Don Juan in Hell (Don Juan aux enfers)
B imagines the ghosts of all those DJ has wronged taunting him as he arrives in hell. But DJ is "impenitent to the last".

The Jewels (Les Bijoux)
B describes a woman lying on a couch clothed only in her jewels and her "air of triumph" because you can be naked prey and yet be triumphant.

He then has sex with her:
My ardour had the depth and sadness of the mounting sea
Imperious in its onward surge

Her eyes held mine, as of some tiger, fascinated, tamed

The curves and undulations of her belly and her breasts
Entranced my eyes

Exotic Perfume ((parfum exotique)
When on an autumn evening I lie, head on your breast,
And drink in its warm perfume
says B and imagines himself first on a desert island and later in a seaport

In those her flowing garments ... (Avec ses vetements ondoyants ...)
Again B is thinking of his beloved, both her seductive movements and her cold imperviousness to grief.

The Carrion
B sees road kill
It lay with legs upended, like some lascivious whore,
Exhaling heat, exuding sweat,
Its open belly nonchalantly, cynically exposed
Flies crawl and swarm over its "putrid guts" so much that it seems that it is moving. A "bitch-dog" waits its chance to grab the food.

So B tells his beloved that this is how she will end up.
The semblance of that hideous, loathsome thing
but when it happens she must tell the maggots that B still remembers
the form
The divine essence of the love I bear for you

To a Vampire

B sees his beloved as a vampire; she is an addiction from which he cannot (will not?) escape: 

You that have plunged your way into my heart,
My plaintive heart, like some deep-probing knife ...

You that have bound me, humbled, to your side
Like any convict to his chain,
Like any gambler to his stake,
Like any drunkard to his flask

Posthumous Remorse

B imagines his "dark love" in a tomb of "marbled black".

B seems to use this technique a lot: contrasting loveliness with death, decay, sin, devilry, lust, sin, greed ....

On the Balcony

Even when writing an apparently simple poem about his love, B throws a curved ball:
Mother of potent memories, mistress of mistresses

Is he actually talking to his mum or to his mistress or has he incestuously confused them?

And what can we make of the line:
And I drank in the poison, the sweetness of your breath

A ghost from the past

A poem in 4 parts

1) In the darkness
B is:
Condemned by Fate to wander in the vaults
Of utter darkness, sadness; by a mocking God
Condemned to paint, invisibly, on some black screen

Painting invisibly on black is an interesting variant on the myth of Sisyphus.
2) Her perfume
3 images:
Incense in a church
Youthful, untamed and wild - the scent of fur

3) The picture frame
B suggests that frames can enhance the greatest art
As if to concentrate within those narrow bounds
A beauty that might otherwise disperse
Into a vast, environing Nature
and so jewels etc [presumably including clothes and make up etc] enhance his beloved's beauty

4) The portrait 

Time has reduced fire to ashes; all that is left of B's beloved's face is
Only the semblance of a pastel sketch
In faded colours

Tribal Harmony (Tout entiere)

The Devil visits B and asks him what the best thing about his beloved is. B replies "everything delights me equally" which is a bit of a politician's cop out if you ask me.

The Heart's Confessional (Confession)

In this poem B hears
A sound unnerving, faltering, strange, unearthly
Like some intruder from a family's shameful past: 
Some puny child, hideous, deformed and stunted.

He has an image of 
...wild-eyed dancers, endlessly revolving,
Their faces taut with empty, frozen smiles.

Basically, even beautiful women die. He is a bit obsessed with beauty dying. But I love the image of the dancers.

Spiritual Dawn (L'Aube spirituelle)
B considers a "debauched carouser" sleeping unaware of "skies of dazzling mystic blue"

Troubled Sky (Ciel brouille)
"You call to mind those blanched, veiled summer days
When hearts, ensnared, melt into years, in prey
To some obscure unease that sets at strife
Based nerves...."

Conversation Piece (Causerie)
B compares depression to vomiting 
"...In me the sea of sadness mounts
And leaves its bitter imprint on my lip."

B has been 
"Laid waste by Woman's claws., by Woman's teeth" 
and yet is still a sucker (pardon the pun) for the next naked breast

Song of Autumn (Chant d'automne)
"Too soon shall we be plunged in icy dark;"
Winter (metaphorically death?) Is coming and B hears 
"The firewood clattering on our cobbled yards."

Winter is an invader 
"The chill of anger, hatred, sullen toil."
And the sound of the firewood threatens B and crushes and batters him.

Or has the sound, monotonous now, hypnotic,
Become a coffin's hasty nailing-up?
For whom, the coffin?

The clockB used the image of the "menacing finger" of a ticking clock to chart the remorseless passage of time: 
The day ebbs out, the night grows on.

The taste for nothingness B isn't very sympathetic with the old.
Broken down mount, once eager for the fray,
No longer Hope bestrides you, since at each false step,
Stumbling, you falter: time to lie at rest,
And humbly sink into a brutish slumber
Nice assonance between stumbling humbly slumber

When the whole earth becomes a humid cell
Imprisoning Hope, which beats its bat-like wings
Against the walls, and blunts its timorous head
On ceilings damp with rot;

When the rain coursing down, stream upon stream, 
Mimics a prison's bars, and when within
Our skulls mute, infamous spiders cast their webs

Mmmm. He was pretty Victorian with all this death imagery. But why on earth are the spiders infamous?

The Gaming Table
In faded armchairs, ageing courtesans, 
Pale-faced, with painted eyebrows, ogling eyes,
From shrivelled ears their jewellery cascading;

Around the green baize table toothless gamesters,
Mouths feverishly working, pallid-lipped,
Convulsive fingers clawing frantically
At empty pockets

B is pretty good at conjuring up Dickensian images.

I do love 'pallid-lipped' with its swapping of consonants.

Paris at Daybreak (Le Crepuscule de matin)
It is that time of day when adolescents, racked
By evil dreams, on pillows toss and turn;
When mind struggles with body, day with night
And like a bloodshot eye the lamp quivers and throbs
Against the light.

A cock-crow lacerates to shreds the distant, vaporous air

Dawn steals down to the river; Paris wakes,
Rubs bleary eyes, snatches up tools, shuffles its way to work

The eyes of the whores are described as 'pallid-lidded' in an eerie evocation of the 'pallid-lipped' gamblers of The Gaming Table.

A Voyage to Cythera (Un Voyage a Cythere)

B explores what happens when the island of love becomes 
... a barren coast, an arid desert land
Instread of the temple and priestess, the travellers see
A gibber, cypress-dark against the sky,
And bearing human fruit: a man,
A hanged man yielded up to savaging birds.

Savaging, not scavenging or even avenging

Saint Peter's Denial of Christ (Le Reniement de saint Pierre)
This is strong, blasphemous stuff! God is portrayed as a tyrant who enjoys listening to us cursing him and blaspheming.
For Him the sobs of martyrs and other tortured souls
Can only bring delight, since still the Heavens cry out
For more blood, and still more!
Saint Peter was right to deny Christ and Jesus was wrong not to deny this blood thirsty God
Who in his Heaven laughed to her
Each brutal nail strike vilely home
In your live flesh? And when that mob,
Those swinish guards, that rabble from the street,
Covered your face in spittle
Baudelaire is so good at being nasty although I do find 'vilely' superfluous. Adverbs often are.