MY SECOND TOP SHELF – 4

 

[These are serialised extracts of all the fifty books referred to in a book as yet unpublished called ‘My Second Top Shelf, or What Used to be Called a Liberal Education’. The content of these may change before further publication.]

CATCH 22

Joseph Heller

Folio Society, 2004; bound in illustrated boards, slip-cased, colour illustrations by Neil Packer; introduction by Malcolm Bradbury.

There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one’s safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind.   Orr was crazy and could be grounded.   All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions.  Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn’t, but if he were sane he had to fly them.  If he flew them he was crazy and didn’t have to, but if he didn’t want to he was sane and had to. Yossarian was moved very deeply by the absolute simplicity of this clause of Catch-22 and let out a respectful whistle.

If you think that Joseph Heller was a one trick pony, then in my view, you’re dead wrong.  Apart from his other novels, there is his autobiography.  It deals with his life beginning as a son of Russian Jewish parents on Coney Island.  It is a great read, and a fascinating insight into a healthy slice of American social history.  Two things struck me through my reading of the entire book.  One was the candour that the author presents – he carries conviction with everything he says.  This is a writer who confides in you and whom you may trust.  The other was the assurance with which he writes.  Put the two together, and you know you are reading the work of an extremely powerful mind.  That is perhaps not surprising in a man who wrote a novel as strong and famous as Catch 22.

Heller flew fifty missions as a bombardier in the USAF out of Italy in the Second World War.  When he took up writing, he had an unusual model for his novels.  He would begin with the opening line, and not start writing until he had written the last line.  Catch 22 starts this way:

It was love at first sight.

The first time Yossarian saw the chaplain he fell madly in love with him.

It ends this way.

‘So long, Chaplain.  Thanks, Danby’.

‘How do you feel, Yossarian?’

‘Fine.  No, I’m very frightened.’

‘That’ good,’ said Major Danby.  ‘It proves you’re still alive.  It won’t be fun.’

Yossarian started out.  ‘Yes it will.’

‘I mean it Yossarian.  You’ll have to keep on your toes every minute of the day.  They’ll bend heaven and earth to catch you’.

‘I’ll keep on my toes every minute.’

‘You’ have to jump.’

‘I’ll jump.’

‘Jump!’  Major Danby cried.

Yossarian jumped.  Nately’s whore was hiding just outside the door.  The knife came down missing him by inches, and he took off.

Most humour involves an assault on logic, but you can see how artlessly this writer grabs our attention and doesn’t let go.

Catch 22 is about the efforts of the crews of US bombers in the Mediterranean to remain sane while fighting in the Second World War.  There is a rich treasury of books about madness – like Don Quixote and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest – and an even bigger treasury of books against war – like The Red Badge of Courage and All Quiet on the Western Front – Catch 22 happens to combine the two.

What we have is theatre of the absurd in which farce and tragedy play their parts in very black humour.  Being the Chaplain was not easy with those boys.  Colonel Cathcart – who lives mainly to be celebrated in The Saturday Evening Post – makes a statement that the Chaplain had refused to take part in conducting prayer meetings in the briefing room before each mission.  When an officer relays this allegation to the Chaplain, his response is that Colonel Cathcart gave up the idea himself once he realised enlisted men pray to the same God as officers.  So, the Chaplain is asked if he believes in God.  Of course.  But you told Colonel Cathcart that atheism is not against the law.  It is not.  ‘But that’s still no reason to say so, Chaplain, is it?’  The interview had begun:

Chaplain, I once studied Latin.  I think it’s only fair to warn you of that before I ask my next question.  Doesn’t the word Anabaptist simply mean that you’re not a Baptist?

So, who was the fractious colonel?

Colonel Cathcart was a slick, successful, slipshod, unhappy man who lumbered when he walked and who wanted to be a general.  He was dashing and dejected, poised and chagrined.  He was complacent and insecure, daring in the administrative stratagems he employed to bring himself to the attention of his superiors and craven in his concern that his schemes might all backfire.  He was handsome and unattractive, a swashbuckling, beefy conceited man who was putting on fat and was tormented chronically by prolonged seizures of apprehension.

As you may have gathered, his relationship with the Chaplain had got off to a rocky start.  The colonel thought they should have prayers before each mission.  The Saturday Evening Post had a feature of an English colonel doing just that.  In a cut version, the conversation went like this.

‘But don’t give us any of this Kingdom of God or Valley of Death stuff.  That’s too negative’.

‘Save me, O God; for the waters are come into..’

No waters.

‘…there we sat down, yea, we wept..’

No waters.

‘I’m sorry, sir, but just about all the prayers I know are rather sombre in tone and make at least some passing reference to God.’

‘Why can’t we pray for something good like a tighter bomb pattern?’

‘We’ll allocate about a minute and a half…’

‘….it doesn’t include the time necessary to excuse the atheists from the room and admit the enlisted men.’

‘  There are no atheists in my outfit.  Atheism is against the law, isn’t it?’

‘No’

‘Then it’s un-American.’

‘I just assumed you would want the enlisted men to be present, since they would be going along on the same mission.’

‘Well, I don’t.  They’ve got a God and a chaplain of their own, haven’t they?’

‘No, sir.’

‘You mean they pray to the same God we do?

‘Yes, sir.’

‘And He listens?’

‘I think so, sir.’

‘Well, I’ll be damned…..Honestly, now, Chaplain, you wouldn’t want your sister to marry an enlisted man, would you?’

‘My sister is an enlisted man, sir.’

‘Are you trying to be funny?’

‘She’s a master sergeant in the Marines.’

The colonel had never liked the Chaplain and now he loathed and distrusted him.

Groucho Marx and Spike Milligan and Lenny Bruce would relate to this, but this great novel is an enduring reflection on the human condition.  No wonder it took off like a rocket during the Vietnam War and is still going strong after so many more fiascos that have more than a touch of madness about them.

[These are serialised extracts of all the fifty books referred to in a book as yet unpublished called ‘My Second Top Shelf, or What Used to be Called a Liberal Education’. The content of these may change before further publication.]

CATCH 22

Joseph Heller

Folio Society, 2004; bound in illustrated boards, slip-cased, colour illustrations by Neil Packer; introduction by Malcolm Bradbury.

There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one’s safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind.   Orr was crazy and could be grounded.   All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions.  Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn’t, but if he were sane he had to fly them.  If he flew them he was crazy and didn’t have to, but if he didn’t want to he was sane and had to. Yossarian was moved very deeply by the absolute simplicity of this clause of Catch-22 and let out a respectful whistle.

If you think that Joseph Heller was a one trick pony, then in my view, you’re dead wrong.  Apart from his other novels, there is his autobiography.  It deals with his life beginning as a son of Russian Jewish parents on Coney Island.  It is a great read, and a fascinating insight into a healthy slice of American social history.  Two things struck me through my reading of the entire book.  One was the candour that the author presents – he carries conviction with everything he says.  This is a writer who confides in you and whom you may trust.  The other was the assurance with which he writes.  Put the two together, and you know you are reading the work of an extremely powerful mind.  That is perhaps not surprising in a man who wrote a novel as strong and famous as Catch 22.

Heller flew fifty missions as a bombardier in the USAF out of Italy in the Second World War.  When he took up writing, he had an unusual model for his novels.  He would begin with the opening line, and not start writing until he had written the last line.  Catch 22 starts this way:

It was love at first sight.

The first time Yossarian saw the chaplain he fell madly in love with him.

It ends this way.

‘So long, Chaplain.  Thanks, Danby’.

‘How do you feel, Yossarian?’

‘Fine.  No, I’m very frightened.’

‘That’ good,’ said Major Danby.  ‘It proves you’re still alive.  It won’t be fun.’

Yossarian started out.  ‘Yes it will.’

‘I mean it Yossarian.  You’ll have to keep on your toes every minute of the day.  They’ll bend heaven and earth to catch you’.

‘I’ll keep on my toes every minute.’

‘You’ have to jump.’

‘I’ll jump.’

‘Jump!’  Major Danby cried.

Yossarian jumped.  Nately’s whore was hiding just outside the door.  The knife came down missing him by inches, and he took off.

Most humour involves an assault on logic, but you can see how artlessly this writer grabs our attention and doesn’t let go.

Catch 22 is about the efforts of the crews of US bombers in the Mediterranean to remain sane while fighting in the Second World War.  There is a rich treasury of books about madness – like Don Quixote and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest – and an even bigger treasury of books against war – like The Red Badge of Courage and All Quiet on the Western Front – Catch 22 happens to combine the two.

What we have is theatre of the absurd in which farce and tragedy play their parts in very black humour.  Being the Chaplain was not easy with those boys.  Colonel Cathcart – who lives mainly to be celebrated in The Saturday Evening Post – makes a statement that the Chaplain had refused to take part in conducting prayer meetings in the briefing room before each mission.  When an officer relays this allegation to the Chaplain, his response is that Colonel Cathcart gave up the idea himself once he realised enlisted men pray to the same God as officers.  So, the Chaplain is asked if he believes in God.  Of course.  But you told Colonel Cathcart that atheism is not against the law.  It is not.  ‘But that’s still no reason to say so, Chaplain, is it?’  The interview had begun:

Chaplain, I once studied Latin.  I think it’s only fair to warn you of that before I ask my next question.  Doesn’t the word Anabaptist simply mean that you’re not a Baptist?

So, who was the fractious colonel?

Colonel Cathcart was a slick, successful, slipshod, unhappy man who lumbered when he walked and who wanted to be a general.  He was dashing and dejected, poised and chagrined.  He was complacent and insecure, daring in the administrative stratagems he employed to bring himself to the attention of his superiors and craven in his concern that his schemes might all backfire.  He was handsome and unattractive, a swashbuckling, beefy conceited man who was putting on fat and was tormented chronically by prolonged seizures of apprehension.

As you may have gathered, his relationship with the Chaplain had got off to a rocky start.  The colonel thought they should have prayers before each mission.  The Saturday Evening Post had a feature of an English colonel doing just that.  In a cut version, the conversation went like this.

‘But don’t give us any of this Kingdom of God or Valley of Death stuff.  That’s too negative’.

‘Save me, O God; for the waters are come into..’

No waters.

‘…there we sat down, yea, we wept..’

No waters.

‘I’m sorry, sir, but just about all the prayers I know are rather sombre in tone and make at least some passing reference to God.’

‘Why can’t we pray for something good like a tighter bomb pattern?’

‘We’ll allocate about a minute and a half…’

‘….it doesn’t include the time necessary to excuse the atheists from the room and admit the enlisted men.’

‘  There are no atheists in my outfit.  Atheism is against the law, isn’t it?’

‘No’

‘Then it’s un-American.’

‘I just assumed you would want the enlisted men to be present, since they would be going along on the same mission.’

‘Well, I don’t.  They’ve got a God and a chaplain of their own, haven’t they?’

‘No, sir.’

‘You mean they pray to the same God we do?

‘Yes, sir.’

‘And He listens?’

‘I think so, sir.’

‘Well, I’ll be damned…..Honestly, now, Chaplain, you wouldn’t want your sister to marry an enlisted man, would you?’

‘My sister is an enlisted man, sir.’

‘Are you trying to be funny?’

‘She’s a master sergeant in the Marines.’

The colonel had never liked the Chaplain and now he loathed and distrusted him.

Groucho Marx and Spike Milligan and Lenny Bruce would relate to this, but this great novel is an enduring reflection on the human condition.  No wonder it took off like a rocket during the Vietnam War and is still going strong after so many more fiascos that have more than a touch of madness about them.

MY SECOND TOP SHELF – 1

 

[These are serialised extracts of all the fifty books referred to in a book as yet unpublished called ‘My Second Top Shelf, or What Used to be Called a Liberal Education’. The content of these may change before further publication.]

A FAREWELL TO ARMS

Ernest Hemingway, 1929

Franklin Library, 1929.  Bound in quarter leather, ridged spine, with embossed title and filigree; cloth boards patterned.  Illustrated by Bernard Fuchs.

During the Second World War, British trains carried a message (one that Wittgenstein cited): ‘Is this journey really necessary?’  Try as I might, I find it hard to put this question behind me when reading Hemingway.  He could certainly write; he was a natural; but did he have anything to say that was worth listening to?

A Farewell to Arms is set on the Italian Front during World War I.  An American volunteer ambulance officer falls in love with a British nurse.  In the meantime, we are exposed to the horror and futility of war.  But what does it matter if two outsiders have their ups and downs during war?  The novel draws on many experiences of Hemingway in the war, but we are spared that obsession with manliness that cost so many women so dearly in the course of Hemingway’s life.

The beginning of the novel is often quoted to show the spare style of the author.

In the late summer of that year we lived in a house in a village that looked across the river and the plain to the mountains.  In the bed of the river there were pebbles and boulders, dry and white in the sun, and the water was clear and swiftly moving and blue in the channels.  Troops went by the house and down the road and the dust they raised powdered the leaves of the trees.  The trunks of the trees too were dusty and the leaves fell early that year and we saw the troops marching along the road and the dust rising and leaves, stirred by the breeze, falling and the soldiers marching and afterward the road bare and white except for the leaves.

For some, this will be like a mix of Debussy and Auden.

There are passages about the war.

I did not say anything.  I was always embarrassed by the words sacred, glorious and sacrifice and the expression in vain.  We had heard them, sometimes standing in the rain almost out of earshot, so that only the shouted words came through, and had read them on the proclamations that were slapped up by billposters over other proclamations, now for a long time, and I had seen nothing sacred, and the things that were glorious had no glory, and the sacrifices were like the stockyards at Chicago if nothing was done with the meat except to bury it……Abstract words such as glory, honor, courage or hallow were obscene beside the concrete names of villages, the numbers of roads, the names of rivers, the numbers of regiments and the dates.  Gino was a patriot, so he said things that separated us, but he was also a fine boy and I understood his being a patriot.  He was born one.

Well, whatever else a patriot might be, you are not born one.  You have to accept moulding and pledge active loyalty and devotion.  The narrator has learned the horrors of war from being involved in one, even if not as a fighting man, and a citizen, and therefore potential patriot, of any of the nations involved.

But less than twenty pages later, we get this from an American volunteer dealing with Italian soldiers – quite possibly conscripts.  They appear to be deserting. The American tenente orders them to come back.  They said he had no authority because he was not their officer.

‘Halt,’ I said.  They kept on down the muddy road, the hedge on the other side.  ‘I order you to halt,’ I called.  They went a little faster.  I opened up my holster, took the pistol, aimed at the one who had talked the most, and fired.  I missed and they both started to run.  I shot three times and dropped one.  The other went through the hedge and was out of sight.  I fired at him through the hedge as he ran across the field.  The pistol clicked empty and I put in another clip.  I saw it was too far to shoot at the second sergeant.  He was far across the field, running, his head held low.  I commenced to reload an empty clip.  Bonello came up.

‘Let me finish him,’ he said. I handed him the pistol and he walked down to where the sergeant of engineers lay face down across the road.  Bonello leaned over, put the pistol against the man’s head and pulled the trigger.  The pistol did not fire.

‘You have to cock it’, I said.  He cocked it and fired twice.  He took hold of the sergeant’s legs and pulled him to the side of the road so he lay beside the hedge.  He came back and handed me the pistol.

‘The son of a bitch,’ he said.

There you have that stern spare style.  ‘I shot three times and dropped one.’  Just as if he were shooting wooden ducks on a conveyor belt at the town fair.

But what has happened here?  An American is there in Italy as a volunteer ambulance man.  He is there to save people, not to kill them.  But he is concerned that soldiers – ‘real soldiers’ – are deserting ‘his’ side.  They are in truth showing a feeling to war that the narrator has just embraced.  He assumes the authority, which is challenged on obvious grounds, to order them to stop, and then he fires at them.

Whatever you might think of this, how do you describe ‘finishing’ the wounded man – who was born to some mother and who may leave a wife and children – as anything other than vicious murder?  Where does that leave the hero and narrator – or the author, who goes on as if nothing had happened out of the ordinary?  Was Himmler or Heydrich so clinical in describing the murders that he participated in?  How many novelists do you know who would be content to leave all this up in the air?

The child of the union is stillborn.

It seems she [Catherine, the nurse and mother] had one haemorrhage after another.  They couldn’t stop it.  I went into the room and stayed with Catherine until she died.  She was unconscious all the time, and it did not take her very long to die.

……

‘It was the only thing to do,’ he [the doctor] said.  ‘The operation proved – ’

‘I don’t want to talk about it’, I said.

‘I would like to take you to your hotel.’

‘No thank you.’

He went down the hall.  I went to the door of the room.

‘You can’t come in now’, one of the nurses said.

‘Yes I can I said’, I said.

‘You can’t come in yet.’

‘You get out’, I said.  ‘The other one too.’

But after I had got them out and shut the door and turned off the light it wasn’t any good.  It was like saying good-by to a statue.  After a while I went out and left the hospital and walked back to the hotel in the rain.

‘Like saying good-by to a statue’?  Is that all he has to show for the loss of his lover and mother of his child?

Sparseness in writing is one thing; being antiseptic is another; but heartlessness is altogether something different.  It is not then surprising if some readers – including me – are left cold, and fearing that they have just seen a victory of technique over humanity.

Why then is this book here?  This is a lovely and readable edition (even if the illustrations are awful); I have greatly enjoyed parts of this and other books by this author; and the acknowledged contribution of Hemingway to the literature of the twentieth century is such that it would have been churlish to have omitted him from a book such as this.

Here and there – Jude the Obscure

 

Jude Fawley is thoroughly decent.   He also wants to become learned and respected.  But he has doom written all over his face, and much more stridently than had either Romeo or Juliet.  He is at first seduced and then conned into marriage by Arabella Donn.  Arabella is anything but decent.  She is a tart who shoots through.  Jude then falls for his cousin, Sue Bridehead.  There are at least two problems – his marriage to Arabella, and the family relationship.  And Sue.  What is she about?  That is what the book is about.  Throughout my reading of this novel, a song my parents loved, I think sung by Eddie Cantor, kept on resurfacing.

If you knew Susie, like I know Susie,

Oh, Oh, what a gal!

There’s none so classy

As this fair lassie…..

You can see Thomas Hardy as the link between George Eliot and D H Lawrence.  There are also many times when this novel reads like Days of Our Lives.  And toward the end, a mordant slice of Wozzek hits you smack in the face from nowhere.  At times I wondered if the author’s mind was too fast for his pen.  The changes of tempi for the various star-crossed lovers can be very unsettling.  There are times, too, when you think that you may be watching a puppet show predestined by the coolest Calvinist.  Is Jude too innocent and vulnerable?  Is Arabella too predictably devious?  And will the mercurial Sue ever find peace?  And then there are times when the book just sounds alarmingly modern – and worlds way from Dickens

This is the start of Jude’s problems.

That night he went out alone, and walked in the dark self-communing. He knew well, too well, in the secret centre of his brain, that Arabella was not worth a great deal as a specimen of womankind. Yet, such being the custom of the rural districts among honourable young men who had drifted so far into intimacy with a woman as he unfortunately had done, he was ready to abide by what he had said, and take the consequences. For his own soothing he kept up a factitious belief in her. His idea of her was the thing of most consequence, not Arabella herself, he sometimes said laconically.

When Hardy spoke of Sue – and he should have known her – he referred to ‘the elusiveness of her curious double nature.’  She says she loves Jude but she has a hang-up about sex – or men generally.  Consequently, the two ‘lovers’ devote time and love to each other – without getting it off.  If Jude was bloody frustrated, so was I.  Sue was in mortal danger of being branded a teaser, but the strain on our credulity, or patience, can be severe.

You may often think that this was a book just written for Bette Davis – who made all those films that left you wondering why people wanted to torture themselves over ‘love’- with oodles of exclamation marks.

‘Yes… But Sue—my wife, as you are!’ he burst out; ‘my old reproach to you was, after all, a true one. You have never loved me as I love you—never—never! Yours is not a passionate heart—your heart does not burn in a flame! You are, upon the whole, a sort of fay, or sprite—not a woman!’

Jude has a philosophical disposition; in another life he may have been right into bondage.  And not many stonemasons can reel off Aeschylus.

‘Nothing can be done,’ he replied. ‘Things are as they are, and will be brought to their destined issue.’

She paused. ‘Yes! Who said that?’ she asked heavily.

‘It comes in the chorus of the Agamemnon. It has been in my mind continually since this happened.’

‘My poor Jude—how you’ve missed everything!—you more than I, for I did get you! To think you should know that by your unassisted reading, and yet be in poverty and despair!’

After such momentary diversions her grief would return in a wave.

(The ‘this’ is the Wozzek interlude.)

In the Preface, Hardy said that a German reviewer had said that the heroine – Sue Bridehead –

…..was the first delineation in fiction of the woman who was coming into notice in her thousands every year – the woman of the feminist movement – the slight, pale ‘bachelor’ girl – the intellectualized, emancipated bundle of nerves that modern conditions were producing, mainly in cities as yet; who does not recognise the necessity for most of her sex to follow marriage as a profession, and boast themselves as superior people because they are licensed to be loved on the premises.  (Emphasis added.)

The novel came out in 1894 – to uproar – but that absolute blinder of a line was written in 1912:….‘because they are licensed to be loved on the premises.’   That was when women were trying to come out – amid the blood and guts of a fearful partition.  And that I think is why the story of Sue Bridehead is so hard and chancy.  She was some sort of assault pioneer, and that sort of soldier takes heavy casualties.  Coming out, like breaking up, is hard to do.  Had a woman written this book, it may have been called Sue the Obscure.

For all its problems – especially for a bloke in this century – this book is an engrossing read.  And I have a soft spot for it for another reason.  It was the favourite book of the late John Arlott, a cricket commentator whose voice could be recognised instantly across the oceans, and who loved to get very deep with a bottle of red in his hand.

 

 

MY TOP SHELF – 47

MONSIGNOR QUIXOTE

Bodley Head, 1982; rebound in quarter mustard morocco, with gold on mahogany title, and coloured boards.

For how long, he wondered with a kind of fear, was it possible for that love of his to continue?  And to what end?

The late Graham Greene was a fluent and prolific writer who was received into the Catholic Church.  Who better to write a soft, elegiac novel on the strains in the relationship between God and us?

Monsignor Quixote is a tribute to the first novel, Don Quixote, and it comes to us with the throwaway softness of the Eine Kleine Nachtsmusik of Mozart.  Its hero is promoted to Monsignor in ludicrous circumstances.  Like his namesake, he sets out on a quest.  His companion, whom he addresses as Sancho, is a former mayor who is a communist.  Their relationship is as full and touching as that between Don Quixote and Sancho Panza.

Father Quixote is a humble priest in El Toboso near Valencia.  He has a burned out little car, a Seat 600, that he calls Rocinante in memory of the horse of his ancestor.  He does not get on with his bishop, who asks how a priest could be descended from a fictional character.  ‘A character in a novel by an over-rated writer called Cervantes – a novel moreover with many disgusting passages which in the days of the Generalissimo would not even have passed the censor.’  The bishop, of course, has never read the book.  He just started the first chapter and glanced at the last – ‘my usual habit with novels’.  The bishop also takes the view – that we might find unusual in a Spaniard – that ‘men of Father Quixote’s class have no ancestors’.

Our hero was therefore full of trepidation when an Italian bishop pulled up in a flash Mercedes that was refusing to go any further.  But the Bishop of Motopo is very different.  He is offered lunch and ‘an unimportant wine’, and the bishop offers a reply for the ages:  ‘No wine can be regarded as unimportant, my friend, since the marriage of Cana.’  This bishop admires Don Quixote.  When told of the attitude of another bishop, he says:  ‘Holiness and literary appreciation don’t always go together.’

The father fixes the Mercedes – in truth he just puts some petrol in it.  The bishop is both moved and impressed, and the promotion follows later to the disgust of the bishop of the now Monsignor.  As the Italian bishop settles into his revived Mercedes, he says ‘there are no birds this year in last’s year’s nests’.  He confesses that he does not know what the words mean ‘but surely the beauty is enough’.

In his affront at the promotion of his lowly subordinate, the Spanish bishop decides that El Toboso is too small for a Monsignor and sends him out to the world.  And the Monsignor recalls the time when he had diverted an Easter offering to a charity for the poor in prison when the custom had been that the local priest had trousered that portion.  ‘The Bishop had called him a fool – a term which Christ had deprecated.’  Our author is not pulling punches.

The Monsignor and the ex-Mayor set out while swapping stories of traitors – Stalin and Judas.  The Mayor, after vodka, says that the Soviet cosmonauts have beaten the endurance record in space but in all that time they have not encountered a single angel.  Here is a sample of their conversation – this time with Manchegan cheese and wine.

‘A few million dead and Communism is established over nearly half the world.  A small price.  One loses more in any war.’

‘A few hundred dead and Spain remains a Catholic country.  An even smaller price.’

‘So Franco succeeds Torquemada?’

‘And Brezhnev succeeds Stalin?’

‘Well, father, we can at least agree with this: that small men seem always to succeed the great and perhaps the small men are easier to live with.’

‘I’m glad you recognise greatness in Torquemada.’

They laughed and drank and were happy under the broken wall while the sun sank and the shadows lengthened, until without noticing it they sat in darkness and the heat came mainly from within.

Again:

‘Then why not call me comrade – I prefer it to Sancho.’

‘In recent history, Sancho, too many comrades have been killed by comrades.  I don’t mind calling you friend.  Friends are less apt to kill each other.’

We remember that Don Quixote is set around conversations between its two leads.  When our latterday pair arrives at Madrid, the Monsignor declines staying at the Palace Hotel to the disgust of the Mayor who then takes the Monsignor to the ecclesiastical tailors to get his purple socks.

His heart sank as he took in the elegance of the shop and the dark well-pressed suit of the assistant who greeted them with the distant courtesy of a church authority.  It occurred to Father Quixote that such a man was almost certainly a member of Opus Dei – that club of intellectual Catholic activists whom he could not fault and yet whom he could not trust.  He was a countryman, and they belonged to the great cities.

The svelte assistant offers cotton socks and the Monsignor says that he wears wool.  The assistant regards the two shoppers with ‘deepening suspicion’.  As they leave, the Monsignor says to the Mayor that the assistant was probably with Opus Dei and the Mayor says, ‘They probably own the shop’.

The two of them ‘killed’ two bottles of wine over lunch, and the Mayor recalled a discussion with Father Herrera who has been installed in his place, and who gets on with the bishop and who is looking to shaft the Monsignor.  Father Herrera had expressed a preference for the Gospel of St. Matthew.  It has, apparently, fifteen references to Hell.   The Monsignor says that ‘To govern by fear … surely God can leave that to Stalin or Hitler.  I believe in the virtue of courage.  I don’t believe in the virtue of cowardice’.  Sensing a kill for heresy, Father Herrera asks the Monsignor whether he questions the existence of Hell.

‘I believe from obedience, but not with the heart.’

The discussions of religious faith and political faith run deep.

‘We can’t always believe.  Just having faith, like you have, Sancho.  O, Sancho, Sancho, it’s an awful thing not to have doubts.  Suppose all Marx wrote was proved to be absolute truth and Lenin’s works too.’

Again:

‘And now you have a complete belief, don’t you?  In the prophet Marx.  You don’t have to think for yourself anymore.  Isaiah has spoken.  You are in the hands of future history.  How happy you must be with your complete belief.  There is only one thing you will ever lack – the dignity of despair.’

Father Quixote spoke with an unaccustomed anger – or was it, he wondered, envy?

The Mayor leaves the Monsignor in ignorance to settle into a brothel for the night:

‘It’s really very wrong of me to laugh.  But I just thought:  what would the Bishop say if he knew?  A Monsignor in a brothel.  Well, why not? Christ mixed with publicans and sinners.  All the same, I think I’d better go upstairs and lock my door.  But be prudent, dear Sancho, be prudent.’

‘Where are you going, Father?’

‘Off to read myself to sleep with your prophet Marx.  I wish I could say goodnight to you, Sancho, but I doubt whether yours will be what I would call a good night.’

They had encounters with the Guardia as well as the hierarchy of the Church.  The Bishop has to confront the Monsignor with his scandalous misdeeds, such as being seen at a house of blue movies.

‘Stay where you are Monsignor’, the Bishop said.  (He rolled out the title Monsignor with an obvious bitterness.)  He took from his sleeve a white silk handkerchief and dusted the chair beside the bed, looked carefully at the handkerchief to see how far it might have been soiled, lowered himself into the chair and put his hand on the sheet.  But as Father Quixote was not in a position in which he could genuflect he thought it was permissible to leave out the kiss and the Bishop, after a brief pause, withdrew his hand.  Then the Bishop pursed his lips and following a moment’s reflection blew out the monosyllable:  ‘Well.’

Father Herrera was standing in the doorway like a bodyguard ….’

The Bishop says that ‘the Church always struggles to keep above politics’ but confirms that the shop assistant in Madrid was with Opus Dei.  But when the Monsignor says that Marx had defended the Church, the Bishop leaves in disgust saying that ‘I cannot sit here any longer and listen to the ravings of a sick mind’.

There is another exchange between the Mayor and the Monsignor on faith and doubt.

‘We quoted Marx and Lenin to one another like passwords to prove we could be trusted.  And we never spoke of the doubts which came to us on sleepless nights.  I was drawn to you because I thought you were a man without doubts.  I was drawn to you, I suppose, in a way by envy.’

‘How wrong you were, Sancho.  I am riddled by doubts.  I am sure of nothing, not even the existence of God, but doubt is not treachery as you communists seem to think.  Doubt is human.’

Their last adventure involves Mexicans who are fleecing the flock.  They carry out a plaster cast of Our Lady for the poor people to pin money to.

Father Quixote gazed up at the crowned head and the glassy eyes which were like those of a woman dead and neglected – no one had bothered even to lower her lids.  He thought:  Was it for this she saw her son die in agony?  To collect money?  To make a priest rich?

The Monsignor does not doubt that this is blasphemy:

‘Put down Our Lady.  How dare you’, he told the priest, ‘clothe her like that in money?  It would be better to carry her through the streets naked’

He starts ripping notes off and there is a fight and then a riot such as may have followed when another holy agitator evicted the money men from the temple.  The Mayor says, rather unhelpfully, that ‘You can’t start a revolution without bloodshed’.  (Earlier he had said that the ‘Trappists are the Stalinists of the Church’.)

The Monsignor is hurt and they seek sanctuary with the Trappists.  At the small monastery there is a Professor Pilbeam who comes from Notre Dame University in the US.  The Professor specialises in Descartes, who said that the mind is very separate from the body.  This turning point in European thought comes up just as we are getting ready for the soul of the Monsignor to leave his body.  But the Professor is only a nominal Catholic for whom Cervantes is ‘too fanciful for my taste’.

As our Don Quixote moves towards his end, he calls for Mambrino’s helmet and he says to the Mayor:  ‘I don’t offer you a governorship, Sancho.  I offer you a kingdom – Come with me and you will find the Kingdom.’  He recalls saying, as if in a dream, ‘Bugger the Bishop’.  ‘Et introibo ad altare.’  The Monsignor raises an invisible Host and says to Sancho:  ‘Companero, you must kneel Companero.’

Suffused in benevolence, the novel ends this way:

The Mayor didn’t speak again before they reached Orense; an idea quite strange to him had lodged in his brain.  Why is it that the hate of a man – even of a man like Franco – dies with his death, and yet love, the love which he had begun to feel for Father Quixote, seemed now to live and grow in spite of the final separation and the final silence – for how long, he wondered with a kind of fear, was it possible for that love of his to continue?  And to what end?

This all comes down to us apparently effortlessly, the work of a very refined mind and of a very gifted writer, a lilting and humane meditation on the place of doubt and faith in politics and religion, but more importantly on the place of friendship here on earth.

The novel is also a salute by an English writer to the place that Don Quixote holds in the life of Spain.  No other novel – not even War and Peace or Ulysses – stands so high in shaping the life of the nation that gave birth to its author.  Only the Iliad and Ulysses of Homer have reached so high.  But like all of the great works, this little novel is universal in its appeal.  There are very few books that end with a tear and a smile vying for eminence on the face of the reader.

MY TOP SHELF -44 ABSALOM, ABSALOM!

 

[These are serialised extracts of all the fifty books referred to in a book published in 2015 called ‘The Top Shelf, or What Used to be Called a Liberal Education’.  The extracts are as originally published, and they come in the same order.]

ABSALOM! ABSALOM!

The Southern Classics Library, 1978; fully bound in brown morocco, with gold inscriptions, raised spine, marbled endpapers, and silk ribbon.

-You are my brother.

-No I’m not.  I’m the nigger that’s going to sleep with your sister.  Unless you stop me, Henry.

There is something spare, dark and elemental about the great novels of William Faulkner, and Absalom, Absalom! is a masterpiece of a novel.  It is a novel told through voices built up like a Bach fugue, but at its heart is a Greek tragedy – a house subject to a curse that runs through the generations until a kind of moral equilibrium obtains, and it’s time for a new cycle.  Faulkner may have shared the human failings of Fitzgerald and Hemingway – for both booze and skirt – but for me his offerings are so much more substantial.  Ask not who the more clever writer was, but who had the deeper insight into the human condition.  Absalom, Absalom! was written by man from the Deep South – Oxford, Mississippi – but it is not just about the South or, for that matter, the American Dream – it is about us, all of us.  That is what makes it a truly great novel, a work of very high art.

William Faulkner was raised in Mississippi.  He started writing as a poet and wrote short stories throughout his career.  He had a lifelong battle with the bottle.  He may also have lost count of his affairs.  He also wrote for the screen.  When he first went to MGM – a contract worth $500 a week in 1932 – he told them that he wanted to do either Mickey Mouse or newsreels, ‘the only movies I like’.  He worked with Bogart and Bacall on The Big Sleep.  He once had a long discussion with Howard Hawks and Clark Gable about literature.  Gable asked him to nominate the kind of writing that Gable might read if he wanted to become literary.  When Faulkner responded, Gable asked him if he was a writer.  Faulkner replied that he was, and asked Gable what he did for a living.  His best known novels include The Sound and the Fury, As I Lay Dying, Light in August, Sanctuary and Go Down Moses.  Greek tragedy recurs throughout his work which is frequently described as either Gothic or apocalyptic.

The story of Absalom, Absalom! is told through different voices, in a narrative more layered than those of Conrad, and people and events are seen in different lights, and through different prisms.  It can be very difficult to follow, and you should make full use of the chronology at the back.  But the fugal structure is essential to reflect our partial and fragmentary understanding of our past and our condition.  The plot unfolds through three extended conversations.  The differences in the recall of the narrators, and their perspectives, give you a sense of walking around the main characters and events.  You reach the story in the same way that you peel an onion.  To quote our management speak, the reader gets to take ownership of the problems.  In reading the book we seem to participate in its construction.  We become part of the story, although the process of reading it is both hard and wearing.

This is the first sentence.

From a little after two o’clock until almost sundown of the long still hot weary dead September afternoon they sat in what Miss Coldfield still called the office because her father called it that – a dim hot airless room with the blinds all closed and fastened for forty-three summers because when she was a girl someone had believed that light and moving air carried heat and that dark was always cooler, and which (as the sun shone fuller and fuller on that side of the house) became latticed with yellow slashes full of dust motes which Quentin thought of as being  flecks of the dead old dried paint itself blown inward from the scaling blinds as wind might have blown them.

Miss Coldfield sat there –

Sitting so bolt upright in the straight hard chair that was so tall for her that her legs hung straight and rigid as if she had iron shinbones and ankles, clear of the floor with that air of impotent and static rage like children’s feet, and talking in that grim haggard amazed voice until at last listening would renege and hearing-sense self-confound and the long-dead object of her impotent yet indomitable frustration would appear, as though by outraged recapitulation invoked, quiet inattentive and harmless, out of the biding and dreamy and victorious dust.

Writing like that is not taught – it only comes from someone who has insight and the gift to express it – and the courage to keep going.

This version of the American dream starts in the Appalachians where people were equal, and noone looked down on anyone, except the Indians, and ‘you only looked down at them over your rifle sights.’  It was different in the Tidewater.  People were measured by their skin colour and their land.  As a young man, the hero, Thomas Sutpen, goes up to a big white house with a message from his lowly father, and he is turned away from the front door by a black butler.  He goes to Haiti to make his fortune, but colour gets in the way even there.  He returns to carve out his revenge on this slight to his manhood.  He is innocent in the sense that Oedipus is innocent – he does not know what fate awaits him.  With ‘innocence instructing him’ he resolves that ‘you got to have land and niggers and a fine house to combat them with.’  He strikes into the jungle like an Old Testament prophet in a tale told with language to match that scars the page as Thomas Sutpen wounds the earth.

Out of the quiet thunder-clap he would abrupt (man-horse-demon) upon a scene peaceful and decorous as a school-prize water color, faint suphur-reek still kin hair clothes and beard, with grouped behind him his band of wild niggers like beasts and half-tamed to walk upright like men, in attitudes wild and reposed, and manacled among them the French architect, with his hair grim, ragged, and tatter-ran.  Immobile, bearded and hand-palm lifted the horseman sat; behind him the wild blacks and the captive architect huddled quietly, carrying in bloodless paradox the shovels and picks and axes of peaceful conquest.  Then in the long unamaze Quentin seemed to watch them overrun suddenly the hundred square miles of tranquil and astonished earth and drag house and  formal garden violently out of the soundless Nothing and clap them down like cards upon a table beneath the up-palm mobile and pontific, creating the Sutpen’s hundred…

This attempt to forge a mighty dynasty involves, almost by definition, what the Greeks called hubris, and the unfolding of the curse that Greek tragedy, in the form of nemesis, puts on the House of Sutpen is what the novel is about.  You can gauge just how lethal and Greek that curse was from the Freudian inscription at the head of this note.  The rise and fall of the House of Sutpen might be thought to mirror the rise and fall of the Old South itself.  At the end, the final narrator is sitting in the ‘cold air, the iron New England dark’, and he is asked why he hates the South.  The book ends with these words: ‘I don’t.  I don’t!  I don’t hate it!  I don’t hate it!

The hero has no room for God.  He has no room for women either. One item that is missing from the novel is a contented woman.  The function of a woman in this patriarchy is to produce a male heir.  That way Sutpen can cheat God if not death.  The Haitian wife is discarded because her disclosed colour took her out of the design.  Once Ellen has produced the heir, she flits around like a useless butterfly and expires after being cheated of being at her daughter’s wedding ‘at the absolute flood-peak of her unreal and weightless life’.  The mother of Clytie does not even get a name.  Rosa is offered marriage conditional on producing an heir.  Milly Jones is treated as being worth less than a horse.  At least Clytie gets to burn down the mansion and the son who would have been the heir as she incinerates herself.

The contempt for humanity does not therefore stop at negroes and Indians.  This is how the three castes of women are described:

… the virgins whom gentlemen some day marry, the courtesans to whom they went while on sabbaticals to the cities, the slave girls and women upon whom the first caste rested and to whom in certain cases it doubtless owed the very fact of its virginity – not this to Henry, strong blooded, victim of the hard celibacy of riding and hunting to heat and make importunate the blood of a young man, to which he and his kind were forced to pass time away, with girls of his own class interdict and inaccessible and women of the second class just as inaccessible because of money and distance, and hence only the slave girls, the housemaids neated and cleaned by white mistresses or perhaps girls with sweating bodies out of the fields themselves and the young man rides up and beckons the watching overseer and says ‘Send me Juno or Missylena or Chlory’ and then rides on into the trees and dismounts and waits.

So, the world of Sutpen is one of stolen people, stolen land, and abused people.  He knows it is a jungle.  He has taught himself to put a bullet through a playing card while cantering on his horse twenty yards away.  That keeps the whites at bay.  He wrestles with the ‘niggers’ to show that he is boss. Presumably he tumbles a nigger occasionally for practice – they, like the courtesans, are the guardians of white female purity.

Here is the doomed pride of the hero.

‘You see, I had a design in my mind.  Whether it was a good or a bad design is beside the point; the question is, Where did I make the mistake in it, what did I do or misdo in it, whom or what injure by it to the extent that this would indicate….

The mistake of the hero in the design was to think that he could impose it and himself on the world.  White freedom meant black subjection, and Sutpen brings with him his own caste system, and he is haunted by crossings of the boundary in his past.  All that talk by Jefferson about all men being equal was phoney.

In Light in August, Faulkner boasted that he had created a Nazi before Hitler did.  In her fine book on this author, Carolyn Porter said that ‘Light in August is an angry novel, angry at the people who succumb to the comforts of hatred and the titillations of violence’  The author is ‘so infuriated at the spiritual poverty informing the hunger for violence at the heart of the society he is portraying.’  Well, our novel is at a different, and possibly deeper, level.

The hero of Absalom, Absalom! brought his doom upon himself by trying to play God, and in the end, all that is left is an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

William Faulkner was as elemental in his reading as he was in his writing.  He took with him wherever he went a one volume Shakespeare and he read Don Quixote once a year.  Absalom, Absalom! is a great big bloody red diamond of a book.

At the end of King Lear, these lines occur:

……we that are young

Shall never see so much nor live so long.

At the end of this great novel, one of the narrator’s, Quentin Thompson, says ‘I am older at twenty than a lot of people who have died.’

 

MY TOP SHELF – 43 – The Leopard

 

[These are serialised extracts of all the fifty books referred to in a book published in 2015 called ‘The Top Shelf, or What Used to be Called a Liberal Education’.  The extracts are as originally published, and they come in the same order.]

THE LEOPARD

Giuseppe di Lampedusa

Folio Society, 2000; bound in red cloth with red slipcase; translated by A Colquhoun; illustrated by John Holder.

But I’ve still got my vigour; and how can I find satisfaction with a woman who makes the sign of the Cross in bed before every embrace and then at the critical moment just cries ‘Gesummaria’?

This beautiful little book was written by a Sicilian prince about a Sicilian prince who had to come to terms with a failure by God, a failure by his wife, and the end of his caste.  It is a beautifully elegiac period piece about old Sicily and the impact on it of Garibaldi.  It is a free standing masterpiece.  It owes nothing to Joyce or Proust.  It is at once plain but eerily nostalgic.  Like the Kesey novel, a great book led to a great film.  It starts this way.

‘Nunc et in hora mortis nostrae.  Amen.’

The daily recital of the Rosary was over.  For half an hour the steady voice of the Prince had recalled the Sorrowful and the Glorious mysteries; for half an hour other voices had interwoven a lilting hum from which, now and again, would chime some unlikely word; love, virginity, death; and during that hum the whole aspect of the rococo drawing-room seemed to change; even the parrots spreading iridescent wings over the silken walls appeared abashed; even the Magdalen between the two windows looked a penitent and not just a handsome blonde lost in some dubious daydream as she usually was.

That evening, Prince Fabrizio would call on his favourite courtesan, for reasons suggested in the citation, and take the family priest, a Jesuit, into town to accompany him.

A protégé of the Prince falls in; love with the daughter of a very vulgar new man on the make, and they will marry and fuse the classes.  In the wonderful Visconti film, Burt Lancaster plays the prince; Alain Delon the young lover; and Claudia Cardinale his wife to be.  There are great set pieces in the book and the film.  There is the visit to the country estate of the prince, and a mansion so vast that people get lost.  There is the hunting sequence where the prince unburdens himself to one of his men – and then, in a reversion to feudalism, locks him up to prevent his revealing a secret.  There is the ball and a supper.  The film does not treat of the very moving two last chapters.

The author’s princely house had gone broke in two generations.  The aristocrats elsewhere had been more roughly handled a lot sooner.  Lampedusa never left his house without his copy of Shakespeare in his bag.  He kept The Pickwick Papers with him to comfort him on sleepless nights.  He regarded The Charterhouse of Parma of Stendhal as ‘the summit of all world fiction.’

Here is another more or less random sample of the soft and lovely tone of this book.

He got up and passed into the dressing room.  From the Mother Church next door rang a lugubrious funeral knell.  Someone had died at Donnafugata, some tired body unable to withstand the deep gloom of Sicilian summer had lacked stamina to await the rains.  ‘Lucky person’ thought the Prince, as he rubbed lotion on his whiskers.  ‘Lucky person, with no worries now about daughters, dowries, and political careers.’  This ephemeral identification with an unknown corpse was enough to calm him.  ‘While there’s death there’s hope,’ he thought, and then he saw the absurd side of letting himself get into such a state of depression because one of his daughters wanted to marry.  ‘Ce sont leurs affaires, après tout’, he thought in French, as he did when his cogitations persisted in playing pranks.  He settled in an armchair and dropped into a doze.

The book caused a sensation in Sicily when it was published not long after the death of the author in 1957.  A Cardinal of Palermo thought that it was one of the three factors that had led to the dishonour of Sicily – the other two were the Mafia and a social reformer.  I suspect that the author would have sympathised with the German scholar who said that the Sicilians had perfected the Counter-reformation – the problem was just that they had never experienced the Reformation.

E M Forster called The Leopard ‘a noble book’.  He said that it was not an historical novel, but ‘a novel which happens to take place in history.’  It does in truth deal with issues we all face, and it does so in a way that is almost musical or painterly.  Like the movie, it is something I can and should enjoy at least once a year.

 

MY TOP SHELF – 38 – War and Peace

 

[These are serialised extracts of all the fifty books referred to in a book published in 2015 called ‘The Top Shelf, or What Used to be Called a Liberal Education’.  The extracts are as originally published, and they come in the same order.]

38

WAR AND PEACE

Lev Tolstoy

 

London, Macmillan & Co Ltd, Oxford University Press, 1943; subsequently recovered in half morocco in red with gold title and humps on spine, and cloth boards.

You die and find it all out or you cease asking

With a phrase unusually pregnant with meaning even for Shakespeare, a character in Measure for Measure is described as ‘desperately mortal’.  The characters of War and Peace come down to us in the same way – but, more: somehow they come to us as desperately human.  This novel of about 1,300 pages has two leading characters, but most of the action comes from three Russian families.  Although we are occasionally let in on the French side, and Napoleon himself has a substantial role, this is a Russian novel where the author refers to the Russians as ‘we’.

The three families of Russians are aristocrats.  We meet one peasant at the end, but no merchants or professionals.  When it comes to leading or expounding a point of view, we hear only from the men.  We are therefore looking only at a tiny part of the Russian nation, perhaps not one in a thousand.  Tolstoy was a Russian count and most of this novel is about Russian counts (or countesses) or better.  To adopt an observation of another author, the second title of this book may have been: ‘All aristocrats are spoiled; some are more spoiled than others’.  But for all that we see a pageant of all humanity unfurling before our eyes in a way that may only ever have been matched in The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire of Edward Gibbon.

Count Pierre Bezuhov is the central figure in the novel.  He moves among the three families and across the lines of the two armies.  In many ways he is like a one-man Greek chorus.  He was the illegitimate child of an old rake who was legitimated at the very end so that he could inherit a very wealthy estate.  That is how the novel begins.  Pierre was not raised in or for the purple.  He is gauche, but acute of mind; he cares little about the social niceties that everyone else cares very greatly about; and you might say the same about money.  He has a very simple faith, but for most of the novel he lives under the impression that he can by the power of his mind arrive at the answers to life’s questions.  His quest for such an answer is at the base of the novel.

Pierre, like Prince Andrey, talks a lot to himself.  These speeches are their soliloquies.  In the BBC production, they are voice-overs.  They are as integral to the novel as the soliloquies are to Hamlet.

Let us refer to some of the problems of the novel.  Tolstoy the writer had a lot of form for going on at length about what would then have been called ‘philosophical’ issues.  In this novel he goes on a lot about the determining factors of military movements.  Most of this seems to be undertaken with a view to belittling Napoleon.  The fashion one hundred years ago for engaging in this kind of ‘philosophising’ was much more in favour then than it would be now.  Most of this kind of talk will be likely to bore people now, and readers are advised to skip through it.  Flaubert complained to Turgenev about the essays of Tolstoy: ‘He repeats himself!  He philosophises!’  That hectoring tone has crept into the novel.

There is perhaps something of a similar problem with Natasha.  She tends to be altogether too gushing for modern tastes (as might Anya be in The Cherry Orchard).  But we do need to remember that she does start off as a closeted fifteen year old child who is expected, at least in some respects, to play the part of an adult.  The novel also has some of the attributes of 19th century novels, like two bad guys who are really just caricatures of bounders or cads, and a liking for coincidence.

For all that, the novel in spite of its length is extremely readable.  It does not have anything like the boring excursions that you come across in Les Misérables, or Moby Dick, or that some even find in Don Quixote.  With a modicum of application, the ordinary reader should not have much difficulty in completing reading this book in, say, a fortnight.  When they have done so, they will know that they have read what many people in the world regard as the greatest novel ever written.

Let us remember that we are dealing with a world that is completely beyond our comprehension.  The Tsar had absolute power.  The Russian people had no history of trying to contain that power.  The doctrine of the divine right of kings was well and truly alive and well.  It follows that they were still living with serfs, or white slaves.  Serfs could be worth less than dogs.  In the course of a hunt, Nikolay Rostov enquired after a black and tan bitch owned by another hunter.  The hunter said he had acquired the bitch a year before for three families of house serfs.

So, the world of Russia then – during the wars against Napoleon – is utterly unlike any world that we have known.  The Russian aristocracy was trying to ape European civilisation, and particularly that of France, by speaking French, but in many ways their customs will seem as comprehensible to us as the customs of the blackfellas that were practised in this country one or two thousand years before the white people arrived here.  To make the comparison more local, Russia in 1812 had much more in common with Persia than with France or Germany.

The book has set pieces dealing with both war and peace: the two major battles of Austerlitz and Borodino are covered in great detail; there are two famous ballroom scenes; a scene at the opera; an extended account of a wolf hunt; and, for action between war and peace, a duel.

At times, the commentary has an El Greco lightning-strike scale of illumination.  While Moscow was waiting for the French, the population descended to animal lawlessness with scenes like those in Paris at the height of the terror.  In one of them, Tolstoy reflects unmistakably on the Passion.  The Governor of Moscow, Count Rastoptchin, hands one suspected traitor over the mob.  ‘You shall deal with him as you think fit!  I hand him over to you!’  The resulting massacre is bestial, and resembles in part the September Massacres in Paris twenty or so years before.  As the Governor goes home in his carriage, an asylum spills out its lunatics:

Tottering on his long, thin legs, in his fluttering dressing-gown, this madman ran at headlong speed, with his eyes fixed on Rastoptchin, shouting something to him in a husky voice, and making signs to him to stop.  The gloomy and triumphant face of the madman was thin and yellow, with irregular clumps of beard growing on it.  The black agate-like pupils of his eyes moved restlessly, showing the saffron-yellow whites above.  ‘Stay!  Stop, I tell you!’ he shouted shrilly, and again breathlessly fell to shouting something with emphatic gestures and intonations. 

He reached the carriage and ran alongside it.

‘Three times they slew me; three times I rose again from the dead.  They stoned me, they crucified me  …  I shall rise again  …  I shall rise again  … I shall rise again.  My body they tore to pieces.  The Kingdom of Heaven will be overthrown  …  Three times I will overthrow it, and three times I will set it up again’, he screamed, his voice growing shriller and shriller.  Count Rastoptchin suddenly turned white, as he had turned white when the crowd fell upon [the victim of the mob].  He turned away.  ‘Go, go on, faster!’ he cried in a trembling voice to his coachman.

We read novels for the insight we get from writing like that, not to read tracts about theology or politics.

War?  No sane person writes a book about war that is pro-war.  Sane books about war are anti-war.  Homer began the tradition with the Iliad and War and Peace is its apogee.  The novel is an attack on everything that Napoleon stood for – his doctrinaire aggression and his doctrine that one man – a hero – can create history.  Here is the most polite thing that Tolstoy ever said about Napoleon:

A man of no convictions, no habits, no traditions, no name, not even a Frenchman, by the strangest freaks of chance, as it seems, rises above the seething parties of France, and without attaching himself to any one of them, advances to a prominent position.

Bulky, slow, modest, determined, devout, one-eyed old Kutuzov is the real hero of the novel.  Kutuzov has God, but he is down to earth.  He is not into theory or even strategy.  On the eve of Austerlitz, Kutuzov addresses his staff:

‘Gentlemen, the dispositions of tomorrow, for today indeed (for it’s going on for one o’clock), can’t be altered now’, he said.  ‘You have heard it, and we will all do our duty.  And before a battle nothing is of so much importance …’ (he paused) ‘as a good night’s rest.’

We may be confident that Kutuzov had the view of the impossibility of military science that Tolstoy attributed to Prince Andrey.  ‘How can there be a science of war in which, as in every practical matter, nothing can be definite, and everything depends on countless conditions, the influence of which becomes manifest all in a moment, and no one can know when that moment is coming.’

This plain view of soldiering is like the view that Pierre came to hold over our understanding of what matters most.  It is attained not ‘by reason, but by life’.  That view in turn is very much like the view of the great American jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes when he said that ‘the life of the law has not been logic but experience’.  General Kutuzov was no theorist.

Above all, Kutuzov looked after his men.  This wise old soldier knew that the geography and climate could see Napoleon off (just as they would see Hitler off).  Why spill Russian blood for the sake of it to supplement the work of God?  A commander of the German school wanted Kutuzov to take a stand at Moscow.  This is how the good old man dealt with the bullshit.

‘The holy and ancient capital of Russia!’ he cried, suddenly, in a wrathful voice, repeating Bennigsen’s words, and thereby underlining the false note in them, ‘Allow me to tell your Excellency that that question has no meaning to a Russian.’  (He lurched his unwieldy figure forward.)  ‘Such a question cannot be put; there is no sense in such a question.  The question I have asked these gentlemen to meet to discuss is the question of the war. The question is: the safety of Russia lies in her army.  Is it better to risk the loss of the army and of Moscow by giving battle, or to abandon Moscow without a battle?  That is the question on which I desire to learn your opinion.’  He lurched back into his low chair again.

The role of Kutusov should be studied by all those commanders who believe that they have the brains and the toys that take them beyond the reach of the eternal verities.  Kutusov was a supremely good, lovable hero.  Accordingly, to show the gratitude of Mother Russia, he was in victory stripped of his command by an inbred fop who could not have fought his way out of a wet paper bag.  This is irony.  It may not be irony of the tragic kind, but Tolstoy revels in it, as well he may, and he lays it on with a trowel.

Prince Andrey was hardened by the battle of Austerlitz where he was badly wounded.  On the eve of the battle of Borodino, Prince Andrey has a remarkable conversation with Count Pierre.  Sporting coaches might wish to commit parts of it to memory.

‘But you know they say’, he said, ‘that war is like a game of chess.’

‘Yes’, said Prince Andrey, ‘only with this little difference, that in chess you may think over each move as long as you please, that you are not limited as to time, and with the spirited difference that a knight is always stronger than a pawn and two pawns are always stronger than one, while in war a battalion is sometimes stronger than a division, and sometimes weaker than a company.  No one can ever be certain of the relative strength of armies.  Believe me’, he said, ‘if anything did depend on the arrangements made by the staff, I would be there, and helping to make them, but instead of that I have the honour of serving here in the regiment with these gentlemen here, and I consider that the day really depends upon us tomorrow and not on them…  Success never has depended, and never will depend on position, on arms, nor even numbers; and, least of all, on position’.

‘On what then?’

‘On the feeling that is in me and him’, he indicated Timohin [his Major] ‘and every soldier.’

Prince Andrey glanced at Timohin, who was staring in alarm and bewilderment at his Colonel….‘The battle is won by the side that has firmly resolved to win …’

What counts is the feeling that is in me and in him.

Two other comments on the war.  When standing outside Moscow – this ‘Asiatic city’ – Napoleon observed that ‘a city occupied by the enemy is like a girl who has lost her honour.’  As the French soldiers dispersed in the city, they went from being an active menacing army to being marauders.  If Mr Bush and Mr Blair had taken notice of these two simple truths before sending their armies into Baghdad, they may have saved their armies a lot of lives, and themselves a lot of embarrassment.  Nor did Napoleon pause to explain why he was surprised that he was not welcomed in Moscow – it is, after all, rare for a girl to welcome the man who has just raped her.

Prince Andrey sure knew how to unsettle his friend Count Pierre.  When, near the end, Pierre asked one of his old retainers if he still wanted freedom, the answer was in substance: ‘What on earth for?’  But the answer of course would have been different if the question had been put by old Prince Vassily Bolkonsky.  Tolstoy, too, was an abiding liberal.  He could afford to be having been born a Count into a family of 800 serfs.

Well, what then of Pierre and his quest for the one logical answer to all of life’s mysteries?  Pierre had formed a view that he should kill Napoleon.  He did not reach that position in the way that Dietrich Bonhoeffer did when he resolved to try to kill Adolf Hitler.  Pierre had devised some bizarre formula in a naïve belief that there must be a given logical or even mathematical answer.  He eventually came to rest with the simple view that God is everywhere and that we must take life as it comes.

In accordance with the text, Pierre learns his lesson not from logic but from life.  Ostensibly it comes to him in talking with a peasant, Platon Karataev, but the truth is that it comes to him during his imprisonment.  Over a period of time, he actually gets to live with the unwashed.  It would be like someone brought up in the landed aristocracy in England and kept on the estate or at an elite boarding school and then being dumped in the ranks in the navy.  You may as well land him on Mars.

In the course of his journey, Pierre delivered himself of an observation which for many is their favourite part in the book.  ‘You die and it’s all over.  You die and find it all out or you cease asking.’  Pierre thought that this proposition was illogical, but it appears to us to be spellbindingly logical, one of the very few propositions about the afterlife that is sane, sensible and apparently logical.  If you combine with it the insight of the ancient Greeks that you do not live to see your own death, you have the basis of a tolerant view of the meaning of life, or at least one that suggests that we should be tolerant of the views of others.  Bravo, therefore, Pierre!

Kutuzov was the hero of the Russians’ defeat of Napoleon.  Zhukov, greatly admired by Eisenhower, was the hero of the Russians’ defeat of Hitler.  At the end of that war, which the Russians refer to the Great Patriotic War, Zhukov was stripped of his position as commander-in-chief.  The man responsible was called Stalin.  He had more power than any of the Tsars had and Stalin killed more peasants than any Tsar did.  Millions more.

If you go to Moscow now, you will see why they refer to the Great Patriotic War.  On the way in from the airport, there is a monument to ‘where we stopped the fascists.’  It is not far from the Kremlin.  If you visit the Kremlin you may get a guide who will say, without mentioning any names – ‘That is the gate he came in on’ and ‘That is the gate he went out of.’

I want to end this note on this wonderful book by looking at one of its more famous incidents, one so faithfully shown in the BBC series.  It is in Book 12 Chapter 3.  Napoleon’s army is occupying Moscow.  It is executing Russian trouble-makers.  A group is marched to a field.  Pierre hears officers talking of whether the prisoners would be shot separately or two at a time.  Pierre listens and watches in horror as the prisoner are shot in pairs.  ‘On the faces of all the Russians, and of the French soldiers without exception, he read the same dismay, horror and conflict that were in his own heart….The fifth man was the factory lad in the loose cloak.  The moment they laid hands on him, he sprang aside in terror and clutched at Pierre.  (Pierre shuddered and shook himself free).  The lad was unable to walk….When he understood that screaming was useless, he took his stand at the post….and like a wounded animal looked around him with glittering eyes.’  He was not dead when he went into the pit.  A French sharpshooter lingered over it.  ‘This one, a young soldier, his face deadly pale, his shako pushed back, and his musket resting on the ground, still stood near the pit at the spot from which he had fired.  He swayed a like a drunken man, taking steps forward and back to save himself from falling’  An old NCO dragged the soldier off.  The crowd dispersed. ‘That will teach them to start fires,’ said one of the Frenchmen.’

I said that I would come back to the way that the German occupying army shot the French historian Marc Bloch during World War II.  According to the very complete biography of Bloch by Carole Fink, on the night of 16 June 1944, at about 8 o’clock, 28 prisoners of Montluc at Lyon were assembled from various cells and hand-cuffed two-by-two in an open truck that was escorted by German officers and subofficers with aimed tommy guns.  They went to the Place Bellecour which was then the Gestapo HQ.  They were there insulted by a drunken German officer who bragged that London would be destroyed by the V-1.  They then drove along the Saone to a meadow surrounded by trees at a place called La Rousille.  They were then unloaded in batches of two-by-two and shot at close range by uniformed soldiers with machine guns.  A survivor said that Bloch at the last moment comforted a frightened young man by telling him that the bullets would not hurt.  Bloch was reported to be the first victim to fall.  As he did, he cried ‘Vive la France!’

According to Carole Fink, there were two main differences in the executions imagined by Tolstoy and those recorded in history.  The Germans circulated and delivered the final fatal shots to the head, but they did not bury the evidence – they just destroyed the evidence of identity, and hurried off.  Tolstoy had said: ‘They all plainly and certainly knew that they were criminals who must hide the traces of their guilt as quickly as possible.’  Tolstoy could say that of his murderers because he was their creator.  We do not know what was in the minds of the German murderers because we are not God.

As it seems to me, we have in Tolstoy a writer with a genius for artistic imagination and an insight into the human condition that we do not expect to see outside of God.

MY TOP SHELF – 36 – Kim

 

[These are serialised extracts of all the fifty books referred to in a book published in 2015 called ‘The Top Shelf, or What Used to be Called a Liberal Education’.  The extracts are as originally published, and they come in the same order.]

36

Kim

Rudyard Kipling (1900)

Easton Press, Collector’s library of Famous Editions, 1962; illustrations by Robin Jacques; introduction by C E Carrington; fully bound in blue leather; embossed in gold with Indian motifs and title; humped spine; gold edged paper; pearl moiré endpapers and ribbon.

He sat, in defiance of municipal orders, astride the gun Zan-Zammah on her brick platform opposite the old Ajaib-Gher – the Wonder House, as the natives called the Lahore Museum.

To paraphrase the start of Billy Budd, if you walk down the boulevards of Copacabana in Rio de Janeiro, you will marvel at the range of skin colours and tones on display among what must be the most racially interwoven people on earth.  You do not get the same effect walking down a boulevard in Mumbai, but if you spend any time in India you will see that it has the greatest mixture of faiths and creeds and peoples and tribes and classes and castes on earth.  There are now many more Muslims in India than in Pakistan, but although there was mayhem at the partition of the two countries, these teeming millions more or less manage to get by most of the time without cutting each other’s throats.  India has its share of religious freaks and fanatics but, with England, it is entitled to be regarded as one of the most tolerant nations on earth.  The conjunction of England and India is not accidental – and Rudyard Kipling’s novel, Kim, is testament to the tolerance of both.

The notion of empire is very much on the nose, and Kipling was an Englishman, writing about India when it was the subject of an English Queen Empress – the Raj – and Kipling was seen as the great apologist for the Empire.  The novel Kim will therefore look not just out of date, but out of taste.  But an uncommitted reader coming for the first time to Kim – which was said to be the favourite novel of the first Prime Minister of India, Pandit Nehru, and which Nirad Chaudhuri said was the very best picture of India written by an English author – will see that it could only have been written by someone who had two qualities: the capacity to deliver engrossing narrative; and a complete affection for and knowledge of the various peoples of India.  And, you might add, the capacity to take relaxed pot-shots from time to time at the affectations of the British in India.

And if Kipling had views that no longer commend themselves to us, so what?  Mozart had an appalling lavatory humour; Beethoven was rude and difficult to deal with; and Wagner was a rolled-gold, five-star jerk.  Do these disabilities stop us listening to their music?  Why let political prissiness stand between you and a good read?  But if you would rather read about India by an Indian, read The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga.  It is badly written and venomous toward India, but it won the Man Booker Prize, and is prescribed reading by Cambridge University for those who are literarily challenged and who can only take their literature tossed with ideology.  Mr Adiga could be India’s answer to Quentin Tarantino – the taste quotients appear to be identical, and the outcome in each case is both shocking and inane.

The second misconception of Kim is that it is a children’s story.  Its hero is a boy who has qualities and experiences that most boys would die to have.  But those experiences are divided equally between two worlds – the spiritual world, and the world of espionage.  Kim becomes the disciple of a Lama, a holy man.  He also becomes involved in the Great Game in what we now call Pakistan and Afghanistan.  (We are still playing games up there, but we are not doing so well.)  The espionage side of the tale is terrific for children – but the nature of the bond between the Lama and his disciple (chela) may be above the level of most children, at least most white children, and will be the more engrossing of the two tales for boys and girls who have well and truly grown up.

The novel starts like the Iliad and Paradise Lostin medias res (in the middle of the action) with lines quoted in the novel (and film) The English Patient set out at the head of this note.  When Kim gets a ticket for the train – ‘the work of the devils’ or ‘the fire carriages’ – he returns with the money ‘keeping only one anna in each rupee of the price of the Umballa ticket as his commission – the immemorial commission of Asia’.

The Lama is in search of the river where the arrow of the Lord Buddha came to earth.  Kim is in search of a Red Bull on a green field – the emblem of the Mavericks, the Regiment of his father.  When Kim is taken in by the Mavericks and a priest, the priest ‘looked at him with the triple-ringed uninterest of the creed that lumps nine-tenths of the world under the title of ‘heathen’.’

Kim is introduced to the Great Game by Mahbub Ali and by Creighton Sahib:

The dealers call him the father of fools, because he is so easily cheated about a horse.  Mahbub Ali says he is madder than all other Sahibs.

Kim survives the orphanage and the school of St. Xavier’s in Partibus, and then he goes up to Simla to be educated in espionage by Lurgan Sahib.  While the Sahibs are trying to reclaim Kim as one of their own and use him for their purposes, Kim longs to return to the Lama as his chela.  The two stories merge when Kim and his Lama end up tracking Russians near the Khyber Pass.

The Lama has a confrontation with Mahbub Ali and asks Mahbub why he does not follow the way himself and take Kim as his chela.

Mahbub stared stupefied at the magnificent insolence of the demand, which across the Border he would have paid with more than a blow.  Then the humour of it touched his worldly soul.

In the end, the Lama gains Knowledge and release.  He has a view of the River of the Arrow at his feet.  The book ends with these lines:

So thus the Search is ended.  For the merit that I have acquired, the River of the Arrow is here.  It broke forth at our feet, as I have said.  I have found it.  Son of my Soul, I have wrenched my Soul back from the threshold of Freedom to free thee from all sin – as I am free, and sinless.  Just is the Wheel!  Certain is our deliverance.  Come!

He crossed his hands on his lap and smiled, as any man who has won Salvation for himself and his beloved.

In the 1950s MGM film, Errol Flynn played Mahbub Ali.  But the story of the Lama is played with surprising effect and taste with Paul Lucas in that role.  In the 1984 film production, the Lama is wonderfully played by Peter O’Toole, in a manner that we would see him use as Priam in that awful film called Troy.

It is hard to imagine a story better calculated to hold the interest of boys and girls of all ages.  Children may be captivated by the Great Game – especially those scenes where Lurgan Sahib is teaching the young apprentice the mind games that will become his stock in trade – but the older readers and audiences will have at least as much time for the story of the Lama and his chela.  The two stories touch when the Holy Man tells Kim:

I have known many men in my long life, and disciples not a few.  But to none among men, if so be thou art woman born, has my heart gone out as it has to thee – thoughtful, wise and courteous, but something of a small imp.

The love between an old man and a much younger one has been much touched on, at least since the Dialogues of Plato.  Although Kim was strikingly good looking and attractive to women, and doubtless some men, there is no possibility of a sexual undertone here.  This is the love between two males – one supremely and disconcertingly unworldly, and the other entirely and thrillingly worldly.  It is not like Prospero and Aerial (or Caliban), but it is not silly to compare the relationship to that between Don Quixote and Sancho Panza.  (In his book on Kipling, Angus Wilson thought that Kipling may also have recalled Pickwick and Sam Weller, and Fagin and the Dodger.)  Sancho is as worldly as Kim, but in a more earthy, folksy and matter of fact way.  While the Lama’s unworldliness derives from his holiness, the Don’s derives from his madness.  But in the result, the dialogues between both pairs are illuminated by a harmony that has endured and enthralled all kinds of readers.

The Lama is far from being mad or idiotic – he has no trouble in rustling up the money to pay St. Xavier’s.  But when the Lama in his simplicity thinks that a hooker is a nun, we are reminded of the time when the town wenches burst out laughing when the Don referred to them as virgins, and the affronted Don said:

Give me leave to tell ye, ladies, that modesty and civility are very becoming to the fair sex; whereas laughter without ground is the highest degree of indiscretion.  However, I do not presume to say this to offend you, or incur your displeasure; no, ladies, I assure you that I have no other design but to do you service. 

While Sancho forever ruminates on his master’s madness, Kim is forever astounded at his master’s holiness.  In each case, the chemistry comes about from the mixing of the elements.

The aim of art is to offer a lyrical reflection on the human condition.  Very few novels have achieved that aim like the novels Don Quixote and Kim.  Both have that quality that is so rare.  It is the quality that children feel for a book they have loved.  They are sorry when they come to the end of the book because when they put the book down, they will have to leave a world that has given them so much and which looks to them so much more lively than their own.

MY TOP SHELF – 34

 

[These are serialised extracts of all the fifty books referred to in a book published in 2015 called ‘The Top Shelf, or What Used to be Called a Liberal Education’.  The extracts are as originally published, and they come in the same order.]

34

OLD GORIOT

Honoré de Balzac

Easton Press, Famous Editions, 1993; translated by Ellen Marriage; illustrated by Renee Ben Sussan; bound in grey leather with gold embossing and label, and humped spine; gold leaf pages; moiré end papers and ribbon.

Goriot had raised the two girls to the level of angels; and, quite naturally, he himself was left beneath them.  Poor man!  He loved them even for the pain that they gave him.

This volume on the shelf is a wonderful presentation of a wickedly good book.

Stories about ungrateful daughters and ugly sisters go back thousands of years in Europe and Asia.  In the Mahabharata in India, there are stories about good and bad children’s treatment of aged parents.  In Grimm, we have the story of the Goose-girl Princess who told her father that she ‘loved him like salt’.  The most famous example in Europe is the story from Celtic legend that we know as King Lear.  An aging king decided to give away his kingdom to his three daughters.  His good daughter is too honest to feign the protestations of love of her two sisters.  In a fit of anger that leads him to madness and his kingdom to destruction, Lear gives all to the two bad daughters.

The old father in Père Goriot (that we know as Old Goriot) of Balzac has at least three things in common with King Lear – he gives everything to his daughters (just two for Goriot); they repay him with ingratitude and they reject him; and in so doing they kill him.

Old Goriot is about the forty-first of ninety four novels that Balzac labelled La Comédie Humaine.  It is set in Paris in 1819, just thirty years after the fall of the Bastille, and four years after the fall of Napoleon.  France had been turned upside down – first they had killed their King; then they had killed their God.  Where would they find bedrock?  The answer of Balzac in this novel is: Nowhere.  Balzac was to say: ‘Reading those dry and rebarbative listings of facts called histories, who has not noticed that writers have forgotten, in all ages, in Egypt, in Persia, in Greece, and in Rome, to give us a history of how life is lived?’

Almost all of the action is set either in a boarding house (a pension bourgeoise) of Madame Vouquer on the Rue Neuve Saint-Geneviève in the Latin Quarter, or in a salon of a hôtel (home) of titled ladies.  The first setting is emphatically lower middle class, with a dingy smell that might never leave you.  The salons are on the Faubourg Saint-Germain and the Chausée d’Antin.  The first is the more elevated, and occupants of the second will do anything to be invited into the first – anything.  The salons might be represented today by the townhouses of merchant bankers in Knightsbridge, and their motto would be the same.  Greed is good; success is all; in truth, as one character says, ‘success is virtue’.

The pension, like the ship The Indomitable in Billy Budd, is a world of its own.  The author says there ‘is no illusory grace left to the poverty that reigns here; it is dire, parsimonious, concentrated, threadbare poverty…’

When his wife died, Goriot transferred all his love to his daughters, Anastasie and Delphine.  He spoiled them in every sense of the word ‘spoiled’.  He allowed them to marry the men they wanted to marry – they therefore went for money and titles and their husbands, having taken the dowries, insisted on keeping old Goriot out of sight ‑ in the name of God, he represented trade.  Then the girls take everything from Goriot and his standing with Madame Vouquer and others becomes contemptible.  If a daughter is seen near him, she is thought to be the fancy of a dirty old man.

Eugène de Rastignac comes from a respectable family in the South.  He comes to Paris to study law.  He is young and good looking.  He gets seduced by Paris and by titled money.  Vautrin is a striking figure of mystery with a dyed beard and a hairpiece, and an evidently strong frame.  In some ways he is like the hero of Les Misérables because he is an ex-convict.  But Vautrin is an escaped convict.  He has a gaze that can both pierce and defile.  He is, unlike Claggart, a truly satanic figure.  He holds charms for the motley.  It is he who will tempt young Rastignac.  .

The author is comfortable in discussing the whole gamut of human relations.  This is how he describes how Goriot made his money.

It was during these years [1789] that citizen Goriot made the money which, at a later time, was to give him all the advantage of the great capitalist over the small buyer; he had, moreover, the usual luck of average ability; his mediocrity was the salvation of him.  He excited no one’s envy

When Goriot is telling Eugène what he is feels for his daughters, Balzac gives him these unforgettable lines:

Well, then, since I have been a father, I have come to understand God.  He is everywhere in the world, because the whole world comes from Him.  And it is just the same with my children, Monsieur, only I love my daughters better than God loves the world, for the world is not so beautiful as God Himself is, but my children are more beautiful than I am.

It is a remarkable passage.  The entrapped Goriot, like Lear, only lives to strangle himself.  His vision is so distorted, he is near madness.

Eugène is sickened by the stony-hearted bitch, Delphine, this worthless moll of a daughter.  He could see that Delphine was ‘capable of stepping over her father’s corpse to go to a ball’, but Eugène cannot help himself.  He just goes along with her, as he had with Vautrin:

… Eugene was too horror stricken by this elegant parricide to resist … The world of Paris was like an ocean of mud for him just then; and it seemed that whoever set foot in that black mire must needs sink into it up to the chin.

Now that Eugène has seen the sewer in the form of this ‘elegant parricide’ he sees ‘society in its three great phases: Obedience, Struggle and Revolt’.  Eugène and a medical student, Bianchon, arrange for the burial of old Goriot, having been cheated on the price of the shroud by Madame Vouquer.  The daughters send their two carriages with their armorial bearings.  Eugène is obliged to borrow five francs from the errand boy, Christophe, to pay the grave diggers taking part in a third class funeral at Père-Lachaise Cemetery.

The ending of this novel comes upon us like a cataract, a bravura point d’exclamation of the entire Romantic Movement.

It was growing dusk, the damp twilight fretted his nerves; he gazed down into the grave, and the tears he shed were drawn from him by the sacred emotion, a single‑hearted sorrow.  When such tears fall on earth, their radiance reaches Heaven.  And with that tear that fell on old Goriot’s grave, Eugène de Rastignac’s youth ended.  He folded his arms and gazed at the clouded sky.  And Christophe, after a glance at him, turned and went – although Rastignac was left alone.

He went a few paces further, to the highest point of the cemetery, and looked out over Paris and the windings of the Seine; the lamps were beginning to shine on either side of the river.  His eyes turned almost eagerly to the space between the column of the Place Vendôme and Cupola of the Invalides.  There lay a great world that he had longed to penetrate.  He glanced over that humming hive, seeming to draw a foretaste of its honey, and said magniloquently: ‘We’ll fight this out, you and I.’ 

Then, as a first challenge to society, Rastignac went to dine with Madame Nucinen.  (Delphine)

There is, therefore, no place for God in The Human Comedy.  Every teaching of the Sermon on the Mount is first mocked and then violated.  We are left with hell on earth, and our young hero can see no way out.  The medical student, Bianchon, was later in the series to become a great physician, and it is said that Balzac cried out for Bianchon during his own death agony.  Well, Balzac was not, like Lear or Goriot, reduced to the ‘thing itself’, ‘unaccommodated man’.  We are left in Old Goriot with what Geoffrey Bullough in his Introduction to King Lear described as ‘the tragedy of Machiavellian atheism’ and ‘pathos too deep to analyse’.

As Eugène grows into manhood and acquires knowledge, Goriot slips into dotage and oblivion, and his lights go out.  His daughters prey on Goriot for his money, but Rastignac does exactly the same to his sisters and his mother – and any piece of upper-class Parisienne skirt he can lay his hands on.  The glitter of the final ball blazes beside the emptiness of the garret in which the squeezed lemon peel has been left.  We are left with what T.S. Elliot called The Waste Land.  By its end Anastasie and Delphine are consumed by a loathing for themselves and each other that is almost as corrosive as that felt by Goneril and Regan.

Goriot leaves the world not so much like Lear, but more like Othello – ‘one that loved not wisely, but too well’.  Rastignac is down at the end – he has to pawn the Bréguet watch given to him by his moll to pay for the funeral – but we know that he will rise again, at least according to his own lights, in further instalments of The Human Comedy.  This novel is in large part about the education of young Rastignac.  It is far from being a sentimental education.  This indictment of the bourgeoisie is every bit as coruscating as the plays of Henrik Ibsen such as The Doll’s House and Hedda Gabler.

In his book Ten Novels and their Authors, Somerset Maugham said of Balzac, ‘It is generally conceded that he wrote badly… Balzac was a vulgar man… and his prose was vulgar.  It was prolix, portentous and too often incorrect.’  Of Balzac himself, Maugham said that ‘I think it better to admit that he was selfish, unscrupulous, and dishonest’.  He also had a voracious appetite for food and women.  But Maugham began on Old Goriot by saying, ‘Of all the great novelists that have enriched with their works the spiritual treasures of the world, Balzac is to my mind the greatest.  He is the only one to whom I would without hesitation ascribe genius’.  All of those remarks are borne out by the wonderful novel that is Old Goriot.  It is a novel of a genius in his prime.  It is as good a read as I have on this shelf.

 

 

MY TOP SHELF – Chapter 20

 

[These are serialised extracts of all the fifty books referred to in a book published in 2015 called ‘The Top Shelf, or What Used to be Called a Liberal Education’.  The extracts are as originally published, and they come in the same order.]

20

BILLY BUDD

Herman Melville (1924)

Two Tales by Herman Melville, Limited Editions Club, New York, 1965; bound in stone cloth in stone and sage slip-case, with paintings by Robert Shore.

The hull deliberately recovering from the periodic roll to leeward was just regaining on an even keel, when the last signal, a preconcerted dumb one, was given.  At the same moment it chanced that the vapory fleece, hanging low in the East, was shot thro’ with a soft glory as of the fleece of the Lamb of God seen in mystical vision, and simultaneously therewith, watched by the wedged mass of upturned faces, Billy ascended; and, ascending, took the full rose of the dawn.

This beautiful little book is a retelling of the redemption story – and, judging from that citation, an unblushing one.  If you put aside Measure for Measure, Billy Budd may be the foremost statement in our literature of the agony of the law.  Must an innocent man suffer – in this case, die – for the sake of the law?  If you say that the law must be able to run over individual men, women and children, you are stating the basic premise of those totalitarian regimes that we most despise.  But if you say that the interests of one person may require you to break, or even just put to one side, the law, then you are undermining the rule of law, and that is all that stands between us and those regimes.  The law has therefore an ancient saying – hard cases make bad law.

During the Napoleonic War, a handsome young sailor, Billy Budd, was impressed into service on a British warship.  Billy is as innocent as he is handsome, and he is fortunate that his new captain is Captain ‘Starry’ Vere.  Vere is a civilised product of the Enlightenment with a refined sense of justice.  But Billy comes under the notice of the Master-at-Arms, John Claggart.  Claggart is in effect the Chief of Police on the ship.  He is morally bereft.  He cannot stand being in the presence of beauty and goodness like that of Billy ‘Baby’ Budd.  He falsely accuses Billy of mutiny before Captain Vere.  Billy is horrified and incredulous.  When stressed, Billy’s voice falters.  When he is pressed for an answer, he strikes out at Claggart, and strikes him dead.

So, during a time of war, Captain Vere has witnessed a sailor strike and kill an officer.  He summons a drumhead court martial.  Billy is plainly guilty of the legal offence charged but the officers are reluctant to give a verdict that will see Billy hanged.  They agonise over Billy, but Captain Vere persuades them to do their legal duty.  Billy is hanged.  The threat of mutiny passes.  Captain Vere carries the responsibility for the death of Billy to his own death.

A morally innocent man has been killed to preserve the integrity of the law.  There is of course more to it than that.  If it may be said of Moby Dick that it badly needed an editor, that is not the case with Billy Budd.  Melville revised and revised the text for many years.  It was a great bundle of add-ons and scribbled marginal comments, and it was not published until after his death.  To most readers now, there is hardly a word out of place.  It covers about 70 pages in a Penguin, but it is spotted with digressions that contribute to its avuncular yet reflective story-telling character.

Melville begins his little novella by commenting on how sailors ashore would congregate around a ‘handsome sailor’.  It sounds like the phase some young schoolgirls go through in grouping around ‘queens’.  The ‘welkin-eyed’ Billy, or ‘Baby’ Budd, was one such sailor, cut out by his looks to be the favourite of his shipmates.  ‘He was young; and despite his all but fully developed frame, in aspect looked even younger than he really was, owing to a lingering adolescent expression in the as yet smooth face, all but feminine in purity and natural complexion, but where, thanks to seagoing, the lily was quite suppressed and the rose had some ado visibly to flush through the tan.’

You see, Billy did not know where he came from.  He knew that he was a foundling and ‘noble descent was as evident in him as in a blood horse’.  He had no self-consciousness, but a simple innocence that was reflected in his looks.  He had a singular musical voice ‘as if expressive of the harmony within’.  He was a kind of ‘upright barbarian, much such perhaps as Adam presumably might have been ‘ere the urbane Serpent wriggled himself into his company’.  He was doted on by the crew in the merchant ship from which the Royal Navy seized him – ironically, the Rights of Man – and her Captain bitterly lamented his loss.  Billy was his ‘peacemaker, like a Catholic priest striking peace in an Irish shindy’.

Captain Vere was a bookish, decent, conservative bachelor.  Other officers of his rank thought that there was a ‘queer streak of the pedantic’ running through Captain Vere.  He may not have been as addicted to the hemp – for the lash or for the noose – as others of his rank, but his learning and civility covered no weakness on discipline or the need to observe the rigour of the law.  He was no softy.

Claggart was about 35.  He was much more intelligent than others of his level and ‘his hand was too small and shapely to have been accustomed to hard toil’.  The gossip on the gun decks was that he was ‘a chevalier who had volunteered into the King’s Navy by way of compounding for some mysterious swindle whereof he had been arraigned at the King’s Bench’.

Since Claggart is the strongest character in the triangle, he has attracted the strongest writing in the book, the opera and the film.  He is in the tradition of Iago:

… if Cassio do remain,

He hath a daily beauty in his life

That makes me ugly.

That could be word for word Claggart on Billy.  Shakespeare defined a similar envy in one of the assassins of Caesar.

… Yond Cassius has a lean and hungry look

He thinks too much. Such men are dangerous.

He is a great observer and he looks

Quite through the deeds of men.

Seldom he smiles, and smiles in such a sort

As if he mocked himself, and scorned his spirit.

That could be moved to smile at anything.

Such men as he be never at heart’s ease

While they behold a greater than themselves,

And therefore are they very dangerous.

Again, Claggart, chapter and verse.  If you hand those lines around in a large office and ask people whom they are reminded of, they will invariably indicate the resident smiling assassin.

In a narrative manner, but with a matter-of-fact investigative tone, Melville devotes lines of a very high order to Claggart.  The following words might have been applied to Heinrich Himmler:

… The Master-at-Arms was perhaps the only man in the ship intellectually capable of adequately appreciating the moral phenomenon presented in Billy Budd.  And the insight but intensified his passion, which assuming various secret forms within him, at times assumed that cynic disdain – disdain of innocence.  To be nothing more than innocent! … A nature like Claggart’s surcharged with energy as such natures almost invariably are, what recourse is left to it but to recoil upon itself and like the scorpion for which the Creator alone is responsible act out to the end the part allotted to it. 

And then there is this:

The Pharisee is the Guy Fawkes prowling in the hid chambers underlying the Claggarts.

One thing is clear from the available sources about the difference in the case of the Jewish hasid executed on account of his apparent goodness.  Captain Vere and his officers felt the full agony of the law, and they did their duty, in full measure.  Pontius Pilate did neither.  Rather than washing his hands, Pilate may just as well have thrown them up in the air – and there are some who say that he was joking as he left the place of judgment.

The stories of the sailor and the holy man have about them an aura of innocence being drowned and of the law being applied mechanically to hurt innocent people.  And, depending on your outlook on the world – of the law being applied to help the Establishment run over those too weak to look after themselves.

Pound for pound, or word for word, this book is as rewarding as any other on the shelf, and it works wonderfully in both the opera and the film.