The Pharsalia by Lucan – 1: Introduction

O mighty the sacred labour of the poet! He rescues
all from fate, and grants immortality to mortal beings.
(Pharsalia Book 9, lines 980 to 981)

Lucan biography

Marcus Annaeus Lucanus (39 to 65 AD), generally referred to in English simply as ‘Lucan’, was a Roman poet, born in Corduba (modern-day Córdoba) in the Roman province of Hispania. Although he was ordered to kill himself by the emperor Nero at the age of just 25, Lucan is regarded as one of the outstanding figures of the Imperial Latin period, particularly for his (unfinished) epic poem, Pharsalia.

Lucan was the son of Marcus Annaeus Mela, younger brother of Seneca the Younger i.e. he was Seneca’s nephew.

Lucan’s father was wealthy, a member of the knightly class, and sent him to study rhetoric at Athens and he was probably tutored in philosophy, and especially Stoic philosophy, by his uncle (maybe by Seneca’s freedman, Cornutus, who also tutored the slightly older poet, Persius).

Lucan was a precocious talent and was welcomed into the literary and philosophical circles around the young emperor Nero, who was only two years older than him (born 37 AD). In 60 AD i.e. aged barely 21, Lucan won prizes for extemporising poems at Nero’s new Quinquennial Games. Nero rewarded him by appointing him to the office of augur, a plum position in Rome’s religious hierarchy.

Soon afterwards Lucan began circulating the first three books of what was intended to be an epic poem about the civil war between Julius Caesar and Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus (generally referred to as Pompey). This has come down to us with the title Pharsalia, or De Bello civili (‘On the civil war’) in other manuscripts. It’s titled Pharsalia because the action focuses on the decisive Battle of Pharsalus, fought on 9 August 48 BC, at which Caesar decisively defeated Pompey’s army.

At some point Nero and Lucan fell out. According to Tacitus (Annals, book 15, section 49) Nero became jealous of Lucan and ordered him to stop publishing the Pharsalia. According to Suetonius (in his brief Life of Lucan, cited in full at the end of this blog post), Nero disrupted a public reading by Lucan by leaving and calling a meeting of the senate. Lucan responded by writing insulting poems about Nero – which is always a bad thing to do against a tyrant. The grammarian Vacca mentions that one of Lucan’s works was entitled De Incendio Urbis (‘On the Burning of the City’) which presumably contained criticism of Nero’s role in the Great Fire of Rome (July 64). This is confirmed by a reference in a poem by Lucan’s younger contemporary, Publius Papinius Statius (45 to 96 AD).

As further proof, after the pro-Nero eulogy of the opening book, nearly all the subsequent references to emperors and the empire are vitriolically anti-imperial and pro-republic in tone. To take an example at random, Lucan’s biting criticism of not only Alexander the Great’s achievements, but of the cult of imperial Alexander which followed his death.

For, if the world had regained a shred of liberty
his corpse would have been retained as an object
of derision, not shown as an example to the world
of how a host of lands were subjected to one man.
He left his Macedonian obscurity, spurned Athens
that his father had conquered, and spurred on by
the power of destiny ran amok among the realms
of Asia, slaying humankind, putting every land
to the sword. He stained far-off rivers, Persia’s
Euphrates, India’s Ganges with blood; a plague
on earth, a lightning bolt that struck all peoples
alike, a fateful comet flaring over every nation.

But what ended Lucan’s life was his involvement in Gaius Calpurnius Piso’s conspiracy against Nero, uncovered in 65. Lucan was one of many conspirators revealed by torturing suspects. According to Suetonius he miserably truckled to his persecutors, giving them names of further conspirators, including even his own mother, in the vain hope of winning a pardon.

Once his guilt was established Nero ordered Lucan to commit suicide by opening a vein (the alternative being arrest, torture and public execution). According to Tacitus, as Lucan bled to death he recited some lines he had written about a wounded soldier. I wonder if they were from the passage about the 600 Caesarians who chose suicide rather than surrender to Pompey, in book 4:

how simple it is to escape captivity by suicide
(4.577)

Alternatively, according to Suetonius, Lucan in his dying minutes wrote a letter to his father containing corrections to some of his verses and, after eating heartily, offered his arms to a physician to cut his veins. Lucan’s father and both his uncles, i.e all three sons of Seneca the Elder, were also compelled to kill themselves.

(Statius wrote an elegy to Lucan, the Genethliacon Lucani, which was addressed to his widow, Polla Argentaria, on the dead man’s birthday. It was written during the reign of Domitian (81 to 96) and included in Statius’s collection, Silvae).

Themes in the Pharsalia

De Bello Civili (‘On the Civil War’) or the Pharsalia is long and dense with themes and ideas, some of which I will now consider:

1. No gods

The traditional epic poem is packed with gods, supporting various protagonists and intervening in the events. The entire narrative of the Aeneid exists because of the enmity of the queen of the gods, Juno, to the hero, Aeneas, who she continually enters the story to block and stymy, in doing so setting herself against fellow goddess, Venus, who, for her part, does everything she can to support Aeneas (who is her son). This leads to great set-piece debates in heaven between the rival gods, adjudicated by the king of the heavens, Jupiter.

There’s none of this in Lucan. Lucan took the decision to dispense with all the divine interventions associated with traditional epic. Lucan replaces them with the more up-to-date Stoic notions of Fate and Fortune. These two forces, sometimes blurring into each other and overlapping, at other moments appear as clearly distinct entities, names for two different forces operating at different levels of the universe.

Fate, fatum or fata is Destiny – the fixed, foreordained course of events which underpins the universe. Fate is the name given to the working through of the deep plan for the world and the nations in it.

And now, as light dispersed the chill shades of night,
Destiny lit the flames of war, setting the spur to Caesar’s
wavering heart, shattering the barriers shame interposed
and driving him on to conflict. Fate worked to justify
his rebellion, and found a pretext for his use of arms.
(Book 1, lines 261 to 265)

What but the power of destiny, that tragic fate
decreed by the eternal order, drew him, doomed
to die, to that shore…Yet
Pompey yielded to fate, obeying when requested
to leave his ship, choosing to die rather than show
fear…
(8.571 ff.)

By contrast, Fortune, fortuna, is Chance, a fickle, unpredictable force, continually turning her wheel, ensuring that anyone at the peak of professional or social success, can never be certain that Fortune won’t turn her wheel and plunge them down to the pits of failure.

At a deep level, Fate determines the occurrence of a civil war and that Caesar will win. But Fortune decides the outcome of specific events and details.

Caesar, finding civil war so eagerly welcomed by his men,
and finding fortune favourable, granted destiny no delay
due to idleness, but summoned all his forces scattered
throughout Gaul, moving every legion towards Rome.
(1.392 to 395)

Susan Braund explains all this in the introduction to her translation of the Pharsalia published by the Oxford University Press. The distinct operational levels of the two forces are sometimes made particularly clear:

Caesar, finding civil war so eagerly welcomed by his men,
and finding fortune favourable, granted destiny no delay
(1.392-3)

Where Destiny is the overall force or plan but whether individual elements of the plan fall this way or that, depends on Fortune. Or:

Fate stirred the peoples and sent them as companions
to a great disaster, as a funeral train fit for Pompey’s
exequies. Even horned Ammon was not slow to send
squadrons from Africa to battle, from all parched Libya,
from Morocco in the west to Egyptian Syrtes in the east.
So that Caesar, fortune‘s favourite, might win all with
a single throw, Pharsalia brought all the world to battle.
(3.291 to 297)

The distinction is made particularly clear in the long speech by the witch Erictho in book 6, where she makes a distinction between ‘the chain of events fixed from the beginning of the world’ which nobody can change or alter, and ‘lesser decrees of fate’, which witches like her can alter. Level 1 and Level 2. (6.609 to 621)

However, at other moments I found the concepts a lot less clear cut, for example in this passage where you’d expect the Pompey’s ultimate death, the deep pattern of his life, to be described as his Fate not his Fortune.

Pompey by then, had gained the open sea, but the luck
that aided his past hunts for pirates was his no longer,
and Fortune, wearied by his triumphs, proved untrue.

And sometimes the two concepts seem interchangeable:

Greedy quicksand and spongy marshes hid the secret
Fate had placed there; yet later that aged general’s flesh
was scarred by iron fetters reduced by long vile imprisonment.
He was to die though as Fortune’s friend, as consul in a Rome
he had ruined.
(2.71 to 75)

Anyway, Lucan’s neglect of the traditional apparatus of gods and his focus on Fate and Fortune do two things for the poem:

  1. Lots of gods would have distracted attention away from what was a very human catastrophe and away from the all-too-human human protagonists.
  2. Also the gods can, in some sense, be appealed to and swayed by humans. Whereas Fate and Fortune are profoundly impersonal forces and so bring out the horror of the unstoppable nature of civil war, Fate emphasising the deep inevitability of the outcome, with Fortune standing for the many chance victims along the way.

There is a simpler explanation, which is that the introduction of the kind of gods found in Virgil was simply inappropriate – would have appeared gauche and clumsy – in a poem dealing with very events almost within living memory. Roman literature – Classical literature generally – was very concerned with what was and wasn’t appropriate for every genre, in terms of subject matter, tone and even individual words. Including the gods in a historical epic would have breached the conventions of the genre.

2. No heroes

Epic poems feature the adventures of more-than-human heroes, from Gilgamesh, through Achilles and Aeneas, to Beowulf, humans not only with superhuman power but often the progeny of the gods. Whereas a historical epic like the Pharsalia is concerned with real historical personages, many of whose relatives were still alive when Lucan wrote.

Not only that, but epics generally feature one obvious central protagonist (Gilgamesh, Achilles, Beowulf) but just as there are no gods or divine intervention in the Pharsalia, so there is no one hero or central protagonist. Instead there are three leading but not totally dominating figures:

1. Gaius Julius Caesar

Caesar is the most prominent character in the first part of the poem, active, clear-sighted, ambitious, a force of nature – but not likeable. Lucan’s Caesar approaches closest to the figure of traditional epic hero. He has no moderating feminine influence on him until right at the end, in book 10, where his encounter with Cleopatra is a meeting of two cynical players. After the climactic battle of Pharsalus, however, Caesar is depicted as becoming more ambitious and imperial.

2. Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus

Pompey is portrayed as the opposite – vacillating, indecisive, and past his prime (‘the mere shadow of a mighty name’) but, in scenes with friends, followers and especially his wife, Cornelia, far more human than Caesar. At the end, after Pharsalus, Pompey is transformed into a stoic martyr, receiving a kind of visionary treatment as he nears his tragic death on the beach in Egypt which he meets with Stoic calm acceptance.

3. Marcus Porcius Cato

And, after the death of Pompey in book 8, Cato emerges as the strongest leader of the Republican cause, holed up with Republican legions in north Africa. Cato epitomises stern old-fashioned values. He stands for Roman patriotism and Stoic contempt for death, notably in the episode in book 9 where he scorns to consult the oracle of Ammon, saying God gave us all the knowledge we need to live a virtuous life at birth; which triggers adulation from Lucan:

Behold, the true father of his
country, a man worthy to be worshipped,
Rome, at your altars; by whom none need
blush to swear, and who, if you ever free
your neck from the yoke, shall be made a god.

In fact, in a striking episode on the march across the desert, Cato not only embodies Stoic resolution in the face of death but inspires it in others:

Alone he was present at every
death; whenever they call, he goes, and confers that
mighty benefit, more than life: the courage to die;
so that, with him as witness, any man was ashamed
to die with a groan on his lips.
(9.882)

When Cato’s first wife, Marcia, returns to him the narrative emphasises that their marriage is sexless; it symbolises his adherence to defunct, sterile values. Many critics think Lucan intended Cato to develop into the central figure of the poem, with the narrative designed to end with his famous suicide in the besieged garrison town of Utica, symbolising the moral victory of Stoic principle and Freedom against Tyranny.

There’s a case for saying the three figures are on a spectrum: Caesar is over-balanced in one direction, all energy and decision and lust (‘impetuous in everything’ 2.657); Cato stands at the other pole, arid, sexless, aloof; with Pompey standing in the middle, reasonable and given scenes of touching married love with Cornelia. As this blog shrewdly suggests, it’s as if the heroic protagonist of Virgil’s epic, Aeneas, has decomposed into three characters, none of which are heroic.

3. The gruesome and the macabre

The supernatural

If the Pharsalia doesn’t have gods, what it does have in abundance is the Supernatural – the poem is awash with visions, dreams, ghosts, magic, rituals and so on. Braund sees the supernatural as falling into two categories, ‘dreams and visions’ and ‘portents, prophecies and consultations of supernatural powers’.

a) Dreams and visions

There are four important dream or vision sequences in the poem:

  1. Caesar’s vision of Roma as he is about to cross the Rubicon.
  2. The ghost of Julia (his beloved dead wife) appearing to Pompey (3.1 to 45)
  3. Pompey’s dream of his happy past (7.1 to 30)
  4. Caesar and his troops’ dream of battle and destruction.

All four of these dream-visions are placed strategically throughout the poem to provide structure, and to dramatise key turning points in the narrative.

b) Portents, prophecies and consultations of supernatural powers

Lucan describes a number of portents, with two specifically oracular episodes. What is a portent? “A sign or warning that a momentous or calamitous event is likely to happen.” So, on the morning of the fateful battle:

Now Fortune too did not hesitate to reveal the future
by diverse signs. When the army made for Thessaly’s
fields, the whole sky opposed their march, hurling
meteors against them, columns of flame, whirlwinds
sucking up water and trees together, blinding their
eyes with lightning, striking crests from their helms,
melting the swords in their scabbards, tearing spears
from their grasp while fusing them, their evil blades
smoking with air-borne sulphur. The standards too
could barely be plucked from the soil, their great
weight bowing the heads of the standard-bearers;
and the standards wept real tears…
(7.151 to 162)

The central example is the necromancy which takes up half of book 6, when Pompey’s son, Sextus, goes to consult the witch Erachtho. Lucan’s description of the witch and her ritual take up half the entire book (lines 413 to 830).

All this appealed to contemporary taste for the macabre. Braund cites events in one of the tragedies of Lucan’s uncle, Seneca, his Oedipus, which contains a) a visit to the Delphic oracle, b) a gruesome description of the sacrifice and entrail examination of a bull and heifer (haruspicy), and c) the even more macabre magical rituals by which Tiresias raises the ghost of dead King Laius to accuse Oedipus of his murder.

Chaos on earth reflected in heaven

It is a central feature of the histories that war and disruption on earth must inevitably be accompanied by chaos in the heavens – just as in his uncle Seneca’s tragedies where mayhem on earth is matched and mimicked by cosmic catastrophes. In both Lucan and Seneca the entire universe often seems to be trembling on the brink of complete dissolution.

So when the fabric
of the world dissolves, in that final hour that gathers in the ages,
reverting to primal chaos, star will clash with star in confusion,
the fiery constellations will sink into the sea, and earth heaving
upwards her flat shores will throw off the ocean, the moon will
move counter to her brother, and claiming the rule of day disdain
to drive her chariot on its slanting path, and the whole discordant
frame of the shattered firmament will break free of every law.
(1.72 to 79)

This worldview, the intimate parallelism between human and supernatural affairs, is very prevalent in the biographers Plutarch and Suetonius, writing a generation later.

Haruspicy and necromancy

Along the way, Braund gives useful definitions of two key Roman practices:

  • haruspicy (haruspicies) is the art of studying animal entrails, usually the victims of ritual sacrifices
  • necromancy is the art of getting the dead to speak prophecy; necromancy is not only the general practice of this craft, but you perform a necromancy

4. Extreme rhetoric

Education for Roman aristocrats focused on rhetoric, the ability to speak eloquently and make a persuasive argument. We know from contemporary comments and satires that under the empire many of the exercises which students were given became steadily more extreme and exaggerated. This was reflected in the poetry of the age; from what survives the most extreme example might be the bloodthirsty and over-written tragedies of Seneca.

A central part of the curriculum was the suasoria, an exercise where students wrote speeches advising an historical figure on a course of action. This obviously fed into the largely invented speeches which fill Tacitus’s histories as much as Lucan’s poem.

Lucan is sometimes criticised for the extremity of his rhetoric and the luridness of scenes and imagery. But Susan Braund comes to his defence, with two arguments. One is that Lucan was a product of his times. There was a taste for melodrama and Gothic hyperbole which Lucan catered to.

More interesting is the second argument. This is to do with Virgil. Virgil was the undisputed king of Roman poets and his epic, the Aeneid, was acknowledged as a classic even as he was writing it. The problem for ambitious poets in all the succeeding generations was how to escape Virgil’s dominating influence, how to do anything new. Braund says Ovid found one way, in his Metamorphoses, which was to drop the notion of one, unified, linear narrative and instead string together hundreds of stories and episodes.

Lucan adopted another strategy which was to import into his text the ‘discourse of contemporary rhetoric’, in all its exaggeration and extremity. For there’s another aspect here, which is not to forget that a poem like this was meant to be recited aloud to audiences. Before the rule of Augustus, poetry was recited to group of like-minded friends or patrons. During Augustus’s reign it became common to recite it to larger audiences. We have accounts of Virgil reciting to the emperor and his extended family. Horace was commissioned to write odes to be declaimed at public games.

Braund argues that this trend for declamation had two consequences: it tended to promote more striking and vibrant imagery/style. And it incentivised the poet to think in terms of episodes.

5. Episodic structure

The Aeneid is very carefully constructed and susceptible to many types of structural analysis. Although critics have, of course, made a case for the existence of a deep structure in the Pharsalia (for example, a tetradic structure whereby the first four books focus on Caesar, the next four on Pompey and the final four on Cato) Braund disagrees. She thinks the narrative is far more episodic. In this respect it is like the highly episodic structure of Ovid’s Metamorphoses with one story leading to another, then another, then another – itself a strategy for escaping the highly unified and centralised narrative of the Aeneid.

Like the Metamorphoses, this lack of a single unifying narrative in the Pharsalia allows for more episodes, more adventures, more flicking between channels – episodes which contain are like mini-genres, containing their own appropriate languages, structure and style.

Lucan is fond of discontinuity. He presents his narrative as a series of discrete scenes, often without any transitional or scene-changing lines. Rather than a continuous narrative, it often feels like scenes are balanced within a book or between books, working by correspondence, similarity and difference between them.

We can imagine how well these dramatic episodes would have gone down as stand-alone recitations to a sophisticate audience of Roman aristocrats. I’m thinking of Appius’s confrontation with the priestess at Delphi or the terrific storm scene or Caesar’s speech of defiance to his mutinous troops, all in book 5.

6. Lucan and Virgil

Lucan frequently appropriates ideas from Virgil’s epic and inverts them to undermine their original, heroic purpose. Sextus’ visit to the Thracian witch Erictho in book 6 is the most obvious example, the scene and language clearly referencing Aeneas’ descent into the underworld (in Book 6 of the Aeneid), but while Virgil’s description, despite its gloomy setting, is an optimistic, nay triumphant vision of the future heroes of Rome leading up to the glories of Augustan rule, Lucan uses his scene to convey a bitter and bloody pessimism about the loss of liberty under the coming empire.

7. Epic similes

Braund and other critics emphasis the way that Lucan seeks to break free from the epic conventions, in particular the way he references Virgil in order to reverse or invert his technique and meaning. But in one respect Lucan strongly conforms with the tradition, which is in his use of epic similes. Straight-up epic similes really litter the narrative. Here’s the famous extended comparison of Pompey, larded with triumphs, to a venerable oak tree:

So some oak-tree towers in a rich grove,
hung with a nation’s ancient trophies, sacred gifts of the victors,
and though its clinging roots have lost their strength, their weight
alone holds it, spreading naked branches to the sky, casting shade
not with leaves but its trunk alone, and though it quivers, doomed
to fall at the next gale, among the host of sounder trees that rise
around it, still it alone is celebrated.
(1.137 to 143)

Or the inhabitants of towns which Caesar’s army approached were conflicted about who to support.

Though loyalty contended with the threat of danger,
they still favoured Pompey, as when a southerly rules
the waves, and all the sea is stirred by its vast power,
so that even if Aeolus’ trident opens the solid earth,
and lets an easterly loose on the mounting breakers,
the ocean, though struck by that second force, stays
true to the first, and though the sky surrenders itself
to the rain-filled easterly, the sea asserts the southerly’s
power.
(2.452 to 460)

Describing Octavius’s naval strategy:

So the hunter works,
holding back the net of coloured feathers that scares
the deer with its scent, till he can pen them all, or
quieting the noise of the swift Molossian hounds,
leashing the dogs of Crete and Sparta, till he has set
his stakes and nets, leaving one hound alone to range
the ground, it puzzling out the scent and only barking
when the prey is found, content then to point toward
the creature’s lair while tugging at the leash.
(4.436 to 444)

Or describing the way Cato’s speech in book 9 persuades the allies to remain with the anti-Caesarian army:

So, when hosts of bees
depart the hive, where their young have hatched,
they neglect the waxy cells, their wings no longer
brush one another, each takes its own way, idling,
refraining now from sipping the flowering thyme
with its bitter taste; yet if the sound of Phrygian
cymbals rises, they interrupt their flight, in alarm,
returning to the performance of their flowery task,
and their love of gathering pollen. The shepherd
in Hybla’s meadows is relieved, delighted that
his honey harvest is secured. So Cato’s speech
persuaded his men to endure the lawful conflict.
(9.282 to 293)

Nothing particularly lurid or extreme or melodramatic or supernatural about these. Very conventional epic similes.

8. Geographical descriptions

Before I started reading the poem I was impressed by Braund’s introduction and its emphasis on the macabre and bloodthirsty in Lucan. But once I began reading, I realised there were a lot of other, more low-key, less sensational elements that go to make up the text. More frequent than descriptions of battle, let alone supernatural visions, are the frequent very long passages describing the precise geography of a particular location, such as the region around Capua where Pompey first took his army or, in book 6, this very long description of Thessaly.

Mount Pelion’s ridge bounds Thessaly in the quarter where
the winter sun rises, Mount Ossa where in high summer
its shade obstructs the rays of Phoebus rising in the dawn;
while wooded Othrys dispels the flames of the southern sky,
at midsummer, opposing the brow of the all-devouring Lion;
and Mount Pindus outfacing westerlies and north-westerlies,
where daylight ebbs hastens evening on; while those who live
at the foot of Olympus never dreading the northerlies, know
nothing of the Great Bear’s stars shining a whole night long.
The low-lying lands in the region between these mountains
were once covered with endless marshes; since the plains
retained the waters, and the Vale of Tempe was insufficient
for them to reach the sea they formed continuous swampland,
and their only course was to rise. But when Hercules lifted
Ossa’s weight from Olympus, the sea felt a sudden onrush
of waters as Thessalian Pharsalos, that realm of Achilles
the hero born of a sea-goddess, rose above the surface,
a realm better drowned forever. There rose too, Phylace
whose king was first to land in the war at Troy; Pteleos;
Dorion, that laments the Muses’ anger and blind Thamyris;
Trachis; Meliboea whose Philoctetes received Hercules’
bow, for lighting that hero’s funeral pyre; Larisa, powerful
once; and the sites where the plough now passes over famed
Argos, where Echion’s Thebes once stood, to which Agave
howling bore the head of Pentheus giving it to the funeral
pyre, grieving to have carried off no other part of his flesh.
Thus the swamp was drained forming a host of rivers. From
there the Aeas, clear in its flow but of little volume, runs
westward to the Ionian Sea, the Inachus glides with no more
powerful a current (he was the river-god, father of ravished Io)
nor the Achelous (he almost won Deianeira, Oeneus’ daughter)
that silts the Echinades islands; there, the Euhenos, stained
as it is with Nessus’ blood runs through Meleager’s Calydon;
there Spercheos’ swift stream meets the Malian Gulf’s wave,
and the pure depths of the Amphrysos water those pastures
where Apollo herded cattle. There, the Asopos starts its flow,
and the Black River, and the Phoenix; there, the Anauros,
free of moist vapours, dew-drenched air, capricious breezes.
There too are the rivers which do not reach the sea themselves
but are tributaries of Peneus – the Apidanus, robbed of its flow,
the Enipeus never swift until it finds Peneus, and the Titaresos,
which alone, meeting with that river, keeps its waters intact,
glides on the surface, as though the greater river were dry land,
for legend says its stream flows from the pool of Styx, and so,
mindful of its source, scorns commingling with common water,
inspiring still that awe of its current the gods themselves feel.
Once the waters had flowed away leaving dry land, the fertile
soil was furrowed by the ploughs of the Bebryces; the labour
of Leleges drove the share deep; the ground was broken by
Aeolidae and Dolopians, by Magnesians breeders of horses,
Minyae builders of ships.
(6.398 to 416)

Long, isn’t it? A tourist’s guide to the region. I imagine the long list of not only place names but myths and legends associated with them were a) appropriate to the grandeur of the epic genre, magnifying the action b) awed Lucan’s readers or auditor’s with the poet’s impressive erudition c) made those in the aristocratic audience who had visited some or many of those sites nod with smug recognition.

9. Natural history

In his last few years, Lucan’s uncle, Seneca the Younger, composed an enormous work of natural history, the Naturales quaestiones, an encyclopedia of the natural world. A decade later, 77, Pliny the Elder published the first 10 books of his compendious Naturalis Historia (Natural History) (the largest single work to have survived from the Roman Empire to the modern day).

I mention these works to indicate that a taste for ‘natural history’ was obviously in the air and maybe explains the presence of the extended passages of natural history in the Pharsalia. The obvious example is the really extended passage about the snakes of Libya which takes up over 300 lines in book 9.

10. Is the Pharsalia unfinished?

Almost all scholars agree that the Pharsalia as we now have it is unfinished. Lucan was working in book 10 when Nero’s order to commit suicide came through. Book 10 breaks off with Caesar in Egypt. There are numerous theories about this as about all other aspects of the poem. Here are some:

  • Some argue that Lucan intended to end his poem with the Battle of Philippi (42 BC).
  • Some critics speculate that the narrative was intended to continue all the way to the assassination of Julius Caesar four years after the Battle of Pharsalus, in 44 BC.
  • Some even think it was meant to continue all the way to the Battle of Actium in 31 BC.

The latter two theories, in particular, suppose that Lucan intended to write a work many times larger than what we have. The 10-book poem we have today covers a total of 20 months i.e. roughly a book per 2 months; so the 48 months to Caesar’s assassination would imply another 24 books; the 17 years (204 month) to Actium, imply another 102 books!

Another problem with the timeline continuing as far as Caesar’s assassination is that, with both Pompey and Cato dead, Lucan would have had to embark on building up a new set of characters, in particular the leaders of Caesar’s assassination, Cassius and Brutus.

Which is why Braund ends up going with the simplest hypothesis which is that Lucan’s original intent was a 12-book poem, mirroring the length of the Aeneid. The strongest piece of evidence for Lucan consciously modelling the Pharsalia on Virgil is the way Lucan introduces an extended necromantic ritual in his sixth book that deliberately parallels and inverts many of the motifs found in Virgil’s sixth book. Thus Braund goes with the view that the poem was to be 12 books long and was heading towards the suicide of Cato (as the army of Julius Caesar approached his stronghold of Utica in North Africa) held up as a model of Stoic dignity rising above tyranny.

There are a few more scenarios: one is that the Pharsalia in in fact finished, was meant to end at the end of the tenth book, and is complete as we have it. This is the view of Classicist Jamie Masters but most other scholars disagree.

But there is one last logical possibility, which is that Lucan did in fact complete the poem but, for whatever reason, the final few books of the work were lost at some point. Braund notes that little evidence has been found one way or the other, so this question will remain a matter of speculation.

11. The Roman cult of suicide

Throughout the poem suicide is praised as a noble and dignified way to take control of your life. Nothing becomes a true Roman man so much as either a) dying in battle or b) controlling the time and place of his death, especially when faced with tyranny. Thus Afranius contemplates suicide before surrendering to Caesar (book 4), Vulteius and his men actually do commit suicide, en masse, rather than be captured:

No instant is too short for a man
to kill himself; suicide is no less glorious when death
at another’s hand approaches.
(4.480)

Even Julius Caesar unashamedly tells his mutinying soldiers that, if they lose, he will commit suicide:

I shall seek
my own salvation in suicide; whoever looks back
if the foe is unbeaten, will see me stab my breast.
(7.308)

From which Lucan draws the general lesson that suicide is the ultimate way to escape from tyranny:

Yet even after the example set
by such heroes, nations of cowards still do not comprehend
how simple it is to escape captivity by suicide; so the tyrant’s
power is feared, freedom is constrained by savage weapons,
while all remain ignorant that the sword is there to deliver
every man from slavery.

For me, the careful seeding of examples of, and praise of, and defences of, suicide, strongly suggest the poem was building up to the suicide of Cato as its climax and crowning example of resistance. Thus it is that Cato himself sternly celebrates Pompey’s death after defeat:

O happy was he, whose ending
followed on defeat, the Egyptian swords
offering the death he should have sought.
He might perhaps have lived on instead
under Caesar’s rule

Because:

the highest fate
is to know when to die, and the second
best to have such death forced upon one.

The ‘highest fate’, the best thing a man can do, the greatest achievement of human reason, is to know when to die. All the more ghoulishly ironic that Lucan himself was forced to commit suicide before he could complete the depiction of his Stoic hero committing suicide.

12. Lucan and Seneca

I finished reading Seneca’s Letters from a Stoic weeks after reading the Pharsalia. Reviewing my notes I realise the tremendous overlap in ‘philosophy’, namely the absolutely central role played in both texts by suicide as escape from tyranny. It is the central theme of both works. But as I point out in my review of the letters, suicide my be an acceptable theme for a poem, but not for a really long work of moral exhortation (the letters) which claim to be instructions on how to live and think. Personally, I recommend not thinking about suicide every moment of every day, as a healthier way to live.

Modern views

Since the Enlightenment the Pharsalia has commonly been considered a second rank offering, not in the same league as the king of the Roman epics, the Aeneid. But in recent decades more sophisticated literary analysis has brought out how the poem’s ‘studied artifice enacts a complex relationship between poetic fantasy and historical reality’.

His narrative of the civil war is pared down to a bare minimum; but this is overlaid with a rich and varied virtuoso display of learning which reflected contemporary interests. (Braund, Introduction, page 37)

All I can add is that I found the Pharsalia a surprisingly gripping and interesting read.

Caesar crossing the Rubicon by Adolphe Yvon (1875)


Related links

Roman reviews

Seneca’s Plays

What follows are notes on E.F. Watling’s introduction to his translation of Seneca’s plays, published by Penguin Books in 1966, then a summary with comments of the four Seneca plays it contains:

Seneca’s biography

Lucius Annaeus Seneca was born in 4 BC Corduba, Spain, the second son of Annaeus Seneca the Elder. His father had studied rhetoric in Rome and returned to Spain to bring his sons up with respect for the traditional virtues of the Roman Republic, which had ceased to exist a generation earlier, following the victory of Octavian against Anthony at Actium in 31 BC.

As a young man Seneca the Younger studied Stoic philosophy. He lived in Egypt for a while, probably due to ill health (tuberculosis?) and because his aunt was the wife of the prefect there. By 33 AD he was back in Rome, married to his first wife (whose name is unknown) and achieving recognition as a lawyer and teacher of rhetoric.

Seneca had run-ins with several of the early emperors. At one point he was forced to retire into private life due to the suspicions of Caligula. He returned to public life on the accession of the emperor Claudius but in the very same year, 41 AD, was exiled to Corsica, accused of adultery with the new emperor’s niece, Julia, probably at the instigation of Claudius’s scheming third wife, Valeria Messalina. Seneca spent eight years on Corsica during which he wrote a number of philosophical works.

In 48 Claudius had Messalina executed for (supposedly) conspiring to overthrow him, and married his fourth wife, the equally scheming Agrippina. But it was Agrippina who asked for the recall of Seneca and made him tutor to her 12-year-old son, Lucius Domitius, the future emperor Nero. When Nero came to power 6 years later, in 54 AD, aged just 17, Seneca became his principal civil adviser (Nero had a separate adviser for military affairs, Sextus Afranius Burrus).

Some attribute the fact that the first five years of Nero’s reign were relatively peaceful and moderate to Seneca’s restraining influence. According to Tacitus’s Annals, Seneca taught Nero how to speak effectively, and wrote numerous speeches for him to address the senate with, praising clemency, the rule of law, and so on.

However, palace politics slowly became more poisonous, Nero came to rule more despotically, and Seneca’s position and wealth made him the target of increasing political and personal attacks. In 62 Seneca asked to be allowed to retire from public life, a conversation with Nero vividly described (or invented) in Tacitus’s Annals. Emperor and adviser parted on good terms but, over the next few years, Seneca’s name was cited in various plots and conspiracies.

The largest of these was the conspiracy of Gaius Calpurnius Piso in 65, a plot to assassinate Nero which was discovered at the last moment (the morning of the planned murder), and which, as the suspects were interrogated and tortured by Nero’s Guard, turned into a bloodbath of the conspirators.

Historians think Seneca was not an active conspirator, and debate how much he even knew about the plot, but whatever the precise truth, Nero ordered him put to death. Hearing of this, Seneca, en route back to Rome from Campania, committed suicide with a high-minded detachment that impressed the friends who attended the deed, and made him a poster boy for Stoic dignity. Many classic paintings depict the noble scene. Nero himself was, of course, to commit suicide just three years later, in 68 AD.

The Death of Seneca by Manuel Dominguez Sanchez (1871)

Seneca’s works

Seneca was a prolific writer. He wrote 12 philosophical essays, an extensive work of natural science, and 124 letters of moral exhortation to his friend Lucilius. The letters are probably his most accessible and popular work.

But Seneca is also credited as the author of ten plays (though scholars bicker: maybe it’s nine; maybe it’s eight). The plays are all tragedies, loosely modeled on Greek tragedy and featuring Greek tragic protagonists. The Romans had a technical term for these, fabula crepidata, meaning a Roman tragedy with a Greek subject.

Seneca’s plays make a striking contrast to his philosophical works not only in tone but also in worldview. The Letters to Lucilius go into great detail about how to banish all attachments, emotions and feelings from your life in order to achieve a calm, rational, Stoic detachment. By contrast, the plays are full of gruesomely bloodthirsty plots and characters wrought to the utmost degree of emotional extremity. Throughout the Middle Ages and Renaissance the works seemed so utterly different in worldview that scholars thought Seneca the moral philosopher and Seneca the dramatist were two different people.

Critics have been very harsh indeed about these plays. The editor of the Penguin edition, E.F. Watling, accuses them of ‘bombastic extravagance’, of ‘passionate yet artificial rhetoric’. The German critic Schlegel is quoted accusing them of ‘hollow hyperbole’, ‘forced and stilted’. Watling cites the consensus among scholars who condemn them as:

horrible examples of literary and dramatic incompetence, travesties of the noble Greek drama, the last wretched remnant of declining Roman taste. (Introduction, p.8)

And yet Seneca’s plays had a very important influence on Renaissance theatre, influencing Shakespeare and other playwrights in England, and Corneille and Racine in France.

Seneca’s tragedies are customarily considered the source and inspiration for what became known as the genre of ‘Revenge Tragedy’ in Elizabethan theatre, starting with Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy of the 1580s, and continuing on into the Jacobean era (the reign of King James I, 1603 to 1625).

Their importance to Elizabethan drama explains why so fastidious a critic as T.S. Eliot, obsessed as he was with the period, praised Seneca’s plays, singling out Phaedra and Medea – although most critics consider Thyestes to be Seneca’s ‘masterpiece’.

Seneca’s tragedies

  • Agamemnon
  • Hercules or Hercules furens (The Madness of Hercules)
  • Medea
  • Oedipus
  • Phaedra
  • Phoenissae (The Phoenician Women)
  • Thyestes
  • Troades (The Trojan Women)

The Penguin paperback edition of the plays, edited and translated by E.F. Watling, contains four of the ‘best’ plays – Thyestes, Phaedra, Oedipus and The Trojan Women. (It also contains an oddity, a play titled Octavia, which resembles Seneca’s tragedies in melodramatic tone but, since it features Seneca as a character, and describes his death, cannot have been by him. Scholars guesstimate that it was probably written soon after Seneca’s death by someone influenced by his style and aware of the events of his lifetime.)

Watling’s critique

Watling’s introduction pulls no punches in detailing Seneca’s shortcomings:

He was not a constructor of tragic plots; his plays are not concerned with the moral conflict between good and good which is the essence of true tragedy: he only recognises the power of evil to destroy good. He does not delay or complicate the issue by any moral dilemma exhibiting the conflict of justifiable but mutually incompatible ambitions; his tragedy is simply a disastrous event foretold and anticipated from the start and pursued ruthlessly to its end. (p.25)

Seneca routinely stops the action of his ‘plots’ to give characters long, highly-strung, melodramatic speeches, which might not even be particularly relevant to the plot and often take no account of who else is on stage at the time.

His technique of dramatic speech is extremely narrow, having only two modes: either a character is delivering a long monologue, or he deploys stichomythia, where just two characters swap exchanges of dialogue; rarely anything more complicated than that.

Many of the long speeches and even some of the exchanges are so stock and stereotyped that they could easily be swapped from one play to another without anyone noticing. Watling names some of these stock topics – the ‘simple life’ speech, the ‘haunted grove’ speech and ‘the king must be obeyed’ dialogue, which all crop up in several of the plays.

The climax of all the plays is always a gruesome barbarity and Seneca uses the Greek conventions of having it take place offstage and described by a breathless messenger who comes onstage hotfoot from the scene. The messengers’ speeches all follow the exact same formula: the description of the place, the horror of the act, the stoical courage of the sufferer.

Seneca’s use of the Chorus is for the most part flaccid and unconvincing. (p.24)

The Chorus declaims its verse in a different metre from the rest of the play. They are known as Choric odes. The Choric odes’s main purpose is to comment on the main action but they often feature a clotted recital of myths or legends similar or related to the one we are witnessing.

The Chorus also often expresses ideas which contradict the worldview of the play and even of the main action. For example they will powerfully express the idea that death is the end of life and there is nothing after, except that… the plays feature ghosts and numerous descriptions of the classic souls in hell (Sisyphus, Tantalus, Ixion). There is no attempt at consistency – immediate and sensational effect is what is strived for.

The sense of unnecessary repetition is echoed at a verbal level where Seneca creates a drenched and intense effect by repeating synonyms for just one idea – Watling says examples in English would be larding a speech with the synonymous words anger-rage-ire, or fear-terror-dread. No idea is left to float subtly but is bludgeoned into submission by repetition.

Watling sums up Seneca’s plays as 1) sporting a bombastic, over-the-top rhetoric, deriving from 2) gruesomely bloodthirsty plots, which 3) are staged with a remarkable lack of dramatic invention i.e. very clumsily and straightforwardly.

But despite all these shortcomings, the sheer visceral intensity of his plays goes some way to explain why they were useful models for the earliest Elizabethan playwrights writing the first attempts at English tragedy, influencing Kyd, Marlowe and the early Shakespeare of Titus Andronicus (which contains several quotes from Seneca’s Phaedra).

To return to T.S. Eliot who I mentioned above, we can now see why Eliot (in an introduction to a 1927 reprint of Elizabethan translations of Seneca) made the characteristically perceptive remark that, foregrounding vivid rhetoric over more traditional notions of plot or characterisation as the do, might make Seneca’s plays suitable for what was (in 1927) the very new medium of radio – rhetoric i.e. the power of words alone, triumphing over all other factors. A surf of sensationalist sound. The bombastic power of words superseding all considerations of ‘plot’ or ‘characterisation’.

**********

Plots of the four plays

1. Thyestes

Summary

It’s a tragedy of two brothers who hate each other, Atreus who takes a horrific vengeance on his brother, Thyestes.

Background

Tantalus was a son of Jupiter. He killed, cooked and served up his own son, Pelops, at a banquet of the gods. For this atrocity he was condemned to eternal punishment in hell, fixed in a pool of water, dying of thirst but unable to bend down to scoop up any of the water, and dying of hunger, but unable to touch any of the fruit growing just out of reach above him. Hence the English verb to tantalise. Jupiter restored Pelops to life but he himself went on to win a wife and a kingdom by treachery. Pelops banished his two grown-up sons, Atreus and Thyestes, for the murder of their half-brother, Chrysippus. When Pelops died, Atreus returned and took possession of his father’s throne, but Thyestes claimed it too. Thyestes seduced Atreus’s wife, Aërope, who helped him steal the gold-fleeced ram from Atreus’s flocks which was said to grant the kingship. But instead of gaining the crown he was banished. Despite sitting pretty, Atreus wants to make his ascendancy over his brother complete, so he is now planning to recall Thyestes from banishment on the pretext of sharing the throne with him, but in fact carrying out an atrocious act of revenge.

Act I

A Fury raises Tantalus’s miserable spirit from the underworld. He moaningly asks if even more pain and suffering await him. The Fury delivers an extraordinary vision of the sins of the house of Peolops, ramifying out to undermine all the order in the world. The Chorus comes onstage. It consists of citizens of Argos. They invoke the presiding gods of the cities of Greece in the hope they can prevent the tragedy.

Act II

Atreus consults with his minister about the best way of carrying out vengeance on his brother. The minister wonders how he can do this, allowing Atreus to explain that he will offer forgiveness and a share in the crown to lure Thyestes back to Argos, where he can carry out his revenge; what it will be, exactly, he is still considering but it will be awful. The Chorus reproves the ambition of rulers, describing the character of a true king, before singing the praises of a retired life.

Act III

Thyestes, having been invited back to his homeland by Atreus, arrives with his three young sons and expresses his distrust and sense of approaching disaster. Atreus applauds himself: his plan is working. The Chorus, apparently oblivious of the preceding act, praises the fraternal affection of Atreus for putting aside the brother’s enmity.

Act IV

With no development of plot or character, with melodramatic abruptness, a messenger appears who describes to the appalled Chorus the grotesque climax of the play which is that Atreus had Thyestes’s three children killed, cooked and served up to Thyestes at the brothers’ reconciliation feast. It takes the form of a question and answer session, the Chorus asking what happened next, the messenger answering. The Chorus, observing the going down of the Sun, hysterically fears that this criminal act might tear apart the whole fabric of the universe.

Act V

Atreus congratulates himself on his cruel revenge. Thyestes trembles with premonition that something terrible has happened. The Atreus reveals to him that he has just eaten his own beloved sons.

(Incidentally, the curse on the house of Pelops was to continue into the next generation in the persons of Agamemnon, son of Atreus, who was murdered on his return from the Trojan War, by Aegisthus, son of Thyestes – the subject of one of Seneca’s other plays.)

Thyestes demonstrates the classic characteristics of a Seneca play. It maintains a continuous, shrill, hyperbolic tone. Hyperbolic exaggeration Here’s the Fury seeing the feud escalate into end-of-the-world anarchy:

Vengeance shall think no way forbidden her;
Brother shall flee from brother, sire from son,
And son from sire; children shall die in shames
More shameful than their birth; revengeful wives
Shall menace husbands, armies sail to war
In lands across the sea; and every soil
Be soaked with blood; the might of men of battle
In all the mortal world shall be brought down
By Lust triumphant. In this house of sin
Brothers’s adultery with brothers’ wives
Shall be the least of sins; all law, all faith
All honour shall be dead. Nor shall the heavens
Be unaffected by your evil deeds:
What right have stars to twinkle in the sky?
Why need their lights still ornament the world?
Let night be black, let there be no more day.
Let havoc rule this house; call blood and strife
And death; let every corner of this place
Be filled with the revenge of Tantalus!
(Fury, Act 1)

Here’s Atreus whipping himself up to commit the worst crime in the world:

Sanctity begone!
If thou wast ever known within these walls.
Come all the dread battalions of the Furies!
Come, seed of strife, Erinys! Come, Megaera,
With torches armed! My spirit yet lacks fire;
It would be filled with still more murderous rage!
(Atreus, Act 1)

In the introduction Watling talks up the discrepancy between Seneca the lofty Stoic and Seneca the author of blood-thirsty, amoral plays. But there is some overlap, some places where characters appear to speak the language of Stoic detachment, such as the second Choric ode which describes the true nature of kingship as not being power or riches but resilience and mental strength. The true king

is the man who faces unafraid
The lightning’s glancing stroke; is not dismayed
By storm-tossed seas; whose ship securely braves
The windy rage of Adriatic waves;
Who has escaped alive the soldier’s arm,
The brandished steel; who, far removed from harm,
Looks down upon the world, faces her end
With confidence, and greets death as a friend.
(Chorus, Act 2)

That’s the Chorus, but Thyestes himself also declaims an ‘advantages of the simple life‘ speech to his son as they arrive at Atreus’s palace:

While I stood
Among the great, I stood in daily terror;
The very sword I wore at my own side
I feared. It is the height of happiness
To stand in no man’s way, to eat at ease
Reclining on the ground. At humble tables
Food can be eaten without fear; assassins
Will not be found in poor men’s cottages;
The poisoned cup is served in cups of gold.
(Thyestes, Act 3)

(Words which resonate with Seneca’s experiences in the fraught court of the emperor Nero.) In the final act, just before Atreus reveals to Thyestes what he’s done, Thyestes feels a powerful, world-shaking sense of doom, very reminiscent of the same premonition characters experience in Shakespeare’s tragedies:

The table rocked, the floor is shaking.
The torches’ light sinks low; the sky itself
Hangs dull and heavy, seeming to be lost
Between the daylight and the dark. And why –
The ceiling of the heavens seems to shake
With violent convulsions – more and more!
The murk grows darker than the deepest darkness,
Night is engulfed in night; all stars have fled!
(Thyestes, Act 5)

Once the deed has been revealed, here’s the Chorus reciting a welter of classical precedents in an effort to capture the enormity of the event:

Are the Giants escaped from their prison and threatening war?
Has tortured Tityos found strength in his breast again to renew his old aggression?
Or has Typhoeus stretched his muscles to throw off his mountain burden?
Is Ossa to be piled on Pelion again
To build a bridge for the Phlegrean Giants’ assault?
Is all the order of the universe plunged into chaos?
(Chorus, Act 4)

These are all formulae or stock ingredients, which are repeated in all the other plays, and were to be enthusiastically taken up by the Elizabethan playwrights striving for sensational effects in the 1590s and early 1600s.

2. Phaedra

Background

Theseus was a typical Greek ‘hero’ i.e. an appalling human being, guilty of countless crimes, infidelities, murders and rapes. But the play isn’t about him, it’s about his second wife and his son. In his first marriage Theseus married the Amazon warrior Antiope, also known as Hippolyta, who bore him a son, Hippolytus. This Hippolytus grew up despising love, refusing to worship at the temples of Venus. He preferred Diana and the joys of the hunt. During this time, Theseus divorced his first wife and married Phaedra, daughter of Minos, king of Crete (following his adventure on Crete where he slew the Minotaur).

Now, Hyppolitus had grown to be a handsome young man and Phaedra was a mature woman when Theseus left his kingdom for a while to help his friend Peirithous rescue Persephone from the underworld. During his absence, the goddess of love, Venus, determined to take her revenge on Hippolytus for spurning her worship, inflamed his stepmother, Phaedra’s, heart with insatiable desire for the handsome young man.

Prelude (Hippolytus)

Hippolytus soliloquises on the joys of the hunt, delivering a long list of Greek hunting locations to his companions. It not only reveals Hippolytus’s character but impresses the audience with Seneca’s detailed and scholarly knowledge of Greek geography.

Act 1 (Phaedra and the nurse)

Phaedra soliloquy in which she laments that Theseus has gone off to the underworld, abandoning her in a place she has never liked, exiled from her beloved Crete. She wonders that she has recently become obsessed with the hunt.

(Her mother was Pasiphae, wife of King Minos who notoriously allowed herself to be impregnated by a bull, giving birth to the Minotaur. More relevant, though, is that Pasiphae was a daughter of Phoebus the sun god, and Venus the goddess of love has a long-running feud with him. Which explains why Venus is also against Phaedra.)

It is the nurse who makes explicit the fact that Phaedra has fallen in love with her stepson. Phaedra says her infatuation is driving her so mad she wants to kill herself.

Unreason reigns
Supreme, a potent god commands my heart,
The invincible winged god, who rules all earth,
Who strikes and scorches Jove with his fierce flame…

Interestingly, the nurse insists that all this talk of Venus and Eros is rubbish. There is no little god with a bow and arrow fluttering about in the sky. Instead it is the corruption of the times: ‘Too much contentment and prosperity and self-indulgence’ lead to new desires. In fact she states the Stoic theme that the simple life is best and luxury leads to decadence.

Then the Chorus delivers a long impressive hymn to the power of Eros or Love, as demonstrated by mating behaviour throughout the animal kingdom. As a Darwinian materialist I, of course, agree that the urge to mate and reproduce is the primary function of all life forms, including humans.

Act 2

The nurse describes to the Chorus Phaedra’s ever more miserably lovelorn state, pale face, tearful eyes etc. We are shown Phaedra in her boudoir angrily bossing her attendants about, despising her traditional dresses and jewellery, wanting to wear the outfit of a hunting queen and roam through the woods after her beloved.

Enter Hippolytus. The nurse tells him to stop hunting so hard, relax, find love, enjoy his youth. She counsels him to reproduce; if all young men were like him, humanity would cease to exist. Hippolytus replies not really to her points, instead declaring that he prefers simple rustic rural life in its honest simplicity to the deceit of courts and the city, mob rule, envy etc – turns into an extended description of that old chestnut, the sweet and innocent life of the age of Saturn, before cities or ships or agriculture, before war itself. Illogically this long speech ends with a swerve into his hatred of women, who he blames for all conflict and wars, and explains why he shuns women like the plague.

Enter Phaedra and metaphorically falls at Hippolytus’s feet, swearing she will be his slave and do anything for him. He mistakes, thinking she is upset because of the long absence of her husband, his father, Theseus in the underworld. He tries to reassure her, while Phaedra cannot contain her made infatuation:

Madness is in my heart;
It is consumed by love, a wild fire raging
Secretly in my body in my blood,
Like flames that lick across a roof of timber.

Phaedra describes how beautiful Theseus was as a young man when he came to Crete to kill the Minotaur and sue King Minos for the hand of his daughter, Ariadne. But all this leads up to Phaedra kneeling in front of Hippolytus and declaring her love for him. Hippolytus responds with end-of-the-world bombast:

For what cause shall the sky be rent with thunder
If no cloud dims it now? Let ruin wreck
The firmament, and black night hide the day!
Let stars run back and all their courses turn
Into confusion!..
Ruler of gods in heaven and men on earth,
Why is thy hand not armed, will not thy torch
Of triple fire set all the world ablaze?
Hurl against me thy thunderbolt, thy spear,
And let me be consumed in instant fire.

He rebuffs her. She throws herself into his arms, swearing to follow him everywhere. He draws his sword. Yes! She begs to be killed and put out of her misery. He realises it will defile his sword and all the oceans will not be able to clean it. (A very common trope in tragedy, originating with the Greeks, repeated in, for example, Macbeth, one thousand five hundred and fifty years later.)

Phaedra faints, Hippolytus flees. The nurse steps forward to comment and make the suggestion that, now Phaedra’s criminal love is revealed and Hippolytus has rejected her, to deflect blame she ought to accuse him of propositioning her. She yells ‘Help! Rape!’ as the Chorus enters, representing ‘the people’, showing them the sword Hippolytus dropped in his flight and the Queen, lying distraught on the ground, her hair all dishevelled.

The Chorus apparently ignores the cries of the nurse and instead proceeds with a 3-page hymn to Hippolytus’s matchless male beauty.

Act 3

Weirdly, act 3 opens with the self-same Chorus only now summarising the situation i.e. the queen intends to pursue her utterly false claim of rape against Hippolytus. But the Chorus hasn’t got far before who do we see arriving but Theseus, the mature hero, who describes how he has been in the underworld for four long years, only able to return because Hercules rescued him. But what is all this weeping and lamentation he hears?

The nurse explains her wife is distraught and some kind of curtain is lifted or something removed to reveal an ‘inner scene’ where we see Phaedra holding a sword as if to kill herself. Theseus interrogates Phaedra who refuses to explain. So – in the kind of casual mention of hyper violence to servants and slaves which always disturbs me – Theseus says he’ll have the nurse bound and scourged and chained and whipped till she spills the beans.

But before he can do this, Phaedra says Hippolytus tried to rape her, saying this is his sword which he left in his flight. Theseus now delivers the ‘Great gods, what infamy is this!’ type speech. Interestingly, he accuses Hippolytus not only of the obvious things, but accuses him of hypocrisy in his ‘affectation of old time-honoured ways’ i.e. Seneca has expanded Hippolytus’s traditional character of hunter to include this extra dimension of him being a proponent of the whole back-to-the-ways-of-our-ancestors movement, a view Seneca himself propounds in the Letters to Lucilius.

Theseus accuses Hippolytus of being the worst kind of hypocrite, in language which reminds me of Hamlet berating his uncle Claudius, then vows to track him down wherever he flees. He tells us that the god Neptune granted him three wishes, and now he invokes this promise, demanding that Hippolytus never sees another dawn.

The Chorus steps in to lament why the king of the gods never intervenes to ensure justice, why men’s affairs seem governed by blind fate, why the evil triumph and the good are punished.

Act 4

Enter the messenger with stock tears and reluctance to tell what he has seen. Theseus commands him and so the messenger describes the death of Hippolytus. The youth fled, jumped into his chariot, and whipped the horses off at great speed but that is when a strange enormous storm arose at sea, vast waves attacking the land, and giving birth to a monster, a bull-shaped thing coloured green of the sea with fiery red eyes. This thing proceeds to terrify Hippolytus’s horses which run wild, throwing him from the chariot but tangling his arms and legs in the traces, so that he is dragged at speed over the clifftop’s ragged rocks and flayed alive, his body disintegrating into pieces until he collided with a fallen tree trunk and was transfixed in the groin. Theseus laments that his wish has been so violently fulfilled.

The Chorus repeats the idea which I’m coming to see as central to the play, less about love or lust etc but the safeness of the humble life, not exposed to the decadent living, random lusts and shocking violence associated with the rich.

Peace and obscurity make most content,
In lowly homes old age sleeps easily…
For Jupiter is on his guard
And strikes whatever comes too near the sky.
The thunder rumbles round his throne,
But no great harm can come to common folk
Who dwell in modest homes.

If you think about this for a moment, you’ll realise it’s bullshit. Poor people living in lowly homes often have terrible lives, scarred by poverty, ignorance and, of course, the random violence of their superiors who might, for example, decide to start a civil war and devastate the homes and livelihoods of ‘common folk’ in entire regions. Think of Julius Caesar laying waste entire regions of Gaul, burning cities to the ground and selling their entire populations into slavery. It’s the kind of patronising crap rich people tell themselves to convince themselves that they, the filthy rich, living in the lap of luxury, eating at gluttonous banquets, waited on hand and foot by literally hundreds of slaves, and filling their day with sexual perversions, that they are the ones who have it rough.

Act 5

Barely has Theseus heard all from the messenger than Phaedra enters, wailing and wielding the sword. She begins her lament as the ruined corpse of Hippolytus is brought onstage and continues, lamenting his death, berating her treachery and falsehood, confessing to Theseus that Hippolytus was totally innocent, then stabbing herself to death.

Theseus then laments a) was it for this that he was allowed to escape from hell, into a hell of his own devising? And then lists all the ingenious punishments he saw in hell and says none of them are adequate for him.

The Chorus intervenes to advise that they honour and bury the body first and then, very gruesomely, specifically directs Theseus in placing the left hand here and the right hand over here, and so on, as they assemble his body parts, a ghoulish jigsaw.

In the final lines, Theseus orders his staff to a) go scour the landscape to find the last missing bits of Hippolytus and b) and as for the wicked Phaedra:

let a deep pit of earth conceal
And soil lie heavy on her cursed head.

3. The Trojan Women

Background

The Trojan War has ended. Troy has fallen. Outside the smouldering ruins of the city huddle the surviving royal women, rounded up by the victorious Greeks and awaiting their fate. The leading women are Hecuba, widow of King Priam, and Andromache, widow of the great Trojan warrior, Hector.

Act 1

Hecuba opens the play with a long lament about the fall of Troy, symbol of the uncertainty on which all pomp and power is based. She interacts with the Chorus of Trojan women. She makes them unbind their hair and loosen their tunics to expose their bare breasts which they then proceed to beat in lament for Hector, wall of Troy, and Priam its murdered king. But at least they are at peace now and will never be led as slaves to foreign lands.

Happy is Priam, happy every man
That has died in battle
And taken with him his life’s fulfilment.

(The literal baring and beating of their own breasts occurs in several of the plays. Was it performed literally in ancient times? Women mourning in ancient times were meant to not only beat their bare breasts but scratch their faces till they bled. If taken literally, surely this would be as difficult to perform persuasively onstage as a sword fight.)

Act 2

The Chorus wonders why the Greeks are delaying. Talthybius describes the momentous appearance of the ghost of Achilles, demanding the sacrifice he was promised before the fleet can sail. A prime slab of Senecan bombast:

A rift appeared,
Caves yawned, hell gaped, earth parted and revealed
A way from worlds below to worlds above.
His tomb was burst asunder and there stood
The living ghost of the Thessalian leader…

Pyrrhus, son of dead Achilles, takes up the case for his father, first listing his great victories before he even came to Troy, then insisting the Greeks fulfil their vow and make a human sacrifice at his tomb. Agamemnon sharply refuses, saying he regrets the blood and cruelty of the night of the sack of Troy but it was sort of justified by bloodlust. But now in the cold light of day, sacrifice a human being? No. This dialogue turns really bitter as the two Greeks insult each other, accusing each other of cowardice and crimes.

Agamemnon calls for Calchas the soothsayer. Enter Calchas who announces that the gods demand two sacrifices: a young woman dressed as a bride must be sacrificed on Achilles’ tomb; and Priam’s grandson must be thrown from the battlements of Troy. Then the Greek fleet can sail.

The Chorus delivers quite a profound speech about death: is there anything afterwards, does the spirit live on, or is this all? It concludes:

There is nothing after death; and death is nothing –
Only the finishing post of life’s short race.

Therefore, ambition give up your hopes, anxiety give up your fears. (This is the third play in which, contrary to Watling’s comments in the introduction, we find Seneca’s characters delivering very clearly Stoic beliefs, entirely in line with Seneca the philosopher.)

Act 3

Andromache berates the Trojan women for only just learning grief, whereas for her Troy fell and the world ended when her husband, Hector, was killed. Now she only resists the death she wants to protect their son, Astyanax. An Elder performs the function of the nurse in other plays i.e. asks questions and is a sounding board for Andromache’s thoughts. She tells how the ghost of Hector came to her in a dream warning her to hide their son. Now she has come to the tomb of her husband and pushes the boy to go inside it (through gates) and hide, which he does without a word.

Then the Elder warns that Ulysses approaches. Ulysses announces he has been drawn by lot to ask Andromache for her son. While the son of Hector lives no Greek can rest, knowing he will grow up to restore Troy and relaunch the war. Andromache pretends her son was stolen from her during the sack of the city and laments his whereabouts and fate. Ulysses sees through her lies and threatens her with torture. Andromache welcomes torture and death. Ulysses understands her mother love and says it is love of his son, Telemachus, which motivates him.

At which point Andromache, to the accompaniment of fierce oaths, makes the ironic lie that her son right now is entombed with the dead (he, as we saw, is hiding in the tomb of Hector). Ulysses detects that Andromache is still anxious, pacing, muttering, as one who had lost everything would not. She is lying. He orders his men to tear down Hector’s tomb with the aim of scattering the ashes on the sea.

Andromache agonises over whether to surrender her son to save the ashes of her husband. She places herself before the tomb defying the soldiers to kill her first. Ulysses orders them on. She falls to her knees and clasps Ulysses’ legs and begs him to have mercy. She calls forth the boy, who comes from the tomb, she tells him to kneel before Ulysses.

Andromache ridicules the idea that this poor boy but himself could rebuild the walls of the ruined city. She begs Ulysses to let the boy become his slave. But Ulysses ducks responsibility, saying it is not his decision but Calchas’s.

Andromache despises him, but Ulysses says time is marching on, the ships have weighed anchor. He allows her a moment to lament her son and Andromache gives a page-long speech describing Astyanax growing to manhood and being a wise and noble king, which will not now happen. Andromache bids him go with the Greeks, but the boy clings on to his mother and doesn’t want to leave, but Andromache says there is no choice and bids him take a message from her to his father. Ulysses, bored of all this yap, commands his soldiers to take him away.

The Chorus of Trojan women pulls back, as it were, from this immediate scene, to consider the general problem, what will become of them, where will they be sent, whose slaves will they become?

Act 4

Helen laments that she has been ordered by the victorious Greeks to lie to Priam’s daughter Polyxena, and persuade her she is to be married to Pyrrhus. It is, of course, a lie, she is going to be sacrificed, but Helen dutifully tells her to rejoice and dress as a bride. Andromache, hearing all this, is filled with disgust that anyone can think of rejoicing at this disastrous time, and at the unremitting evil Helen represents, ‘bringer of doom, disaster and destruction’.

Helen replies to this attack, saying she had no say in the matter, was handed over like an object won in a competition, has endured 10 years of exile, and is now hated by all sides. Andromache knows Helen is telling lies and orders her to tell the truth. Herself weeping, Helen comes clean and says Polyxena is to be sacrificed, burned, and her ashes scattered over Achilles’ tomb.

Andromache is shocked that Polyxena takes the news that she is about to die with alacrity and enthusiastically changes clothes, braids her hair etc. It means exit from this misery and avoiding a lifetime of slavery. Not so happy is her mother, Hecuba, who laments.

Now Helen tells the Trojan women have been parcelled out to, Andromache to Pyrrhus, Hecuba to Ulysses, Cassandra to Agamemnon. Hecuba rains down curses on Ulysses, hoping that storm and sea will plague his return to Ithaca. And, as Pyrrhus appears, she extends her curse of storms and shipwreck to the entire Greek fleet.

The Chorus of Trojan women point out there is comfort in numbers, it is easier to mourn or suffer with colleagues, and describes how it will feel to be rounded up into the ships and sail away and slowly lose sight of their homeland, the smoke rising from their ruined city, Mount Ida, all fading over the horizon.

Act 5

The messenger arrives and announces the boy has been flung from the tower, the girl has met her death. The women ask for a detailed account, which he gives them. Both died with tremendous bravery, shaming the Greeks.

The last word goes to Hecuba who laments that death has come to everyone in her family, but will not come to her, to ease her suffering.

Thoughts

  1. The supernatural element of Achilles’ ghost rising up from the underworld is very unlike the chaste, restrained style of Euripides’ tragedy on the same subject. it feels closer in style to the Middle Ages or Gothic horror.
  2. The choral ode in act 2 persuasively argues that there is nothing after death, death is the end, our minds expire with our bodies – which is flatly contradicted by everything else in the play, including Achilles’ miraculous appearance, the ghost of Hector, and so on.
  3. The other plays feature a unified chronological plot. The Trojan Women is interesting because it has what feels like two plots, featuring two women (Hecuba and Andromache) running in parallel, though linking up at places. Its emphasis on the suffering of women reminds me of Ovid’s Heroides. It’s my favourite.

4. Oedipus

Background

The most famous Greek myth. A soothsayer tells Oedipus’s parents, Laius and Jocasta, the rulers of Thebes, that their unborn son will kill his father and sleep with his mother. Horrified, the royal couple deliver the baby, but then expose him in the country. To avoid the prophecy coming true they have the baby’s ankles pierced and joined together with a strap. (This caused the child’s feet to swell up and gave rise to Oedipus’ name, which literally means ‘swollen foot’.)

A peasant finds him and takes him to the king of the neighbouring realm, Polybus of Corinth who, being childless, considers him a providential gift from the gods and adopts him. As Oedipus grows to be strong and virile, his peers taunt him that he can’t be the son of the mild and gentle Polybus. So he travels to Delphi where the oracle tells him he is fated to kill his father and sleep with his mother. Horrified, Oedipus vows never to return to Corinth. On the way back he gets into an argument in a narrow path with an old man driving a chariot and hits him so hard he accidentally kills him. On the same journey he comes across the half-human, half-animal sphinx who won’t let him pass unless he answers the riddle: What walks on 4 legs in the morning, 2 legs at noon, and 3 legs in the evening. Oedipus answers correctly that it is Man. He travels on to Thebes to discover that the entire city had been terrorised by the Sphinx but he has saved them all. Not only that, but news has come that old King Laius has been killed. As saviour of the city, Oedipus is offered the hand of the widowed queen and marries Jocasta and becomes the new king.

The play opens as a plague is ravaging Thebes. A sequence of events, and messengers bringing news, slowly reveal to Oedipus that he was never the natural son of King Polybus, that he was adopted, that his true parents were Laius and Jocasta and then…that the old man he killed in the fight in the road was Laius and…he has been sleeping with Jocasta, his own mother, for years. At which point a) Jocasta hangs herself and b) Oedipus blinds himself.

Act 1

Oedipus outlines the situation i.e. he is king at Thebes, the city is stricken with plague which is striking down everyone but himself, he has sent to the oracle at Delphi which has sent back the horrifying prediction that he will kill his father and sleep with his mother. He is pleased he fled his homeland and his father Polybus, but feels a terrible sense of dread.

I see
Disaster everywhere, I doubt myself.
Fate is preparing, even while I speak,
Some blow for me.

Of course the blight of the plague gives Seneca scope for some typical hyperbole, ‘the murk of hell has swallowed up the heavenly citadels’ and so on. The description of the plague goes on at length, describing people too sick to bury the dead and so on, reminding me of the vivid description of the plague which ends Lucretius’s long poem De Rerum Natura, premonitory of Albert Camus’s great novel about a 20th century plague. Oedipus says maybe he brought the bad luck, maybe must leave the city.

His queen (and unbeknown to him, his mother) tells him a true king grasps misfortune with a steady hand.

Oedipus describes his encounter with the Sphinx who is made to sound a hellish beast surrounded by the bones of those who failed her riddle. Well, he triumphed over her but now seems to have himself brought the plague to Thebes.

The Chorus is made up of Theban elders. It gives a 4-page-long, vivid description of the plague, how it first struck animals then moved to humans. With characteristic bombast it then shrilly describes:

Out of the depths of Erebus their prison
The Furies have rushed upon us with the fire of hell.
Phlegethon, river of fire, has burst its banks,
The River of Hades is mingled with the River of Cadmus.

The act ends as Oedipus sees Creon, Jocasta’s brother, arriving. He has been to the oracle.

Act 2

Creon described to Oedipus the mood of horror at the oracle, till a superhuman voice declared that only when the murderer of Laius is driven out will Thebes know peace. Oedipus then makes one of those ironic vows, vowing to all the gods that the murderer of Laius will never know rest but live in permanent exile, a wandering nomad, and find no pardon – ignorant of the fact he is cursing himself.

On a more mundane note Oedipus now asks Creon how Laius met his death. He was attacked and murdered at a crossroads out in the countryside, says Creon.

Enter the old blind prophet Tiresias, led by his daughter, Manto. He tells Oedipus he can interpret the situation through a sacrifice, so a bull and heifer are brought in and the sacrificial flame rises and parts in two parts which fight each other.

[This is a classic example of the way these plays would be hard to stage but work very well when read, or read aloud, or broadcast. The getting onstage of the animal, its execution and especially the behaviour of the flame would be impossible to create onstage but work pretty well when read out.]

Manto describes the strange behaviour of the flame which Tiresias interprets as the gods themselves being ashamed of the truth. Tiresias asks how the animals behaved when sacrificed and Manto tells him the heifer submitted but the bull shied and defied the blows. The heifer bled freely but the bull’s blood not at all, while dark blood poured from its eyes and mouth. When they examined the entrails, they were in bad shape, the heart was shrunk, the veins were livid, part of the lungs was missing, the liver was putrid. Far, far worse, the virgin heifer turned out to be pregnant and the deformed life in her stirred. The fire on the altar roared, the hearth quaked etc.

Oedipus begs to know what this all means, but Tiresias pushes the play deep into Gothic territory by saying they will have to perform a magic rite to call the soul of the dead king himself up from hell to tell them. Oedipus must not attend, so he nominates Creon to go in his place.

Incongruously, oddly, the Chorus sing a sustained hymn to the Bacchus, god of the vine, listing his adventures and achievements – notably the occasion when he scared pirates who had captured him into jumping overboard and being changed into dolphins, and the time he rescued Ariadne from Naxos and proceeded to marry her.

Act 3

Creon enters. Oedipus asks what he saw at the ceremony. Creon is so terrified he repeatedly refuses to speak until Oedipus forces him. Then Creon gives a terrific description of the dark and ill-fated glade where they took Tiresias and dug a ditch and burned animal sacrifices and chanted evil spells and a great chasm opened up and hordes of the dead appeared before them. Last of all came the reluctant figure of Laius, still dishevelled and bloody, who proceeds to give a long speech saying the plague on Thebes is due to the current king, who killed his father and has slept with his mother and had children by her. Only when he is cast out as an unclean thing will Thebes be cured.

Oedipus is appalled but refuses to believe it: after all, his father Polybus lives on at Corinth and he’s never laid a finger on his mother, Merope. Oedipus refuses to believe it and says Creon is conspiring with Tiresias to seize the crown. Creon, for his part, advises Oedipus to abdicate now, to step down to a humbler position before he is pushed. They proceed to have a page of dialogue which turns into a debate about whether a subject should stand up to the king, Oedipus dismissing these as typical arguments of the revolutionary.

The Chorus gives a potted history of the land of Thebes, and the wider region of Boeotia, populated by Cadmus in search of his abducted sister Europa, of the many monsters which have been spawned in this region, with a final mention of the myth of Actaeon, turned into a stag and ripped apart by his own hunting dogs.

Act 4

Oedipus is confused, he asks Jocasta how Laius died and is told he was struck down by a young man when travelling with his entourage at a place where three roads meet. It jogs a faint memory in Oedipus’s mind but then a messenger comes to interrupt his attempts to remember with news that his ‘father’, King Polybus of Corinth, has passed away peacefully in his sleep.

The old man/messenger requests him to come to Corinth to attend the dead king’s funeral, but Oedipus refuses, saying he is afraid of being alone in the company of his mother. The old man reassures him that Meropa was not his real mother and proceeds to tell the full story of how he, the old man, was given Oedipus as a baby, his ankles bound together with a metal pin. ‘Who by?’ Oedipus asks. ‘The keeper of the royal flocks,’ the man replies. ‘Can he remember his name?’ Oedipus asks. No, but he might remember the face. So Oedipus orders his men to assemble all the royal shepherds.

The old man warns Oedipus to stop probing while he still has time, but Oedipus insists he has nothing to fear and the truth will set him free. Poor dupe of fate.

Enter Phorbas, head of Thebes’s royal flocks. He begins to remember the old man. He confirms that he handed the old man a baby but doubts if it can have lived because its ankles were pierced through with an iron bolt and infection had spread.

Who was the baby, Oedipus demands. Phorbas refuses to say so Oedipus says he will order hot coals to torture him with. Phorbas replies with one line: ‘Your wife was that child’s mother.’

With that one line the truth comes flooding in on Oedipus. He is not Polybus and Meropa’s child; they adopted him; he is the child of Laius who he killed at the crossroads and of…Jocasta, the woman he has married and had children with. Oedipus is, understandably, distraught, and expresses it with full Senecan hyperbole:

Earth, be opened!
Ruler of darkness, hide in deepest hell
This monstrous travesty of procreation!

The Chorus continues its very tangential relationship with the story, not commenting on this amazing revelation at all, but instead wishing its ship of life was riding on milder waters to a gentler wind. And then goes off at a real tangent, briefly describing the story of Daedalus and Icarus to show that living in moderation, the golden mean, is best.

Act 5

The Chorus sees a messenger approaching. Never good news these messengers, and this one is no exception. He describes in great detail how distraught Oedipus went into the palace, grabbed a sword and made a great speech about killing himself, but then realised it wasn’t punishment enough, was too quick and easy. Something was demanded to placate the gods and end the curse and the plague, more like a living death, where he would die again and again every day. Then it comes to him to blind himself and the messenger gives a very gory description of Oedipus plucking his own eyes out.

The Chorus gives a brief didactic explanation that Fate is unchangeable, one iron chain of endless causes and consequences. No man can escape it.

Enter Oedipus blinded, freed from the light of the accusing sun.

The Chorus describes Jocasta coming onstage, distraught, uncertain whether to address her son and husband.

Jocasta addresses Oedipus who is horrified and says they must never speak, never be in the same country together. Jocasta seizes his sword and, after some debate exactly where to stab herself, stabs herself in her womb, seat of all her sinfulness, and falls dead.

In his final soliloquy Oedipus says he has expiated his sin and now will set out on his wanderings. He promises the poor suffering people of Thebes that he will take with him the capitalised allegorised figures of infliction and free them at last. What better companions and tormentors could he hope for on his endless wanderings and punishments.

Moral of the story

Even if you’re a childless couple, desperate for a baby, do not accept the gift of a little baby boy whose ankles are pierced together by an iron bar!

*************

Big ideas

When I was a boy reading these Penguin introductions, it was often not specific criticism of specific aspects of the play which stuck with me, but when the scholars and editors made throwaway generalisations which in a flash helped me make sense of an entire genre or period of history.

Thus, in among his detailed critique of specific plays or aspects, Watling offers three big, memorable ideas about Seneca’s influence on English Renaissance literature.

1. One is that Seneca is often blamed for Elizabethan and Jacobean playwrights’ addiction to ghosts, ghosts of gruesomely murdered figures who return to the land of the living to trigger the action of the plot (p.28). The ghost of the dead Spanish officer Andrea appears at the start of the archetypal Elizabethan revenge tragedy, Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy, and ghosts are important in Shakespeare’s Macbeth and Julius Caesar and central to the plot of his greatest play, Hamlet. In fact, Watling refutes this by pointing out there are only two ghosts in Seneca’s oeuvre, Tantalus in Thyestes and Thyestes in Agamemnon.

2. The other is the simple but illuminating comment that:

The language of Elizabethan drama would not have reached its height of poetic eloquence without the infusion of the classical voice – the Ovidian mythology and the Senecan rhetoric. (p.32)

Aha, Ovid and Seneca – so that was their influence and how they fit together to flow through all Elizabethan drama: Ovid for mythological stories, with their bucolic settings, flowers and curlicues; Seneca for accusing ghosts, characters howling for revenge and invoking the shadows of Erebus and darkest night.

3. There’s a third insight, not so striking as the first two, maybe, and this is that, despite the best efforts of scholars and academically-minded authors like Philip Sidney or Ben Jonson to import the so-called Dramatic Unities and impose them on contemporary drama, they failed; they failed to dent the English preference for ‘straggling narrative plays‘ which cheerfully ignore the cardinal unities of time or place or even action (p.35).

In Watling’s words 1) Senecan rhetoric of extreme emotions was grafted onto 2) plots which lacked Senecan focus and concision, to create a ‘fusion of classical uniformity with romantic multiformity in the Elizabethan theatre.’ (p.37).

In the greatest Elizabethan plays, the theme, the form and the language may have crystallised into an impressive whole:

but yet not so perfect as to tidy up all the loose ends or exclude the superfluities and irrelevances which make the Elizabethan drama of life a different thing from the Roman sculptured monument of death. (p.38)

Messy, mongrel literature has always been our style.


Credit

E.F. Watling’s translation of Four Tragedies and Octavia was published by Penguin Books in 1966.

Related links

Roman reviews

Tales from Ovid by Ted Hughes (1997)

Given his reputation for avoiding anything which smacked of ‘the Poetic Tradition’, the fact that he dropped English at Cambridge because he found studying the classics too stifling for his imagination, and his lifelong preference for depicting the harsh realities of a brutal, untamed nature – it might come as quite a surprise that, right at the end of his life, in 1997, Ted Hughes published a full-on translation of the Metamorphoses by the ancient Roman poet, Ovid, the kind of thing you might expect from a far more traditional, decorous, academic poet.

An odd choice?

Having just read the full Ovid poem I can see that Hughes’s decision is less surprising than might at first appear. I had fond memories of reading the Metamorphoses 30 years ago and had completely forgotten that they are consistently brutal, intense and often very cruel indeed. As such, they obviously chime with Hughes’s lifelong obsession with the brutality, intensity, and visionary otherness of the natural world.

Also, it’s easy to overlook the fact that Hughes had, earlier in his career, translated another work by a canonical Roman writer, the Oedipus of Seneca. In fact I was surprised, double checking his bibliography, to discover that after his death a whole suite of translations was published – translations of The Oresteia of Aeschylus, Phèdre by Jean Racine, and Alcestis by Euripides, all published in 1999. What do they have in common? Classic stories from classical antiquity. So the Ovid translations are far from unique. Hughes’s imagination clearly took a classical turn in his last decade.

And then, on rereading his poetry as I just have, I realised there are scattered references to classical mythology throughout – not many, admittedly, but they’re there.

Plus the entire sequence in Moortown named ‘Prometheus on his crag’, and the poem in that volume about Actaeon, and one titled ‘Pan’.

So once you start looking, you find a strong undercurrent of classical references and subject matter throughout his oeuvre.

The Metamorphoses

The Metamorphoses is a long poem in Latin in which the Roman poet Publius Ovidius Naso, generally referred to as Ovid (43 BC t o18 AD) brought together into one continuous narrative some 250 ancient Greek myths and legends.

these ancient stories all have one thing in common – the protagonist, the figure at the centre of the story, be they man, woman, child, sometimes a minor divinity such as a nymph or nereid – at the climax of the story, each of them is transformed into something else. Sometimes into an animal, like a bird or pig or wolf or dog; sometimes into flora, such as a tree or flower; sometimes into inanimate matter, like stone – various characters are turned into statues or just into stone – or into water – several characters are turned into standing pools or streams.

Hughes’s approach

Ovid’s poem is huge. At just short of 12,000 lines of regular dactylic hexameter it is as long and detailed and complicated as the canonical epic poems of Homer and Virgil. Hughes’s version is nowhere near as long. For a start he restricts himself to just 24 of the longer or more complete tales.

So instead of a continuous narrative describing stories big and small, containing full length treatments with throwaway references in a line or two, as Ovid does, Hughes presents us with what is, in effect, a collection of 24 individual poems.

Second, and a more glaring difference, is Hughes translates Ovid into free verse. Hughes employed free verse and flexible stanza shapes right from the start of his career, so by 1997 he’d had 40 years of practice. The result is a style where every line is its own thing, its own measure, justifying its own length and rhythm by its meaning and poetic force, rather than being compelled to fit into a regular metre.

Tales from Ovid does in fact contain regular stanza structures, though I only slowly realised it. Thus the opening story about Phaethon who fools his father, the god of the sun, into letting him drive his chariot for a day and proves totally inadequate to the task – a kind of ancient Greek Liz Truss – and loses control of the immortal horses and lets the sun chariot swoop low over the earth causing widespread destruction – in Hughes’s hands this narratives begins by being told in 47 5-line stanzas, each line being as flexible as he needed it to be.

When Phaethon bragged about is father, Phoebus
The sun-god,
His friends mocked him. ‘Your mother must be crazy
Or you’re crazy to believe her.
How could the sun be anybody’s father?’

In a rage of humiliation
Phaethon came to his mother, Clymene.
‘They’re all laughing at me,
And I can’t answer. What can I say? It’s horrible.
I have to stand like a dumb fool and be laughed at.’

And so on. However, Hughes has no hesitation in switching format as required so that, for example, when Phaethon enters the palace of his father, the verse switches to long verse paragraphs in order to describe its grandeur.

Fittingly magnificent
Columns underpropped a mass
Of gold strata so bright
The eyes flinched from it.
The whole roof a reflector
Of polished ivory.
The silver doors like sheet flame –
And worked into that flame
Vulcan, the god of fire,
Had set, in relief, a portrait of the creation…

Back to 5-line stanzas for a bit and then, when Phaethon loses control of the horse of the sun so that they fly down, far too close to the surface of the earth, it switches again to verse paragraphs, although the freedom of individual lines remains identical to what it was in the stanzas i.e. there’s no particular rhyme or pattern except the power of the phrases themselves.

Earth began to burn, the summits first.
Baked, the cracks gaped. All fields, all thickets,
All crops were instantly fuel –
The land blazed briefly.
In the one flare noble cities
Were rendered
To black stumps of burnt stone.
Whole nations, in all their variety,
Were clouds of hot ashes, blowing in the wind,.
Forest-covered mountains were bonfires…

Later on the 9-page tale of Pyramus and Thisbe is told in a series of free verse 3-line stanzas so popular with contemporary poets for some reason. (Maybe this is for the simple reason that they’re no couplets which tend to make you expect rhymes, and not quatrains, ditto. Triplets are free of those old traditional expectations.)

Throughout the East men spoke in awe of Thisbe –
A girl who had suddenly bloomed
In Babylon, the mud-brick city.

The house she had grown up in adjoined
The house where Pyramus, so many years a boy,
Brooded bewildered by the moods of manhood.

These two, playmates from the beginning,
Fell in love.
For angry reasons, no part of the story,

The parents of each forbade their child
To marry the other…

In other words, Hughes felt utterly free to pick and choose verse forms, or variations of free verse forms, as they suited his needs.

List of the poems

  1. The Creation of the Universe. The Four Ages (Gold, Silver, Bronze, Iron). the Flood. The story of Lycaon (20 pages)
  2. Phaethon (21 pages)
  3. Callisto and Arcas (7 pages)
  4. The Rape of Proserpina (15 pages)
  5. Arethusa (4 pages)
  6. Tiresias (2 pages)
  7. Echo and Narcissus (11 pages)
  8. Erisychthon (10 pages)
  9. Semele (6 pages)
  10. Peleus and Thetis (4 pages)
  11. Actaeon (8 pages)
  12. Myrrha (15 pages)
  13. Venus and Adonis (16 pages)
  14. Pygmalion (7 pages)
  15. Hercules and Dejanira (13 pages)
  16. The Birth of Hercules (3 pages)
  17. The Death of Cygnus (6 pages)
  18. Arachne (9 pages)
  19. Bacchus and Pentheus (18 pages)
  20. Midas (11 pages)
  21. Niobe (12 pages)
  22. Salmacis and Hermaphroditus (5 pages)
  23. Tereus (17 pages)
  24. Pyramus and Thisbe (9 pages)

The merits of Hughes’s version

Characteristic, trademark phrasing, precise, brisk, no fat on the bone, no extraneous syllables. Hard, precise and clinical.

Hercules, the son of Jupiter,
Was bringing his new bride home
When he came to the river Evenus.

Burst banks, booming torrent,
Where there had been a ford. Hercules
Had no fear for himself, only for his wife.

No namby-pamby, stuff-and-nonsense, decoration or silly sentiment for our Ted. Stick to the facts, son, and tha’ll do alreeght.

The weaknesses of Hughes’s version

1. Verbosity

The weakness of Hughes’s later verse is its verbosity, as I tried to demonstrate in my overview of Hughes’s career. Much of Crow is dazzlingly brilliant, Gaudete is an extraordinarily weird achievement, but by the time of Moortown in 1979, you feel Hughes could churn this stuff out by the yard, by the mile if necessary. Same is true in spades of Tales from Ovid.

There are still flashes of brilliance in his phrasing, and his shaping of lines i.e. deciding how many words and beats to include in each line, and his ability to build up rhythms over successive free verse lines remains very impressive. But his commitment to a diction which is ‘a texture that is concrete, terse, emphatic, economical’ often ends up emptying the lines of colour. His verse feels oddly empty.

2. Functionality

Also, in order to tell stories in verse some of the lines need to be unavoidably functional. Now, if you’re Dryden or Pope, you could use a standard format like the rhyming couplet or blank verse, both of which are utterly predictable in layout, pace and metre and so very suitable for settling down to hear a very long narrative in.

Hughes tries to translate his 24 stories into ad hoc verse shapes and line lengths but, whereas these were justified when they contained a blitz of stunning images in his own poems, this approach works less well for narrative poetry.

Somewhere the critic (and mate of Hughes’s) Al Alvarez commented that Hughes’s poems leap from one dazzling image to the next. That’s fine if that’s all the poems are meant to do – dazzle. But telling a story requires something a bit more predictable, a regular repeatable style which can take a backseat to the narrative.

3. Thin

In stripping his versions back to the bone, Hughes loses a lot of what makes Ovid Ovid, which is the myriad digressions and throwaway references, about genealogy and relationships and attributes of this god or the achievements of that hero; all the peripheral detail which goes to build up a rich imaginative world. These are just some of the aspects which make the original Metamorphoses feel very dense and rich, sumptuous, luxurious. Hughes deliberately chucks all that out in order to hone things down to maximum intensity for each line. But what if the sumptuous detail is the point of Ovid?

4. Scene setting and landscapes

Now I’m really thinking about this, I realise that Ovid, in his best most extended stories, often goes in for slow, lush, storytelling descriptions of scenery and setting.

There was a valley there called Gargaphie, dense with pine trees and sharp cypresses, sacred to Diana of the high-girded tunic, where, in the depths, there is a wooded cave, not fashioned by art. But ingenious nature had imitated art. She had made a natural arch out of native pumice and porous tufa. On the right, a spring of bright clear water murmured into a widening pool, enclosed by grassy banks. Here the woodland goddess, weary from the chase, would bathe her virgin limbs in the crystal liquid. (book 3)

Hughes chucks all this out in order to get to the pith of the action.

A deep cleft at the bottom of the mountain
Dark with matted pine and spiky cypress

Was known as Gargaphie, sacred to Diana,
Goddess of the hunt.
In the depths of this goyle was the mouth of a cavern

That might have been carved out with deliberate art
From the soft volcanic rock.
It half-hid a broad pool, perpetually shaken

By a waterfall inside the mountain,
Noisy but hidden. Often to that grotto,
Aching and burning from her hunting,

Diana came
To cool the naked beauty she hid from the world.

I suppose Hughes’s version is more crisp, factual, minimalist and modern – but, in a poem of Ovid’s type, half the pleasure is in the details, the lushness and the time taken to elaborate and decorate the subject. It’s nice to know that Diana is the goddess ‘of the high-girded tunic’ and a thousand and one other details and spin-off phrases which adorn and enrich the Ovid. All burned away in Hughes. Hughes’s version is like a concrete multi-story car park – admirable in its stark, uncompromising efficiency. But difficult to warm to, let alone love.

5. Blank style

And that brings me round to the lack of sensuality in Hughes’s verse. His is a powerful sensuality of imagery but not of language, as such.

Right from the start Hughes was capable of using simple words in unexpected combinations to convey his otherworldly insights into nature with stunning power, but there was rarely anything special about the words themselves. they are often very ordinary indeed. It was always the novel combinations of words into brilliant, often mind-bending phrases which had so much impact on readers. In fact, paradoxically, Hughes often works with a very limited, plain diction.

Somehow, for me, his translation of the Tales really brings this out. The deliberate blankness of a lot of the style, and the occasional dazzling phraseology, can’t conceal the fact that a lot of the lines are, lexically speaking, rather, well, pedestrian.

The introduction

There’s a case for saying the best part of the book is the introduction. For a start, it’s admirably brief at just four and a half pages. After some fluff about Ovid’s biography, it quickly turns to Hughesian interests. After mentioning the Metamorphoses‘ importance to Chaucer as a source book for all manner of myths and legends, Hughes goes on to cite Shakespeare.

Characteristically, Hughes dismisses Shakespeare finding sweet and beautiful images amidst Ovid’s dense foliage. Instead:

A more crucial connection, maybe, can be found in their common taste for a tortured subjectivity and catastrophic extremes of passion that border on the grotesque.

Now, admittedly these elements are present in Shakespeare’s earliest, goriest plays and remain in moments of the high tragedies, especially King Lear. But roughly speaking who do ‘a tortured subjectivity and catastrophic extremes of passion’ remind you of? Hughes. and his hyperbolic brain-damaged worldview (see my overview of Hughes’s oeuvre for quotes to back this up).

But it’s worth bearing with this over-passionate man for the insights he offers into Ovid:

Above all, Ovid was interested in passion. or rather, in what a passion feels like to the one possessed by it. Not just ordinary passion either, but human passion in extremis – passion where it combusts, or levitates, or mutates into an experience of the supernatural.

Then Hughes says something really interesting and profoundly insightful. I quote it in full to give the rhythm and rise of his argument:

The act of metamorphosis, which at some point, touches each of the tales, operates as the symbolic guarantee that the passion has become mythic, has achieved the unendurable intensity that lifts the whole episode onto the supernatural or divine plane. Sometimes this happens because mortals tangle with the gods, sometimes because mortal passion makes the breakthrough by sheer excess, without divine intervention – as in the tale of Tereus and Philomela. But in every case, to a greater or lesser degree, Ovid locates and captures the particular frisson of that event, where the all-too-human victim stumbles out into the mythic arena and is transformed.

I think the thought behind this, and the phrasing, are wonderfully vivid and evocative. I’m not at all sure what he says is true of the entire Metamorphoses, which feature just as many nymphs and Naiads and whatnot as mortals – and also includes some happy endings, such as Pygmalion, and Baucis and Philemon (the happiest story in the Metamorphoses and so, symptomatically, not included in Hughes’s selection of tales.)

But as a description of what does happen to the poor, stricken mortals among Ovid’s hapless protagonists, this is a wonderfully, energetically perceived and phrased insight.

Conclusion

As Hughes’s last volume of poetry, Tales from Ovid has interest, though it’s not the best place to start if you’ve never read him before.

If you want to find out what Ovid’s Metamorphoses is actually like, then emphatically do not read this translation, try the more traditional versions from Penguin or OUP which give you the full text along with all the wonderful details and grace notes which welcome you into an entirely new world. Every bit as savage and cruel as Hughes’s, but redeemed and enlivened by far more colour and variety.


Poetry reviews

Classical poetry

Dark Age poetry

Medieval poetry

Renaissance poetry

Restoration poetry

Victorian poetry

Kipling

1930s poetry

Modern poetry

Catastrophe by Samuel Beckett (1982)

Catastrophe is a very short play by Samuel Beckett, written in French in 1982 at the invitation of the Association Internationale de Défense des Artistes and first produced in the Avignon Festival on 21 July 1982.

Unlike most of Beckett’s plays or works, which are notably apolitical and even asocial in their studiedly abstract, experimental and often very solipsistic focus, Catastrophe is something like a political play, an impression Beckett fostered by dedicating it to the Czech playwright and political reformer, Václav Havel who was, at the time, imprisoned by the Czech communist regime.

That said, the play is still very late-Beckettian in at least three respects:

  1. It is really very short – the Beckett Project production clocks in at just five and a half minutes
  2. It is very claustrophobic, small and confined and, as so often, only has two speaking parts, in this instance a bossy theatre director and his assistant
  3. As mention of the characters suggests, it isn’t set in a prison or concentration camp or dictator’s courtroom or party meeting or hideout of rebels and freedom fighters or any other overtly political setting that the word ‘political’ implies –instead it is set in a theatre

Mise-en-scène

As so often, Beckett’s stage directions convey half the information or impact of the piece. As so often there are only 2 speaking roles. As so often they and the two non-speaking roles don’t even have names but are assigned only initials.

Director (D).
His female assistant (A).
Protagonist (P).
Luke, in charge of the lighting, offstage (L).

Rehearsal. Final touches to the last scene. Bare stage. A and L have just set the lighting. D has just arrived.
D in an armchair downstairs audience left. Fur coat. Fur toque to match. Age and physique unimportant.
A standing beside him. White overall. Bare head. Pencil on ear. Age and physique unimportant.
P midstage standing on a black block 18 inches high. Black wide-brimmed hat. Black dressing-gown to ankles. Barefoot. Head bowed. Hands in pockets. Age and physique unimportant.
D and A contemplate P.
Long pause.

It is, in its telegraphese, prosey way, a kind of poem.

The plot

We are in a theatre. A haughty director snaps and bosses around a female assistant as they put the finishing touches to some kind of ‘last scene’ of some kind of dramatic presentation. This appears to consist entirely of one man, called The Protagonist, standing stock still on a plinth on the stage while the director and assistant circle him considering his dress, posture and so on.

In this respect – two characters animatedly discussing a third who does not move or speak – it is identical to Rough For Theatre II where two characters, A and B, discuss the character and case of a third figure, C, who stands in the open window, unmoving and unspeaking.

The Assistant has arranged the Protagonist atop the 18-inch-high black block and draped him in a ‘black dressing gown’ down to his ankles and wearing a ‘black wide-brimmed hat’. The action of the play consists of the irritable, domineering Director over-riding her presentation and fussing about innumerable details of the Protagonist’s posture, his hands, the hat, his face, telling the assistant to take off the Protagonist’s coat and roll up the trousers of his old grey pyjamas.

His irritability is symbolised by the way his big Director’s cigar keeps going out and he keeps snapping at the Assistant to provide him a light.

When he has got the Assistant to largely strip the Protagonist, she points out that he is now shivering. The Director doesn’t care. Or worse, he pretends (to himself) to care, saying ‘Bless his heart,’ but not changing his behaviour at all. He’s only interested in achieving his great creative effect, and also mentions that he’s late for a meeting (which he refers to by the unusual term of a ‘caucus’).

Throughout, whenever the Director makes a more general suggestion, the Assistant replies with the unusual phrase ‘I make a note’, rather than ‘I will make a note’ or ‘I’ll take a note’ or make sure it’s done’ or any of a  number of possible phrases. No. ‘I make a note’ has a surprisingly large impact in making the dialogue, and consequently the entire setup, appear strangely brittle and unnatural.

When the Director withdraws to the stalls to get a proper view of his handiwork, the Assistant flops down in an empty theatre seat, but only for a moment. She springs right back up and wipes the seat vigorously, as if to avoid contamination, before reseating herself.

In the last minute they call on Luke, the lighting technician, who has two lines, though he doesn’t appear, and who obeys the Director’s imperious instructions about changing the light on the Protagonist in order to create the most dramatic possible tableau. It is at this point that the title of the piece appears. When Luke adjusts the lighting so it falls solely on the Protagonist’s face, the Director goes into raptures.

D: [Pause.] Good. There’s our catastrophe. In the bag. Once more and I’m off… Terrific! He’ll have them on their feet. I can hear it from here…

‘In the bag’. Good. And with that the Director is ready to whisk off to his ‘caucus’. But it’s in the last 30 seconds that the piece acquires its bite. For in these last seconds, the Protagonist, who has been standing stock still, with his head down, submitting to all these indignities, finally raises his head and looks the audience directly in the eye, and the audience, which has been acquiescing in this bullying and humiliation, is slowly shamed into silence.

P raises his bead, fixes the audience. The applause falters, dies. Long pause

Beckett, whose every utterance was, by this late stage of his life, taken down and recorded for the use of future scholars, apparently told American theatre critic Mel Gussow that:

‘it was not his intention to have the character make an appeal… He is a triumphant martyr rather than a sacrificial victim… and it is meant to cow onlookers into submission through the intensity of his gaze and stoicism.’

Interpretations

Aristotle

In Aristotle’s seminal work of literary criticism, the Poetics, the Greek philosopher defines the catastrophe of a play as the moment when the tragic hero pulls down ruin and pain on himself and his society, when Oedipus blinds himself, when Pentheus is torn to pieces by the Maenads. More broadly, it is:

the final resolution in a poem or narrative plot, which unravels the intrigue and brings the piece to a close. (Wikipedia)

Catastrophe is obviously nothing like Aeschylus or Sophocles. It is muted and boring, the only real interest being the character of the thuggish, bullying male director, a character who could have walked directly from the accusations of the #metoo movement.

And yet the word ‘catastrophe’ is deliberately uttered by the key character, and he appears to be using it in its correct technical sense.

D: [Pause.] Good. There’s our catastrophe. In the bag.

The Director is satisfied that this tableau, of the protagonist stripped down to his undergarments and lit just so will provide just the right climax to whatever drama has preceded it.

There is, then, a tremendous irony in the way the play then proceeds, in the final 30 seconds, to enact Beckett’s ‘catastrophe’, the one whereby the Protagonist lifts his face to confront the audience and cow them into silence and shame.

This catastrophe doesn’t bring tragic recognition and ruin in the classic sense, but it does transform the figure from utterly passive object, rudely talked about, to a man who is fighting back, defying his owners and manipulators.

Thus the concept of the ‘catastrophe’ is correctly used twice at the end of the play, but to highlight the fact that it contains two narratives – the play-within-a-play whereby the Director achieves his effect – and the wider play, the Beckett play which the audience is watching, which achieves its catastrophe in an entirely different way. Or is working to a completely different aesthetic. Or to a completely different set of moral values.

For such a short piece, it’s quite a dense and complex effect.

Politics

If it hadn’t been dedicated to Havel, a world-famous dissident and political reformer, it might not have been easy to see Catastrophe as a ‘political’ play at all. But in the event, Beckett was involved in several of the productions around the West and left some pretty explicit comments about his intentions in this regard. Most notably, in answer to a reviewer who claimed that the ending was ambiguous, Beckett replied angrily:

‘There’s no ambiguity there at all. He’s saying, you bastards, you haven’t finished me yet.’

So quite obviously Catastrophe is about a figure who is poked and prodded and reified or objectified and reduced to a wordless mannequin to suit the whims of the Director. But who at the last minute asserts his freedom and agency.

Whether you think this rather slender ‘plot’, and the fairly tame and super-familiar setting (a rehearsal for a play, or part thereof) is sturdy enough to bear the heavy freight of political symbolism which the play has been loaded with, is a judgement call. In the febrile world of the theatre and the glib world of literary criticism it can easily be made to pass for one.

The Beckett on Film production

The Beckett on Film project set out, at the turn of the century, to produce high quality, filmed productions of all 19 of Beckett’s plays. The producers approached leading directors and actors, but not always with happy results.

To direct Catastrophe they chose acclaimed American playwright and director David Mamet, cast playwright and Beckett enthusiast Harold Pinter to play the Director and, in a great coup, secured acclaimed Shakespearian actor Sir John Gielgud as the Protagonist. It was Gielgud’s last role and he died only a few weeks after filming it.

Which makes it all the more of a shame that Mamet seems to have made quite a balls-up of the piece. Mamet made his name as the author of a series of plays about hairy, testosterone-fuelled toxic American men such as Sexual Perversity in Chicago (1974), and American Buffalo (1975), Glengarry Glen Ross (1984) and Speed-the-Plow (1988).

If you’re familiar with Mamet’s attraction to strong, unpleasant male characters, often depicted in exploitative relationships with younger women, it comes as no surprise that his production devotes all its attention to the domineering figure of the Director, played by a characteristically offensive, barkingly pukka, alpha male Harold Pinter, and his bullying relationship with the (very attractive) Assistant.

Re, this Assistant, it is notable that, whereas, in the stage directions the Assistant wears shapeless ‘White overall. Bare head. Pencil on ear. Age and physique unimportant.’ in Mamet’s production, she is a) very attractive b) wearing the smart and shapely outfit of a briskly willing secretary, as per the Hollywood BDSM movie, The Secretary.

All subtlety whatsoever is scorched away from the piece. It has been turned into Sexual Perversity in Theatreland.

It doesn’t help your sense that Beckett’s original intentions have been left far behind when you learn that the actress playing A, Rebecca Pidgeon, is a) American – which helps to explain what is subtly wrong about her posh English accent – and b) is, um, married to David Mamet. Aha. People talk, these days, about crony capitalism. Maybe there’s such a thing as crony thespianism.

All of which is getting on for tragic because of the criminal under-use of one of the greatest English actors of all time, Sir John Gielgud, who stands out of vision for almost the entire piece.

Now, you can understand why they keep his figure peripheral for the scripted part of the play – it is in order to raise the tension and expectation so that when the Big Reveal comes it will be all the more dramatic. Reasonable idea.

And yet, when the Big Reveal does come, the moment which the entire interpretation of the piece as a political play hangs on, the notion that his final facial expression conveys the Protagonist’s revolt and defiance and cows and shames the audience which has acquiesced in his humiliation into embarrassed silence – well, Mamet muffs it big time and makes Gielgud look exactly like Gollum from the Lord of the Rings movies.

Instead of a look of defiance designed to shame the audience which has tamely acquiesced in his torment, Gielgud is made to look like a grinning goblin. It’s a travesty. A travesty of a mockery of a sham.

Mamet’s mangling of this subtle play is a good piece of evidence for the broader argument that Americans simply can’t understand European culture because they have never been invaded, overrun, defeated, cowed and crushing into submission, as almost the entire continent of Europe was from 1939 to 1945.

And then that, while half of Europe groaned under communist tyranny for decades after the Second World War, and their intellectuals agonised about communism and decolonisation, Americans were enjoying a bubblegum postwar boom, driving bigger and bigger cars, building bigger and bigger houses equipped with swimming pools and ever-more convenient domestic appliances, and ogling pneumatic pinup girls. Brainless consumerism.

So, in my opinion, Mamet completely misses what so many critics take to be the play’s central importance, namely the way the dominating Director functions as a symbol of the thoughtless, bullying authority which forms the basis of most repressive regimes.

But not only this, Mamet also completely omits the artistic subtlety of the piece – the Beckettian overtones, the weird, abstracted, formalised armature to be found in so many of Beckett’s plays, the oddities of language and phrasing (the way the Assistant says ‘I take a note’ and the Director keeps saying, ‘Come on. Say it’) the language oddly off kilter, which alert the viewer or reader that we are in a strange and unusual place, in Beckettland.

No, Mamet and Pinter conspire to make this piece all about cocky, swaggering masculinity, about a big swinging theatrical dick, so that the subtlety of language, the oddity of the action, and the ghosts of Europe’s history of oppression and struggle, are all utterly erased.

In the theatre

In several other reviews I’ve pointed out a basic fact of much of Beckett’s prose, which is that it can be seen as consisting of narrators who pose, position and direct other characters.

Take Ill Seen Ill Said which I’ve just reviewed. There is very little plot in the ordinary sense; what there is, is a narrator who is trying to arrange the disparate elements of the situation into some kind of order and, in doing so, he frequently stops to comment on his own efforts, wonders whether he should pose the old lady protagonist in this, that or the other position even, at one point, stops arranging the action altogether in order to wonder whether his approach is correct or valid.

In other words, in a lot of Beckett prose pieces the narrator behaves like a theatrical director, getting his characters to do things or say things over and over again, with multiple variations, as he struggles to achieve the desired effect (the desired effect often explicitly being described as ‘finishing’, completing the task, achieving the closure which, however, the texts forever hold out of reach of all concerned, both characters and author).

In this respect Catastrophe brings this situation up out of the shadows of the (often hard to read) prose pieces and makes it explicit.

1. It is one thing to read the play as a political allegory, with the Director as a heartless and ruthless brute treating people like objects to achieve a satisfying result, whether fascist, communist or any other way tyrannical…

2. But Catastrophe is obviously also a simple and straightforward account of what bastards theatrical directors can be, treating people like meat, forcing them to undergo humiliating actions, costumes and poses in order to achieve the desired effect.

3. And not very far behind that, is the even simpler interpretation, of what utter bastards writers can be – on the one hand, playing havoc with people in real life, exploiting their names and characters and lives and stories and mannerisms regardless of the consequences, in order to create the all-important ‘work of art’; and then subjecting their fictional characters to a vast array of humiliations, fiascos, tortures and death, in order to entertain and amuse their readers.

Writers of fiction like to tell themselves they are educating the nation and firing the imagination and liberating people’s minds and striking blows for freedom and justice and all the rest of the standard boilerplate. But when you compare this rhetoric with most of the works of fiction that are actually published in a year – the slushy romances, the thrillers and cop novels, and the vast number of fantasy, sword and sorcery novels in which endless legions are hacked, stabbed, burned and eviscerated to death, you realise what a weak and self-serving argument that is.

Being a writer of fiction is a profoundly morally compromised activity, and it is the way this realisation is one of the three or four layers of meaning packed into Catastrophe – much more than the supposed ‘political’ interpretation – which is what I take away from this incredibly short but amazingly dense and multi-levelled piece of drama.


Related link

Samuel Beckett’s works

An asterisk indicates that a work was included in the Beckett on Film project, which set out to make films of all 19 of Beckett’s stage plays using leading actors and directors. The set of 19 films was released in 2002 and most of them can be watched on YouTube.

The Second World War 1939 to 1945

*Waiting For Godot 1953 Play

Awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature 1969

The Aerodrome by Rex Warner (1941)

What a record of confusion, deception, rankling hatred, low aims, indecision!
(The Air Vice-Marshall nicely summing up this absurd novel, page 200)

There’s a genre of books about English village life, set in the 1920s and 30s, which are so normal, so provincial, so banal, and yet so utterly removed from the world we live in now, 80 years later, that an air of surrealism hovers over them, a gentle sense of unreality.

American tourists fresh from the excitement of Pamplona, the glory that was Greece or the grandeur that was Rome etc, were often nonplussed to arrive in 1930s England and find themselves invited to village fetes and vicarage tea parties, all emotions so repressed, everything so hemmed in by good taste, the scones and cream arranged just so, that foreign visitors felt something weird and lurid must be hidden just below the surface.

This feeling, that everyone’s frightfully good manners are too good to be true, is one appeal of the very English detective novels of Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers, where the primmest of country house parties all turn out to conceal vipers’ nests of infidelity and jealousy.

Rex Warner’s third novel, The Aerodrome, takes this kind of vicarage tea party mode, a fussy English concern for napkins and cucumber sandwiches (the central figure is in fact a village Rector’s son) and then transmutes it into an increasingly weird and clunky allegory.

Rex Warner

Warner was a typical product of the Auden generation. Born in 1905 to a clergyman father, he went to a jolly good boarding school where he was jolly good at games, and then onto Oxford, where he associated with W. H. Auden, Cecil Day-Lewis and Stephen Spender, and published in the chummy university magazine, Oxford Poetry.

He was also typical of that generation in that:

  1. he picked up at post-war Oxford a radical attachment to revolutionary communism (this was the generation of the Cambridge spies e.g. Anthony Blunt, expensively educated at Marlborough, Cambridge then became a spy for Stalin)
  2. he went on to become a teacher and writer

The Aerodrome was Warner’s third novel. The first, The Wild Goose Chase (1937) is a fantasy in which three brothers, representing different personality types, are on holiday when they come across a wild goose and chase it into a fantasy land ruled by a right-wing dictator. The second, The Professor (1938), is the story of a liberal academic whose struggles against a repressive government eventually lead to his arrest, imprisonment and murder.

The Aerodrome continues this combination of fantasy and strong political message. It’s the story of a fairly innocent and naive young man, Roy, brought up in a village vicarage by the dear old Rector and his lovely wife, all of them friendly with the kindly old Squire and his lovely sister.

Roy is partial to a few beers and games of darts with the lads at the village pub, and is having a heady first-love affair with the publican’s willing daughter, Bess. But he also finds himself drawn to the slick, drawling, manly air force officers from the nearby Aerodrome.

For just outside the village, with its sweet old Manor house and characterful old pub and dawdling river, is a big new Aerodrome, staffed by brisk, efficient, no-nonsense men of action, the dynamic hi-tech forces of the 20th century looming over the almost feudal life of ye olde village.

Should Roy choose the earthy life of the village i.e. getting drunk with Mac and Fred, and (literally) rolling in the hay with bosomy Bess? Or acquiesce in the growing power of the Aerodrome and its brisk no-nonsense leader, the Air Vice-Marshal, and a love affair with the highly-sexed wife of one of its top officials?

However, what this quick summary fails to capture is the weirdness of the actual plot and the difficulty of penetrating Warner’s clunky, thunking prose style.

It’s not exactly rubbish, but I can see why The Aerodrome is long forgotten (it has no Wikipedia page, you can’t find the text anywhere online). And difficult to understand how the noted short story writer V. S. Pritchett called Warner ‘the only outstanding novelist of ideas whom the decade of ideas produced’, let alone why Anthony Burgess considered it as much of a modern classic as Nineteen Eighty-Four!

The plot

1. The Dinner Party

The story opens in media res with our hero drunk lying face down in a wet mire in Gurney’s Field, enjoying the sensation of the watery black mud seeping in at the collar and between the buttons of his formal dinner shirt. We learn his name is Roy. He is the son of the village Rector. It is his twenty-first birthday.

2. The Confession

Earlier that evening Roy’s parents had held a little birthday dinner party for him, the guests consisting of the Rector and his kindly wife, the elderly Squire and his lovely sister, and a Flight-Lieutenant from the nearby Aerodrome.

To Roy’s horror his ‘father’, the Rector, makes a speech in which he reveals that he and his wife are not Roy’s parents, but that baby Roy was brought to them by someone from the local village and they arranged to take him as their own. Now they’re revealing the truth. In front of a table of strangers.

Disgusted, the Flight-Lieutenant gets up and leaves, Roy follows him, and ends up going to local village pub where he proceeds to get hog-whimpering drunk, staggers out the pub and across country with two drinking buddies – which is when he trips over a wire fence and finds himself face down in the mud – which is where the book opened.

On reflection I can see how this episode is meant to convey, as literally as can be, the earthiness of village life, its drunken peasant quality.

Anyway, Roy sobers up a bit and staggers back to the vicarage. He slips through the only unlocked window into the house, and finds himself in the study and is still in the curtained window alcove when he realises the Rector is kneeling in prayer and (like Hamlet’s father) confessing his sins. Astonishingly, he reveals that his wife was once in love with his best friend, Antony – he caught them in embraces a couple of times – and so the vicar-father conceived a wicked plan to go mountain climbing with Antony, to get to a particularly tricky cliff and there to yank Antony off the ledge and, as he dangled helplessly from the safety rope, to slowly cut through the rope so that Antony plunged to his death.

This whole scene would be pretty unrealistic in itself, but as Roy peeps through the curtains drawn across ‘his’ window he sees the Rector’s wife peeping from the curtains of the neighbouring window alcove. She spots him and winks. On her usually placid face is a shocking expression of malice and contempt.

As the Rector-father concludes his long piece of exposition, she slips over to the door and makes a fuss of opening it as if coming into the room, the Rector snaps out of his prayerful trance and welcomes her presence, she puts on a simpering vicar’s wife expression and Roy, watching all this from the crack in the curtains, is left absolutely flummoxed.

Within the space of one short evening he has discovered that his ‘parents’ are not his parents, that his supposedly saintly ‘father’ is in fact a cold-hearted murderer and his lovely ‘mother’ had a passionate affair!

But not half so flummoxed as the reader. Is this clever allegory, deliberately absurd Joe Orton-style satire, or tripe?

3. The Agricultural Show

Events follow each other in quick succession, with a sense of mounting hysteria, or plain weirdness. Roy, his ‘parents’ and the Squire’s sister meet up next morning to motor out to the annual Agricultural Show. So far, so Archers. They bump into the Flight-Lieutenant who is breezily apologetic for leaving the little birthday party the night before, then, on a whim, jumps onto the back of the show’s prize bull (Slazenger), cutting through the nearby fabric of the marquee tent they’re in, and riding the mooing protesting massive bull through the gap in the tent and out into the astonished and screaming crowds. What?

4. The Accident

They come to the Beer Tent where Roy discovers his drinking buddies from the night before, Mac and Fred. Strange scenes: a retired grocer with a red face and white hair staggers to his feet and makes a long speech to his dead mother to forgive him his wicked life. In another corner is a rat-catcher who, for a pint, takes live rats out of his teeming pockets and bites their heads off. A quarrel turns into a fight and the village bell-ringer, George Birkett, is smashed in the face with a broken beer glass by a short man who then darts out the tent, allegedly some member of staff from the Aerodrome (p.44).

This isn’t a normal Agricultural Show. It is more like something out of Breughel, or maybe Hieronymus Bosch.

It’s time for Roy’s date with Bess, they agreed to meet at noon, he finds her, they swagger arm in arm through the show, to her adulation he has a go at the coconut shy and being a big touch chap knocks all the coconuts off their shies.

They come across the Flight-Lieutenant now ensconced in a display area of his own, demonstrating the working of various machine guns to entranced little boys, and onlookers. He sees them and shouts over that the bull was recaptured and is perfectly fine, then gets on with his demonstration.

Roy and Bess wander beyond the bounds of the show itself across farmland to a remote barn and here have what was presumably as much sex as the censors of a 1940s novel would allow i.e. it’s written obscurely and elliptically, but clothes are unbuttoned and some kind of sexual experience is had (though nothing is ‘satisfactorily achieved’) which leaves Roy dazed (p.47).

They are just adjusting their clothes when the Flight-Lieutenant comes running over the field towards them and announces in his foppish, bantering style, that there’s been an accident. ‘I’m afraid I’ve potted your old man’. The F-L thought he’d loaded one of his machine guns with blanks, but they were real bullets, the Rector was among the crowd, and when he fired, the gun fired a ream of real bullets into the Rector who fell over like a nine-pin. It is specifically pointed out that the bullets didn’t just hit him, they ripped off his face. The corpse is unidentifiable. The Flight-Lieutenant is absurdly formal about his apologies. Frightfully sorry, old boy. ‘It was a really bad show.’ (p.48).

5. The Squire

Everyone takes this tragedy in their stride. The narrator isn’t that upset. The body lies in a coffin at the Rectory for a few days. Roy goes to the Manor to visit the Squire. He finds the old man at the end of a visit from an airman from the Aerodrome. The smartly dressed man salutes and leaves. The old Squire tells Roy the devastating news that the Aerodrome is going to take over the village, all its land, lock stock and barrel, converting the pub, all the houses, even the church, to air force purposes (p.55).

This prompts him to a soliloquy in which he reflects that his whole life has been for nothing, all the little kindnesses, running the boys club, helping expectant mothers, it’s all come to this. To be kicked out of his own home in his 70s. And his sister, Florence, has devoted her life to him, but he knows she’s never been happy. At least not except for one short period and he, the Squire, did what he could to crush even that (p.56). Roy listens politely and embarrassed.

6. The Funeral

The Rector’s funeral is held at the local church. First the Air Vice-Marshall appears at the Rectory. He is immensely blunt and to the point, polite as a robot, unbending. Roy can feel himself attracted to the man’s steely efficiency (the ‘power and confidence of the man’, p.62) and we get the impression both the womenfolk – the Rector’s wife and the Squire’s sister, Florence – moisten at the lips.

To people’s surprise, the ceremony is led by the Air Vice-Marshall. The address he gives is blunt to the point of rudeness. In fact he hardly lauds the dead man, instead using the opportunity to announce to the startled villagers that the entire village is going to be taken over by the Air Force, who will instal a new padre, take over as employees of all the adults, maintaining their pay, as long as the work is done conscientiously. An old boy rises to his feet to protest but the Air Vice-Marshall asks for him to be removed and two smartly-dressed airmen are immediately at the man’s sides, taking his arms and hustling him out of the church (p.67). After this stunning announcement the Air Vice-Marshall steps down from the pulpit and the rest of the service follows in the traditional style.

7. New Plans

Afterwards in the pub, what I suppose Warner intends us to think of as the common people, the chavs, the villagers, swig their ale and complain about the news: ‘The old Rector was a good man, he wouldn’t have allowed no takeover of the village’ etc.

When the pub closes, Roy has another date with Bess, she comes out the pub to join him, link arms and go for a country walk. She, like the Rector’s wife and the Squire’s sister, is impressed by the Air Vice-Marshall (just twenty years later Sylvia Plath would write: ‘Every woman adores a fascist.’). Bess begs and insists that Roy join the air force, and they get married and he will be an airman and she will be an airmans wife, oh won’t it be marvellous.

As so often happens, the Flight-Lieutenant strolls along at just that moment, the opportune moment, like an angel or allegorical figure, like Hermes or Puck.

He sits down by them in the shade of a hedgerow and Bess enthusiastically tells him that Roy is going to join the air force and they’re going to be married. At which the Flight-Lieutenant rather surreally explains that, when the air force take over the village, he is going to be made padre and so he sort of has the legal right to marry them right now if they want. ‘Tomorrow’, says the excited Bess. And Roy walks her back to the pub and hands her over to her publican father, both of them dizzied by the prospect of getting married.

8. The Impulse

En route back to the Rectory, Roy bumps into the Squire’s butler, flustered and without his customary bowler hat, who tells him the Squire has taken to bed and is very sick. Returning to the Rectory, Roy finds the Air Vice-Marshall has arranged to stay overnight and overhears a conversation in which he tells the Rector’s wife:

‘I was merely observing that those who have been my enemies tend to die out, usually as a result of their own weakness or incompetence, while I survive them.’ (page 81)

Roy formally enters, the adults suspend their conversation, the Rector’s wife also tells him about the Squire who’s been calling for Roy. Cut to a few hours later and Roy is in the Squire’s bedroom, curtains drawn, night-time, fire burning, the old man is in bed, unconscious, barely breathing. Suddenly he stirs and utters the words: ‘Your father’ before relapsing exhausted. A few moments later, with great effort, he says: ‘Florence’.

Now, having been alerted to the unlikely sexual shenanigans concerning the Rector and his wife right at the start of the novel, I immediately began to suspect there was more to Roy’s parentage than meets the eye. The precise story, as told by the Rector at the opening birthday party, was that the baby was found in a basket by the road at the top of the village, and the wife of the village publican brought the babe in a basket to the Rector who adopted it (p.19).

Well, the abandoned baby with a fateful parentage is as old as writing, appearing in Jewish (Moses) and Greek (Oedipus) mythology, and hundreds of novels as a cheap plot (Tom Jones, Oliver Twist). What if Roy is the Squire’s sister’s son? What if she had an affair with the wicked Rector? Alternatively, who was it ‘discovered’ and brought the babe in a basket to the Rector’s? The landlord’s wife. What if Roy is her child? In which case his affair with Betty would be incest.

Anyway, Roy has taken the old man’s hand as he tries to say something dreadfully important, but at that moment the Squire’s sister, Florence comes in and starts to gently stroke the old man’s face when, to everyone’s astonishment, the old man’s legs shoot out, his grip tightens on Roy’s hand, and he bites deep into his sister’s hand!. She shrieks and the old man only bites harder at which the sister’s face completely transforms and she starts beating him round the face, smack smack smack. Too astonished to move, Roy watches the old man’s jaws slacken, the sister whip away her bleeding hand, and they both hear his death rattle. The old Squire is dead (p.85).

Roy sees it is his duty to comfort the Squire’s sister, although at the same time repelled by her actions. Then out into the hall where the Squire’s servants are all gathered, muttering about the news, and so home to the Rectory where he finds the Air Vice-Marshall, brisk and businesslike, fastening his gloves before getting into his chauffeur-driven car and motoring away.

9. The Honeymoon

Cut to a few weeks later. The Flight-Lieutenant, true to his word, has ‘married’ Roy and Bess. Not only that but he and a couple of air force buddies have fitted them up a sort of quarters in a corrugated iron shed at the bottom of airfield property. Over the days they and the happy couple bring pillows and fabric and turn it into a cosy love nest. Neither of their families know they’re married. They meet at the edge of the village and spend afternoons and evenings there together. They finally have proper sex, and Roy is astonished by the world of splendour which opens up for him.

On the day of the Squire’s funeral, the air force begins its formal takeover of the village. The village divides into two parties, the older inhabitants who’ve been used to traditions and dislike the new regime, and the younger men who admire the airmen and their machines and, now that agricultural work has come to an end, hope to get jobs as labourers or technicians up at the aerodrome – with the landlord acting as a sort of referee between them.

The Squire’s sister becomes openly contemptuous of the airmen, spitting on the ground after the Flight-Lieutenant’s walked by. He now takes Sunday service in the church but doesn’t bother changing out of his airforce uniform and reads dully and uninspiredly. The Rector’s asks Roy if he might consider working for the air force. She doesn’t know that, at the same time as he got married to Bessy, Roy signed up to join the air force.

10. A Disclosure

Roy is bowled over by the intimacy and power of sexual love, and a bit irked that Bessy is far more excited by the prospect of him joining the air force, learning to fly, them getting married quarters and a little car, of travelling abroad! The weeks go by. One day she is a bit distant. She explains that her mother is always trying to put her off him. Roy vows to go and see her, walks down the sloping field, stops at the bottom and waves. He feels a tremendous closeness and intimacy with her, as with no-one else.

He walks to the pub and presents himself to the landlord’s wife in the garden, among the lupins, delphiniums and buzzing bees. After preliminary chat she takes him up to her bedroom (her husband, the landlord, being fast asleep in the bar) and tells him blank: Bess is his sister. The Rector had an affair with her, the landlady. She got pregnant, Bess is the result. At first Roy denies it, explaining that the Rector explained at his birthday that he was not Roy’s biological father. Oh but he was, the landlady explains. Just that he got the Rector’s wife pregnant quite a bit before they were married. They married in a hurry, then the Rector’s wife was packed off abroad with her, the landlady, Eve, to accompany her. The Rector’s wife returned, the story of the finding of the baby in a basket was cooked up and arranged between all three of them. And during this period the Rector had started an affair with the landlady, getting her pregnant too. ‘Oh he was a fine man.’

So the beautiful young woman Roy is having an affair with, who he has married and who has opened up for him the world of sexual delight… is his half-sister!

Chapter 11 Change of Plan

Roy walks back through the village, across the fields and up towards the tin shed in the field, when he hears voices. Laughter. He jerks open the door of the shed to reveal Bess on the bed naked and the Flight-Lieutenant naked above her. As she scoops bedclothes up around her nekkid body, the Flight-Lieutenant is up and getting swiftly dressed, so swiftly that within moments he is moving towards Roy holding his call-up papers for the air force. As Roy looks down, the Flight-Lieutenant, obviously quite scared, skips past him, into the open and is off with a typically unfeeling quip: ‘Sorry about this, but all’s fair, you know’ (p.112).

It’s the old story: the more totally in love you are, the deeper the knife twists in your guts. Roy reels. Bess’s uneducated simplicity comes out. She thought she was being ‘nice’ to both of them. She tells him she started her ‘affair’ with the Flight-Lieutenant the day before she and Roy were married. And she goes on to tell him, as if it will help, that the Flight-Lieutenant is much better, physically, than him: much more confident, much more exciting, makes her feel much more at ease. Thanks, Bess.

This chapter well conveys the flood of contradictory feelings you experience in such a situation, including the impression that it’s all a bad dream and all you have to do is reach out your hand to restore the wonderful, paradisal intimacy you once shared with another human being. But the more they talk the worse it gets, and then Roy decides to prick her smug self-satisfaction and tells her they are brother and sister.

This prompts a moment of horror, Bess struggles to process this momentous new fact, but then she manages to smile and say, ‘Well at least that makes it easier.’ She reaches out her hand and smiles at him, ‘What shall we do now, Roy?’ but he too has processed the situation to a conclusion and says, ‘Do what you want’, turns on his heel, walks down the field then breaks into a run over fields and fences, till he gets to the river, strips off and dives into its refreshing cleansing cold waters.

12. The Air Vice-Marshall

Cut to a few weeks later. Roy has been inducted into the air force along with fifty or so other recruits. Life isn’t as cushy as he’d anticipated, the accommodation is basic, the food is poor, up early, to bed late, lots of exercise and none of them have been anywhere near a plane.

The Air Vice-Marshall assembles them in an underground lecture theatre (a lot of the Aerodrome’s facilities, it turns out, are underground, linked by an underground railway – maybe on the model of the French Army’s Maginot Line defences.)

The Air Vice-Marshall delivers an extended lecture about what is expected of the new recruits (pp.121-128). They are seeking not only to protect but to transform society. He anatomises the feudal rules of the village, labouring under a worn-out religion nobody believes any more, losing themselves in drunkenness and humiliating ‘love affairs’.

The airmen must rise above all that. First be rejecting their parents and all aspects of their former lives. Then the Air Vice-Marshall embarks on a lengthy description of how, although love and sex are inevitable for any young man, they must not let themselves be trapped by women, time-bound creatures made by biology to be bound to the past (parents) and future (children) more than men. All love affairs end in tears. A true airman makes sure the tears are not his. All love affairs are between unequals. The airman must make sure he is not the giver who ends up feeling exploited. He must always be the exploiter, the taker.

This way the airman can fulfil his destiny which is to escape the constraints of time and achieve the complete self-mastery, which is Freedom.

I can imagine many a feminists head exploding in outrage as she reads this extended and forensic explanation of how to exploit women and their supposedly ‘better’ nature. For me, though, the disappointment is in Warner’s fictional character’s target. We know from the book about European fascism which I’ve just finished reading (To Hell and Back by Ian Kershaw) that, in the ideology of true Fascism, a key tenets alongside transforming the state and devoting yourself to The Leader, is fighting communism. Communism was the great bogeyman which helped unify all kinds of forces on the right of politics and helped them bury their differences to create authoritarian dictatorships across Europe.

You can see why mentioning specific political movements or parties is too specific or narrow for the kind of broad allegory Warner i writing. But it seemed to me that he was playing to the gallery instead of addressing the issue. What I mean is: these passages address an issue dear to the hearts of humanist and liberal readers of literature (love and relationships and feelings and emotions etc) and completely irrelevant to the actual historical circumstances of Fascism, which has its origins in the collapse of parliamentary democracy and the spread of street violence which only The Strong Man says he can quell.

13. Alterations

They watch a synchronised flying display. The man behind the radio-controlled co-ordination of the planes is an elderly mathematical genius. The Air Vice-Marshall congratulates him. The implication is that someday soon actual pilots will be redundant.

Roy is now a talented pilot. He’s surprised to discover he is already regarded as more promising that the Flight-Lieutenant who he used to so admire. When he goes down into the village he finds it transformed. The sleepy high street is full of air force vehicles or squads of cadets marching up and down. The Manor has been gutted and turned into an officers club with a new rooftop restaurant, the elaborate garden torn up to make way for a swimming club and tennis courts. When he drops into the pub, Roy’s old mates avoid him. He’s one of them now.

The airmen hear that the Flight-Lieutenant is going native. It’s as he and Roy have switched identities. Roy finds the villagers harder and harder to take, beginning to think these simple muddy souls are fit only for hard labour, while the Flight-Lieutenant is reported to be taking his duties as padre more and more seriously, delivering extended sermons, asking for Aerodrome funds to help repair the church tower. He has long ago lost interest in Bess. On his rare visits to the pub Bess tries to be friendly with Roy, but he’s having none of it.

In a striking scene Roy makes a rare visit to the Rectory only to discover the Flight-Lieutenant leaning against an armchair, having his hair idly stroked by the Squire’s sister. He has become their darling – whereas Roy has become an airman – coldly he asks for his clothes, shakes hands and departs. He has become the brisk, rude personality he admired at the start of the book.

14. Eustasia

Their positions become even more reversed when we learn that the Flight-Lieutenant is in love with a lady on the airbase called Eustasia, but that she upsets him by often asking after Roy — rather as Bes, although ‘married’ Roy, secretly lusted after the Flight-Lieutenant.

Now, just to spite the Flight-Lieutenant, Roy determines to have an affair with her. (Eustasia is, by the way, the wife of the genius mathematician-engineer who’s designing the radio-controlled airplanes. She’s bored. She has lots of affairs with the fit young pilots.)

The Flight-Lieutenant takes Roy to her rooms, introduces them. She has just got out of the shower and is wearing a dressing gown. Clearly this is her seduction outfit. She tells the Flight-Lieutenant to run along and buy some cigarettes and, once he’s gone, there is a moment of stasis super-charged with meaning and lust. Then she puts her hand on Roy’s knee, he grasps her thigh, she pout towards him and they are kissing lustfully.

In the midst of their grappling they realise the Flight-Lieutenant has reappeared in the room, sinks to the floor beside the sofa, puts his head against it and start crying. Roy looks down at him with contempt. The Flight-Lieutenant lets rip with a lot of stuff about how she’s the only woman who understands him, he feels so out of place at the aerodrome, and other emotional claptrap. With a jolt Roy realises this is how he must have appeared when he made his declarations of undying love to Bess. Eustasia treats him like a puppy. Everything he says, his entire outpouring of heartfelt emotion, means nothing to her.

Now this, this thread of meditations about love, which run from Roy’s puppy love for Bess, through devastation at her betrayal, to his newfound cynical confidence with a worldly woman like Eustasia, and their cynical almost sadistic treatment of the Flight-Lieutenant, this strikes me as having an imaginative force and experience unlike anything else in the book. The intense focus on analysing the relations between men and women reminds me a little of Kingsley Amis.

They become lovers. They meet and have sex every day in her stylishly decorated apartment. Roy is a confident man of the world and takes her to the officers club and to balls. He thinks back with a shudder to the time he wasted in the shabby tin hut on the edge of a field with the landlord’s stupid daughter in her home-made dresses. God, how far he has come!

15. Discipline

To his surprise Roy is appointed personal assistant to the Air Vice-Marshall. Slowly he discovers the scope of the Aerodrome, not just to defend the country but to transform it. Thus it has departments devoted to banking, agriculture, fisheries and so on.

From this point on (page 149), rather suddenly, Roy – and therefore the entire text – is transported to high up in the secret paramilitary organisation which actually runs the Aerodrome, and we now hear all about it from two sources: 1. verbatim speeches which the Air Vice-Marshall gives explaining the movement’s philosophy and 2. Roy’s description of his own discoveries about the movement’s aims (to take over and transform society).

Alongside his discoveries, Roy hears of incidents of insubordination in the village, leading up to the murder of an Air Force officer. In vague militaristic terms we learn that an example is made, anyone caught criticising the Air Force is dealt with severely.

Then we learn that the Flight-Lieutenant has been taking his job as padre too seriously and making anti-Air Force comments. The Air Vice-Marshall takes Roy along with him to the next Sunday service at the village church and they are both surprised to see the Flight-Lieutenant appear in full vicar outfit, to which he has no right, ascend to the pulpit and start talking about the good old days before the Air Force took over.

At which point the Air Vice-Marshall steps into the aisle and orders the Flight-Lieutenant to come down. As he hesitates some parishioners start muttering and there are shouts of ‘throw him out’ at which the Vice-Marshall draws his revolver and points it at the Flight-Lieutenant.

While he hesitates the Squire’s sister rises and starts shouting at the Vice-Marshall, pushing her way past sitting parishioners into the aisle, points at the Vice-Marshall and other airmen, starts saying, ‘Listen, listen all of you,’ and the Vice-Marshall shoots her point blank.

The Squire’s sister falls to the floor dead. The parishioners cower, the women start weeping, the Flight-Lieutenant comes down along the aisle and kneels beside the bleeding body, the Vice-Marshall orders his men to arrest him (p.159). The Vice-Marshall and Roy leave the church together, Roy is astonished at how little he feels for the murdered woman.

16. The secret

Roy goes to the club. Fellow officers are laughing and joking about the shooting. Roy reveals an extremely strange attitude to the killing of one of his oldest friends, which is that he finds it unaccountable that he seems to be somewhat moved. This is not an ordinary novel, in which we might expect the protagonist to be badly shaken up. He realises it is nearly his birthday, nearly a year since the events which kicked off the narrative. He realises he isn’t interested in the date or the occasion. He has now been lifted onto the Air Force’s level of abstract living, detached from human values.

He walks past the pub and toys with going in but the locals, the ones he used to be mates with, give him dirty looks. But the landlady comes out, takes him aside, and tells him how miserable Bess is, in fact she’s so broken-hearted she’s ill. This gets through Roy’s zombie-carapace a little and he promises to get Dr Faulkner the chief medical officer at the Aerodrome to visit her.

As he walks into the Aerodrome grounds he sees Eustasia outside her apartment building. She waves him over and insists on taking her upstairs to his flat. There she announces that she’s pregnant, staring at the floor. Roy is horrified – airmen are forbidden from having children, it ties them down – but pretends to be pleased.

But when Eustasia starts telling him how excited she’ll be to leave the Aerodrome and go live in another part of the country, Roy can’t hide the dismay at the ruin of all his plans and ambitions, and suddenly Eustasia gets really angry, ‘You never loved me’ etc. And then Roy feels sees in her the recriminations he brought against Bess and feels sorry for her. And they have sensitive tearful sex, both of them knowing their happy-go-lucky fun days are over.

17. Bess

Roy accompanies Dr Faulkner, the Aerodome chief medical officer, to see Bess. She is in her bedroom, hunched up in the windowseat, staring into space, catatonic, the lap of her homespun dress full of primroses she’s picked. Immediately we think of Ophelia, who went mad and picked flowers.

In a surprising development Roy gets down on his knees and puts his head in her lap. She strokes it absent-mindedly like Ophelia and Hamlet. He realises that Eustasia and the entire Aerodrome and its plan to take over and transform the nation mean nothing to him next to Bess’s love.

I remembered suddenly and vividly the moment in the past when we had been together in the field listening to the larks singing, the time when I had decided easily and gladly to abandon myself to her love. The promises and ambitions of that time may have been stupid and ill-considered. I had believed them to have become null and void; but I saw now that the feeling that had prompted them could never be recalled. It was not that I had any more a desire to possess her. Such an idea would in any case have been absurd; but I knew in a moment and with certainty that compared with her health and happiness the aerodrome and all that it contained meant nothing to me at all… (p.175)

I was astonished at how soppy this was, and how quick and complete the change in Roy’s attitude. He has little or no plausibility as a character, as a depiction of a real human being. He is more a robot witness of the ‘allegorical’ and often bizarre events Warner puts him through.

18. New friends

Roy bumps into the Rector’s wife waiting outside the Aerodrome. It is eerie how neither of them seem particularly upset by the events they’ve witnessed – the Rector and the Squire’s wife being shot dead.

She amazes the reader by explaining that the Flight-Lieutenant is the dead Squire’s sister’s son. The Squire had refused to have the boy in the house, had insisted on him being sent away, nobody knew about it, and nobody realised it was the Flight-Lieutenant until a chance remark of his confirmed it. (But this is the man who shot dead the Rector, her husband – how can anyone… oh, whatever).

Roy accompanies Dr Faulkner to see Bess and then walk back to the Aerodrome on numerous occasions. She had been in a deep depression, incapable of speaking. Slowly she is coming out of it and the doctor assures Roy her recovery will be complete, but he’s not telling something, Roy catches him and the Rector’s wife conferring, there’s some secret.

Somehow Roy manages to reconcile his realisation that he loves Bess, that he sympathises with the villagers and realises the values of the Aerodrome are worthless with… working closely with the Air Vice-Marshall on the plan to take over the country. You can see how he’s not really a person, but more a puppet in a pantomime.

And it tells you everything about Warner’s priorities that he devotes just one paragraph to this subject – the plan to take over the entire country: whereas he has given us pages and pages about a) Bess & her health b) about the Flight-Lieutenant being the Squire’s sister’s son and now c) goes into an extended analysis of the new flavour of his love affair with Eustasia i.e. they stop having sex but enter a deeper kind of relationship. All his about love and relationships, but barely a paragraph about the plans to take over the country. Those are his priorities.

Now you might remember that the Flight-Lieutenant had been imprisoned at the Air Vice-Marshall’s order after the scene at the village church. Now he’s released, has been reduced to the ranks and is working as ground staff. Roy meets him again at Eustasia’s apartment and they discover they’re back to being friends again. Roy tells him how disillusioned he is with the Air Force, the Flight-Lieutenant urges caution.

But at their next meeting Roy tells the Air Vice-Marshall that he has got Eustasia pregnant.

  1. The Air Vice-Marshall reveals that he, too, once had a liaison with her (confirming the sense that more or less all the men on the Aerodrome have slept with Eustasia)
  2. The Air Vice-Marshall angrily reminds Roy that a key tenet of the Air Force is it is absolutely forbidden to have children. Children are a tie to the future and an airman must have no past or future, he must elude time in order to become a New Man.

The Air Vice-Marshall gives Roy three days to sort it out i.e. to force Eustasia to have an abortion. (This is a pretty obvious symbol of the Air Force’s literal denial of life in all its messy glory, and crystallises Roy’s sense that:

the code under which I had been living for the past year was, in spite of its symmetry and its perfection, a denial of life, its difficulty, its perplexity and its suffering, rather than an affirmation of its nobility and its grandeur. (p.193)

19. The Decision

One day Roy is out at the Aerodrome watching the Flight-Lieutenant and other mechanics making last-minute adjustments to the twenty-seater plane which is to fly the Air Vice-Marshall to some important meeting. The Flight-Lieutenant steps briskly away, in the direction of Eustasia’s block of flats and Roy goes to follow him, but is intercepted and delayed by a chat with Dr Faulkner.

Walking on to Eustasia’s flat he is almost knocked over by a squad of six motorcyclists heading out of the base at top speed. Arriving at Eustasia’s flat Roy finds all the doors open and a message. She and the Flight-Lieutenant have done a bunk, running away together. He realises the motor bikes were sent out to catch them. Stepping out into the Aerodrome road, Roy sees one of the bikers returning. He salutes and the biker tells them they caught up with the escapees at a narrow stone bridge. The cars crashed, both the people inside were crushed, killed.

He is describing it to the doctor, stunned, when an orderly tells him the Air Vice-Marshall wants to see him. Roy reports. The Air Vice-Marshall is in an excellent mood. He jovially tells Roy how this means he is off the hook – no more pregnant Eustasia, no more difficult decision for Roy. He can refocus on his work.

Roy tells him he can stuff his work. He is disgusted and repelled by the organisation, The Air Vice-Marshall controls his fury and tells Roy he has no option but to have him killed. (All this passes as in a dream. I had no sense of threat, and couldn’t care less about Roy, unlike, for example the real terror you feel on Winston Smith’s behalf.)

The Air Vice-Marshall is just offering Roy a last opportunity to change his mind and save his life when there is a swift knock at the door and the doctor and the Rector’s wife walk in. This is more like a Whitehall farce than a dystopia. The doctor apologises and call the Air Vice-Marshall Antony.

Antony!? The name of the man the Rector confessed to sending plummeting to his doom up some mountain, the supposed lover of  his wife, the Rector’s wife before they got married!?

Yes: now it all comes tumbling out, as on the last page of a whodunnit or the last few minutes of a bedroom farce. Yes: as a young man the Air Vice-Marshall (Antony) had been in love with the Rector’s wife (we never get to learn her name), and had had a fling with her while the Rector was pursuing a more formal wooing. Spotting them, the Rector had suggested their trip to the mountains where he cut Antony’s rope sending him plunging down the mountainside. But he had survived and returned (somehow the Rector never noticed this), returned to discover that his lover, pregnant with his son, had now married the Rector (thinking Antony dead) and born the child who is… none other than Roy!

So…. so when the landlady told Roy she was his mother, after the Rector had an affair with her…. that was a lie? So Roy is not a blood relative of Bess? So their ‘marriage’ was not incest?

But not only this – the Rector’s wife now tells us and the audience that Antony not only returned from the dead and berated her for marrying his would-be murderer and making him his son’s father… Antony then went and had an affair with her best friend, the Squire’s sister, got her pregnant, and spirited away the baby, a boy, a son, who was to return years later as…. the Flight-Lieutenant!!!

So…. the Air Vice-Marshall… let me get this straight… when the Air Vice-Marshall shot dead the Squire’s sister in the church he was killing the woman he had an affair with and the mother of his son, the Flight-Lieutenant, who he then had thrown into prison and… and has just now despatched a squad of motorcycle riders to have killed.

Yes, because the Rector’s wife now accuses Tthe Air Vice-Marshall of having had one of his sons murdered, and being on the verge of murdering the other, too (Roy).

(So the Flight-Lieutenant and Roy were brothers… which explains why he was invited to Roy’s 21st birthday party right at the start… doesn’t it?)

After the Rector’s wife makes her big speech explaining all this, the Air Vice-Marshall turns to Roy and says I told you so. What an absurd, messy, sordid business life is. Come with me, cast off the shackles of the past and be free.

Can you not see, and I am asking you for the last time, to escape from time and its bondage, to construct around you something that is guided by your own will, not forced upon you by past accident, something of clarity, independence and beauty? (p.200)

The doctor now reveals that it was he who saved Antony/the Air Vice-Marshall’s life after his fall and nursed him back to life. He pleads for Roy’s life. Furious, the Air Vice-Marshall says he’ll be lucky to survive for his treason.

He asks Roy if he’s coming with him to the climactic meeting of the organisation, to finalise plans for the coup. Roy says No. The Air Vice-Marshall tells him he’s going to lock the doors, if anyone tries to escape he’s giving orders for them to be shot down, He goes out and they hear the lock turn.

Through the window of the office where he’s locked up, Roy idly watches him walk across the runway, meet up with the Chief Mathematician and all the other important men from the organisation. They get in the plane. The Air Vice-Marshall himself is flying it. It taxis down the runway, turns and takes off. But it doesn’t climb as it should. Then climbs too steeply. Then the wing Roy had seen the Flight-Lieutenant fiddling with falls off! The plane plummets back to earth, smashing and exploding on impact, killing everyone inside it.

20. Conclusion

Three last pages tie up loose ends. The doctor tells Roy how he was friends with both the Rector and Antony and a) nursed the latter back to health b) decided with him to keep his survival a secret and stage a fake funeral c) never told the Rector the truth (thus letting him live a life plagued by guilt).

And watched the recovered Antony vow never to let himself be influenced by women or love or the past, but to remake and remodel himself. Out of this burning ambition grew the ambition to remodel the entire country and human nature. So: that’s the origin of the Air Vice-Marshall’s steely determination and ‘fascist’ beliefs.

But now that he’s dead, the organisation he had built up over years collapses. The threat of a coup evaporates.

Bess is now healed. Reconciled with her, Roy now marries her in a formal ceremony. They sit in the fields by the ancient elms. He is at one not only with her, and with Nature but with… past time, the way the messiness of time, our pasts and everyone else’s pasts prevents anything human from being pure, or being made new. The author’s final message is:

It was not for me, I knew now, to attempt either to reshape or to avoid what was too vast even to be imagined as enfolding me, nor could I reject as negligible the least event in the whole current of past time. (p.205)


Cast

  • Roy – the 21-year-old first person narrator
  • The Rector – his supposed father, murdered his friend Antony, shot dead by the Flight-Lieutenant at the Agricultural Show
  • The Rector’s wife – Roy’s supposed mother
  • Antony – the Rector’s friend and his wife’s lover, who the Rector confesses to murdering in chapter two
  • the Squire – a 70-year-old, white haired old worthy, lives in the Manor, dies after the Aerodrome requisition the entire village and specifically after his siter has beaten him round the face
  • the Squire’s sister – Florence, who has devoted her life to her brother, but falls into a huge rage at his death-bed and then is shot dead by the Air Vice-Marshall of the church
  • Mac – one of Roy’s drinking buddies from the (unnamed) pub in the (unnamed) village
  • Fred – another of Roy’s drinking buddies
  • the landlord – of the unnamed pub
  • the landlady – of the unnamed pub, who claims to be Roy’s mother, by the Rector
  • Bess – the landlord’s sexy but simple daughter who Roy has a passionate affair with, and even gets unofficially ‘married’ to, until the landlady tells Roy she is actually the illegitimate daughter of the Rector and so Roy’s step-sister
  • the Flight-Lieutenant – a drawling, lackadaisical smart young representative of the Aerodrome and its complete lack of conventional manners or pieties, who accidentally shoots the Rector dead, has a fling with Bess behind Roy’s back, is tasked with being the village padre after the Aerodrome takes it over, but slowly adopts village values, takes his duties seriously, begins speaking out against the Air Force
  • the Air Vice-Marshall – ‘a slight tense figure’ (p.158) the logical, no-nonsense head of the Air Force and indeed of the wider ‘movement’ which is planning to take over the country and transform it
  • the mathematician – a tall, elderly man with a small straggling beard (p.131) mastermind of a new technology of remote controlled airplanes; married to the pneumatic Eustasia
  • Eustasia – sexy wife of the mathematician who has had affairs with a string of airmen and now takes up with Roy
  • Dr Faulkner – medical co-ordinater at the Aerodrome, tends to Bess during her melancholia

Time

Several times the Air Vice-Marshall goes well beyond a conventional view of fascism as the takeover of the state and the expulsion of all the time-servers and money-lenders and parasites who infest it, far beyond that, to expound a vision of a new type of Man who will have a new type of relationship with Time! (p.128)

He explains that the airman must reject his parents, siblings, family and background i.e. all the ties of the past – and cease to worry about his own life, how it will turn out etc, in other words, cease to fear about the future. In other words, the New Men, by abandoning the ties of past and future, by entire devotion to the mission of the Air Force, can escape Time itself:

‘What is the whole purpose of our life… To be freed from time, Roy. From the past and from the future.’ (p.150)

Only then will we become ‘a new and more adequate race of men’ (p.128).

But in the last few chapters, as Roy passes the apogee of his attachment to the Aerodrome ideals, he comes to see that men are stuck in time for better or for worse, and that it is this embedded-in-time-ness which creates the potential, the adventure and excitement which are quintessentially human, as against the rigid, utterly predictable logic of the Air Force. ‘We in the Air Force had escaped but not solved the mystery’ (p.177).

It is only human to make mistakes, and get caught up in the confusing messiness of life, whereas it is an error:

to deny wholly the relevance of the world of time and feeling where such mistakes were only too easy to make, and to erect in contrast with it our own barren edifice of perfection, our efficient and mystical mastery over time. (p.181)

This interest in Time is an unusual and thought-provoking spin on the central polarity the novel describes. It reminds me of the contemporaneous obsession with time in T.S. Eliot’s poem Burnt Norton (1936).

Style

My plot summary gives you the events but doesn’t give any sense of how hard The Aerodrome is to actually read, chiefly because of its clotted, clunky style.

Warner writes in long sentences, often with three or four subordinate clauses, with non-standard word order, and using idioms or phrases which have long ago been dropped from ordinary English. Take the opening of chapter five:

In our house, as I should say in many others, death had not been in the past a frequent topic of conversation; but now, with a dead body in an upper room lying beneath a sheet, both the presence and the certainty of death were never, during the days that preceded the funeral, far from our minds. (page 50)

The prose is sufficiently different in layout and phrasing from modern English that, at moments, it prompts your mind (expecting clarity and logic) to set off in the wrong direction and you have to call it back in order to reread what the text actually says. Take this passage describing the layout of the Aerodrome, much of which is built beneath ground so that staff move around it using an underground railway.

By this railway we had come immediately after breakfast, accompanied by the three or four officers who were responsible for our training, and since the early days after we had been called up had been rigorous enough, we had been surprised to find this place so luxuriously furnished and so unlike the severity of the quarters in which we had so far lived. (p.119)

A modern writer would perhaps say the training had been ‘very rigorous’ – saying rigorous ‘enough’ sets a modern reader up to expect that it was vigorous enough for something to follow logically. Similarly, when I read the first ‘so’ I expected the sentence to continue ‘so luxuriously furnished that…‘ – I mean that the ‘so’ would lead into a conclusion rather than remain an adverb.

Maybe it’s just me, but I found Warner’s prose as stiff and restraining as Roy’s dinner party white shirt. Towards the end of the book the landlord’s wife approaches Roy:

She appeared to me at once as both older and less self-possessed than she had been at our last interview, and though for some weeks after that time I had avoided conversation with her, now I was by no means displeased to see that she evidently wished to talk to me; for I still retained for her the affection of my childhood, and did not fancy that she could reveal anything else to me that could disturb the serenity in which I lived. (page 163)

Warner’s clunky, peculiar prose style has at least two consequences:

1. You as the reader have to work quite hard to penetrate the prose and make out what’s happening, or to rethink the crabbed sentences into more flowing English so you can grasp their meaning. Quite often I felt Warner was struggling, didn’t have the basic expressive skill, to describe his own story.

I saw that Eustasia was watching me closely. Her large eyes were fixed on my face and there was an expression of eagerness in them, as though she were attempting to drag to her my thoughts from behind my forehead. (p.169)

2. The style is so peculiar and stilted that it keeps you on the outside of the narrative.

Apparently Warner intended his book to be an ‘allegory’ and it’s just as well because it doesn’t work as a psychological novel i.e. a novel where we’re meant to care in the slightest about the characters.

Roy barely reacts to the bizarre and shocking things he sees – his father’s confession, the Squire’s sister slapping the Squire to death, the Vice-Marshall shooting her dead – Roy moves through the story like a zombie.

The only places his account comes to life are in the scattered descriptions of being really head-over-heels in love with Bess, the persuasive account of his distress when he discovers her with another man, and then the new set of emotions he discovers during his affair with the worldly-wise Eustasia.

But almost all the other passages – about the Rector, his wife, the Squire, his sister and much of the description of the Aerodrome – are processed logically, in his stiff, starchy sometimes clumsy prose, and leave the reader utterly outside the experience. I kind of read at The Aerodrome but never felt I got inside it. Certainly none of its characters or events made much impression on me. For Anthony Burgess to compare it with Nineteen Eighty-Four, one of the most effectively nightmareish novels ever written, is grotesque.

Critique

By the end of the book, it has become, almost in spite of itself and its odd prose style, an impressive text. I’ve given a detailed summary so you can judge for yourself what you think of the story as a story; I’ll mention a few other aspects.

Many critics claim Warner is a kind of English Kafka. This is maybe true in two respects:

  1. the overall allegorical feel of the story in which incidents and details are crafted to fit into the totality of the allegory, as they are in The Trial and The Castle
  2. the bizarre and inexplicable elements – having recently reread all of Kafka I was reminded how plain weird many of the episodes in Kafka’s novels are, and also that he left the novels in fragments precisely because he was good at weird and intense scenes but less good at figuring out how to stitch them together

Kafka and Warner are even similar in their attitude to sex, in the sense that Kafka’s two main protagonists, Joseph K and K, seem to be very attractive to women but end up having sudden sex in incongruous places with little or no courting or foreplay – a little like Roy finds himself fornicating in a hay barn or a rickety tin shed with Bess.

For me, though, the central criticism of the Aerodrome is in its vision of a totalitarian movement. It’s too simple and too clean. Having just read Ian Kershaw’s exhaustive survey of Europe in the 1930s and 40s, a key element in the rise of right-wing dictatorships was the violence – the violence of thugs on the street, the violence of left and right wing paramilitaries, and then the violence of seizing and holding power. Enemies were rounded up, gaoled and murdered.

The Aerodrome contains some thrilling speeches by the Air Vice-Marshall about how the movement is not going to take over the country, it is going to transform it, how the old world of muddle and confusion will be swept away, how a new breed of men who have rejected the past and have no fear of the future – who have, in other words, escaped the bonds of Time – will for the first time live properly human lives.

But, like Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, it is a very shiny, technology-driven vision. Clean, antiseptic. It doesn’t take into account the actual conditions which gave rise to right-wing government across Europe which were, above all, poverty, unemployment, complete loss of faith in elected governments, and real fear of a communist revolution. These were the elements which so destabilised European nations that right-wing, often military figures could step in and promise to restore order, give people jobs, and prevent the advent of the communism which huge portions of the population were so terrified of.

None of this is in The Aerodrome. None of the political complexity, the collapse of government, and the street violence. It is a strangely antiseptic and theoretical vision of what a fascist regime would look like. And this theoretical or ‘allegorical’ treatment extends to the way the opposite of the fascist movement is not a communist or social democrat regime, it is rural tradition. But this wasn’t the alternative most people in urban industrialised Europe faced, let alone in Britain, the most urbanised country in the world.

Instead the central antithesis in the book between hi-tech airmen and drunks from the pub feels like a warmed-up version of the age-old dichotomy between city and countryside which stretches back through all civilisations, to the ancient Roman and Greeks and probably beyond, in which the businesslike city-dweller is glamorous but somehow shallow, while the country-dweller is humble and thick but somehow more authentic.

And in the simplicity of its age-old dichotomy The Aerodrome also fails to investigate the much more tangled imagery of contemporary Fascism which somehow managed to combine both elements, so that the Nazis managed to create posters and propaganda films which showed blonde Hitler youths both helping with the harvest, exercising in the country and flying brand new Messerschmitt fighter planes.

German Fascism, like Italian and Spanish cousins, combined veneration of Blood and Soil with veneration of shiny new technologies, to present the propaganda image of the totality of a nation united in one purpose.

By adopting his gleaming airmen versus doddery old village types, Warner misses all the complexities and contradictions of actual Fascist regimes, and instead paints a kind of children’s cartoon version of it.

The Aerodrome is, at the end of the day, despite its terrible prose and lack of any attempt to create credible characters, an interesting and occasionally enjoyable book. But as any kind of guide or insight into the actual fascist mind it strikes me as useless.

Also it tells you bugger-all about the air force, any air force, or what it was like to fly a plane in the late 1930s. For a book which describes the joy of flying, try Sagittarius Rising by Cecil Lewis (1936).

Credit

The Aerodrome by Rex Warner was published in 1941. All references are to the 1968 Sphere Books paperback edition (cover price 7/6).


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The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera (1984)

Like The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, this novel is sharply divided into seven distinct parts. Unlike that book it retreats a little from being a collection of fragmented stand-alone narratives, heavily interspersed with philosophical digressions, back towards something a bit more like a conventional novel, in that the same characters recur in every part.

That said, it is still not at all like a conventional novel. Conventional novels set scenes, paint locations, introduce characters, and explore them slowly by taking them through events, described in full, with plenty of dialogue.

Kundera’s novels feature characters, but they are more often than not presented through the author’s ideas about them. The ideas come first, and then the characters exist – or are invented – to flesh them out.

Thus the first two short sections of part one of this book present no characters or settings at all, but consist of a meditation on Nietzsche’s puzzling idea of Eternal Recurrence, an idea Nietzsche proposed in his last works before going mad. Kundera interprets to it to mean the notion that anything which happens only once barely happens at all. He quotes the German proverb: Einmal ist Keinmal: ‘once is nothing’. Only recurrence nails something down with weight and meaning. What occurs only once, has no weight, no meaning. Its lightness is unbearable.

And this dichotomy between lightness and weight will underpin much of the discussion which follows.

Part One – Lightness and Weight

Tomas is a surgeon. Since Tomas divorced his wife and abandoned his son (she was a rabid communist who gave him only very restricted access, and even then kept cancelling his dates to see his son – so Tomas eventually gave up trying), he’s had numerous lovers which he runs on a rule of three: Either three quick sex sessions, then never see them again; or a longer term relationship but scheduled at three-weekly intervals. (Putting it like this makes you realise how, well, crass a lot of Kundera’s male characters and their supposed sexual wisdom, can easily appear.)

And I’m afraid that the effect of reading five of his books in quick succession began to make me see through his plausible sounding words of wisdom.

Tomas came to this conclusion: Making love with a woman and sleeping with a woman are two separate passions, not merely different but opposite. Love does not make itself felt in the desire for copulation (a desire that extends to an infinite number of women) but in the desire for shared sleep (a desire limited to one woman). (p.15)

Tomas is sent to a sleepy provincial town by his hospital to perform a tricky operation on a patient who can’t be moved. Here, in a sleepy local restaurant, he meets Tereza who is a waitress. They have sex. Weeks later, she turns up on his doorstep. He takes her in, they sleep together, he gets her suitcase from the station. All this goes against his principles, such as hating having women sleep over, preferring to drive them home after sex. Anyway, Tereza comes down with flu and Tomas is forced to look after her and, as he does so, has the peculiar sensation that she is like Moses in the cradle and he is the pharaoh’s daughter. Some higher power has decreed he must protect her. And so he finds himself falling in love with her. He gets his mistress, Sabina, to wangle her a job as a dark room assistant with a magazine.

And so they settle in to living together. But then Tereza discovers that Tomas has lots of other lovers. She comes across a stash of letters. She begins to have panic dreams, which Kundera vividly describes, one in which Tereza is one among a group of naked women who walk around a swimming pool performing kneed bends and exercises and if any of them hesitates or stumbles, Tomas, who is in a basket suspended from the roof, shoots them dead with the gun in his hand. Those kinds of dreams. Anxiety dreams.

He loves her and wishes to calm her feverish dreams, but can’t stop seeing his lovers, but then can’t make love to them without feeling guilty, so needs to drink to mask the guilt, but then Tereza smells the booze on his breath when he gets home, and has another one of her anxiety attacks. In fact she tries to kill herself.

Then, in his anxiety, Tomas’s longest-term mistress, the artist Sabina, catches him looking at his watch while making love, and takes her revenge on him. Oh dear. Can the poor man do nothing right?

Years go by. Tomas marries Tereza. He buys her a mongrel puppy, they name Karenin after the hero of the Tolstoy novel.

Then the Russians invade Czechoslovakia in August 1968. Tereza is by now a staff photographer on the magazine and spends the days after the invasion roaming the streets taking photographs of the occupying army, then handing the film over to foreign journalists.

Sabina has left for Geneva, Switzerland. A hospital manager from Zurich Tomas knows phones up and offers him a job. After hesitation he takes it and they drive to Switzerland. For some months she is happy and confident. Taking photos during the occupation gave her confidence. Then he gets home one day and finds a farewell letter from her. She can’t hack life in the West. She’s gone back to Czechoslovakia and taken the dog.

Initially Tomas feels liberated. Seven years with her were, in the end, a burden. But it only takes a day or two and then the terrible power of compassion kicks in – Kundera gives us a disquisition on the etymology and meaning of ‘com’ [meaning with] ‘passion’ [from the Latin word meaning ‘suffering’] – and he imagines Tereza alone in their flat in Prague. So, with a heavy heart, he resigns from the Zurich hospital, quoting the motif from a late Beethoven string quartet – Muss es sein? Ja, es muss sein. And drives back across the border to Prague, finding Teresa asleep in their old flat, and wondering if he’s just made the worst mistake of his life.

On this recording of Beethoven’s string quartet number 16, click to the final movement at 17:39. It’s here that Beethoven wrote the words Muss es sein? Ja, es muss sein before the music itself begins, indicating that the rhythm of the words was the basis of the musical motifs from which he then created the music. What do the words mean: ‘Must it be?’ ‘Yes. It must be.’ It seems like it should be a meditation on man’s fate, on whether we make real decisions or go along with a pre-determined fate. Except that the music itself is surprisingly light and airy.

Puzzling and teasing. And, in this, similar to Kundera’s texts which invoke all kinds of serious political and philosophical ideas, and reference well-known writers and musicians in order… to muse on the different types of philanderer (the epic or the lyric), or the four types of ‘look’, or why one character close their eyes during sex while another keeps them open, or to give a mock academic definition of the art of flirtation. Is the entire book a deliberate playing and toying with ideas of seriousness and triviality?

Part Two – Soul and Body

In which we learn a lot more about Tereza, namely her family background. Her mother married the least eligible of her nine suitors because he got her pregnant. After a few years of boring marriage, she ran off with another man, who turned out to be a loser. She took all this out on young Tereza, in the form of nudity. Tereza’s mother walks round the house naked, she refuses to have a lock on the lavatory, she parades her friends round the house and into Tereza’s room when she’s half dressed. For Tereza, nudity represents a concentration camp-style enforcement of loss of privacy.

Meeting Tomas was an escape. He had a book on the table of the restaurant where she served him on the occasion of him coming to the town to perform an operation. Books are symbolic of escape from narrow provincial life into a higher realm. (In this respect she reminds me of Kristyna the butcher’s wife who is enchanted with the higher learning and big city sophistication of ‘the student’ in part five of The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, or of nurse Ruzena who longs to escape the narrow confines of her boring provincial town in The Farewell Party. The uneducated young woman trapped in a provincial town until rescued by a much more educated, big city-dweller, is a recurring trope.)

We re-see the birth and development of her love affair with Tomas through her eyes, including the night she danced with another man and made him jealous, then her discovery at discovering all his letters from his lovers, particularly Sabina.

She has a brainwave to control her jealousy which is to try and co-opt his lovers into their sex life. She has the idea to visit Sabina the painter and take photos of her (by this time she is a staff photographer on the weekly magazine). Which progresses to suggesting she photograph Sabina nude. As a heterosexual man I found this couple of pages stimulating, as I think they’re intended, but as wildly improbable as a porn film. It doesn’t come off, there isn’t a lesbian scene, the two women collapse in laughter.

We see how her exile in Geneva comes to a head when she takes her best photos of the Russian occupation of Prague to a magazine editor, who says, ‘Yes, they’re wonderful, but things have moved on, Is she any good at photographing plants, cacti, for example? Very fashionable at the moment.’

She protests that the Russian tanks are still on the streets of Prague, Czechs are still being sent to prison by the thousand. The editor gets a woman staff photographer to take her to lunch and explain the facts of life in the capitalist West to her, but the more she does so, the more Tereza feels patronised and disgusted.

In both these sections Kundera describes the fate of Alexander Dubček, the Czech leader who allowed the widespread liberalisation of communism which became known as the Prague Spring, and who was arrested and flown to prison in Russia after the Russians invaded in August 1968.

Initially, Dubček was told he was going to be executed, like Imre Nagy, leader of rebel Hungary, had been in 1956. But then he was reprieved, bathed and shaved and given a new suit and taken to a meeting with Leonid Brezhnev, where he was offered his life if he agreed to roll back all his reforms. Within days he was flown back to Prague and forced to make a nationwide address on the radio explaining his change of strategy.

For Kundera, the significant thing was Dubček’s pitiful performance, his long pauses, his gasps for breath. During those pauses, he says, the entire nation heard their humiliation. And both Tomas and Tereza revert to this example of humiliation as they consider their own lives.

And it occurs to me that whereas traditional novelists use symbolism with a kind of subtlety, burying it in the narrative and descriptions, Kundera’s distinguishing feature is that he makes his ‘symbols’ front and foreground of the text. They are not subtly worked into the text but very visibly added into it and then commented on at length. Each time they recur Kundera himself does all the commentary and critique, explaining how Dubček’s silences became symbolic of all kinds of other silences, in apartments bugged by the secret police, or between lovers who can no longer talk to each other.

Tereza realises she is utterly alone in the West. She packs her bags, takes Karenin, and catches a train back to the Czech border. Five days later Tomas joins her.

Who is strong here, who is weak? Is weakness bad? Was Dubček weak? No. Anybody is weak when they are set against vastly stronger forces. Weakness has no intrinsic meaning.

Part Three – Words Misunderstood

Part three introduces us to Franz, who is happily set up with his docile wife, Marie-Claude, who runs a private art gallery, and (somewhat inevitably) enjoys the favours of his artist-mistress. Artist? Like Sabina? Her name is deliberately suppressed but as soon as the narrator mentions a bowler hat we know that it is Sabina, Tomas’s mistress Sabina, since the bowler is a prop she used to wear (with little else) for her erotic encounters with Tomas in Part One. In fact Kundera treats us to an entire digression about the bowler hat, which used to belong to her grandfather, the small-town mayor, and how her bringing it into exile in the West has now loaded it with multiple layers of symbolism.

But the real purpose of this section is to form an extended example of one of the central themes of Kundera’s fiction – which is the profound mutual misunderstandings which can occur between two people, even if they are lovers, especially if they are lovers.

And for the first time this is given a formal structure, in that Kundera shepherds the completely opposite ideas and principles of West-born Franz and Eastern émigré Sabina into a humorous format, a Short Dictionary of Misunderstood Words. This dictionary occurs in more than one of the sections and includes such subjects as: Woman, Fidelity & Betrayal, Music, Light & Darkness, the beauty of New York, Strength, Living In Truth, and so on – all areas where Kundera humorously shows us Franz thinking one thing and Sabina thinking the diametric opposite.

Take music. Franz would like to disappear inside a great orgasm of totally obliterating music. Whereas Sabina thought only under communism did musical barbarism reign until she came to the West and discovered the crudest pop music blaring and thumping from every public orifice. She hates its stifling omnipresence.

This is a clever, witty and funny idea – and another example of how Kundera pushes old fashioned ideas about ‘the novel’ to the limit. In your traditional novel these themes might have been embedded in fictional events, or maybe in dialogue, but to some extent dramatised. In Kundera, the narrative comes to a dead stop and the text comes close to becoming a Powerpoint presentation. At moments like this it comes close to being a collection of bullet points more than a narrative. The interesting thing is just how far Kundera can push all these tricks and experiments – and the book still feel like a novel, with a story and characters.

Parades For Franz, raised in the West, political parades are a release and a protest (and also, on a personal level, a relief to get out from the libraries and lecture halls where he spends his professional life). But Sabina was brought up in the communist East where, from earliest youth, she was forced to go on political marches and rallies, forced to march in rank with other Young Pioneers, forced to chant political slogans. Thus, he loves parades but she loathes them.

Lightness Franz feels that everything that happens in the West, and to him, is too boring trivial and easy. Too light. He was resigned to dissolving into the never-ending sea of words which is academic discourse. Which is why Sabina excites him so much as a mistress. In her country even the slightest phrase can be charged with superhuman weight, can consign one or more people to prison or execution. Now there’s meaning for you, drama and revolution and human adventure! Whereas for Sabina, of course, words like ‘revolution’, ‘struggle’ and ‘comrade’ are dirty, sordid, horrible reminders of the crushing of the human spirit.

Franz is worn out, psychologically and philosophically exhausted, by the West’s sheer profusion.

The endless vanity of speeches and words, the vanity of culture, the vanity of art. (p.110)

including the vanity of the endless pontificating about art which he hears on all sides at his wife’s press days and exhibition launches, and the insufferable loquacity of his cocktail-party-superficial daughter.

Franz finally plucks up the guts to tell his wife of 23 years that he has been seeing a mistress for nine months. He is horrified when Marie-Claude doesn’t buckle into tears (it turns out he had completely the wrong idea about her for this entire time – see the discussion in the Short Dictionary of his concept of ‘Woman’) but becomes very hard-faced. Becoming scared, Franz goes on to tell her the mistress is Sabina.

Next day he is on a flight to Amsterdam and feels wonderful light and airy and released from all guilt. He is living in truth. He has told Sabina, sitting beside him, that he’s told his wife everything about them, and so he feels light and breezy. But Sabina now is wracked with anxiety. No longer is she the free-spirited artist Sabina. Now she is ‘that painter who’s involved in the Franz and Marie-Claude divorce’. Now she’s going to have to decide how to play the role of ‘the mistress’. She feels weighted down.

This is just one of the many many ways the theme of ‘lightness’ is played out and dramatised throughout the book.

In fact during this trip to Amsterdam, while Franz feels lighter and lighter, Sabina feels so weighted down that she realises she can never see him again. They have a night of unbridled passion in Amsterdam, she giving herself up to physical ecstasy as never before. He thinks it’s because she is excited by their new life together and by the prospect of living in truth. But it is nothing of the sort. It is because she knows it is the last time. She knows she has to leave him. Thus they have completely opposed understandings and motivations. Complete misunderstanding, which is really Kundera’s central subject.

Back in Geneva, Franz shamefacedly packs a few things in front of his wife, then goes round to Sabina’s flat. The door is locked. There’s no-one home. He keeps going back like a lost puppy, no answer. After a few days removal men appear and empty it. She’s gone, and left no forwarding address. Initially he is devastated. When he goes back to his wife, she says ‘Don’t let me stop you moving out.’ On the face of it he’s lost everything. But in the event he takes a small flat in the old part of town. Moves in furniture which he, not his wife has chosen. Stuffs it full of books and becomes happy. One of his students falls in love with him and they start an affair. Deep in his heart he is grateful to Sabina for freeing him from the staleness of a 23-year marriage. Life is sweet. He is living in truth.

Meanwhile Sabina moves to Paris. She had hoped that the successive affairs and liaisons would weight her down and give her life significance. But she finds herself floating free and rootless in Paris. It is here that for the first time we read the title phrase of the book. She seems doomed to experience ‘the unbearable lightness of being’ (p.122).

One day she gets a letter telling her that Tomas and Tereza have died in a car crash in some remote mountain town in Czechoslovakia.

By this point I’m thinking that the way this novel has followed just a handful of characters through quite extensive twists and turns makes it unlike his previous works. It’s still stuffed full of soft philosophising about life, but… feels deeper, more deeply felt, simply from the old-fashioned device of letting us get to know the characters via a reasonably chronological narrative.

Part Four – Soul and Body

Part four picks up with Tomas and Tereza back in Czechoslovakia, after she fled from Geneva and the West, and he reluctantly followed her.

Tereza gets a job in a hotel bar. The receptionist is a former ambassador, who criticised the Soviet invasion. All the intelligentsia has been kicked out of their jobs. Tereza gets chatted up by various male customers, which prompts Kundera to give a typically pithy and pseudo-academic definition of the activity of ‘flirting’:

What is flirtation? One might say that it is behaviour leading another to believe that sexual intimacy is possible, while preventing that possibility from becoming a certainty. In other words, flirting is a promise of sexual intercourse without a guarantee. (p.142)

The men at the bar hit on her. One is a fat secret policeman who gets drunk and tries to blackmail her. He is being particularly obnoxious, when a tall stranger intervenes and tells him to shut his trap, she is immensely grateful. But with a kind of sinking inevitability this man then begins chatting her up in a friendly way.

Now a key thing to realise is that at the start of this section, Tomas had come back from window-cleaning and fallen into bed dog-tired just as Tereza was waking for her evening job but not before she smells… can it be… is it really?… yes, the smell of women’s privates in his hair. My God! What has he been up to? But alas, she knows only too well what he’s been up to.

And so her jealousy-anxiety dreams start to recur, especially a new one in which Tomas smilingly tells her to go up Petrin Hill, the big hill in the centre of Prague. She does so, finding it eerily empty. At the top are a few other lost souls like herself, and a suave gentleman with a rifle and several assistants. He politely informs her that he is there to execute them. But only of their own free will, if they want to. And she is so miserable at Tomas’s infidelities, that she lets herself be led to a tree by the assistants and the rifleman is lifting his gun to execute her, and she tries to steel herself but, at the last minute, she bursts out No No, she didn’t come of her own free will, and the rifleman sadly lowers his gun, and she turns to the tree and bursts into inconsolable tears (p.151).

This, like the dream of the naked woman walking round the swimming pool, has the eerie uncanniness of literary dreams (I dream a lot and remember my dreams and none of them are this well-rounded and pregnant with symbolism). And they add to the sense that this book somehow goes deeper than its predecessors. It includes just as much learnèd digression, but by portraying Tomas and Tereza and Sabina at such length, we feel like we’re ‘getting to know them’ much more than previous creations.

So Tereza lets the tall man, an engineer it turns out, invite her to his small apartment where, after the minimum of preamble, he begins unbuttoning her and then having sex with her.

All the way through the book Tereza is afflicted by a dichotomy between her body and her soul (hence the title of this part, Body and Soul) caused by her early experiences with her shameless mother. In many ways she wants to escape her body. She certainly has an ambivalent attitude towards it. Now, she lets herself be stripped bare and penetrated (‘penetrate’ is a verb which crops up regularly in Kundera’s descriptions of sex) but, like so many of his female protagonists, feels far distant from what is going on.

She becomes more disgusted the more he roots around in her body, eventually spitting in his face. Later she uses his horrible toilet with no toilet seat, perching precariously on the crude bit of cold plumbing. Tereza longs to escape from the crudity of bodies, the way Tomas seems able to have casual sex with more or less any woman. But it kills her.

Later, when the supposed engineer doesn’t get back in touch, she becomes paranoid. What if it was a set-up? What if she was somehow filmed or recorded having sex, compromising herself?

And her mind goes back to how, in the months following the Prague Spring, the new hardline communist authorities broadcast secret recordings made of émigrés and dissidents, obviously only the most shameful bits when, after a bottle of wine or so they were persuaded to turn on their colleagues or admit what a crappy country Czechoslovakia is, or admit to being wife-beaters or closet paedophiles or anything – anything the agents provocateurs could wheedle out of them which could then be carefully edited and broadcast on Radio Communism to destroy the images of all the would-be leaders of the people and cow the populace into even deeper passive stupor.

One of these was the well-known author Jan Prochazka, recorded slagging off his colleagues and then broadcast all over the airwaves. Tereza is horrified by this and all other examples of the complete lack of privacy under communism. For her it is tied to her mother’s insistence on going around naked and on parading her, Tereza, naked to her friends. The horror of it!

And the time when she was 14 and her mother found her secret diaries, recording her innermost adolescent secrets… and brought them out when friends were round for tea and insisted on reading out whole entries at which all the raddled middle-aged women cackled with hilarity and Tereza wanted to die.

For Tereza, the definition of a concentration camp is a place of absolutely no privacy, where privacy is abolished (p.137)

That’s why Tomas’s infidelity makes her want to die, and dream about ways of dying: because she thought with him, she had found something utterly private and safe and secure. She gives their love tremendous weight. And yet Tomas finds sex light and easy, no consequences, no angst. She cannot relate to the lightness of his attitude. His lightness is unbearable to her.

Part Five – Lightness and Weight

And now, Tomas’s experience of returning to occupied Czechoslovakia.

At first he is welcomed back to the hospital. He is the leading surgeon of his generation. But now we are told about an article he wrote a few years previously, during the general relaxing of censorship leading up to the Prague Spring. It took as its subject the Oedipus of Sophocles. When Oedipus realises what a terrible thing he has done, even though he did it in complete innocence, he blinds himself. Tomas writes a long essay accusing the Communist Party of having betrayed Czechoslovakia and, although many of them did it with good intentions, he compares their pleas for forgiveness and understanding, with Oedipus’s intensely tragic self-punishment. The article is accepted by an intellectual magazine, though Tomas is irritated that they severely cut it, making it seem much more harsh and aggressive than he’d intended.

Then came the Russian invasion. A year later the director of the hospital calls him in and says the communist authorities want him to write a note disclaiming the article and its criticism. This gives rise to some intense analysis by Kundera. He foresees his colleagues reacting in two ways: first the nods from all the others who have given in and signed; then the smug sneers of everyone who was too young to be implicated and so can take a moral high line with no risk. Tomas realises he will hate being the recipient of either kind of smile. He refuses to sign and is sacked.

He gets a job as a GP in a practice 50 k from Prague. One day the last patient is a smooth-talking and charming secret policeman. He takes Tomas for a glass of wine and sympathises with his plight, he never meant to write that article, the editors butchered it, of course the authorities want one of their leading surgeons to return to his métier. And he holds out another document for Tomas to sign, his one much harsher than the hospital one, this one declaring how much Tomas loves the Soviet Union and the Communist party.

I found this sequence fascinating, it has a John le Carré sense of the insinuating ways of power and corruption, for it took a while for innocent Tomas to realise he is being tempted. He refuses. More than that, he quits his job as a GP and finds work as a window cleaner. The authorities only make people of significance sign these disclaimers. Once you’ve reached rock bottom they lose interest. Tomas wants to reach rock bottom. He wants to be free (p.192).

The ensuing passages describe Tomas’s adventures as a window-cleaner in Prague. The underground grapevine goes before him and he often finds himself offered a glass of wine and assured he doesn’t have to do any work by former patients who happily sign the chit saying he’s done the work.

But, this being Kundera, there is of course sex. Quite a bit of sex. Because handsome saturnine Tomas is calling during the day on plenty of bored middle-aged, middle-class housewives. Kundera describes his sexual escapades, the one which drive Tereza to paroxysms of despair, as casual couplings which Tomas can barely remember by the weekend. And, being Kundera, there is a great deal of theorising about sex. Again.

Men who pursue a multitude of women fit neatly into two categories.  Some seek their own subjective and unchanging dream of a woman in all women. Others are prompted by a desire to possess the endless variety of the objective female world. (p.201)

and he goes on to call the obsession of the former lyrical, and of the latter, epical, and spends a couple of pages of entertaining theorising expanding on this premise. The lyricists seek an Ideal and are always disappointed. Some sentimental women are touched by their idealism. Epic womanisers garner no sympathy. They are interested in quantity not quality. And eventually they get bored and become interested in ever more specific quirks. They become collectors.

Kundera describes Tomas’s collector habits, and several encounters of great erotic intensity. However, after a few years the women begin to blur into one, he starts forgetting names. But the real purpose of all this is to make the distinction (and Kundera’s type of intellectuality is about making endless numbers of distinctions – heaviness and lightness, lyrical and epical, demonic and angelic laughter, and so on) between Tomas’s collector instinct when he’s out there, in the world, and his love for Teresa.

He doesn’t need to collect Teresa. She came to him. And her falling ill within an hour or so of arriving was a key moment, which is referred to again and again in the novel. It made her completely vulnerable and reliant on him, in a way none of his conquests are, in a way he’s careful to make sure they never are. Which is what makes her the Great Exception.

Anyway, all this merry philosophising about sex is bookended with another encounter with people who want him to sign something. One of the editors of the magazine where he sent his ill-fated article about Oedipus calls him to a surreptitious meeting at a borrowed flat where Tomas is unnerved to encounter his own son, the one he rejected and walked away from after his divorce nearly 20 years earlier,

Over the space of several pages they try to persuade him to sign a petition they’re getting up among intellectuals to protest against the maltreatment of prisoners in prison. Again we are in the world of politics and coercion, as when the secret policeman met him. Only now there is this weird personal element of his son coercing him. Initially Tomas is minded to sign, but when they remind him of the Oedipus article which screwed up his life, he is reminded of what prompted him to write it. It was looking down in Tereza, as she lay in bed with a fever from the flu that kicked in within hours of her arriving at his flat, and made him think of pharaoh’s daughter looking down on Moses in the basket made of bullrushes. And so he went to his book of ancient legends and came across Oedipus, another abandoned child who is rescued… and one thing led to another.

And in a moment of insight Tomas realises she is still the defenceless babe in the basket and he must do nothing to endanger her. And he looks at the two men facing him and realises that nothing he signs or says or does will make the slightest difference to political prisoners in Czechoslovakia – but it might endanger his beloved. And so Tomas tells them he will not sign. He knows they won’t understand. He gets up and returns to the only woman he cares for… But, at the same time, unbeknown to him, the one who he is torturing to death with his ceaseless infidelities…

The petition is duly published. The signers are rounded up. The communist press denounces them as wreckers and saboteurs. On it goes, the endless cycle of repression. Tomas reflects on the history of the Czechs, their apparently bottomless ability to screw up their lives and politics. He ponders how one decision (to stand up for themselves) led to total defeat in the Thirty Years War (1618-48) while the opposite decision (to be compliant to stronger powers, at Munich) led to total defeat by the Nazis. What is right? What is best to do? All alternatives seem to lead down to defeat.

If history were repeated multiple times we could try alternative answers and find out. But we can’t. Using these (not totally convincing arguments) Tomas concludes that History isn’t unbearable because of its crushing weight, but the opposite.

The history of the Czechs and of Europe is a pair of sketches from the pen of mankind’s fateful inexperience. History is as light as a feather, as dust swirling into the air, as whatever will no longer exist tomorrow. (p.223)

He’s been a windowcleaner for nearly three years, now. It’s gotten boring. The former patients no longer greet him with champagne and toasts. They just want their windows cleaned. The sight of intellectuals doing manual labour has become passé, and then embarrassing. And he is growing psychologically tired of all the sex. He can’t stop it, but it is wearing him out.

Tereza suggests they move to the countryside, get new jobs. She is obviously unhappy. He asks her why and she finally reveals that every day when he gets back from work she can smell other women’s private parts on his hair. Appalled, he makes to go and shower immediately but she says, It’s alright, she’s used to it and he is stricken with grief.

That night he wakes from a strange dream (lots of dreams in this book) about (alas) sex and the ideal woman, and wakens to find Tereza holding his hand, and vows to change.

Part Six – The Grand March

This is the shortest and the silliest part of the novel, in fact one of the worst things Kundera ever wrote. Although it is packed with serious themes it feels somehow the most superficial.

In a great hurry Kundera progresses through an anecdote about how Stalin’s son died, in a Second World War prisoner of war camp, arguing with British prisoners about his messy defecating habits. Then Kundera picks up this idea of human faeces and runs with it via references to various theologians and their ideas of the relation between the human body and its creator, the way they force a binary choice on us: that either man’s body is made in the image of God’s – in which case God has intestines, guts, and defecates – or it isn’t, in which case it isn’t perfect and godlike, and neither is creation.

This leads him on to a meditation on the meaning of kitsch, which he takes to be the belief that the world is perfect, that it is a world without shit. (The general drift of this definition reminds me of his definition of angelic laughter in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting i.e. that it is creepily unrealistic.)

Kundera then hurries on to rope in thoughts about ‘sentimentality’, defining sentimentality as The awareness of how much one is moved by the notion that the world is a perfect and beautiful world.

And then moves on to claim that this kitsch is universal among all politicians. All politicians want to be seen with babies because they identify with the kitsch notion that human life is an unmitigated blessing. This is demonstrated by the time when Sabina, by now a famous artist and living in America, is driven by a US senator to an ice rink, where kids are frolicking and makes an expansive gesture with his arm as if to incorporate everything that is Good In Life. But Sabina has had a tough life and sees in his rinky-dink smile exactly the cheesy smiles of the Communist Parties smiling down at the smiling masses of the Communist Faithful as they march past on a May Day Parade. Totalitarian kitsch is a world in which everyone is smiling all the time because everything is so perfect. Anyone who asks a question or expresses a doubt must immediately be shipped off to the gulag because kitsch admits of no imperfections.

Which brings us to Franz and his need to be seen. Which prompts Kundera to explain the four categories of ways we need to be seen.

  1. People who long for the look of an infinite number of anonymous eyes. Actors.
  2. People who have a need to be seen by many known eyes. Cocktail party hosts.
  3. People who need to be constantly before the eyes of the person they love.
  4. People who live in the imaginary eyes of those who are not present.

Franz is of this latter type and he undertakes the escapade which ends his life because of a futile sense that somehow, somewhere, Sabina the great love of his life is watching him.

This is a Mercy Mission to Cambodia. The Khmer Rouge ran Cambodia from 1975 to 1978 during which they managed to murder around a million of their fellow citizens, about a quarter of the population, in order to create their peasant-Marxist utopia. Communist Vietnam invaded in 1978 and expelled the Khmer Rouge, setting up their own puppet government.

In the novel a group of French doctors decide to mount a mercy mission by going to Thailand and marching to the Cambodian border and demanding admission. Soon the mission snowballs as a load of American intellectuals and actresses get involved. The French fall out with the Americans, the Americans are offended, can’t everyone see their motives are pure.

I think this entire episode is a rare example of Kundera striking a false note. The entire thing is meant to satirise the sentimentality of the liberal West and its obsession with Grand Marches and Noble Gestures, but… the horror of the Khmer Rouge seems, to me, too serious a setting for Kundera’s satire. It’s as if he was making facile or footling nit-picking pseudo-philosophical points in Auschwitz or Katyn. Don’t get me wrong. I believe you can laugh at more or less anything, I have no politically correct objection to universal mockery. But some things you can only laugh at if it’s a really, really, really good joke, sufficiently funny to outweigh your knowledge of the horror – and Kundera tying together the superficial narcissism of western protests, silly Hollywood actresses and snotty French intellectuals with…. the horrors of the Pol Pot regime – this strikes me as the first wrong step he’s taken in the five books of his I’ve read.

Kundera tries to redeem what even he may have suspected was forced material by piling in ‘tragic’ material about his characters. In particular we now learn that the son, Simon, who Tomas abandoned early on in the novel is now all grown up and is also working as a farm labourer. He starts writing letters to Tomas in which he explains that, in protest at the regime, he left an academic career and married a devout wife and became a Christian. Simon and Tomas exchange a few letters but remain (as all Kundera characters do) at cross-purposes. When he receives a letter that Tomas and Tereza have been killed in a car accident, crushed by a truck which rolled onto their car, Simon hurries to the funeral.

Hmm. I don’t mind Tomas and Tereza’s deaths being reported at one remove like this, and by a fairly new character, but… this ‘Simon’ feels like he’s been introduced too quickly to properly perform the task. We barely know him before he is carrying the freight of having the deaths of our two beloved central characters die.

Similarly, the Grand March of the French doctors and American celebrities to the Cambodian border descends into farce, that much was predictable. But there’s another oddly false note, when one of the hundreds of photographers accompanying the self-important marchers, steps off the road and onto a land mine and is blown to pieces, his body parts spattering all over one of the banners the Grand Marchers are carrying. Initially dazed, they look up and then… feel a surge of pride.

Then they timidly ventured a few more looks upwards and began to smile slightly. They were filled with a strange pride, a pride they had never known before: the flag they were carrying had been consecrated by blood. Once more they joined the march. (p.265)

That feels to me like bollocks. Satire has to have an element of truth to work, and this just feels to me like pure fantasy. Can you imagine a Hollywood actress being spattered by the blown-up body parts of a press photographer, then slowly breaking into a smile? It felt like Kundera was forcing his characters to fit his thesis and they snap.

Same with Franz. The Grand Marchers finally arrive at the border, and stand at one end of the slim bridge over the river which forms the border, staring across it into Cambodia. Everyone knows snipers are watching on the other side, and will shoot at the slightest provocation.

The interpreter calls out three times (as in a fairly tale) for the other side to let the doctors in, but each time there is only an ominous silence. Then the Marchers pack up and march back to their jumping off point, catch the bus back to Bangkok, and go off to restaurants or brothels as their tastes dictate.

It was a fiasco. But for me it doesn’t work as satire because it doesn’t contain any kernel of truth, it feels like contrived fantasy from start to finish. And then Franz is walking along a side street when he is mugged, smacked on the head and thrown into a deep hole where he breaks his back and blacks out. When he comes to, he is in hospital in Geneva unable to move his body or head and staring up into the benevolent eyes of the wife he abandoned. She is thrilled, because she is having her revenge, because

a husband’s funeral is a wife’s true wedding! The climax of her life’s work! The reward for her suffering! (p.275)

Maybe he’s just dramatising Marie-Claude’s feelings, here, but this still feels like utter bollocks. Contrived and glib. Franz wastes away and dies, full of hatred for his wife, and to her great delight.

It feels like this entire section was written by someone else, by someone parodying Kundera’s approach of throwing together historical, social cultural, psychological and philosophical elements and threading them together with fictional characters and who…. has somehow got it profoundly wrong.

Part Seven – Karenin’s Smile

Which is why the final part is a relief. It follows Tomas and Tereza’s life once they move out of Prague and become agricultural labourers. Admittedly communism has destroyed the old rural ties, closing the village hall, and banning church attendance and cancelling the traditional holidays. But Tomas and Tereza don’t mind and he takes to driving a tractor with gusto and she tends the cows and heifers with real affection.

At moments it’s almost like Tess of the D’Urbervilles.

This last section is very beautiful, quite sentimental and made me cry. Which is odd because it’s still packed to the gill with references to philosophers (we learn about Descartes’ theory that animals have no souls and no feelings, and are merely machines; and this view is compared with Nietzsche, who had his final nervous breakdown and collapse into madness, after he saw a man whipping a broken-down horse in the streets of Turin) along with plenty more philosophising on his own account:

We can never establish with certainty what part of our relations with others is the result of our emotions – love, antipathy, charity, or malice – and what part is predetermined by the constant power play among individuals. (p.289)

Comparing Adam and Karenin leads me to the thought that in Paradise man was not man, Or to be more precise, man had not yet been cast out on man’s path. Now we are long-time outcasts, flying through the emptiness of time in a straight line. Yet somewhere deep down a thin thread still ties us to that far-off misty Paradise, where Adam leans over a well and, unlike Narcissus, never even suspects that the pale yellow blotch appearing in it is he himself. The longing for Paradise is man’s longing not to be man. (p.296)

And much more in the same vein.

In among all these lugubrious lucubrations, some stuff actually happens, mainly that their beloved dog of ten years, Karenin, falls ill of cancer, and wastes away until Tomas -being a doctor – is forced to put him out of his misery with a lethal injection.

This event prompts a series of reflections about humanity and animals: that the measure of humanity is how it treats the absolutely helpless i.e. animals, and that in this respect humankind has undergone an absolutely catastrophic debacle. Our contact with animals was the last thread attaching us to Paradise, and look how we treat them. Factory chickens. Veal calves. Hormone-pumped cattle. Vivisection. How many rabbits have been blinded by mascara or beagles forced to smoke themselves to death?

So it’s no surprise how we treat each other. Kundera emerges from this final section as a vehement Animal Liberationist (reminding me of the South African novelist J.M. Coetzee).

This last section, about Karenin wasting away and dying, and how they eventually, finally, have to put him down and then jointly bury the little doggy corpse, is pretty obviously designed to be tear-jerking, the dog’s final hours and last whimpers, and then how they bury him in the garden in a plot chosen by Tereza, designed to wring the last drop of feeling from the sensitive reader.

But what made me cry was how, at long, long last, Tereza was finally reconciled with Tomas. She comes across him hiding letters and once again the old gnawing doubts bite into her. But then, one day, he reveals that they’re letters from his son who has become a Christian and works on the land not far away. Inevitably, they discuss his son more as an intellectual example of conversion to faith (given his mother was a rabid communist), than as a person – but the point is that Tereza finally realises that Tomas’s days of unfaithfulness are over. Finally, they are completely together. Finally her years of anxiety-jealousy nightmares can end.

And the book ends with them accompanying the jovial old director of the collective farm, and a young farm hand whose dislocated shoulder Tomas has fixed, to the nearest town where they get drunk and dance to the ludicrous accompaniment of an ageing pianist and equally old violinist, till they fall into bed together, finally, at last, HAPPY.

Thoughts

To read a Milan Kundera novel is to be bombarded with so many ideas about love and sex and marriage and fidelity and psychology and religion and politics that it’s difficult to keep them all in your head. Some will stick, some will go in one ear and out the other. Some kind of diagram would be needed to store them all and work out their web of interrelations.

They are dazzling, awesome intellectual feats of thinking, imagination and writing. But the downside is it can sometimes feel like you’re reading an encyclopedia; or a highly erudite author’s commonplace book where they’ve jotted down every thought and notion that’s ever occurred to them – and the concocted characters and a narrative which allows him to insert them at regular intervals.

I found it ultimately a very moving book, as mentioned above for the simple reason that we follow Tomas and Tereza’s story for longer, in more depth, and with more sympathy, than any of his previous characters. And because it ends with emotional closure, with them going to bed happy and contented so the reader can close the book with a big smile on their face.

But I also regularly experienced Idea Fatigue at quite a few places, where I just felt overwhelmed by yet another page of graceful and witty fancies and hypotheses, theories and thoughts, opinions and asides. It is possible to have too many postulates and paradoxes per page, in fact:

Questionable wisdom

Saul Bellow coined the term ‘reality instructor’ for people who take it upon themselves to explain what life is really like, what it really means. This kind of lecturing is a quintessential part of Kundera’s style. I think in small doses it can be very illuminating, but the more you read, the more you have the sense of being harassed.

An author can discuss philosophy without being a philosopher, psychology without being a psychologist. On the one hand it gives them the freedom to play with ideas and spin amusing and unusual insights. On the other hand, their little lessons risk lacking depth or evidence – of resting, ultimately, on assertion, often on rhetorical tricks, on paradox and wit, more than evidence. Here are some examples:

Dreaming is not merely an act of communication (or coded communication, if you like); it is also an aesthetic activity, a game of the imagination, a game that has a value in itself. Our dreams prove that to imagine – to dream about things that have not happened – is among mankind’s deepest needs. (p.59)

Is that true? Or does it just sound like it’s true?

The only serious questions are the ones that a child can formulate. Only the most naive of questions  are truly serious. They are the questions with no answers. A question with no answer is a barrier that cannot be breached. In other words, it is questions with no answers that set the limits of human possibilities, describe the boundaries of human existence. (p.139)

Is this deep? Or does it just sound deep?

An important point to make about all this intellectualising and philosophising is that… none of it is difficult. It’s clever… but none of it is hard to understand, if you pay attention.

If you think of the tradition of learnèd wit, epitomised by Tristram Shandy, in which the narrative is buried in spoof footnotes and fake academic papers and sermons and all sorts of other texts interrupting the story… Kundera is not like that. By intellectual, we don’t mean he literally references academic papers or abstruse findings. The opposite. Most of his reflections are very middle brow. Referencing the Garden of Eden or quoting Descartes’ opinion that animals are just machines, these are either part of common lore or only a little beyond it. Intelligent A-Level standard. An A-Level student should have heard of Don Juan. Or Beethoven. Or Adam. These are not really obscure intellectual references.

And his core subject – sexuality, love, fidelity and betrayal, affairs and mistresses – hardly high-brow, is it? Not difficult to grasp. The opposite, in many ways all-too-easy to grasp.

Similarly, he’s surprisingly un-hypertextual. His texts aren’t clever constructions pieced together from diaries and journals and letters and newspaper reports and eye-witness accounts and so on. They are just meandering musings, all spoken in the same voice, his characters all speak in much the same way, and they certainly stop and reflect about the meaning of fidelity or political marches or nudity or art or music in the identical, same manner as each other and as the narrator.

For long stretches they seem like extended essays with characters thrown in. At other moments the characters get the upper hand and for a moment you forget the ideas in reading about them sympathetically.

God, it’s just so full, so rich, like a Christmas pudding, so full of so many ingredients it’s difficult to get a real grasp of, or give an adequate review of, because it’s impossible to hold so many ideas, incidents and events in your head at once. Inevitably, some bits will appeal more to some readers than others – the politics or the philosophy.

Wisdom about men and woman

Sames goes, but that much more, for his sweeping generalisations about love and sex, men and women. Why that much more? Because the past forty years have seen a transformation in relationships between the sexes, and a massive shift in what is considered acceptable behaviour, especially around men and their speech and behaviour towards women. Sometimes, reading one of his countless reflections about ‘women’, it feels like a massive tide has gone a long way out and left a lot of what Kundera wrote about relations between the sexes seeming very dated.


Related links

Milan Kundera’s books

1967 The Joke
1969 Life Is Elsewhere
1969 Laughable Loves (short stories)

1972 The Farewell Party
1978 The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

1984 The Unbearable Lightness of Being
1986 The Art of the Novel (essays)

1990 Immortality
1995 Slowness
1998 Identity

2000 Ignorance
2014 The Festival of Insignificance

The Beardsley Generation @ the Heath Robinson Museum

This small but entrancing exhibition explores the impact that a radical new photographic means of reproduction (process engraving) had on the art of illustration at the end of the 19th century.

Through 50 or so drawings and 20 or so illustrated books and magazines, the exhibition brings together a treasure trove of images from what many consider the golden age of illustration which lasted from around 1890 to the early 1900s.

The Pilgrim stretched both of his hands up towards Heaven by Charles Robinson (1900)

The Pilgrim stretched both of his hands up towards Heaven by Charles Robinson (1900)

Informative

As always the exhibition is in just the one room at the Heath Robinson Museum and looks small, but there are now fewer than 20 wall panels, some quite lengthy and packed with technical, historical and biographical information, so that reading all of them almost feels like reading a small book.

A brief history of Victorian illustration techniques

In the early Victorian era, book illustrations were mostly produced from steel engravings. Artists such as George Cruikshank (some of whose prints I was looking at earlier this week, in the Guildhall Art Gallery) and Hablot Browne were expert at etching on steel. However the process was expensive, requiring the illustrations to be printed on different paper separate from the text and then bound in with the rest of the book.

By the 1850s publishers preferred to use wood engravings, with the result that master wood-engravers developed large workshops which employed many engravers. The artist presented his picture on paper or on a whitened woodblock and would hand it over to the skilled engraver. The engraver then converted the picture into a woodcut, carving away the areas that were to appear white on the final print, leaving the raised lines which would take the ink, be applied to paper, and produce the print.

Thus the engraver played a major role in interpreting the artist’s work, sketch or intention, often superimposing his own character and style on the image.

Still, it did mean you could make illustrations without having to be a skilled etcher and among the first artists to take advantage of the new medium were the pre-Raphaelites, led by Dante Gabriel Rossetti and John Everett Millais.

They were followed by a second school of artists, sometimes called the ‘Idyllic School’, which included G.J. Pinwell and Arthur Boyd Houghton, who infused their essentially realistic works with intensity and emotion.

Job's Comforters by Arthur Boyd Houghton (c.1865)

Job’s Comforters by Arthur Boyd Houghton (c.1865)

There followed in the 1870s and ’80s what the curators call ‘a period of dull realism’ which is not dwelt on. It was at the end of the 1880s that the technical innovation which the exhibition is concerned with came in, and transformed the look of British illustrations.

Process engraving

In the late 1880s process engraving replaced wood engraving. An artist’s drawing was transferred to a sheet of zinc so that areas to be printed in black were given an acid-resistant coating and white areas left exposed. The plate was then dipped in acid so that the white areas were eaten away. The plate was then attached to a block of wood which could be inserted into the block holding the type, so that illustration and text were generated together by the same printing process.

This new process required that the artist’s image be in pure blacks and whites without the kind of fine lines which had flourished in etching on steel or in wood engraving. Moreover, the artist could be confident that the line he drew would be exactly what would be presented to the reader, without the involvement of a wood engraver to enhance or (possibly) detract from it.

At a stroke, the older generation of artists who had relied on master wood-engravers to work up their rough sketches for publication was swept away and replaced by a new young generation of penmen who relished the clarity of line and space encouraged by the new technique.

The most dramatic proponent of the new look, who exploded onto the art scene like a small atom bomb, was Aubrey Beardsley (b.1872)

How La Beale Isoud Wrote to Sir Tristram from the Morte d'Arthur by Aubrey Beardsley (1892)

How La Beale Isoud Wrote to Sir Tristram from the Morte d’Arthur by Aubrey Beardsley (1892)

Beardsley was an illustrator of genius who had created an entirely new and personal visual world by the incredibly young age of 20. There are four prints and two drawings by him here, plus three book covers and books laid open to show his illustrations in situ. What a genius.

Having explained this major new development in print technology, the exhibition also explains several other influences which were swirling round at the time and contributed to the development of the ‘new look’. These included:

  • Japanese art
  • European Symbolism
  • Venetian and Renaissance art
  • with a dash of Dürer thrown in

Japanese

After the Harris Treaty of 1858 reopened trade links between the West and Japan, one of the many consequences was a flood onto the Western art market of Japanese woodblock prints.

Known in Japan as ukiyo-e or ‘pictures of the floating world’, the Japanese style was notable for not using perspective to add depth, or light and shade to create a sense of volume and space in the images. Instead the Japanese used ‘dramatic boundary lines’, i.e. clear, distinct, black lines – to create images – and then used colour, again not to create depth, but decoratively, filling in the shapes created by the lines with plain washes.

Japanese art had a profound influence on Western artists at a time when they were looking for ways to revive what had become tired traditions and to combat the rising challenge of photography.

Setting a Japanese print (in this case Nakamura Shikan II as Benkai by Utagawa Kunisada) next to the works by Beardsley allows you to immediately see the liberating impact that the Japanese habit of stylising the image has had for the European – allowing him to abandon almost all conventions of perspective and depth.

Actor Nakamura Utaemon Iii As Mitsugi’s Aunt Omine by Utagawa Kunisada (1814)

Beardsley’s best images float in an indeterminate space, bounded by extremely precise and clear lines which give his best images a wonderful clarity and dynamism. But Beardsley wasn’t alone. A greater or lesser element of simplification and stylisation characterises most of the artists working in the ‘new look’.

The last fancy of the contemporary buck for Pall Mall magazine by Edmund J. Sullivan (1900)

The last fancy of the contemporary buck for Pall Mall magazine by Edmund J. Sullivan (1900)

Symbolism

Symbolism was an art movement which swept northern Europe in the 1880s and, although its techniques remained largely realistic, in some case hyper-realistic, it applied these approaches to subject matter which was infused with obscure and semi-religious feelings.

Symbolism took images of death, yearning, loss and mystery, and showed them, no longer in the bright light of nineteenth century rationalism and optimism, but brooded over by a more modern sensibility and psychology. A drawing of Salomé by Gustave Moreau is used to exemplify the Symbolist effect.

Its influence can be seen in an illustration like this one by Charles Ricketts, which takes the well-worn subject of Oedipus and the Sphinx but drenches it in arcane symbolism – inexplicable figures and flowers adding to the sensual, erotic yet mysterious atmosphere.

Oedipus and the Sphinx (1891) by Charles Ricketts

Oedipus and the Sphinx (1891) by Charles Ricketts

Hypnerotomachia Poliphili

The exhibition lists and explores other influences including the impact of a classic printed book from Venice titled Hypnerotomachia Poliphili or The Strife of Love in a Dream, published by Albertus Manutius in 1499, and regarded as a masterpiece of typography and design by collectors.

A Garden Scene from 'Hypnerotomachia Poliphili' attributed to Francesco Colonna (c.1499)

A Garden Scene from ‘Hypnerotomachia Poliphili’ attributed to Francesco Colonna (c.1499)

Copies of Hypnerotomachia Poliphili became available in England in 1888 and influenced Edward Burne-Jones, Walter Crane, Charles Ricketts, Aubrey Beardsley and Robert Anning Bell.

List of artists in the exhibitions

The exhibition includes works by all of those illustrators and more. I counted:

  • Aubrey Beardsley – 4 prints, 2 drawings and three book and magazine covers or pages
  • Alice B. Woodward – 2 drawings
  • Louis Fairfax Muckley – 1
  • Herbert Granville Fell – 2 drawings and a watercolour
  • Alfred Garth Jones – 2
  • Thomas Sturge Moore – 1
  • Laurence Housman – 5
  • Charles de Sousy Ricketts – 2
  • Paul Vincent Woodroffe – 1
  • H.A. Eves – 1
  • Harold Edward Hughes Nelson – 1
  • Byam Shaw – 1
  • Edgar Wilson – 1
  • Cyril Goldie – 1
  • Henry Ospovat – 1
  • Robert Anning Bell – 2
  • Philip Connard – 1
  • Jessie Marion King – 3
  • James Joshua Guthrie – 2
  • Edmund Joseph Sullivan – 2
  • Charles Robinson – 3
  • William Heath Robinson – 3
  • Arthur Boyd Houghton – 1
  • Walter Crane – 1

Books on display

  • Le Morte d’Arthur illustrated by Beardsley
  • Midsummer Night’s Dream ill. by Robert Anning Bell
  • The Kelmscott Chaucer ill. by Burne-Jones
  • Poems of Edgar Allen Poe ill. by William Heath Robinson
  • Poems of John Keats ill. by Robert Anning Bell
  • Poems of John Milton ill. by Garth Jones
  • The Faerie Queene ill. by Walter Crane
  • plus illustrated versions of Shakespeare’s Sonnets, the Book of Job, the Yellow Book, and more

All the works were worth looking at closely, studying and mulling in order to enjoy the play of line and form. Many of the prints are wonderfully drawn and warmly evocative. Every one is accompanied by a wall label, and the twelve or so most important artists merit bigger wall labels which give you their full biography along with influences and major works to set them in context.

These biographical notes help you to make connections between different artists linked by having a common publisher, or working on a common publication or magazine, or who knew each other and encouraged, helped or shared ideas. The exhibition really does give you a sense of an entire generation excitedly inventing a whole new style of art.

Nostalgia

I think at least in part I respond so warmly to so many of the images is because, as a boy growing up in the 1960s, lots of the old books in my local library and the children’s books which my parents bought for me, contained just this kind of late-Victorian / Edwardian illustrations.

Looking at almost any of them creates a warm bath of half-forgotten memories of curling up in a corner and totally immersing myself in thrilling stories of Greek heroes and mermaids and pirates and pilgrims.

Tailpiece by Edgar Wilson (date unknown)

Tailpiece by Edgar Wilson (date unknown)

This is another wonderful, heart-warming and highly informative exhibition from the Heath Robinson Museum.


Related links

Other exhibitions at the Heath Robinson Museum

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