The Revenge of the Cliche Sunday, Dec 25 2005 

Steven Spielberg’s Munich

How the mighty have fallen. Ten years ago if you’d told me that the day would come when I would be encouraging people to avoid watching a Spielberg film, more, that I would be actively warning them against watching it, I would have laughed. Yet avoidable may be the kindest thing I can bring myself to say about his new film, Munich.

Manohla Dargis over at the New York Times calls Munich the toughest, most anguished film of Spielberg’s career [1]. This is true – but the anguish belongs entirely to the audience. This is the toughest film of Spielberg’s career only if by tough we mean flat, incoherent, rambling and predictable. Understand that I haven’t been particularly impressed with anything Spielberg’s done in the last five years or so: AI was tepid, Minority Report was trenchant but fast paced, Catch me if you can was pleasant but unexciting and War of the Worlds didn’t quite make up in vision what it lacked in intelligence. These were all good, average films, mediocre only in that they came from Spielberg. Munich, on the other hand, is a truly BAD film, anyway you cut it (cutting it, unfortunately, is something Spielberg clearly never thought to try;. the film is over two and a half hours long, a good third of it barely sentient)

Not that the movie doesn’t seem promising to start with. The film opens with a quick montage of the events at Munich – and this is easily the best part of the film, the scenes shot with the kind of fast paced panache that we remember from the old Spielberg (comparisons with the opening scenes of Saving Private Ryan are inescapable). It’s when these scenes are over that we’re introduced to the central plot of the film – a covert operation, sponsored by the Israeli state, to assassinate those behind the Munich killings. A young Mossad officer, Avner (Eric Bana) is summoned, given a list of eleven Palestinian names, made head of a five member task force and sent off to Europe to kill as many of the people on his list as he can, whatever the expense (though it would be good if he brought back receipts).

This is a storyline full of fascinating promise. There are so many things this movie could be: a fast-paced assassination thriller, a gritty exploration of the reality of political terrorism, an insightful and moving story about conscience and hatred, an astute commentary on the politics of revenge. In Spielberg’s hands it is none of these (though there are times when it seems to try to be all of them) – what comes out is a schoolboy’s fantasy of a serious political film, a sort of Not a Penny More, Not a Penny Less in a minor key, with some solemn bits added in the hope of making it ‘thought-provoking’.

To begin with, there’s the sheer idiocy of the plot. In trying to strike this all important blow against Black September, who do the Israelis turn to? One soulful but otherwise unimpressive young officer who would seem to have little to recommend him except that his father was some kind of war hero, and who has no training as a field operative. Oh, and four other such amateurs drawn from all over Europe including a bombmaker who, it turns out, can’t actually make bombs, and a blonde-haired thug, who it seems can’t do much except drive and act macho. This is the DIY version of political assassination – a light-hearted coming together of novices reminiscent of Harry and Walter go to New York – hardly the appropriate tone, you would think, for the enterprise they’re engaged in. Worse, not only are these novices sent into the field by themselves, they are given no help by the Israelis, except for a steady supply of money. Israeli intelligence, which knows enough about the 11 people on the list to know that they helped plan Munich as well as what they’re planning next, can’t find out for our intrepid adventurers where their quarries are hiding, so that these five men, with no leads to work of and no contacts in the field are now expected to find out what the presumably dozens of trained Israeli agents in the field have been unable to.

No problem, their leader says. All he has to do is call up an old school friend and before you know it his friend has put him in touch with someone who’s led him straight to the one person in all of Europe who knows where all his targets can be found. Just another day’s work for Avner and his merry band.

This contact (who Mossad has never heard of so far, btw), it turns out, is a family operation that is like Thomas Cook for assassins – it provides explosives, sets up safe houses, basically does all the things that our five heroes would be incapable of doing on their own. There’s just one catch – the family won’t work with governments. They’ve very strict about it. So strict in fact, that when Avner and his buddies violate that agreement and pass on the whereabouts of Palestinian terrorists in Beirut to Mossad commandos, the family deals out the terrible retribution of inviting Avner over for a lazy countryside luncheon, making him pick berries with the patriarch of the family, and then, because Avner is such a clean cut young man and loves his Daddy so much, forgiving him for lying to them about his involvement with Israel and even giving him some cheese and blood sausage to take home with him.

The movie is full of such non sequiturs, the worst of which, ironically, come out of half-hearted attempts to make all this lunacy sound credible. Avner cannot be associated with Mossad because the Israeli government cannot be seen to participate in such terrorist activity, we are told. That’s good reason why there can’t be an official link between him and the Israeli state, of course, but this is the secret service, for God’s sake, passing on information without leaving any way for it to be traced back to them is what they do for a living. And I mean 11 Palestinians are going to die violent deaths in the span of a few months – how long do you think Israel’s involvement in that is going to stay secret?

But wait, it gets worse. Once they start making progress on their list, Avner and co. suddenly discover that they have become targets themselves. This apparently comes as a complete surprise to them (imagine that! all we’re doing is going around killing people because they killed our people. Who would think that someone would want to try to kill us for that?) – our heroes suddenly realise that what they’re doing might actually be dangerous! They have crises of conscience, crises of nerve. Avner in particular becomes a man haunted by nightmares, fearful of his own shadow. So afraid does he become, in fact, that he chooses to go live in Brooklyn, because clearly Brooklyn in the mid-70s is the safest place on earth to be. The movie is riddled with this sort of incoherence – it’s as though the script-writers were so caught up in spinning their little Peter Pan fantasy that they didn’t feel the need to bother with things like logic or common sense. It made you feel as though the kindest thing someone could do for them would be to lend them a copy of Le Carre.

All right, you say, so the plot is ridiculous. But what about the action? Is that at least exciting? Not really. To begin with there isn’t that much of it. Or rather there is a lot of it, but it’s all interspersed with scenes of Avner cooking, Avner crying on the phone because he hears his baby daughter’s voice for the first time, Avner joking about with his buddies, so that there’s no real tempo to the film. The bigger problem with the action sequences, though, is that they’re entirely unsurprising, entirely predictable. Watching them, you have the sense of having watched the same thing happen at least a dozen times before in at least a dozen movies. It’s like you’ve already read the script – you know that something will go wrong with the plan at the last minute, there’ll be some running about, some panic, some desperation, then someone will be a hero, or the ‘good’ guys will get lucky and things will all work out fine in the end. The only cliche from the genre that Spielberg leaves out is the one that could actually have contributed to the excitement of the film, the classic ‘planning’ scene where you learn what the difficulties are and how they are to be overcome. None of that happens in this movie, nor is there ever any resistance from, or thought given to, local law-enforcement. If anything, assassinations in this movie, are almost shockingly easy – a fact that Spielberg tries to obscure by having his assassins come up with elaborately bomb devices when a simple shooting would have done quite easily, thank you.

Right, well. But what about emotion? What about the anguished inner struggle of the main characters. Well, for starters, what main characters – Avner himself is pretty much the only character that the movie actually sketches out – all the others are caricatures, little more than mouthpieces for some hackneyed point of view that Spielberg wants to represent. As for the anguish – suprisingly, Spielberg never really explores it, or rather, doesn’t explore it at the points when you think it should be explored. The decision to undertake these killings itself is made in a swiftly shot meeting where Spielberg seems more interested in conveying the general sense of discussion than in exploring any particular points of view. At some point Golda Meir (played admirably by Lynn Cohen) says that they need to go ahead with the plot and that’s that. End of discussion. Again, Avner’s decision to take up the mission consists of little more than his saying he can’t bring himself to give this up, accompanied by some psycho-babble from his wife about how he thinks of Israel as his mother – we’re never really shown the conflict Avner must have faced between going on the mission and staying with his family. Or later, there’s a point when the assassins go after someone who wasn’t on their original list but who is active in Black September, and this taking on of additional targets, which you would think would be a big deal, is never even discussed.

The end result is that the characters on screen never come alive as human beings, never really establish any connection with you, so that the disquiet of the last half an hour seems contrived, fake. Avner is now a tortured man, yes, but what exactly is he tortured by? Even he doesn’t really seem to know. Certainly he is frightened for his family, certainly he has nightmares and has become paranoid – but this is neither unexpected nor particularly moving (are we seriously supposed to feel sorry for the man? Poor little terrorist had a bad dream – aaawwww!!). Avner is a man with a troubled conscience we are told – but it’s not clear why his conscience took so long to kick in (except that it’s consisten with the general speed of what one could fondly call his thought processes).

Perhaps the greatest achievement of this film, though, is that Spielberg manages to go on for close to three hours without saying a single new or insightful thing about the Israel-Palestine conflict. This is not a thoughtful film because there is no thought in it, all we get are a lot of cliches. There’s a conversation that Avner has with a young PLO fighter, for instance, where the PLO fighter talks lovingly of his desire for a homeland – does Spielberg seriously believe that this is news? Are there actually people out there who haven’t realised yet that the PLO are fighting because they want to have a country of their own and not because they just like killing people? And what’s with all the tortured conversations about Israel in the end. The problem with the movie is that Spielberg sets it up to deliver some sweeping, profound message, but it’s never quite clear what that message is. Instead, Spielberg just lets the movie go on and on, piling closing scene upon closing scene in search of that elusive take-away, leaving it finally in the hope that anyone who sits through 45 minutes of protracted soul-searching will have at least one original thought of his / her own, and will hopefully take that away as the key message of the film.

Bottomline: Munich is a ludicrous and abject failure. It’s a film that has a lot to say but never says it, a fim populated by wooden characters playing out a non-sensical plot through a series of predictable action sequences, a rambling, directionless film that confuses gloom with profundity. Munich may well be the most boring film I’ve seen all year, and it’s a movie I’d strongly urge you to avoid.

[1] Yet another instance of Ms. Dargis getting it, IMHO, completely wrong. When am I ever going to learn to stop reading her reviews and stick to Anthony Lane, who’s review, while not scathing enough of the movie, comes so much closer to my perception of it.

New Beginnings Friday, Dec 23 2005 

Nadine Gordimer’s Get a Life

See, they return; ah, see the tentative
Movements, and the slow feet,
The trouble in the pace and the uncertain

Ezra Pound

“Not an epiphany, life moves more slowly and inexorably than any belief in that”

– Nadine Gordimer

Political is an adjective I’ve always been hesitant to use, especially when applied to fiction. Not that I think writers should be apolitical (I LOVED Pinter’s Nobel acceptance speech, for instance) but that I believe the claims of politics to be distinct from the claims of fiction, so that the combination of the two often leads to results that do justice to neither. That’s why I’m usually wary of novels with a ‘message’ – too often I find the existence of that message used as an excuse for mediocre writing.

The most glorious exception to that rule that I can think of is Gordimer [1]. Perhaps because Gordimer’s work is not political in the sense of being about politics, it is political in the sense of being deeply embedded in the politics of her time and country. To read Gordimer is to be offered a unique window into the recent history of the South African people, an intimate and personal history, in which Africa is not so much a topic as a presence, a character who stands quietly by, watching the plot unfold, a silent narrator. So rich is Gordimer’s sensibility as a writer that the light of her understanding transcends the narrow circles of family and relationships that she so skilfully draws, shining out, like the beam of a lighthouse, upon an entire nation. This is not a point that Gordimer belabours – she does not need to – to read Burger’s Daughter or July’s People or The Conservationist is to be plunged so entirely into the immediacy of South African life that to explicitly acknowledge it would be like pointing out the water while one was scuba diving.

In recent years, though, whether as a consequence of the changing political realities of South Africa or because of her own advancement as a writer, it seems to me that Africa has leached out of Gordimer’s voice, leaving behind it what we always knew existed, but can now see in sharper contrast – the incredible beauty of her writing. Gordimer is a writer of quiet, heartbreaking prose, her writing has a gentle dignity that blends clarity with generosity, and like some winter afternoon’s quiet sunlight, makes everything clear and forgiven. There is a sense of peace here that does not pass understanding but is founded upon it. Life is a simple thing, Gordimer seems to say, if we would only look within our hearts to understand it, only find the courage to be honest – to ourselves and to those we care for – about the truth of our feelings, acknowledging the pain that would bring for what it is. It is in trying to avoid this denouement, in trying to imagine ourselves to be other than we are, in trying to explain or make excuses, that we complicate our relationships with each other, make it more difficult to connect as human beings. Gordimer’s great gift is to make this idea come alive by putting down on paper what is so familiar as to be intimate. Yes, that’s exactly right, you think to yourself, but how does she know that? Writing about family, about marriage, Gordimer is so exact that her dialogues and descriptions touch something deep inside you, so that you find yourself in tears not in the parts that talk of death or loss or despair, but in the parts that talk about love.

Gordimer’s new novel, Get a Life, is a return of sorts to the notion of the personal as a way of understanding the political, the notion of using a deeply personal account to explore the same emotional pathways where the political has led. Except that in the post 9/11 world Gordimer has expanded her canvas, gone international. South Africa is still a presence in this novel – white people are seen in the process of establishing new ties with their black neighbours, forging new friendships – but it is a benign presence, a supporting actor, almost an extra. At one point in the novel, at a party where both colored and white people meet, Gordimer makes the simple observation that to the children at the party this was nothing special – they all went to school together, they were used to it.

No, the real (though almost unmentioned, but for a single line about hubris) star here is 9/11 – the shock of that event, the way it has reshaped the very meaning of what we call reality. Never one afraid of the emotional, Gordimer attacks this issue with a directness that manages to be concerned without being sentimental, her’s is the efficiency of a grandmother who gives your wounds the attention they deserve without fussing over them. To acknowledge is not to commemorate. It happens, she seems to say (it’s the title of one of the book’s sections), get over it, get a life! Her essential message in the book is that no matter how unexpected or painful the suffering, no matter how deep the wound, Nature is a survivor. Life will go on whether we want it to or not, we can only choose to accept or deny it, and that acceptance is not betrayal – we do not cheapen the loss by living through it, that it is possible to suffer and accept that one has suffered without giving into that suffering or dwelling on it. This is an audacious premise, one that, coming from a writer with less empathy than Gordimer would seem trite, almost insulting – in her patient, skilful hands, it feels like wisdom.

The story, in brief is this: Paul, a thirty-five year old environmental conservationist married to an advertising executive, and the father of a three year old son, discovers that he has thyroid cancer. Treated (the doctors hope successfully) for the disease, the patient represents a health risk to those around him, because the iodine treatment he has received has made him radioactive. Forced to avoid physical contact with his wife and son, Paul returns from hospital to spend his quarantine with his parents, his radioactive condition fast becoming a metaphor for for the impossibility, when faced with the fact of one’s own mortality, of connecting to another human being. As Paul spends long hours in the garden of his parent’s house, dwelling, often gloomily, on his isolation, there is a keen sense of the disconnection the world has suffered.

This, for me, is the finest part of the book – ninety pages that make up an intense exploration of the many ways in which we relate to ourselves and to others, and the way circumstances beyond our control can change those relationships and our understanding of them. Love, in Gordimer means “commitment to the fulfillment of the loved one”. It is the way that we protect and betray and forgive those we care for, the way we both desire them and take them for granted, the way we both rescue them or do them harm.

By the second half of the book Gordimer loses her way, her tone becoming a little too strident, a little too deliberate [2]. Paul recovers, but remains plagued by doubts about his own health, throwing himself passionately back into his work, into caring for his son, to avoid the apprehension of a new gulf between himself and his wife. Paul’s parents take a long-delayed vacation to Mexico, which ends badly, and Paul’s mother, bewildered and wounded, falls back first to her son, with whom the days of his quarantine have forged a warmer bond, and then to an adopted child of her own. These events are skilfully portrayed – the scenes between the various actors are constructed with exquisite tenderness, the writing is powerful – but the plot rings false, and the book has lost the breathless authenticity of its first half. It’s as though Gordimer were trying too hard to be cheerful, trying to thrust an almost clichedly happy ending upon her characters, so as to force us to have hope as well. That this works at all is a testament to Gordimer’s power as a writer. But it does not work entirely.

One problem, I think, is that Gordimer is trying to cram too much into the story. While 9/11 would seem to be the immediate context, the more explicit threat in the novel is nuclear power – nuclear capability is the evil that literally radiates through all our lives, becoming a metaphor for all that is destructive in man’s greed for power, his lust for domination. Ecological conservation is another big theme, with Paul’s work taking centre-stage in the latter half of the novel, and long pages being devoted to the importance of eco-systems and the way that modern industry threatens them. There is also the undercurrent of race relationships in the new South Africa, as well as some passing meditation on gender roles. It’s too much to pack into a book this small.

In one way the eco-system point is a powerful metaphor – the irrepressibility of life, its incredible ability to adapt, to survive. Nature goes on, Gordimer tells us, finds ways to adjust to man’s intrusions, ways to continue, ways to grow. This principal of survival, first outlined as a property of eco-systems, is then played out in the lives of the chief characters – as each comes face to face with some climactic realisation and finds in it a source of renewal, of rededication to new ends, new pursuits, new people. The correct response to loss is a frenzy for life, a desperate grasping for new connections, new reasons to live. Get a Life is a call to arms, a rededication to living in the face of a more evident mortality. When Paul finally gets back to his wife, she finds that he makes love to her as though each time were his last. That is the path Gordimer would have us all choose.

The trouble with so strident an affirmation is that it quickly becomes heavy-handed. Perhaps the wisest thing that Gordimer says in the whole book is: “Success sometimes may be defined as a disaster put on hold”. If only she’d stuck to that message. Instead, she insists on cramming the last forty pages with hopefulness, with awe, with rejuvenation, so that the overall effect is of someone talking too loudly and too fast. Someone who hopes that by convincing others she will convince herself. As an exhortation, this is a powerful book, but Gordimer has no real argument to offer except one based in a magical faith in the healing powers of time and nature. This is a powerful belief, one that, like the words of a loving grandmother offers much consolation when you first hear it, but it is an argument that will prove cold comfort on maturer, more rational reflection.

Bottomline: Get a life is a moving exploration of the nature of loss, of the ways in which families and individuals deal with the unexpected. It is also a proud affirmation of the primacy of life, its fecundity, its survival, but in making so strident an affirmation, Gordimer oversteps the authenticity of her genius, so that the second half of this book feels like it claims much but says little. Get a life is still a book that cries out to be read, however, if only for the glorious first half, which is as good a demonstration as any of Gordimer at her best.


[1] Okay, that’s an overstatement. What about Orwell? And Koestler wrote a couple of good books. And what about Didion. Oh damn.

[2] It’s interesting, and perhaps not entirely coincidental, that that’s exactly how I felt about The House Gun, as well – another novel about parents and children where the first half left me shocked with how word perfect is was, but the second part tailed off into something much less compelling.

Still crazy after all these years Sunday, Dec 18 2005 

Brokeback Mountain

Return to their natural courses
To resume old acquaintances
Step out occasionally
And speculate who had been damaged the most
Easy time will determine if these consolations
Will be their reward
The arc of a love affair
Waiting to be restored
You take two bodies and you twirl them into one
Their hearts and their bones
And they won’t come undone

– Paul Simon ‘Hearts and Bones’

Every now and then, Hollywood gets it right. Every now and then someone manages to make a movie that actually lives up to its hype, a movie that manages, despite your worst intentions, to get past your defenses and touch you, move you. The kind of movie where you’re grateful when the lights don’t go on at the end of the screening so no one can see the tears in your eyes.

Brokeback Mountain is one of those movies. Okay, so it’s a little too long, a little too protracted and there are parts in the middle where you’re not sure Ang Lee knows what he’s doing. And yes, it’s obvious and simplistic and possibly, just possibly, a little overdone in bits – which is all to say it’s Hollywood. But it’s also an achingly beautiful love story, an exploration of desire and loss, of passion and duty like nothing I’ve seen made this decade.

The first thing you notice about the movie, ironically enough, is the landscapes, the stunning clarity of Ang Lee’s vision as he creates a world of breathless stills. Frame after frame of this movie looks like it could come out of an art collection – Lee captures the timelessness of Americana here – recalling (and brilliantly subverting) both the Marlboro commercials and the urban portraits of American photographers like William Eggleston and William Christenberry. If it were nothing else, Brokeback Mountain would still be a thrilling visual treat, a joy to watch simply for its cinematography.

Except, of course, that there’s much, much more to this film. As everyone presumably knows by now, Brokeback Mountain is the story of two young men who spend a summer tending sheep up in the mountains of Wyoming and end up falling in love with each other. Unable to accept or even acknowledge the depth of their feelings for each other, the two separate once their brief interlude is over, and go back to living their ‘normal’ lives in the world. Or try to. The central theme of much of the movie is that love is not a beast so easily tamed. These two are necessary to each other, as only lovers can be, and the secret compromise of a relationship that they finally arrive at – an occassional week of vacation stolen away from home and family, wandering the great Wyoming outdoors which is the only land where they are safe, the only place they dare call home – becomes both their most lasting sorrow and the only meaningful thing they have left to live for.

Written out in words this way the story seems trite, even farcical. It is anything but. Brokeback Mountain is a compelling and honest portrait of two people struggling to invent themselves, struggling to recognise the truth of their own feelings, struggling to wrest a little breathing space from a too crowded world. It is a movie about men trapped in the bodies of cowboys, about two people struggling to break free of the social stereotypes that define what it means to be a ‘man’. At the heart of the violence with which these lovers collide, at the core of the trembling mix of savagery and tenderness that is the closest thing they have to intimacy, lies the soul’s struggle to be free of its own self image. These are men wrestling with angels.

They are also, in the truest and most glorious sense of the word, lovers. In the early parts of the film, Lee captures with glowing delicacy the joy, the helplessness, the very silliness of falling in love, so that the spartan Wyoming landscape is transformed into a second Eden, to which the knowledge of the world comes like a serpent, poisoning the love that these two feel for each other, forcing it into a pretend nonchalance. Perhaps the most heartbreaking scene in the film is where the two men, their summer job done, part. The wordlessness of that moment is so poignant, so manifestly unfair, that it makes you want to cry out with the certain knowledge of everything these two have left unsaid.

What follows is a long and tortured denouement that is like a slow, sad adagio, a tone perfect movement of memory and loss. This could easily have slipped into bathos – that it does not is due largely to the talents of Heath Ledger, who delivers an intense and towering performance as a quiet, conflicted Ennis Del Mar, a man who, unable to trust his feelings, takes sides against them, falling back onto the very conventions that stifle him, hold him hostage. Ledger is the very incarnation of unspoken longing – to watch him act is to see the dumb pain that love can be, is to see a man punish himself for his own happiness. Shakespeare writes: “A blank, my lord. She never told her love, / But let concealment, like a worm i’ the bud, / Feed on her damask cheek: she pined in thought, / And with a green and yellow melancholy / She sat like patience on a monument, / Smiling at grief. Was not this love indeed?” To see Ledger in Brokeback Mountain is to see these words brought passionately to life.

In the end, Brokeback mountain itself represents many things. On the one hand it is the landscape of human emotions, its empty, stretching vistas eloquent with the infinite possibilities of love, with the myriad different ways in which we connect to each other, find ecstacy and consolation in each other’s souls and bodies. In this sense it is also represents freedom – as the movie shifts back and forth between the dismal, cramped realities of the two men’s everyday lives and the soaring natural beauty of the land that lies around them, so small a distance away from the cities they live in – the land around Brokeback mountain comes to represent the secret wildnernesses where we are all free to be ourselves, away from society’s judgements. But Brokeback mountain is also a metaphor for loneliness, for the hard, shelterless land that those of us who leave society behind in search of love must choose to ride. This is a harsh and unremitting land, a land where even mountains can get their backs broken, a land that few of the emotions that go by the name of love among us could hope to survive in for very long. This movie is a tribute to precisely the kind of weather-beaten taciturn love that can survive being out in the cold, a tribute to the brave, soft-spoken men who will risk everything, leave all that they have behind, just to ride the heart’s high countries for as long as they possibly can.

I would sum up my thoughts on the movie if I could, but I don’t have the words. Best to use Ginsberg then:

The weight of the world
is love.
Under the burden
of solitude,
under the burden
of dissatisfaction

the weight,
the weight we carry
is love.

Who can deny?
In dreams
it touches
the body,
in thought
a miracle,
in imagination
till born
in human–
looks out of the heart
burning with purity–
for the burden of life
is love,

but we carry the weight
and so must rest
in the arms of love
at last,
must rest in the arms
of love.

No rest
without love,
no sleep
without dreams
of love–
be mad or chill
obsessed with angels
or machines,
the final wish
is love–
cannot be bitter,
cannot deny,
cannot withhold
if denied:

the weight is too heavy–

must give
for no return
as thought
is given
in solitude
in all the excellence
of its excess.

The warm bodies
shine together
in the darkness,
the hand moves
to the center
of the flesh,
the skin trembles
in happiness
and the soul comes
joyful to the eye–

yes, yes,
that’s whatI wanted,
I always wanted,
I always wanted,
to return
to the body
where I was born.

– Allen Ginsberg ‘Song’

Song of the bleeding throat Wednesday, Dec 14 2005 

Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking

The point of all magic, of all ceremony, is control. By turning our fear and grief to ritual we reestablish our dominion over the world, regain the illusion, so important to us, of being able to cope. This is all faith amounts to – a willing suspension of disbelief, a renewal of the idea that the world is somehow for us, about us. The christian tradition emphasises guilt because guilt implies agency, implies the possibility of choice. We are mistaken, we have sinned, we have not simply been overtaken by circumstance. This is both fiction and the opposite of fiction. Tennessee Williams writes: “I am the opposite of a stage magician. He gives you illusion that has the appearance of truth. I give you truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion.” This is the logic of the voodoo doll – by replicating the truth as a work of art we impose our will upon it, or imagine that we could so impose our will if we chose to. This does not make the truth any easier to understand – it is not about trying to ‘make sense of what happened’ – but it may make it easier to accept.

It is in this sense that Joan Didion’s touching, exquisite new book is truly magical. The Year of Magical Thinking is Didion’s account of a year in her life following the death of her husband of forty years, John Gregory Dunne, on December 30, 2003. It is a moving chronicle of grief [2], loss and memory, an unparalleled portrait of a mind in anguish, struggling to adjust to the violence of the truth, struggling not so much to heal as to survive, to protect itself from its own worst demons. Didion writes: “This is my attempt to make sense of the period that followed, weeks and then months that cut loose any fixed idea I had ever had about death, about illness, about probability and luck, about good fortune and bad, about marriage and children and memory, about grief, about the ways in which people do and do not deal with the fact that life ends, about the shallowness of sanity, about life itself.” It is a moving book because of the intense honesty that Didion brings to this enterprise, her unwillingness to stylise, to fictionalise. This is the non-fiction book of the year because of the way it manages to impose a clarity of treatment without ever deteriorating into fiction. Berryman writes: “He stared at ruin. Ruin stared straight back.” It’s the image that best sums up this book.

Three things make The Year of Magical Thinking the marvellous book it is. First, there’s the writing itself. Didion is a master of clear, eloquent prose; her sentences have a formal, almost incantatory precision that bursts upon you like the freshness of newly laundered sheets. She is a writer who can be both grand and exact at the same time, her language at once careful and breathtaking. Her writing is a mesmerising mirror to stare into at any time, but when the face it shows you is so haunting, the effect is only enhanced.

The second thing that makes this book so effective is, of course, the fact that it is non-fiction. If Didion (or any other writer) had written a book of fiction where the narrator undergoes exactly the same experiences, we might have dismissed it as improbable, unrealistic, overdone. The fact that the events she writes about actually happened makes the book darker, more frightening. The way no amount of fancy special effects can ever replicate the horror of actual war footage. This apprehension of the overwhelming consequence of reality is itself a magical, or at least a superstitous one. It’s as though we genuinely believed that those who had died had somehow been sacrificed for the making of what we were seeing or reading. As if this book, this image, this newsreel was the purpose of their deaths.

What makes the eerie closeness of this reality even scarier in this case is the epilogue that we know will follow, though Didion herself is yet to discover – the death of her only daughter, Quintana (who is greviously ill for large parts of the book, but recovers by the end of it), in August this year. There is a vicarious element to this horror, an almost voyeuristic interest in another person’s tragedy, but there is also a deep well-spring of empathy. We have all known or imagined the death of a loved one; we all live, every day of our lives, with the knowledge, not of our own mortality, but of the mortality of those we care for. It could happen to me, you think, reading the book, in fact, it almost certainly will. That is why it is so easy to imagine yourself in Didion’s position, and while you may at first dislike her for raising such ghosts, you will come, by the end of the book, to be grateful for her courage, her clear-headedness, in confronting them.

What makes The Year of Magical Thinking so special to me, though, is the way in which Didion copes with her loss. Confronted with disaster, Didion retreats into a world of ideas, of detail and language, of poetry and information. (“In times of trouble, I had been trained since childhood, read, learn, work it up, go to the literature. Information is control“). Memory is the enemy here, because it brings on a rawness of feeling that is not to be tolerated. If we can only analyse the situation, if we can only verbalise it, explain it to ourselves, categorise and cross-reference it in some frame of thought, we will be able to deal with it. This is the pathology of the hyper-intellectual, the reaction of those who, though they may appreciate the solicitude of other people, can never find true solace in it, and whose last refuge must always be in their own minds. Didion uses facts to understand her loss – reading reference books, downloading data from the Internet – she uses poetry (in the course of the book she quotes cummings, Auden, Eliot, Hopkins, Schwartz and Shakespeare). This is a reaction I recognise, because it is my own. I do not turn to people in search of solace. If it is comfort I need, I turn to Shelley and Donne, to Eliot and Browning and Shakespeare; I turn to Schubert and Mozart. That is why Didion’s nightmare seems so authentic, so compelling – as I sat reading the book with tears rolling down my face it occured to me it was not her grief I was crying for, it was my own. Plath writes “I am silver and exact. I have no preconceptions./ Whatever I see I swallow immediately / Just as it is, unmisted by love or dislike. /I am not cruel, only truthful“. Didion’s book has the same quality.

In the end, Didion’s discovery is that this retreat into the facts does not help. Or rather, that it helps, but not in the way that one supposes. It helps in that it sustains us, keeps us alive; but it does not make the truth any easier to confront when we finally get around to confronting it. The magic that Didion is seeking to deploy through this book is only that – a trick, a sleight of hand – important to our sanity, but ultimately little more than a diversion. The reality of emotion cannot be conjured away by the wave of a magic wand, or the chanting of sentences, no matter how beautiful. The journey to recovery is hard fought and never complete. “Grief turns out to be a place none of us know until we reach it“, Didion writes. And it is watching the aching steadfastness of the way that Didion explores this new place that makes this book both immediate and timeless.

As I finished the book, that thought that occured to me (so morbid, yet so realistic) was that I needed to own a copy of this book. No, I needed to own several. Because the time might come when I too may have to deal with such grief, such calamity. And if or when that time comes, this is the book I want to have with me. This is the book that might just see me through.


[1] The title of this post comes from Whitman – When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d:
“Song of the bleeding throat!/Death’s outlet song of life—(for well, dear brother, I know/If thou wast not gifted to sing, thou would’st surely die.)”

[2] Grief, not mourning. It is characteristic of Didion that she draws the important distinction between the two.

Onward Union Soldiers Tuesday, Dec 13 2005 

E L Doctorow’s The March

The first thing you notice about Doctorow’s The March is the momentum. Like the great military march that it seeks to describe, Doctorow’s new novel is a relentless procession, driven, energetic, overwhelming. Characters drop in and out of the book, joining the forward drive of the plot, staying with The March for a while, and then dropping out. But the key protagonist of the book is the march itself – an entity that Doctorow himself compares to a long, hungry organism, scrounging its way through the country in search of victory.

The March is Doctorow’s novel about the sweeping advance of Sherman’s army through the states of Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina – a march that was, arguably, critical to the eventual defeat of the confederate forces in the Civil war (for more on this, see the current issue of the New York Review of Books, which has an article by James M McPherson on the partnership between Grant and Sherman – unfortunately available only to subscribers). Doctorow’s perspective on the march is intensely personal though, and the book populates the march with a cast of varied characters – including a white-skinned African American girl, a ruthlessly professional doctor, a young Southern woman who joins the Union army as a nurse, a Confederate soldier turned spy with delusions of grandeur and many others. The key point about the book though is that through it all Doctorow sticks faithfully to the march – the point where the characters leave the march is also the point where they leave the book.

It’s this that makes the book as compelling as it is – the stories themselves are intelligent but unremarkable (they have a strangely ubiquitous quality, as though you’d read the same thing somewhere before) but it’s the breathlessness with which the action speeds past, the blending of some achingly lovely and telling scenes with this almost unswerving pace, that makes this book (or at least the first two sections of it) an exciting read. Doctorow conveys the propulsive genius of the march beautifully, and his vignettes blend tender irony with honest heartbreak.

If only he’d kept it up. Where the novel begins to let one down is in the third section, where the action flags and then dies away. In part, I suspect, this is deliberate, and reflects the tiredness of these men who have marched so far and so long to arrive finally at a victory that they are too weary to even exult in. As the joy at the Confederate surrender is tempered by the bitter news about Lincoln’s assassination, the sombre note that the book ends on seems justified, even exact. The real trouble, though, is that by the end of the book Doctorow abandons many of his more interesting characters and instead focuses much of the action on the historical figures themselves – on Sherman, on Lincoln. This, I think, is a mistake, not only because it severely limits the imagination that Doctorow is able to bring to bear on the plot, but also because it means that Doctorow begins to take the whole thing very seriously, so that the balance between the light-hearted and the tragic is destroyed and the novel descends into a sort of brooding melancholy from which Doctorow is never quite able to recover it. Besides, by this point Doctorow’s piling of coincidence upon coincidence to make the stories of the different characters tie together has become cloying. It’s a huge march, after all, there are literally tens of thousands of men on the move, yet somehow the paths of the various characters go on intersecting. It’s not that this is hard to believe (though it does strain the credulity at times) it’s also that it’s unnecessary – Doctorow could just as easily have kept the characters apart and it would have been a better book for it.

As it is, The March is, for the large part, a powerful, driven book, not perhaps so moving as simply full of movement, a stream of wonderful images that will hold you in rapt attention and convey both the urgency and the despair of a crucial time in American history.

The Chronic Ills of Narnia Monday, Dec 12 2005 

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe

As someone who enjoys both writers, the key point to me about C.S. Lewis has always been precisely that he’s not Tolkien. Narnia and Middle Earth represent two fundamentally opposite ways of approaching the fantasy genre – one linguistic-historical, the other theological. Tolkien’s world is richly-imagined, almost baroque; Middle Earth is a true cornucopia of detail, an alternate universe of culture and myth and history and language so compelling, that in it’s greater context the characters themselves seem almost like afterthoughts, as though Tolkien was simply using them to explore his larger fantasy. Narnia, by contrast, is a much flatter country, more idea than place, a flawed, inconsistent world (how, for example, can you go hunting in a world where the animals are your subjects) whose very thinness makes it magical. Lewis, it seems to me, spares the bare minimum amount of effort into making Narnia credible – his concern is primarily with larger questions of faith and morality, not with the details of some mythic world that is, to him, little more than a convenient setting for his moralistic story. What makes Narnia compelling, if at all, is not the wealth of detail, but their very sparseness, so that the few details that Lewis does put in (that glorious lamppost growing out of the earth, for example) shine out in all their sublime glory.

In the end, though, the magic of the Narnia Chronicles is less about Narnia and more about the key characters – about Lucy and Aslan and Edmund and Peter. It is Tolkien who is interested in the grand sweep of events, Tolkien who is trying to create a new epic; Lewis’s book is little more than a simple fable, a book for that ephemeral quality of mind that we call childhood, and the difference between the two is the difference between myth and religion. That Tolkien’s is the grander work, that Tolkien himself is the more compelling, more talented writer, is, to me unquestionable – but comparing Lewis to Tolkien is like comparing some pristine country inn to the Ritz-Carlton; if there’s a book that The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe should be compared to, I would think it’s Peter Pan, not Lord of the Rings.

This is a point that’s completely wasted on the makers of the new movie version of The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe. In their telling of it, Lewis’s story looks and sounds exactly like the Lord of the Rings, and suffers terribly in the comparison. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is not a long book, and is more aptly described as achingly simple than grand, but the makers of the movie have stretched it out into a two and a half hour melodrama, and the result is a movie that grows exceedingly long and incredibly thin. Mere lines in the book take up five to ten minutes on the screen, so that the momentum of Lewis’s imagination lags badly, and the worst things about the book – it’s sentimentalism, it’s lack of coherent logic, things that are easily glossed over in the simplicity and understatement of Lewis’s writing – get blown out of proportion here.

The result is a film that can only be described as dreary. The battle scenes seem fake, the heroism of the children is undermined, and Aslan converted into a tangible lion rather than a sort of overarching presence, is diminished. Part of the problem is that the book is more verbal than visual – Lewis has a great gift for conveying things to your imagination that cannot be expressed visually. In the book, for instance, the retreat of winter from Narnia is an event of absolute ecstasy, to read the description of it is to experience a quickening of the pulse, a lightening of the heart. In the movie it’s just a lot of silly special effects.

Not that the movie is a complete failure. The parts that still work are the parts where the special effects are laid aside and the characters become the focus. Georgie Henley does a wonderful job as Lucy Pevensie, and her simple, feeling nature is even more the centre of the film that it was of the book. In general, the performances here are good (Jim Broadbent puts in a wonderful cameo as the professor) and if the film makers had just not tried to put in so many special effects, had only managed to shake off the ghost of LOTR, this could have been a good, if not great, movie.

As it is, it’s one long yawn of a film, best avoided, or (if, like me, you have to see it because it’s Narnia – no matter how crummy) then fitfully slept through. There is a deep magic in Narnia, but you won’t find it in this film.

The power of fragility Sunday, Dec 4 2005 

Yasunari Kawabata’s Thousand Cranes

nothing which we are to perceive in this world equals
the power of your intense fragility:whose texture
compels me with the color of its countries,
rendering death and forever with each breathing

– e e cummings

Among all the great writers of the last century, there is no one quite like Kawabata. No other writer combines such a glorious sparseness of line with so exquisite a delicacy of tone. No other writer can write prose that is at once so simple, so unadorned, and yet so aching. Kawabata is at once the most poetic of writers and the least lyrical – no other author could write novels hundreds of pages long, and still have them deliver the emotional and aesthetic impact of a fine haiku. Kawabata’s novels take your breath away with the very fragility of their persistence, the very thinness of their translucence. The beauty of his novels is that they are at once timeless and tremblingly alive, so that reading them, it is difficult to believe that they will survive, let alone conquer. Kawabata’s prose is like fine, ancient porcelain, it is not simply the aching skill of his craftsmanship, it is the miracle that something so easily broken could have lasted through the centuries.

Thousand Cranes, Kawabata’s passionate, moving novel about young love tainted by old ghosts is a good example of this. The novel centres around a young bachelor, whose search for love is haunted by the memory of his father’s infidelity, and the suffering and guilt that lingers on in the young man’s heart from those days. As the novel progresses, this young man comes into contact with two of his father’s former mistresses, one of whom he ends up having an affair with (and who helps him to achieve a better understanding of the happiness and passion that his father sought), the other who repeatedly insinuates himself into her life, trying to take control of it, and poisoning his young life by becoming the embodiment of his own tortured conscience. At the heart of the novel, though, is the relationship between this young man and a young woman who he comes to fall in love with, the daughter of one of his wife’s mistresses, and the struggle of these two young people to break free of their common past, of the ghosts of their parents, that threaten to stifle them with shame and disgust.

In many ways, then, Thousand Cranes is a ghost story. It is a novel about the permanence of the past, about the insistent gravity that it exercises on us, of how we, struggling to be our own selves, slip inevitably back into the old disguises, the old forms, the old conceits. History, in Kawabata, has the inevitably of ritual; ghosts are not things we remember but things we inherit, ceremonies of longing and desire that even the strongest among us may prove too weak to escape. As the novel flows inexorably towards its conclusion, you come to slowly appreciate the patience, the infinite delicacy with which Kawabata has laid his snares. Behind the cunning simplicity of his plot lies a great depth of psychological determinism. Things turn out the way they do in Thousand Cranes because that is the way they must, yet this is far from being a predictable novel – rather the inevitably of what happens is only obvious after the fact; the novel constantly surprises you, but after you get over your surprise you can see why things had to be that way.

What makes Thousand Cranes such an exquisite read is that it is virtual palimpsest of metaphor and symbolism. Like a great miniaturist, Kawabata is a master of implicit meanings, capable of imbuing the most mundane objects with infinite consequence. Thus the novel turns the pristine simplicity of the tea ceremony into both a metaphor for the delicate maneouverings of desire and a symbol of the past that the two young people are trying to escape from, trying not to relive – a contradiction that is not restricted only to the tea ceremony, but lies at the very centre of the book’s dramatic tension. Again and again, these young people deny their interest in the ceremony, again and again they claim to have given it up, yet their own emotions prove this a false denial, and the power of the ceremony proves too much for them to escape. The utensils used for the ceremony are also metaphors – passed down from generation to generation, they are symbols of the timelessness of the human versus the mortality of man, of the way the universal survives and repeats itself in the specific. In this sense, the tea ceremony is a symbolic mirror for the situation of the two young people, but this situation itself is an allegory for the larger relationship between the individual and the timeless, between the ubiquity of desire and the specificity of each man’s love. What ultimately taints and destroys the young lovers is their knowledge of this contradiction – that the things we own and consider special to us, may be little more than keepsakes bequeathed to us by time, magical forms that will survive beyond us, continuing their endless journey with other masters when we have turned to dust. In Thousand Cranes, the lovers try to break away from this cycle, and end up being destroyed by it.

What’s amazing about all this is that Thousand Cranes is not even Kawabata’s finest book. Of the ones I have read, I would place both Snow Country and Beauty and Sadness above it, and I have a special fondness for the Master of Go. Thousand Cranes may be the most expressive and impassioned of Kawabata’s work, but for that reason it seems to me to lack the almost zen-like calmness of some of his other work. For all that, this is an astonishingly graceful, almost pristine novel. Kawabata is a line-artist, his novels are not great baroque paintings adorned with passionate colours, but rather sketches of hypnotic power, drawings where the simple accuracy of the line makes the figures come alive, so that the merest hint is enough for you to imagine the rest.

Bottomline: Read Kawabata. If you haven’t read him already, then Thousand Cranes is as good a place as any to start (better perhaps, given that it’s shorter and perhaps a little more accessible). If you have read some of his other work but haven’t got around to Thousand Cranes, then you already know what I’m talking about and I can only say that Thousand Cranes won’t disappoint you. All this is not important though. What’s important is only that you read this man, because he is one of the greatest artists of the last century, a true master of his form, and a writer your life will be poorer for for not having read.

A fine imbalance Thursday, Dec 1 2005 

William Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure

there is so great a fever on goodness, that the dissolution of it must cure it: novelty is only in request; and it is as dangerous to be aged in any kind of course, as it is virtuous to be constant in any undertaking. There is scarce truth enough alive to make societies secure; but security enough to make fellowships accurst: much upon this riddle runs the wisdom of the world. This news is old enough, yet it is every day’s news.”

– William Shakespeare

Three things amaze me each time I watch a Shakespeare play performed:

First, I am always stunned by how well the humour comes across. That Shakespeare’s great poetry still works is hardly surprising – it’s not just that the words are timeless and the ideas universal, it’s also that long years of use has made Shakespeare’s fine phrases an inherent part of the language, so that to hear the great monologues delivered is to revisit the English tongue in its essence. It’s the jokes that surprise me, the silly little puns, many of them employing meanings no longer familiar to modern ears; the sly little witticisms that on the page seem dull and cloying, but erupt on the stage in cheerful spontaneity. Every time I hear an audience laughing at Shakespeare’s jokes, every time the genius of his comedy forces a loud chuckle from my throat, I wonder at the greatness of the gift that can still connect to its audience four hundred years after the lines were written.

Second, and this is particularly true of the ‘lesser’ comedies, I’m always amazed by the sheer baroque richness of Shakespeare – the way that, even though you may have read the play half a dozen times before, some phrase or speech that had escaped your attention thus far will ambush you, catch you by the ear. How lines that you may have glanced over without really paying attention to, will suddenly take on a new significance. The quote above is a good example – it’s a line spoken by the Duke in Act 3 Scene 2 of the play, a line that I, for one, had no memory of, until the performance I attended last night (it’s coming, it’s coming) brought it alive for me. It’s such an apt comment about the times we live in, yet it’s a throwaway line in the play, one of the thousands of mini-speeches that Shakespeare intersperses his dialogue with.

The third thing that always impresses me about Shakespeare is how flexible his plays are, how open to interpretation. It’s not just the psychological richness of his characters allows for wider exploration, it’s also the magical way in which the words themselves manage to be interpretable without being ambiguous or indecipherable. This is one of the reasons that I’m so wary of ‘experimental’ Shakespeare – it’s no so much that I’m a purist (though there’s that too) it’s more that I fundamentally believe that Shakespeare is protean enough so that every performance of his plays is an experiment in itself. You don’t need to change settings or alter dialogues, even if you stuck rigidly to the text there are a myriad different interpretations you could try out.

And so to last night’s performance. The Globe Theatre Company is down in Philadelphia, and performed Measure for Measure at the Annenberg Centre last night. It was a very ‘proper’, traditional performance – complete with live music from authentic 16th century instruments (jew’s harps, bagpipes, dulcimers, hautboys), all male performers, and Elizabethan dancing. And yet, it managed, despite sticking strictly to the text, to make me see the play in a way I never had before.

But first, the play itself. Measure for Measure has always been, and continues to be, one of the least impressive of Shakespeare’s plays. I’ve always thought of it as half a good play – the first two acts are exceedingly well done, and the third has promise, but by the fourth act it feels like the play is already over, and the finale goes on and on beyond the point of tedium. This is extraordinarily uncharacteristic for Shakespeare – it’s possibly the only play of his where the dramatic intensity peters out so swiftly, leaving you impatient for the play to end. The problem is, I think, that Measure for Measure is a play stuck in limbo between the serious and the comic. It’s not really light-hearted enough to sparkle as a comedy and carry you along in the sheer exuberance of its prose, nor is it grim or threatening enough to be taken seriously. There is no real tension in the end of the play, you know already what is going to happen, and so the drawn out machinations by which the Duke finally brings the play to its final (inevitable) close seem contrived and overdone, like the ending to a Brahms symphony. It’s nice enough, but you wish he’d get on with it.

Much has been said about the themes of sexuality that the play explores. Personally, I find this the least interesting part of the play. For one, the exploration of sexuality here seems too explicit, too overblown. Admittedly, Shakespeare lays out the central issues well, and much of the speech making on either side has the shock of the familiar. But that’s precisely the trouble – it’s all speech making – this is the kind of preachiness one expects from Marlowe, not from Shakespeare. The other problem, of course, is that in many ways the ‘debate’ itself seems dated, almost irrelevant. Granted there are still people around in our world who cling to the ridiculous idea of chastity, but how many of them spend their free time reading Shakespeare? My other, larger point, however, is that in my own reading of the play the issue is not so much sex as justice. Shakespeare makes no real claims for either repression or liberation, his key point is simply the problem of consistency, the great battle between justice and mercy, between compassion and logic. In many ways, the bulk of the second Act of Measure for Measure feels like a dress rehearsal for the courtroom scene in Merchant of Venice, except that Portia and Shylock are much richer characters than Isabella and Angelo, and the language in Merchant of Venice is sharper, more acute.

This, I think, is the more interesting theme of Measure for Measure – this principle of things balancing, things cancelling out (it’s ironic that the play that tries to lay this out is dramatically the most unbalanced of Shakespeare’s plays – with an exciting opening and a tedious end). A large part of the action in the play is motivated by the Duke’s desire to given Angelo every benefit of doubt, so that the entire play becomes, in some sense, a thrilling exercise in falsification, a study of analytics and evidence unparalleled in Shakespeare’s other work. That the Duke goes to such lengths to allow Angelo leniency is, of course, the key contrast of the play, and becomes the cornerstone of a deeper meditation on government, authority and the use of power. Shakespeare’s great insight in Measure for Measure is that the use of power is best ceded to those who do not desire it, and it is this that lies at the heart of the play – the sexuality is just a red herring.

The Duke himself is, by far, the most interesting character in the play, the most difficult to get a hold of. The reason for this, I think, is that at there is a flaw in the heart of the Duke’s character, whether placed there intentionally or otherwise I would not presume to say. The flaw is this – in a play that claims to set tyranny against compassion, the Duke is, in some sense, the coldest and least humane of all the characters. Even Angelo, for all his barbarism, is motivated by his own weaknesses, his own appetites. But what is it that motivates the duke, other than a whimsical self-absorption? This is a man who subjects all the others in the play (not to mention the audience) to protracted sequence of accusation and suffering, merely so he can, in the end, make it all come out ‘right’ with the glee of a schoolyard conjuror. The Duke’s own explanation for this is that he is testing the others, but that in itself is hardly the picture of compassion we would like to believe in, and besides it is a hard explanation to swallow. The truth, I think, is that the Duke is entirely self-obssessed, and shows mercy to others only as a way of glorifying himself, of creating an effect (it is instructive that the one man the Duke finds himself unable to forgive is the one man he claims slanders him – yet is this really slander? Is it not likely that Lucio is telling the truth, and it is the Duke who is not willing to hear this of himself). The Duke would like us to believe, no doubt, that in sparing Angelo’s life he is being merciful, yet did not he almost knowingly set up Angelo for the fall that Angelo takes. Did he not, in fact, select Angelo to replace him for a while, precisely so that Angelo would take the letter of the law too literally and allow the Duke to return to show off his ‘wisdom’. The best that can be said of the Duke, I think, is that he has no truly malafide intent. He does not mean to actively harm anyone, would prefer to leave others better off if he can, but is primarily concerned only with himself.

What was Shakespeare trying to suggest here? At one level, the Duke is a stand-in for the writer himself – certainly he shares with many of Shakespeare’s great characters a considerable level of self-awareness. And equally he is very much the orchestrator of the whole play, the others being little more than puppets who he shamelessly manipulates into the contrived ‘glory’ of his self-celebrating ending. At another level, it has always seemed to me (though this might be more my own perspective than anything else) that the Duke exemplifies a vision of God as a self-important though ultimately well-meaning overlord. Religion is a constant presence in the play – from Isabella’s incipient sisterhood, to Angelo’s soliloquy about prayer, to the notion of Claudio as a sort of inverted Christ figure (it is hardly coincidence that two men – a murderer and a man who most believe to be innocent are to be executed on the same day; and that Angelo – as Pilate – makes the choice that Claudio be executed first; only this time the Duke intervenes – giving us Shakespeare’s version of how the Passion of Christ should have played out if God were truly merciful). Reading the play with this lens makes for a fascinating interpretation – the idea of a dispossessed God, ineffectual and pompous, roaming the world trying to set things right, but jealous of his own reputation, and concerned more with the impression he makes than with the people he is trying to help.

(This is not, of course, the only such figure that Shakespeare created. Again, there is much about the Duke that seems like a preliminary sketch of that greatest of all God-figures – Prospero; the key differences are that Prospero is both sterner in execution and less selfish in design – if that last Act of the Tempest is one of the finest things Shakespeare ever wrote, it is because Prospero himself is sacrificed, foresworn, forced to give up his powers in order to make the happy ending come truly alive. As a metaphor for what it takes out of a writer to write a really good play I can think of nothing better. It is a lesson Shakespeare clearly hadn’t learnt in Measure for Measure)

Yesterday’s performance did an excellent job of exploring the Duke’s character. As played by Mark Rylance, the Duke is an ineffectual, petty and fumbling man, his greatest speeches turned to the ramblings of a self-important yet nervous pedant. That such a man, so clearly opposed to our idea of a great leader, should turn out to be the one to make the things come out right, is a wonderful insight – and an interpretation of the Duke that I’d honestly never considered before.

The other character in the play who didn’t agree with my own image of her was Isabella. In my mind, Isabella has always been a meek, shy and withdrawn person, an innocent and pure being who is plunged into the intrigues of Angelo’s lust and the politics of the time by the need to rescue her brother. As such she is a fragile, grieving figure, eminently sensible and strong in virtue, but with nowhere near the liveliness or confidence of Shakespeare’s great heroines – Viola, Rosalind, Portia, Katherine. That’s not how Edward Hogg played her though. In the performance last night, Isabella was haughty and proud, a puritan in the truest sense of the word. If anything troubles this Isabella, it is not so much grief as frustration at her own powerlessness. This is not an interpretation of Isabella I agree with. It seems to me to fit fairly dubiously with either Isabella’s own lines in the play or the action surrounding her, and it further sterilises a play that is already fairly hollow emotionally. It would have been better, I think, if Isabella had been a gentler, more waif-like creature.

Overall, it was a wonderful performance of the play though – one that supplied new insight while still managing to satisfy the purist in me. Measure for Measure is still not a play I care for much (at least as Shakespeare plays go) but yesterday’s performance made me appreciate it more than I had before.