Games of the English Throne, Shakespeare style

In several of his plays, from the very early ones, Wm Shakespeare addresses issues of power and politics – politics often carried out through war.  See, for example, Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra and Coriolanus, from the history of Ancient RomeSee too the tetralogy Henry VI Parts 1-3 plus King Richard III, and King John, set in the Middle Ages of England and Wales, which were composed in the early 1590s.

The Henry VI plays paint a bleak picture of a country at war with itself, while also losing territory in France, at the hands of the resurgent French.  The powerful wreak vengeance on their enemies, in cycles of violence.  The continual debates, battles and killings are (arguably) rather repetitive for the reader (or the viewer).  After many battles and murders, Edward Duke of York becomes King Edward IV, displacing Henry VI.  His brother, Richard Duke of Gloucester, awaits his opportunity to seize the crown for himself.  And in the sequel, Richard III, Richard stays his coup d’état and becomes king himself, till supplanted in turn by Richmond (Henry VII).

Richard III has a long history of success in performance.  Shakespeare’s Richard fascinates because of his ambition and single-mindedness and his ability to deceive and to manipulate.  (“Conscience is but a word that cowards use,/Devised at first to keep the strong in awe” [Act 5 Scene 3].)  Some of his wickedness rubs off on his co-conspirators (some discarded by Richard when they oppose him) but they do not match him in intellect and drive, with the possible exception of King Henry VI’s widow, Margaret.

Richard III then gives us a story in black and white colours.  Richard himself – the main character – is a “baddie”.  He gets, though, his “come-uppance”.

Shakespeare lays more murders at Richard’s door than can be fairly blamed on him: the play is not an accurate reflection of history, but it is fun – a guilty pleasure, perhaps.

Like the Henry VI plays, King John is not a popular play – it is seldom performed.  In my opinion, this is a pity, as I see great merit in it.

In King John, there are (I would argue) many important characters, apart from the King himself.  King John is no match for Richard III, in interest.  He is devious and self-serving; he plots against his nephew, Arthur (a rival claimant to the throne); but he ends up being ineffectual and a follower of his counsellors rather than a leader.  As King John declines, in health and in power, the reins of leadership are taken up by others, including a cardinal, who comes close to matching Richard III for deviousness and specious arguments.  The play could be said to end on an anti-climax, in contrast with the climax of Richard III.

The wider distribution of power and influence, among the characters in King John, is, for me a strength rather than a weakness.  Richard III implies that, with the dethronement of one man, all is well that ends well, whereas John ends on a note of ambiguity (albeit coupled with some hope placed in the young King Henry III).

Shakespeare’s early history plays reflect aristocratic societies, where warrior lords are continually engaged in combat – in civil wars in England or in battles in France.  The loyalty of powerful lords has to be won by a king or claimant to the throne and cannot be taken for granted.  Rhetoric is a powerful tool to persuade people to co-operate or even to compel them.

These societies are patriarchal.  Certain female characters in Henry VI assert themselves, particularly, Joan of Arc, Queen Margaret (wife of Henry VI) and Eleanor Duchess of Gloucester; but Joan is executed and Margaret and Eleanor are exiled.  In King John, Blanche is married to the Dauphin, in order to seal an alliance between England and France – apparently with her consent.  But more typically, the ladies use their allotted speeches to express deep grief at their loss of loved ones.  In King John, Constance laments the capture of her son Arthur by King John’s forces, foreseeing his gruesome end; in Richard III, the Duchess of Gloucester (Richard’s mother), Queen Elizabeth (widow of Edward IV) and Queen Anne (Richard’s wife) mourn the grim fate of Edward IV’s young sons (the ‘Princes in the Tower’).

In both King John and in Richard III, there is a dramatic episode where a major character deploys rhetoric to defend his life (or his eyesight) – George Duke of Clarence in Richard III, Prince Arthur in King John.  The Clarence episode (Act 1 Scene 4) is a bravura piece of writing: its length may not be strictly justifiable, in dramatic terms; and Clarence’s dialogue with his murderers is often cut in performance (as the play as a whole is one of Shakespeare’s longest).

To conclude: Richard III is entertaining, because of the brilliance of the title character and because of the “happy ending”.  The merits of the King Henry VI plays and King John lie in their analysis of the exercise of power and the conduct of politics – in the case of John, a particularly cool and ironical examination.

 

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Studying Ezra and Nehemiah

I have been looking again at the joint books in the Hebrew Bible (the Old Testament), Ezra-Nehemiah.  Scholars disagree about the chronology and order of the passages.  Some even accuse the compiler/chronicler of creating a jumble.  The text presents a challenge.

The books cover the return of the exiles from Babylon to Jerusalem and the new order created – the laying down of the Law, and the rebuilding of the Temple and the city walls (6th and 5th centuries BCE).

Much emphasis is put upon the banning of mixed (Jewish-non-Jewish marriages).  The fear of dilution of the Jewish family and its belief system is expressed, firmly and repeatedly.  This tension is a common theme of the nations throughout the ages: it applies to Israel today, but not uniquely.  Is there more benefit in multi-culturalism than in isolation?  Myself, I try to embrace essential aspects of my native Wales and Britain with together with Europeanism and world citizenship.

By contrast, other books contained in the “Writings” – Ruth and Esther – convey a different view: Esther is married to the Persian emperor; Ruth (from Moab) marries Boaz.  Mixed marriages, here, are tolerated or promoted.

According to the Bible text that has come down to us, the scribe/expert on the Law Ezra first arrived before the governor/organiser Nehemiah; but their periods of service overlapped.

An alternative view, based on a critical study of the text, is that Nehemiah preceded Ezra.  Then, they may or not have overlapped.

The fun starts when one considers how to re-order the text to make sense – in chronological/historical terms and/or theological terms.  Scholars disagree over how to do the re-ordering.  A quick check on the World Wide Web re Ezra-Nehemiah will confirm this.

There is common agreement, though, that Ezra Chapter 4, verses 6-23 are misplaced, chronologically, and that verse 24 follows neatly on from verse 5. The surrounding text describes the rebuilding of the Temple, whereas the short section mentions the Jews’ attempt to rebuild the city walls (regarded as taking place at a later date).

In his own study (1982), the respected scholar F C Fensham wonders where Nehemiah Chapters 8-10 best fit – after Ezra 10? Or after Ezra 8? Or after Nehemiah 13?  Should Nehemiah 9 be placed after Ezra 10?   This provides a good example of the re-ordering challenge.

I have come to a tentative conclusion that it is best to take Ezra-Nehemiah as it stands, while reading the above-mentioned short passage at the end of Ezra.  Nehemiah (the book) then commences with the concern of Nehemiah (the governor) about the dilapidated state of the city walls and his determination to go to the city and repair them.

Reading the Bible requires a critical attitude – critical, in the best sense of the word.

The ‘Odyssey’ and ‘Ulysses’

 

Reading challenges

Having re-read Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, I thought I’d take another look at James Joyce’s (in)famous Ulysses (read and re-read years ago).  Homer is readable in translation – Joyce is barely readable, and lots of explanatory notes are required, even for a re-reading.  (I now draw upon the “1922 text” version, put out by OUP and edited by Dr Jeri Jones [1998].)  At least one can pick one chapter at random and concentrate on that.

 

Take for example Chapter 9, called ‘Scylla and Charybdis’.  This  consists of a philosophical discussion (set in a library) and centres largely on Stephen’s putting forward his hypotheses concerning Shakespeare (based on his works rather than recorded facts about his life) to a few friends.  The underlying (barely perceptible) conflict has been said (by commentators) to be between dogma and mysticism, through which a latter-day Odysseus (the reader?) should steer.

 

By contrast, the roughly corresponding passage in Book 12 of the Odyssey describes vividly and concisely Scylla, the man-eating, cave-dwelling monster, and Charybdis, the powerful, sucking whirlpool, which use every opportunity to kill sailors trying to steer the narrow course between them.  (In the event, six of Odysseus’s men are taken and eaten).  Nothing as clear and exciting as this appears in Ulysses.

 

Comparisons

Both the Odyssey and Ulysses are about the return of a hero or heroes (a protagonist or protagonists) to their home.  Homer’s Odysseus has been away from home at the legendary Trojan War and needs to return to his family in Ithaca; and his family want him back.  His fellow soldier Menelaus suffered his own delays on his way home (see Book 4).

James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922) is inspired by the city of Dublin, his love for his wife, and by his admiration for Odysseus, also known as Ulysses.  His protagonists (Stephen Dedalus and Leopold Bloom and Molly Bloom) are all searching for an improved home life.

The Odyssey is dynamic and action-packed –with the constant thrust of the hero’s return home and his drive for revenge upon his wife’s gluttonous, proud suitors.  By contrast, Ulysses is static.  Nothing much happens.  Stephen may stay in touch with Leopold.  The state of the Blooms’ marriage may improve.

 

In the Odyssey, actors reveal their character through their stories.  (Some of Oysseus’s are lies!)  Notable are Books 9-12, where Odyssey tells the story of his adventures (the Cyclops etc) to his hosts.  In Ulysses, actors reveal their character through their internal monologues – the extreme case being Molly’s long monologue, in the final chapter, about her life, her courtship and her marriage.

 

Marriages

Leopold is an ordinary 20th century man, very loosely based on the mythical warrior and hero, Odysseus; and his unfaithful Molly = Odysseus’s faithful Penelope (rather ironically, perhaps).  (Stephen Dedalus = Telemachus, son of Odysseus and Penelope.)

In the Odyssey, there are three relationships – not only Odysseus and Penelope but also two others.  Menelaus has accepted back Helen as his consort, after the end of the Trojan War, as Telemachus discovers (see Book 4) – number 2.  In Book 11, the ghost of Agamemnon informs Odysseus how his unfaithful wife Clytaemnestra and her lover Aegisthus murdered him on his return home from Troy – number 3.  Perhaps Leopold and Molly Bloom can also be compared with   Menelaus and Helen, insofar as they are contemplating a reconciliation.

Endings

 

The climax of the Odyssey (albeit before the very end) may be said to come in Chapter 23 when Odysseus reveals his true identity to Penelope and they exchange their stories (their trials and tribulations).

 

Ulysses ends, aptly, with Molly’s fond recollection of Leopold’s marriage proposal, years before:

 

and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I say yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.

 

 

 

Thoughts on Homer

My re-reading of Homer’s Odyssey and Iliad have prompted some reflections on my part.  They are tremendous epics, full of variety of incident but also pathos.  They have influenced numerous subsequent works by great poets, eg Boccaccio, Chaucer and Shakespeare, directly and indirectly; but incidents and characters are changed.  There are many translations: I have mainly relied upon the old Penguin ones by E V Rieu (but see below for an even older take).

1 The fighting at Troy is savage and brutal.  It is characterised by hand-to-hand combat with spears and swords, backed up by charioteers and bowmen.  Prisoners are not taken – no mercy is shown to the defeated.  Mercy is replaced by revenge.  Men of flesh and blood are reduced to inanimate objects – in great numbers. The warriors can be accused of what we call the sins of wrath and pride.  Achilles abuses the corpse of Hector.  Similarly, Odysseus wreaks merciless revenge upon all the suitors of his faithful wife, Penelope, at the end of the Odyssey.

2 Who is the real hero of the Iliad?  Achilles or Hector?  Or is there little to choose between them?

3 The first book is in itself a great story – psychologically acute, worth reading even on its own.  Agamemnon, as commander-in-chief of a disparate army, has to try to keep them together.  Achilles (who quarrels with him) has a right to his point of view.  This strain – between the need for unity to accomplish a task and (on the other hand) the rights of individuals and minorities to express a dissenting view – applies to movements and political parties, to this day.

4 The warriors are subject to their destiny and cannot avoid it – or at least, unless a god intervenes to save them.  (There are some examples of this in the Iliad; and Odysseus, too, is rescued on numerous occasions in the Odyssey.)  But Zeus (chief of the gods) is himself subject to destiny at times: he is unable to rescue his son Sarpedon from Patroclus (Book XVI), nor Hector from Achilles (Book XXII).  Their deaths are pre-ordained.

5 So many great men are killed in the episode of the Trojan War covered by the Iliad that it would be tedious to name them all.  But, notably: the Trojan Hector kills Patroclus (the close friend of Achilles), while the latter is “sulking in his tent”; Achilles kills Hector in his rage.  Even this bald summary points to the cycle of revenge that reduces a series of men to inanimate objects.

6 The Trojan War episode that Homer recounts in the Iliad does not extend to the death of Achilles (still young), nor to the eventual fall of Troy.  (Virgil picks up Troy’s fall in his Aeneid.)  But Achilles’ death is frequently foretold – even by Achilles himself, and by Thetis, his mother.

7 Odysseus meets the ghost of Achilles, in Book XI of the Odyssey.  The dead hero has nothing good to say about the glory (if any) that survives death in battle.

Odysseus says:

But sure the eye of Time beholds no name
So bless’d as thine in all the rolls of fame;
Alive we hail’d thee with our guardian gods,
And dead thou rulest a king in these abodes.

Achilles replies, bluntly:

Talk not of ruling in this dolorous gloom,
Nor think vain words (he cried) can ease my doom.
Rather I’d choose laboriously to bear
A weight of woes, and breathe the vital air,
A slave to some poor hind that toils for bread,
Than reign the sceptred monarch of the dead.

[Translated by Alexander Pope]

8 Finally, I should add that women are marginalised in these epics, as it is a patriarchal and martial society that is portrayed.  But I’ll name a few (other than goddesses) that stand out:

  • Briseis (Iliad): she is the slave who Achilles and Agamemnon quarrel over in Book I. (She has no say in the argument.)  However, when she is returned to Achilles (in Book XIX) she expresses pleasure at the outcome
  • Helen (Marlowe’s “face that launched a thousand ships”): her abduction by Paris to Troy is the proximate cause of the Trojan War; she expresses self-reproach and regret about her role in the conflict between the Greeks and the Trojans.* Once she is back with her first husband, Menelaus, in Sparta, she appears to be content with the outcome (see Book IV of the Odyssey)
  • Andromache, wife and widow of Hector, in the Iliad
  • Hecabe, mother of Hector, in the Iliad
  • Nausicaa, daughter of King Alcinous, who aids Odysseus when he is cast upon the shore of Phaeacia, after his ship has been wrecked (in the Odyssey, Book VI)
  • Penelope, who outwits her suitors and remains faithful to her missing husband, while living with the hope that he will one day return (in the Odyssey).

The lamentations of Andromache, Hecabe and Helen over the corpse of hector, in the final book of the Iliad, movingly convey pathos.

Finally, a strong case can be made out for the view that Homer is not praising war or the wreaking of vengeance, nor the pride, anger and irrationality that lead up to it.  Read and learn.

 

*Appendix re Helen

Here is part of Helen’s speech to her now brother-in-law Hector (in Book VI):

Oh, generous brother! (if the guilty dame
That caused these woes deserve a sister’s name!)
Would heaven, ere all these dreadful deeds were done,
The day that show’d me to the golden sun
Had seen my death! why did not whirlwinds bear
The fatal infant to the fowls of air?
Why sunk I not beneath the whelming tide,
And midst the roarings of the waters died?
Heaven fill’d up all my ills, and I accursed
Bore all, and Paris of those ills the worst.
Helen at least a braver spouse might claim,
Warm’d with some virtue, some regard of fame!

[Alexander Pope’s version]

 

Patriarchy and feminism in Cervantes’ ‘Don Quixote’ – the case of Marcela

In the introduction to his translation of Don Quixote (Spanish: Don Quijote), first published by Penguin in 1950, Mr J M Cohen comments on the patriarchy of the Spain of 1600, as reflected in the work.  After condemning the “pastoral convention” of “too eloquent” shepherds and goatherds, which Cervantes appears to accept, the translator goes on to say:

Another feature of our book which takes the contemporary reader aback is what we may call its sexual morality.  This is based on a crude scale of values by which honour is preserved so long as any seduction, is covered up by marriage.

Mr Cohen refers (appropriately) to Don Fernando’s seduction of Dorotea, and his abandonment of her, followed by his abduction of Luscinda, in love with Cardenio.  (This story takes up several chapters of Book One.)

But there is more variation and depth in the work that Mr Cohen allows.  Take the case of Marcela (also in Book One).

On his travels, Don Quixote and his squire Sancho Panza hear the tale of the death of the shepherd Grisóstomo: allegedly, he has died of a broken heart, because the beautiful Marcela has rejected his suit.

Grisóstomo’s friends (and the man himself, in the long poem he leaves behind) go so far as to accuse Marcela of cruelty.

Marcela herself suddenly appears, and she states her case both to the dead man’s friends and to Don Quixote and Sancho Panza.  Marcela accepts that Heaven has made her beautiful; but she argues, forcefully and eloquently, that she is in no way to blame for the shepherd’s death:

Yo conozco, con el natural entendimiento que Dios me ha dado, que todo lo hermoso es amable; mas no alcanzo que, por razón de ser amado, esté obligado lo que es amado por hermoso a amar a quien le ama….Y, según de yo he oído decir, el verdader amor…ha de ser voluntario, y no forzoso.  Siendo así, como yo creo que lo es, ¿por qué queréis que rinda mi voluntad por fuerza, obligada no más de que decís que me queries bien?  Si no, decidme: si como el cielo me hizo hermosa me hiciera fea, ¿fuera justo que me quejara de vosotros porque no me amábades?  Cuanto más, que habéis de considerer que yo no escogí la hermosura….

[Book 1, Chapter 14, Academies’ edition, 2004]

With the natural understanding that God has given me, I recognize that what is beautiful is worthy of love.  But what I don’t understand is that just because a woman is loved because of her beauty, she’s obliged to reciprocate this love….And according to what I’ve heard, true love…must be voluntary and not forced.  If that’s true, and I believe it is, why do you want to force me yield my free will simply because you say love me?  Tell me – what if Heaven, which made me beautiful, had made me ugly instead?  Would it be right for me to complain because you didn’t love me?  What’s more, consider this: I didn’t choose to be beautiful….

[translated by T Lathrop, Alam Classics (Richmond, Surrey), 2014]

And Marcela goes on to remind her listeners that beauty is only skin deep – it is inner purity that matters.  She finishes by saying that she values her own freedom above all.

Good for her!

Marcela’s arguments are persuasive; and Don Quixote himself is persuaded.  He sticks up for Marcela, and he says:

Ninguna persona, de cualquier estado y condición que sea, se atreva a seguir a la Hermosa Marcela, so pena de caer en la furiosa indignación mía.  Ella ha mostrado con claras y suficientes razones la poca o ninguna culpa que ha tenido en la muerte de Grisóstomo y cuán ajena vive de condescender con los deseos de ninguno de sus amantes; a cuya causa es juso que, en lugar de ser seguida y perseguida, sea honrada y estimada de todos los buenos del mundo, pues muestra que en él ella es sola la que con tan honesta intención vive.

Let no one [of] whatsoever [estate or condition] dare to pursue the beautiful Marcela, under the penalty of incurring my furious wrath.  She’s shown with clear words and solid reasons that she has had little or no blame in the death of Grisóstomo, and how distant she is from yielding to the desires of any of her suitors.  Far from being pursued, she should be honoured and revered by all good people in the world, since she shows that she’s the only one who lives by such virtuous intentions.

[tr T Lathrop, modified by DRH]

Good for him!

And, after the burial has been completed, the parties go their separate ways.

 

The return of Odysseus to Ithaca (what really happened)

When Odysseus finally returned to Ithaca, he made his way slowly to his house. On the way an old dog barred his way and barked at him, and he spurned it with his foot.

The house looked smaller than he remembered it, and it looked a bit shabby.

Odysseus knocked on the door and waited, and after a few minutes it was opened, and Penelope herself appeared.  She looked sad and careworn.

They stared at each other.

“Hullo, my love.  Have you a welcome for me?”

“Oh, it’s you!  At long last!  Where have you been all this time?”

“Oh, I was blown off course, and had to fight battles and escape from giants, and all sorts of dangers, believe you me.”

“Hm.  Did you get involved with lady friends, on your way?”

“Of course not – I couldn’t wait to get back to you!”

“And the war – how did it end?”

“Well, Agamemnon and Achilles quarrelled, so Achilles left, and then Hector drove us back to our ships – and we were forced to leave.”

“That was humiliating! A lot of effort for nothing!”

“Yes.  And Helen wasn’t worth the trouble.  But anyway, how are the family? How are my father and Telemachus?  The lad’s grown up by now, hasn’t he?”

“I’m sorry to tell you – your father is dead.  And Telemachus isn’t here – he’s gone to look for you himself!”

A pregnant pause followed, and tears could be seen on Odysseus’s cheeks.  Penelope held his hand and took him inside and sat him down.

“What have you been doing with yourself?”

“Weaving and weaving!  We need the money!”

“Have any men been pestering you while I’ve been away?”

“What do you think? With my looks?  No!  I’ve aged, as have you.”

“Mmmm.”

“Anyway, now you’re back (and I presume you’re staying), I have a list of jobs for you to do – the olive grove and the vineyard need a lot of attention – and so does the house.”

Odysseus sighed, and smiled.  He kissed his wife.  She kissed him back.  He was glad to be home.  She was glad he was back home.

Finding your tongue – anthologies of Welsh literature

When, at the 2006 National Eisteddfod, I picked up a copy of Welsh Women’s Poetry 1461-2001 (edited by Katie Granich and Catherine Brennan and first published by Honno Press of Aberystwyth in 2003), I found I could not put it down.  My copy suffered from the rain as I read it on my way to the public transport that would take me home.

There is a wealth of material.  There is poetry in both English and Welsh, and the Welsh pieces are accompanied by translations, so it can be appreciated very widely.

Until the 21st century (arguably), literature has been dominated by men and women have largely been invisible (with a few exceptions, eg some great English female novelists).

My 2017 treat to myself is a new compendium of Welsh language poetry and prose, from the first millennium to the present day: The Old Red Tongue – An Anthology of Welsh Literature, edited by Gwyn Griffiths and Meic Stephens and published by Francis Boutle (London) – nearly a thousand pages, for £30.

Unlike the Honno anthology, very nearly all the originals are in Welsh, but like the Honno one, they are accompanied by English translations.  This is excellent, as medieval Welsh is in places difficult to follow for the inexpert.  (So too sometimes is dialect.)

Many of the translations have been made by the renowned Anthony Conran and Joseph P Clancy.  Some pieces have been translated for the first time.

There is are useful introductions both to historical periods and also to individual writers.

I’ll take the liberty of quoting from the publisher’s blurb, which describes the volume as an “anthology of over 300 texts – poems, plays, memoirs, essays, extracts from novels and short stories, hymns, eulogies, elegies, medieval prose, political and theological commentaries – from nearly 200 writers”.

The book does what it says on the cover – the net is cast wide.

In the last hundred years or so, fortunately, women’s voices have come to be heard, whereas in earlier times men dominated.  The female writers are: Gwerful Mechain, Ann Griffiths, Eluned Morgan, Kate Roberts, Marion Eames, Jane Edwards, Eigra Lewis Roberts, Nesta Wyn Jones, Manon Rhys, Menna Elfyn, Christine James, Angharad Tomos, Gwyneth Lewis, Sonia Edwards, Elin ap Hywel, Mererid Hopwood and Meleri Wyn James.  (Still a small minority, but growing.)

There is an extensive bibliography at the end, useful for further reading.

I should add that The Old Red Tongue is one of a “lesser used languages of Europe” series, which includes anthologies of literature in Breton, Manx, Galician, Channel Islands Norman French, Esperanto, Maltese and Occitan.  A worthy enterprise.

(One English language anthology is: Poetry 1900 – 2000 – one hundred poets from Wales, edited by Meic Stephens, first published by Parthian, Cardigan, in 2007.)

Here are feasts for those who love literature and for those who love Wales.

A Way with Words

A few years ago Jane and I, on holiday in Italy, based in Sirmione on Lake Garda, went on a day trip to Venice.  Among other things, I was keen to visit the Doge’s Palace, both because my parents had talked about it but also because Marcel Proust had written about it.  On the day, however, I found that it was possible only buy a composite ticket for four attractions: the price was high and time was short.  So we never got to see it.

 

Proust knew Venice well and he excels at evoking it.  His appreciation was stimulated by reading (and translating) John Ruskin’s writings on the city.

 

The passage below (in the original French and in English translation) comes from Marcel Proust’s À la recherché du temps perdu, in particular, Du côté de chez Swann – the chapter, Un amour de Swann.  Here we see Charles Swann (friend of the first person narrator) arrive at a soirée, held by a friend, for the upper classes, in late 19th century Paris.  At this point, he commences his ascent of a magnificent staircase.  In his mind Swann compares it unfavourably with a narrow, smelly one in a poor apartment block, because this is where he sometimes meets his mistress (Odette). He cannot bring Odette to this high class soirée.  He misses her.

 

Proust is famous (or infamous) for his long sentences.  He packs a lot into them.  The parentheses and subordinate clauses adorn and embellish the main line of thought.  Below I have used ellipses to indicate my omissions.  Complete sentences are complex and rich; but the disadvantage is that the reader can easily lose the main thread.

 

The references to art and sculpture here are typical of Proust’s writings (and virtually all the arts receive a mention in the course of À la recherché).

 

Here we go!

 

À quelque pas, un grand gaillard en livrée rêvait, comme ce guerrier purement décoratif qu’on voit dans les tableaux les plus tumultueux de Mantegna, songer, appuyé sur son bouclier, tandis qu’on se précipite et qu’on s’égorge à côté de lui….Et les mèches de ses cheveux roux crespelés par la nature, mais collés par brillantine, étaient traitées comme elles sont dans la sculpture grecque qu’étudiait sans cesse le peintre de Mantoue [Mantegna]….

 

D’autres encore, colossaux aussi, se tenaient sur les degrés d’un escalier monumental que leur presence decorative et leur immobilité marmorénne auraient pu nommer celui du Palais ducal: “l’Escalier des Géants” et dans lequel Swann engagea avec la tristesse de penser qu’Odette ne l’avait jamais gravi.  Ah! avec joie au contraire il eût grimpé les étages noir, malodorants et casse-cou de la petite couturière retiree, dans le “cinquième” de laquelle il aurait été si heureux de payer plus cher q’une avant-scène hebdomadaire à l’Opéra le droit de passer la soirée quand Odette y venait, et même les autres jours, pour pouvoir parler d’elle, vivre avec les gens qu’elle avait l’habitude n’était pas là et qui à cause de cela lui paraissaient recéler, de la vie de sa maîtresse, quelque chose de plus réel, de plus inaccessible et de plus mystérieux.

 

[Du Côté de chez Swann, Paris: folio classique (1987) pp 318f]

 

A few steps away, a sturdy fellow in livery mused motionless, statuesque, useless, like the purely decorative warrior one sees in the most tumultuous paintings by Mantegna, lost in thought, leaning on his shield, while others beside him rush forward and slaughter one another….And the locks of his red hair, crimped by nature but glued by brilliantine, were treated broadly as they are in the Greek sculpture which the painter from Mantua [Mantegna] studied so constantly….

 

Still others, also colossal, stood on the steps of a monumental staircase to which their decorative presence and marmoreal immobility might have induced one to give the same name as the one in the Ducal Palace – ‘Staircase of the Giants’ – and which Swann began to climb with the sad thought that Odette had never ascended it.  Oh, with what joy by contrast would he have gone up the dark, evil-smelling and rickety flights to the little retired dressmaker’s, in whose ‘fifth floor’ he would have been so happy to pay more than the price of a weekly stage-box at the Opéra for the right to spend the evening when Odette came there, and even on the other days, so as to be able to talk about her, live among the people she was in the habit of seeing when he was not there and who because of that seemed to harbour something, of his mistress’s life, that was more real, more inaccessible and more mysterious.

 

[Lydia Davis (tr) (2003), The Way by Swann’s, London: Penguin, pp 326f]

 

Here Ms Davis follows the French very closely; but “auraient pu nommer celui de” (literally, “could have named the one of”) is turned into the longer “might have induced one to give the same name as”.

 

Ms Davis describes the challenges of reading, and of translating, Proust in the introduction to her translation.  She is a firm admirer:

 

The style in which Proust wrote was essentially natural and unaffected, free from preciosity, archaism and self-conscious elegance….Yet at the same time, he used a wealth of metaphorical imagery, layer upon layer of comparisons, and had a tendency to fill a sentence to its utmost capacity…Proust felt that a long sentence contained a whole, complex thought.  [page xxx]

 

The short quotations above give an indication of Proust’s skill with words.  The whole scene at the soirée has a satirical flavour: the idiosyncrasies of the upper classes are exposed.  (But the tone changes when Swann becomes immersed in the music being performed, as it too brings Odette to mind – not very happily.)

 

 

 

 

a personal take on allegations of sexual abuse

 

How are leaders and managers supposed to deal with allegations of sexual abuse by employees or with suppliers of services who they do business with?

The principles of natural justice say that one is presumed innocent unless and until guilty.  In practice, nowadays, those are accused are suspended by the employer while investigations are conducted, or (if they are self-employed) find that their services or no longer required.

In many situations, the matter is that of: one person’s word against that of another.  There may be no forensic evidence available.  The allegations may refer to abuse many years ago.  (Why did not the victims complain earlier?  Damaged self-esteem.  Shame.  Patriarchy.  Not being believed.  Having to give evidence and undergo cross-questioning, if the case is to be pursued.  Etc.)

Societies are still learning about this issue.  Victims are gradually gaining the confidence to speak up.  Abusers themselves, and some of those who lack knowledge of the nature and severity of abuse incidents, deny the victims’ veracity and the severity of their suffering.  The abusers add insult to injury.

Perhaps templates are being created.  I hope this goes well – in the interests of victims.

Are allegations to be believed?  Yes.  What benefit is to be gained from the exposure that results from speaking out? None – quite the reverse.

——

My own first contact with sexual abuse occurred in or around 1979 when the social work team I belonged to picked up a complaint by a teenage girl that her stepfather had sexually abused her.  We believed her; and we removed her from the household (her own mother and sister, her stepfather, and two step-siblings).  At the time, there were no guidelines and no research finding available.  We did our best.

Later, in a mental health team, I did my share of initial assessments of people (women) who reported their stories of having been sexually abused – commonly by family members.  The referral to the service could be prompted by a significant event, eg the birth of a daughter.

Everything that I have heard and read since confirms my concern about the gravity of this issue.  I am both pleased and dismayed by the volume of stories that are coming out now.

What next?  Can we learn?  Can we respond appropriately?