Shakespeare's Language
Frank Kermode
(Farrar Straus)
Pity the poor English Major. He gets to immerse himself in the works of such drones as Milton, Dryden, and Pope. A weekend read is Clarissa, Wuthering Heights, or Ulysses. In some graduate programs he will have to read German or French, he'll have to write a PhD thesis on the likes of Gammer Gurtin's Needle, The Adventures of a Gentleman, or the Northumberland ballads out of The Hermit of Warkworth.

He is expected not only to understand Middle English, but to be able to read it. He has to wade through the Romantics, the pre-Raphaelites, the Edwardians, the pre-moderns, post-moderns, middle-moderns, anti-moderns, and the quasi-moderns. He will be required to answer questions by tired, tenured professors on such fascinating writers as William Congreave, John Mabbe, and Robert Surtees. He will be expected to differentiate between a sonnet, a trimeter, a tribrach, a rondel (and even a rondeau).

Most of all, he will be expected to be fully familiar with the twenty-three --- or is it twenty-eight? or perhaps thirty-six? --- plays of Shakespeare.

Shakespeare. Saints preserve us! For Shakespeare is best for punishing students; he's the wheel on which many a poor graduate student will be broken --- this word-monger from four centuries past, writing in a language that can scarcely be comprehended, in a style that is occlusive at best, on a variety of unpleasant scoundrels (Lady Macbeth. Iago. Richard III.) And all the while our wretched student will be forced to add to the garbage pile of M.A. or Ph.D. theses, to be ignored by all as soon as completed.

Indeed, after plowing through and writing yet another paper on Romeo and Juliet, or Henry IV, Part 1, or the mumblings of the dark Prince of Denmark, for the seventh time --- he will begin to wonder if it would not be wiser to study mechanical engineering, fixed partial dentures, Serbo-Croation geology, black holes --- anything to get away from the dread Bard of Stratford.

There are a few --- a very few --- characters that one could want to know: Mercutio, the Fool, even the drunken porter. And most certainly, lovely Cleopatra, telling us about,

    My salad days,
    When I was green in judgment, cold in blood...

Or telling the maids, if they see Anthony,

    If you find him sad,
    Say I am dancing; if in mirth, report
    That I am sudden sick...

Or, as she is about to commit herself to the gods, asp against her bosom,

    Peace! Peace!
    Dost thou not see my baby at my breast,
    That sucks the nurse asleep?

Outside of the likes of her, as far as we anti-Bards are concerned, you can take the entire First Folio and dump it in the Thames --- and thus spare future students the wheezing papers they are required to do on "Courtly Lovers in Shakespeare," or, "Justice in Measure for Measure," or "Concepts of Ageing in The Tempest."

There is perhaps one other redeeming aspect to the study of Shakespeare. It flows from those literate (and often poetic) scholars who write on some aspect of the plays and, in the process, create a work of art: the art of high criticism. Those who come readily to mind are A. C. Bradley on Shakespeare's tragedies, William Empson on ambiguity, and Harry Levin's wonderful Question of Hamlet.

They are joined now by the wise and learned Frank Kermode --- treating Shakespeare's poetry in a very poetic fashion. Rather than spend an evening at the Old Globe wrestling with the obscure pyrotechnics of King Lear, we'd suggest a quiet evening in the sack with a bottle of sack, paging through Kermode's fascinating volume, seeing the master through the eyes of another master.

For example, let's look at a short passage in Measure for Measure in which Claudio, "under sentence of death for fornication, agrees that his sister, the novice Isabella, might, with some hope of success, go to the deputy Angelo and plead for her brother's life,"

         for in her youth,
    There is a prone and speechlesse dialect
    Such as moue men...

Kermode then goes on to comment on the word "prone:"

    A modern reader may...agree that this passage, far from suffering a loss of sense from that "distortion of words" which " is not uncommon in our author," comes from the secret places of the Muse where distortions make poetry; that it is a wonderful piece of language, one of those that provoke the sort of attention T. S. Eliot had in mind when he spoke of the bewildering minute, the moment of dazzled recognition, from which one draws back and, having regained composure, tries to think of something to say about an experience too disconcerting to be thought of as simply pleasant.

For, he goes on, it would not be untoward for those reading this passage to begin to have an inkling that Claudio, on death row, thinks that his sister, the virginal nun, should be "moving men" --- moving them, that is, for pleasure. Indeed, "this last half-line," says Kermode,

    makes its point very calmly, with an air of knowing about such cases; and, indeed, I feel very indelicate in explaining Claudio's meaning.

Ay, but to die and go
we know not where
Ay, but to die, and go we know not where;
To lie in cold obstruction, and to rot;
This sensible warm motion to become
A kneaded clod; and the delighted spirit
To bathe in fiery floods, or to reside
In thrilling region of thick-ribbed ice;
To be imprisoned in the viewless winds
And blown with restless violence round about
The pendant world; or to be worse than worst
Of those that lawless and incertain thought
Imagine howling --- 'tis too horrible!
The weariest and most loathed worldly life
That age, ache, penury, and imprisonment
Can lay on nature is a paradise
To what we fear of death.

--- Measure for Measure,
Act III, Scene 1

Few readers or auditors will fall to respond to the power of this passage, and it is typical of Shakespeare that there should occur, in the midst of his treatment of a topic so universal that he might have used the plainest language, words to make one stop and ask what they are doing there: "sensible," motion," "delighted," "viewless." Sometimes this slightly estranging effect arises from differences between the sense of the words in Shakespeare's time and ours: "sensible" here is related to one meaning of "sense" in the play at large, the sensory (and sensual) equipment of the living body. One sense of "motion" is a puppet, so that there is a concealed paradox, a puppet with sense organs; another is a usage complimentary to works of art (comeliness, grace, spirit, etc.) and here applicable to life; another is animation, reflecting the joy of having a body that can be moved and controlled; yet another is, simply, emotion, another property of living beings. "Motion" is a rich way of talking about the living human body. The strangeness of the word is what makes one think around it in this way.

"Delighted" strikes one as the oddest of these words, since the context makes it plain that the spirit is not, in any modern sense of the word, delighted. Can it be a nonce word, de-lighted, deprived of light? Hammer emended it to "dilated"; Johnson, rather weakly if one may say so, to "delinquent."

Finally, "viewless" is "invisible;" its force comes partly from the chime with "restless" in the next line. Editors add that to be blown around the earth in this way was considered the punishment of people who were too fond of the pleasures of the body, so the guilty Claudio might think himself qualified for that fate, like Paolo and Francesca in Dante. "Pendant" adds to the horror of the idea, the earth suspended in space as the sinners whirl around it.

What is meant by "lawless and incertain thought?" One editor says the passage "is not susceptible of satisfactory explanation," and this may be true; thoughts of hell were "incertain" perhaps, but not "lawless." The effect is still to make the familiar general sentiment a little strange, to stop the reader a moment.

--- From Shakespeare's Language,
©Frank Kermode
Farrar, Straus and Giroux (2000)

Robert Browning
Oliver St. J. Gogarty
"What an extraordinary fellow," I said to Austin. "One is never allowed to get a word in."

"No, nor the books one wants."

"Why should one be? I thought the fellow most amusing: saving engineers by Kipling; budding bankers by bad verse; suspended priests by heresies. He calls it snatching brands from the burning. I heard you whisper that it would be better to snatch the bank clerks from Browning."

"I did not quite say that. Why are you so hard on Browning?"

"Because he didn't keep on banking. He introduced jazz, into English verse, on account of his mixed blood no doubt. There is black blood in him somewhere, that is why he was called Browning --- it comes out in the tom-tom of his verse.

        Beautiful Evelyn Hope is dead,
            Rumptity, rum pity; don't look dour!
          This was her table, that was her bed;
            And here her last leaf of geranium flower."

"I rather like it. The economy with which he makes a scene is amazing."

"But, then, the cross-word puzzles of his poems. He anticipated cross-words. He kept so many people guessing that he got a reputation for depth and for poetry out of all proportion to the beauty he evoked in words. Instead of "fundamental brainwork," there is only something foundered beneath the surface. What porridge!

"The nearest he got to poetry was 'A chorus-ending of Euripides' --- and Mrs Browning. He depends for half his effect on our associations of ideas with the Greek; for the rest on his wife. His inspiration is rarely original. It is literature begotten on literature, Caliban upon Mrs Browning. Where is his equivalent to what is created out of nothing:

         Come unto these yellow sands

"His muse is as much invalid as his wife was invalide. I much prefer Longfellow, who does not turn your mind into a war dance, but he leaves it cool and smooth.

         As he leaned upon the railing,
         And his ships came sailing, sailing,
         Northward into Drontheim fjord.

"And smoothness is one of the three indispensables of poetry. Yes. Browning is only suited for reading in banks. There is a Browning Society in England whose members assure each other that they understand him. When I read his translation of Æschylus, I find it very useful to have the Greek beside me so that I may find out what the English means. He does not write poetry, but his prose pulsates.

"Then those medical students for whom he has prescribed a course of medieval quackery! And his priest studying heresy! What an amusing fellow!"

I never listened to more suave and childlike irreverence in my life."

"I saw nothing irreverent in it."

"You would not be likely to, being irreverent yourself."

--- From As I Was
Going Down Sackville Street
©1937 Penguin Books

February 7, 1775
Mr. James Macpherson, ---

I received your foolish and impudent letter. Any violence offered me I shall do my best to repel and what I cannot do for myself, the law shall do for me. I hope I shall not be deterred from detecting what I think a cheat by the menaces of a ruffian.

What would you have me retract? I thought your book an imposture; I think it an imposture still. For this opinion I have given my reasons to the public, which I here dare you to refute. Your rage I defy. Your abilities, since your Homer, are not so formidable: and what I hear of your morals inclines me to pay regard, not to what you shall say, but to what you shall prove. You may print this if you will.


Jean Racine
Translated by
Ted Hughes

(Farrar Straus Giroux)
Well, lets see if I can get this right. Theseus, King of Athens, has been lost somewhere out in the waters for twenty years, and they figure he's dead. Meantime, wife Phèdre falls in love with step-son, Hippolytus, his son by "the Amazon."

Hippolytus, in turn, is in love with Aricia, granddaughter of Thesus' one-time enemy, Erechtheus. The way that Phèdre deals with her unrequited love is the same way that many of us would: by turning sullen, mean, testy and petty. Phèdre's nurse and retainer, one Oenone, tells her to stop mooning around so much; that if she loves Hippolytus so much, just give him the word. So Phèdre relents, sends for the kid, and tells him that since his step-father doesn't seem to be on the horizon, she has decided to give him all her love.

Hippolytus is less than enchanted with step-mom's advances, since he is nuts for the innocent Aricia, so he mouths a few platitudes and gets the hell out of there. Meanwhile, lo and behold, King Theseus is resuscitated, sails into port, and is all ready to take his wife and his kingdom back into his arms. Unfortunately, with Oenone's connivance, he suspects that there's dirty foot awork, mistakenly coming to the conclusion that Hippolytus has been trying to put the make on Phèdre. The shit hits the fan, he tells Hippolytus to hit the road before he takes out a contract (with the gods) on him.

Now, Hippolytus is a bit of a martyr --- as befits a French-speaking Greek --- so he doesn't defend himself, but, instead, goes to his honey and tells her it's time for the two of them get out of town. Since he's handsome, loyal, well-spoken, brave, etc etc., and since she loves him, Aricia agrees to meet him down on the beach for their pre-planned escape.

Unfortunately, Thesus went ahead and called down a curse on Hippolytus, via Neptune. So as the kid is heading off into the sunset, a giant wave comes up, sweeps over him, tangles him up in the horses' reins, which drags him to a very disgusting, messy death that you don't want to see, much less think about. Meanwhile, fed up with Phèdre's now-I-will-oh-no-I-won't, Oenone kills herself by jumping off a cliff, and so Phèdre decides its time to 'fess up, which she does, and Theseus does the how-could-I-be-so-stupid routine, so he forgives the kid just when Panope, local citizen, comes along to tell him that the boy is now hamburger.

§   §   §

Since I knew the story, I figured I'd pick this one up and be bored silly, that FSG had put this one out to trade on Hughes's hot name (Sylvia Plath!) But the truth of the matter is that after the first two or three pages, it's hard to put down. It has that lovely inevitability that we look for in a good piece of writing, an inevitability towards tragedy that we find in Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Camus, and Richard Wright, among others. We know that these characters are doomed --- doomed by lust (Phèdre), or by inability to be a rat (Hippolytus), or by pig-headedness (Theseus), or by simple evil-heartedness (Oenone). It talks to that part of us that (sigh) gets us involved in so many similar stupid imbroglios.

It's very easy to poo-poo Hughes --- his comet seems a bit too bright at this moment --- but he does a bang-up good job of getting us into the heads of these characters. Like much of early drama, we get few stage directions, but the translation is fine: for example, this is Phèdre, confessing her love for step-son, and, then, immediately after, hearing that the old man is returning from the dead:

    I am not one of those women
    Who manage their infidelity
    With a polished smile and a stone heart.
    I have not forgotten my ravings.
    Every gasp is still alive in me.
    Even these walls remember them,
    These ceilings are saturated with them
    Every room and passage in this palace
    Is bursting to shout my secret
    And accuse me. The air is quivering with it.
    The moment he steps through the door
    He will hear it.
    Let me die.

The set of the characters is richly described. Theseus who is not only king but who has subdued all the monsters of the deep, turns out to be a bit of a lunk; Phèdre is a woman whose all strung-out --- in the modern parlance --- on love; innocent Hyppolitus just wants to be out of it; then Oenone who turns out not only to be an Iago but a grump as well (at one point, she says to Phedre: "Why must you always talk of dying.") The whole play --- 88 pages --- is a heady mix of "Anthony and Cleopatra," Madam Bovary, "The Graduate," and "General Hospital."

Vanity Fair
William Makepeace Thackeray
Read by Georgina Sutton

(Naxos Audiobooks)
I can't tell you how much fun it is to embark on the good ship Vanity Fair, up and down, round about, weaving in and about these characters in and out of 1825 England. It drifts into a drama of dozens of people who come to be friends of ours, or at the least, comic relief.

We get a few side trips into the countryside, and then over to Belgium (Waterloo), and Germany (Pumpernickle). Travelling with an excellent plotter, plotting to lead you through the triple drama of Becky Sharp and her many men, along with Amelia Sedley, George Osborne, William Dobbin.

Becky --- she calls herself "the poor orphan" --- is bent on making London her own, and she damn near does, but gets caught in the wrong place with the wrong man --- not her husband. Amelia's there, and such a wimpy thing: what is wrong with her? --- "Already to be looking sadly and vaguely back: always to be pining for something which, when obtained, brought doubt and sadness rather than pleasure: here was the lot of our poor little creature, and harmless lost wanderer in the great struggling crowds of Vanity Fair."

There's William Dobbin, who wanted her but is, as his name portends, a bit of a plodder --- loyal, too, to friend George Osborne, with his officer pals in the regiment. "Here you take her," Dobbin seems to be saying: "you are a better present for her than I." George does it, but with regret, for she's not rich enough.

§   §   §

This is the first half of the novel. I think if you give yourself a present of the first fifty or one hundred pages, you may, like me, never want to lay it down. Thackeray is wry, funny, sarcastic (but gently so) ... has the gall to tell us that there are some things here that even he doesn't understand.

    Our luck may fail; our powers forsake us; our place on the boards be taken by better and younger mimes --- the chances of life roll away and leave us shattered and stranded. Then men will walk across the road when they meet you --- or, worse still, hold you out a couple of fingers and patronize you in a pitying way --- then you will know, as soon as your back is turned, that your friend begins with a Poor Devil, what imprudences he has committed, what chances that chap has thrown away! Well, well --- a carriage and three thousand a year is not the summit of the reward nor the end of God's judgment of men. If quacks prosper as often as they go to the wall --- if zanies succeed and knaves arrive at fortune, and vice versa, sharing ill-luck and prosperity for all the world like the ablest and most honest amongst us --- I say, brother, the gifts and pleasures of Vanity Fair cannot be held of any great account.

Thackeray is a novelist, and a novelist must learn to toy with us, delight us, offend us (if necessary). Poor Emily's George is to fight at Waterloo. There is a great build-up. Not on the field, though. This author is no Tolstoi, so we stay with the English at Brussels, the soldiers' families, waiting ten miles from the battlefield. this is Becky Sharp as her husband Rawdon is about to leave for war: "You won't do anything brave, will you?" Dear Becky. She quite wins the reader with her sweet-faced stabs. To her would-be husband: "Are you trying to steer me towards an indiscretion?"

"Would you like me to?"
"No man has managed it yet. "

And this with her patron, Matilda Crawley:

    Oh, please tell me there's something disreputable in your past.
    Well, my father was an artist.
    Ah, that's better, a starving one I hope.
    Absolutely ravenous.

As for sweet wasted Emily, on hearing the guns at Waterloo, thinking on her George in battle, she weeps and prays ... to no avail, for, as we are informed at the end of Chapter XXXII, "No more firing was heard at Brussels --- the pursuit rolled miles away. The darkness came down on the field and city: and Amelia was praying for George, who was lying on his face, dead, with a bullet through his heart."

At this moment our author chooses to say no more of this event that will change the course of the book entirely. In its place, he give us astute insight into the nature of war, what it does to the survivors:

    They pant for an opportunity of revenging that humiliation: and if a contest, ending in a victory on their part, should ensue, elating them in their turn, and no end to the so-called glory and shame, and to the alternations of successful and unsuccessful murder, in which two high-spirited nations might engage.

Good high and low comedy engages us when it is thought that the French might turn from Waterloo and battle their way into Brussels. Sweet Becky has managed to round up a couple of horses,

    Rebecca caught sight of Jos [Emily's brother]. He too wanted to fly, and was on the look-out for the means of escape. "He shall buy my horses," thought Rebecca, "and I'll ride the mare." Rebecca asked him to come into her room, whither he followed her quite breathless to conclude the bargain. Jos seldom spent a half-hour in his life which cost him so much money. Rebecca, measuring the value of the goods which she had for sale by Jos's eagerness to purchase, as well as by the scarcity of the article, put upon her horses a price so prodigious as to make even the civilian draw back.

"I'm afraid I will have to charge you rather a lot. My horses are all I own in the world, you know."
"Money is no object to me, ma'am."
"That's good. Six hundred pounds."
Jos is taken aback, but promptly reaches for his pocketbook.

Oh, Becky. Thackeray obviously did not favor you, but he painted you with a fine brush, and of all the characters here, she is the one we'd all like to meet, to gossip with, to play gossip with. Early on at her governess job with Sir Pitt Crawley's two children, George Osborne --- later to be Emily's husband --- comes to sport with her (this is our transcription),

George Osborne [as Becky plays a piano forte]: So, Miss Sharp. How do you like your new place?

Becky Sharp: My place? How kind of you to remind me. It's quite tolerable, thank you. And they treat me very well. But then, this is a gentleman's family... and quite a change from tradespeople.

George Osborne: You seemed to like tradespeople well enough last year.

Becky Sharp: Joseph Sedley, you mean? It's true. If he'd ask me [to marry], I would not have said no.

George Osborne: How very obliging of you.

Becky Sharp: I know what you're thinking. What an honor to have had you for a brother in-law. Captain George Osborne, son of John Osborne, Esquire, son of... what was your grandfather?

[George remains silent and stern]. Becky Sharp: Never mind. You cannot help your pedigree.

§   §   §

What is it here that 150 years later captures us so. Innocence and greed? Infidelity? Using others? Being at times noble, at times beasts of property and rank? (One of the characters says of Becky, "I thought her a mere social climber, but now I see she's a mountaineer.")

I read Vanity Fair in college, and a lot went over my head, especially the darker edges of cynicism. Thackeray is a lovely old cynic, but it does take the time to plow though it. As it is being read to me --- Georgina, you're a dream --- I am thinking that Thackeray was one of those people who could put together a story and some people and a chain of events that doesn't want to let us go. I was a goner the moment I popped in disk #1 (there are twenty-five in all). When I was out of radio contact, I picked up the book, and laughed and cheered on my favorite characters, stolid Dobbin, fat, drunken Jos, and, as always, sly Becky. Thackeray certainly didn't love her, but I do.

At last it comes to its natural end, on disc, page, and in our hearts. Our author concludes,

    Ah! Vanitas Vanitatum! Which of us is happy in this world? Which of us has his desire? or, having it, is satisfied? --- Come, children, let us shut up the box and the puppets, for our play is played out.

A Doll's House
Henrik Ibsen
Nicholas Rudall, translator

(Ivan R. Dee)
Nora has blown it. When Dad was dying, several years ago, she went out and got a loan from a local shyster named Krogstad. Unfortunately, Pops gave up the ghost before he could co-sign the note, so she forged his name, with a date three days after his official passing. In 1879 Oslo, they would say, "Just like a woman."

As we pick up on her, in the doll's house, where she lives, a living doll --- it's just about Christmas, eight years later. It's a middle class life in a middle class home in Norway, being pampered by her husband, a lawyer named Torvald --- a man replete with Scandinavian chilblains. He's just been made bank president, and his first task will be to tell Nora no, she can't have more money. The second will be to fire the scoundrel Krogstad, who works as a clerk --- the one who gave her the loan.

Krogstad tells Nora that if she doesn't put the squeeze on Torvald so he can keep his job he's going to blow the whistle on her. You know mid-Victorian Oslo --- it's quite different that modern-day laissiez-faire America: good people just don't forge financial notes. Once everyone finds out, Torvald will be disgraced; he will lose his social standing, perhaps his job, Nora may have to take in sewing for a living, and in the process, he and the three children will be beggared. No Chapter 13, no fed-sponsored S&L bailouts back in Norway a hundred or so years ago.

Fortuitously, Nora's old school friend Kristine Linde turns up, in what we might charitably call a deus ex machina. Nora tells her about Krogstad's threat. Now, Kristine was Krogstad's sweetie many years ago, but she dumped him for a man who, afterwards, went belly-up --- financially, not passionately. She's been sewing for a living every since. Once she hears the tale, she decides to save Nora's sweet ass.

She does a come-on to hungry Krogstad, tells him she's sorry she blew him off, and it was a great mistake, gives him the old don't-you-still-love-me honey routine --- and tells him to hurry off and reclaim the letter he sent to Torvald about Nora. Too late. Torvald opens the mail, finds out that Nora's a dirty forger. He doesn't know --- dramatic irony here --- that she got the money to take him on a vacation to Italy so she could make him well again, and, incidentally, learn to dance the Tarantella. She's quite good at it --- not forging, but dancing --- and when he isn't miffed at her, and calling her his little lark, Torvald tells her that her dancing makes him lusty, in a dry, heaving, 1880s Scandinavian kind of way.

He also calls her his squirrel. Little does he know that his squirrel has been squirreling away money for eight years to pay off the debt that brought him back from the brink of death. When he finds out about the note, he is beside himself. She's going to ruin his career. She's a hypocrite, "a liar...a criminal." She can't be trusted with the kids. They'll have to stay together for form's sake, but he'll lock her away from them. Her doll's house will turn into a jail house.

Well, his songbird is no longer interested in having her wings clipped. She had decided to kill herself over the shame of what she had done --- but Torvald acts like such a jerk that she decides that he can go to hell. She's going to take off, make a new life for herself, get away from him and the kids. She might even go back to Italy and dance the Tarantella some more, or even go west, to LA --- try to get on Hollywood Squares, join the Spice Girls.

He doesn't know what to make of his little lark ascending: doesn't quite believe her until she takes her things and goes out the door and the curtain comes down.

§   §   §

Those of us who had the misfortune to major in what they used to call "English" had to wade through plays written by the likes of Shakespeare, Kyd, Marlowe, Wycherly, Gay --- and odds and ends of romantic drama by Shelley and Keats. Those of us who were fool enough to do Greek Tragedy had to suffer with "The Trojan Women," "Oedipus," "Electra," and those of us who were dogs for pain did "Modern Drama" --- Ibsen, Strindberg, and the other "neo-realists." It was a pain, let me tell you.

For, it goes without saying that plays are meant to be played, not read. Shakespeare's a fine example: try to spend an evening with that windbag Lear ranting and raving on the page, or Hamlet's yes-I-will no-I-won't. Ditto in spades Julius Caesar. Indeed, most of the characters in Shakespeare are not the sort you'd want to be going to raves with --- be they hard-asses like Othello, Hamlet, Richard III, Brutus or soft-soaps like Romeo, King Henry IV, Part II and King Henry IV, Part II. Indeed, when we were being forced to study these plays, we were far more interested in our exploding libidos and less in theories of Renaissance stage-craft in general and the antics of Bottom, The Porter, Mercutio and Beatrice and Benedict in particular. We were certainly incurious about the art and craft of classical or neo-classical drama, especially as represented by the likes of Henrik Ibsen.

It is no wonder that many of us, in the years since then, have avoided drama-on-the-page with great enthusiasm. It is only in the line of duty, and a promised bonus from the tight-fisted editors of RALPH --- they promised me a weekend in Sun City! --- that I forced myself to spend an afternoon with Nora Helmer, and that drip Torvald, in their Doll's House.

What a surprise! Maybe it's Nicholas Rudall's new translation. I couldn't out it down. It's tight, and terse --- reads like a good spiffy short novel. Nora is a schizoid type, alternatively madly happy, and then, threatening to kill herself. To Torvald she acts like a doll --- and he, naturally, wants to keep her there, in her pretty dresses, a slave of love, with their doll-like children. And the villain Krogstad practically marches on stage curling his black moustache, saying, "Now, me proud beauty, I have you in my power."

Nora and Torvald do endless begging and scolding over moolah ("But we can't just go wasting money..." "You could give me more more than you think you can spare...") making this bit of 19th Century drama just like a real 20th century marriage, battles over the budget in the TV room.

There's some byplay with a Dr. Rank, who's secretly in love with Nora (and secretly dying of syphilis --- venereal disease being an old Ibsen standby); there's the time-honored maid and Mrs. Linde --- but above all, the triad of Krogstad, Nora, and Torvald makes for a wonderful case study of what, now, in the late twentieth century, we could call a classically dysfunctional family system. Nora's decision to become a late Victorian hippie, on the road, children left behind, doesn't necessarily parse --- but it is still a rambling good melodrama, for those of us who are still fans of that particular genre.

Hard Times
Charles Dickens
Anton Lesser, Reader

(Naxos Audiobooks)
I took this one up with some trepidation, because back when I was stuck at Berkeley doing the English major dance, in 19th Century Lit., there were always assignments of those fat, exhaustive novels, the bountiful Brontës, tireless Thackeray, endless Eliot, always ending up with discursive Dickens.

Most of all, we despaired of Dickens, with all his detours and pontificating, plots growing up and out like weeds in the fields, jammed with twisty side-journeys and sub-plots, ever-so-lengthy dialogues, so much so that we knew that to get it read much less getting a paper written and in to professor Quinn on time would be impossible. Especially with the midnight reading over at the hungry i that we had to get to. Thank god this stuff drove me out of that particular dead-end career, to finally become the layabout that I am now.

But now that I have more time on my hands, and can give myself over to the spoken version, I realize what a crafty, canny artist Dickens is. Taking it in this form (someone reading it to us with patience, verve and style) gives us the chance to step back, to be swept away by Dickens' way with words, by his powerful narrative, and the very funny back and forth between the characters.

Now we can get to enjoy, for example, fine prose that reveals the set of an English train station in the Midlands around 1850 or so, framed in such elegant detail as to resemble a sketch by Sargent:

    Louisa sat waiting in a corner. Mrs. Sparsit sat waiting in another corner. Both listened to the thunder, which was loud, and to the rain, as it washed off the roof, and pattered on the parapets of the arches. Two or three lamps were rained out and blown out; so, both saw the lightning to advantage as it quivered and zigzagged on the iron tracks.

"The seizure of the station with a fit of trembling, gradually deepening to a complaint of the heart, announced the train. Fire and steam, and smoke, and red light; a hiss, a crash, a bell, and a shriek ... the little station a desert speck in the thunderstorm."

Note the lightning hovered not in the sky but "quivered and zigzagged on the iron tracks," with the "seizure of the station" in "a fit of trembling," amidst "a complaint of the heart."

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Dicken's novels "are works of surpassing genius, thrumming with energy, imagination, and something resembling white-hot inspiration," writes Joyce Carol Oates in a recent New York Review of Books:

    His gift for portraiture is arguably as great as Shakespeare's, and his versatility as a prose stylist is dazzling.

Hard Times is considered by Oates to be one of Dicken's lesser novels. Yet for most of this reading we can become easily transfixed as much by the prose style and the heady dialogue as by the excellent rendering by Anton Lesser. He throws himself into it with such vigor and with such a fine command of class language that it is impossible not to be swept along, wanting more and more and more.

There's that noisy self-made Josiah Bounderby --- pure lying bourgeoisie screw-the-worker factory owner. There's the snooty scaliwag James Harthouse, who is bored but comes to be hot for chilly Louisa (she married, unhappily, to Bounderby). There's shy Sissy Jupe, sneaky trickster Mrs. Sparsit, and young Tom, always referred to as "the whelp."

Hard Times has the distinction of being Dicken's shortest novel, a quarter of the size of most of the others. In my time with it --- and I stayed on with all nine disks, even listened a second time to some of the key chapters --- I was swept away by the characters: honest but poor worker Stephen Blackpool hounded to death; Thomas Gradgrind finding that his insistence on "facts" for his children is not quite enough to sustain them; cool Louisa cornered by a lusting James Harthouse on the country path ... to the point that she can be cool and logical no longer. The vile Harthouse is soon faced down by sweet Sissy, reaching him, as the author craftily reports, so that

    He was touched in the cavity where his heart should have been --- in that nest of addled eggs, where the birds of heaven would have lived if they had not been whistled away --- by the fervour of this reproach.

When Dickens wrote this, in 1854, books were rare and expensive, out of the reach of most. The trick in those pre-radio, pre-TV days was to gather the family around your knees of an evening, in front of the fire, and read aloud to them from the writer's magazine, Household Words. Hard Times appeared in several episodes, always stoking you up and leaving you hanging so you'd buy the next issue of the magazine.

Thus, in this Naxos version, we are listening --- as a Victorian family would --- to a tale of the great moil of characters enmeshed in lust and greed and blind certainty and despair and pitiless judgment. And the drama comes very clear in this reading, so much so that I was reluctant to give it up, found myself cheering on the girls, booing the men, awe-stricken by the author's fine way with a plot.

There are so many things I want to tell you about it but you and I don't have time or space for a long reconstruction. Let Dickens do that. Nor will I go into the social aspects, even though it's often painted as a protest novel about the workers who slaved at the Midland's mills, caught up in greed of the rich. Forget all that, too.

The dynamic is in the tension of an innocent girl forced by her father into a creepy marriage with a big bore three decades her senior, a man whose very words reveal that he is an over-stuffed fool, a man so plump with himself that he always seems to be on the verge of exploding --- a garrulous old bastard who reiterates his name and social position so often that we wonder if he wonders if he really exists.

Here he is in final altercation with his father-in-law: "Now you look here, Tom Gradgrind," said Bounderby the flushed, confronting him with his legs wide apart, his hands deeper in his pockets, and his hair like a hayfield wherein his windy anger was boisterous.

    You have said your say; I am going to say mine. I am a Coketown man, I am Joshiah Bounderby of Coketown. I know the bricks of this town, and I know the works of this town, and I know the chimneys of this town, and I know the smoke of this town, and I know the Hands of this town. I know 'em all pretty well. They're real. When a man tells me anything about imaginative qualities, I always tell that man, whoever he is, that I know what he means. He means turtle soup and venison, with a gold spoon, and that he wants to be set up with a coach and six. That's what your daughter wants. Some of you are of the opinion that she ought to have what she wants, I recommend you to provide it for her. Because, Tom Gradgrind, she will never have it from me.

Of special joy here is the voice of Mrs. Sparsit, a scheming old biddy who strokes Bounderby's ego as often as possible when she is with him, but when she is coming or going from his office, curses his picture hanging on the wall ... calling it (and him) a "noodle."

Dickens had a certain charming touch with names. Blackpool is a long suffering man, plagued with a drunkard for a wife (and no chance to separate from her under the English marital laws of the time). He does swim about in a black pool of despond. Mr Bounderby is certainly a bounder. Mrs. Sparsit is spare and harsh at the same time. Sissy's father is a Jupe, or, better, a jape: a clown to entertain the masses (that's his job in the circus).

When pronounced in the English manner, Harthouse's name comes out as "Hard-house," and he is a hard one. Gradgrind is a grindy sort, grinding along on his path of "facts" and more "facts." And the teacher in his harsh little school needs no explanation: Mr. M'Choakumchild.