Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid

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What a film. Saw it last night at the BFI in London. Two glorious blood-spattered hours of extraordinary cinema. But actually, despite the remarkable levels of violence and the number of deaths, this wasn’t a gore fest as we’ve come to know them from ironists like Tarantino. Unlike his work, where you struggle to find any content below the surface, this was all about remarkable depths: the significance of the landscape, the threat to tranquility of life posed by the arrival of capitalism and, perhaps most important of all, an astonishing depiction of how death can be part of life. With the exception of the by-now-corrupted Pat Garrett, who has chosen the path of avarice and is afraid of death, most of the characters live freely alongside death, welcoming it tenderly as an integral part of life. Time and again, Billy (the brilliant Kris Kristofferson) shows such delicate grace after yet another killing that he gets beyond conventional morality: the deaths are neither good nor bad, they just are. There is no inauthenticity in his life, which contrasts with Garrett (the equally great James Coburn) who is visibly corrupted by his own choices. The Kid, meanwhile, retains his beautiful, soft-skinned baby looks right to the end when Garrett finally raises his pistol and shoots him. Unforgettable.

Stick it to the man

Two new books out, one just yesterday (Bartlett) and the other (Peterson) now a couple of months in.

Ostensibly, they tackle different subjects. Bartlett is a Demos think tank journalist who investigates tech and his book follows on from his excellent BBC documentary a year or so ago, The Secrets of Silicon Valley, in which he cautioned about the increasingly anti-democratic outcomes of the tech revolution. Peterson is a clinical psychologist and professor at the University of Toronto who has some renown now as a Sam Shepherd-lookalike eloquent exponent of the necessity of personal responsibility and civic duty.

Bartlett’s is a brief and breezy whizz through a central argument: that the practices of the new tech economy – from Facebook through to Uber – have an underlying authoritarian impulse which do not consider the notion of democratic participation to be either particularly useful or even valid. He’s a good journalist: when he unearths that Trump’s election-winning victories in Michigan and Wisconsin were on the back of intensive social media activity in those two areas which combined heavy Facebook advertising, Cambridge Analytica consumer identification and carefully crafted daily messages aimed at real individuals, he doesn’t wail and cry, Not Fair. Instead, he points out how successive Democrat politicians have increasingly used consumer marketing techniques to identify and persuade voters. The only difference this time is that Trump’s team did it better.

That they were able to do it better points to the central core of his argument: tech structures including Big Data both provide the tools for the tech owners to interfere forensically in the daily lives of individuals and simultaneously provide sufficient diversionary environments to ensure those individuals become increasingly placid about being poked at in this way.

The only solution, he suggests, is for citizens to remember that they are citizens and should use old-fashioned concepts such as politics and debate to protect themselves from the encroaching power of the digital autocrat, perhaps perfectly encapsulated in the character of Eldon Tyrell in Bladerunner 2049. Let’s get to it, says Bartlett, before we find Dr Tyrell has already won.

Peterson’s book is a more personal and psychoanalytic volume which, at heart, has a similar concern: society is becoming increasingly fractured and fragile the more that we as individuals refuse to accept personal responsibility for our actions. For Peterson, the contemporary tendency to identify reasons outside of ourselves for the pattern and outcome of our lives – what my daughter very smartly calls the insistence upon an external locus of control – is leading to widespread depression, social conflict and a tinderbox environment of potential catastrophes.

Both books are thoughtful, challenging, excellent researched and meditated, and provide a strong canvas against which to think and discuss our contemporary world. In their very different approaches to the same plea – do not give up your personal and political responsibility to shape the world around you – they strangely do have echoes of those chants from 50 years ago: the personal is political, stick it to the man. Both writers, I suspect, would agree that the Counter Culture of the ’60s failed to do anything to halt the decline in civic values and finally morphed into the post-Hippy authoritarianism of Silicon Valley. Now it’s our turn.

It’s winter
Winter in America
And ain’t nobody fighting
‘Cause nobody knows what to save

Gil Scott-Heron

The Brothers Karamazov

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Having just finished all 911 pages of Karamozov, as part of the continued project to explore novels I read 40-odd years ago, I was right a few posts back about its likely impact: it is without question the greatest novel I’ve ever read. It has been such a joyful experience to read, to be made aware that one person could create such an astonishing mix of artistic brilliance and humanistic concern.

On the first, the great Joyce Carol Oates is very good on the novel here.

As she says: “What has made Dostoevski so highly esteemed a writer is, perhaps, not his understanding of human nature or his ability to work intelligently with ideas, but rather his fluid demonstration of the art of writing—the splendid unpredictability of the writer as writer, who can leave nothing unsaid, whose imagination is so nervously rich that characters and ideas multiply themselves as if by their own volition.”

She is so right about that. He plays constantly with the notion of art and of writing, so that by the end we are simply awed by the confidence of a writer who recognised no barriers in his approach to form and structure. His much-commented-upon omnipotent narrator form evolves and transforms constantly: at one point, he is a real person in the courtroom watching Mitya’s trial, at others he is entirely invisible, lost in the consciousness of the characters. This is a writer who is so confident of his art that he can show you, the reader, how he is speculating about form without losing the grip of the story.

Oates too points well to his psychological insights. Freud adored this novel, as did many others, and he was inevitably fascinated by the notion of patricide which lies at the core of the book. But she also points out the fascination with doubles, or in Jungian terms, the shadow. So many of the characters have their own double or shadow, and even talk about them, with poor demented Ivan at the end realising his with his summoning of the devil in his room. Even the ghastly rivalry between father and son for the alluring Grushenka is a terrible internal play about doubles and shadows.

Some critics see the precocious schoolboy Kolya as another double for Ivan, but he read to me as an ironic self-reference, an amused sketch of self-criticism by an author whose curiosity was limitless.

There is so much in this novel that one can understand those who keep returning to it; Wittgenstein loved it so much he could recite whole passages by heart. There is no character too minor to be taken seriously by the author, to have their psychology explored, their lineage analysed.

It has been a privilege to discover it again.

Wise old owls

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This short-eared owl, photographed by Nick Dibben (@NicDibNick) lives in Dorset. I was looking out for owls in France last week when I drove around on my motorbike. Didn’t see one but I did pause and watch an eagle with a pale-coloured collar and chest munch through what looked like a mouse on the ground in Burgundy. She looked like she’d just swept down and caught it and was entirely unimpressed by my presence.

Sadly I also wasn’t too impressed with poor old Jack Kerouac and Dharma Bums, which I did get through. While I remain very fond of him and like to indulge in his romantically sentimental take on Buddhism, as a writer he was just so lazy: what he grandly termed spontaneous prose is what an editor like Maxwell Perkins would have criticised as merely a first draft. And the terrible misogyny is just too difficult to stomach any more; Jack’s umbilical cord was never threatened until his dying day.

Ah well. On to Dostoevsky.

Next up: Dharma Bums

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As part of my latest project, to revisit novels I remember as being significant to me in my ’20s, I’m about to start Dharma Bums. I think I first read this as a teenager, which is when I guess you should read it, so it will be fascinating to see if there are any ghosts in its pages 40 years later.

I just finished wading through Nausea by Jean-Paul Sartre, which I used to keep close to me in the early London days in the 1980s, thinking it contained triggers of lucidity which would shine a comprehending light on the chaos of my life. Reading it now has been a bit of a chore. I can imagine the excitement when it first came out in 1938 but, good grief, it’s laboured going now. That’s because it’s not really a novel at all, it’s Sartre’s thinking couched in novelistic terms. Because he was such a clever bastard, to use Ian Dury’s excellent phrase, he was easily capable of creating a novelistic structure and even a stab at character, but the whole thing is constipated by his brilliance. The final payoff, which I’d forgotten, where the narrator sees the potential for redemption from his existential nausea in the idea of writing a novel, actually made me groan.

After Kerouac is Dostoevsky and The Brothers Karamazov. I’m slightly nervous that I will like that so much on re-reading it that it will spoil everything else for me, but we’ll see.

Jonathan Swift’s Word Machine

75dfa2819ca68a724611bad9d34c83f1I’m fascinated by this. The satirist Jonathan Swift imagined something called The Engine in Gulliver’s Travels, first published in 1726. What The Engine did was to create texts; it was Swift’s ironic barb, suggesting that a mere machine could compete against and even overcome the words of contemporary authors. Let’s leave aside the obvious thought today about the idea: that in our Bladerunner world, machines might begin to create stories with which to soothe us to sleep. Let’s pretend that’s actually not going to happen.

Instead, I’ve been playing with a contemporary version of The Engine created by Dr. Kenneth I. Laws and Raphael Großmaß here: The Lagado Machine. What their machine does is to take inputted text and to allow for a random machine resampling of that text.

I chose the first three paragraphs of my favourite novel, The Good Soldier, by Ford Madox Ford. Here are Ford’s first three paragraphs:

This is the saddest story I have ever heard. We had known the Ashburnhams for nine seasons of the town of Nauheim with an extreme intimacy—or, rather with an acquaintanceship as loose and easy and yet as close as a good glove’s with your hand. My wife and I knew Captain and Mrs Ashburnham as well as it was possible to know anybody, and yet, in another sense, we knew nothing at all about them. This is, I believe, a state of things only possible with English people of whom, till today, when I sit down to puzzle out what I know of this sad affair, I knew nothing whatever. Six months ago I had never been to England, and, certainly, I had never sounded the depths of an English heart. I had known the shallows.

I don’t mean to say that we were not acquainted with many English people. Living, as we perforce lived, in Europe, and being, as we perforce were, leisured Americans, which is as much as to say that we were un-American, we were thrown very much into the society of the nicer English. Paris, you see, was our home. Somewhere between Nice and Bordighera provided yearly winter quarters for us, and Nauheim always received us from July to September. You will gather from this statement that one of us had, as the saying is, a “heart”, and, from the statement that my wife is dead, that she was the sufferer.

Captain Ashburnham also had a heart. But, whereas a yearly month or so at Nauheim tuned him up to exactly the right pitch for the rest of the twelvemonth, the two months or so were only just enough to keep poor Florence alive from year to year. The reason for his heart was, approximately, polo, or too much hard sportsmanship in his youth. The reason for poor Florence’s broken years was a storm at sea upon our first crossing to Europe, and the immediate reasons for our imprisonment in that continent were doctor’s orders. They said that even the short Channel crossing might well kill the poor thing.

What fascinates me is that, each time I input those three paragraphs into the Lagado Machine, I get different opening sentences to compete with Ford’s famous opening sentence: “This is the saddest story I have ever heard.”

Here’s a few:

“The reason for his heart.”

“I don’t mean to keep poor thing.”

“But, whereas a good glove’s with many English.”

“But, we knew nothing whatever.”

In their different ways, the Machine’s opening sentences compete admirably with Ford’s. There is a chilly resonance blowing through, as though Ford were woken from his sleep to fight off this new competition. Where this might take us, heaven only knows.

Vietnam and Trump

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Midway through the epic 17-hour documentary The Vietnam War by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, you get the sudden realisation how America ended up voting in Donald Trump this year. The lies and dissimulations of the Democrat Lyndon Johnson regime – otherwise lauded for many of its socially aware domestic policies – allowed for a whole generation of poor, working class men to be sent to die in south east Asia and to commit appalling atrocities upon the Vietnamese people. That generation could never forgive a political system which committed such a barbaric crime upon it. It’s a wonder it took them so long to seek their revenge.

Daphne’s secret

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The stone building on the right of this picture is the original inspiration for the boathouse in Rebecca, Daphne du Maurier’s famous novel of love and betrayal set in Cornwall. If you haven’t read the novel, I won’t give away the ending by revealing what goes on in the boathouse so do get yourself a copy: it’s an excellent story.

The house is set right on the beach in south Cornwall and looks out towards the English channel and the Atlantic. It’s part of a much larger estate which du Maurier leased for 30 years, living with her family up in the big house which itself was the inspiration for Manderlay in the novel.

Du Maurier, of course, is exactly the kind of novelist one is not meant to mention in polite literary society in London. She is, my dear, quite beyond the pale. Really not someone anyone with any kind of literary sensibility could bring themselves to mention. Terribly popular, you see.

Like Jeffrey Archer, Jilly Cooper and other brilliant storytellers, du Maurier is forever cast into the outer reaches by the literary type. This distinction between “good” writing and “bad” writing became entrenched in the English-speaking world around the middle of the 20th century as the professionalisation of literature took over and universities stopped teaching classics and started educating their students in book snobbery.

Metropolitan literary types love revealing what they call their guilty secrets over a glass of Picpoul: a secret stash of Jilly Cooper books, an irresistible desire to buy a Harold Robbins in the airport bookshop. But their gleeful sense of guilt is entirely misplaced.

The urge to write should always be encouraged and its achievement in whatever form celebrated. The commoditisation of art begins when those who should know better start differentiating between the intrinsic worth of one book against another.

 

Silence

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To commemorate Halloween, here’s an unsettling story by Russian writer Leonid Andreyev which is in the collection Classic Tales of Mystery, Horror and Suspense available from Amazon here:

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Silence

 

Leonid Andreyev

 

 

One moonlit night in May, while the nightingales sang, Father Ignatius’s wife entered his chamber. Her countenance expressed suffering, and the little lamp she held in her hand trembled. Approaching her husband, she touched his shoulder, and managed to say between her sobs:

‘Father, let us go to Verochka.’

Without turning his head, Father Ignatius glanced severely at his wife over the rims of his spectacles, and looked long and intently, till she waved her unoccupied hand and dropped on a low divan.

‘That one toward the other be so pitiless!’ she pronounced slowly, with emphasis on the final syllables, and her good plump face was distorted with a grimace of pain and exasperation, as if in this manner she wished to express what stern people they were – her husband and daughter.

Father Ignatius smiled and arose. Closing his book, he removed his spectacles, placed them in the case and meditated. His long, black beard, inwoven with silver threads, lay dignified on his breast, and it slowly heaved at every breath.

‘Well, let us go!’ said he.

Olga Stepanovna quickly arose and entered in an appealing, timid voice:

‘Only don’t revile her, father! You know the sort she is.’

Vera’s chamber was in the attic, and the narrow, wooden stair bent and creaked under the heavy tread of Father Ignatius. Tall and ponderous, he lowered his head to avoid striking the floor of the upper story, and frowned disdainfully when the white jacket of his wife brushed his face. Well he knew that nothing would come of their talk with Vera.

‘Why do you come?’ asked Vera, raising a bared arm to her eyes. The other arm lay on top of a white summer blanket hardly distinguishable from the fabric, so white, translucent and cold was its aspect.

‘Verochka!’ began her mother, but sobbing, she grew silent.

‘Vera!’ said her father, making an effort to soften his dry and hard voice, ‘Vera, tell us, what troubles you?’

Vera was silent.

‘Vera, do not we, your mother and I, deserve your confidence? Do we not love you? And is there someone nearer to you than we? Tell us about your sorrow, and believe me you’ll feel better for it. And we too. Look at your aged mother, how much she suffers!’

‘Verochka!’

‘And I …’ The dry voice trembled, truly something had broken in it. ‘And I … do you think I find it easy? And if I did not see that some sorrow is gnawing at you – and what is it? And I, your father, do not know what it is. Is it right that it should be so?’

Vera was silent. Father Ignatius very cautiously stroked his beard, as if afraid that his fingers would enmesh themselves involuntarily in it, and continued:

‘Against my wish you went to St. Petersburg – did I pronounce a curse upon you, you who disobeyed me? Or did I not give you money? Or, you’ll say, I have not been kind? Well, why then are you silent? There, you’ve had your St. Petersburg!’

Father Ignatius became silent, and an image arose before him of something huge, of granite, and terrible, full of invisible dangers and strange and indifferent people. And there, alone and weak, was his Vera and there they had lost her. An awful hatred against that terrible and mysterious city grew in the soul of Father Ignatius, and an anger against his daughter who was silent, obstinately silent.

‘St. Petersburg has nothing to do with it,’ said Vera morosely, and closed her eyes. ‘And nothing is the matter with me. Better go to bed, it is late.’

‘Verochka,’ whimpered her mother. ‘Little daughter, do confess to me.’

‘Akh, mama!’ impatiently Vera interrupted her.

Father Ignatius sat down on a chair and laughed.

‘Well, then it’s nothing?’ he inquired ironically.

‘Father,’ sharply put in Vera, raising herself from the pillow, ‘you know that I love you and mother. Well, I do feel a little weary. But that will pass. Do go to sleep, and I also wish to sleep. And to-morrow, or some other time, we’ll have a chat.’

Father Ignatius impetuously arose so that the chair hit the wall, and took his wife’s hand.

‘Let us go.’

‘Verochka!’

‘Let us go, I tell you!’ shouted Father Ignatius. ‘If she has forgotten God, shall we …’

Almost forcibly he led Olga Stepanovna out of the room, and when they descended the stairs, his wife, decreasing her gait, said in a harsh whisper:

‘It was you, priest, who have made her such. From you she learned her ways. And you’ll never answer for it. Akh, unhappy creature that I am!’

And she wept, and as her eyes filled with tears, her foot, missing a step, would descend with a sudden jolt, as if she were eager to fall into some existent abyss below.

From that day Father Ignatius ceased to speak with his daughter, but she seemed not to notice it. As before she lay in her room, or walked about, continually wiping her eyes with the palms of her hands as if they contained some irritating foreign substance. And crushed between these two silent people, the jolly, fun-loving wife of the priest quailed and seemed lost not knowing what to say or do.

Occasionally Vera took a stroll. A week following the interview she went out in the evening, as was her habit. She was not seen alive again, as on this evening she threw herself under the train, which cut her in two.

Father Ignatius himself directed the funeral. His wife was not present in church, as at the news of Vera’s death she was prostrated by a stroke. She lost control of her feet, hands and tongue, and she lay motionless in the semi-darkened room when the church bells rang out. She heard the people, as they issued out o f church and passed the house, intone the chants, and she made an effort to raise her hand, and to make a sign of the cross, but her hand refused to obey; she wished to say: ‘Farewell, Vera!’ but the tongue lay in her mouth huge and heavy. And her attitude was so calm, that it gave one an impression of restfulness or sleep. Only her eyes remained open.

At the funeral, in church, were many people who knew Father Ignatius, and many strangers, and all bewailed Vera’s terrible death, and tried to find in the movements and voice of Father Ignatius because of his severity and proud manners, his scorn of sinners, for his unforgiving spirit, his envy and covetousness, his habit of utilizing every opportunity to extort money from his parishioners. They all wished to see him suffer, to see his spirit broken, to see him conscious in his two-fold guilt for the death of his daughter – as a cruel father and a bad priest – incapable of preserving his own flesh from sin. They cast searching glances at him, and he, feeling these glances directed toward his back, made efforts to hold erect its broad and strong expanse, and his thought were not concerning his dead daughter, but concerning his own dignity.

‘A hardened priest!’ said, with a shake of his head, Karzenoff, a carpenter, to whom Father Ignatius owed five rubles for frames.

And thus, hard and erect, Father Ignatius reached the burial ground, and in the same manner he returned. Only at the door of his wife’s chamber did his spine relax a little, but this may have been due to the fact that the height of the door was inadequate to admit his tall figure. The change from broad daylight made it difficult for him to distinguish the face of his wife, but, after scrutiny, he was astonished at its calmness and because the eyes showed no tears. And there was neither anger, nor sorrow in the eyes – they were dumb, and they kept silent with difficulty, reluctantly, as did the entire plump and helpless body, pressing against the feather bedding.

‘Well, how do you feel?’ inquired Father Ignatius.

The lips, however, were dumb; the eyes also were silent. Father Ignatius laid his hand on her forehead; it was cold and moist, and Olga Stepanovna did not show in any way that she had felt the hand’s contact. When Father Ignatius removed his hand there gazed at him, immobile, two grey eyes, seeming almost entirely dark from the dilated pupils, and there was neither sadness in them, nor anger.

‘I am going into my own room,’ said Father Ignatius, who began to feel cold and terror.

He passed through the drawing-room, where everything appeared neat and in order, as usual, and where, attired in white covers, stood tall chairs, like corpses in their shrouds. Over one window hung an empty wire cage, with the door open.

‘Nastasya!’ shouted Father Ignatius, and his voice seemed to him coarse, and he felt ill at ease because he raised his voice so high in these silent rooms, so soon after his daughter’s funeral. ‘Nastasya!’ he called out in a lower tone of voice, ‘where is the canary?’

‘She flew away, to be sure.’

‘Why did you let it out?’

Nastasya began to weep, and wiping her face the edges of her calico handkerchief, said through her tears:

‘It was my young mistress’s soul. Was it right to hold it?’

And it seemed to Father Ignatius that the yellow, happy little canary, always singing with inclined head, was really the soul of Vera, and if it had not flown away it wouldn’t have been possible to say that Vera had died. He became even more incensed at the maidservant and shouted:

‘Off with you!’

And when Nastasya did not find the door at once he added:

‘Fool!’

 

From the day of the funeral silence reigned in the little house. It was not stillness, for stillness is merely the absence of sounds; it was silence, because it seemed that they who were silent could say something but would not. So thought Father Ignatius each time he entered his wife’s chamber and met that obstinate gaze, so heavy in its aspect that it seemed to transform the very air into lead, which bore down one’s head and spine. So thought he, examining his daughter’s music sheets, which bore imprints of her voice, as well as her books and her portrait, which she brought with her from St. Petersburg. Father Ignatius was accustomed to scrutinize the portrait in established order: First, he would gaze on the cheek upon which a strong light was thrown by the painter; in his fancy he would see upon it a slight wound, which he had noticed on Vera’s cheek in death, and the source of which he could not understand. Each time he would meditate upon causes; he reasoned that if it was made by the train the entire head would have been crushed, whereas the head of Vera remained wholly untouched. It was possible that someone did it with his foot when the corpse was removed, or accidentally with a finger nail.

To contemplate at length upon the details of Vera’s death taxed the strength of Father Ignatius, so that he would pass on to the eyes. These were dark, handsome, with long lashes, which cast deep shadows beneath, causing the whites to seem particularly luminous, both eyes appearing to be enclosed in black, mourning frames. A strange expression was given them by the unknown but talented artist; it seemed as if in the space between the eyes and the object upon which they gazed there lay a thin, transparent film. It resembled somewhat the effect obtained by an imperceptible layer of dust on the black top of a piano, softening the shine of polished wood. And no matter how Father Ignatius placed the portrait, the eyes insistently followed him, but there was no speech in them, only silence; and this silence was so clear that it seemed it could be heard. And gradually Father Ignatius began to think that he heard silence.

Every morning after breakfast Father Ignatius would enter the drawing-room, throw a rapid glance at the empty cage and the other familiar objects, and seating himself in the armchair would close his eyes and listen to the silence of the house. There was something grotesque about this. The cage kept silence, stilly and tenderly, and in this silence were felt sorrow and tears, and distant dead laughter. The silence of his wife, softened by the walls, continued insistent, heavy as lead, and terrible, so terrible that on the hottest day Father Ignatius would be seized by cold shivers. Continuous and cold as the grave, and mysterious as death, was the silence of his daughter. The silence itself seemed to share this suffering and struggled as it were, with the terrible desire to pass into speech; however, something strong and cumbersome, as a machine, held it motionless and stretched it out as a wire. And somewhere at the distant end, the wire would begin to agitate and resound subduedly, feebly and plaintively. With joy, yet with terror, Father Ignatius would seize upon this engendered sound, and resting with his arms upon the arms of the chair, would lean his head forward, awaiting the sound to reach him. But the sound would break and pass into silence.

‘How stupid!’ muttered Father Ignatius, angrily, arising from the chair, still erect and tall. Through the window he saw, suffused with sunlight, the street, which was paved with round, even-sized stones, and directly across, the stone wall of a long, windowless shed. On the corner stood a cab-driver, resembling a clay statue, and it was difficult to understand why he stood there, when for hours there was not a single passer-by.

 

Father Ignatius had occasion for considerable speech outside his house. There was talking to be done with the clergy, with the members of his flock, while officiating at ceremonies, sometimes with acquaintances at social evenings; yet, upon his return he would feel invariably that the entire day he had been silent. This was due to the fact that with none of those people could he talk upon that matter which concerned his most, and upon which he would contemplate each night: Why did Vera die?

Father Ignatius did not seem to understand that now this could not be known, and still thought it was possible to know. Each night – all his nights had become sleepless – he would picture that minute when he and his wife in dead midnight, stood near Vera’s bed, and he entreated her: ‘Tell us!’ And when in his recollection, he would reach these words, the rest appeared to him not as it was in reality. His closed eyes, preserving in their darkness a live and undimmed picture of that night, saw how Vera raised herself in her bed, smiled and tried to say something. And what was that she tried to say? That unuttered word of Vera’s, which should have solved all, seemed so near, that if one only had bend his ear and suppressed the beats of his heart, one could have heard it, and at the same time it was so infinitely, so hopelessly distant. Father Ignatius would arise from his bed, stretch forth his joined hands and, wringing them would exclaim:

‘Vera!’

And he would be answered by silence.

One evening Father Ignatius entered the chamber of Olga Stepanovna, whom he had not come to see for a week, seated himself at her head, and turning away from that insistent heavy gaze, said:

‘Mother! I wish to talk to you about Vera. Do you hear?’

Her eyes were silent, and Father Ignatius raising his voice, spoke sternly and powerfully, as he was accustomed to speak with penitents.

‘I am aware that you are under the impression that I have been the cause of Vera’s death. Reflect, however, did I love her less than you loved her? You reason absurdly. I have forfeited the dignity of a father, I humbly bent my neck, when she defied my malediction and departed – hence. And you – did you not entreat her to remain, until I commanded you to be silent? Did I beget cruelty in her? Did I not teach her about God, about humility, above love?’

Father Ignatius quickly glanced into the eyes of his wife, and turned away.

‘What was there for me to do when she did not wish to reveal her sorrow? Did I not command her? Did I not entreat her? I suppose, in your opinion, I should have dropped on my knees before the maid, and cried like an old woman! How should I know what was going on in her head! Cruel, heartless daughter!’

Father Ignatius hit his knees with his fist.

‘There was no love in her – that’s what! As far as I’m concerned, that’s settled, of course – I am a tyrant! Perhaps she loved you – you, who wept and humbled yourself?’

Father Ignatius gave a hollow laugh.

‘There’s love for you! And as a solace for you, what a death she chose! A cruel, ignominious death. She died in the dust, in the dirt – as a d-dog who is kicked in the jaw.’

The voice of Father Ignatius sounded low and hoarse:

‘I feel ashamed! Ashamed to go out in the street! Ashamed before the alter! Ashamed before God! Cruel, undeserving daughter! Accurst in thy grave!’

When Father Ignatius glanced at his wife she was unconscious, and revived only after several hours. When she regained consciousness her eyes were silent, and it was impossible to tell whether or not she remembered what Father Ignatius had said.

 

That very night – it was a moonlit, calm, warm and deathly still night in May – Father Ignatius, proceeding on his tiptoes, so as not to be overheard by his wife and the sick-nurse, climbed the stairs and entered Vera’s room. The window in the attic had remained closed since the death of Vera, and the atmosphere was dry and warm, with a light odour of burning that comes from heat generated during the day in the iron roof. The air of lifelessness and abandonment permeated the apartment, which for a long time had remained unvisited, and where the timber of the walls, the furniture and other objects gave fort a slight odour of continued putrescence. A bright streak of moonlight fell on the window-sill, and on the floor, and, reflected by the white, carefully washed boards, cast a dim light into the room’s corners, while the white, clean bed, with two pillows, one large and one small, seemed phantom-like and aerial. Father Ignatius opened the window, causing to pour into the room a considerable current of fresh air, smelling of dust, of the nearby river and the blooming linden. An indistinct sound as of voices in chorus also entered occasionally; evidently young people rowed and sang.

Quietly treading with naked feet, resembling a white phantom, Father Ignatius made his way to the vacant bed, bent his knees and fell down on the pillows, embracing them – on that spot where should have been Vera’s face. Long he lay there thus; the song grew louder, then died out; but he still lay there, while his long, black hair spread over his shoulders and the bed.

The moon had changed its position, and the room grew darker, when Father Ignatius raised his head and murmured, putting into his voice the entire strength of his long-suppressed and unconscious love and hearkening to his own words, as if it were not he who was listening, but Vera.

‘Vera, daughter mine! Do you understand what you are to me, daughter? Little daughter! My heart, by blood and my life. Your father – your old father – is already grey, and is also feeble.’

The shoulders of Father Ignatius shook and the entire burdened figure became agitated. Suppressing his agitation, Father Ignatius murmured tenderly, as to an infant:

‘Your old father entreats you. No, little Vera, he supplicates. He weeps. He never has wept before. Your sorrow, little child, your sufferings – they are also mine. Greater than mine.’

Father Ignatius shook his head.

‘Greater, Verochka. What is death to an old man like me? But you – if you only knew how delicate and weak and timid you are! Do you recall how you bruised your finger once and the blood trickled and you cried a little? My child! I know that you love me, love me intensely. Every morning you kiss my hand. Tell me, do tell me, what grief troubles your little head, and I – with these hands – shall smother your grief. They are still strong, Vera, these hands.’

The hair of Father Ignatius shook.

‘Tell me!’

Father Ignatius fixed his eyes on the wall, and wrung his hands.

‘Tell me!’

Stillness prevailed in the room, and from afar was heard the prolonged and broken whistle of a locomotive.

Father Ignatius, gazing out of his dilated yes, as if there had arisen suddenly before him the frightful phantom of the mutilated corpse, slowly raised himself from his knees, and with a credulous motion reached for his head with his hand, with spread and tensely stiffening fingers. Making a step toward the door, Father Ignatius whispered brokenly:

‘Tell me!’

And he was answered by silence.

 

The next day, after an early and lonely dinner, Father Ignatius went to the graveyard, the first time since his daughter’s death. It was warm, deserted and still; it seemed more like an illuminated night. Following habit, Father Ignatius, with effort, straightened his spine, looked severely about him and thought that he was the same as formerly; he was conscious neither of the new, terrible weakness in his legs, nor that his long beard had become entirely white as if a hard frost had hit it. The road to the graveyard led through a long, direct street, slightly on an upward incline, and at its termination loomed the arch of the graveyard gate, resembling a dark, perpetually open mouth, edged with glistening teeth.

Vera’s grave was situated in the depth of the grounds, where the sandy little pathways terminated and Father Ignatius, for a considerable time, was obliged to blunder along the narrow footpaths, which led in a broken line between green mounds, by all forgotten and abandoned. Here and there appeared, green with age, sloping tombstones, broken railings and large, heavy stones planted in the ground, and seemingly crushing it with some cruel, ancient spite. Near one such stone was the grave of Vera. It was covered with fresh turf, turned yellow; around, however all was in bloom. Ash embraced maple tree; and the widely spread hazel bush stretched out over the grave its bending branches with their downy, shaggy foliage. Sitting down on a neighbouring grave and catching his breath, Father Ignatius looked around him, throwing a glance upon the cloudless, desert sky, where in complete immovability, hung the glowing sun disk – and here he only felt that deep, incomparable stillness which reigns in graveyards, when the wind is absent and the slumbering foliage has ceased it s rustling. And anew the thought came to Father Ignatius that this was not a stillness but a silence. It extended to the very brick walls of the graveyard, crept over them and occupied the city. And it terminated only – in those grey, obstinate and reluctantly silent eyes.

Father Ignatius’ shoulders shivered, and he lowered his eyes upon the grave of Vera. He gazed long upon the little tufts of grass uprooted together with the earth from some open, wind-swept field and not successful in adapting themselves to a strange soil; he could not imagine that there, under this grass, only a few feet from him, lay Vera. And this nearness seemed incomprehensible and brought confusion into the soul and a strange agitation. She, of whom Father Ignatius was accustomed to think as one passed away forever into the dark depths of eternity, was here, close by – and it was hard to understand that she, nevertheless, was no more and never again would be. And in the mind’s fancy of Father Ignatius it seemed that if he could only utter some word, which was almost upon his lips, or if he could make some sort of movement, Vera would issue forth from her grave and arise to the same height and beauty that was once hers. And not alone would she arise, but all corpses, intensely sensitive in their solemnly cold silence.

Father Ignatius removed his wide-brimmed black hat, smoothed down his disarranged hair and whispered:

‘Vera!’

Father Ignatius felt ill at ease, fearing to be overheard by a stranger, and stepping on the grave he gazed around him. No one was present, and this time he repeated loudly:

‘Vera!’

It was the voice of an aged man, sharp and demanding, and it was strange that a so-powerfully expressed desire should remain without answer.

‘Vera!’

Loudly and insistently the voice called, and when it relapsed into silence, it seemed for a moment that somewhere from underneath came an incoherent answer. And Father Ignatius, clearing his ear of his long hair, pressed it to the rough prickly turf.

‘Vera, tell me!’

With terror, Father Ignatius felt pouring into his ear something cold as of the grave, which froze his marrow; Vera seemed to be speaking – speaking, however, with the same unbroken silence. This feeling became more racking and terrible, and when Father Ignatius forced himself finally to tear away his head, his face was pale as that of a corpse, and he fancied that the entire atmosphere trembled and palpitated from a resounding silence, and that this terrible sea was being swept by a wild hurricane. The silence strangled him; with icy waves it rolled through this head and agitated the hair; it smote against his breast, which groaned under the blows. Trembling from head to foot, casting around him sharp and sudden glances, Father Ignatius slowly raised himself and with a prolonged and tortuous effort attempted to straighten his spine and to give proud dignity to his trembling body. He succeeded in this. With measured protractiveness, Father Ignatius shook the dirt from his knees, put on his hat, made the sign of the cross three times over the grave, and walked away with an even and firm gait, not recognizing, however, the familiar burial ground and losing his way.

‘Well, here I’ve gone astray!’ smiled Father Ignatius, halting at the branching of the footpaths.

He stood there for a moment, and unreflecting, turned to the left, because it was impossible to stand and to wait. The silence drove him on. It arose from the green graves; it was the breath issuing from the grey, melancholy crosses; in thin, stifling currents it came from all pores of the earth, satiated with the dead. Father Ignatius increased his stride. Dizzy, he circled the same paths, jumped over graves, stumbled across railings, clutching with his hands the prickly, metallic garlands, and turning the soft material of his dress to tatters. His sole thought was to escape. He fled from one place to another, and finally broke into a dead run, seeming very tall and unusual in the flowing cassock, and his hair streaming in the wid. A corpse arisen from the grave, could not have frightened a passer-by more than this wild figure of a man, running and leaping, and waving his arms, his face distorted and insane, and the open mouth breathing with a dull, hoarse sound. With one long leap, Father Ignatius landed on a little street, at one end of which appeared the small church, attached to the graveyard. At the entrance on a low bench, dozed an old man, seemingly a distant pilgrim, and near him, assailing each other, were two quarrelling old beggar women, filling the air with their oaths.

When Father Ignatius reached his home, it was already dusk, and there was light in Olga Stepanovna’s chamber. Not undressing and without removing his hat, dusty and tattered, Father Ignatius approached his wife and fell on his knees.

‘Mother … Olga … have pity on me!’ he wept. ‘I shall go mad.’

He dashed his head against the edge of the table and wept with anguish, as one who was weeping for the first time. Then he raised his head, confident that a miracle would come to pass, that his wife would speak and would pity him.

‘My love!’

With his entire body he drew himself towards his wife – and met the gaze of those grey eyes. There was neither compassion in them, nor anger. It was possible his wife had forgiven him, but in her eyes there was neither pity, nor anger. They were dumb and silent.

And silent was the entire dark, deserted house.

Kitsch

milan

The novelist Milan Kundera likes lists of definitions. I’ve still got a faded copy of a two-page spread from the Guardian in the 1980s where he set out his definitions of terms like Irony, the Novel, the West and so on. But he’s probably best known for his persistent scratching at the surface of this notion called Kitsch, a term which we would probably normally assume just to have fairly plastic aesthetic qualities, a comfortable sneer at overly sentimental art for example. Hipster shops in Spitalfields make a fortune selling knowing kitsch.

Kundera makes his own definition best in The Unbearable Lightness of Being:

“Kitsch causes two tears to flow in quick succession. The first tear says: How nice to see children running on the grass! The second tear says: How nice to be moved, together with all mankind, by children running on the grass! It is the second tear that makes kitsch kitsch. The brotherhood of man on earth will be possible only on a base of kitsch.”

And then:

“Kitsch is the aesthetic ideal of all politicians and all political parties and movements…totalitarian kitsch must banish all irony (because in the realm of kitsch everything must be taken quite seriously).”

The first quote is a reminder of the kitsch Like button on Facebook. When someone dies, when someone posts a condemnation of Harvey Weinstein, when someone shares a video of Artic icebergs melting, the Like click is the automatic submission to the diktat of kitsch.

The second brings to mind more than anything the line of children holding little paper flags who welcomed Tony Blair to Downing Street in 1997. Blair, the High Priest of Kitsch, grinned at them and patted their heads with that nightmarish toothy grin. But it also informs the leaden-footed antics of Theresa May’s Kitschen Cabinet as they lumber towards some unforeseen and undemocratic compromise with the unblinking uber-bureaucrats of Brussels.

The character in Kundera’s novel who fights the kitsch urge most is the painter Sabina, but even she, towards the end, recognises the limitations as she reflects on a “silly mawkish song” which keeps springing to her mind:

“Though touched by the song, Sabina did not take her feeling seriously. She knew only too well that the song was a beautiful lie. As soon as kitsch is recognised for the lie it is, it moves into the context of non-kitsch, thus losing its authoritarian power and becoming as touching as any other human weakness. For none among us is superman enough to escape kitsch completely. No matter how we scorn it, kitsch is an integral part of the human condition.”