100+ essays on literary topics
Chris Campbell has done a better job of translating Molière’s Tartuffe than I did when, a long time ago, it was one of my set books for A level French. In his programme note for the recent production at Birmingham Rep, he writes, ‘The dilemma in translation is whether to favour accuracy or efficacy – to do what’s right or to do what works.’ Taking his cue from Molière himself, ‘the most complete man of the theatre who ever lived’, he comes to the conclusion that ‘he’d prefer what works’ and I’m sure he’s right. Chris Campbell’s Tartuffe is Molière’s Tartuffe, a translation, not a version. The actors speak in prose, not verse, but in every other respect they speak the lines that Molière wrote and, by setting the production in a modern (but very grand) house belonging to a well-off member of the English bourgeoisie, Roxana Silbert, the director, brings us exactly the kind of people that Molière had in mind when he wrote the play 350 years ago. Molière’s gift to the theatre was to borrow his characters from the commedia del’arte and make them human. If Molière had not done that, Gogol would not have been able to write The Government Inspector or have one of his characters turn to the audience in the last act and say, “What are you laughing at? You’re laughing at yourselves!” Nor, as I began to realise during the course of the performance, could Joe Orton have written Entertaining Mr Sloane, Loot, What the Butler Saw and The Erpingham Camp. Molière had even more trouble with the censor than Joe Orton did, especially with Tartuffe. (Gogol had the good fortune to be writing when Nicholas I was in charge, rather than Stalin.) I hope Chris Campbell has already been commissioned to translate Le Misanthrope or L’Avare. His Tartuffe might not have got him an A at A level, where what’s right counts for more than what works, but it showed not only what a great dramatist Molière was, but how profound has been his influence on later writers.
I have now read, not everything that Bruno Schulz wrote, but everything that survives, which is sadly little and makes the task of reading it no great achievement, though a very great pleasure. Next year is the 100th anniversary of the birth of Dylan Thomas, when I expect there will be opportunities to see and hear everything that he wrote too. It will also be the 62nd anniversary of his death. His life was ten years shorter than Schulz’s. Word for word, their output by the time of their death had been about the same. I hope the anniversary will help to restore Dylan Thomas’s reputation. He was a craftsman, with a facility for verbal music that could be linked culturally to his Welshness or psychologically to his alcoholism. He got drunk on words. His use of language, like his use of liquor, included both misuse and abuse, but at its best was unsurpassed. I was five when he finally drank himself to death. His poetry was still widely read and highly regarded when I came to poetry in my teens (at about the same time that I had my first drink). Then he went out of fashion. Next year, I hope, we will be able to get to know his ‘craft and sullen art’ all over again.
The two things Kindles do best are 1) making it easy to read in a foreign language by providing you with a dictionary definition of any word you don’t know simply by putting your finger on it and 2) making it easy to read old books. The publication of a new biography of George Herbert revealed a gap on my bookshelves where his poems should be. I realised that I had only ever read him in anthologies. For only £2.56 I was able to purchase the Kindle edition of The Temple: Sacred Poems and Private Ejaculations. It begins with something akin to Polonius’s advice to his son in Act I, scene 3 of Hamlet, ‘Neither a borrower nor a lender be…’ etc. George Herbert begins by arguing that a poem can be more persuasive than a sermon: A verse may finde him, who a sermon flies. Verse by verse, he deals with one vice or temptation after another, always tempering morality with pragmatism: Abstain wholly, or wed… Drink not the third glasse, which thou canst not tame, when once it is within thee. Three glasses are enough for me. I know my limit. Stay at the third glasse is a precept that I find quite acceptable. I have always found Polonius a sympathetic character, not the figure of fun which he is often taken for, but a good man trying to do his best in a naughty world and being unjustly punished for it. George Herbert was a boy when Shakespeare wrote Hamlet and would clearly have found himself as much in sympathy with Polonius as I do.
My next literary essay, due on 27 November, is GHOST STORIES.
The next entry in my READER’S DIARY is due on 4 December and will be about whatever I’ve been reading lately.
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