Sunday, 15 May 2011

To Believe or not To Believe...........

First an apology.  There was some sort of blip in the Blogger world at the back end of last week and as a consequence a number of comments were wiped out.  That really annoys me, as I would hate to think that anyone believed I had deleted their comment as unacceptable.  I do do that from time to time, but not with any of these.  I have no way of knowing just how many people were involved, but if one of them was YOU, then please accept my apologies.

Secondly, a blowing of my own trumpet.  I did what I said I would do last Sunday and cancelled one of my library tickets.  As a result my bookshelves are slightly less bowed in the middle and I am feeling a little less guilty about the number of library books that appeared to have taken up permanent residence here.  I have also reduced the number of reservations I have on my other two tickets to the number of books I could actually take out at any one time.  It is so embarrassing when ten books turn up at once and you only have space for eight of them on your ticket.  Which do you leave behind?  Quite how long I will be able to maintain this part of the resolution I don't know, but at the moment I am being really good.  (And also, really smug, but we won't go there for the moment.)

There were a number of things that I wanted to write about this morning but if I try to rattle them all off I will end up saying very little about nothing. So, a relatively short post about one of them and then I'll pick up on the others later in the week.  Over breakfast this morning I was reading a review of a new book by Harold Bloom, called The Anatomy of Influence.  In it the reviewer, John Carey, a distinguish British scholar, writes:

He regards Shakespearian characters as real people, who exist outside the plays. Hamlet, for example, has a will of his own and “rebels against apprenticeship to Shakespeare”. Those who object that Hamlet is just a figment of Shakespeare’s imagination are quickly dismissed: “I brush aside all academic critics — dryasdusts and moldyfigs.” As real people, the characters are free to become quite different from anything Shakespeare wrote. Bloom’s Falstaff is “an incessant and powerful thinker” and his Hamlet “knows everything”.
Apparently Bloom once wrote a fantasy novel, and in these creative misreadings he becomes a fantasist rather than a critic. His imagination also gives him access to secrets of the characters’ sex lives omitted from the plays. He knows that the marriage of Othello and Desdemona was never consummated, and that Macbeth was prone to premature ejaculation (at least, that is what he seems to mean when he discloses that Macbeth is “sexually baffled in his enormous desire for his wife”).

I have read very little of Bloom's work; he is not as feted on this side of the Atlantic as I believe he is in the US, and if this is representative of his views, then I can't see me reading very much more.  It is, of course, possible that there has been an editorial slip and that what he really intended to say was that Falstaff is “an incessant and powerful drinker” but given the other examples I suspect not.  I'm not denying that Falstaff did a fair bit of thinking, but let's face it, it did him no good at all given the way that he completely misread the situation between himself and Prince Hal.  And, if it is true that Hamlet knows everything, how come we have the perpetual question of to be or not to be hanging around in our heads?  However, should it be the case that Macbeth was indeed prone to premature ejaculation, then I suppose that does at least give us an answer to the worrying dilemma of how many children had Lady Macbeth.  We should be grateful for small mercies.

But, oh yes, there is a 'but' hidden away in here.  There is an issue here.  If we are going to believe in a character and the way in which they behave within the novel concerned, then they do have to have a reality to them that allows that belief.  They have to be three dimensional enough for the reader to accept that they could do what they do within the confines of a human life.  If a writer plies their craft well enough for us to laud a book with praise then surely one of the things they must have achieved is the creation of a set of characters that behave in a consistent and recognisably human way?  So, if a writer does his or her job supremely well is there not a chance that caught up within the power of the reading experience we might not, just for a moment, forget that there is no such person as Elizabeth Bennett, or that annoying as he is in his worst excesses, I am not going to be able to take Dickens' Pip and bash his head against a wall to knock some sense into it?

It's a fine line.  And it is the reader's line to draw.  If John Carey's reading of Harold Bloom's work is correct then Mr Bloom seems to draw it a lot further over than I do.  But you may feel differently and it would be interesting to hear your opinions.  Is it acceptable to project a life beyond the page for a character or should we confine our discussions to those facts that the author gives us?  And, I suppose, a second question could be should that be just the 'original' author, given how many characters find a second existence in the pages of writers' works.

As a postscript I should tell you the story of a discussion my Mom and I had before she died.  We had both been reading the Harry Potter series and she was as big a fan as I am.  However, I must have been waxing too lyrical on this particular occasion, because I distinctly remember her saying to me in a very concerned voice, "Annie, they're not actually real, you know."  Perhaps she thought I was going to leave my car parked outside her house and try and fly home on her kitchen broom.


  1. It looks as though my comment on one of your earlier posts disappeared. I was commenting again about borrowing library books, because the mobile library didn't arrive on Thursday. The van had broken down - again. In this current climate I can't see them replacing it, but as my books were all renewed by the van assistant at least that will boost their issue numbers and I hope they'll continue with the service.

    As far as projecting a life for characters beyond the author's creation I'm in two minds. I don't like follow up books for example but I do think that the reader 'writes the text' and so the characters do have their own existence within the reader's mind. I need to give this more thought.

  2. I love the story of your discussion with your Mom! I frequently get that comment when watching films or TV! :D

  3. Margaret, fingers and paws are all crossed in this house that the mobile library service will continue. You can get elsewhere, but what about those people who are housebound and can't? When I have a really 'bad' book being splurge, I tell The Bears that i am stockpiling in advance of the time when we can't get to the library.

    Nikki-ann, my Mom could talk, she was as deep into the stories as I was.

  4. My comment got eaten on an earlier post too and it was my most brilliant one yet! Of course since it got eaten by Blogger, you'll never know if that's true or not ;)

    As to Bloom, he must have been reading too much Jaspe Fforde or something. I've read a couple of his books and he is, um, frequently full of himself to put it nicely. He has never admited to Hamlet being a real person but he has come very close. I suppose it is good that he has finally taken that step into craziness instead of dancing around it.

  5. Stefanie, I am distraught. How can I live without that wonderful comment? Oh well, I will content myself with all the other wonderful comments you leave. And this one really does comfort me. I was wondering if I was missing something here but clearly I should be glad that this man and I dance to a different tune.

  6. I love it when people argue with Harold Bloom! What a conceited windbag. My biggest problem with him is not so much his excursions into fantasyland per se, but the fact that he then declares his personal convictions to be The One And Only Truth, and scoffs at the necessity of substantiating his claims. So, for example, he writes in an academic paper that Rosalind is OBJECTIVELY the "best" female Shakespeare character, and anyone who wants to make an argument for Beatrice is flat-out wrong. That bit about Macbeth is another prime example. He also loves to write books with titles like How to Read and Why, which posit, of course, that "the way to read" (the best way, the only way) happens to be just the way Harold Bloom does it! What a coincidence.

    One gets the impression that he's been surrounded by fawning acolytes for so long that he's lost touch with the boundary between opinion and fact. Which is, indeed, the atmosphere Naomi Wolf evokes in her New York Magazine piece accusing Bloom of coming on to her when she was his student in 1983.

    In short, I wish that I, too, lived in a country where Bloom could rest in relative obscurity, instead of one where I was forced to read volumes of him even in undergrad. Bah!

  7. Emily, you make me feel so much better. I was very tentative about this piece, wondering whether I was going to offend all my North American friends by criticising a critical great. Clearly that isn't the case. Of course, we've had our equivalents of Bloom in the UK as well. I believe that contradicting F R Leavis was seriously bad for academic health, especially if his wife was in the vicinity.

  8. I'm stuck in Bloom's _How to Read a Poem_, and I can't get out. There is no love there. No tenderness for the joys books bring. Just preening about his mastery of the field. What good is it to know it all and not be able to express your love?

  9. Nathalie, you give me hope. I keep thinking this man is so famous he must be right about something, but his trouble is he's convinced he's right about everything, which is the most soulless position I can think of. Does he not know the lines from e e cummings

    and even if it's sunday may i be wrong
    for when men are right they are not young ?

  10. Lovely lovely blog you have here.

    Speaking from the other side of the Atlantic, I think I can safely say that many of us find Bloom wrong-headed and infuriating. There may be wrong-headed and infuriating writers that are fun to read, but Bloom isn't one of them. At least not for me.

    I have not read all of your posts yet, but from what I have read so far, I think you might enjoy the books of Michael Dirda, formerly the book reviewer for the Washington Post. Readings, Book by Book, and Bound to Please are the titles of three of his books.