Sunday, 15 May 2011
To Believe or not To Believe...........
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.