Sejanus: His Fall (1603, Ben Jonson)

Why has Sejanus failed to secure a place in the theatrical repertoire? Its first performance at the Globe was a fiasco, and subsequent interest has been scant. Apart from a few university productions, the only modern revivals in Britain appear to have been that of William Poel in 1928 and the one directed by Greg Doran for the R.S.C. in 2005. I was fortunate enough to be able to see this latter production, which confirmed the opinion I had formed as a student, that here was a powerful play whose years of neglect had been undeserved. Audiences may be put off by its length and large cast of characters,* while the exhaustive documentation of sources and onslaught of punctuation unleashed on the published version (which Jonson substantially revised) are not exactly inviting to the reader, but the play’s combination of fiendish political machinations, solemn rhetoric, black comedy and horrific violence is dynamic and compelling.

The action covers a series of events which took place over eight years, from the death of Drusus, son of the emperor Tiberius, in AD 23, to the downfall and execution of the emperor’s favourite, Sejanus, in AD 31. The dramatic timeline is left vague, with no indication from Jonson that years are passing, and none that they have been truncated. Commentators on the play have often remarked that, with its master-servant pair of scheming villains, it resembles Jonson’s comedies, and indeed there is a strong element of the comic overreacher in the characterization of Sejanus. This can be seen in the glee with which he commits his crimes and the hyperbole of his boasts of success (at one point reckoning his power with that of Jove, whose existence he then denies). Here he is, for example, at the beginning of Act 5, at a point when he thinks that few obstacles remain between him and ultimate control of the empire:

Swell, swell, my joys :  and faint not to declare

Your selves, as ample, as your causes are.

I did not live, till now ;  this my first hower;

Wherein I see my thoughts reach’d by my power.

But this, and gripe my wishes.  Great, and high,

The world knowes only two, that’s Rome, and I.

My roofe receives me not ;  ’tis aire I tread :

And, at each step, I feele m’advanced head

Knocke out a starre in heav’n ! 

With rhyming couplets (which Jonson uses sparingly) accentuating the joyful, incongruous gracefulness, the imagery is almost balletic in its nimble megalomania, calling to mind Chaplin’s Adenoid Hynkel cavorting with an inflatable globe. The great irony is that Tiberius, whom Sejanus dreams of supplanting, has already decided to crush him; he is thus like Wile. E. Coyote briefly and unknowingly suspended over the abyss before plummeting to earth. Jonson finds humour, too, in Tiberius, such as when it is reported that he scours men’s astrological information for signs of promising futures just so that he can thwart them by having the men killed. Two of the play’s most magnificent moments of comedy are given to Tiberius, an emperor usually portrayed as dour and gloomy. In the first, he responds to Sejanus’s suggestion of marriage to Drusus’s widow Livia with a wonderfully deflating ‘H’mh?’, marking the moment at which his support for Sejanus begins to ebb. In the second, he engineers Sejanus’s arrest by means of a letter read out to the senate. Tiberius does not appear in this scene―he does not appear at all after the third act, having retired to his villa on Capri―but he makes his sly, baleful presence felt despite being corporeally absent. The previous scene has already made clear that Sejanus is to be detained by his nemesis Macro, so we can chuckle along when the corrupt flatterers of the senate enter the chamber full of his praise (one even going so far as to give him precedence over the emperor), under the impression that Sejanus is to be granted some great honour. As the messenger reads out the letter, which see-saws between defending Sejanus and condemning him, the senators desperately try to fathom the emperor’s intent, unsure where to place their allegiance. There is no suspense for us as readers or as members of the audience, for the outcome is already known; the fun is in the brilliantly manipulative cruelty, disguised as vacillation or ambivalence, with which Tiberius toys with the senate, darkly insinuating even while declaring complete trust in the man he raised from obscurity to power. A remark on the danger of a sovereign, ‘who, by his particular love to one, dares adventure the hatred of all his other subjects’, is swiftly followed by an affirmation of confidence in Sejanus; no sooner is the affirmation made than Sejanus’s ‘zeale’ and ‘loyall furie’ in prosecuting his enemies are called into question, and widespread complaints about his ambition acknowledged―only for those complaints to be dismissed as malicious. The letter’s language is stealthy and ambiguous, the syntax often tortuous (e.g. ‘What wee should say, or rather what we should not say, Lords of the Senate, if this bee true, our gods, and goddesses confound us if we know!’). As Tiberius’s purpose gradually becomes clearer, the senators begin to change seats to distance themselves from Sejanus, distancing themselves still further as it becomes evident that he has lost imperial favour. This is tremendous theatre, but the effect was somewhat undermined in the R.S.C. production by the decision to have Tiberius himself read part of the letter, with the actor playing him situated to the side of the main stage to convey a sense of geographical and temporal remove. Not only did this take the audience from Rome to Capri, it also jumped back in time from the reading of the letter to its composition, compromising both the immediacy of the scene and Jonson’s chief joke, that Sejanus, for all his puffed-up self-regard, is out-manoeuvred by someone who does not even need to be present to overcome him.

Both Sejanus and Tiberius are, in their different ways, masters of language. The first makes expert use of flattery and cajolery for his own ends, but his verbal arsenal is also equipped with formidable tools of bombast, invective and sarcasm; the second is subtle, complex and devious, adept at couching his intentions in disavowals and disclaimers, which his receptive vassals are able to interpret contrary to how they are ostensibly stated. The third major villain, Macro, is by contrast much more straightforward and plain-spoken. Towards the end of the third act, each character is given a superbly written soliloquy in which the differences in their patterns of thought are amply demonstrated.** Sejanus, venting his anger at having his request to marry Livia turned down, heaps scorn on Tiberius, whom he underestimates as dull and heavy.

Would’st thou tell me, thy favours were made crimes ?

And that my fortunes were esteem’d thy faults ?

That thou, for me, wert hated ?  and not thinke

I would with winged haste prevent that change,

When thou might’st winne all to thy selfe againe,

By forfeiture of me ?  Didst those fond words

Fly swifter from thy lips, then this my braine,

This sparkling forge, created me an armor

T’encounter chance, and thee ?  Well, read my charmes,

And may they lay that hold upon thy senses,

As thou had’st snuft up hemlock, or tane downe

The juice of poppie, and of mandrakes. Sleepe,

Voluptuous Caesar, and securitie

Seize on thy stupide powers, and leave them dead

To publicke cares, awake but to thy lusts.

I love the artistry of that last sentence, with all those languid sibilants and long e sounds expressing Tiberius’s supposed torpid decadence, giving way to harder consonants as his anger forces itself out through his tongue. All of Sejanus’s peevishness cannot dampen his self-regard, his estimation of his own intelligence (‘this sparkling forge’), his confidence in his ability to meet any challenge. And yet there hints of confusion in his words: first it is his own haste that is winged, his readiness to react, then it is Tiberius’s words that fly. The avian imagery is then complicated by the reference to armour, which transforms Tiberius’s words from birds to arrows. Forging a suit of armour is, moreover, not an act to which winged haste readily applies; Mercury one moment, Vulcan the next. Sejanus goes on to outline his course of action, sure of its success, with no pause for reflection or doubt, but it is this unreflective lack of doubt, or suppression of doubt by self-assured rhetoric, that causes him to overlook the vulnerability of his position.

Tiberius, by contrast, is much more thoughtful, his options considered and measured in carefully weighted couplets. Crucially, he takes the time and trouble to think things through before reaching his decision, whereas Sejanus goes straight from deriding his antagonist to describing what he will do and how he will succeed. Macro, for his part, exhibits neither the pride of Sejanus nor the deliberation of Tiberius, professing unquestioning obedience devoid of scruple.

The way to rise, is to obey, and please.

He that will thrive in state, he must neglect

The trodden paths, that truth and right respect ;

And prove new, wilder ways :  for vertue, there,

Is not that narrow thing, shee is else-where.

Mens fortune there is vertue ;  reason, their will :

Their license, law ;  and their observance, skill.

Occasion, is their foile ;  conscience, their staine ;

Profit, their lustre :  and what else is, vaine.

If it then be the lust of Caesars power,

T’have rais’d Sejanus up, and in an hower

O’re-turne him, tumbling, downe, from height of all ;

We are his ready engine :  and his fall

May be our rise. It is no uncouth thing

To see fresh buildings from old ruines spring.

Macro may be ambitious, but he knows his limit; his focused gaze does not permit indulging in derision of Sejanus,*** or in painstaking ruminations. He may speak here (and in one other speech) in verse, but his language is artless compared with that of Sejanus and Tiberius, quite lacking in striking imagery or oblique turns of phrase. However, the end of the play reveals him to be the author of the most horrible crimes: after Sejanus’s execution, he orders that his children, too, be killed, circumventing laws banning the execution of young virgins by first having the daughter raped by the hangman. This act earns him the description the ‘wittily, and strangely-cruell Macro’; Sejanus and Tiberius may take the honours for verbal wit, but Macro is witty in his actions, his outrages. And yet, even though the play apparently leaves both Macro and Tiberius unpunished, Jonson is careful to diminish them. The appalling conclusion in mob violence leaves the survivors who comment on it shell-shocked, and moves beyond petty individual monsters, who are dwarfed, in the frame of Jonson’s penetrating historical vision, by the larger forces playing out around them. This is what I’ll be looking at in my next post.




*The R.S.C. both shortened the text and reduced the number of characters.

**Here is an interesting discussion and reading of these soliloquies by Professor Michael Cordner and the actor Henry Goodman.

***Once, however, Sejanus has been toppled from his perch, Macro does allow himself the pleasure of some vituperative crowing.


The Structure of Crystal (1969, Krzysztof Zanussi)

Two men and a woman sit quietly drinking tea; it is like a scene from Chekhov, says one of the men, with only the samovar missing. ‘Silence and nothing happens,’ he remarks, but his inaccurate characterization of Chekhov’s plays is challenged by the woman’s comment that a great deal happens in them. The odd shooting aside, much of what ‘happens’ in Chekhov is subtle, but there are grand passions stirring beneath the placid surfaces. If the three main characters in The Structure of Crystal are hiding any grand passions beneath their placid surfaces, Krzysztof Zanussi is more restrained even than Chekhov in allowing a few glimpses of them to be seen. One of the most notable aspects of his excellent debut film―a complex reworking of the fable of the town mouse and the country mouse, which he wrote as well as directed―is its consistent avoidance of conflict and crisis. The story concerns two scientist friends, Jan and Marek, who have not seen each other in several years. Marek has achieved great professional success, while Jan is content to occupy himself with monitoring the weather for a local airport. When Marek returns from the U.S.A., he visits Jan with the aim of persuading him to quit his life of quiescent domesticity with his wife Anna and return to serious study. It’s a set-up that allows several possibilities for dramatic confrontation, but Zanussi rejects them all; the debates are conducted politely, with no raised voices; sexual tension is present but never acted upon; potentially major revelations about the two men are allowed to pass by without consequence. All seems as undisturbed as the snow that blankets the ground. But the questions with which Zanussi is occupied are profound; the graceful economy of his probing and the closeness of his observation make for rich and satisfying cinema.


With a mixture of bemusement and gentle derision, Marek needles Jan persistently about his humdrum life, contrasting it with the great potential he showed as a student. Although he tries to discover why Jan has effectively abandoned his scientific career, he makes no real attempt to understand what might be attractive about the life he has chosen with Anna. Jan, meanwhile, is genuinely curious about Marek’s life, but it is not the research that interests him so much as the consumerist lifestyle and technological advances he witnessed in America (a curiosity that is devoid of envy). Zanussi shows the gulf between the intellectual concerns of the two characters with a pair of scenes in which one tries to engage the other seriously―Marek about his work on crystal structure, Jan more philosophically about the concept of infinity―only to meet with indifference. In both scenes, the voice of the speaker fades out, to be replaced by music―a nod to the inattentiveness of the listener, and also an acknowledgement that, had the discourses been included in full, most viewers would have been similarly inattentive to such weighty matter.


The relationship between the two friends in their thirties still has a strong element of boyish competitiveness in it, displayed in scenes of racing, chin-ups, shot puts, sliding on the ice, arm wrestling. Marek invites Jan to take a turn at the wheel of his car, urging him to go ever faster on the icy roads; Jan complies at first, gaining in reckless confidence, but eventually has enough and stops. What is interesting is that Zanussi uses these scenes to illustrate the differing temperaments of the two men, but without loading them with dramatic significance. The playing never becomes serious; tempers are not frayed; good humour is preserved. Of course, beneath the surface much more may be going on, but Zanussi is content to let it remain there undisturbed.

If Zanussi’s sympathies seem to lie more with Jan than with Marek (most clearly revealed in a sequence of short scenes in which a swirling camera and twinkling piano music make domestic chores such as bread-making, fire-stoking and honey-gathering seem like acts of ecstasy), he doesn’t tip the scales too far. Like Jan, Zanussi forsook scientific studies, though he did so in favour of the cinema and not a retired life in the country. In one uncomfortable scene, he contrives to place both himself and the viewer in the midst of his characters’ mutual incomprehension. In a bar, Jan chats with the locals while Marek sits alone in the foreground; when the former joins him, Marek wants to know what his friend can possibly have to say to such people. Marek’s snobbery is obnoxious, but even Jan’s answer―that they talk about everything except the weather, about which they know far more than he does―contains a hint of condescension in its self-deprecation. Jan may enjoy socialising with those far less educated than him, but it is possible that they do not accept him as one of their own to quite the degree he imagines. In reply to a sour remark from Marek on the men’s faces, Jan says that it depends on how you look at them, which is the cue for a succession of unflattering Brueghelian close-ups that seem to bear out the truth of Marek’s observation, aided by some queasy woodwind/vibraphone music courtesy of Wojciech Kilar. Zanussi challenges us not to find these faces grotesque and rustic, asking whether we might not also be guilty of Marek’s snobbery, while at the same time making it difficult for us to deny his assumption of the banality of the men’s conversation. The sophisticated director filming these faces is also implicated.

This is a wintry film, and it is easy to detect a political aspect to the bleakness of the weather. The film was released the year after hopes were ignited and then brutally crushed by the Prague Spring and its suppression. Marek and Jan present different examples of how to find one’s place in the sterility of a one-party state. Marek, with his single-minded ambition tinged with ruthlessness, channels his intellectual pursuits into a narrow area of specialization; the resulting professional success brings him material comforts and escape in the form of foreign travel. There are hints that Jan’s rejection of this option is partly a rejection of the moral compromises involved, and a refusal to make himself so useful to the state.* A third option is seen in Anna’s position as a schoolteacher, but in the absence great social and political change, her pupils will perhaps have constricted futures ahead of them. The characters are repeatedly seen walking aimlessly in the snow, the barrenness of the landscape illustrative of both the impasse between them and the wider social impasse in which they are situated. And yet Jan and Marek’s friendship endures; its strength, and the strength of Jan and Anna’s marriage, are reasons against hopelessness. The final image points towards the cosmic and ineffable, the disinterested contemplation of it a source of wonder.


*Two other Zanussi films I’ve seen―Camouflage (1977) and The Constant Factor (1980), both of them excellent―also feature central characters struggling to maintain their integrity in a corrupt society, while the protagonist of Family Life (1971) seeks to free himself from his father’s influence.

this is just to say that this is just another this is just to say rip-off

I have eaten

the plums

that were in

the icebox


and which

you were probably


for breakfast


I have also eaten

the cheese potato salad

yogurt tiramisu

cucumber grapes

and most of the olives


I have left you some



Forgive me

valued lecturer

for I am the vice-chancellor

working to keep

our sector competitive

The Dykemaster/The Rider on the White Horse (1888, Theodor Storm, translated by Denis Jackson)

Der Schimmelreiter* is one of the great classics of German literature, which, of course, means that in Britain it is underappreciated. It’s a tale of rather awesome power and authorial intelligence, gripping from start to finish, and liable to haunt one’s dreams; it was the final work of one of the most celebrated German writers of the 19th century. There is no Penguin or Oxford World’s Classics volume devoted to Theodor Storm, which gives you some idea of his literary fame in Anglophone countries. Translator Denis Jackson has been tireless in making Storm’s work available to English-language readers; those interested are advised to take a look at his informative website.

In my reading about Storm, comparisons with Thomas Hardy have often cropped up, and with good reason, for both were ‘regional’ writers who repeatedly set their stories in fictionalized versions of locales with which they had been familiar since childhood. Both wrote poetry as well as prose; both wrote with an acute sensitivity to the natural world. There are, however, ways in which Der Schimmelreiter is very different from the Hardy I know. First, there is the intricacy and sophistication of the narrative structure (see below). There is also the concentration of the storytelling and the sharpness of the prose; absent here are the intrusive allusions, windy authorial commentary and passages of sheer bad writing that can mar Hardy’s work. Hardy’s characters perhaps have more depth, but depth of characterization is not a necessity in a brief tale such as this. What impressed me most upon finishing it is how fully achieved the Novelle is; Storm’s mastery of his craft never falters.

The narrative is like a set of Russian dolls, with three narrators each delving further back into the past. The first is an unnamed old man looking back to a day when he, as a young man (or perhaps older boy) read a story in a magazine during a visit to his great-grandmother. The old woman shares a surname―Feddersen―with Storm’s own great-grandmother, so one is tempted to connect this first narrator with Storm himself. But there’s a snag: the narrator came upon the story ‘a good fifty years ago’, whereas the real Elsabe Feddersen died in 1829, almost sixty years before the composition of the Novelle (1886-1888). The difference between a good fifty and sixty is of course small, but significant enough to warn against a simple identification between narrator and author. Furthermore, the magazine writer (who is also the second narrator) opens his story by stating that his audience with the third narrator, an elderly schoolmaster, took place in ‘the third decade of the present century’ (i.e. the 1820s); this implies that he is writing about the meeting later than that, which would mean publication in the 1830s at the earliest, and so after Elsabe Feddersen’s death (the actual magazine story that inspired Storm appeared in 1838). The distance Storm places between himself and his fictional stand-in is merely the subtlest of the distancing effects that complicate the relationship of narrator to narrative. The first narrator looks back some fifty years to a magazine story he once read; the magazine writer looks back to the previous decade to his meeting with the schoolmaster; the schoolmaster looks back to the mid-eighteenth century, to events he has reconstructed over forty years from the recollections and retellings of other people. Each narrative layer comes with its own ambiguities and uncertainties. The schoolmaster, who is described as a rationalist, tells an eerie tragic tale with strong hints of the supernatural; before beginning his narrative, he offers to leave out the superstitious elements, but is persuaded to include them by the magazine writer, who prefers to ‘sift the wheat from the chaff’ himself (which nicely enables us to try to do the same). Sifting the wheat from the chaff is exactly what the schoolmaster has been attempting to do in all his years of seeking the truth about the story’s central character, Hauke Haien (the titular dykemaster and horse rider). The process of stripping away the accumulated embellishments and exaggerations to arrive at unadorned historical fact is hampered by the schoolmaster’s reliance on the first-, second- and third-hand accounts of others, many of whom would not have shared his rationalist outlook. The schoolmaster is not the only person equipped to tell the story; the magazine writer might have heard a rather different version, one that revelled in its supernatural elements, from the mouth of an aged housekeeper, whom the schoolmaster dismisses as a ‘stupid old crone’―but, as another character observes, perhaps old crones are the best for preserving stories. Indeed, the main narrative does include an old crone who tells a spooky story of uncertain provenance she nevertheless insists really happened, and who is rebuked for this very act by the rationally disposed Hauke Haien.

The magazine writer is himself apparently ready to believe in the existence of the supernatural, for he describes an encounter with a ghostly rider on a grey horse, but perhaps his reliability as narrator is suspect. He is, after all, writing for a popular readership; might he not be guilty of deliberately sensationalizing his account? If so, is his relation of the schoolmaster’s story to be trusted? Could the supernatural elements be the result of his own interventions rather than the distortions of the schoolmaster’s sources? Can we trust even his account of the schoolmaster, who might after all be no more than a device to lend a tall tale an air of authority? The trustworthiness of the first narrator is similarly called into question, for if we take him as a stand-in for Storm, then we must remember that an author’s job is to spin a fine yarn. What is so cunning about Storm’s first narrative frame is that it simultaneously avers and undermines its own authenticity and reliability. Storm’s real great-grandmother is invoked, as are the names of two genuine literary magazines of the early nineteenth century. The narrator cannot remember which one contained the story he remembers, and cannot vouchsafe the accuracy of his memory, but that only makes him more credible, because, of course, the passage of time is liable to have these effects. In an ingenious touch, the first narrator remembers reading the story while sitting beneath his great-grandmother as she stroked his hair; much later, in the main narrative, Hauke Haien’s young daughter sits beneath Trin’ Jans, the same old woman the girl’s father upbraids for telling fairy tales, and Trin’ strokes the girl’s hair. Each narrative level contains an old woman linked with storytelling: Frau Feddersen, who doesn’t tell a story, but is present when the first narrator reads one; the old housekeeper Antje Vollmers, rubbished by the schoolmaster; and Trin’ Jans, who, like Antje Vollmers, is a superstitious teller of tales, and who, like Frau Feddersen, strokes the hair of a younger person sitting beneath her. To return to the Russian doll comparison, it’s like a small detail repeated on the surface of each doll, slightly different each time.

Storm isn’t indulging in tricksiness for its own sake; these convolutions are essential to his purposes. The plot concerns the attempts of the hero to construct a new dyke according to scientific principles, a construction that will protect his community on the Schleswig-Holstein coast from the ravages of the North Sea. His stance as a man of reason sets him at odds with the very community he is seeking to protect: the modern, dynamic hero versus widespread complacency and recalcitrant superstition. Rumour turns Hauke’s initially malnourished horse into a devilish creature, an example of the ease with which distortions of the truth are disseminated, often abetted by those with vested interests (such as Hauke’s chief antagonist). As Jackson writes in his afterword, a long-standing concern of Storm’s was the ‘question of the transmission of historical knowledge, of the creation of myths and their socio-political function’; the narrative complexity is part of his exploration of this question.

I don’t want to give the impression that Der Schimmelreiter is a dry, academic exercise; on the contrary, it is thrilling. Storm is tremendously effective at conveying the raw power of the sea and the bleakness of the landscape:

Clouds sped across the sky like a wild chase; below lay the immense marsh like an unrecognisable wilderness filled with restless shadows; from the water behind the dyke, more and more terribly, came a dull roar as if it were intent on devouring all before it.

And from the second narrator:

but now I saw nothing but the yellow-grey waves beating continuously against the dyke as though bellowing with rage, from time to time spraying dirty spume over my horse and me, and further out, a bleak half-light in which it was impossible to tell earth from sky, for even the half-moon, now at its height, was more often than not hidden behind swirling dark clouds.

Storm’s feeling for nature is one of the book’s strongest assets; it is striking how many different creatures make an appearance. As well as pets and farm animals such as dogs, cats, horses, cows, sheep, ducks and hens, there are also rats, otters, mice and weasels. Most striking of all are the wild birds: seagulls, crows, herons, storks, sandpipers, kingfishers, lapwings, larks, avocets, geese, variously shrieking, screeching, cawing, cackling, honking and singing. The young Hauke kills a kingfisher―an ominous deed, as they were believed to be lucky birds and calmers of storms. The killing of the kingfisher then leads to the killing of Trin’ Jans’ cat, which takes place at her cottage atop a dyke, on the border between land and sea. Storm’s respect for the rationalism of Hauke Haien and the schoolmaster does not preclude symbolical devices or a sense of the otherworldly. The clash of sea against dyke is itself heavily symbolic, and sometimes flirts with obviousness―one effect of the complicated narrative structure is to defuse some of this potential obviousness. By the end, I was left full of admiration for Storm’s skill and artfulness; I shall be seeking out more of Jackson’s translations.



*Der Schimmelreiter means, literally, The White Horse Rider (although schimmel can also mean grey, and this is how Jackson translates it in the text), and this was the title used by Michael Fleming in his collection Eight German Novellas, published by Oxford World’s Classics. The American poet James Wright entitled his 1964 translation, more recently reissued by New York Review Books, The Rider on the White Horse. Denis Jackson, rejecting the literal rendering as clumsy, opted for the snappier The Dykemaster.

The Gates of Paradise (1960, Jerzy Andrzejewski, translated by James Kirkup)

The paucity of contemporary sources concerning the story of the Children’s Crusade of 1212 makes it difficult to disentangle history from legend. Two young shepherds, Nicholas of Cologne and Stephen of Cloyes, claiming divine inspiration, led expeditions of thousands of people, the German group going no farther than Italy, the French reaching as least as far as Marseilles. Later accounts conflated these two mass movements into one, creating an edifying tale of courageous, innocent children seeking to reclaim Jerusalem through the peaceful conversion of Muslims to Christianity, only to be betrayed by perfidious merchants and sold into slavery in Tunisia. Andrzejewski is not interested in uncovering the historical truth, but in using the legend as a vehicle for his own concerns: faith and fanaticism, the entry of young people into the corrupt world of adults, narration and the distortion of truth, the tortuous complexity of human motivation. The most immediately striking thing about the book is that, apart from a few words at the very end,* it is almost entirely composed of one enormous sentence (mercifully, the novel is quite short). Throughout this syntactical monstrosity, the point of view changes from that of a third-person narrator to those of the characters, and it is far from obvious when these shifts occur. Punctuation, while sparing, is not absent―dashes, commas and semicolons perform services more usually carried out by periods―but it is used as much as to confuse and to wrong-foot as it is to clarify. Of course, there are obvious correlations here between the length of the sentence and the length of the never-to-be-completed journey to Jerusalem, and between the contorted style and the mental convolutions of the characters. Andrzejewski reinforces these correlations through his masterly and varied use of repetition, which both extend our sense of time and space, and add further stylistic, psychological and thematic intricacies. Anthony Burgess praised the work as ‘incredible tour de force’, and it’s hard to disagree with him.

The most obvious way Andrzejewski uses repetition is to repeat, with variation, phrases that occur frequently throughout the book, each variation calling to mind the ones that have preceded it and opening up possibilities of succeeding variations. The feet of the old priest who accompanies the crusaders, hearing their confessions, are at different points referred to as ‘his heavy, swollen feet’, ‘the bare and swollen feet of the old man’, ‘the confessor’s bare, swollen feet’, ‘his feet, his bare feet’, ‘his great swollen feet’ and ‘his weary feet’ as they continually move forward, pressing down into the earth. The same priest repeatedly implores God that a nightmarish vision of the future he has had never be realized: ‘let this dream never become reality’, ‘let my cruel dream never become reality’, ‘let the day never come when my cruel dream becomes reality’, and so on. Another character, a witness to a death by drowning, remarks on the ‘yellow and foam-flecked’ waves of the Loire in flood, and thereafter mentions its ‘yellow and impetuous waters’, ‘flood of yellow foam’, ‘muddy yellow waves’, etc. The longest passage to reappear are the words with which the leader of the band, here called Jacques rather Stephen, inspires his followers, which are first given as:

God the Almighty has revealed to me that because of the blindness and cowardice of kings, princes and knights, it is fitting that the children of Christ should go, for the love of God, unto the relief of the city of Jerusalem that is fallen into the hands of the infidel Turk, for the confident faith and innocence of children, greater than all the powers on land and sea, are able to accomplish the most holy miracles

This version is repeated once verbatim, but in every other instance it is either truncated or altered slightly in phrasing and/or punctuation. The question of the provenance of Jacques’ revelation, and how exactly it came to set in motion the journey of thousands of children and youths, is of great importance to the novel; the subtle variations exemplify the unreliability of narrators and the difficulty of arriving at a consistent, truthful account. From this passage, the line about relieving Jerusalem from ‘the hands of the infidel Turk’ is also excerpted and repeated, with further variations (sometimes it is the whole city that is to be liberated, sometimes just the tomb of Christ). The frequency of the repetition takes on the quality of a mantra, except that the mantra cannot settle on an agreed wording, and so becomes suspect; the more that the loftiness of the crusaders’ goal is invoked, the more it is undermined, the text’s suspicions magnifying as the priest’s doubts about the crusade grow.

Further instances of repetition occur in short, localized bursts, such as the ‘darkness and despair’ that one narrator mentions four times on one page. Another technique is the use of keywords that crop up again and again, sometimes in different contexts and for different purposes. Among the most prominent are ‘shadow’, ‘voice’, ‘silence/silent/silently’ (characters are forever breaking off from speech and lapsing into silence), ‘eyes’, ‘hands’, ‘feet’, ‘heart’, ‘love’, ‘desire’, ‘dream’ and ‘dark/darkness’. Somewhat less frequent are repeated occurrences of certain adjectives, such as ‘sombre’, ‘indifferent’, ‘cold’, ‘radiant’, ‘pure’, ‘innocent’ and ‘naked’. As an example of the creative variety Andrzejewski’s repetitions, the word ‘penetrate’ can refer not only to sexual acts, but also to feet pressing into the earth, to feet pressing into a body that has fallen to the ground, to an unrequited desire, to a feeling of languor, to a feeling of joy, to a knowledge of one’s condition, to an awareness of another’s presence. Visual motifs also abound, among them the crosses, banners and baldaquins carried by the crusaders, their white robes, the purple mantle belonging to one of the narrators, and his white steed. Repeated references to certain places (the plains, valleys and forest through which the crusaders journey; the desert surrounding Jerusalem; the tomb of Christ; the tomb of a morally debased count; the gates of the holy city; Jacques’ hut; Chartres cathedral) form associative links between them. There are multiple descriptions of the weather, which have the hallucinatory vividness of a garishly colored etching:

the rain had now stopped completely, there arose from the sodden earth the heady odour of wet soil and spring grass, while in the distance, as if already in another world, the thunder went on rolling and the fires of the setting sun one more unleashed their washes of tender colours over the level valley, the green pools glimmered out of the shadows, the earth beneath the children’s feet was clarty and lit with still pools of rain, he could see the rainbow’s lifting arc and went on

One of the effects of these elaborate authorial schemes is to simultaneously pull apart and bind together all the voices at play. Pull apart, because some repetitions and motifs are peculiar to individual narrators; bind together, because those repetitions and motifs that are found throughout the book make all the voices sound the same even as they are quite distinct. The control Andrzejewski exerts over this potentially cacophonous mix is what gives his prose such tremendous accumulative and rhythmic power.

A couple of flaws must be noted. First, the confessions of two of the characters, Jacques and Alexis, are accorded much greater length and weight than the others, which throws the book a little off-balance. As a consequence, the two female narrators seem rather sketchy in comparison, and come regrettably close to conforming to Madonna/whore stereotypes. This doesn’t seem to have been Andrzejewski’s intention, as his attempts to imbue these characterizations with some complexity are evident, but he hasn’t given himself enough space to succeed. It is a brilliant work nonetheless. It takes a jaundiced view of human relations, presenting them as based on deceit and incomprehension. The debauched, exploitative cruelty of the count, who acts with the arrogance of the authority his position confers, is one representation of adulthood; the well-meaning but ineffective and compromised earnestness of the priest is another. Between these two poles, the younger characters attempt to find a path; their crusade is in part a rejection of the moral failures of the adults who direct their lives, the innocence of youth set in relief against the corruption of age. It is a mission doomed to failure, not only because youth is shown to be far from innocent, but also because the value of innocence as an ideal is shown to be illusory. Ironically, it is the most corrupt character (whose own crusading exploits were nothing more than bloody plundering) who most idealizes innocence, and it is he who is idealized by the most innocent character; it is the most innocent character who is the most dangerous corrupter of others, an unwitting Pied Piper who earns the curses of the relatives whose children have abandoned them. There is no denouement in Andrzejewski’s telling, the only hint of the crusade’s fate being the priest’s nightmare.** There is only endless continuation, the awful conclusion deferred until beyond the point his language is able to reach. Andrzejewski stretches his gargantuan sentence to the point of exhaustion, but the feet march on and on.


*The final sentence contains four words in the original Polish, five in English translation.

**Andrzej Wajda’s 1968 film adaptation includes a coda that conforms to the traditional account of the children all either perishing during the journey or being sold into slavery.

Nothing But the Hours/Rien que les heures (1926, Alberto Cavalcanti)

A young, careworn-looking woman takes off her hat and sighs; when she looks up, she breaks into a smile; a young sailor is grinning at her in anticipation. Each face is held in close-up, shots alternating between the two so that we are invited to view each almost through the eyes of the other―almost, but not quite, because the camera is positioned just to the side of where a truly subjective placing would be. The woman starts to undress; the man looks to the side; there is a shot of a bed. The man turns his head back towards his companion, but the following shot is not of the woman’s face but of her legs and hands as she unlaces her boots. Returning to the man, we see his gaze tilted downwards, his expression a picture of lust. The next shot of the woman is of her head and shoulders, which are now naked; her back is towards the camera, and she slowly turns her head to meet the man’s gaze. We see him regarding the object of his desire before turning his head towards the bed again. A shot of the bed ends with a fade-to-black, suggesting eyes being closed, but before the screen turns entirely black, there’s a cut to the next shot: the woman turning her head away and closing her eyes in apparent pleasure. At first, cued by the turning of the man’s head, we might assume the shot of the bed to be his subjective view, but by ‘rhyming’ the fade-out with the woman’s closing her eyes, the film opens up the possibility of it being her subjective view. The next cut is not to the young man, but to the woman’s leg as she removes her boot and lets it fall; this time, as her arm swings for a moment by her side, her movements seem less seductive than exhausted. There’s one last shot of the bed, but the camera has moved closer to it this time. The last shot in this sequence is again of the woman; she winks, at the young man, and―almost―at the viewer. As the camera holds her in shot, her gaze maintains it focus, but her expression subtly changes: she purses her lip, shifts her lower jaw, and smiles somewhat shakily. While can read all sorts of things into this final close-up if we choose―bitterness, resignation, weariness, cynicism, sexual desire, love―no definitive reading is insisted upon, or possible. The camera’s playing with subjectivity and objectivity, with the sexually charged gaze of the man and the gaze of the woman as she observes that gaze, involves us closely with the characters yet also holds them at a distance, not allowing us to arrive at a settled response to them. The sequence of shots is further disrupted by the insertion of documentary footage of homeless men entering a shelter, a shot of a window, a doorbell etc., things bearing no obvious relation to the small human drama in the bedroom.

This scene takes place near the end of Alberto Cavalcanti’s luminous masterpiece Rien que les heures/Nothing But the Hours (a.k.a. Nothing But Time, 1926). Our experience of watching it is complicated by information conveyed by previous scenes. First, the young woman is a prostitute―something made clear near the beginning when we see her unsuccessfully trying to attract a potential customer. Is, then, the young man a paying client, a lover, or something else? His being a sailor might argue against a close attachment, but this is not something of which we can be sure. Another earlier scene showed the pair gazing at each other in apparent adoration at a dance hall―an image of contented romance contrasted with the intense expression of jealousy on the face of another man also present at the dance hall. Jealousy is, at least, the most obvious explanation for the intensity of this man’s expression (an earlier scene showed the same man kissing the same woman), but it’s not an explanation the film confirms. Do we see the dancers in a subjective shot from the other man’s point of view? Perhaps, but we can’t even be sure that he is looking at them, for the three are not shown in shot together. They do in fact share the screen at the same time, but it’s a tripartite split screen with the dancers in the middle, the intense-looking man on the left, and an accordionist on the right. Cavalcanti refuses us the grounds to be sure of the spatial relationship that exits between these characters (are they even in the same dance hall?). The dancers are framed in such a way as to suggest a proscenium arch; multiple exposure creates several copies of them dancing at once. A subjective shot conveying the emotional state of an observer? But both the intense man and the accordionist are facing away from the ‘proscenium’. A close-up of the intense man is followed by a second two shot of the dancers, the image in extreme soft-focus, which again suggests the emotional subjectivity of an observer. But then we return to the split screen, which disrupts again the connection we have drawn between the dancers and the intense man. Our attention might also be drawn to the fact that the sailor and the prostitute are not the only dancers in the middle portion of the screen; there is another, unrelated couple. What are they doing there?


The other complicating factor is that, before her meeting with the sailor in the bedroom, we have seen the young woman apparently acting as an accomplice to a crime resulting in murder. In this scene, she stands watch while, in an alley, the intense-looking man from the dance hall robs and then kills a newspaper seller (another recurring character, whose death had been foreshadowed by an encounter with a fortune teller). Indeed, it is the sailor’s inopportune arrival that causes the prostitute to lead him away from the crime scene and to the bedroom. When we later watch the young woman undressing, the not-quite-subjective shot underlines the fact that we do not see her through the sailor’s eyes because we have information about her he does not share, information that affects our response to her. At the same time, we have information that she does not share, for she is unaware that the planned robbery ended with an unplanned homicide. We are not granted a position of privileged knowledge, however, because there is much we do not know, much that remains puzzling. None of the characters is given a name; the prostitute is introduced with a title card referring to her as ‘la fille’. The nature of her relationship to the intense man, and the degree of her complicity in his crime, is unclear; her relationship with the sailor is likewise not elaborated. Can we even be sure of the chronology of events? The film gives us merely the fragments and hints of a melodrama, declining to provide us with enough detail to enable us to arrive at a stable understanding.


One of the claims often made of Rien que les heures is that it inaugurated the movement or genre known as the city symphony film, Walter Ruttman’s Berlin: Symphony of a Great City (1927) and Dziga Vertov’s extraordinary Man with a Movie Camera (1929) being the two most celebrated examples. Others include the Études sur Paris (André Sauvage, 1928), São Paulo, Symphony of the Metropolis (Adalberto Kemeny and Rudolf Rex Lustig, 1929) and Lisbon, Anecdotal Chronicle (José Leitão de Barros, 1930), as well as the shorter works Twenty-Four-Dollar Island (1927, Robert Flaherty), Skyscraper Symphony (1929, Robert Florey), Rain (1929, Joris Ivens and Mannus Franken) and À propos de Nice (1930, Jean Vigo). Manhatta, directed in 1921 by Paul Strand and Charles Sheeler, might be thought of as a kind of precursor. But what is a city symphony? Do the films share enough common features for us to consider them a coherent group? It’s certainly a very varied bunch. Skyscraper Symphony runs for under ten minutes; São Paulo, Symphony of the Metropolis for an hour and a half.  Études sur Paris is almost entirely documentary in approach, fictional vignettes being absent except for one brief scene of a thwarted assignation. At the other end of the spectrum, a title card at the beginning of Lisbon, Anecdotal Chronicle denies that the film is a documentary at all, preferring the term anecdotal chronicle on the basis that it features several famous actors (although it is clear that many of the people who appear on screen are not professionals). The films of Ruttmann, Kemeny and Lustig, Leitão de Barros and Vigo are avowedly portraits of individual cities, their names included in the titles, while Vertov’s city is a composite of Moscow, Kiev, Odessa and Kharkiv, and Rain seems only incidentally to be about Amsterdam (it could just as easily have been filmed in Rotterdam). The frenetic montage of Man with a Movie Camera is not in the least like the leisurely grace of Études sur Paris; Vigo’s droll mockery of Nice’s wealthy tourists could not be further removed from the boosterish qualities of São Paulo, Symphony of the Metropolis. Many of these filmmakers were associated, to one degree or another, with left-wing politics; stark scenes of urban poverty in the films of Vigo and Cavalcanti highlight the miseries suffered by the losers in a capitalist economy. The poor, by contrast, are largely absent in São Paulo and Lisbon, neither of which is interested in offering an overtly political critique―indeed a disturbing strain of militaristic nationalism is evident in both. Also absent from São Paulo are non-white faces; a few are featured in Lisbon, but with no acknowledgement of the violence of Portugal’s colonial project. Some features are common to most city symphony films, notably a fascination with industrial machinery (plenty of shots of factories) and modern transport (ships, trains, cars, trams, chaotic or smooth-flowing).


One of the things that elements distinguishes Rien que les heures from the other city symphony films is the development of its fictional elements into dramatic story lines (oblique and elliptical though they may be) integrated with non-fiction scenes, the emotional power of melodrama combining with the truth-value of documentary (then a relatively recent concept) to give the work its sense of fullness and depth. In addition to the recurring characters already mentioned, another important figure is an old woman who staggers through alleys and across building sites, perhaps in search of food or shelter, or perhaps simply driven restlessly by despair or mental disturbance. This woman stands for all the ignored, disdained, downtrodden citizens of Paris, the ones who are usually left out of the familiar glamorous, romantic, sophisticated representations of the city, which are explicitly rejected near the beginning. Title cards announce that we are to be presented not with the fashionable and elegant life, but the daily life of the humble, the low-class (although the film does in fact include scenes of the fashionable and elegant life). To demonstrate the point, a shot of chic young ladies is frozen into a photograph, the image ripped up by a pair of hands into implausibly numerous small pieces. Next, a swanky car transforms by dissolve into a tired donkey and cart laden with bags. Such bold, even crude, transitions and contrasts are characteristic of the film: shots of attractive flowers and vegetables at a market are intercut with shots of flowers and vegetables discarded in bins; a well-dressed young man eats a steak while, framed by his plate, we see a scene at the slaughterhouse. Alongside effects such as these, there are beautiful shots of clouds moving across the sky, the rising and falling of a woman’s chest as she sleeps, morning light streaming through a grille, smoke ascending delicately from chimneys.

Rien que les heures is a collection of disparate fragments: fragments of a seamy melodrama, of a socially conscious record of the lives of the poor, of a rapturous and impressionistic cine-poem. As well as the Parisian setting, another thing these fragments have in common is an ever-present awareness of the inexorable passage of time, an awareness that adds poignancy to the brief, ecstatic moments of captured beauty; to the fleeting pleasures of alcohol, the swimming pool, the carousel, that provide relief from the grim routines of work; to the embracing lovers; to the consideration of the fragility of life (the murdered newspaper-seller) and the onset of old age (the wandering woman). ‘We can fix a point in space, freeze a moment in time,’ proclaims one title card; a bit later comes the reply, ‘but space and time both escape our possession’―an observation both tragic and charged with wonder. It’s also an observation made in the shadow of Einstein’s upending of the old certainties of physical reality, and the shots that occur between these two title cards play with this temporal and spatial disorientation. On a spinning globe, only two cities are marked: Paris and Peking (as Beijing was then known in the West), linked by a shared first letter, but in different time zones. We see postcards of Peking landmarks, referring back to the film’s opening statement that all cities would be identical were it not for the monuments that distinguish them. There follows a strange little scene featuring a Chinese woman being chased around a room by a Frenchman. In the background there is a folding screen decorated with images suggestive of contemporary European art, an ornamental blend of two cultures. The man and woman enter screen right, the woman apparently anxious to get away from the man. They exit screen left, but then immediately enter screen right again; this impossible circuit is repeated.* When we next see the spinning globe, it is first rotating at tremendous speed; there’s a slow dissolve to an image of oscillating back and forth hesitantly, the speed reducing until another dissolve shows an unmoving map of Africa and Eurasia, with Paris marked at one end of the screen and Peking at the other. During the second dissolve, a ghostly Paris is seen adjacent to Peking, as if the two cities were about to merge. Time is distorted in the next shot of a clock face, its hands turning at heightened speed; the image dissolves into one of the clock hands swinging like a pendulum. Next, the clock is physically reordered, the numerals in a horizontal strip at the bottom of the screen, the face shattered into multi-screen fragments, each showing a different scene. One of these scenes is of the city’s traffic; after a dissolve, the whole screen is taken up by this traffic, except that different shots are superimposed, so that cars appear to be travelling into each other at tilted angles. The confusion and disorder that Cavalcanti sees as the key condition of metropolitan modernity is viewed ambivalently: there is the scandal of crushed and thwarted lives, the violent, brutal underbelly of the clichéd falsities of the city of light, but here, in confusion and disorder, might also be found a breach in the defences of society and the possibility of reform or revolution. I don’t know whether the film is pessimistic or optimistic about this possibility, or whether its pessimism and optimism can be disentangled, but its freshness and fascination lie in part in its commitment to boldness and freedom of artistic expression as part of the social struggle. It is only 45 minutes long, yet the richness of its aesthetic and political radicalism is treasurable.


*Is the woman in danger? So we might think, but we are wrong-footed when the woman sits down laughing on a sofa in the foreground; this is light romantic comedy rather than grim melodrama.

Nobel Clerihews

George Bernard Shaw

Thought dawdling a bore.

‘There’s nothing quite sadder;

Now fetch me my ladder.’


Eugene O’Neill

Made love to a seal

On the deck of a schooner.

The result was Oona.


José Saramago

Was placed under embargo

When he said a joined-up Iberia

Would make people cheerier.


Günter Grass

Had a musical arse,

Which, prompted by pain,

Would fart ‘Lili Marleen’.


Doris Lessing

Bathed in French dressing.

Fingers were crossed

When her salad was tossed.