Fortune, Fame and History in ‘Sejanus’

For the renaissance playwright interested in ancient Rome, the appearance in translation of the works of Tacitus in 1591/8 and Livy in 1600 offered new perspectives, for these historians concentrated not on the biographies of notable individuals,* but on the workings of a state, with a Republican slant at odds with the absolutism of the Tudor and Stuart monarchies. Individuals may still drive events, but it is the events themselves that are significant, beyond their effect on individual actors. Tacitus, in particular, with his probing into the darkest secrets of state and exposure of the sinister motives behind each action of his tyrannical emperors, is a potentially subversive model, and it is small wonder that Jonson, after making such powerful use of Tacitus, found himself in political trouble, accused of popery and treason. As the historian Cremutius Cordus finds in the play, historical distance is no defence against charges of subversion, for paranoid authority can always discover hidden meanings beneath apparent ideological innocence. Yet although Tacitus provides a model, as a reputable source and ethical guide, Jonson does not slavishly adhere to him, for all his professed fidelity. An interesting departure comes in a scene in the first act, in which Tiberius refuses a second temple to be dedicated to him. Tacitus compares this refusal unfavourably with the willingness of the previous emperor, Augustus, to have such a shrine built. As a nameless citizen comments:

Princes haue all other things at will; one thing they should insatiably seeke for, which is to leaue a happie memorie after them: for by contemning of fame, the contemne the virtues which engender it. [from the translation by Henry Savile and Richard Greneway]

Augustus, in consenting to have temples dedicated to him, shows that he seeks the fame and glory that will perpetuate his name in the permanence of stone, and that, like Hercules and Rome’s founder, Romulus, he will ascend to a divine level. Tiberius, in his refusal to follow such a route, merely wishes that will be thought of fondly when he is gone―a favourable judgement that may well soon be forgotten, not a lasting renown. Tacitus does mention that this reluctance was read by some as a sign of modesty, by others as a sign of uneasiness, but he does not elaborate on these explanations, only on the one of degeneracy, of not aiming high enough. The emperor’s aversion to being put on a par with the gods is here a mark against him, not one in his favour. How this is compatible with Tacitus’ admiration of the Republican constitution and his disapproval of too much power being placed in one man’s hands is unclear; perhaps it is simply that a rigid hostility towards Tiberius leads him to condemn all his actions (indeed, elsewhere, Tacitus states that the emperor’s chief concern in choosing an heir was future glory).

Jonson adapts the above passage, but puts the words into the mouth of Tiberius, giving them a quite different flavour:


The rest of greatnesse princes may command,

And (therefore) may neglect, only, a long,

A lasting, high, and happy memorie

They should, without being satisfied, pursue.

Contempt of fame begets contempt of virtue.

There appears at first to be an inconsistency in simultaneously praising fame and rejecting the kind of monument that celebrates it. Tiberius, who has consented already to one shrine in his honour, does not want to rival Augustus’s memory with a proliferation of temples; he is happy, he claims, with his humanity, and wishes to be ‘truly a prince’, not a god. His protestation of mortality and desire that posterity should know it might indicate that he is after a different kind of fame, a fame based on his modesty, and he goes on to say that the good report of succeeding generations will serve as temples and statues for him. This promotion, however, of an image of an emperor content with ordinariness hardly comes across as sincere. Jonson, in this speech, initially follows Tacitus; with the last five lines, he diverges from his source in order to show Tiberius’s deviousness. After refusing to be deified in stone, the emperor is deified in speech by the flattery of Satrius, who calls him, or his words, ‘divine’, and of Sejanus, who says that he has assumed the powers of all the oracles. Likewise, at Tiberius’s initial entrance, his command that the court regard him as human and worship the gods instead is answered by Sejanus comparing him to a god, and his professed abhorrence of flattery is dismissed as bogus by Arruntius, Cordus and Silius. This dissembling, however, is not in order to disguise a real appetite for fame, delusions of divinity, and love of flattery: he is genuinely contemptuous of all those things. His tactic of publicly rejecting them before quietly acquiescing to them is merely a way of reassuring himself of his earthly power, which is all that he is interested in. Later in the play, when pressed by Sejanus to act against his enemies, he demurs that ‘long hate pursues such acts’; then, when Sejanus seeks to marry his daughter-in-law, he declares that princes, unlike other men, must always direct ‘their maine actions still to fame’. But on both occasions, his seeming concern for the judgement of succeeding generations is a ruse, for display only; he lives only for the here and now, for the maintenance of his power, which itself is valued primarily for the means it provides to pursue his pederastic desires unchecked. Jonson is deeply ambivalent here. Tiberius’s total immersion in the present and indifference towards the future mark him out for condemnation along Tacitean lines, but at the same time, that it is he who utters the line ‘Contempt of fame begets contempt of virtue’ should make us suspicious, not only of him, but of the ethical position his words insincerely express. Tiberius’s opponents certainly retain a faith in that position, but for all their nobility, as political operators they are so much his inferior that we might wonder whether he is right to disdain fame.

The Machiavellian brilliance of Tiberius remains supreme at the end of the play, long after he has departed the scene; his victory is achieved in absentia (an absence ironically encouraged by Sejanus). The other great winner, Macro, unleashes a sickening carnage so bloody that a mother’s grief-maddened cries are such as ‘might affright the gods, and force the sunne/Runne back-ward to the east, nay, make the old/Deformed Chaos rise againe’. The closing platitudes of horrified senators in no way restore a sense of order or steadiness, no matter how chastened; Jonson, in his final movement, lurches shockingly into a frenzy of violence and seems to leave us there abruptly. There is more going on than this, however. Arruntius, a virtuous but rather windy and ineffective senator prone to getting the wrong end of the stick, makes an uncharacteristically accurate prediction that Macro will prove to be a worse monster than the defeated Sejanus; this points to a future that lies beyond the scope of the play’s action, a future in which Macro allies himself with the notorious Caligula. Caligula, indeed, is a character in the play, but he has only three lines of speech and shows none of the debauched cruelty for which he became infamous, so what is he doing here? A brief but crucial scene between him and Macro shows how Jonson uses a history outside his dramatic time-frame to deepen and ironize his tragic vision. Macro advises the young prince to go to Tiberius and to put himself at his mercy, a course of action that will eventually lead to his being named heir to the empire; we next hear of him after his brothers have been arrested, when it is reported that his escape is a source of displeasure to Sejanus and that the people have begun to favour him; his sexual appetites are attested, and he is described as ‘the rising sunne’. Jonson does not need to make more of Caligula than this; the name itself conveys plenty. Anyone familiar with Roman history will know what comes next, will perceive the intricate chain of ironies. Sejanus is brought down by Tiberius, whose instinct for self-preservation picks the right instrument with regard to Sejanus, but entirely the wrong instrument with regard to Caligula, whose alliance with Macro will ultimately result in Tiberius’s own murder, as Tacitus relates. The latter’s inability to see what history has in store for him in exemplified by his confidence that Macro and Sejanus will, like two poisons, destroy each other. Had Tiberius not appointed Macro, the risk of Sejanus acting against him would have remained; equally, however, had Macro not been employed, Sejanus would have been free to dispose of Caligula, and the really fatal threat to Tiberius would never have emerged. Had Macro not been employed, he would never have become an accomplice to Caligula, who repaid his services by forcing him to commit suicide. If Macro had been employed, but not collaborated with Caligula, he would still have been able to get rid of Sejanus, remained in Tiberius’s favour, whilst Caligula would either have been destroyed by Sejanus or else would never have attained the position that would prove to be the undoing of both Macro and Tiberius.** All these possible courses, at some point, lay open, but the characters are unable to see them; the tide of history is flowing one way, and they are carried blindly along it. Even the master-manipulator Tiberius cannot control or foretell the significance of his actions. As it turns out, Caligula ascends to the imperial throne, reveals himself a greater monster than Tiberius, Sejanus and Macro combined, before he in turn is assassinated. Macro and Tiberius are victorious as the play concludes, but their victory is not secure. And Rome continues its path of intrigue, murder, betrayal, corruption, war and disorder until its eventual collapse. All this lies before it as the mob’s frenzy subsides at the end of Sejanus. There is not even the comfort of reflecting that all this has passed, that the saga of Ancient Rome has run its course, that there is an end to the nightmare. Jonson ends on a note that is both certain and uncertain: fearfully unsure of what will follow, and at the same time all too cognizant of it.

Jonson’s characters, in commenting on the action, continually reveal the limitations of their understanding. When Sejanus falls, his demise is taken by the senators Arruntius and Lepidus as a prime example of the turning of Fortune’s wheel, which punishes in particular those who place their trust in her.


Who would trust slippery chance?


                                                They, that would make

Themselves her spoile :  and foolishly forget,

When shee doth flatter, that shee come to prey.

Fortune, thou hadst no deitie, if men

Had wisdome :  we have placed thee so high,

By fond beliefe in thy felicitie.

Lepidus is not denying the existence of the goddess Fortune, or claiming that only the foolish believe in her; he is reflecting the old Stoic attitude that the more one relies on Fortune, the more confidence one invests in her continued provision of wealth, health and power, the graver the exposure to potential misery, for fickleness is the nature of the goddess, and one day she will come to prey. Sejanus, the argument runs, has trusted all to Fortune, has exalted her above all else, and while she favoured him, he enjoyed his success; now that she has turned her wheel full circle, he has met with ruin. Stoics such as Lepidus, by not placing their trust in the earthly things within Fortune’s jurisdiction, are better able to withstand the buffets of her vagaries, even if they cannot make themselves immune to them. Another noble senator, Silius, earlier defies Fortune by committing suicide, evading her on his own terms; Fortune, when ‘vertue doth oppose, must lose her threats’. An alternative explanation is offered by a third senator, Terentius, according to whom Sejanus grew ‘proud, and carelesse of the gods’; by blaspheming against them and denying their powers, he incurred their wrath. Prior to his downfall, Sejanus had indeed claimed to acknowledge Fortune as his sole deity, lending support to both theories, but while neither Lepidus nor Terentius apparently notice it, their arguments are in conflict with one another. Is Sejanus undone by the impersonal course of Fortune’s wheel, or by the vengeance of the other gods, angry at being neglected and mocked? One being true makes the other irrelevant.

There are other complications. First, while Sejanus may be impious, other, more upstanding characters are scarcely more devout; indeed, Arruntius bitterly castigates the gods for being negligent and callous (his reverence being reserved for the heroes of the Republican past). Second, the idea that Sejanus’s excessive veneration of Fortune is responsible for his undoing is undermined by the fact that, until the last act, Sejanus displays no signs of devotion towards the goddess, mentioning her only twice. The first reference comes in the course of an attempt to woo a potential co-conspirator to his side; it is this other man, Eudemus, not Sejanus himself, who is tempted with the promise of Fortune’s rewards. The second reference is made with regard to Sejanus’s enemies, whom he pictures blithely drinking from her cup, unaware of the plans that are being laid against them. Sejanus only pledges his allegiance to the deity once he thinks he has attained power and security; in working to acquire these, he is shown to depend only on his wit and cunning. By the beginning of Act V, under the impression that he is above the reach of human and divine might, he has come to ascribe part of his apparent triumph to Fortune’s favour, as if he cannot quite believe his luck―after all, it is one thing to plan, another for one’s plans to succeed. It is at this point that he affirms his dedication, repudiating all other gods and adoring her image at home. But what he does not know is that at the very point he believes himself to be unassailable, the events leading towards his destruction have already been set in motion and are hurrying towards the denouement. Fortune’s wheel has turned before Sejanus has even mounted it. Reports of bad omens that his followers find unsettling―smoke emanating from a statue, servants breaking their necks, birds shunning an augury―provoke Sejanus only into expressing contempt for superstition and religion, Fortune being the sole exception. Even here, though he claims to adore the goddess, his words are not particularly pious:


To her, I care not, if (for satisfying

Your scrupulous phant’sies) I goe offer. Bid

Our priest prepare us honny, milke, and poppy,

His masculine odours, and night-vestments :  say,

Our rites are instant, which perform’d, you’ll see

How vaine, and worthy laughter, your feares be.

Sejanus, believing his position secure, is not moved to offer sacrifice even to the one deity he recognizes; he simply consents to Terentius’s plea, and does so grudgingly. After the rite is performed before an image of Fortune, the witnesses are terrified when they see the image turn away, but even here Sejanus, far from betraying any doubt or fear, overturns the altar in scorn of ‘juggling mysterie’, ‘superstitious lights’ and ‘coos’ning ceremonies’. So swelled with pride is he that he proclaims himself superior to Fortune. It is possible, of course, to interpret this behaviour as over-compensating bravado masking the terror beneath, but the cracks only appear once he has been informed of a non-supernatural piece of news: the arrival of Macro. Reports of further ill omens are ignored; Macro’s return is all that matters. Just as his success made him superstitious towards Fortune’s powers, the prospect of catastrophe now does the same. When Sejanus erroneously comes to believe that Macro has come with good news, he changes his mind again and believes Fortune is on his side. So Sejanus, far from being a blind idolater of Fortune, is tardy, insolent and inconstant in his allegiance.

In asserting his dominance over Fortune, Sejanus seems ridiculous, his arrogance no more than empty posturing in the face of the calamity he cannot avoid. Is the superstitious dread of Terentius any less ridiculous? On the face of it, he is vindicated by the events that follow the signs and wonders that strike such fear in him. But the text is ambiguous; Jonson provides detailed stage directions for the performance of the rites to Fortune, but there is no direction concerning the image, no confirmation that it really does move. In any case, Jonson has already provided grounds for uncertainty; when Sejanus is told that a statue of him has been sending out smoke he immediately suspects that a concealed fire is the explanation. Any production representing the moving image clearly to the audience (as did the RSC production of 2005 with a turning statue) would be using the same kind of trickery and illusion. Theatrical effects are but juggling mysteries achieved with technology; miracles can be faked. More importantly, the characters who are disturbed by the omens lack the knowledge that readers and spectators have of Macro’s prior employment; this distance allows us to view their superstitious panic critically. We know the real cause of Tiberius’s change of heart, something no other character discovers, for while Tiberius does mention in his letter to the Senate Sejanus’s request to marry his daughter-in-law, no great prominence is given to this fact; it is merely one charge amidst the general insinuation of conspiratorial ambition and tyranny―which consist mostly of acts that Tiberius himself approved. Sejanus’s involvement in the murder of the emperor’s son would be a strong motive for Tiberius to turn against his former favourite, but this is only revealed after Sejanus’s death, and was not previously suspected. Even Sejanus remains ignorant until the end of his error. Jonson makes a crucial departure from his sources in having Tiberius recruit Macro before, not after, his retirement to Capri, a decision that, as well as improving dramatic concision, earlier exposes to us the shaky foundations of Sejanus’ supreme self-confidence―an exposure other characters are unable to see.

Fortune may be a large, impersonal force, the workings of a blind, fickle goddess turning a wheel, but in its effects, it operates on a personal level of rise and fall, wealth and poverty, health and sickness, etc. As Erich Auerbach puts it in Mimesis, the operation of Fortune ‘affects only one person or a few people, while the rest of the world appears to remain apart from it and indeed witness the extraordinary event from a spectator’s viewpoint’. The spectator may draw a general lesson from the event, but they are not implicated in it. It is this spectator’s viewpoint that is shared by Lepidus and Arruntius at the end of Sejanus; they read the title character’s fall moralistically, as an exemplum of Fortune’s mutability (or, as in Terentius’s case, of the dangers of provoking the gods). Even though they foresee that this is not the end of Rome’s troubles, they don’t quite see themselves as being caught up in events; perhaps they imagine themselves in the future in the same position moralizing over Macro’s fall from grace. Fortune in essence is a matter of who’s up, who’s down, and one has the option of refusing, like Lepidus, to play its game. Jonson allows us a wider perspective, for he is not concerned merely with the fall of his protagonist, but with Rome’s collective tragedy, hence the referencing of both its happier past and even grimmer future. Classical historiography attached an importance to the power of human agency that was later obscured by the Christian attitude of de contempt mundi; in the Renaissance, these two traditions were often fused together.*** What we have in Sejanus is not a ‘fusion’, however; the traditions do not mingle. Lepidus and Arruntius from their position think that they are witnessing an individual’s reversal of fortune, which drags Sejanus’s family down with it. But this is not our position; we glimpse something of reversal, but we do not see the whole shape of its narrative, the arc of Sejanus’s rise and fall. It is there in the play, but compressed and truncated; it is an angle on events, a way of looking at them that partially overlaps with the alternative that Jonson offers us. But if Jonson is not presenting us with a full-scale medieval Fortune tragedy, neither does he insist on the importance of individual agency. Sejanus, Macro and Tiberius may think that they are in control of events, but they are not; they are governed by a force that rather resembles historical necessity, which drives forward not just individuals such as Sejanus, but also the undifferentiated mob that tears him to pieces. Even Arruntius and Lepidus are not immune; a reader of Tacitus would know that Macro would soon goad Arruntius to suicide. It may be possible to turn one’s back on Fortune, but there is no private space where one can shelter from history, no haven safe from its reach. Perhaps the clearest illustration of this is the fact that Arruntius and Lepidus are included as characters in a history play, part of the narrative corruption, tyranny and horror. They are mere witnesses of Sejanus’s personal tragedy, standing relatively safely on the side-lines. But they cannot extricate themselves from Rome’s tragedy or from the historical process. It is in this context that Tiberius’s scepticism towards fame seems base but not unreasonable, for not even posthumous fame can provide stability secure against the deluge of history, as there is no surety that the noblest actions will be remembered favourably, or that the wickedest ones will be condemned. Tiberius’s enemies exalt the memory of Cassius and Brutus, but by Jonson’s time they were often vilified as murderous rebels, while Livia, who conspires in the poisoning of her husband Drusus, is encouraged by these words of a fellow conspirator:


The ages that succeed, and stand far off

To gaze at your high prudence, shall admire

And reckon it an act, without your sexe :

It hath that rare apparance.     

As it happens, Eudemus is proved wrong, but this one instance of evil being recognized as such is no guarantee that history will always disclose the truth.

To write of ancient Rome at all was necessarily to write both of its greatness and of its decline and eventual destruction, so that to dramatize any episode from its vast timeframe was to encode that arc of rise-and-fall in the text, or to emblematize it as if in a design above the stage, in ever-present reminder. The splendour and the passing into oblivion of that splendour were inextricable from the very name ‘Rome’. The rise-and-fall arc could easily be presented as an epitome of the operation of Fortune (the city/empire being read as an individual), or of Fate. But to do so would mean viewing the past with a certain serenity or detachment, something that Jonson seems to have found inadequate, as inadequate as the closing words of Lepidus, Arruntius and Terentius. The great historical forces and currents that gather and propel all before them do not cease, and Jonson makes their terrible power felt even today.




*As did Plutarch, who had been previously translated in 1579 in a version by Sir Thomas North that provided Shakespeare with source material.

**Jonson’s other Roman tragedy Catiline is similarly ironic. The play ends with the hero Cicero exulting in triumph, but oblivious to the fact that Julius Caesar, the conspirator Cicero decides not to bring to justice, will shortly succeed in bringing an end to the Republic. The weaker, initial threat is dealt with thoroughly, but the more dangerous one is left to prosper. As Caesar’s treachery becomes clearer and more prominent as the play progresses, so the title character fades from view, even as Cicero’s attempts to thwart Catiline becomes the main focus. Thus the more we see of Cicero’s resourcefulness in defending the republic, the less serious appears the menace he opposes. The chorus ends the first act by condemning Rome’s lethargy, but the man who rouses the city also allows it to retreat back into lethargy by his very success; it is the degree of his success in saving the Republic that leads to his future failure and the end of the Republic.

***A point made by Irving Ribner in his essay ‘History and Drama in the Age of Shakespeare’, included in Shakespeare’s Histories: An Anthology of Modern Criticism, ed. William A. Armstrong (Harmondsworth, 1972).


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 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.

The Narrow House (1921, Evelyn Scott)

There are eyes everywhere in The Narrow House; Evelyn Scott never misses a chance to draw attention to them. In this study of a family at war with itself, the most minor character is sure to have theirs described, from a baker’s ‘narrow good-natured eyes’ to the ‘inscrutably professional’ ones of a doctor. Major characters, especially women, have their eyes repeatedly described, whether they are ‘dull and confused with resentment’, ‘opaque with misery’, ‘violently hard’, ‘self-righteously excited’, ‘rapacious with humility’, ‘lustful with pity’ or ‘fixed and despairing’. Scott is painstaking, too, in charting the movement of her characters’ eyes as they variously meet and avoid one another’s gaze. A sad, neglected little girl has a terror of eyes, particularly her mother’s, while her lonely aunt wonders whether it would be better to be blind. Eyes, in this novel, are weapons; both looking and not looking at your enemy can serve as modes of attack or defence. A few examples:

He glanced at her, his solemn eyes twinkling with a kind of placid malice.


His eyes narrowed against hers as though he were shutting her out.


He veiled his disconcerted rather empty blue eyes under defensively lowered lids.


His daughter-in-law disturbed him and if he could avoid it he never looked her in the eye.


“I hope so, Mrs. Price,” he agreed, coming forward, his lids drooping as if to shut out the painful sight of them all.


Winnie’s eyes shone, mercilessly sweet, into the hunted eyes of the elder woman.


Winnie’s eyes, like brown bees, crept with their glance into the vague combative eyes before them.


His smoky eyes were everywhere and on no one.


Alice kept a rigorous gaze full of cruel pity steadily upon her mother’s face.


She looked steadily with her dissolving gaze against his unpenetrated eyes.

This ocular warfare takes place surrounded by mirrors and windows: mirrors that provide fragile reassurance for the beautiful and torment for the plain, windows that make faces of houses and train cars, that let in light that exposes and reveals. Light, and its absence, is a further authorial obsession. In a book of just over 200 pages, the word ‘dark’ appears more than 120 times, ‘light’ more than 90, ‘bright’ more than 50, while ‘pale’ appears 40 times. Then there are the colors. White gets the most mentions, but grey, black, blue and red also feature heavily, as do color compounds, such as purplish-blue, amber-white, gray-green, etc. Eyes, leaves, teeth, furniture, clothes are all assigned colors: there doesn’t seem to be any symbolic method or patterning here, simply the creation of a dazzling visual texture that is precise in isolation but cumulatively vague (‘vague’ is one of Scott’s favorite adjectives). The exciting, frightening possibilities and uncertainties of modernity, which set the members of the Farley family at each other’s throats, are both brilliant and diffuse, leaving the characters bewildered in a visual overload. The shifting volatility of the historical moment, its attraction to the new and strange, finds expression―particularly in relation to eyes―in the odd and sometimes contradictory use of adjectives and adverbs. I’ve already quoted ‘placid malice’, ‘mercilessly sweet’, ‘vague combative’ and ‘cruel pity’; there’s also ‘angrily caressing’, ‘dark bright empty’, ‘soft sharpness’, ‘languid and deliberate excitement’, ‘vague hard’, ‘sweet greedy’, ‘fiercely soft’, a humility that is ‘triumphantly cruel’. Heady stuff, at times teetering on the edge of silliness, but never less than interesting.

Scott was prolific and acclaimed in 1920s, but her career nosedived in the following decade, and she ended her life bitter, paranoid and forgotten. There have been attempts to rehabilitate her since then, with a few reprints and critical studies, but she remains obscure. The Narrow House, the first volume of a trilogy, was also her first novel, and is not without its crudities. Some of it reads as if it had been culled from an anthology of Imagist poems; the result is as hit-and-miss as this implies. The striving for a big effect can be strained, as in the hands of a clock being ‘rigid as the limbs of the crucified,’ or the empty rooms in a row of houses being ‘blank as the faces of idiot women waiting for love.’ Scott is sometimes guilty of piling too much in an untidy heap; it isn’t enough for a house at night to be ‘a monstrous phlegmatic beast half drowned’, its ‘inmates’ have to be ‘sightless parasites’ as well. ‘Inmates’ is a metaphorical way of describing the occupants of a house; the metaphor here doesn’t make a good fit with monsters and parasites. I also doubt many animals would be phlegmatic about the prospect of drowning. But there are plenty of goodies, too: wet wheel tracks ‘glistening and sinuous like black rubber snakes’; a character’s voice dying away ‘like the shed petals of a flower’; the smile on her face like ‘the still surface of a pool filled underneath with little frightened fish.’ There’s a particularly fine passage as a narcissistic wife returns to the awful house after a brief sojourn away:

It was foggy. The train passed through a railway yard and Winnie saw rows of empty cars, long and low, that were like monsters with lusterless hides and opaque eyes, submerged in mist. Hundreds of dull eyes stared from the dimly shining windows, the pale eyes of the cars.

  Delicate bridges floated over her head as the train passed beneath them, and the swinging arms of derricks and huge machines, lifted through the mist, were as frail as lace.

  Lights burst against the mist like rotted stars, and there were other lights that opened upon her suddenly, glad and unseeing as the eyes of blind men raised in delight.

  The moon, small with distance, slimed over with fog, was green like money lost a long time. The telegraph wires stretched across the pale landscape tautly, like harpstrings. One after another the flat branched poles seemed to open submissive palms to the passing train.

It’s not flawless. If the eyes of the blind men are raised in delight, you would only be able to see them if you were looking down, which doesn’t accord with the character’s position in a train. But otherwise, it’s great, especially the gracefully alliterative last line.

There isn’t much plot. The elements of a plot are present; they seem to promise a feverish family melodrama to match the feverish intensity of the prose, but it never quite materializes. There are events―a few of them quite dramatic―but Scott shows little interest in weaving them into an artfully told tale, opting instead for a bleary narrative drift from scene to scene, character to character, dipping now and then into some stream-of-consciousness, or a poetic rhapsody on the sky, leaving the crises to peter out. The book is concerned with impressions, suggestions, atmospheres; the narrative propulsion is weak. What moors the novel, keeping it from floating about freely in the realms abstraction, is the author’s masterful depiction of her characters, which are conceived with a psychological acuity that recalls a more traditional novel. Some of them are quite familiar as types―the frustrated young spinster, the pompous moneyed oaf, the weak shambling patriarch―but they are given enough depth and strangeness to avoid cliché. Scott can be a heavy-handed writer, but her touch can also be deft and amusing.

Mr. Price came up to her and gave her a dominating caress. “Well, Winifred, how are you, my dear little girl?”

  She returned his perfunctory kiss, her moist lips cool with distaste.

  “Feeling pretty badly, dear?”

  “No, Father. I’m feeling pretty well.”

  He cleared his throat. He was disappointed.

The Narrow House isn’t a lost masterpiece, but neither is it a mere historical curio. It is certainly a very good first novel―good enough to suggest that Scott’s bibliography might just include the odd masterpiece or near-masterpiece, or else a respectable number of works of more modest excellence. What about The Wave (1929), which contemporary reviewers praised to the skies, and which was reissued in 1986? A big, big book about the Civil War told from multiple perspectives seems an obvious candidate for inspection, perhaps too obvious. At any rate, my interest in this writer has been awakened.

The Story of Hong Gildong (date and author unknown, trans. Minsoo Kang)

The basis of numerous films, TV shows and comic books, Hong Gildong is a brief, rollicking piece of popular entertainment featuring a legendary outlaw endowed with superhuman powers. Like Robin Hood, he steals from the rich to give to the poor, and rights injustices committed by corrupt officials, but also winds up with a kingdom of his own. The interest of this work derives both from the brio of its storytelling and its status as a cultural artefact of late Joseon-period Korea. In his introduction, translator Minsoo Kang argues against the traditional attribution of authorship to poet and politician Heo Gyun (1569-1618) in favour of a much later publication in the mid-19th  century, at a time of political crisis and the growth of a mass-market readership that preferred exciting plots to the edifying texts consumed by the scholarly elite. Edification is not entirely absent in this instance, but excitement, humour, wonder and sentiment are far more to the fore.

There are three sections. The first deals with the hero’s birth and his troubled upbringing as the illegitimate son of a high-ranking minister; the second relates his criminal exploits; the third takes the action out of Korea―first to China, and then to two fictional islands, of which Hong Gildong becomes king. The hero’s illegitimacy (his mother was a servant, and subsequently concubine, of the minister) is the motor for the plot, as all his discontent derives from the discrimination faced by illegitimate sons in an austerely hierarchical society. For all his astonishing strength, intelligence and virtue, the young Gildong realises from an early age that government posts will be barred to him; worse, he is denied the full affection of his father, who, in spite of the high regard in which he holds his son, is such a stickler for propriety that the boy is forbidden from addressing him as father.

The father-son relationship and its place within the dynamics of the Hong family is the main concern of the first section. Minister Hong is described at the beginning as an honourable man, but his behaviour throughout is questionable. Most disturbing is the conduct that leads to Gildong’s birth. Following an auspicious dream featuring a dragon, the minister tries to sleep with his wife (or, as the text puts it, makes ‘apparent his intention to become one with her in a decorous manner’), but is rebuffed on the grounds of his age and dignity. Instead, he sleeps with a young servant girl:

Although Chunseom was only a servant girl, she had a gentle nature and her demeanor and actions were always as proper as those of a respectable maiden. She may have been lowborn, but there was nothing lowly about her character. When the minister approached her so suddenly with an authoritative air and made apparent his ardent desire for her, she dared not resist his advance and allowed him the use of her body. From that day on she never ventured outside the house and showed no interest in other men. The minister was so impressed by her loyalty that he made her a concubine.

The domineering exertion of his power to satisfy his lust is bad enough; it might have been even worse had not Chunseom demonstrated her ‘loyalty,’ which is what persuades the minister to raise her status to that of concubine. It is clear that had Chunseom acted differently, Minister Hong might easily have kept her as a servant girl, or even cast her out, after getting her pregnant. Chunseom’s unswerving devotion, which is the mark of her virtue, might suggest an uncritical endorsement of male privilege, just as Gildong’s continuing reverence towards his father might suggest an uncritical endorsement of patriarchal authority, but the minister’s actions (particularly his gullibility in the face of the scheming of his senior concubine, which leads him to consider having his own son killed) leave him open to a heap of criticism, thus lending an ambivalence to the text. Similarly, while the adult Gildong displays to the Joseon king a mixture of impish defiance and firm loyalty, the king’s repeated failure either to capture the outlaw or utilize his talents within the state, as well as the implicit royal tolerance of ministerial abuses, weaken his authority. There is certainly an anti-authoritarian streak to this text, exemplified by the narrative’s clear endorsement of Gildong’s refusal to simply accept the second-class status society (including his father) would force on him, and the story has often been read as a subversive work. But, as Kang writes in his introduction, the subversive elements co-exist with more conservative attitudes (Gildong wishes rather to be recognized and awarded by the state than to overthrow it), resulting in an uneasy ambiguity perhaps reflective of the ambiguity and uneasiness of late Joseon politics, and also of the conflicting impulses within the popular market towards defiance of conventional morality and adherence to it.

The second section is the most entertaining, yet it also tests the tension between rebellion and obedience almost to breaking point. Gildong does not assemble his band of thieves from scratch, but rather wins control of an already successful outfit after a demonstration of his prowess; once the command is his, he warns that disobedience will be punished according to military law, refashioning his group so that it resembles the model of the royal army. Later, a general tasked with apprehending the criminal is seized and brought before ‘a great king dressed in a silk robe and a jade belt’ who sits on a high throne, and when the hero executes corrupt officials, he does so in the guise of a government inspector. Even as a bandit Gildong replicates the Joseon state, half as rival, half as loyal imitator. The motives by which Gildong claims to be guided aren’t always as pure as he claims, either. His first act of daring as leader is not a raid against an overbearing landowner or oppressive governor, but the looting of a Buddhist temple, its hapless monks being no match for the hero, who humiliates them with a glee bordering on the sadistic. Following the stunt’s success, he gives a speech to his men, solemnly commanding them not to steal from or harm the common people, or to take grain being collected by the government. Sure enough, he soon after steals grain from a local administrative centre. Perhaps we are to understand that this is not grain reserved for the common people, but the store of the yangban, or ruling class―but even if this is the case, would not the store simply be replenished at the commoners’ expense? In order to prevent innocent people from being punished for his crimes, Gildong advertises his own responsibility, but in doing so dishonours his family, breaking his parting promise to his father. As the outlaw’s notoriety spreads, the Hongs become increasingly endangered, yet each time Gildong promises to hand himself in for their sake, he eludes capture right at the last minute. His antics are funny, but there’s a strain of callousness, even cruelty, in the laughter. And what is his great aim in all of this? The demand he makes of the king is that he be appointed minister of war, yet in return he vows to leave the kingdom, which would leave him incapable of carrying out the duties of his post. It would seem that all he wants is an empty title free of any obligation to work.

Gildong’s powers being too great for Joseon to safely contain them, it is only natural that he should leave, just as he leaves his family. It is hard to see what other direction the story could have taken. Defeat and a glorious death, perhaps, but the problem would then have arisen of what to do with his family, as the relatives of traitors and rebels were deemed to share the offender’s guilt, and were often executed. Destroying the Hongs would have struck too sombre a note, so some potentially distracting device to save them would have been necessary. A reformed hero who renounces banditry and reaches an accommodation with the state would have been a terrible let-down, and so the simplest way to achieve a satisfactory ending is to remove the action from Korea. Granting him an invented kingdom to rule over, with his outlaw companions as his ministers of state, is an obvious conclusion. What is striking is that the fantastic elements actually decrease on fictional soil; there’s a bit of monster fighting in China, but once Gildong is made king of his make-believe island, he largely concerns himself with matters of ritual, ceremony and protocol; when he conquers new territory, it is through mostly conventional military means (no qualms about invading other lands, of course―might is right). The ending, though, is unexpected, calling to mind, of all things, Oedipus at Colonus―an oddly effective note of mystery and grandeur on which to end a diverting yarn.

Asylum Piece (1940, Anna Kavan)

Asylum Piece is a collection of linked short stories or sketches, vignettes of mental dislocation and encroaching despair. It might be possible to read the book as a novel, for there is a narrative thread running through some the pieces, but Kavan does not seem to be concerned with genre distinctions. There are three distinct sections. The first contains first-person narratives: a woman makes a desperate visit to a pair of mysterious, disapproving ‘patrons’; a woman suspects that she has an implacable unknown enemy; a woman conceives a fear of her house; the resident of a mental asylum derives fleeting comfort from watching the birds (which may not be real) she sees in the garden. It is implied, but not made explicit, that the narrator of each of these stories is the same person, an unsuccessful writer; certainly some of the narratives are linked as they contain references to the same ‘advisor’ and impending ‘judgement’, the nature of which is not spelled out. The stories depict the narrator’s experience of the world as a living hell of paranoia, confusion and hopelessness, in which almost everyone is hostile, in which every grey sky is an omen of doom.

In the chilling first story, the ‘victim’ is not the narrator, but a young woman the narrator identifies, by means of a birthmark, as an old school acquaintance, now apparently a prisoner in a foreign country. This opening sketch is like a small overture setting the tone for what is to follow, and is suitably oblique; we are not told the name of either the narrator or the prisoner (as a schoolgirl, she is referred to as ‘H’), and the foreign country and the crime of which the prisoner was convicted are unspecified. The sinister guards at the castle the narrator visits, and in which the prisoner is being held, might indicate an authoritarian regime (the publication date of 1940 is significant here), but this is never confirmed. Rather, they suggest the presence of a cruel, overbearing state power not limited to any particular ideology, and analogous to the hints of a similarly shadowy tyranny back in the narrator’s home country. The coded references to the dire political situation in Europe at the time of publication are elements of the wider theme of authority and control Kavan explores. In the stories that follow, various authority figures (usually male) appear, or are mentioned: the narrator’s ‘advisor’, her ‘patrons’, her husband, her nurse, doctors, police officers, her mysterious enemy. They dominate, reject, patronize, demean, confine and terrorize the narrator, resulting in an attitude that veers between crushed, submissive fatalism and a steely determination to endure. Kavan never lets on as to how much of the oppression faced by her narrator is to be taken as ‘real’ and how much is a product of her paranoid imagination, nor is it even clear whether the stories are set in the ‘real world’, nightmarishly distorted through the narrator’s subjective experience and relation of it, or take place in an alternate reality. Nothing is moored down or demarcated; the boundaries between the objective and the subjective, the external and the internal, are blurry and uncertain.

Perhaps the piece that best exemplifies this is the most uncanny of them, ‘A Changed Situation’, in which the narrator describes her growing terror of her house. The impassive solidity of the edifice melts away as the building, which is ‘of no definite architectural design’, and which was new when the narrator bought it, acquires an old part, ‘full of treacherous angles’. It is this old part (or newly old part) that occasions the terror. Here, readers might picture a building with old and new sections, an old house with a new extension, or a new house with a phantasmagorical old extension. A paragraph later, however, and there is no longer any mention of old and new parts, but of an old and new house―a single entity able to change appearance, or two entities with a symbiotic existence:

Lying peacefully curled up on a sunny day, the new house looks like a harmless grey animal that would eat out of your hands; at night the old house opens its stony, inward-turning eyes and watches me with a hostility that can scarcely be borne. The old walls drape themselves with transparent curtains of hate. Like a beast of prey the house lies in ambush for me, the victim it has already swallowed, the intruder within its ancient structure of stone.

The house is a life-form, a host for the parasitical narrator, who is destined to be spewed ‘like an owl’s pellet into the arches of infinite space’. The delusions of a disordered mind, perhaps, or even an allegory of the crushing by settled domesticity of an independent, creative woman. But there is no contrast with a familiar external reality or a ‘normal’ psychology. There are brief references at the beginning of the sketch to the narrator’s family, but they are vague and fleeting, as if these relatives had no presence. The piece ends with an image of the old house rearing its head up ‘like a hoary serpent, charged with antique, sly, unmentionable malevolence’―an image of sufficient power to make the question of whether we take the world as described by the narrator to be ‘real’ seem beside the point. Kavan does not seem interested in placing her readers in the position of clinical observers, safely examining the narrator’s mental disturbance from a situation of harmonious mental order. Rather, she seeks to puncture our own certainties about the world around us, poking at our odd suspicions and secret dreads, making us aware of the fuzziness of the dividing line between sanity and insanity. When viewed in the context of the world’s alienating cruelty and barbarousness, and its effects on the people who live in it, any distinction we might make between sanity and insanity is made to look, if not necessarily illusory, then at least of minor importance. To see oppressors in the forms of everyday objects and the natural world seems less extraordinary when one recognizes the pervasiveness of oppression and brutality in ordinary social life. Non-human forces range against the narrator in an alliance with her human antagonists, as in the following excerpt from the piece entitled ‘An Unpleasant Reminder’:

The day was ill-omened from the beginning; one of those unlucky days when every little detail seems to go wrong and one finds oneself engaged in a perpetual and infuriating strife with inanimate objects. How truly fiendish the sub-human world can be on these occasions! How every atom, every cell, every molecule, seems to be leagued in a maddening conspiracy against the unfortunate being who has incurred its obscure displeasure! This time, to make matters worse, the weather itself had decided to join in the fray. The sky was covered with a dull grey lid of cloud, the mountains had turned sour prussian blue, swarms of mosquitoes infested the shores of the lake. It was one of those sunless summer days that are infinitely more depressing than the bleakest winter weather; days when the whole atmosphere feels stale, and the world seems like a dustbin full of old battered tins and fish scales and decayed cabbage stalks.

Something as ordinary as a day of disagreeable weather becomes part of a cosmic vendetta against an individual; the mundane futility of those tins, scales and stalks stands for the whole world. Minor quotidian irritants collaborate so closely with larger traumas and disasters that it can be difficult to tell them apart.

After ten of these first-person narratives, there is an abrupt shift into the next section, entitled ‘Asylum Piece’. This is divided into eight short, numbered sketches, the first of them a surreal dream like something out of Hitchcock’s Spellbound, and the second the anguished musings and memories of an asylum inmate. The remainder of this section is composed of sketches, written in the third person, of various inmates, staff members and visitors at a psychiatric institution in Switzerland. Kavan extends her theme of authoritarianism, with unsympathetic doctors and relations (including a ‘fine-looking, clever, successful, debonair physician with his graceful, athletic stride’ and a middle-aged man admitting his fragile younger lover against her will) exerting a hard dominance over the mentally ill. She also includes small acts of tentative solidarity and compassion among some of the inmates and workers which, although they hardly amount to an effective resistance to power, yet provide a glimpse of an alternative to the stifling confinement, isolation and impotence to which, as Kavan shows, society condemns those who do not conform to its models of sanity. Near the end of the final episode in this section, a desperate young woman gives up at the sight of authority and huddles in a corner, ‘limp as a doll’; shortly afterwards, an older inmate, who had earlier attempted to intercede on her behalf, ‘enfolds her in a compassionate and triumphant embrace’.

The whole ‘Asylum Piece’ section could easily be read as the work of the narrator of the earlier stories, who is a writer (so perhaps a bit of metafiction going on here). Kavan returns to this narrator in the penultimate and final pieces, entitled ‘The End in Sight’ and ‘There is No End’, which are as cheerless as the titles would suggest. The closing image is of ‘a garden without seasons, for the trees are all evergreens,’ in which ‘there is no arbour where friends could linger, but only concrete paths along which people walk hurriedly, inattentive to the singing of birds.’ Kavan’s narrator is always attentive to the singing of birds and to the natural world in general, which can, at times, offer brief solace, but there is no obvious egress from those concrete paths.