Candide by Voltaire and Two Lives and a Dream by Marguerite Yourcenar

Right from the start I knew how I was going to write about Candide.

Voltaire and Emilie du Chatelet, aka I don’t need to say, do I?

Emilie: What the fuck, Voltaire. You have work to do. You are supposed to be writing that science book, remember?

Voltaire: But this was so much fun. All my friends down at the tavern liked it. They all think I should do more.

Emilie: Did they buy any copies?

Voltaire: Well, no. I took that one copy I wrote down and they’ve been sharing it around. Actually, I think there’s a page missing, now that you mention it.

Emilie: So they didn’t buy any copies, but it was [scornfully] ‘fun’.

Voltaire: Yeah, it WAS. They all bought me drinks. I know I’ll have to go into exile again, but it’s so worth it, I’m SO popular now.

Emilie: [wagging her finger] Well, this time, I’m not getting you out. You can stay exiled for all I care. I’m sick of having to do your work during the day and my own science in the middle of the night, only to find you are writing this populist junk again. You’re an addict.

Voltaire: But sweetheart – ……

Emilie: Yeeesssssssssssssss? Mmmmmmm. That’s……

But by sheer coincidence, whilst Candide travelled about Seville being read in lunch breaks – what fun at one point reading it in front of a table of priests in frock – the book next to my bed in the hotel room was Two Lives and a Dream. And the first in this group of three novellas is the story of Nathanaël who, like Candide, is Everyman, an innocent, reacting to the vagaries of life in the same way. Struck as one is by the easy entertainment Candide still supplies – no mean feat for any humorous work – nonetheless, the moving nature of ‘An Obscure Man’ quite overshadows it. I imagine the stern, unyielding Yourcenar would not care in the least to know that a tear was dropped during her rendition of Reality-Candide. She strikes me as the type who would be disapproving except at some level, perhaps, of which even she is not aware.

What I am not sure about, however, is whether I would have felt so strongly about this story if I hadn’t been reading it in tandem with Candide. This is my second attempt at Yourcenar, having put Hadrian away after a miserable start. Maybe this period and place – seventeenth century Europe, Amsterdam in particular – or the lack of creepiness (Hadrian is a seriously creepy creation) make it easier. But my very best advice is read it as I did. Candide. Nathanaël. Everyman. Splendid.


The Strange Case of Dr. Simmonds and Dr. Glas by Dannie Abse

Abse has a hard act to follow here. Doctor Glas, which I’ve discussed elsewhere, is a superb existential story of alienation, told from the point of view of a doctor who by virtue of his position in society is both especially connected to people – he is privy to their secrets – and especially disconnected – he is privy to secrets. The very fact that his job is to be privy to their most private thoughts means that the nature of his social relationships is compromised and ambiguous. He finds it hard to understand what his relationship is to individuals and that is connected up, of course, to his relationship to society.

Abse continues on this theme with the profound understanding that comes of being both a doctor and a poet. He is at the time of penning this, furthermore, an eighty year old Jewish doctor and poet. So the fact that this is set in Swiss Cottage and thereabouts parts of London straight after WWII, means he is writing with the most intimate knowledge of his subject. One wonders if he personally has been tortured by the questions raised in these books – when and how and why is it ethical for a doctor to kill?

Not that this is the truly important theme of either book, it is merely the backdrop. Both novels are about the angst of loneliness and of not fitting in. Of not being able to stand what is normal, what the people the protagonist has to call his friends and companions (such as he could use these terms) see as a desirable way in which to while away the gift of life we have randomly received. This happens to be a subset of twentieth century literature which has greatly attracted me over the years and I’m not sure if Abse has got it quite right.

For a start, the journal isn’t properly written as a journal. It is a novel written in the form of a journal, which isn’t the same thing at all. I think the technique of how Dr. Glas is written – without quotation marks, for example, to distinguish speech, because it isn’t being written as speech, it is being written in different way altogether – is important. Perhaps because of this – and odd when it is Abse that is the poet – Dr Glas, even in translation, has a rhythm that demands being read out loud. Not once did I feel so inclined to thus read The Strange Case.

But the trouble with writing criticisms like this, is that I don’t find it possible to judge if they merely come from the prejudice of having read Dr. Glas. On the other hand, I don’t see it is possible to read Abse without having read the book with which his is so closely connected.

If I may abandon attempts to be critical, I think the misgivings I have about this book are at least in part deliberately constructed by the author. Kudos if I am right in this. There is no reason why the reader should have it all spelled out to him. Anti-semiticism is important to the book. But IS Dr Simmonds anti-Semitic? The reader’s gut feeling, and the reader’s voice in the book (there is one) both say yes. But, without wanting to spoil this review with too much information, Abse clearly didn’t want the reader to be sure. Gut feelings aren’t always right. Isn’t that part of Dr Simmonds’ terrible dilemma?

I don’t really understand why this book is so neglected. Is it a curse, perhaps, to be on the Booker long list? goodreads has exactly 3 lines of review of this book. A modern book by such a prominent UK writer? So you can’t read everything and yeah, there are a lot of books out there in the world, but there is a lot of fashion. One of the things that seems a pity to me is that goodreads is season driven. This year the big names are all reading blah blah blah. Blah blah blah is the new black this year. I hope I don’t associate too much with the sad cases like Simmonds and Glas, but if you stand apart from the crowd, you get the chance to read all sorts of things that the cognoscenti isn’t into right now. All in all I’m happy to be in that isolated, alienated lot.

The Awakening by Kate Chopin and Strange Interlude by Eugene O’Neill

Looking at these two works now, one is so struck by the similarities, it is remarkable to consider their differing fates at the time of their appearance. As it happens I finished reading The Awakening the same day as I went to see Strange Interlude, so the points of comparison stood out. Both are American, experimental in form, controversial in content.

Both feature female characters who are constrained by the society in which they live – or perceive themselves as being thus constrained. Edna and Nina are adored by a variety of men and exploit that as suits them. They are both unusual characters who question the social conventions around them.

Edna, in The Awakening, is never a ‘good’ mother or wife, increasingly dissatisfied with the expectations of society, she begins to take steps to live her own life. She more or less abandons her children, she moves out of her house once she has developed a capacity to earn money via her art, she takes lovers – all this whilst her husband attempts to keep up appearances, hoping as a doctor has advised him, that Edna’s behaviour is an aberration that will correct itself.

Nina, having lost her juvenile love in WWI, becomes a nurse of wounded soldiers and starts sleeping with them – maybe that will make them feel better. That nothing is going to assuage the guilt she carries for the death of her beloved, is the rationale for all her actions. She then marries a well meaning dullard she doesn’t love, so that he can provide the children she needs in her life as a sensible substitute to look after – doubtless even she can see that sex with every injured US soldier isn’t going to be possible. Deliberately marrying other than for love, she then finds out that her husband’s family has hereditary madness, this after falling pregnant. Her husband is in blissful ignorance of both these things and she continues with scheming to keep it that way. Abortion is no problem, and then taking a secret lover in order to provide a baby with better odds of being born sane. Science in this period raises such moral issues as eugenics.

Chopin writes in the 1890s, O’Neill in the 1920s, so some thirty years later, but nonetheless, both are writing of scandalous, controversial topics. Both writers were known. Yet Chopin’s novel was generally critically reviled and forgotten until it received a feminist stimulus in the second half of the twentieth century. Interestingly, from that special interest beginning – ‘it is good because….’ – it has become considerably elevated to more like – ‘it is good’ fullstop. O’Neill’s play was as long as Chopin’s novel was to the point, six hours or so, it was very difficult technically due to his experimention with asides to the audience, a substantial aspect of the play. Undoubtedly he was better known to his audiences, having already won two Pulitzers. Still, although it too received censorial treatment here and there, including banning, it was nonetheless a huge hit.

It is impossible not to wonder about the different immediate fates of these works. Yes, O’Neill was more famous than Chopin, but this does not strike me as sufficient explanation by any means. Male fares better than female? Maybe, but the US by then had lots of hugely popular female writers. Perhaps it is relevant that the 1920s in the US was in general a freer period than before and after.

I wonder, however, if the ways in which these stories end has something to do with it. Nina is a morally ambiguous character. She claims always to be acting to further the happiness of others (at the expense of the happiness of others, we might observe), but even if this claim were true, it means she is doing so through methods that we can scarcely feel happy about. Lying to her husband, a secret abortion, a lover who she keeps even after she no longer needs him for his original purpose. And one can also question if it is true that she is acting in a noble way to further the happiness of others. She is a person who wishes to suffer, this is established right at the start of the play. She never wavers from that, maybe even keeping her lover is to exacerbate her pain. Even after her husband dies and her son, guessing the situation, gives his approval of her marrying her lover, she does no such thing, but instead marries the man who has been her substitute father and a figure to be gently mocked and used over the decades. No straightforward bliss for Nina.

Edna has a husband who is willing to put up with her bad behaviour to an extent we can admire from a distance. She has two lovers, one of which is also a love. Having established her independence, now living on her own, earning enough to support both her and the woman she has to do the ‘work’, having foisted her children on her own mother, and two lovers at the begging, she suddenly decides to kill herself. Frankly, if I could get Nina and Edna close enough, I’d knock their heads together, hope that brought them to their senses. The ending of The Awakening has no good explanation. I understand, from reading around, that it is due to an inability to otherwise be free of constraint. But there is no such thing as freedom from constraint and Chopin certainly doesn’t think there is. How do we avoid the conclusion that this is not a strong woman, but a weak one, maybe even a mentally ill one? It is simply not sufficient to say she was the victim of her society. The author herself lived in an almost entirely female society as far as immediate family went and was not exactly conventional in her own dealings with men. Appreciating the reasons why The Awakening is so highly regarded, it has shortcomings that leave me in doubt overall about it. One must also have doubts about a writer who withdrew the moment her work was criticised. It was not only criticised for content, but also for style and I am sure if Chopin had listened to some of that criticism and acted upon it, she might have ended up an important writer beyond the current justifications for her canonisation. What we can conclude is that Chopin was no driven writer, if she so easily withdrew from it.

Of course, Strange Interlude is nothing if not six hours of shortcomings. The National Theatre’s current production of it is cut down to a mere three and a half hours or so and one can only suppose that it has been pruned with an agenda. There is an imbalance between tragedy and comedy which I doubt exists in the original, the one that was so hugely popular when it first appeared. If The Awakening was reviled, Strange Interlude was both pilloried and parodied. Most famously in Animal Crackers, you can see the relevant segment here. And there is Spencer Tracy with Joan Bennett in My and My Gal here.

One would have to conclude that O’Neill’s use of the aside to the audience is a failed experiment. One wonders, having observed the somewhat strained and stilted dialogue in Southbank the other day, if this is a consequence not only of O’Neill’s melodramatic over-the-top, verbose style which is always present, if here even more so than usual, but also because of this experimental format. Perhaps it is a consequence of the need to differentiate between the natural thoughts of the characters as they are expressed out loud to the audience and the composed ones which are actually aired between the characters. O’Neill needs both a practical distinction so that we can tell what is going on, and an emotional one. I thought this was a difficult task for the actors, which they carried off with aplomb.

There is also a hilarious literary parody by Eric Linklater as it appears online at The Eugene O’Neill Newsletter. Juan has been advised to see Strange Interlude because it will be the most play for his money.


Black Bread was the sensation of New York. Its author, Knut Blennem, was recognised to be the leader in histrionic innovation and the adaptation of stage practice to modern theory. It was he who had said: “Psychology is our generation’s gift to the world. Psychology has revolutionised philosophy, art, science, and society. Psychology has made men like gods. It was psychology that taught me to write plays.”

Ecstatically the critics had lauded his play. Their columns had been stuffed to bursting-point with superlatives and semi-naive confessions of the emotional havoc which it had wrought in their semi-naive but critical minds; for emotional havoc is much sought after in America. “Here is a play to tear your heart out,” said one. “Pity caught at my throat and choked me,” said another. This one’s soul was slashed with anguish, that one’s wrung with terror, and still another’s turned in his breast like a babe in torment. When this was its effect on critical hearts and souls, what was the reaction of ordinary people likely to be? Juan asked the girl who sold cigarettes on the mezzanine floor of the Hotel Connecticut.

“Say,” she answered, “it’s a panic, it’s a wow!”

And so wherever it was mentioned Mr. Blennem’s name went up like a balloon on shrill blasts of adulation. For this play was to-day’s asseveration of its powers, and before such powers as these it was clear that the so-called Immortals of yesterday were nothing but flops, four-flushers, and false alarms. For one and all they had died without ever hearing of psychology.

Black Bread was the story of the woman Kathleen and her three lovers, Sidney Bush, Walter Hood, and Gerald Tomkins. A secondary plot dealt with the affection entertained by Livia (Kathleen’s sister) for Walter Hood; a vain affection. There was not very much action in the play. Every half-hour the scene shifted. Kathleen was introduced on the verandah of her home in the Adirondacks. She was talking to Sidney and Gerald. Then she was shown in bed, talking to Walter. Then in the living room, the dining room, on board a train, in an art gallery (some enlightened observations were offered here), a corridor, a garden, and a bathroom. But wherever she was she talked, and Walter, Gerald, and Sidney very often replied to her. But more often they wrote in their diaries. For this was the revolutionary device invented by Mr. Knut Blennem for discovering to the audience the true and secret thoughts of his dramatis personae.

It is notorious that we speak no more than half-truths in our ordinary conversation, and even a soliloquy is likely to be affected by the apprehension that walls have ears. Only to our diaries do we tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth, and by writing a play whose characters were all habitual jotters-down of errant thought, Mr. Blennem was able to show in the fullest detail his masterly psychological insight.

No less admirable than the original concept of dramatic diary-makers was Mr. Blennem’s device for revealing to the audience, piecemeal and as they were written, the endless confessions of his characters. A frame of white screens surrounded the stage, each one clearly marked by a name, as Walter, Sidney, or Kathleen. And as each character wrote in his diary, what was written appeared on the appropriate screen, flashed on to it by a projector of the kind used in cinemas.

For example, Kathleen would say to Walter: “I am weary to-day. I feel the life under my heart.” (For she was pregnant.)

And Walter would answer: “The weather is growing sultry. There are more and more clouds in the sky.”

But in his diary he would scribble this, and this would flash on to the screen: “The woman frightens me. I feel the dark power of her soul, and my soul struggles feebly in the whirlpool of her ens. She has engulfed me. Will she never tell me if I am the father of her child, or if Sidney begot it; or perhaps Gerald?”

For all three men were Kathleen’s lovers, and all three knew that she was pregnant, but none (perhaps not even Kathleen herself) could say who was the father of the coming child.

In sharp contrast to Kathleen was Livia, who had no lovers, and her diary revealed with great sincerity her sex-starved–indeed famine-stricken–soul. She was in love with Walter, but he was frightened of her and always, when he was staying in Kathleen’s house, slept with his door locked. This offended Livia who wrote in her diary: “An open door is God’s blessing to a wall. He who bolts a door will deny his Master. Dear heart, and his bed so broad!”

After several acts in which Kathleen grew more and more mystical and her lovers wrote quicker and quicker, the baby was born, unexpectedly, in a florist’s–“In the beauty of roses did I labour. Between white roses and dark roses was my baby born. In the scent of many flowers he first smelt life”–so the mother-triumpahant, some time later, described her ordeal. But not before a scene almost too dramatic, and very harrowing to conservative opinion in the audience.

The baby was black.

Sidney, Gerald, and Walter were all quite white. They had hereditary taints to prove their impeccable ancestry. And there was only one other male character in the cast–Kathleen’s negro chauffeur, Ham.

Ham, the gigantic Nubian, was the baby’s father.

Their feelings intolerably wounded, Sidney, Gerald, and Walter make ready for a lynching, and Ham is apparently willing to submit. But before removing his collar he sings a few verses of “Swing low, sweet chariot,” and the noise brings Kathleen to his defence.

She is wearing a dressing-gown which Gerald at once declares (through his diary) to be symbolic. It has a black and white chequer-board design. With Ham crouched at her feet, shapeless, inhuman, looking indeed rather like an outcrop of black basalt, Kathleen declares: “I sing the song of miscegenation. Black shall mate with white, negro with northerner, and the strength of Africa run hot in Nordic veins. Zion shall lie down with the Lap and the pledge of their love be fertile over the earth. In my heart are many mansions, and every nation is my guest–Eskimo, Teuton and Gael; Slav, Polynesian, Trinobant . . . .

There was a majority of women in the audience. The spectacle of Kathleen with her court of four men exalted them, for they had no more than one man apiece (if that) and he, perhaps, was tongue-tied, and gravel-blind to their deserts, and weak in the back, and given unduly to sleep. But there, on the visible stage, was a woman with a man at every point of the compass, a man in every corner of the room, so that wheresoever she might turn there was one to cosset and comfort her, and foment the unhealing wound of Eve. So should all women be accommodated, thought the esurient ladies in the audience, and loudly clapped their hands; and such husbands, lovers, and male dinner-partners as were present clapped too, without enjoyment indeed, but realising–as good Americans–that when it comes to culture women know best.

But if that is the case, the last point Linklater makes, why then did Chopin’s book, in which Edna also has a man at every compass point or near to – surely three ain’t bad – suffer such an ignomonious treatment at its first appearance? It may be that it is because Nina ostensibly does what is best for others, and that it is merely coincidental that she is in fact always doing what she wants for herself. Perhaps the audience did not even notice she was fulfilling her own wishes; while Edna never does a thing for anybody else. Not only does Edna do only what she wants – and it is always for herself – but she trashes everything a late nineteenth century woman might hope for. It is one thing to trash the status quo, but in gaining her independence from it, acquiring lovers, income, her own chosen solitude, none of this is good enough for her either. In killing herself, she trashes the idea of freedom from the status quo as well. She leaves her audience with nothing.

And maybe there is another point. It is true that not only the experimental nature of Strange Interlude but also its content makes it easy to mock. O’Neill was at least at times on the side of its detractors. When told that there was a restaurant which had a Strange Interlude sandwich on the menu, he is reported to have replied:

I know what it is. It’s a four-decker with nothing but ham!

Nontheless, it is also true that whilst The Awakening is unrelentingly earnest, with not a whiff of humour sullying its tone, Strange Interlude is both tragic and comic. In a nice discussion of the play which is well worth downloading here RF Gross in concluding his argument that this is a camp work obersrves:

Strange Interlude is not a joyless failure, but is a play that offers many pleasures that audiences have been more inclined to enjoy than have the critics….Critical theory has been much more devoted to trying to explain why we should respect or reject plays than to explaining why we are fond of them. In contrast, a camp approach begins with affection, since “camp taste nourishes itself on the love that has gone into certain objects and personal styles.” Camp reading admits the critic’s attraction to the work in all its idiosyncrasies. Because of this, it is a useful corrective to much of our cold, detached and suspicious criticism….It allows us to address certain types of spectatorial pleasures, which we have been ashamed to admit, especially within the works of canonical playwrights.

One final point. I find it odd that The Awakening has attracted so much feminist analysis despite its own unfeminist nature, whilst as far as I can see, Strange Interlude, a famous play by one of the world’s best playwrights, with a strong female lead surrounded by weak men has not received any feminist attention. Why is that? Gross suggests that it is why critics – male – were sometimes so enraged by it at the time and yet it has been ignored by the feminist critical industry. If anybody has thoughts on this, they would be appreciated!

The Master of Go by Yasunari Kawabata

With no such intention in mind, I rather fell out of the frying pan on this one. I had to get away from Yourcenar and a glance at the shelves made me think nothing could be further from Hadrian than a book about Go.

My very first Go move, and it’s a mistake. There I was, reading yet another book where the author has taken a true story and turned it into a novel. Yet another book where admiring fans talk of how real the novel is. I’m a historian, so the whole idea of the biopic, or bionovel, or novel based on, turns my stomach. You end up with a society which gets its history from Fox or Walt Disney or French women who wanted to be an Emperor. Much more interesting than reading a history book, I dare say. Scowls and shakes fist at the very idea.

But, of course there is much to distinguish between the two books. It is the endeavour of Yourcenar to write about a period of which we know very little except at a political level. Kawabata, on the other hand, is writing of something that he witnessed, something that over the short period of time between reporting on it for newspapers and turning it into a novel, became more than it was. Kawabata thus writes at the most domestic and intimate level, the very stuff of which the classical Roman period has left virtually nought. Here, then, we have a novel that is as warm as Memoirs of Hadrian is cold.

Kawabata is writing of something he knows in the most familiar of ways and don’t we feel that as the reader. I imagine Yourcenar would have paid dearly to be able to do that. Her story, however, is a purely intellectual exercise. Yourcenar writes with intellectual rigour, Kawabata with love. The cold and the warm.

The result of these different approaches is that for me Kawabata reads true – and it doesn’t matter whether the precise details are fabricated – while Yourcenar, who might have more strongly struggled to be accurate, reads less true. One might argue this is because Kawabata WAS there, Yourcenar wasn’t, and of course what he writes is going to feel more believable. But I don’t think that is the real answer as to the different reactions I find myself left with to these books.

I read both these books in translation. I imagine Hadrian being easy to translate, not only because it has no specialist nature to it, but because the translator worked in intimate proximity to the writer. For Edward Seidensticker quite the opposite was the case. When asked ‘When translating, do you put the emphasis on getting everything right word for word, or conveying sense?’ he replied:

I stay as close to the original as I can, but for me it is very important for the translation to read smoothly – in other words, to have a certain literary quality and that means very frequently in matters of small detail departing from the original. A literal translation cannot be a very literary translation. But I stay as close to the original as I can. My theory of translation is that it is imitation; it is counterfeiting. And the counterfeiter who makes George Washington on the dollar bill look handsomer than he was is not a good counterfeiter. There has to be a spiritual bond between the translation and the original work, which means the translator must like the original work. But if someone tells you your translation is better than the original, you should consider it an insult because that is not what you’re supposed to be doing. You are not supposed to be improving.

and to the question ‘Do you check with the authors when you depart from their original?’: ‘It’s useless because authors don’t like to talk about their work. At least the ones I have known best don’t like to talk about their work. I never asked Tanizaki about anything, but it was very clear: Tanizaki is a very lucid writer; there are almost no problems of comprehension. I did ask Kawabata, but he was never any help, so I stopped.’

Not only was the author further removed from the translation process, but on top of that, we have the issue of the specialist nature of the object to be translated. Did Seidensticker have any experience of Go? Not that I have been able to discover. Still, I guess a good counterfeiter can get away with this, and if I’ve made that a theory, I think it holds for this book. I never felt like the move from one language to another mattered. Is it possible that Japanese translates especially well into English? Ignorantly, but intuitively, I want to say yes, it does. I feel like I am reading something quintessentially Japanese despite it’s being translated.

I noticed this, James Cowley, writing in the New Stateman:

He understands, too, the value of silence – of the precise nuance, the interval, the pause.

Naturally, much of the subtlety of his prose-poetry – the short, intricately compressed sentences and paragraphs, the tension created by juxtaposing contrasting images – is lost in translation, especially what Roy Starrs, the author of Soundings in Time: the fictive art of Kawabata Yasunari, calls his “aesthetics of ma”. “Ma”, in broad translation, means interval or pause, and Kawabata’s best sentences in Japanese are distinguished by suspensions in the action and by pauses between clauses, the equivalent of the use of white space in Japanese ink painting, or the long pause in haiku. Perhaps it is this sense of something missing that gives his work its presiding ambiguity and vagueness.

I don’t feel this for one moment, that this sense of silence, pause and vagueness is missing in English. Well, I gather it is often said that Seidensticker is as good as translators get. He learned Japanese in a way which will be of interest to the linguists out there:

It was a revolutionary way in those days and hasn’t changed much since. The service language school assumed that it was possible for us to learn Japanese. Before the war, it had been assumed that only the Japanese could learn Japanese – a ridiculous assumption. But the Navy language school said we could, providing we had a reasonable amount of ability and intelligence. They taught what was called the natural method. We didn’t learn grammar, but learned from speaking and listening, the way a child does. I’m not sure it’s a very valid theory, but it was a good school, probably the best I’ve ever been in. By the end of 14 months, we were able to read a newspaper. Before the war, that would have been thought impossible. The Army required its language students to be soldiers, but the Navy didn’t require anything of us. Except that we study Japanese. It was complete concentration on one subject, which is not how most universities work. And we worked on it steadily without relief.

I observe that this book is typically discussed in terms of its relationship, real or imagined, to the decay of the Meiji period and the destruction of Japanese tradition taking place in this period. It isn’t that I mind the idea of this and certainly the author was deeply regretful that these changes were taking place. Nonetheless, it is a book about Go. It is a book about the nature of game-playing at the rareified level of being the best in the world. It is a book about the moral and aesthetic changes that were taking place in Go at that time, changes to be noted and mourned whatever else was also happening to mirror this in society at large. It’s a book about sportsmanship, neuroses and mistakes. The changes it observes, the struggle between the amateur ideal and the professional ethic, the pain suffered by the protagonists, the hapless hangers-on, all this rings true to anybody who has played games in an ambitious manner.

I confess, then, this is how I read this book: as a person who can’t tell the black squares from the white on a Go board or what to do with the doubling cube, but who has all too intimate a knowledge of how games at that level work. And I’m left harrowed, depleted – and enriched, of course – by this exquisitely sad tale.

Krapp’s Last Tape and Molloy by Samuel Beckett

I wonder if the prop man for Bob Wilson’s Krapp’s Last Tape as doing the rounds of Europe at the moment realises how many people hate him?

So, the first fifteen minutes, for those who have yet to see it, consist of a chap sitting at a desk while it rains…inside, I think, odd as that may be….eventually moving to a drawer at the front of his desk from which he pulls, and then puts back, two reels of tape. Fair enough, I thought, as he opens the drawer below, that is the one more likely to hold the last tape. And from this drawer he rather triumphantly discovers a banana which he eats. Slowly. No, fucking slowly.

Fifteen minutes and nothing has happened. I’m thinking I could have stayed home, eaten my own banana and saved 45 bucks. But to be fair, the audience is hooked, surely now something is going to happen. And indeed it does.

He goes back to the drawer and, in the single greatest misfortune for theatre audiences since the Mexican director Gonzalez Fernando Gonzalez decided to do a rhumba version of Hamlet, he pulls out – another banana. Dead set. You can do that in something that is 3 hours long, but this is one hour 15, we are into the last hour and he is about to start eating his second banana. The prop man has a lot to answer for. He was the audience’s last line of defence.


I have to say, I napped through the rest of it, but to be fair, if need be, that is, given the banana debacle, the guy was miked. What’s that about? If I want to go to the theatre and listen to people with weak voices booming away with mikes, I’ll go to see an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical. Professional theatre is about making one’s voice work without the aurally offensive use of artificial aids. Maybe napping was just my escape.

I’m sorry, Bob Wilson, I know you are super super famous and avant-garde and you’d done Philip Glass and you are a towering figure of experimental theatre, but I think you’ve fucked this one up.

Added a couple of days later: oh, just to prove how fantastic this play is, forcing me to make it five stars, watch Pinter doing the part in a Royal Court production (you can do this on youtube if you have to). All the crap in Wilson’s version, both technological and comic, if that is what the banana scene is meant to be, are absent. Strangely, there is uncalled for technology – a wheel chair, because Pinter had just been extremely ill and didn’t have the physical strength to get up for the off stage moments – but as you could imagine, if you know the play, this is a fortuitous meeting of reality with stage craft.

It isn’t often that I get the chance to watch any English theatre in Geneva, let alone top professional theatre. It was all the more reason I felt betrayed by this tedious technologically obsessed Beckett brought here by Wilson. Redemption was at hand, however, when a couple of months later, Denis and the crew at Glas brought Conor Lovett to town to play Beckett’s Molloy. Wow. I don’t know what I’d do without GLAS since they bring the only theatre to Geneva that makes me truly happy. (I know, I know, if I ever get French, theatre in that language might do it). Lovett’s Molloy is everything that Wilson’s Krapp lacked. Brilliant comic timing – with no props whatsoever – and tremendous warmth. As I was walking out, I wished I could have turned the clock back 1 hour and 15 minutes to do it all again. I hope I get to see everything in the repertoire of the Gare St Lazare Players. Another triumph for GLAS.

These are two very different pieces. Both are moving, but Molloy is genuinely hilarious, I don’t recall seeing a Beckett that has made me laugh like this did, whereas Krapp’s Last Tape is harrowing. But you have to see the right performances to see this, so take care to do that!