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Category: Books

Harold Bloom: Give Me Falstaff

To those who have followed Harold Bloom’s writings on Shakespeare, his love of Sir John Falstaff, as portrayed in the two Henry IV plays, has never been a secret. I use the word ‘love’ here as a consuming passion, one approaching a romantic love, in that it knows no proportion or objectivity. For instance, in Bloom’s very clear and helpful book Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human (1998) his chapter on Hamlet is completely overrun with discussions on Falstaff. This even led to Bloom writing a supplemental book Hamlet: Poem Unlimited (2003) to correct the imbalance when he apparently realised what he had done.  And now Bloom has dropped all pretence and has given us in Falstaff: Give Me Life, released today. This book is nothing short of a 158 page love letter to a fictional character created in 1597… and it’s a pure joy to read.

Were any of us to write a book or essay on our spouses or significant others, we could hardly submit an unbiased view or treat the work academically.  Bloom here, although a brilliant scholar, admits himself too much of a lover to offer any pure criticism. To whit, any discussion of Falstaff as he appears in The Merry Wives of Windsor is completely out of the question and the play is discussed only once. Falstaff’s (or Fostolf’s) early, and apocryphal, appearance in Henry VI Part 1 is not even mentioned.

What is it about Falstaffian characters that attract us so greatly to them? Characters who are unfiltered, who seem to give themselves over to their id without heeding any sort of external check, hold a special appeal for us. It’s easy for any of us to compile a list of these characters: Withnail of Withnail & I (1987), Eric Cartman of South Park, Zaphod Beeblebrox, Donkey in Shrek (2001), and Ron Burgundy are some of my favourites. Not quite hedonists, but all of them unapologetically selfish, and all the more compelling for that. Of course, if these people existed in real life they would be some of the worst people that you would ever meet, but seeing them on the page, or the screen, we participate in an act of catharsis.

Catharsis is a term which Aristotle first applied to drama, meaning the cleansing of emotions, which fiction provides. A part of us wants to be these characters, to be selfish, to be unrestrained, but almost all of us push those impulses aside, or tie them down. By seeing them performed outside of ourselves, however, we experience a kind of release. These people we don’t allow ourselves to be allow us to relax our hold on ourselves for a short time in the safe environment of our imagination.

Bloom’s love for the villainous rogue Falstaff is infectious, and if you are thin in your admiration of his enormous personality, you are fat with it by the end of this book. Personally, I will admit that I disagree with Bloom more than I agree with him on the intent of Shakespeare’s plays and what there is to admire in them–I far prefer Richard II and Henry V to the middle to of the second Henriad, and will add my vote to that of T. S. Eliot’s when he says that Coriolanus is superior to Hamlet… an opinion for which Bloom considers him deliberately perverse.  Nevertheless, I completely warmed to Falstaff halfway through the book.

Timothy West (left) as Falstaff and Samuel West (right) as Prince Hal, in performance, 1996.

Passion for Falstaff can be all-consuming.  I studied Henry IV Part 2 at school, and vividly remember seeing it in Oxford where Falstaff was played by Timothy West, and Prince Hal by his son, Samuel West, and I think that’s the best cast that you can hope for these days. (I found Simon Russell Beale’s Falstaff in The Hollow  Crown TV series far too stark, delivering the “chimes at midnight” line with a sepulchral hollowness that Richard Eyre should have known better than to admit.)  It is my belief that Shakespeare clearly invented Falstaff as a mechanism to propel Henry V to the height that he reaches at the end of his own play. The reason that he was written out in Henry V was to not detract from his ascent, for although there is comedy, in the classical sense, in that play, there is very little humour. Orson Welles famously rewrote Henry IV 1 & 2 to centre around only Falstaff, editing out all that didn’t support his arc. Bloom joins him in the opinion that there is little reason for the Henriad except to give us Falstaff, and after reading his book it’s hard to disagree.

I am now of the opinion that Falstaff is the most intelligent character that Shakespeare ever created. His mind is faster and more manoeuvrable than any other character. Iago could be another contender but he lacks self-preservation, such as Falstaff shows at Shrewsbury. Hamlet is an obvious benchmark for fictional intelligence, but although he has an acute sense of mortality, he does not have so complete a perspective on actual living as Falstaff does. Shylock is very sharp but too easily overwhelmed by wrath.  All of Shakespeare’s characters have deep flaws; his most brilliant characters all tend toward self-destruction.

Orson Welles as Falstaff as Henry IV in The Chimes at Midnight (1967).

Falstaff admittedly is no exception, for he is very famously betrayed. But as Bloom rightly points out, his downfall comes from having a surfeit of life. He dies because a raging bonfire cannot last forever, and although a young prince was once attracted by it, his ambition was never his downfall. That he expected to gain by his relationship is very clear, and expressed, but the old knight lacks the animus to actually change his environment. He has something of the stoic in him in battle. Falstaff will pretend to be dead in order to avoid fighting, but he will still march to war when called. He is painfully aware of what war will do to the ‘food for powder’ that he leads to battle, yet he allows some of those with familial obligations to buy their way out of it.

I almost feel that I could write a book myself about Falstaff, but if I did it would not be a better one. Bloom’s small book is fun, easy to grasp, and laced throughout with poignancy as the author draws on his own feelings of age and mortality in his analysis. And the scholar’s complete command and comprehension of Shakespeare’s context, particularly when it comes to biblical texts, is second to none. Could not recommend more. Five stars.

Gaiman’s Norse Mythology and Forgetting Things Too Important To Remember

Neil Gaiman’s book Norse Mythology, released today, is a retelling of the original Norse myth cycles being a fusion of The Prose Edda and The Poetic Edda. If anyone thought that it would be dry read, or that Gaiman’s easy style would be constrained by such an academic treatment, never fear. I doubt that there exists a more accessible translation, and certainly not a more entertaining one. Gaiman has us, at turns, laughing, becoming outraged, or sympathising with these Norse gods, all of whom carry deeply human flaws and foibles.

The book is published by W. W. Norton & Company, and it is worth drawing the comparison that they also have published Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf, which is a spiritual brother to this work both in its technical ability to stay true to the source material, but also to feel current and updated. A few years ago I took a course in Old Norse Language and Literature, as a part of which we were all required to translate some of the original Norse tales and I can almost guarantee that anyone looking at the original and Gaiman’s translation will be very impressed with how near the source Gaiman has kept his own text. The licenses he has taken are few and sensible. The framing device of Gylfi has been despatched with, which is an entertaining angle on the tales, but one that ultimately holds them down and is largely unnecessary. The intermittent poetry has been folded into the narrative, but still exists in a few recognisably alliterative sentences. And the dialogue has been updated, so that the idioms and flow feel as natural to us now as it would have felt to the original listeners.

If there is a flaw in Norse Mythology it is that it feels brief and incomplete — the book can be read in a couple evenings. However, this certainly does not stem from Gaiman but from the fact that the written record of Norse mythology is incomplete. And this has to do with the peculiarities of why people started recording them in the first place, and how we in the West moved from an aural culture to a written culture.

The cover page from an early edition with scenes from the tales. Odin is top centre, with his ravens flanking him. Thor’s hammer is to his lower left, and Valhalla is bottom row, middle. (Click to enlarge.)

At this moment, the case could be made that unless something has been written down and uploaded, it cannot even be said to have truly happened. But in a pre-literate society, this was never the case. Instead of creating archives of knowledge, be it fact, fiction, history, or what-have-you, the ancients had a more elegant solution to not forgetting something–they simply remembered it. To continue to look at Old Norse writings, the great majority of them, what are called the Sagas, deal with genealogy,  land ownership, travelogueing, legal battles, and blood feuds. (You will also get the odd supernatural occurrence, but only when it impinges on one of the categories above.)

It may seem unbelievable that such received knowledge would be considered in any way reliable, but first consider the hegemonic state that these stories or histories would have been held–at any time any one of a number of people could be called upon to give a breakdown of Egils Saga, for instance, and among the listeners to that tale there would be very often one other present who could vouch for the validity of the recitation and add clarification or correction.

There is an incident in one of my favourite Sagas called Vatnsdæla Saga in which a man and his mother are suspected of making human sacrifices in their house by their neighbours. They send a serving boy down to their house to knock on the door with the added instruction to start reciting a well-known poem as soon as he has knocked and then to remember how far he got through that poem by the time that the door has been answered. All of this is only to illustrate that these people could remember by rote than they could count.

A detail from the Franks Casket. Weyland is on the far left, working at his forge.

And herein lies the problem that we are now faced with: the paradoxical situation that somewhere along the way we forgot a lot of stories that were considered far too popular to ever record… and so they didn’t. And it would now be the case that we wouldn’t even know that they were missing if we didn’t have the odd indication and reference to them. One of these is a direct reference to the tale of Weyland Smith, made by Alfred the Great. In the king’s own (possibly commissioned, but possibly not) translation of The Consolations of Philosophy by Latin philosopher Boethius, Alfred mentions Weyland in place of the Roman Fabricius, as someone who everyone knew. However, no English written treatment exists of the full history of Weyland–he is only mentioned twice in passing in the Old English corpus. Beowulf itself is an oddity in that it is an Old English epic poem that has nothing to do with England at all–neither its characters or setting is English. It is, in fact, now widely accepted as a kind of continuation of the adventures of the characters in yet another Old Norse history, Hrólfs Saga KrakaThese two remnants of ancient literature hint at what would at one time have been a whole catalogue of adventures. It would be as if only two out of sequence Star Wars movies now remained from the extant eight, or we had Iron Man 3 and Avengers, but nothing else and could only imagine the context for those.

The first page of Beowulf, contained in the “Cotton MS Vitellius”. The edges have were singed in 1731 when a fire in the building it was stored damaged it and many other priceless works of British literature.

The written records of what now exists from Scando-European culture, in which we also classify English, was created by Christian monks–some of whom we even know the names of. This was simply because these were the only people who could write. Contrary to what might be assumed, the monks and priests that brought us out of the Dark Ages were very comfortable with their pagan roots. Beowulf, for all that some people insist at being altered or Christianised, only shows three instances of direct Biblical reference or allusion in over 3,000 lines of text, which not even the most obtuse commentator could call heavy-handed. The clergy of the time has evidenced more hesitancy at translating their own Bible than in recording their pre-Christian heritage. In Aelfric’s Preface to Genesis he expresses concern at giving a popular version of the earliest Judeo-Christian stories because he isn’t sure if people hear it read it out of context that they will understand that they aren’t to live in the old law as they are to live in the New Law. Their aim was to preserve knowledge, but not to alter it, whether they agreed with it or no.

So what were the recorded stories recorded for? In England they were almost exclusively given as gifts given by the monks to their patrons–essentially novelties. And the inherent novelty value of recording a story that everyone knows is very small, but a rare or exceptional story of a famous character, or a poem that not everyone has heard of is considerably higher. (Only in the instance of the Icelandic Sagas do we have the situation where a group of monks, spearheaded by the wonderful Snorri Sturlusson, deliberately set out to record EVERYTHING so that nothing was forgotten, and that is why Iceland is unique in the world as being a nation without a prehistoric period.)

And to bring it back to Gaiman and Norse Mythology–this is what we now have: a collection of the odd exceptional tales. We have the time that Thor wasn’t Thor — when he lost his hammer and had to dress up like a woman. We have the various times that the trickster Loki was tricked. We also have the start of the universe and the end of the universe, because these are novelties as well. There’s the time when the god of beauty and light is killed, and also the story of where poetry comes from. And in having these tales, we may very well have the best of what used to exist, but here’s the thing… we’ll never know.

In Defence of Being Inappropriate

Life is too short to live without the extraneous. One of my my guilty pleasures is inappropriateness in art. I don’t mean off-colour humour, or paintings of bottoms, but serious artistic works which which make unreasonable demands on its audience.

Another pleasure is to watch how often Affleck, who plays a blind man, LOOKS at things.

I’ll start by explaining what I don’t mean. I don’t mean a badly written movie, even movies as badly written as Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016), Star Wars: Attack of the Clones (2002), or Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008).  Although the plots and characters in these are so atrocious to be inappropriately demanding, in and of themselves, that demand arises from bad writing, and I do not find that enjoyable. All bad writing is bland. But a bad movie such as Troma Entertainment’s Sgt. Kabukiman NYPD (1990) comes closer to what I mean.

To me the best example is the original cinematic Daredevil (2003), more accurately the extended Director’s Cut (2008), which features an irrational 30 minutes of restored footage. Most of this footage is a to-do about a trial of a gangbanger played by Coolio, which is not even tangentially related to the main plot. It’s a brilliant display of complete, unreasoning inappropriateness. And while it would be reasonable to write such a sub-plot into an early draft of a film script, consider the mass insanity required to cast, shoot, and edit that stuff.

Currently my heart aches to see the as-yet-unreleased Batman Forever (1995) director’s cut. Batman Forever was an absurd  movie that, even at a final running time of two hours two minutes, was apparently planned to be as frivolous on an epic level.  Of course in any movie there are a bunch of unused scenes, but take a look at what was left out of this pointless beauty and bear in mind that this is not the full list (which is here):

  • One sequence came directly after the casino robbery, where Batman follows a robbery signal on a tracking device in the Batmobile. He shows up at the crime scene and finds he is at the wrong place (a beauty salon), in which a room full of girls laugh at him. The Riddler had been throwing Batman off the track by messing with the Batmobile’s tracking device. This would explain why in the theatrical version Batman seems to give Riddler and Two-Face moments of free rein over the city. This scene appears in a rough edit on the Special Edition DVD.
  • The construction of NygmaTech was after Batman solves the third riddle and was more in-depth. There were scenes shot that appear in publicity stills of Edward Nygma with a hard hat helping with the construction of his headquarters on Claw Island.
  • An extended scene established Bruce in the Batcave shortly after having discussed with Dick then that this would have saved his life after the battle with Two-Face in the subway system under construction. In this scene he is appreciated as the GNN news (Bruce watching in the Batcomputer) attacking Batman and Two-Face after the battle in the Subway and after that Bruce talking to Alfred turns into the dilemma of continuing to be Batman and try a normal life with Chase. Like the deleted Helicopter fight sequence, this scene also makes reference to Batman himself being “a killer”, and in the original production screenplay, this scene was to contain footage from Batman Returns, specifically taken from the rooftop fight scene with Catwoman. This would explain why in the theatrical version Bruce turns off all the systems in the Batcave telling Dick he gives up being Batman. This scene appears in a rough form on the Special Edition DVD.
  • Look at this insanity

    Another deleted scene involved Bruce waking up after being shot in the head by Two-Face, temporarily forgetting his origin and life as the Dark Knight. Alfred takes him to the Batcave, which has been destroyed by the Riddler. They stand on the platform where the Batmobile was, and Alfred says, “Funny they did not know about the cave beneath the cave.” The platform then rotates downward to another level where the sonar-modification equipment is kept, from the special Batsuit to the hi-tech weaponry. Bruce then discovers the cavern where he first saw the giant bat that inspired him to become Batman. Inside he finds his father’s red diary which he had dropped when he first fell into the Batcave after his parents death. He reads the entry about him insisting his parents take him to the theater to see a show the same night they were killed. He realizes he had misread it, and his father had written ‘even though Bruce insists, we wanted to see Zorro so his show will have to wait until next week’. Bruce realizes his parents death was not his fault after all. The giant bat then appears and Bruce raises his arms to match the wing anatomy of the bat and the shot shows that they are one. Bruce now remembers who he is and goes with Alfred to solve the riddles left throughout the film. Screenwriter Akiva Goldsman admitted the scene was very theatrical on the special edition DVD and felt it would have made a difference to the final cut. The bat was designed and created by Rick Baker, who was in charge of the make-up of Two-Face. This scene appears in a rough form on the special edition DVD and is briefly mentioned in the comic adaptation.

  • The original ending was similar in style to the previous Batman films, which had involved a scene with Alfred in the limousine, the camera tracking upward through the Gotham cityscape, followed by a rooftop shot involving a silhouetted hero (Batman in the original, Catwoman in Batman Returns) facing the Bat Signal. When Alfred drives Doctor Chase Meridian back to Gotham she asks him “Does it ever end, Alfred?” Alfred replies, “No, Doctor Meridian, not in this lifetime…” The Bat-Signal shines on the night sky and Batman is standing on a pillar looking ahead. Robin then comes into shot and joins his new partner. They both leap off the pillar, towards the camera. A rough edit of the first half of the scene appears on the special edition DVD, but not in its entirety.

And although screenwriter Akiva Goldsman went on to win an Oscar for Beautiful Mind (2001), let’s not forget that he also wrote Batman & Robin (1997) and Lost in Space (1998).

But not all inappropriate films have to be critically panned. In Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life (2011), the sequence of the creation of the world is, I would argue, vastly inappropriate for modern day audiences… and it completely makes the film. People often declare that there are too many endings in 11 Academy Award winning The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003)–I say that there are not enough, and I still feel gypped that they gave Saruman an early exit in that one.

Inappropriate length is one of the reasons that I love silent film. In the early days of cinema there were no established rules, and so no one making movies knew what could or couldn’t be demanded of an audience. And so you got movies like Dr Mabuse, Der Spieler (1922), which is an action/thriller that runs at a masterfully inappropriate four hours and twenty-eight minutes. Eleven years later the same director made a sequel, Das Testament des Dr. Mabuse (1933) which was a much more reasonable two hours and four minutes, but which made the completely inappropriate demand that viewers accept that Mabuse, a man previously displayed as possessing a penchant for make-up disguises, could now control people with his mind and leap his consciousness into other people’s bodies.

If we wish to look at literature, I would offer Les Miserables, by Victor Hugo as a masterwork in unrelated asides. Among its frequent and unnecessary departures from the narrative are two chapters that describe life in a 19th Century nunnery and an emotionally descriptive essay on the progression of the battle on the fields at Waterloo. My particular favourite is the several chapters directly in the middle of one of the conflicting climaxes near the end in which we learn the long and winding history of Paris’s sewer system from the 16th Century to the then modern day.

Looking back further we find The Faerie Queene (c. 1590) by Edmund Spencer. Over two thousand stanzas consisting of nine fairly dense lines apiece for which even the author lost enthusiasm for halfway through. Edward Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1789)was so luxuriously lengthy that it provoked one of the most dismissive literary observations of all time from the Duke of Gloucester,

“Another damned, thick, square book! Always scribble, scribble, scribble! Eh! Mr Gibbon?”

Also consider John Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson (1791), which I truly think will take me a lifetime to finish. Or David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest (1996) with its wandering chapters and footnotes that are as expansive as they are essential.


It’s a concept that I explored in my own fiction in my book The Realms Thereunder. I’m well aware of the inappropriateness of the lengthy process in which one character learned the nearly forgotten art of charcoal burning–and only shortened it to its published length under considerable duress. I also delighted in writing roughly eight pages of complete nonsense in order to bore and entrance my readers to a similar degree that the main character was being bored and entranced. It was a bold experiment, and one that came back to bite me in more than one review. And look at this blog itself–it’s hardly appropriate that I listed all those deleted scenes. I was making only a minor point which could have been taken as read. I don’t blame all of you who gave up before reading this far.

Ultimately, I suppose it goes to show that there’s no accounting for taste, but consider what poor shape we would be in as a species if we were not routinely forced to take a fruitless and unrewarding long detour to our destination.

Kierkegaard A Single Life – Review

One of the first facts that Kierkegaard A Single Life Kierkegaard A Single Lifetells us about Søren Kierkegaard is that his name is actually pronounced SOO-ren KEER-ka-gor, which is always the sort of thing I’m supercilious about–if we pronounce every person’s name, every city or village’s name, every linguistic acquisition, the way that they were originally pronounced, then it would be chaos. But set that aside for now.

Kierkegaard A Single Life does precisely what it sets out to do–to present in a clear and compelling fashion the life of philosopher Søren Kierkegaard. Backhouse is an obvious master of his subject and deals expertly with Kierkegaard’s relationships, the social and political context of his life, his work and writings, and the impact his ideas have had on the world at large in the 150 years since his death. He takes a largely episodic approach, managing to loop the whole story around so that his tale begins with the funeral of an unknown man, and ends with the death of a close friend.

In this book, Kierkegaard is presented as an irascible philosopher, at once reviled by the general public and also revered. A man who had so much to say, but seldom allowed any word he wrote to be actually attributed to him. At once a devious and diabolic opponent of the Church, and also (so Backhouse argues, and I would believe it, since gravestones rarely lie) a staunch follower of Christ. Certainly a man of contradictions–and it would seem that the better part of them were generated intentionally by himself. However, unlike many who take delight in stirring the pot for the mere sake of chaos, it is clear that Kierkegaard suffered very much for his integrity. He broke off an engagement with the only woman he truly loved because he didn’t want to subject her to what hardships life with him would bring. Although an inheritor of wealth, he lived within fairly scant means in order to support himself as a writer until the end of his life. And although his writing brought him more notoriety than fame in his lifetime, he did not waver from his set task of seeking for Truth within Christendom (or outside of it, as the case may have been) and instead planned his publications like military engagements.

marstrand-185x300That we can get any solid sense of a man in just under 200 pages is credit only to Dr Backhouse. To anyone who has been intrigued by hearing this influential thinker’s name bandied about in any number of contexts, but who have no idea where to even begin to get a handle on his corpus, this book is the perfect springboard. Kierkegaard A Single Life also has an added resource which is nearly worth the cover price, which is a 50 page appendix giving a summary of each of Kierkegaard’s major works and placing them in context.

Kierkegaard A Single Life is extremely well written and part of Backhouse’s genius is that he is able to give a startlingly clear picture of complex, even contradictory, person from another time, another land. And I hadn’t read more that a couple chapters before I found myself sounding out his name as it should be–SOO-ren KEER-ka-gor–out of respect for someone who feels, in turn, like a friend, a teacher, a prophet, and a close and trusted guide on life’s hard journey.

Cannot recommend this book enough. Buy it now on!

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