Muddling Along With Les Miserables

Queen’s Theatre, February 14th 2018

We live in strange times as far as morality is concerned. People in America were willing to ignore all kinds of sleazy behaviour when they elected their president. On the other hand there is a definite hardening of lines with regard to behaviour generally.

After seeing Les Miserables recently, I was reminded how this spectacularly successful musical also portrays a world of conflicting moral extremes. There are appalling characters such as inn keeper Thénardier, who cheats his customers and gropes his staff. On the other hand there is Inspector Javert whose determination to follow the letter of the law, results in just as much misery and injustice as the behaviour of Thénardier. One side of the moral equation is a reflection of the other. The bulk of the story then focuses on people who try to get along in the grey area between extremes. Jean Valjean, the central character, spends nineteen years in forced labour – punishment for stealing a loaf of bread in a time of desperate poverty. On release he breaks his parole and goes on the run, eventually getting his life together and becoming a respected town mayor. As mayor he meets a character similar to himself, a young woman named Fantine, forced into prostitution in an effort to support her daughter. Like Valjean, this young woman is technically a criminal, even though we see the virtue of her struggle.

Inevitably, a group of students and radicals stage a rebellion against their unjust society. The rebels are sworn enemies of the government. However, the revolutionary views of rebel leader Enjolras mirror that of Inspector Javert – in the sense that they both hold to their principles regardless of circumstance. And while rebels and government inspectors are similar in their extremism, as usual we have ordinary people in between. Valjean joins the rebels on their makeshift barricade, raising initial suspicion, since he is an establishment figure as far as the youngsters are concerned. A student named Marius, is also in a somewhat ambiguous position. He has just fallen in love, a complication which the cause of revolution has no time for.

Following a government attack on the barricade, Valjean manages to carry an injured Marius to safety. Valjean lives long enough to see the young man he saved married to Cosette, the daughter for whom Fantine sacrificed everything.

At the end of the play there seems to be a place in heaven for everyone, which sort of makes sense in light of the suggestion that virtue and villainy are closer to each other than we might think. However, there is a special place in heaven not for the saints, but for ordinary people, neither saintly nor sinful, who have done their best. Maybe that is one of the reasons Les Miserables has been so successful. Les Miserables presents humanity’s extremes, only to celebrate the majority of people who muddle along in the middle.

A Rather Bitter Grammar Review

Set in the late 1930s, Elizabeth Bowen’s The Death of the Heart tells the story of a sixteen year old orphan girl who, after a wandering life in Europe, goes to stay with relatives in London.

The book has little plot or action, relying on evocative writing for its impact.

With that in mind, I found the quality of writing patchy, particularly in the second half. The Death of the Heart is on the Modern Library’s list of the 100 best novels of all time. I’m only a struggling writer, who has read books with names like How to Write a Damn Good Novel, imploring me to avoid adverbs, passive voice and inelegantly repeated words. It was disconcerting, then, to find relatively frequent use of adverbs, passive voice and repeated words in writing which is supposed to be amongst the best there is. You’ll just have to consult other reviews for themes and so on. I just couldn’t get past all the stuff in Elizabeth Bowen’s writing that I had been told not to do.

Not that I’m bitter or anything, but have a look at the following and see what you think. We’ll start with repetition of words:

“Portia asked herself for the first time why what Mr Bursely had said had set up such disconcerting echoes, why she had run away from it in her mind.”

This sentence is awkward. The word had is repeated three times. Why is repeated twice. Just for good measure the question why collides inelegantly with the question what.

In a similar vein, look at this sentence:

“The sense of exposure this airy bareness gave them made them, with one another, at once sidelong and bold.”

“Gave them made them” sounds awkwardly repetitive to me.

If we’re talking about repetition, wouldn’t the book’s title The Death of the Heart have been better without the first the?

Moving on to Bowen’s use of passive voice:

“The air, about to darken, quickens and is run through with mysterious white light.”

“The later phases of spring, when her foot is in at the door, are met with a conventional gaiety.”

“Here and there, a gull on a far-out post would be floated off by the tide.”

“There was a breakwater smell – a smell of sea-pickled planks, of slimy green boards being sucked by the tides.”

“Are met”, “is run through”, “would be floated” and “boards being sucked” are passive voice. Is that suggestive of things being acted upon by their environment? Or is it just the flat sound of passive voice?

Moving on to adverbs:

“Anna said, much more kindly.”

“Major Brutt had met her eyes kindly.”

“Thomas nosing so kindly round for cigars.”

“‘Don’t ask me,’ said Daphne kindly.”

“Kindly pulling Portia along by one elbow, she went to the end of the court.”

“When he had used the flame, he kindly looked down the row to see if anyone wanted a light too.”

In the next example, two adverbs – shingly and imperceptibly – and repetition of the word was, combine to produce a bizarre sentence:

“The shallow curve of the bay held a shingly murmur that was just not silence and imperceptibly ended where silence was.”

Similar to adverbs, we have intensifiers:

“His erect, rather forbidding carriage made him look so old-fashioned.”

“Outside gulls skimmed in the rather cold air.”

“Eddie smiled in a rather automatic way.”

In my own novels, not currently in the top 100 of all time, I would have avoided intensifiers like rather, which sits in an unfortunate category with very, pretty and quite.

Finally there are passages that just seemed plain wordy to me:

“Only Portia had this forbidding intimacy with him – she was the only person to whom he need not pretend that she had not ceased existing when, for him, she had ceased to exist.”

I’m working my way through the Modern Library’s top 100 novels in the hope that the best writing will help my own. This novel reminded me of wisdom attributed to Sam Goldwyn:

“Nobody knows nothing in this business.”

Hamilton – A History Play For Today

Hamilton, Victoria Palace Theatre, February 1st 2018

For the first fifteen minutes of Hamilton, I wondered what was going on. What was this strange hip hop, rap version of early American history? I was just pondering on how I hadn’t seen anything like this before, when it struck me that I have. It was a theatrical presentation of national history in verse. The story involved kings and rebels – colonial Americans taking on the British authorities and facing the consequences of their rebellion. History, verse, kings, rebellion – this all made me think I was watching a modern take on a Shakespeare history play.

By the end of the first act, I seemed to be watching Henry V. There was much patriotic chest thumping, following the American victory. The British were personified by the smiling assassin King George III – who at least got the best songs. As in Henry V, however, there were quiet suggestions that patriotism is based on shifting sands. George Washington takes young firebrand Alexander Hamilton aside. Fighting for the cause might seem glorious, but fatherly Washington explains that things are more complicated than young Hamilton imagines. Washington dismisses the shallowness of sacrificing your life for a cause: “Dying is easy, young man, living is harder,” he explains.

If I was watching Henry V in the first half, it was more like Macbeth in the second. The second half opened with Hamilton sitting in his study quoting Macbeth, who famously killed a king and found misery rather than glory afterwards. It seemed as though winning the war against the British would be the end of the struggle. In fact it was just the beginning. Thinking back to school days, I recalled Henry V illustrating the fact that finding a foreign enemy is a good way to prevent trouble at home. However, this approach is dangerous when you live in a country where everyone is an immigrant. With the British gone, Americans found enemies in each other.

The second act is bleak, disillusioned and moving. It is all about the difficulties people have in working together. But in the show’s breathtaking coordination of words, music and dance, we had vivid evidence of what people can do as part of a well organised team. The show moved around that contradiction. For me, one of the most poignant moments was when the king got everyone to sing along with him. Everyone was in harmony, but there was a price to pay for this love. There is also a price to pay for rejecting it. Perhaps that’s why Americans today, as their own empire declines, have tried to create an absolute monarch in their leader. “You’ll be back,” said King George. It seems he was right.

Finally, I would like to say I make the comparisons with Shakespeare advisedly. This really is an excellent show, the best musical I have ever seen. Bravo, Lin-Manuel Miranda.