Old Goriot by Honoré de Balzac

This text has something of a masterpiece about it. I read a translation by Ellen Marriage. The prose carried the reader along in a remarkable fashion. Here was love, romance, Paris, sex, and money in a lively drama that on occasion seemed to anticipate the dark realism of Émile Zola.

Honoré de Balzac was writing before Freud, but he had an abundance of insight into the dynamics of the family. He comprehended that the bond between fathers and daughters may be a really strong one. This succinct novel will be appreciated by anyone who understands the strains which capitalism can place on the family. It is no wonder that some Marxists have appreciated the powerful writings of Balzac.

Certainly, money dominates the plot of this colourful narrative. It is all about the difficulties and hypocrisies of trying to get by in a world dominated by fashion. Balzac knew all about what Thorstein Veblen would later describe as conspicuous consumption. The question of credit gives the story a contemporary edge.

Altruists might not enjoy the tragic aspects of this tale. And sensitive people might object to unflattering references to Jewish people in the text. It is perhaps important to note that sensibilities change over time. Balzac died long before the Dreyfus Affair divided France, and it is impossible to know if he would have given his support to the progressive side. Balzac connected Jewish people with lending money, but in this work people from other backgrounds are engaged in this activity. Perhaps Balzac and Charles Dickens can be viewed as writers of their era. Nevertheless, it has been argued in literary scholarship that Balzac was too odd to be a consistent anti-Semite; the evidence across his work has been interpreted as showing complex and influential Jewish characters where they are featured.

While literary controversies rarely reach firm conclusions, the ending of this book is certainly a solid one. The protracted suffering of a man who has loved too much remains moving to this day. As one gets old, love can be perceived in new ways. Instead of seeming sincere and necessary, it may appear as a cruel delusion.

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The Wolf in the Water by Naomi Alderman

This vivid drama, inspired by Shakespeare, has a claustrophobic quality. It explores the complexities of identity and concealment. At the same time, it questions the social role of money and debt. Whilst the action takes place centuries ago within the Venice ghetto, the themes of persecution and assimilation remain relevant. Naomi Alderman has constructed something which might last.

It was Prime Minister Theresa May who aimed to charm the Conservative Party Conference of 2016 with her troubling assertion that, “If you believe you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere.” It is one thing to question the logic of economic globalization, it is another to define cosmopolitanism out of existence.

In the modern world, identities may be multiple and fluid. This does not mean that we are unaffected by identity-related awkwardness. But it does mean that there is an escape from the manipulative control of those who want to put us in a box. As individuals we might not manage to get out from the prison of debt, but we can help others to discover that other worlds are possible.

Mason, Marx and Shakespeare: a dramatic misconception

Paul Mason argues that the idealism of Shakespeare should be used to dilute the materialism of Marx. As a post-Marxist, Mason wants to distance himself from economic determinism. In The Guardian, Mason paid tribute to both thinkers:

“Another 150 years would pass until merchant capitalism, based on trade, conquest and slavery, would give birth to industrial capitalism. For this reason, whenever I want to stop myself being too Marxist, I think about Shakespeare. Armed with a few history books and a profound humanism, he described the society around him with peerless insight, and tried to explain to his audience how they’d got there.”

However, Karl Marx was an admirer of Shakespeare himself. His daughter revealed how often the dramatist was mentioned in the household. The writings of Marx were brightened by literature. In his letters, Marx paid attention to the role of accidents in history. In 1874, he also discussed the importance of the ideas to which socialist leaders adhered:

“The progress of the German labour movement (ditto in Austria) is wholly satisfactory. In France the absence of a theoretical foundation and of practical common sense is very evident. In England at the moment only the rural labour movement shows any advance; the industrial workers have first of all to get rid of their present leaders. When I denounced them at the Hague Congress I knew that I was letting myself in for unpopularity, slander, etc, but such consequences have always been a matter of indifference to me. Here and there people are beginning to see that in making that denunciation I was only doing my duty.”

The point of this argument is not to maintain that Marx was right about x or y. However, it is to suggest that Mason has not read Marx properly. If post-Marxists have not analysed Marx with sufficient care, their own general theories may be flimsy. Marx was not the kind of thinker to promote simplistic determinism and it is a comedy if people maintain that he was. Close reading is always necessary, even if the relevance of a philosopher to contemporary capitalism is contestable.

 

The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists adapted by Tom McLennan

“Working women and men, rise again

And take inspiration from Bob Tressell’s pen.”

This play is based on a classic novel. The socialist canon is certainly richer for the poignant contribution of Robert Tressell. However, converting the lengthy narrative into a script is a difficult task. An essential feature of poverty is monotony and boredom is not necessarily what a typical theatre audience wants.

The truncation of the story changes the text into a simple melodrama. Nevertheless, Costal Productions worked hard to manufacture something worth watching. The colourful spectacle was received well in Merseyside yesterday.

Ultimately, the play raises as many questions as answers. Tony Benn wrote about the meaning of the book, but the brevity of his analysis was really disappointing. As a result, an interpretation of the work is dependent on context and personal perspective. While there is some resonance between the fictional past and the political present, there remains a gap. The complexity of the history of the British working class cannot be ignored and the prospects for democratic change are still uncertain.

Plays Pleasant by Bernard Shaw

This sparkling collection of four plays illustrates the wisdom, range and wit of Bernard Shaw. Each play has its strengths and weaknesses, but Arms and The Man and Candida seem to outshine The Man of Destiny and You Never Can Tell.  Nonetheless, the quality gap is subjective and small between these colourful entertainments.

While the casual reader may enjoy the texts for their simple pleasures, it is interesting to note how serious themes are touched on in the course of the comedies. For example, there is a reflection on the class structure and the family in one play. In another of the narratives, there is a caustic attack on the confusing contradictions of the English national character:

“There is nothing so bad or so good that you will not find Englishmen doing it; but you will never find an Englishman in the wrong. He does everything on principle. He fights you on patriotic principles; he robs you on business principles; he enslaves you on imperial principles; he bullies you on manly principles; he supports his king on loyal principles and cuts off his king’s head on republican principles. His watchword is always Duty; and he never forgets that the nation which lets its duty get on the opposite side to his interest is lost.”

I, Daniel Blake directed by Ken Loach

This fascinating film was viewed in a hall on a cold evening. The event had been organised by local campaign group Wirral Against Benefit Cuts. It seemed a million miles away from the Cannes Film Festival where the gritty drama secured the Palme d’Or last year. Nonetheless, warm tea was served and the enabling technology worked at the third attempt.

The debate which followed the film reached few solid conclusions. Nonetheless, the discussion touched on local government cuts, electoral politics and the ideology of Ken Loach. It was noted that I, Daniel Blake had a documentary feel. It was also observed that the film was not really sentimental. Further, the pertinent comparison with Cathy Come Home was made.

One criticism made of the film was that it was negative. However, optimism can be generated through political action. Thinking about the dreadful way we live now can lead us to act to enhance our future. Not everyone is an admirer of Jeremy Corbyn, but voting for Labour in upcoming elections is in accordance with the thinking of Loach.

The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui by Bertolt Brecht

This overtly political play is seemingly relevant in the era of Donald Trump. It tells how a dubious figure can rise to the top because other people consistently underestimate him. While the drama is set in Chicago during the 1930s, the themes of capitalism, protectionism and corruption remain pertinent to this day.

The content of the drama leans heavily on the calamitous rise to power of Adolf Hitler. Hence one of the characters represents the leader of the Brownshirts, while another stands in for an elderly general who helped the Nazis to progress. However, the influence of Shakespeare is important as Ui gets training in the art of oratory from an actor fascinated by the Bard of Avon.

The play was composed in 1941 and this means that Brecht could not be sure of what would happen to the fascist project. Although the authoritarian populism of Trump might not be the same as the politics of Hitler, it could be as well for Americans to heed the warning of Brecht:

 

“So let’s not drop our guard too quickly then:

Although the world stood up and stopped the bastard

The bitch that bore him is in heat again.”