Tuesday, 28 July 2009

Barabbas by Par Lagerkvist

This is a very slim volume. And the subject not exactly inspiring. I mean, who wants to read about the murderer who was pardoned in order that Jesus of Nazareth got to die in his place? We all know the story surely. After all, there’s not much to say about the robber and murderer, Barabbas.

However, Par Largerkvist manages to retell the tale in the simplest terms, with his fictional take on the fate of Barabbas written in such a way that one could believe it is all a true story. The novel is a spare tale, pared down to great effect.

Originally published in Sweden in 1950, it was published in the USA, by Random House Inc in 1951. Reprinted by Vintage Books in 1989, this book has become a classic. It’s been on the reading list of many an American university student since then, our book group host among them.

Lagerkvist was a poet and thinker, playwright and writer. Barabbas is a tale of morality. A parable. The characters show spiritual torment, questions about Man and his destiny are posed, and overall we are asked to ponder the meaning of this great drama.

The crisis of faith is the big question in this novel. There is faith (in this case a belief in God) and its opposite, doubt. Without faith in God (something to give our life meaning and direction) it can be difficult to know the difference between Right and Wrong. But a belief in God is difficult to prove.

Barabbas, on his way to be crucified, is aquitted: he is thereby condemned to godlessness. He then has a relationship with a poor disabled outcast. He shows signs of love and care – in spite of himself – when he buries her. But Barabbas soon resorts to his former life of murder and pillage.

Because of this he is caught; chained to another slave in a mine he learns that the name carved on his companion’s slave disc - Christos Iesus - is that of the man’s true master, his Saviour. Barabbas realises that this Saviour is the man who died in his place. He asks the slave to carve it on his disc. He says he wants to believe.

The slave is rescued by a sympathetic Roman and in turn saves Barabbas by insisting that his companion must accompany him. But, later, when this slave is asked (on pain of death) to denounce Jesus he refuses. But Barabbas does not support him: he denounces faith in Jesus. The slave is hanged. Because he does not support the slave, Barabbas is not condemned to die: he is saved again.

The character Barabbas never undergoes an illuminating conversion. The fact that he is a murderer - and the portrayal of him so believable - such a thing would not actually ring true. But Lagerkvist does have us thinking that Barabbas wanted to believe.

Barabbas does not believe, but neither does he disbelieve. Barabbas, in his own warped and misguided way, finishes up by doing all he can to help the Saviour when he rises again. Or does he just get the wrong end of the stick? You will have to decide for yourself: the book is a poser, the ending enigmatic.

So pack this book in your hand luggage: its a perfect size and length for holiday travel. It will add a little gravitas if you only have Aga Sagas or Chick Lit packed but if you're weighed down with fat biographies it may even seem like light relief!


Wednesday, 15 July 2009

Stowe - a wonderful landscape still

Once upon a time.....Stowe was the greatest English landscape garden: the incomparable Georgian forerunner of the English landscape style. A classical naturalistic landscape copied throughout Europe, inspiration for centuries to come.

Since the garden was begun in the 1680’s, the greatest designers of the Georgian age had their hand in the design: Charles Bridgeman (the ha ha), William Kent (serpentine streams) and Capability Brown (naturalistic vistas) made their mark. Architecturally, equally renowned men designed their ornamental buildings: among them Robert Adam, James Gibbs and John Vanbrugh.

Plonk yourself down in an English village circa 1700 - what would you have seen. Depending in which part of the country you lived, you would notice small rural buildings (roofs thatched or covered in slate or clay tiles), hedged or walled fields, the occasional field tree, perhaps coppices, forests or moors.

The small rural village consisted of mismatched vernacular buildings; scattered tenant farms dotted the scene. The local big house may have had a deer park, or straight paths and formal beds. The river would have supported a mill, bridges were practical, gates stockproof.

Roads at that time were unmade and impassable in very bad weather, farmyards mired in muck, houses lacked sanitation. Mess and mud were part of life. Everything was utilitarian. Life was hard.

For those lucky few - men of wealth and leisure - travel to Europe was de rigeur. On their return they were able to indulge their fancy and show off their education and wealth. They strove to impress society with their knowledge of the classics and superior taste. What better and more conspicuous a way than to improve their estate. And the owners of Stowe were no exception: they conceived the greatest idealised classical landscape of the time.

In the 1700’s the visitor to Stowe - unused to the wonders of world-wide travel - would have been enchanted to see a rolling landscape, a rural idyll, planted with trees on hill tops and a clear meandering river in contrast to their plainer, less ordered rural environment.

At each turn, they would be transported by a framed view of a beautiful classical building with - what a joy - yet another and another from every angle. It was a scene they could believe existed in Greece or Italy. Of course, most would never have seen anything like it except in the paintings of Claude or Poussin.

Today, one would imagine that the world-weary sophisticate would find this all very ordinary. But not at all. Strangely, in spite of the run-down complexion of the whole at Stowe (structures in various state of repair, lacking the statuary and embellishments that they used to boast) the casual visitor experiences much the same sense of surprise and wonderment that his 18th century forebear would have experienced, although for different reasons.

Sated with televised visions of beautiful landscapes, wonderful buildings, incomparable views, it's refreshing to find that we can still be impressed with the less than perfect, here and now. Stowe offers the visitor something we have all become rather unused to: a landscape that's not manicured. Buildings that are not finished to pristine Disney standards.

And so natural and realistic does this sort of manmade landscape look to us now that we're as surprised to find Grecian stone structures hidden around every corner as the original visitor most probably was over three hundred years ago. Stowe is a wonderful landscape still: those of us without a classical education may miss the all but most obvious allusions but it is still a delight, a pleasure to visit.