We That Are Young by Preti Taneja

Galley Beggar Press, August 2017, 556 pp

Galley Beggar Press, August 2017, 556 pp

The head of the Devraj Company is about to retire. Divesting himself of power in a ceremonious event, Devraj aims to leave the rich company to the care of his three daughters on the condition that all three proclaim in turns how much they love their father. All goes well until the youngest daughter, seeing the damage that the extravagantly rich corporation is doing to the Indian people and nature, abstains from the unnatural flattery, and decides to live her own way. Conflict ensues between the old and the young in a story of gigantic size that is populated by numerous characters, creating an immersive arc of a story in part real, part fictionalized India.

We That Are Young is unusually long for a debut novel. For that we have to thank Galley Beggar Press and their guts to publish a debut of nearly 600 pages. Less unusual for a debut, Preti Taneja’s novel leans heavily on literary tradition, being built very intricately around William Shakespeare’s King Lear. The story of a demented patriarch is interwoven so carefully into the context of modern India that one cannot but be in awe of the outcome, and only guess how long it must have taken to write it. We That Are Young is a rather incredible feat of Shakespearean adaptation in its suitability for our own day, easily surpassing some of the titles published in the ongoing Hogarth series of novels adapting the Bard’s plays. (Regrettably, I have yet to read Edward St. Aubyn’s coeval adaptation of King Lear, titled Dunbar, and cannot therefore compare the two.)

However, as much as I want to support size XL debuts – works that are not hindered by the cruel constraints of the business – We That Are Young, like its source play, is simply too long. An unabridged King Lear lasts easily over three hours, and Taneja’s novel, were it a play, feels closer to six. She is keen to describe surroundings, and clearly has a penchant for atmospheric writing. Her scenes do not necessarily further the plot, but serve to create a stronger sense of specific times and places. This requires a lot of persistence on behalf of the reader, and, in the right mindset, savoring small details is indeed rewarding. It works magnificently when, for instance,  Jeet (the Edgar who turns into Poor Tom in the original) transforms into Rudra the Naph in order to save his skin, and goes to live in abject conditions, surrounded by piles of shit and plastic bags. These mounds of excrement and garbage have a legendary status, and the local boys believe that a monster lives underneath it all. Poor Tom crawls in the filth of the earth; Rudra in human excrement. “How has he got used to doing this?” Rudra thinks, crouching “in the shitting field,” and continues: “So used to it as he was born this way and returned to the origins.” It is such a fitting transposition from Shakespeare’s original creeper of the mud.

Yet, at other times, there seems to be just a little too much of inconsequential dialogue, which serves to enhance verisimilitude, but often drags on for a little too long. On the other hand, what is impressive about the dialogue is that Taneja has gone as far as adapting complete speeches from Shakespeare. Consider, for instance, Devjar  insulting his daughter Gargi:

—You are the one whose name is evil, the one who lies with disease upon your womb, who kills the embryo as it settles, as it rests, as it stirs, who wished to kill it before it is born; you hunger for the one who spreads apart your two thighs, who lies between the married pair, who licks inside your womb, all for your own unnatural pleasure. And if you think you are going to be the great Mother of my whole company, you are wrong. You cannot  be a mother to anyone. [. . .] No barren woman can know how ungrateful children can wound.

Compared to the original, Devraj’s speech is not quite as terrifying or vivid, yet it shows the extent to which Taneja has read the original. Lear, insulting his daughter Goneril:

Hear, Nature, hear, dear goddess, hear:
Suspend thy purpose if thou didst intend
To make this creature fruitful.
Into her womb convey sterility,
Dry up in her the organs of increase,
And from her derogate body never spring
A babe to honour her. If she must teem,
Create her child of spleen, that it may live
And be a thwart disnatured torment to her.
Let it stamp wrinkles in her brow of youth,
With cadent tears fret channels in her cheeks,
Turn all her mother’s pains and benefits
To laughter and contempt, that she may feel
How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is
To have a thankless child.

A hundred more examples could be given to demonstrate similarities, from the smallest details to overarching themes. It is unnecessary to go over them, yet a question remains: how does strict adherence to the source text serve We That Are Young as a novel of its own? Besides providing the occasional aha moment for the reader versed in Shakespeare, the plot, when followed so strictly, is a little silly in modern context. The blinding of Gloucester and the rage of the demented patriarch in the storm are two examples of scenes that, no matter how good close reading skills a writer has, are bound to be clumsy as soon as you take them out of the original context. Or, perhaps, We That Are Young is simply best enjoyed when the reader is not too much aware of its supporting structure. I find that my close involvement with King Lear detracts me from enjoying Taneja’s work in full. Perhaps I am not the ideal reader, too aware of the structure.

I also find myself wondering how believable is the plot in the sense that, although set in a realistic context where India has obvious ties to the West, nobody in the novel seems to notice how the story of the Devraj Company follows the plot of one of the most influential plays ever written. Whether this matters is up to the reader, of course, and some willing suspension of disbelief, as Samuel Taylor Coleridge put it, would be beneficial to my reading of adaptations in general, I suppose. But that shall do for comparisons. We That Are Young is, after all, a stand-alone novel that uses literary adaptation as a technique, not as the main point. It is a novel about India, about patriarchy, about human vanity, about those that are young eventually surpassing the old, and in all that Taneja’s novel is very impressive. I am eager to see where she goes from here because, as much as my feelings toward this one are conflicted, We That Are Young showcases exceptional talent in writing.

The Shakespearean Forest by Anne Barton

Cambridge University Press, August 2017, 185 pp, 75,00£, ISBN 978-0-521-57344-3

Cambridge University Press, August 2017, 185 pp, 75,00£, ISBN 978-0-521-57344-3

Anne Barton, a renowned scholar of Shakespeare and early modern literature, died in 2013. Ten years before, she delivered a series of lectures at Trinity College, Cambridge University, which form the basis for the book now at hand, The Shakespearean Forest, edited by Hester Lees-Jeffries. It is supplemented by Adrian Poole’a foreword and Peter Holland’s afterword, as well as by a comprehensive Further Reading by Lees-Jeffries. At less than 200 pages, The Shakespearean Forest is a slim volume, yet Barton’s rather incredible learnedness shines through the six chapters she wrote, and the bookending features written by her colleagues ensure that the book is a comprehensive whole. 

Barton surveys the presence of woods and forests not only in Shakespeare but more generally in early modern drama, including Ben Jonson (whose unfinished The Sad Shepherd is especially fruitful for a “green” analysis), Thomas Dekker, John Lyly, and Robert Greene. From the staging of forests to the early modern sylvan imagination, Barton does not shy away from considering what a Shakespearan forest might imply for our age in the 21st century. Commenting on the current state of forests in London, she writes:

All over the world, forests themselves have since time immemorial been destroyed, felled, and then grubbed up to prevent regrowth, not just for economic reasons, to obtain timber and create arable land, as with the rainforests of Borneo and the Amazon today, but out of fear. Yet fear is one major source of their attraction, their grip on the human imagination; they can occasion deep-seated anxiety, which the rational mind cannot dismiss out of hand. The giants, wild men and outlaws that lie in wait there can claim a very extensive English and European mythology as mysterious woodland inhabitants and hazards. The ‘safe’ and predictable forest of twenty-first-century London, even (or especially) one carefully programmed in small areas to deliver the ‘wilderness experience’, is not a forest at all, but a contradiction in terms.

All this is written in a manner that is captured well by a former research student of hers, Michael Cordner, commenting on Barton’s way of supervising (quoted in Holland’s afterword):

… she found it natural to look, for instance to mid-Tudor plays like Jack Juggler and Johan Johan to shape a genealogy and context for Shakespeare’s achievements … Such unforced ease of reference, based on encyclopedic reading and outstanding powers of recall, is the foundation on which her richest scholarly achievements are based.

And, indeed, one reads The Shakespearean Forest in awe and envy of her ability to refer to such a wide array of works, from obscure and basically extinct plays to Shakespeare’s complete oeuvre, all the way to comparisons to 20th-century poets such as Robert Frost. I found myself compiling a list of works to read after finishing Barton’s book, a sure sign of an invigorating writer and teacher who can breathe life into literature now almost forgotten. As it happens, she was partially responsible for reincarnating several rarely performed plays at the Royal Shakespeare Company, which her husband, John Barton, co-founded and directed for. In this respect, she was an exceptional scholar, balancing her career between the academy and the theater: being an initiator for the meticulous research that goes into the productions we still see today at the RSC in Stratford-upon-Avon, and in her writing, which always takes into account the performative side of Shakespeare, drama that is not just text but actual performance.

Her final book, then, differs in its subject matter from her back-catalogue in that she did not write extensively or explicitly on the green in Shakespeare before the lectures at the turn of the century. It is interesting to note how The Shakespearean Forest predates the emergence of ecocriticism in the 2010s, and many of her arguments resonate with recent developments in ecocritical Shakespeare studies. I had to remind myself constantly that what is between these covers was, in fact, written a decade before the rise of the proper “ism” that it takes now part of, the now flourishing area of study that Lees-Jeffries surveys in the extensive Further Reading. Deforestation in early modern England is a well-perused subject in Randall Martin’s 2015 book Shakespeare & Ecology, and the vocabulary of the hunt is thoroughly studied in a chapter of Rhodri Lewis’s 2017 Hamlet and the Vision of Darkness – yet, more than 10 years before, Barton touched upon these in her lectures, anachronistically complementing what scholars do today.

The Shakespearean Forest is particularly vivid in chapters two, five and six. The second chapter, “Staging the Forest,” looks at the material realities of presenting woodland onstage back in the day, illuminated by some of Inigo Jones’s designs which are printed in the book. As Barton notes, “dramatists persisted, throughout the reigns of Elizabeth and her immediate successors, in writing innumerable plays set wholly, or in part, within a wood or forest. To what extent were their audiences expected to conjure up these woodland settings purely in their own imagination?” The fifth chapter, “The Forest and the City,” looks at the stereotypical dichotomy of the two spaces, yet contends that some plays, such as Timon of Athens, turn the scenario upside down or mixed the two together. The final chapter (“Let the Forest Judge”), perhaps the best in the book, looks at how “the forest [can be] conceived of as an intelligent whole” and how “the sense of the forest itself as an autonomous agent of justice” is evoked, for instance, by the approaching Birnam Wood in Macbeth.

The book, by its nature something built and compiled from unfinished manuscripts, invites a spot-the-error approach when reading: what parts where unfinished? should this and that have been elaborated more? is this the best chapter order? Luckily, though, it all reads in a way that suggests Hester Leer-Jeffries has done a scrupulous job in making The Shakespearean Forest cohere and communicate. I do feel that chapter four, which revolves around the Robin Hood myth, feels somehow displaced and out of context as it goes into such detail that the titular theme of the book, forest itself, is lost for a second. Nonetheless, it is a remarkable book that luckily ended up being published even posthumously, written in a way that is amicable to lay readers as well as specialists.