Bookish Thoughts

Chiaroscuro: There is light and dark to be found in all works of art


On reading “The Incorrigible Optimists’ club” I felt like I was in direct conversation with an old friend. Not only because I am a self proclaimed, eternal incorrigible optimist but also due the similarity of the protagonist’s train of thought as my own which left me smiling as I read. One of the discussions to which I was particularly drawn was his opinion on iconic and well revered authors. He ponders the extent to which the heroism such of likes as Kessel or Kafka makes their work appear even more epic.

Are we then to dismiss all books by authors with questionable pasts, a few misdemeanours or in some cases even a criminal record?

Before I continue, please take a look at the picture featured at the top of this article. Admire the Chiaroscuro and the delicate handiwork that it must have taken to create such a masterpiece. Consider the insight and attention to detail it would have taken to create such art.

The patience…

The sensitivity…

Now imagine those same sensitive hands brutally killing a love rival in the street. I’m sure his delicate handiwork had no place in the attempted castration.

It is undeniable that this somewhat ruins the tranquillity of such a piece. I wonder if we would be surprised by the number of authors hiding skeletons in their closets. I weigh this up with the slim pickings of literature that would be left to choose from if we scrutinised the character of each author before setting out.

Excuse me, I’d to take this book out but could you first ask the librarian to find at least two character references on them. Preferably one personal and one professional please. 

If we condemned such authors we would be using our own national treasures as kindling. Dickensian characters are renowned for their clear moral stance- characters are either good or bad, no ifs, buts or maybes. Naively, I read this to say the same for Dickens. So I can’t express how disappointed I was to discover his sordid extra-marital affair.

Should this change how we read his work? I would argue that it doesn’t change anything although it certainly doesn’t feel like that.

It is understandable why we feel let down to find out such unfavourable things about people we have long held in high esteem. Literature speaks most when everything else goes quiet. It is something many people find comforting and therefore cherish. You feel as though the hands that held your own through your lowest points might just as easily have been wrapped around your neck.

This said, nothing about the work that we so adored has changed upon the reception of this new information. We have to bear in mind that much of their behaviour must be put back into and considered in the social context it sprung from.

So, no, I will not be burning all my beloved editions of Woolf due to a few comments about a Jewish nose. I will still let my children enjoy Dr. Seuss but I will omit his racist tendencies towards the Japanese.

It is hard to accept the fall from grace when we find out that our idols were inescapably human. Rather than letting such things mar our beloved artists, lets consider their masterpieces as their redeeming features and a very strong argument in their favour.


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