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Wednesday, 29 April 2015

Playing the Humiliation game; confessing; feeling unpatriotic

My mom's upset that I know too little about Vietnamese literature.
Back then, I read some. If I cheat a bit and mention all writers I've read, even if I've read only 1 of their works, my list would include Nam Cao, Nguyễn Huy Thiệp, Phạm Thị Hoài, Nguyễn Tuân, Ma Văn Kháng, Nguyên Hồng, Thạch Lam, Phan Thị Vàng Anh, Hồ Anh Thái, Nguyễn Thị Minh Ngọc, Mạc Can, Tô Hoài, Nguyễn Ngọc Thuần, Nguyễn Nhật Ánh, Nguyễn Ngọc Tư, Thuận... The list of poets would include Hồ Xuân Hương, Hàn Mặc Tử, Bùi Giáng, Trần Dần, Xuân Diệu, Nguyễn Bính, T. T. Kh, Thanh Tâm Tuyền, Trần Đăng Khoa, Phùng Quán... That is, I haven't mentioned those I had to read in school, such as Đoàn Thị Điểm, Nguyễn Du, Nguyễn Trãi, Bà Huyện Thanh Quan, Lê Thánh Tông, Lý Thường Kiệt, Nguyễn Bỉnh Khiêm, Nguyễn Khuyến, Chế Lan Viên, Thép Mới, Chính Hữu, Hồ Chí Minh, Tố Hữu, Phạm Tiến Duật, Huy Cận, Hồ Dzếnh, Tản Đà... Should I refer to internet writers as well, who became famous in the internet and got published? Then I've read Keng Link.
But that of course is cheating. That was a long time ago, I hardly remember anything. And I was a horrible reader then. Except for Hàn Mặc Tử and Bùi Giáng, I don't read Vietnamese literature any more- haven't, for a while. The only writers I can still say something about are Nam Cao, Phạm Thị Hoài, Hồ Anh Thái, Nguyễn Ngọc Tư, Nguyễn Nhật Ánh and Nguyễn Ngọc Thuần, and I still feel uncertain. In other words, let's just say that I'm absolutely ignorant. To add to that, the national epic Truyện Kiều (in English: The Tale of Kieu) by Nguyễn Du, I haven't read in full either.
Which is horrible. Embarrassing. No, shameful. Humiliating.
In fact I don't read Asian literature in general. A bit of Chinese literature, mostly poetry. A few Japanese prose writers like Haruki Murakami, Ryu Murakami, Banana Yoshimoto... Absolutely nothing by writers from other Asian countries.
Isn't that awful?
I have my excuses: determination not to use Vietnamese so as to prioritise English and Norwegian, lack of Vietnamese books in Norway, dislike of ebooks, traumatising experience at Vietnamese schools (revolutionary/ red/ propaganda writing, wrong teaching method that allows no critical thinking)... It's perhaps a matter of priorities, as I want to read the many British, American, Russian and French novels that everyone or at least every serious reader, literature lover should read (and then German, Spanish, Italian, Latin American...), and Vietnamese literature isn't comparable (the strengths are in verse rather than prose, short stories and novellas rather than novels*), which is to say that a Vietnamese person not reading Vietnamese literature isn't as shocking as, say, an American not reading American literature or a Russian not reading Russian literature. Or maybe it's more like a matter of preference, as I grew up reading and it's the Western books and authors that have stayed with me over time. If I have read those Vietnamese writers and cannot call any of them a favourite, cannot put them in the same list with the British, American, Russian and French writers I think highly of, then it's not my fault, I tell myself. I'm entitled to reading what I'm interested in, I tell myself. Life is short and we have to make our choices, I tell myself. Lots of native speakers of English restrict themselves to English-language novels and don't care about "world literature" anyway, I tell myself. 
But that doesn't make me feel much better. 
So now I'm confessing, and exposing this humiliating truth. 
Comment! Discuss! Share your thoughts! Humiliate me! Throw stones at me! 




*: according to several people whose judgement I trust. Also, in Vietnamese literature after Nguyễn Du (1766- 1820), there's no writer that has the place of Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky in Russia or Proust in France or Marquez in Colombia. 

Monday, 27 April 2015

Witness for the Prosecution

I don't understand people who don't watch old films, which is, well, most people. What's wrong with you?

I've just watched Witness for the Prosecution. A 1957 courtroom film based on Agatha Christie's short story/ play. Again, Billy Wilder proves himself a master and 1 of the finest film directors of Hollywood. Writing about his genius is difficult, I sound vague- everything fits perfectly together, the actors are well chosen and brilliant, all details and lines are impeccable... It's difficult to pinpoint where the greatness is, because there's nothing grand, and seemingly nothing complex, it's in the way he handles everything to perfection. You can change nothing, add nothing, remove nothing, and his best films no one could improve in a million years. It's also because of this elusive quality that it's hard to imitate or learn from Billy Wilder, because his wit, his ability to write unforgettable lines is something you either have or you don't, just as the talent for choosing the right actors and directing them is something you can develop but must naturally have and cannot just learn. 
In this case there's another reason, I cannot be more specific and spoil the ending. So please forgive me for my vagueness, and allow me to express my irrepressible admiration and enthusiasm: this film is a must-watch.





Fallen women and suicide in the 19th century

1/ "Was suicide a female malady?":
http://www.victorianweb.org/books/suicide/07.html
"Women were fictionalized and mythologized much as were monsters in Victorian England. [...] For the most part, fictions about women and suicide became more prevalent and seemed more credible than did facts. The facts themselves were clear: throughout the nineteenth century women consistently had a suicide rate lower than that of men [...] Despite all evidence to the contrary, most Victorians believed what they wished to believe about the frequency of female suicide.
In the main they did so because they wanted and expected suicide, like madness, to be a "female malady." (See Showalter, 1985.) Since women were statistically over-represented among the mentally ill — primarily because in Victorian England they were more often confined to "homes" for the insane and were more easily countable than were men — they were generally thought to be more vulnerable to madness. The reasoning for linking women and suicide went something like this: more women are confined for insanity than men and suicide is a result of insanity; therefore more women should commit suicide than men (see Lewes, 52-78). Or else it went like this: woman is a lesser man, a weaker being, both physically and mentally. Resisting suicide takes willpower and courage; therefore women should fall victim to suicidal impulses far more readily than should men. Unless the weaker sex were to be credited with unwanted strength, the fact that women killed themselves less frequently than men required considerable explaining. Such was the price of retaining the displacement of self-destruction to women in a patriarchal society that was dedicated to championing male mental and physical superiority and to rationalizing sexual differences..."


"Throughout the century, men's explanations for the discrepancy between statistics and expectations centered on what was presumed to be the female disposition. In 1857, writing for the Westminster Review, George Henry Lewes attributed the cause for the lower suicide rate among women to women's "greater timidity" and to "their greater power of passive endurance, both of bodily and mental pain" (71). Lewes was echoed in 1880 by a writer for Blackwood's who asserted that women were "habitually better behaved and quieter; they have more obedience, more resignation, and a stronger directing sentiment of duty.... They possess precisely dispositions of temperament and teaching which best withhold from voluntary death" (727).
[...]
At century's end, men like S.A.K. Strahan and Havelock Ellis made less generous conjectures about the female temperament and suicide than had Lewes. Strahan believed that women were weaker contenders in the struggle for existence and therefore less prone to its aftereffects — like suicide. For him, their lower suicide rate depended upon woman's "lack of courage and her natural repugnance to personal violence and disfigurement" (179). Female ignobility, not nobility, marked his suppositions. Ellis's similar judgments hinged less on the rate than on the means of suicide. Referring to what he called the "passive" methods of suicide (drowning, for example), Ellis found women temperamentally irresolute in opting for means that required both less preparation and less gore. More violent forms of suicide offended "against women's sense of propriety and their intense horror of making a mess" and reflected their fear of public scrutiny after they were dead. "If it were possible to find an easy method of suicide by which the body could be entirely disposed of," said Ellis, "there would probably be a considerable increase of suicides among women" (335).
Inherent in these observations is an absurd prejudice in favor of bloodier suicides as being braver and therefore more manly..."


"Many believed with De Quincey that "there is no man who in his heart would not reverence a woman that chose to die rather than to be dishonoured" (VIII, 399). But deserted women who committed suicide did so not only out of bereavement, Many were seduced as well as abandoned. They killed themselves rather than face the shame of "falling," for fallen women immediately gained new willpower in Victorian eyes. Sinful creatures now considered responsible for their own destinies, they became blameable for their wrong choices (see Mitchell, p. x). If they lived on, as most did both in Victorian literature and in actuality, they might either become prostitutes or else atone for their sin through good works, through death-in-life, or through some untimely demise."

Can't say if this essay helps or interferes with my reading of Thomas Hood's poem "Bridge of Sighs", but it certainly tells a lot about Victorian society. Reminds me of Gloria Steinem's essay "If Men Could Menstruate", in which she argues that men see menstruation as filthy and disgusting only because it's women that menstruate, and that everything would be totally different if the situation were reversed, similar to the way men in Victorian society said that women were weaker and one would need courage to resist suicide, and yet, seeing the statistics which showed that fewer women actually committed suicide, changed their theory by saying that because women were weaker and inferior, they were afraid of suicide, especially painful methods. 

2/ "Atwood and Tolstoy"- A Handmaid's Tale and Anna Karenina:
https://litlove.wordpress.com/2007/03/11/atwood-and-tolstoy/
"... You wouldn’t think the two had much in common, would you? A 19th century Russian novel about adultery, and a twentieth century feminist depiction of a chilling dystopia, but in both cases it’s all about the women. In both novels the reader is obliged to watch a woman struggling against the impossible constraints of a society that not only forces her take the blame for all desire, but makes her a criminal in her own eyes for her sexuality.
[...] And this link between a 19th century Russian male author and a modern day Canadian feminist troubled me. Why must women always be represented as needing to pay for their desires? Why are women always the ones represented as having the dangerous desires in the first place? Are there never any men in novels who lose their heads for love and suffer? Surely in reality men must love with the same intensity and scandalous vibrancy as women? I wracked my brains to think of famous novels in which men suffered for love and could only come up with Goethe’s Sorrows of Young Werther, and Proust’s depiction of the relationship between Marcel and Albertine. Yet in both instances there is something narcissistic about the man’s role, something suggestive of his extraordinary capacity for feeling, something that ennobles him rather than disgraces him. His is not a shameful self-sacrifice to love..."

This makes me think of a topic I intended to write about: heartbreaks in fiction. I think of 3 cases in which the emotional anguish is so great and extreme it becomes physical- Kitty in Anna Karenina, Marianne Dashwood in Sense and Sensibility and Caroline Helstone (twice) in Shirley.
The 1st 2 have been compared here:
http://www.harvardindependent.com/2014/02/kittys-sickness-herzogs-letters-and-illnesses-of-the-heart/
"Tolstoy and Austen, with their keen skills of observation, must have seen how impossible or rare it is for emotional anguish to lead so directly to recognizable physical illnesses."
"The challenge before the writer is then this: they must describe grief of unusual intensity without ever defining the precise nature of the grief. Illness — a state of simply not being well, being removed in a definite way from happiness, health, and general wellness — presents a solution to this."
Regarding Kitty, her breakdown doesn't result from the heartbreak alone. A disappointment in love doesn't lead to something that serious. It's a combination of: disillusionment, collapse of all dreams and intentions, realisation that she has made the wrong decision (she loses both, especially because Levin, when rejected, feels rebuffed and backs out completely), feeling of humiliation (not dancing at a ball is a huge problem- she refuses everyone for Vronsky and is forgotten by him), feeling of betrayal (Anna, perfectly aware of Kitty's feeling for Vronsky, still takes him away from her, acting like Oblonsky without knowing it), pain (which she cannot share with anyone, which worsens the anguish), despair... Kitty's young, and the excitement she has for the ball and for Vronsky and the image of a future with him is so great that the moment everything collapses, she collapses.
Regarding Caroline Helstone, again there are numerous factors: she has unrequited love, feels estranged from the Moores, has difficulty in accepting Robert's sudden change, feels neglected within her own house, notices a parallel between herself and her aunt Mary Cave, despairs, suffers from loneliness, finds herself misunderstood and her voice unheard, feels useless, sees her wishes to work disregarded, perceives the injustices against other women around her, thinks of her own life as meaningless, etc. That's the 1st time. The 2nd time, it's the same reasons, plus Caroline's belief that Robert and Shirley are in love and will marry, which means that if before there's a little hope, it's now all gone.
That is, if we insist on rationalising "illnesses of the heart".
Jane Austen doesn't show Marianne the same love and sympathy Tolstoy and Charlotte Bronte have for their characters. Contrast Marianne Dashwood with Jane Bennett and Anne Elliot. Of course in Marianne's case, besides disappointment and pain there are shock, humiliation and betrayal, but we can feel that Jane Austen sees the illness as also caused by Marianne's emotional tendencies, foolishness and inability to compose herself.
Speaking of these heartbreaks, I mean to say that the depiction of these sicknesses doesn't mean that women are weak, frail and vulnerable in love and particularly susceptible to collapses. There are other factors involved, which contribute to and exacerbate the pain. The same goes for the suicides. Litlove asks "Are there never any men in novels who lose their heads for love and suffer? Surely in reality men must love with the same intensity and scandalous vibrancy as women?", but women's feelings and sensibilities are 1 thing, there are lots of reasons, lots of other factors that cannot and should not be disregarded. Even today in democratic countries, in some aspects gender inequality still exists. I cannot say anything about The Handmaid's Tale, which I haven't read, but in Anna Karenina, it's clear that society shares part of the blame. Compare Anna and Oblonsky. Compare Anna and Vronsky.
Needless to say, the suggestion that Tolstoy punishes Anna, I always find distasteful.
As to the question about male characters who suffer in love, I can think of Charles Bovary, who dies heartbroken, and Vronsky, who after Anna's death becomes so devastated that he chooses a passive way of killing himself. Other examples can be Heathcliff, Gatsby and Pip- the fact that they don't commit suicide doesn't mean that their suffering isn't great or destructive. 

3/ "Why does Anna have to die?":
http://classical-russian-literature.blogspot.no/2015/04/anna-karenina-why-does-anna-have-to-die.html
3 novels of adultery: Anna Karenina, Madame Bovary and Cousin Bazilio:
http://storberose.blogspot.no/2012/10/three-novels-of-adultery.html
"... The way each woman dies is interesting in its own different way. Gustave Flaubert gets Emma Bovary to drink poison out of despair after her mounting debts, which she contracted during her illicit affairs, threaten to expose her infidelity to her husband, Charles; alone, unable to obtain money from her former lover, Rodolphe, who disdainfully turns his back on her, she dies a slow, agonising death lying in bed. As she expires a blind beggar sings a dirty song outsider her bedroom window. It’s a tragic novel, allegedly. But this juxtaposition of the tragic and the profane say much about Flaubert’s intentions with this novel.
Anna Karenina dies because, after developing a severe depression, she develops a paranoid jealousy of her lover, Vronsky, and fear of becoming alone if he abandons her; this contributes to constant irritations at Vronksy and fights with him, which only increases her delusions that he’s planning to abandon her for another woman. An irrational urge to punish him incites her to kill herself. If realism were an important criterion, I would put Anna’s motivation below Emma’s. I don’t use the word irrational lightly for Anna for even Tolstoy has difficulty explaining what truly motivates her and eventually stops at a wall that doesn’t allow him to go any deeper into her thoughts. As a character says in All the Names, a José Saramago novel I’ve just finished re-reading, perhaps suicide can’t be explained. But I find Emma’s fear of social embarrassment, of losing face, more convincing..."

Himadri's comment:
"... Anna's motives are never clear: indeed, the uncertainty of characters' motives, even - or rather especially - to the characters themselves, seems to me among the novel's central themes: none of these characters can come close to understanding themselves; they are driven by forces beyond their control, and also beyond their comprehension. Near the start of her liaison with Vronsky, Anna seems almost deliberately to misunderstand Karenin; towards the end, she seems, again almost deliberately, to misunderstand Vronsky. She misunderstands Karenin seemingly to convince herself that her husband is an unfeeling automaton (which he isn't), because she wouldn't be able to bear the thought that she was betraying a man capable of feeling hurt; but by the end, she misunderstands Vronsky in such a way as to cause herself maximum mental anguish. It is hard to escape the conclusion that Anna is - perhaps unconsciously, perhaps partly consciously - punishing herself. But her motives are too complex, too mysterious, even to herself. Tolstoy takes us as far as it is possible to go into her mind, but, as you say, beyond a point we hit a wall: human motivations are too profound, too complex, ever to be fully understood..."

Again, if we insist on rationalising... 
Anna's motives may not be as clear as Emma's, and perhaps one may argue that her suicide isn't as necessary as Emma's (whatever that means), but I should note that Anna does what she does not only because society condemns her for the adultery and makes her an outcast, and not only because she's a woman, but also because of the kind of person she is. She overthinks, exaggerates everything, complicates her own problems. Part of this is good, showing that she has a conscience, cannot lie and cannot live a double life like the hypocrites around her. Part of it is bad, because she complicates everything but at the same time doesn't want to face reality (in this she resembles Emma), therefore places herself in a situation where she, kept away from her son and rejected by society, has nobody and nothing but Vronsky and all of her life and concerns now evolve around him. At the same time, her situation is precarious and uncertain, because she's not married to Vronsky and he can leave her for someone else any time. Under such circumstances, people become more possessive and clingy and paranoid, so it's the uncertainty of it all, exacerbated by the ennui, that makes Anna become paranoid, torment herself and suffocate Vronsky, and finally makes her terminate her own life. The feeling that life is meaningless makes it worse, as Anna starts to doubt, and feels that living with the person she loves cannot bring her true happiness. All of these feelings accumulate and all of these steps add up to the final moment. Anna, as anyone can see, can be very irrational and unstable. Before death she uses some kind of drugs, probably opium- that also contributes to her decision. 
One can say that Anna could find a way out and didn't have to die, but then that means she has to be a different of person, whereas this is the way she is- she thinks too much and torments herself and tends to be unstable. If not, she wouldn't trap herself that way, make herself depend entirely on another person. The factors that drive her to suicide would be jealousy, shame, disappointment and the feeling that she is lost and her life is meaningless and she has nobody, also the feeling that she leaves everything for Vronsky and is betrayed by him (though she isn't). And self-doubt, self-loathing. 
So no, I cannot see how a writer may choose not to let Anna kill herself. Unless she's a different character. 

Saturday, 25 April 2015

Madame Bovary, "dissimilarities of feeling beneath similarities of expression", disdain, pity

1 of my favourite passages from Madame Bovary:
... “It’s because I love you!” she said. “I love you so much I can’t do without you. Do you really know that? Sometimes I suddenly feel I have to see you, and my love makes me furious. ‘Where is he?’ I wonder. ‘Maybe he’s talking to some other woman. She’s smiling at him, he’s moving closer to her…’ Oh, it’s not true, is it? You’re not interested in anyone else, are you? Some women are prettier than I am, but none of them could love you the way I do! I’m your servant and your concubine! You’re my king, my idol! You’re so good! So handsome! So intelligent! So strong!”
He had heard such things said to him so many times before that they no longer held any interest for him. Emma was like any other mistress; and the charm of novelty gradually fell away like a garment, revealing in all its nakedness the eternal monotony of passion, which always has the same form and speaks the same language. He, this man of great experience, could not distinguish dissimilarities of feeling beneath similarities of expression. Because lascivious or venal lips had murmured the same words to him, he now had little belief in their sincerity when he heard them from Emma; they should be taken with a grain of salt, he thought, because the most exaggerated speeches usually hid the weakest feelings- as though the fullness of the soul did not sometimes overflow into the emptiest phrases, since no one can ever express the exact measure of his needs, his conceptions or his sorrows, and human speech is like a cracked pot on which we beat out rhythms for bears to dance to when we are striving to make music that will wring tears from the stars.
But, with the shrewdness of those who hold themselves aloof in any relationship, Rodolphe saw other pleasures to be developed in his affair with Emma. He came to feel that all modesty was merely tiresome. He began to treat her coarsely, without consideration. He made her into something compliant and corrupt. She remained under the influence of a kind of idiotic infatuation, full of admiration for him and sensuality for herself, a blissful torpor; a her soul, sinking into that intoxication, shriveled and drowned like the Duke of Clarence in his butt of malmsey... 
(translated by Lowell Bair)




A reader's dilemma: discovery of other writers, greater understanding of writers one has read (through reading more of their works) and deeper understanding of books one has read.
My short TBR list ("urgent", as opposed to the long list) already has so many names in it that I have to make a note in my phone, and yet at the same time I feel a strong urge to reread both Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary.
Look at the passage above. Cruel, is he? Contemptuous? Flaubert's often accused of misanthropy and misogyny (and nihilism). Is it true, though? He cuts open his characters and puts them on display, hiding from view, making no comments, showing little sympathy. His objectivity has irritability and contempt in it- he clearly despises Emma as well as most characters in this novel. The man who avoids clichés, makes himself a martyr of style and writes "Dictionary of Received Ideas" openly disdains and constantly attacks philistines, "whose interests are of a material and commonplace nature" and "whose mentality is formed of the stock ideas and conventional ideals of [their] group and time"(Nabokov's definition). Genteel, bourgeois.
I remember feeling annoyed and angry at Emma, reading this passage. Idiot. Later in Madame Bovary there is another scene, also gold, in which Rodolphe, after Emma suggests going away, goes home and takes out all of his love letters from Emma and other women from the past and reads them- all the platitudinous phrases, all the empty declarations of love flow around him and get mixed up together and become indistinguishable and he no longer knows who writes what and even their faces become blurred in his memory and get mixed up together.
Last time, I focused on this part: "revealing in all its nakedness the eternal monotony of passion, which always has the same form and speaks the same language".
But now: "they should be taken with a grain of salt, he thought, because the most exaggerated speeches usually hid the weakest feelings- as though the fullness of the soul did not sometimes overflow into the emptiest phrases".
No, not disdainful there. The full sentence (especially the part about bears and stars) is full of sadness, a kind of sad resignation. And there's sympathy, because that's how human beings are, the fullness of the soul can sometimes overflow into the emptiest phrases. Emma's still empty, still sentimental, still self-deluded, but the narrator isn't so harsh now. He has pity.

Thursday, 23 April 2015

Wandering, wondering- Acton in Jazz

A literary work is a fairytale, and the characters don't exist outside it. I know that. But sometimes my mind wanders and I forget. 
Right now, for example, writing an essay about Jazz and focusing on the impact of Dorcas's death on other characters and the way they respond to it and cope with it, I start to wonder about Acton. It doesn't matter, perhaps. But I know how Alice and Violet and Joe and Felice feel, and want to know how Acton feels, considering that he's a playboy and a narcissist. 
The characters don't care- Alice, Violet and Joe don't know about him. Felice, who does know, doesn't care. The narrator doesn't care. The author apparently doesn't care. Dorcas perhaps doesn't care either- at her last moment her thoughts are about Joe. But I care. Not that I identify with the dead girl. I don't (or do I?). But I'd like to know anyway, even though that adds nothing to the novel. An unimportant bit missing that is not missed by anybody but me. 
In the end there are no answers, only questions: Surrounded by so many girls who want him and see it as a race or a fight, does Acton remember Dorcas? Does he miss her? Does he grieve? 

Wednesday, 22 April 2015

2 films I'd like to watch

This new adaptation of Madame Bovary:


And this reworking of the book:



Why do I have a feeling that the 2nd one would be better?
Of course, no film adaptation can be half as great as Flaubert's masterpiece, and I don't have such expectations, but it may be interesting to see how people adapt it anyway (why do you think I watched 5 Anna Karenina films?). 
Still think Mia Wasikowska looks wrong for the role. Watching the trailer, I keep thinking about her Jane Eyre (and I didn't think highly of that version). As Emma Bovary, Mia Wasikowska looks exactly like her Jane Eyre, in better clothes. Is she going to play every significant female character from classic novels, like Keira Knightley (Elizabeth Bennet, Anna Karenina, Lara Antipova...)? Also, if the film is like the trailer, it's likely that the essence of the novel is not retained- the sentimental, shallow, philistine Emma Bovary now looks like a heroine who lives for love and passion, and challenges conventions. Or maybe I'm just being cynical. 
Ezra Miller is talented though. I watched The Perks of Being a Wallflower quite soon after We Need to Talk About Kevin and saw his astonishing transformation. Now that's great acting. (Why do people talk more about actors who don't have a bit of talent in them, such as Robert Pattinson, than the good ones like Ezra Miller or Paul Dano?) 



What do you think? Are you going to see either of these films? 

Serious comments on Corregidora

Having finished Corregidora, I know what it's about. The ending doesn't make it explicit, but there's a hopeful note. Great Gram is somehow reminiscent of Miss Havisham in Great Expectations- bitter, hateful, forever trapped in the past and in her hatred of all men. The mission, the "legacy", the responsibility of making generations and becoming the living evidence of Corregidora's abuse, is a curse on herself and her daughter and her granddaughter and Ursa, her great-granddaughter. To live and be herself, Ursa has to get out of the past, leave behind the haunting stories and nightmares, rid herself of the "legacy", affirm her own identity and have her own voice. The whole book is a struggle to do just that.
I also know what Gayl Jones wants, tries, to do. Talking about the brutality, perverseness, immorality and inhumanity of Corregidora and the awfulness of these stories, she wants to show how difficult it is for Ursa to leave them behind (though Ursa doesn't experience them) by making Ursa witness and experience other forms of brutality, perverseness, immorality and inhumanity in her own life, making her get trapped in abusive relationships and come into contact with various kinds of brutes herself. It's like a destiny, a curse. All the selfish, contemptible, savage, animalistic men around Ursa make her think of Corregidora, remind her of Great Gram's voice and all those haunting stories, imprint on her mind the idea that she too is Corregidora's daughter (though she isn't). It's a tortured world. She has to fight against it all. 
The problem is that Gayl Jones pushes it too far, and brings too much negativity into it. All of her male characters are, as I wrote in an earlier post, arseholes. Abusive, controlling, jealous, selfish, depraved, violent, brutish, basically vile, contemptible, detestable. Of course some female characters are bad as well, especially Great Gram, who is so hateful that she destroys her own life and the lives of several others (though mixed with that hatred is some kind of distorted love for Corregidora). But it still appears that the female characters, mostly, are victims, and when they act horribly, are easier to sympathise with. The male characters, even when showing their more vulnerable side, their insecure side, are beasts. This makes them lack a kind of humanity that makes them plausible (some characters' changes from being gentle and kind to being arseholes, instead of making them complex and real, only create unconvincing inconsistencies). I understand that there's a point in this and one might argue that Ursa's perception of men is partly coloured by her misandry, but reading such a book is frustrating, and more importantly, it's hard to see how Ursa gets out of it all in the end, seeing nothing positive around her. There is no balance, all the men are beasts, bastards, brutes.
Another thing I find problematic, if not faulty, is the voice and tone of the narrator. The language is plain, sparse, unpolished and not written language- more like a voice speaking, though sometimes the narrative is disrupted by stream of consciousness and the voice in the memories and nightmares. The narrator, from the beginning to the end, lacks emotions. At 1st, that voice is perfect- her depression and despair makes her numb, passive, slow, somehow robotic. But the novel has a great span, and ends with some hope, so when there is no change in the tone, it is inauthentic. I cannot perceive any change in her change of attitude and mindset. It's possible to tell that there's some hope at last only because Ursa says no to Great Gram's wishes and denounces them all, finds relief in music (and achieves catharsis?), leaves all the men who hurt her, supports herself, has independence and recovers from her pain. Her narrating, and her way of talking to, or reacting to, other characters, have the same numbness, emotionlessness, passivity.
The cover of the book has a quote by James Baldwin, who uses the phrase "brutally honest" for Corregidora. That applies. But, next to the disturbing images, the language can be quite distasteful. This is apparently a personal comment more than a reasonable critique, but among all the possible words, why 4 characters, at least- Ursa, May Alice, Mutt and Tadpole, use the same obnoxious word "hole" for "vagina" is something I don't understand.
The book is not bad, it's mostly the experience of reading it that is frustrating. But great? Enough to be nominated as the great American novel, as it once was? Compare Corregidora to Invisible Man. The character in Ralph Ellison also goes through many troubles, gets kicked out, betrayed, abandoned, taken advantage of, made fun of, insulted, humiliated, misunderstood, attached verbally, attached physically..., transforms from a naive, hopeful youth to a cynical, bitter person and yet learns, loves, comes to accept himself and chooses to live. We can see the development, feel the changes, and see why in the end, in spite of everything, he knows that he can love and will leave his hibernation and return to the world. That novel is a masterpiece. Gayl Jones's book is so much inferior.
I'm afraid that Corregidora is acclaimed less because it's well-written than because it deals with important topics and social issues and the painful history. Or maybe I feel the way I do not because of the book, but because of my sensibilities. 

Saturday, 18 April 2015

On Great Expectations- a response to Caroline

This post is a response to Caroline's comment here:
http://thelittlewhiteattic.blogspot.no/2015/04/literature-reading-taste-critiques.html
I thought of writing a comment right there, and then realised that I had never written a post about Great Expectations before (except this comparison and these brief comments). So here goes:
1/ The word "real" appears 4 times in Caroline's comment.
Let me quote Nabokov: 
"The world the artist creates for this purpose may be entirely unreal—as for instance the world of Kafka, or that of Gogol— but there is one absolute demand we are entitled to make: this world in itself and as long as it lasts, must be plausible to the reader or to the spectator."

2/ "Biddy and Joe don't seem real enough."
There are different kinds of books, different kinds of writers. Some novelists create well-developed, realistic, complex characters that are like human beings, e.g. Tolstoy, Flaubert, Jane Austen, Turgenev, George Eliot, etc. Some novelists create some other kinds of characters, e.g. Kafka, Gogol, Dostoyevsky, etc. I'm fine with it. Personally speaking I like writers who create characters that are like human beings, full of life and full of contradictions, but that's not what I look for when reading a book, and I don't think it's fair to use the same standard for all novels and criticise some writers for not achieving what they don't set out to achieve.
Having said that, I think Joe is more than a caricature. In some scenes he can be ridiculous, like a big kid, such as when he meets Miss Havisham and insists on talking to Pip when she asks him questions. But some scenes give him a kind of humanity, such as when he sees the gap between Pip and himself and notices Pip's change in attitude, which makes him alter his way of speaking and keep a distance. Joe may act like a silly, childlike person throughout most of the book, but he feels nervous and embarrassed, can perceive Pip's shame, and also has his pride. His refusal to get anything from Jaggers and his cold attitude to Pip are signs of pride. These things give him complexity, make him human. In 1 scene, Pip says to Biddy that Joe is backward, and Biddy asks "And don't you think he knows that?" I think that's 1 of the saddest and greatest lines in Great Expectations.

3/ "I can appreciate the development of Pip's mind, the feeling of having risen and feeling ashamed of your humble origins".
And then feeling ashamed of having felt ashamed. Because what does Pip learn as he's educated to become a gentleman? Hardly anything worthwhile. Manners, some subjects that hardly equip him for a real job, bourgeois life, nothing at all about responsibility, kindness, nothing about how to be a decent human being. As Pip becomes a gentleman, he becomes a despicable person- has fun, gets into debt, feels ashamed of his origins, looks down on poor people, changes his attitude towards Joe, acts selfishly... It's only when everything collapses for him that he learns a lesson and becomes a better person.

4/ "Pip's feelings are the only thing that seems real to me in that novel."
If "real" means "realistic", Miss Havisham perhaps isn't real. I don't know any Miss Havisham in real life, and don't think I ever will. But that doesn't matter, she's real in that world created by Dickens. Deceived, disappointed and disillusioned, she cannot move on but chooses to be frozen in time- always in that house, always in that wedding dress, away from everyone, away from life. Her anger at 1 man extends to all men and she transfers that hatred to Estella, only to repent it later when she realises what she has done. We may not find such a person in life, but I have no doubt in her existence and the plausibility of her actions within the world of the book. I would even say that she's 1 of the greatest creations in literature. Without Miss Havisham, we wouldn't have the masterpiece Sunset Boulevard and the magnificent short story "A Rose for Emily" and perhaps some other great works of art I don't know of or can't remember at the moment.
Estella is also a good character. If Biddy lacks some complexity to seem real (though I don't find it a problem), Estella acts like a seductive, heartless, vain, cruel girl but behind it is her more sensitive and vulnerable side, her self-loathing, and Pip sees through it. She says she has no heart, but that doesn't mean she cannot feel, doesn't mean that she doesn't understand herself. 1 of the best scenes in Great Expectations is where she announces her engagement to the despicable Drummle to punish herself and Miss Havisham, saying that she is what Miss Havisham has made her.
"Great Expectations I think is considered his greatest because of Pip's feelings which seem very real to us."
More than that. As I've written above, Miss Havisham, Estella and Joe are all good characters. And then the plot, the story, the themes, the individual scenes, the language...

5/ "The big reveal about Magwitch seems anticlimactic compared to the opening chapters."
I didn't feel that way.

6/ "Miss Havisham's friends are bores".
They're meant to be.

7/ "though she seems scary".
Miss Havisham is a fascinating character not simply because she's scary. Keywords: grief, despair, revenge, repentance. How I love the 1st scene Pip meets her- all the clocks are stopped at the same time, the waxwork- skeleton woman picks something up only to put it down at exactly the same spot.

8/ "Dickens' other novels do not explore much psychological depth".
"Dickens was a master at atmosphere, caricature, Victorian world-building rather than psychological exploration".
"I think writing emotional complexity was a bit out of Dickens' depth".
Great Expectations is not without psychological depth (note: Pip), but a more important point is that psychological depth is not the only criterion of literary merit. 
Let me digress and ask: Do we read Charlotte Bronte for psychological depth? I'm going to choose the easy way- quoting Virginia Woolf: 
"... we read Charlotte Brontë not for exquisite observation of character — her characters are vigorous and elementary; not for comedy — hers is grim and crude; not for a philosophic view of life — hers is that of a country parson’s daughter; but for her poetry. Probably that is so with all writers who have, as she has, an overpowering personality, so that, as we say in real life, they have only to open the door to make themselves felt. There is in them some untamed ferocity perpetually at war with the accepted order of things which makes them desire to create instantly rather than to observe patiently. This very ardour, rejecting half shades and other minor impediments, wings its way past the daily conduct of ordinary people and allies itself with their more inarticulate passions..."
Readers who approach Charlotte Bronte with the expectation of finding "exquisite observation of character" or "psychological depth", as can be found in the works of Tolstoy, Jane Austen, Lermontov, Turgenev..., would be disappointed. Her heroines are strong, independent women like her who are once in a while her mouthpieces. Her heroes are her fantasies of dominating men. Charlotte Bronte's strengths are in other things- her poetry, her beautiful language, striking images, powerful emotions, her spirit and overpowering personality, her passion and refusal to stay within bounds... That's what matters. There are different kinds of books, different kinds of writers.

9/ "it is clumsily written". 
If this refers to the language, the style, I don't feel that way. 
If this refers to the plot, I don't feel that way either. If there's anything that slightly bothers me, it's the fact that the girl Pip loves, the adopted daughter of a woman he meets by chance, turns out to be the daughter of the man he previously ran into as a kid and the woman that works for his lawyer. The everyone-turns-out-to-be-connected-to-each-other-and-fits-perfectly-in-the-book thing. Contrived. But Jane Austen also does this, in Sense and Sensibility especially. George Eliot does this, in Daniel Deronda. Charlotte Bronte does this, in Jane Eyre and Shirley and most of all in Villette. Fiction has its conventions, so I'm OK with it, as long as it's not too outrageous, unacceptable. The reveal in Great Expectations doesn't seem so forced. 

Now I feel like grabbing a Dickens novel. 

Thursday, 16 April 2015

Bad review of Corregidora

A novel by Gayl Jones.
After 5 pages at most, I concluded that the author's female, like the narrator. I was right. I was also convinced it's a 1st novel. Again I was right.
Haven't finished the whole thing yet, but I'd like to write anyway, why I'm reading this novel with difficulty. No, not my intellectual flaws. This apparently has to do with my sensibilities.
Here's why: the narrator and protagonist of the book is Ursa Corregidora, a young black woman in America. Her great-grandmother, known as Great Gram, is raped and forced into prostitution by the Portuguese slaveholder and whoremonger Corregidora, an arsehole. Great Gram has a daughter, i.e. Ursa's grandmother, who is raped and also turned into a prostitute by that arsehole, i.e. her own father. Corregidora fathers both Ursa's grandmother and mother. Great Gram and the grandmother later escape. Growing up, Ursa hears these stories over and over and over again, consumed with hatred of Corregidora and charged with the responsibility of "making generations", to bear witness to the abuse embodied in the family name when all evidence has been destroyed. This mission cannot be carried out because, on the 1st pages of the novel, Ursa has a fight with her husband Mutt, an abusive arsehole, while she's pregnant, and has her womb removed. So her boss Tadpole, who has loved her for a long time, takes care of her and protects her from the arsehole husband and helps her divorce Mutt, and he's so nice and kind and gentle and considerate and patient and lovely and everything, you see, but a while after they're married, finding Ursa depressed and unable to get sexual pleasure, Tadpole suddenly turns into an arsehole and 1 day Ursa comes home to find him in bed with a 15-year-old girl. Not only so, he insults her, humiliates her, says shit to her. The man previously full of love and understanding is now full of shit. So Ursa works at a new place and the boss is almost an arsehole too, who 1 time tries to be "friendly" to her. I forgot, Ursa has a friend named Cat, who works for a white couple, and the white man is an arsehole, who probably abuses Cat sexually though it's not spelt out. Oh and when Ursa's staying at Cat's house during her recovery, there's a 14-year-old girl named Jeffy that talks shit to Ursa and later touches her breasts. Another arsehole. No, it doesn't stop there. The main character keeps having nightmares and hearing Great Gram's voice in her head and recalling over and over again those horrific stories of Corregidora, the narrative moves back and forth between the main story and the memories of Corregidora and sometimes Ursa's own memories, so it turns out that there are 2 other arseholes in her past, 1 is a boy in the neighbourhood that plays doctor and touches her down there, the other is a man who also touches her. No, it doesn't stop here either. At some point in the novel Ursa wants to know about her own father and therefore goes to meet her mother to ask questions. The man, Martin, at the beginning only watches Ursa's mother at a distance, and when finally approaching her, speaks softly and patiently when she's unfriendly to him, and looks hurt when she rebuffs him, but it turns out that he's not a nice, shy man as he seems, but also an arsehole. Violent too.
In short, life is all evil and everything is negative and things always go wrong and all men are arseholes.
Why am I writing in this coarse, nasty language? To let you know what to expect in case you want to read Corregidora, that's why.
E.g.: 
"Yeah, they told me what happened. But you ain't got nothing to worry about, though. You still got a hole, ain't you? Long as a woman got a hole, she can fuck. Let me get up in your hole, baby."
I can't help wondering if Gayl Jones thinks that putting all of these negative, tragic, painful things into her novel makes it an important book and a good book.




Update on 18/4:
Don't think "It can't get worse" when reading Corregidora. It can, and it does. 
Perhaps some day I'll write a serious critique of this book, but right now I have to put down my fragmented, disorganised subjective thoughts: Ursa's mother describes a scene which shows Martin as a more contemptible arsehole than I thought (as though his violence is not bad enough) and Ursa's grandmother as a kind of arsehole herself (though, considering the incest, rape and prostitution, she's a victim and therefore to be pitied). The next chapter begins with a girl's suicide- because of some man, people say. Ursa's barely 10 then. Afterwards she talks about her close friend May Alice, and goes on to describe their friendship and May Alice's talk about sex and the female body (about the "hole", etc). It becomes clear that the girl's suicide is not only an indicator of that period in Ursa's life, when she starts to wonder about her own body and the world around her, but there's a connection to May Alice, whose bf Harold is, you guessed it, an arsehole. A selfish, deceitful, irresponsible arsehole, who impregnates May Alice when she's just 15. 
That's how this book is. All the men are arseholes. Some women are arseholes too, but they're easier to sympathise with because they've been abused or whatever by the brutes. 

Tuesday, 14 April 2015

Distinction between feeling sorry and repentance- Nabokov and Jane Austen

I apologise for not replying to all comments and emails. So many things to do. I can't even breathe. However, a new post on Beyond Eastrod just reminds me..., so here are 2 great posts by D. G. Myers: 
- Nabokov's Lolita, greatest novel ever written in English; enactment of moral experience; Humbert Humbert's repentance; Lolita not devoid of moral intention; "wincing revelations of Lolita’s suffering and Humbert’s own devastation", Humbert Humbert realising the horror of what he's doing to Lolita; regret; restitution; full and public confession; Lolita a person, not a token; that Lolita's sexual precociousness is beside the point: 
http://dgmyers.blogspot.no/2009/03/enactment-of-moral-experience.html
- A response to some comments below the previous post- the idea of conditional apology, the difference between feeling sorry and true repentance, with passages from Emma ("Jane Austen was not impressed by the power of saying “I’m sorry.”"): 
http://dgmyers.blogspot.no/2009/03/pull-out-his-eyes-apologize-apologize.html

(Now, having said sorry, I can go on ignoring you all). 

Monday, 13 April 2015

Jazz- spoiler alert

I've just read Angels Carabi's interview with Toni Morrison. In it, Toni Morrison explains pretty much everything she does in Jazz: that the title refers to the music (improvisation in jazz music, improvisation in storytelling, improvisation in life) and to the things people associate with jazz (sex, violence, chaos, something vulgar), that the narrator is the voice of a talking book (not herself), that the book (the last part especially) is an erotic love song to the readers, that the book (that is, the narrator) knows nothing but hears other voices and learns more about the characters and finds its predictions wrong, that the book writing itself is an interesting technical idea, that Dorcas feels empowered by her relationship with Joe, that Felice questions her friendship with Dorcas and changes afterwards and decides to become independent, that Joe feels less bad when learning about Dorcas's last moments, that Wild is a kind of Beloved... 
Isn't that lovely and touching? See how kind Toni Morrison is, to clarify everything for a stupid reader like me! 

Saturday, 11 April 2015

Exceptions

We all have certain genres, certain kinds of films or books that aren't really our thing, don't we? Not that they're generally bad or inferior to others, we're just not into them. But there are always exceptions. So here is the list of genres I'm generally not interested in*, and some exceptions** (= those I like, which means that the films I find good but don't particularly like, e.g Gravity, Interstellar, Clueless, Audition, The Fly, Moonrise Kingdom, Little Miss Sunshine... won't be included).

- Sci-fi films/ books, including dystopian works:
2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick)
A.I. Artificial Intelligence (Steven Spielberg)
A Clockwork Orange (Stanley Kubrick)
Never Let Me Go (Kazuo Ishiguro)
1984 (George Orwell)
Brave New World (Aldous Huxley)

- Superhero films:
The Dark Night (Christopher Nolan)
Iron Man (Jon Favreau)- 1
The Amazing Spider-Man (Marc Webb)- 1

- Action films:
The Bourne Identity (Doug Liman)
The Bourne Supremacy (Paul Greengrass)
The Bourne Ultimatum (Paul Greengrass)
Léon: The Professional (Luc Besson)
Mission: Impossible film series
The Fast and the Furious film series
Casino Royale (Martin Campbell)

- Crime/ mystery/ detective novels:
"Sherlock Holmes" stories (Arthur Conan Doyle)
The Moonstone (Wilkie Collins)

- Post-1960s romantic comedy films:
Play It Again, Sam (Herbert Ross)
10 Things I Hate About You (Gil Junger)
Silver Linings Playbook (David O. Russell)
Enchanted (Kevin Lima)
L'Étudiante (Claude Pinoteau)
Hors de prix (Pierre Salvadori)
Amélie (Jean-Pierre Jeunet) 

- Teen films/ young adult fiction:
10 Things I Hate About You (Gil Junger)
The Virgin Suicides (Sofia Coppola)
Mean Girls (Mark Waters)
Juno (Jason Reitman)
The Perks of Being a Wallflower (Stephen Chbosky)- the film
The Catcher in the Rye (J. D. Salinger)***

- Children books/ films:
The Little Prince (Saint- Exupéry)
Tottochan: The Little Girl at the Window (Tetsuko Kuroyanagi)
Andersen's tales
Harry Potter books and films 

- Cartoons/ animations:
Ratatouille (Brad Bird)
A Christmas Carol (Robert Zemeckis)
Corpse Bride (Tim Burton, Mike Johnson)

- Horror films:
Psycho (Alfred Hitchcock)
Ringu (Hideo Nakata)
The Tenant (Roman Polanski)

What's your list? 


*: Don't be surprised to find many classics missing here. I'm generally not into these genres, you see. 
**: By "some", I mean there are definitely some others I like but right now can't remember. So suggest some titles, maybe I just forgot about them.
***: I'm not sure it should be there. This book is not merely about teen angst, but if you count all books that have a teen protagonist then I suppose it can be included. 

Wednesday, 8 April 2015

Anglicise Russian names! Anglicise them all!

European languages, you see, can have different variants of the same names, like Natasha in Russian is Natalie in French, Pyotr in Russian is Peter in English and Pierre in French, Katherine in English is Katerina in Russian...*
And we've got Leo Tolstoy**. So I'm thinking, what if we replace the names of some Russian authors with their English equivalents, just for fun?***
Consider Theodore Dostoyevsky
Michael Lermontov
Nicholas Gogol
John Turgenev
Anthony Chekhov
Nicholas Leskov
John Goncharov
John Bunin
Michael Bulgakov
Michael Sholokhov
Andrew Platonov
...
Ridiculous? 





*: Personally I don't like the Maudes' decision to change Nikolai into Nicholas, Andrei into Andrew, Marya into Mary, etc. Why should anyone do that? Just to make the names easier? Luckily they keep Natasha. Don't you dare to replace Natasha with anything! Don't you dare! 
**: You probably have noticed my stubborn insistence on saying Lev Tolstoy. I do so out of habit- in VN, because of the relations with the Soviet Union, people translated Russian works directly from the Russian originals and nobody ever called him Leo Tolstoy. Also, the name Leo makes me think of Leonardo da Vinci and Leonardo DiCaprio. And who knows if there's any other reason. 
***: I'm not really questioning the use of the name Leo Tolstoy as some people do here and there in the internet. It's his choice. I'm just being silly. 

Tuesday, 7 April 2015

Literature, reading, taste, critiques, discussions

I asked "Why do you think people hate Great Expectations?", because I don't know the answer. Tom and Inderjit don't know either. But this is Himadri's response in an email:  

"I’d guess most people hate it because they have no inclination towards literature and are forced to study it in school. But there are other reasons.
I first came on to the net nearly 20 or so years ago, and quickly became involved with several book boards. I was excited: at last, I thought, I’d make contact with people who share my interest. And indeed, I have made a great many friends. But … but there were many conversations that went something like this:
X: Great Expectations didn’t grab me at all. I know everyone says it’s a great book and everything, but I thought it was boring.
Me: Why didn’t you like it?
X: I just didn’t.
Me: Yes, I appreciate you didn’t like it – I was just curious as to why you didn’t.
X: It’s just my opinion. I thought it was boring.
Me: Yes, I realise it’s your opinion, but I still don’t know why you didn’t like it.
X: It’s just my opinion. I’m entitled to it.
At this point, Y sticks his nose in.
Y (to me): Stop bullying her!
Me: I’m not bullying … this is a discussion forum, and I am trying to initiate a discussion …
Y: Yes, you are bullying. X doesn’t have to give a reason if she doesn’t want to. She’s not answerable to you.
Then, Z pops in.
Z: I don’t know what’s happening on this board. You can’t express an opinion without someone jumping down your throat. It didn’t use to be like this – it was quite a friendly board when I joined.
Me (very much on the defensive now): I just wanted to know why she didn’t like the book – that’s all!
Z: Not everyone has to have a Ph.D. in literature to join in the discussion, you know! This board is open to everyone.
X: Look, I didn’t like the book because it was boring, OK? Because it was long-winded. Because I don’t just like a book because everyone says I should like it – I can think for myself, and decide for myself what I like and what I don’t. Does that answer your question?
Me (a bit miffed by this stage): Not really, but let it pass…
X, Y and Z (in unison): What do you mean by that? How dare you?
…and so on.
Sometimes, to initiate a bit of proper discussion, I’d put up an essay-length post explaining why Great Expectations is so precious to me. In fairness, some people would say “thank you”, and “that was an interesting read”, or whatever. But no discussion would ensue. And then, a couple of weeks later, X (or it could be someone else this time) would start up again:
X: I read Great Expectations a few weeks ago, and it didn’t impress me at all.
And Y would say:
Y: it’s one of those books people like just because they’re told they should like it, but it really is very boring.
And then X, Y and Z would join in praise of some piece of middlebrow tosh. Needless to say, they won’t go into why they like this middlebrow tosh: they just tell each other it was great, it was so readable, that they couldn’t put it down, and so on. And that, for them, is a “discussion”.
Now, is it really worth taking time off from all the other things you may be doing to get involved in something like this?
So why don’t they like Great Expectations? It may be that some have genuinely valid criticisms, but if so, they don’t articulate them. The reason they don’t like it, as far as I can make out, is some combination of the following:
-        They were forced to study it at school when they would rather have been playing computer games
-        They have not developed a discerning taste for literature
-        They do not think such a taste is worth developing
-        They are suspicious and resentful of those who have developed such a taste
-        They like to think of themselves as “rebels”, and disliking a book that is critically acclaimed flatters their ego that they really are rebels
-        They like to look down on people who they think are unable, unlike themselves, to think for themselves, and who merely accept the critical consensus
   At least, they would think this if they knew how to spell “consensus”
-        They do not understand what discussion is, and think that mere statement of opinion is the end of a discussion rather than the start of one
-        They think any opinion, no matter how uninformed or uneducated, is as valuable as any other opinion, because everything boils down merely to a matter of opinion
-        They think that any challenge to their opinion is a personal affront
-        And finally, they just don’t like it. End of story. Do you have a problem with that?
After putting up with this sort of thing for more years than I should have done, I have decided there is little point in trying to engage with those who are so averse to any meaningful engagement. There are intelligent and discerning people enough with whom to discuss literature." 


Here are some other great posts by Himadri about Great Expectations in particular and Dickens's works in general: 
https://argumentativeoldgit.wordpress.com/2010/05/29/dickens-and-his-detractors/
https://argumentativeoldgit.wordpress.com/2011/08/12/on-sentimentality/
https://argumentativeoldgit.wordpress.com/2012/07/27/brushstrokes/
https://argumentativeoldgit.wordpress.com/2012/02/06/needs-a-good-editor/
https://argumentativeoldgit.wordpress.com/2011/05/07/the-three-endings-of-great-expectations/
https://argumentativeoldgit.wordpress.com/2010/11/22/great-expectations-and-leducation-sentimentale/
https://argumentativeoldgit.wordpress.com/2013/01/22/great-and-small-expectations/
About literary criticism, quality, standard, taste, etc:
https://argumentativeoldgit.wordpress.com/2013/08/13/an-appeal-on-behalf-of-book-snobs/
https://argumentativeoldgit.wordpress.com/2010/08/21/but-is-it-art/
https://argumentativeoldgit.wordpress.com/2010/07/18/literary-standards-and-prolefeed/
https://argumentativeoldgit.wordpress.com/2011/10/20/the-pseuds-vs-the-plebs/
https://argumentativeoldgit.wordpress.com/2010/10/30/how-i-became-so-stuffy-and-elitist/

Monday, 6 April 2015

3 mothers who abandon their babies

Of the 6 novels I've read over the past few months (Shirley, Daniel Deronda, The Moonstone, Despair, Jazz, Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde), 3 have a mother that abandons her child.
In Daniel Deronda, after many years Princess Leonora meets her son Daniel Deronda, gives him the answers. There are 2 main reasons: 1 is that as a Jew she believes it's better to let her son have an English upbringing and become an English gentleman, away from Judaism and the Jews and all the negative things associated with Jews ("I relieved you from the bondage of having been born a Jew", "I chose for you what I would have chosen for myself"...), the other is that she cannot be a mother ("I had not much affection to give you. I did not want affection. I had been stifled with it", "I wanted to live out the life that was in me, and not to be hampered with other lives", "I did not want a child", "I did not want to marry [...] I had a right to be free", "I will not pretend to love where I have no love"...)
We may not agree with her decision to conceal from Daniel his identity and heritage, we may not approve of her hatred of being Jewish, we may find her too cold, selfish and cruel, but somehow her thoughts and actions are understandable and therefore acceptable. Especially when we consider that Daniel gladly accepts and embraces his own Jewishness because he himself wishes it, due to Mirah and Mordecai, mostly Mirah, a different man under these circumstances is not likely to condemn the Princess and resent her decision as strongly as Daniel does.
In Jazz, we don't know why. But we know something's not right with Wild.
"In the trees to his left, he sees a naked berry-black woman. She is covered with mud and leaves are in her hair. Her eyes are large and terrible. As soon as she sees him, he starts then turns suddenly to run, but in turning before she looks away she knocks her head against the tree she has been leaning against. Her terror is so great her body flees before her eyes are ready to find the route of escape. The blow blocks her out and down."
That encounter between her and Golden Gray is the 1st time we see Wild. Golden Gray picks her up, tries to save her, brings her to the place of Hunters Hunter, then she gives birth. The kid is probably Joe Trace, we don't know for sure, but Joe assumes so, and we may believe so. That is a different story, however- to get back to Wild, she never speaks a word. The 1st thing she does when waking up is to bite Hunters' Hunter. Nuts.
Look at this:
"She lived close, they said, not way off in the woods or even down in the riverbed, but somewhere in that cane field- at its edge some said or maybe moving around in it. Close. Cutting cane could get frenzied sometimes when young men got the feeling she was just yonder, hiding, and probably looking at them."
And then this:
"The cane field where Wild hid, or watched, or laughed out loud, or stayed quite burned for months. [...] Would she know? he wondered. Would she understand that fire was not light or flowers moving toward her, or flying golden hair? That if you tried to kiss it, it would swallow your breath away?"
Wild never speaks a word, not even once. I'm not sure if she does speak. It's not simply that there's no direct quote, but there's no indication of her saying anything either. A short while after having her baby, she goes away, probably into the woods, followed by Golden Gray. And never comes back for her kid (if she's indeed Joe's mother, that is). Joe asks questions, and Hunters Hunter says "She got reasons. Even if she crazy. Crazy people got reasons."
Then it kind of makes sense. She's crazy! 
(Toni Morrison clarifies it for us: "a simple-minded woman too silly to beg for a living. Too brain-blased to do what they meanest sow managed: nurse what she birthed. The small children believed she was a witch, but they were wrong. This creature hadn't the intelligence to be a witch. She was powerless, invisible, wastefully daft.")
And then in Shirley, we find another mother letting go of her child. Let's hear what Mrs Pryor says to Caroline: 
"I had reason to dread a fair outside, to mistrust a popular bearing, to shudder before distinction, grace, and courtesy. Beauty and affability had come in my way when I was recluse, desolate, young, and ignorant—a toil-worn governess perishing of uncheered labour, breaking down before her time. These, Caroline, when they smiled on me, I mistook for angels. I followed them home; and when into their hands I had given without reserve my whole chance of future happiness, it was my lot to witness a transfiguration on the domestic hearth—to see the white mask lifted, the bright disguise put away, and opposite me sat down— O God, I have suffered!" 
And:
"I let you go as a babe, because you were pretty, and I feared your loveliness, deeming it the stamp of perversity. They sent me your portrait, taken at eight years old; that portrait confirmed my fears. Had it shown me a sunburnt little rustic—a heavy, blunt-featured, commonplace child—I should have hastened to claim you; but there, under the silver paper, I saw blooming the delicacy of an aristocratic flower—'little lady' was written on every trait. I had too recently crawled from under the yoke of the fine gentleman—escaped galled, crushed, paralyzed, dying—to dare to encounter his still finer and most fairy-like representative. My sweet little lady overwhelmed me with dismay; her air of native elegance froze my very marrow. In my experience I had not met with truth, modesty, good principle as the concomitants of beauty. A form so straight and fine, I argued, must conceal a mind warped and cruel. I had little faith in the power of education to rectify such a mind; or rather, I entirely misdoubted my own ability to influence it. Caroline, I dared not undertake to rear you. I resolved to leave you in your uncle's hands." 
What? 
I know Mrs Pryor has a hard life, full of suffering, as a governess, and as a wife. I know hardships and experiences with unpleasant people make her pessimistic, cynical, to some extent misanthropic. I understand that sometimes a woman extends the loathing of her husband to their child. But "I let you go as a babe, because you were pretty, and I feared your loveliness"? To quote G. H. Lewes: "Really this is midsummer madness!" 

Sunday, 5 April 2015

Vladimir Nabokov's lecture on Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde

From "Lectures on Literature"*.

1/ Nabokov dismisses the interpretations of this book as a mystery story (which, to him, is "the very negation of style", conventional literature), a detective story (as a detective story, it is lame), a parable or an allegory ("tasteless"). He quotes Stephen Gwynn, that it's "a fable that lies nearer to poetry than to ordinary prose fiction".

2/ The names Jekyll and Hyde, according to Nabokov, are of Scandinavian origin: Hyde comes from the Anglo-Saxon "hyd", which is the Danish "hide", "a haven"; Jekyll comes from the Danish name Jökulle, meaning "an icicle".
Then he goes on to mock "Not knowing these simple derivations one would be apt to find all kinds of symbolic meanings, especially in Hyde, the most obvious being that Hyde is a kind of hiding place for Dr Jekyll, in whom the jocular doctor and the killer are combined."
Is there anything wrong in seeing the word "hide" in Hyde and "kill" in Jekyll?
I'm not sure about "hyd", "hide" and "Jökulle". The last word is particularly curious, because the Danish alphabet doesn't have "ö", only the Swedish alphabet does.
Note: according to the notes in my copy of "Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde", the name Jekyll is meant to be pronounced like "jee-kill", not /ˈdʒɛk(ə)l/ as OED says. 

3/ I'm glad to discover that Nabokov's view on Jekyll is quite similar to mine, but of course he expresses it a lot better:
"Is Jekyll good? No, he is a composite being, a mixture of good and bad, a preparation consisting of a 99% solution of Jekyllite and 1% of Hyde [...] Jekyll's morals are poor from the Victorian point of view. He is a hypocritical creature carefully concealing his little sins. He is vindictive, never forgiving Dr Lanyon with whom he disagrees in scientific matters. He is foolhardy. Hyde is mingled with him, within him."
To make it clearer: "Jekyll is not really transformed into Hyde but projects a concentrate of pure evil that becomes Hyde, who is smaller than Jekyll, a big man, to indicate the larger amount of good that Jekyll possesses".
According to "the popular notions about this seldom read book" (to use Nabokov's words), Jekyll and Hyde are 2 separate beings that exist within 1 person, good and evil, but that isn't the case.

4/ Nabokov draws the house:
http://2.bp.blogspot.com/_zlARkukOsPQ/TLh0v6BEVSI/AAAAAAAAA88/m6CYIEuJ3f0/s1600/Jekyll+House.jpg
(or rather, it's a student's drawing, with his alterations).
"Just as Jekyll is a mixture of good and bad, so Jekyll's dwelling place is also a mixture, a very neat symbol, a very neat representation of the Jekyll and Hyde relationship."

5/ "Stevenson's artistic purpose was to make "a fantastic drama pass in the presence of plain sensible men" in an atmosphere familiar to the readers of Dickens, in the setting of London's bleak fog, of solemn elderly gentlemen drinking old port, of ugly faced houses, of family lawyers and devoted butlers, of anonymous vices thriving somewhere behind the solemn square on which Jekyll lives, and of cold mornings and of hansom cabs."
Now Nabokov points that out, the setting seems familiar, even conventional. But of course the tale isn't conventional. This book is great because it's strange and well-written and also because it is many things at once and beyond them all: mystery novel, Gothic novel, detective story, fable, allegory, doppelgänger literature, popular/ sensational fiction, etc. 

6/ Interestingly enough, Nabokov also likes and draws attention to a passage I've just pointed out in the earlier post: the chocolate-coloured pall scene.

7/ Speaking of alliteration, he quotes Stevenson:
"It used to be a piece of good advice to all young writers to avoid alliteration; and the advice was sound, in so far as it prevented daubing. None the less for that, was it abominable nonsense, and the mere raving of those blindest of the blind who will not see. The beauty of the contents of a phrase, or of a sentence, depends implicitly upon alliteration and upon assonance. The vowel demands to be repeated; the consonant demands to be repeated; and both cry aloud to be perpetually varied. You may follow the adventures of a letter through any passage that has particularly pleased you; find it, perhaps, denied a while, to tantalise the ear; find it fired again at you in a whole broadside; or find it pass into congenerous sounds, one liquid or labial melting away into another. And you will find another and much stranger circumstance. Literature is written by and for two senses: a sort of internal ear, quick to perceive 'unheard melodies'; and the eye, which directs the pen and deciphers the printed phrase."
And adds "and let me add as a reader, the internal eye visualizes its color and meaning".
Let me paste here a few more words by Stevenson:
"Each phrase in literature is built of sounds, as each phrase in music consists of notes. One sound suggests, echoes, demands, and harmonises with another; and the art of rightly using these concordances is the final art in literature."
Really, Stevenson plays a lot with sounds:
E.g: "the bless seems hardly human! Something troglodytic, shall we say? or can it be the old story of Dr Fell? or is it the mere radiance of a foul soul that thus transpires through, and transfigures, its clay continent? [...] I read Satan's signature upon a face, it is on that of your new friend."
You can find it even in the 1st line:
"Mr Utterson the lawyer was a man of a rugged countenance, that was never lighted by a smile; cold, scanty and embarrassed in discourse; backward in sentiment; lean, long, dusty, dreary, and yet somehow lovable."

8/ I wrote the depravity of Hyde was vague, unspecified.
Nabokov says "Stevenson gives us the specific, lifelike description of events by humdrum London gentlemen, but contrasting with this are the unspecified, vague, but ominous allusions to pleasures and dreadful vices somewhere behind the scenes. [...] If we are really being told "never mind what the evil was- just believe it was something very bad", then we might feel ourselves cheated and bullied. We could feel cheated by vagueness in the most interesting part of the story because its setting is so matter of fact and realistic".
This, to him, is a problem "It was safer for the artist not to be specific and to leave the pleasures of Jekyll undescribed. But does not this safety, this easy way, does it not denote a certain weakness in the artist? I think it does."
I do like Stevenson to make it clearer, but this is not necessarily a weakness. London is covered in fog, the vices are also covered in fog, and darkness, and the ambiguity makes the story complex, fascinating, open to interpretation. Hyde is a secret, he goes into the house through the back door, the mystery isn't revealed to anyone but Dr Lanyon until Jekyll's suicide, it is all a secret from the beginning to the end, even after the end. This might be a deliberate artistic choice rather than an evasion. Also, not saying what the vices are also makes them worse than they actually are.
Nabokov mentions the suggestion that they refer to homosexuality, which he doesn't dismiss as tasteless or impossible, even if he says "this Victorian reticence prompts the modern reader to grope for conclusions that perhaps Stevenson never intended to be groped for". Then he remarks "In any case, the good reader cannot be quite satisfied with the mist surrounding Jekyll's adventures. And this is especially irritating since Hyde's adventures, likewise anonymous, are supposed to be monstrous exaggerations of Jekyll's wayward whims."
Indeed, what have Jekyll and Hyde done?
"Now the only thing that we do guess about Hyde's pleasures is that they are sadistic- he enjoys the infliction of pain".
And that's the worst part, a lot worse than the other excesses.

9/ Quoting Stephen Gwynn, Nabokov points out "the monkish pattern" of the book: Jekyll, Utterson, Enfield and Poole are bachelors, and women have hardly any part in the action.

10/ In the last part of the lecture, Nabokov writes about Stevenson's last moments, of which I was ignorant. 
"What, has my face changed? There is a curious thematical link between this last episode in Stevenson's life and the fateful transformations in his most wonderful book". 


*: 
http://thelittlewhiteattic.blogspot.com/2014/01/vladimir-nabokovs-lecture-on-mansfield.html
http://thelittlewhiteattic.blogspot.com/2014/01/vladimir-nabokovs-lecture-on-madame.html