Saturday, 24 February 2018

Run Lola Run

I love Run Lola Run, especially the editing. The story is simple: Lola has 20 minutes to collect 100000 deutschmarks to save her boyfriend’s life. She has to run, run, run, to get the money and meet him on time. However, the story is repeated 3 times in the film, each time with a few small changes that lead to an entirely different outcome.
The concept of Run Lola Run is that it’s like a video game—Lola races against the clock, avoids obstacles, tries to rescue her boyfriend, and each time the game is over, it goes back to the starting point of the phone call and starts all over again. Also in each run she seems to have knowledge from previous runs, e.g. in the 1st run, her bf Manni tells her how to use her gun, and in the 2nd run, she just knows. Using fast cutting and very bold jump cuts, the film bursts with energy; it’s thrilling, daring, and inventive. 
At the same time, because of the 3 runs, 3 different outcomes, 3 possibilities, Run Lola Run also makes us think about chance and fate, about free will vs determinism, and about chaos theory. 
Brilliant film.

Thursday, 22 February 2018

The favourite 3

Following the previous post, here’s a list of my 3 favourite films of some directors. I also note how many of the directors’ films I’ve watched. 
(I don’t include a director if I’ve only seen 5 films or less. You probably notice that I broke my own rule a few times). 

Woody Allen:
Annie Hall 
Crimes and Misdemeanors 
Love and Death 
(out of 18) 

Martin Scorsese: 
Taxi Driver 
Mean Streets 
The Aviator 
(out of 17) 

Ingmar Bergman: 
Cries and Whispers 
Wild Strawberries or The Seventh Seal 
(out of 15) 

Alfred Hitchcock: 
Dial M for Murder 
(out of 15) 

Billy Wilder: 
Sunset Boulevard 
The Apartment 
Witness for the Prosecution 
(out of 14) 

Federico Fellini: 
Nights of Cabiria 
8 ½ 
(out of 10) 

Clint Eastwood: 
Million Dollar Baby 
True Crime 
(out of 10) 

Zhang Yimou: 
Raise the Red Lantern 
To Live 
Red Sorghum or Ju Dou 
(out of 10) 

Stanley Kubrick: 
Dr Strangelove 
The Killing 
2001: A Space Odyssey 
(out of 9) 

Joel& Ethan Coen: 
No Country for Old Men 
The Big Lebowski 
(out of 9) 

Kenji Mizoguchi: 
Gion bayashi, aka A Geisha 
Ugetsu monogatari 
Akasen chitai, aka Street of Shame 
(out of 8) 

Luis Bunuel: 
The Exterminating Angel
The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie 
The Phantom of Liberty or Viridiana 
(out of 8) 

Wong Kar-wai: 
Chungking Express 
Happy Together
(out of 8) 

Tim Burton: 
Edward Scissorhands 
Corpse Bride
Sweeney Todd
(out of 8) 

Akira Kurosawa: 
The Bad Sleep Well 
High and Low 
(out of 7) 

Francis Ford Coppola: 
The Godfather 
The Conversation 
The Godfather Part II 
(out of 7) 

Steven Spielberg: 
Catch Me If You Can 
A.I. Artificial Intelligence 
The Terminal 
(out of 7) 

Park Chan-wook: 
The Handmaiden 
(out of 6) 

Roman Polanski: 
The Pianist 
Knife in the Water 
(out of 6) 

Quentin Tarantino: 
Pulp Fiction 
Inglourious Basterds 
Jackie Brown 
(out of 6) 

Ang Lee: 
Sense and Sensibility 
Brokeback Mountain 
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
(out of 6)

Monday, 19 February 2018

High and Low and my 3 favourite Kurosawa films

Thought my favourite Japanese director was Mizoguchi, then I watched High and Low and fell in love with Kurosawa again. 
This is interesting:
Look at the renowned directors who have been influenced by him: George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, Francis Ford Coppola, Roman Polanski, Martin Scorsese, Robert Altman, Satyajit Ray, John Woo, Zhang Yimou, Guillermo del Toro, Alejandro González Iñárritu, J. J. Abrams… He’s also praised by other masters of cinema such as Ingmar Bergman, Andrei Tarkovsky, Federico Fellini… 
But what I find really interesting is that people’s favourite Kurosawa films can be quite different. I imagine that if you ask people about their favourite Fellini films, the answers are pretty predictable: 8 ½, La Dolce Vita, La Strada, Amarcord. Perhaps someone would say Le notti di Cabiria (as I do), but those are the usual answers. With Mizoguchi, Ugetsu Monogatari would always be mentioned, then perhaps The Life of Oharu, Sansho the Bailiff, Miss Oyu, The Crucified Lovers
The 3 favourite Kurosawa films would be quite different—he after all made many masterpieces*. Personally, my choices are Ran, The Bad Sleep Well, and High and Low
What about yours? 

*: Same for Ingmar Bergman, actually. My 3 favourite Bergman films are Persona, Cries and Whispers, and either Wild Strawberries or The Seventh Seal.

Sunday, 11 February 2018

Bird Bitten and other news

1/ My short film Bird Bitten is still in post-production. We haven’t done much these days as the new semester has just started and everyone’s preparing for experimental films. 
But this is the official fb page of the film, with updates, stills, and behind-the-scene stuff, including the famous 19 takes.
2/ Among the books I read last semester, there were 2 very good ones about directing: 
Film Directing Shot by Shot: Visualizing from Concept to Screen by Steve Katz 
Directing: Film Techniques and Aesthetics by Michael Rabiger and Mick Hurbis-Cherrier 
The former is useful for thinking in visuals, creating blocking and storyboard, and planning shot list. 
The latter is a comprehensive book about all aspects of the director’s job: vision, script analysis and development, visualisation, style, pre-production, casting, working with actors, shot list, directing on set, working with crew, post-production, the edit, working with sound and music, and so on and so forth. 
On a side note, lately I’ve been watching films differently—very often I find myself noting how many shots and camera angles there are in a scene. Fellini and Mizoguchi move the actors, and then move the camera with them.
3/ Currently reading Directing Actors: Creating Memorable Performances for Film and Television by Judith Weston. Also got home Friendly Enemies: Maximizing the Director-Actor Relationship by Delia Salvi and The Casting Handbook by Jennifer Granville and Suzy Catliff. 
A useful book, with advice on what to do and not to do in working with actors. It makes me realise that I’m quite controlling. However, as with all guide books, it shouldn’t be followed unquestioningly, and 1 of the things I learnt from Laurent Tirard’s Moviemakers' Master Class years ago was that there’s no definite rule in filmmaking and each director has a different way of doing things. 
4/ At the same time, after Nabokov’s The Gift, I’ve been reading Tolstoy’s trilogy Childhood, Boyhood, Youth. Childhood was his 1st published novel, but it already showed his power of observation and psychological insight. He sees and captures the nuance of feeling and the complexity of human beings, especially in his passages about grief—that the greatest grief is still never total and complete, that the depiction of someone completely immersed in grief and nothing else would ring false, that people are very often conscious of their own display of sadness and pain and thus show it even more… 
Reading Tolstoy at the moment is a good idea. 
Also his ability to convey the sense of joy, joy in being alive, is perhaps only matched by Herman Melville. 
5/ I also borrowed Andrei Tarkovsky’s Sculpting in Time: Reflections on the Cinema. Looks like an interesting read.

Wednesday, 7 February 2018

Untold Scandal and The Handmaiden

I like film adaptations. We all, I suppose, love great faithful ones, such as Gone With the Wind, Sense and Sensibility, Love and Friendship (from Lady Susan), Dangerous Liaisons (Stephen Frears version), The Godfather, The Silence of the Lambs…, but I have a particular fondness for loose adaptations, creative adaptations, especially those with a changed setting. Like Ran, loosely adapted from King Lear. Or Clueless, a modern adaptation of Emma.
Recently I’ve watched 2 excellent South Korean adaptations of Western texts, E J-yong’s Untold Scandal from 18th-century French novel Dangerous Liaisons by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos, and Park Chan-wook’s The Handmaiden from Sarah Waters’s neo-Victorian novel Fingersmith
Both are beautifully shot and engaging, with fine performances; Untold Scandal especially has exquisite production design. Both have some sexy scenes, with a frank depiction of, and attitude about, sex. Both have elaborate plots, and even though Untold Scandal is about sex, sexual promiscuity (or infidelity), game, and ego, and The Handmaiden focuses on money, lesbians, and kink, both films tackle the same themes of love, lust, seduction plot, innocence, deception, betrayal, cruelty, and revenge. In Untold Scandal, a womaniser places a bet with a woman who was once his lover that he would seduce a young virgin and a moral and pious woman. In The Handmaiden, 2 Korean con-artists concoct a plan to seduce an innocent Japanese woman for her money. With the deceiver being deceived, the player being played, both films suggest the unpredictability of life and irony of fate, and we can say, the power of love and how it makes everyone vulnerable. 
Good films. 

Some stills from Untold Scandal: 

The Handmaiden:

Monday, 29 January 2018

Nabokov’s ideas and the chapter about Chernyshevsky

Readers familiar with Nabokov can find in The Gift everything about Nabokov, all the subjects important to him: 
- Literature, especially Russian literature, prose and verse 
Pushkin and Gogol 
- Flaubert—a few references to Madame Bovary and Bouvard and Pécuchet, as Flaubert also detests and mocks philistinism 
- The Russian debate and the revolution 
- Russia, homeland, remembrance, nostalgia
- Time
- Exile and the émigré community 
- His teaching job 
- Writing 
- Nature, butterflies, birds and trees 
- Lepidopterology 
- Chess, another passion of Nabokov’s
- Love of life 
- Consciousness, sensations and the senses 
- Shades of colours (the main colour of The Gift, I think, could be blue: blue sky, blue sea, bluish black, dark blue, bluish, turquoise, azure, indigo, sapphires, blue eyes, violets, irises…) 
- Synaesthesia, which Fyodor shares with his creator 
- His wife Véra, who is in the novel as Zina 
The novel also encapsulates all of his aesthetic ideals, especially through his attack on his polar opposite Chernyshevsky in chapter 4: 
- Aesthetic bliss 
- Prose and style 
- Love of details 
- Literary merit > ideas and ideologies 
- Against utilitarian art 
- Against didactic literature 
- Against sociological criticism in literary criticism 
- Against philistinism 
- Against ignorance and mediocrity 
- Details and nuances, against generalisations 
- Against materialism 
- Against utopianism 
- Against communism 
- Against the suppression of freedom and creativity 
Here are some of Nabokov’s most biting remarks about Chernyshevsky in The Gift
“The drolly circumstantial style, the meticulously inserted adverbs, the passion for semicolons, the clogging down of thought in mid-sentence and the clumsy attempts to extricate it (whereupon it got stuck at once elsewhere, and the author had to start worrying it out all over again), the drubbing-in, rubbing-in tone of each word, the knight-moves of sense in the trivial commentary on his minutest actions, the viscid ineptitude of these actions (as if some workshop had got onto the man’s hands, and both were left), the seriousness, the limpness, the honesty, the poverty—all this pleased Fyodor so much, he was so amazed and tickled by the fact that an author with such a mental and verbal style was considered to have influenced the literary destiny of Russia…” 
“He preached soundness and common sense in everything—and as if in response to someone’s mocking summons, his destiny was cluttered with blockheads, crack-brains and madmen.” 
“… this sensible young man, who—let us not forget—is only concerned with the good of all mankind, has eyes like a mole, while his blind, white hands move on a different plane from his faulty but obstinate and muscular mind. Everything that he touches falls to pieces.” 
“… dreamed to the end of his life of composing ‘a critical dictionary of ideas and facts’ (which recalls Flaubert’s caricature, that Dictionnaire des idées reçues whose ironic epigraph—‘the majority is always right’—Chernyshevski would have adopted in all seriousness).” 
“Steklov calls Chernyshevski’s article ‘The Anthropological Principle in Philosophy’, the ‘1st philosophical manifesto of Russian communism’; it is significant that this 1st manifesto was a schoolboy’s rendering, an infantile assessment of the most difficult moral questions.” 
“He most definitely did not give a hoot for the opinions of specialists, and he saw no harm in not knowing the details of the subject under examination: details were for him merely the aristocratic element in the nation of our general ideas.” 
Chapter 4 is so satisfying.

On a side note, I’m from Vietnam, a communist country, and I don’t think anybody really cares about Chernyshevsky or even knows who he was. The book that was an inspiration to lots of people in Vietnam was How the Steel Was Tempered by Nikolai Ostrovsky (who’s mentioned in The Gift).

Wednesday, 24 January 2018

Russian literature, Chernyshevsky, and The Gift

1/ Look at this chain of novels:
In 1862, Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons was published, sparking a debate in Russia.
In response to Fathers and Sons, Nikolai Chernyshevsky wrote a novel called What Is To Be Done? whilst in prison, which was published in 1863 (What To Do? in Nabokov’s translation). 
Chernyshevsky’s ideas, utilitarianism, utopianism and stuff, were attacked by Dostoyevsky in his 1864 novel Notes from Underground.
Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment (1866) may not be seen as part of the chain of novels, but in my opinion, in Crime and Punishment he was expanding on, and developing, his ideas from Notes from Underground and arguments against utilitarianism. Dostoyevsky also pursued his ideas in other novels, especially Demons (1872).
Unlike normal people, the Russians were debating through novels.
The debate didn’t stop there.
Vladimir Nabokov’s The Gift, which he wrote between 1935 and 1937 in Berlin, was an ode to Russian literature and also an attack on Chernyshevsky’s ideas.
I’m sure there are lots of other works in the debate that have sunk into oblivion or that I simply don’t know about.

2/ In 1886, Tolstoy wrote a book called What Is To Be Done?. I don’t know if it had any relation to Chernyshevsky’s book, it could be about something else—I haven’t read it.
In 1902, Lenin published a political pamphlet called What Is To Be Done? Burning Questions of Our Movement. He liked the man’s ideas, I’ve heard. “Chernyshevsky's novel, far more than Marx's Capital, supplied the emotional dynamic that eventually went to make the Russian Revolution.” (source)

3/ I’m too busy (I have a film to make!) to read What Is To Be Done?, so I’m taking the easy way of reading about it.
Here are the posts from Tom at Wuthering Expectations about the book:
He discusses Chernyshevsky’s book and Notes from Underground here:
This is the kind of reader and book blogger we need, who suffers so that others don’t have to.
Scott G. F. Bailey has a list of bits from the book that are parodied in Notes from Underground:

4/ This is a very useful essay, by Sergei Davydov, about The Gift and Chernyshevsky:,%20in%20Canadian-American%20Slavic%20Studies,%20vol.%2019,%20No.%203%20(1985),%20357-374.pdf

5/ Davydov also notes:


6/ However, note this paragraph in chapter 3: 
“Fyodor tried to sort out the mishmash of philosophical ideas of the time, and it seemed to him that in the very roll call of names, in their burlesque consonance, there was manifested a kind of sin against thought, a mockery of it, a blemish of the age, when some extravagantly praised Kant, others Kont (Comte), others again Hegel or Schlegel. And on the other hand he began to comprehend by degrees that such uncompromising radicals as Chernyshevski, with all their ludicrous and ghastly blunders, were, no matter how you looked at it, real heroes in their struggle with the governmental order of things (which was even more noxious and more vulgar than was their own fatuity in the realm of literary criticism) and that other oppositionists, the liberals or the Slavophiles, who risked less, were by the same token worth less than these iron squabblers.”

Sunday, 21 January 2018

Nabokov’s The Gift: chapter 3, the émigré, the writer, and the critic

1/ Time and space: 
In chapter 1, our character/writer Fyodor Konstantinovich Godunov- Cherdyntsev moves into a new flat, with a landlady named Klara Stoboy. 
At the end of chapter 2, after 2 years, he moves to another place, owned by Ivan Borisovich Shchyogolev (an unpronounceable name), who lives with his wife Marianna Nikolavna and her daughter from the previous marriage. 
The story takes place in Berlin, but there’s nothing German about it: it’s written in Russian, about Russia and Russian literature; its world is populated by Russian characters; Fyodor hangs out with Russian émigrés, goes to a Russian bookshop, reads Russian books and reviews of Russian books, gets published in a Russian newspaper in Berlin, etc. 

2/ Chapter 3 can be called the Gogol chapter. 

3/ The sneering tone is back:  
“Once a week that janitor’s wife, fat, heavily breathing, reeking of stale sweat, came with a vacuum cleaner, and then all hell broke loose, the world was shattered to bits, a hellish grinding pervaded one’s very soul, destroying it, and drove Fyodor out of his bed, out of his room and out of the house.” 
Mean? The description’s so vivid. 
“… usually, around 10 o’clock, Marianna Nikolavna took her turn in the bathroom and after her came, hawking up phlegm as he went, Ivan Borisovich. He flushed the toilet as many as 5 times but did not use the bath, contenting himself with the murmur of the little washbasin.” 
Jane Austen and Nabokov are probably the best at writing about characters they don’t like. Look at this line about a student of Fyodor’s, “the son of an émigré dentist”: 
“Firmly believing that the humorous side of things had long since been worked out in the proper place for it (the back page of Berlin illustrated weekly), he never laughed, or limited himself to a condescending snicker.” 

4/ The Gift concerns with the development and maturation of a writer. 
In chapter 1, Fyodor publishes a poem collection. 
In chapter 2, he turns to Pushkin and his own father’s writings, trying to get something “[o]ut of swarms of drafts, long manuscript extracts from books, indecipherable jottings on miscellaneous sheets of paper, pencilled remarks straggling over the margins of other writings of mine”. It comes to nothing. 
“I myself am a mere seeker of verbal adventures, and forgive me if I refuse to hunt down my fancies on my father’s own collecting ground. I have realized, you see, the impossibility of having the imagery of his travels germinate without contaminating them with a kind of secondary poetization, which keeps departing farther and farther from that real poetry with which the live experience of these reception, knowledgeable and chaste naturalists endowed their research.” 
In chapter 3, he starts to turn away from poetry.  
“I do not doubt that even then, at the time of that ugly, crippling school (which I would hardly have bothered with at all were I a typical poet who never fell for the blandishments of harmonious prose) I nevertheless knew true inspiration. The agitation which seized me, swiftly covered me with an icy sheet, squeezed my joints and jerked at my fingers. The lunatic wandering of my thought which by unknown means found the door in a thousand leading into the noisy night of the garden, the expansion and contraction of the heart, now as vast as the starry sky and then as small as a droplet of mercury, the opening arms of a kind of inner embracement, classicism’s sacred thrill, mutterings, tears—all this was genuine. But at that moment, in a hasty and clumsy attempt to resolve the agitation, I clutched at the 1st hackneyed words available, at their ready-made linkages, so that as soon as I had embarked on what I thought to be creation, on what should have been the expression, the living connection between my divine excitement and my human world, everything expired in a fatal gusts of words, whereas I continued to rotate epithets and adjust rhymes without noticing the split, the debasement and the betrayal—like a man relating his dream (like any dream infinitely free and complex, but clotting like blood upon waking up), who unnoticed by himself and his listeners rounds it out, cleans it up and dresses it in the fashion of hackneyed reality, and if he begins thus ‘I dreamt that I was sitting in my room’, monstrously vulgarizes the dream’s devices by taking for granted that the room had been furnished exactly the same as his room in real life.” 
The Gift is not only about the struggles and doubts of an aspiring writer, it also deals with the anguish of an émigré writer: 
 “… there he is, a special, rare and as yet undescribed and unnamed variant of man, and he is occupied with God knows what, rushing from lesson to lesson, wasting his youth on a boring and empty task, on the mediocre teaching of foreign languages—when he has his own language, out of which he can make anything he likes—a midge, a mammoth, a thousand different clouds.” 

5/ The Gift and Pnin are both about the émigré experience. 
The difference is that Pnin struggles to survive and express himself in a language not his own, thus misunderstood and seen as a comic figure, whereas Fyodor has the comfort of the Russian community and can live in his own environment, associate with other Russians, and speak his own tongue. 
When surrounded by other émigrés, Pnin is interesting and erudite. 
Speaking of which, what word do we use for Humbert Humbert? He’s a European, born in Paris to a family of mixed parentage, who later moves to the US, but he’s not an émigré, not in the sense that Nabokov was—Humbert Humbert’s circumstances don’t have the sense of exile or self-exile. What is he then? Not an immigrant. An expatriate? A migrant? 

6/ As chapter 3 is the Gogol chapter (with a direct Dead Souls reference) and the chapter that concerns more with the writing, and a turn in Fyodor’s career, Nabokov mocks the philistinism of a certain kind of literary critic: 
“… citing this unauthentic quotation and then some thought expressed by somebody in a Paris café after someone’s lecture, he began to narrow these artificial circles around Koncheyev’s Communications; but even so to the very end he never touched the centre, but only directed now and then a mesmeric gesture toward it from the circumference—and again revolved. The result was something in the nature of those black spirals on cardboard circles which are everlastingly spinning in the windows of Berlin ice-cream parlours in a crazy effort to turn into bull’s eyes. 
It was a venomously disdainful ‘dressing down’ without a single remark to the point, without a single example—and not so much the critic’s words as his whole manner made a pitiful and dubious phantom out of a book which Mortus could not fail to have read with delight and from which he avoided quoting in order not to damage himself with the disparity between what he wrote and what he was writing about; the whole review seemed to be a séance for the summoning of a spirit which is announced in advance to be, if not a fraud, at least a delusion of the senses. ‘These poems’, ended Mortus, ‘induce in the reader an indefinite but insuperable repulsion. People friendly to Koncheyev’s talent will probably think them enchanting. We shall not quarrel—perhaps this is really so. But in our difficult times with their new responsibilities, when the very air is imbued with a subtle moral angoisse (an awareness of which is the infallible mark of “genuineness” in a contemporary poet), abstract and melodious little pieces about dreamy visions are incapable of seducing anyone. And in truth it is with a kind of joyous relief that one passes from them to any kind of “human document”, to what one can read “between the words” in certain Soviet writers (granted even without talent), to an artless and sorrowful confession, to a private letter dictated by emotion and despair’.” 
This is a mockery of the social critic, of the utilitarian ideas about art and its so-called purposes—a preparation for the attack on Chernyshevsky’s ideas in the next chapter. 
It reminds me of Nabokov’s writings about the suffocating atmosphere for Soviet writers, quoted here:

Friday, 19 January 2018

Nabokov's The Gift: chapter 2, Fyodor's father, butterflies, and the love of life

1/ In my previous post, I seemed to be comparing Fyodor’s father’s death to Yasha’s. That wasn’t what I meant. Other than the dead ones’ haunting reappearance in dreams or hallucinations, the only thing the 2 cases have in common is grief, and the inability to come to terms with a loved one’s death. 
The grief for Fyodor’s father is, in a sense, a hope-suffused grief (Nabokov’s phrase), and because of his age and achievements, there is a sense of consolation. The loss of Yasha brings nothing but despair and anguish, shattering all hopes of what he could have become. 

2/ In The Gift, Nabokov writes about remembrance, nostalgia, and longing. He also writes about the impossibility of knowing anyone completely, the desire, the hope to know more, and the attempt to grope for answers one can never get.  
“… In and around my father, around this clear and direct strength, there was something difficult to convey in words, a haze, a mystery, an enigmatic reserve which made itself felt sometimes more, sometimes less. It was as if this genuine, very genuine man possessed an aura of something still unknown but which was perhaps the most genuine of all. It had no direct connection either with us, or with my mother, or with the externals of life, or even with butterflies (the closest of all to him, I dare say); it was neither pensiveness nor melancholy—and I have no means of explaining the impression his face made on me when I looked through his study window from outside and saw how, having suddenly forgotten his work (I could feel inside how he had forgotten it—as if something had fallen through or trailed off), his large wise head turned slightly away from the desk and resting on his fist, so that a wide crease was raised from his cheek to his temple, he sat for a minute without moving. It sometimes seems to me nowadays that—who knows—he might go off on his journeys not so much to seek something as to flee something, and that on returning, he would realize that it was still with him, inside him, unriddable, inexhaustible. I cannot track down a name for his secret, but I only know that that was the source of that special—neither glad nor morose, having indeed no connection with the outward appearance of human emotions—solitude in which neither my mother nor all the entomologists of the world had any admittance.” 
“Sometimes he was quite alone, without even this nearness of men sleeping in camp tents, on felt mattresses, around the camel bedded down on the campfire ashes. Taking advantage of lengthy halts in places with abundant food for the caravan animals, Father would go away for several days on reconnaissance, and in doing so, carried away by some new pierid, more than once ignored the rule of mountain hunting: never to follow a path of no return. And now I continually ask myself what did he use to think about in the solitary night: I try fervently in the darkness to divine the current of his thoughts, and I have much less success with this than with my mental visits to places which I have never seen. What did he think about? About a recent catch? About my mother, about us? About the innate strangeness of human life, a sense of which he mysteriously transmitted to me? Or perhaps I am wrong in retrospectively forcing upon him the secret which he carries now, when newly gloomy and preoccupied, concealing the pain of an unknown wound, concealing death as something shameful, he appears in my dreams, but which then he did not have—but simply was happy in that incompletely named world in which at every step he named the nameless.” 
A short while ago I had a discussion with Himadri, in which he spoke of a sneering tone to Nabokov’s prose, and wondered if he could directly convey depth of feeling, or tenderness (the sad and sweet Pnin is narrated by a cruel, contemptuous man who treats Pnin as a laughingstock). 
The Gift is evidence that he could. The sneering tone creeps in a few times at the beginning of chapter 1, but quickly disappears. The Gift has a warmth, a tenderness not found in other Nabokov novels I’ve read. 

3/ Chapter 2 can be called the Pushkin and butterflies chapter. 
The Gift is about Nabokov’s 2 greatest passions—literature and lepidopterology.  

4/ In a paragraph about butterflies: 
“All this fascinating life, by whose present blend one could infallibly tell both the age of the summer (with an accuracy almost to within 1 day), the geographical location of the area, and the vegetal composition of the clearing—all this that was living, genuine and eternally dear to him, Fyodor perceived in a flash, with 1 penetrating and experienced glance.” 
He then tells a folklore, which includes this line: 
“That is the human eye—it wants to encompass everything in the world.” 

5/ Somebody, I don’t really remember, once wrote that he likes writers who love life, who say yes to life. 
So do I. 
Nabokov is perhaps the best example. Even though his novels often deal with cruelty, tyranny and madness, his passion for life can be seen in his attention to detail, his vivid descriptions of nature and colours, his love of butterflies, his celebration of the senses and the imagination, his love of freedom, creativity, and art. He makes us more alert, more aware of our surroundings. 
Tolstoy is another great example. To quote Virginia Woolf “His senses, his intellect, are acute, powerful, and well nourished. There is something proud and superb in the attack of such a mind and such a body upon life. Nothing seems to escape him. Nothing glances off him unrecorded. Nobody, therefore, can so convey the excitement of sport, the beauty of horses, and all the fierce desirability of the world to the senses of a strong young man. Every twig, every feather sticks to his magnet. He notices the blue or red of a child’s frock; the way a horse shifts its tail; the sound of a cough; the action of a man trying to put his hands into pockets that have been sewn up.” (The Common Reader
Tolstoy notices everything, and writes about all kinds of experience. His War and Peace and Anna Karenina seem to contain all about life. Now and then the preacher in him takes over, but when the artist triumphs, Tolstoy’s unsurpassable. 
Another favourite writer of mine, Herman Melville, also loves life. Readers who call Moby Dick boring approach it the wrong way; those who appreciate and love it are the ones who share with Ismael a sense of wonder and curiosity, and a love of learning. Anything mundane Melville turns into something meaningful, philosophic. Moby Dick makes you feel more alive. 
I don’t have much affinity with writers like Elfriede Jelinek (after The Piano Teacher, which I thought was excellent but didn’t see as a favourite, I read Greed, and perhaps a bit of Wonderful, Wonderful Times). Her view on life is dark, bleak, unbearably negative, even sick and perverse, and without hopes. Life is hard and often unfair, but I can find joy, and there is much to live for.

Sunday, 14 January 2018

Death and the warmth of The Gift

Chapter 2 of The Gift has some passages that mirror the passage about Yasha’s father, as quoted in my previous blog post. 
“… [Fyodor’s mother] spoke of what she had constantly returned to for almost 9 years now, repeating over again—incoherently, gloomily, ashamedly, turning her eyes away, as if confessing to something secret and terrible—that she believed more and more that Fyodor’s father was alive, that her mourning was ridiculous, that the vague news of his death had never been confirmed by anyone, that he was somewhere in Tibet, in China, in captivity, in prison, in some desperate quagmire of troubles and privations, that he was convalescing after some long, long illness—and suddenly, flinging open the door noisily, stamping on the steps, he would enter. And to an even greater degree than before these words made Fyodor feel both happier and more frightened. Accustomed willy-nilly to consider his father dead all these years, he sensed something grotesque in the possibility of his return. Was it admissible that life could perform not only miracles, but miracles necessarily deprived (otherwise they would be unbearable) of even the tiniest hint of the supernatural?” 
The inability to come to terms with a loved one’s death. 
“It happens that over a long period you are promised a great success, in which from the very start you do not believe, so dissimilar is it from the rest of fate’s offerings, and if from time to time you do think of it, then you do so as it were to indulge your fantasy—but when, at last, on a very ordinary day with a west wind blowing, the news comes—simply, instantaneously and decisively destroying any hope in it—then you are suddenly amazed to find that although you did not believe in it, you had been living with it all this time, not realizing the constant, close presence of the dream, which had long since grown fat and independent, so that now you cannot get it out of your life without making a hole in that life. Thus had Fyodor, in spite of all logic and not daring to envision its realization, lived with the familiar dream of his father’s return, a dream which had mysterious embellished his life and somehow lifted it above the level of surrounding lives, just as, when a little boy, his father used to lift him by his elbows thus enabling him to see what was interesting over a fence.” 
Grief and longing, perhaps, is what brings Fyodor and the Chernyshevski family closer together. 
The Gift is beautifully written, which is expected, especially the descriptions of nature—the morning before Fyodor visits Vasiliev’s office in chapter 1 (“a young chest-nut tree, still unable to walk alone and therefore supported by stake, suddenly came out with a flower bigger than itself”…) and the several paragraphs that open chapter 2. 
It also has warmth. It’s a novel that you can unhesitatingly, fully, comfortably embrace, that you can happily love with all your heart, unlike, I think, Lolita.* 
I’ve always lamented the unfortunate fact that Lolita overshadows everything else in Nabokov’s oeuvre—it’s the book that introduces many readers to Nabokov, but I’m afraid that it’s also the book that keeps many other readers away from him, because of its reputation. You can argue that the people who choose not to read Lolita because of its subject matter shouldn’t read it anyway, but they can enjoy his other works (Pnin! I’d say). 
The book blogger’s responsibility, in my mind, is not only to discuss books, to offer a new interpretation or point out some details that haven’t been noticed before, to “defend the books they cherish from those who would make a hash of them”, but also to talk to readers and fellow bloggers about other great books that are lesser known. I feel helpless. Facing writers like Nabokov or Melville, I’m paralysed, unable to express why they’re great. All I can do is typing and showing some bits from the book, some phrases and moments, in hopes that others would read The Gift.

*: Of course, that is not to say that Lolita is cold. 
Read these 2 posts of mine:
I expect you know what I mean about the inability to fully embrace Lolita and love it without reservations—it’s not the subject matter, but the narrator.