Sunday, 15 September 2019

The lustful Emma Bovary

Discussing Madame Bovary, people tend to write about Emma’s sentimentality, silliness, and extravagance, and the way she foolishly expects life to be grand and exciting as in books, and feels disillusioned when it isn’t. I forgot, since the last read about 5-6 years ago, that Emma is actually very sensual, with lots of appetite for sex. 
Just look at these passages, when Emma’s falling for Léon: 
“… she was full of lust, anger, hatred.” (P.2, ch.5)  
(For friends who haven’t read Madame Bovary: the hatred is for her husband, for being mediocre and boring, but not beating her up or giving her some other reason to hate him). 
“The desires of the flesh, the lust for money and the melancholia of passion all merged in a single agony—but instead of turning her mind away she bound herself to it even more closely, stimulated by pain and looking everywhere for opportunities to indulge herself.” (ibid.) 
2 chapters later, Flaubert also uses the phrase “carnal desires” (in Christopher Moncrieff’s translation).     
At this point, Emma hasn’t had an affair yet, but today her behaviour would most probably be called micro-cheating, whatever that means. 
“She could make out tiny gold flecks in his eyes, fanning out round his black pupils, and could even smell the pomade that made his hair shine. Then suddenly she felt weak, she remembered the Vicomte who had waltzed with her at La Vaubyessard, and whose beard gave off the same scents of vanilla and lemon, and instinctively she half-closed her eyes in order to breathe it in. But as she did so she sat up in her chair, and saw the old stagecoach Hirondelle on the horizon, coming slowly down Les Leux hill trailing a long plume of dust. It was in that same yellow carriage that Léon had so often returned to her; and it was on the same road that he had left forever! She thought she saw him at his window opposite; then everything became confused, the clouds passed; it was as if she were still waltzing in the Vicomte’s arms in the light of the chandeliers, and Léon wasn’t far away, he was coming… and yet she could still sense Rodolphe’s head beside her. The sweetness of the sensation found its way into her old desires, and like grains of sand in the wind they whirled round in the delicate waft of perfume that was spreading through her soul.” (P.2, ch.8) 
All the men blur together. It’s obvious that what Emma needs, and wants, is some good sex, which she doesn’t get from her husband. 
Just go back to the beginning and look at this scene of Emma and Charles before they get married:  
“She got a bottle of curacao from the armoire, reached down 2 small glasses, filled one to the top, put almost nothing in the other and then, having clinked it with his, lifted it to her mouth. Since it was virtually empty she had to tip her head back to drink; and in that position, with her lips extended, neck craning, she laughed because she couldn’t taste anything, while between her shapely little teeth the tip of her tongue gently licked the bottom of the glass.” (P.1, ch.3) 
Her sensual nature has been hinted from the start. 
It becomes clear that Emma craves sex. She fantasises about the Vicomte, then falls for Léon; after Léon, she quickly succumbs to Rodolphe’s seductions, then she also gets over him, and starts a new affair with Léon. 
With Rodolphe, she has sex with him the 1st time they ride horses together, and during the affair, sneaks out of house several times a week to be with him. 
“1 morning when Charles had left before dawn, she was seized by a sudden desire to see Rodolphe that very second. […] The thought made her breast heave with lust…” (P.2, ch.9) 
And then: 
“All winter, 3 or 4 times a week, he came to her garden when it was completely dark. Emma had taken the key out of the gate, and Charles thought it had been lost. 
[…] To let her know he was there, Rodolphe always threw a handful of sand at the shutters. She would jump up; but sometimes she had to wait, because Charles had a habit of chatting by the fire and would go on ad infinitum. She would be consumed with impatience; if they would have done, her eyes would have leapt out of the window.” (P.2, ch.10) 
Note: “consumed with impatience”. 
Later, when Emma meets Léon again, after 3 years, she has “an irresistible urge to put her lips to” his cheeks (P.3, ch.1). She arranges a meeting in a church, which leads to the famous carriage scene: 
“Among wagons and barrels at the harbour, in the streets and at the marker stones, local people stared in amazement at this unheard-of thing for a provincial town, a carriage with its blind pulled down, and which kept reappearing, more tightly sealed than a tomb, pitching and tossing like a ship at sea.” (ibid.)
What a scene indeed. Subtle, but masterfully suggestive.   
Later, Flaubert is plain about Emma’s high libido. Just look at these lines: 
“… she came back more voracious, more impassioned than before. She would undress violently, ripping the laces of her corset, which slipped over her hips like a snake. Tiptoeing in bare feet she would check the door was locked then throw aside her clothes in a single movement—and pale, silent, serious, she collapsed into his arms with a shudder.” (P.3, ch.6) 
The detail I find interesting is the effort Emma makes to see Léon: “she never lost the distinct sensation of having a long way to go.” (P.3, ch.5) Emma lies about taking music lessons, in order to see Léon every week. So how far does she have to travel? The Bovarys live in Yonville, Léon lives in Rouen—the distance, Flaubert says, is 24 miles, or 38.6 km. That is about the distance from Leeds, where I live, to York—I’m lazy to travel to York by train (for the Aesthetical Short Film Festival, for instance), Emma travels by carriage. Imagine the time and effort. 
Note that Emma is the one travelling to see Léon, not the other way around, when it is easier for a man to travel (19th century). That shows how much she craves sex.

Thursday, 5 September 2019

Motifs in Madame Bovary: the cigar cases

“As Charles was giving the harness a final check he noticed something on the ground between the horse’s legs; he picked up a cigar case edged with green silk which had a coat of arms in the middle, like on a carriage door. 
‘There are even 2 cigars in it,’ he said. ‘They’ll do for this evening after dinner.” (P.1, ch.8) 
This is the 1st time Flaubert uses the motif of the cigar case in Madame Bovary. It is after the Marquise’s ball. 
“Snatching up the cigar case, Emma threw it at the back of the armoire.” (ibid.)  
It is only a cigar case, but to Emma, it becomes a symbol.
“When Charles was out, she would often take the green silk cigar case from among the folded linen in the cupboard where she had put it. 
She would look at it, open it, even sniff the scent of its lining, a mixture of vervain and tobacco. Whom did it belong to?... To the Vicomte. Perhaps it was a present from his mistress. It had been worked on some rosewood embroidery frame, a pretty little possession that was kept hidden from prying eyes, and had taken many long hours, with the soft curls of the musing female head bent over it. A breath of love had blown through the fine net of the canvas; every stitch of the needle had woven a hope or memory into it, and the intertwined silk threads were all inseparable from that same silent passion. And then one morning the Vicomte had taken it with him.” (P.1, ch.9) 
Flaubert, like Jane Austen, is a master of the free indirect speech. Such a short passage is enough to reveal the ennui, sentimentality, and melodramatic tendencies in Emma Bovary. To someone else, a cigar case is a cigar case is a cigar case. To Emma, she imagines that it belongs to the Vicomte and comes from a mistress, and attaches meaning to it. 
This moment, after the Marquise’s ball, is when Emma becomes disillusioned, regrets her marriage, and dreams of a life of luxury, excitement, and passion that her husband cannot provide. This is also when she starts betraying Charles, for Emma betrays him and their marriage long before she has sex with Rodolphe. 
In the structure of the novel, the cigar case becomes part of a pattern. But it’s not the only one. Look at this passage: 
“The conversation flagged, Madame Bovary kept breaking off every few minutes, while he seemed rooted in self-consciousness. Sitting in a low chair by the fire he turned an ivory cigarette case round in his fingers; she carried on with her sewing…” (P.2, ch.5) 
A cigarette case appears in this moment, around the time Emma realises she and Léon are in love (well, that’s what she thinks—I think they just want to bang). 
Later on, there’s another cigarette case, when Rodolphe enters the story. 
“… At this the peasant dropped the cigarette case he was holding.” (P.2, ch.7)
In this scene, Emma doesn’t feel anything yet, but on Rodolphe’s side, the 1st time they meet, he already wants sex with her. And they would become lovers. 
“As well as the whip with a silver gilt handle, Rodolphe had been given a seal with the motto: Amor nel cor, plus a muffler and a cigar case exactly like the Vicomte’s that Charles had picked up on the road years ago, and which Emma had kept.” (P.2, ch.2) 
As Rodolphe becomes Emma’s lover and therefore the embodiment and subject of her fantasies, she gives him a copy of the green silk cigar case.
In short, Flaubert creates a motif of a cigar or cigarette case to link with the 3 men whom Emma fantasises about and/or cheats on Charles with. 
Interestingly, the passages in this blog post come from the copy I’m reading, translated by Christopher Moncrieff. In the Eleanor Marx-Aveling translation, Léon plays with a thimble-case, and Rodolphe’s peasant drops a lancet-case. Can anyone who reads French please check? But even if the Moncrieff’s translation is inaccurate and the cases of Léon and the peasant have no meaning, the original green silk cigar case and the one Emma gives Rodolphe are still part of an important pattern.

Wednesday, 4 September 2019

Charles Mingus and the year 1959

After John Coltrane, I spent some time with Miles Davis, and, finding myself unable to get into Porgy and Bess, In a Silent Way, Sketches of Spain, or even Birth of the Cool, I chose not to listen to Bitches Brew or any more Davis for the moment, and decided to focus on Charles Mingus instead.
Charles Mingus was a bassist, composer, and bandleader. He’s one of the greatest figures in jazz, though probably not as well known in popular culture as some other musicians such as Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis, or John Coltrane. I’ve been listening to Mingus Ah Um lately.

What a great album. It doesn’t have a strong sense of unity like the Coltrane albums I’ve been listening to, but it’s diverse—for example, right after “Better Git It in Yo’ Soul”, full of warmth and energy, is the mournful “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat”, an elegy for saxophonist Lester Young, who wore a pork pie hat, then it is followed by the fun, swing-style composition “Boogie Stop Shuffle”, and so on. Such a ride.
Mingus Ah Um also contains the instrumental version of “Fables of Faubus”, a protest against, and mockery of, Arkansas governor Orval E. Faubus, who sent out the Arkansas National Guard to prevent 9 black students from entering an all-white high school in 1957.
This is the song with lyrics, re-titled “Original Faubus Fables”, from the album Charles Mingus Presents Charles Mingus.

Anyway, as I’ve been listening to the album over and over, I’ve just realised that 1959 was such a fantastic year for jazz. That was the year Kind of Blue was released! BBC4 even made a documentary named 1959: The Year that Changed Jazz.
Here are a few articles talking about the year 1959 in jazz:

Here are some important albums for anyone interested:
Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue (with John Coltrane):

Dave Brubeck’s Time Out:

The famous “Take Five” is in this album.

Ornette Coleman’s The Shape of Jazz to Come:

Bill Evans’s Portrait in Jazz:

Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers’ Moanin’:

Ella Fitzgerald Sings the George and Ira Gershwin Song Book:

Duke Ellington’s soundtrack for Anatomy of a Murder:

Sun Ra & His Arkestra’s Jazz in Silhouette:

Also in 1959, John Coltrane recorded Giant Steps, which was released in 1960.
What a year.

Monday, 2 September 2019

Motifs in Madame Bovary: Cupid and the plaster priest

Motifs abound in Flaubert’s works. They are not symbols, but patterns and repeated images and associations. 
1 of the main ones is the horse motif. I’ve now noticed the statue motif. 
This is the Bovarys’ wedding: 
“A confectioner of Yvetot had been intrusted with the tarts and sweets. As he had only just set up on the place, he had taken a lot of trouble, and at dessert he himself brought in a set dish that evoked loud cries of wonderment. To begin with, at its base there was a square of blue cardboard, representing a temple with porticoes, colonnades, and stucco statuettes all round, and in the niches constellations of gilt paper stars; then on the second stage was a dungeon of Savoy cake, surrounded by many fortifications in candied angelica, almonds, raisins, and quarters of oranges; and finally, on the upper platform a green field with rocks set in lakes of jam, nutshell boats, and a small Cupid balancing himself in a chocolate swing whose two uprights ended in real roses for balls at the top.” (P.1, ch.4) 
Contrast that with the Marquis’s party: 
“The silver dish covers reflected the lighted wax candles in the candelabra, the cut crystal covered with light steam reflected from one to the other pale rays; bouquets were placed in a row the whole length of the table; and in the large-bordered plates each napkin, arranged after the fashion of a bishop’s mitre, held between its two gaping folds a small oval shaped roll. The red claws of lobsters hung over the dishes; rich fruit in open baskets was piled up on moss; there were quails in their plumage; smoke was rising; and in silk stockings, knee-breeches, white cravat, and frilled shirt, the steward, grave as a judge, offering ready carved dishes between the shoulders of the guests, with a touch of the spoon gave you the piece chosen. On the large stove of porcelain inlaid with copper baguettes the statue of a woman, draped to the chin, gazed motionless on the room full of life.” (P.1, ch.8) 
Much more luxurious. 
There’s another Cupid when the Bovarys move to Yonville: 
“Then across an open space appears a white house beyond a grass mound ornamented by a Cupid, his finger on his lips; two brass vases are at each end of a flight of steps; scutcheons blaze upon the door. It is the notary’s house, and the finest in the place.” (P.2, ch.1) 
And another sculpture: 
“Farther on, at a spot where the building narrows, the confessional forms a pendant to a statuette of the Virgin, clothed in a satin robe, coifed with a tulle veil sprinkled with silver stars, and with red cheeks, like an idol of the Sandwich Islands; and, finally, a copy of the “Holy Family, presented by the Minister of the Interior,” overlooking the high altar, between four candlesticks, closes in the perspective.” (ibid.) 
Soon after the appearance of the 2nd Cupid, Emma meets Léon for the 1st time. 
A quick search tells me that there is a 3rd Cupid near the end of the novel: 
“On the clock there was a bronze cupid, who smirked as he bent his arm beneath a golden garland. They had laughed at it many a time, but when they had to part everything seemed serious to them.” (P.3, ch.5) 
This is during the time Emma has an affair with Léon. The 3 Cupids in the novel are all different, but 2 of them are associated with Léon. 
All of the quotes above come from the translation by Eleanor Marx-Aveling, on Gutenberg, just so I don’t have to type. 
“Then how many things had been spoilt or lost during their carriage from Tostes to Yonville, without counting the plaster cure, who falling out of the coach at an over-severe jolt, had been dashed into a thousand fragments on the pavements of Quincampoix!” (P.2, ch.3) 
What is the plaster cure? It is actually the plaster priest I was looking for. 
This comes from the Christopher Moncrieff translation I’m reading: 
“Then there were the things that had been lost or damaged in transit from Tostes to Yonville, to say nothing of the plaster priest, which had fallen off the cart after a violent jolt and smashed on the cobbles in Quincampoix.” (P.2, ch.3)
The plaster priest is linked to the 1st part of the Bovarys’ marriage: 
“At the far end, beneath some small fir trees, a plasterwork priest was reading his breviary.” (P.1, ch.5) 
It appears again the day after the Marquis’s ball: 
“She walked in the garden, up and down the same old paths, stopping at the flower beds, the espaliers, the plaster priest, studying all these things from the past that she knew so well with a sense of astonishment. How far away the ball seemed already!” (P.1, ch.8) 
This is when there are cracks in their relationship—a taste of the luxury, riches, and excitement at the party only makes Emma see more clearly her husband’s mediocrity and contentment (or lack of ambition) and the tedium of her life. 
“Under the fir trees by the hedge, the priest in the 3-corned hat reading his breviary had lost his right foot, and there were white pockmarks on his face where the frost had chipped off the plaster.” (P.1, ch.9) 
More cracks. 
In the end, the plaster priest gets broken to pieces on the way to Yonville, which is where the marriage starts to go wrong. 
(All these plaster priest passages come from the Christopher Moncrieff translation). 
There are also other statues and statuettes in the novel, but the plaster priest and the Cupids are the main ones. 

Saturday, 31 August 2019

Jazz standard: “In a Sentimental Mood”

“In a Sentimental Mood” as performed by Duke Ellington (its composer) and John Coltrane is one of my favourite pieces in jazz. It’s tender, melancholic, and just wonderful.

Ellington and Coltrane are 2 of the greatest figures in jazz, and we also have Elvin Jones on drums. I’m a peasant, but even I can hear that the drums are great.
Here is the song with lyrics, performed by Ella Fitzgerald.

Much as I love her silky voice, nothing beats the John Coltrane version.
Today, I’ve just heard for the 1st time the original, performed by Duke Ellington and the orchestra. Here it is, if you haven’t heard it.

I mean, what happened? How is this the same one?

Emma Bovary’s boredom

Look at these lines—Flaubert describes the people at the Marquis’s party that Emma Bovary looks at: 
“Their clothes, of better cut, seemed to be of softer material, and their hair, gathered in curls at their temples, had the sheen of finest pomade. Their complexion was that of wealth, the shade of white that enhances the pallor of porcelain, the watered shimmer of satin, the shine of beautiful furniture, maintained in the peak of health by a simple and exquisite diet.” (P.1, Ch.8) 
It has been quite some time since I read a Flaubert novel, I forgot how rich, how thick with details Madame Bovary was. He doesn’t describe everything a character does, the way Tolstoy would, but like Tolstoy, he describes everything there is to see in a scene. But this is not a neutral, objective description, it is description of the rich people through Emma’s eyes. 
Madame Bovary is about boredom, but it’s never boring. I love the metaphors and similes. 
“... deep down she was waiting for something to happen. Like a sailor in distress, her desperate eyes stared out across the isolation of her life, searching for a white sail in the mist on the distant horizon. She didn’t know what this stroke of fate would be, which wind would blow it towards her, what shore it would carry her to, whether it would be a rowing boat or an ocean-going ship, filled with worries or enough bliss to make it sink. But each morning when she woke up she hoped it would be that day, and would listen to every sound, leap out of bed, be amazed that it hadn’t come, and then at sunset, unhappier than ever, she would wish it were tomorrow.” (P.1, Ch.9) 
Isn’t that such a wonderful passage to describe boredom? 
“But nothing ever happened to her: it was God’s will! Her future was a long dark corridor, and the door at the end was locked.” (ibid.) 
And then this bit: 
“But it was at mealtimes particularly that she thought she couldn’t bear it any longer, in the little dining room on the ground floor with its smoky stove, squeaky door, walls that streamed with damp, its dank flagstones; all life’s bitterness seemed to be heaped on her plate, and along with the stream from the boiled beef it rose from the depths of her being like so many other insipid odours.” (ibid.) 
Now and then I can understand. I know boredom—when we moved to Norway, it was Kristiansand that we first lived in, for some time, so imagine moving from Saigon to Kristiansand. The quiet and uneventfulness could have driven me mad if not for the IB. Being busy helps. Still, we moved to Oslo after a few years. 
But Madame Bovary is not only about boredom. As I reread the novel, it’s amusing to think about the readers who see Emma as a heroine who is stifled by marriage and constrained by the patriarchy and defies social conventions and breaks free by having affairs. It is obvious from the start that she is doomed and would cause her own downfall. Her main fault is that she identifies with characters in books and expects life to be like books—she wants luxury and romance, she wants something grand, romantic, and tragic, she is sentimental and needs something to fill the hollowness of her own soul. In a sense, Madame Bovary is a book about a bad reader, and the book itself becomes a test for readers. 

About 2 years and a half ago, I read Effi Briest. These were my blog posts comparing the 3 adultery novels:

Thursday, 29 August 2019

Rereading Madame Bovary: 1st notes

I’m rereading Madame Bovary after 6-7 years. The translation is by Christopher Moncrieff. This is a read-along, everyone is welcomed to join and discuss the novel. 
Guess what, I’ve just realised that I never blogged about it before. Strange. 
Some thoughts: 
1/ About Charles Bovary’s early years: 
“… As a result of applying himself he was always around the middle of the class, once he even got a certificate of merit for natural history. But at the end of his remove year his parents took him away from school to study medicine, convinced he would be able to pass the baccalaureate on his own.” (P.1, Ch.1) 
I forgot this point. Bovary’s a dimwit, but maybe he studies the wrong thing and has the wrong career. 

2/ I almost forgot that he had a 1st wife, before meeting Emma. There are 3 Madame Bovarys in the book: the mother, the 1st wife, and Emma. Isn’t it curious how the book is called Madame Bovary, and not Emma Bovary? Think of Anna Karenina
The 1st wife is killed off quite conveniently—what would happen if she didn’t die, and Charles Bovary fell in love with Emma? Such fun. That’s not the story Flaubert chose to tell, but it’s fun to ponder over.

3/ The image of the sad, misanthropic Flaubert I have in my head makes me forget how funny he can be sometimes. 
Look at these lines—Monsieur Rouault tries to cheer up Bovary after the death of his 1st wife: 
“Thinking it was his duty to lavish as much courtesy as possible on the doctor because he was still grieving, he urged him not to think of taking his hat off, spoke to him quietly as if he were ill, even pretended to be annoyed that lighter dishes hadn’t been prepared for him, such as pots de crème or pears baked in the oven. He told stories. Charlies found himself laughing, but memories of his wife immediately came back to him and filled him with gloom. But then they brought coffee, and he stopped thinking about her.” (P.1, Ch.3) 
Now look at the wedding party: 
“They ate till evening. When people were tired of sitting down they took a stroll in the yard or had a game of bouchons in the barn then they came back to the table. Towards the end, a few nodded off and began snoring. But when coffee was served everything came back to life…” (P.1, Ch.4) 
Coffee solves everything indeed. 

4/ I notice the horse motif. 
Charles Bovary comes to treat Monsieur Rouault, and later visits him, on a horse. 
Emma in the convent reads sentimental stories, with “horses killed on every page” (Ch.6), and: 
“The Sisters, who had greatly overestimated her calling, were astonished to find Mademoiselle Rouault apparently slipping through their fingers. But they had lavished so many church services on her, so many retreats, novenas and sermons, preached so much about the respect owed to saints and martyrs, given so much good advice about maidenly modesty and the salvation of the soul, that she did what a horse does when you drag it by the mouth: she pulled up sharp, and the bit came out from between her teeth.” (ibid.) 
I’m sure the horse image will come up again. 

5/ The lines about Emma’s reaction to her mother’s death are the 1st indication that she is sentimental and affected, and likes to put on a show, but has no depth of feeling. That is what Madame Bovary is about, it’s not about adultery.

Wednesday, 28 August 2019

Listening to Coltrane: the favourites

I’ve now listened to 12 John Coltrane albums: the 9 albums in the earlier post, plus Soultrane (1958), Dakar (recorded in 1957, released in 1963), and Olé Coltrane (1961).
Instead of writing something to expose my ignorance of music, I’m just going to say that my personal favourite albums are Blue Train, Kind of Blue, and Crescent. If Kind of Blue doesn’t count because it’s Miles Davis’s album and John Coltrane was only playing in the band, swap it with A Love Supreme.
So not Giant Steps. Not Ascension. That probably says something about me.
What about favourite tracks?
I struggle to pick a favourite from Blue Train and Kind of Blue, as I love the entire albums. A Love Supreme should be listened to in its entirety.
Crescent is wonderful as a whole, lyrical, sorrowful, but 2 tracks stand out: “Wise One” and “Lonnie’s Lament”.

Here are my other favourite tracks:
“Equinox” from Coltrane’s Sound:

“In a Sentimental Mood” from Duke Ellington& John Coltrane:

“Big Nick” from Duke Ellington& John Coltrane:

“Angelica” from Duke Ellington& John Coltrane:

“My Favorite Things” from My Favorite Things:

“Giant Steps” from Giant Steps:

 “Milestones” from Milestones:

“Good Bait” from Soultrane:

“Route 4” from Dakar:

Here is someone talking about the albums in a more articulate way:

My listening to Coltrane stopped at Ascension, which means that I haven’t listened to music of his later periods—avant-garde jazz and all that, like Living Space, Transition, Sun Ship, First Meditations, Interstellar Space, etc. That can wait. I don’t want to listen to him so obsessively that I can’t touch his music again in my life.
Next, I’ll probably focus on Miles Davis.

Saturday, 24 August 2019

On the idea of relevance and relatableness in the arts

Recently I saw an article in The Guardian which argued that instead of Shakespeare and Dickens, students in English classes should be taught the kind of literature that would be more relevant to their lives.
These arguments are nothing new. Complaints about the teaching of Shakespeare and classic literature always amount to the same word—“relevance”. Even in the book blog world, lots of times I’ve found people criticising a book because they couldn’t relate to the characters or the characters were not relatable—just look at the things people have said about Lolita, Wuthering Heights, Mansfield Park, Madame Bovary, and so on and so forth.  
As someone who love 19th century Russian literature, 50s-70s cinema, jazz, etc. I don’t understand. If you look at it that way, in literature and the other arts, I was born and grew up in Vietnam, then moved to Norway at the age of 15, and now live in the UK, and I’m in my mid-20s, how do you think I relate to the experience of Anna Karenina or Marya Bolkonskaya or Natasha Rostova? How do I find whaling relevant? How do I relate to black people’s experience and feel the pain in “Black and Blue” or “Strange Fruit” or “Ain’t Got No, I Got Life”? 
But that is missing the point.  
The idea that readers have to find the story and themes relevant, and the characters relatable, is amusing. You’re facing a work of art, and if a classic, it’s a work of art that has stood the test of time and been recognised as part of the literary canon, why does it have to be about you? 
Don’t you care about history and its legacy?  
Don’t you care about the work of writers who have changed literature and influenced generations of readers and writers, perhaps including the modern writers you now like? 
Don’t you care about literary merit, and the power of literature?  
Don’t you care about the great achievements of the human mind? 
Don’t you care to learn about different lives, and different experiences you never (have to) go through?    
Don’t you have the imagination to see beyond your own lot, and seek to understand people who are very different from you? 
Don’t you care to expand your perspective? 
Why does reading have to be about you? 
I could go on and talk about empathy and some utilitarian values of literature, but it’s unnecessary. If as a reader you can only enjoy books that you personally find relevant and relatable, you’re limiting yourself, but I have no say in what you choose to read in your own spare time. It’s when people talk about the teaching of literature that the idea of relevance becomes a problem. 
One of the common arguments is that it puts you off reading. I don’t know where it comes from, I’ve heard people blame their dislike of reading on the books they read in high school, but how do they know that reading just isn’t their thing anyway, regardless of high school? I could say the same thing about physical education I had in school, but the fact is that I’ve never been athletic anyway. 
There are different kinds of students. There are students who, once they finish school, never touch a book again in their lives. And there are students who otherwise may not have opened these works of art themselves in their free time but appreciate being introduced to them, and would expand their reading beyond these works. Classes are the place for this. I’m lucky to come from a family of readers, but there would be students who don’t get that at home, and who are forced to read the literary works that they come to love. It’s similar to the way I was introduced to jazz—if not for that class at University of Oslo, I probably would never have got to jazz myself, and now I love it more than anything else. 
Another argument is that you don’t need Shakespeare to survive or get a job. Let’s be honest, just to survive or get a job, you don’t need most of the stuff you learn in school—when do you ever need those theorems in maths class or those physics equations or those chemical formulas, unless you choose to follow that particular field? But that’s not the point of education. 
All the talks about relevance and relatableness in literature and the arts are just stupid and nonsensical statements made by philistines. And if teachers think this way, they shouldn’t be teaching.


Announcing a read-along: 
I’m organising a (re)read-along of Madame Bovary. At the moment it’s me, Himadri (Argumentative Old Git), and my friend Anne. 
Does anyone else want to join?

Thursday, 22 August 2019

Reading What a Fish Knows as a fish eater

After writing about fishes and their social relationships, Jonathan Balcombe devotes Part VI to fishes’ sexual behaviours and parenting styles. 
The chapter about fishes’ sex lives is, again, full of fascinating facts: promiscuous fishes (Balcombe’s word), polygamous fishes, monogamous fishes, fish harems, fishes that produce eggs and sperm at the same time (simultaneous hermaphrodites), fishes that change sex (sequential hermaphrodites, such as the clownfish of Finding Nemo), courtship, mating, oral sex and sperm drinking (yeah, you read that right), faking orgasms (you didn’t read that wrong either), external fertilisation, and so on. 
The chapter about parenting is also interesting, talking about protecting eggs and taking care of the young, helpers, and freeloaders (brood parasitism—a fish leaving its eggs with other fishes’ eggs to be protected and raised, like some birds do). 
Then we get to Part VII: “Fish out of Water”. That’s when I felt the book was starting to have a different tone. Or did I imagine it? Balcombe discusses fishing, bycatch (the fishes caught that are not wanted and thrown back into the sea), fish-farming, problems of hatchery-reared fishes that are released into the wild, different killing methods, different ways a fish may die when caught, shark finning, recreational fishing, and the practice of eating fish. 
As he talked about cruelty, fishes’ suffering, and moral concerns (the word “moral” gets repeated a lot in this section of the book), I started to realise that the whole point of the book was not only to tell people more about fishes and make them realise that fishes are smart and have individuality, but to get people to stop eating fish. 
Do I feel bad? In a way, yes. But would I stop eating fish? No. I eat meat and fish (and dairy and vegetables and so on). 
I’m not going to debate the subject of meat eating vs vegetarianism/ veganism—it’s not the point of this blog post. Vegetarianism/ veganism is a legitimate cause, if you do it for animal rights and the environment, and if you can commit to it, that’s good for you. It’s the preaching that is annoying. Perhaps my perception of the final part of the book and its epilogue is coloured by my experience with many vegetarians and vegans in real life and on social media, though I think that the book borders on preaching and trying to make you feel bad for eating eat and taking part in the cruel and inhumane treatment of fishes. People have different causes, just as they have different interests. With interests, we also have priorities and can’t get to know everything in depth, even things we do enjoy, because life is short—a friend of mine, for example, enjoys jazz but has to “neglect” it because he spends time on classical music and opera, whereas my decision to listen to John Coltrane properly at the moment means that I don’t have time for other kinds of music.  
It’s similar with causes. Some people do everything they can to limit their negative impact on the environment, that’s good. Some people fight for animal rights, that’s good. I come from a single-party state which doesn’t respect freedom or human rights, where people don’t have the most basic rights that Westerners take for granted, such as the right to vote for leaders or the right to remain silent. Dissidents get years in prison, people get killed whilst in custody… It’s hard to really care about animal rights. My main focus is on free speech, freedom, equality, and human rights. I care enough about animal rights to be against trophy hunting, hunting and killing endangered species, cruel treatment of animals in tourism, and that sort of thing, but not enough to be ready for the difficult commitment to a vegetarian or vegan diet. 
I can’t imagine a Vietnamese vegan either. A vegetarian, yes, but not a vegan. Compared to Westerners, we eat more kinds of animals, and also eat more of an animal—for example, with chicken, Westerners only eat the meat, we also eat the skin and feet, and make bone broth. Everything we eat has animal products—we have fish sauce, shrimp paste, and lots of other sauces and other kinds of food. Replace all ingredients with plant-based products, you don’t really have a Vietnamese dish. A vegan fresh spring roll isn’t a fresh spring roll. 
Having left my country, I only have the language, and the food. To become a vegetarian, or further (because, as vegans say, “it’s not enough to be a vegetarian, veganism is the way”) requires sacrifice, commitment, and a strong belief in the cause, all of which I lack.
Anyway, this is getting more personal, so let’s go back What a Fish Knows. It is a very interesting book, but it’s tiresome in the final part. I suppose that says more about me than about the book itself.

Wednesday, 21 August 2019

Listening to Coltrane: the albums

As I’ve decided to delve into John Coltrane’s music, I’m going to listen in a more systematic way—listen to a whole album, instead of individual tracks here and there as I usually do.
Because Coltrane changed and developed his style over time, it’s useful to be aware of chronological order, and put the albums here. Note: for the time being, I’m not going to listen to every single of his albums chronologically, only a few main ones.
1957: Blue Train.

This is the first album that made me love Coltrane. For the past 2-3 years (I don’t have a good conception of time), “Blue Train” was one of the tracks by Coltrane that I kept coming back to (the other ones were “Equinox” and “So What”) but I love the entire album.

1958: Milestones—Miles Davis and John Coltrane started experimenting with modal jazz.

My favourite is the track “Milestones”.

1959: Kind of Blue—Miles Davis and John Coltrane’s masterpiece, and the best-selling jazz album of all time.

Apart from Miles Davis playing trumpet and John Coltrane playing tenor saxophone, the album had Cannonball Adderly on alto saxophone (except on “Blue in Green”), Bill Evans on piano (except on “Freddie Freeloader”), Wynton Kelly on piano (on “Freddie Freeloader”), Paul Chambers on double bass, and Jimmy Cobb on drums.
Kind of Blue is just wonderful. I keep coming back to it. 

1959: Giant Steps—after Coltrane left Miles Davis to go in a new direction, this was his most influential album.

Youtube called “Giant Steps” “the most feared song in jazz”, because of the difficulty.

1960: My Favorite Things—1st album to feature Coltrane playing soprano saxophone.

It’s interesting to listen to Coltrane’s takes on these jazz standards, especially “Summertime”, though it’s barely recognisable anymore.

1962: Duke Ellington& John Coltrane.
I can’t find the full album on youtube, but I love “In a Sentimental Mood”, which I used in a recent video. It’s good to see Coltrane perform with another jazz musician I like.

It seems like a rather conservative album, compared to the experimental and revolutionary nature of “Giant Steps” and “My Favorite Things”.

1964: Crescent.

The album has McCoy Tyner on piano, Jimmy Garrison on double bass, and Elvin Jones on drums.

1964: A Love Supreme—his most spiritual album, and one of the most critically acclaimed.

I’m not religious, not even particularly spiritual, but this is magnificent.

1965: Ascension— seen as a cornerstone of Coltrane’s work.

Slowly I would probably listen to everything, but these are the albums I choose for now.

Monday, 19 August 2019

Changing tastes

1/ A few days ago I watched Breakfast at Tiffany’s again, probably the 3rd time. 
My bf had never seen the film before, but knew about the controversy, which I assume most people would—the controversy about Mickey Rooney playing Mr Yunioshi. Put aside the fact that it’s a white actor wearing make-up and prosthetics to play an Asian character as comic relief, which is seen as offensive, it’s just not funny. Was it ever funny, when the film was released in 1961? It’s crude and unnecessary, and doesn’t fit in with the tone of the film. 
The Yunioshi character was the reason that I could never fully embrace the film. Now, seeing it again, I don’t like it much anymore. Audrey Hepburn is still charming and elegant, the cat is still cute, and Paul’s speech at the end of the film is still poignant, but maybe Breakfast at Tiffany’s is not for repeated viewings. Certain flaws become more obvious, some of the speech sounds expository. Maybe it’s one of those films that should be remembered, as a lovely charming thing, rather than seen again. 

2/ Every year I watch about 100 films, some of which are revisits. 
Some films demand multiple viewings—each time you see something new. Persona, the Mount Everest of film criticism, is an example. Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring is another. Or F for Fake
Masterpieces like Sunset Boulevard or Chinatown, which I saw again over the past year, never become boring or outdated. They are perfect. There are films I’ve seen 6-7 times and will still see again: The Godfather, Casablanca, The Silence of the Lambs, The Shawshank Redemption… 
Some films lose their magic on revisit. I enjoyed re-watching The Phantom of Liberty, which is whimsical and brilliant, but I no longer felt the fun upon my revisit of The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie—its charm relied too much on the random unexpectedness, which obviously was no longer there when I knew what was going to happen. Mother the 2nd time around was not as good, which is probably the case for films which rely heavily on the mystery and suspense of solving the case/ finding the murderer, and on the twist. As you watch it again, it no longer has much to keep your interest.  
That’s why a film like Chinatown still retain its magic on multiple viewings. I don’t watch it for the answers. I watch it for Jack Nicholson’s performance, for the character of Jack Gittes, for the great dialogue—sharp and full of meaning, for the tight structure and pace, and for John Huston and Faye Dunaway. 
And sometimes, watching a film again, we don’t like it anymore just because we have changed. I just don’t like American Beauty, Edward Scissorhands, or Scarface anymore, though I used to. Our tastes change over time. 

3/ A blog is a great place to make note of what I like, and keep track of how I’ve changed over time. 
In 2015, I listened to Billie Holiday all the time, obsessively, for a long period. Then it passed. Since then, it’s mostly Ella Fitzgerald and Nina Simone that I listen to. Sometimes Aretha Franklin. Sometimes Etta James. Sometimes Sarah Vaughan. 
Sometimes I wonder how many artists I like now, I will still like in 30 years, or 50 years. My formative years were the time in Norway—that was when I discovered classic cinema, photography, 19th century literature, Russian literature, and jazz. I reckon that for the rest of my life, these things will always be important to me, especially classic cinema, Russian literature, and jazz; it’s my views on the individual artists that change. 
Shall I try to predict? 
Tolstoy, I’m sure, will always be there. He is a giant, not only in Russia but in world literature, and his impact on my life cannot be overstated.  
Same with Nabokov. 
With Melville, I’m not sure, but Moby Dick will always be a favourite and an important novel. With Jane Austen, I expect to still respect her in 30 years, or even 50 years, because I already went from disliking her and thinking she was chicklit, to discovering the great depth and sensitivity in her works, but maybe one day I will no longer care about stories of growth, understanding, and self-understanding. We never know. 
In cinema, I think I will always like Ingmar Bergman and Billy Wilder. I once had a Wong Kar-wai phase, a Martin Scorsese phase, even a Stanley Kubrick phase, but Ingmar Bergman is a director whose films have everything that I think are important about cinema: great cinematography and lighting, striking imagery, creative and haunting use of sound, good editing, great acting and memorable performances, style, depth, personal vision, exploration of relationships and human consciousness, and formal experiments that push the boundaries of cinema. He was also the director that I discovered, and learnt from, during my 3 years at the film school, and who influenced my first short films. 
It’s also hard to imagine a time when I wouldn’t like Billy Wilder. Is there any other writer-director who writes more memorable dialogue and makes so many great films in such different genres? I love his sharp wit and humour, and the humanity of his films. 
About music, I know a few people who listen to jazz their whole lives, so I don’t suppose I will stop loving jazz. It’s just hard to say if I will always like John Coltrane, whom I’m focusing on at the moment. But I expect Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald to always be there, on their own or together. I don’t like watching Louis Armstrong—his grin makes me uncomfortable, but I can listen to him all day. People talk about his optimism, which isn’t wrong for songs such as “What a Wonderful World”, but there’s nothing so haunting like the pain in his performance of “Black and Blue”. 
Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald on their own are fantastic. Together, they’re recognised as the greatest duets in jazz. Her velvety voice softens his edges. My favourite of theirs is “Summertime”. 
Well, let’s see how things turn out.

Sunday, 18 August 2019

Listening to Coltrane

I discovered jazz several years ago, when doing a course called Multicultural American Literature at University of Oslo, which should have been called African American Literature and Jazz Music. My lecturer was American and had a degree in literature and a degree in jazz. He introduced us, or at least me, to jazz—I’m still thankful for that course.
Over the past few years, I’ve been listening to jazz, mostly vocals, especially Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald, also Nina Simone, Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan, Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole, etc. I also listen to John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Duke Ellington, bit of Thelonious Monk, Dave Brubeck… (can’t really get into Charlie Parker at all). 
These days I’ve been thinking that I listen to jazz in a rather superficial way. I’m a literature and cinema person rather than a music person. I enjoy jazz, but can’t talk about it, the way I can talk about a book or a film, and can’t recognise the individual style of each musician. This needs to change.
For now I want to get to “know” John Coltrane properly. Listening to A Love Supreme at the moment. 

Yesterday marked the 60th anniversary of Miles Davis and John Coltrane’s album “Kind of Blue”, one of the most successful jazz records in history.

Obviously I spent yesterday listening to it, several times. Isn’t that just wonderful? Especially “So What” and “Blue in Green”.
Here’s a video of their live performance of “So What”:

I won’t say anything about Kind of Blue, because, as I said, I can’t talk about jazz. But I do love the combination of John Coltrane and Miles Davis. Just divine.
Found this article:

Friday, 16 August 2019

Fishes and social contracts

In Part V of What a Fish Knows, Jonathan Balcombe writes about fishes in a community—with company/tank mates or in a shoal or school of fishes. You now may ask, do fishes recognise each other? They do. Fishes may have patterns that are only visible in UV light. Balcombe says, fishes have individual recognition, memory, and preference about whom they choose to swim with; they also have personalities. Do they recognise human faces? People who have pet fishes say yes.
Yesterday I made a video about fish watching, using my footage of The Deep (aquarium in Hull). Watch who swims with whom.

Now, to get back to the book, the most fascinating section of Part V is when Balcombe writes about social contracts among fishes—consider the cleaner-client symbiosis of fishes.
“The system works as follows. 1 or 2 cleanerfishes signal that they are open for business. They work at specific locations, and may use swimming postures and bright colours to enhance the signal’s visibility (a fish’s version of the rotating red-white-blue cylinder outside a barbershop). Other fishes of various types congregate at the cleaning station, where they wait their turn to be serviced by the cleaners. […] [Cleaners] pick over the clients’ bodies, removing parasites, dead skin, algae, and other undesirable blemishes. Clients benefit by receiving a spa treatment, including parasite removal. Cleaners get fed.”
So which species are they?
“Marine cleanerfishes include many wrasses, some triggerfishes, butterflyfishes, discus fishes, damselfishes, angelfishes, gobies, leatherjackets, pipefishes, sea chubs, surfperches, suckerfishes, jacks, and topsmelts. Freshwater cleanerfishes include cichlids, guppies, carps, sunfishes, killifishes, and sticklebacks. Some invertebrates, including several shrimps, also provide cleaning services. Client lists number well over 100 known fish species, including sharks and rays. Other clients include lobsters, sea turtles, sea snakes, octopuses, marine iguanas, whales, hippopotamuses, and humans.” 
Regarding humans, in Asian (I think Chinese) spas, people can dangle their feet in pool for cleanerfishes to pluck over.
“This is a dramatic scene if the client is a large predator. Although a shark or a moral eel could easily snap up the cleaner for a quick snack; it just isn’t savvy to eat your service provider.
But it is kosher to show consideration toward them. […]
Grey reef sharks invite cleaners to service them by angling their bodies upward and opening their mouths wide. The cleaners show no fear as they enter the shark’s deadly cavern. They seem to know that this massive predator, hundreds of times their size, means them no harm.”
Isn’t that so interesting?
The relationship between a cleanerfish and their client is also not random.
“It is built on trust, and cultivated over weeks or months. A social contract such as this requires that individual cleaners recognise their clients. With dozens of clients per cleaner, cleanerfishes maintain an impressive mental database of clientele. In choice experiments where a cleaner could choose to swim near 1 of 2 clients, the cleaner spent more time near a familiar one. […]
In addition to remembering whom they cleaned, cleaner wrasses can also remember when they cleaned them. They are more likely to give precedence, say, to a particular triggerfish client who missed their last appointment, because that client will probably have greater parasite buildup.”
These fishes can use memory along 3 dimensions—who, when, and what. They demonstrate episodic memory.
“If a fish can track past events, might she also be able to predict future ones? […] Roving cleaners are more cooperative with their clients near the centre of their home ranges, where they are more likely to reencounter client fishes. They do less mucus nipping and cause fewer ‘jolts’ in their clients during cleaning interactions.”
This is like our behaviour—human beings are more cooperative with a partner when we’re likely to interact with them again. Doesn’t this make you look at fishes in a different way?
Now, just as in the business world of human beings, there can be conflicts, cheats, and frauds, there are equivalents in the fish world.
The conflict between cleaners and clients is because cleaners most like to glean from the mucus, which has more nutritional value and might taste better than algae and parasites, and clients wouldn’t like this.
“A jolt happens when a client flinches as a cleaner nips at the protective mucus layer that surrounds a fish’s body.”
Consequently, cleaners give clients some tactile stimulation.
“They do this by facing away from the client and stroking them with rapid movements of their pelvic and pectoral fins. This caressing behaviour seems to be done for 2 reasons: (1) to encourage a client to stay longer at the cleaning station, and (2) to mollify a client following a jolt. Cleaners are more likely to caress a predaceous client, probably because it lowers the risk of an aggressive chase from a potentially dangerous customer.”
I don’t know, that sounds like a massage to me.
The cleaner-client symbiosis, in many ways, mirror business relationships in the human world. For example, if we read reviews before watching a film or ordering a product online, prospective client fishes “watch the performances of cleaners before deciding whether to let a particular cleaner inspect them”, mucus-nipping cleaners are shunned, and cleaners do a better job when they are being watched.
“If a new client, who has no history with the cleaner, is cheated, he or she simply swims away. But a resident client who has built up a relationship of trust with the cleaner behaves as if having been insulted: he chases the cleaner around.”
Cheats get punished.
This social system is highly complex and “encompasses long-term relationships built on trust, crime and punishment, choosiness, audience awareness, reputation, and brownnosing.”
Guess what, there are also con artists in the fish world—fishes that pretend to be cleanerfishes, and when the client least expects it, the impostor takes a bite of fin and dashes for cover.
I can no longer look at fishes the same way again.

Thursday, 15 August 2019

What does a fish know?

After discussing fish feelings, Jonathan Balcombe moves onto fish cognition: What are fishes’ mental abilities? 

“Here’s an example of fish intelligence, courtesy of the frillfin goby, a small fish of intertidal zones of both eastern and western Atlantic shores. When the tide goes out, frillfins like to stay near shores, nestled in warm, isolated tide pools where they may find lots of tasty tidbits. But tide pools are not always safe havens from danger. Predators such as octopuses or herons may come foraging, and it pays to make a hasty exit. But where is a little fish to go? Frillfin gobies deploy an improbable manoeuver: they leap to a neighbouring pond. 
How do they do it without ending up on the rocks, doomed to die in the sun? 
With prominent eyes, slightly puffy cheeks looking down on a pouting mouth, a rounded tail, and tan-grey-brown blotchy markings along a 3-inch, torpedo-shaped body: the frillfin goby hardly looks like a candidate for the Animal Einstein Olympics. But its brain is an overachiever by any standard. For the little frillfin memorises the topography of the intertidal zone—fixing in its mind the layout of depressions that will form future pools in the rocks at low tide—while swimming over them at high tide!” (Part IV) 
This, Balcombe says, is an example of cognitive mapping. 
“… But can fishes spontaneously invent tool use, as we can when unexpected conditions require us to improvise? In May 2014, a study highlighted an example of innovative tool use by Atlantic cods being held in captivity for aquaculture research. Each fish wore a coloured plastic tag affixed to the back near the dorsal fin, which allowed the researchers to identify them individually. The holding tank had a self-feeder activated by a string with a loop at the end, and the fishes soon learned that they could release a morsel of food by swimming up to the loop, grabbing it in their mouth, and pulling on it. 
Apparently by accident, some of the cods discovered that they could activate the feeder by hooking the loop onto their tag and then swimming a short distance away. These clever cods honed their technique through hundreds of ‘tests’—and it became a finely tuned series of goal-directed, coordinated movements. It also demonstrated true refinement, because the innovators were able to grab the pellet a fraction of a second faster than by using their mouth to get the food. That fishes are routinely expected to interact with a foreign device to feed themselves is impressive enough, but that some devised a new way of using their tags shows a fish’s capacity for flexibility and originality.” 
In these chapters, Balcombe talks about lots of studies regarding fishes’ cognition skills. These studies demonstrate that fishes, or at least the fishes used in the experiments, can create mental maps, remember escape routes, have good memory, be trained to perform tricks, learn from experience, innovate to solve a problem, use tools (for example, smash open a clam against a rock), learn from observing other fishes (observational learning skills), and so on. 
They’re smarter than we think. 
He also talks about tigerfishes catching and eating birds, which means that they must know about the distortion of image over water surface and how to calculate to make a leap from the right angle and with the right speed so they can ambush the bird—planning instead of making random leaps and snaps at the air. 
I’m disappointed he doesn’t mention the bird-eating fishes in David Attenborough’s documentary.
At the end of Part IV in What a Fish Knows, Balcombe talks about the plurality and contextuality of intelligence, and our “wobbly criteria for gauging intelligence”. There are, instead, “multiple intelligences”, manifesting in different sets of skills and abilities. If something is critical for a species’ survival, it would be good at it.