Sunday 30 March 2014

Best line in "Pride and prejudice"

"Nothing is more deceitful than the appearance of humility. It is often only carelessness of opinion, and sometimes an indirect boast." 
(says Mr Darcy in "Pride and prejudice" by Jane Austen) 

Saturday 29 March 2014

Notes on "The death of Ivan Ilyich"'m reading "The death of Ivan Ilyich".
This novella is included in the Norton critical edition of Tolstoy's short fiction, edited by Michael R. Katz.

The book I borrowed from my university, somebody underlined and scribbled in it (let call this person X). The 1st time is when Praskovya addresses somebody as Jean, who should be her husband Ivan. X underlined the name Jean and wrote beside it "Ivan?" I made a right guess- Jean is the French equivalent of the name Ivan, which is itself the Russian equivalent of the name John in English. It's like Pyotr, Peter and Pierre are different versions of the same name.
The 2nd time, X underlined the clause "she told him she was doing for herself what she actually was doing for herself" and wrote "?" next to it.
One should look at the whole thing:
"When the examination was over the doctor looked at his watch, and then Praskovya Fedorovna announced to Ivan Ilyich that it was of course as he pleased, but she had sent today for a celebrated specialist who would examine him and have a consultation with Mikhail Danikovich (their regular doctor).
'Please don't raise any objections. I'm doing this for my own sake', she said ironically, letting it be felt that she was doing it all for his sake and only said this to leave him no right to refuse. He remained silent, knitting his brows. He felt that he was surrounded and involved in such a mesh of falsity that it was hard to unravel anything.
Everything she did for him was entirely for her own sake, she told him she was doing for herself what she actually was doing for herself, as if that was so incredible he must understand the opposite." 
This bit is in fact clear. I would call it a case of double irony- the irony of a person who means to say something ironically and ends up telling the truth, with or without awareness of it. In the next page Tolstoy writes "Praskovya Fedorovna came in, self-satisfied but with a rather guilty air. She sat down and asked how he was, but, as he saw, only for the sake of asking and not in order to learn about it, knowing that there was nothing to learn". The "ask for the sake of asking, not for the answer" thing I've seen in F. Scott Fitzgerald's short story "May day", I've also seen in real life (or felt so at least), and perhaps done it at least once myself. People sometimes ask "How are you?", "Are you OK?", "What's wrong?"... not because they'd like to know how it's going with the other person, but because they feel that they should ask so (the same goes for questions like "What do you think?", "Is it all right?", "Do you mind?" in some cases). Similarly, in the former passage, Praskovya hardly cares about Ivan's condition- she says something that is meant to be understood as an irony, so that Ivan cannot refuse, and if he refuses to see the specialist, she has the right to put the blame on him when his condition worsens, as she has always blamed him, but the thing she says is actually the truth, for she doesn't care about him, like somebody urges a sick person to find a doctor and get better not because they genuinely wish the sick person to get better but rather because the sick person is a burden, or a nuisance, and at the same time, whilst asking for doctors and specialists, she can tell people that she has done her task and fulfilled her role and that anything that goes wrong is due to him alone, and at the same time she can feel good about herself, having done what she should. 
These lines are the most insightful ones in this story, but then, the whole story so far is perfection, as expected. 
Reading books that aren't brand new, by the way, can be rather nice. Some people might underline, stress important points, make notes or jot down some thoughts.  

(Note: The picture is taken from

Sunday 23 March 2014

Some offensive Norwegian commercials

Offensive and perhaps even counterproductive.
1/ OBOS:

You can go to this site to read about OBOS:
To sum it up, this is a Nordic cooperative building association. The motif of their commercials is indirectly advertising OBOS by having characters (Americans and Italians) protesting against OBOS, in other words, by parodying other societies.
The American commercials among these are more acceptable, as they critique capitalism and the inequality in the US. The Italian ones, on the other hand, can be offensive, for they exploit stereotypes, attack and make fun of Italian culture and lifestyle, which is another way of saying that only the Norwegian way is right, especially when after showing several ridiculous Italian families, they have a Norwegian guy standing in his house.

2/ Grilstad:

For people who don't speak Norwegian, in the scene after Gisse (the pig) disappears, the little girl asks where Gisse is and, as the camera moves to the father, the voice-over says that of course you don't do that.
In the next scene, the family play with the pig and, at the same time, eat bacon. 
Is this meant to say that you can just keep and play with your pig, and then eat someone else's pig meat? Isn't that a bit weird? 
(In case anyone is wondering, I don't eat dogs, or cats).

3/ Stabburet: 
I haven't found this video on youtube yet. 
What happens is that at the beginning a Norwegian girl is shown desperately trying to eat something with chopsticks and then clumsily dropping everything. The voice-over and the line on the screen say "Lei av thai? Gå for pai!" (Tired of Thai? Go for pie!) In the next scene, she's happily eating her Stabburet pie. 
I'm aware that 1, they need a rhyme ("thai" and "pai") and 2, Stabburet does have some Thai soup, but, having considered these 2 points, I still feel that the commercial has some xenophobic undertone.

There can be more. Generally I don't like Norwegian commercials, which are often vulgar, humourless, pointless, unrelated to the products, or even disgusting. The ones above are rather new, especially the last 2, and particularly problematic. Interpretation now is up to you, I will not add more comments.

Saturday 22 March 2014

"Fathers and sons"

I've finished reading "Fathers and sons".
It is a mistake (some people make, including a blogger I've seen just now) to say that Turgenev's characters represent the 2 generations and embody the 2 modes of thinking and living in Russia at the time. One can look at the 3 old men Nikolai Petrovich and Pavel Petrovich Kirsanov and Vasily Ivanovich Bazarov and see how different they are. Calling Evgeny Vasilich Bazarov a caricature is even more incomprehensible, who, in spite of his strict nihilism and extreme philosophical and social views, has various shades in his personality and so many self-contradictions, who does things against his own character, who evokes in me so different emotions from aversion to pity and even some attraction and sympathy. Turgenev's depiction of Bazarov is at his best in 2 things, the 1st time when Bazarov blushes, gets uncomfortable and finds himself charmed by and later in love with Anna Odintsova, the 2nd time when he, in some last chapters, talks to peasants, imagining himself to be close to them and to understand them, unlike the aristocrats, only to find himself being mistaken. The 1st point shows that, in spite of his cynicism, in spite of the belief in his own greatness and his extraordinary mind, he's still a human being, a man, like anyone else. The 2nd point, more interestingly, shows how delusional, barren, mistaken and theoretical he is (which, I must note, reminds of Tolstoy, who is always and forever an aristocrat under the peasant's clothes). In the end, he's still empty. And yet, I say this not with contempt, not with hatred. I'm both attracted to him and repulsed by him, and sorry for him.
Bazarov, in short, is the most well-developed character in this novel.
To be fair, all characters are natural and convincing, including Bazarov's mother Arina, even if her sentimental, melodramatic tendency makes her a caricature. But, in addition to Bazarov, I find Anna Odintsova particularly interesting. At 1st, the attraction between her and Bazarov seems to be opposite attraction, with her being aristocratic, well-mannered, sticking to order, loving literature... and him being a nihilist and a detractor of arts. The more they disagree, the more they are drawn to each other. Apparently, it also has to do with Anna's physical attraction, a kind of power that makes such a bold man as Bazarov shy. However, as it turns out later, they're more alike than one thinks. Both are tired and cynical. Unfortunately the very thing that links them is also what destroys them and makes it impossible for them to be with each other.
After reading this book, I've also read Turgenev's "Apropos of "Father and sons"" and some of his letters to writers and critics. I agree with him that a writer doesn't have to choose a stance or make it clear whether he praises or makes fun of his main character. As it happens, some people criticise him for glorification of nihilism, whilst some others, for condemnation of it. This is the reason I prefer fiction to nonfiction, in nonfiction the writer, whilst discussing both sides, has a stance and expresses their opinions and thoughts, whilst in fiction the writer is more suggesting, more inclusive/ambivalent, vague. 
This is 1 of my favourite bits from "Apropos...": 
"1 more bit of advice to young writers and 1 last request. My friends, never justify yourself no matter how you may be slandered; don't try to clear up misunderstandings, don't try either to say 'the final word' or to listen to it. Do your work- everything will sort itself later. In any case, 1st let a long period of time pass- and then look at all the rubbish of the past from the historical point of view, as I have tried to do now. Let the following example serve to guide you..." 
And this is taken from a letter from Turgenev to Countess Lambert: 
"It recently occurred to me that there's something tragic in the fate of almost every person- it's just that the tragic is often concealed from a person by the banal surface of life. One who remains on the surface (and there are many of them) often fails even to suspect that he's the hero of a tragedy. A woman will complain of indigestion and not even know that what she means is that her whole life has been shattered. For example: all around me here are peaceful, quiet existences, yet if you take a close look- you see something tragic in each of them- something either their own, or imposed on them by history, by the development of the nation."  
To conclude, I'd like to quote Edmund Wilson, from his "On translating Turgenev": 
"The work of Turgenev has, of course, no scope that is comparable to Tolstoy's or Dostoyevsky's, but the 10 volumes collected by him for his edition of 1883 (he omitted his early poems) represent a literary achievement of the concentratedly "artistic" kind that has few equals in 19th-century fiction. There are moments, to be sure, in Turgenev novels- "On the eve" and "Virgin soil"- when they become a little thin or unreal, but none can be called a failure, and one cannot find a single weak piece, unless one becomes impatient with "Enough", in the whole 4 volumes of stories. No fiction writer can be read through with a steadier admiration. Greater novelists are more uneven: they betray our belief with extravagances; they bore or they fall into bathos; they combine poetic vision with rubbish. But Turgenev hardly even skirts these failings, and he is never mediocre; his texture is as distinguished as his temperament." 

On Virginia Woolf on Turgenev

Fragmentary, superficial, badly-expressed thoughts on chapter 5 "Turgenev: A passion for art" from "Virginia Woolf and the Russian Point of View" by Roberta Rubenstein (

1/ The Russian trinity here is Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky and Turgenev. I find it better than to refer to the 1st 2 and Chekhov. Comparing novelists and short fiction writers is problematic.
2/ Like Virginia Woolf, I'm 1 of those who appreciate Turgenev "more for his formal artistry than for his political or social commentary".
3/ In 1 aspect, Tolstoy and Turgenev are opposites. Tolstoy, in his works, is like an omniscient God, seeing everything from the largest, most epic scenes to the smallest gestures, the tiniest glances that easily go unnoticed, and all that goes through his characters' minds. Anyone who has read Tolstoy knows what I mean, I lack the words to praise him as he deserves. Turgenev isn't like that, and it is proof that he's not as great, but his books "leave behind the impression that they contain a large world in which there is ample room for men and women of full size and the sky above and the fields around". His economy of style is suggesting, leaving room for the readers to fill in.
4/ Virginia Woolf praises his "power of suggesting emotion by scenery... All the lines rubbed out except the necessary". She also praises "his method of drawing from details in the natural world to suggest mood and feeling".
(This, strangely enough, makes me think of F. Scott Fitzgerald).
5/ "The superficial impression deepens and sharpens itself as the pages are turned. The scene has the size out of all proportion to its length. It expands the mind and lies there giving off fresh ideas, emotions, and pictures much as a moment in real life which sometimes only yield its meaning long after it has passed". 
This is 1 of those times when I lament the inadequacy of my language and then find someone express my exact thoughts.
6/ She, similar to what I've said in my 'theory', says that a novelist can't be a politician and can't believe in 1 cause only.
7/ As Virginia Woolf notes, Turgenev's characters don't have to speak in order to make us feel their presence.
8/ Never stop observing. Pay attention to everything.
9/ According to Roberta Rubenstein, Virginia Woolf comes to prefer Turgenev, with his "artistic restraint, his sensitivity to beauty and his lyrical sensibility", to Dostoyevsky. 
To me, Dostoyevsky is thought-provoking, Turgenev touches the heart.

Will come back to this chapter when I read more works by Turgenev, to see if my view will remain the same. Virginia Woolf's essays on literature are always satisfying.

Friday 21 March 2014

On Bazarov, the 1st Russian literary nihilist

Oh how I detest Bazarov. That annoyingly arrogant, sarcastic, cynical, narrow-minded, philistine, materialistic, shallow, mundane, egoistic, insensitive, conceited nihilist! That philistine who denounces art and all spiritual things, respects nothing, understands nothing, attacks everything that he calls romanticism, scorns emotion/ affection and expression of it and sees everyone else as inferior and backward! That idiot who compares human beings to trees, doesn't care about the individual and doesn't see all the light and shade of life! And yet I feel sorry for him, and pity him, when he finds himself falling in love with Anna Odintsova, realises in himself something of which he never thinks himself capable and even feels ashamed of such 'romanticism', such 'sentimentality'. It's a kind of pity one has for a childish, naive, inexperienced person who has neither gone through anything in life nor learnt about other people's experiences and expanded his own mind through literature, more importantly, a person who has no self-understanding and who has no courage to accept himself and come to terms with himself. 
I go back and forth between hating him and feeling sorry for him. 
Turgenev's portrayal of Bazarov is superb. 

Update at 6pm: 
I was a bit excited, perhaps. 
To be fair, Bazarov has his assets. He's simple, casual, frank, straightforward, progressive in some aspects, which makes others comfortable around him, especially those of the lower class. Proud, independent, unabashed, not seeing why he should feel ashamed of his lack of luxury, and not bowing to anyone. Self-important and conceited indeed, but not particularly pretentious. He can also be kind and friendly, as he helps other people as a doctor, and treats Fenechka nicely, removes her discomfort about her situation. Whilst I can't stand him because of his philistinism, his rejection of artistic and spiritual things, his insensitivity and extreme nihilism, I support him in some aspects, such as his attack on the idleness and pretentiousness of the aristocrats, his liberal view on marriage, his wish to be useful and mockery of Pavel Petrovich's 'collapse' after a failed relationship, etc. Bazarov, moreover, appears more pleasant, democratic when placed next to the ridiculous, intolerant dandy Pavel Petrovich Kirsanov. 
His boldness might be seen as appealing. 
I feel that as long as politics and philosophy are avoided, he could be an OK person, more tolerable than someone like Pavel Petrovich. 

Thursday 20 March 2014

"How—and How Not—to Love Mankind" (Theodore Dalrymple): Ivan Turgenev and Karl Marx

A brilliant essay on the similarities and differences between Turgenev and Marx, which, interestingly enough, is related to that 'theory' I have after reading "Invisible man" (the artist's mind vs the politician's mind):

"... Two great European writers of the nineteenth century, Ivan Turgenev and Karl Marx, illustrate this diversity with vivid clarity. Both were born in 1818 and died in 1883, and their lives paralleled each other almost preternaturally in many other respects as well. They nevertheless came to view human life and suffering in very different, indeed irreconcilable, ways—through different ends of the telescope, as it were. Turgenev saw human beings as individuals always endowed with consciousness, character, feelings, and moral strengths and weaknesses; Marx saw them always as snowflakes in an avalanche, as instances of general forces, as not yet fully human because utterly conditioned by their circumstances. Where Turgenev saw men, Marx saw classes of men; where Turgenev saw people, Marx saw the People. These two ways of looking at the world persist into our own time and profoundly affect, for better or for worse, the solutions we propose to our social problems.
Both men were known for their sympathy with the downtrodden and oppressed. But for all their similarities of education and experience, the quality of each man’s compassion could not have been more different: for while one’s, rooted in the suffering of individuals, was real, the other’s, abstract and general, was not.
Clearly "Mumu" is an impassioned protest against the exercise of arbitrary power of one person over another, but it is not politically schematic. Though it is obviously directed against serfdom, the story does not suggest that cruelty is the prerogative of feudal landowners alone, and that if only serfdom were abolished, no vigilance against such cruelty would be necessary. If power is a permanent feature of human relationships—and surely only adolescents and certain kinds of intellectuals, Marx included, could imagine that it is not—then "Mumu" is a permanent call to compassion, restraint, and justice in its exercise. That is why "Mumu" does not lose its power to move 140 years after the abolition of serfdom in Russia; while it refers to a particular place at a particular time, it is also universal.
In making his general point, Turgenev does not suggest that his characters are anything but individuals, with their own personal characteristics. He does not see them just as members of a group or class, caused by oppression to act in predetermined ways like trams along their rails: and his careful observation of even the humblest of them is the most powerful testimony possible to his belief in their humanity. Grand aristocrat that he was, and acquainted with the greatest minds of Europe, he did not disdain to take seriously the humblest peasant, who could not hear or speak. Turgenev’s oppressed peasants were fully human beings, endowed with free will and capable of moral choice.
Nor does Turgenev believe that the people who are subject to the power of the landowner are, by virtue of their oppression, noble. They are scheming and conniving and sometimes thoughtlessly cruel, too.
Turning from Turgenev to Marx (although the Manifesto appears under the names of both Marx and Engels, it was almost entirely Marx’s work), we enter a world of infinite bile—of rancor, hatred, and contempt—rather than of sorrow or compassion. It is true that Marx, like Turgenev, is on the side of the underdog, of the man with nothing, but in a wholly disembodied way. Where Turgenev hopes to lead us to behave humanly, Marx aims to incite us to violence. Moreover, Marx brooked no competitors in the philanthropic market. He was notoriously scathing about all would-be practical reformers: if lower class, they lacked the philosophic training necessary to penetrate to the causes of misery; if upper class, they were hypocritically trying to preserve "the system." Only he knew the secret of turning the nightmare into a dream.
The Manifesto makes no mention of individual human life, except to deny its possibility under present conditions. True, Marx mentions a few authors by name, but only to pour heavily Teutonic scorn and contumely upon them. For him, there are no individuals, or true humans, at all. "In bourgeois society capital is independent and has individuality, while the living person is dependent and has no individuality."
It is no wonder, then, that Marx speaks only in categories: the bourgeois, the proletarian. For him, individual men are but clones, their identity with vast numbers of others being caused not by the possession of the same genes, but by that of the same relations to the economic system. Why study a man, when you know Men?
There is no mistaking the hatred and rage of these words; but anger, while a real and powerful emotion, is not necessarily an honest one, nor is it by any means always ungratifying. There is a permanent temptation, particularly for intellectuals, to suppose that one’s virtue is proportional to one’s hatred of vice, and that one’s hatred of vice is in turn to be measured by one’s vehemence of denunciation. But when Marx wrote these words, he must surely have known that they were, at best, a savage caricature, at worst a deliberate distortion calculated to mislead and to destroy.
His lack of interest in the individual lives and fates of real human beings—what Mikhail Bakunin once called his lack of sympathy with the human race—shines out in his failure to recognize the often noble attempts by workingmen to maintain a respectable family life in the face of the greatest difficulties. Was it really true that they had no family ties, and that their children were mere articles of commerce? For whom were they mere articles of commerce? It is typical of Marx’s unrigorous mind that he should leave the answer ambiguous, as if commerce could exist independently of the people carrying it on. Only his outrage, like the grin of the Cheshire cat, is clear.
Marx’s firm grasp of unreality is also evident in his failure to imagine what would happen when, through the implementation of the ideas of radical intellectuals influenced by his mode of thinking, the bourgeois family really would break down, when "the practical absence of the family" really would become an undeniable social fact. Surely the increased sexual jealousy, the widespread child neglect and abuse, and the increase in the interpersonal violence (all in conditions of unprecedented material prosperity) should have been utterly predictable to anybody with a deeper knowledge than his of the human heart.
Compare Marx’s crudity with Turgenev’s subtlety, alluded to by Henry James, who knew Turgenev in Paris and wrote an essay about him a year after his death: "Like all men of a large pattern, he was composed of many different pieces; and what was always striking in him was the mixture of simplicity with the fruit of the most various observation. . . . I had [once] been moved to say of him that he had the aristocratic temperament: a remark which in the light of further knowledge seemed singularly inane. He was not subject to any definition of that sort, and to say that he was democratic would be (though his political ideal was democracy) to give an equally superficial account of him. He felt and understood the opposite sides of life; he was imaginative, speculative, anything but literal. . . . Our Anglo-Saxon, Protestant, moralistic, conventional standards were far away from him, and he judged things with a freedom and spontaneity in which I found a perpetual refreshment. His sense of beauty, his love of truth and right, were the foundation of his nature; but half the charm of his conversation was that one breathed an air in which cant phrases and arbitrary measurements simply sounded ridiculous."
I don’t think anyone could have said this of Marx. When he wrote that "the workingmen have no country. We cannot take from them what they have not got," he wrote as a man who, as far as is known, had never taken the trouble to canvass the living views of anyone but himself. His pronouncement of the death of nationalist feeling was premature, to say the least. And when he wrote that the bourgeois would lament the cultural loss that the proletarian revolution inevitably entailed, but that "that culture . . . is, for the enormous majority, a mere training to act as a machine," he failed to acknowledge the profoundly moving attempts of workingmen in Britain to acquire that very culture as a liberating and ennobling agency. It needs very little effort of the imagination to understand what fortitude it took to work in a Victorian factory by day and read Ruskin and Carlyle, Hume and Adam Smith by night, as so many workingmen did (volumes from their lending libraries and institutes are still to be found in British secondhand bookshops); but it was an effort that Marx was never prepared to make, because he did not consider it worthwhile to make it. One might ask whether he has not set a pattern for hordes of cultivated brutes in the academy, who have destroyed for others what they themselves have benefited from.
Very different from all this, the sympathy that Turgenev expressed for the downtrodden was for living, breathing human beings. Because he understood what Henry James called "the opposite sides of life," he understood that there was no denouement to history, no inevitable apocalypse, after which all contradictions would be resolved, all conflicts cease, when men would be good because arrangements were perfect, and when political and economic control would turn into mere administration for the benefit of everyone without distinction. Marx’s eschatology, lacking all common sense, all knowledge of human nature, rested on abstractions that were to him more real than the actual people around him. Of course, Turgenev knew the value of generalizations and could criticize institutions such as serfdom, but without any silly utopian illusions: for he knew that Man was a fallen creature, capable of improvement, perhaps, but not of perfection. There would therefore be no hecatombs associated with Turgenev’s name.
Marx claimed to know Man, but as for men other than his enemies—he knew them not. Despite being a Hegelian dialectician, he was not interested in the opposite sides of life. Neither kindness nor cruelty moved him: men were simply the eggs from which a glorious omelette would one day be made. And he would be instrumental in making it.
When we look at our social reformers—their language, their concerns, their style, the categories in which they think—do they resemble Marx or Turgenev more? Turgenev—who wrote a wonderful essay entitled "Hamlet and Don Quixote," a title that speaks for itself—would not have been surprised to discover that the Marxist style had triumphed.
Let us recall, however, one detail of Turgenev’s and Marx’s biographical trajectory in which they differed. When Marx was buried, hardly anyone came to his funeral (in poetic revenge, perhaps, for his failure to attend the funeral of his father, who adored and sacrificed much for him). When the remains of Turgenev returned to St. Petersburg from France, scores of thousands of people, including the humblest of the humble, turned out to pay their respects—and with very good reason." 

(Theodore Dalrymple)

A few lines on Ivan Turgenev

Turgenev is a delight!
I'm more than halfway through "Fathers and sons". 
I reckon I'm not the only one who feels the absurd need to compare him to other Russian giants. Now, place him next to Tolstoy, of course Turgenev's overshadowed; one stands in awe of the formidable, marvellous, impressive Tolstoy, who intrigues us, captivates us, overwhelms us, blows us away and afterwards leaves a strong, deep impression. 
But then, how many writers can be compared to Tolstoy? We, obviously, can't dismiss a writer because he's not a Tolstoy. Turgenev's at his best in nature descriptions, he also depicts wonderfully the different characters, various types of people, the conflicts between 2 generations and 2 ways of thinking and 2 political, philosophical views, the father-and-son relationships, the contradictions within each character... At 1st, there seems to be nothing remarkable about this book, but gradually one enjoys the flow, notices the masterful characterisations and sees the author's insight and sensitivity in his simplicity. In temperament he seems more similar to Chekhov, for he describes and tells the story and presents his characters in a calm, objective, neutral way, without moralising, without taking side, without showing much of his opinions, without letting politics interfere with his art, without distracting the readers' attention from the story with lengthy lectures. Inferior to Tolstoy in some aspects, Turgenev gains points for not having Tolstoy's didacticism and, perhaps, pomposity. And it may be early to tell, but methinks he doesn't share Tolstoy's extreme views, naivete and idealism either. More moderate, he presents the characters as they are (I will write more about them later). 
Comparing him to Dostoyevsky is more difficult. I place Tolstoy, Chekhov and Turgenev in the same camp, Dostoyevsky in another (together with Kafka, for instance). On the 1 hand, I believe that to most people (including myself) Dostoyevsky wins, who's also impressive and formidable in his way, with the themes and big ideas in his books and his exploration of the human psyche. On the other hand, I can understand the people who see Turgenev as superior, such as Nabokov, Henry James, Joseph Conrad, etc. because Dostoyevsky lacks a polished style and has lots of flaws as a writer, he's great as a thinker, a mystic, whilst Turgenev is, how to put it, more sensitive to the various shades of life, individuals. His works also have more balance, constraint, coherence, artistry. Reading Turgenev, I don't feel like I'm struggling through some unbearable parts and tolerating them for the sake of the whole as when reading "Crime and punishment", and less often, when reading "Notes from underground". 
Which is to say, the serene and gentle Turgenev is overshadowed by Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, but that is unfortunate- Turgenev is a giant, a great writer on his own of the Golden age of Russian literature, another Russian writer I now start to adore.

To conclude, let me paste here an excerpt from a letter by Joseph Conrad, written about Turgenev: 
"... Turgenev's creative activity covers about thirty years. Since it came to an end the social and political events in Russia have moved at an accelerated pace, but the deep origins of them, in the moral and intellectual unrest of the souls, are recorded in the whole body of his work with the unerring lucidity of a great national writer. The first stirrings, the first gleams of the great forces can be seen almost in every page of the novels, of the short stories and of A SPORTSMAN'S SKETCHES--those marvellous landscapes peopled by unforgettable figures.
Those will never grow old. Fashions in monsters do change, but the truth of humanity goes on for ever, unchangeable and inexhaustible in the variety of its disclosures. Whether Turgenev's art, which has captured it with such mastery and such gentleness, is for "all time" it is hard to say. Since, as you say yourself, he brings all his problems and characters to the test of love, we may hope that it will endure at least till the infinite emotions of love are replaced by the exact simplicity of perfected Eugenics. But even by then, I think, women would not have changed much; and the women of Turgenev who understood them so tenderly, so reverently and so passionately--they, at least, are certainly for all time.
Women are, one may say, the foundation of his art. They are Russian of course. Never was a writer so profoundly, so whole- souledly national. But for non-Russian readers, Turgenev's Russia is but a canvas on which the incomparable artist of humanity lays his colours and his forms in the great light and the free air of the world. Had he invented them all and also every stick and stone, brook and hill and field in which they move, his personages would have been just as true and as poignant in their perplexed lives. They are his own and also universal. Any one can accept them with no more question than one accepts the Italians of Shakespeare.
In the larger, non-Russian view, what should make Turgenev sympathetic and welcome to the English-speaking world, is his essential humanity. All his creations, fortunate and unfortunate, oppressed and oppressors, are human beings, not strange beasts in a menagerie or damned souls knocking themselves to pieces in the stuffy darkness of mystical contradictions. They are human beings, fit to live, fit to suffer, fit to struggle, fit to win, fit to lose, in the endless and inspiring game of pursuing from day to day the ever-receding future.
I began by calling him lucky, and he was, in a sense. But one ends by having some doubts. To be so great without the slightest parade and so fine without any tricks of "cleverness" must be fatal to any man's influence with his contemporaries. 

Frankly, I don't want to appear as qualified to judge of things Russian. It wouldn't be true. I know nothing of them. But I am aware of a few general truths, such as, for instance, that no man, whatever may be the loftiness of his character, the purity of his motives and the peace of his conscience--no man, I say, likes to be beaten with sticks during the greater part of his existence. From what one knows of his history it appears clearly that in Russia almost any stick was good enough to beat Turgenev with in his latter years. When he died the characteristically chicken-hearted Autocracy hastened to stuff his mortal envelope into the tomb it refused to honour, while the sensitive Revolutionists went on for a time flinging after his shade those jeers and curses from which that impartial lover of ALL his countrymen had suffered so much in his lifetime. For he, too, was sensitive. Every page of his writing bears its testimony to the fatal absence of callousness in the man.
And now he suffers a little from other things. In truth it is not the convulsed terror-haunted Dostoievski but the serene Turgenev who is under a curse. For only think! Every gift has been heaped on his cradle: absolute sanity and the deepest sensibility, the clearest vision and the quickest responsiveness, penetrating insight and unfailing generosity of judgment, an exquisite perception of the visible world and an unerring instinct for the significant, for the essential in the life of men and women, the clearest mind, the warmest heart, the largest sympathy--and all that in perfect measure. There's enough there to ruin the prospects of any writer. For you know very well, my dear Edward, that if you had Antinous himself in a booth of the world's fair, and killed yourself in protesting that his soul was as perfect as his body, you wouldn't get one per cent. of the crowd struggling next door for a sight of the Double-headed Nightingale or of some weak-kneed giant grinning through a horse collar." 

Monday 17 March 2014

Chekhov's view and writing

"My business is merely to be talented, i.e to know how to distinguish important statements from unimportant, how to throw light on the characters and to speak their language. Shcheglov- Leontyev blames me for finishing my story with the words 'There's no making out anything in this world'. He thinks a writer who is a good psychologist ought to be able to make it out- that is what he is a psychologist for. But I don't agree with him. It is time that writers, especially those who are artists, recognised that there is no making out anything in this world, as once Socrates recognised it, and Voltaire too."
(Chekhov wrote in 1 of his letters to Suvorin) 

I've finished reading Chekhov's 40 stories (translated and with an introduction by Robert Payne). The stories are put in chronological order, the later ones tend to be longer and sadder and no longer light-hearted.
My favourites are "Joy", "The ninny", "The highest heights", "Death of a government clerk", "Surgery", "Where there's a will, there's a way", "A report", "The threat", "The malefactor", "Sergeant Prishibeyev", "A blunder", "Heartache", "Sleepyhead", "The princess", "Big Volodya and Little Volodya", "The bishop", "The bride" and above all "The lady with the pet dog". 
Strangely enough, I feel that liking Chekhov is something against my character. Because I'm young and hopeful and not ready to give up searching for truth and finding answers and trying to grasp human nature, and perhaps, in some ways, I'm a bit of a romantic. As written before, some stories in this book have a sense that something's missing, lacking. But the inconclusiveness and uncertainty of his endings is precisely what makes many people admire him, because that's how life is, never definite and certain, and to each of us people are always blurred, even those who are very close can never know each other perfectly well. Chekhov strips each story to the bone, leaves out all the inessential details and uses a few strokes to paint very lively pictures. This quality is at its height in "The lady with the pet dog", in which we neither know the personalities of the 2 main characters nor the detailed, specific actions and conversations, and yet miraculously Chekhov tells the story and makes us believe it and touches something deep within us. I find it difficult to praise Chekhov without appearing to defend him, but that's how "The lady with the pet dog" is- in a plain, almost bare style, he conveys the mood and emotions of the characters, especially the mood. The beauty is increased by the open ending. Melancholy and moving, it affects me in an unusual way I can't describe, which happens rarely.
Whilst I don't like Chekhov as much as Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky and Nabokov, reading this book has been a rewarding experience. 

PS: Analysis of Chekhov's treatment of "Anna Karenina":

Tuesday 11 March 2014

Finish reading "Notes from underground"

The book has 2 parts. The 1st part, written in the epistolary form, is about the underground man in the present, at 40. Full of philosophical musings, and comments on contemporary philosophical and social views. Dark, bitter, misanthropic, self-contradictory. The 2nd part switches back to 16 years earlier and has an ordinary narrative, with society, other people, dialogues, actions, some interactions. Also dark, also bitter, also misanthropic and self-contradictory, cynical, spiteful, full of self-hatred, but more extreme, more unpredictable, much more intense, sometimes noisy, sometimes extremely hysterical, though strangely enough, the 2nd part once in a while can be horribly hilarious. 
The narrator is so strange, and yet so like myself.

It's just fitting to read this book now. I've just had philosophy. Reading "Notes from underground" after "Crime and punishment" is also interesting though the reverse order might be better, for Dostoyevsky's reaction against utilitarianism, expressed directly and explicitly in this book, is expressed in a more subtle and thus more masterful way in "Crime and punishment" through the characterisation of Raskolnikov. In this order, they complement each other.
Above all, I'm in exactly the right mood for it, the cynical, bitter, angry, doubtful, misanthropic, depressed, moody mood, with even a wish to retreat to the underground, to hibernation, to isolation, to be left alone, in peace, having nothing to do with anyone else.
Dostoyevsky doesn't blow me away- unlike Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky isn't awe-inspiring. But this book shakes me and touches a deep part in me, more than "Crime and punishment" has done, and perhaps, has done something else to me, something I can't describe. A great book, a masterpiece.

(Photo: from "Life. Live it")

Monday 10 March 2014

"Notes from underground"- fragmentary impressions

Currently reading "Notes from underground" by Dostoyevsky, translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky.
1/ The 1st line of chapter 1 is: "I am a sick man... I am a wicked man. An unattractive man."
Reminds me of the 1st line of "Invisible man": "I am an invisible man..."
Besides this, and the fact that both narrators stay underground, I haven't seen anything else these 2 books have in common. 

2/ The 1st line of chapter 2 is: "I would now like to tell you, gentlemen, whether you do or do not wish to hear it, why I never managed to become even an insect. I'll tell you solemnly that I wanted many times to become an insect. But I was not deemed worthy even of that."
Is this an inspiration for Kafka's "The metamorphosis"?

3/ In chapter 7, Dostoyevsky launches attacks on and makes fun of Henry Thomas Buckle, who naively asserts that "man gets softer from civilisation and, consequently, becomes less bloodthirsty and less capable of war".
Reminds me of something Allen Ginsberg said that is quoted in "The electric kool-aid acid test" (Tom Wolfe), that no one wants war and conflicts only arise from misunderstanding and if people can just sit down and sort out the misunderstanding, they can avoid war. Such childish, simplistic mindset!

4/ Chapter 8, which stresses over and over again that human beings do not always use reason and cannot strictly follow some rational calculations and do the most profitable things all the time because we are human beings and not piano keys (an attack on utilitarianism?), makes me think of Stanley Kubrick's film "A clockwork orange", in which the leading character is 'cured' by a machine and meant to be a good citizen who commits no crime, yet he no longer has free will and the machine has turned him into a machine.

5/ Dostoyevsky's 'analysis' of the need for or even the enjoyment of suffering is an answer to the people who insist on forgetting sadness, avoiding negativity and looking at the bright side. This need is essential to us, to our wholeness, our growth, as much as foibles, stupidity and senselessness are a part of our nature which we cannot deny. 

Update at 6.44pm: 
6/ The bumping scene between the underground man and the officer in part 2 right away revokes images from "Invisible man". My hunch was right, there are more similarities between these 2 works. Though the word "invisible" doesn't appear in "Notes from underground", the same idea is there, the narrator is unseen. 
On a side note: whether I can develop it and use for my essay is another story, because their invisibility is different. In Ralph Ellison's narrator's case, he's unseen in the sense that people look at him and see the reflections of their own stereotypes and prejudices, or see him as a representation, an emblem, of something, instead of seeing his individuality. The underground man, on the other hand, is unseen because of people's loathing or his inferior status (unsuccessful), according to him, or simply because he's alienated from society. 

7/ Chapter 5 of part 2, an absurd situation with all the trouble about money, somehow makes me think of "Hunger", though I'm not sure if there's any equivalent scene in the Knut Hamsun book.

8/ The meeting of the former schoolmates, I can't read without thinking of a similar scene in "Mrs Dalloway" (Virginia Woolf). All the old feelings come back, all the dislike, all the feeling of inferiority and diffidence. Of course, closely linked to it is my own visualisation of future meetings between me and my former classmates (though the bright side is that such meetings are unlikely to happen, considering that I live in another country and they probably have left as well). 

9/ "Notes from underground" has humour, a kind of Kafka-like humour that I didn't find in "Crime and punishment". 
In fact, though for now I'm not able to put it into words, due to my own inadequacy, the more I read Kafka and Dostoyevsky, the more similar they appear, and I can see why Kafka regards Dostoyevsky as 1 of his blood relatives. 

10/ Before I finish reading, I already feel the need to reread the whole book right after finishing it. 

11/ If I'm not mistaken, "Taxi driver" was inspired by this book. Indeed, it's not difficult to see: alienation, loneliness, depression, self-loathing, misanthropy, bitterness, rage, contradiction, etc.  

Update at 11.05pm: 
12/ Another time the underground man compares himself to a fly, and another time, a bug. 

13/ The comparison may be a bit forced, but the dinner scene is reminiscent of the film "Inside Llewyn Davis". Like the narrator here, Llewyn Davis is, by general standard, a loser, and he's aware of it, but at the same time still has a contradictory feeling, a feeling of superiority. He dislikes his present life and cannot get anywhere better, for he's not talented enough, but he has a contemptuous look when sitting in a corner, listening to other people, such as Jim and Jean, or when singing Jim's song. 
Something I understand very well. 
It's tragic, good taste, or the ability to recognise genius and distinguish between talent and the absence of it, doesn't always go hand in hand with talent. 
But then I digress. That sentence fits "Inside Llewyn Davis" only, or, what do the Coen bros mean? is he meant to be a small talent, or a misunderstood artist? Maybe it only fits me. But definitely not the narrator in "Notes from underground". His intelligence and hypersensitivity are the reasons he cannot connect to the people around him. 

14/ Intelligence and hypersensitivity and high consciousness. Now doesn't this sound like Salinger's Seymour Glass? 

15/ Strange, now instead of writing an in-depth analysis of "Notes from underground", I throw out heaps of names in your face, like a pretentious ass. Can't help it though.  

Update on 11/3, 11.58am: 
16/ "What was to be done?" in chapter 5 of part 2 is clearly an allusion to "What is to be done?" by Nikolai Chernyshevsky, the book to which "Notes from underground" is said to respond. 

17/ I notice the monologue about a father's love for his daughter in chapter 6 is like what Mr Norton says about his daughter in "Invisible man", except that in Ralph Ellison's book, the love is pushed to the extreme, bordering on incest. 

Friday 7 March 2014

More on "Madame Bovary" (and "Anna Karenina")

More than once on this blog I have compared "Madame Bovary" to "Anna Karenina" (who can help it?), stressing over and over again that Anna's tragedy is due to both herself and society whereas Emma Bovary has only herself to blame, and that Emma doesn't have the depth and complexity of Anna, apparently Flaubert doesn't like her very much. 
This didn't do the novel much harm, for I have always recognised it as a masterpiece, 1 of the greatest novels ever written. But I must confess that now, having separated these 2 books from each other because of their differences, I have a different view and a better appreciation of "Madame Bovary". On the surface, both are set in the 19th century and concerned with adultery. Yet, unlike "Anna Karenina", "Madame Bovary" isn't really about adultery. Put it this way, Anna lives a sad life with a stiff, emotionless, duty-bound husband and may continue living that way, in boredom but without trouble, if not for the affair with Vronsky; in other words, whilst I understand the dullness of her life, sympathise with her and have a faint idea that if Vronsky doesn't appear, there might be another guy at some point, one may say that trouble begins when Anna meets and falls in love with Vronsky and gets tangled in the affair. For Emma, however, trouble begins long before Emma meets Rodolphe and Léon. Deceitful and self-deluded, she thinks herself romantic and passionate but is in fact sentimental. It doesn't matter whether or not she meets these 2 men, it doesn't matter whether or not she has extramarital affairs, Emma is self-destructive in 1 way or another. Her sexual liaisons aren't the focus, I don't think she truly loves Rodolphe and Léon. As pointed out by Nabokov, adultery is a conventional way to rise above the conventional, I reckon that to Flaubert, having a deep, insightful and wise character commit adultery is quite conventional, perhaps even banal. Instead, Flaubert chooses a woman who only appears so at 1st, who mistakenly believes herself to be different from, more cultured and artistic than, and superior to, other people around her. Then carefully and perfectly, he dissects and exposes her shallowness and philistinism.
To see this is to realise that "Anna Karenina" and "Madame Bovary" have very different protagonists and different subjects, and tackle different themes, and one should not let 1 book affect the reading of the other*. 

*: Of course I read "Madame Bovary" over 1 year before "Anna Karenina", but at the time, had become highly acquainted with the story of "Anna Karenina" and watched at least 1 adaptation.

2 quotes by Flaubert

"Human speech is like a cracked kettle on which we tap crude rhythms for bears to dance to, while we long to make music that will melt the stars."

"I am irritated by my own writing. I am like a violinist whose ear is true, but whose fingers refuse to reproduce precisely the sound he hears within."

Monday 3 March 2014

Oscar results

Best picture: "12 years a slave"
Best actor: Matthew McConaughey in "Dallas buyers club" 

Best actress: Cate Blanchett in "Blue jasmine"
Best supporting actor: Jared Leto in "Dallas buyers club"
Best supporting actress: Lupita Nyong'o in "12 years a slave"
Best director: Alfonso Cuarón for "Gravity"

Just like I predicted. 


(another rant)
Ellen totally ruined the Oscars and made it so common and informal, with her silly, pointless bullshit. I knew right from the beginning that it would happen. In her own show she's OK but at the Oscars! As bad as Seth MacFarlane last year. Didn't even speak fluently.
And Jennifer Lawrence never has any grace. Was OK until she presented the Oscar for best supporting actor. 


Amy Adams, Charlize Theron and Anne Hathaway looked gorgeous. I love their dresses. 


I'm so glad Cate Blanchett won though I haven't seen the film. I love her. So this is her 2nd Oscar, after "The aviator" (supporting).