Tuesday 31 March 2015

Daniel Deronda and Andrew Davies

I've been wondering why on earth some people think Daniel Deronda has feelings for and should end up with Gwendolen.
Now I know why. Or think I do.
It's the 2002 mini-series!
The screenplay's written by Andrew Davies. Rings a bell? He's the screenwriter of the 1995 Pride and Prejudice, the one responsible for the soaking wet Colin Firth image and the idea that Mr Darcy is Prince Charming! That's the one!
[His adaptations of Sense and Sensibility and Northanger Abbey are better, though not as good as the less faithful take on Sense and Sensibility by Emma Thompson.]
Even if I sound like one, I'm not a purist. Look above (and here), I think highly of the Sense and Sensibility film, in which Emma Thompson and Ang Lee make various changes and shift the balance slightly from sense to sensibility. Changes are fine. Make Gwendolen a murderer even! I welcome that (though of course in that case everything else would have to change, the spirit of the film would also be different). What causes me dismay about this Daniel Deronda version is this: they romanticise the relationship between Deronda and Gwendolen, as though between a man and a woman there can be nothing else. Doesn't that make their relationship quite "earthly", commonplace? Doesn't that make Grandcourt right in his suspicions? Doesn't that put Deronda in the wrong, especially in the scene where he's with Gwendolen at Grandcourt's house and Grandcourt comes back and smiles at them in disdain? What kind of person does that make Deronda, simultaneously courting 2 women? And then that scene where Hans says he's seen how Deronda looks at Mirah, and looks at "the duchess"? What bothers me even more is that they romanticise this relationship, add lots of scenes showing that there's something going on between these 2 characters and leave hardly any space for the relationship between Deronda and Mirah, only a little at the beginning which hardly counts, and then in the end still let Deronda choose Mirah. I imagine that a person unfamiliar with the book, watching this film, would be quite stunned, and puzzled. 
It looks as though Deronda chooses Mirah for her Jewishness and his great mission. 

Monday 30 March 2015

Hermann: Insane? Sane?

I've finished reading Despair. Surprise- I was right for suspecting that Hermann and Felix don't look alike.
Now another question arises: What if Hermann, the unreliable narrator, is not a madman, megalomaniac and delusional, but a man awaiting his trial and pleading insanity?
Here are some arguments supporting that interpretation:

On the 25 most hated books (by Book Riot readers)
1/ Twilight by Stephenie Meyer (102 votes)
=> No wonder. In fact I'm glad it makes the 1st spot. 
2/ Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger (90)
=> Having been the only one in class who loved this novel whereas almost everyone else hated it, I'm not surprised to find it here, I only find it unfortunate. The general reaction is annoyance at and dislike of Holden Caulfield, without any attempt to understand him- his loss, alienation, troubled mind, etc, which is apparently caused by the tendency to see "identifying with characters" as a criterion of literary merit. It goes further, I believe- based on my own teacher, another teacher in the programme, and what I have seen in the internet, people usually represent The Catcher in the Rye as a book about teen angst and Holden as a troubled teen who doesn't want to grow up because he believes kids to be innocent and adults to be hypocritical. That is a mistaken view- if the teenagers reading the book that is said to be a teen angst book don't see themselves in the protagonist and don't relate to his feelings, it's understandable that they have trouble liking and appreciating the book. But The Catcher in the Rye is much more. 
Holden is a teenager, and has certain problems of teenagers in general, but he's not typical. Note his brother's death. That loss is enough to make his world fall apart, plus a feeling of guilt, because his brother dies and he, the "worst" one in the family, survives- that makes him feel alienated from others, including his parents, and question everything. This is also why he wants to get back to the past, when Allie was alive. Holden's trouble, at the same time, comes from his intelligence and sensitivity, as he notices how many people around him pursue false values, care more about appearances and conventions, and pretend to be something they are not instead of trying to be good. Kids, generally speaking, don't pretend- because they're not aware of conventions and others' expectations, they just behave like themselves. This is why Holden adores kids and has a negative view on adults- when saying that he wants to save kids, he doesn't mean saving them from becoming adults, but saving them from becoming hypocrites and conformists as he has seen many others turn into. 
3/ Fifty Shades of Grey by E.L. James (90)
=> No surprise. It should be up there right next to Twilight, though. 
4/ The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald (53)
=> Another high school book. Why do these people hate The Great Gatsby? I don't get it. Please enlighten me.
5/ Moby-Dick by Herman Melville (41)
=> No comment, I haven't read this one. The common criticisms: "boring", "overrated". 
6/ Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte (41)
=> I can see why- these readers either expect it to be a romantic, beautiful love story and don't find what they're looking for, or, again, see "identifying with characters" as a measure of the greatness of a novel. Why they do so, on the other hand, is something I don't get. 
7/ Lord of the Flies by William Golding (35)
=> I don't like it myself, though "hate" is a strong word. Or maybe I do hate it. It's the bleak vision that I can't stand- in spite of everything, I still don't lose faith in humanity, and even though lots of books I love are sad, tragic, even depressing according to some people's standard, I don't like and can't accept the idea that human beings are evil, genuinely, inherently evil. To equate evil with reality is a naive view. That's probably 1 of the reasons I prefer Tolstoy to Dostoyevsky. 
8/ The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown (33)
=> No wonder. 
9/ Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad (31)
=> Haven't read this one. 
10/ Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand (30)
=> Haven't read it, but I've read a lot about Ayn Rand's philosophy (objectivism). I should have included her in my post on literary prejudices. 
11/ Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn (28)
=> Haven't read it, but I've seen the film. Not hard to see why. As a friend of mine puts it, Gone Girl is not uplifting. Or as another friend puts it, the plot is full of holes, and does anybody notice how the women here are generally stronger/ more intelligent/ more scheming than the men, and when there's a man who is able to engage in the battle of wits with the "wife", he's black? 
12/ Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert (26)
=> Again, haven't read it, but seen the film. Probably not fair to judge a book by its movie, but I feel that the film has nothing in it. Nothing. 
13/ Great Expectations by Charles Dickens (26)
=> I don't get it. Why should anybody hate Great Expectations? I read this novel before discovering Tolstoy and Jane Austen, and haven't read anything by Dickens since then, so my perception might be different now. However, it should be said, while I'm aware that people often criticise Dickens for sentimentality and his caricatures and 1-dimensional female characters, on my part I see nothing sentimental in Great Expectations (and people know how much I dislike false sentimentality), Miss Havisham and Estella have enough depth and complexity (of course don't compare them to Tolstoy's and Flaubert's female characters), and some characters such as Joe or Herbert, albeit (almost) caricatures, have a kind of convincingness or plausibility in this book, like the characters in Dead Souls. Not all writers create characters that are like human beings. 
14/ The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway (25)
=> Haven't read this book. Please, tell me, why?
15/ Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen (24)
=> I can see why. There can be tons of reasons: the idea that it's sentimental, trivial, mundane, confined, only romcom, only chicklit, having no passion or intellectual depth, treating unimportant issues, etc. Bright, light, sparkling. Too much dialogue, one might think. After all, my mom hates Pride and Prejudice, saying that we know more about the characters from what the narrator says and what other characters say than what they reveal themselves through words and actions. A bunch of others, famous, also hate the book, such as Charlotte Bronte and Mark Twain. 
16/ The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne (23)
=> Haven't read it. But it's in my TBR list. 
17/ Life of Pi by Yann Martel (21)
=> Haven't read it, but I've seen the film. Why do people hate it? 
18/ The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck (18)
=> Haven't read it. 
19/ The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen (17)
=> Haven't read it. 
20/ On the Road by Jack Kerouac (14)
=> Haven't read it. I start to realise that this post of mine is like a confession. Let's play the Humiliation game- I'll definitely win. 
21/ The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho (14)
=> Another book I haven't read. But I've read several others by Paulo Coelho, and can see why.
22/ Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte (14)
=> This is unfortunate, but not hard to understand- people can't tolerate the contrived plot, don't like Jane, don't like Rochester, can't accept Rochester's treatment of Bertha, see Jane Eyre as an anti-feminist book and a racist book, don't like the melodrama, and so on and so forth. Nowadays I don't like it as much as in my teens. Jane Eyre is a powerful book, but it's flawed. 
23/ The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold (14)
=> It was so long ago when I read The Lovely Bones. Even if I remember my reaction, I was a horrible reader then. But the ending's definitely silly- what do you call that? Karma? 
24/ The Pearl by John Steinbeck (14)
=> I remember reading this book- whether I finished it or not is uncertain, the feeling is vague. 
25/ Ulysses by James Joyce (14)
=> Haven't read this one, but I know why it's here- people often say it's boring, pretentious, etc. 
I'm rather surprised that Madame Bovary and Lolita don't make the list. Thought lots of people hated these masterpieces. 
Maybe some day I'll list the books I hate. 

Thursday 26 March 2015

Jazz by Toni Morrison

Warning: This book contains adultery, miscarriages, mother hunger, depression, irrational behaviour, slavery, racism, child abandonment, suicide, murder, mutilation of a dead body, and more.

OK, joking. Couldn't help it, after reading this post:


The characters in Jazz lack a sense of self. Alice Manfred is afraid of everything that she practices self-denial, suppresses her own desires and wishes, chooses the safe way, repeats exactly what her parents have done to her that she thought she would never do herself, imposes those hard rules on her young niece. Her niece Dorcas loses her parents from a young age and has hardly anyone but a strict aunt, whom she resists, and she does everything that she's not supposed to do, live fast, die young. Neither have a self, neither truly live- Alice's too busy conforming, Dorcas's too busy rebelling. Dorcas accepts Joe because of his affection and devotion, and the fascination of breaking rules- to have a secret affair with a married man old enough to be her father; and leaves him because he accepts everything about her, whereas she needs someone to shape her, create a sense of self for her, as Acton does. Joe Trace reacts to being abandoned by his own parents and having no last name by creating his own self and renewing it 7 times, only to carry within him an empty nothing until he meets Dorcas- the man who has never claimed anything now claims Dorcas and later can't cope with her leaving him, that he shoots her to revenge or to keep her to himself, so that she can never belong to anyone else. Violet comes to the City, the place of hope and the future, while still stuck in her past, and after 3 miscarriages she has guilt, like the voice in Gwendolyn Brooks's poem "The Mother" (though these are miscarriages, not abortions, the feeling is similar because for a while Violet doesn't want children), and later becomes more and more desperate in her mother hunger, more and more depressed, that she finds herself split into 2 and sees the chores being done instead of seeing herself doing them, just as people see her as having 2 sides, the Violet side and the Violent side. She never has anything- her father is never home, her mother Rose Dear jumps into a well, her grandmother True Belle is too obsessed with the figure of Golden Gray that remains forever stamped in Violet's mind, she claims Joe (Joe doesn't claim her), she lives in the City having nothing, no children, and later no Joe either. But if Dorcas devastates and kills Joe emotionally, with his murder of her, she wakes up Violet and sets her in motion. 
Even Golden Gray, the perfect boy, the golden boy, doesn't have a self either. The moment he finds out that his biological mother pretends to have adopted him and that he has black blood, or maybe later, when he meets his own father and gets insulted for his hesitation to embrace his own identity, he has an identity crisis and his whole world falls apart. Knowing that he belongs nowhere, he finds refuge in Wild's world. 

Monday 23 March 2015

Help to rule the nations and make the age- No man has too much talent to be a musician

"... "With all my heart," said Mr. Bult, willing to be gracious. "I was sure he had too much talent to be a mere musician."
"Ah, sir, you are under some mistake there," said Klesmer, firing up. "No man has too much talent to be a musician. Most men have too little. A creative artist is no more a mere musician than a great statesman is a mere politician. We are not ingenious puppets, sir, who live in a box and look out on the world only when it is gaping for amusement. We help to rule the nations and make the age as much as any other public men. We count ourselves on level benches with legislators. And a man who speaks effectively through music is compelled to something more difficult than parliamentary eloquence."
With the last word Klesmer wheeled from the piano and walked away."
(George Eliot, Daniel Deronda)

Friday 20 March 2015

Burnous and shawl, or Thoughts on Grandcourt

A scene from chapter 11 of Daniel Deronda (1876)- as Gwendolen Harleth comes back from a walk with Mr Grandcourt and finds her mother with Mr Lush, a man she dislikes:
"... It was hardly a bow that Gwendolen gave—rather, it was the slightest forward sweep of the head away from the physiognomy that inclined itself toward her, and she immediately moved toward her seat, saying, 'I want to put on my burnous.' No sooner had she reached it, than Mr. Lush was there, and had the burnous in his hand: to annoy this supercilious young lady, he would incur the offense of forestalling Grandcourt; and, holding up the garment close to Gwendolen, he said, 'Pray, permit me?' But she, wheeling away from him as if he had been a muddy hound, glided on to the ottoman, saying, 'No, thank you.'
A man who forgave this would have much Christian feeling, supposing he had intended to be agreeable to the young lady; but before he seized the burnous Mr. Lush had ceased to have that intention. Grandcourt quietly took the drapery from him, and Mr. Lush, with a slight bow, moved away. 'You had perhaps better put it on,' said Mr. Grandcourt, looking down on her without change of expression.
'Thanks; perhaps it would be wise,' said Gwendolen, rising, and submitting very gracefully to take the burnous on her shoulders..."

This is reminiscent of a passage from The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848):

"'Who was the gentleman you danced with last,' resumed she, after a pause—'that was so officious in helping you on with your shawl?'
'He was not officious at all, aunt: he never attempted to help me till he saw Mr. Boarham coming to do so; and then he stepped laughingly forward and said, 'Come, I’ll preserve you from that infliction.' ' 
'Who was it, I ask?' said she, with frigid gravity.
'It was Mr. Huntingdon, the son of uncle’s old friend.'"

And a similar scene from Mansfield Park (1814):

"Fanny's last feeling in the visit was disappointment: for the shawl which Edmund was quietly taking from the servant to bring and put round her shoulders was seized by Mr. Crawford's quicker hand, and she was obliged to be indebted to his more prominent attention."



My initial thought is that Grandcourt, Huntingdon and Henry Crawford, who get the burnous/ shawl in the end, are all douchebags. And they are. But if I can see quite clearly Henry Crawford (selfish, vain, unscrupulous, untrustworthy, deceitful, insensitive... though charming, good-mannered, intelligent...) and Arthur Huntingdon (unprincipled, dissolute, hedonistic, self-indulgent, glib, treacherous, incorrigible, alcoholic...), I don't know what to make of Grandcourt. He's not a good man, that is certain- he controls, dominates and suffocates Gwendolen, chooses not to marry Lydia, lets go of Lush, doesn't care about anyone and doesn't give people a chance to explain themselves. But if he is egoistic, self-absorbed and selfish, so is Gwendolen; if he wants everything to follow his own wishes and prioritises himself above all others, so does Gwendolen; if he wants to control people, so does Gwendolen; if he lacks empathy, so does Gwendolen. Why is it that we feel sorry for and sympathise with her and condemn him? Because, obviously, in this marriage, she's the victim. But is he really cruel to her? Or is she a victim mostly because she is used to having her way and being obeyed, and now everything is reversed? Her suffering has to do with Lydia's curse and her own conscience, and if the theory I mentioned is true (abuse), it makes life intolerable for her, but both of these points are not really about Grandcourt, though he pretends not to know what he does know just to have the upper hand. 
Another reason Gwendolen appears easier to sympathise with is her conscience. But how do we know that Grandcourt doesn't have a conscience? We don't know his thoughts. This man doesn't express emotions and doesn't appear to struggle with guilt, but he may. Why he marries Gwendolen instead of Lydia, I don't understand (perhaps because Gwendolen can be shown around whereas his relationship with Lydia was a scandal; or because Lydia is more equal to him, more like him, and thus harder to control), but he does make up for it by taking care of Lydia and their children in terms of money. This is another similarity between him and Gwendolen, who, after hurting somebody (her mother, for instance), makes up for it and eases her own conscience by giving something else as compensation or showing affection. Grandcourt isn't too mean and stingy to Gwendolen and her family either. What if he's not as bad as the narrator says? What if he's a kind of Pechorin- a selfish, amoral, hedonistic, nihilist, cruel man, bored with everything and interested in nothing, who deep down inside is more perceptive, sensitive and troubled than we realise, who at the core still sees his own wrongdoings and feels bad about them?

Wednesday 18 March 2015

New thoughts on Gwendolen Harleth: What if she's not a spoilt child?

I'm still thinking about George Eliot's Daniel Deronda. Don't you find Gwendolen's dislike and disdain of men quite strange and unusual? She doesn't like men, doesn't want to get married, doesn't want to have children, doesn't believe in love, doesn't like men to express their feelings for her (and if she wants a proposal, it's only because that gives her power, a sense of triumph, and the pleasure of rejecting it). She has a negative view on men in general ("I believe all men are bad")*. More than that, Gwendolen seems incapable of romantic love. Her feeling for Grandcourt isn't love. She marries him mostly because of the sudden change in her economic situation, her shock, humiliation and disillusionment (after the conversation with Klesmer), her unwillingness to become a governess and fear of being rejected and humiliated again, and also her care for her mother. In addition, Grandcourt intrigues her, because he seems different from other men, with that bored, languid air, and while she likes to have power, he's not a weak, submissive man that one can control, which makes her feel curious and see him as a challenge. 
Her feeling for Deronda isn't love either. Her initial attraction to him is due to curiosity and wounded pride, because again, he also seems different from other men. After that is her admiration for and dependence on him, her loneliness and need for guidance, her weak will in important matters, as Deronda stands for all the goodness and selflessness she doesn't possess herself and doesn't see a lot of around her. Deronda is more like an idea than a person, so I believe to Gwendolen he's also as abstract as that. 
Which is to say, she's incapable of romantic love. 
Even if we attribute this to selfishness and egotism, we cannot explain her instability and outbursts. Several times she seems hysterical. Her reaction to Lydia's letter may be understandable, but her reaction to the picture of the dead face is inexplicable. People usually don't do that. That suggests some dark secret, some kind of trauma, some hidden wound. 
Another thing is the stepfather. What has he done that makes her dislike him so much, and think badly of marriage in general? Nobody says that he beats his wife, his actions are ambiguous, unspecified. Also, 1 detail is notable- once Gwendolen sleeps in the same room with her mother and is asked to go out and get something, but she doesn't want to. That is mentioned after the passage about the stepfather. I start to believe in the possibility that he has abused her. 
Too far-fetched? 
Perhaps. But many unexplained details just don't fit together, except when I consider the possibility of abuse and trauma. And if that is indeed the case, I cannot look at Gwendolen the same way any more. Her selfishness, her prioritisation of herself becomes understandable and easier to sympathise with- a victim who has had to face things alone starts relying on no one but herself and only cares about herself, survival and self-protection. If it's the case, she's a lot more tragic than she seems.

*: though she does say that she hates people, not just men, I still feel that her hatred of men is stronger, more pronounced. 

Update at 10.29 pm: 
I've just found a more detailed, in-depth analysis of Gwendolen's behaviour that also argues for the possibility of abuse:
Personally I'm a bit resistant to some bits in this essay. There must be some distortion- once we believe in a theory, everything seems to "make sense" as we bend it to fit our interpretation. Perhaps it's never in George Eliot's mind. But if we follow Roland Barthes and leave the author outside the picture and look at the work alone, I still think there's something serious in Gwendolen's past, more serious than her father's death and her stepfather's lack of kindness and the constant change of place. 

Sunday 15 March 2015

Top 10 favourite novels [updated]

Anna Karenina (Lev Tolstoy)
War and Peace (Lev Tolstoy)
Pnin (Vladimir Nabokov)
Notes from Underground (Fyodor Dostoyevsky)
A Hero of Our Time (Mikhail Lermontov)
Dead Souls (Nikolai Gogol)
Mansfield Park (Jane Austen)
Wuthering Heights (Emily Bronte)
Sentimental Education (Gustave Flaubert)
The Sound and the Fury (William Faulkner)

The Madwoman in the Attic, George Eliot, female novelists, feminist criticism, Virginia Woolf

The other day, in The Madwoman in the Attic by Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar, I read the introduction and several chapters on Snow White, Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte. Now I've just read the chapters on George Eliot, and some passages on Virginia Woolf's reading of Paradise Lost
The same feeling of irritation, with some kind of distaste. 
The authors' reading is reductive and distorting and ideologically-driven. This is submission. That is renunciation. Those are patriarchal values. This is misogyny. That is self-hatred. This is upholding of conventional values. That is anti-feminism. This is feminine evil. That is male anxiety. This is female passivity. There the authoress is punishing her heroines. Etc. Etc. I'm too lazy and busy to dissect these long chapters, point out all the assertions and remarks I have problems with and comment on each of them. Gubar's analysis of Shirley is generally OK, as Shirley is a political novel (even without the themes of industrialisation and Ludditism) and there's no other way to look at it, but that's not the case with many other works. Gubar and Gilbert go too far in their feminist reading, creating the impression that when they examine a literary work, what they look at and look for is not its literary merits but its political significance, its portrayal of women, its feminism/ anti-feminism, its attitude towards the male-dominated society and tradition, its take on the conventional images in literature of women as the angel or the monster/ the madwoman, and so on and so forth. It is inartistic, simplistic and frustrating. 
It is, I think, not accurate to attribute my reaction to this book simply to my general dislike of feminist criticism (The Madwoman in the Attic is, by the way, considered a landmark, a ground-breaking work). Being female, I definitely notice and very often feel bothered by the sexism, bias and prejudice of some writers, and don't deny that feminist criticism can be useful. It should also be noted that Virginia Woolf is a favourite literary critic of mine (though I'm aware that her essays are more like commentaries or reviews), besides, say, Nabokov, and I have tremendous admiration and love (yes, love) for her A Room of One's Own and The Common Reader. However, while discussing the differences in circumstances between male and female writers, pointing out the obstacles and challenges against women and the effects these have on their works, she reads the novels by Charlotte and Emily Bronte, Jane Austen and George Eliot and other authors, as novels, as works of art, and it's from this point of view, as she prioritises art over politics, that she can see how Charlotte Bronte lets indignation distort her works and therefore gets less said despite having more genius in her than Jane Austen or how George Eliot becomes clumsy for trying to write a man's sentence or how Jane Austen's novels are not less important than those books about war and politics because what matters is that they're well-written, etc. She discusses literature and women authors but doesn't necessarily sees individual works through the lens of feminist criticism, doesn't impose ideas and ideologies on them and doesn't try to bend them to fit some theories. She definitely doesn't point at something and put some label on it like "submission" or "renunciation" or whatever as I've written above, which Gilbert and Gubar do. With her essays, Virginia Woolf has made me embrace my gender and think differently about literature and female novelists. That's where she differs from Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar. 


Below are some interesting quotes on George Eliot from The Madwoman in the Attic. So far I have only read Adam Bede and Daniel Deronda and don't want to say anything. When I consider myself more familiar with George Eliot, I will come back and comment on them. 

"Eliot's punishment of her heroines, her frequent bouts of illness, her often censorious avuncular tone, and her masculine pseudonyms all suggest the depth of her need to evade identification with her own sex."
"By perpetuating [the myth of feminine evil], Eliot demonstrates her internalization of patriarchal culture's definition of the woman as the 'other'. We can see the signs of that internalization throughout her career- in her continued guilt over societal disapproval, her avowed preference for male friends, her feminine anti-feminism, her self-deprecatory assumption that all other forms of injustice are more important subjects for her art than female subjugation, her extreme dependence on Lewes for encouragement and approbation, her inability to face the world as a writer and read even the most benevolent reviews of her work."
"Although until quite recently she has been viewed almost exclusively in terms of male literary history, Eliot shows in "The Lifted Veil" that she is part of a strong female tradition: her self-conscious relatedness to other women writers, her critique of male literary conventions, her interest in clairvoyance and telepathy, her imagery of confinement, her schizophrenic sense of fragmentation, her self-hatred, and what Emily Dickinson might have called her "Covered Vision" place Eliot in a tradition that still survives today."

"Insisting on the primacy of male spheres of activity, Eliot aspires to the 'masculine' scientific detachment of an essayist producing and analyzing 'slices of life'. And in this respect, as in so many others, Scenes of Clerical Life forecasts the camouflages of her later fiction. Adam Bede, with its masculine title, relies on the story of fallen and female Hetty Sorrel for its suspense, just as Felix Holt the Radical maps the mental and moral development of Esther Lyon, while both The Mill on the Floss and Middlemarch announce themselves as sociological studies of provincial life, though they were originally conceived and still come across as portraits of female destiny. And at the end of her literary career Eliot wrote Daniel Deronda, a book that could as easily be entitled 'Gwendolen Harleth'."

What do you think about these assertions? 

Saturday 14 March 2015

Hermann's eye-to-eye monologue

Hermann writes to Felix: "... we must have an eye-to-eye monologue and get things settled." 
And addresses us "I cannot recollect now if the 'monologue' was a slip or a joke."
The 1st one looks like a joke- oh Hermann is perverse. In the next chapter, "... I shook his right hand with my left..." 
The 2nd one is definitely a joke- this time it's Nabokov's joke, and methinks he's laughing at Freud here. Freudian slips. 

Hermann's descriptions

Hermann, the narrator of Despair, is a keen observer (or so he says). But his descriptions are so weird, so unsettling, disturbing. Who writes like that? Of course it's Nabokov that is doing the describing, but that doesn't count- he's a great writer. Among ordinary people, who describes and compares like that? 

From chapter 1:
"He drew his breath in with a sharp sniff; his face broke into ripples of life..."
"That man, especially when he slept, when his features were motionless, showed me my own face, my mask, the flawlessly pure image of my corpse- I used the latter term merely because I wish to express with the utmost clarity- express what? Namely this: that we had identical features, and that, in a state of perfect repose, this resemblance was strikingly evident, and what is death, if not a face at peace- its artistic perfection?"
From chapter 3:
"... Lamps had already lit up there, shining upon office ledgers, and a man in black, with 1 hand behind his back, was walking to and fro, presumably dictating to a secretary I could not see. Ever and anon he appeared, and once, even, he stopped at the window to do some thinking, and then again turned, dictating, dictating, dictating. 
Inexorable! I switched on the light, sat down, pressed my temples. Suddenly, with mad fury, the telephone rang; but it proved a mistake- wrong number. And then there was silence once more, save for the light patter of the rain quickening the approach of the night."
From chapter 4:
"A few days before the 1st of October I happened to walk with my wife through the Tiergarten; there on a foot bridge we stopped, with our elbows upon the railing. Below, on the still surface of the water, we admired the exact replica (ignoring the model, of course) of the park's autumn tapestry of many-hued foliage, the glassy blue of the sky, the dark outlines of the parapet and of our inclined faces. When a slow leaf fell, there would flutter up to meet it, out of the water's shadowy depths, its unavoidable double. Their meeting was soundless. The leaf came twirling down, and twirling up there would rise towards it, early, its exact, beautiful, lethal reflection. I could not tear my gaze away from those inevitable meetings."
"During the last fortnight I had let my mustache grow. This altered my countenance for the worse. Above my bloodless mouth there bristled a brownish-red blotch with an obscene little notch in the middle. I had the sensation that it was glued on; and sometimes it seemed to me that a small prickly animal was settled on my upper lip..."
From chapter 5:
"From behind a black tree there came out noiselessly a gloomy and fleshful moon. A cloud slipped a mask over it in passing, which left visible only its chubby chin."
"It was a sharp bleak night. Among small clouds curled like astrakhan, a shiny flat moon kept sliding in and out."
"We again walked past the duplicate of the Bronze Rider. Not a soul did we meet on the boulevard. Not a gleam was there in the houses; had I noticed a single lighted window, I should have supposed that somebody had hanged himself there and left the lamp burning- so unwonted and unwarranted would a light have seemed..."
"All of a sudden Felix, as if shot dead, let his head fall and began unlacing his shoes..."
"He listened, that was certain. I listened to his listening. He listened to my listening to his listening. Something snapped. I noticed that I was not thinking at all of what I thought I was thinking; attempted to catch my consciousness tripping, but got mazed myself." 

A madman he must be. Someone horrible. Evil? Obsessed with death, apparently. Such a strange, perplexing, sinister way of looking at things. No wonder he, while making love to his wife, somehow sees himself standing outside the lovemaking, at a distance, watching. 

Wednesday 11 March 2015

Several Jazz poems by Langston Hughes


Oh, silver tree!
Oh, shining rivers of the soul!

In a Harlem cabaret
Six long-headed jazzers play.
A dancing girl whose eyes are bold
Lifts high a dress of silken gold.

Oh, singing tree!
Oh, shining rivers of the soul!

Were Eve's eyes
In the first garden
Just a bit too bold?
Was Cleopatra gorgeous
In a gown of gold?

Oh, shining tree!
Oh, silver rivers of the soul!

In a whirling cabaret
Six long-headed jazzers play.

The Weary Blues 

Droning a drowsy syncopated tune,
Rocking back and forth to a mellow croon,
     I heard a Negro play.
Down on Lenox Avenue the other night
By the pale dull pallor of an old gas light
     He did a lazy sway . . .
     He did a lazy sway . . .
To the tune o’ those Weary Blues.
With his ebony hands on each ivory key
He made that poor piano moan with melody.
     O Blues!
Swaying to and fro on his rickety stool
He played that sad raggy tune like a musical fool.
     Sweet Blues!
Coming from a black man’s soul.
     O Blues!
In a deep song voice with a melancholy tone
I heard that Negro sing, that old piano moan—
     “Ain’t got nobody in all this world,
       Ain’t got nobody but ma self.
       I’s gwine to quit ma frownin’
       And put ma troubles on the shelf.”

Thump, thump, thump, went his foot on the floor.
He played a few chords then he sang some more—
     “I got the Weary Blues
       And I can’t be satisfied.
       Got the Weary Blues
       And can’t be satisfied—
       I ain’t happy no mo’
       And I wish that I had died.”
And far into the night he crooned that tune.
The stars went out and so did the moon.
The singer stopped playing and went to bed
While the Weary Blues echoed through his head.
He slept like a rock or a man that’s dead.

Trumpet Player

The Negro
With the trumpet at his lips
Has dark moons of weariness
Beneath his eyes
where the smoldering memory
of slave ships
Blazed to the crack of whips
about his thighs

The Negro
with the trumpet at his lips
has a head of vibrant hair
tamed down,
patent-leathered now
until it gleams
like jet-
were jet a crown

the music
from the trumpet at his lips
is honey
mixed with liquid fire
the rhythm
from the trumpet at his lips
is ecstasy
distilled from old desire-

that is longing for the moon
where the moonlight's but a spotlight
in his eyes,
that is longing for the sea
where the sea's a bar-glass
sucker size

The Negro
with the trumpet at his lips
whose jacket
Has a fine one-button roll,
does not know
upon what riff the music slips

Its hypodermic needle
to his soul
but softly
as the tune comes from his throat
mellows to a golden note 

Song for Billie Holiday 

What can purge my heart
        Of the song
        And the sadness?
What can purge my heart
        But the song
        Of the sadness?
What can purge my heart
        Of the sadness
        Of the song?

Do not speak of sorrow
With dust in her hair,
Or bits of dust in eyes
A chance wind blows there.
The sorrow that I speak of
Is dusted with despair.

Voice of muted trumpet,
 Cold brass in warm air.
Bitter television blurred
By sound that shimmers–

Langston Hughes 

Tuesday 10 March 2015

Amundsen& Nansen

Having decided to squeeze time instead of waiting, I've just started reading Despair. And found this bit:
"Somebody told me once that I looked like Amundsen, the Polar explorer. Well, Felix, too, looked like Amundsen. But it is not every person that can recall Amundsen's face. I myself recall it but faintly, nor am I sure whether there had not been some mix-up with Nansen..."
Mix-up? They don't look alike!
(or Felix resembles Hermann only as much as Amundsen resembles Nansen?)

(left: Roald Amundsen; right: Fridtjof Nansen) 

So I read the book with Hermann and Felix as Amundsen in my head. A rich Amundsen and a poor Amundsen. That comparison is repeated later. But Nansen's face keeps creeping in. That probably has to do with the fact that I'm more familiar with Nansen, having seen him everywhere, at Fram museum, at UiO, at Oslo S, probably at the Nobel Fredssenter as well, but it's unsettling nevertheless. It feels as though there's indeed a split, as Hermann has experienced. 

Friday 6 March 2015

Vietnamese literature abroad

[Funnily enough, the Lưu Quang Vũ poem in the 1st link is a revolutionary poem, a proper poem according to the communist party's standards. If you don't have a clue what I mean by that, Nabokov's essay "Russian Writers, Censors and Readers" may help. Pretty much the same. 
I hope, when talking about exporting Vietnamese literature, they're thinking of something broader than those red poets and writers of the North like Tố Hữu, Phạm Tiến Duật, Chính Hữu, Hoàng Trung Thông, Chế Lan Viên, Phạm Tuyên, Viễn Phương, Nguyễn Đình Thi, Thép Mới, Anh Đức, Nguyễn Thi, etc. Nobody reads that kind of thing now in Vietnam, except at schools.
It's ironic- heaps of books, by Southern authors as well as by foreign ones, were destroyed after 1975, then decades later they're republished and still enjoyed, whereas all the books and poems created for propaganda and indoctrination and honoured by the communist party are now all dead, as they have little value and no longer have any relevance, and hardly anybody cares about them now.
Well, on 2nd thought, there is no irony about that...] 

Thursday 5 March 2015

Random thoughts on fiction and gender issues

1/ Some common responses to critics of 50 Shades, refuted:
The last one is "Get over it". I never understand this kind of response to people who point out the problematic content or, in my experience, the poor quality of the book. If you can praise a book, why do you think others don't have the right to criticise it?

2/ 50 things wrong with 50 Shades:
The line between submission and abuse:
Let's talk about Lars von Trier's film Nymphomaniac. If you're unfamiliar with it, this is a bold and brilliant film with unsimulated sex scenes, which deals with sex addiction, homosexuality, bisexuality, sadism, masochism and paedophilia. The main character Joe is a nymphomaniac, who lies in blood somewhere at the beginning of the film and is rescued by a man named Seligman, then they have a conversation about Joe, sex and why she sees herself as a bad human being. Joe talks about her personal experiences, thoughts, desires and sex life, Seligman talks about sex from an intellectual point of view, sex as analogous to fishing, classical music, religion, etc. It seems that Lars von Trier's neither for nor against Joe's actions, and he's being as objective as possible. At some point in life, Joe feels unsatisfied, and goes to a sadist who warns right from the beginning that once a woman enters the room, there is no safe word. This is of course hard to stomach, especially the scenes of violence, which are raw, uncomfortably so, and the awareness that Joe leaves her little kid home alone to go to the sadist's place. As I've said, Lars von Trier's simply telling the story- Joe definitely struggles with her own desires, has a bad conscience and loathes herself. 
The key point, the "message" of the film, is in the ending. After the talk, Joe lies down to rest, Seligman goes to another room. Then suddenly he goes back and climbs on her, attempting to rape her, muttering something like she has slept with so many men after all. And she shoots him. 
That is important: Joe is a nymphomaniac, she has had sex with lots of men, but that doesn't mean that a man can rape her and say "it doesn't matter, I'm just another man". Because she has sex of her own free will. Because no matter what, she has the right to say no. 

3/ 2 dreadful websites I've just come across:
On the other side are so-called feminists like this:
This person nicknamed radfemale is ignorant and narrow-minded; worse, she's self-righteous, aggressive and incapable of seeing nuances and doubting herself. She calls herself a feminist, but to me she's more like a misandrist- you can look around and find many posts where she openly says that she hates men, and other posts where she suggests that women are only victims and men only perpetrators. And she always seems to be yelling, furiously. 
Radfemale isn't alone, there are others:
(Read the comments too). 
But that's not feminism. I understand the points raised on the womenagainstfeminism site, and agree that we shouldn't see all men as misogynists, potential abusers and rapists, etc. But feminism matters because men and women are still not equal. Slut-shaming is still a thing, for example. Or recently at the Oscars, Patricia Arquette addressed the issue of unequal pay for actors and actresses in her acceptance speech.

4/ I've expressed my thoughts on feminism. 
However, I generally don't like feminist criticism in literature. For example, the other day I read The Madwoman in the Attic, and felt irritated. Reading and analysing a work of art in the light of feminism, or any ism (homoeroticism/ homotextuality, Marxism, etc.) distorts the work. You bend it, you make it fit your system and preconceived notions, you focus on the politics of the work and go so far that you fail to recognise its literary merits, you might even misinterpret it. The chapter on Shirley is perhaps tolerable, though I have trouble with the suggestion that Shirley succumbs to Caroline's fate, or something along that line. The 2 chapters on Jane Austen hardly make sense, especially the parts on Mansfield Park and Fanny's quietness and passivity. 
By distorting, I of course don't mean things like this:
She hasn't even read Lolita, and it's clear that she knows nothing about art. 
What I'm thinking of is something else- for instance, there are people who accuse Tolstoy and Flaubert of hating women (creating weak, unlikeable, immoral female characters and punishing them) and thus condemn their works and dismiss the greatness of these works altogether. E.g:
If a reader reads a novel that way, they cannot see its merits, no, they don't even see what it's really about. Similarly, if readers of Mansfield Park think that here Jane Austen unfairly favours the quiet, passive, conservative, prudish Fanny Price over the witty, lively, active, independent, frank Mary, the book is ruined. 
On the other hand, I find A Room of One's Own excellent. Virginia Woolf discusses women and fiction indeed, but for her art still goes 1st. 

5/ 2 posts related to literature:
(and this
I'm quoting myself: <In Shirley, Charlotte Bronte wrote "If men could see us as we really are, they would be a little amazed; but the cleverest, the acutest men are often under an illusion about women. They do not read them in a true light; they misapprehend them, both for good and evil. Their good woman is a queer thing, half doll, half angel; their bad woman almost always a fiend. Then to hear them fall into ecstasies with each other’s creations—worshipping the heroine of such a poem, novel, drama—thinking it fine, divine! Fine and divine it may be, but often quite artificial—false as the rose in my best bonnet there. If I spoke all I think on this point, if I gave my real opinion of some first-rate female characters in first-rate works, where should I be? Dead under a cairn of avenging stones in half an hour."
If before, female characters in fiction tended to be either angels or monsters (there were exceptions, of course), now writers tend to create only female characters that are strong, powerful, independent. That’s not any better.>
This is a good speech by Maggie Gyllenhaal at the Golden globes:
I don't want more strong female characters. I want real female characters. I want a great range. 

Monday 2 March 2015

The female characters in The Moonstone

are very well-drawn and vivid.
Miss Clack has been discussed on this blog before. She's irritating and amusing at the same time; she seems to have no sense of humour and yet she's hilarious, in her religiousness and hypocrisy and self-contradictions; she's not to be trusted as a narrator and yet she's so fascinating in her own way that I enjoy reading her narrative and want more of it; she's the kind of person we stay away from, and yet she also seems pathetic, almost pitiful. Because she's alone, single and poor and no one seems to think highly of her (Rachel and Penelope are even rude), there's something sad and pathetic about this woman; as she doesn't have anything, such as wealth or social status or perhaps good looks, and apparently doesn't have much intellect either, she has to cling to something that gives her a sense of worth, a sense of dignity, which is her religion and related activities; then because she clings too much to religion, without true goodness, she's a hypocrite and a prude and a bore, which makes people dislike her even more and stay away from her; so it's like a vicious cycle.
Rachel and Rosanna arouse more sympathy. At 1st glance, they're very different: Rachel has all the advantages- social status, wealth, beauty, respect, love and finally a happy ending, whereas Rosanna has nothing and finally commits suicide. Rosanna is also more quiet, reserved, withdrawn, because of her past as well as her physical disability and her feeling about it; if Rachel, whilst keeping the secret, acts like an impassioned, unstable person and cannot be normal, Rosanna has more self-restraint and keeps everything within her, revealing hardly anything. However, in many ways they are doubles. They are both young. They are both in love with Franklin Blake. They both know about Franklin taking the diamond. They both choose to be silent about it, even though it's destructive for themselves- their silence is a kind of sacrifice. They both obstruct the plot in the sense that if they were not silent, the diamond would be found sooner. Rachel and Rosanna are "united" in their love for the same person and their silence. If you think about it, Rosanna's death leads to the gown and therefore helps other characters to find out the truth- there's little likelihood that after being stopped and interrupted so many times she would say anything to Franklin if she didn't die; but the whole time Rachel insists on being silent, and if this carried on, without Rosanna's letter, nobody would know the truth and Rachel would always think Franklin the real thief; so in a way it's like Rosanna has to get out of the picture in order for Rachel to have her happy ending.
Anyhow, they are lovely characters, depicted with lots of sympathy. The Moonstone is more about characters than about the mystery. Wilkie Collins helps us see beneath the appearance (Rachel as a stubborn, strong-willed, impassioned, almost irrational young woman and Rosanna as a physically disabled, diffident, reserved woman); lets us understand them, their feelings and actions; breathes life into them; most importantly, makes us feel sorry for Rosanna and her hopeless love, without exaggeration, without making it appear melodramatic or sentimental. In spite of everything, Rosanna's still a romantic, believing that Franklin could look at her and could love her, with a kind of love that crosses all boundaries. She is tragic from the 1st moment she appears, lonely, strangely drawn to the sea and the quicksands; she is tragic to the end, dying believing that Franklin deliberately ignores her and avoids her and wants to hurt her.
It is inexplicable, sometimes a character is left more or less in the background, in the shadows, and yet I feel a kind of love and melancholy for them as though for a real person. Like Dolores Haze. Caddy Compson. Jane Fairfax. Rosanette "The Marshal". And now Rosanna Spearman.
OK, enough sentimentality. Let's talk about a character nobody seems to care about: Penelope. The interesting part is that she's right all along. She's right about Rachel and Franklin being in love; she distrusts Godfrey Ablewhite, who is charming but phony; she's right about supporting Franklin; she believes in Rosanna when most others suspect her; she's also right about Rosanna's love for Franklin. It's only because she's female and her father Gabriel Betteredge is a sexist that her insightful remarks are dismissed, and she's a minor character, but Penelope's right the whole time. 
Apart from Misses Ablewhites, who appear briefly at the beginning, and Lady Verinder, who doesn't interest me 1 bit, there's only 1 female character left, if I'm not mistaken- Lucy. Some people think she has romantic feelings for Rosanna. Is that the case, or the fact that they are both physically disabled and unattractive simply creates a kind of bond between them? Now that could be discussed further.