Sunday 30 August 2015

The 2 main characters and the ending of Henry James's "Daisy Miller"

What should we make of Daisy Miller? Depends on what we make of Winterbourne. Though the story has a 3rd-person narrator, Henry James employs the free indirect speech and everything is seen from Winterbourne's perspective and coloured by his judgement.
After Winterbourne says to his aunt ".... I was booked to make a mistake. I've lived too long in foreign parts.", this is the last line of "Daisy Miller":
"Nevertheless he soon went back to live at Geneva, whence there continue to come the most contradictory accounts of his motives of sojourn: a report that he's 'studying' hard- an intimation that he's much interested in a very clever foreign lady."
Let's go back to the beginning, when he is introduced:
"He was some seven-and-twenty years of age; when his friends spoke of him, they usually said that he was at Geneva 'studying'. When his enemies spoke of him, they said—but, after all, he had no enemies; he was an extremely amiable fellow, and universally liked. What I should say is, simply, that when certain persons spoke of him they affirmed that the reason of his spending so much time at Geneva was that he was extremely devoted to a lady who lived there—a foreign lady—a person older than himself. Very few Americans—indeed, I think none—had ever seen this lady, about whom there were some singular stories."
There are 2 versions each time- which one should we take to be a fact? Both times, we note, the word "studying" is placed inside quotation marks. Needless to say the implication is that the 2nd version is more likely to be true, and if that's the case, Winterbourne is the hypocrite, at least what he does he does in the dark, whereas Daisy is open and condemned for being so, though there's nothing wrong in her relations with Giovanelli.
Another significant bit is that there is no change in Winterbourne. Having understood her at last and realised his own misunderstanding, he experiences no change whatsoever. Whilst Daisy is deeply affected by his opinion of her, in spite of her declaration of independence and indifference to everyone, and lets it destroy her, he experiences no more than a moment of realisation, and remains exactly the same. Throughout the story he keeps thinking that she's shallow, light, frivolous, but it's him that doesn't have deep feeling, it's him that is light and frivolous.

On "Daisy Miller"

Daisy Miller, the young American woman in Europe in Henry James's story, may not rank as highly as Emma Bovary or Anna Karenina or Natasha Rostova, the greatest female characters written by men, because we do not have access to her thoughts. She nevertheless has a vivid existence even if said to embody the innocence, naivete and uncultured, uncivilised, natural quality of America as opposed to the culture, civilisation, formality, good manners or rigidity and hypocrisy of Europe. 
The story is about Daisy Miller as seen by Winterbourne, and our perception of her changes as his attitude changes. At 1st, when they're alone, that is, away from "society", he's utterly charmed and enthralled by her. Daisy Miller is charming indeed, in her innocence, talkativeness, free spirit and naturalness, charming like Shakespeare's Rosalind or Jane Austen's Mary Crawford (whereas I don't think anyone can be charmed by the women George Eliot describes as charming). In this part, Mrs Costello looks like a rigid, narrow-minded, prejudiced woman. Even when Daisy starts to show her shallowness and frivolity and some recklessness, she's still marvellously charming. 
Then there's a shift in the story- a change in space (move to Rome), in environment (Daisy now seen in society and judged by society) and in perspective. There is a slight difference in the way Winterbourne looks at her now, as he tries to defend her and at the same time to warn and influence her. Daisy is simultaneously fascinating in her audacity, irritating in her stubbornness and indifference to public opinion and pitiful when people evade her and speak contemptuously of her. 
As she becomes more reckless and defiant in her relations with the Italian Mr Giovanelli, and therefore more or less made an outcast, Winterbourne again changes in his feelings towards her, his estimation of her: 
"He could hardly have said why, but she struck him as a young person not formed for a troublesome jealousy. Smile at such a betrayal though the reader may, it was a fact with regard to the women who had hitherto interested him that, given certain contingencies, Winterbourne could see himself afraid- literally afraid- of these ladies. It pleased him to believe that even were 20 other things different and Daisy should love him and he should know it and like it, he would still never be afraid of Daisy. It must be added that this conviction was not altogether flattering to her: it represented that she was nothing every way if not light." 
Then his feeling again changes. The ending has the indirectness and ambiguity people talk about when talking about Henry James. What is the injustice to which Winterbourne refers? The lines "It doesn't matter now what I believed the other day!" and "I believe it makes very little difference whether you're engaged or not!", and his attitude towards her on the last night. What James does to Daisy Miller in the end may have an abruptness that seems too much like a contrivance, a confused resolution, but it isn't necessarily unconvincing. One may argue that it's Winterbourne's attitude that pushes her over the edge, that is responsible for her reckless decision and its consequences. 
A beautiful story. The 2 most moving scenes are when Daisy realises Mrs Costello, Winterbourne's aunt, refuses to see her, and she pretends not to care; and when Mrs Miller gives him her message. Other people might be interested in the clash of values between Europe and America, I'm more interested in Daisy Miller and the change of perspective. 

Friday 28 August 2015

"Daisy Miller": My 1st Henry James

Reading "Daisy Miller". Reading for the 1st time a writer whose fiction I've never read but about whom I've read a lot.
"Dramatise! Dramatise!": Check. The story is mostly dialogue, like "Daniel Deronda: A Conversation" almost. Henry James uses lots of different words for "said" and also makes use of adverbs, which is reminiscent of F. Scott Fitzgerald. The descriptive phrases attached to these lines are not there to distinguish the characters, which is hardly necessary, but to let readers know how the characters speak and what they do whilst speaking. Now and then "Daisy Miller" feels like a script and the descriptions are there not for the readers as much as for the actors, so they know how to act, and directors, so they know how to direct.
Economy and relevance: Check. At least so far there doesn't seem to be anything redundant as one might find in George Eliot or Dostoyevsky.
Invisible author: Check- in the sense that the story's not interrupted by an intrusive narrator or distorted by the author's private feelings, though the author/ narrator does say "I" a few times. 
Focus on consciousness and perception: Check. The descriptions of Daisy are not descriptions of Daisy, but of Daisy as seen by Winterbourne.
Unreadability: No, not an issue here. James is often mentioned as 1 of those unreadable authors, and people generally don't specify which works or which period in his long career. My guess is that the language in his novels, especially the late works, may be difficult- it's definitely not unreadable here.
A friend of mine says Henry James is similar to, and better than, Jane Austen. Whether or not he's better is too early to say, but he's similar in the characterisation through dialogue and the free indirect speech. There is also humour. 
Hopefully next time I'll find something more interesting to say. 

Saturday 22 August 2015

Let's talk about George Eliot's harshness or unkindness

People often say that Jane Austen is detached and can be unkind, sometimes even cruel, and Charlotte Bronte's full of anger and bitterness. What about George Eliot? Her name's generally associated with phrases such as "kind", "large heart", "full of sympathy", "deep sensibilities", and she's compared to Tolstoy.
Is that always the case, though?
R. H. Hutton argues otherwise, in his series of reviews of Middlemarch.
"... It is the 1 and almost the only respect in which we prefer her poetry to her prose- that in her poetry she does not put forth, at least in her own person, the biting power of this acid criticism".
As Barbara Hardy puts it, George Eliot's works, unlike Anna Karenina, have a basic sheep and goats division and we can categorise characters with the fundamental test "Are they acting from self-interest or from love?". Hutton notes "George Eliot has favourites and aversions, and deals very hardly by the latter"- we have Dorothea and Mary Garth on 1 side, Celia and Rosamond on the other.
He says:
"Middlemarch is not only a sketch of country life, connected by a story, but a running fire of criticism as well. Sometimes the reader feels that the author is unfairly running down 1 of her own characters- that she has conceived in her imagination a much more pleasant character than her party-spirit, as it were, chooses to admit. For instance, it is quite clear that George Eliot decidedly dislikes the type of pretty, attractive, gentle, sensible, limited young ladies so common in modern life, and loses no opportunity of plunging the dissecting-knife into them. Celia Brooke and Rosamond Vincy are the 2 representations of this species in the upper and middle spheres of Middlemarch society, and Celia Brooke and Rosamond Vincy are, to use an expressive, though rude, schoolboy phrase, 'always catching it' from the authoress, till we feel decidedly disposed to take their sides."
This is not entirely true, because in Daniel Deronda, George Eliot does sympathise with the "pretty, attractive, gentle, sensible, limited" Gwendolen and even takes her side against Grandcourt, but within this context, Hutton has a good point. It is indeed clear that the author dislikes Celia and Rosamond (or it's the narrator that does, but there's no implication that the author and the narrator think differently).
Of course, that an author likes some characters and dislikes some others is normal, and acceptable. The question is whether it leads to impartiality and distortion.
Apparently in Middlemarch, it does. For instance, Hutton refers to these lines about Celia:
"Celia, whose mind had never been thought too powerful, saw the emptiness of other people's pretensions much more readily. To have in general but little feeling, seems to be the only security against feeling too much on any particular occasion."
He comments:
"... one is apt to set down that unkind hit at Celia to personal antipathy on the author's part. [...] Celia had not only been accused of want of feeling for seeing through Mr Casaubon, but her criticisms on her sister's blind idealism, which were in the main just, had been likened to those publicly passed as 'Murr the cat' on our human life; and this certainly looked like an animus against Celia, for which the reader was bound to allow. One knows perfectly well that practical girls of this far from dream type do often exhibit the warmest affections, and so one is not prepared to accept absolutely George Eliot's rationale of Celia's clear-sightedness as arising in coldness of heart, and is prepared to distrust even decidedly asserted facts which appear to be at all unreasonably depreciative of her."
Despite the narrator's stabs, we find Celia kind, more clear-sighted and honest to herself than her sister Dorothea, said to be intelligent and make plans and think of big things but naive, idealistic and imperceptive and in some ways a bit idiotic.
Another example is this sentence about Rosamond and her sadness when Lydgate's avoiding her:
"Poor Rosamond lost her appetite and felt as forlorn as Ariadne—as a charming stage Ariadne left behind with all her boxes full of costumes and no hope of a coach."
According to Hutton:
"Now, that is not an additional touch of the artist's; it is a malicious stab of the critic's, which makes us distrust our author's impartiality, and feel rather more disposed to take Rosamond's part than if the attack had not been made".
Hutton mentions this line again in another review of Middlemarch, and remarks:
"Now, that is palpably an unkind author's criticism not founded on truth. Rosamond is thin, and selfish, and self-occupied, but she is not stagey. Her grief, such as it was, though of a feeble and thready kind, was perfectly genuine. That prick of the needle was due to literary malice, a prick that only literary dislike would have given..."
Though he adds that such a tone makes us distrust the narrator, "until the immense force and power of the picture in the new number conquered us, and we gave in to the general fidelity of the picture", he still uses the word "literary malice" earlier and apparently suggests that those comments are unnecessary. The Ariadne line is also referred to in Kerry McSweeney's book about Middlemarch- Rosamond brings out the worst in the narrator. Sometimes George Eliot can just stop at description, but doesn't.
Think of Hetty Sorrel. Who can like her after reading chapter 15? In the later part of Adam Bede, her story is no longer the focus and we lose her point of view. The narrator's no longer with Hetty. 
And Gwendolen Harleth? I reckon that's the best response to Hutton, or is she still not enough to refute his point? George Eliot, when creating a charming but superficial and selfish woman, has to make it not possible to be charmed by her, or make us feel it wrong to do so. And when George Eliot finally creates a vivid character like Gwendolen, a much greater achievement than Dorothea, when she explores the consciousness of a shallow, egoistic, ignorant young lady and sympathises with her, she decidedly takes her side against Grandcourt and makes us wonder why we forgive Gwendolen but not Grandcourt when they have the same faults, apart from the fact that in the marriage Gwendolen's the victim. Conscience, you say, but how do we know that he doesn't have a conscience? We never have access to his thoughts. 
But that's another story.
The only point I'm trying to make here is that I'm reconsidering what people often say about George Eliot. 

Wednesday 19 August 2015

Chuyện Vũ Thạch Tường Minh và giáo dục VN: Trả lời vài bình luận

Gần đây ở buổi hội thảo Cánh Buồm, Vũ Thạch Tường Minh, 1 học sinh lớp 8, 14 tuổi, có phát biểu như sau: 
"Một điều mà con muốn nói với chính phủ Việt Nam, hay cụ thể hơn là Bộ Giáo dục, theo con, các vị bộ trưởng, thứ trưởng giáo dục không phải là nên áp dụng cả bộ sách này, mà là áp dụng cái lối giáo dục của bộ sách này vào giáo dục Việt Nam, bởi vì bây giờ giáo dục Việt Nam con thấy là, con không có tính từ nào khác nên con phải dùng tính từ này, là giáo dục Việt Nam bây giờ con thấy là quá ‘thối nát’ rồi. Mà suốt bao năm qua các vị cải đi, cải lại, cải tiến, cải lùi mà nó vẫn không thay đổi được kết quả gì cả. Nên bây giờ con muốn các vị bộ trưởng, thứ trưởng hãy thay đổi đường lối giáo dục của Việt Nam, có thể theo đường lối của Cánh Buồm cũng được, các vị có thể thay cả bộ sách giáo khoa cũng được. Các vị có thể nói là mất thời gian, nhưng con thấy là thời gian các vị cải tiến, cải lùi còn mất thời gian hơn. Giáo dục Việt Nam không cần cải cách gì nữa, giáo dục Việt Nam cần được cách mạng. Đó mới là điều các vị trong Bộ Giáo dục nên làm. Còn nếu bây giờ các vị không làm thì đến khi nào con thành Bộ trưởng Bộ Giáo dục con sẽ làm." 
Suốt mấy hôm nay trên mạng có rất nhiều ý kiến bình luận, và trong bài viết này tôi muốn tập trung vào 3 vấn đề như sau: 1, tuổi. 2, bằng chứng và trải nghiệm. 3, giải pháp. 
Thứ nhất, chuyện tuổi. Chẳng hạn như bài viết của 1 vị tên Đức Hiển:
Trong đó có các cụm "cậu học trò nhỏ hơn con nhà mình", "trẻ con", "trẻ em", "ông oắt"..., nhấn đi nhấn lại tuổi tác nhiều hơn nội dung câu nói của Tường Minh. Đấy là ageism. Ông Đức Hiển viết "còn quá nhiều điều cậu chưa đủ hiểu để mà nói với nội dung ấy, thái độ ấy" và "không hiểu hết", xin hỏi những điều chưa đủ hiểu là gì? Còn cụm "Nếu đó là suy nghĩ thật của cậu bé", không lẽ 14 tuổi chưa phải là tuổi có thể tự suy nghĩ, tự có kết luận của riêng mình? 
Ở 1 trang khác, tôi thấy có vị tên Pham Tuan viết "Mặc dù cháu bé nói đúng, nhưng không thích vậy và cũng không ủng hộ khi một đứa bé ăn nói như thế. Chắc chắn là phải có người lớn mớm lời đàng sau." 1 vị tên Han Phan viết "Mình cũng thấy thằng nhóc đó nói như bị nhồi sọ, nhưng từ 1 chiều khác." Nếu 14 tuổi chưa phải là tuổi để suy nghĩ độc lập, để có ý kiến riêng, bao giờ là có thể? Nếu các vị không có critical thinking ở tuổi 14, đó là vấn đề của các vị. 
Cái tôi thấy ở đây không phải là độ tuổi của Tường Minh. Nếu người phát biểu học lớp 12, sẽ có người nói chưa lên đại học, chưa "vào đời", biết chi mà nói. Nếu người phát biểu lớn tuổi, sẽ có người bảo không còn đi học, làm sao biết giáo dục cải cách ra sao. Nếu người phát biểu thuộc ngành giáo dục, sẽ có người bảo sao không đóng góp bằng cách của mình. Nếu người phát biểu ngoài ngành giáo dục, sẽ có người nói có hơn được ai không mà chỉ trích. Và sẽ luôn có luận điệu người nói được mớm lời, hoặc nhận tiền nước ngoài, hoặc thuộc đảng Việt Tân, hoặc thất bại trong cuộc sống và đổ lỗi cho nhà nước, v.v... 
Ông Đức Hiển viết: 
"Hãy để cho nó hồn nhiên!Người lớn văn minh nên để trẻ con nó được làm trẻ con!" 
Không, người lớn văn minh nên khuyến khích trẻ em có suy nghĩ riêng và dám nói cái mình nghĩ. Người lớn văn minh nên khuyến khích trẻ em có tinh thần phê phán và quan tâm đến những chuyện ảnh hưởng trực tiếp đến mình như nền giáo dục. Người lớn văn minh nên để trẻ em có tinh thần trách nhiệm và nghĩ đến cái chung. Quan trọng hơn hết, người lớn văn minh nên lắng nghe, tôn trọng và để trẻ em nói, đừng chặn đầu kiểu "con nít thì biết gì". 14 tuổi không phải là con nít. 14 tuổi không phải là tuổi ăn rồi chơi rồi tới lớp bị động giáo viên nói gì nghe nấy. 14 tuổi không phải là tuổi để tất cả mọi chuyện cho người lớn lo, đặc biệt khi người lớn có suy nghĩ và hành xử như ông Đức Hiển. Những người như ông bảo giáo dục VN không thối nát, nhưng đã đưa chính bản thân mình ra làm minh chứng cho sự thối nát của giáo dục VN mà không biết. 
Lớn tuổi hơn không có nghĩa là hiểu biết hơn hay khôn ngoan hơn. Đừng lấy tuổi tác ra để tấn công người khác và cho mình authority. Đừng vì trước kia mình không nghĩ được đến thế, liền kết luận mọi người khác đều như các vị. 
Đó là chuyện tuổi tác. Thứ 2, bằng chứng và trải nghiệm. 1 vị tên Nguyen Nhu Huy có viết ở đây:
Theo Nguyen Nhu Huy, phát ngôn của Tường Minh "thiếu nội dung cụ thể", không xuất phát từ kinh nghiệm và viễn kiến của người nói. Tôi công nhận câu của Tường Minh không có ví dụ cụ thể. 
Thế nhưng vị Nguyen Nhu Huy lại viết: 
"Ở góc độ này, phát biểu của cậu bé lớp 8 trong hội thảo của nhóm Cánh Buồm với tôi cũng khá là khó tin y như khi, giả dụ, tôi được nghe một cậu bé lớp 3 lên đứng trước toàn trường phân tích về tác hại của việc đi bar, uống rượu và tình dục không an toàn, đặc biệt là tình dục tay ba, hay tay tư trở lên." 
Đây là so sánh vừa khập khiễng vừa vô duyên. 1 cậu bé lớp 3 theo lẽ thường đương nhiên không biết về bar, nhưng 1 học sinh lớp 8, đã qua 7 năm của nhà trường VN, không thể nói gì về giáo dục VN? Ai không thấy giáo dục VN có quá nhiều kiến thức chết, đặc biệt trong mấy môn khoa học tự nhiên như toán, lý, hóa, sinh? Ai không thấy trường học tập trung quá ít vào kỹ năng sống? Ai không thấy học sinh VN học môn địa bao nhiêu năm vẫn lờ mờ địa lý thế giới? Ai không thấy môn triết học không dạy gì ngoài Marx-Lenin? Ai không thấy suốt bao nhiêu năm, qua cấp 1, gần hết cấp 2, giờ Anh văn vẫn cứ hello how are you I'm fine thank you and you? Ai không thấy môn sử chỉ vòng đi vòng lại sử cổ đại và sử cách mạng với 1 chút về sử VN thời phong kiến để cuối cùng học sinh không biết lịch sử thế giới như chiến tranh thế giới thứ nhất thứ 2 hay chiến tranh lạnh, cũng lờ mờ lịch sử VN? Ai không thấy môn văn ở VN suốt bao nhiêu năm không cho đọc 1 tiểu thuyết hoàn chỉnh, chỉ thơ, truyện ngắn, và trích đoạn, và giáo viên giảng tác phẩm có nghĩa gì, hiểu ra sao, hay ở đâu, cho học sinh máy móc chép lại và không được viết khác? Ai không thấy ở VN học sinh được dạy nghĩ theo 1 luồng, nói theo 1 lối? Ai không thấy giáo dục VN không khuyến khích critical thinking, không ủng hộ chống lại authority? Ai không thấy chương trình học quá nặng chỉ làm học sinh học vẹt, học tủ, học cho xong kỳ thi để cuối năm trả lại hết cho giáo viên? Ai không thấy tất cả từ trường lớp đến học trò và các bậc phụ huynh đều chạy đua theo thành tích?
Bảo giáo dục VN khiếm khuyết là quá nhẹ, nói thối nát vẫn là nhẹ, nhưng tôi không nghĩ ra từ nào khác nặng hơn. Cải cách với các vị trong Bộ Giáo dục chỉ là bốc kiến thức năm này cắm vào năm khác, hoặc có những thay đổi ngớ ngẩn kiểu đổi chữ e lên đầu bảng chữ cái, đấy không phải là cải cách. Nhưng không chỉ cải cách, giáo dục VN phải thay đổi từ gốc, phải lật đổ tất cả và xây dựng lại từ đầu.
Tường Minh có thể không đưa ra dẫn chứng và kinh nghiệm cụ thể (tôi không nghĩ Tường Minh có thể, trong hoàn cảnh ấy), nhưng Tường Minh có công mở ra 1 cuộc tranh luận. 
Điều thứ 3, giải pháp. Trên báo Thanh niên có 1 bài của 1 vị tên Khánh Hưng:
Trong đó có câu: 
"Rất cần những thế hệ trẻ tâm huyết với nền giáo dục nhưng sự tâm huyết hãy bày tỏ bằng nhiều cách khác nhau, chứ không phải theo cách mà nhiều người lớn hiện nay đang làm là “chửi nền giáo dục nước nhà”." 
Xin hỏi nhiều cách khác nhau là cách gì? 
Nhà văn Trang Hạ cũng nhảy vào góp ý kiến:
"Và điều em gây chú ý nằm ở số tuổi của em chứ không nằm ở nội dung em nói ra. Vì phát biểu của em hết sức chung chung và giáo điều, không đưa ra căn cứ, không giải pháp, không trải nghiệm, nói toàn thứ đã quá thừa người nói trong suốt thời gian qua, và quá thiếu hiệu ích trong xã hội này.Thứ giáo dục Việt Nam đang cần là những chính sách cụ thể với những chuẩn cụ thể. Vì vậy, tôi đồ rằng, nếu trở thành bộ trưởng thực sự trong tương lai, em sẽ là một bộ trưởng thậm chí rất... tệ." 
Nghĩ ra chính sách cụ thể không phải là trách nhiệm của 1 học sinh lớp 8, cô Trang Hạ ạ. 
Cả 2 bài, và 1 số người khác, đều nói thay vì ngồi chửi, phải nghĩ ra giải pháp. Lập luận này có 2 vấn đề. 1, giả sử tôi nói "Các vị ngu xuẩn thế", đấy là chửi. Câu của Tường Minh không phải là chửi. 2, trước khi nói chuyện giải pháp, bước đầu tiên người ta phải thấy có vấn đề. Nếu không ai thấy có vấn đề, làm sao có bước tìm giải pháp? Tường Minh đã làm bước đầu tiên, là nhìn thấy và thừa nhận vấn đề của nền giáo dục VN, việc rất nhiều người, như các vị tôi đề cập, chưa làm được.
Trang Hạ bảo: 
"Bạn làm ơn đừng lớn tiếng phê phán ông Bộ trưởng Bộ Giáo dục và Đào tạo về những thất bại của cuộc đời bạn hay cuộc đời con bạn. Bởi ta là người duy nhất phải chịu trách nhiệm về những vấn đề của cá nhân mình." 
Thế xin hỏi người ta mở trường học ra để làm gì? Người ta đẻ ra Bộ Giáo dục để làm gì? Người ta đóng thuế và đóng học phí để làm gì, nếu nhà trường không thể cung cấp cái học sinh cần và cha mẹ phải lo mọi thứ? Hoặc như cô Trang Hạ nói, "cha mẹ không gì tốt bằng việc tạo điều kiện để các con tự học, tự giáo dục"? Nếu các vị đã nói thế, các vị nên đóng luôn các trường học cho rồi. 
"Tôi không nhìn thấy sự tích cực nào ở trong đấy cả." Vậy thế nào là tích cực? Chỉ nói tốt? Chỉ lo chuyện mình? Giải quyết kiểu các bậc phụ huynh VN lâu nay đang làm là cho con học trường quốc tế hoặc sang thẳng nước ngoài học? Hay cố gắng leo lên chức Bộ trưởng và tìm cách loay hoay trong 1 guồng máy thối nát? Như đã nói, muốn thay đổi trước tiên phải nghĩ cần thay đổi, phải nghĩ có vấn đề, phải phê phán. Nếu tất cả mọi người đều suy nghĩ như cô Trang Hạ, sẽ không bao giờ có cách mạng và sẽ không bao giờ có xã hội nào phát triển. Rất may, không phải ai cũng thế. 
Cuối cùng, cô Trang Hạ nói, "ta là người duy nhất phải chịu trách nhiệm về những vấn đề của cá nhân mình", thế sự thờ ơ, theo chủ nghĩa cá nhân ("Trước tiên chúng ta phải tự tìm giải pháp cho cuộc đời của mình và cho con cái của mình"), cách nhìn hạn hẹp chỉ ở mức độ mỗi con người làm gì (không thấy toàn bộ hệ thống cần phải thay đổi) và thiếu critical thinking của cô là do nền giáo dục hay do cô tự học? 
Đó là sơ sơ vài bình luận trong chuyện Vũ Thạch Tường Minh. 
Riêng với Tường Minh: em nói đúng, chị ủng hộ em. Những người đả kích em, đặc biệt những người đã lớn mà không lớn, em không cần quan tâm. Thế nhé. 

Tuesday 18 August 2015

Nina Auerbach doesn't understand Mansfield Park, and I don't understand her

In my hands right now is Nina Auerbach's Romantic Imprisonment: Women and Other Glorified Outcasts. The chapter that 1st caught my attention was "Jane Austen's Dangerous Charm: Feeling as One Ought About Fanny Price". 
As it turns out, Nina Auerbach does not understand Mansfield Park. Not only does she criticise Fanny for being charmless, unlikeable and passive and not being the kind of heroine that one likes enough to travel with, she even calls her a killjoy ("Fanny's refusal to act is a criticism not just of art, but of life as well") and goes as far as calling her a monster and comparing her to Frankenstein's monster and Dracula. 
I'm terrified, horrified, petrified. 
I'm at a loss for words. 

PS: The last time I stood up for Fanny Price was just in July:
PPS: The name Nina Auerbach is very familiar but I can't recall what exactly I have read by her. Having a vague feeling that she's 1 of those crazy feminist critics like Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar. That seems to be the case. 

Friday 14 August 2015

Henry James's "Daniel Deronda: A Conversation"

A critique of Daniel Deronda in the form of a short story, or rather, a play. 
There are 3 characters. 
Theodora adores George Eliot and says "A book like Daniel Deronda becomes part of one's life; one lives in it or alongside of it" and fervently defends Daniel Deronda
Pulcheria thinks George Eliot is no artist, appreciates Rosamond but doesn't believe in Dorothea, and harshly criticises Daniel Deronda, especially the Jewish plot and the characters in it "I don't see what you mean by saying you have been near those people, that is just what one is not. They produce no illusion. They are described and analyzed to death, but we don't see them or hear them or touch them. [...] They have no existence outside of the author's study". She complains "... what can be drearier than a novel in which the function of the hero- young, handsome, and brilliant- is to give didactic advice, in a proverbial form, to the young, beautiful, and brilliant heroine?". Even Gwendolen is problematic, she finds- "She was an odious young woman, and one can't care what becomes of her. When her marriage turned out ill she would have become still more hard and positive; to make her soft and appealing is very bad logic. The 2nd Gwendolen doesn't belong to the 1st". Pulcheria also says that Daniel Deronda doesn't have a current; it's not a river but a series of lakes. 
Constantius is in the middle, he admires George Eliot, especially her intellect, but also sees her deficiencies, and finds this book very much inferior to Middlemarch
I'm mostly on the side of Constantius and Pulcheria. 1 of the few things in which I disagree with Pulcheria is the depiction of Gwendolen. That's an excellent and well-drawn character. Indeed, it's a weakness that the narrator takes sides and doesn't give us Grandcourt's perspective, which makes him rather shadowy or at least hard to grasp as a character, but reading Daniel Deronda and Middlemarch helps see George Eliot's point about ethics- if there's a bit of conscience, there's a chance for improvement, and there can be improvement only if there's conscience, or to be more precise, the ability to find oneself wrong and feel bad about it. Gwendolen is very similar to Rosamond on the surface, but she isn't Rosamond, and her change is plausible. People are not static, sometimes tragedy brings about a great change in a person- Gwendolen learns through experience the way Dorothea does. That I've discussed before
However, in this story, Henry James does point out lots of problems I have with the novel. Or not only Daniel Deronda but also Middlemarch and Adam Bede, and I suppose other George Eliot novels I'll read in the future. George Eliot's mistake is that she's capable of creating wonderful characters, such as Edward Casaubon, Rosamond Vincy, Tertius Lydgate, Adam Bede, Mrs Poyser, Gwendolen Harleth... but likes to create characters that are ideal and perfect, characters that are embodiments of some ideas, characters that are there to support her didactic purpose. Look at Daniel Deronda, Mirah Lapidoth, Mordecai, Dinah Morris. Even Dorothea Brooke is frustrating in her saintliness, her childlike simplicity, her large heart. I don't demand fictional characters to always be realistic, like human beings- I don't stress on that as a criterion of literary merit, even if I like it. Many of my favourite characters are not realistic and might even be caricatures, like Scrooge in A Christmas Carol, Mrs Norris in Mansfield Park, Mr Fairlie in The Woman in White, Joe in Great Expectations, the characters of Dead Souls, etc. It's just that I like characters to have a vivid existence within the world of the book, and to exist in their own right instead of embodying some ideas or teaching the readers something. You may say that it's not possible to say the characters in Daniel Deronda don't have a vivid existence, because they belong to the Jewish plot, and the Jewish plot is Idealism, as opposed to the Realism of the Gwendolen plot, and the 2 strands of Daniel Deronda are written in different styles, but in Middlemarch and Adam Bede we also find such characters, who are more like ideas than characters. 
As Virginia Woolf puts it: 
"Those who fall foul of George Eliot do so, we incline to think, on account of her heroines; and with good reason; for there is no doubt that they bring out the worst of her, lead her into difficult places, make her self-conscious, didactic, and occasionally vulgar." 
I don't know about her other books, but in all the 3 novels I have read, George Eliot likes to create a heroine that is an image of innocence, purity, nobility, benevolence, universal sympathy, forgiveness, saintliness... To use Jane Austen's words, pictures of perfection make me sick and wicked. It is dull to have a 1-dimensional character when that's an important character (minor/ supporting characters can be 1-dimensional). It is more frustrating when that character is just pure and noble and so good in every way. It spoils the book. 
Another issue, which Henry James doesn't mention, is the intrusive narrator. She takes control over everything, she is always present, she describes, addresses readers, comments on things, takes sides, takes care to make us like the right people, she never goes away. Readers have to adapt. 
Reading George Eliot takes efforts, appreciating her works requires readers to get accustomed to, and accept, the ever-present and moralistic narrator and the perfect, saintly heroes and heroines. Once one can get past the feeling of annoyance and accept these things as part of her art, one can recognise her formidable intellect and deep sensibilities and wisdom as well as her greatness as a writer. 

Thursday 13 August 2015

Barbara Hardy's The Appropriate Form: on the Casaubons and the Chatterleys

In The Appropriate Form, Barbara Hardy makes an interesting comparison between Middlemarch and Lady Chatterley's Lover. I didn't see that before. Edward Casaubon and Clifford Chatterley are both images of impotence and sterility. Will Ladislaw and Mellors are the Outsiders, the Noble savages, the Rescuers.
In the chapter on Middlemarch, Hardy criticises George Eliot for her reticence and depiction of Dorothea's relation with the the shadowy Will, which she calls a psychological and structural flaw. "Ladislaw is presented in terms of sensibility, not sensuality" and in Middlemarch, sensibility acts as a surrogate for sensuality. It is unsatisfying. Hardy also refers to James's complaint about Ladislaw's "insubstantial character".
However, after contrasting George Eliot's reticent treatment of sex with D. H. Lawrence's sexual frankness and discussing its problems, Hardy goes on, in another chapter, to point out Lawrence's deficiencies.
"If George Eliot failed to complete the antithesis required in Middlemarch, Lawrence in his version of the fable made too neat an antithesis. Casaubon is a symbolic cluster, but seen from the inside, created out of compassion, and demanding sympathy."
"is not presented in an entirely unsympathetic way, for Lawrence speaks of the slow effect of his wounds, and feels for him as a hurt man, a victim of war and society. But he rapidly becomes an assembly of symbolic parts [...] We do not feel that he is influenced by his values but that he is his values. All his actions are marked by the same denigratory symbolic features: his theoretical and practical attitude to machines, to class, to 'his' trees, to Connie, to her possible child as 'his' heir, to sex, to culture, and to nature."
He lacks an individuality.
"What the novel leaves out is just what Middlemarch puts in, the sense of the individual which makes the eternal triangle much more than a diagram of value. [...] Sir Clifford's character is so constructed as to make it a virtue for Connie to leave him, and this appears to be a simplified departure from probability. [...] Mellors sneers contemptuously, to Sir Clifford's face, about his impotence. Admittedly, he is injured and goaded, but one would prefer the lover to be at least embarrassed by his rival's impotence. [...] Mellors can hurl insults and Connie feel little conflict because Sir Clifford is conceptually rather than individually constructed and provokes or even demands reactions which would not arise in a comparable human situation."
Hardy compares the 2 books:
"... it is interesting to put him beside Casaubon, a character similar in values but nevertheless endowed with individuality, and an internal presence, to both of which we respond with sympathy, and which make his moral implication all the more frightening. [...] Ladislaw's lack of sexuality makes him less plausible as an individual character and less effective as a carrier of meaning. Sir Clifford is a clear enough thematic character but lacks the particularity which animates the rest of the novel. He is an extreme instance of a novelist's failure to animate the resistant material of strong feeling and confident belief and inform the characters of fiction with particularity and truth."
Again, I agree. That schematism is a weakness. I found myself continually nodding in agreement with Barbara Hardy throughout my reading. Casaubon is a brilliant, vividly depicted and complex character, 1 of the major achievements of Middlemarch and 1 of the greatest characters in literature. Next to him, Clifford seems hollow, without depth, less like a human being and more like a type, a representation of values Lawrence abhors. 
However, I now find it curious that Hardy writes about Lawrence's schematism and Charlotte Bronte's dogmatism (in Jane Eyre), but doesn't discuss George Eliot's moralism and didacticism. 

The Appropriate Form: An Essay on the Novel by Barbara Hardy

In this book, Barbara Hardy explores the variety of narrative form and compares the styles and standards of different writers- schematism vs naturalness, truthfulness; the economy, symmetry and stress on total relevance of Henry James vs the largeness, looseness of George Eliot and Tolstoy. The word "truthfulness", which she chooses instead of "realism", is "suggestive both of a satisfactory of experience into art and of an honest and sensitive recognition of facts and feelings often evaded and avoided in life, not merely in art". It is constantly used throughout the book. "If the concept of form is to be used faithfully and usefully it must be enlarged to include the individual life which is the breath of fiction and of a real response to fiction".
The 1st chapter is focused on Henry James.
"Henry James is almost always telling a single story, while Dickens and George Eliot and Tolstoy are telling several. This simple difference of scope and quantity determines many differences of form, and should not be neglected, though it is by no means the most interesting difference between James's concentrated narrative and the expansive novels of the great Victorians. What distinguishes the Jamesian novel from its large loose baggy contemporaries is the special relation of its parts to the whole."
Economy, symmetry, total relevance, concentration, condensation, aesthetic selection- these words are attached to James's art.
"There is no free observation in the concentrated Jamesian novel. The observer himself is never free to be a mere recorder, but is always using the external appearances in order to pick up cues and clues. James gives us a dramatically enclosed and self-contained world where everything has relevance to the main argument, gestures, objects, images, conversation, all shoot out like sure arrows to the heart of the matter."
Everything contributes to the main action and argument, nothing is lost, which sounds like Chekhov's gun. Hardy compares him to Tolstoy, who "has a remarkable capacity for filling the novel with scenes which lie right outside the tensions of plot, corresponding most closely with the normal pace of life, not shaped by the climactic curves leading to crises and conclusions". She quotes James:
"What is character but the determination of incident? What is incident but the illustration of character?"
This insistent condensation Hardy attributes to James's interest in the theatre- "this kind of condensation of scene and symbol is something we find more often in the drama than in fiction", because the novel isn't restricted in time like a play and we can always turn back its pages. James "achieves the concentration of appearances and larger meanings, the concentration of narration and action within character, and [...] the concentration of past and future in the present tense."
Chapter 2 is focused on the same author. However, if earlier Hardy only describes James's aesthetics and art, in this chapter she points to the disadvantages and dangers of his approach to literature. In the introduction, she already notes that most critics responding to James's indictment of Tolstoy's novels insist that "the large loose baggy monster has unity, has symbolic concentration, has patterns of imagery and a thematic construction of character", i.e. defend Tolstoy by using the Jamesian standards, whereas she argues that the expansive novels of Tolstoy and George Eliot are indeed large and loose but that has its own advantages. In chapter 2, and later in the chapters on George Eliot and Tolstoy, she elaborates on this point and shows her priority or preference. 1st, the largeness and looseness of the expansive novels allows "the novelist to report truthfully and fully the quality of the individual moment, the loose end, the doubt and contradiction and mutability". 2nd, George Eliot, Dickens and especially Tolstoy refuse to "discriminate between characters who are major and those who are minor terms". They create "a world composed of individual lives, not of manipulated agents". James's minor characters "do not have a full weight of substantial life behind them" and if this is economy and Varenka in Anna Karenina is 'waste' then economy can be mean and waste generous. "Tolstoy's creation of this dense population of characters who have no grotesque definition and often no obvious function, whose lives impinge naturally and sporadically on the destinies of the main characters, is an essential part of his admirable freedom of what James calls his 'waste'." 3rd, James's aesthetic obsession often betrays itself, and in his conclusions, "the expense of truth shows itself in the final symmetry or completion". 4th, in Tolstoy's novels, objects and events exist in themselves rather than act as "transparent windows for the main relationships of the action". If for symmetry and economy everything in Henry James contributes to the main action, and everything in D. H. Lawrence has symbolic meaning and contributes to the main scheme, in Tolstoy, he recognises emotional complexity and prioritises truthfulness; he, for example, shows natural phenomena "in their own vivid right, unmoved by the demands of story and emotion" and the phenomena "never become mere dramatic properties".
In the last chapter, on Anna Karenina, Barbara Hardy praises Tolstoy's naturalness and lack of contrivance. Comparing him to George Eliot and Henry James, she argues that there are no crises of chance and very few crises of moral decision in the novel. "These crises determine the developmental structure of the novels, and they themselves are determined by the moral categories which George Eliot and James set up, and by the generalisation which emerges from these categories". In the works of these 2 authors, for all the subtlety of their particulars, there is still a basic division, and we can categorise characters by applying a fundamental test- "are the people acting from self-interest or from love?". We cannot do the same for Tolstoy's characters, they're too complex, too inconsistent and self-contradictory and multi-faceted. Because of the absence of (this kind of) categories, we "see a slow accumulation of events, not a succession of moral crises". Hardy remarks, "Tolstoy gives us characters whose destinies are less plainly determined by actual choice, and where there is decision it is underplayed or strung out in time. The moment of choice is not isolated". 
In addition, "[t]he segregation of characters into moral categories appears in novels where part of the interest- and a very important part- depends on the movement of some characters from 1 category into another". In Dickens and George Eliot and Jane Austen, "the novel hinges on a central moral conversion". In contrast, "Tolstoy shows moral change as momentary and sporadic, not as part of a clear pattern of improvement or deterioration". 
Even though several times in the book Barbara Hardy shows awareness of the problems of comparison and says that we can recognise different kinds of triumph, it becomes clearer and clearer in the last chapter that she has more admiration for Tolstoy than the other writers discussed in the book. She stresses on the naturalness of his books- "technical device never distorts character and action, by omission or stereotype, and seldom gives that heightened and poetic halo which cannot be appraised by realistic standards". James demands antitheses to be direct and complete; that obviousness can be seen in his works and also in George Eliot and Dickens, whereas in Tolstoy, who of course contrives and organises, the contrivance is very muted. In the end, the ending of Anna Karenina is "a faithful record of the abrupt, the difficult, the inconclusive". 

A good, enjoyable book (probably partly because I agree with many things she says). I recommend it. 

Tuesday 11 August 2015

Dracula: The ending

Yesterday I lost lots of blood. Had a tiny accident at work and there was blood everywhere, on the table, on the sink, in the kit box, all over all of my plasters- it was a deep cut, the blood kept flowing and flowing and flowing with no sign of stopping until I covered it up.
Dracula would have liked it.
There was also another kind of bleeding.
I finished reading Dracula late last night. Still puzzled by Bram Stoker's novel, especially the last page. Questions: Why is the Count not there for most of the book? Does anyone else feel bothered by the way Arthur is often off-stage when many significant things happen, especially those involving Lucy? Is it just me or Quincey Morris seems like a superfluous character? How should we feel about him? And his death? How are we to interpret the lines "It is an added joy to Mina and to me that our boy's birthday is the same day as that on which Quincey Morris died" and "His mother holds, I know, the secret belief that some of our brave friend's spirit has passed into him", when we know that it's also the day Count Dracula dies? Why does the book end with Van Helsing's talk about Mina Harker and about "how some men so loved her, that they did dare much for her sake"? What's the meaning of the men's devotion to Lucy and, later, to Mina? What's up with number 3, in 3 female vampires and 3 male suitors? There must be a deliberate parallel between the devotion to goodness (Lucy, Mina, humanity) and to evil (Dracula, vampires, blood-sucking), between voluntary and involuntary devotion.
Maud Ellmann's introduction is quite interesting. She mentions and discusses several different readings, and sums up in the last paragraph: 
"... Dracula has been interpreted as a figure for perversion, menstruation, venereal disease, female sexuality, male homosexuality, feudal aristocracy, monopoly capitalism, the proletariat, the Jew, the primal father, the Antichrist, and the typewriter..." 
Each interpretation has nice arguments, but I don't find any of them strongly convincing. Have to think more about it. 

Sunday 9 August 2015

Dracula: the character and the book

Dracula: The character's bigger than the book. I'm not referring to the classic-ness of the book or its significance; I'm not thinking of all those adaptations and sequels, prequels, spin-offs and comic books and video games and Halloween costumes and references in popular culture nor the whole vampire subculture the book inspired.
What I mean is something else. If you think about it, the Count is barely there, in the book. He appears the 1st time on page 10, but doesn't come forward as Count Dracula until page 16. This is Jonathan Harker's journal- Jonathan and we, readers, are with him until page 52 (the 1st part of the journal ends on page 53, followed by Mina's letter to Lucy). From then on, Dracula's barely in the foreground. He rarely appears, and each time it's very brief- sucking Lucy's blood, passing by and being seen by the Harkers, attacking Mina, controlling Renfield... His depiction is built on the things that suggest his presence (e.g. wolves, bats, boxes, etc.), the things that he affects/ ruins/ destroys (e.g. Renfield, Lucy, Mina, etc.) and the things that show people's terror (e.g. the cross, the crucifix, etc.). In addition is Van Helsing's telling of the myth about vampires and the Draculas. The character's almost always in the background though the name's almost always in the foreground- people think about him, talk about him, tell each other about him and plan to kill him. The book is an elaboration of the vampire myth, and a creation of the Dracula myth. The Count is in a sense outside the book, bigger than it and beyond it.
And of courses afterwards the character gets larger and larger and a lot larger beyond Bram Stoker's novel. That's apparently the highest achievement of the book. 

I'm on page 327. The story will end on page 378. The Count just had a brief appearance and has gone again. 

Thursday 6 August 2015

Reading Dracula with distance

Why am I reading Dracula when the horror genre isn't my thing? 
The same way I can't help comparing her to Tolstoy, Flaubert and Jane Austen when reading George Eliot, I've been silently making comparisons between Bram Stoker and Robert Louis Stevenson, Mary Shelley and Wilkie Collins. Dracula is a classic, sure, but is it serious literature? Never mind. That's probably the wrong question. What matters is that I don't think it's on par with Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, which is a brilliantly written, perfectly controlled and tightly packed work or art, and Frankenstein, which is a fascinating and marvellously rich novel of ideas. I don't mean that Dracula is bad, but I see it as a story, or an elaboration of a myth, more than as a work of art. For example, think about the epistolary form. Dracula is made up of not only journals and letters (traditional in novels) but, as written in the introduction, also "memorandums, telegrams, title-deeds of property, railway timetables, dictionaries, newspaper cuttings, monumental inscriptions, notebooks, phonologically recorded case-notes of psychiatry, and a ship's log translated from the Russian"*. That is very interesting, but I'm afraid that Bram Stoker hasn't made use of all the potential of the form. 1st, I haven't seen any unreliable narrator. 2nd, this can be a means of characterisation. In The Moonstone, Wilkie Collins exploits the form for the creation and depiction of 2 of the most fascinating characters in literature- Gabriel Betteredge and Miss Clack; in The Woman in White, it's Count Fosco and Mr Fairlie. In Dracula, the characters' voices are not very distinctive and distinguishable. 3rd, there's no clash of perspectives. We all know that in life the same thing is seen and experienced differently by different people, and sometimes 2 versions of the same incident can be different beyond recognition. There's no such obvious conflict in Dracula, at least not yet. 
Should I read faster and consume it whole instead of taking it slowly and critically? No, perhaps I shouldn't speed up- I'm highly unlikely to read the book again. 
At the moment I find myself more fascinated by Renfield than by the Count and his prey and his hunters. Renfield's the most intriguing, colourful and mysterious character in the novel. 

*: written by Maud Ellmann. 

Sunday 2 August 2015

Top 10 "Are we reading the same book?" moments

i.e. those moments when I don't understand how some readers interpret a book in a certain way or why they see or don't see certain things in it.

1/ What do you mean Fanny Price should marry Henry Crawford and Edmund Bertram should marry Mary? And you call yourself a Janeite?* 
2/ Heathcliff is a romantic hero and Wuthering Heights is a beautiful love story? What's wrong with you?
3/ You think Mr Darcy is charming? Have you read the book? It's Colin Firth that you're thinking of.
4/ Do you seriously think Madame Bovary is a feminist book and Emma Bovary is a strong, independent, admirable woman who breaks out of conventions and defies public opinion to live for love? 
5/ How is it possible that you regard Rosamond Vincy as a study of female rebellion and criticise Lydgate for not taking her advice?**
6/ Marian Halcombe is a strong, independent and intelligent woman and a great, interesting character? Are you joking?***
7/ Have you read Lolita before calling it a child abuse manual?
8/ Why does the portrayal of Homais in Madame Bovary mean that Flaubert's against science?
9/ How can you not see that Frankenstein's experiment isn't a failed experiment?

The 10th spot is left empty. Your thoughts, please. 

*: All of my posts about Mansfield Park are collected here
**: Discussed here
***: Discussed here, here, here and here

Scattered thoughts on Dracula, on the plot, devices, character types, parallels

In Dracula, everyone keeps notes of some sort (mostly journals) and nobody tells anybody anything. The plot of Dracula depends on the characters' silence, or to be precise, their decision to keep information to themselves; especially the 2 persons who know the most, Jonathan Harker and Dr Van Helsing. Their refusal to share information and warn others, similar to Frankenstein's, is necessary for the plot. Bram Stoker needs some other tools to keep the story going. We have Lucy Westenra, who sleepwalks and falls victim to we-know-what. A pure woman, perfect according to Victorian standards, she's reminiscent of Laura Fairlie in The Woman in White. Then we have Mrs Westenra, the silly woman who means well but ruins everything, like Mrs Michelson and Mrs Clements in The Woman in White
On page 136. Will write more later, I'm trying to put together some pieces. Perhaps Lucy isn't so pure and lovely after all- she studies her own face, and when telling Mina about her 3 proposals in 1 day, she asks "Why can't they let a girl marry 3 men, or as many as want her, and save all this trouble?". 
If we ignore the way the people in Dracula have blood transfusions without regard to blood type, there is something quite erotic, in Bram Stoker's description, about the men giving blood to the woman they love. 
Also, I wonder if there's any significant parallel between Lucy and the 3 suitors, and Jonathan and the 3 female vampires in Dracula's castle.