Sunday 29 December 2019

A call to be more humble

25 most hated classic books, 10 “great” books best left unread, 5 classic novels not worth the time it takes to read them, 10 most overrated classics, 15 books we give you permission not to read, etc. etc. The internet can often be a depressing place for (serious) literature lovers. I keep coming across such lists.  
What, after all, is the point of these lists? Only to voice opinions? To express hatred of books? Or to find other people who also hate them as you do, and feel that if you’re not alone, you can’t be mistaken? 
Whenever I see someone denigrate a book that is 100 years old or more, and scornfully call it bad, boring, and overrated, I can’t help wondering why they can’t be a bit more, you know, humble. I wonder why they don’t think, perhaps I approach the book the wrong way, perhaps I dismiss the author for not doing something but they were trying to do something else, perhaps I fail to see the literary merit of the book and should try harder, or perhaps it has some value I can’t quite see but it’s just not my thing. I wonder why they don’t ask themselves, why is the book still read over 100 years later, what am I missing. 
When it comes to films, it can be difficult because cinema, compared to everything else, is a very young art (cinema also has the misfortune of depending on technology, which has been developed rapidly and can easily make a work appear dated and fake, especially to someone not used to it and not willing to embrace it). In literature, it’s easier to see when a book has stood the test of time.   
When I first read Jane Austen, it was Emma, and I hated it. I didn’t understand why she was so popular, and so highly acclaimed. But the book’s 200 years old. The film adaptations may explain Jane Austen’s place in popular culture, but not her place in the Western canon, nor the high esteem among critics and writers. The assignment of her books at schools and universities in English-speaking countries can’t explain her reputation outside the West—around the world. I didn’t understand the praises, so I persevered—I read Jane Austen’s other works, and reread Emma, and then realised that I had been approaching Emma the wrong way, reading it with the wrong mindset. I started to see her brilliance, subtlety, and depth. I used to hate Jane Austen and dismissed her as the mother of chicklit, like lots of people do, today she’s my favourite female writer. 
Of course, not all writers I initially don’t like end up becoming favourites. I still struggle with Henry James. I have reservations against Charlotte Bronte, and doubt I can ever warm to George Eliot. People do have personal taste. 
However, people should look beyond personal taste. There is a difference between enjoying a book and recognising its literary merit—you may find a book boring, challenging, or difficult to get through, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s a bad book. People should also expand and develop their taste—after all, taste is not immutable, at 25 you don’t like many of the things you loved at 15, then at 35 you come to like different things. 
Some books need a different approach. Some books demand rereading. Some books require readers to throw away their preconceptions about what a book should do, and go along with it. Some books demand readers to work harder and look deeper. But in the end, they’re also more rewarding. 
I’m not saying that we have to like everything in the canon, I’m not saying that we have to follow literary critics (they don’t even agree with each other). But as I said, there’s a difference between liking a book and recognising its literary qualities, just as there’s a difference between calling something a bad book and recognising that it’s just not your thing. Some humility would be good. 
I’ve seen it all the time, but it still surprises me to see people use words such as “awful” and “shitty” and “trash” for canonical works, or scornfully dismiss influential, widely acclaimed and recognised authors as talentless hacks. Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights are called upmarket Twilight, Jane Austen’s seen as mother of chicklit, Charles Dickens’s books are described as soapy and sentimental, Tolstoy and Melville join each other over and over again in lists of books best left unread, and so on and so forth. 
To me, Tolstoy and Melville are giants, towering above almost everyone else in literature*—when facing Anna Karenina, War and Peace, or Moby Dick, I’m overwhelmed, I’m in awe of their genius. When I see a reader express not only dislike but also disdain towards them, part of me is amused—these books need no defence. But at the same time, I’m appalled at the arrogance. 
Why do these readers not entertain the thought that maybe they’re missing something? 
One day you and I will be gone. But Melville and Tolstoy and many of these so-called overrated writers will stay, they will outlive us all.

* addendum in 10/2021: that was me, in 2019, being a fangirl. In 2021, I'd say Shakespeare and Tolstoy, but you get the idea. 

Saturday 28 December 2019

The form of No Name

1/ If you place lots of importance on the social/ political aspect of a novel, No Name is interesting in its examination of stupid inheritance laws in England in the 19th century. I didn’t know these things before reading the book. 
The more interesting part, I find, is that Wilkie Collins creates 2 sisters, Norah and Magdalene, who are very different in personality and temperament, and thereby shows 2 different paths, 2 different responses to the same situation. 

2/ This is not a new observation, but in No Name, Wilkie Collins plays with perspective nicely by switching between the 3rd person omniscient and the 1st person narrator in epistolary form. 
The book is divided into Scenes, each of which has several chapters set mainly in 1 location, told by the 3rd person omniscient narrator, then followed by several documents such as letters, journal entries…, which tell the story from the 1st person point of view.   
This is an ingenious and effective device, especially effective for a mystery and suspense book such as No Name. For example, at the end of Scene 1, when Magdalene disappears, the documents show the events from the limited perspective of the lawyer Mr Pendril and the detectives (which is also the perspective of Norah and Miss Garth), and make readers speculate about what happens, especially when they receive an anonymous letter from a man telling them to drop the pointless search. Which man can it be? Then Collins brings us to Scene 2 and goes back in time to narrate the events from the objective point of view, revealing the truth. 
My only complaint is that I feel Collins doesn’t employ the device to the full—think of the colourful Count Fosco in The Woman in White, and the fascinating Gabriel Betteredge and the unforgettable Miss Clark in The Moonstone, then look again at Captain Wragge’s journal and see how dull it is. From afar (I mean, when the story was in 3rd person), I was expecting a lot more. 
That being said, No Name is very enjoyable. Wilkie Collins is master at keeping readers hooked. 
I don’t know how readers coped with impatience when the book was originally serialised.

Thursday 26 December 2019

Random musings on No Name

1/ Can anyone read the scene of private theatricals in No Name without thinking about Mansfield Park? The concern is the same, Norah Vanstone is on the same side as Jane Austen’s Fanny Price—amateur acting may encourage flirting and intimacy between young people, which is inappropriate. 
Here’s a funny bit, between Magdalen Vanstone and Frank, or Francis Clare: 
“… “It’s a compliment, I know, to be asked to act,” said Frank, in great embarrassment. “But I hope you and Miss Marrable will excuse me—”
“Certainly not. Miss Marrable and I are both remarkable for the firmness of our characters. When we say Mr. So-and-So is positively to act the part of Falkland, we positively mean it. Come in and be introduced.”
“But I never tried to act. I don’t know how.”
“Not of the slightest consequence. If you don’t know how, come to me and I’ll teach you.”
“You!” exclaimed Mr. Vanstone. “What do you know about it?”
“Pray, papa, be serious! I have the strongest internal conviction that I could act every character in the play—Falkland included. Don’t let me have to speak a second time, Frank. Come and be introduced.”” (S.1, Ch.4)   
As someone who was forced to act to fill a role (in my graduation film), I must say that is cute. The experience was mortifying—now that I’ve had the experience of being before the camera, I’ve understood the vulnerability of actors. 
Acting before a live audience is even worse. 

2/ Mr Clare, father of Frank and neighbour of the Vanstones, is an interesting character. He despises his own children, especially Frank, and wants them to fail just to be proven right. 
Sounds familiar. Did Wilkie Collins read Washington Square
Except that No Name was published in 1862, and Henry James’s book in 1880. Never mind. 

3/ No Name is about the story of the 2 Vanstone sisters, Norah and Magdalene, who become disinherited because of illegitimacy and some stupid laws. 
The question of supreme importance is: how much should each of the sisters get, if not for the unfortunate circumstances, and how much does each sister actually get from their cruel uncle Michael Vanstone?   
The amounts are, the book says, £40,000 (Mr Andrew Vanstone’s total fortune is £80,000) and £100, respectively. 
But what does that mean? 
The year in the story is 1846. I’ve just used an inflation calculator, and if it’s to be trusted (it’s the website of Bank of England), in 2018 each of the sisters would be entitled to about £4,580,618 and the amount the uncle offers each of them would be equivalent to £11,451. 
For context, the national minimum wage in the UK for over 25s is £8.21, so if we make it simple by assuming that someone works for 40 hours/ week, the annual salary would be £17,076 before tax. You might want to know the amount after tax, but there are lots of factors involved and the calculation is not perfect, especially over such a long period of time, so there’s no need to pretend to be exact—this, I think, is enough to get an idea of the money in No Name.

Late celebration of Melville’s 200

I’ve just realised that I didn’t write a word on this blog when it was Herman Melville’s 200th birthday in August this year. Shocking, I know. 
But I shall not write about Moby Dick. It is no wonder that Moby Dick overshadows everything else—it is a phenomenal book, it is a book borne out of genius and madness, and there’s nothing else like it. But I do wish that people know more about Melville’s other works. 
I’m starting to think that maybe the best form for Melville was the novella or short story, not the novel. Well, depends on what “best” means, you say. Or even, what “good” means. But then Moby Dick isn’t even a novel. Is White-Jacket? The Confidence-Man definitely isn’t. 
After Typee and Omoo, Melville changed—he got inspired and found his own style, and made his 1st attempt of a Melvillesque book with Mardi, which was a failure, a crazy, confusing mess of a book. Then he wrote 2 books for money, Redburn and White-Jacket, before embarking on Moby Dick. If Redburn was more about the story, the adventures and development of the main character, and White-Jacket leant more toward journalistic and expository writing, examining life, rules, and hierarchy on a Navy ship, Moby Dick was where Melville found the perfect balance between the story and the expository, and reached the peak of his genius. After Moby Dick, Melville experimented again with the form and explored the possibilities of “the novel”, in Pierre: or the Ambiguities, Israel Potter, and The Confidence-Man, but failed and failed, and never again achieved the greatness of Moby Dick. Melville was called crazy. 
Don’t take that too seriously, by the way, I’m basing most of it on hearsay. Out of those big baggy books, the ones I’ve read so far are White-Jacket and The Confidence-Man.    
Anyway, after Moby Dick, Melville’s best works are his novellas and short stories—let’s call them all short stories for convenience. Some of them are perfection, and the best are the 3Bs, and “The Encantadas”. 
The 3Bs are what to go for if you want “pure fiction”: “Benito Cereno”, “Billy Budd”, and “Bartleby”.  
“Billy Budd, Sailor” comprises of 2 parts. The 1st part is an examination of envy. The 2nd part is an examination of the law, specifically the court-martial. It is a rich work, and readers of “Billy Budd” fall into 2 camps surrounding the character of Vere—is he a good man trapped by a bad law, or is he a tyrant, acting as witness, prosecutor, judge, and executioner? 
“Benito Cereno” is also a complex work, and readers fall into 2 camps—is it a portrait of human depravity, or a condemnation of slavery? In both “Billy Budd” and “Benito Cereno”, Melville touches on the theme of innocence and the inability to recognise evil, but in the latter, he goes further, and tells the story from the perspective of a character who misunderstands and misinterprets everything he sees.   
“Billy Budd” and “Benito Cereno” are perfect, they are well-written, tightly structured, and full of meaning.    
The 3rd B is “Bartleby, the Scriver”. I want to give higher praise to “Benito Cereno” and “Billy Budd” because they’re more neglected whereas “Bartleby” is Melville’s most widely taught and read work, but it is for a reason—it is Melville’s finest short story. Bartleby has escaped Melville’s story and become a concept in popular culture, as a worker who refuses to work and responds to everything with “I would prefer not to”. “Bartleby” has layers and layers of meaning, it can be approached from different angles and interpreted in multiple ways—Marxist/ social, philosophical, psychological, autobiographical, etc. Like Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis”, “Bartleby” is rich and elusive, and cannot be pinned down—no single interpretation can be seen as definitive. Rereading gives more clues and leads to more questions, instead of providing with an answer. 
In that sense, “Bartleby” is like Moby Dick. Perhaps the only meaning is that there is no meaning. 
Readers who don’t like the bagginess of Moby Dick*, or love Moby Dick but don’t like the confusion and madness of Melville’s long works should read his short stories, especially the 3Bs. 
What about “The Encantadas” then, you say. I mentioned it as one of Melville’s best works after Moby Dick. “The Encantadas, or Enchanted Isles” is made up of 10 sketches about the Galapagos Islands, and is compared to Melville’s early travel writings, but I think in a few ways, it’s the closest thing to Moby Dick, in the short form. The blend of fact and fiction, the vividness of detail and richness of language, the hyperbole and mock-heroic prose, the rich symbolism, the way Melville turns the most ordinary and mundane things in nature into something philosophical, that you find in Moby Dick can all be found in “The Encantadas”—just replace whales with tortoises. Like Moby Dick, it has genius fused with madness. 
I haven’t done these works any justice. I’m often in awe when it comes to Melville**. 
Happy Melville bicentennial! 

*: I refuse to say digressions. Digressions from what? The story? Moby Dick is not about the story. 
**: Here are my past writings about these works: 
“Benito Cereno”: 
“Billy Budd”: 
“The Encantadas”:

Monday 23 December 2019

2010- 2019 in books [updated]

Soon we will enter the 2020s, so let’s talk about our reading over the past decade, shall we?  
1/ I came to Norway in 2009—before this, I only read literature in Vietnamese. Slowly I started to switch, and now read almost exclusively in English. 

2/ My years in Norway, 2009-2016, especially after I entered University of Oslo in 2012, will without doubt be seen as my formative years in reading.
(I will, forever, be grateful to HumSam-bibliotek of University of Oslo, and Deichmanske bibliotek—Oslo public library). 

3/ My favourite writers are: Lev Tolstoy, Jane Austen, Vladimir Nabokov, Herman Melville, and Gustave Flaubert. 
I also like: the Bronte sisters, especially Emily Bronte, Charles Dickens, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Nikolai Gogol, Anton Chekhov, Robert Louis Stevenson, Lewis Carroll, Toni Morrison, William Faulkner, P. G. Wodehouse… 
George Eliot is a great writer I have immense respect for but don’t love. Henry James is another I struggled quite a lot with, but I’m warming to his works. 

4/ I started to have a love for literature in the English language at the IB (International Baccalaureate). 
However, most of my favourite writers from this period I’m now indifferent to: F. Scott Fitzgerald, J. D. Salinger, Milan Kundera, Franz Kafka, George Orwell, Isabel Allende…  

5/ I discovered Nabokov and Tolstoy in 2012, Jane Austen in 2013, and Melville in 2016 (before coming to the UK). 

6/ I love British literature and Russian literature. 
The most important reading challenge I did on this blog was Russian Literature Challenge in 2014. Here’s the wrap-up:

7/ Here are some top 10 lists about books, from 2016:
The list of favourite books is now different (what do you expect? It’s been 3 years!), but the other lists remain more or less the same. 

8/ My new list of 10 favourite novels: 
Anna Karenina by Lev Tolstoy
War and Peace by Lev Tolstoy
Moby Dick by Herman Melville
Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
Mansfield Park by Jane Austen
Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte 
Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert 
Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier 
Little Dorrit by Charles Dickens 
The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner 

9/ My favourite Jane Austen novel is her least popular and most misunderstood work, Mansfield Park
This is a book about which I often fight with people. The blog post above is a collection of my writings and arguments about Mansfield Park, from 2014 and before. 
I wrote a bit about Mansfield Park on Jane Austen’s 244th birthday: 

10/ Another novel about which I also often fight with people is Lolita. Here are my final arguments when I reread the book in 2017:
I also wrote about motifs in Lolita that I didn’t notice earlier, such as: 
Birds and butterflies:
In 2019, I read The Enchanter, which is known as the proto-Lolita, and compared the 2 here:
Also, if anyone accuses Nabokov of plagiarising Henz von Lichberg’s short story, here’s my response: 

11/ On my blog, the label “writers and readers” is devoted to discussing the art of reading, good readers vs bad readers. 
Some important posts are: 
Nabokov, as you can see, has huge influence on my thinking and reading. 
Also, this is a post about top 10 “Are we reading the same book?” moments: 

12/ I have written a few times about feminist literary criticism, especially The Madwoman in the Attic:

13/ 1 of my best series on my blog is about George Eliot’s Middlemarch: 

14/ Another good series is about Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady: 

15/ Here’s my series about Charles Dickens’s Little Dorrit, from earlier this year: 

16/ I think my recent series about Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca is not bad. 
However, I’ve noticed that I’ve not written any good series of blog posts at all about Tolstoy or Jane Austen or Melville. 

17/ Here I explain why I don’t use the star rating system: 

18/ To lots of people, 2010- 2019 is just another decade, but to me, it has been an important decade: I read a lot more than before, switched to reading in English, discovered Russian literature, discovered writers who shaped my taste and thinking and who would most likely remain in my personal canon, learnt to read a literary work, learnt to analyse and write about it, shaped my views and aesthetics in literature, got a degree in language and literature, created a blog that focused mostly on literature, and got blogger friends. 
Here’s to another good decade in reading!


In the earlier version of this post, I didn’t link to any of my writings about Moby Dick, because at the time of reading and writing about the book, I was in awe and had nothing intelligent to say. The posts were more like notes for myself than finished and polished blog posts to share with the world. However, it’s not really fair to go on and on about Lolita and Mansfield Park but not say a word about Moby Dick, a book of genius, a book that I’m sure will always remain in my top 3 (together with Anna Karenina and War and Peace). 
Here’s a blog post in which I stated why Moby Dick is a book about everything:
Some of my posts were about the whale chapters:
My view regarding Moby Dick is an “extreme” view: the book is perfect as it is and does not “need an editor”; it is several books in one, it is about everything, and therefore it is the way it should be; readers should not skip the whale chapters and should not read for only the story, but should read Moby Dick with the right mindset, i.e. with curiosity and a sense of wonder; an abridged War and Peace might still be War and Peace, but an abridged Moby Dick is not Moby Dick.
When will I again experience the aesthetic bliss of reading something incredible like Anna Karenina or Moby Dick?

Friday 20 December 2019

Why Rebecca is a brilliant book

No spoilers. 
1/ Rebecca is interesting from the premise: a young, naïve, inexperienced, and socially awkward woman marries a rich widower twice her age and moves to his mansion Manderley, only to find the phantom of his previous wife Rebecca in every corner of the house, and find herself inferior to Rebecca in every way. 
But it’s not only about the premise, the execution is very good. Look at this passage for example: 
“She was in the house still, as Mrs. Danvers had said; she was in that room in the west wing, she was in the library, in the morning room, in the gallery above the hall. Even in the little flower room, where her mackintosh still hung. And in the garden, and in the woods, and down in the stone cottage on the beach. Her footsteps sounded in the corridors, her scent lingered on the stairs. The servants obeyed her orders still, the food we ate was the food she liked. Her favorite flowers filled the rooms. Her clothes were in the wardrobes in her room, her brushes were on the table, her shoes beneath the chair, her nightdress on her bed. Rebecca was still mistress of Manderley. Rebecca was still Mrs. de Winter. I had no business here at all. I had come blundering like a poor fool on ground that was preserved. 
[…] Rebecca, always Rebecca. I should never be rid of Rebecca.
[…] I could fight the living but I could not fight the dead. If there was some woman in London that Maxim loved, someone he wrote to, visited, dined with, slept with, I could fight with her. We would stand on common ground. I should not be afraid. Anger and jealousy were things that could be conquered. One day the woman would grow old or tired or different, and Maxim would not love her anymore. But Rebecca would never grow old. Rebecca would always be the same. And her I could not fight. She was too strong for me.” (Ch.18) 

2/ Daphne du Maurier, at least in Rebecca (I haven’t read other works), is a visual writer. Here and there some readers complain about the book being over-descriptive (I don’t understand, but people can complain about anything), but she describes everything in vivid detail, and makes the scenery and buildings become real, especially Manderley. Readers can not only see the places she describes, but can also feel them and hear them and smell them.  
Look at this—example of a scenery: 
“Jasper barked as we ran together. He thought it was some new kind of game. He kept trying to bite the belt and worry it. I had not realized how closely the trees grew together here, their roots stretching across the path like tendrils ready to trip one. They ought to clear all this, I thought as I ran, catching my breath, Maxim should get the men onto it. There is no sense or beauty in this undergrowth. That tangle of shrubs there should be cut down to bring light to the path. It was dark, much too dark. That naked eucalyptus tree stifled by brambles looked like the white bleached limb of a skeleton, and there was a black earthy stream running beneath it, choked with the muddied rains of years, trickling silently to the beach below. The birds did not sing here as they did in the valley. It was quiet in a different way. And even as I ran and panted up the path I could hear the wash of the sea as the tide crept into the cove. I understood why Maxim disliked the path and the cove. I disliked it too. I had been a fool to come this way. I should have stayed on the other beach, on the white shingle, and come home by the Happy Valley.” (Ch.13) 
This is the cottage: 
“The windows were boarded up. No doubt the door was locked, and I lifted the latch without much hope. To my surprise it opened after the first stiffness, and I went inside, bending my head because of the low door. I expected to find the usual boat store, dirty and dusty with disuse, ropes and blocks and oars upon the floor. The dust was there, and the dirt too in places, but there were no ropes or blocks. The room was furnished, and ran the whole length of the cottage. There was a desk in the corner, a table, and chairs, and a bed-sofa pushed against the wall. There was a dresser too, with cups and plates. Bookshelves, the books inside them, and models of ships standing on the top of the shelves. For a moment I thought it must be inhabited--perhaps the poor man on the beach lived here--but I looked around me again and saw no sign of recent occupation. That rusted grate knew no fire, this dusty floor no footsteps, and the china there on the dresser was blue-spotted with the damp. There was a queer musty smell about the place. Cobwebs spun threads upon the ships' models, making their own ghostly rigging. No one lived here. No one came here. The door had creaked on its hinges when I opened it. The rain pattered on the roof with a hollow sound, and tapped upon the boarded windows. The fabric of the sofa-bed had been nibbled by mice or rats. I could see the jagged holes, and the frayed edges. It was damp in the cottage, damp and chill. Dark, and oppressive.” (Ch.10) 
Daphne du Maurier’s also very good at creating atmosphere and building tension. The confrontation between the narrator and Mrs Danvers (which involves the window) is among the greatest scenes in literature. 

3/ Rebecca may be marketed as a romantic novel, but it isn’t. 
As the author said it herself, Rebecca is a study in jealousy. To the unnamed narrator, Rebecca appears perfect—beautiful, charming, well-dressed, accomplished, athletic, popular with everyone, and superior to her in everything. The narrator’s jealous of her husband’s previous wife to the point of obsession. For the whole book, she struggles with jealousy and with her own identity. 
We must also speak of Mrs Danvers’s jealousy—she’s jealous of the narrator, for being alive, for taking “her lady’s” place and being referred to as Mrs de Winter. She’s the one who keeps Rebecca alive by preserving her morning room and bedroom like a shrine, and making sure that nothing at Manderley is changed after Rebecca’s death. She’s the one who haunts and plays with the narrator, and reminds her of her inferiority. 

4/ Rebecca reminds me of The Sound and the Fury. Similar to Caddy, Rebecca never appears, never speaks—she is dead before the story begins, and because the book’s narrated by the new wife, there is no flashback. But Rebecca is full of life even in death, she takes over Manderley, she takes over the book, and the title, pushing the narrator to a corner, turning her into a phantom, a ghost. Rebecca is vivid, haunting, unforgettable. 

5/ The book is not black and white, and can be interpreted in multiple ways (see earlier post). The characters are complex and multi-faceted.  
Who, we may ask, is the villain in the book? An easy, universally acknowledged answer is Mrs Danvers, the housekeeper. However, she is not a 2-dimensional character, she is humanised near the end of the book. She hates, she cries, she grieves—she may be mean to the narrator indeed, but if we look at it from her point of view, we understand. Some of us even understand her act of destruction at the end of Rebecca
Mrs Danvers isn’t the only villain. The other one would be either Rebecca or Maxim, or both, depending on how you interpret the book.   

I hope you’ll read the book. I rarely feel so passionate about a book, and usually keep it to myself, but I’ve been trying to get everyone to read Rebecca
It’s a brilliant, enjoyable read.

The ending of Rebecca

Spoiler alert: friends who haven’t read Rebecca and don’t want to know spoilers are advised not to read this blog post at the moment, but to bookmark it and come back when you’ve read the book. 

1/ From what I’ve seen, 99% of blog posts, essays, and articles about Rebecca mention the opening line. But Rebecca also has a very well-written and evocative closing line: 
“And the ashes blew towards us with the salt wind from the sea.” 
In fact, the final chapter is wonderful, and Daphne du Maurier chooses a very fine way to reveal that Manderley is burning: 
“The hills rose in front of us, and dipped, and rose again. It was quite dark. The stars had gone.
"What time did you say it was?" I asked.
"Twenty past two," he said.
"It's funny," I said. "It looks almost as though the dawn was breaking over there, beyond those hills. It can't be though, it's too early."
"It's the wrong direction," he said, "you're looking west."
"I know," I said. "It's funny, isn't it?"
He did not answer and I went on watching the sky. It seemed to get lighter even as I stared. Like the first red streak of sunrise. Little by little it spread across the sky.
"It's in winter you see the northern lights, isn't it?" I said. "Not in summer?"
"That's not the northern lights," he said. "That's Manderley."
I glanced at him and saw his face. I saw his eyes.
"Maxim," I said. "Maxim, what is it?"
He drove faster, much faster. We topped the hill before us and saw Lanyon lying in a hollow at our feet. There to the left of us was the silver streak of the river, widening to the estuary at Kerrith six miles away. The road to Manderley lay ahead. There was no moon. The sky above our heads was inky black. But the sky on the horizon was not dark at all. It was shot with crimson, like a splash of blood. And the ashes blew towards us with the salt wind from the sea.” (Ch.27) 
Such striking imagery. 

2/ If anyone worries about the dogs’ safety in the destruction at the end of Rebecca (you silly pie), I think Jasper is safe. Before the London trip, the narrator asks Frank to take the sad Jasper back to office with him. 

3/ People say the fire is lifted from Jane Eyre, which completes and reinforces the connection between Rebecca and Charlotte Bronte’s novel. The connection may or may not be discussed later, but the fire makes perfect sense in the context of Rebecca.  
If you look at it from Mrs Danvers’s point of view, Maxim de Winter kills “her lady” in cold blood and gets away with it. It’s safe to assume that the long distance call she receives before clearing out is from Jack Favell, who tells her about the meeting with Dr Baker. 
From the inquest to the investigation, it is clear that people’s bias has been helping Maxim: the investigators initially think it’s an accident, then after new evidence from the boatman, conclude it’s suicide, without suspecting Maxim; everyone seemingly wants to cover it up and move on (perhaps to avoid big scandal); Maxim’s supported by the loyalty of his new wife and Frank Crawley; Ben, the mentally disabled man, the only person who may know something, refuses to testify and denies having seen Jack Favell; Sergeant Julyan is easily content with Dr Baker’s testimony and wants to close the case, even if he seems to have some suspicion. 
Even though Dr Baker’s words reveal that Rebecca’s death is of her own choice and the provocation is her deliberate way to get Maxim to give her an easy painless death, he’s still the one who chooses to kill her. He therefore has to be punished. Mrs Danvers doesn’t kill him, the same way she wouldn’t kill the narrator, so it makes perfect sense that she destroys the thing he loves the most—Manderley. 
If it’s true as he says that he agrees to the deal with Rebecca in order to protect Manderley, and later kills her for Manderley, Manderley has to be destroyed. It is Rebecca’s revenge, through Mrs Danvers. 
From another perspective, in destroying Manderley, Mrs Danvers also destroys the memory of Rebecca. She has chosen to preserve it, now she chooses to destroy it all. 

4/ In a way, I don’t know how damaged Maxim is at the end of the story, because on a personal level, I can’t connect to it. For various reasons, I have always lived in rented apartments, I don’t have connection to a house.  
However, I understand great loss, and exile. I understand what it means to be unable to return. 
The Maxim at the end of the story (who, confusingly, is at the beginning of the book) is not the same as the Maxim throughout the book. 
5/ The narrator wants readers to believe that her love triumphs and Rebecca is destroyed, that in the end she’s happy with Maxim. 
But there is no happy ending. 
From beginning to end, the narrator lets us see that she is naïve and inexperienced (Maxim is her first love), she absolutely adores him, and loves him “in a sick, hurt, desperate way, like a child or a dog”. Hearing Maxim’s confession, instead of feeling shocked or appalled, as a sane, reasonable person would, she rejoices. 
“I did not say anything. I held his hands against my heart. I did not care about his shame. None of the things that he had told me mattered to me at all. I clung to one thing only, and repeated it to myself, over and over again. Maxim did not love Rebecca. He had never loved her, never, never. They had never known one moment's happiness together. Maxim was talking and I listened to him, but his words meant nothing to me. I did not really care.” (Ch.20) 
Later, when she’s alone: 
“… the rest of me sat there on the carpet, unmoved and detached, thinking and caring for one thing only, repeating a phrase over and over again, "He did not love Rebecca, he did not love Rebecca." Now, at the ringing of the telephone, these two selves merged and became one again. I was the self that I had always been, I was not changed. But something new had come upon me that had not been before. My heart, for all its anxiety and doubt, was light and free. I knew then that I was no longer afraid of Rebecca.” (Ch.21) 
How sick is that? How stupid and pathetic.  
Readers often note that after the confession, Maxim says “I love you” to the narrator for the 1st time, and also kisses her in a way he never kissed her before. Readers, or at least Sally Beauman, say that there is hint that afterwards their marriage is, for the 1st time, consummate. 
Where’s the hint? I’m not so sure. In the scene of the morning before the London trip, our narrator still refers to the single beds. 
(My perverse mind can’t help wondering if Maxim had sex with Rebecca. Their old bedroom has 1 bed). 
To go back to the end of the story, which is the beginning of the book, the narrator and her husband are now in exile, staying in hotels, eating indifferent food, reading news and following the same routine, living in ennui. Stifling monotony or quiet bliss, you decide. But I find it interesting that now the narrator does the same thing as when she’s with Mrs Van Hopper—again, she’s a paid companion, just not paid by money, but by love. 

6/ If it wasn’t clear in the previous post, I hate the biographical and feminist reading of Rebecca
Why do people use elements in Daphne du Maurier’s life to interpret her novel? Why do people talk like du Maurier is in her character? I’ve seen critics do it with Jane Austen, with Charlotte Bronte, with Emily Bronte, with Virginia Woolf, with Elena Ferrante…, a lot more than with male writers (the only male writer I can think of is F. Scott Fitzgerald). 
With the feminist reading, I think I’ve said enough about feminist literary criticism on this blog.

Thursday 19 December 2019

The 2 interpretations of Rebecca

Spoiler alert: people who have not read Rebecca and do not want spoilers are advised to stay away from this post. Or better, bookmark it and come back when you’ve read the book. 

Early on during my reading of Rebecca, I spoilt the book for myself when going through articles, blog posts, and reviews. I’ve been aware from the start, therefore, that there are 2 main interpretations of Daphne du Maurier’s novel: 
  • 1/ The 2nd Mrs de Winter discovers that Rebecca is a treacherous and cunning psychopath, not the perfect wife she believed her to be, and that Maxim never loved her. She triumphs, and finds happiness with Maxim. In this interpretation: Rebecca is the psychopath. 
  • 2/ Maxim de Winter is the true villain in the novel, who kills his wife Rebecca, makes up stories about her, and gets away with murder. His words about Rebecca can’t be trusted: she’s an independent, strong-spirited woman who defies social conventions and gets punished for it. In this interpretation: Maxim is the psychopath and Rebecca is a victim, as the 2nd wife would also be.  
I admit, in my previous blog post, I seemed to lean toward the 2nd interpretation, but I was influenced by other readers, and at the time had only read till the fancy dress ball. Now that I’ve read the entire novel, there seems to be no easy answer—Rebecca is a brilliant, complex book. 
People in the 2nd camp argue that Maxim must lie about Rebecca because everyone loves and cherishes her, and mourns her death, but his account of Rebecca as being promiscuous, unfaithful, and manipulative is corroborated by other characters. Her cousin Jack Favell admits they’re lovers. Ben, “the local idiot”, mentions seeing her at the cottage, compares her to a snake, and mentions her threat to put him in an asylum. The loyal and considerate Frank Crawley hints at her dark side when talking to the narrator: 
“You have qualities that are just as important, far more so, in fact. It's perhaps cheek of me to say so, I don't know you very well. I'm a bachelor, I don't know very much about women, I lead a quiet sort of life down here at Manderley as you know, but I should say that kindness, and sincerity, and--if I may say so--modesty are worth far more to a man, to a husband, than all the wit and beauty in the world.” (Ch.11) 
Most importantly, Mrs Danvers, the person who seems to understand her more than everyone else, says Rebecca always does what she wants, and it is all a game to her—“She despised all men” (Ch.24). Rebecca sleeps around to amuse herself, and laughs at them all. Mrs Danvers also tells the narrator the story of Rebecca as a teenager sadistically slashing at a horse till it is full of blood. 
Readers in the 2nd camp see Rebecca as a strong female character who defies social conventions and gender norms, and argues that Maxim kills her for not only defying and betraying him but also laughing at him. But to be honest, selfishness and treachery are not attractive traits, and infidelity and deceit are nothing to celebrate. 
(But then I’ve seen some folks praise Emma Bovary or Rosamond Vincy—I guess anything is possible). 
There are 2 tendencies, I believe, that lead to the 2nd interpretation of the book: 
  • a) Looking at Daphne du Maurier’s life and making a connection between her and Rebecca. This is something Sally Beauman does in the Afterword of my copy, who is author of a book called Rebecca’s Tale (easy to guess what it’s about). This kind of reading is dangerous, I don’t know why readers/ critics tend to do this more with female writers than male writers. Du Maurier may have been an unconventional woman, who was bisexual and had affairs, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that she approved of Rebecca and intended her to be a positive figure. It definitely doesn’t mean that Rebecca was her. 
  • b) Seeing the story from the #MeToo perspective, dismissing Maxim’s account completely because an abuser would obviously lie to justify the abuse, and seeing Rebecca as an innocent victim who can’t defend herself. This kind of reading is also dangerous, and reminds me of Wide Sargasso Sea. Some people curiously see Wide Sargasso Sea as definitive, which others should read in order to get “the full picture”, forgetting that the book is Jean Rhys’s interpretation of Jane Eyre and nothing more. Mr Rochester and Bertha Mason exist only in Charlotte Bronte’s novels—they are not real people whose stories need to be told and who need to be avenged. 
In short, a reading should be supported by details in the book itself, not external factors. 
The 1st interpretation can explain why Maxim marries the 2nd wife (innocent and very different from the 1st), and can also explain his lack of openness and distant behaviour towards her—he needs time to recover from marriage with a psycho to open up, and he bears a terrible secret. The lack of communication, as discussed in my previous blog post, can explain why he hesitates to say they’re happy, especially when in his marriage with Rebecca, they had to play the roles of a happy couple. 
Maxim is patronising and moody, and can become quite rude, but there is no evidence in the book that he is controlling—he lets his 2nd wife be, and doesn’t try to reshape her into something else. 
However, how do you explain Maxim not saying love to her till after the confession—the moment he needs her to be on his side? How do you explain them not sleeping in the same bed?  
Most importantly, nothing can change the fact that Maxim confesses to a double murder. The book isn’t black and white, and can’t be reduced to a story of a woman who is insecure and jealous of her husband’s previous wife and can only find her identity in the end and triumph when the previous wife’s perfect image is destroyed. Daphne du Maurier introduces enough details to make readers doubt the narrator’s triumph and happiness in the end.  
Even if Rebecca is a cunning and heartless psychopath, even if she provokes him, how do you justify Maxim’s killing of her? Why not divorce her? Maxim explains it by his love of Manderley and fear of publicity and gossip, but how does it justify killing her? Rebecca is not violent like the psychopath in Fatal Attraction.  
Note too that Maxim admits wanting to kill Rebecca 5 days after the wedding, when she reveals her true face in Monte Carlo and wants to have a deal with him. That is not a normal, reasonable reaction. 
It is important to remember that Dr Baker’s information may give a motive and somehow clear Maxim’s name in Rebecca’s death, at least in matters of law, it is hindsight and therefore irrelevant in judging the moment of the killing—Maxim shoots her to death, believing that she’s pregnant with someone else’s child. As written before, he confesses to a double murder, which the narrator ignores because she loves him desperately, “like a child or a dog”, but we readers cannot be complicit. Rebecca is not a beautiful romantic love story, it should make readers uneasy. 
Note that his sister Beatrice tells the narrator that he loses temper only once or twice a year, but when he does, it’s very bad. That’s a bad sign. Maxim also hits Jack Favell near the end of the book—in front of Frank, Sergeant Julyan, and his 2nd wife. Everyone may agree that Jack Favell is a scoundrel, but I’m sure that there are many men out there who hold the principle of never hitting first. 
I don’t doubt that Rebecca is malicious and manipulative, but at the same time, Maxim murders her, then disposes of the body, has no remorse, and very calmly deals with it when being questioned.  
There are some other details that are interesting as well. Why does Maxim marry Rebecca, if he never loves her as he claims? It makes sense that he preserves Manderley the way it has been under Rebecca, destroys nothing, and keeps all the employees, so as not to cause suspicion, but if he hates her, why does he like the smell of azaleas, a scent associated with Rebecca? Why does he return to Monte Carlo, the place of their honeymoon, specifically the spot where she confessed her unspeakable actions? Why does he have in his car a poetry book from her? And again, why does he not sleep in the same bed with his 2nd wife? 
In short, my interpretation of Daphne du Maurier’s novel is somewhere between the 2 common ones: Rebecca is manipulative, treacherous, and cunning, but Maxim de Winter is also dangerous and not really reliable.

Tuesday 17 December 2019

The husband in Rebecca

Earlier, I mentioned some red flags about Maxim de Winter. As the story unfolds, it becomes manifest that he’s not a nice man, even if the narrator adores him. 
At the beginning of the story, she’s 21, he’s 42—he’s old enough to be her father, and treats her as such. 
“He considered me a moment, his eyebrows raised, whistling softly. "Listen, my sweet. When you were a little girl, were you ever forbidden to read certain books, and did your father put those books under lock and key?"
"Yes," I said.
"Well, then. A husband is not so very different from a father after all. There is a certain type of knowledge I prefer you not to have. It's better kept under lock and key. So that's that. And now eat up your peaches, and don't ask me any more questions, or I shall put you in the corner."
"I wish you would not treat me as if I was six," I said.
"How do you want to be treated?"
"Like other men treat their wives."
"Knock you about, you mean?"
"Don't be absurd. Why must you make a joke of everything?" (Ch.16) 
What a creep. 
This is not an equal relationship. Often, Maxim says to her “my sweet child” condescendingly, and he makes her feel like Jasper, the dog—he can just pat her now and then, give her a bit of attention, and she’s happy. 
Even if he doesn’t get angry or raise his voice, he’s often rude to her—curt, abrupt, unkind, sometimes even mocking. 
For example, when she breaks the china cupid and places the pieces in an envelope and hides it in a drawer, not telling anyone, he may be correct to say that she acts like an in-between maid, not the mistress of the house. However, he doesn’t bother to understand why she acts that way, why she feels like she doesn’t fit in, and what she can do other than “making an effort”. 
I’ve also noticed that Maxim never apologises or tries to soothe her, it is the narrator who says sorry when he gets grumpy or offended. 
Now look at this passage: 
“He stared at me moodily, his hands in his pockets, rocking backwards and forwards on his heels. "I wonder if I did a very selfish thing in marrying you," he said. He spoke slowly, thoughtfully.
I felt very cold, rather sick. "How do you mean?" I said.
"I'm not much of a companion to you, am I?" he said. "There are too many years between us. You ought to have waited, and then married a boy of your own age. Not someone like myself, with half his life behind him."
"That's ridiculous," I said hurriedly, "you know age doesn't mean anything in marriage. Of course we are companions."
"Are we? I don't know," he said.
I knelt up on the window seat and put my arms round his shoulders. "Why do you say these things to me?" I said; "you know I love you more than anything in the world. There has never been anyone but you. You are my father and my brother and my son. All those things."
"It was my fault," he said, not listening. "I rushed you into it. I never gave you a chance to think it over."
"I did not want to think it over," I said, "there was no other choice. You don't understand, Maxim. When one loves a person..."” (Ch.12) 
There is indeed a big age gap between them, but the main issue is incompatibility and lack of communication. Maxim and the narrator are very different (note from the beginning: she bites her nails, he has an emery board in his pocket). 
They don’t share much with each other either. The narrator may make out like they enjoy talking and have a good time when alone (in this sense, she’s an unreliable narrator), but he never talks about the past and never really talks about his feelings. Jane Austen would distrust him, for his lack of openness. Maxim doesn’t tell the narrator about Jack Favell and Mrs Danvers. 
On her side, the narrator doesn’t share much with him either—her insecurities, her fears, her obsession with Rebecca and feelings about Mrs Danvers are all kept to herself. She doesn’t tell him about the book with Rebecca’s handwriting, nor the visit to Rebecca’s morning room and their old bedroom, nor the encounter with Jack Favell in the house, nor the incident at Maxim’s grandmother’s house, nor the references to Rebecca that the employees make, nor anything of importance. There is no communication in their marriage.  
“I seized advantage of his smile, I smiled too, and took his hands and kissed them. "How absurd to say we are not companions," I said; "why look how we sit here every evening, you with a book or a paper, and me with my knitting. Just like cups of tea. Just like old people, married for years and years. Of course we are companions. Of course we are happy. You talk as though you thought we had made a mistake? You don't mean it like that, do you, Maxim? You know our marriage is a success, a wonderful success?"
"If you say so, then it's all right," he said.
"No, but you think it too, don't you, darling? It's not just me? We are happy, aren't we? Terribly happy?"
He did not answer. He went on staring out of the window while I held his hands. My throat felt dry and tight, and my eyes were burning. […] 
"Well, why don't you answer me?" I said.
He took my face in his hands and looked at me, just as he had before, when Frith had come into the room with tea, the day we went to the beach.
"How can I answer you?" he said. "I don't know the answer myself. If you say we are happy, let's leave it at that. It's something I know nothing about. I take your word for it. We are happy. All right then, that's agreed!" He kissed me again, and then walked away across the room. I went on sitting by the window, stiff and straight, my hands in my lap.” (ibid.)  
Poor naïve girl. If he doesn’t say he’s happy, he’s not. He doesn’t say he loves her either. That is very telling. Does Maxim ever say love? Not during the proposal. Not now. 
As readers learn more about Rebecca, we start to realise that Maxim marries the narrator because he can easily control her, which we can guess he couldn’t quite do with Rebecca. 
All this examination of Maxim de Winter’s character and behaviour towards the narrator is not idle musings. It is, I believe, key to interpreting the novel as a whole. I’m on chapter 17, about the fancy dress ball at Manderley, but I’m aware of the 2 main interpretations of Daphne du Maurier’s book. We have to see how the story unfolds. Du Maurier’s a brilliant plotter, I should add. 
I suppose, interpreting the book might be difficult, because the narrator is perceptive but unreliable—she’s head over heels in love with Maxim, for whatever reason. But at the moment, we can see all the problems, and can also compare him to some other male characters in the book. His agent Frank Crawley, for example, seems like a very kind, considerate man. It would be much better for her if the narrator’s married to him instead of Maxim (I know, I know then we wouldn’t have the book). Maxim’s brother-in-law Giles Lacy also seems nicefat and probably boring but nicesee the way he tries to comfort her at the ball whilst Maxim is cold to her all evening. A woman’s stupidity in love always gets on my nerves. 
By the way, there is an interesting detail. Remember how Beatrice (Maxim’s sister) asks the 2nd Mrs de Winter about pregnancy and she talks like it’s not a possibility, even after Beatrice suggests sometimes there’s no morning sickness (Ch.15)? 
“I got into bed, my legs very weary, a niggling pain in the small of my back. I lay back and closed my eyes, thankful for the cool white comfort of clean sheets. I wished my mind would rest like my body, relax, and pass to sleep. Not hum round in the way it did, jigging to music, whirling in a sea of faces. I pressed my hands over my eyes but they would not go.
I wondered how long Maxim would be. The bed beside me looked stark and cold.” (Ch.17) 
They sleep in different beds.