Saturday 26 February 2022

Timon of Athens

1/ First, let’s get the who’s who questions out of the way. 

The main character is Lord Timon (of Athens). Flavius is his steward. Timon’s servants are Flaminius, Servilius, and Lucilius. 

Timon’s false friends are called Lucius, Lucullus, Sempronius, and Ventidius. Also surrounding him, when he’s rich, are the poet, the painter, the jeweller, and the merchant. 

The servants to usurers are called Caphis, Philotus, Titus, Hortensius, servant to Varro, servant to Lucius, and servant to Isidore. 

Apemantus is noted in the list as “a churlish philosopher”. He is a cynic. 

Alcibiades is an Athenian captain who is later banished.   

And some other characters. 

The entire plot of Timon of Athens can be summed up in this speech: 

“FLAVIUS […] O the fierce wretchedness that glory brings us! 

Who would not wish to be from wealth exempt, 

Since riches point to misery and contempt? 

Who would be so mocked with glory, or to live 

But in a dream of friendship, 

To have his pomp and all what state compounds 

But only painted, like his varnished friends? 

Poor honest lord, brought low by his own heart, 

Undone by goodness. Strange, unusual blood, 

When man’s worst sin is, he does too much good. 

Who then dares to be half so kind again? 

For bounty, that makes gods, do still mar men….” 

(Act 4 scene 2) 

Tony Tanner is perfectly right to ask how truly kind Timon is and how much good he does. Timon spends money on hunting and luxuries and feasts, and gives away gifts to other men of high rank, not the poor. Is that kind? 

“The main point about Timon’s munificence is that it is as reckless, indiscriminate, and all-embracing, as his later invectives and denunciations are to be.” (Introduction) 

2/ I’m under the impression that, compared to other Shakespeare plays, the Greek and Roman plays tend to be heavy in ideas and not particularly cheerful. The exception is of course Antony and Cleopatra, which is rich and opulent, and I have to reread Julius Caesar, but I think there are also lots of ideas and debates in it. But Troilus and Cressida, Coriolanus, and now Timon of Athens are particularly heavy in ideas, bleak, cheerless, bitter, without much humour. Troilus and Cressida and Coriolanus are hard to fully embrace though both are great plays—what about Timon of Athens

Regarding language, there are many good lines and good speeches. 

“FLAVIUS [Aside] What will this come to? 

He commends us to provide, and give great gifts, 

And all out of an empty coffer; 

Nor will he know his purse, or yield me this, 

To show him what a beggar his heart is, 

Being of no power to make his wishes good.

His promises fly so beyond his state 

That what he speaks is all in debt; he owes for ev’ry word…” 

(Act 1 scene 2) 

When Timon’s money runs out: 

“FLAVIUS Heavens, have I said, the bounty of this lord! 

How many prodigal bits have slaves and peasants 

This night englutted! Who is not Timon’s? 

What heart, head, sword, force, means, but is Lord Timon’s? 

Great Timon, noble, worthy, royal Timon! 

Ah, when the means are gone that buy this praise, 

The breath is gone whereof the praise is made.

Feast-won, fast-lost; one cloud of winter show’rs, 

These flies are couched.” 

(Act 2 scene 2) 

Timon thinks he can rely on his friends, Flavius knows better: 

“FLAVIUS I would I could not think it; that thought is bounty’s foe. 

Being free itself, it thinks all others so.” 


Timon of Athens is quotable.  

“FLAMINIUS May these add to the number that may scald thee.

Let molten coin be thy damnation,

Thou disease of a friend, and not himself. 

Has friendship such a faint and milky heart

It turns in less than two nights?...” 

(Act 3 scene 1) 

“FIRST STRANGER Why this is the world’s soul, and just of the same piece 

Is every flatterer’s sport. Who can call him his friend 

That dips in the same dish? […] 

O see the monstrousness of man

When he looks out in an ungrateful shape—

He does deny him, in respect of his,

What charitable men afford to beggars.” 

(Act 3 scene 2) 

The richest, most colourful language in the play is when the characters are cursing, especially Timon. 

“TIMON O blessed breeding sun, draw from the earth 

Rotten humidity; below thy sister’s orb 

Infect the air. Twinned brothers of one womb, 

Whose procreation, residence, and birth, 

Scarce is dividend—touch them with several fortunes

The greater scorns the lesser. Not nature, 

To whom all sores lay siege, can bear great fortune 

But by contempt of nature. […] 

The learned pate 

Ducks to the golden fool. All’s obliquy; 

There’s nothing level in our cursed natures 

But direct villainty. Therefore be abhorred 

All feasts, societies, and throngs of men. 

His semblable, yea himself, Timon disdains; 

Destruction fang mankind…” 

(Act 4 scene 3) 

(obliquy means obliquity, moral crookedness) 

It feels as though Shakespeare enjoyed so much writing Thersites’s and Lear’s curses that he picked the story of Timon the misanthrope and wrote a play of curses (I’m assuming that it’s written after King Lear). Timon of Athens may be paired with King Lear: both men put trust in the wrong places, both men are abandoned and forced to live like beasts, both men are full of hatred and curses for humankind. But if Lear keeps the Fool, accepts Kent (in disguise), and later accepts Cordelia, Timon rejects everyone, even his loyal steward Flavius. 

One of the main differences between the two plays is that the characters in King Lear, even if they are easily categorised as good or bad, are all striking and distinct, whereas those in Timon of Athens are quite blurry and the play itself feels under-developed and unfinished. Even so, there are many interesting things in the play. 

3/ Whereas Coriolanus has a single plot all throughout, Timon of Athens has a bit of a subplot—the story of Alcibiades’s banishment from Athens, because he tries to plead for a friend and provokes the senators. The scene has an interesting debate about crime, the law, and valour. 

“FIRST SENATOR […] He’s truly valiant that can wisely suffer 

The worst that man can breathe, 

And make his wrongs his outsides, 

To wear them like his raiment, carelessly, 

And ne’er prefer his injuries to his heart, 

To bring it into danger. 

If wrongs be evils and enforce us kill,

What folly ’tis to hazard life for ill.


ALCIBIADES My lords, then, under favor, pardon me, 

If I speak like a captain. 

Why do fond men expose themselves to battle, 

And not endure all threats? Sleep upon’t, 

And let the foes quietly cut their throats 

Without repugnancy? If there be 

Such valor in their bearing, what make we

Abroad? Why then, women are more valiant 

That stay at home, if bearing carry it, 

And the ass more captain than the lion, the fellow 

Loaden with irons wiser than the judge, 

If wisdom be in suffering. O my lords, 

As you are great, be pitifully good. 

Who cannot condemn rashness in cold blood? 

To kill, I grant, is sin’s extremest gust, 

But in defense, by mercy, ’tis most just. 

To be in anger is impiety; 

But who is man that is not angry? 

Weigh but the crime with this.” 

(Act 3 scene 5) 

The curious part—curious to me—is that Shakespeare doesn’t give the senators very strong arguments. Alcibiades’s defence of his friend’s hot-blooded crime is rather weak and unconvincing (at least to my modern ears), but the senator’s argument “He’s truly valiant that can wisely suffer/ The worst that man can breathe” is quite silly and Alcibiades can make a strong refutation of that argument.

Then the senators banish him, for no reason. Compare it to the case of Coriolanus—at least you can argue that Coriolanus may expose a threat to Rome, disdaining the public and wanting to get rid of the tribunes—what does Alcibiades do that deserves banishment? 

The main purpose of the subplot is that Alcibiades is banished by Athens, and thus gets supported by Timon for invading Athens. But the debate is also interesting, because if you look at it again, Timon suffers the worst from people and does nothing. He rejects humanity and retreats to a cave; he doesn’t take revenge. 

4/ I said Timon of Athens was lacking in humour, but some of the curses are rather funny. 

“TIMON I am Misanthropos and hate mankind, 

For thy part, I do wish thou wert a dog, 

That I might love thee something.” 

(Act 4 scene 3) 

That he says to Alcibiades. 

To Apemantus, he says: 

“TIMON Away, thou issue of a mangy dog…” 


That sounds better than “son of a bitch”.

One of the most interesting scenes in the play is the argument between Timon the misanthrope and Apemantus the cynic. Apemantus seeks him in the woods just to say “I told you so”, but Timon says Apemantus isn’t as good and above mankind as he thinks he is. 

“TIMON […] I to bear this, 

That never knew but better, in some burden. 

Thy nature did commence in sufferance, time

Hath made thee hard in’t. Why shouldst thou hate men?

They never flattered thee. What hast thou given? 

[…] If thou hadst not been born the worst of men, 

Thou hadst been a knave and a flatterer.” 


Timon has been driven to misanthropy because of naïveté and misplaced trust, but Apemantus has always been miserable and cynical. He has never known goodness; he has never given anyone anything; he sees nothing but filth and ugliness, like Thersites in Troilus and Cressida. Timon doesn’t embrace Apemantus just because of shared hatred for humankind.  

And when Apemantus says he would give the world to the beasts and get rid of humankind, Timon has a long rant (which I’m too lazy to type here) saying that whatever beast Apemantus were, he would be eaten. 

“TIMON […] All thy safety were remotion, and thy defense absence. What beast couldst thou be that were not subject to a beast? And what a beast art thou already, that seest not thy loss in transformation!” 


And yet, if in this conversation and in the reunion with Flavius, Timon appears more sympathetic, many of his speeches in the final 2 acts are filled with genocidal rage. Timon swings from one extreme to another. 

5/ Tony Tanner says about the play: 

“It is composed of two starkly contrasting halves (the first half clearly more finished than the second). It is very static, the second half consisting of a series of interviews.”

I don’t particularly like the final act. There’s something unfinished, unpolished about it. 

“Characterization is cursory, ‘penciled’, thin to the point of impersonality and abstraction. It seems more like an allegory or morality play (or even a folk tale—three false friends, loyal servant, etc.) than a fully developed drama.” (ibid.) 

As I wrote above, the characters are not quite distinct. A few characters are types (senators, painter, poet), but the named characters may be confused for each other and can just be grouped together—except for Timon, Alcibiades, Apemantus, and Flavius.

Tony Tanner also says: 

“The play has been seen as more of a bitter satire than a tragedy, and certainly there has been none of the dramatic conflict and sense of inexorable progress (or development and movement) that we experience in Shakespeare’s great tragedies (just compare Macbeth). Perhaps more to the point, there is no development in the ‘characters’, particularly of Timon. There is no halting but growing self-awareness, no bruising stumbling to an initially resisted self-knowledge. In his soliloquies, Timon exhibits none of the meditative inwardness and deepening self-exploration of Hamlet. When he stops giving, he starts cursing. Having postured and dispensed like a god, he turns to crawling and snarling like a beast.” (ibid.) 

The thing is, Coriolanus also doesn’t have the inwardness and self-knowledge of Hamlet or Macbeth. He doesn’t really change either. But Coriolanus is multifaceted—in him are the contradictions of a brave and proud soldier, and a mama’s boy. Timon doesn’t really have many sides to his character, he just swings from one extreme to another. And then dies. 

Wednesday 23 February 2022

Sanshiro and some curious references

I finished Sanshiro last night. I don’t have a lot to say—in the end, the characters are still opaque, unlike those in Soseki’s Kokoro and Botchan, and the only exception is Sanshiro’s friend Yojiro, but even he is not a character who would stay with you over time. The usual themes of change, modernisation, and Westernisation of Japan are there, and the novel has a lingering sadness and uncertainty. 

Perhaps my tastes are too Western. 

There are two things that caught my attention, however. First of all, there are many Ibsen references throughout the novel, from different characters.

Here is a conversation Sanshiro overhears, between Yojiro and Professor Hirota, about Mineko. 

““She’s so calm and patient, she would just go on chewing until the flavor came out.”

“She’s calm, all right,” said the Professor, “but wild, too.”

“It’s true she is wild. There’s something of the Ibsen woman about her.”

“With Ibsen women, it’s all out in the open. Mineko is wild deep inside. Of course, I don’t mean wild in the ordinary sense. Take Nonomiya’s sister: she has this kind of wild look at first glance, but in the end she’s very feminine. It’s an odd business.”” (Ch.6) 

(translated by Jay Rubin) 

Sanshiro has a crush on Mineko, so he later asks Yojiro. 

““What’s wild about her?”

“It’s not any one thing. All modern women are wild, not just Mineko.”

“You said she’s like an Ibsen character, didn’t you?”

“I did.”

“Which character did you have in mind?”

“Well… she’s just like an Ibsen character, that’s all.”

Sanshirō was not convinced, but he decided not to pursue the matter. They had walked a short way in silence when Yojirō said, “Mineko is not the only one like an Ibsen character. All women are like that nowadays. And not just women. Any man who’s had a whiff of the new atmosphere has something of Ibsen about him. People just don’t act freely the way Ibsen’s characters do. Inside, though, something is usually bothering them.”” (ibid.) 

I wonder if I look at it from the modern perspective, because I can’t see anything wild about Mineko and in the end, she does not defy conventions. But Sanshiro doesn’t think so either and the novel mostly focuses on his perspective, so perhaps Yojiro and the Professor know something that the main character doesn’t know. 

Yojiro mentions Ibsen again, and also mentions Shakespeare, when he’s making a speech campaigning to replace the Western professor with someone Japanese at the university: 

““De te fabula! Who gives a damn how many words Shakespeare used or how many white hairs Ibsen had? We don’t have to worry about ‘surrendering ourselves’ to stupid lectures like that. But it’s the University that suffers. We’ve got to bring in a man who can satisfy the youth of the new age. Foreigners can’t do it. First of all, they have no authority in the University.”” (ibid.) 

Why does he say that? I have no idea.  

The name of Ibsen pops up again when Professor Hirota has a rant with Sanshiro about change in Japan and hypervillains: 

““… Of course, when there’s too much glory, the hypervillains get a little annoyed with each other. When their discomfort reaches a peak, altruism is resurrected. And when that becomes a mere formality and turns sour, egoism comes back. And so on, ad infinitum. That’s how we go on living, you might say. That’s how we progress. Look at England. Egoism and altruism have been in perfect balance there for centuries. That’s why she doesn’t move. That’s why she doesn’t progress. The English are a pitiful lot—they have no Ibsen, no Nietzsche. They’re all puffed up like that, but look at them from the outside and you can see them hardening, turning into fossils.”” (Ch.7) 

Soseki was clearly obsessed with Ibsen when he was writing Sanshiro. That made me laugh though, “The English are a pitiful lot” hahaha. 

Later, when Sanshiro and Mineko are walking together, at her suggestion, he thinks to himself: 

“How would Mineko react if someone told her to live like Miwata Omitsu? Tokyo was different from the country, it was wide open, so perhaps most of the women here were like Mineko. He could only imagine what the others were like, but at a distance they did seem to be a little more old-fashioned than Mineko. It occurred to him how right Yojirō had been: she was an Ibsen woman. But was it only her disregard for convention that made her an Ibsen woman, or did it involve her deepest thoughts and feelings? He did not know.” (Ch.8) 

The disregard for convention is her walking with him without asking anyone’s permission. What about it is like an Ibsen woman? Perhaps I’m too modern to understand. 

Later, at a party, different characters debate whether physicists are naturalists—Nonomiya thinks so, because he himself is doing experiments on the pressure of light, whereas Professor Hirota doesn’t, because “You have to go about it artificially, with quartz threads and vacuums and mica, all these devices so that the pressure becomes visible to the eye of the physicist” (Ch.9). 

One more time, Ibsen is (randomly?) mentioned by entirely different characters. 

““Then physicists are romantic naturalists,” said Dr. Shōji, sitting diagonally opposite Nonomiya, and he offered a comparison: “In literature, that would be someone like Ibsen, I suppose.”

“True,” said the critic in the striped coat. “Ibsen has as many devices as Nonomiya, but I doubt if his characters follow natural laws the way light does.”” (ibid.) 

Isn’t it curious how often the name of Ibsen pops up in this novel? 

The second thing that caught my attention was about Shakespeare. Since I caught the Shakespeare bug, I’ve been noticing him everywhere. It is to be expected—Shakespeare is the greatest and most influential writer of all time—but it’s also a bit weird to actually notice it? Dickens, Tolstoy, Turgenev, Chekhov, Balzac, Proust… all reference him at some point, then I read Soseki’s Sanshiro and the main characters went to watch a performance of Hamlet, near the end of the book. 

“The movements of this Hamlet were wonderfully nimble. He moved grandly across the stage and imparted grand movement to the others. This was vastly different from Iruka’s restrained Noh style. Especially when he stood in the middle of the stage, stretching his arms out wide or glaring at the sky, he aroused such excitement that the spectators were conscious of nothing but him.

The dialogue, however, was in Japanese, translated Japanese, Japanese spoken with exaggerated intonations, unusual rhythms. It poured forth so fluently at times it seemed almost too eloquent. It was in a fine literary style, but it was not moving. Sanshirō wished that Hamlet would say something a little more characteristically Japanese. Where he expected him to say, “Mother, you must not do that. It is an affront to Father’s memory,” Hamlet would suddenly bring in Apollo or someone and smooth things over. Meanwhile, both mother and son looked ready to burst into tears. Sanshirō was only dimly aware of the inconsistency, however. The courage to pronounce the thing absurd was not forthcoming.” (Ch.12) 

I know that Soseki loves Shakespeare, so either that is a complaint about the Japanese translation, or it’s only Sanshiro’s thoughts and not shared by Soseki. 

More curious is an earlier conversation between Sanshiro and Professor Hirota about marriage. 

““Are there so many things that prevent people from marrying?”

The Professor looked at Sanshirō steadily through the smoke.

“You know that Hamlet didn’t want to marry. Maybe there was only one Hamlet, but there are lots of people like him.”” (Ch.11) 

Would you expect some characters in a novel to bring up Hamlet to discuss “matrimonial cripples”, i.e. people incapable of marrying? I didn’t. 

As he watches the performance, Sanshiro thinks about the conversation. 

“When Hamlet told Ophelia, “Get thee to a nunnery,” Sanshirō thought of Professor Hirota. No one like Hamlet could possibly marry, the Professor had said, which seemed true enough when you lingered over the poetry in the book, but on stage it seemed that Hamlet might just as well marry. After careful consideration, Sanshirō concluded that this was because the line “Get thee to a nunnery” was no good. The proof of this was that even after Hamlet had said it to Ophelia, you didn’t feel sorry for her.” (Ch.12) 

That sounds more like a comment on the performance than on the play itself. 

All these Ibsen and Shakespeare references in Sanshiro are a bit odd though. What do you think? 

Side note: If you’re subscribing to my blog by emails, the updates are currently not being sent because I’m out of credit on Mailchimp (until next month, I guess). Sorry about the inconvenience.  

Sunday 20 February 2022

On “representative narratives” and sensitivity readers

Earlier this month I wrote a blog post called “What turns me on”, about what I look for when reading and what I most value in literature. Himadri of Argumentative Old Git has now joined in and written about the subject. His essay is so good that I wondered what’s the point of blogging for me, but I want to highlight this passage: 

“To cut to the chase, I find myself turned off by what are often described as “representative narratives”. I find myself frankly disturbed when novels advertise themselves as “representative” of some marginalised voice. Like, say, the “immigrant experience”. I myself am an immigrant, having come to Britain from India aged 5, some 57 or so years ago now, and yes, I like to think I have my own voice. But what does the “immigrant experience” actually mean? Immigrants from different parts of the world will have different experiences, and hence, different voices. Even immigrants from the same part of the world will have different experiences depending on their social background, the role they fulfil in the country they have come into, the part of the country they live in, and so on, and so forth. And even if the experiences of two immigrants are exactly the same, their voices still won’t be the same, simply because they are two different individuals. And this, I think, is an important point. Whatever the background of the character, whatever minority or majority they may belong to, however marginalised or centralised they may be, each character is, and should be depicted as, an individual.”

This is something that often irritates me: when some self-proclaimed progressives suggest that Shakespeare or the Western canon is not relevant to non-white people like me, and want to include books by writers of different races in the curriculum in order to help all students feel represented, as though any book by an Asian writer would naturally reflect my life or my views. It is patronising and insulting.

Among Viet people, even if you think in terms of groups instead of individuals, the experiences of Viet immigrants in the UK and Brits of Viet descent are different, the experiences of Northerners and Southerners are different, the experiences of boat people and new political refugees and immigrants and undocumented immigrants are different, etc. It is deeply offensive to suggest that I would relate to, and feel represented by, some character in a book just because the character or the author is Asian. It is even more offensive to imply that, because I’m Asian, Shakespeare is not for me.

I probably don’t need to say I think #DisruptTexts is a scam. It’s not about diversity, and definitely not about literature. #DisruptTexts is a scam created and promoted by teachers who can’t teach Shakespeare and don’t know anything about literature, who want to replace classic texts with books that are easier to teach—that’s why they want to replace Western classic texts with contemporary fiction, especially YA, rather than classic works by non-white writers.

This leads to the related subject of sensitivity readers. I find it baffling and frankly depressing that so many people call themselves bookish and support the notion of sensitivity readers. I don’t want someone else to speak for me just because we happen to belong to the same group. I don’t want someone else to decide on my behalf what might offend my sensibilities. I don’t want someone else to tamper with a novelist’s choice of phrases or characterisation just because it’s not politically correct.

There are, I’ve noticed, often two main defences for sensitivity readers. One is that there’s nothing wrong with ensuring that another group is depicted accurately—this is a strawman, as this is not the reason people object to sensitivity readers, and it’s not what sensitivity readers are about. Even if you argue that the job of sensitivity readers is to make sure that a character is not a stereotype, things can get complicated—for example, I know a Chinese woman who deceived and manipulated a Western guy for a visa, so if I wrote a memoir and wrote about her, I would be accused of perpetuating a stereotype about Chinese or Asian women, but the story is true.  

A second defence is that it’s not censorship, the sensitivity reader has no power and only makes suggestions. This is true for now, but I have heard people say that writers shouldn’t have to bear the costs of hiring sensitivity readers and publishers instead should, and considering the state of things, publishers may make it standard practice to hire sensitivity readers so as to prevent backlash and save money in the future. But even if hiring sensitivity readers doesn’t become compulsory, it’s irrelevant because it’s not my reason for opposing sensitivity readers—whether or not they have real power, I do not want someone else to speak on my behalf what might offend me.  

Kate Clanchy has recently written about the subject, “How sensitivity readers corrupt literature”. As expected, different sensitivity readers take issue with different phrases or passages, as people after all don’t have the same ideas about what is offensive. Some go further, suggesting replacing words with something more politically correct or more “inclusive”: 

“I should not use “disfigure” of a landscape (infraction level 3, as presumably comparing bings — spoil heaps — to boils might be harmful to acne sufferers). Nor should I use “handicap” in its ordinary sense of “impede” (infraction level 2, serious); and I should prefer the acronym “SEN” to its origin phrase, special educational needs, because it is more inclusive (infraction level 2).”

This isn’t good for literature.    

It is a sad state of affairs to see writers ask for sensitivity readers, and readers accept them.  

Friday 18 February 2022

Fear no more the heat o’ the sun

Fear no more the heat o’ the sun,

Nor the furious winter’s rages;

Thou thy worldly task hast done,

Home art gone, and ta’en thy wages:

Golden lads and girls all must,

As chimney-sweepers, come to dust.

Fear no more the frown o’ the great;

Thou art past the tyrant’s stroke;

Care no more to clothe and eat;

To thee the reed is as the oak:

The scepter, learning, physic, must

All follow this, and come to dust.

Fear no more the lightning flash,

Nor the all-dreaded thunder stone;

Fear not slander, censure rash;

Thou hast finished joy and moan:

All lovers young, all lovers must

Consign to thee, and come to dust.

No exorciser harm thee!

Nor no witchcraft charm thee!

Ghost unlaid forbear thee!

Nothing ill come near thee!

Quiet consummation have;

And renownèd be thy grave!

From Cymbeline, Act 4 scene 2. 

Thursday 17 February 2022

The little white attic is 10 years old!

It was actually 13/2/2022 that marked 10 years of The little white attic, but I’ve been so busy that I forgot (silly, that’s me). 

Lots of thanks to all five of you who read the blog and share it (hint hint) and write comments. The interesting conversations are the reason I continue blogging, I have learnt so much from you all. 

Here’s to another year of blogging!  


Monday 14 February 2022

Brief thoughts on Joel Coen’s The Tragedy of Macbeth

I don’t have a lot to say about Joel Coen’s film adaptation of Macbeth, but I’m going to jot down some brief thoughts anyway. 

The first thing that must be said is that the mise-en-scène is fantastic. It is so rare for a modern B&W film to look good, and the B&W of The Tragedy of Macbeth is very, very good. (Almost) all the shots are striking—Joel Coen and his cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel play with light and shadow, play with shape, as they should. Those of you who have praised the cinematography of Roma or Mank (philistines!) should look at Joel Coen’s film and note the difference. But it’s not only the cinematography and lighting, I also love the production design, the semi-abstract sets, and the staging.

Another good thing about the film is Kathryn Hunter as the witches. She steals the show.

That is my roundabout way of saying that I don’t have a high opinion of the two leads, Denzel Washington as Macbeth and Frances McDormand as Lady Macbeth. Frances McDormand’s performance is, I think, passable, but once you have seen Trevor Nunn’s production, Judi Dench spoils you for other performances. Put it this way, Frances McDormand’s Lady Macbeth is the Lady Macbeth in popular culture, a villainous woman who manipulates her husband into killing the king; Judi Dench’s is the Lady Macbeth in Shakespeare’s text, an ambitious woman who urges her husband to kill the king and thinks of it in abstract terms but isn’t as strong as she thinks she is, and who falls apart as she realises what she has done. 
Judi Dench’s acting has more complexity, more depth. 

I think Denzel Washington as Macbeth is a weak performance—not just in comparison to Ian McKellen, who is phenomenal—but weak. Why? I don’t feel anything in his performance; I don’t see any struggle, any conflict for a large part of the film, except for a few moments; I don’t think he truly feels what he’s saying, especially in the key soliloquies “Is this a dagger which I see before me” and “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow”. 

Here is a clip. 

He glosses over many lines. Let’s look at Ian McKellen. 

See the difference?  

Denzel Washington is probably better than Michael Fassbender as Macbeth—I haven’t seen the 2015 film as a whole but I have seen many clips, and neither Michael Fassbender nor Marion Cotillard knows how to speak the lines. Here’s the same speech:

That clip gives me the impression that the 2015 film (dir. Justin Kurzel) has the disease of many modern films: a fear of text, of dialogue. This is an important soliloquy in Macbeth and isn’t so long, but Justin Kurzel has to break it into pieces, mixing in epic battle scenes and flashbacks and special effects and drowning music. The 2021 film, even though there are cuts (which is understandable and judicious), at least shows respect for the text.

Another thing I don’t like about Joel Coen’s film, which is perhaps personal, is the American accents. I suppose what I really don’t like is the mixing of accents—if the entire thing were American, I wouldn’t care, and one of my favourite Shakespeare productions is the 1976 ACT The Taming of the Shrew—but there is a mixing of accents in this film, and Denzel Washington and Corey Hawkins (as Macduff) especially stand out as very American. 

So what’s the verdict? I’d probably say 3 out of 5. That’s probably fair. 

Sunday 13 February 2022

Botchan and Sanshiro

Botchan is about a 22-year-old guy from Tokyo coming to a small town to become a teacher. Sanshiro is about a 23-year-old guy from a small town coming to Tokyo to study. I therefore thought it would probably be a good idea to read Sanshiro after Botchan, but now I’m considering quitting it.  

The writing in Sanshiro is arguably more mature than in Botchan.  

“He stood in the center of activity now, but his life as a student was the same as before. He had merely been set down in a new position from which to observe the activity all around him. The world was in an uproar; he watched it, but he could not join it. His own world and the real world were aligned on a single plane, but nowhere did they touch. The real world would move on in its uproar and leave him behind. The thought filled him with a great unease.” (Ch.2) 

(translated by Jay Rubin) 

Some descriptions: 

“Pale red flames of burning sun swept back from the horizon into the sky’s deep clarity, and their fever seemed to rush down upon him.” (ibid.) 

“Nonomiya looked up at the broad sky. A meager gleam was all that remained of the sun’s light. A long wisp of cloud hung across the sky at an angle, like the mark of a stiff brush on the tranquil layer of blue.” (ibid.) 

Look at this: 

“He stared at the surface of the pond. The reflection of many trees seemed to reach to the bottom, and down deeper than the trees, the blue sky. No longer was he thinking of streetcars, or Tokyo, or Japan. A sense of something far-off and remote had come to take their place. The feeling lasted but a moment, when loneliness began to spread across its surface like a veil of clouds.” (ibid.) 

Soseki’s writing is good, but I can’t help thinking that Sanshiro has neither the psychology and intensity of Kokoro, nor the humour and vitality of Botchan. Botchan I do like a lot.

Botchan has a reckless streak in him, he narrates his own story and Soseki gives him a strong voice. 

“I had been taken for plenty of other things as well over the years, but nobody had ever accused me of being a gentleman of quite sophisticated tastes before!” (Ch.3) 

(translated by J.Cohn) 

“I couldn’t stand the Hanger-on. If somebody tied him to a nice big rock and dumped him in the ocean, they’d be doing Japan a favor.” (Ch.6) 

He makes up nicknames for other teachers. Whilst school novels are generally about students, Botchan is about teachers, and the main character—a teacher—often gets into trouble. 

“Still, the world is a strange place when you think about it: a guy who rubs you the wrong way treats you kindly while a friend, somebody you get along with fine, turns out to be a scoundrel; it all seems like some kind of farce. This being the country, I figured, everything must be the opposite of what it was in Tokyo. You’ve got to watch out in a place like this – for all I knew fire might suddenly turn to ice out here, or the rocks might turn into lumps of tofu.” (ibid.)  

He is hilarious. 

“If the Principal was really assuming responsibility for the entire incident, and going so far as to speak of it as his own fault, a manifestation of his own lack of virtue, you would think that it would be better for him to forget about punishing the students and simply turn in his own resignation. In that case, there wouldn’t have been any need to go to the bother of calling a staff meeting. All you needed was to use a little common sense.” (ibid.) 

If you haven’t read Botchan, you should.

“It sounds like a town where the inhabitants must be divided about evenly between monkeys and humans. What kind of whim would make anybody, even somebody as unworldly as the Squash, want to go out there and associate with a bunch of monkeys?” (Ch.8) 

Some readers have compared Botchan to The Catcher in the Rye and I can see why. He is sarcastic, reckless, and impulsive but still lovable because he is good-natured and has a strong sense of principles. Like Holden Caulfield, he feels out of place because he’s straight as a bamboo, unable to flatter and unwilling to put on an act, and he can see hypocrisy and insensitivity in others. But if some readers see Holden as whiny (forgetting that he is grieving), Botchan is not. He is very funny. 

We don’t have such a voice in Sanshiro because it’s written from the third person’s point of view, but I don’t think that’s the only reason Sanshiro seems to lack vitality. The characters are more opaque, like those in the novels of Tanizaki or Kawabata. All the characters in Botchan are distinct and vivid—some of them verge on appearing two-dimensional, but they are vivid and that is how they’re seen by the narrator/ main character. 

Perhaps I’ll finish reading Sanshiro just to see what it’s like. It’s interesting that I’ve read Kokoro, Kusamakura, Botchan, and now part of Sanshiro, and they are all different. I like Soseki. 

Saturday 12 February 2022

100 latest films and plays I've watched

From July 2021 to February 2022 

In bold: films/ plays that I think are good 

1/ Poirot: Third Girl (2008) 

2/ A Star Is Born (1954) 

3/ Poirot: Appointment with Death (2009) 

4/ Poirot: The Clocks (2009) 

5/ Poirot: Three Act Tragedy (2010) 

6/ 秋刀魚の味 (An Autumn Afternoon- Japan- 1962)

7/ Poirot: Hallowe'en Party (2010) 

8/ Poirot: Murder on the Orient Express (2010) 

9/ お早よう (Good Morning- Japan- 1959) 

10/ Leigh-Anne: Race, Pop & Power (2021) 

11/ We Are Lady Parts (2021)- 6 episodes 

12/ Poirot: Elephants Can Remember (2013) 

13/ Europa (Italy- 2021) 

14/ Mandibules (Mandibles- France, Belgium- 2020) 

15/ The Road Dance (2021) 

16/ قصیده گاو سفید (Ballad of a White Cow- Iran, France- 2020) 

17/ Black Books (2000-2004)- 18 episodes 

18/ Howl (2015) 

19/ Poirot: The Big Four (2013) 

20/ Poirot: Dead Man's Folly (2013) 

21/ Poirot: The Labours of Hercules (2013) 

22/ Poirot: Curtain: Poirot's Last Case (2013) 

23/ The Winter's Tale (BBC 1981) 

24/ The Cleaner (2021)- 6 episodes 

25/ The Tempest (RSC 2016, ft. Simon Russell Beale) 

26/ Gosford Park (2001)

27/ Ocean's Eleven (2001)- again?

28/ Ocean's Twelve (2004)- again

29/ Ocean's Thirteen (2007)- again 

30/ Police Squad! (1982)- 6 episodes

31/ King Lear (2006, ft. Don Warrington)- twice

32/ Sherlock Holmes: The Hound Of The Baskervilles (1988) 

33/ The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes: A Scandal in Bohemia (1984) 

34/ The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes: The Dancing Men (1984) 

35/ The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes: The Naval Treaty (1984) 

36/ The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes: The Solitary Cyclist (1984) 

37/ The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes: The Crooked Man (1984) 

38/ The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes: The Speckled Band (1984) 

39/ The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes: The Blue Carbuncle (1984) 

40/ The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes: The Copper Beeches (1985) 

41/ The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes: The Greek Interpreter (1985) 

42/ The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes: The Norwood Builder (1985) 

43/ The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes: The Resident Patient (1985) x

44/ The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes: The Red-Headed League (1985)

45/ The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes: The Final Problem (1985) 

46/ Hunting the Essex Lorry Killers (2021) 

47/ The Return of Sherlock Holmes: The Empty House (1986) 

48/ The Return of Sherlock Holmes: The Priory School (1986) 

49/ The Return of Sherlock Holmes: The Second Stain (1986) 

50/ This is England '86 (2010)- 4 episodes

51/ The Return of Sherlock Holmes: The Musgrave Ritual (1986) 

52/ The Return of Sherlock Holmes: The Abbey Grange (1986) 

53/ This Is England '88 (2011)- 3 episodes

54/ This Is England '90 (2015)- 4 episodes 

55/ The Return of Sherlock Holmes: The Man with the Twisted Lip (1986)

56/ The Return of Sherlock Holmes: The Six Napoleons (1986) 

57/ The Return of Sherlock Holmes: The Devil's Foot (1988)

58/ The Return of Sherlock Holmes: The Sign of Four (1987) 

59/ The Return of Sherlock Holmes: Silver Blaze (1988) 

60/ The Return of Sherlock Holmes: Wisteria Lodge (1988) 

61/ The Return of Sherlock Holmes: The Bruce-Partington Plans (1988) 

62/ The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes: The Disappearance of Lady Frances Carfax (1991) 

63/ The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes: The Problem of Thor Bridge (1991) 

64/ The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes: Shoscombe Old Place (1991) 

65/ The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes: The Boscombe Valley Mystery (1991) 

66/ The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes: The Illustrious Client (1991) 

67/ The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes: The Creeping Man (1991) 

68/ The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes: The Three Gables (1994) 

69/ The Third Alibi (1961)

70/ The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes: The Dying Detective (1994) 

71/ The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes: The Golden Pince-Nez (1994) 

72/ The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes: The Red Circle (1994) 

73/ The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes: The Mazarin Stone (1994) 

74/ Unreported World: The Toxic Cost of Going Green (2021)

75/ The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes: The Cardboard Box (1994) 

76/ Panorama: The Electric Car Revolution: Winners & Losers (2021) 

77/ The Merchant of Venice (1973, ft. Laurence Olivier) 

78/ The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes: The Master Blackmailer (1992) 

79/ The Signal-Man (1976)

80/ 독전 (Believer- South Korea- 2018)

81/ British, Jewish: Is Anti-Semitism on the Rise? (2021)

82/ Munich (2005) 

83/ Dispatches: Vaccine Wars: Truth About Pfizer (2021) 

84/ 하녀 (The Housemaid- South Korea- 2010) 

85/ Jumanji: The Next Level (2019)

86/ Meet Me in St. Louis (1944) 

87/ The Mezzotint (2021) 

88/ Kong: Skull Island (2017)

89/ Matilda (1996) 

90/ Twelfth Night (1988- Kenneth Branagh)- again 

91/ The Merry Wives of Windsor (1982 BBC) 

92/ Stacey Dooley: Stalkers (2022)- 2 episodes 

93/ Sold: Sex Slaves Next Door (2022)

94/ Squid Game (2021)- season 1, 9 episodes

95/ After Life (2022)- season 3, 6 episodes

96/ The Draughtsman's Contract (1982) 

97/ Vợ ba (The Third Wife- Vietnam- 2018) 

98/ Twelfth Night (1996) 

99/ The Tinder Swindler (2022) 

100/ Room at the Top (1959) 

Sunday 6 February 2022

Twelfth Night: Kenneth Branagh vs Trevor Nunn

I have just watched Trevor Nunn’s 1996 film adaptation of Twelfth Night. I don’t like it. 

As I was watching, I thought something was missing, something wasn’t working—but what was it? I suppose there are three main reasons. 

My fear about Twelfth Night productions or adaptations is that they may perform the play as broad comedy and ignore the melancholic and dark elements in it, which is the problem with Tim Carroll’s production (the popularity of which shows that lots of people don’t really understand Shakespeare). The problem with Trevor Nunn’s film, as it turns out, is the opposite: he emphasises too much on the dark elements and there isn’t much comedy. Twelfth Night is a play where Shakespeare balances very well comedy and melancholy (and cruelty). I don’t think the film gets it right. 

Shakespeare’s Feste is melancholic but still funny and witty. He does join in the partying at the beginning. He does take part in the prank. He does go along with Sir Toby and Fabian, until he realises that they have gone too far, and refuses to give Fabian the letter. Ben Kingsley’s Feste is serious, almost miserable, and the way he and Nigel Hawthorne’s Malvolio stare with hatred at each other in the first scene they’re together makes it too serious too early.

In Kenneth Branagh’s production, Feste is played by Anton Lesser*, and he plays him as someone who is at home in both houses, someone who is both part of the group, and outside it. The production is the closest to my interpretation of the play, especially in its handling of Malvolio. The prank should be funny—at the beginning—it should look like something harmless, turning the pompous killjoy Malvolio into a laughingstock. Shakespeare does what Jane Austen later does with the character of Miss Bates in Emma: we join in the fun and laugh at the character, until we realise it’s not right and feel ashamed of ourselves. That is the way it should be, and Kenneth Branagh achieves that effect in his production. The prank in Trevor Nunn’s film doesn’t seem particularly funny. Perhaps it’s just me, humour is subjective, but the looks that Sir Toby and Feste both give Malvolio before the prank look more like hatred than mere dislike and annoyance, and the prank therefore appears much more serious from the start.

I don’t have anything to say about Nigel Hawthorne as Malvolio. Regarding the cast, Kenneth Branagh’s production gets everything right, everyone is perfect in the role, especially Richard Briers as Malvolio. Malvolio is at the beginning austere and pompous, but by the end, Richard Briers gives him tragic stature—he shows us what could be done with the role of Malvolio. 

The cast is another problem with the 1996 film, though I can’t pinpoint exactly where the problem is. The only person I like is Helena Bonham Carter as Olivia—she is my favourite part of the film—but everyone else doesn’t seem quite right.

For example, Imogen Stubbs** is generally quite good as Viola/ Cesario, especially in the scene with Olivia, but there are two things she gets wrong. The first time is about these lines: 

“VIOLA Make me a willow cabin at your gate

And call upon my soul within the house; 

Write loyal cantons of contemnèd love

And sing them loud even in the dead of night; 

Hallo your name to the reverberate hills 

And make the babbling gossip of the air

Cry out “Olivia!” O, you should not rest 

Between the elements of air and earth 

But you should pity me.” 

(Act 1 scene 5) 

Perhaps there are different ways of interpreting the speech, I personally prefer Frances Barber, who treats these lines as lyrical and moving, so you can see Olivia (Caroline Langrishe) fall in love with Cesario. Imogen Stubbs instead raises her voice and even cries out “OLIVIAAAA”, turning it into a performance like she’s mocking the lines she’s saying (and mocking Orsino’s love), but Olivia then falls for her and it doesn’t seem convincing (or is it the point?).

The other thing is about the duel, but I think it’s Trevor Nunn’s fault rather than Imogen Stubbs’s. We see Viola/ Cesario doing fencing earlier in the film, and in this scene, she seems to be doing all right fighting Sir Andrew Aguecheek. Viola in Shakespeare’s play is no fighter. 

“VIOLA [Aside] Pray God defend me! A little thing would make me tell them how much I lack of a man.” 

(Act 3 scene 4)  

Because Viola in Shakespeare’s play and in Kenneth Branagh’s production seems hesitant and even scared, Sir Andrew Aguecheek and Sir Toby can confidently see Cesario as no threat and attack only to be surprised and beaten up by Sebastian. Imogen Stubbs’s Viola may not a very skilled fencer, but she does attack and seem “enthusiastic”. 

The rest of the cast, except for the brilliant Helena Bonham Carter, is not awful but forgettable, and sometimes something doesn’t feel quite right.

The biggest problem with the film, however, is what Trevor Nunn does with the text. As the play is about 3 hours or so, and the film is a bit more than 2 hours, you can tell that lots of lines are removed and lots of speeches are shortened. That is understandable—I personally prefer to have all of Shakespeare’s text and therefore watch filmed plays—but this is a film adaptation. The more egregious thing he does is that he moves lines and sometimes scenes around, and some are questionable choices, especially the ending. 

Trevor Nunn also adds a scene at the beginning, on the ship, and adds some narration. It’s understandable that he wants to add some context and depict the shipwreck, but I can’t see why he also adds the bit of Viola and Sebastian performing something in front of an audience, with both of them wearing women’s clothes and veils, and underneath the veils, both having moustaches. 

Look at the reunion scene. 

“SEBASTIAN Do I stand there? I never had a brother…” 

(Act 5 scene 1) 

Judging by the amazement and confusion in the entire exchange, I don’t think Sebastian would have already seen Viola with a moustache. 

There are many other things that seem wrong, especially the ending, but I’ve said enough. It is such a disappointment, because I’m obsessed with his Macbeth (Ian McKellen and Judi Dench). Kenneth Branagh’s production, on the other hand, is not only my favourite version of Twelfth Night but one of my favourite Shakespeare productions. It is wonderful, everyone is perfect for the role, and Richard Briers in particular is exceptional. I watched it for the first time at University of Oslo, and watched it again a few months ago. Love it even more. 

*: I love Anton Lesser as Hamlet in the audio recording of the play, to which I listened recently. Fantastic performance. His Hamlet sometimes turns demonic. 

**: She is my favourite Desdemona and I have seen 3 versions of Othello so far. 

Wednesday 2 February 2022

What turns me on

That got your attention, didn’t it? This blog post is, unfortunately, not about sex, but about what I look for when reading, what I value and consider important in literature. 

If you’ve been reading my blog, you’ve probably noticed that I’m interested in details. Not themes, not big ideas, not messages, but details. Some readers only care about the story, some are more interested in structure and the overall shape of a literary work, I myself pay attention to details: descriptions, images, metaphors, motifs, some subtle gestures or moments of things left unsaid—like the glances in Persuasion, light in The House of Mirth, things left unsaid in The Age of Innocence, the asparagus in In Search of Lost Time: Swann’s Way, or the ship motif in Bleak House. I don’t like novels of ideas, moralism, preaching, and spoon-feeding, and don’t particularly like intrusive narrators. All that is the influence of Nabokov. 

But am I an aesthete? Not really, no. Between Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, I prefer Tolstoy (and see myself as a Tolstoy person), but between Tolstoy and Flaubert, or Tolstoy and Proust, or Tolstoy and Nabokov, I’d still pick Tolstoy. I do care about the writing and dislike bland prose (such as Stoner or Sally Rooney), and do love the prose of Melville or Proust or Edith Wharton or R. L. Stevenson, but to me style isn’t everything. I don’t enjoy style and language and wordplay just for the sake of style and language and wordplay; I don’t love metaphors just for the sake of metaphors; to some readers, style alone brings pleasure, style is all, but I’m more interested in what it conveys. 

I’m interested in characters, and the author’s vision. I don’t mean that I identify with characters—characters don’t have to be relatable or likable or strong or sympathetic—but over time, the books that have stayed with me and meant the most to me are the ones with complex, memorable characters. Characters are the reason, over a year later, Hong lou meng has come to mean more to me than The Tale of Genji

Generally speaking, my preference is for multifaceted, psychologically complex characters, characters who are full of contradictions, characters who feel like flesh and blood. That’s why my favourite novelist is Tolstoy, as he can inhabit his characters’ minds and depict the minute changes in their consciousness better than anyone else.

But I do love Dickens’s characters. Many readers complain that Dickens only creates caricatures, two-dimensional characters, but first of all, Dickens does create well-rounded characters (such as Esther Summerson, Lady Dedlock, and Sir Leicester in Bleak House), and more importantly, his two-dimensional characters are brilliant creations with a vivid existence within the world of his books. It is not a failure, but a different approach to characters. The Dickensian caricatures are too striking, too vivid, too individualised to be mere types—Harold Skimpole, for example, is not a type, the way that Monsieur Grandet in Balzac’s Eugénie Grandet is a type (a miser). 

Questions about identity don’t interest me. I don’t read in order to find myself in books (don’t I have enough of myself in my non-reading time?), and don’t need characters to be the same sex, race, nationality, or whatever in order to relate to them. Nor do I necessarily relate to characters who supposedly belong to the same group—this shouldn’t have to be said, but we’re living in a backward age. I’m also not a fan of the Strong Female Character trope, which is tedious and has been done to death.

Rather than identify with characters, I identify with the authors (or try to). The author’s vision is important. I don’t like Elfriede Jelinek or Joyce Carol Oates, for example, for the same reason I don’t like Lars von Trier in cinema: I don’t share their dark, hopelessly bleak view of life and human nature. I don’t get along with Balzac, or at least the author of Eugénie Grandet, because he is cynical and to me, a cynical view of humanity is not a deep view of humanity. I love writers who say yes to life, to borrow Joseph Epstein’s phrase; writers who give me glimpses of beauty when I don’t find it in life. I love writers who see people as complex individuals, not just types or members of a group or products of their environment. 

It’s because of vision (not just style) that I think more highly of, and feel closer to, Jane Austen than George Eliot. I can see that many readers see George Eliot as deeper, larger, and more intellectual, but to me, George Eliot is moralistic and her ethics are built around the central idea of sympathy, whereas Jane Austen’s ethics are more sophisticated—she deals with different moral values and principles, as well as different shades and degrees of the same values, and focuses on introspection, self-understanding, and balance. George Eliot’s greatness is easier to see, Jane Austen is more subtle. 

It’s because of vision that I now prefer Shakespeare to Tolstoy, even though in many ways I have been shaped by Tolstoy. If I have to name Tolstoy’s main fault, it wouldn’t be didacticism, because he’s not as didactic or preachy as people often claim; and it wouldn’t be misogyny, because the artist in him always triumphs over the sexist, and I think Tolstoy is the greatest at writing female characters. Tolstoy’s main problem (which is not in Shakespeare) is his complex and troubled relationship with sex, his unhealthy view of sex, which occasionally gets in the way and interferes with his writing, and in this case, I don’t think the artist in him triumphs.

Having said that, I place Shakespeare and Tolstoy at the top, above everyone else. You may disagree—different readers may value different things in literature. I personally place Shakespeare and Tolstoy at the top because of their depth and breadth, because of their deep understanding of human behaviour and the wide range of characters that they depict, because of their ability to see and understand and depict very different points of view, because of their compassion. That is the quality I value most highly.  

Literature lovers and book bloggers, join in the discussion! Perhaps write your own blog posts (and share the links below). What do you look for when you read? What is important? What do you most value?