30 November 2011

The Devil's Elixirs, by ETA Hoffman

This novel is maximally whacked out. I'm talking Book of Revelations style freakiness. There are visions, and Satan, and Jesus (complete with bloody wounds), and sin and saints and monks and repentance and all that good stuff. The story is phenomenally convoluted - to the point that I pulled out a pen and paper and tried to map out plot lines and relationships at one point and ultimately had to give up because if you're talking about 4 generations of tangled sexual affairs where everyone has the same name, there's no way you're going to be able to sort through it all, and really, it's not that important. Which is all another way of saying that despite getting off to a somewhat slow start, it's a really entertaining book.

The novel details the adventures of Medardus, a young monk, and his travels in the sinful world. He is very quickly plunged into a mistaken identity/doppelganger situation, and that's when things get fun. Hoffman does a terrific job with this - the confusion over who does what is so profound that even the protagonist himself occasionally gets it mixed up, not least because oftentimes, he's so busy trying to pin everything on the doppelganger that he starts believing his own lies. Throughout the text, various characters attempt to straighten out who's who, which means you're constantly hearing different versions of the same story, and it never really makes sense. To complicate it even further, people who seemed to be dead turn out to have miraculously survived, and other people who you thought were living turn out to be ghosts. WHAT FUN.

To add to the mix, there's a complex notion of some kind of curse or fate, a "tangled web" that draws various characters together, generating an unbelievable series of coincidences that result in a relatively small cast of characters that is constantly bumping into each other. To top it all off, there are also a few paintings that look like some of the characters and likewise resurface, which always seems portentous. The relationship between art and life is highly fluid and unstable, and definitely something I need to spend more time thinking about.

The 'elixirs' of the title, though indeed genuinely gifts from the devil, are basically a red herring. They exist, yes, and they serve as a catalyst in some ways perhaps, but they also seem entirely beside the point, because fated doomy doom is kind of a trump card. Initially, the novel seems to be interested in playing with the idea of whether or not they're genuine or psychosomatic, but it quickly moves on to other things. The elixirs do lead to some interesting conversations about sin and free will though. Actually, there are plenty of random philosophical interludes in the novel, the most delightful of which come from a guy named Belcampo (or Peter), a highly artistic barber with multiple personality disorder, who has a tenuous grasp on reality. He's a hoot. Hoffman clearly adores him, and therefore shoehorns him into the plot whenever he can, and while it makes very little sense, you're always glad to see him.

Overall, highly entertaining, in that 19th century kind of way.

I was just reading Freud's essay, 'On the Uncanny,' and came across this:

Hoffman is the unrivalled master of the uncanny in literature. His novel, Die Elixire des Teufel's [The Devil's Elixir], contains a whole mass of themes to which one is tempted to ascribe the uncanny effect of narrative; but it is too obscure and intricate a story for us to venture upon a summary of it. Toward the end of the book the reader is told the facts, hitherto concealed from him, from which the action springs; with the result, not that he is at last enlightened, but that he falls into a state of complete bewilderment. 


29 November 2011

A Dangerous Method

Awhile back I gave my students an optional extra credit assignment - write a brief paper comparing the Iliad to Troy. A few days ago, at the end of class, some students came up to me and asked if they could do another extra credit assignment: "Teacher! There is a new movie about Freud! Can we write an extra credit paper on it?" I expressed my doubts that the movie could genuinely further our understandings of Civilization and its Discontents, but I promised I'd go see it to make sure. I did check it out online, but once I saw that Keira Knightley was in it, I closed my browser - what else you do you need to know? Which means that I didn't realize it was a David Cronenberg movie until the opening credits started. Or that it is allegedly a fantastic film, one that has received quite a bit of praise from A. O. Scott at the NYTimes (I love reading his reviews, but I'm coming to realize that I rarely agree with them). Honestly? I don't get what all the fuss is about. I thought it kinda sucked.

To start with the praise, Keira Knightley is pretty fantastic as a crazy Russian lady. Her accent is consistent, her jaw juts out further than you ever thought possible when she's having fits, and boy can she take a spanking. Viggo Mortensen is practically unrecognizable as Freud - no seriously, I spent 30 minutes trying to figure out if it was him. The brown contacts and beard really threw me off. And does a pretty good job as a kind of bemused guy who is simultaneously very worried about the future of the field he is inventing. Vince Cassel is pretty awesome as a lech. Michael Fassbender is the weakest link, giving an utterly wooden performance as Jung, at turns angsty, determined, or indignant, but always dull.

Cronenberg's touch is pretty visible, but it's kind of hard to explain how. The aesthetic of the film, the way the shots were framed, the shot-reverse-shot-and-now-another-angle way of filming conversations, and the color palette were all somehow very familiar. The keen interest in the various tools and machines and restraints associated with psychiatry was unsurprising. The racy bits (which I guess should qualify as shocking, but they somehow...weren't. I don't know if that says more about me or the film. They just weren't especially thrilling or titillating moments, what can I say), same.

The problem with the movie was the story. You got the sense that the movie couldn't decide what kind of story it wanted to tell - was it the love story between Sabrina and Jung? Was it the relationship between Jung and Freud? Was it the birth of psychiatry? Was it Sabrina's cure? Because it tried to do all of those, and none of them worked out that well. As per usual, the main thing I'd complain about is the utter lack of explanation of or engagement with these peoples' actual ideas, which to my mind is obviously the most interesting thing about them. What did Freud and Jung really disagree about? What was Spielrein's intellectual contribution? She actually gets to discuss sexuality and the death drive with Freud at one point in the film, and intellectually speaking, it's definitely the most rewarding moment in the movie. We also learn at the end that she brought psychiatry to the Soviet Union, which I would LOVE to know more about. Otherwise, it's all vague general stuff. Yes, Jung wants to explore paranormal phenomenon. Ok, tell us more! And what about Freud? We get a glimpse of the ideas that will go into Moses and Monotheism, and of course we get the critique that he's obsessed with sex, but all the reflections on the discovery of consciousness and how to navigate it that A. O. Scott seems to find in the film are the ones that I desperately missed. The first half of the story was somewhat interesting, but the post-intermission stretch* was bo-ring. As it moved into its final moments, it tried to pull out the stops emotionally speaking, which really hammered in just how little I cared about the story and the characters.

*I'm realizing that Turkish cinemas do a bit of a disservice to the films they show, because an intermission gives you the opportunity to actually think about what you're watching, and it's rarely to the film's benefit.

27 November 2011

In Praise of the Sensitive Man and Other Essays, by Anais Nin

I love Anais Nin's erotic fiction and the parts of her diaries that I've read, so when I saw this essay collection at a used bookstore a year ago for $5, I grabbed it. I finally got around to reading it the other day, and I have to say, it was somewhat disappointing. The book hasn't aged too well. It's interesting, perhaps, as a time capsule of feminism in the 1970s, but to a modern day reader, Nin comes off sounding like your typical 70s kooky-lady hippy (I'm sorry, whenever someone talks about women and men discovering their masculine and feminine qualities and how doing so will make the world a better place I kind of die inside). Which is kind of depressing, if you love her other work as much as I do.

It's not that the essays in this collection are bad, actually, the first few are quite lovely. The second one, The New Woman, is a particularly enjoyable discussion of female artists. But even by the end of that, you're starting to feel the sense of a voice from the past. For example, "A woman can be courageous, can be adventurous, she can be all these things. And this woman who is coming up is very inspiring, very wonderful. And I love her." (19) Reading lines like this, I, who flatter myself into thinking that I am in fact an adventurous, courageous woman, kind of feel like I'm being cooed over by an elderly aunt. I love her, and I'm proud of being the person I am, and I'm proud that she's proud of me, but I also can't help but see her as somewhat out of touch. It's definitely a punch to the gut to realize that when Nin was writing, sentences like those were somewhat radical in nature. But they don't really give me much to work with in terms of the world I live in.

The later pieces in the collection, book reviews and excerpts from her diaries (mostly travel writing) are more successful, but not especially amazing. The final piece, My Turkish Grandmother, is really sweet, a wonderful random encounters kind of story that I loved. Overall though, the collection is pretty skip-able.

26 November 2011

Tower Heist

Hmph. The Blogpress app I was so delighted with mysteriously crashed and will not restart, devouring the entry I had written about this movie. So here we go again.

It is quite possible - even highly probable - that my standards have been considerably lowered. But I quite enjoyed this movie. It's not a masterpiece, but it's entertaining, and actually kind of interesting, when you think about it. The star-studded cast - Ben Stiller, Tea Leoni (I love her!), Alan Alda, Eddie Murphy, Matthew Broderick, Michael Pena, Gabourey Sidibe, Casey Affleck - do a great job making the characters three dimensional and sympathetic. It's a welcome pleasure to see Eddie Murphy and Matthew Broderick getting worthwhile employment, and both of them are much more interesting to watch than they have been in recent years (though Matthew Broderick is looking aged, damn). The only real flaw in terms of performance is Gabourey Sidibe's Jamaican accent, which is seriously awful. I mean, you wince every time she speaks. It's unfortunate, because she is otherwise totally beguiling. Point being though, that the cast makes this movie. They transform what could very easily be a somewhat bland run-of-the-mill heist flick into a pleasurable ensemble comedy.

The plot occasionally feels a bit paint-by-numbers, but for all that, it does have some twists and surprises. Or maybe they were only surprising to me. Talking to my friend during the intermission (thank you Turkish cinema for providing us with this moment for reflection, heh heh) I realized that I genuinely don't know what to expect in heist flicks. I mean, it is not obvious to me that the robbers will succeed. Maybe it really is the standard, and I just happen to have seen the few movies where they don't (not gonna name them for the sake of spoiler prevention), but I don't expect a straightforward triumph at the end. Partly, I think, because of the moral ambiguity. I mean, when you think about it, there's a moral tension at play in most heist movies, especially in ones (like this one) where you also have likable characters on the law enforcement side, and that muddies things up in terms of who you're cheering for. I think we no longer straightforwardly root for vigilante justice over the rule of law, so the characters are in a bit of a gray area. And actually, without giving it away I will say that the ending is kind of an interesting compromise, morally speaking.

In this movie, the dynamic is especially weird because it's about a wall street type who has defrauded lots and lots of people, so while you may be cheering for the cast of the building to steal his rainy day fund, you also can't help but be aware that there are other people just like them who deserve their money back (how can this be done legally? what if our heroes, instead of getting stupid rich off his money, were to share it with some of the other people he's ripped off?), and you want Tea Leoni the FBI agent to send his ass to jail.

The emotional undertones of the movie, thanks to the wall street part, are a lot stronger than they would be otherwise. The basic premise is that the staff of this building has lost their pensions because the manager gave it to Alan Alda to invest, thinking they'd make more money that way. The movie pushes the anti-wall street angle pretty hard, particularly in the character of Lester, an 100% likable guy who has worked his entire life and now lost all of his savings because he chose to invest them (this is curiously complimented by a moment where Gabourey Sidibe points out that nobody asked for their savings to be invested, implying that such things should not be subjected to the risks of the market. Ahem.). The close-ups of his face almost remind you of a Walker Evans photograph or something. He is also the moral fulcrum of the film; the outrage over what has happened to him (and his abject misery over it) is what tips the balance in favor of crime for the other characters.

I've gone on long enough about this movie, but one final thing that seems worth pointing out - actually, two. One is that there are some action-type sequences in this movie that blew me away. There is some intense, scary stunt type shit. Way more high tech than I expected, and also genuinely made my stomach flipflop a little. Impressive. The second is that there's a seen in the movie where two characters get really, really wasted, and it was so well done (and well acted) that I was cringing the entire time watching it. For no real reason other than the basic discomfort you feel around someone really wasted - you're on edge, thinking they're about to do something mortifying. And generally being uncomfortable with their boozy honesty. It's not an especially important scene, it just made an impression on me because it's that realistic.

Anyways, overall, I dunno if this is even still playing (or maybe it's due out on video soon, heh heh) but it's not a bad movie. Perfectly entertaining mindless pleasure, and not even totally mindless, if you wanna think about the moral mechanics.

20 November 2011

Go Tell it on the Mountain, by James Baldwin

This is a thundering, intense sort of book about God and sin and race and misery. It's framed as the story of a 14 year old kid and his spiritual awakening (or rather, un-awakening?), but interpollates the stories of other people in his life and their pasts. Curiously enough, that central story wasn't especially interesting to me - the character, Johnny, was strangely hollow, and the scenes of his (awful) family life weren't all that engaging. I was starting to wonder why people love this book so much, and then the perspective shifted to his aunt's story - and I was spellbound.

Perhaps it's uncharitable of me, but I was astonished at how well Baldwin wrote the women in this book. The stories of Johnny's aunt and mother and other women they knew were unbelievably powerful and somewhat devastating. For its bitterly insightful portrayal of black women's experience, the novel deserves to be a feminist classic.

Although the book often, I think, gets read as an indictment of Christianity, I don't think that's quite right. Certainly, it's a pretty harsh critique of the church - especially as institution, but also as this force that essentially serves to further humiliate and degrade people who already have it pretty rough - but I don't think that's the entire story. There's also a kind of acknowledgement of its ability to raise people up, a transformative power of faith. What is more, a large part of the novel's force derives from a rhetoric that is undeniably indebted to religion.

Overall - pretty intense stuff. Baldwin hasn't let me down yet.

18 November 2011

Eline Vere, by Louis Couperus

I had never heard of this novel before a friend recommended it to me, and that is a crime, because it deserves to be one of the great classics of the Realist tradition. Seriously, I'd rank it right up there with Tolstoy and Eliot - it's that good. Ok, it's not Anna Karenina or Middlemarch, but it definitely stands up to Daniel Deronda and The Death of Ivan Ilyich. More than anything, actually, it reminded me of Flaubert, especially in the skillful use of indirect discourse. And apparently Couperus wrote it when he was 26! It's a tightly crafted, marvelous drawing room novel, with gorgeous prose (I read the new translation, by Ina Rilke) and really insightful depictions of human psychology.

One of the pleasures of the book is how the characters mirror each other in these very complex ways, so you have these delicate similarities and contrasts that are wonderfully subtle. It's the best kind of Realism, in my mind - one that manages to evoke all of human nature in this intricate tapestry of a specific cast of characters. People are constantly misreading or misunderstanding each other, and are mostly pretty miserable. It's de-lightful. You have to enjoy torrid romance and handwringing and descriptions like "Her wardrobe, too, was the object of long and earnest meditation, involving the effects and harmonies of the cold sheen of satin, the warmer, changeable shades of silk plush, the froth of tulle and gauze, and the sheerness of mousseline and lace,"* but like I said, the real joy of the book is in the psychological insights. Come for the tulle, stay for the personalities!

I will definitely be reading more Couperus. Incidentally, perhaps worth mentioning that this was my first time reading a book - that I paid for - on my iPad. I'd read some stuff on iPhone before, but all free downloads of old classics, and mostly only when I was working a slow shift at a bakery and not allowed to have a book in front of me, but able to get away with a seemingly innocuous phone. This was my first proper, sit-down-and-read-an-ebook experience. I have to say - it's pretty nice. The Kindle app includes a pretty handy highlighting and note-taking feature, which I begrudgingly admit might even be superior to my usual pencil underlining, particularly given that it's searchable. It turns out that amazon has several other Couperus books available in electronic form (especially key, because the Bilkent library has nothing but the copy of Eline Vere that I ordered two months ago which - of course - arrived today).

*Re-reading those lines, I realize that the pleasure I take in them is purely literary. They don't really conjure up an image so much as a kind of sensation, a vague impression of fabrics that I'm not even terribly familiar with, but have learned to love from novels like this one.

14 November 2011

The Imperfectionists, by Tom Rachman

I had never heard of this book until a friend lent it to me, but thanks to giving my students in-class midterms, I read the whole thing today, and it was de-lightful. Warm, clever, and highly enjoyable. What made it especially interesting to me is the way it is a kind of bridge between the short story and the novel - it's basically a series of interconnected vignettes about a newspaper in Rome, and the people who work there. The stories essentially stand alone (as one reviewer on the back cover gushes, each is worthy of publication in the New Yorker on its own merits - an exaggeration, but only a slight one, really), and what weaves them together is less that various characters resurface here and there, but the overall framing of a single newspaper - whose history is interwoven amongst the various tales in a kind of longer story broken into pieces and sammiched between the rest, forming a kind of giant narrative hoagie (sorry, couldn't resist). At the same time, it's not a novel, and it's kind of interesting to think about why. I think it's because the vignettes are so very short story like - they really only give you the middle of the action, and often end with sudden twists or cliffhangers. It's on the verge of feeling gimmicky, but it's used just this side of sparingly to make it work, not to mention, some real human feeling behind it, rather than the cheekiness of a writer pleased with his own cleverness.

Overall, a really enjoyable book, much recommended.

12 November 2011

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, by David Mitchell

I feel like me and David Mitchell can't get our relationship off the ground. It's like we go on a date, and at first it's amazing and we're having a great time, and then it starts to get kind of meh, and by the end I really just wanna go home and not talk to this dude anymore. Then a few weeks later, I'm like oh yeah, that guy, he was kind of fun, and I call him again, and the same thing happens. Granted, I'm saying this on the basis of only two books, this one and Cloud Atlas, which I read awhile back, but I can feel it becoming a pattern.

The first two thirds of this book were fantastic. Mitchell clearly did a lot of research, and it shows, or rather, it doesn't - the historical milieu (Dutch traders in Japan in the 1790s) is convincingly evoked in what I suspect is highly accurate fashion, but in a subtle, not overly expository way. The characters are life-like, sympathetic, and believable. There's not too much going on in the way of plot, but you're enjoying being there, so you don't mind. But Mitchell wants to have a plot, so by golly, around page 300, the book rumbles to life and gets to work. Suddenly the perspective starts jumping around, and there's all kinds of excitement and intrigue and lots of complicated stuff to keep track of. You went from dinner date to dodgeball and you're not wearing the right shoes. On a different occasion, this could have been fun, but right now, you're not in the mood. By the end you really don't care who wins, you just want it to end. And right when you think it is, you're in the car, you're on the way home and suddenly he's like Oh wait let's just make one more quick stop... No goddamnit. Take me home. I'm done with this book.

This sounds really harsh, so I want to remind you that I did really love the first 2/3 of the book. It was awesome. 1790s Japan is a fascinating setting, and I do feel like I learned a lot more about it. I want to love David Mitchell, because a lot of his writing - like a good 70% - is fantastic. But the other 30% really isn't working for me.

08 November 2011

The Appointment, by Herta Müller

I can't really say this was an enjoyable read. Which is not to say it isn't a good book, because it is, but it's rather relentlessly grim. Every time I put it down, I kind of had to force myself to pick it back up again. The story is of a woman on her way to a meeting with the secret police (the story is set in totalitarian Romania). As she rides the tram, she thinks back on her life. A lot of the prose is actually quite beautiful, but the overall atmosphere is pretty miserable. One has to appreciate how skillfully the author manages to put an entire life, and world, into a tram ride, but gosh, it's not much fun.

07 November 2011

The Orchid Thief, by Susan Orlean

I had the opposite experience with this book than I did with The Professor and the Madman. It was kind of a rambling sort of work without much of an overarching narrative, written on a topic I wasn't all that interested in - but I enjoyed it. Susan Orlean is a good writer, is what it comes down to, and she has a lot of interesting reflections on the material (and a lot of really fantastic turns of phrase - the prose is excellent). The book had just the right amount of introspection, where the personal notes actually helped you see why she found the story interesting, or added some drama (she has to face the swamp again! And she's really scared!) without seeming self-indulgent or narcissistic.

Actually, the most interesting thing about the book, to me, was that more than any other non-fiction I've read, this one gave me a kind of glimpse into how books like this come about. You get the sense that she had read some articles about the court case that the book is ostensibly centered around, and then just sort of got into her car and went to find out more. She wrote a New Yorker article, and then developed it into a book. A nice job, if you can get it...

Though I will say that it occasionally seemed a bit... problematic, the way she wrote about people. I mean, there are some pretty unflattering portrayals in there. I wonder if those people read the book and how they felt. And I guess I wonder whether that should Matter, in some grand sense.

I did not end up with some kind of new fascination with orchids or the people who cultivate them, and to be honest, I also didn't find myself caring all that much about the people being described, but the book was definitely interesting, and merited the full length treatment it got. I wouldn't say it's a must-read, but it's certainly not a waste of time.