27 January 2012

Zayde, by Mme de Lafayette

Nicholas Paige (the editor and translator of a new edition of the book) argues that Zayde is the "last great French romance," and interesting because it is both a romance and a kind of pastiche of one; a book where all the standard tropes and techniques appear, but don't get used in their typical ways. I would perhaps add to this that the techniques, when used, come across as somewhat strained and tiresome. The mistaken identity issue is carried to such an extent that it almost seems like a parody, not to mention, largely unnecessary. As Paige points out, very little actually happens in much of the book. It's quite dull, really, until it picks up about 3/4 of the way in, in a flurry of agitation that feels mostly tiresome.

One thing I found intriguing was the way the book somewhat relied on a mysterious prophecy ("you will marry the man in this painting!"), wavered on its value ("perhaps they can convince her father it doesn't matter!"), made it come true ("you ARE him!" uh... spoiler alert, sorry), then explained the somewhat coincidental chain of events that brought it about ("it was all a ruse!"). Really odd, when you think about it. Undermining the otherworldly, then having it cash out (because maybe it could be kinda true!), then undermining it again. Wacky. Strangely wish-washy for a novel written in the 1660s.

Perhaps more intriguing though - are all romances like this? - is the way that the book almost reads like a philosophical thought experiment conducted to think through how love works. What is true love? What makes two people fall in love? How can jealousy be overcome? How can you ever truly know another person, and do you actually need to, to love them? The novel stages these extensive discussions on the nature of love then promptly acts out the ideas mentioned in them. People pause to tell stories from their past that contain nuggets of wisdom the characters need in order to reform (which they maddeningly don't seem to understand).

Actually, the main sub-plot of the novel, one could say, is on the problem of misunderstanding, or miscommunication. In this, it is perhaps an interesting early fictional work, in that there is a real problem about intelligibility and understanding. The characters are either deceived by other people, or deluded by their love, jealousy, or general emotions. Feelings completely overpower reason in this book, repeatedly. People constantly project their ideas onto others and take them as true. This is especially charming when a guy is falling in love with a woman who doesn't speak his language, and the novel is simultaneously trying to claim that this really is true love (as opposed to all the mistaken cases of love in the story) and illustrating how completely misguided he is in all of his views of her. Pretty thorny, but the novel hardly seems to notice.

Not a bad read, but not an especially exciting one either, I have to say.

23 January 2012

Epitaph for a Small Winner, by Machado de Assis

A friend of mine recommended this to me awhile back, and then a random internet searched revealed that it's one of Woody Allen's favorite books. And I couldn't help but think of that as I was reading, imagining how Woody Allen read it, how it influenced him, etc. It enhances the reading experience, actually - you can kind of see the connection between the novel and Allen's worldview.

 It's a strange book, but quite pleasant. It vaguely reminded me of reading Nathanael West's books, though that might be a misleading comparison. Another friend of mine who's also reading it noted that it reminded him of Tristram Shandy, which is definitely a more logical connection to make, although the postmodern experiments are much more restrained and happily unobtrusive. It's presented as a memoir written after the protagonist's death, and it's a random sort of story, a curiously placid account of an ultimately unsuccessful life. In that though, it's a kind of touching account of the human condition, foiled romances, failed ambitions, abstract philosophical speculations that prove nonsensical and maybe even insane, and yet - contentment. A short read, and a worthwhile one.

21 January 2012

The Artist

Not so long ago, the boyfriend and I were at the Museum of Science and Industry, and stopped at the silent film exhibit to watch a few short movies. They were basically incomprehensible. Partly because the image quality was somewhat shoddy, making it hard to track the actors' expressions. But also because the narrative was extremely difficult to follow. A caption (intertitle?) would appear, setting the scene, and then a bunch of stuff would happen with no hints as to what it meant, and by the time the next words appeared, we had no idea what had happened. I mention this because one of the most impressive aspects of The Artist is that it is a modern day silent film - something I would not really have thought possible.

The opening beautifully sets this up, showing you a silent film, then panning back to show you the audience watching it (and the orchestra playing the score), then the main actor behind the screen, waiting to take a bow. We are thus subtly introduced to the conventions of silent film. When later in the film, the music stops and then launches into the next piece, you kind of envision an orchestra setting down its instruments and turning the pages on the sheet music. It's kind of great.

What is more, the plot is quite easy to follow, despite the fact that you don't get intertitles for every single piece of dialogue. In a lot of cases, you can actually read the actor's lips pretty easily, especially when you essentially know what is going to be said in a given context anyhow. But a lot gets conveyed purely by the expressiveness of the actors' faces. And it makes you realize what gifted actors some of the modern celebrities we've come to know and love actually are - and much better a showcase this movie is for their talents. James Cromwell is generally plays rather taciturn types ("That'll do pig"), so one forgets what a wonderful face he has, and how much it conveys.

The trope of the person who cannot adjust to the transition from silent films to talkies is, I think, a somewhat cliche one, but what makes The Artist so unique is that it illuminates how gradual that transition actually was, and what was lost in the process. The sound pictures of Peppy Miller appear in the movie without sound, and in the process, you kind of see how much the early talkies still relied on the basic format of silent films - they were silent films with sound, as opposed to contemporary cinema, which is essentially an entirely different format. It made me think of that Walter Benjamin argument about steel; how steel was initially used as a replacement for wood, and only later did people come to understand that it could be used to make completely new inventions that no one had ever dreamed of. I think the same could be said for sound in film - early cinema only gradually figured out what it wanted to do, and perhaps one could say it is still figuring that out. This movie, by illuminating some of the advantages of silence, makes the stakes more apparent.

It also, subtly, points out how much more open silent films were to foreign actors. American audiences are probably unfamiliar with Berenice Bejo, the charming star of The Artist. But her filmography on imdb spans for pages - it's just that most Americans don't watch French films. And it's their loss, because she's a delightful actress. She has the most wonderful face - you absolutely fall in love with her from the very beginning, and because it's a silent film, you pay attention to her features in a way you probably wouldn't, in a talkie (also, incidentally, an argument for seeing the movie on the big screen).

The story itself is, as I've said already, a rather worn trope, and it's not an especially new spin on it. It's the form of its delivery that is so fantastic - the medium is the message. The people who gushed over Quentin Tarantino's Inglorious Basterds as a love letter to cinema would do well to watch The Artist and see what such a love letter looks like when done properly. It's a tour de force - a wonderful, thought-provoking movie about movies.

19 January 2012

Shame

I haven't been to an artsy movie in quite awhile, so I might be a little bit out of practice. But...are they always this boring? I had been looking forward to seeing Shame for awhile - I like Steve McQueen, Michael Fassbender, Carey Mulligan, and sex, so I figured it'd be great. And in a strange way it did seem like a good movie, despite having very little narrative and being mostly pretty dull. I want to say a little more about it, and in some sense there will be spoilers, but it's more that I want to run an "explanation" by you and see what you think.

Incidentally, I just checked whether other online reviews discuss this at all and it turns out they do, but for the wrong reasons. So - kind of a spoiler, but not really: to me, this seemed like a movie about the fall-out from incest. I mean, the basic plot is that Fassbender is a sex addict, Mulligan, his sister, shows up and wants to stay in his apartment, they argue a lot, she seems to also have some really messed up relationships and be pretty screwed up emotionally, etc. Now, plenty of people on the Internet are like omg there are scenes of them naked together it's incest!!! Which is dumb. I mean, not having siblings I can't really speak authoritatively about it, but being a degraded European, I don't see anything weird about being naked around your siblings. There is, however, a definite sexual tension (I think) between the two of them, and they both have some serious sexual problems, and some of those problems seem connected to their relationship, which alternates between uncomfortably close (emotionally and physically - in the sense of location, not sex) and rather detached. Also, there's this scene where she says "We're not bad people we just come from a bad place." which seemed to me like an obvious allusion to some secret in their past. Finally - if that is what's going on, it provides some kind of organizing idea for the narrative, which is otherwise pretty aimless and meandering. To say that it's purely about Fassbender's sex addiction doesn't really account for the fact that all the focal points of the plot seem to come back to his sister in some way - even if it's because they're happening while he's avoiding her. So if that's what it's a story about, then there is a point, and it's subtle, and actually quite well done and kind of interesting.

If it's just about Fassbender being a sex addict - I'm not that impressed. McQueen is brilliant at creating a visual subtext - one of the best aspects of the movie is how Fassbender mostly sees women as sexualized body parts; thighs, cleavage, an open mouth. It's extremely well done and actually somewhat disturbing. but the sex addiction story doesn't really do much for me. I guess maybe because I don't find it revelatory that nymphomania might be a rather sordid and unpleasant kind of lifestyle. I don't find it surprising that sex can be totally unsexy and actually rather mechanical and gross, even if it's a threesome with hot women. I mean seriously - have you ever watched porn? Or even that David Duchovny show, Californication?

Much has been made, on the internetz, of a scene where Fassbender meets a nice woman and then is unable to perform. This, to me, was not an especially compelling scene. Again - not surprising that someone accustomed to mindless intercourse might find genuine intimacy hard to negotiate. But the scene also just wasn't entirely believable to me, and it didn't really carry much weight story-wise. I'm glad it wasn't overdone, but I think one would need a bit more insight into Fassbender's mental life to see it as meaningful, because he mostly just exuded a rather undifferentiated anguish throughout, which wasn't all that engaging.

Steve McQueen is an amazing director. You should watch Hunger, if you haven't, because it's phenomenal. Shame isn't really on the required viewing list, but it is a McQueen movie, and as such, there is something kind of mesmerizing about it. It is visually rich, but narratively disappointing.

06 January 2012

The Old English Baron, by Clara Reeve

This book was so lackluster that I completely forgot about it about 5 minutes after I finished it. I read it in one go when the jetlag woke me up at 6am (I have to admit, another pro of e-books - being able to read in bed without disturbing the precious angel snoring beside you), and it was pretty bland. Clara Reeve was a big defender of romance, and the Preface to this book includes a rather preachy explanation of how the "business of Romance is, first, to excite the attention; and secondly, to direct it to some useful, or at least innocent, end" (though she does admit that it "may be abused, and become an instrument to corrupt the manners and morals of mankind"). She cites Castle of Otranto as a major influence, but complains that it's overdone and so exaggerated as to be comical (which she's kind of correct about, but that's also what makes Walpole fun! the campiness of it!), and proposes that her novel will have all the benefits with none of the flaws.

As it turns out, her novel is dull as dishwater, a bland swapped-at-birth sort of story with a little ghosting thrown in. Perhaps it's because I've been reading so many fantastic (by which I mean the mode of writing, not the quality) novels lately; I kept expecting there to be some suspicion as to whether the ghosts were staged, or some acknowledgement that spectres aren't an everyday occurrence, but there was nothing of the sort. They were a thoroughly un-momentous part of the story, largely tangential. The narrative acts as if they brought the mistaken identity story to light, but it seems pretty clear that it could have been uncovered without supernatural invention. Indeed, as is so often the case with these stories (you see the same thing in Henrietta, come to think of it), the clear give-away is the fact that the person in question always strikes everyone as looking (and usually behaving) awfully noble for someone allegedly of the lower classes. This, of course,  subtly reinforces the class divide even as it allegedly muddies it - some people are just born better!

Overall, a pretty unremarkable novel, ironic, given Reeve's passionate defenses of the genre.

03 January 2012

What I Read in 2011

The 10 best things I read in 2011 (in no particular order):

War and Peace, by Leo Tolstoy
 I wrote a post on it, but the long and the short of it is, yes, it really is as good as they say. The 'peace' parts are pretty so-so, but the war parts are so incredible that it's still probably one of the greatest books ever written.

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, by Junot Diaz
Read it, then put it on the syllabus for a class I was teaching a few weeks later and read it again. A touching, funny, and generally wonderful book. The story of an awkward, overweight, comic-book reading nerd, but also a very intelligently done history, of a kind, of the Dominican Republic, and the story of a family. Not the kind of thing I normally go for at all, but this one is so smart and so funny and is really just a joy to read.

A Winter Book, Tove Jansson
Maybe my favorite Jansson book so far. She made my top 10 last year as well - I adore her. This one is also a series of vignettes, but it's about a relationship between two women, and it is a wonderful illumination of the vagaries of love and companionship.

The Imperfectionists, by Tom Rachman
Posted about this one as well - not a masterpiece, but just a very satisfying, pleasant read.

(Not that You Asked), by Steve Almond
Posted about it at length - intelligent, hilarious, and moving. I really enjoyed it.

Anecdotes of Destiny, Ehrengard, Winter Tales, by Isak Dinesen
Yes, I know, this is really a three-for-one. My love for Dinesen's writing is coming to rival the one I have for Tove Jansson. I am pretty much enraptured by every book of hers that I read.

The Marquise of O and Other Stories, Kleist
Posted about it. If you like Kafka, you must read these. They are cryptic and strange but absolutely incredible.

A High Wind in Jamaica, by Richard Hughes
Posted about this one too (I have gotten so much better about doing it regularly!). A-mazing. The more I think about it, the more I appreciate what an utterly brilliant book this is.

Seraph on the Suwanee, Zora Neale Hurston
Posted. It's really messed up in a lot of ways, but it's also an incredible portrayal of love and insecurity.

The last slot is a toss-up between Toni Morrison's Song of Solomon, Chimanada Ngozi Adichie's That Thing Around Your Neck, Rebecca West's Return of the Soldier, Charlotte Lennox's Henrietta, or maybe even Autobiography of Red, by Anne Carson. I can't make up my mind, and I feel like if they don't make the cut, they should at least get an honorable mention.

Full list of what I read after the jump (because it's long, there needs to be a jump.)

02 January 2012

The Children's Book, by A.S. Byatt

I have to confess - I really don't like A.S. Byatt's writing. I really try to appreciate her, but there's something about her books that really irks me. However, she came to the UofC last year and did a reading, and I was very impressed. She's a lively, extremely sharp woman; a real pleasure to listen to. While she was there she read a portion of The Children's Book, and it sounded great. A friend of mine had earlier mentioned loving it, so I figured I'd give it a try. In the last few days I not only gave my students their final exams, I also spent over 24 hours in airports and on planes. So I was actually able to read the entire book in 48 hours. And I enjoyed it, though I still found parts irritating. Certain sentences seem needlessly overcomplicated and just badly written. She uses the word stolid constantly. The plot was engaging but I suspect that if I hadn't gotten to read it in one long go, I would have gotten sick of it. Though Byatt is an extraordinarily astute writer, she also has a bit of a penchant for a kind of melodrama that I find really off-putting, and totally out of keeping with her otherwise high level thoughts.  Still, it's an intelligent book.

In a way, it's a historical novel, evoking turn of the century England and the various political upheavals of the time. The first portion is a somewhat idyllic description of a group of children, the next one is of the adults in their lives and their various sexual misadventures, and the third rather curiously opens with a reflection on why the culture of the early 20th century was so fascinated in the idea of childhood. From there, it chronicles the children and their progress to maturity, and then the first world war. That final portion is where it really leans heavily into rather cliche war-time stuff in a somewhat disappointing way.

One could also see it as a work in the tradition of the great realist novels, a comparison I think it not only invites but also deserves. The sprawling cast of characters occasionally feels ungainly - some of them disappear and resurface in rather awkward ways, where you think "oh, that guy? matter? ooops.", and others seem bloodless and largely irrelevant - but also does a fairly admirable job presenting a whole swath of socio-political issues embodied in actual people. Some of the characters are so convincing that I was genuinely moved when reading about them, though this may be at least partly due to serious sleep-deprivation.

Overall, I'm not a Byatt convert, but I definitely think this is one of her better books.

Carmilla, by Joseph Sheridan LeFanu


I suppose the primary interest of this novella is the fact that Bram Stoker almost certainly borrowed from it quite liberally when writing Dracula. As an early forefather of vampire fiction, it undeniably has an important historical status, but it has to be admitted that Dracula is a much more complex and satisfying read, building on and developing elements of Carmilla into a far more interesting whole. 

But Carmilla is not totally uninteresting. I suppose there are some spoilers ahead, but to be honest, it's not like the plot isn't extremely predictable, so ima go ahead and "ruin" it. The most entertaining thing, to me, about the novel is the fact that Carmilla is pretty forthcoming about her murderous intentions on the narrator. She keeps repeating that she loves her, and that this love will lead to the narrator's death. The narrator declares these odd speeches to be unintelligible, symptoms of some strange illness or general flights of fancy rather than openly expressed death threats. One could reflect, I suppose, on the way love and death are so intertwined as to make this confusion somewhat plausible - but it's really not. Even in the context of the story, Carmilla sounds completely loony tunes, and it's preposterous that the narrator is so blind. 

The other vaguely interesting aspect is the unbelievable clumsiness of the denouement/explanation. After all this suspense and mystery, just when the novella starts planting some clues and making it seem like the family is finally gonna catch on to what's happening - a family friend whose daughter is dead shows up (admittedly, this has been prepped already in the opening, when we first heard about the daughter's death) and relates the story of his child's demise. Whadya know, it is virtually identical to the narrator's own story (ironically, it was the death of this daughter that led to Carmilla being welcomed into the narrator's home!). Mystery solved, next there is a rapid slaying and some pseudo-scientific explanation (couched in terms of an attempt to persuade a skeptical audience and deploying all kinds of scientific language) and boom, the end. 60 pages of build-up, 4 pages of climax and resolution. It might not be quite that extreme, but it's pretty close. 

Like I said - makes you appreciate (and want to re-read) Dracula.

The Marquise of O and Other Stories, by Kleist


Completely amazing. The introduction to the book describes the stories as a "negative expression of the ideals of the Enlightenment" (7), "he constantly presents situations and characters which are disturbingly paradoxical and intractable to rational analysis; they point towards the 'absurdity' of life" (15). My own take on it was rather different (and I aim, in the coming weeks, to investigate whether others have arrived at a similar conclusion): to me, these stories were a kind of anguished yet devout attempt to understand the ways of God. They have a Scandinavian quality to them (this sense was quite possibly heightened for me by the fact that I read them at the same time as I was reading Isak Dinesen's Winter Tales), a dark, fairy tale like style that unflinchingly depicts some of the more vicious sides of life, and presents man as this tragi-comic miniature in a massive cosmic order, inflated with a sense of self-importance that is never entirely misguided, despite the magnitude of that cosmos, because after all, isn't each of us the center of our own universe? 

The stories describe people struggling against a cruel world; victims of nature, God, and other people. Kleist was apparently a big influence on Kafka, and it shows (Michael Kohlhaas in particular has a fantastically Kafka-esque quality, or should I say that it reveals that Kafka had a Kleist-esque one). I'm not going to discuss them story in detail (though I want to), because I refuse to deprive you of the pleasure of discovering them yourself. They are incredible.