Archive | Literature RSS feed for this section

My Favourite Books of 2019

9 Jan

I looked back at the books I had read in 2019 and I found a dozen titles which I felt like sharing with you all, in hope that perhaps one day you might read some of these books too. I wasn’t too pleased with what I’ve read in the previous year, there weren’t that many books which I adored. I am eager to read more, but I am struggling to find something to occupy me completely. So, if you have some suggestions, please, do not hesitate to tell them! A book must transform me completely, leave me breathless as I close it… if I feel the same after 200 pages then what’s the point really?

Casey Child, The Bookstore

1 One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey; a wonderful novel about a wild, free-spirited individualist Randal McMurphy who tries to exploit the system but eventually gets trapped by it. The book starts out in a very amusing, witty way but things start taking a darker turn and the protagonist’s eventual defeat was immensely saddening to read.

2 The Shrouded Woman (La Amortajada) by María Luisa Bombal; is a wonderful short novel or a novella by a Chilean author published in 1938 and it tells a story of a dead woman remembering her life, from her youth, her first loves, the cheerful vibrant days of her childhood, her marriage and her children, her regrets. Reading it felt very poignant and very eerie; she’s not on her deathbed, she is dead. Only through the eyes of a woman dead who talks about her life in the past tense, did I truly feel the joy of my life lived now. I still have time to love! I still have time to not have regrets, to turn wrongs to rights, and in this way it was inspiring and felt like a catharsis.

3 The Final Mist by María Luisa Bombal; I loved “The Shrouded Woman” so much that I just had to read another short-novel by Bombal and it did not fail my expectations. “The Final Mist” begins with newlyweds, Daniel and Regina, arriving into a decaying mansion. It’s raining, and they are not very in love. The main character’s first wife had not been in the grave so long and he had already remarried. Regina is bored and dissatisfied, one day on a walk she wanders into a fog… finds a house… and has a life-transforming encounter with a strong, handsome man, but is he real or not?

4 The Rum Diary by Hunter S. Thompson; with this book it was the film starring Johnny Depp which captivated me immensely. It’s set in Puerto Rico in the late 1950s, the main character is a journalist who comes to the Caribbean from New York. And the best part of all is that all the events were taken from Thompson’s life and experiences. Writing and the protagonist’s lifestyle reminded me of Kerouac’s and I also enjoyed the vibrant descriptions of the Caribbean; the ocean, the palms, the drinking and the politics.

5 Sputnik Sweetheart by Haruki Murakami; yet another fabolous novel by Murakami, about a twenty-two year old girl called Sumire who falls in love for the first time in her short life and she wants to become a writer, she loves Kerouac and tends to start writing a novel but never finishes it. Sumire was relatable, though her love life was certainly not. And also, as much as I adored the beginning, it’s very easy to enjoy Murakami’s writing, I was slightly disappointed with the ending because it seemed less mysterious, as I think the writer intended it to be, it felt like not even Murakami knew just quite how to finish the novel.

6 Shanghai Baby by Wei Hui; this was a book which I repeatedly kept seeing on the bookshelf and the cover intrigued me a lot, and also the fact it was written by a Chinese person. I do enjoy reading books from other countries and continents and thus expanding my horizons. Similar to “Sputnik Sweetheart”, the main character is also a struggling aspiring writer who lives with her boyfriend; a gentle person and a talented artist who is also impotent and an opium addict. China’s opening to the Western culture and the clash of the changes goes hand in hand with the heroine’s personal changes and growth.

7 Marble Skin by Slavenka Drakulić; a novel written in the first person by a now grown up woman who is a sculptor and alarmed by her mother’s attempt of suicide, she returns to her hometown and a tale of her childhood, filled with mother’s coldness and a step-father’s sexual abuse, unravels before the reader. Her love of marble, who coldness she connects with her mother’s character, is woven through the novel.

8 I’m with the band by Pamela des Barres; I’ve known about this book written by a very famous sixties and seventies groupie for a few years now, but it was only last summer that I was so curious and felt like reading it. It was fun seeing the other side of the seemingly glamorous groupie lifestyle; the heartbreaks, the betrayals, the loneliness, and I do feel very differently about it than I had years ago. I am glad I read the book but I do not envy Miss Pamela’s position anymore.

9 Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole; a very dramatic and romantical Gothic novel. I very much enjoyed the drama and the pompous language as well as the black and white characters. And most of all I loved the love-scenes, so subtle yet so over the top in that special Romantic way.

10 Pre-Raphaelites in Love by Gay Dely; this was a book that someone very special recommended to me a few years ago and I finally got my hands on it in 2019. It was just beautiful! Just so beautifully written, loaded with information about the Pre-Raphaelites, comments on their work and most of all, as the title suggests, on their love-life.

11 I Patridge, We Need to Talk About Alan by Steve Coogan; this wasn’t a serious read, naturally, and it wasn’t really a read because it was an audio-book which is available on Youtube, but this was just too funny and too memorable not to include it, specially since I am a fan of Alan Partridge and his sense of humour.

Percy Bysshe Shelley’s Love’s Philosophy is 200 Years Old

22 Dec

My favourite poem by the Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, “Love’s Philosophy”, was published on the 22nd December 1819. I cannot believe that this gem of a poem is 200 years old, yet it feels so youthful and fresh, like the first clear skies in spring. English critic and poet Leigh Hunt published the poem in the 22nd December 1819 issue of the newspapers “The Indicator”, which he edited from 1819 to 1821. Then later, in 1824, Mary Shelley published the poem again in the “Posthumous Poems”. The beautiful, innocent mood of the poem was inspired by the poems of the Greek poet Anacreon which celebrated love. The second generation of Romantic poets; Shelley, John Keats and Lord Byron, looked up to the Classical world, the Romans and the Greeks, for inspiration, wisdom and Beauty.

Jean-Honoré Fragonard is well-known for his paintings of stolen kisses, secret meetings, coquetry, indolence and frivolities in romantic garden settings, but this painting here, called “The Souvenir” is announcing the Romantic vibes which took over the European art in the late eighteenth century. The girl is alone in the woods, carving the name of her Beloved in the tree so every living creature in the nature can know the secret of her heart. Her pet dog, usually seen as a symbol of fidelity in art, is observing her. Look how pretty her pink dress is, and how delicate the whole scene is. I can imagine this girl would love Percy Shelley’s poem.

Jean-Honoré Fragonard, The Souvenir, 1776-8

Love’s Philosophy

The fountains mingle with the river,
And the rivers with the ocean;
The winds of heaven mix forever
With a sweet emotion;
Nothing in the world is single;
All things by a law divine
In one another’s being mingle-
Why not I with thine?

See, the mountains kiss high heaven,
And the waves clasp one another;
No sister flower could be forgiven
If it disdained its brother;
And the sunlight clasps the earth,
And the moonbeams kiss the sea; –
What are all these kissings worth,
If thou kiss not me?

Lermontov – Happiness is…. being in a cornfield

28 Nov

Autumn is passing, never to return… at least not this year, and December’s cold fingers are touching the landscape, transforming the fields of corn and wheat which shone in gold to desolate spaces where silence resides, save for the moments when the crows hold ominous yet chatty meetings. Today, this little poem by the Russian Romantic poet Mikhail Lermontov, called “When, in the cornfield” is on my mind. It was written in 1837, when the poet was in his twenty-third year and is an example of a Romantic poet’s love of nature, which seems to be the only place a Byronic hero such as Lermontov can find joy and calmness which people and society do not offer. I don’t think one necessarily has to visit a corn field and walk about it seeking joy, but really any place in nature will surely evoke such sweet, serene feelings. Life seems easier when we see how effortless and slow everything is in nature, yet everything is accomplished. “Nature does not hurry, yet everything is accomplished.” (Lao Tzu) If nature can take things slow and be beautiful in every season, so can we, be it sadness or joy, flowers or snow….

“My heart is losing troubles and distress  —

And I can apprehend the happiness on earth…”

George Clausen (1852-1944) View of a lady in Pink standing in a cornfield, 1881

When, in the Cornfield…

When, in the cornfield, yellow waves are rising,

The wood is rustling at the sound of soft wind,

And, in the garden, crimson plums are hiding

In pleasant shade of leaves, so shining ones and green;

 

When, spilled with fragrant dew in calmness of the alley,

In morning of a gold or evening of a red,

Under the bush, the lily of a valley,

Is gladly nodding me with silver of her head;

 

When the icy brook in the ravine is playing,

And, sinking thoughts in somewhat misty dreams,

In bubbling tones secretly tale-telling

Of those peaceful lands from which it gaily streams  —

 

Then wrinkles are smoothing on my knitted brow,

My heart is losing troubles and distress  —

And I can apprehend the happiness on earth,

And see Almighty in the heavens now…

Picture found here.

Picture by Julia Starr.

Mikhail Lermontov – A Hero of Our Time

19 Nov

“I was prepared to love the whole world, but no one understood me, and I learned to hate.”

Christina Robertson, Grand-Duchesses Olga and Alexandra, Daughters of Nicholas I, 1840

I first read Mikhail Lermontov’s fascinating novel “A Hero of Our Time” a few years ago and absolutely loved it and had so much fun reading it, especially the part called “Princess Mary”. The main character, a young man called Pechorin is very witty and his comments and remarks about the world, love, people around him are very amusing, and I can agree with him to some extent. I was literally laughing whilst reading it, some dialogues are just hysterical.

Lermontov wrote the novel in 1839 and it was published in 1840. A year later, Lermontov was dead. At the age of twenty-seven. How romantical!? To die in a duel at that age. The novel is divided into five parts, not in chronological order, and the part I love the most, called “Princess Mary”, is from Pechorin’s diary and it starts with his arrival to Pyatigorsk one beautiful day early in May. It starts with a lyrical description of nature in Caucasus and its effect on Pechorin’s state of mind and soul: “YESTERDAY I arrived at Pyatigorsk. I have engaged lodgings at the extreme end of the town, the highest part, at the foot of Mount Mashuk: during a storm the clouds will descend on to the roof of my dwelling. This morning at five o’clock, when I opened my window, the room was filled with the fragrance of the flowers growing in the modest little front-garden. Branches of bloom-laden bird-cherry trees peep in at my window, and now and again the breeze bestrews my writing-table with their white petals. The view which meets my gaze on three sides is wonderful (….) A feeling akin to rapture is diffused through all my veins. The air is pure and fresh, like the kiss of a child; the sun is bright, the sky is blue—what more could one possibly wish for? What need, in such a place as this, of passions, desires, regrets?

Grigory Gagarin, Ball, 1832

But very quickly Pechorin goes into society and the reader is introduced to other characters of whom Pechorin writes candidly; a fake sentimental cavalier Grushnitski, young, handsome and shallow emotions. This is how Pechorin describes him: “he has no knowledge of men and of their foibles, because all his life he has been interested in nobody but himself. His aim is to make himself the hero of a novel. He has so often endeavoured to convince others that he is a being created not for this world and doomed to certain mysterious sufferings, that he has almost convinced himself that such he is in reality. Hence the pride with which he wears his thick soldier’s cloak. I have seen through him, and he dislikes me for that reason, although to outward appearance we are on the friendliest of terms.” Grushnitski is therefore the opposite of Pechorin; the feelings of the former are shallow, while the latter hides the depth of his emotions and keeps them to himself. There is a clear similarity between Pushkin’s characters of Eugene Onegin who is a superflous man and Pechorin who is one also, and their counterparts: Pushkin’s character Vladimir Lensky is a naive romantic and is similar to Grushnitski.

Karl Bryullov, Horsewoman, 1832

A superflous man is a Russian version of a Byronic hero; Lermontov even mentions Lord Byron in his poetry and throughout the novel. Just like Byronic Hero, a superflous man is full of contradictions; he feels superior to his surroundings, yet he does nothing to put his talents and intelligence to good use, he is profound and has deep emotions but the society’s shallowness and superficiality has forced him to hide these deeper feelings because the world wouldn’t understand them. Prone to self-destruction, plagued by boredom, and possessing a sense that life in its core has no real meaning; all these things drive superflous men such as Eugene Onegin and Pechorin to travel aimlessly or indulge in flirtations that mean nothing to them. As long as the afternoon is pleasantly spent, true intentions of the heart don’t matter.

Duels, flirtations, gossips; this novel has these things in abundance and Pechorin simultaneously sees the emptiness of such a life, but nonetheless indulges in it because his cynical worldviews prevent him from believing in sincerity and love.

Ah, love, yes! What would a Romantic novel be without it. Pechorin gives women little reason to love him, and yet they do, but he gives a clear cynical justification for that: “Women love only the men they don’t know.” That is certainly true for these kind of novels; it’s the mystery of a man which is alluring to sweet, naive maidens because they then attribute all sorts of noble qualities to noblemen they’ve only seen from afar, and spoken maybe a few sentences with. Pechorin is led by the same selfish desire as Eugene Onegin was when he gave poor Tatyana false hopes and that is because to Pechorin nothing has meaning, he cherishes nothing, so how could he apprehend that things do matter to other people:

I often ask myself why I am so obstinately endeavouring to win the love of a young girl whom I do not wish to deceive, and whom I will never marry. Why this woman-like coquetry? Vera loves me more than Princess Mary ever will. (…) There is, in sooth, a boundless enjoyment in the possession of a young, scarce-budded soul! It is like a floweret which exhales its best perfume at the kiss of the first ray of the sun. You should pluck the flower at that moment, and, breathing its fragrance to the full, cast it upon the road: perchance someone will pick it up! I feel within me that insatiate hunger which devours everything it meets upon the way….

Princess Mary Ligovski doesn’t have a soul as deep and pure as Pushkin’s Tatyana, for after all, she is a haughty and well-educated young lady from Moscow who read Lord Byron’s work in English and knows algebra. Such a girl is not to messed with. It’s interesting to note that Pechorin started flirting with her only after Grushnitski admitted to him his secret affections for her. A superfluous man isn’t satisfied until he ruins and taints someone else’s prospects for happiness. And is he truly satisfied then? No, sadly, he is never satisfied, for to him life is but a pointless string of events, each more dull and less meaningful than the previous one, until sweet death comes. In one discussion in French with Grushnitski, Pechorin says “My friend, I despise women to avoid loving them because otherwise, life would become too ridiculous a melodrama.

Karl Bryullov, The Shishmareva Sisters, 1839

In contrast to Princess Mary’s blind, youthful infatuation with Pechorin, it is another woman, Vera, a faithful beauty from Pechorin’s past who absolutely adores him. Mary fell for Pechorin because he is “tall, dark and handsome”, mysterious, alluring – and he doesn’t seem to be captivated by her which serves only as a motivation for her to win him over. He is the romantic hero that she has only read of, in dreary winter afternoons in Moscow. But Vera loves him deeply, even though their paths in life went differently, and even though she is married…. for the second time and not to him. Though she might be someone else’s wife on paper, her heart belongs to Pechorin only. She tells him, blushing, as they sit together in nature: “You know that I am your slave: I have never been able to resist you… and I shall be punished for it, you will cease to love me! At least, I want to preserve my reputation… not for myself—that you know very well!… Oh! I beseech you: do not torture me, as before, with idle doubts and feigned coldness! It may be that I shall die soon; I feel that I am growing weaker from day to day… And, yet, I cannot think of the future life, I think only of you… You men do not understand the delights of a glance, of a pressure of the hand… but as for me, I swear to you that, when I listen to your voice, I feel such a deep, strange bliss that the most passionate kisses could not take its place.

And Pechorin later praises Vera’s depth of character: “Vera did not make me swear fidelity, or ask whether I had loved others since we had parted… She trusted in me anew with all her former unconcern, and I will not deceive her: she is the only woman in the world whom it would never be within my power to deceive. I know that we shall soon have to part again, and perchance for ever. We will both go by different ways to the grave, but her memory will remain inviolable within my soul. I have always repeated this to her, and she believes me, although she says she does not.

Naive, silly goose, that is what Mary Ligovska is, to think that this dark and mysterious man will give up his cynicism and freedom to marry her. Pechorin makes his views on marriage quite clear: “…over me the word “marry” has a kind of magical power. However passionately I love a woman, if she only gives me to feel that I have to marry her—then farewell, love! My heart is turned to stone, and nothing will warm it anew. I am prepared for any other sacrifice but that; my life twenty times over, nay, my honour I would stake on the fortune of a card… but my freedom I will never sell. Why do I prize it so highly? What is there in it to me? For what am I preparing myself? What do I hope for from the future?… In truth, absolutely nothing.

Natalia Pushkina, Portrait by Alexander Brullov, 1831

Here is a conversation between Pechorin and Vera which amused me so:

She gazed into my face with her deep, calm eyes. Mistrust and something in the nature of reproach were expressed in her glance.

“We have not seen each other for a long time,” I said.

“A long time, and we have both changed in many ways.”

“Consequently you love me no longer?”…

“I am married!”… she said.

“Again? A few years ago, however, that reason also existed, but, nevertheless”…

She plucked her hand away from mine and her cheeks flamed.

“Perhaps you love your second husband?”…

She made no answer and turned her head away.

“Or is he very jealous?”

She remained silent.

Mikhail Lermontov, Self-portrait, 1837

And to end, here is my favourite passage from the novel which I find totally relatable:

Everyone saw in my face evil traits that I didn’t possess. But they assumed I did, and so they developed. I was modest, and was accused of being deceitful: I became secretive. I had a strong sense of good and evil; instead of kindness I received nothing but insults, so I grew resentful. I was gloomy, other children were merry and talkative. I felt myself superior to them, but was considered inferior: I became envious. I was ready to love the whole world, but no one understood me, so I learned to hate. My colorless youth was spent in a struggle with myself and with the world. Fearing mockery, I buried my best feelings at the bottom of my heart: there they died.”

Pushkin – The Flowers of Autumn Days

14 Nov

Autumn rose, picture found here.

The Flowers of Autumn Days

The flowers of autumn days

Are sweeter than the firsts of plains.

For they awaken an impression,

That’s strong, although it may be sad,

Just as the pain of separation

Is stronger than the sweet of date.

Lermontov: I see a coffin, black and sole, it waits: why to detain the world?

6 Nov

A beautiful melancholy poem that the Russian Romantic writer Mikhail Lermontov wrote in 1830 when he was fifteen going on his sixteenth year. This little poem already shows Lermontov’s sadness and disillusionment in life and the world around him, and, looking back, these kind of little teenage poems were the seed which eventually grew into his novel “A Hero of Our Time” which was published in 1840.

“Years pass me by like dreams.”

Friedrich von Amerling, Young girl, 1834

Loneliness

It’s Hell for us to draw the fetters

Of life in alienation, stiff.

All people prefer to share gladness,

And nobody – to share grief.

 

As a king of air, I’m lone here,

The pain lives in my heart, so grim,

And I can see that, to the fear

Of fate, years pass me by like dreams;

 

And comes again with, touched by gold,

The same dream, gloomy one and old.

I see a coffin, black and sole,

It waits: why to detain the world?

 

There will be not a sad reflection,

There will be (I am betting on)

Much more gaily celebration

When I am dead, than – born.

Poem found here.

Andrea Kowch – I’m so glad I live in a world where there are Octobers

27 Oct

October is nearing its end. One more beautiful October leaving us slowly, leaf by leaf, sunset by sunset, until November replaces it in the calendar. November will turn the dazzling October’s glowing leaf carpets of orange and gold in parks and woods into a gloomy mass of rotting brown leaves, and even the pink sunsets will turn an ominous shade. But while the wonderful October – a time of witches, ghosts, pumpkins, ravens, haunted castles is still here, I will be so self-indulgent and take a moment to celebrate it with a few beautiful magic realism paintings by a contemporary artist Andrea Kowch.

Andrea Kowch, Soiree, 2019

Love of the countryside is something that connects the paintings of Andrea Kowch and the literary character of Anne Shirley Cutberth, the chatty red-haired freckled orphan heroine of L. M. Montgomery’s novel “Anne of Green Gables”; the first of the series of novels about Anne. There’s a slight difference though; Anne’s idyllic sunny Avonlea is transformed, through Anne’s vivid imagination, to an almost fairy tale place, whimsical, innocent and full of wonders to be discovered, with weeping willows, a shining lake, dreamy ethereal apple blossoms white as the bride’s attire on her wedding day, golden birches, meadows and woods, whereas the countryside world in Kowch’s paintings is always tinged with mystery and eerie foreboding, there are secrets and tales yet to unravel hidden behind the static frozen moments captured in her paintings. Imagination is what connected these different visions of the countryside life and scenery. Kowch’s paintings are painted realistically, but have a dreamlike quality and that’s something I adore. Space and figures in her artworks are painted in a detailed, precise way and every motif is carefully planned to symbolise something and combined all together the story is woven. In the artists own words: “There’s a subtle tension that I like to create in my work, that leaves things open to interpretation, for viewers to attribute their own unique experiences to it. (…) Each image is a story that I just want people to delve into.“(*)

My appreciation of Kowch’s paintings definitely doesn’t stop at their aesthetically pleasing nature, their physical beauty which comes from colours and compositions that appeal to my eyes, no, the appreciation goes way deeper when it comes to her art. There is definitely a sense of mystery, a subtle tension as she calls it, and there is plenty of room for interpretation. Since the artist herself allows interpretation, I will gleefully accept this opportunity. Kowch’s recent work “Soiree” caught my attention a few weeks ago. A pale, auburn haired girl dressed in old-fashioned vintage clothes is sitting on a blanket on a meadow and having a picnic by herself… well, she isn’t all alone, though she has no human company, there are crows and a little dog to share the moment and the delicious food with her. cookies, grapes, a pie. Porcelain dishes clanking. Clouds are thick and heavy, getting darker as they float the sky slowly. The trees and the dark house in the background look unwelcoming.

Crows are such mischievous wild things! They have no sense of decorum, is this the way one behaves at a picnic? It seems like the girl is in her element, for the strangeness hasn’t written the look of surprise on her calm face. She is holding a cup and looking ever so slightly reproachfully at the crow standing at the cherry pie. This could be Anne Shirley, not at her real picnic, but at the imaginary one. I can see her; baking the pie, in the kitchen, apron tied around her dull grey dress without puffed sleeves and she is looking at the dark and rolling skies in the distance, above the chicken coop and the cheery tree and this is what she is daydreaming about; a picnic with crows. Oh, the stories she could tell them! And how they would laugh, and how they would understand all the big, pompous words that adults around her do not.

Andrea Kowch, In the Hollow

Here is a beautiful and fun passage from “Anne of Green Gables” which shows Anne’s love of nature in autumn and her enthusiasm for nature and everything around her in general, from chapter sixteen:

OCTOBER was a beautiful month at Green Gables, when the birches in the hollow turned as golden as sunshine and the maples behind the orchard were royal crimson and the wild cherry trees along the lane put on the loveliest shades of dark red and bronzy green, while the fields sunned themselves in aftermaths.

Anne reveled in the world of color about her.

“Oh, Marilla,” she exclaimed one Saturday morning, coming dancing in with her arms full of gorgeous boughs” ‘I’m so glad I live in a world where there are Octobers. It would be terrible if we just skipped from September to November, wouldn’t it? Look at these maple branches. Don’t they give you a thrill—several thrills? I’m going to decorate my room with them.”

“Messy things,” said Marilla, whose aesthetic sense was not noticeably developed. “You clutter up your room entirely too much with out-of-doors stuff, Anne. Bedrooms were made to sleep in.”

“Oh, and dream in too, Marilla. And you know one can dream so much better in a room where there are pretty things. I’m going to put these boughs in the old blue jug and set them on my table.”

Andrea Kowch, On the Point, 2010

And to continue the Anne-theme, here is another passage from the Chapter five where Anne speaks ecstatically about seagulls which are also on Andrea Kowch’s painting above:

Isn’t the sea wonderful?” said Anne, rousing from a long, wide-eyed silence. “Once, when I lived in Marysville, Mr. Thomas hired an express wagon and took us all to spend the day at the shore ten miles away. I enjoyed every moment of that day… I lived it over in happy dreams for years. (…) Aren’t those gulls splendid? Would you like to be a gull? I think I would–that is, if I couldn’t be a human girl. Don’t you think it would be nice to wake up at sunrise and swoop down over the water and away out over that lovely blue all day; and then at night to fly back to one’s nest? Oh, I can just imagine myself doing it.