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Sándor Petőfi: Wilt thou, who now dost on my breast repose, not kneel, perhaps, to morrow o’er my tomb?

27 Oct

Today I wanted to share my new poetic discovery: Sándor Petőfi, a Romantic Hungarian poet and a revolutionary whose national fervour and patriotism eventually led him to his doom, but also to his glory. Romanticism arrived a bit late to the Austro-Hungarian Empire and was closely tied to patriotism and national revival; each country in the vast empire sought to define its individuality; its national history and traditions. Petofi fits the theme of central European Romanticism and the two of his main poetic themes are romantic love and love for his country. He was of Slovak or Serbian ancestry, but he wrote in Hungarian and fought for the Hungarian language to be the language of the theatre and literature instead of German. As a true Romantic hero, he led a short and turbulent life and went missing at the age of twenty-six after the Battle of Segesvár in 1849; he was presumed dead but who knows when he actually died… His poems are the mirrors of the politically turbulent times he lived in and he died in the very manner he wished, as expressed in his poem “The Thought Torments Me”:

When every nation wearing chains
Shall rise and seek the battle-plains,
With flushing face shall wave in fight
Their banners, blazoned in the light:
“For liberty!” Their cry shall be;
Their cry from east to west,
Till tyrants be depressed.
There shall I gladly yield
My life upon the field;
There shall my heart’s last blood flow out,
And I my latest cry shall shout.

In 1846, in Transylvania he met an eighteen year old maiden Júlia Szendrey and, charmed by the beauty of her countenance which matched the beauty of her mind and soul, Petofi instantly fell in love and they married the same year. His parents didn’t approve and their marriage was short anyway. Like her husband, Júlia was also a poet, and a writer and translator. She spoke a few foreign languages, loved the poetry of Heinrich Heine and the writings of George Sand, loved dancing and playing the piano but she was also a private and modest person who didn’t like sharing her talents with the world. They seem like a perfect Romantic couple, with the perfectly short, intense and tragic marriage ended by a mysterious disappearance in battle and probable death. It sounds like a story one would read in a work of Schiller or Lermontov.

Giuseppe Molteni, Desolate at the Loss of her Lover, 1850

Poem “At the End of September” is written in a truly Romantic manner because it ties the themes of love and death that all Romantics loved so much. In the first stanza Petofi slowly introduces the theme of transience through a visual imagery of the changing of seasons, and even compares the arrival of winter to his hair slowly turning grave. The transience of spring and summer goes hand in hand with the passing of his youth, and the arrival of winter is tied with the impedimence of his death. I love how melancholy and melodramatic he is, wanting to know whether his beloved will weep over his grave, but then the poetic imagery turns a darker mood and we see the poet returning from the death’s vale at midnight… These poems satisfy all my poetic needs. Just seeing the words and expressions in the poem such as “broken heart”, “bleeding heart”, “tomb”, “weep”, “tears”, “death”, “mournful”, makes me swoon!

At the End of September

The garden flowers still blossom in the vale,

Before our house the poplars still are green;

But soon the mighty winter will prevail;

Snow is already in the mountains seen.

The summer sun’s benign and warming ray

Still moves my youthful heart, now in its spring;

But lo! my hair shows signs of turning gray,

The wintry days thereto their color bring.

This life is short; too early fades the rose;

To sit here on my knee, my darling, come!

Wilt thou, who now dost on my breast repose,

Not kneel, perhaps, to morrow o’er my tomb?

O, tell me, if before thee I should die,

Wilt thou with broken heart weep o’er my bier?

Or will some youth efface my memory

And with his love dry up thy mournful tear?

 

If thou dost lay aside the widow’s vail,

Pray hang it o’er my tomb. At midnight I

Shall rise, and, coming forth from death’s dark vale,

Take it with me to where forgot I lie.

And wipe with it my ceaseless flowing tears,

Flowing for thee, who hast forgotten me;

And bind my bleeding heart which ever bears

Even then and there, the truest love for thee.

Matthew James Lawless, Dead Love, 1862

“Wilt thou, who now dost on my breast repose,

Not kneel, perhaps, to morrow o’er my tomb?”

Petofi’s poems often bring to mind romantic imagery, typically romantic themes of love and death mingle freely in his verses and I decided to illustrate the poem with the drawing “Dead Love” from 1862. Victorian era artist Matthew James Lawless is little known today because he died young, at the age of twenty-seven, and his career never had a chance to take off. The drawings that he left definitely show a talent and a romantic imagination which ties him to the Pre-Raphaelites, and therefore I think the mood of his drawing fits the mood of Petofi’s poem. And now a poem which continues with the theme of love but here love is tied with another motif Petofi loves: fighting for liberty.

My Wife and My Sword

Upon the roof a dove,
A star within the sky,
Upon my knees my love,
For whom I live and die;
In raptures I embrace
And swing her on my knees,
Just as the dewdrop sways
Upon the leaf of trees.

But why, you’ll surely ask,
Kiss not her pretty face?
It is an easy task
To kiss while we embrace!
Many a burning kiss
I press upon her lip,
For such a heavenly bliss
I cannot now let slip.

And thus we pass our day,
I and my pretty wife,
Beyond all rare gem’s ray
Is our gay wedded life.
A friend, my sword, it seems,
Does not like this at all,
He looks with angry gleams
Upon me from the wall.

Don’t look on me, good sword,
With eyes so cross and cold,
There should be no discord
Between us, friends of old.
To women leave such things,
As green-eyed jealousy:
To men but shame it brings,
And you a man must be!

But then, if you would pause
To think who is my love,
You’d see you have no cause
At all me to reprove.
She is the sweetest maid,
She is so good and true;
Like her God only made,
I know, but very few.

If thee, good sword, again
Shall need our native land,
To seek the battle-plain
Will be my wife’s command.
She will insist that I
Go forth, my sword, with thee,
To fight, if need to die,
For precious liberty!

Sandor’s wife Julia Szendrey (1828-1868).

Arthur Rackham’s Illustration for The Oval Portrait by Edgar Allan Poe

7 Oct

“All that we see or seem is but a dream within a dream.”

Arthur Rackham, “The Oval Portrait,” Tales of Mystery and Imagination, 1935

One of my favourite stories by Edgar Allan Poe is “The Oval Portrait”; it’s short and sweet, and its main theme is art and the artist. When, by serendipity, I found this gorgeous illustration of the story by Arthur Rackham the other day I knew that it was a sign from the universe to write about it today because today is the anniversary of Poe’s death. The doomed poet died in Baltimore on the 7th October 1849 at the age of forty; the last days of his life were as mysterious as the man himself. In a wonderful biography, Peter Ackroyd wonders: “No one knew where he had been, or what he had done. Had he been wandering, dazed, through the city? Had he been enlisted for the purposes of vote-rigging in a city notorious for its political chicanery? Had he suffered from a tumour of the brain? Had he simply drunk himself into oblivion? It is as tormenting a mystery as any to be found in his tales.”

The mystery of the story “The Oval Portrait” is, as the title suggests, about a portrait of a beautiful woman. The story starts as a Gothic tale with an unnamed narrator who seeks safe shelter form the rain in an old castle. Before falling asleep in one of the old bedroom he becomes enamored with a portrait of a beautiful young woman on the wall. The plot quickly switches from the narrator to the story about the portrait itself and its history, again there’s “the most poetic topic in the world” according to Poe himself; the death of a beautiful woman, a pale wistful bride who, adoring and obedient, died as a sacrifice for her mad artist husband who cared for nothing else but his art. Arthur Rackham was a very prolific and imaginative artist so I am not surprised that he portrayed this scene from the story so wonderfully.

Rackham portrayed the tower-chamber setting accurately and the high windows only add to the lonesome feeling of the tower. The light of the day is entering the chamber sparingly. We cannot see the forests and moors around the castle. Instead the space feels hermetic and secluded from the outside world. It’s almost like a theatre stage; the painter, the pale model and the Portrait are the only figures on this stage of life. A stone wall on one side and the draped curtains on the other are the background to the scene. Rackham depicts the background with equal detail as he does the figures; the wooden floor, the stone wall, the shadow of the easel and the gorgeous fabric are all so detailed and life-like. The portrait in Rackham’s illustration seems unfinished, but perhaps the vagueness is the desired look. Anyhow, the lady’s face in the portrait does look like the face that might haunt a man at night if he saw it on the wall of his chamber, stranded in the desolate castle while the rain is beating against the windows.

The costumes that the Painter and the damsel are wearing bring back the spirit of gone-by days. The Painter’s necklace and his hair are reminiscent of Van Dyck’s portraits, and the lady’s golden ringlets, pearl necklace and her silk dress with puffed sleeves look as if they were stolen from the royal portraits of Louis XIV’s mistresses. Rackham chose to depict the last and the most thrilling part of the story; the moment when the Painter finishes his portrait and realises that his beautiful young wife is death, or, to quote the story directly: “the painter stood entranced before the work which he had wrought; but in the next, while he yet gazed, he grew tremulous and very pallid, and aghast, and crying with a loud voice, ‘This is indeed Life itself!’ turned suddenly to regard his beloved:- She was dead!”

Here is the last part of the story which describes the story behind it:

She was a maiden of rarest beauty, and not more lovely than full of glee. And evil was the hour when she saw, and loved, and wedded the painter. He, passionate, studious, austere, and having already a bride in his Art; she a maiden of rarest beauty, and not more lovely than full of glee; all light and smiles, and frolicsome as the young fawn; loving and cherishing all things; hating only the Art which was her rival; dreading only the pallet and brushes and other untoward instruments which deprived her of the countenance of her lover. It was thus a terrible thing for this lady to hear the painter speak of his desire to pourtray even his young bride. But she was humble and obedient, and sat meekly for many weeks in the dark, high turret-chamber where the light dripped upon the pale canvas only from overhead.

But he, the painter, took glory in his work, which went on from hour to hour, and from day to day. And be was a passionate, and wild, and moody man, who became lost in reveries; so that he would not see that the light which fell so ghastly in that lone turret withered the health and the spirits of his bride, who pined visibly to all but him. Yet she smiled on and still on, uncomplainingly, because she saw that the painter (who had high renown) took a fervid and burning pleasure in his task, and wrought day and night to depict her who so loved him, yet who grew daily more dispirited and weak. And in sooth some who beheld the portrait spoke of its resemblance in low words, as of a mighty marvel, and a proof not less of the power of the painter than of his deep love for her whom he depicted so surpassingly well.

But at length, as the labor drew nearer to its conclusion, there were admitted none into the turret; for the painter had grown wild with the ardor of his work, and turned his eyes from canvas merely, even to regard the countenance of his wife. And he would not see that the tints which he spread upon the canvas were drawn from the cheeks of her who sate beside him. And when many weeks bad passed, and but little remained to do, save one brush upon the mouth and one tint upon the eye, the spirit of the lady again flickered up as the flame within the socket of the lamp.

And then the brush was given, and then the tint was placed; and, for one moment, the painter stood entranced before the work which he had wrought; but in the next, while he yet gazed, he grew tremulous and very pallid, and aghast, and crying with a loud voice, ‘This is indeed Life itself!’ turned suddenly to regard his beloved:- She was dead!”

Book Review: Romaji Diary by Takuboku Ishikawa

27 Aug

“Alone and awake in the metropolis where the entire race of men was fast asleep, I realized, as I kept track of the breathing of others during that quiet spring night, how meaningless and trivial my life was in this narrow three and-a-half-mat room.”

Kasamatsu Shiro (1898-1991), Rainy Evening at Shinobazu Pond, Tokyo, 1938

In the beginning of August I finally started reading a book which intrigued me immensely: “Romaji Diary and Sad Toys” by Takuboku Ishikawa. A single quote compelled me to read the book because it spoke to me: “How I wished to go somewhere. I walked on with this thought in mind. I wanted to ride a train. That was my thought. I wanted to ride somewhere, anywhere, with no destination in mind and to a place I have never been before.” Takuboku Ishikawa (1886-1912) was a Japanese writer mostly remembered for his tanka and his free-style poems. He died in April 1912 from tuberculosis at the age of twenty-six, tragically too soon, so we can’t know how his literary talents would flourish had he lived longer. The “Romaji Diary” is Ishikawa’s diary written in Japanese but in Latin script (in Japanese it’s called “romaji”) so his wife couldn’t understand it. Ishikawa continues the long literary tradition of keeping a diary which originated in the ninth century.

The diary starts on 7 April and ends on 16 June 1909. We are instantly in the mind of a young person in a big bustling city of Tokyo; a person who is alienated, brooding, slightly cynical, a tad melodramatic and completely honest with himself. Ishikawa’s thoughts and writing style made me think of both Osamu Dazai’s “No Longer Human” which isn’t a diary but is written in the first person, and Kafka, whose letters I have read and enjoyed. Kafka in Japan; Kafka amongst cherry blossoms. Nothingness and loneliness, bring to mind the early days of Manic Street Preachers and I am sure that Richey Edwards, who appreciated Japanese literature and brooding heroes, would appreciate the Romaji Diary as well. One of the recurring topics throughout the diary is the topic of his responsibility towards his family which conflicts with his literary aspirations; I would of course chose the latter and so I can easily empathise and understand how the family and the sentimentality around it can drag an artist down. I also enjoyed that Ishikawa mentions Russian writers and characters from Russian novels because I love some of them too. But now, let me speak no more, here are the quotes which I enjoyed the most and they will show you the style of the diary and Ishikawa’s thoughts:

Alone and awake in the metropolis where the entire race of men was fast asleep, I realized, as I kept track of the breathing of others during that quiet spring night, how meaningless and trivial my life was in this narrow three and- a-half-mat room.
What will I look like when, sleeping all alone in this narrow room, I am overcome by some indescribable exhaustion? The final discovery of man is that he is far from great. Such a long time in this narrow room, nursing a weary anxiety and a foolish desire to seek out, by force if necessary, something to interest me— more than two hundred days have come and gone. When will I be able to… No!
Lying in bed, I read Turgenev’s short stories.

Hiroshima Koho – Night View of Ohashi Bridge

When I clasp a warm hand and smell the powerfuI fragrance of a woman’s hair, I am not satisfied with that: I want to embrace a soft and warm and perfectly white body. Oh, the feeling of loneliness when I go back home without fulfilling that desire! It’s not merely a loneliness stemming from unfulfilled sexual desire; it’s a deep, terrible, despairing realization which forces me to see that I am unable to obtain anything I want.”

“I’m exhausted now. And I’m searching for freedom from care. That freedom from care, what’s it like? Where is it? I can’t, even in a hundred years, return to the innocent mind free from pain that I had long ago. Where is peace of mind?
“I want to be ill.”
(…) Oh, for a life of freedom, released from all responsibility! “I wish my family would die!” Even though I’ve desired that, no one dies. “I wish my friends would regard me as their enemy.” For that I wish too, but no one regards me seriously as their foe. All my friends pity me. God! Why am I loved by others? Why can’t I hate men with all my soul? To be loved is an unbearable insult! But I’m tired. I’m a weakling!”

“I ran my fingers over the strings of a samisen I found hanging on a wall, and the upshot was I took the instrument down and clowned around with it. Why had I done such a thing? Was I in high spirits? No! Somehow the feeling overwhelmed me that there wasn’t a place in the entire world for me. “I have a headache, so just for this one night I’ll enjoy myself.” These words weren’t true. So what was I searching for? A woman’s body? Saké? Probably neither. If not, what? I myself didn’t know. My self-consciousness made my mind sink even deeper. I didn’t want to fall into the terrible abyss. Nor did I want to return to my room: it was as if some disgusting thing were waiting for me there.”

Benkei Bridge – Tsuchiya Koitsu, early 20th century, Japan

“And though I can’t endure the pain of this life, I’m unable to do anything about that life. Everything is restraint, my responsibilities heavy. What am I to do? Hamlet said, “To be or not to be.” But the question of death in today’s world has become much more complicated than in his time.”

I know now that I have no confidence, that I have no aim, that from morning till night I’m driven by vacillation and anxiety. I have no fixed point in me. What will become of me? A useless key that does not fit! That’s me! Wherever I bring myself, I can’t find the keyhole that fits me!
Dying for a smoke!”

“Everything changes according to the way you look at it,” Obara had said. “People think that day by day they are shortening the fifty or sixty years allotted to them, but I believe life means adding one more new day after each succeeding day, so the passing of time doesn’t pain me in the least.”
“When all is said and done, the happy person is someone like you. A person like you can feel assured deceiving himself in such a way,” I had replied.

George Sand: My soul ravished by the music and the beauty of the sky

17 Aug

A few days ago I started reading George Sand’s autobiography called “Story of My Life” and I am really enjoying it so far. It follows her life from birth up to the Revolution of 1848. It was originally published in 1854. I particularly enjoyed this little passage about the wonders of music that little Aurore (that was her real name) had experienced for the first time. It is written in such a way that it instantly made me daydream so I chose a painting that depicts a dreamy scene of girl gazing at the moon. Can you not feel the music in the air?

Johann Peter Hasenclever, Die Sentimentale, c. 1846-47

A memory which does date from my first four years is that of my earliest musical response. My mother had been to see someone in  village near Paris, I do not know which village. The apartment was very high up, and from the window, as I was too small to see down to the street, I could only distinguish neighboring housetops and a large expanse of sky. We spent part of the day there, but I paid attention to nothing else, so absorbed was I by the sound of a flute which played a flock of tunes that I found wondrous all the time we were there. The sound was coming from one of the highest garrets, quite far away, for my mother could hardly hear it when I asked her what it was. As for me, my hearing was apparently finer and more sensitive at this period, and I did not miss a single modulation of this little instrument—so piercing from nearby, so sweet at a distance—and was charmed by it. It seemed to me I heard it as in a dream. The sky was cloudless and a sparkling blue, and those delicate melodies seemed to soar over the rooftops as far as heaven itself. Who knows if it wasn’t an artist of superior inspiration who, for the moment, had no other attentive listener but me? It could just as well have been a cook’s helper who was learning the themes from Monaco or Les Folies d’Espagne. Whoever it was, I experienced indescribable musical pleasure, and I was truly ecstatic in front of that window, where for the first time I vaguely understood the harmony of external things, my soul being ravished alike by the music and the beauty of the sky.

As I Crossed a Bridge of Dreams…

3 Aug

“Night after night I lie awake,

Listening to the rustle of the bamboo leaves,

And a strange sadness fills my heart.”

(As I Crossed a Bridge of Dreams)

Japan | takaphilography

A week or so ago I finished reading this wonderful little book whose title alone lured me from the bookshelf of a dimly lit library: As I Crossed a Bridge of Dreams. How alluring is that title!? As I took the book into my hands and flipped the pages, it was as if I were instantly transported to the world of dreams, the quotes spoke to my heart and I knew right away this book was a treasure. And what a delight, in warm summer nights, with the nocturnal music of cicadas and rain, to read a diary of a young girl, later a young woman, living in the 11th century Japan. Lady Sarashina was born in 1008 at the height of the Heian Period, at the same time when Sei Shonagon was writing her “The Pillow Book” which I love, and she spent most of her life in Kyoto. As a child, she is utterly dreamy and obsessed with reading tales and daydreaming of a charming, handsome prince that she will meet one day and the wonderful life she will have.

Timid, withdrawn and hypersensitive, little Sarashina feels deep sorrow after her sister dies and her step-mother leaves, and the same poignancy is seen in her experience of nature, especially the sight of the moon and red leaves of the trees in autumn. As she grows up, she finds that she doesn’t want to participate in the world and that her dreams are more fulfilling. She tries being a court lady for awhile but is a failure because she is too dreamy to participate in the court life. Eventually, at the age of thirty-six she marries a middle-class man and has three children. It is assumed that she started writing the book at the age of forty-nine, just after her husband had died. Perhaps, with this huge loss that brought a change to her life, she started thinking about lost times and again sank into the deep, wild sea of dreams.

Maples and River by Ogata Kenzan, Edo Period, 18th century; Look at those maples leaves, falling down in the river like bright red stars!

“Though it was already the end of the Tenth month when we crossed Mount Miyaji, the maple leaves were still in their height.

So the storms have not yet come to Mount Miyaji!
For russet leaves still peacefully adorn the hills.”

Ogata Kenzan, Autumn Ivy, after 1732; Notice the gorgeous gradient colours of the leaves; from brown to green, red to orange, just mesmerising…

I lived forever in the dream world. Though I made occasional pilgrimages to temples, I could never bring myself to pray sincerely for what most people want. I know there are many who read the sutras and practice religious devotions from the age of about seventeen; but I had no interest in such things. The height of my aspirations was that a man of noble birth, perfect in both looks and manners, someone like Shining Genji in the Tale, would visit me just once a year in the mountain village where he would have hidden me like Lady Ukifune. There I should live my lonely existence, gazing at the blossoms and the Autumn leaves and the moon and the snow, and wait for an occasional splendid letter from him. This was all I wanted; and in time I came to believe that it would actually happen.

Kobayashi Kiyochika, Autumn leaves in Sangoku, 1914

“The trees in our garden grew as thickly as those that spread their darkness at the foot of the Mount Ahigara, and in the Tenth month we had a blaze of red leaves, like a rich covering of brocade, which was far more impressive than anything on the surrounding hills. A visitor to our house mentioned that he had passed a place with some magnificent red foliage and I improvised:

What can excell this garden where I dwell
In my autumnal weariness?”

Toyohara Chikanobu, Autumn Leaves, 1897

Lady Sarashina’s disinterest in the real world around her is also evident in her descriptions of her travels; her knowledge of geography was limited and sometimes flawed, but she writes with ardour about a field of poppies, a sea of mist, or the beauty of the waves hitting the shore. She saw life through a poetic lense and real life facts and data had little meaning to her. Over time, she comes to regret wasting her life in dreams and wishes that instead she had invested more time in her spiritual growth, but in a way this is yet another escapism because monks live in the own world, away from society and its troubles. By engaging in spiritual concern, Sarashina could once again escape reality, just like Anais Nin. Needless to say that I find Lady Sarashina’s thoughts and reveries very relatable and I find it very poignant that a thousand years ago a girl lived who is so much like me and who could understand me like no one else does know. I can only imagine how lonely she felt in her reveries, since people mostly think that fantasising is a waste of time. Little do they know how pleasant it is … to cross the bridge of dreams and pass the time in that pleasant, other-world.

Shibata Zeshin, Autumn Grasses in Moonlight, 1872

“That evening we stayed in Kuroto Beach, when the white dunes stretched out far in the distance. A bright moon hung over the dense pine groves, and the wind soughed forlorny in the branches. The scene inspired us to write poems. Mine was:

Had I not stayed awake this night
When should I have seen the moon –
This Autumn moon that lights Kuroto Beach.”

Utagawa Hirshige II, Autumn Moon at Ishiyama Temple (Ishiyama shûgetsu), from the series Eight Views of Ômi (Ômi hakkei), 1859

“Late one nights towards the end of the 8th month I gazed at the wonderful dawn moon illuminating the dark cluster of trees and the mountainside, and I listened to the beautiful sound of a waterfall.

“If only I could share this moon
With one whose feelings are like mine –
This moon that lights the mountain village in the Autumn dawn!”

Poetry of Catullus – Let Us Live and Love

25 Jun

These days I was enjoying the poetry of the Roman poet Catullus (84-54. B.C) who wrote in the neoteric style of poetry, that is, the style of his poems was emotional, intimate, relatable and full of ardour, and he chose to focus, not on heroes and gods as was the norm, but on his personal life, often mentioning his friends in his poems. Poems such as his 5th Poem are written for and about a woman he loved called Clodia Metelli whom Catulus calls “his Lesbia” out of affection. Catullus’ poems follow the path of his falling in love, from the first ardour to disappointment and bitterness. This mix of lyrical beauty and honest emotions is what gives Catullus’ poetry a lasting appeal; after he was rediscovered in the Middle Ages other poets such as Petrarca and later even the Romantics loved his poetry. As a visual companion to Catullus’ poetry, these softly sensual paintings by John William Godward come to my mind; the warm colours, the Medditeranean shrubs and flowers, the cypresses, oleanders and the sea, the curves of female body stretched on marble and fur, these indolent girls with gorgeous long hair and flimy see-through gowns and the dolce far niente mood is just captivating. I must also add how much the line “bright were the suns that shone once for you” from Poem 8 reminds me of these lines “Once, if I remember well, my life was a feast where all hearts opened and all wines flowed” from Rimbaud’s “A Season in Hell”; both is a lament for the old good times.

John William Godward, Dolce Far Niente, 1906

Poem 5

“Let us live and love, my Lesbia.
Here’sa copper coin for the criticism
of elderly men with exalted morals.
Suns have the power to set and return.
Our light is brief and once it fails,
we have to sleep in the dark forever.
Give me a thousand kisses, a hundred,
another thousand, a second hundred,
a thousand again, a hundred more
until we ourselves lose track of the score,
confusing the kissing count as a sly
method of thwarting the evil eye.”

John William Godward, Girl in Yellow Drapery, 1901

Poem 8

“Poor Catullus, stop playing the fool!
Seeing that something has died, deem it dead.
Bright were the suns that shone once for you,
the times you followed the girl everywhere.
No girl will ever be loved more than she.
Many amusing things happened then,
things you wished and the girl never spurned.
Suns most certainly shone bright for you.
Now she turns her back. Do the same!
Give up your hopeless pursuit! End your grief !

Endure with a resolute mind. Steel yourself.
Girl, Catullus has now steeled himself.
Farewell! Rejected, he makes no appeal.
But you’ll be sorry when all courtship ends.
What kind of life, you whore, waits for you?
What man will come and sing beauty’s praise?
Whom will you love and whose girl be called?
Whom will you kiss? For whom bite the lips?
But you, Catullus, be firm. Steel yourself.”

The Days and Nights – Short Stories by Fumiko Hayashi – Now in Paperback

20 Jun

“Obscured by the rain, Mount Fuji was not visible the entire day. But I knew that the moment the sky cleared, a massive mountain would appear before my eyes. As I looked out from the second floor, within the twilight mist a verdant, green cornfield stretched far into the distance.”

(Fumiko Hayashi, The Tryst)

Tsuchiya Koitsu, Evening Glow at Lake Sai, 1938

Last spring and this spring I had the pleasure of reading and reviewing two short story collections, “The Downfall and Other Stories” and “The Days and Nights” by a Japanese writer Fumiko Hayashi (1903-1951), translated by J.D.Wisgo. All the short stories were really beautiful and thoughtful, slightly tinged with melancholy, and the atmosphere conveyed in the stories lingers in your room long after you close the pages of the book. The author’s writing style is what really appeals to me, but the choice of motives is interesting as well. Hayashi writes about themes such as loneliness, fate, love, nostalgia and desolation in a way that is both simple and yet deep and thoughtful, the heaviness and lightness of life, the main theme of Milan Kundera’s novel “The Unbearable Lightness of Being”, are beautifully combined in Hayashi’s short stories as well. The lives of the characters in her stories are often set in the urban post-war Japan and this gives not only an interesting historical portrait of the times but also a haunting background for the character’s lives; their unique troubles, sadnesses and indecisivness about love and life are set against universally tragical times. When you read those stories, it is easy to see why Fumiko Hayashi is considered one of the most important twentieth-century female Japanese authors. All the stories from the short story collections I talked about above are now united in a single paper-back edition, plus an additional short story called “The Tryst”. All together nine beautiful short stories and you can check them out here. Let me end this short post with a quote from the story “The Tryst”:

We wanted to lie together like this, even for a short while, resisting the fate that was trying to leave us behind. It felt like we were gripping tightly to each other, refusing to let go. I thought that at least for this moment, god would take pity on our honest, glittering souls. (…) We had no time to really decide anything; nor did we have a desire to trick the world and stay together. (…) Believing that a happy ending would never come to two people like us, I was also comforted by the fact we were beyond the age of worrying needlessly about a dark future. I can just feel it – happiness…

All in all, if you love short stories and Japanese literature, I am sure you will enjoy these shorts stories. You can check out the translator’s word on his blog: Self Taught Japanese and Goodreads page.

Mary Wollstonecraft’s Visit to Deserted Palace of Versailles in 1792

9 Jun

At the moment I am reading Charlotte Gordon’s book “Romantic Outlaws: The Extraordinary Lives of Mary Wollstoncraft and Her Daughter Mary Shelley”. It’s a wonderful, informative and beautifully written dual biography about Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley; a mother and daughter who never quite got to know one another as Mary Wollstonecraft died in 1797, just one month after her daughter Mary was born. Mary Godwin Shelley grew up without her mother, without even a memory of her, but the idea of her mother haunted her throughout her entire life. Both Marys were passionate and intelligent rule-breakers and so the title “Romantic Outlaws” is more than fitting. I am slowly savouring the book, chapter by chapter, and I love the rhythm of the book; one chapter is about Mary Wollstonecraft and the next about Mary Shelley and that makes the story even more exciting.

Claude-Louis Châtelet (1753-1795), The Temple of Love at Versailles, 18th century

In the chapter eighteen it’s the spring of 1792 and we find the thirty-three year old Mary Wollstonecraft living in the middle of a revolutionary Paris, witnessing the cruelty of the revolution that is taking a darker turn than anyone had anticipated, and yet, in the middle of all the riots, dangers, violence and uncertainty, she falls in love for the first time: with Gilbert Imlay. Mary decides to move to a little cottage in Neuilly, just outside Paris and, in a restless, dreamy and romantic mood Mary starts going on long walks hoping that exercise and walking will distract her mind from constant yearning and pining for her beloved. On one such walk Mary visits the lonely and abandoned palace of Versailles and this passage from the book was very atmospheric and melancholy to me:

Undeterred, Mary roamed through the nearby fields, even trekking eleven miles to Versailles. She would be one of the last to see the deserted palace before the royal furniture was auctioned off later that summer. It was still very much as it had been when the king and queen lived there, though the halls echoed with emptiness. The “air is chill,” she wrote, “seeming to clog the breath; and the wasting dampness of destruction appears to be stealing into the vast pile on every side.” It was an eerie experience, walking alone through the Hall of Mirrors, the War Salon, the Hercules Room, the queen’s chambers. She felt surrounded by ghosts: the “gigantic” portraits of kings “seem to be sinking into the embraces of death.” Outside, all of the famous grottoes and statues were still there, including Marie Antoinette’s “Temple of Love” and her infamous “farm,” the petit hameau, where she and her ladies had dressed as shepherdesses and milked the prettiest, most gentle cows the servants could find. But now the grass was overgrown and the flowerbeds unweeded. Mary was both shocked and saddened by what she saw, writing, “I weep, O France, over the vestiges of thy former oppression.” Yet while she disapproved of the opulence of Versailles, its glorification of kings and their armies, she was also appalled at the reports she heard about the Jacobins’ abuse of power, killing people “whose only crime is their name.” Hope lay in freedom, she believed, not in tyranny, whether the tyrants were republican leaders or monarchs.

I wish I could travel back in time and take a walk through a deserted palace and gardens of Versailles, oh I’d love to linger around for a while, pine for the lost times, like a true nostalgic, admire the loveliness of it all, seek for the ghosts in the deepest, darkest corners of the once great salons and halls…. This little passage truly makes it seems like Mary had witnessed an end of an era; the Rococo, with its emphasis on joys, pleasures, fun, flirtations and games, was gone. It seems that no century had such love for the sweetness and pleasures of life as much as the eighteenth century. The Revoution seems like an end of a sweet rosy dream.

Claude-Louis Châtelet, Plan du jardin et château de la Reine, before 1790

In the ninth chapter of the book Mary eloped with Percy Bysshe Shelley and they went to Paris:

But when they arrived in the capital on August 2, 1814, dusty and tired, fraternité and liberté were nowhere to be found. They checked into the unprepossessing Hôtel de Vienne on the edge of the Marais and roamed through the city streets, disappointed to find most Parisians war-weary and cynical. Napoleon’s defeat earlier that year, a relief to many as it meant the end of the war, was also a blow to French honor. No one was preaching revolution anymore. Many of the people they met were royalists, eager to restore French gloire. Justice and freedom were passé. The martyred revolutionaries Madame Roland and Charlotte Corday, so inspirational to Mary when her friend Isabella had talked about them in Scotland, were long dead. And so, for that matter, was Mary Wollstonecraft.

It’s funny how in 1792 the revolutionaries were mad for blood and revenge, and in 1814 no one cared anymore about the justice and liberty. How quickly the fires of the revolution die out…

Artists in Literature: Amy March from Little Women

4 Jun

Louise May Alcott’s coming of age novel “Little Women”, first published in two volumes in 1868 and 1869, is a well-known and well-loved book, especially nowadays with many film versions and series being made. The novel follows the lives of four sisters, Meg, Jo, Amy and Beth, from their teenage years to their adult lives. The girls’ personal trials and growing pains are intertwined with the social hardships and tribulations that came with social events such as the Civil War. Amy March, the third sister, starts the novel as a vain, self-obsessed little girl occupied with all things of elegance and beauty, and as the story progresses Amy grows up to an elegant young lady who is still occupied with Venusian things but her obsession with personal beauty transcends into a love of Beauty in art and she eventually goes to study art in Paris with her aunt. The twenty-sixth chapter from the book called “The Artistic Attempts” deals with Amy’s growing pains of being an artist and I think it is very interesting because we rarely have artists as characters in a book.

“…mistaking enthusiasm for inspiration, she attempted every branch of art with youthful audacity.”

Amy March in Little Women (2017)

Here are the passages from the book:

It takes people a long time to learn the difference between talent and genius, especially ambitious young men and women. Amy was learning this distinction through much tribulation, for mistaking enthusiasm for inspiration, she attempted every branch of art with youthful audacity. For a long time there was a lull in the ‘mud-pie’ business, and she devoted herself to the finest pen-and-ink drawing, in which she showed such taste and skill that her graceful handiwork proved both pleasant and profitable. But over-strained eyes caused pen and ink to be laid aside for a bold attempt at poker-sketching. While this attack lasted, the family lived in constant fear of a conflagration, for the odor of burning wood pervaded the house at all hours, smoke issued from attic and shed with alarming frequency, red-hot pokers lay about promiscuously, and Hannah never went to bed without a pail of water and the dinner bell at her door in case of fire. Raphael’s face was found boldly executed on the underside of the moulding board, and Bacchus on the head of a beer barrel. A chanting cherub adorned the cover of the sugar bucket, and attempts to portray Romeo and Juliet supplied kindling for some time.

Winslow Homer, Incoming Tide, Scarboro, Maine, 1883, watercolour on paper

From fire to oil was a natural transition for burned fingers, and Amy fell to painting with undiminished ardor. An artist friend fitted her out with his castoff palettes, brushes, and colors, and she daubed away, producing pastoral and marine views such as were never seen on land or sea. Her monstrosities in the way of cattle would have taken prizes at an agricultural fair, and the perilous pitching of her vessels would have produced seasickness in the most nautical observer, if the utter disregard to all known rules of shipbuilding and rigging had not convulsed him with laughter at the first glance. Swarthy boys and dark-eyed Madonnas, staring at you from one corner of the studio, suggested Murillo; oily brown shadows of faces with a lurid streak in the wrong place, meant Rembrandt; buxom ladies and dropiscal infants, Rubens; and Turner appeared intempestsof blue thunder, orange lightning, brown rain, and purple clouds, with a tomato-colored splash in the middle, which might be the sun or a bouy, asailor’s shirt or a king’s robe, as the spectator pleased.

John Singer Sargent, Woman with Bow, 1887, Charcoal and graphite on off-white laid paper

Charcoal portraits came next, and the entire family hung in a row, looking as wild and crocky as if just evoked from a coalbin. Softened into crayonsketches, they did better, for the likenesses were good, and Amy’s hair, Jo’s nose, Meg’s mouth, and Laurie’s eyes were pronounced ‘wonderfully fine’. A return to clayand plaster followed, and ghostly casts of her acquaintances haunted corners of the house, or tumbled off closet shelves onto people’s heads. Children were enticed in as models, till their incoherent accounts of her mysterious doings caused Miss Amy to be regarded in the light of a young ogress. Her efforts in this line, however, were brought to an abrupt close by an untoward accident, which quenched her ardor. Other models failing her for a time, she undertook to cast her own pretty foot, and the family were one day alarmed by an unearthly bumping and screaming and running to the rescue, found the young enthusiast hopping wildly about the shed with her foot held fast in a pan full of plaster, which had hardened with unexpectedrapidity. With much difficulty and some danger she was dug out, for Jo was so overcome with laughter while she excavated that her knife went too far, cut the poor foot, and left a lasting memorial of one artistic attempt, at least.

Claude Monet, The Studio Boat, 1876

After this Amy subsided, till a mania for sketching from nature set her to haunting river, field, and wood, for picturesque studies, and sighing for ruins to copy. She caught endless colds sitting on damp grass to book ‘a delicious bit’, composed of a stone, a stump, one mushroom, and a broken mullein stalk, or ‘a heavenly mass of clouds’, that looked like a choice display of featherbeds when done. She sacrificed her complexion floating on the river in the midsummer sun to study light and shade, and got a wrinkle over her nose trying after ‘points of sight’, or whatever the squint-and-string performance is called.

If ‘genius is eternal patience’, as Michelangelo affirms, Amy had some claim to the divine attribute, for she persevered in spite of all obstacles, failures, and discouragements, firmly believing that in time she should do something worthy to be called ‘high art’.

An Unfortunate Lily Maid: Anne of Green Gables and Lady of Shalott

2 May

Anne was devoured by secret regret that she had not been born in Camelot. Those days, she said, were so much more romantic than the present.”

John William Waterhouse, The Lady of Shalott, 1888

“With a steady stony glance—
Like some bold seer in a trance,
Beholding all his own mischance,
Mute, with a glassy countenance—
       She look’d down to Camelot.
It was the closing of the day:
She loos’d the chain, and down she lay;
The broad stream bore her far away,
       The Lady of Shalott.”
(Lord Tennyson)

What connects Elaine, The Lady of Shalott; a beautiful and doomed heroine of Arthurian legends and Lord Tennyson’s poem of the same name published in 1832, and Anne Shirley Cuthbert; a freckled, red-haired eleven year old orphan girl from Lucy Maud Montgomery’s well-know and well-loved children’s novel Anne of Green Gables? Elaine lived in the dark and magical Medieval times, in a tower, weaving her embroidery and gazing at the world through a mirror, and Anne lives on a beautiful Prince Edward Island in the late nineteenth century. Elaine suffered a romantical death from a curse that fell upon her, and Anne would give everything for such a tragical, romantical fate. “An Unfortunate Lily Maid”, chapter twenty-eight of Anne of Green Gables, holds answers to our questions. The thing that connects Anne with Elaine is the same thing that connects me and Elaine, me and The Smiths, Modigliani, Manics etc: fascination and adoration.

John William Waterhouse, The Lady of Shalott, Sketch, Pencil, watercolour and bodycolour

“But in her web she still delights
To weave the mirror’s magic sights,
For often thro’ the silent nights
A funeral, with plumes and lights
       And music, came from Camelot:
Or when the moon was overhead
Came two young lovers lately wed;
‘I am half sick of shadows,’ said
       The Lady of Shalott.”
John Everett Millais, The Lady of Shalott, 1854

Anne is a very dreamy, romantic, and imaginative girl who spends a lot of time fantasising and daydreaming about some other times and places, dreamier than her reality, even though, ironically, whilst reading the novel the reader will likely daydream about her time and place as more dreamy and romantical than our present. It is very easy to see what a heroine such as Elaine would appeal to Anne’s vivid imagination and romantic inclinations. If fate wasn’t as kind as to make Anne a princess from some fairy tale or a maiden from some Medieval romance, then acting is the second bets alternative and that is what Anne does in chapter twenty-eight. Along with her friends Diana, Ruby and Jane, Anne decides to lie in a boat, holding an iris flower instead of a lily, and float down the river “for ever and ever….” as Syd Barrett sings beautifully in the song “See Emily Play”. But of course, as it goes in Anne’s life, something goes wrong and a very dreamy situation becomes comical. Here is the passage from the book:

Of course you must be Elaine, Anne,” said Diana. “I could never have the courage to float down there.”

“Nor I,” said Ruby Gillis, with a shiver. “I don’t mind floating down when there’s two or three of us in the flat and we can sit up. It’s fun then. But to lie down and pretend I was dead—I just couldn’t. I’d die really of fright.”

“Of course it would be romantic,” conceded Jane Andrews, “but I know I couldn’t keep still. I’d be popping up every minute or so to see where I was and if I wasn’t drifting too far out. And you know, Anne, that would spoil the effect.”

Walter Crane, The Lady of Shalott, 1864

It is almost amusing how Anne thinks it is ridiculous for a redhead girl to play Elaine because Lord Tennyson had described Elaine’s locks are golden. The most beautiful portrayal of the Lady of Shalott is the one painted in 1888 by John William Waterhouse and she is painted with masses of beautiful coppery red hair, clearly a legacy of the Pre-Raphaelites who had a penchant for red hair. It goes to show how life imitates art, for as soon as something is glamorised in art, it becomes fashionable in life as well. This was just a little digression. Here is how the passage continued:

“But it’s so ridiculous to have a redheaded Elaine,” mourned Anne. “I’m not afraid to float down and I’d love to be Elaine. But it’s ridiculous just the same. Ruby ought to be Elaine because she is so fair and has such lovely long golden hair—Elaine had ‘all her bright hair streaming down,’ you know. And Elaine was the lily maid. Now, a red-haired person cannot be a lily maid.”

“Your complexion is just as fair as Ruby’s,” said Diana earnestly, “and your hair is ever so much darker than it used to be before you cut it.”

“Oh, do you really think so?” exclaimed Anne, flushing sensitively with delight. “I’ve sometimes thought it was myself—but I never dared to ask anyone for fear she would tell me it wasn’t. Do you think it could be called auburn now, Diana?”

“Yes, and I think it is real pretty,” said Diana, looking admiringly at the short, silky curls that clustered over Anne’s head and were held in place by a very jaunty black velvet ribbon and bow.

They were standing on the bank of the pond, below Orchard Slope, where a little headland fringed with birches ran out from the bank; at its tip was a small wooden platform built out into the water for the convenience of fishermen and duck hunters. (…)

It was Anne’s idea that they dramatize Elaine. They had studied Tennyson’s poem in school the preceding winter, the Superintendent of Education having prescribed it in the English course for the Prince Edward Island schools. They had analyzed and parsed it and torn it to pieces in general until it was a wonder there was any meaning at all left in it for them, but at least the fair lily maid and Lancelot and Guinevere and King Arthur had become very real people to them, and Anne was devoured by secret regret that she had not been born in Camelot. Those days, she said, were so much more romantic than the present. Anne’s plan was hailed with enthusiasm. The girls had discovered that if the flat were pushed off from the landing place it would drift down with the current under the bridge and finally strand itself on another headland lower down which ran out at a curve in the pond. They had often gone down like this and nothing could be more convenient for playing Elaine.

“Well, I’ll be Elaine,” said Anne, yielding reluctantly, for, although she would have been delighted to play the principal character, yet her artistic sense demanded fitness for it and this, she felt, her limitations made impossible.

“Ruby, you must be King Arthur and Jane will be Guinevere and Diana must be Lancelot. But first you must be the brothers and the father. We can’t have the old dumb servitor because there isn’t room for two in the flat when one is lying down. We must pall the barge all its length in blackest samite. That old black shawl of your mother’s will be just the thing, Diana.”

The black shawl having been procured, Anne spread it over the flat and then lay down on the bottom, with closed eyes and hands folded over her breast.

“Oh, she does look really dead,” whispered Ruby Gillis nervously, watching the still, white little face under the flickering shadows of the birches. “It makes me feel frightened, girls. Do you suppose it’s really right to act like this? Mrs. Lynde says that all play-acting is abominably wicked.”

“Ruby, you shouldn’t talk about Mrs. Lynde,” said Anne severely. “It spoils the effect because this is hundreds of years before Mrs. Lynde was born. Jane, you arrange this. It’s silly for Elaine to be talking when she’s dead.”

Jane rose to the occasion. Cloth of gold for coverlet there was none, but an old piano scarf of yellow Japanese crepe was an excellent substitute. A white lily was not obtainable just then, but the effect of a tall blue iris placed in one of Anne’s folded hands was all that could be desired. “Now, she’s all ready,” said Jane. “We must kiss her quiet brows and, Diana, you say, ‘Sister, farewell forever,’ and Ruby, you say, ‘Farewell, sweet sister,’ both of you as sorrowfully as you possibly can. Anne, for goodness sake smile a little. You know Elaine ‘lay as though she smiled.’ That’s better. Now push the flat off.”

(….) For a few minutes Anne, drifting slowly down, enjoyed the romance of her situation to the full. Then something happened not at all romantic. The flat began to leak.