Tag Archives: American literature

Book Review: The Rum Diary by Hunter S. Thompson

18 Jul

“I felt a tremendous distance between me and everything real.”

(The Rum Diary)

Rincón, Puerto Rico, picture found here.

Some time ago I watched the film “The Rum Diary”(2011) starring Johnny Depp as the main character Paul Kemp and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I was just totally captivated by Kemp’s exciting lifestyle set against the vibrant backdrop of the Caribbean. The ocean, the sunsets, the rum…. ahhh. A few weeks ago, in these warm and yellow days of July, I decided to read the novel “The Rum Diary” written by Hunter S. Thompson. In took not three full pages for me to fall in love with it. I was especially intrigued by the fact that it wasn’t a work of pure fiction. Thompson actually lived and worked as a journalist in Puerto Rico in the late 1950s. He worked for the magazine El Sportivo which folded soon after his arrival but Thompson found another job as a journalist and managed to stay on the island long enough to gather inspiration for the novel which would spend almost forty years sitting in his drawer; it wasn’t published until 1998. The novel is based on Thompson’s adventures on the island, but is part-truth and part-fiction, written in the first person and told by a journalist Paul Kemp who comes to San Juan to work for the newspapers called San Juan Daily News.

“Like most of the others, I was a seeker, a mover, a malcontent, and at times a stupid hell-raiser. I was never idle long enough to do much thinking, but I felt somehow that my instincts were right. I shared a vagrant optimism that some of us were making real progress, that we had taken an honest road, and that the best of us would inevitably make it over the top. At the same time, I shared a dark suspicion that the life we were leading was a lost cause, that we were all actors, kidding ourselves along on a senseless odyssey. It was the tension between these two poles — a restless idealism on one hand and a sense of impending doom on the other — that kept me going.”

Thompson’s writing has the same qualities which I love and admire in Jack Kerouac’s novels; they both write in a fast-paced exciting style, they both brilliantly capture the atmosphere of the place, in Thompson’s case the vividness of San Juan, and they both have a similar type of character; young, wild, rebellious, idealist, wanting more from life but ultimately just wasting time on alcohol and women, characters who are prone to jumping from one thrill to another, because boredom equals death. No time to sleep – you’ll sleep when you’re dead. Life just seems so exciting in these novels, full or endless possibilities, and even a hangover seems like the most romantic thing in the world. Kemp is so excited about coming to the island and he says: “I wanted to write all my friends and invite them down. (…) I wanted to cable them all — “Come quick stop plenty of room in the rum barrel stop no work stop big money stop drink all day stop hump all night stop hurry it may not last.”

Picture found here.

Similar to Kerouac’s novel “Tristessa”, which I love, “The Rum Diary” captures the fragile moment in time. Two North Americans going down to more exotic southern places and writing about it. Kerouac spent a year in Mexico City and Thompson spent about two years in Puerto Rico. Their experiences are tied to a specific moment in time, had they gone to those places just five years later, nothing would be the same. Through Thompson’s writing you sense a layer of sadness under the ecstasy and drunkenness that he describes; a sense of going nowhere, growing old, time passing by… Perhaps this is the source of that rush to experience things which often leads to silly decisions. I also love the way Thompson describes the place; hot air, palm trees, narrow streets with buildings jammed together and balconies that hung over the street, chatter and music coming from open windows, narrow pavements where people sell peeled oranges for a nickel each, how he feels “the foreignness of the place”, he is specific with names of places and very observant to everything that is going on around him, the things he hears, the sights, the sounds, the smells:

“I leaned back in the chair and sipped my drink. The cook was banging around in the kitchen and for some reason the piano had stopped. From inside came a babble of Spanish, an incoherent background for my scrambled thoughts. For the first time I felt the foreignness of the place, the real distance I had put between me and my last foothold. There was no reason to feel pressure, but I felt it anyway — the pressure of hot air and passing time, an idle tension that builds up in places where men sweat twenty-four hours a day.

Hunter S. Thompson in Puerto Rico

There is also another aspect of the novel; the exploitation of the beauties and nature of the island, represented by the businessman Yeamon who befriends Kemp. The Americans from the mainland saw Puerto Rico as a source of their wealth, they planned to built hotels and exploit what there was to exploit and that makes me quite sad. “At that time the U.S. State Department was calling Puerto Rico “America’s advertisement in the Caribbean — living proof that capitalism can work in Latin America.”

In one part of the book, it’s described how the houses use to have a view of the ocean, but now the hotel at the beach has a view on the ocean, and the houses are looking at the hotel. If Capitalism isn’t devil’s idea, I don’t know what is. And now some fun and interesting quotes:

“There was a strange and unreal air about the whole world I’d come into. It was amusing and vaguely depressing at the same time. Here I was, living in a luxury hotel, racing around a half-Latin city in a toy car that looked like a cockroach and sounded like a jet fighter, sneaking down alleys and humping on the beach, scavenging for food in shark-infested waters, hounded by mobs yelling in a foreign tongue — and the whole thing was taking place in quaint old Spanish Puerto Rico, where everybody spent American dollars and drove American cars and sat around roulette wheels pretending they were in Casablanca. One part of the city looked like Tampa and the other part looked like a medieval asylum.”

“Sala’s apartment on Calle Tetuán was about as homey as a cave, a dank grotto in the very bowels of the Old City. It was not an upscale neighborhood. (…) The ceiling was twenty feet high, not a breath of clean air, no furniture except two metal cots and an improvised picnic table, and since it was on the ground floor we could never open the windows because thieves would come in off the street and sack the place. A week after Sala moved in he left one of the windows unlocked and everything he owned was stolen, even his shoes and his dirty socks. We had no refrigerator and therefore no ice, so we drank hot rum out of dirty glasses and did our best to stay out of the place as much as possible.”

“It was so hot that I began to sweat each time we stopped for a red light. Then, when we started moving again, the wind would cool me off. Sala weaved in and out of the traffic on Avenida Ponce de Leon, heading for the outskirts of town. Somewhere in Santurce we stopped to let some schoolchildren cross the street and they all began laughing at us. “La cucaracha!” they yelled. “Cucaracha! cucaracha!”

Sala looked embarrassed.

“What’s going on?” I asked.

“The little bastards are calling this car a cockroach,” he muttered. “I should run a few of them down.”

***

“At six-thirty I left the bar and walked outside. It was getting dark and the big Avenida looked cool and graceful. On the other side were homes that once looked out on the beach. Now they looked out on hotels and most of them had retreated behind tall hedges and walls that cut them off from the street. Here and there I could see a patio or a screen porch where people sat beneath fans and drank rum. Somewhere up the street I heard bells, the sleepy tinkling of Brahms’ Lullaby.”

“After living there a week I’d established a fairly strict routine. I would sleep until ten or so, depending on the noise level in the street, then take a shower and walk up to Al’s for breakfast. With a few exceptions, the normal workday at the paper was from noon until eight in the evening, give or take a few hours either way. Then we would come back to Al’s for dinner. After that it was the casinos, an occasional party, or simply sitting at Al’s and listening to each other’s stories until we all got drunk and mumbled off to our beds. Sometimes I would go to Sanderson’s and usually there were people there to drink with.”

And now here is an exciting part of the book which matches the memorable scene in the film where Chenault (played by Amber Heard) is dancing in a very provocative way in a stuffy and crowded club on the isle of St Thomas:

“They had made a big circle, and in the middle of it. Chenault and the small, spade-bearded man were doing the dance. Chenault had dropped her skirt and was dancing in her panties and her white sleeveless blouse. Her partner had taken off his shirt exposing his glistening black chest. He wore nothing but a pair of tight, red toreador pants. Both of them were barefoot.”

(…) Now, as if in some kind of trance, Chenault began to unbutton her blouse. She popped the buttons slowly, like a practiced stripper, then flung the blouse aside and pranced there in nothing but her bra and panties. I thought the crowd would go crazy. They howled and pounded on furniture, shoving and climbing on each other to get a better view. The whole house shook and I thought the floor might cave in. Somewhere across the room I heard glass breaking.

(…) Now they were close together and I saw the brute reach around Chenault and unhook the strap of her bra. He undid it quickly, expertly, and she seemed unaware that now she wore nothing but her thin silk panties. The bra slid down her arms and fell to the floor. Her breasts bounced violently with the jerk and thrust of the dance. Full, pink-nippled halls of flesh, suddenly cut loose from the cotton modesty of a New York bra. (…)

Yeamon was screaming hysterically, struggling to keep his balance. “Chenault!” he shouted.

“What the hell are you doing?” He sounded desperate, but I felt paralyzed.

Pictures found here.

“They were coming together again, weaving slowly toward the middle of the circle. The noise was an overpowering roar from two hundred wild throats. Chenault still wore that dazed, ecstatic expression as the man reached out and eased her panties over her hips and down to her knees. She let them drop silently on the floor, then stepped away, breaking into the dance again, moving against him, freezing there for a moment — even the music paused — then dancing away, opening her eyes and flinging her hair from side to side.”

***

“Moberg was a degenerate. (…) Often he disappeared for days at a time. Then someone would have to track him down through the dirtiest bars in La Perla, a slum so foul that on maps of San Juan it appears as a blank space. La Perla was Moberg’s headquarters; he felt at home there, he said, and in the rest of the city — except for a few horrible bars — he was a lost soul.”

***

“Driving along the beach I remembered how much I’d enjoyed the mornings when I first came to San Juan. There is something fresh and crisp about the first hours of a Caribbean day, a happy anticipation that something is about to happen, maybe just up the street or around the next corner.”

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Book Review: The House of the Seven Gables by Nathaniel Hawthorne

20 Apr

I have just finished reading Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel “The House of the Seven Gables” and even though the first chapter bored me, I ended up loving the book and I couldn’t resist writing a little book review!

Cliff House, San Francisco, USA, 1906

Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Gothic novel “The House of the Seven Gables”, first published in April 1851, is set in a small town in New England and follows an old family Pyncheon. The first chapter is set in Puritan times and tells us about the witch trials and the beginning of the family feud between the rich Pyncheon family and the Maule family. We find out that the now dark, gloomy and decaying house with seven gables was built on ground wrongfully taken by Colonel Pyncheon from Matthew Maule, after the latter was accused of practising witchcraft and therefore executed. All other chapters are set in the mid nineteenth century and follow the house and the family in their not-so-glory days. The only resident is an old spinster Hepzibah Pyncheon who, due to financial problems, decides to open a shop in the spare room in the house. This causes her great anxiety and aggravation because she has led a reclusive life and is now forced to get in touch with the world. She says: “The world is too chill and hard, – and I am too old, too feeble, and too hopeless!” She has a stern and serious personality but is good at heart. Here are more quotes about her:

…here comes Miss Hepzibah Pyncheon! Forth she steps into the dusky, time-darkened passage; a tall figure, clad in black silk, with a long and shrunken waist, feeling her way towards the stairs like a near-sighted person, as in truth she is.” (ch 2)

So–with many a cold, deep heart-quake at the idea of at last coming into sordid contact with the world, from which she had so long kept aloof, while every added day of seclusion had rolled another stone against the cavern door of her hermitage–the poor thing bethought herself of the ancient shop-window, the rusty scales, and dusty till.” (Ch 2)

And yet there was nothing fierce in Hepzibah’s poor old heart; nor had she, at the moment, a single bitter thought against the world at large, or one individual man or woman. She wished them all well, but wished, too, that she herself were done with them, and in her quiet grave.” (ch 3)

A tenant lives in the house as well, a young daguerreotypist called Holgrave: In the second chapter he is introduced as a “… respectable and orderly young man, an artist in the daguerreotype line, who, for about three months back, had been a lodger in a remote gable.” Even though he is quite young, twenty one or twenty two, he already had many experiences in life, worked different jobs, studied different things, from dentistry to photography! And he has secrets of his own… One day Hepzibah’s brother Clifford returns after serving thirty years in jail for the murder of his uncle; don’t worry, he isn’t a murderer, he was wrongfully convicted. Clifford’s character is a mix of childlike naivety and cheerfulness, and dandyish sophistication and a great love of beauty. Then, Hepzibah’s young, pretty and hard-working cousin Phoebe arrives from the countryside. Her vivacious and cheerful personality brought smiles to people’s faces, and flowers started blooming in their hearts, as well as in the garden behind the house. Suddenly, the house isn’t so gloomy and solitary any more!

Photo found here.

A lot of things happen in the novel, and yet the story is developed slowly, intensifying the intrigue and bringing in mysteries about the house and making you think about the layered personalities of the characters, and the big role that the past plays in their lives. There is a contrast between the oppressive atmosphere of the house and the freedom of the garden with roses and sunshine, idyllic scenes take place there; just like in Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. The house is almost a character for itself; it’s practically the only setting and the characters seem to be drawn to it by some strange power. Old portraits on the walls seem alive and the spirit of Alice Pyncheon, a pretty girl who lived there and died, haunts the old chambers. It is said that the flowers growing on the roof of the house grew there because Alice threw some seeds in the air just for fun. It’s the details like these that made me fall in love with the story. So, in short, the things I loved about the book, and what I think you might enjoy too; dark atmosphere with lots of secrets, eccentric characters, the house, mingling of past and present… Also, the story about a family’s past and connected to one house, reminded me of Márquez’s “One Hundred Years of Solitude” and Isabel Allende’s book “The House of the Spirits”. I love novels like that, and if you know any that are similar, do tell!

Roses, photo found here.

And now some lyrical passages that I loved:

Phoebe Pyncheon slept, on the night of her arrival, in a chamber that looked down on the garden of the old house. It fronted towards the east, so that at a very seasonable hour a glow of crimson light came flooding through the window, and bathed the dingy ceiling and paper-hangings in its own hue. (…) The morning light, however, soon stole into the aperture at the foot of the bed, betwixt those faded curtains. Finding the new guest there,–with a bloom on her cheeks like the morning’s own, and a gentle stir of departing slumber in her limbs, as when an early breeze moves the foliage, –the dawn kissed her brow. It was the caress which a dewy maiden–such as the Dawn is, immortally–gives to her sleeping sister, partly from the impulse of irresistible fondness, and partly as a pretty hint that it is time now to unclose her eyes.

(…) When Phoebe was quite dressed, she peeped out of the window, and saw a rosebush in the garden. Being a very tall one, and of luxuriant growth, it had been propped up against the side of the house, and was literally covered with a rare and very beautiful species of white rose. A large portion of them, as the girl afterwards discovered, had blight or mildew at their hearts; but, viewed at a fair distance, the whole rosebush looked as if it had been brought from Eden that very summer, together with the mould in which it grew. The truth was, nevertheless, that it had been planted by Alice Pyncheon,–she was Phoebe’s great-great-grand-aunt…” (Chapter 5)

Alice Pyncheon and her piano, perhaps? Photo found here.

Perhaps my favourite quote from the book, about Alice Pyncheon, which also shows the lyrical beauty of Hawthorne’s writing: “As he stept into the house, a note of sweet and melancholy music thrilled and vibrated along the passage-way, proceeding from one of the rooms above stairs. It was the harpsichord which Alice Pyncheon had brought with her from beyond the sea. The fair Alice bestowed most of her maiden leisure between flowers and music, although the former were apt to droop, and the melodies were often sad. She was of foreign education, and could not take kindly to the New England modes of life, in which nothing beautiful had ever been developed.” (Ch 13)

I hope I’ve managed to intrigue you to read the book. Oh, and by the way, this is my 400th post!

Reality Gives No Romance: Emma Bovary and Blanche DuBois

13 Jan

In this post I will explore the similarities between two literary characters: Gustave Flaubert’s Emma Bovary and Tennessee Williams’s Blanche DuBois. January seems like the best time to tackle this topic when we are waiting for blossoms, romance and promises of spring, or at least I am. “Reality brings no romance” is a line from a song “Walk me to the bridge” by Manic Street Preachers.

madame-bovary-1991Isabelle Huppert as Emma Bovary (1991)

In his 1857 novel “Madame Bovary”, Gustave Flaubert expressed loneliness, longings and provincial claustrophobia with eloquence that surpasses that of any other writer before or after. Flaubert found inspiration in a newspaper article, and by writing this book, he wanted to prove to his friends that style is more important than the theme itself, adding that he was himself repulsed by the subject of adultery.

Every page of this novel is wrapped in silent melancholy, and the story offers neither the happy ending nor the solution; the countryside offers nothing pure suffocating boredom, while the city brings cheap pleasures and shallowness. This book is everything Morrissey sang about; lost dreams, impossible loves, boredom, small town frustration. Where The Smiths used just three or four minutes to say what they had to say, and coated it in whimsical, cheerful catchy tunes, Flaubert fills more than three-hundred pages with longings and disappointments. Emma’s story is a real ‘from despair to where’ one, to quote the Manic Street Preachers now. From despair – to death, it seems for her. If there’s one line from a pop song that describes her life perfectly, it’s this one by The Smiths: “I was happy at the height of the drunken hour but heaven knows I’m miserable now.”

Source: here.

“Each smile hid a yawn of boredom, each joy a curse, each pleasure its own disgust; and the sweetest kisses only left on one’s lips a hopeless longing for a higher ecstasy.”

“Emma lost weight, her face became pale and gaunt. With her smooth black hair, her big eyes, her straight nose, her birdlike walk and the silence that had now become almost constant with her, did she not seem to be passing through life without touching it, bearing on her brow the mysterious mark of a sublime destiny?”

Who is Emma Bovary, anyway? And why is she so negatively portrayed in popular culture when she is so realistic, everyone suffers that melancholia and boredom occasionally, so why deny it? Emma Bovary is a young and beautiful woman whose exceedingly romantic, verging on sentimental, disposition is all due to reading too many sentimental novels at convent where she was schooled. Her views on life, love and marriage are shaped almost exclusively by what she has read in those novels. She marries Charles, a simple minded country doctor, because she sees in him a potential rescuer from the boredom of her life. Soon, she becomes disappointed because nothing turned out like she wanted it. Charles is happy living in a small town, while she withers and daydreams of Paris – “She wanted to die. And she wanted to live in Paris.” A sense of unfulfilled longing lingers throughout the novel.

Here are a few quotes about Emma’s boredom in marriage:

Before the wedding, she had believed herself in love. But not having obtained the happiness that should have resulted from that love, she now fancied that she must have been mistaken. And Emma wondered exactly what was meant in life by the worlds ‘bliss’, ‘passion’, ‘ecstasy’ which had looked so beautiful in books.

“‘Then the appetites of the flesh, the craving for money, the melancholy of passion, all blended together in one general misery. (…) Her drab surrounding drove her to dreams of luxury; marital tenderness prompted the desire for a lover. She would have liked Charles to hit her, that she might have just cause for hatred and revenge. She was surprised sometimes at the hideous ideas that occurred to her. And all the while she must go on smiling, hearing herself insist that she was very happy, pretending to be so, acting the part.

“She was so sad and so calm, so gentle and yet so shy, that by her side you felt under the spell of a frosty charm, just as you shiver in church at the scent of flowers mingling with the feel of cold marble. … But she was filled with lust, with rage, with hatred.”

Whenever I imagine Emma Bovary, I imagine her either wistfully strolling the paths of her garden with sad apple trees, half-dry pink hydrangeas, worn out wooden fence, moss and wet soil in the morning after a rainy night; or standing by the window, dreamy and beautiful, with a look of pain, disappointment and longing all at once in her dark eyes, as rain drops slide one by one on the outer side of the window, sighing “Everyday is like Sunday, everyday is silent and grey…”

This quote explains well why Emma hated life at the countryside and never relished in natural beauties around her:

If she had passed her childhood in the back room of a shop somewhere in the middle of a town, she might now have awaken to the lyric call of Nature, which usually reaches us only through the medium of books. But she was too familiar with the country: with the bleating of the flocks, with the dairy and the plogh. Acustomed to the peaceful, she turned in reaction to the picturesque. She loved the sea only for its storms, green foliage only when it was scattered amid ruins. It was necessary for her to derive a sort of personal profit from things, she rejected as useless whatever did not minister to her heart’s immediate fulfilment – being of a sentimental rather than artistic temperament, in search of emotions, not of scenery.

And all the time, deep within her, she was waiting for something to happen. Like a shipwrecked sailor she scanned her solitude with desperate eyes for the sight of a white sail far off on the misty horizon. (…) But every morning when she woke she hoped to find it there. She listened to every sound, started out of bed, and was surprised when noting came. Then, at sunset, sadder every day, she longed for the morrow.

And so they would follow on, one after another, always the same; innumerable days that brought nothing.

She gave up playing the piano. What use, with no one to hear her? Since she could never play at concert, in a short-sleeved velvet gown, lightly caressing the keys of an Erard and feeling the murmurs of ecstasy wafting all about her like a breeze – it wasn’t worth the boredom of practising.”

She left her drawing-folios and her needlework lie in the cupboard. What was the use? What was the use? Sewing got on her nerves.

‘I’ve read everything,’ she said to herself.

So she sat there holding the tongs in the fires or watching the rain fall.

If matters had fallen out differently, she wondered might she not have met some other man? She tried to picture to herself the things she might have been – that different life, that unknown husband. For they weren’t all like this one. He might have been handsome, intelligent, distinguished, attractive, as were no doubt the men her old school friends has married… What would they be doing now? Living in town, amid the noise of the streets, the hum of the theatre crowd, the bright lights of the ballroom – the sort of life that opens the heart and sense like flowers in bloom. Whereas for her, life was cold as an attic facing north, and the silent spider boredom wove its web in all the shadowed corners of her heart.

Blanche DuBois

Tennessee Williams’s characters are known for their complexity, and his plays turned into films are wonderful. Needless to say, I am a big fan. “A Streetcar Named Desire” was published in 1947 and is an example of Southern Gothic. The main character, Blanche DuBois, an ageing southern belle, is a soft-spoken, well-mannered, polite, dreamy, theatrical, exceedingly romantic and gentle person, who, due to her own nature and personal losses in her youth, is left vulnerable, emotionally needy and slightly psychologically unstable. There’s also something childlike about her naivety and idealism. She is a wonderful literary creation, portrayed beautifully by Vivian Leigh in the film from 1951, and another one of Tennessee Williams’ fabulous, layered, mysterious and decadent characters.

The play is set in the French Quarter of New Orleans; Blanche has just arrived and takes a streetcar named “Desire” to visit her sister Stella and her husband Stanley. The contrast between Blanche’s magical aura and the poverty and roughness of Stella and Stanley’s life is immediately noticeable. Blanche with her soft blonde curls, her long flimsy gowns with thousands of shimmering flounces that play the most charming melodies of Tchaikovsky, her pearls and roses, her rouge and her old love letters, her perfumes and soft shawls. Blanche constantly insists on creating an aesthetically pleasing environment and nurturing the dreaminess that she perpetually inhabits; she takes long baths and dresses most exquisitely despite Stella’s poor situation, insists on covering the bare lamps and keeping a boudoir lightning. She says herself: “I can’t stand a naked light bulb, any more than I can a rude remark or a vulgar action.” Her well-mannered, educated and polite nature are odd compared to the brutish nature of Stanley and his friends.

There’s something so fragile, delicate, nervous about Blanche, you can’t point your finger on it, but you feel it. As if her inner life is a butterfly trapped in a jar, fluttering hopelessly and heating the glass to no avail. In the play Tennessee Williams wrote a note: “Her delicate beauty must avoid a strong light. There is something about her uncertain manner, as well as her white clothes, that suggests a moth.” Blanche is delusional to the end, fragile like a moth, beautiful and dreamy, refusing to open her eyes and see the world the way it really is, accepting the hand of a stranger, with an eerie smile on her face, saying: “I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.” A moth is broken and quenched at last.

“Physical beauty is passing – a transitory possession – but beauty of the mind, richness of the spirit, tenderness of the heart – I have all these things – aren’t taken away but grow! Increase with the years!”

One of my favourite lines by Blanche:

“Don’t you just love those long rainy afternoons in New Orleans when an hour isn’t just an hour – but a little piece of eternity dropped into your hands – and who knows what to do with it?”

Source: here.

The rest of my days I’m going to spend on the sea. And when I die, I’m going to die on the sea. You know what I shall die of? I shall die of eating an unwashed grape. One day out on the ocean I will die–with my hand in the hand of some nice looking ship’s doctor, a very young one with a small blond moustache and a big silver watch. “Poor lady,” they’ll say, “The quinine did her no good. That unwashed grape has transported her soul to heaven.

What is straight? A line can be straight, or a street, but the human heart, oh, no, it’s curved like a road through mountains.

vivien leigh as blanche 1

“I’ll tell you what I want. Magic! Yes, yes, magic! I try to give that to people. I misinterpret things to them. I don’t tell the truth. I tell what ought to be truth. And if that is sinful, then let me be damned for it! – Don’t turn the light on!”

This dialogue is my particular favourite:

Stella: You needn’t be so cruel to someone as alone as she is.

Stanley: Delicate piece she is.

Stella: She is. She was. You didn’t know Blanche as a girl. Nobody, nobody, was tender and trusting as she was. But people like you abused her, and forced her to change.

So, what is it that, in my view, connects the two heroines? Firstly, they are both highly imaginative and prone to melancholy and self-pity. Both follow a religion of beauty, dreams and magic. They are big aesthetes, their surroundings and appearance means a lot in keeping their dreamy vision of the world. Emma initially tries to keep away her disappointment away by decorating the house and indulging in pretty fabrics and shawls, but no amount of material possessions can fill the emotional void both heroines feel inside. They are misfits, they aren’t accepted in their communities because they are different, not realistic and down to earth. And lastly, both are emotionally and psychologically unstable.

Thomas Sully and E.A.Poe – The Oval Portrait

23 Oct

In this post I’ll explore Sully’s refined portraits, their connection to Edgar Allan Poe’s pale, ghostlike and mournful literary heroines, and also Poe’s story The Oval Portrait and the way it influenced Jean-Luc Godard in his film Vivre sa Vie (1962).

1844-the-coleman-sisters-by-thomas-sully-1783-1872Thomas Sully, The Coleman Sisters, 1844

When I first set eyes on Sully’s paintings, I couldn’t help noticing a slight Gothic, eerie element to them, especially in the painting The Coleman Sisters. Three pale, raven hair beauties with large, dark velvety eyes, dressed in lavender and buttercup yellow coloured dresses seem like they came from one of Edgar Allan Poe’s stories. One of Coleman sisters could easily be mistaken for Poe’s Ligeia, Eleonora, Annabel Lee or Madeline Usher; pale, mournful brides, intensely beautiful and intelligent, transcending even death.

Poe actually mentions Sully in his short story ‘The Oval Portrait’, where the protagonist spends a night in a grand and gloomy castle and an old portrait on the wall captures his imagination. It is one of my favourite stories by Poe because, along with typical Poe qualities, it deals with subjects of art and life; a combination which Oscar Wilde later studied to the finest detail. And now a bit of the story which always reminds me of the painting by Sully:

The portrait, I have already said, was that of a young girl. It was a mere head and shoulders, done in what is technically termed a vignette manner; much in the style of the favorite heads of Sully. The arms, the bosom, and even the ends of the radiant hair melted imperceptibly into the vague yet deep shadow which formed the back-ground of the whole. The frame was oval, richly gilded and filigreed in Moresque. As a thing of art nothing could be more admirable than the painting itself. But it could have been neither the execution of the work, nor the immortal beauty of the countenance, which had so suddenly and so vehemently moved me. Least of all, could it have been that my fancy, shaken from its half slumber, had mistaken the head for that of a living person.

1830s-sheet-of-figure-studies-by-thomas-sully

Thomas Sully, Sheet of Figure Studies, 1830-1839

Thomas Sully (1783-1872), just like Gainsborough and Joshua Reynolds, is one of those painters that bring something fresh, original and lasting in the world of portrait painting. He was born in England, but at the age of nine moved to the New World with his parents who were actors, first to South Carolina before finally settling in Philadelphia. His style is often compared to that of Thomas Lawrence; it’s a style of refinement, elegance and flattery so you can only guess that he was popular with rich ladies. Sully also painted that famous portrait of young Queen Victoria in 1837.

And yet, in some portraits, like the one of the Coleman sisters, there’s a hint of something darker and dreamier than in Lawrence’s portraits which are pure refinement. Although in this post I decided to focus on the connection between his portraits and Poe’s heroines, I felt a need to add Sully’s Sheet of Figure Studies because it offers an intimate insight into his art. A finished portrait can appear cold and distant, but a piece of paper where you can actually see the artists sketches, feel his brush as it touched the paper, dipped in colour – that’s something truly special and heart-warming.

1823-thomas-sully-1783-1872-mary-and-emily-mceuen

Thomas Sully, Mary and Emily McEuen, 1823

Now we’ll go back to that portrait of the Coleman sisters and Poe’s story ‘The Oval Portrait’. If you haven’t already read the story, you should because it’s really short and thought-provoking. It deals with themes of art, life and sacrifice. The unnamed young maiden of ‘rarest beauty’ is wedded to a painter who is utterly absorbed in his work, and sees his young wistful bride only as a subject of his art, not as a human being with a desire for love and companionship.

This story seems to have been particularly appealing to the French Nouvelle Vague director Jean-Luc Godard because in his film Vivre sa Vie or My Life to Live (1962), a young man reads the fragment of the story to the main character Nana, played by Anna Karina who was Godard’s wife at the time, but their marriage was already falling apart because he was apparently too absorbed to even notice her or anything besides his films. Everything he wanted to say, he expressed through the art of film. Just like the painter in the story, Godard saw Anna, his beautiful blue-eyed wife only through the camera lens. You can watch the clip here if you’re interested.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this post. And, oh my, I’m so glad that I finally wrote it because I’ve been carrying the idea in my mind for the third autumn now.