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Book Review: The Shrouded Woman by María Luisa Bombal

7 Aug

In July I read a wonderful short novel “The Shrouded Woman” (La amortajada) by a Chilean author María Luisa Bombal (1910-1980) which was originally published in 1938. It was suggested to me by someone, and I am infinitely glad that I finally sat down and read it because it was a stunning book and I can now recommend it to you all! It’s short and easy to read, direct and full of feelings, but it’s truly something else, both in the matter of topic and the writing style.

Claude Monet, Camille Monet on her deathbed, 1879

“And after it had gotten dark, her eyes opened. But just a little, very little. It was as if she wanted to look, while she was hidden behind her long eyelashes. At the flame of the tall candles that leaned over to keep watch on her, and to observe the cleanness and transparency of the border of the eye that death had not been able to cast a pall over. Respectfully dazzled, they leaned over, not knowing that She was able to see them. Because, in fact, She could both see and feel.

And that is how she looked, motionless, lying face up on the spacious bed now covered with embroidered sheets that were scented with lavender—that were always kept under lock and key—and she is wrapped in that white satin robe that always made her look so graceful.”

The story is told in the first person and the narrator is a beautiful dead woman Ana María. Despite being dead, she can still feel, think and see, and she begins by describing where she is lying and who are the people who are coming to see her for the last time. Little by little, she starts reminiscing about her life; her first love with a local boy Ricardo who both intimidated her and aroused passion in her, then her best friend Fernando who secretly adored her, and lastly she is contemplating about her disastrous marriage with Antonio. The mood of the novel feels very intimate, personal and it is very emotional as well. I think Bombal was very good at capturing the state of mind and thoughts that a deceased person might have, it just feels so accurate and convincing. Now that her life is over and nothing can be done or undone, the chances are over and desires that remain cannot be fulfilled, it’s fascinating to see where Ana María’s thoughts turn to; to love, both the possibility of joy and the agonies of love, things that could have been done differently but is now too late. She regrets being cold to her husband because her coldness distinguished his initial love for her. She regrets being left by Ricardo whom she loved with all her youthful ardour and madness.

Death can teach us so much about life. It’s interesting to note how most of us spend our day to day life thinking about trivial things, little nuisances and unimportant problems, what’s the weather like, how’s the traffic, and yet none of that truly matters. Time is wasted on trivialities. Ana María on her death bed is not thinking about the windows that she wished to clean, but, alas, death has stopped her in that! Looking at her life in retrospective she only pays attention to the most important things so why not focus on what really matters while we are still alive. Why not try and live and love since we are already alive and have no choice but to walk the earth for a little while, till eternity swallows us again. In this way, I think the novel is very inspiring. But it is also chilling in other ways and sad because the life she is telling us about is – over. But while I, as a living person, am saddened by this, Ana María is ecstatic to finally be at peace. She is not filled with sadness or anger, she is resigned to her fate and she simply contemplates things, without clinging to them. All the longings that tormented her while she was alive have now disappeared, no tears and no hatred left. She seems purified by the experience of death and is almost happy as her coffin descends into earth. And in the end, she is waiting for a real death: “She had already suffered the death of the living. Now she wanted total immersion, the second death: the death of those who are dead.”

Picture by Laura Makabresku.

I particularly enjoyed Ana María vivid memories of her childhood, her first love and her teenage days because obviously I can relate to that. And now the quotes:

Since then, I lived waiting for the arrival of my tears. I waited for them like one waits for a storm on the hottest days of summer. And harsh word, a look that was too sweet, was enough for me to open the floodgate of tears.”

Now that it was spring, I hung my hammock between two hazel nut trees. I laid there for hours and hours. I did not know why the landscape, the things around me, all gave me so much pleasure, the enjoyment of feeling peaceful with the rising and falling dark mass of the forest quietly rising above the horizon like a monstrous wave about to rush forward, the flight of the doves whose coming and going made moving shadows on the book over my knees; the intermittent song of the sawmill—that sharp note, sharp and sweet like the buzzing of a beehive—that filled the air all the way to the houses while the afternoon was very translucent.

I was overwhelmed by the wild carnation odor of your kiss.

One impulse swallowed another. Soon I was longing to knit yellow wool and yearning for a field of sunflowers that I could enjoy looking at hour after hour.
Oh, to be able to sink my eyes into something yellow!
That is the way I was living, greedy for fragrances, for colors, for flavors.

That wind! The plaits of my hair were torn apart and began to curl around your neck. We had suddenly been swallowed up by the darkness and the silence, the eternal darkness and silence of the forest.

And she suddenly feels that she is now without even a single wrinkle, more pale, and beautiful than ever.

The sound of rain on the trees and the house soon causes her very to surrender herself, body and soul, to that feeling of well-being and melancholy into which the sound of rain always filled her on those long autumn nights.

Everyone was upset by the indifference with which I took my first communion. … To me God seemed so distant, and so severe.

Ana María’s vision of heaven when she was a child which horrified the priest:

“I would like it to be the same as earth is. I would like it to be like the farm in the spring, when all the rose bushes are flowering, and all the fields are green, and you can hear the cooing of doves during the afternoon… And I would especially like something there wasn’t on the farm: …I would like it if there were little deer that were not afraid and would come to eat out of my hand… And I would also like it if my cousin Ricardo was always with me, and they would give us permission to spend the night in the woods, there where the grass is as soft as velvet, right on the edge of the stream…”

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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.”

Book Review: Naomi by Junichiro Tanizaki

23 Mar

Secrets, erotic obsessions, love triangles; those are some themes that linger throughout Junichiro Tanizaki’s novels such as “The Key”, “Quicksand” and my favourite “Naomi”. Things always starts so normally, the characters and their lives are seemingly perfect and uneventful, but then things take a darker turn…

Brooke Shields in “Pretty Baby” (1978)

This fascinating tale begins with the main character Joji, a twenty-eight year old man working on a well-payed office job as an electrical engineer, telling us where and how he met a beautiful fifteen year old girl called Naomi who later became his wife. Naomi was working as a waitress in a cafe when Joji noticed her. To him she seemed “a quiet, gloomy child”, he was intrigued by her silence and her face which had western features, later he compares her face to Mary Pickford’s. He befriends her and starts taking her out, to a movie and dinner. Joji grows fond of her company and, at first, innocently wishes to provide her with a better life starting with her education, as Naomi expressed wishes of studying English and music. Coming from the countryside, being a bit shy and focused first on his education and later his career, Joji had no experience with women and wasn’t interested in living a conventional married life.

As Joji says himself: “My original plan, then, was simply to take charge of the child and look after her. On the one hand, I was motivated by sympathy for her. On the other, I wanted to introduce some variety into my humdrum, monotonous daily existence. I was weary from years of living in a boarding­house; I longed for a little color and warmth in my life. Indeed, why not build a house, I thought, even a small one? I’d decorate the rooms, plant flowers, hang out a birdcage on the sunny veranda, and hire a maid to do the cooking and scrubbing. And if Naomi agreed to come, she’d take the place of both the maid and the bird. . . . This is roughly what I had in mind.

(Picture: Kate Moss) “My darling Naomi,” I gasped from the darkness under her sleeves. “My darling Naomi, I don’t just love you, I worship you. You’re my treasure. You’re a diamond that I found and polished. I’ll buy anything that’ll make you beautiful. I’ll give you my whole salary.”

When they start living together in a cozy little house with plenty of light and a rice field growing behind it, things are incredibly dream-like and seen through rose-tinted glasses, like a gentle and precious moment of dusk, just after sun sets, birds are singing softly from a nearby tree and nature is veiled in silence and dreams, your mind is free of all worries in such a moment. These first chapters are so full of idealism and naivety, and describe a seemingly perfect life that one could only dream of; Joji goes to work in the morning, and the obedient and sweet natured girl Naomi goes to her English and music lessons: “Wearing a dark blue cashmere formal skirt over a silk kimono, black socks, and charming little shoes, she looked every inch the pupil. Bursting with excitement at having realized her dream, she went off to her lessons diligently. Now and then I ran into her on my way home, and I could hardly believe that she had grown up in Senzoku and worked as a hostess. She never did her hair in Japanese style anymore; she wore it in braids, tied with a ribbon.

Mary Pickford, c. 1910s

Joji’s intentions are truly innocent at the beginning, he’s not a predator out to take advantage of her, and he notes that under his care she soon became “a truly radiant, vivacious little bird, and the enormous atelier was her cage. May came to a close and bright, early-summer weather set in. The flowers in the garden grew taller and more colorful day by day. In the evening, when I returned home from work and she from her lessons, sunlight streamed through the India-print curtains and played on the white walls as though it were still the middle of the day.” After they would both come home, he would listen to what she’s learned in class and they’d play games such as tag and blindman’s buff.

Their day to day life together is full of sweetness and innocence. Apart from paying her lessons, Joji buys her many pretty dresses and likes to gaze at her as she puts each one on: “Dressed in one or another of these outfits, she’d parade around the house, stand in front of the mirror, and pose while I took pictures. Wrapped in gauzy, translucent clothing of white, rose, or pale lavender, she was like a beautiful large blossom in a vase. “Try it this way; now this way,” I’d say. Picking her up, laying her down, telling her to be seated or to walk, I gazed at her by the hour.

Here is a passage which I loved, about Naomi’s love of flowers:

“The blossoms remind me that she loved Western flowers and knew the names—troublesome English names—of many flowers that I was unfamiliar with. Apparently she’d learned them at the cafe, where she was in charge of the vases. Sometimes we saw a greenhouse beyond a gate as we passed. Always alert, she’d stop and cry happily, “Oh, what beautiful flowers!”

“Which flower do you like best, Naomi?”

“I like tulips best.”

Her longing for spacious gardens and fields, and her love of flowers, may have been in reaction to the squalid alley­ways of Senzoku where she had grown up. Whenever we saw violets, dandelions, lotus grass, or primroses growing on a levee or by a country road, she would hurry over to pick them. By the end of the day, she’d have a great many flowers grouped in any number of bouquets. And she would still be holding them carefully on the way back.

“They’re all wilted now. Why don’t you throw them away?”

“Oh, they’ll come right back if you put them in water. You ought to keep them on your desk, Mr. Kawai.” She always gave the bouquets to me when we parted for the day.”

“While she was my wife, she was also a rare, precious doll and an ornament.”

As it so happens in a Tanizaki novel, slowly and yet out of nowhere, things take a darker turn. A reader can flip back the pages and wonder where it started, but there is no point of downfall; the darkness just crawls in slowly into the story and you get sad that the happy dream cannot last. How can Tanizaki be so cruel and peel the layers of niceness from the characters’s faces and present them in a whole new light? I desperately want to believe in a dream, and Tanizaki rubs my face into the gloomy reality. The more insolent, stubborn and rebellious Naomi gets, the more possessive Joji becomes, led not by sympathy and kind intentions anymore, but by jealousy and wild desire. “Consumed with love”, he describes himself, as Naomi is slowly but surely weaving spiderwebs of secrets and lies even in times that are seemingly innocent. Joji said: “Except for summer vacations, we’d spent all of our time alone together in our “fairy-tale house,” avoiding contact with society at large…” but the truth is that Naomi had befriended some boys without his knowledge, and these connections, although unassuming at first, will turn darker overtones.

They start going out and dancing, and for the first time Joji starts seeing Naomi’s behavior in public, slowly realises how arrogant and rude she is. Joji is conflicted with the realisation that Naomi will never be his ideal woman, that their love wasn’t as innocent as he thought, but that, as she grows up and her body develops, he is more and more attracted to her physically, to the point of the mad delirious desire: “My heart was a battleground for the conflict­ing emotions of disappointment and love. I’d made the wrong choice; Naomi was not as intelligent as I’d hoped. I couldn’t deny it any longer, much as I wanted to. I could see now that my desire for her to become a fine woman was nothing but a dream. (…) But at the same time, her body attracted me ever more powerfully. I use the word “body” advisedly. It was her skin, teeth, lips, hair, eyes—the beauty of her en­tire form—that attracted me. There was nothing spiritual about it. She’d betrayed my expectations for her mind, but her body now surpassed my ideal. Stupid woman, I thought. Hopeless. Unhappily, the more I thought so, the more I found her beauty alluring. (…) I had wanted to make Naomi beautiful both spiritually and physically. I had failed with the spiritual side but succeeded splendidly on the physical. I never expected that she’d be­come so beautiful.

Photo found here.

Lies upon lies, intrigues upon intrigues, as Joji’s life turns into a nightmare, all that he believed is a lie and the girl he loved doesn’t exist; the Naomi he loved and desired was a fantasy created by his idealistic mind. The real Naomi is a puzzle never to be unraveled. Because the story is told from Joji’s point of view, and we may conclude that he is a good observer, but still we don’t know what is going on in her mind and her heart. This is the thing which intrigues me the most about the novel! And this is the same thing I wondered about Nabokov’s Lolita, the parallels can be made between these two novels obviously. Joji states with sadness about the difference between the Naomi he’d met that rainy afternoon at the cafe and the Naomi that she’d become: “She’d been much more appealing in those days than she was now. In­genuous and naïve, shy and melancholy, she bore no re­semblance to this rough, insolent woman. I’d fallen in love with her then, and the momentum had carried me to this day; but now I saw what an obnoxious person she’d become in the meantime.

The novel starts with as a dream and ends as a tragicomedy because Joji is aware of the truth and yet he admits finding Naomi physically irresistible. He consciously chooses to live a lie; a fool manipulated by this femme fatale: “Naomi wasn’t a priceless treasure or a cherished idol anymore; she’d become a harlot. Neither lovers’ innocence nor conjugal affection survived between us. Such feelings had faded away like an old dream. Why did I still feel any­thing for this faithless, defiled woman? Because I was being dragged along by her physical attractions. This degraded me at the same time it degraded Naomi, because it meant that I’d abandoned my integrity, fastidiousness, and sincerity as a man, flung away my pride, and bent down before a whore, and I no longer felt any shame for doing so. Indeed, there were times when I worshipped the figure of this despic­able slut as though I were revering a goddess.

Art by LETHE.

A fascinating novel, not very long, but very intriguing from beginning to the end, with short chapters and flowing lyrical writing. I totally recommend it, I think it’s better than “Quicksand” and “The Key” which I read also.

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!

Turgenev’s Maidens: Natalya and Asya

2 Apr

In this post we’ll take a look at “Turgenev’s Maid”; a type of female character typical for Turgenev and often found in his novellas and novels.

Nicolae Grigorescu, A Flower Among Flowers, 1880

Although equally important for Russian Realism, Ivan Sergeyevich Turgenev is often overlooked when it comes to Russian writers, somewhat overshadowed by the more famous Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy. Out of those three writers, Turgenev was the one influenced by the progressive ideas and philosophy of Western Europe and even spent majority of his life in France where he died too. His mother was a tyrannical woman and his parents’ marriage an unhappy one, so Turgenev decided to stay a bachelor. There’s elegance in his writings and an emphasis on nature and its lyric beauty. There’s nothing dramatic about his writing, but somehow it lingers in the memory and you find yourself pondering over some things that meant very little the moment you were reading it. Also, his words leave some kind of quiet sadness and a sense of futility against life, love and nature. Can you stop the flower from withering, sun from setting, springs from lingering one after another and passing?

Turgenev’s first novel was “Rudin”, first published in 1856 in a literary magazine “Sovremennik” (“The Contemporary”). In this novel, he laid a foundation for his future characters and themes by introducing a female type of heroine which came to be called “Turgenev’s Maid” and a hero who is a young superfluous man. Turgenev is continuing and developing the types of characters that Pushkin had started in his novel “Eugene Onegin”. Characters follow the similar pattern in his novella “Asya”, published in 1858. Turgenev’s odes to failure in love.

Photo by Frieda Rike.

A typical Turgenev’s maiden is a girl whose introverted, reserved, modest and shy exterior hides a passionate and poetic soul that only few people see, but is hidden to the rest. She is romantic and dreamy, but not in a delusional Emma Bovary kind of way, but rather this romantic nature arises from idealism and life spent in the idyllic countryside isolation which can sometimes make her inexperienced in society. She is educated, both in history and geography as in daydreaming, and often speaks several languages. She possesses a gentle, girlish, unassuming beauty and is modest in behaviour and the way she dresses. Turgenev’s maiden often falls in love with man unworthy of her; weak and passive idealists who are excellent in conversation but incapable of doing something with their life. As I already said, Turgenev’s heroines draw heavily on Pushkin’s wonderful Tatyana Larina from “Eugene Onegin” and here is what D.S. Mirsky says about it in his discussion about Turgenev: “The strong, pure, passionate, and virtuous woman, opposed to the weak, potentially generous, but ineffective and ultimately shallow man, was introduced in literature by Pushkin, and recurs again and again in the work of the realists, but nowhere more insistently than in Turgenev’s.”

William Powell Firth

Natalya Alexyevna Lasunskaya

Natalys is a shy seventeen year old girl who lives in the countryside with her mother. On the outside she seems reserved, very secretive and cold, but that is just her way of hiding her feelings from the world and her dominant mother. She is introduced in the story in the fifth chapter with these words: “Darya Mihailovna’s daughter, Natalya Alexyevna, at a first glance might fail to please. She had not yet had time to develop; she was thin, and dark, and stooped slightly. But her features were fine and regular, though too large for a girl of seventeen. Specially beautiful was her pure, smooth forehead above fine eyebrows, which seemed broken in the middle. She spoke little, but listened to others, and fixed her eyes on them as though she were forming her own conclusions. She would often stand with listless hands, motionless and deep in thought; her face at such moments showed that her mind was at work within.

But further quotes reveal to us that Natalya’s feelings are strong and that her mother doesn’t understand her personality at all: “But Natalya was not absent-minded; on the contrary, she studied diligently; she read and worked eagerly. Her feelings were strong and deep, but reserved; even as a child she seldom cried, and now she seldom even sighed and only grew slightly pale when anything distressed her.

Heinrich Vogeler, Spring (Portrait of Martha Vogeler), 1897

Life in the beautiful countryside amongst family friends has made her inexperienced with the ways of the world and she is a perfect pray for Rudin, a poor intellectual unsure of what he wants from life or love, indulging himself in shallow melancholy and praising highly the courageous heroes of literature and history while he himself is beneath them, both in spirit and intellect. He takes a pleasure in seducing Natalya because his feelings aren’t as deep or as pure as hers are, and since he had many failed loves in the past, he doesn’t take the relationships seriously. For him, it’s just a past time, but in Natalya he has awoken a whole new set of feelings, ones that she only read about in literature. After Natalya admits her love for Rudin to her mother, and is met with mother’s disapproval, she meets Rudin secretly at the brake of dawn somewhere in the meadow to tell him the sad truth, expecting him to fight for their love.

Marie Antoinette (2006)

This is their poignant, sad and bitter dialogue from chapter IX:

“‘What do you think we must do now?’

‘What we must do?’ replied Rudin; ‘of course submit.’

‘Submit,’ repeated Natalya slowly, and her lips turned white.

‘Submit to destiny,’ continued Rudin. ‘What is to be done? I know very well how bitter it is, how painful, how unendurable. But consider yourself, Natalya Alexyevna; I am poor. It is true I could work; but even if I were a rich man, could you bear a violent separation from your family, your mother’s anger? . . . No, Natalya Alexyevna; it is useless even to think of it. It is clear it was not fated for us to live together, and the happiness of which I dreamed is not for me!’

All at once Natalya hid her face in her hands and began to weep. Rudin went up to her.”

What you have just read is a typical Turgenev-style ending; the heroine is too passionate and her feelings too strong for the passive hero. It’s not that Rudin doesn’t love Natalya, it’s more that he is incapable of being himself, living his own life, to commit to someone. Once rejected, Natalya doesn’t go on daydreaming of Rudin or returning to him. Instead, just like Pushkin’s Tatyana, she walks away with dignity and self-respect.

William Dyce, Portrait of Princess Victoria, the eldest daughter of Queen Victoria and Albert, 1848

Asya

In “Asya”, the narrator, a lonely forty year-old bachelor named N.N. tells us the sad love story of his youth. His memory sets the novella in a small and picturesque town on the Rhine, whose shore is littered with romantic Medieval castles and emerald green hills; a perfect setting for a fleeting, ephemeral romance. The narrator comes there on a holiday and meets two fellow Russians, a brother and a sister; Gaguine and Asya. Since they are the only Russians in town, they soon befriend. The narrator develops an intellectual bond with Gaguine but is soon enamoured by his strange and pretty younger sister Asya who is very shy around him at first.

This is what Turgenev tells us of their first encounter: “My presence appeared to embarrass her; but Gaguine said to her, “don’t be shy; he will not bite you.” These words made her smile, and a few moments after she spoke to me without the least embarrassment. She did not remain quiet a moment. Hardly was she seated than she arose, ran towards the house, and reappeared again, singing in a low voice; often she laughed, and her laugh had something strange about it—one would say that it was not provoked by anything that was said, but by some thoughts that were passing through her mind. Her large eyes looked one in the face openly, with boldness, but at times she half closed her eyelids, and her looks became suddenly deep and caressing.

And this is how Turgenev imagined her to look like. Again, she has a very girly appeal, just like Natalya and other Turgenev’s maidens: “The young girl whom he called his sister at first sight appeared to me charming. There was an expression quite peculiar, piquant and pretty at times, upon her round and slightly brown face; her nose was small and slender, her cheeks chubby as a child’s, her eyes black and clear. Though well proportioned, her figure had not yet entirely developed.

Photo by by SophieKoryn. “You consider my behaviour improper,” her face seemed to say; “all the same, I know you’re admiring me.” (Asya)

Asya can be rapturous and wild at one moment, without any regard for social conventions, only to become shy the next moment, wistful and lost in her thoughts. Here is an example to illustrate the point: on one occasion, Asya breaks a branch from a tree and plays with it as if it was a gun. When they encounter a group of shocked English tourists, she starts singing in a loud voice just to spite them. But later in the evening, she is the epitome of elegance and demureness: “When we arrived, she immediately went to her room, and did not reappear until dinner, decked out in her finest dress, her hair dressed with care, wearing a tight-fitting bodice, and gloves on her hands. At table she sat with dignity, scarcely tasted anything, and drank only water. It was evident she wished to play a new rôle in my presence: that of a young person, modest and well-bred. Gaguine did not restrain her; you could see that it was his custom to contradict her in nothing. From time to time he contented himself with looking at me, faintly shrugging his shoulders, and his kindly eye seemed to say: “She is but a child; be indulgent.

Jenna Coleman as Queen Victoria in “Victoria” (2016)

Here is a little conversation from the ninth chapter which also reveals Asya’s lack of feeling for proper behavior:

And what is it that you like about women?” she asked, turning her head with a childlike curiosity.

“What a singular question!” I cried.

“I shouldn’t have asked you such a question, should I? Forgive me; I am accustomed to say whatever comes into my head. That is why I am afraid to speak.”

“Speak, I beg you! Fear nothing, I am so delighted at seeing you less wild.

Juliette Lamet by Melanie Rodriguez for Melle Ninon.

The narrator seems more interested in the mysterious aura around her, than actually in love with her, he says himself: “Oh! that little girl—she is, indeed, an enigma.”

Here are a few more quotes to get you interested:

I understood what attracted me towards this strange young girl: it was not only the half-savage charm bestowed upon her lovely and graceful young figure, it was also her soul that captivated me.

I do not know what womanly charm suddenly appeared upon her girlish face. Long afterwards the charm of her slender figure still lingered about my hand; for a long time I felt her quick breathing near me, and I dreamed of her dark eyes, motionless and half closed, with her face animated, though pale, about which waved the curls of her sweet hair.” (Chapter IX)

William Powell Frith, The Proposal, 1856

The end of their love, again the hero suddenly turns cold and steps back from the affections that he himself started in the first place:

“So all is at an end,” I replied once more; “at an end—; and we must part.”

“There was in my heart,” I continued, “a feeling just springing up, which, if you had left it to time, would have developed! You have yourself broken the bond that united us; you have failed to put confidence in me.” (chapter XVI)

To end the post I would like to quote a fellow blogger at “A Russian Affair” who focuses on Russian literature. Here are her brilliant observations on Turgenev’s themes and style from the post “Typically Turgenev“:”Not a lot happens in Turgenev’s works. The situation at the beginning is more or less the same as the one in the end. All that remains is memories and what-ifs. The reader has to content himself with plenty of beautiful atmospheric scenes and contemplations. (…) You read Turgenev with your heart.

And a beautifully put thought regarding love from her post “Love in Turgenev’s work“: “It all starts in high spirits; the weather is ’magnificent’ and ’unusually good for the time of the year’ and the surroundings are idyllic. The sudden appearance of an exceptionally pretty girl surprises the narrator. He falls in love, but he never gets the girl, and remains a bachelor. Again and again Turgenev describes being in love, but he never dares to let it blossom into a relationship, nor in his stories, nor in real life.

I hope you decide to read some of Turgenev’s work, if you still haven’t and that you enjoy it as much as I did.

Franz Kafka’s Letters to Milena: “You are the knife I turn inside myself; that is love”

23 Dec

“You are the knife I turn inside myself; that is love. That, my dear, is love.” – this is what Kafka wrote to the mysterious Milena, and isn’t this sentence alone, with Kafka’s vibrant expressionistic definition of love, enough to lure you into reading the book?

The lucky lady: Milena Jesenská. Kafka wrote to her: “Written kisses don’t reach their destination, rather they are drunk on the way by the ghosts.”

In 1920, Franz Kafka and Milena Jesenská began a love affair through letters. Kafka is a well-known figure in the world of literature, but who was Milena? Milena was a twenty-three year old aspiring writer and translator who lived in Vienna in a marriage that was slowly falling apart. She recognised Kafka’s writing genius before others did. Despite the distance, despite the turbulent sea with insurmountable waves between Kafka in Prague and Milena in Vienna, the two developed an intense and intimate relationship. They stripped the masks of their bourgeois identities and bared their souls. The correspondence started when Milena wrote to Kafka and asked for a permission to translate his short story “The Stoker” from German to Czech. Such a simple request and formal demand very soon turned into a series of passionate and profound letters that Milena and Franz exchanged from March to December 1920. Kafka often wrote daily, often several times a day; such was his devotion. This is what he tells her: “and write me every day anyway, it can even be very brief, briefer than today’s letters, just 2 lines, just one, just one word, but if I had to go without them I would suffer terribly.” The letters are interesting from a linguistic point of view as well; Kafka wrote his letters in German while Milena wrote most of hers in her mother tongue, Czech. I found it really interesting to know that Kafka was fluent in Czech.

Although Kafka confided to Milena about his anxieties, fears, loneliness, it wasn’t all honey and roses; Kafka’s letters revealed the extent of his anguish caused by Milena, the sleepless nights, and the futile situation of their love. Milena haunted his thoughts, but he wasn’t the only one to suffer. In the introduction to letters Williy Haas describes Milena as a caring friend inexhaustible in her kindness and a desire to help. Kafka later writes to her calling her a ‘savior’. Passionate, vivacious and courageous, Milena suffered greatly nonetheless because of him, as Kafka said himself: “Do you know, darling? When you became involved with others you quite possibly stepped down a level or two, but If you become involved with me, you will be throwing yourself into the abyss.” She must have known that herself, and yet she chose to sink because ‘lust for life’ was part of her personality, and pain and rapture go hand in hand. Haas also reminds us that Dostoyevsky was her favourite writer and that we also mustn’t forget the propensity towards pain which is so typical for Slavic women. Slavic soul is a deep and dark place, one you better not wander into out of mere curiosity. It is almost hard to imagine how two such strong, profound, dark souls could even live a simple life together. Their relationship was of a hot-cold character; intense at one moment because their minds were alike, then alienating the other because of the distance. When one side was attached, the other cooled down, and vice versa. When she yearned to see him in Vienna, he was reluctant; when he wanted her to divorce her husband and come live with him, she wasn’t keen to do so.

They were very different in age and personalities but they fit perfectly as two hands when clasped together. No other woman entranced Kafka so much, and despite the abrupt sad end of their passionate correspondence I still think Milena was just what he needed. Here are two quotes which discuss their age difference: “It took some time before I finally understood why your last letter was so cheerful; I constantly forget the fact that you’re so young, maybe not even 25, maybe just 23. I am 37, almost 38, almost older by a whole short generation, almost white-haired from all the old nights and headaches.” He also tells her: “You see, the peaceful letters are the ones that make me happy (understand, Milena, my age, the fact that I am used up, and, above all, my fear, and understand your youth, your vivacity, your courage.

“I miss you deeply, unfathomably, senselessly, terribly.”

They met only two times in real life; on the first occasion they spent four days together in Vienna in June 1920, and the second time, in August 1920, they only met briefly in Gmünd on the Austrian-Czech border. It was Kafka who broke off the relationship because the situation seemed too pointless; they lived far away and Milena wasn’t willing to abandon her husband. They exchanged a few more letters throughout 1922 and 1923, but they were more reserved in nature and fewer in number. He tells her: “Go on caring for me.” In 1924, Kafka died. Milena died twenty years later, ill and alone in a concentration camp.

And now my favourite quotes:

Yours

(now I’m even losing my name – it was getting shorter and shorter all the time and is now: Yours)”

I have spent all my life resisting the desire to end it.

It’s a little gloomy in Prague, I haven’t received any letters, my heart is a little heavy. Of course it’s impossible that a letter could be here already, but explain that to my heart.

That’s not the point, Milena, as far as I’m concerned you’re not a woman, you’re a girl, I’ve never seen anyone who was more of a girl than you, and girl that you are, I don’t dare offer you my hand, my dirty, twitching, clawlike, fidgety, unsteady, hot-cold hand.

All writing seems futile to me, and it really is. The best would probably be for me to go to Vienna and take you away; I may even do it, although you don’t want me to.” (9 July 1920)

I wanted to excel in your eyes, show my strength of will, wait before writing you, first finish a document, but the room is empty, no one is minding me – it’s as if someone said: leave him alone, can’t you see how engrossed he is in his own affairs, it’s as if he had a fist in his mouth. So I only wrote half a page and am once again with you, lying on this letter like I lay next to you back then in the forest.” (16 July 1920)

With my teeth clenched, however, and with your eyes before me I can endure anything: distance, anxiety, worry, letterlessness.” (16 July 1920)

I am caught in a tide of sorrow and love which is carrying me away from writing.” (17 July 1920)

This one is particularly beautiful and profound, straight from the heart. When I first read it, I loved the fact that he needs solitude and time to think about Milena, but then when I read it the second time, something else struck me: when he says his office job is boring, his flat is stupid, but he feels he must not complain about his everyday reality because Milena is part of it too, and the gratefulness he feels for that: this moment which belongs to you:

A slight blow for me: a telegram from Paris, informing me that an old uncle of mine (…) is arriving tomorrow evening. It is a blow because it will take time and I need all the time I have and a thousand times more than all the time I have and most of all I’d like to have all the time there is just for you, for thinking about you, for breathing in you. My apartment is making me restless, the evenings are making me restless, I’d like to be someplace different and I’d prefer it if the office didn’t exist at all; but then I think that I deserve to be hit in the face for speaking beyond the present moment, this moment, which belongs to you.” (6 July 1920)

…and I am here just like I was in Vienna and your hand is in my own as long as you leave it there.” (29th July 1920)

You’re always wanting to know, Milena, if I love you, but after all, that’s a difficult question which cannot be answered in a letter (not even in last Sunday’s letter). I’ll be sure to tell you the next time we see each other (if my voice doesn’t fail me.” (30 July 1920)

Milena among the saviors! Milena who is constantly discovering in herself that the only way to save another person is by being there and nothing else. Moreover, she has already saved me once with her presence and now, after the fact, is trying to do so with other, infinitely smaller means. Naturally, saving someone from drowning is a great deed, but what good is it if the savior then sends the saved a gift-certificate for a swimming course?” (31 July 1920)

And how can I fly if we are holding hands? And what good is it for us to both fly away? And besides – this is actually the main thought of the above – I’ll never go so far away from you again.” (31 July 1920)

I am dirty, Milena, endlessly dirty, that is why I make such a fuss about cleanliness. None sing as purely as those in deepest hell; it is their singing we take for the singing of angels.” (26 August 1920)

Why, Milena, do you write about our common future which will never be, or is it that why you write about it? (…) Few things are certain, but one is that we’ll never live together, share an apartment, body to body, at a common table, never, not even in the same city. (…) Incidentally, Milena, you must agree when you examine yourself and me and take soundings of the “sea” between “Vienna” and “Prague” with its insurmountably high waves.” (Prague, September 1920)

***

Kafka’s “Letters to Milena” left a scar of Beauty on my soul. I enjoyed the book tremendously. Since Kafka as a person and his work are both pretty dark, I was amazed to see a tenderer, loving side of his personality, and to be inside his mind. I started reading the book thinking ‘this is interesting’, but as I turned the pages I felt more and more drawn in by his words. It’s hard to explain, but they touch me right in the heart even though they were not meant for me, just like a sewing needle pierces your skin and causes a sharp and burning pain which lasts for a second but leaves an echo. Kafka’s words, in the letters as well as in his stories, are simple at first reading, but they stir the waves inside me after I close the book. I hope this post inspires you to read the book. As of 2017, I have been immensely interested in letters, diaries and memoirs. The depth of feelings and the aspect of sincerity and intimacy in those literary forms just wins me over. So, if you have any suggestion about correspondences I should read, feel free to tell me.

Book Review: Before Night Falls by Reinaldo Arenas

21 Oct

I just finished reading a fascinating book: Reinaldo Arenas’s beautiful memoir Before Night Falls. Reinaldo Arenas (1943-1990), the self proclaimed “bad poet in love with the moon” (in Spanish: “Mal poeta enamorado de la luna”) was a gay Cuban poet, novelist and playwright who fled to the United States in 1980.

The sea; turquoise blue and whispering thousands of secrets in every wave that rhythmically kisses the soft and golden sand of the beach. Photo found here.

Reinaldo Arenas… When I whisper his name, I hear the murmur of the sea, and that ‘r’ melts on my tongue like pure golden honey… Arenas… And ‘arena’ means ‘sand’ in Spanish.

How did I came to know about Arenas? Well, it all started one warm crimson night in August when I first watched the film Before Night Falls (2000) based on his autobiography, starring Javier Bardem as Reinaldo. The film struck a chord with me; there was something poignant about the talented boy from the provincial area arriving to Havana to study agronomy, the boy who was at the same time naive and enraptured by the new and exciting possibilities that the big city offered. The sea, ahhh, the clear and warm sea in colours of turquoise and teal, the endless sandy beeches, and the vibrant architecture of Havana with colourful but decaying buildings with iron fences and palm trees everywhere…  And I’ll be honest, just gazing at Javier on the screen was nice too! I soon found myself daydreaming of Havana and I couldn’t get Reinaldo Arenas out of my head, so I read some of his poetry. His famous Auto-epitaph, written in New York in 1989, is just mind-blowing:

“A bad poet in love with the moon,

he counted terror as his only fortune :

and it was enough because, being no saint,

he knew that life is risk or abstinence,

that every great ambition is great insanity

and the most sordid horror has its charm.

He lived for life’s sake, which means seeing death

as a daily occurrence on which we wager

a splendid body or our entire lot.

He knew the best things are those we abandon

— precisely because we are leaving.

The everyday becomes hateful,

there s just one place to live – the impossible.

He knew imprisonment offenses

typical of human baseness ;

but was always escorted by a certain stoicism

that helped him walk the tightrope

or enjoy the morning’s glory,

and when he tottered, a window would appear

for him to jump toward infinity.

He wanted no ceremony, speech, mourning or cry,

no sandy mound where his skeleton be laid to rest

(not even after death did he wish to live in peace).

He ordered that his ashes be scattered at sea

where they would be in constant flow.

He hasn’t lost the habit of dreaming :

he hopes some adolescent will plunge into his waters.”

It’s hard to put in words what this poem meant to me in those warm afternoons of August I spent soaking in the golden rays of sun and daydreaming of the tropical sea, and what it still means to me. There is one line that’s particularly poignant to me and I dare say it’s almost burned in my mind: “Sólo hay un lugar para vivir – el imposible.” (There is just one place to live – the impossible.)

This painting by Hermenegildo Anglada Camarasa (1871–1959) has absolutely nothing to do with the book, but if I had to chose one painting to describe my feelings upon reading the book, this would be it: bloom, vibrancy and ecstasy!

It took me only a few pages to realise that the book I am holding in my hands is a very special book, so I read it slowly, savouring every page. Arenas’s writing is so flowing, brutally honest and poetic despite the grittiness of his life. If I had to describe the book in short, I would say: sea, sex, madness for living and writing, and fighting Fidel Castro’s regime. The book starts with memories of his childhood; he was brought up by a single-mother and lived with her large family. He described his mother as a very beautiful and a very lonely woman. Despite their material poverty, he, along with other children, discovered beauty all around them; in the morning fogs, in silent nights in the village, and especially in soil. He writes about an almost primordial connection to the soil; he ate soil as a child, his first crib was a hole in the ground dug by his grandmother, he made mud castles, and in the end the dead body would rot in the soil and become reborn as a flower, a tree or some other plant. Still, the thing that enraptured him the most was the sea which was a constant presence in his life. The sea, with its rhythmic play of waves and its blueness, spoke of freedom. This is what he says about the sea later in the book: “The sea was like a feast and forced us to be happy, even when we did not particularly want to be. Perhaps subconsciously we loved the sea as a way to escape from the land where we were repressed; perhaps in floating on the waves we escaped our cursed insularity.

Winslow Homer – A Garden in Nassau, 1885

Here are some quotes about his childhood fascination with the trees:

“I used to climb trees, and everything seemed much more beautiful from up there. I could embrace the world in completeness and feel a harmony that I could not experience down below.”

“Trees have a secret life that is only revealed to those willing to climb them. To climb a tree is to slowly discover a unique world, rhythmic, magical and harmonious, with its worms, insects, birds, and other living things, all apparently insignificant creatures, telling us their secrets.”

And here is one about his mother; the lingering sadness and disappointment of her life is so poignant:

“Before getting to my mother’s house, I would always think of her on the porch or even on the street, sweeping. She had a light way of sweeping, as if removing the dirt were not as important as moving the broom over the ground. Her way of sweeping was symbolic; so airy, so fragile, with a broom she tried to sweep away all the horrors, all the loneliness, all the misery that had accompanied her all her life…”

Colourful architecture of Havana. Photo found here.

At one point he moved from his little village to the city of Holguín, and in 1963 he won Fidel Castro’s scholarship and moved to Havana to study at the School of Planification. Later he studied literature and philosophy at the Unversidad de La Habana, but left the course without completing a degree. Ever since he first visited Havana, Arenas felt drawn to it, he felt it is the place to be: a big vibrant city where no one knows your name, a place far away from the poverty of the countryside. There he meets many interesting people: bohemians, painters, eccentrics and fellow writers such as Eliseo Diego and Lezama Lima. Arenas’s time spent in the sixties Havana was a vibrant and a happy period of his life, filled with sexual escapades, swimming, spending evenings at the famous cabaret Tropicana. There were three things he enjoyed in the early sixties: his typewriter, countless young men (fulfilling lust was a path to liberty because it was anti-regime), and the full discovery of the sea. Arenas wrote that sitting down and writing was a special experience and that the rhythm of his typing would inspire him and chapters would come like waves of the sea, first strong and wild then silent and slow. Many pages are devoted to descriptions of his writing and wild parties where everyone brought their notebooks, wrote poems or chapters of novels which they would then read to each other and, of course, made love. As Reinaldo said: literature and passion went hand in hand.

But things changed in the late sixties when Reinaldo’s openly gay lifestyle and his writing fell out of favour with the Communist regime. He had to hide his manuscripts and his novels were published abroad with the help of his French friends. In 1974 he was arrested and sent to prison. After he escaped from prison and tried to flee Cuba he was arrested again and sent to the notorious prison called El Morro Castle where he lived in gruesome circumstances. There’s a great scene in the film where in the middle of a dirty prison cell and loud inmates, Reinaldo is shown writing. Nothing could stop him from creating; hunger, imprisonment, illness. Creative expression was everything. While he was in prison he organised French lessons and helped his inmates by writing love letters to their girlfriends or wives. If you’re looking for self-pity, you won’t find it on any page of Before Night Falls.

Peder Severin Krøyer,Summer evening at the South Beach, 1893

Winslow Homer – Sponge Fishermen, Bahamas, 1885

And here is an explanation for the book’s title ‘Before Night Falls’ (original: Antes que anochezca: autobiografía):

‘Being a fugitive living in the woods at the time, I had to write before it got dark. Now darkness was approaching again, only more insidiously. It was the dark night of death. I really had to finish my memoirs before nightfall. I took it as a challenge.’

There is such a romanticism about Reinaldo’s life; the way he was never spiritless despite the hardships, imprisonments and betrayals of people he considered to be friends. It seems like nothing could really get him down, and he never wasted time but wrote, wrote and wrote. He lived for his writing, everything else came second, and despite his relatively short life his oeuvre proves his fruitfulness as an artist. Particularly interesting was to read about the creation of his novel “Farewell to the Sea” (Otra vez el mar). I honestly can’t even remember how many times he wrote that novel but every time the manuscript would get lost, stolen, burnt, you name it. And you know what he did? He started writing it again.

In 1987 Reinaldo was diagnosed with AIDS. On 7th December 1990 he died after an intentional overdose on alcohol and drugs. His decision to end his life instead of passively waiting for death is summed in this quote: “I have always considered it despicable to to grovel for your life as if life were a favor. If you cannot live the way you want, there is no point in living.”

In this photo you can see the man himself.

To close this ode to Reinaldo, here is another interesting thing, an interview from 1983 which you can read here. Here is a fragment from the beginning, the interviewer’s impression of Reinaldo: “Though I was nervous about meeting the great man, one of Cuba’s most admired writers, Arenas immediately put me at ease. “Encantado,” he said, smiling and taking my hand. Forty years old at the time, he had thick, curly black hair and enormous, sad eyes…”

I was especially interested to hear about his writing process and choosing different styles of writing for different scenes:

“If there’s a moment—as in my novel “Farewell to the Sea”—where you want to satirize all the uniforms, swords, and so forth of a dictator, you can do a caricature of the baroque. If you’re describing the characters’ nightmares, that may be the time for surrealism. All of these techniques or styles can come into play as you realize your vision. (…) But there’s a moment for every style. That’s why I advocate an eclectic technique.”

I loved this book because I felt as if I was on a journey with Arenas, through space and time. I loved it because of its wild and sincere yearning to live life to the fullest, to write and create and breathe and be excited by the sight of the sea for the thousandth time. In his last letter, Arenas wrote: “I end my life voluntarily because I cannot continue working … I do not want to convey to you a message of defeat but of continued struggle and of hope. Cuba will be free. I already am.

I see this book as a gift from Reinaldo, it gave me hope and assured me in my opinion that there is nothing more elevating than suffering and struggling for art.