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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.

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.

Osamu Dazai: No Longer Human – Art and Ghost Pictures

10 Feb

Osamu Dazai’s novel No Longer Human is a really fascinating book I’ve read recently and I’ve already reviewed it here. In this post we’ll take a look at the main character, Oba Yozo’s connection to art and the paintings of Western painters such as Modigliani and Vincent van Gogh.

1918-amedeo-modigliani-a-young-girlAmedeo Modigliani, A Young Girl, 1918

Oba Yozo was interested in art and painting since primary school and wanted to go to an art school, but his father put him into college, with an intend to make a civil servant out of him. Yozo obeyed, like he always did in his life, but he couldn’t really identify himself with the role of a student, or soak himself in the ‘college spirit’, so he often cut classes and spent days at home, painting and reading – which is totally more useful for imagination and the soul than the boredom of classrooms and patronising professors at college. He also attended art classes given by a painter in Hongo, and practised sketching for hours. He said: ‘I owned a set of oil paints and brushes from the time I entered high school. I sought to model my techniques on those of the Impressionist School, but my pictures remained flat as paper cutouts, and seemed to offer no promises of ever developing into anything.’

With the help of a friend he realised the artistic truth: sometimes it’s more important to portray the truth and work from the soul, than to create perfect, lifeless pictures with a lot of skill and precision. He also says: ‘What superficiality – and what stupidity – there is in trying to depict in a pretty manner things which one has thought pretty. The masters through their subjective perceptions created beauty out of trivialities. They did not hide their interest in things which were nauseatingly ugly, but soaked themselves in the pleasure of depicting them.’ From that moment on, he began making self-portraits, which is kept a secret, and showed one only to Takeichi, and no one else. In his free time, he painted these ‘ghost pictures’, but in school he kept his style strictly conventional. Later, at college, he meets a fellow art lover and painter, Horiki, who lures him into the ‘mysteries of drink, cigarettes, prostitutes, pawnshops and left-wing thought’.

Vincent van Gogh, Self-Portrait with a Grey Felt Hat, March/April 1887

Here, Yozo and his friend Takeichi are discussing the so called ‘ghost pictures’, and the name itself is so intriguing to me. ‘Ghost pictures’ – what is meant by that? It puzzles me, especially since I adore both Modigliani and van Gogh, but I never thought of their art in that way. A certain fragility, melancholy and sadness lingers through Modigliani’s portraits, that’s for sure, but now I can’t help but to notice the wraith-like quality of his women, with elongated faces and sad eyes, or his nudes in ‘coppery skin’ tones.

Takeichi made one other important gift to me. One day he came to my room to play. He was waving with a brightly coloured picture which he proudly displayed. “It’s a picture of a ghost,” he explained.

I was startled. That instant, as I could not help feeling in later years, determined my path of escape. I knew what Takeichi was showing me. I knew that it was only the familiar self-portrait of van Gogh. When we were children the French Impressionist School was very popular in Japan, and our first introduction to an appreciation of Western painting most often begun with such works. The paintings of van Gogh, Gauguin, Cezanne and Renoir were familiar even to students at country schools, mainly through photographic reproduction. I myself had seen quite a few coloured photographs of van Gogh’s paintings. His brushwork and the vividness of his colours had intrigued me, but I had never imagined his pictures to be of ghosts.

I took from my bookshelf a volume of Modigliani reproductions, and showed Takeichi the familiar nudes with skin the colour of burnished copper. “How about these? Do you think they’re ghosts too?”

“They’re terrific.” Takeichi widened his eyes in admiration. “This one looks like a horse out of hell.”

“They really are ghosts then, aren’t they?”

“I wish I could paint pictures of ghosts like that,” said Takeichi.

1916. Modigliani 'Female Nude'Modigliani, Female Nude, 1916

Yozo later draws for comic books and magazines, and, at the very end, ends up copying pornographic drawings which he would then secretly peddle, to earn just enough money to buy gin. Still, despite leaving his original artistic intentions behind, he mentions these ‘ghost pictures’ again:

At such times the self-portraits I painted in high school – the ones Takeichi called “ghost pictures” – naturally came to mind. My lost masterpieces. These, my only really worth-while pictures, had disappeared during one of my frequent changes of address. I afterwards painted pictures of every description, but they all fell far,  far short of those splendid works as I remembered them. I was plagued by a heavy sense of loss, as if my heart had become empty.

The undrunk glass of absinthe.

A sense of loss which was doomed to remain eternally unmitigated stealthily began to take shape. Whenever I spoke of painting, that undrunk glass of absinthe flickered before my eyes. I was agonized by the frustrating thought: if only I could show them those paintings they would believe in my artistic talents.

1888-self-portrait-with-straw-hat-van-goghVincent van Gogh, Self-Portrait with Straw Hat, 1888