Tag Archives: Literature

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.

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Joan Miró – Blue Is the Colour of My Dreams

20 Aug

Spanish painter and sculptor Joan Miró (1893-1993), whose work is usually classified as Surrealism, painted many beautiful paintings that show the vividness of his imagination, bursting with bold colours and intricate shapes. Still, his painting This is the color of my dreams has a special place in my heart: it is simple, just a blue fleck on white background, and underneath it Miró elegantly wrote the words that serve as the title of the painting, in French. Those words, the idea behind them, gives this simple blue a poetic, dreamy, mystical dimension.

Joan Miró, This is the color of my dreams, 1925

Isn’t it just a beautiful idea, to paint the colour of your dreams? And different dreams come in different colours, shades, different fragrances, melodies and moods. Miró dreamt in blue. And here’s what Jean Cocteau had to say about blue colour in “The Secret of Blue”:

The secret of blue is well kept. Blue comes from far away. On its way, it hardens and changes into a mountain. The cicada works at it. The birds assist. In reality, one doesn’t know. One speaks of Prussian blue. In Naples, the virgin stays in the cracks of walls when the sky recedes. But it’s all a mystery. The mystery of sapphire, mystery of Sainte Vierge, mystery of the siphon, mystery of the sailor’s collar, mystery of the blue rays that blind and your blue eye which goes through my heart.

Jack Kerouac – Tristessa: Love, Frenzy and Sadness in Mexico City

13 Aug

Even though I always proclaim On the Road as my favourite novel by Jack Kerouac, it is the novella Tristessa that most often comes to mind when thinking about Kerouac because the story of his wild impossible love, decaying souls in seedy streets of Mexico City where “a soul eats another soul in a never ending void”, addiction, prostitution and poverty is so damn haunting, poignant and beautiful, from a literary point of view.

The novel starts in a chic Kerouac way, with him driving in a taxi with Tristessa, drunk, with a bottle of Juarez Bourbon in his hand, in a Mexico City on a rainy Saturday night. “Tristessa” is Kerouac’s name for a young prostitute and a morphine addict whose real name was Esperanza Villanueva.

It always puzzled me why he decided to change her name from Esperanza (“hope” in Spanish) to Tristessa (“tristeza” meaning “sadness” in Spanish), but the change, admittedly, makes the title sound cooler. Beauty of Kerouac’s writings often contrasts with the gritty reality he is describing, but he lived among that low-life and misfits and that gives his book a genuine flair. For example, he describes Tristessa as a beautiful, enchanting girl with high cheekbones and a sad face expression that speaks of resignation. In real life, she looked like a drug addict; ill, frail and weary. Other characters are also morphine addicts, pimps and thieves. In that shabby room where a hen, a dove, a rooster and a cat walk freely, a room with a leaking roof, posters of Mexican pin-ups on the wall, a dirty mattress, and candles on the little altar of virgin Mary, there Kerouac realises that birth and death are the same empty dream. There is too much restlessness in him to fully accept the idea, but Tristessa’s soul is full of beautiful resignation, she has nothing and wants nothing, choosing to walk through life mute on every suffering that comes. There’s something beautiful in that fragility, life stripped to its essence; painful and pointless without any pretending that it’s not true. Reading about Tristessa’s suffering is poignant, it makes you feel you want to reach out and help her, but you can’t. Kerouac’s novels burst with characters of sad, lost, vulnerable souls, fragile as poppy flowers that gently dance in the wind and yet, if you pick them, their petals fall, too fragile to live anywhere apart from the meadow. So, leave them there, on a vibrant green meadow, leave them to dance their short waltz and die in silence, you cannot help them.

In Tristessa, Kerouac describes with his typical vibrant, at parts poignant and sad, at parts fun and wild rock ‘n’ roll writing style a fragile period in time. Even though he returned to Mexico City two years after, nothing was the same. The mystical flair from the first few pages, that of candlelight and statue of Madonna, leaking roof, morphine and a hen, disappear quickly and turn into grey hopelessness and poverty of the slums. Kerouac drunk, Kerouac sober. Glamour stripped away. Sadness lingers. I’ve never been drunk in my life, and yet I feel “drunk” after reading Kerouac.

And now a few quotes:

It starts raining harder, I’ve got a long way to go walking and pushing that sore leg right along in the gathering rain, no chance no intention whatever of hailing a cab, the whiskey and the Morphine have made me unruffled by the sickness of the poison in my heart.

***

I play games with her fabulous eyes and she longs to be in a monastery.

***

She is giving me my life back and not claiming it for herself as so many of the women you love do claim.

***

And a wonderful, inspiring sentence to end the novel:

I’ll go to the south of Sicily in the winter, and paint memories of Arles – I’ll buy a piano and Mozart me that – I’ll write long sad tales about people in the legend of my life – This part is my part of the movie, let’s hear yours

Gabriel Garcia Márquez: Love Letters, Fresh Lilies, Tears and Dried Butterflies (One Hundred Years of Solitude)

16 Jul

A week ago I finished reading Márquez’s magnificent novel “One Hundred Years of Solitude” and I have fallen in love with the story, the mood, the characters, his writing style and magic realism. Art equivalent of the book must be, for me, the blue dreamy world of Marc Chagall’s lovers, flowers and psychedelic fiddlers on roofs in far-off villages of his imagination, which might as well be Márquez’s mystical Macondo, and I can also see myself listening to Pink Floyd and daydreaming of chapters from the books. Some sentences have really left me feeling high as a kite; it rains for four years, plague insomnia which leaves people not tired but nostalgic for dreams, tiny yellow flowers that cover the entire village the moment José Arcadio Buendía dies, yellow butterflies that follow the dark melancholic-eyed Mauricio at every step, Rebeca who eats earth and arrives with a sack that makes a clock-clock-clock sound of her parents’ bones; illusion upon illusion, magic upon magic, and in the end, only eternal solitude remains.

Savely Sorin, Two Women, c. 1920s

I recently discovered this painting of two women in white by the Russian artist Savely Sorin (1887-1953), and now every time I look at it, it reminds me of Amaranda and Rebeca, sitting on a begonia porch, their hands busy embroidering; both lost in their own worlds and their hearts full of woe, both lonely with an impenetrable inner life, both finding consolation in writing passionate perfumed love letters to the same man which they never send… I imagine the lady in the front to be Rebeca and the brown-haired one is Amaranta, for me.

When I started reading the book, one morning sitting on my balcony, surrounded by pots of pink begonias, I flipped through the pages wondering about their content, and this was the first sentence that I randomly saw and I was mesmerised, what a scene: “On rainy afternoon, embroidering with a group of friends on the begonia porch, she would lose the thread of the conversation and a tear of nostalgia would salt her palate when she saw the strips of damp earth and the piles of mud that the earthworms had pushed up in the garden. Those secret tastes, defeated in the past by oranges and rhubarb, broke out into an irrepressible urge when she began to weep. She went back to eating earth.

I don’t think I will ever see begonias again and not think of Márquez. I like to daydream of flowers and their different personalities and connect flowers and trees to people, real or imaginary.

Even though I loved the entire book, there is a part of that I particularly enjoyed reading, that appealed to me the most, when Buendía family was at its most lively, vibrant state, and the house was full of love: Aureliano was consumed with passion for Remedios who is described as “a pretty little girl with lily-colored skin and green eyes”, and Rebeca and Amaranda were besotted with their dance instructor, a dashing and handsome blonde Italian called Pietro Crespi. With love followed daydreams, passionate letters, tears, torments and jealousies:

The house became full of love. Aureliano expressed it in poetry that had no beginning or end. He would write it on the harsh pieces of parchment that Melquiades gave him, on the bathroom walls, on the skin of his arms, and in all of it Remedios would appear transfigured: Remedios in the soporific air of two in the afternoon, Remedios in the soft breath of the roses, Remedios in the water-clock secrets of the moths, Remedios in the steaming morning bread, Remedios everywhere and Remedios forever. Rebeca waited for her love at four in the afternoon, embroidering by the window. She knew that the mailman’s mule arrived only every two weeks, but she always waited for him, convinced that he was going to arrive on some other day by mistake. It happened quite the opposite : once the mule did not come on the usual day. Mad with desperation, Rebeca got up in the middle of the night and ate handfuls of earth in the garden with a suicidal drive, weeping with pain and fury, chewing tender earthworms and chipping her teeth on snail shells. She vomited until dawn. She fell into a state of feverish prostration, lost consciousness, and her heart went into a shameless delirium. Ursula, scandalized, forced the lock on her trunk and found at the bottom, tied together with pink ribbons, the sixteen perfumed letters and the skeletons of leaves and petals preserved in old books and the dried butterflies that turned to powder at the touch.

As soon as Amaranta found out about Rebeca’s interest in Pietro, she wanted him too:

When she discovered Rebeca’s passion, which was impossible to keep secret because of her shouts, Amaranta suffered an attack of fever. She also suffered from the barb of a lonely love. Shut up in the bathroom, she would release herself from the torment of a hopeless passion by writing feverish letters, which she finally hid in the bottom of her trunk. Ursula barely had the strength to take care of the two sick girls. (…) Finally, in another moment of inspiration, she forced the lock on the trunk and found the letters tied with a pink ribbon, swollen with fresh lilies and still wet with tears, addressed and never sent to Pietro Crespi.

Marc Chagall, Bouquet près de la fenêtre, 1959-60

Meanwhile, some things occur, Rebeca marries another man and Pietro, heartbroken, finds consolation in hours spend in Amaranta’s company. This must be the dreamiest, most romantic passage of the book, for me. I mean; suffocating smell of roses in dusk, this dashing Italian translating Petrarca’s love poetry for his sweetheart, and both sighing and daydreaming on the begonia porch of that remote village in Columbia about that famed Europe and wonders of Italy, nostalgia pervading the Columbian night:

Amaranta and Pietro Crespi had, in fact, deepened their friendship, protected by Ursula, who this time did not think it necessary to watch over the visits. It was a twilight engagement. The Italian would arrive at dusk, with a gardenia in his buttonhole, and he would translate Petrarch’s sonnets for Amaranta. They would sit on the porch, suffocated by the oregano and the roses, he reading and she sewing lace cuffs, indifferent to the shocks and bad news of the; war, until the mosquitoes made them take refuge in the parlor. Amaranta’s sensibility, her discreet but enveloping tenderness had been weaving an invisible web about her fiance, which he had to push aside materially with his pale and ringless fingers in order to leave the house at eight o’clock. They had put together a delightful album with the postcards that Pietro Crespi received from Italy. They were pictures of lovers in lonely pink. with vignettes of hearts pierced with arrows and golden ribbons held by doves. “I’ve been to this park in Florence,” Pietro Crespi would say, going through the cards. “A person can put out his hand and the birds will come to feed.” Sometimes, over a watercolor of Venice, nostalgia would transform the smell of mud and putrefying shellfish of the canals into the warm aroma of flowers. Amaranta would sigh, laugh, and dream of a second homeland of handsome men and beautiful women who spoke a childlike language, with ancient cities of whose past grandeur only the cats among the rubble remained.

Have you read the book? Have you enjoyed these passages as much as I have?

Poetic Memory, Beauty and Milan Kundera

9 Jul

The brain appears to possess a special area which we might call poetic memory and which records everything that charms or touches us, that makes our lives beautiful.”

Picture found here. Notice how beautifully the delicate white porcelain and fresh pink roses contrast with the worn out grey surface? In one word – poetic.

As you may already know, I am a big fan of Milan Kundera’s novel “Unbearable Lightness of Being”; I think the way he explored the inner struggles of characters is wonderful, but there’s so much more to the book. Kundera tends to be very analytical and philosophical and while he often explores the ideas of other thinkers such as Nietzsche, he tends to have interesting theses and concepts himself, like this one:

The brain appears to possess a special area which we might call poetic memory and which records everything that charms or touches us, that makes our lives beautiful.”

Kundera ends the chapter with this sentence, connecting love and poetic memory, which only emphasises the importance of poetic memory in one’s life.

“Love begins with a metaphor. Which is to say, love begins at the point when a woman enters her first word into our poetic memory.”

The first sentence perfectly describes my knightly quest for Beauty in everyday life. Kundera expressed in a sentence something I felt for a long time, but had no words to describe it. I usually just say “this is beautiful” or “I like the aesthetics”, but from now on I shall call it “poetic memory”. Poetic memory is an individual thing; one can see beauty where others do not, but many things are universally beautiful such as sunsets and flowers. But it is not merely about beauty itself as much as it is about a dreamy, charming, heartbreaking sight that makes you sigh and that lingers on in your memory, reappears in your mind again, that touches you and can even brings tear to your eye. I believe one needs to develop sensitivity towards beauty in order to see it every day, and in the most random and strangest of places.

I just love pretty porcelain! Beautiful flowers on this tea cup have dazzled my imagination and stayed in my poetic memory, and so did the dreamy sight of pink magnolia blossoms, pear tree and a cardinal, photo by Molly Dean.

I am constantly fanatically and ecstatically seeking and finding, stumbling upon, beauty all around me, and when I see a sight that deserves a place in my poetic memory, I am overwhelmed by rapture that seems to me better than an acid trip. Here are some examples of scenes from my life that have charmed me, touched me and made my life more beautiful, and that I have rightfully saved to my poetic memory: cherry tree twig that adorns my vase every spring, my neighbour’s laundry drying outdoors and dancing in the breeze, bright yellow flowers in my garden, one decaying used-to-be-white-but-now-grey wall with little windows and bricks showing through and ruby red roses overgrowing it, ginkgo tree in autumn which leaves a magical gold-yellow carpet of leaves, one old grey house with two small windows and rain leaves a trail under them so that it looks like eyes crying and a damp garden with sombre pink and blue hydrangeas, three gentle and sad looking birch trees in front of an old wooden house, silence and stillness of winter afternoons and snowflakes, pink and lavender coloured sunsets as well as the orange and purple autumn sunsets tinged with melancholy with chillness descending, rose petals scattered all over my room and The Smiths in the background, morning dew on roses and white peonies in my garden, old decaying roofs, iron gates adorned with rust, old walls overgrown with moss and ivy, tree branches white and crispy from frost, red poppies near the railway, large white moon, listening to rain and Chopin at the same time; coming home from school last April accompanied by the smell of freshly mown grass, birdsong and pink magnolia blossoms. Colour combinations too; lavender and ruby red, or purple and yellow are amongst my favourites. The sight of flickering candles and old books with yellowy pages. And a special sight I saw last August on one rainy evening, coming home from a walk; apple tree and yellow sunflowers intertwined, like lovers, announcing autumn. Along with the steady beats of hard summer rain on my umbrella, it was enchanting, almost fairy tale like for me….

I imagine poetic memory as a beautiful little antique wooden box with elegant carvings and an invisible silver key that I carry around my neck, and when I see a scene of beauty, I can just unlock the box in my imagination and save it there. And later, in sad and dull moments, I can sit by my window with a cup of tea, close my eyes and enjoy the contents of my “poetic memory box”. Poetic memory isn’t limited to sights you see in your life; it can be found in photos and art as well, anything really that charms you. Here are some pictures that I recently “saved” in my poetic memory:

Seaburn, Sunderland, England by DM Allan.

Photo found here.

Wild flowers of Pacific Northwest, Images taken from around Washington State

Milldale, Staffordshire, Peak District, England, UK; isn’t the contrast between old grey stones and bright greenery around it so so dazzlingly beautiful?

So, what do you think of Kundera’s thesis? Are you building your poetic memory? What kind of scenes charm you? I should also add that it is my opinion that poetic memory is a basis for good writing; poets and artists see beauty everywhere and it later becomes part of their work. As every day, month, year passes, I see more and more beauty around me, so much so that I should probably walk around carrying a notebook and a pen and write it down, “A Book of Beauty” I should call it. Sometimes I walk the streets thinking: “Look at that lantern, look at that crack in the pavement where flowers grew, or a pine tree, how did I never notice it before!?” My point is that noticing beauty is a skill that needs to be learnt, and I’m not pretending I’m above it, in fact, I wonder what sights will charm me five or ten years from now. Perhaps I’ll notice flowers in places I never even thought of looking.

If anything, I hope this post will inspire you to see more beauty around you.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti – I was a child beneath her touch….

12 May

Today would have been Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s birthday and I will take that as an excuse to share with you my favourite poem of his, “The Kiss”, along with some drawings he did of his darling Lizzie Siddal. I especially love the second stanza of the poem and also here you can watch a short video of Aidan Turner who played Rossetti in the BBC show “Desperate Romantics” reciting the poem.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882), Portrait of Elizabeth Siddal, ca 1860

“What smouldering senses in death’s sick delay

Or seizure of malign vicissitude 

Can rob this body of honour, or denude

This soul of wedding-raiment worn to-day?

For lo! even now my lady’s lips did play

With these my lips such consonant interlude

As laurelled Orpheus longed for when he wooed

The half-drawn hungering face with that last lay. 

 

I was a child beneath her touch,–a man

When breast to breast we clung, even I and she,– 

A spirit when her spirit looked through me,– 

A god when all our life-breath met to fan 

Our life-blood, till love’s emulous ardours ran, 

Fire within fire, desire in deity.”

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Elizabeth Siddal, study for ‘Delia’ in the ‘Return of Tibullus’ (1853)

Ode to Pushkin’s Tatyana, from ‘Eugene Onegin’

17 Apr

If you were given a chance to travel through time, and if you decided upon visiting the countryside Russia of the late 1820s, you might be lucky and, whilst walking through a peaceful forest enjoying the delight which a birdsong can bestow upon one’s ears, you might stumble upon a peculiar young lady who finds tranquillity in the woods and serenity by the lake; a solitary maiden whose friends are books, flowers and birds, and who feels more at home surrounded by tall soulful trees than in the candlelit salons full of people; a lady who is introverted and timid on the outside, but is full of warmth, passions and feelings on the inside; this creature delicate as a fawn is Tatyana Larina – Pushkin’s wonderful literary creation and the love interest of Eugene Onegin, the Byronic Hero of Russian literature.

Lidia Timoshenko (1903-1976), Tatyana and Onegin Years Later

“Eugene Onegin” is Alexander Pushkin’s novel in verse, first published in 1833, although the current version is that of 1837. It is representative of Russian literature of Romanticism and Pushkin spent ten years writing this lyrical masterpiece which has been called by V.G. Belinsky as ‘the encyclopedia of Russian life’, and indeed it covers a broad scale of topics; pointlessness of life, love and passion, death, provincial life, superficiality of the upper classes, rigidity of etiquette, conventions and ennui. The main character is the ‘mad and bad’ or rather cynical and bored Eugene Onegin, a cold and world-weary nobleman who had, at the beginning of the novel, inherited an estate after his uncle’s death and arrives at the countryside. He is bored with his social life in St Petersburg, filled with superficial chatter, games, flirtations, balls and dinner parties; he finds this cycle tedious and repetitive and therefore hopes to find something fresh and interesting in the countryside. Onegin is exactly the kind of person who will shit all over things you love just because he feels no passion for living at all, and mock things you adore because he finds value in nothing.

He is a ‘superfluous man’, which is Pushkin’s literary creation based on the demonic Byronic hero. A Superfluous man is full of contradictions, he feels superior to his surroundings and yet he does nothing to use his potentials and talents but chooses to walk aimlessly through life, prone to self-destruction, haunted by a strong sense of the boredom of life. Lermontov’s character Pechorin in ‘A Hero of Our Time’ is another example of a superflous man and was directly inspired by Pushkin’s Onegin. May I add that in the film Onegin (1999), Onegin is played by the wonderful Ralph Fiennes and I think he played him perfectly, you can feel the cynicism and ennui in his voice. So, if you’re not inclined on reading the novel, you can spare two hours of your life and watch the film which happens to be on Youtube. In the film, Tatyana is played by the gorgeous Liv Tyler.

Caspar David Friedrich, Elbschiff in Early Morning Fog, 1821

Second character to be introduced in the novel is Vladimir Lensky; a hopeless romantic and an idealist, a proud and polite young man, carried away by the romantic spirit of the times, but his character, I feel, is adorned with more sentimentality than deep feelings, his poetry and his love for Olga are as shallow as a puddle after rain which dries with the first rays of sun, and he is so naive, but forgive him, he is only 18 years old! This is how the narrator (or Pushkin) describes him:

Vladimir Lensky, is the man

Handsome, young, a Kantian.

Whose soul was formed in Gottingen,

A friend of truth: a poet then.

From misty Germany he brought

The fruits of learning’s golden tree

His fervant dreams of liberty

Ardent and eccentric thought,

Eloquence to inspire the bolder,

And dark hair hanging to his shoulder.

And here’s a description of his poetry, I can’t help but being amused by Lensky. You should see him in the film, singing Schubert in the forest, giving his heart and soul to it, although the effect is pathetic and Onegin mocks him later on, saying that ‘Poor Schubert, his body barely in the grave and and his work is being butchered by amateurs’ and stating that Lensky is ‘desecrating Schubert’:

He sang of love, to love subjected,

Clear and serene his tune…

He sang of parting and of sorrows,

Misty climes, and vague tomorrows,

Of roses in some high romance;

Sang of all the far-off lands

Where on quiet desert strands,

His living tears obscured his glance;

At eighteen years he had the power,

To sing of life’s dry withered flower.

Mikhail Nesterov, Girls on the Banks of the River

Lensky is madly in love with Olga Larina, a charming and pretty younger sister of Tatyana. She is frivolous and coquettish, blonde and fair, with an ability to charm with her looks and singing, but inside she is empty, her feelings are superficial and calculated; her mad love seems fleeting for after Lensky died in a duel, it did not take her long to forget him and marry another man. She is like a porcelain doll; if you break her, you’ll find nothing inside.

Always humble, always truthful,

Always smiling as the dawn,

Like the poet’s life as simple,

Sweet as the kiss of love, that’s born

Of sky-blue eyes, a heavenly blue,

Flaxen hair, all gleaming, too,

Voice, manner, slender waist,

Such was Olga…you can paste

Her description here from any

Novel that you choose to read,

A charming portrait, yes, indeed,

One I adored, but now it bores me.

Reader, I’ll enhance the vista,

Let me describe her elder sister.

Fired by longing, circumstance,

In solitude her heart was burning,

Crushed by adolescent gloom,

Her soul was waiting…but for whom?

And now let’s finally talk about the elder sister, my dearest and sweetest Tatyana Larina, a character for whom I felt affection immediately, and re-read parts about her many times, and found I can relate. Wistful, melancholic and dreamy, forever lost in her thoughts, you will find her wandering the forest, picking flowers, or sitting by the window daydreaming while others are chatting and laughing, and a book is always in her hands. This is how Pushkin describes his heroine:

So, she is called Tatyana.

Not a beauty like her sister,

Lacking rosy cheeks, the manner,

To attract a passing lover.

Melancholy, wild, retiring,

Like a doe seen in a clearing,

Fleeing at the sign of danger,

To her family a stranger.

She never took to caressing

Her father, mother, not her way

To delight in childish play,

With the others, sweetly dancing.

But often to the window glued

She’d sit all day in solitude.

Alexander Brullov, Portrait of Pushkin’s wife Natalia, 1831

Tatyana was withdrawn and shy even as a child. When her sister Olga and other children played tag or sang, she would wander the meadows on her own, preferring the company of her thought to the loudness of the crowd. Unlike other girls, she had interest in dolls. Taking care of dolls was meant to prepare girls for their future roles of mothers, but Tatyana was a stranger to all childhood’s silliness and playfulness, and daydreams seem to fill her days from very early on:

Her dearest friend was reverie,

From the cradle, the slow stream

Of placid dull rusticity

Enriched by meditative dream.

Her tender fingers never held

A needle, never once excelled,

Her head above the silk inclined,

In working something she’d designed.

Now with greater concentration,

She reads the sweet romances,

Finds a deeper fascination,

In those soft seductive glances!…”

Instead, books and nature were her friends. I’ve known it from experience that a book can be a source of delight and inspiration more than a human being can, and a sight of flowers or a tree can fill one’s soul with more kindness than a common person can. And daydreams, I assure you, can fill you with as much feelings as real events can, but they never leave the bitter taste in your mind like cruel reality does. Tatyana knows that too! And literature, novels about romances in particular (just like those read by Emma Bovary) proved an amusement and a diversion for her already vivid imagination:

From the first she craved romances,
Her great delight, she loved them so,
Whatever chapter most entrances,
In Richardson or in Rousseau.

Naturally, soaked in those novels for days, Tatyana begins to see herself as a heroine and lives through the books for a person who reads lives not one but many lives. And when she closes the book, a reality check; a quiet birdsong, a soft breeze through the birch trees, smell of grass, distant murmur of a river, yes, she is still in the countryside, not in a Medieval castle in Switzerland or a beautiful mansion in England:

And sees herself the heroine

Of all the authors she admires,

Clarissa, Julie, or Delphine;

Wanders among forest choirs

With some dangerous volume roams,

Through its pages swiftly combs,

To find her passion, and her dream,

Her overflowing heart, love’s gleam.

She sighs and in herself possesses

Another’s joy, another’s sorrow…

Source: here. Could this be the way Onegin’s mansion looked from afar, in a frozen Russian fairytale landscape?

Pushkin even writes about the types of heroes Tatyana daydreams about. Never ever, underestimate the power a book can have a on a person who is lonely or has a wild imagination:

All the British Muse’s lumber

Now disturbs a young girl’s slumber,

Her idol, someone to admire,

Is the blood-sucking Vampire,

Melmoth, Maturin’s traveller,

The Corsair or the Wandering Jew,

Nodier’s Jean Sbogar too.

Lord Byron with a shrewd despair,

Displays a hopeless egotism

As saturnine romanticism.

Isaac Levitan, Autumn Landscape, 1880

Pushkin tells us that Tatyana finds refuge in long walks, seeking comfort in nature which soothes the torment of love:

Haunted by love’s pain, Tatyana,
Takes to the garden, walking
Eyes downcast, till her languor,
Prevents her from even moving.
Her breast heaves, her cheeks aflame,
Burning suddenly with shame,
The breath on her lips is glazed,
A roaring in her ears, eyes dazed…
Night falls, and the moon patrols
The vault of heaven. Near her room,
A nightingale, from woodland gloom
Its rich sonorous cadence rolls.
Tatyana, in the darkness lying,
To her nurse is softly sighing.

I am in love’ Tatyana sighs,
In a soft whisper, gives a moan.
‘Dear, you can’t be well,’ replies,
The nurse. ‘It’s love. Leave me alone.
Meanwhile, the sad moon dreams,
On the girl’s pale beauty gleams,
Shines above, its tranquil light….
And all the world lies still, below,
Bathed in the moon’s enchanted glow.

Speaking to no one, confiding in no one, only the moon and the nurse know her secrets. But Tatyana decides to act upon her dreams and confess her love in a letter. This is how it starts, the famous “Tatyana’s letter”:

I write to you – is more required?

How can I possibly explain?

It’s in your power, if desired,

To crush me with a cold disdain.

But if this longing you’ve inspired

Awakes the slightest sympathy,

I know you won’t abandon me…

Although she had barely talked to him, and he showed no particular interest or affection towards her, Tatyana found herself over night besotted by this strange, brooding aristocrat with a flair of St Petersburg around him. In his figure and the few words they’re exchanged, she saw all the heroes that she’d spent her short life fantasising about; “Werther – born to be a martyr”, Grandinson, Cottin’s Malek-Adhel, de Krudener’s de Linar, and the lover too of Rousseau’s Julie Womar:

“A single image as it were:

The foolish dreamer sees them whole

In Onegin’s form, and soul.

Gustave Leonarde de Jonghe, Girl With a Rose, 1878

It’s easy to understand why she felt about Onegin the way she did, if you think of her lonely and boring existence in the countryside, with a mother and a sister who neither understand her nor try to do so because they are of entirely different natures. Vain, selfish and coquettish Olga can never dream of experiencing the depth of Tatyana’s feelings, and likewise Tatyana can never even dream of indulging in light amusements and flirtations which seem to fill Olga’s days. Pushkin warns us that, while Olga’s love is more a fleeting coquetry, Tatyana loves with all seriousness:

Tatyana is no cool coquette,
She loves in all seriousness,
Yields to it like a child, as yet
Full of innocence and sweetness.

Up to meeting Onegin, Tatyana has spent her life wandering around, reading about romances and exciting adventures, yet never experiencing anything of the sort, and now, all of a sudden, a stranger comes to their lonely countryside and stirs her soul. She thinks of him day and night, and finds no rest until, in the letter, she writes everything that lies on her soul. All that her shyness has prevented her mouth from saying, the hand dared to write, scrawling with black ink on paper, under moonlight, offering her life to a man she barely knows, and seals it with wax before sending it.

But her passionate outburst of feelings was welcomed with coldness from the other side. When they meet at the party, she anxiously awaits him in the garden, and he – oh, that dreadful Onegin! – he disdainfully returns the letter to her, advising her to restrain her feelings in the future, to shun her affections and act with reserve and coldness because another man, one not as ‘kind-hearted’ as he was, would surely take advantage of her naivety and innocence. Onegin mercilessly ‘with a cold disdain’ crushed the feelings of this delicate wild flower. When I was reading this, I thought: What a brave thing to do, what a straightforward gesture, especially for a woman of her time, and what a hard thing it must be to write someone a love letter, but after reading about Onegin’s cruel respond, I’ve learnt that it is unwise, and maybe reason should, in this case, prevail over sensibility. Jane Austen seemed to think that too because her heroine Marianne Dashwood was in a way punished for her sensibility.

Why Tatyana fell in love with Onegin is a mystery to me, I find him fascinating as a literary character but he is nowhere near the romantic heroes she’s read about. I suppose she must have felt that underneath that cold, cynical exterior there must lie a heart full of feelings and that she might awaken them, but she was wrong because Onegin is selfish to the core and is not even capable of love. Her daydreams and inexperience seem to have made her a poor judge of character. This is how Onegin felt upon receiving the letter:

Yet now, receiving Tanya’s note,
Onegin’s heart was deeply moved;
The tender style in which she wrote,
The simple girlish way she loved.
Her face possessed his memory,
Her pallor, and her melancholy,
He plunged, head first, into the stream,
A harmless, and delightful dream.
Perhaps the ancient flame of passion,
Thrilled him in its former way,
Though he’d no wish to betray
A soul so trusting, in that fashion...

Oton Iveković, Landscape, 1901

This is part of what Onegin tells Tatyana as reasons why they could never be happy together:

‘I was not born for happiness,
All such is alien to my mind;
Of your perfection too, no less
Am I unworthy, you would find.
Believe me (conscience is my guide)
Wed, the fire would soon have died;
However I wished to prove true,
Habit would cool my love for you.
Then you would weep, yet your tears,
Your grief, would never move my heart,
But madden me, spur me to depart.
What thorns, not roses, through the years
Would Hymen strew along our way,
Many a night, and many a day?

Onegin was actually very kind towards her, because I don’t think she could truly be happy with a man like that.

Pushkin takes a moment to ponder on who is to be blamed for this unfortunate misunderstanding:

Why then consider Tanya guilty?
Because her simplicity, it seems,
Is ignorant of deceit, and still she
Believes completely in her dreams?
Or because her love lacks art,
Follows the promptings of her heart?
Because she’s trusting, and honest
And by Heaven has been blessed,
With profound imagination,
A fiery will, a lively mind,
A soul for passion’s fires designed,
A spirit tuned to all creation?
Surely, then, you can forgive,
A fierce desire to love and live?

Clock is ticking; cold, bitter and lonely Russian winters are passing, and Tatyana is on her way to become an old maid. She still has feelings for Onegin, maybe secretly hopes that he might change his mind and come back to her, but Onegin isn’t coming back and the pressure of her mother is becoming too much:

Tatyana’s bloom is all but gone,
She, more pallid, and more silent!
Nothing can provide distraction,
Or stir her soul, no incitement.
Whispering solemnly together,
Neighbours shook their heads, forever
Sighing: ‘It’s high time she was wed!’…
Enough. It’s high time that instead,
I painted over this sad scene,
And portrayed love’s happiness,
Though, dear Reader, I confess
I’m overcome, by pity I mean;
Forgive me: I’ve loved from the start
My Tatyana, with all my heart.

And so Tatyana was married to another man, a general. She doesn’t love him but tolerates him. Years pass, Pushkin brings the reader on a journey from the countryside to the glamour of St Petersburg. We are at a ball; musicians are playing a charming tune, candles are flickering, couples are dancing… Onegin is there too; equally bored and cynical as he was years ago, but something or someone captures his attention; a beautiful woman, in the film shown wearing a gorgeous red gown. The woman carries an air of dignity and seriousness around her – it is Tatyana, now grown into a wise, mature, confident woman, who stands gracefully by her husband’s side. Onegin is mad with passion, he writes her letters full of declarations of his love and adorations, but she doesn’t respond: she is a married woman after all, and a faithful one too. He takes a certain perverse delight in reawakening the strong feelings that she had, not with ease, managed to tame and lull to sleep. When he happens to steal a moment of privacy with her, he proposes that they elope together and fulfil their love, but now she is the winner in this chess game of love, she tells him it is too late for their love, that he had his chance and now she will remain faithful to her husband. It is a poignant scene in the film, as she tells him through tears that she waited for him but he is too late. Onegin just doesn’t get it because nothing matters to him; he wants her because he can’t have her.

In the end, Tatyana is left as a lonely, unhappy woman in a sad, but tolerable marriage, and Onegin, having killed Lensky in a duel early on, and crushing Tatyana’s affections years ago, is left completely alone, and that is his ultimate punishment. The acts of killing Lensky, that innocent, dreamy idealist, and rejecting Tatyana’s love, Onegin symbolically ‘kills’ the innocence that crossed his life path. And Tatyana is suppose to represent the wideness of the Russian soul and was seen as a symbol of an ideal woman. She also embodies Gogol’s concept of a ‘Slavic soul’: a melancholic soul of a dreamer and thinker, a mysterious and sad soul. A sense of darkness, sadness and tragedy hovers over most of Slavic literature like a rainy cloud. It is immensely interesting to me that in both novels; Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin and Lermontov’s The Hero of Our Time a duel takes place and the superfluous man wins while the romantic idealist dies, but in reality both Pushkin and Lermontov died in duels. Wicked destiny!

I first read Eugene Onegin exactly three Aprils ago, but I remember it vividly as if it was yesterday; those three or four magical nights when I flipped through the pages, relishing in the lyricism and musicality of the verses, loving the character of Tatyana and being highly amused by Onegin’s cynicism and his conduct with Lensky. In my little room, under the warm, yellow light of the lamp, in the flowery and exuberant nights of spring, a whole new world and sensibility came to life. Although I’ve enjoyed the first half of the book more than the second half, because the story gets really sad and full of hopelessness after Onegin rejects her, I must say that it still remains one of my favourite books.