Tag Archives: Literature

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.

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Edogawa Rampo: Vision of a Wraith-like Waitress as Salome

13 Mar

Two weeks ago I read a few stories from a short story collection “Japanese Tales of Mystery and Imagination” by Edogawa Rampo (1894-1965), considered the first modern Japanese writer of mystery. His birth name was Taro Hirai, but he seemed to love Edgar Allan Poe’s writings so much early in his career that he even derived his own pen name from the Japanese pronunciation of Edgar Allan Poe. The story that struck me the most was “The Red Chamber”, originally published in April 1925, in which the main character and a narrator is a very bored eccentric individual who joins a strange club and starts killing as a way of curing his boredom, although the killings are more just planned accidents. I feel bored quite often, and I was in one of my everything-is-boring phases when I started reading this story so I could connect with the main character in this regard and here is something he tells us about himself: “I believe (he said) that I am in my right mind and that all my friends will vouch for my sanity, but whether I am really mentally fit or not, I will leave to you to judge. Yes, I may be mad! Or perhaps I may just be a mild neurotic case. But, at any rate, I must explain that I have always been weary of life… and to me the normal man’s daily routine is – and always will be – a hateful boredom.

At first I gave myself up to various dissipations to distract my mind, but unfortunately, nothing seemed to relieve my profound boredom. Instead, everything I did only seemed to increase my disappointment the more. Constantly I kept asking myself: Is there no amusement left in the world for me? Am I doomed to die of yawning? Gradually I fell into a state of lethargy from which there seemed to be no escape. Nothing that I did – absolutely nothing – succeeded in pleasing my fancy. Every day I took three meals, and when the evening shadows fell I went to bed. Slowly I began to feel that I was going stark raving mad. Eating and sleeping, eating and sleeping – just like a hog.

Jean Benner, Salome, c. 1899

The feeling of intense boredom and aggravation of the repetitive flow of day to day life is something very relatable, especially this line: “Nothing that I did – absolutely nothing – succeeded in pleasing my fancy.” Oh how I know the feeling!

But there is another fragment of the story which I found interesting, something related to art. In the last few pages the story takes place in a cafe where the main character and his friends from the club are talking, when all of a sudden he noticed a waitress and his reverie begins: “Suddenly, on the surface of the silk curtains near the door, something began to glitter. At first it looked like a large, silver coin, then like a full moon peering out of the red curtains. Gradually I recognized the mysterious object as a large silver tray held in both hands by a waitress, magically come, as if from nowhere, to serve us drinks. For a fleeting moment I visualized a scene from Salome, with the dancing girl carrying the freshly severed head of a prophet on a tray. I even thought that after the tray there would appear from out of the silk curtains a glittering Damascene broad-sword, or at least an old Chinese halberd. Gradually my eyes became more accustomed to the wraith-like figure of the waitress, and I gasped with admiration, for she was indeed a beauty! Without any explanation, she moved gracefully among the seven of us and began to serve drinks.

As I took the glass I noticed that my hand was trembling. What strange magic was this, I pondered. Who was she? And where did she come from? Was she from some imaginary world, or was she one of the hostesses from the restaurants downstairs?

Aubrey Beardsley, Illustration to Salome by Oscar Wilde, 1893

Salome is truly a fascinating femme fatale figure that appeared on many canvases, from Renaissance to fin de siecle, and it is equally thrilling to imagine her dancing seductively, dresses in shiny robe, adorned with jewellery and perfume… and to imagine her being so daring as to ask for the head of St John the Baptist, and hold it on a tray, how cool is that!? This was a very vivid passage of a story, very memorable.

Dostoevsky: Crime and Punishment – Renewed by Love

14 Feb

Dostoevsky’s novel “Crime and Punishment”, first published in 1866, is one of my all time favourite novels and I had such a blast reading it in grammar school. It’s a very long and complex novel that deals with many topics, and love isn’t even the main one but it serves to transform the characters and turn them into better individuals. The love story between the main character Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov, the intelligent and poor but failed student and a later a murderer, and Sonia Marmeladova, a shy, innocent and self-scarifying eighteen year old girl driven to prostitution by poverty, is one one of my favourites in literature. I had a crush on Raskolnikov because he was as cool as a rock star; dark eyed and handsome, nihilistic and emotionally unavailable, and I had a tremendous admiration for Sonia, the most selfless creature, gentle and fragile in appearance but strong within, guided by a higher law that helps her transcend the misery of her surroundings; her poverty, horrible clients, drunkard of a father, the demanding unfeeling step-mother, the prejudice she faces due to her job. Even Raskolnikov judges her at first, and places himself as a morally superior individual, as if he forgot he was a murderer. He visits her a few times in her shabby little room and a seed of love is planted in both of their hearts; both are flawed, both are outcasts, and both are denying this newly awaken sentiment; The candle-end had long been burning out in the bent candlestick, casting a dim light in this destitute room upon the murderer and the harlot strangely come together over the reading of the eternal book.

Sonia’s blind faith, childlike figure and naivety clash with her grim day to day reality. She is a pale-faced, yellow-haired whore with the purest heart; an angel. Loyal and kind hearted she is the one who advises Raskolnikov to admit his crime and pay the price for it, because that is the only path to salvation. He listens to her and is sentenced to seven years of exile in the cold Siberia. Sonia follows him there, even though she knows she isn’t wanted. Half the time he is rude and cold towards her, and other times he just ignores her, but the persistence of Sonia’s love and her patience eventually melt the icy exterior of nihilism and apathy and reveal a kind and noble spirit capable of love and compassion, someone who has faith in brighter future. Dostoevsky’s portrayal of power of love in this novel is very beautiful and very inspiring and here is the passage from the last chapter where they finally, after hundreds of pages of the reader’s waiting, fall in love. I especially love the last lines of this passage: “He thought of her. He remembered how continually he had tormented her and wounded her heart. He remembered her pale and thin little face. But these recollections scarcely troubled him now; he knew with what infinite love he would now repay all her sufferings. Perhaps Dostoevsky was a Romantic and not a Realist after all?

Laura Makabresku, Melancholy (2017)

Raskolnikov sat gazing, his thoughts passed into day-dreams, into contemplation; he thought of nothing, but a vague restlessness excited and troubled him. Suddenly he found Sonia beside him; she had come up noiselessly and sat down at his side. It was still quite early; the morning chill was still keen. She wore her poor old burnous and the green shawl; her face still showed signs of illness, it was thinner and paler. She gave him a joyful smile of welcome, but held out her hand with her usual timidity. She was always timid of holding out her hand to him and sometimes did not offer it at all, as though afraid he would repel it. He always took her hand as though with repugnance, always seemed vexed to meet her and was sometimes obstinately silent throughout her visit. Sometimes she trembled before him and went away deeply grieved. But now their hands did not part. He stole a rapid glance at her and dropped his eyes on the ground without speaking. They were alone, no one had seen them. The guard had turned away for the time.

Photo by Laura Makabresku

How it happened he did not know. But all at once something seemed to seize him and fling him at her feet. He wept and threw his arms round her knees. For the first instant she was terribly frightened and she turned pale. She jumped up and looked at him trembling. But at the same moment she understood, and a light of infinite happiness came into her eyes. She knew and had no doubt that he loved her beyond everything and that at last the moment had come. . . .

They wanted to speak, but could not; tears stood in their eyes. They were both pale and thin; but those sick pale faces were bright with the dawn of a new future, of a full resurrection into a new life. They were renewed by love; the heart of each held infinite sources of life for the heart of the other.

They resolved to wait and be patient. They had another seven years to wait, and what terrible suffering and what infinite happiness before them! But he had risen again and he knew it and felt it in all his being, while she–she only lived in his life.

Also by Laura Makabresku

(…)

He thought of her. He remembered how continually he had tormented her and wounded her heart. He remembered her pale and thin little face. But these recollections scarcely troubled him now; he knew with what infinite love he would now repay all her sufferings.

The Princess and the Pea – Illustrations by Felicitas Kuhn

16 Jan

My fondest childhood memories are those tied to fairy tales and my mum reading them to me. Before I could decipher the letters, read the words and know their wondrous meanings, the evening was a magical time of the day when I sat in my mum’s lap and listened to her sweet voice bringing all the fairy tales and different characters to life. While she read, I would gaze at the illustrations mesmerised, soaking in every tiny detail. This is a situation similar to the one Syd Barrett sang about in the Pink Floyd’s song “Matilda Mother”:

“Oh Mother, tell me more
Why’d’ya have to leave me there
Hanging in my infant air
Waiting?
You only have to read the lines
They’re scribbly black and everything shines”

I loved Cinderella and The Sleeping Beauty and anything to do with the princesses, but the fairy tale book that lingered in my memory was “The Princess and the Pea” illustrated by Felicitas Kuhn, an Austrian illustrator born on 3rd January 1926. Her illustrations are delightful and easily recognisable for their repetitive features; the characters all have round doll-like faces with rosy cheeks and large wide-set eyes, she uses vibrant colours and flat treatment of the surface with clear outlines, the background is often minimal so that the focus stays on the character. This particular edition of a well known fairy tale was published in 1971, and Kuhn’s illustrations are mostly from the sixties and seventies, although she continued working later on too. The beloved fairy tale “The Princess and the Pea” was written by the Danish writer Hans Christian Andersen and originally published in May 1835 in Copenhagen. Andersen’s fairy tale was disliked by the critics at first and deemed as too ‘chatty’ and ‘lacking morals’, and likewise, Kuhn’s illustrations, although popular in many countries, have received criticism as well for being too simple and cheesy.

I highly disagree with the critics! And I am right because I gazed at those illustration with the eyes of a child and adored them, and now that I am older I am able to recall the magic of her art and write about it in a way I couldn’t have before. I think her illustrations are perfect for children and their imagination because they are whimsical, the characters appear idealised and cute and are dressed in clothes that are only partly historically accurate but also very pleasing to look at, the castles look like the place that you would wish to live it, with dozens of pink towers and little windows. She often incorporated delicate flowers as details, and just look at the dreamy soft pink roses that bloom next to Prince’s feet in the second illustration. My favourite illustrations from this book are the one where the princess gets a sponge bath from the maids, the scene where she dines with the prince, the one where she is sitting mournfully on the top of all those mattresses and feather beds, and the last one with their tender close-eyed embrace over the little pea. How rosy are their cheeks and how sweet their smiling faces?

Here is Andersen’s very short fairy tale “The Real Princess” accompanied by Kuhn’s illustrations:

There was once a Prince who wished to marry a Princess; but then she must be a real Princess. He travelled all over the world in hopes of finding such a lady; but there was always something wrong.

Princesses he found in plenty; but whether they were real Princesses it was impossible for him to decide, for now one thing, now another, seemed to him not quite right about the ladies. At last he returned to his palace quite cast down, because he wished so much to have a real Princess for his wife.

One evening a fearful tempest arose, it thundered and lightened, and the rain poured down from the sky in torrents: besides, it was as dark as pitch. All at once there was heard a violent knocking at the door, and the old King, the Prince’s father, went out himself to open it.

It was a Princess who was standing outside the door. What with the rain and the wind, she was in a sad condition; the water trickled down from her hair, and her clothes clung to her body. She said she was a real Princess.

“Ah! we shall soon see that!” thought the old Queen-mother; however, she said not a word of what she was going to do; but went quietly into the bedroom, took all the bed-clothes off the bed, and put three little peas on the bedstead. She then laid twenty mattresses one upon another over the three peas, and put twenty feather beds over the mattresses.

 

Upon this bed the Princess was to pass the night.

The next morning she was asked how she had slept. “Oh, very badly indeed!” she replied. “I have scarcely closed my eyes the whole night through. I do not know what was in my bed, but I had something hard under me, and am all over black and blue. It has hurt me so much!”

Now it was plain that the lady must be a real Princess, since she had been able to feel the three little peas through the twenty mattresses and twenty feather beds. None but a real Princess could have had such a delicate sense of feeling.

The Prince accordingly made her his wife; being now convinced that he had found a real Princess. The three peas were however put into the cabinet of curiosities, where they are still to be seen, provided they are not lost.

Wasn’t this a lady of real delicacy?”

Reneé Vivien: I am drunk from so many roses redder than wine

11 Nov

These days I am swooning over the sensuous, dreamy and languid poetry by a French poetess born in England, a lesbian in love with death and flowers, a turn of the century Sappho: Reneé Vivien (1877-1909).

Maurice Denis, Portrait of Mlle Yvonne Lerolle in three poses, 1897

She was born on 11th June 1877 in Paddington, England, in a prosperous family. Her childhood was laced with coldness from her mother’s side and an inexplicable longing. Sensitive and introspective, as a teen she was introduced in the world of poetry through a correspondence with an older poet who was her father’s friend. At one point she ran away from home, but she quickly ran out of money on that quest and she was just about to throw herself in the Thames when she was caught and returned home. Still, by that point, she had made up her mind to be a poetess and as soon as she could she moved to Paris and changed her name to Reneé Vivien. Always a hopeless romantic, always bitterly disappointed by poly-amorous attitudes of her lovers. After many love affairs, loneliness and sadness remained, and her withered soul, yearning for raptures and delights, found relief in alcohol, deliberate fasting and a drug she was addicted to since she was a teen.

Her entire life she dreamed of death as a romantic escape from the dreariness and misery of this earthly existence. She particularly daydreamed of drowning just like the melancholy heroine Ophelia. After an unsuccessful suicide attempt by laudanum in 1908, when she stretched herself on a divan clutching a little bouquet of violets in her hand, she was weakened and pneumonia took her on the 18th November 1909. Violets were her favourite flower, and purple her favourite colour. Rich in visual imagery, rich in sounds, laced with longing and desire at once, intense and nocturnal, her verses make one imagine a lady from a Symbolist painting, strolling slowly in a garden, at night, dressed in a long loose white gown, her hair left down, caressed by the moonlight, inhaling the fragrance of midnight roses and white jasmine as her bosom invitingly rises and descends… Here are two of her poems that I particularly loved; “Undine” and “Chanson”:

***

Undine

Your laughter is light, your caress deep,

Your cold kisses love the harm they do;

Your eyes-blue lotus waves

And the water lilies are less pure than your face..

 

You flee, a fluid parting,

Your hair falls in gentle tangles;

Your voice-a treacherous tide;

Your arms-supple reeds.

 

Long river reeds, their embrace

Enlaces, chokes, strangles savagely,

Deep in the waves, an agony

Extinguished in a night drift.

Reneé Vivien, born under the name Pauline Mary Tarn, below with her lover and muse Natalie Clifford Barney:

***

Chanson

The flight of the fluttering bat

Is tortuous, anguished, bizarre.

Then, beating her bruised wings thereat,

She turns, and looks back from afar.

 

Have you never felt, just one time,

How, drunken with painful defeat,

My soul, in a mad flight sublime,

Soared to your lips, distant but sweet?

La Belle Dame Sans Merci – Pre-Raphaelites and John Keats

11 Oct

In this post we’ll take a look at a very popular topic for the Pre-Raphaelite painters: the heroine of John Keats’s poem “La Belle Dame Sans Merci”. At once beautiful and cruel, this damsel enchants the poor naive knight and brings him to his doom.

John William Waterhouse, La Belle Dame sans Merci, 1893

The most beautiful, the most captivating portrayal of the beautiful and cold-hearted lady from John Keats’s poem “La Belle Dame sans Merci” is, for me, the one painted by John William Waterhouse in 1893. The warm rich colours, her languid pose and the way she gazes at the poor knight linger in the memory. Winterhouse wasn’t particularly faithful to Keats’s vision of the setting; Keats described the scene of their doomed encounter as taking place in a desolate wintry landscape where no birds are singing. Waterhouse and other artists before and after him had envisaged the scene differently, which shows that sometimes motifs from poetry don’t translate well into visual arts. Still, the warm colours and details such as red leaves in the foreground suggesting that it’s late summer or early autumn, add to the sensuality of the theme. The autumn is not much different to the merciless lady; nature in autumn charms us with her richness, giving promises it won’t fulfill; the crimson leaves speak of luxury, yet they shall wither and fall in decay.

This is how the knight in the Keats’ poem describes the lady:

“I met a lady in the meads,
Full beautiful, a fairy’s child;
Her hair was long, her foot was light,
And her eyes were wild.”

Most unusually, but very fitting for the rest of the painting’s colour palette, Waterhouse painted the lady’s dress in a beautiful warm shade of purple, in a seductive and illusive colour of wine. And look at the heart on her sleeve. Her long auburn hair is falling down her back as she gazes transfixed at the knight, in the same way that the nymphs in Waterhouse’s other painting “Hylas and the nymhps” are gazing at the poor Hylas. Her ruby red lips, her long hair and sweet-scented air all lie; for it is not love that lies on her heart but deceit! And it is only the poor naive knight who is blind to it. And the nature is lying with her; white briar-roses bloom and the trees in the background, reminiscent of the early Renaissance painters, are silent and many dark things they wickedly withhold. The dense row of tall trees reminds me of the trees in Botticelli’s paintings from series “The Story of Nastagio Degli Onesti”, part one and two.

Frank Dicksee, La Belle Dame sans Merci, 1902

Frank Dicksee was another painter who painted in the Pre-Raphaelite style, but just like Waterhouse he wasn’t the member of the original Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. There is something sentimental about his version which I don’t like, but I do love the lady’s long flowing red hair with a crown of white flowers on it. Here is John Keats’s poem, it is too beautiful not to be included:

O what can ail thee, knight-at-arms,
Alone and palely loitering?
The sedge has withered from the lake,
And no birds sing.

O what can ail thee, knight-at-arms,
So haggard and so woe-begone?
The squirrel’s granary is full,
And the harvest’s done.

I see a lily on thy brow,
With anguish moist and fever-dew,
And on thy cheeks a fading rose
Fast withereth too.

I met a lady in the meads,
Full beautiful, a fairy’s child;
Her hair was long, her foot was light,
And her eyes were wild.

I made a garland for her head,
And bracelets too, and fragrant zone;
She looked at me as she did love,
And made sweet moan

I set her on my pacing steed,
And nothing else saw all day long,
For sidelong would she bend, and sing
A faery’s song.

Arthur Hughes, La Belle Dame Sans Merci, 1863

She found me roots of relish sweet,
And honey wild, and manna-dew,
And sure in language strange she said—
‘I love thee true’.

She took me to her Elfin grot,
And there she wept and sighed full sore,
And there I shut her wild, wild eyes
With kisses four.

And there she lullèd me asleep,
And there I dreamed—Ah! woe betide!—
The latest dream I ever dreamt
On the cold hill side.

I saw pale kings and princes too,
Pale warriors, death-pale were they all;
They cried—‘La Belle Dame sans Merci
Hath thee in thrall!’

I saw their starved lips in the gloam,
With horrid warning gapèd wide,
And I awoke and found me here,
On the cold hill’s side.

And this is why I sojourn here,
Alone and palely loitering,
Though the sedge is withered from the lake,
And no birds sing.

Frank Cadogan Cowper, La Belle Dame Sans Merci, 1926

At last, the knight is defeated and the lady arises like a phoenix from the ashes with a victorious glow on her cheeks, hair even shinier and more beautiful – she is ready to strike again. Wild red poppies are swaying in the wind, dancing and whispering passionately of the poor knight’s death. Her dress is intricate and ornate, and, similar to Klimt’s designs, almost has a life of its own. Her hands are seductively placed above her head, while the knight is lying dead in the grass, poppies and a few dandelions around him make for a very striking and powerful scene. Whereas Waterhouse opted for a dreamy idyllic version of the theme, focusing on the lady’s intense seductive gaze, Cowper here isn’t shy at portraying her as a merciless vixen.

Edgar Allan Poe – Eulalie and The Ideal Beloved

7 Oct

Edgar Allan Poe died on this day in 1849, oh, it was a sad Sunday in Baltimore, even the ravens cried. The 7th October was Sunday that year too, what a spooky coincidence! Poe is one of my favourite writers and these days I was intensely immersed in his poems and short-stories, particularly those which deal with his favourite topic: death of a beautiful young woman. I have an obsessive interest in Poe’s feminine ideal and a poem that I am sharing here today, “Eulalie,” originally published in July 1845, deals with the narrator’s sadness and finding joy again, in love and in his beautiful yellow-haired beloved with eyes brighter than stars. Poe’s poems and prose feature two very different types of female characters; first is the learned type, intellectually and sexually dominant, slightly exotic and mysterious woman such as Ligeia and Morella, which are in minority, and then there’s the idealised maiden whose only purpose is to be beautiful, love the narrator and die… Poe’s ideal beloved is a beautiful tamed creature; young, dark haired with sparkling eyes and lily white skin, passive, frail and vulnerable, romantically submissive maiden who, just as in the poem “Annabel Lee”: “lived with no other thought/ Than to love and be loved by me.” Her love has the power to transform his life, as is the case with the blushing and smiling bride Eulalie, but her death can be of an equal if not greater importance. Such is the fate of the characters such as Annabel Lee, Morella, Eleanora, Madeline Usher and Berenice. In death, their singular beauty is eternally preserved.

Today I read the story Morella, which you too can read here, it’s quite short but very interesting, thought-provoking and macabre. I feel that it’s just nice to remember birthdays of your favourite artists and poets, it gives more meaning to my otherwise meaningless existence.

Stephen Mackey (b. 1966), Bride of the Lake

Eulalie

I dwelt alone

In a world of moan,

And my soul was a stagnant tide,

Till the fair and gentle Eulalie became my blushing bride—

Till the yellow-haired young Eulalie became my smiling bride.

 

Ah, less, less bright

The stars of the night

Than the eyes of the radiant girl!

And never a flake

That the vapor can make

With the moon-tints of purple and pearl,

Can vie with the modest Eulalie’s most unregarded curl—

Can compare with the bright-eyed Eulalie’s most humble and careless curl.

 

Now Doubt—now Pain

Come never again,

For her soul gives me sigh for sigh,

And all day long

Shines, bright and strong,

Astarté within the sky,

While ever to her dear Eulalie upturns her matron eye—

While ever to her young Eulalie upturns her violet eye.

The original manuscript, 1845