Tag Archives: Literature

Charles Bukowski – Stay out of the clutches of mediocrity

16 Aug

German-American writer, poet and novelist Charles Bukowski was born on this day in 1920 and since I love the stuff he wrote and luckily I haven’t read all of his novels so I am in for a treat when I do read his other books, I thought why not share some of his poetry. I know some people consider it bad poetry, but what I’ve read, I enjoyed! I love his realism, brutal honesty and cynicism; sometimes you just need a dose of that. I especially love these lines from “No Leaders, Please”: “stay out of the clutches of mediocrity” and “change your tone and shape so often that they can never categorize you”. I love the poem “my cats” because I have cats two and I am a victim of their feline charms as well. The last lines in “Throwing away the alarm clock” are poignant and sad, especially having in mind the novel “Ham on Rye.”

Book Review: The Collector by John Fowles

15 Jul

I read quite a few interesting novels lately, but John Fowles’ debut novel “The Collector”, published in May 1963, is the most peculiar one; both the theme and the style in which it was written are fascinating. I discovered this novel by serendipity, completely randomly, but it turned out that this was exactly the kind of novel I craved. I was captivated from the very first page because from the very beginning Fowles places the reader into the mind of a seemingly ordinary, yet very unusual individual named Frederick Clegg. Frederick isn’t the Arnold Layne from Pink Floyd’s song, stealing and collecting girls knickers from the washing lines in suburban gardens of Cambridge, but he is a collector of other things; firstly the butterflies, and then one beautiful girl called Miranda he watches from afar and over time falls in love with, despite not knowing anything about her really, apart of the Art School she goes to and what she looks like. He is a socially awkward, strange individual and it’s hard to decide whether he is good or bad; the things he does are bad, but his intentions truly are not.

His early daydreams about her are very romantic and sweet, but concerning in their delusional nature: “I used to have daydreams about her, I used to think of stories where I met her, did things she admired, married her and all that. Nothing nasty, that was never until what I’ll explain later. She drew pictures and I looked after my collection (in my dreams). It was always she loving me and my collection, drawing and colouring them; working together in a beautiful modern house in a big room with one of those huge glass windows; meetings there of the Bug Section, where instead of saying almost nothing in case I made mistakes we were the popular host and hostess. She all pretty with her pale blonde hair and grey eyes and of course the other men all green round the gills.

Other days the sweetness of these innocent daydreams takes a darker tone when he sees her spending time with other men, for he, naturally, wants her all for himself, even though Miranda doesn’t even know he exists: “The only times I didn’t have nice dreams about her being when I saw her with a certain young man, a loud noisy public-school type who had a sports car. Those were days I let myself have the bad dreams. She cried or usually knelt. Once I let myself dream I hit her across the face as I saw it done once by a chap in a telly play. Perhaps that was when it all started.

Catherine Deneuve in UK filming 1965 British psychological horror Repulsion, London, Friday 2nd October 1964. Photo by Wilson

One day, Frederick wins a prize in the football pools and decides to buy a lonely and old countryside house. From that moment on, his daydreams and wild fantasies become serious plans; he decorates the cellar and is ready to catch his butterfly-victim Miranda. One evening he follows her after her classes: “It was all planned. And then she was near. She’d come up and round without me seeing, only twenty yards away, walking quickly. If it had been a clear night I don’t know what I’d have done. But there was this wind in the trees. Gusty. I could see there was no one behind her. Then she was right beside me, coming up the pavement. Funny, singing to herself.” After he kidnaps her, he drives her to his countryside house and locks her in the cellar. The novel is divided in three parts; the first part is seen from Frederick’s point of view, the second part is Miranda’s diary written in captivity, and a tiny bit at the end is again told from Frederick’s point of view.

Miranda’s emotions change greatly throughout the novel; at first she is frightened and thinks he must be interested only in sex, which isn’t true, but as she gets to know him, she realises just how pathetic, uneducated, uncultured and weak he truly is; a working class nobody, that is how she sees him, for she is a posh, middle-class art student. He doesn’t have a clue about art or Mozart; things that Miranda loves. Frederick also realises that Miranda is far from the girl of his dreams; she is insolent, she regularly mocks him for the way he walks and talks, decorates his house, nothing escapes her snobbish prejudice. And the most heartbreaking realisation comes in the end, when he realises that she never loved him. The realism gives this novel humanity; Frederick isn’t a cruel savage and a monster, but rather a lonely, confused, strange individual who simply wants to connect with another human being, and he tries doing that the only way he thinks it’s possible, as he says: “if she’s with me, she’ll see my good points, she’ll understand. There was always the idea she would understand.” Things aren’t always black and white and this novel shows the complexities of such a situation. Even though one would assume Miranda was a poor victim and Frederick the evil person, I grew fond of Frederick whilst reading the novel and I developed a sadness and understanding for him. I don’t think he has a cruel heart.

And now more quotes I enjoyed:

That was the day I first gave myself the dream that came true. It began where she was being attacked by a man and I ran up and rescued her. Then somehow I was the man that attacked her, only I didn’t hurt her; I captured her and drove her off in the van to a remote house and there I kept her captive in a nice way. Gradually she came to know me and like me and the dream grew into the one about our living in a nice modern house, married, with kids and everything. It haunted me. It kept me awake at nights, it made me forget what I was doing during the day. I stayed on and on at the Cremorne. It stopped being a dream, it began to be what I pretended was really going to happen (of course, I thought it was only pretending) so I thought of ways and means — all the things I would have to arrange and think about and how I’d do it and all. I thought, I can’t ever get to know her in the ordinary way, but if she’s with me, she’ll see my good points, she’ll understand. There was always the idea she would understand.

Apollo Butterfly, Illustrations taken from ‘The Natural History of British Butterflies’ by Edward Donovan, Printed for the author in 1792 and for F. and C. Rivington

He’s so slow, so unimaginative, so lifeless. Like zinc white. I see it’s a sort of tyranny he has over me. He forces me to be changeable, to act. To show off. The hateful tyranny of weak people. The ordinary man is the curse of civilization. But he’s so ordinary that he’s extraordinary. He takes photographs. He wants to take a “portrait” of me. Then there were his butterflies, which I suppose were rather beautiful. Yes, rather beautifully arranged, with their poor little wings stretched out all at the same angle. And I felt for them, poor dead butterflies, my fellow-victims.

She’d taken her blue jumper off, she stood there in a dark green tartan dress, like a schoolgirl tunic, with a white blouse open at the throat. Her hair swept back into the pigtail. Her lovely face. She looked brave. I don’t know why, I thought of her sitting on my knees, very still, with me stroking her soft blonde hair, all out loose as I saw it after. Suddenly I said, I love you. It’s driven me mad. She said, “I see,” in a queer grave voice. She didn’t look at me any more then. I know it’s old-fashioned to say you love a woman, I never meant to do it then. In my dreams it was always we looked into each other’s eyes one day and then we kissed and nothing was said until after.

For some time she sat smoking, with her eyes shut, as if the sight of me tired her eyes.

High Brown Fritillary, Illustrations taken from ‘The Natural History of British Butterflies’ by Edward Donovan, Printed for the author in 1792 and for F. and C. Rivington

The author explained the inspiration behind the novel in his journal entry for 3rd February 1963:

The Collector. The three sources. One. My lifelong fantasy of imprisoning a girl underground. I think I must go back to early in my teens. I remember it used to be famous people Princess Margaret, various film stars. Of course, there was a sexual motive; the love-through-knowledge motive, or motif, has also been constant. The imprisoning in other words, has always been a forcing of my personality as well as my penis on the girl concerned. Variations I can recall: the harem (several girls in one room, or in a row of rooms); the threat (this involves sharing a whip, but usually not flagellation—the idea of exerted tyranny, entering as executioner); the fellow-prisoner (this by far the commonest variation: the girl is captured and put naked into the underground room; I then have myself put in it, as if I am a fellow-prisoner, and so avoid her hostility). Another common sexual fantasy is the selection board: I am given six hundred girls to choose fifty from and so on. These fantasies have long been exteriorized in my mind, of course; certainly I use the underground-room one far less since The Collector.

Two, the air-raid shelter incident.

Three, Bartok’s Bluebeard’s Castle.

Review: Downfall and Other Stories by Fumiko Hayashi

3 May

This April I had the pleasure and honour of reading a short story collection written by a Japanese writer Fumiko Hayashi and newly translated in English by J.D. Wisgo. The five stories in this collection were beautiful, unique gems that deserve a post of their own, and I simply couldn’t resist sharing some beautiful quotes here.

Childe Hassam, The Sonata, 1911

“Returning to Tokyo after a long summer break, Tanimura left his guest house on the outskirts of the city and moved to another one that he discovered on a backstreet near a school.

Gone were the days of opening a window in the morning and looking out at an oak forest, or listening to the piano played by a beautiful girl in the bungalow next door; now when he opened his window in the evening, the dim lights of the city sparkled and the autumn scenery of Tokyo was an utterly refreshing sight for his eyes, filling his chest with great pride in being able to live in such a metropolis.” (The Tale of the Seishukan Guest House)

It is no secret that I am a massive fan of Japanese literature, there is a certain indescribable sensibility of introspection and sadness, passion from within mingled with external silence, that lingers throughout different novels by different Japanese authors which I just adore! So, naturally, even before I started reading this short story collection, I knew it would be my cup of tea. Fumiko Hayashi (1903-1951) was a Japanese novelist and poet who produced her main works in the 1930s and 1940s. I read that in her work Hayashi often put an emphasis on free spirited female characters and troubled relationships. While I cannot state this with certainty because I haven’t read any of her other works, I can say that this quality shines though in some of these stories. I read these stories slowly, to truly savour them, and after I would read one I thought to myself “oh this one is my favourite”, and then I would proceed to read another one and would end up with the same thought. All five are so unique and beautiful and it’s difficult to chose.

Fumiko Hayashi, 1924

“The Tale of the Seishukan Guest House” is the first story and it has a mysterious mood which I loved. It’s about a young student Tanimura and his stay at the guest house, meeting a beautiful mysterious woman and falling in love for the first time. At times the story had a Kafkaesque mood of mystery, and at times Tanimura’s obsession with a hair strand and his reaction to things was rather amusing. I loved the contrast of Tanimura’s pleasant memories of days back home with the shining lights of the big city, both scary and promising. “Downfall” follows a young woman who moved from the countryside to Tokyo just after the end of the war to find employment, but instead of a secure job and success, she ends up in all sort of crazy situations.

Picture by @gill.hen on Instagram

“Employment” struck a chord with me in particular because the main character is a frail yet mischievous young girl called Sakiko whose idealist, naive view of the world is in contrast to that of her peers who are already planning their lives out; job, career, marriage. Even from the beginning, Sakiko is behaving in a carefree and childlike way, and I feel like that is her form of rebellion against the constricting world of adulthood:

She didn’t understand why she was so angry. Sitting upon the roots of a pine tree, Sakiko gathered pebbles from the ground and screamed out as she tossed them towards the ocean, throwing like a boy. The pebbles only went a short way before falling onto the nearby sand with a dull thud. On the winter seashore, strong gusts of wind blew in occasionally from the distance. Despite there being no clouds in sight, soft beams of light fell from the sky onto the beach, like scattered needles. Sakiko fell down abruptly onto the sandy ground, rolling around and kicking up bits of dry sand like a dog thrashing about. The sand came in contact with her hot body at her neckline, her sleeves, and the hem of her skirt. The sensation of sand accumulating on her sweaty body felt good. Eventually she thrust out her chest and poured dry sand all over it. The sand smelled of salty seawater.

Fujishima Takeji (1867-1943), The Sea at Sunrise, date unknown

I love the conversation between Sakiko and Ken’ichi which shows differences between their characters and I can really understand how Sakiko feels:

“Everyone is going to graduate college, get a job, find a wife without falling in love, have children, and live happily ever after, right?”
“Alright, that’s enough…Saki, inside your head you’re imagining all sorts of things, giving punishments and rewards to people as you desire…I think maybe that, in the end, the most natural way for us to spend our days is just living an ordinary life…You know, I think you’ve been reading far too many books. (…) But when you get irritated, everyone around you does too. Yesterday, you brought in all that sand, remember? I like the innocent Saki much better…and I think simply getting a job, getting married, and living out one’s days peacefully is more than enough…”
“Oh, how dreadful! I can’t stand close-minded young people like you with your dried-up adolescence…”

Dancers resting on the rooftop of the SKD Theatre Asakusa, Tokyo, 1949, Photo by Takeyoshi Tanuma.

“Consolation” had an air of sadness from start to finish and even though the theme of ruined post-war Tokyo and starving, lost, sad individuals was dreary, there were some quotes that stayed in my mind. “The beautiful city of Tokyo has gone through a series of shocking changes, the day-to-day activities of the dejected metropolis shattered into a million pieces, like myriad unfulfilled dreams. Stricken by the terrible memories of a long, hard war, wrinkles marred the faces of every person on the streets, even the younger folk, their vacant expressions a mixture of bitterness and disappointment.” It’s about a sad old man who spends his days finding food, reminiscing about old, better days, and just trying to survive the chaos all around him. I really loved this thought: “For me all that remains is simply living… After everything that’s happened, I have no desire to end my life. I don’t think I’m better off in the grave just because I’m lonely and alone. I’m terribly fortunate that I’ve never thought about anything like that. Spending our days doing nothing but eating steamed potatoes and sleeping like logs, it’s hard to believe us humans are the supreme beings of creation, don’t you agree?

More than themes of the stories, I enjoyed Hayashi’s writing style. It’s so beautiful yet cuts to the point. I felt like no sentence was unnecessary, and that she never wrote something to show off her writing and bring focus to her skill. Everything was very lyrical and very convincing, she really brought the character’s emotions, personality and struggles of the moment . Sometimes, a single sentence was so beautiful and conveyed so much, for example “It was a beautiful autumn night, the scent of the rain lingering in the air” (The Tale of the Seishukan Guest House), and “With cheerless facial features like those of a Kyoto doll, her pale skin had an oddly miserable appearance.” (Employment) All in all, if you love short stories and Japanese literature, I am sure you will enjoy these shorts stories. You can check out the translator’s word on his blog and Goodreads page.

Beauty in the Everyday – Turner and Okyo (Natsume Soseki’s The Three-Cornered World)

22 Mar

“We owe our humble gratitude to all practitioners of the arts, for they mellow the harshness of our human world and enrich the human heart.”

(Soseki, The Three-Cornered World)

Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851), Rain, Steam, and Speed – The Great Western Railway, 1844

One of my all time favourite novels is Natsume Soseki’s “The Three-Cornered World” originally published in 1906. It is an oasis of calmness, wisdom and meditative thoughts on nature and art. The story is told in the first person by the main character, a nameless thirty-year old artist, a poet and a painter, who one day sets out on a journey to the mountains, in search of Beauty and the true meaning of art. He stays at a hot spring resort where he is the only guest. One moonlit night he hears a woman singing in the garden. This mysterious beauty, called Nami, captures his imagination, not in a romantic but in an artistic way. The simple plot where nothing much happens is great because the true beauty of the novel can shine through: the poetic, zen-like writing which transports the viewer in a meditative state. The original title of the book is “Kusamakura” which literally means “Grass Pillow”, and the term in Japanese carries a symbolic meaning, implying a journey without a specific destination. Instead of dynamic events and exciting adventures, the narrator ponders on what it actually means to be an artist and the bliss of being in the state of inspiration:

I suppose you could say that the artist is one who lives in a three-cornered world, in which the corner that the average person would call “common sense” has been sheared off from the ordinary four-square world that the normal inhabit. For this reason, be it in nature or in human affairs, the artist will see the glitter of priceless jewels of art in places where the common herd fears to tread. The vulgar mind terms it “romanticizing,” but it is no such thing. In fact, the phenomenal world has always contained that scintillating radiance that artists find there. It’s just that eyes blinded by worldly passions cannot see the true nature of reality. Inextricable entanglements bind us to everyday success and failure and by ardent hopes – and so we pass by unheeding, until a Turner reveals for us in his paintings the splendour of the steam train, or an Okyo gives us the beauty of the ghost.

Kobayashi Kiyochika, View of Takanawa Ushimachi under a Shrouded Moon, 1879

The narrator portrays the artist, himself included, as a person who is here to show others the beauty around them which they would otherwise be unaware of. The artist is the one who, through his art, tells people to stop and take a look at the wondrous, whimsical and beautiful things in the world around us. The narrator chose two interesting artists to illustrate his point; British Romanticist Turner and an eighteenth century Japanese Ukiyo-e artist Maruyama Okyo. I love it when novels reference other things, it’s like a springboard from one source of inspiration to another. Turner’s grandiose and awe-inspiring canvases, filled with golden lightness and dreamy mists, usually portray sunsets or historical events, but in the painting referenced by the narrator, Rain, Steam, and Speed – The Great Western Railway”, painted in 1844, near the very end of the painter’s life, the subject is something completely modern and everyday; a train. Just imagine the excitement, awe and fear with which the Victorians looked at trains. I dare say I look at them at the same way too, even today. Trains are fascinatingly fast and frightening in their speed and yet they also seem vintage in some way because it seems more romantical to travel by train than by bus. Turner captured the train’s speed and cloud of fog with the same brilliance that he had previously devoted himself to historical scenes, which shows that he approached two very different motifs with the same ardour and with the same patient search for beauty that any artist has. Soseki lived in England for two years, just before this novel was published and it’s very likely he had seen this painting in person. I’ve also included here a Japanese artist Kiyochika’s exploration of the train-motif in a more direct way than Turner, but still carrying its own beauty.

Maruyama Ōkyo (1733–1795), The Ghost of Oyuki, 1750

Another example the narrator gives is a painting of a ghost by the artist Maruyama Okyo. The narrator doesn’t mention a specific painting, but with a little research makes it clear that Soseki is referring to Okyo’s famous ink on silk painting which shows the female yurei or the traditional Japanese ghost of his lover Oyuki. It is a poignant portrait of a dead beloved which came from intense sadness and longing, almost a century before Poe wrote of similar themes in his poems and short stories. The ghost-girl Oyuki was Okyo’s mistress who worked in the Tominaga Geisha house and died young. Looking at the dates, I see now that Okyo was just seventeen years old at the time, wow, what a deep, profound and melancholy gesture… This sad event must have shaped his life in one way or another, and it has certainly shaped the way the Japanese, even today, see a female ghost, as a creature in white clothes, pale face, dark hair falling like weeping willow branches and ending in faint, thin lines, and lower body and feet disappearing. So simple, yet so poignant and sweetly melancholy.

Vincent van Gogh, Shoes, 1888

Another example which isn’t mentioned in the novel, but goes with the narrator’s idea; Vincent van Gogh’s “portrait” of his old, dirty, worn out shoes. The motif, when spoken out loud, seems laughable and not even remotely worthy of being painted, but van Gogh painted this pair of shoes with the same passionate approach that he had for his landscape, wheat fields and sunflowers, look at the careful brushwork and wild patches of colour. If Van Gogh didn’t paint his old shoes as his artist mission to show us beauty around us, we would never have known just what beauty lies in them.

Clarice Lispector – Passively Enacting the Role of Being (The Hour of the Star)

29 Jan

“And when she woke up? When she woke up, she no longer knew her own identity. Only later did she reflect with satisfaction: I am a typist and a virgin, and I like coca-cola. Only then did she get dressed, spend the rest of the day passively enacting the role of being.”

“She meditated while she was typing and that’s why she made even more mistakes.”

Last summer I read Clarice Lispector’s novel “Agua Viva” (“The Stream of Life”) and I was quite smitten with her writing style, it was so unique, flowing and unrestrained, feminine and strange. I knew even then that another novel by this wonderful Brasilian author would find its way in my hands soon, and last week it did. I read her novella “The Hour of the Star” (A hora da estrela). Lispector died on 9th December 1977, a day before her 57th birthday, and this novella was published soon after the author’s death. The narrator, or the “writer” of the novella is Roderigo S.M. who says about himself “I write because I have nothing better to do in this world: I am superfluous and last in the world of men. I write because I am desperate and weary. I can no longer bear the routine of my existence and, were it not for the constant novelty of writing, I should die symbolically each day.

The novella tells a tale of a poor, very poor girl called Macabéa who moves from the rural Northwest area of Brazil to Rio de Janeiro and gets a job as typist, shares a room with four other girls and lives on hot-dogs because she is that poor. Roderigo writes that “She scarcely has a body to sell, nobody wants her, she’s a virgin and harmless, nobody would miss her. Moreover – I realize now – nobody would miss me either.” The first five pages bored me a little bit because it was Roderigo writing, but then when the focus shifts to Macabéa, Lispector’s flowing style of writing shines and draws you into the story. The writer said about her novel that it was: “the story of a girl who was so poor that all she ate was hot dogs. That’s not the story, though. The story is about a crushed innocence, about an anonymous misery.” Tales of sad, poor individuals, crushed innocence and gloomy ending touch the strings of my heart and naturally I was very soon emotionally invested in the book, turning page after page, breathless. It felt like I was inside of Macabéa’s mind, inside her emptiness, basking in its sweetness because it is zen-like, meditative emptiness, no desires, nothing. Macabéa is timid, passive, lost in her thoughts…

A contrasting character is a guy called Olimpicus that Macabéa meets one day; he is aggressive, dominant, chasing money and success, he wants to be rich and he wants to be a butcher because he likes knives. Only in the moment of her death, Macabéa inner emptiness becomes inner freedom. She reminded me of Jack Kerouac’s character based on a real person, a morphine addict called Tristessa, from the novel of the same name. Tristessa, like Macabéa, is sad but hopeful, empty but also serene, makes us readers envy her emptiness, as if it is something sweet and unattainable. Velvet Underground’s song “Sweet Nothing” also came to my mind when I thought of Macabéa. When I finished reading the book, I thought it was a good book, but as hours and days passed, the story, the words I had read were intensifying in my mind and I grew to love it more and more.

(Photo by Magdalena Lutek (Nishe)

“And when she woke up? When she woke up, she no longer knew her own identity…”

And now some beautiful quotes:

“She recalled her childhood with nostalgia – dried mandioca – and believed that she had been happy. In truth, no matter how bad one’s childhood may have been, it always sounds enchanted in recollection – how awful.”

“Her life was duller than plain bread and butter.”

I am alone in the world and I don’t believe in anyone, everyone lies, sometimes even when making love, I don’t think one being speaks to another, the truth only comes to me when I’m alone.

“Una furtiva lacrima” had been the only really beautiful thing in her life. Wiping away her own tears she tried to sing what she heard. But her voice was as crude and out of tune as she was. When she heard it she started to cry. It was the first time she’d ever cried, she didn’t know she had so much water in her eyes. She cried, blew her nose no longer knowing what she was crying about. She wasn’t crying because of the life she led: because, never having led any other, she’d accepted that with her that was just the way things were. But I also think she was crying because, through the music, she might have guessed there were other ways of feeling, there were more delicate existences and even a certain luxury of soul.”

She had no idea how to cope with life and she was only vaguely aware of her own inner emptiness. Were she capable of explaining herself, she might well confide: the world stands outside me. I stand outside myself.”

“So she repented. Since she wasn’t quite sure for what, she repented entirely and for everything.”

“if she was dumb enough to ask herself ‘who am I?’ she would fall flat on her face…[She is] so dumb that she sometimes smiles at other people on the street. Nobody smiles back because they don’t even see her.”

“She had what’s known as inner life and didn’t know it. She lived off herself as if eating her own entrails. When she went to work she looked like a gentle lunatic because as the bus went along she daydreamed in loud and dazzling dreams. These dreams, because of all that interiority, were empty because they lacked the essential nucelus of—of ecstasy, let’s say. Most of the time she had without realizing it the void that fills the souls of the saints. Was she a saint? So it seems. She didn’t know what she was meditating because she didn’t know what the word meant. But it seems to me that her life was a long meditation on the nothing. Except she needed others in order to believe in herself, otherwise she’d get lost in the successive and round emptiness inside her. She meditated while she was typing and that’s why she made even more mistakes.”

“On the pavement tiny blades of grass sprouted between the flagstones — Macabéa noticed them because she always noticed things that were tiny and insignificant. She thought dreamily, as she rang the doorbell: grass is so easy and simple. Her thoughts were gratuitous and unconnected because, however erratic, she possessed vast reserves of inner freedom.”

My Favourite Books of 2019

9 Jan

I looked back at the books I had read in 2019 and I found a dozen titles which I felt like sharing with you all, in hope that perhaps one day you might read some of these books too. I wasn’t too pleased with what I’ve read in the previous year, there weren’t that many books which I adored. I am eager to read more, but I am struggling to find something to occupy me completely. So, if you have some suggestions, please, do not hesitate to tell them! A book must transform me completely, leave me breathless as I close it… if I feel the same after 200 pages then what’s the point really?

Casey Child, The Bookstore

1 One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey; a wonderful novel about a wild, free-spirited individualist Randal McMurphy who tries to exploit the system but eventually gets trapped by it. The book starts out in a very amusing, witty way but things start taking a darker turn and the protagonist’s eventual defeat was immensely saddening to read.

2 The Shrouded Woman (La Amortajada) by María Luisa Bombal; is a wonderful short novel or a novella by a Chilean author published in 1938 and it tells a story of a dead woman remembering her life, from her youth, her first loves, the cheerful vibrant days of her childhood, her marriage and her children, her regrets. Reading it felt very poignant and very eerie; she’s not on her deathbed, she is dead. Only through the eyes of a woman dead who talks about her life in the past tense, did I truly feel the joy of my life lived now. I still have time to love! I still have time to not have regrets, to turn wrongs to rights, and in this way it was inspiring and felt like a catharsis.

3 The Final Mist by María Luisa Bombal; I loved “The Shrouded Woman” so much that I just had to read another short-novel by Bombal and it did not fail my expectations. “The Final Mist” begins with newlyweds, Daniel and Regina, arriving into a decaying mansion. It’s raining, and they are not very in love. The main character’s first wife had not been in the grave so long and he had already remarried. Regina is bored and dissatisfied, one day on a walk she wanders into a fog… finds a house… and has a life-transforming encounter with a strong, handsome man, but is he real or not?

4 The Rum Diary by Hunter S. Thompson; with this book it was the film starring Johnny Depp which captivated me immensely. It’s set in Puerto Rico in the late 1950s, the main character is a journalist who comes to the Caribbean from New York. And the best part of all is that all the events were taken from Thompson’s life and experiences. Writing and the protagonist’s lifestyle reminded me of Kerouac’s and I also enjoyed the vibrant descriptions of the Caribbean; the ocean, the palms, the drinking and the politics.

5 Sputnik Sweetheart by Haruki Murakami; yet another fabolous novel by Murakami, about a twenty-two year old girl called Sumire who falls in love for the first time in her short life and she wants to become a writer, she loves Kerouac and tends to start writing a novel but never finishes it. Sumire was relatable, though her love life was certainly not. And also, as much as I adored the beginning, it’s very easy to enjoy Murakami’s writing, I was slightly disappointed with the ending because it seemed less mysterious, as I think the writer intended it to be, it felt like not even Murakami knew just quite how to finish the novel.

6 Shanghai Baby by Wei Hui; this was a book which I repeatedly kept seeing on the bookshelf and the cover intrigued me a lot, and also the fact it was written by a Chinese person. I do enjoy reading books from other countries and continents and thus expanding my horizons. Similar to “Sputnik Sweetheart”, the main character is also a struggling aspiring writer who lives with her boyfriend; a gentle person and a talented artist who is also impotent and an opium addict. China’s opening to the Western culture and the clash of the changes goes hand in hand with the heroine’s personal changes and growth.

7 Marble Skin by Slavenka Drakulić; a novel written in the first person by a now grown up woman who is a sculptor and alarmed by her mother’s attempt of suicide, she returns to her hometown and a tale of her childhood, filled with mother’s coldness and a step-father’s sexual abuse, unravels before the reader. Her love of marble, who coldness she connects with her mother’s character, is woven through the novel.

8 I’m with the band by Pamela des Barres; I’ve known about this book written by a very famous sixties and seventies groupie for a few years now, but it was only last summer that I was so curious and felt like reading it. It was fun seeing the other side of the seemingly glamorous groupie lifestyle; the heartbreaks, the betrayals, the loneliness, and I do feel very differently about it than I had years ago. I am glad I read the book but I do not envy Miss Pamela’s position anymore.

9 Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole; a very dramatic and romantical Gothic novel. I very much enjoyed the drama and the pompous language as well as the black and white characters. And most of all I loved the love-scenes, so subtle yet so over the top in that special Romantic way.

10 Pre-Raphaelites in Love by Gay Dely; this was a book that someone very special recommended to me a few years ago and I finally got my hands on it in 2019. It was just beautiful! Just so beautifully written, loaded with information about the Pre-Raphaelites, comments on their work and most of all, as the title suggests, on their love-life.

11 I Patridge, We Need to Talk About Alan by Steve Coogan; this wasn’t a serious read, naturally, and it wasn’t really a read because it was an audio-book which is available on Youtube, but this was just too funny and too memorable not to include it, specially since I am a fan of Alan Partridge and his sense of humour.

Mikhail Lermontov – A Hero of Our Time

19 Nov

“I was prepared to love the whole world, but no one understood me, and I learned to hate.”

Christina Robertson, Grand-Duchesses Olga and Alexandra, Daughters of Nicholas I, 1840

I first read Mikhail Lermontov’s fascinating novel “A Hero of Our Time” a few years ago and absolutely loved it and had so much fun reading it, especially the part called “Princess Mary”. The main character, a young man called Pechorin is very witty and his comments and remarks about the world, love, people around him are very amusing, and I can agree with him to some extent. I was literally laughing whilst reading it, some dialogues are just hysterical.

Lermontov wrote the novel in 1839 and it was published in 1840. A year later, Lermontov was dead. At the age of twenty-seven. How romantical!? To die in a duel at that age. The novel is divided into five parts, not in chronological order, and the part I love the most, called “Princess Mary”, is from Pechorin’s diary and it starts with his arrival to Pyatigorsk one beautiful day early in May. It starts with a lyrical description of nature in Caucasus and its effect on Pechorin’s state of mind and soul: “YESTERDAY I arrived at Pyatigorsk. I have engaged lodgings at the extreme end of the town, the highest part, at the foot of Mount Mashuk: during a storm the clouds will descend on to the roof of my dwelling. This morning at five o’clock, when I opened my window, the room was filled with the fragrance of the flowers growing in the modest little front-garden. Branches of bloom-laden bird-cherry trees peep in at my window, and now and again the breeze bestrews my writing-table with their white petals. The view which meets my gaze on three sides is wonderful (….) A feeling akin to rapture is diffused through all my veins. The air is pure and fresh, like the kiss of a child; the sun is bright, the sky is blue—what more could one possibly wish for? What need, in such a place as this, of passions, desires, regrets?

Grigory Gagarin, Ball, 1832

But very quickly Pechorin goes into society and the reader is introduced to other characters of whom Pechorin writes candidly; a fake sentimental cavalier Grushnitski, young, handsome and shallow emotions. This is how Pechorin describes him: “he has no knowledge of men and of their foibles, because all his life he has been interested in nobody but himself. His aim is to make himself the hero of a novel. He has so often endeavoured to convince others that he is a being created not for this world and doomed to certain mysterious sufferings, that he has almost convinced himself that such he is in reality. Hence the pride with which he wears his thick soldier’s cloak. I have seen through him, and he dislikes me for that reason, although to outward appearance we are on the friendliest of terms.” Grushnitski is therefore the opposite of Pechorin; the feelings of the former are shallow, while the latter hides the depth of his emotions and keeps them to himself. There is a clear similarity between Pushkin’s characters of Eugene Onegin who is a superflous man and Pechorin who is one also, and their counterparts: Pushkin’s character Vladimir Lensky is a naive romantic and is similar to Grushnitski.

Karl Bryullov, Horsewoman, 1832

A superflous man is a Russian version of a Byronic hero; Lermontov even mentions Lord Byron in his poetry and throughout the novel. Just like Byronic Hero, a superflous man is full of contradictions; he feels superior to his surroundings, yet he does nothing to put his talents and intelligence to good use, he is profound and has deep emotions but the society’s shallowness and superficiality has forced him to hide these deeper feelings because the world wouldn’t understand them. Prone to self-destruction, plagued by boredom, and possessing a sense that life in its core has no real meaning; all these things drive superflous men such as Eugene Onegin and Pechorin to travel aimlessly or indulge in flirtations that mean nothing to them. As long as the afternoon is pleasantly spent, true intentions of the heart don’t matter.

Duels, flirtations, gossips; this novel has these things in abundance and Pechorin simultaneously sees the emptiness of such a life, but nonetheless indulges in it because his cynical worldviews prevent him from believing in sincerity and love.

Ah, love, yes! What would a Romantic novel be without it. Pechorin gives women little reason to love him, and yet they do, but he gives a clear cynical justification for that: “Women love only the men they don’t know.” That is certainly true for these kind of novels; it’s the mystery of a man which is alluring to sweet, naive maidens because they then attribute all sorts of noble qualities to noblemen they’ve only seen from afar, and spoken maybe a few sentences with. Pechorin is led by the same selfish desire as Eugene Onegin was when he gave poor Tatyana false hopes and that is because to Pechorin nothing has meaning, he cherishes nothing, so how could he apprehend that things do matter to other people:

I often ask myself why I am so obstinately endeavouring to win the love of a young girl whom I do not wish to deceive, and whom I will never marry. Why this woman-like coquetry? Vera loves me more than Princess Mary ever will. (…) There is, in sooth, a boundless enjoyment in the possession of a young, scarce-budded soul! It is like a floweret which exhales its best perfume at the kiss of the first ray of the sun. You should pluck the flower at that moment, and, breathing its fragrance to the full, cast it upon the road: perchance someone will pick it up! I feel within me that insatiate hunger which devours everything it meets upon the way….

Princess Mary Ligovski doesn’t have a soul as deep and pure as Pushkin’s Tatyana, for after all, she is a haughty and well-educated young lady from Moscow who read Lord Byron’s work in English and knows algebra. Such a girl is not to messed with. It’s interesting to note that Pechorin started flirting with her only after Grushnitski admitted to him his secret affections for her. A superfluous man isn’t satisfied until he ruins and taints someone else’s prospects for happiness. And is he truly satisfied then? No, sadly, he is never satisfied, for to him life is but a pointless string of events, each more dull and less meaningful than the previous one, until sweet death comes. In one discussion in French with Grushnitski, Pechorin says “My friend, I despise women to avoid loving them because otherwise, life would become too ridiculous a melodrama.

Karl Bryullov, The Shishmareva Sisters, 1839

In contrast to Princess Mary’s blind, youthful infatuation with Pechorin, it is another woman, Vera, a faithful beauty from Pechorin’s past who absolutely adores him. Mary fell for Pechorin because he is “tall, dark and handsome”, mysterious, alluring – and he doesn’t seem to be captivated by her which serves only as a motivation for her to win him over. He is the romantic hero that she has only read of, in dreary winter afternoons in Moscow. But Vera loves him deeply, even though their paths in life went differently, and even though she is married…. for the second time and not to him. Though she might be someone else’s wife on paper, her heart belongs to Pechorin only. She tells him, blushing, as they sit together in nature: “You know that I am your slave: I have never been able to resist you… and I shall be punished for it, you will cease to love me! At least, I want to preserve my reputation… not for myself—that you know very well!… Oh! I beseech you: do not torture me, as before, with idle doubts and feigned coldness! It may be that I shall die soon; I feel that I am growing weaker from day to day… And, yet, I cannot think of the future life, I think only of you… You men do not understand the delights of a glance, of a pressure of the hand… but as for me, I swear to you that, when I listen to your voice, I feel such a deep, strange bliss that the most passionate kisses could not take its place.

And Pechorin later praises Vera’s depth of character: “Vera did not make me swear fidelity, or ask whether I had loved others since we had parted… She trusted in me anew with all her former unconcern, and I will not deceive her: she is the only woman in the world whom it would never be within my power to deceive. I know that we shall soon have to part again, and perchance for ever. We will both go by different ways to the grave, but her memory will remain inviolable within my soul. I have always repeated this to her, and she believes me, although she says she does not.

Naive, silly goose, that is what Mary Ligovska is, to think that this dark and mysterious man will give up his cynicism and freedom to marry her. Pechorin makes his views on marriage quite clear: “…over me the word “marry” has a kind of magical power. However passionately I love a woman, if she only gives me to feel that I have to marry her—then farewell, love! My heart is turned to stone, and nothing will warm it anew. I am prepared for any other sacrifice but that; my life twenty times over, nay, my honour I would stake on the fortune of a card… but my freedom I will never sell. Why do I prize it so highly? What is there in it to me? For what am I preparing myself? What do I hope for from the future?… In truth, absolutely nothing.

Natalia Pushkina, Portrait by Alexander Brullov, 1831

Here is a conversation between Pechorin and Vera which amused me so:

She gazed into my face with her deep, calm eyes. Mistrust and something in the nature of reproach were expressed in her glance.

“We have not seen each other for a long time,” I said.

“A long time, and we have both changed in many ways.”

“Consequently you love me no longer?”…

“I am married!”… she said.

“Again? A few years ago, however, that reason also existed, but, nevertheless”…

She plucked her hand away from mine and her cheeks flamed.

“Perhaps you love your second husband?”…

She made no answer and turned her head away.

“Or is he very jealous?”

She remained silent.

Mikhail Lermontov, Self-portrait, 1837

And to end, here is my favourite passage from the novel which I find totally relatable:

Everyone saw in my face evil traits that I didn’t possess. But they assumed I did, and so they developed. I was modest, and was accused of being deceitful: I became secretive. I had a strong sense of good and evil; instead of kindness I received nothing but insults, so I grew resentful. I was gloomy, other children were merry and talkative. I felt myself superior to them, but was considered inferior: I became envious. I was ready to love the whole world, but no one understood me, so I learned to hate. My colorless youth was spent in a struggle with myself and with the world. Fearing mockery, I buried my best feelings at the bottom of my heart: there they died.”

Love, Blood and Savagery in Botticelli’s The Story of Nastagio Degli Onesti

10 Nov

These four canvases by Botticelli hide a strangely dark and cruel tale inspired by a story from Boccaccio’s Decameron.

Sandro Botticelli, The Story of Nastagio Degli Onesti, Part one: Nastagio meets the woman and the knight in the pine forest of Ravenna, 1483, tempera on wood

Tormented by unrequited love, a young nobleman by the name of Nastagio Degli Onesti flees his hometown of Ravenna searching for some faraway place where he wouldn’t be thinking and dreaming of her – the beautiful haughty damsel who rejects him so cruelly over and over again. She enjoys rejecting him and seeing him suffer, and he tried suicide on a few occasions but all the attempts were all unsuccessful. Nastagio is tired from the unending blows of rejection and not even wanderlust can stir his dead, tired, lovelorn soul and his travel stops in a little place called Chiassi, a seaport a few miles away from Ravenna. It was the beginning of May and evening was approaching when Nastagio wandered into the dark mystic pine woods: “It chanced one day, he being come thus well nigh to the beginning of May and the weather being very fair, that, having entered into thought of his cruel mistress, he bade all his servants leave him to himself, so he might muse more at his leisure, and wandered on, step by step, lost in melancholy thought, till he came [unwillingly] into the pine-wood. The fifth hour of the day was well nigh past and he had gone a good half mile into the wood, remembering him neither of eating nor of aught else…” (*)

The distance, the change of scenery, nought could stop him from thinking of his cruel-hearted damsel in Ravenna; instead of beauties of nature, he only sees her pretty countenance, instead of the scent of the fragrant pine trees, he only breathes in her name from afar and breathes out desperation and longing. Ahhh…. Deep in mournful reveries that tear his heart even further, Nastagio “heard a terrible great wailing and loud cries uttered by a woman; whereupon, his dulcet meditation being broken, he raised his head to see what was to do and marvelled to find himself among the pines; then, looking before him, he saw a very fair damsel come running, naked through a thicket all thronged with underwood and briers, towards the place where he was, weeping and crying sore for mercy and all dishevelled and torn by the bushes and the brambles. At her heels ran two huge and fierce mastiffs, which followed hard upon her and ofttimes bit her cruelly, whenas they overtook her; and after them he saw come riding upon a black courser a knight arrayed in sad-coloured armour, with a very wrathful aspect and a tuck in his hand, threatening her with death in foul and fearsome words.” This is the scene from Boccaccio’s “Decameron” (fifth day, eighth story) which Botticelli has depicted in the first panel of the four-part series. I love the different phases of narration depicted in a single painting; in the background on the left we see Nastagio’s servants and then the tent, then we see Nastagio walking alone in the woods, and then right in the centre is the horrid encounter between Nastagio and the poor naked damsel. Having no sword or other weapon in hand, Nastagio picked up a branch, trying to defend the lady.

Sandro Botticelli, The Story of Nastagio Degli Onesti, Part two: Killing the Woman, 1483, tempera on wood

And now, in the background of the second panel, we again see the scene that had happened but minutes before; the woman being chased by an evil knight on a white horse. Now, the woman is killed and her body lies on the grass and the knight, angry faced but also seemingly accustomed to the actions, is tearing her flesh and ripping her organs out. Nastagio looks away in horror and the gesture of his arms shows how horrified and disgusted and bewildered he is by the strange scene that awoke him from his meditative reverie. Boccaccio writes: “This sight filled Nastagio’s mind at once with terror and amazement“. Dogs are eating her organs and now, on a moist grass of a dark pine forest, lies the naked dead body of a beautiful woman whose last breaths and words he had witnessed, and yet he was unable to save her from “anguish and death.” You would think that Renaissance was all about harmony and elevated themes, or so we were taught in grammar school, but what Botticelli has depicted here is a wild, untamed flow of savagery, the Dionysian element trying to stir the perfect Apollonian world of Renaissance; world of knowledge and reason is now tainted with blood, screams and torture.

Sandro Botticelli, The Story of Nastagio Degli Onesti, Part three: The banquet in the forest, 1483, tempera on wood

The knight then explains to Nastagio the strange, barbarous scene that Nastagio had witnessed. Once upon a time, in days when Nastagio was but a child, the knight, whose name is Guido degli Anastagi, also lived in Ravenna and was also suffering from unrequited love. He loved a damsel who was as cruel and haughty as Nastagio’s beloved is, and who also enjoyed tormenting him, enjoyed to see him suffer from rejection. Unable to take it anymore, death seemed dearer to Guido then such a miserable, lovelorn existence, and he took his life. The damsel was pleased that such was the power of her beauty and charm, and she shed not a tear, but very soon she fell ill and died. Having no remorse before her death for her cruel behavior towards Guido, she was condemned to eternity in hell. Guido is also there, having committed the sin of suicide. And their punishment is intertwined; every Friday he has to chase her through the forest with the dogs, kill her and rip out her heart and feed it to the dogs. A cruel, cold, little heart which was incapable of love; that is her sin.

This repetitive punishment occurs every Friday and will repeat every Friday for as many years as there were months that the lady rejected Guido. Fascinated by this discovery, the following Friday Nastagio invites his family and friends for a little gathering, a party, and the cruel damsel whom he loves is also there. This is the third scene. Party is disturbed by the same savage ceremony of damned lovers and all the guests see the lady die again and her heart being ripped out. The Knight Guido again tells the crowd of their punishment in hell and it makes an impact on people, especially the females who teary eyed suddenly feel more loving and gentle. Nastagio’s beloved, the daughter of Paolo Traversiari, suddenly feels guilt and regret for her past actions and decides to marry Nastagio, fearing the same destiny might await her in case her cruel rejection of his love perseveres.

Sandro Botticelli, The Story of Nastagio Degli Onesti, Part four: Marriage of Nastagio degli Onesti, 1483, tempera on wood

The fourth panel, perhaps the dullest one, shows Nastagio’s wedding to the once haughty pretty wealthy maiden. Well, she is still pretty and wealthy, but more down to earth and perhaps more afraid of hell’s flames. She sends her maid to tell Nastagio that “she was ready to do all that should be his pleasure“. The scenery and its connection to the story is fascinating; in first two panels the setting is the wild, dark, mysterious pine forest where Nastagio wanders into because he is daydreaming and not paying attention to where he is going, so he walks into the woods as in a dream. The third panel is half-half; woods are still present in the background behind a long white-clothed dinner table. And then, after the moment of cruelty – the killing – is over, the setting goes to a more classical, polite, rational space; a banquet celebrating the marriage. Dense, repetitive row of trees gives a sense of depth and, along with the figure of the knight, and the emphasised narrative element of the painting, are all reminders of the Gothic art of the previous centuries, but it strangely fits the mood of the story.

Boccaccio’s tales from “Decameron” were suppose to carry a wise, education message to them and in this story the message is not to reject love because everyone deserves to be loved and have the right to love. Women should learn from the cruel damsel’s behavior and not follow in her footsteps. It is a sin not to love. Nastagio and his lady live happily ever after, but this isn’t the only positive outcome of the event, oh no, suddenly “all the ladies of Ravenna became so fearful by reason thereof, that ever after they were much more amenable than they had before been to the desires of the men.” Did no one found it strange that the only reason to return someone’s affection was the fear of suffering the same damnation? It’s interesting how some things sound so normal in these old tales, while they are utterly bizarre in our day and age.

The four pictures were commissioned in 1483 by Antonio Pucci, a wealthy merchant from Florence, for the occasion of the wedding of his son Giannozzo with Lucretia Bini. The theme was most likely chosen by Pucci himself and the paintings were intended for the bedroom of the newlyweds. Why, yes, a nude lady being killed by a knight and having her heart ripped out… quite a soothing, romantical scene to gaze at before bedtime and to see the first thing in the morning. An applause please, for Antonio Pucci’s wonderful aesthetic sense. The theme was chosen for its happy ending, I mean, they do get married in the end, but still. Now the paintings are, luckily, not gracing the walls of any poor couple’s bedroom, they are in Museo del Prado.

 

Theophile Gautier: To your parted lips I would go and there would I die

6 Sep

Here’s a beautiful and devastatingly romantic poem “Butterflies” by Theophile Gautier!

Odilon Redon, Five Butterflies, c. 1912

Butterflies

Butterflies, the colour of snow,
In clouds to the sea now fare;
White butterfly beauties, when can I follow
Your path through the blue of the air?

Do you know, oh beauty of beauties,
My sacred dancer with jet black eyes,
If they could lend me their wings,
Do you know where my journey would lie?

Without taking one kiss to the roses,
Across valleys and forests I’d fly,
To your parted lips I would go,
And there, flower of my soul, would I die.

Clarice Lispector – I know the story of a rose

17 Aug

Here’s a beautiful passage from Clarice Lispector’s novel “The Stream of Life” (Água Viva).

John Waterhouse, The Soul of The Rose, 1903

“I know the story of a rose. Does it seem strange to you to speak of a rose when I am talking about animals? But it acted in a way that recalls the animal mysteries. Every two days I would buy a rose and place it in water in a vase made specially narrow to hold the long stem of a single flower. Every two days the rose would wilt and I would exchange it for another. Until one certain rose. It was rose-colored without coloring or grafting just naturally of the most vivid rose color. Its beauty expanded the heart by great breadths. It seemed so proud of the turgescence of its wide open corolla and of its own petals that its haughtiness held it almost erect. Because it was not completely erect: with graciousness it bent over its stem which was fine and fragile. An intimate relationship intensely developed between me and the flower: I admired her and she seemed to feel admired. And she became so glorious in her apparition and was observed with such love that days went by and she did not wilt: her corolla remained wide open and swollen, fresh as a newborn flower. She lasted in beauty and life an entire week. Only then did she start to show signs of some fatigue. Then she died. It was with reluctance that I replaced her. And I never forgot her. The strange thing is that my maid asked me once out of the blue: “and that rose?” I didn’t ask which one. I knew. That rose that lived from love given at length was remembered because the woman had seen how I looked at the flower and transmitted to her the waves of my energy. She had blindly intuited that something had gone on between me and the rose. That rose-made me want to call it ‘Jewel of my life;’ because I often give things names-had so much instinct by nature that I and she had been able to live each other profoundly, as only can happen between beast and man.”