Tag Archives: provincial claustrophobia

Reality Gives No Romance: Emma Bovary and Blanche DuBois

13 Jan

In this post I will explore the similarities between two literary characters: Gustave Flaubert’s Emma Bovary and Tennessee Williams’s Blanche DuBois. January seems like the best time to tackle this topic when we are waiting for blossoms, romance and promises of spring, or at least I am. “Reality brings no romance” is a line from a song “Walk me to the bridge” by Manic Street Preachers.

madame-bovary-1991Isabelle Huppert as Emma Bovary (1991)

In his 1857 novel “Madame Bovary”, Gustave Flaubert expressed loneliness, longings and provincial claustrophobia with eloquence that surpasses that of any other writer before or after. Flaubert found inspiration in a newspaper article, and by writing this book, he wanted to prove to his friends that style is more important than the theme itself, adding that he was himself repulsed by the subject of adultery.

Every page of this novel is wrapped in silent melancholy, and the story offers neither the happy ending nor the solution; the countryside offers nothing pure suffocating boredom, while the city brings cheap pleasures and shallowness. This book is everything Morrissey sang about; lost dreams, impossible loves, boredom, small town frustration. Where The Smiths used just three or four minutes to say what they had to say, and coated it in whimsical, cheerful catchy tunes, Flaubert fills more than three-hundred pages with longings and disappointments. Emma’s story is a real ‘from despair to where’ one, to quote the Manic Street Preachers now. From despair – to death, it seems for her. If there’s one line from a pop song that describes her life perfectly, it’s this one by The Smiths: “I was happy at the height of the drunken hour but heaven knows I’m miserable now.”

Source: here.

“Each smile hid a yawn of boredom, each joy a curse, each pleasure its own disgust; and the sweetest kisses only left on one’s lips a hopeless longing for a higher ecstasy.”

“Emma lost weight, her face became pale and gaunt. With her smooth black hair, her big eyes, her straight nose, her birdlike walk and the silence that had now become almost constant with her, did she not seem to be passing through life without touching it, bearing on her brow the mysterious mark of a sublime destiny?”

Who is Emma Bovary, anyway? And why is she so negatively portrayed in popular culture when she is so realistic, everyone suffers that melancholia and boredom occasionally, so why deny it? Emma Bovary is a young and beautiful woman whose exceedingly romantic, verging on sentimental, disposition is all due to reading too many sentimental novels at convent where she was schooled. Her views on life, love and marriage are shaped almost exclusively by what she has read in those novels. She marries Charles, a simple minded country doctor, because she sees in him a potential rescuer from the boredom of her life. Soon, she becomes disappointed because nothing turned out like she wanted it. Charles is happy living in a small town, while she withers and daydreams of Paris – “She wanted to die. And she wanted to live in Paris.” A sense of unfulfilled longing lingers throughout the novel.

Here are a few quotes about Emma’s boredom in marriage:

Before the wedding, she had believed herself in love. But not having obtained the happiness that should have resulted from that love, she now fancied that she must have been mistaken. And Emma wondered exactly what was meant in life by the worlds ‘bliss’, ‘passion’, ‘ecstasy’ which had looked so beautiful in books.

“‘Then the appetites of the flesh, the craving for money, the melancholy of passion, all blended together in one general misery. (…) Her drab surrounding drove her to dreams of luxury; marital tenderness prompted the desire for a lover. She would have liked Charles to hit her, that she might have just cause for hatred and revenge. She was surprised sometimes at the hideous ideas that occurred to her. And all the while she must go on smiling, hearing herself insist that she was very happy, pretending to be so, acting the part.

“She was so sad and so calm, so gentle and yet so shy, that by her side you felt under the spell of a frosty charm, just as you shiver in church at the scent of flowers mingling with the feel of cold marble. … But she was filled with lust, with rage, with hatred.”

Whenever I imagine Emma Bovary, I imagine her either wistfully strolling the paths of her garden with sad apple trees, half-dry pink hydrangeas, worn out wooden fence, moss and wet soil in the morning after a rainy night; or standing by the window, dreamy and beautiful, with a look of pain, disappointment and longing all at once in her dark eyes, as rain drops slide one by one on the outer side of the window, sighing “Everyday is like Sunday, everyday is silent and grey…”

This quote explains well why Emma hated life at the countryside and never relished in natural beauties around her:

If she had passed her childhood in the back room of a shop somewhere in the middle of a town, she might now have awaken to the lyric call of Nature, which usually reaches us only through the medium of books. But she was too familiar with the country: with the bleating of the flocks, with the dairy and the plogh. Acustomed to the peaceful, she turned in reaction to the picturesque. She loved the sea only for its storms, green foliage only when it was scattered amid ruins. It was necessary for her to derive a sort of personal profit from things, she rejected as useless whatever did not minister to her heart’s immediate fulfilment – being of a sentimental rather than artistic temperament, in search of emotions, not of scenery.

And all the time, deep within her, she was waiting for something to happen. Like a shipwrecked sailor she scanned her solitude with desperate eyes for the sight of a white sail far off on the misty horizon. (…) But every morning when she woke she hoped to find it there. She listened to every sound, started out of bed, and was surprised when noting came. Then, at sunset, sadder every day, she longed for the morrow.

And so they would follow on, one after another, always the same; innumerable days that brought nothing.

She gave up playing the piano. What use, with no one to hear her? Since she could never play at concert, in a short-sleeved velvet gown, lightly caressing the keys of an Erard and feeling the murmurs of ecstasy wafting all about her like a breeze – it wasn’t worth the boredom of practising.”

She left her drawing-folios and her needlework lie in the cupboard. What was the use? What was the use? Sewing got on her nerves.

‘I’ve read everything,’ she said to herself.

So she sat there holding the tongs in the fires or watching the rain fall.

If matters had fallen out differently, she wondered might she not have met some other man? She tried to picture to herself the things she might have been – that different life, that unknown husband. For they weren’t all like this one. He might have been handsome, intelligent, distinguished, attractive, as were no doubt the men her old school friends has married… What would they be doing now? Living in town, amid the noise of the streets, the hum of the theatre crowd, the bright lights of the ballroom – the sort of life that opens the heart and sense like flowers in bloom. Whereas for her, life was cold as an attic facing north, and the silent spider boredom wove its web in all the shadowed corners of her heart.

Blanche DuBois

Tennessee Williams’s characters are known for their complexity, and his plays turned into films are wonderful. Needless to say, I am a big fan. “A Streetcar Named Desire” was published in 1947 and is an example of Southern Gothic. The main character, Blanche DuBois, an ageing southern belle, is a soft-spoken, well-mannered, polite, dreamy, theatrical, exceedingly romantic and gentle person, who, due to her own nature and personal losses in her youth, is left vulnerable, emotionally needy and slightly psychologically unstable. There’s also something childlike about her naivety and idealism. She is a wonderful literary creation, portrayed beautifully by Vivian Leigh in the film from 1951, and another one of Tennessee Williams’ fabulous, layered, mysterious and decadent characters.

The play is set in the French Quarter of New Orleans; Blanche has just arrived and takes a streetcar named “Desire” to visit her sister Stella and her husband Stanley. The contrast between Blanche’s magical aura and the poverty and roughness of Stella and Stanley’s life is immediately noticeable. Blanche with her soft blonde curls, her long flimsy gowns with thousands of shimmering flounces that play the most charming melodies of Tchaikovsky, her pearls and roses, her rouge and her old love letters, her perfumes and soft shawls. Blanche constantly insists on creating an aesthetically pleasing environment and nurturing the dreaminess that she perpetually inhabits; she takes long baths and dresses most exquisitely despite Stella’s poor situation, insists on covering the bare lamps and keeping a boudoir lightning. She says herself: “I can’t stand a naked light bulb, any more than I can a rude remark or a vulgar action.” Her well-mannered, educated and polite nature are odd compared to the brutish nature of Stanley and his friends.

There’s something so fragile, delicate, nervous about Blanche, you can’t point your finger on it, but you feel it. As if her inner life is a butterfly trapped in a jar, fluttering hopelessly and heating the glass to no avail. In the play Tennessee Williams wrote a note: “Her delicate beauty must avoid a strong light. There is something about her uncertain manner, as well as her white clothes, that suggests a moth.” Blanche is delusional to the end, fragile like a moth, beautiful and dreamy, refusing to open her eyes and see the world the way it really is, accepting the hand of a stranger, with an eerie smile on her face, saying: “I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.” A moth is broken and quenched at last.

“Physical beauty is passing – a transitory possession – but beauty of the mind, richness of the spirit, tenderness of the heart – I have all these things – aren’t taken away but grow! Increase with the years!”

One of my favourite lines by Blanche:

“Don’t you just love those long rainy afternoons in New Orleans when an hour isn’t just an hour – but a little piece of eternity dropped into your hands – and who knows what to do with it?”

Source: here.

The rest of my days I’m going to spend on the sea. And when I die, I’m going to die on the sea. You know what I shall die of? I shall die of eating an unwashed grape. One day out on the ocean I will die–with my hand in the hand of some nice looking ship’s doctor, a very young one with a small blond moustache and a big silver watch. “Poor lady,” they’ll say, “The quinine did her no good. That unwashed grape has transported her soul to heaven.

What is straight? A line can be straight, or a street, but the human heart, oh, no, it’s curved like a road through mountains.

vivien leigh as blanche 1

“I’ll tell you what I want. Magic! Yes, yes, magic! I try to give that to people. I misinterpret things to them. I don’t tell the truth. I tell what ought to be truth. And if that is sinful, then let me be damned for it! – Don’t turn the light on!”

This dialogue is my particular favourite:

Stella: You needn’t be so cruel to someone as alone as she is.

Stanley: Delicate piece she is.

Stella: She is. She was. You didn’t know Blanche as a girl. Nobody, nobody, was tender and trusting as she was. But people like you abused her, and forced her to change.

So, what is it that, in my view, connects the two heroines? Firstly, they are both highly imaginative and prone to melancholy and self-pity. Both follow a religion of beauty, dreams and magic. They are big aesthetes, their surroundings and appearance means a lot in keeping their dreamy vision of the world. Emma initially tries to keep away her disappointment away by decorating the house and indulging in pretty fabrics and shawls, but no amount of material possessions can fill the emotional void both heroines feel inside. They are misfits, they aren’t accepted in their communities because they are different, not realistic and down to earth. And lastly, both are emotionally and psychologically unstable.

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Egon Schiele – Neuelengbach Affair – Martyr for the Cause of Art: Part I

21 Apr

This is the first out of two posts which will explore Egon Schiele’s artistic endeavours in a small town of Neulengbach and his time spent in prison for his erotic drawings.

Egon Schiele, Nude against coloured background, 1911

As I already wrote in my post about Egon Schiele’s Krumau Scenes, small towns and suburbs held a particular charm for this artist, and even before coming to Krumau in May 1910, just a month shy of his twentieth birthday, he’d dreamt of an artistic paradise in some small town where he could afford to rent a cheap studio and be surrounded by nature all day long. Also, he wanted to escape the dark city full of shadows – Vienna, or that is at least how he saw it. Krumau was the birthplace of his mother and that’s why it caught his attention. He first visited the place with his painter-friends; Anton Peschka and Ervin Osen, and then, in May 1911, he settled in a little house near the river Vltava (Moldau) with his new model, lover and a muse – Wally Neuzil. He painted her in the studio, and he also painted a lot of landscapes, capturing the densely situated colourful houses, emphasising their decaying mood, and sunflowers too.

Need I mention that the inhabitants of this little, dreamy, provincial town weren’t really pleased with having a cocky artist living in sin with his pretty little red-haired muse? Town had its charm indeed and Schiele produced some good paintings there, but their heaven came to an end sometime in July 1911, when he wrote to Roessler: “You know how much I like to be in Krumau and now life is made impossible. People boycott us simply because we’re red. Of course I could defend myself, even against all 7,000 of them, but I don’t have the time and why should I bother?” Term ‘red’ was used for a person not going to church. And so Schiele and Wally returned to Vienna.

Egon Schiele, The Self Seers (Death and Man), 1911

Schiele’s longing for a peaceful and creative mood of a small town or a village is so naive in my eyes. Yes, nature is beautiful, but the mood of a small town, the provincial claustrophobia, the judgemental and simple-minded people, there’s no beauty in that, and I should know. People of Krumau, in Schiele’s time, were a bunch of intolerant, simple-minded fools who probably couldn’t understand his art if their lives depended on it, but wait till you hear what happened in Neulengbach.

Schiele spent only a month in Vienna and already started looking for a new rural paradise where his art would thrive, and he found it very near Vienna, just 35 km away or a short train ride, a town of Neulengbach. Paintings that he made there are very interesting; dark, disturbing, painted with thick heavy brushstrokes in scarce, murky colours they are heavily influenced by the late nineteenth century Symbolist paintings. Just reading the titles of his paintings from these years, such as ‘Dead Mother’, ‘Prophet’ or ‘Pregnant Woman and Death’, gives us a sense of dark times and some serious questioning of life and meaning of existence, and while that may be true to a point, I can’t know what was in his head, his time in Neulengbach was actually a rather happy and productive time.

Painting The Self-Seers is a good example of things that he painted in Neulengbach, and it unites Schiele’s obsession with himself and his interest in morbid themes. Did I mention that he was immensely fascinated with himself? He painted many self-portraits; in some he presented himself in a wild embrace with death, in others – simply masturbating, but in this rather sinister self-portrait he painted himself with his Doppelgänger, the person’s exact double, and a very popular motif in German literature of Romanticism, but also in works of Shelley and Poe. Colours of mud, face expressions unsettling, fingers in a strange position, brushstrokes heavy; like the fingers of a corpse scratching its way from the coffin through the moist loam. While his drawings ooze lightness and colourfulness, his paintings are dark and distorted, like they grew from the muddy, scarce, infertile soil after the rain.

Egon Schiele, The Artist’s Room in Neulengbach, 1911

Perhaps the most important and most interesting of Schiele’s works created in Neulengbach is the painting The Artist’s Room in Neulengbach which obviously took inspiration from Vincent van Gogh’s Bedroom in Arles painted in 1888. In both cases, artists painted the bedrooms of their artistic havens. People of Arles and Neulengbach ought to have been privileged that an artist came to live and work in their town, but needless to say that they weren’t.

We can’t help notice the sombre and claustrophobic mood of his bedroom; high viewpoint, the usual palette of browns, black, a bit of yellow and muted red, all intensify the tense and static mood of the room which doesn’t seem that much different to that of a prison cell. Schiele again presents us with his nihilistic vision of the world, and his bedroom, no matter what it looked like in reality, is presented here looking as drab and miserable as the bedroom of Gregor Samsa from Kafka’s Metamorphosis must have looked like. In comparison, Van Gogh’s bedroom bursts with colour and frenzy. Ah, you know what it’s like, bright sun of Arles and some absinthe, and the world appears before your eyes in colours of a rainbow! In van Gogh – it’s passion and vigour, in Schiele – it’s death and decay.

While van Gogh’s room is oil on canvas, Schiele’s painting was made on a smooth piece of wood with colour being applied in many thin layers producing a kind of enamel effect. He made several paintings in this technique, and he called them ‘Bretterl’ or ‘little boards’.

Vincent van Gogh, Bedroom in Arles, 1888

In the following post you’ll find out why he was imprisoned and the effect his time in prison had on his art and the cult of him as a provocative artist. To be continued 🙂