Tag Archives: Sadness

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.

Marc Chagall – The Wedding Lights

27 Dec

Marc Chagall’s muse, lover, wife and a life companion Bella died on the 2nd September 1944. Chagall spent the entire autumn and winter in mourning and turned his canvases back to the wall. He only picked up his brush in moments when the birds and flowers were announcing the awakening of nature and a new spring of 1945; the spring that Bella never lived to see.

Marc Chagall, The Wedding Lights, 1945

When he returned to his studio that spring, one very large canvas that he had originally worked on in 1933 captivated him in particular. Although he’d already painted something on it, he suddenly felt inspired to cut the canvas in half and turn it into two different paintings. The right part of the original large canvas turned out to be the painting “Around Her”, seen bellow, which showed a crying figure of Bella dressed in pink and stand next to a magical ball showing their home town of Vitebsk, a bridal couple, a bird carrying a candle and an artist with his head upside down. The left part of the canvas became the painting “The Wedding Lights”. The painting has a strange, dreamy, nocturnal atmosphere of mystique and memories. A winged creature with a goat’s head is what remained from the original composition, but the somewhat cluttered and misty mood of the scene was new.

There’s a town in the distance, little houses that bring to mind Vitebsk, the place of Chagall and Bella’s first kisses and smiles, behind it a burning orange sky in sunset. A bride all in white and her chaperon are in the centre of the composition. A green cellist is slowly wandering off the canvas followed by the sounds of his melancholy notes. Space around the bride is grey and empty while she is paving way for the lightness, the same way Bella brought lightness into Chagall’s life back in 1909 when he first laid his eyes on that beautiful and demure daughter from a wealthy family. In the lower left corner another couple is hiding their love in the blue cloak of the night, sleeping on a rooster, they seem to be sinking into blueness.

Marc Chagall, Around Her, 1945

After Bella’s death, Chagall seems to be obsessively returning to the motif of lovers and bridal couples. He did paint many lovers before, usually flying in the air and often bearing resemblance to himself and Bella, but in later years the majority of his paintings feature newlyweds, dreamy and joyous, in an ambiguous space, shining with the promise of their future happiness. Physical Bella died, but in some spiritual way, she continued haunting his art, touching his canvases with her ghostly hand from the other world, her breath continued colouring his paintings in that dreamy shade of blue. Their love was love at first sight; they met in 1909 when he was twenty-two and she was fourteen, and instantly felt connection.

This is what Chagall wrote of Bella in his very dreamy and picturesque autobiography “My Life”: Her silence is mine, her eyes mine. It is as if she knows everything about my childhood, my present, my future, as if she can see right through me; as if she has always watched over me, somewhere next to me, though I saw her for the very first time. I knew this is she, my wife. Her pale colouring, her eyes. How big and round and black they are! They are my eyes, my soul.” Next year, in 1910, Chagall moved to Paris because of his art and stayed there for four years. He missed her terribly while in Paris and was thinking about her day and night. Bella waited for him and in 1915 they were married. Their only child, a daughter named Ida, was born in May 1916. The title of the painting “The Wedding Lights” is a reference to her memoir called “The Burning Lights” that Bella had been writing in haste just before she died.

Oskar Kokoschka – The Bride of the Wind

26 Nov

And you held me, my love, and then went on dreaming.
Of perhaps a different kind of death.

Oskar Kokoschka, The Bride of the Wind (or The Tempest), 1914

In nervous, swirling and frantic brushstrokes Kokoschka painted two lovers lying side by side in a sad embrace. The woman is asleep, her eyes are peacefully closed and while she is sailing the seas of dreams, unaware of the shadows of reality that grow bigger with each passing hour of the night, the man is awake. His deep set eyes gaze into the void, his cheeks are hollow, his fingers ugly and twisted, his chin protruding, his skin taunted over his bones; he might as well be a skeleton already. While their bodies are painted in quick nervous strokes of white colour with dashes of yellow and blue the abstract space around them is made out of swirls of black and midnight blue. The blueness of the space around them might, in different circumstances, lead us to thoughts of something spiritual and serene, a vast blue sky or a calm sea, but his frantic brush strokes have dismissed such thoughts. It’s difficult, or rather impossible to determine the setting, for the whole space appears to us like a nihilistic swamp of darkness and despair; it’s a world from a dark dream, a nightmare, a premonition of the future, a scream from the bottom of one’s being.

The painting allegorically represents the painter and his beloved Alma Mahler who was at the time his lover and the wife of the composer Gustav Mahler. They are carried by strong gusts of wind, but it isn’t the wind of passion that carried Paolo and Francesca in Dante’s hell, but the wind of anxiety, uncertainty and the futility of everything. Oskar Kokoschka was a representative of the Viennese Expressionism and this catastrophic vision of the world and the future is typically Expressionistic. The same dreary mood fills his portraits which all have a psychological aspect to them and look as if they were made out of mud and tears, and is similar to painting of Ernst Ludwig Kirchner’s paintings with urban mood of alienation and premonitions of catastrophe that the World War One was about to bring. Expressionistic art was a whirlwind of colours and screams created from the nervous energy of the antebellum period, and although many artists shared the sentiment, none experienced it so deeply and profoundly as the artists who were the closest to the fire, that is those who lived in the Austria-Hungarian Empire; Oskar Kokoschka, Egon Schiele, poets Georg Trakl and August Stramm, Arnold Schönberg, Alban Berg and Anton Webern, and many other across the vast decaying empire.

So, the painting is infused with his personal torments or life and love, and fragile nature of both, but at the same time it hold a deeper meaning because it perfectly represents the changing times and the political and cultural changes that were taking place. The painting mirrors the uncertainties that the future beholds; both the fleeting nature of love and passion, and the political instability that affects everyone. Here is a poem called “With Your Right Hand on my Neck” by a Hungarian poet Miklós Radnóti that seems to fit the mood of Kokoschka’s painting and also mingles the themes of love and death:

With your right hand on my neck, I lay next to

you last night,

and since the day’s woes still pained me, I did

not ask you to take it away,

but listened to the blood coursing through your

arteries and veins,

Then finally around twelve sleep overcame me,

as sudden and guileless as my sleep so long ago,

when in the downy time of my youth it rocked

me gently.

You tell me it was not yet three when I was

startled awake

and sat up terrified and screaming.

muttering strange and unintelligible words,

then spread out my arms like a bird ruffled with

fear

flapping its wings as a dark shadow flutters

through the garden.

Tell me, where was I going? And what kind of

death had frightened me so?

And you held me, my love, as I sat up half-asleep,

then lay back in silence, wondering what paths

and horrors awaited me.

And then went on dreaming. Of perhaps a

different kind of death.

During the process of painting this painting, the poet Georg Trakl had a habit of visiting the artist almost daily and he composed this poem called “The Night” directly inspired by the painting:

Over nocturnal dark floods
I sing my sad songs,
Songs which bleed like wounds.
However, no heart carries them to me again
Through the darkness.

Only the nocturnal dark floods
Rush, sob my songs,
Songs which bleed from wounds,
They carry them to my heart again
Through the darkness.

Egon Schiele – Death and the Maiden

31 Oct

Egon Schiele died on the 31st October 1918. Three days prior to that he witnessed the death of his pregnant wife Edith. If it wasn’t for the Spanish influenza, she could have had their child and his prodigious mind could have produced many more drawings and paintings.

Egon Schiele, Death and the Maiden, 1915

Painting “Death and the Maiden” is a very personal work and it connects and unites two themes that were a lifelong fascination to Egon Schiele; death and eroticism. It shows two figures in an embrace, apparently seen from above, not unusual at all for Schiele to use such a strange perspective. They cling to each other in despair; painfully aware of the finality and hopelessness of their love. They are lying on rumpled white sheets, their last abode before the hours of love vanish forever, which simultaneously add a touch of macabre sensuality and remind us of the burial shroud. The background is an unidentifiable space, a desolate landscape painted in colours of mud and rust.

Death is a man not so dissimilar to Schiele’s other male figures or self-portraits, without the help of the title we couldn’t even guess that is represents death. The red-haired woman hugs him tightly with her long arms and lays her head on his chest. She is not the least bit afraid of his black shroud of infinity. She holds onto him as if he were love itself, and still, her hands are not resting on his back gently, they are separate and her crooked fingers are touching themselves. We can sense their inevitable separation through their gestures and face expressions, and, at the same time, their embrace feels frozen in time, the figures feel stiff and motionless, as if the rigor mortis had already taken place and bound them in an everlasting embrace. The maiden will not die, she will be clinging to death for all eternity.

It is impossible not to draw parallels between the figures in the painting and Schiele’s personal life at the time. The figure of Death resembles Schiele, and we do all know he showed no hesitation when it came to painting and even taking a photo of himself, and the red-haired woman is then clearly Wally. To get a better perspective at the symbolism behind this painting, we need to understand the things that happened in Schiele’s life that year. In June 1915 he married Edith Harms; a shy and innocent girl next door. But first he needed to brake things off with Wally Neuzil, a lover and a muse who not only supported him during the infamous Neulengbach Affair but was also, ironically, an accomplice in introducing him to Edith.

Upon meeting Wally for what was to be the last time, Egon handed her a letter in which he proposed they spend a holiday together every summer, without Edith. It’s something that Wally couldn’t agree with. Perhaps she wasn’t a suitable woman to be his wife, but she wasn’t without standards or heart either. There, in the dreamy smoke of Egon’s cigarette, sitting at a little table in the Café Eichberger where he often came to play billiards, the two doomed lovers bid their farewells. Egon gazed at her with his dark eyes and said not a word. He was disappointed but did not appear particularly heart-broken, at least no at first sight, but surely the separation must have pained him in the moments of solitude and contemplation, the moments which gave birth to paintings such as this one.

Egon Schiele, Embrace, 1915

If we assume then that the painting indeed shows Egon and Wally, the question arises: why did he chose to portray himself as a personification of Death? He chose to end things with Wally, so why mourn for the ending? And shouldn’t Death be a possessive and remorseless figure who smothers the poor delicate Maiden in his cold deadly embrace? Schiele’s embrace in the painting seems caring and his gaze full of sadness.

On a visual level, the motif of two lovers set against a decorative background brings to mind both Gustav Klimt’s “The Kiss” (1907) and Oskar Kokoschka’s “The Bride of the Wind (or The Tempest)” from 1914. Although similar in composition, the mood of Schiele’s painting differs vastly to those of his fellow Viennese eccentrics. Klimt’s painting shows a couple in a kiss and oozes sensuality and beauty, the background being very vibrant and ornamental. It’s a painting made before the war, its horrors and changes. Kokoschka’s painting is, in a way, more similar to Schiele’s but they two are very different in the overall effect. Both show doomed lovers in a sad embrace, and a strange, slightly distorted background, but Kokoschka’s painting is a whirlwind of energy, brushstrokes are nervous and energetic, the space is vibrant, not breathing but screaming. Schiele’s painting exhibits stillness, stiffness, a change caught in the moment, a breeze stopped, and the space around them seems heavy, muddy and static. “Kokoschka’s is a ‘baroque’ painting, while Schiele’s relates more to the Gothic tradition. “The Tempest” is life-affirming, the Schiele is resigned to the inevitable, immobile and drained of life.” (Whitford; Egon Schiele)

Egon Schiele, Lovemaking, 1915

In this painting Schiele used the old theme of Death and the Maiden and enriched it by adding an introspective, private psychological dimension. Schiele’s rendition of the theme isn’t a meditation on transience and vanity as it was in the works of Renaissance masters such as Hans Baldung Grien; a gifted and imaginative German painter and a pupil of Albrecht Dürer. Grien revisited the theme of Death and the Maiden a few times during a single decade, at the beginning of the sixteenth century. These paintings always feature a beautiful and something vain young woman (she is looking at herself in the mirror) with smooth pale skin and long golden hair, and a grotesque figure of Death looming behind her like a shadow, reminding her with a sand clock that soon enough she too will come into his arms.

Hans Baldung Grien, from left to right: Death and the Maiden, 1510; Death and the Maiden, 1517; Death and the Maiden, 1518-20

I’ve included two more examples of this theme in this post; another version by Grien where Death is shown chowing the Maiden’s dress and the knight is literally saving his damsel not from the dragon or from danger, but from Death and mortality itself. Quite cool! And an interesting detail from Van Groningen’s “The Triumph of Death” where Death is shown as a skeleton in a cloud armed with a spear, chasing a frightened and screaming young Maiden dressed in flimsy robes who is running around hopelessly trying to escape. In these paintings, the Maiden is merely a symbol of the fragility of youth and beauty, but later artists, the Romantics and the fin-de-siecle generation, and Schiele too, had different vision of Death; they glamorised it and romanticised it. In Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short story “Edward Fane’s Rosebud” the beautiful young Maiden Rose is faced with mortality for the first time and how poetically Hawthorne had described it:

She shuddered at the fantasy, that, in grasping the child’s cold fingers, her virgin hand had exchanged a first greeting with mortality, and could never lose the earthly taint. How many a greeting since! But as yet, she was a fair young girl, with the dewdrops of fresh feeling in her bosom; and instead of Rose, which seemed too mature a name for her half-opened beauty, her lover called her Rosebud.

Death was a life-long fascination for Schiele; at a very young age he witnessed his father’s madness and suffering death, possibly from syphilis, he was obsessed with the idea of doppelgänger who was seen as a foreboding of death, in his poem “Pineforest” he even wrote “How good! – Everything is living dead”. All his art is tinged with death, and with Schiele it wasn’t a fad of the times but a deep, personal morbid obsession. In the height of summer, he already senses autumn leaves, in the living flesh he already sees decay. Also, he was born in 1890, and along with other artists of his generation he witnessed the final decay of a vast empire that had lasted for centuries; “Decay, death and disaster seemed to haunt their every waking hour and to provide the substance of their nightmares.” (Whitford, Egon Schiele)

Hans Baldung Grien, The Maiden, the Knight and Death, date unknown

Jan Swart van Groningen, Der Triumph des Todes (detail), 1525-50

Life and Death contrafted or, An Essay on Woman, 1770

Richard Bergh, The Girl and Death, 1888

Henry Levi (1840-1904), La jeune fille et la mort, 1900

Marianne Stokes, The Young Girl and Death, 1900

Happy Halloween, with Schiele and Death!

Miklós Radnóti: You held me, my love, and then went on dreaming, of perhaps a different kind of death…

13 Sep
One of my recent poetic discoveries is a Hungarian Jewish poet Miklós Radnóti (1909-1944) who died very young in sad circumstances as a victim of Holocaust. During his lifetime he worked as a teacher and translated into Hungarian some works of Guillaume Apollinaire and Jean de La Fontaine. Reading Radnóti’s many lovely poems leaves a taste of sweet memories, promises and hope on my tongue. His verses are covered with a thin dusty pink veil of melancholy, a sense of transience lingers through them, and they reveal a deeply sensitive soul and gentle nature. Many of his poems were inspired by his childhood sweetheart and later his wife Fanny. It’s interesting to see the dates of the poems, written near the end of his life, in 1941 … 1943 etc. and how unburdened they are with the events of the time. One can sense death and the ending in his verses, but the themes that occupied him poetically are of a gentle introspective nature: mostly love, kindness, hope. The war and the political situation didn’t make him bitter, as it made Georg Trakl decades before, but rather it awoke the humanity inside him. His love poems such as this one seem to say “let’s love each other while we still can, come into my arms, my sweet darling, lets sink into a sweet dream until the whirlwind of horrors and change is over, lest it should sweep us away too…” But Radnóti never saw the end of horrors, having died in November 1944. As he went into death, into a long sweet dream, he left his beloved in the wasteland of this world, and a little fragment of his soul in the verses he wrote.
Laura Makabresku, Winter sleep
***

With your right hand on my neck

 

With your right hand on my neck, I lay next to

you last night,

and since the day’s woes still pained me, I did

not ask you to take it away,

but listened to the blood coursing through your

arteries and veins,

 

Then finally around twelve sleep overcame me,

as sudden and guileless as my sleep so long ago,

when in the downy time of my youth it rocked

me gently.

 

You tell me it was not yet three when I was

startled awake

and sat up terrified and screaming.

muttering strange and unintelligible words,

 

then spread out my arms like a bird ruffled with

fear

flapping its wings as a dark shadow flutters

through the garden.

Tell me, where was I going? And what kind of

death had frightened me so?

 

And you held me, my love, as I sat up half-asleep,

then lay back in silence, wondering what paths

and horrors awaited me.

And then went on dreaming. Of perhaps a

different kind of death.

Miklós and his darling wife Fanny in 1937

Victorian Photography: Girls in Silk Cages, Pale and Fragile as Lilies

10 Jun

A friend recently reminded me of the photograph of Ellen Terry that you see below and its mood of sadness and wistfulness struck a chord with me. Naturally, I thought of many other Victorian photographs of girls in contemplation so I decided to share them all in this post; they are perfect for daydreaming.

Sadness (Ellen Terry at Age Sixteen), photo by Julia Margaret Cameron, 1864

All of the photographs here were taken by female photographers: Julia Margaret Cameron (1815-1879) who is perhaps a pandan to the Pre-Raphaelites in the field of photography because of her inclination toward the Arthurian world and medieval romances, and Clementina Maude Hawarden (1822-1865) who often took photos of her daughters and is sometimes called “the first fashion photographer” because many of her photos feature the lovely crinoline gowns from the era, full of ribbons and flounces.

What draws me to these photographs is their dream-like quality; they are like windows to the long lost worlds, they evoke as much feelings from me as a poem can, they portray beautifully the inner world of Victorian girls and young women. Gorgeous fashions and delicacy of the fabrics, dazzling play of light and shadow, a tinge of melancholy and wistfulness. In this long lost world from the other side of the mirror long haired dreamy maidens in their dazzling silk and tulle cages are shown reading or praying, or travelling the landscapes of their thoughts, sitting by the window and gazing into the outside world of freedom and strangeness; girls as fragile as lily flower, with faces pale from the moonlight, yearning hearts and silent tears that smell of jasmine, trapped in claustrophobic interiors of damask and daydreams, touching life only through veils, “seeing it dimly through tears”, drunk, not from cherry cordial, but from the heavy fragrance of roses in their vases. Caught between girlhood and adulthood, in their dreamy interiors, with mirrors and books, they are gazing through the glistening bars of their cages, in silence, for the captive birds sing no ditties.

“I’m wearying to escape into that glorious world, and to be always there: not seeing it dimly through tears, and yearning for it through the walls of an aching heart: but really with it, and in it.” (Emily Bronte, Wuthering Heights)

Li Qingzhao – Ruined Flower

3 Jun

Today I will share with you a beautiful little poem by a Chinese poetess Li Qingzhao, born in 1084 and known as the greatest female poet in China, that I recently stumbled upon.

James Abbot McNeill Whistler, Symphony in White no 2 (The Little White Girl), 1864

“Flowers dance and shed tears, Flowers cry and their petals fly away. For whom do blossoming flowers wither? For whom do withered flowers grieve?

Olga Boznańska, Girl with Chrysanthemums, 1894

Anna Akhmatova – I rarely think of you now

22 May

One of the most beautiful and fascinating poems I’ve read in a while:

Walter Richard Sickert, Minnie Cunningham at the Old Bedford, 1892

I rarely think of you now,

Not captured by your fate,

But our insignificant meeting’s trace

Has not vanished from my soul.

 

I purposely avoid your red house,

That red house on its muddy river,

But I know I bitterly disturb

Your sunlit heart at rest.

Marc Chagall, Rain, 1911

Marc Chagall, The Flying Carriage, 1913

Though you never bent to my lips,

Imploring love,

Never immortalised my longing

In verse of gold –

 

I secretly conjure the future,

When evening shines clear and blue,

And foresee the inevitable meeting,

A second meeting, with you.

John Everett Millais, Caller Herrin’

Eugene Delacroix – Orphan Girl at the Cemetery

26 Apr

A French painter of Romanticism, Eugene Delacroix, was born on this day, 26th April, in 1798 and today we’ll take a look at one of his early works, the “Orphan Girl at the Cemetery”.

Eugène Delacroix, Orphan Girl at the Cemetery (Jeune orpheline au cimetière), 1823-24

A young girl alone at the cemetery looks up towards the sky, with a prayer mounting in her heart and not yet spoken on her lips. She sees the large white clouds moving monotonously, slowly, tiredly; she wishes to talk to God but the sky is empty, to quote Sylvia Plath. The girl is painted from the profile, with large eyes turned upwards and mouth slightly open. Her left shoulder is left bare and her right arm is resting lifelessly on her knee; all suggesting resignation and vulnerability. The graveyard in the French countryside, as it is suggested, with its wooden crosses, forgotten names, mud, flowers and candles, is a vision of loneliness. As dusk descends, not a soul is around. Her eyes and her pose tell us so much. She is seeking answers, she is unloved and confused, and contemplating over her life she sees nothing but poverty and uncertainty. Look at her eyes. This is sadness beyond tears and meaningless words. Tombstones and the trees in the background all look tiny in comparison with her rather closely-cropped figure. Mournful murmur of the distant cypress trees mingles with the heavy silence of the wooden crosses.

Since this is one of Delacroix’s early works, the colours are not of the warm and glistening kind that he used after his trip to Morocco in 1832. The limited colour palette of murky browns, greens and yellowish-white serves here to intensify the gloomy mood, and yet on her skin colour the real dynamic dance of colours begins; the warm brown base takes over red, pink and greenish shades in places. The dimly-lit vanilla coloured sky in the background is painted as romantically as it is possible and brings to mind the melancholy sunsets and skies in paintings of a German Romantic painter Caspar David Friedrich. As a true Romanticist, Delacroix approached the subject with a lot of subjectivity, compassion and a depth of feelings. In a harmony of colours and a wonderful composition, he brought the emphasis on what is important; the girl with her pain and her solitude, successfully avoiding the sentimentalising of her position.

Turgenev’s Maidens: Natalya and Asya

2 Apr

In this post we’ll take a look at “Turgenev’s Maid”; a type of female character typical for Turgenev and often found in his novellas and novels.

Nicolae Grigorescu, A Flower Among Flowers, 1880

Although equally important for Russian Realism, Ivan Sergeyevich Turgenev is often overlooked when it comes to Russian writers, somewhat overshadowed by the more famous Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy. Out of those three writers, Turgenev was the one influenced by the progressive ideas and philosophy of Western Europe and even spent majority of his life in France where he died too. His mother was a tyrannical woman and his parents’ marriage an unhappy one, so Turgenev decided to stay a bachelor. There’s elegance in his writings and an emphasis on nature and its lyric beauty. There’s nothing dramatic about his writing, but somehow it lingers in the memory and you find yourself pondering over some things that meant very little the moment you were reading it. Also, his words leave some kind of quiet sadness and a sense of futility against life, love and nature. Can you stop the flower from withering, sun from setting, springs from lingering one after another and passing?

Turgenev’s first novel was “Rudin”, first published in 1856 in a literary magazine “Sovremennik” (“The Contemporary”). In this novel, he laid a foundation for his future characters and themes by introducing a female type of heroine which came to be called “Turgenev’s Maid” and a hero who is a young superfluous man. Turgenev is continuing and developing the types of characters that Pushkin had started in his novel “Eugene Onegin”. Characters follow the similar pattern in his novella “Asya”, published in 1858. Turgenev’s odes to failure in love.

Photo by Frieda Rike.

A typical Turgenev’s maiden is a girl whose introverted, reserved, modest and shy exterior hides a passionate and poetic soul that only few people see, but is hidden to the rest. She is romantic and dreamy, but not in a delusional Emma Bovary kind of way, but rather this romantic nature arises from idealism and life spent in the idyllic countryside isolation which can sometimes make her inexperienced in society. She is educated, both in history and geography as in daydreaming, and often speaks several languages. She possesses a gentle, girlish, unassuming beauty and is modest in behaviour and the way she dresses. Turgenev’s maiden often falls in love with man unworthy of her; weak and passive idealists who are excellent in conversation but incapable of doing something with their life. As I already said, Turgenev’s heroines draw heavily on Pushkin’s wonderful Tatyana Larina from “Eugene Onegin” and here is what D.S. Mirsky says about it in his discussion about Turgenev: “The strong, pure, passionate, and virtuous woman, opposed to the weak, potentially generous, but ineffective and ultimately shallow man, was introduced in literature by Pushkin, and recurs again and again in the work of the realists, but nowhere more insistently than in Turgenev’s.”

William Powell Firth

Natalya Alexyevna Lasunskaya

Natalys is a shy seventeen year old girl who lives in the countryside with her mother. On the outside she seems reserved, very secretive and cold, but that is just her way of hiding her feelings from the world and her dominant mother. She is introduced in the story in the fifth chapter with these words: “Darya Mihailovna’s daughter, Natalya Alexyevna, at a first glance might fail to please. She had not yet had time to develop; she was thin, and dark, and stooped slightly. But her features were fine and regular, though too large for a girl of seventeen. Specially beautiful was her pure, smooth forehead above fine eyebrows, which seemed broken in the middle. She spoke little, but listened to others, and fixed her eyes on them as though she were forming her own conclusions. She would often stand with listless hands, motionless and deep in thought; her face at such moments showed that her mind was at work within.

But further quotes reveal to us that Natalya’s feelings are strong and that her mother doesn’t understand her personality at all: “But Natalya was not absent-minded; on the contrary, she studied diligently; she read and worked eagerly. Her feelings were strong and deep, but reserved; even as a child she seldom cried, and now she seldom even sighed and only grew slightly pale when anything distressed her.

Heinrich Vogeler, Spring (Portrait of Martha Vogeler), 1897

Life in the beautiful countryside amongst family friends has made her inexperienced with the ways of the world and she is a perfect pray for Rudin, a poor intellectual unsure of what he wants from life or love, indulging himself in shallow melancholy and praising highly the courageous heroes of literature and history while he himself is beneath them, both in spirit and intellect. He takes a pleasure in seducing Natalya because his feelings aren’t as deep or as pure as hers are, and since he had many failed loves in the past, he doesn’t take the relationships seriously. For him, it’s just a past time, but in Natalya he has awoken a whole new set of feelings, ones that she only read about in literature. After Natalya admits her love for Rudin to her mother, and is met with mother’s disapproval, she meets Rudin secretly at the brake of dawn somewhere in the meadow to tell him the sad truth, expecting him to fight for their love.

Marie Antoinette (2006)

This is their poignant, sad and bitter dialogue from chapter IX:

“‘What do you think we must do now?’

‘What we must do?’ replied Rudin; ‘of course submit.’

‘Submit,’ repeated Natalya slowly, and her lips turned white.

‘Submit to destiny,’ continued Rudin. ‘What is to be done? I know very well how bitter it is, how painful, how unendurable. But consider yourself, Natalya Alexyevna; I am poor. It is true I could work; but even if I were a rich man, could you bear a violent separation from your family, your mother’s anger? . . . No, Natalya Alexyevna; it is useless even to think of it. It is clear it was not fated for us to live together, and the happiness of which I dreamed is not for me!’

All at once Natalya hid her face in her hands and began to weep. Rudin went up to her.”

What you have just read is a typical Turgenev-style ending; the heroine is too passionate and her feelings too strong for the passive hero. It’s not that Rudin doesn’t love Natalya, it’s more that he is incapable of being himself, living his own life, to commit to someone. Once rejected, Natalya doesn’t go on daydreaming of Rudin or returning to him. Instead, just like Pushkin’s Tatyana, she walks away with dignity and self-respect.

William Dyce, Portrait of Princess Victoria, the eldest daughter of Queen Victoria and Albert, 1848

Asya

In “Asya”, the narrator, a lonely forty year-old bachelor named N.N. tells us the sad love story of his youth. His memory sets the novella in a small and picturesque town on the Rhine, whose shore is littered with romantic Medieval castles and emerald green hills; a perfect setting for a fleeting, ephemeral romance. The narrator comes there on a holiday and meets two fellow Russians, a brother and a sister; Gaguine and Asya. Since they are the only Russians in town, they soon befriend. The narrator develops an intellectual bond with Gaguine but is soon enamoured by his strange and pretty younger sister Asya who is very shy around him at first.

This is what Turgenev tells us of their first encounter: “My presence appeared to embarrass her; but Gaguine said to her, “don’t be shy; he will not bite you.” These words made her smile, and a few moments after she spoke to me without the least embarrassment. She did not remain quiet a moment. Hardly was she seated than she arose, ran towards the house, and reappeared again, singing in a low voice; often she laughed, and her laugh had something strange about it—one would say that it was not provoked by anything that was said, but by some thoughts that were passing through her mind. Her large eyes looked one in the face openly, with boldness, but at times she half closed her eyelids, and her looks became suddenly deep and caressing.

And this is how Turgenev imagined her to look like. Again, she has a very girly appeal, just like Natalya and other Turgenev’s maidens: “The young girl whom he called his sister at first sight appeared to me charming. There was an expression quite peculiar, piquant and pretty at times, upon her round and slightly brown face; her nose was small and slender, her cheeks chubby as a child’s, her eyes black and clear. Though well proportioned, her figure had not yet entirely developed.

Photo by by SophieKoryn. “You consider my behaviour improper,” her face seemed to say; “all the same, I know you’re admiring me.” (Asya)

Asya can be rapturous and wild at one moment, without any regard for social conventions, only to become shy the next moment, wistful and lost in her thoughts. Here is an example to illustrate the point: on one occasion, Asya breaks a branch from a tree and plays with it as if it was a gun. When they encounter a group of shocked English tourists, she starts singing in a loud voice just to spite them. But later in the evening, she is the epitome of elegance and demureness: “When we arrived, she immediately went to her room, and did not reappear until dinner, decked out in her finest dress, her hair dressed with care, wearing a tight-fitting bodice, and gloves on her hands. At table she sat with dignity, scarcely tasted anything, and drank only water. It was evident she wished to play a new rôle in my presence: that of a young person, modest and well-bred. Gaguine did not restrain her; you could see that it was his custom to contradict her in nothing. From time to time he contented himself with looking at me, faintly shrugging his shoulders, and his kindly eye seemed to say: “She is but a child; be indulgent.

Jenna Coleman as Queen Victoria in “Victoria” (2016)

Here is a little conversation from the ninth chapter which also reveals Asya’s lack of feeling for proper behavior:

And what is it that you like about women?” she asked, turning her head with a childlike curiosity.

“What a singular question!” I cried.

“I shouldn’t have asked you such a question, should I? Forgive me; I am accustomed to say whatever comes into my head. That is why I am afraid to speak.”

“Speak, I beg you! Fear nothing, I am so delighted at seeing you less wild.

Juliette Lamet by Melanie Rodriguez for Melle Ninon.

The narrator seems more interested in the mysterious aura around her, than actually in love with her, he says himself: “Oh! that little girl—she is, indeed, an enigma.”

Here are a few more quotes to get you interested:

I understood what attracted me towards this strange young girl: it was not only the half-savage charm bestowed upon her lovely and graceful young figure, it was also her soul that captivated me.

I do not know what womanly charm suddenly appeared upon her girlish face. Long afterwards the charm of her slender figure still lingered about my hand; for a long time I felt her quick breathing near me, and I dreamed of her dark eyes, motionless and half closed, with her face animated, though pale, about which waved the curls of her sweet hair.” (Chapter IX)

William Powell Frith, The Proposal, 1856

The end of their love, again the hero suddenly turns cold and steps back from the affections that he himself started in the first place:

“So all is at an end,” I replied once more; “at an end—; and we must part.”

“There was in my heart,” I continued, “a feeling just springing up, which, if you had left it to time, would have developed! You have yourself broken the bond that united us; you have failed to put confidence in me.” (chapter XVI)

To end the post I would like to quote a fellow blogger at “A Russian Affair” who focuses on Russian literature. Here are her brilliant observations on Turgenev’s themes and style from the post “Typically Turgenev“:”Not a lot happens in Turgenev’s works. The situation at the beginning is more or less the same as the one in the end. All that remains is memories and what-ifs. The reader has to content himself with plenty of beautiful atmospheric scenes and contemplations. (…) You read Turgenev with your heart.

And a beautifully put thought regarding love from her post “Love in Turgenev’s work“: “It all starts in high spirits; the weather is ’magnificent’ and ’unusually good for the time of the year’ and the surroundings are idyllic. The sudden appearance of an exceptionally pretty girl surprises the narrator. He falls in love, but he never gets the girl, and remains a bachelor. Again and again Turgenev describes being in love, but he never dares to let it blossom into a relationship, nor in his stories, nor in real life.

I hope you decide to read some of Turgenev’s work, if you still haven’t and that you enjoy it as much as I did.