I Know Where I'm Going

Category: Literature

Anna Karenina, Mariano Fortuny, and the mystery of arrival

 

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Mariano Fortuny, The sons of the painter in the Japanese room, 1874, oil on canvas, 44 x 93 cm., Museo del Prado, Madrid

 

“And in the midst of the silence, there came an unmistakable reply to the mother’s question, a voice quite unlike the subdued voices speaking in the room. It was the bold, clamorous, self-assertive squall of the new human being who had so incomprehensibly appeared. If Levin had told before that Kitty was dead and that he had died with her, and that their children were angels and that God was standing before him, he would have been surprised at nothing. But now, coming back to the world of reality, he had to make great mental efforts to take in that she was alive and well and that the creature squalling so desperately was his son. Kitty was alive, her agony was over and he was unutterably happy. That he understood. He was completely happy in it. But the baby. Whence? Why? Who was he? He could not get used to the idea. It seemed to him something extraneous, superfluous, to which he could not accustom himself.”

Sometimes, I use audiobooks to help me sleep. I’ve been listening to Anna Karenina (a performance feat by Maggie Gyllenhaal, by the way), so around 4 or 5 in the morning, I got up, couldn’t go back to sleep, I duly noted the chapter I started listening to (because then I have to re-listen to everything, of course, since I doze off pretty quickly), and approximately two hours later and 14 chapters, I wake up, and I hear with a clarity that is almost unimaginable, the passage above. Every  single word enunciated to perfection. I don’t know why around seven in the morning, those words struck me as the truest expression of feeling, regarding the arrival of a newborn child in the world – here, from the aspect of the father, but I wouldn’t say it makes that much difference – that awe, that incapacity to understand, whence, why, who is this person. I remember clearly feeling that my son had fallen from the sky after I gave birth. I couldn’t fathom the math, the 1+1, and then three people returned from the hospital to the house. How? Sometimes, I still ask myself.

So, I am not sure what kind of post this is, if it is a literary one or what, but the photo to accompany it, naturally, was one of my most favorite paintings ever, from Mariano Fortuny, a late nineteenth-century Spanish painter – a painting whose poster I have framed in life-size format and which is hanging in my son’s room (framing posters, I used to look down to the activity as the worst kind of petty bourgeois habit, but there are few things that afford me greater pleasure than sitting across from it and staring at it for long intervals). I know that art historians can be insufferably pretentious, insisting that it’s not the same looking at reproductions, as opposed to the ‘real thing’ at a museum, but there are truly (relatively – OK, probably not true…) few things I would insist upon seeing in a gallery or a museum (one day, I’ll make a list). Fortuny’s paintings are one of those things, his brushwork is so lively, in a way that it deceives you into thinking that it’s actually swaying before your very eyes. And it’s so fortunate (pun intended) that the Prado finally, finally opened a sumptuous new wing dedicated to nineteenth-century Spanish painting, because there’s so much Greco, and Goya, and Zurbarán and Murillo a decent person can put up with, and one cannot imagine the treasures or the versatility of nineteenth-century Spanish painters (digression).

This painting, very much in the thrall of Japanese painting and un-apologetically so (suffice to look at the painted wall behind the low divan, you don’t know if things are painted on it, or just standing in front of it), he has captured his children in what looks like a late, languid Spanish afternoon, perhaps after lunch: it’s just too hot to move or play or do anything, so the children sit and lay around idly, doing pretty much nothing, which looks like bliss. These lovely creatures that have arrived, heaven knows where from and why, these inexplicable creatures, that they’re at the same time their own persons and somehow also part of us. It’s not that Fortuny’s painting captures the mystery of creation the way that Tolstoy manages, but I will always look upon this work as if it captures something of the beauty, the mystery, and – ultimately – the unknowableness of what childhood really must be.

 

 

Nabokov on film genre

 

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Nabokov’s powers of description and his eloquence were, indeed, formidable, and if Lolita somewhat loses its narrative thrust after its two main characters take flight through a vast America whose imaginary geography is constituted by the writer, the reader is rewarded by the abundance of evocative passages and descriptions. Such is the one where Nabokov discusses Lolita’s ‘veritable passion’ for cinema. An irony verging on disdain seeps through the lines that detail the various genres, and although it is more than likely that Nabokov jumbled together scenes from different films, the way he writes suggests he might refer to actual genre b-movies from the late 1940s, the period when he started his novel.

Musicals: “In the first, real singers and dancers had unreal stage careers in an essentially grief-proof sphere of existence wherefrom death and truth were banned, and where, at the end, white-haired, dewy-eyed, technically deathless, the initially reluctant father of a show-crazy girl always finished by applauding her apotheosis on fabulous Broadway.”

This seems too generic on the one hand, and too specific on the other, but despite much google searching I have come up empty-handed.

Gangster films/noir (Nabokov calls this category ‘the underworlders’): “The underworld was a world apart: there, heroic newspapermen were tortured, telephone bills ran to billions, and, in a robust atmosphere of incompetent marksmanship, villains were chased through sewers and storehouses by pathologically fearless cops.”

It might very well be the b-genre documentary-style noir He Walked by Night (1948), directed by Alfred Werker and the uncredited Anthony Mann, that prominently features a chase through sewers (the sewer scene from The Third Man also comes to mind, but I consider it a less likely candidate – it would hardly qualify as ‘genre’).

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Westerns: “Finally there was the mahogany landscape, the florid-faced, blue-eyed roughriders, the prim pretty schoolteacher arriving in Roaring Gulch, the rearing horse, the spectacular stampede, the pistol thrust through the shivered windowpane, the stupendous fist fight, the crashing mountain of dusty old-fashioned furniture, the table used as a weapon, the timely somersault, the pinned hand still groping for the dropped bowie knife, the grunt, the sweet crash of fist again chin, the kick in the belly, the flying tackle; and immediately after a plethora of pain that would have hospitalized a Hercules…, nothing to show but the rather becoming bruise on the bronzed cheek of the warmed-up hero embracing his gorgeous frontier bride.”

I am almost certain that this refers to The Virginian (1946), based on Owen Wister’s popular novel and directed by Stuart Gilmore, probably more well known as Preston Sturges’s editor. Gilmore even got his protagonist, blue-eyed Joel McCrea, from Sullivan’s Travels. The film features a rearing horse, a stampede, and Barbara Britton as the prim pretty schoolteacher.

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An exercise in futility? Perhaps – but an entertaining one, at the very least.

 

* All references are from the 2006 Penguin Red Classic edition.

Books: the physical object

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The other day when I was waiting at the hospital I saw a middle-aged couple. They must have been in their late 50s. The lady was carrying a paper bag – her husband was apparently the patient. At a certain point, I noticed that the paper bag was dripping. I let her know. She started removing the objects one by one, mundane objects accompanying patients in the long waiting hours before or while treatment. Among those, there was an old and battered copy of a book by Eça de Queirós. I couldn’t catch the title, but Pedro who had noticed on his own the book resting on the man’s arm a little earlier, let me know that it was an old edition, by Livro do Brazil, one of those that you needed to cut open the pages with a paper knife when you first bought it. I was very moved by the aspect of the book. This was not a book to simply pass your time by. This was a book that someone had read, and re-read, perhaps a favorite novel, that was now called upon as a source of comfort and consolation, against the dreaded disease.

It started me thinking about books as physical objects and my own relationship with them. I have been a defender of electronic books from the very start, mostly because I hate carrying weight. The moments that I associate with reading, however, and my own memories of it are all attached to a specific book, that had a determinate aspect, look, feel, weight; that was read (or bought) in a specific place; or that was given to me as a present by a beloved friend or lover. I can only recall one exception, of a book recently read on an iPad, Jean Rhys’s masterpiece Wide Sargasso Sea. I was in a caffe just off Notre Dame, and I doubt I’ll ever forget the brilliant telling of the story of Bertha Mason, the ‘madwoman in the attic’, the guilty secret that haunts the love of Rochester and Jane Eyre (one of my least favorite Brontë novels). The descriptions of colonial landscape can only be compared to the feeling of the jungle in what is probably my favorite novel of all times, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness

But Heart of Darkness is precisely one of those novels that I strongly associate with a time and place: Paris again (strangely, it seems I have read most of Conrad’s novels in Paris: Chance, Victory), and the metro. At least, I started reading it in the metro – but it soon proved impossible. The volume was slender enough to be carried around without aggravating my back, but the richness of Conrad’s prose and my desire to roll around the words in my mouth (like candy), to pronounce them loudly and slowly, and come back to each individual sentence, made it impossible. I read the rest in the seclusion of my student room.

I am now again reading Conrad (The Secret Agent), and the uproarious, utterly unique and ultra-modern 1749 Tom Jones by Henry Fielding, which is too heavy to carry around. These made me think about other encounters with books: my friend Vassilis offering me what is possibly the best translation of a book in another language that I have encountered so far, Mary Webb’s Precious Bane, translated by Anna Sikelianou in Greek; my first boyfriend, also named Vassilis, offering me Karagatsis’s The Great Chimera, dedicated to my wandering spirit; the poetry book by Álvaro de Campos offered to me by Pedro, my future husband (his own, old copy), as well as the slim bilingual edition of W. H. Auden’s poems I bought from the Feira do Livro in our first outing together; the kitsch-y editions of The Collector’s Library (my Secret Agent is from the same publisher), with the shiny, fake golden leaves, and hard covers, like War and Peace that Noti gave me as a present – I could not get through the novel, as I kept losing track of the names of the characters, could not be bothered with any of them, and was unexpectedly put off by Tolstoy’s subtle but unmistakable misogynism.

And many others: the original white-cover-with-red-title edition of Stratis Tsirkas’s Drifting Cities trilogy (I can hardly think of re-reading it now, that the edition has changed); the tiny volume, from a never before heard small editing press (bibliothèque allia), of Casanova’s Histoire de ma fuite des prisons de la République de Venise, which would become my second favorite novel after Conrad and always sits atop my nightstand; Camus’s Caligula that I was reading in parallel with Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe (giving rise to a funny misunderstanding when, upon my friend Elik asking how ‘it’ ends, I replied “well, they kill him, of course”, which led to a grave surprise since his childhood memories of Ivanhoe were much happier); the used copy of Thomas Hardy’s Far From the Madding Crowd, which awaited some twenty years till I picked it up again: apparently, the English was quite challenging when I first started it, and the book still carried tiny letters of vocabulary explanations on top of the words in the first pages; Ethan Frome, whose emotional impact was proportionally inverse to its size; the Age of Innocence which I had to buy twice, because the Wordsworth Classics edition had a serious printing error (jumping from Chapter 6 to 15), but that I still kept because it had John Singer Sargent’s Lady Agnew on the cover.

These are also the books I would probably take with me, if I needed to, well, take books anywhere with me. These, and perhaps the cheap paperback edition of Wuthering Heights, with the tiny, tiresome letters – and Wilkie Collins’s Moonstone (how could anyone prefer Dickens?). Perhaps I would still take the portable reading devices, and the cables needed for periodically charging them. Would I remember though where I read what? Or where (and how) it was that I first encountered a book?

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* Originally written in August 2015, finished today. Then and now, in treatment.

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The Bostonians, by Henry James – and James Ivory – …

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…are equally bad. Ι started reading the book, and while relatively at the beginning, I caught Ivory’s version of it (1984). The movie was terribly miscast, with the domineering Vanessa Redgrave as the shy Olive Chancellor, the bland Christopher Reeve as Basil Ransom and the unknown and charmless Madeleine Potter as Verena Tarrant. Upon seeing the movie (made a year before Ivory’s masterpiece A Room with a View, and one of my favorite films), I thought the blame lay entirely on the cast, the director and the inane script. But upon finishing the book, I decided that even with a better cast, there were little James Ivory could do to improve the source material. It’s terrible.

It pains me to say that, since I love Henry James, and indeed, I went through most of the book half-expecting the narrator to come out and say “Gotcha! you thought I was being serious? Well, you were wrong”. The book has no sympathetic characters at all (except for Doctor Prance, maybe). Miss Birdseye is a ridiculous figure (ridiculed by the author as well), Adeline Luna is selfish, superficial and stupid, Mr. Burrage is vain and shallow (his mother, the shrewd observer, might be another exception, but she appears so little, and not under a sympathetic light). And the main characters are even worse. Olive Chancellor is the painfully shy, shrill caricature of a hysterical man-hater/”feminist” archetype, while Basil Ransom is a Southern ultra-conservative with an unjustified idea of self-worth, who entertains the most preposterous opinions (even for that period, I imagine they are a stretch, and if they were not, the author fails spectacularly to lend them any credibility). Verena is an empty vessel. She has no emotions and ideas of her own, except for the mysterious “gift” of her oratorial skills, a gift that the reader is supposed to take for granted, although the character has zero charm and talent. All these horrible people are put through an implausible plot, where Olive latches herself onto Verena, with an obsession that veers on lesbianism (the only possibly interesting element of the book), while Basil tries to woo her away in order to marry her and effectively shut her up, since he does not believe that women were ever made for public functions. The climax where Basil tries to convince Verena to abandon Olive, before a sold-out appearance of the former in front of the Boston public, is painfully bad. No-one cares and you just want it to be over. You could not give a damn about the fate of this supremely stupid girl and her inability to make a decision and stand by it.

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If this was an accurate portrayal of the women’s movement in late nineteenth century, or even of Boston society, I could perhaps have swallowed the endless, verbose descriptions. But the main problem of the book is not the length or accuracy of its descriptions. It’s the misguided attempt to populate a drama with the hyperbolically yet minutely drawn characters that belong only to satire. Had James adopted that literary genre, the novel would have doubtless fared better. But the book is a long, dreary, utterly humorless read, that does not compensate the reader for the painstaking task of plodding through its pages.

Another problem lies in the impossibility to gauge the narrator’s point of view, whose occasional comments seem distracting rather than enlightening. Strangely enough, it’s not until the very last sentence of the book that the narrator/author takes a clear position on Verena’s choice of future (or anyone’s choices and ideas for that matter): “It is to be feared that with the union, so far from brilliant, into which [Verena] was about to enter, these were not the last [tears] she was destined to shed”. Suddenly, the life that she chose with Basil is recognized for all its inevitable limitations, due to his suffocating ideas about femininity and dire professional prospects.

Thus, Verena ends up where she started, and social balance is restored. Coming, as she was, from “obscure” parents and more specifically, a father who longed to be “in the papers” (a hack spiritual healer), she ends up with a man who equally hopes to make his living by being published. Basil is, in a sense, a mirrored image of Verena’s father, and she seems to re-enact her mother’s life (who was disowned by her respectable family after she married Selah for love). But it seems odd that James should have waited so long to pronounce his judgment on the impending marriage, since, throughout the novel, Verena’s future with Basil is presented not only as more acceptable than the one she’s facing if she remains unmarried at Olive’s side, but as the only natural one. That her marriage to Basil was the socially acceptable resolution of the plot is furthermore stressed by the fact that Verena had already rejected the marriage offer of Henry Burrage, the well-off suitor who would not have forbidden her public appearances for the “cause”, as it is so often called. Henry James comes off as a conservative, then, who placed a high value on maintaining the order of things and dreaded change, and not as the witty and lively observer of high society. And this is a Henry James I distinctly dislike.

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