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Sunday, 22 January 2017

The narrator of The Awakening

After Effi Briest, I'm reading another work that also deals with adultery- The Awakening
As Tom at Wuthering Expectations has just written about the different layers of meaning in Kate Chopin's work (here and here), I don't expect to get much out of my 1st reading, and probably won't write much. 
I'm just going to poke at it. 
Like this line in chapter 8: 
"Robert went over and seated himself on the broad sill of 1 of the dormer windows. He took a book from his pocket and began energetically to read it, judging by the precision and frequency with which he turned the leaves." 
This is Kate Chopin's style- she reports and describes everything without comment; the narrator doesn't intrude. But that sentence is interesting, like the narrator isn't omniscient and doesn't know the character but only stands there and observes. 
Now look at this line in chapter 9: 
"It was growing late, and there was a general disposition to disband. But someone, perhaps it was Robert, thought of a bath at that mystic hour and under that mystic moon." 
What do you think of that sentence? 

Sunday, 15 January 2017

Effi Briest, Anna Karenina, Emma Bovary (3)

5/ I’ve finished reading Effi Briest.
My view on Fontane’s writing, up till the last chapters, remained unchanged: his tendency to refrain so much, to stop when he should be going further and digging deeper, reduces the drama, the emotional impact of the story. Too steady, he avoids dramatic scenes and can’t quite depict the emotional turmoil and pain and strong emotions as Tolstoy can. Too detached, his style doesn’t have the pervading sadness of Flaubert’s.
Then something happened in the last chapters. I close Effi Briest with deep sadness. Somehow, in some way, Fontane makes me care for her, as though for a real person. In How Fiction Works, James Wood writes something like Isabel Archer is rather vague as a character, she becomes real by Henry James’s genuine and deep interest in her. Perhaps that’s the way with Effi. The story is so haunting because Effi is so young and suffers so much, and because even in the end she dies believing she did wrong and deserved what she got.
6/ The bit about Roswitha is a subtle touch, making Effi’s parents’ behaviour a lot more heartless and harder to sympathise with.  
7/ This is perhaps the saddest line in Effi Briest, about Innstetten: 
“There was a lot of good in his nature, and he was as noble as anyone can be who lacks the real capacity for love.” 
No. Saddest are these words Effi says in her deathbed: 
“… you said I was still so young. And of course I am still young. But it doesn’t matter. In the good old days Innstetten used to read to me in the evenings; he had very good books, and 1 of them had a story about someone who had been called away from a festive dinner, and the next day asked what had happened after he left. And the answer was ‘Oh, all sorts of things, but really you didn’t miss anything.’ You see Mamma, these words stuck in my mind—it doesn’t matter much if you are called away from the table a little early.”
What can be more heartbreaking than that? 
Fontane doesn’t write much, but the resignation in those lines is poignant.

Friday, 13 January 2017

Effi Briest, Anna Karenina, Emma Bovary (2)

3/ Anna Karenina, Madame Bovary and Effi Briest are often classed together as adultery novels. But that’s misleading. 
Only Anna Karenina is really about adultery. I mean the Anna strand, pretending the Levin strand doesn’t exist. The novel as a whole, if it’s forgivable to simplistically identify a unifying theme for a something as rich, broad and complex as Anna Karenina, is about the search for happiness and the meaning of life, and 2 kinds of love. 
Madame Bovary depicts adultery—Emma has not 1 but 2 affairs, but committing adultery is only a conventional way to rise above the conventional. The novel is really a depiction of, and attack on, philistinism. Emma, Rodolphe, Leon and Homais are all philistines. 
Effi Briest isn’t really about adultery either. There’s hardly an affair, even. Fontane’s decision to keep it to a minimum might be an artistic choice to leave everything to the reader’s imagination, or a personal evasion of a difficult task, but now I start to think that by making it subtle to the point of being easily missed, Fontane wants to stress that it’s a minor thing, insignificant and devoid of meaning, nothing to dwell upon, and thus, Innstetten’s overreaction to the discovery appears ridiculous and even laughable, if it were not so tragic. 
Effi Briest is more about the bad marriage (how ill-suited Innstetten and Effi are, especially considering that he used to be in love with her mother, which is rather creepy), and about society and the absurd ideas about morality and honour. 

4/ In the introduction to Effi Briest, Helen Chambers draws our attention to the title: 
“… Flaubert’s title Madame Bovary suggests that the problem, the central concern is the marriage, the turning of Emma into the wife of someone whose bovine name proclaims his character. The marriage fails to satisfy her, but equally she fails to assert a separate valid identity as Emma. Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina articulates the conflict inherent in the simultaneous existence of the private individual Anna, who experiences true love and passion, and the social role as Karenin’s wife. Effi Briest is quite another matter. Effi’s problem is that she cannot complete the socially required metamorphosis from Fraulein von Briest to Frau von Innstetten, for this would entail a denial of her self, her natural, playful exuberance, the self-confident magnetic personality we see in the games in the garden on the 1 hand, and on the other her risk-loving nature, the propensity to let herself be carried away, her desire for the out of the ordinary, her unpredictability. As her mother says, she is ‘altogether a very odd mixture’. That she remains Effi Briest at the end of the noel, a fact explicitly asserted by her instructions for the wording on her gravestone, is a sign that although she has succumbed physically in the draining conflict with the rigid forms of society she has managed to hold on to her own inner integrity, she has not lost her self. She has not been sacrificed like Anna to a grand passion. Her affair with Crampas was not a crucial emotional experience, it was merely a symptom of her need to preserve some area of freedom and spontaneity; nor has she been sacrificed like Emma to romantic notions and an egocentric personality. She has been sacrificed—and the motif of sacrifice runs through the narrative from the gooseberry skins’ watery grave at the beginning to the sacrificial stones by Lake Hertha and beyond (Chapter 24)—to a set of conventions which Wullersdorf and Innstetten recognize as empty ‘this cult of honour of ours is idolatry’, without being able to extricate themselves from the power of ‘that social something which tyrannizes us’ (Chapter 27), but she has not relinquished her irreducible sense of her own independent identity. That she finds her way back to being Effi Briest—a unique, beautiful name free of its aristocratic ‘von’, its social indicator, in her chosen, natural setting in the garden of her youth is an assertion of a triumph of a kind. It is an ambiguous one, for she has not survived to grow into mature adulthood, but the fact of her death constitutes an accusation levelled at a society whose warped logic it has exposed.” 
Effi Briest is, in some ways, closer to Madame Bovary than to Anna Karenina. Stylistically, like Flaubert, Fontane stands outside and describes happenings and actions, like a camera, whereas Tolstoy describes scenes but constantly slips into the character’s mind. Thematically, whilst Anna and Vronsky do love each other, Effi and Emma both suffer from ennui, and in both cases, their affairs aren’t about love. 
The chief difference is that Effi is a free spirit and suffers in her marriage with a man who tries to stifle her, whereas Emma mistakes her own sentimentality for a romantic and passionate nature, suffers from delusions, and causes her own downfall.  

Wednesday, 11 January 2017

Effi Briest, Anna Karenina, Emma Bovary

1/ France had Madame Bovary, Russia had Anna Karenina, Germany had Effi Briest
However, if Flaubert dissects his Emma and contemptuously puts on display all of her sentimentalism, shallowness and philistinism, and Tolstoy can now and then be harsh towards his Anna, Theodor Fontane openly loves his heroine. Effi therefore is a lot more likeable, even lovable. Anna and Emma we can see clearly, thoroughly, but they're characters that evoke lots of strong emotions, characters that readers, at least I, have to struggle with, on a personal level. With Effi, it's different. Fontane writes of her innocence and rich imagination, of her vivacity and love of life, of her free spirit, and above all, of her youth- she's still a half-child; then he writes of her loneliness, fear, doubt, and pain, making us love her and care for her as though for a real person. 

2/ Effi Briest is a rather well-rounded character. However, like Emma at Bookaroundthecorner and Himadri/ Argumentativeoldgit, I have a problem with the novel: Fontane always refrains and leaves things unwritten. Not all writers spell out everything. Jane Austen writes enough. Flaubert keeps it subtle. Henry James prefers to hint, and suggest. I myself have praised Henry James's subtlety: the jumps in The Portrait of a Lady (and 2nd post) and the things that are left unsaid, as well as defending the ellipses in the novel as not simply "disguising a deficiency". But Fontane refrains too much. It's not just that the sex in Effi Briest isn't described, which is fine (even if the 1st time the affair's consummated is easy to miss), but the whole affair isn't there, and most importantly, Fontane keeps Effi at arm's length instead of bringing her close to the readers and entering her mind, and except for a few small observations now and then such as Effi blushing when Crampas appears or her husband vaguely noticing something different or Effi overreacting to Roswitha's familiarity with Kruse, he withholds from us her thoughts and feelings. That reduces the emotional impact. 
At the moment, I'm on chapter 21, when Innstetten has just been promoted and Effi's about to go to Berlin to find an apartment. Hopefully Fontane would describe more once her life takes a tragic turn. 

Sunday, 8 January 2017

Rat's Nest by Matyas Macsay

All right, I wouldn’t say that focusing on literary works that have stood the test of time makes you take for granted their greatness and not quite realise the rarity of greatness, but I suppose that now and then you’ve gotta read a bad book, a very bad book, to fully appreciate true masterpieces.
In my hands right now is Rat’s Nest by Matyas Macsay, (self?) published in 2016. The author, geez, lives in Leeds.
I’ll go straight to the point: this is 1 of the worst books I’ve ever read in my life—badly written, pretentious, unoriginal, and filled with observations about life as trite as tumblr inspirational quotes. This is not a novel to be tossed aside lightly. It should be thrown with great force.
How do I hate it? Let me count the ways:
1/ The book has an introduction—something probably meant to be a poem, then 5 chapters (chapter 1 is called “The End”, then “Collision”, “The Suicidal Clown”, “Forgotten Ghosts” and “A Promise”), then interlude—again something probably meant to be a poem, then 4 chapters (“Doubts and Addictions”, “A Blur of Pain and Hurt”—whut?, “Heaven and Earth” and “Love and Compulsion”), then another interlude, then 3 chapters (“Witch of the Forest”, “The Edge of the Cliff” and “The Rat’s Nest”—ah! the title), then an epilouge [sic].
What is this? Postmodern?
2/ Let’s see how the book begins:  
“There are not many pleasant experiences in life, that’s a fact, and it is not one many of us are likely to admit. Allow me to demonstrate this by sharing with you my particularly unpleasant life.
 Call it the apocalypse. Call it the resurrection. Call it the final act. Call it what you will.
 The final unpleasant chapter if you like.
 My day took an unusually unpleasant turn, one that perhaps was not for the best, when an unpleasant realisation that I ran out of milk hit me. I put on my grey, unpleasantly outworn coat and headed out to visit the nearest unpleasant supermarket. As you may have guessed, it was an unusually cold and unpleasant summer day. I was trying my best to cut the shopping pleasantly short, but the place was filled with unpleasant people that always managed to walk right in front of you, yet never at the correct pace.
 Headless chicken, a herd of sheep. Call it what you will...”
If it’s unusually cold, how can we “have guessed”?
I’m sure you can tell that this promises to be an unusually unpleasant book and my experience was unpleasant, but even more unpleasant is the thought that the person who recommended and loaned it to me is going to ask what I think about this unpleasant book, and I can’t be blunt.
3/ Did you notice something in the excerpt above? It comes up again, and again, throughout the book. A repetition. A pattern. Call it what you will.
P.5 (1st page of the book): “Call it the apocalypse. Call it the resurrection. Call it the final act. Call it what you will.”
P.6: “Headless chicken, a herd of sheep. Call it what you will.”
“Death of the martyr, blood if the innocent. Call it what you will.”
“The end of the tunnel, the final act, the curtains down. Call it what you will.”
P.9: “The Lone Ranger, the last Mohican, a lone wolf. Call it what you will.”
“Call it denial. Call it hiding. Call it running from the past. Call it what you will.”
P.11: “Call it bitterness. Call it cynicism. Call it gloating. Call it what you will.”
P.12: “Call it routine, call it habit, call it an inescapable middle-aged life. Call it what you will.”
P.14: “Call it failure. Call it giving up. Call it what you will.”
P.16: “Call it denial. Call it opportunism. Call it what you will.”
P.17: “Call it consumerism. Call it capitalism. Call it what you will.”
P.18: “Call it naiveness. Call it desperation. Call it religion.”
P.20: “Call me unsociable. Call me distant. Call me what you will.”
P.21: “Call it isolation. Call it social phobia. Call it what you will.”
P.23: “Call me a stress head. Call me a worrywart. Call me what you will.”
P.24: “Call it addiction. Call it relaxation. Call it cancer. Call it what you will.”
P.25: “Call it stubbornness. Call it addiction. Call it what you will.”
P.27: “Call it mistrust. Call it prejudice. Call it what you will.”
Etc.
You’ve got the idea. 
I haven’t even reached the end of chapter 2. This appears about every 2 pages all the way to the end. Drives anyone crazy.
4/ Now look at this gem:
“… After 2 minutes of lying still, gathering energy to face whatever life in store for me on this particular day, I got up. Made myself a coffee and drank it while catching a few words of what some people actually believed to be, or at least called, ‘The News’ on TV. As usual, after 5 minutes I was unable to stand any more of all that censored and over-edited bullshit, so I turned the television off and went to my balcony for a cigarette.
 Call it routine, call it habit, call it an inescapable middle-aged life. Call it what you will. I took a long shower, with the aim of making myself presentable for work. Any sign of abnormality was to be hidden from society.
 Ladies and gentlemen, let us all put on our ‘happy-go-lucky’ faces to stare this world right in the eyes as if to say ‘this is the best fucking day of my life people, so bring it on’.
 All of this had to be done; have you ever heard a normal person replying to empty questions, such as ‘How are you? How’s your day been?’ with ‘This day is so full of shit I’m scared of drowning in it’.
 No sir, this would most definitely break the boundaries of respectable middle class sanity…”
No, after 5 minutes I was unable to stand any more of that pretentious and banal bullshit.
Is this a trend of sorts?—a narrator as an isolated, cynical, misanthropic man who reduces modern life to materialism and consumer culture, and writes with contempt of the hypocrisy, deceit, frivolity and shallowness of the world around him that he can’t fit in. Reminds me of another new book I’ve read that I shall not name.
I mean, look at this line:
“I tried a joyful expression, an empty but convincing smile. It worked but it was becoming a harder task with each passing day. It had begun to feel like an exhaustingly heavy weight that life had so unkindly placed upon my shoulders.”
That line gave me a toothache.
And (about other people):
“… Their expressions were empty and faint, most of the smiles were born out of reflex rather than honest need.”
Right, “honest need”.
5/ Speaking of prose…
P.16:
“As I got on the bus the early beams of the sun stroked my face for a short, pleasant moment.”
P.17:
“Most people looked pale to me, despite the pleasantly warm arms of the sun, and the thick layers of make-up, creams, and perfumes.”
You don’t have to be a fan of Melville or Nabokov to find that painful to read. The whole thing is just dreadful. The prose. The image. The inexplicable obsession with the word “pleasant”.
6/ Somewhere in the book I found the phrase “surrealist reality”. Oh wow, an oxymoron.
7/ When told “… we were created by God, for God. We are the objects of His love.”, this is how our narrator reacts:
“I took my time to consider all of this, trying to put the pieces together, but the more I thought about it the less I liked it. Everything about it had the scene of irrationality. It was degrading. I resented the idea of being an object to someone else’s love. I was a human being, not a jealous kid’s toy that can be thrown away once it’s no longer desirable.”
Is that for real? I mean, seriously?
Then the narrator goes on to talk about how the objects around us in daylight seem natural and harmless but “once daylight is gone things begin to change into mysterious shapes” and that “[t]here is a great uncertainty about everything that surrounds us”.
The idea in itself isn’t empty or trivial, but our guy speaks with such solemnity I can’t help but laugh, and the way he puts it sounds like he’s a teenager who has just got some intro in philosophy and now thinks he’s so deep.
8/ Or:
“… there is one true certainty in life; we develop the captivating ability to lie to ourselves and blind our eyes to the truth…”
What an insight! That hackneyed observation looks like 1 of those pearls of wisdom found on facebook or tumblr.
I might write more, but that’s quite enough. Excuse me while I go eat some chocolate after torturing myself with this awful book. Go read it if you’re a masochist. 

Saturday, 7 January 2017

Effi Briest: the Chinaman

I have this habit: when reading bad marriage classic novels or adultery classic novels (the word “classic” is to indicate that most people know the plot or have some vague ideas about it), I often look for the signs, the hints, the foreshadowing devices, and wonder “Would I know what’s going to happen, if I didn’t know the plot?”.
In the case of Effi Briest, we may actually play a drinking game, like, have a drink whenever there’s some foreshadowing- it's all over the place. 
But then, what’s up with the sounds upstairs and the Chinaman? 
Listen to Effi:
“‘There was a very strange noise coming from above me, not loud but very penetrating. At first it sounded as if long dresses were sweeping over the floorboards, I was so worked up I thought several times I could see satin shoes. It was as if there was dancing up there, but all very quiet.’”
Later, she tells Innstetten:
“‘And then the gallery upstairs with those long curtains that brush over the floor.’
‘But what do you know about that, Effi?’”
That is chapter 7.
In chapter 9, alone as her husband’s away for work, Effi has a nightmare and thinks she sees the Chinaman rushing past her bed.
Now look at this conversation between Innstetten and Johanna in chapter 10:
“‘What happened with your mistress? Friedrich tells me something happened and you slept over there.’

‘Yes sir. Her ladyship rang 3 times, quite quickly, all at once, so I thought there must be something amiss. And so there was. She must have had a dream, or maybe it was the other thing.’
‘What other thing?’

‘Oh, you know sir.’…”
It’s like there’s something going on, and Innstetten doesn’t want Effi to know. Like a madwoman in the attic.
Later, when they talk:
“… ‘There you are, a dream, a hallucination. And I suppose Johanna told you about the wedding up there.’

‘No.’

‘So much the better.’…”
I understand, the point is to show that:
1/ Effi has a rich imagination, like the heroine in Northanger Abbey.
2/ She is lonely and bored, and there’s something eerie about the place that works on her like the yellow wallpaper.
3/ Innstetten disregards her feelings, and only cares about his own career and reputation—which says something about his character.  
And yet at the moment Effi Briest looks so much like a gothic novel, like it can go in 100 directions but Fontane chooses the mundane adultery plot.
Speaking of the Chinaman, do you understand the story Innstetten tells Effi? He’s a servant in the house of someone called Thomsen. 1 day, Thomson’s granddaughter Nina is married off to a captain, and after the wedding she’s gone. 2 weeks later, the Chinaman dies. Like Innstetten’s hinting, without saying clearly, that there’s some connection between Nina’s disappearance and the Chinaman’s death, but what’s the connection?

The translation is by Hugh Robbison and Helen Chambers. 

Friday, 6 January 2017

Author questions

I'm bored, so I'm just going to ask a bunch of questions about writers. These are for Fred and Tom and Tim and Mudpuddle and Himadri and Dai and Anne and Caroline and Nicrap and Miguel and anyone that visits this blog.
Mostly for fun.

1/ Who are your favourite writers?
2/ Who were your favourite writers when you were a teenager? Which of them do you still like?
3/ Which writers have most influenced you?
4/ Which writers do you wish had not influenced you?
5/ Which writers are you embarrassed you used to like?
6/ Which writers did you not expect to like, but did? 
7/ Which writers do you think you will still read, and like, for the rest of your life?
8/ Who are your favourite prose stylists? Or your favourite writers on the sentence level?
9/ Who are your favourite writers of characters?
10/ Which writers, alive or dead, would you invite to dinner?
11/ Which writers, alive or dead, would you like to know personally? And think you could be friends with?
12/ Do you personally know any published author?
13/ Which writers do you like/ admire but generally avoid, for some reason?
14/ Which writers do you like as critics/ essayists but not as novelists?
15/ Which writers have changed you as a reader?
16/ Who do you think are overrated?
17/ Who do you think are underrated and should be more widely read?
18/ Who do you think are the best living writers? 
19/ Which writers do you go to for comfort?
20/ Which writers do you go to for mere amusement?
21/ Who are the greatest writers that you don't personally like/ that you just don't warm to?
22/ Which writers do you hate/ strongly dislike?
23/ Which writers are you prejudiced against?
24/ Which writers do you feel you should have read by now?
25/ Which writers from your country would you recommend to a foreigner?
26/ Which writers do you recommend to everyone? Every serious reader?
27/ Which writers do you wish you could write like?
28/ What is your favourite language to read in? 
29/ Which foreign-language writers make you wish to learn their language in order to read them in the original? 
30/ Who is the best writer you've just discovered recently? 

I'll answer them all later. 
Look forward to reading your answers. 

Daniel Day-Lewis on Cecil Vyse

My obsession with Daniel Day-Lewis, I suppose, may sometimes be quite ridiculous, but look at how adorable he is in this interview:


There's also a clip- 1 of the best scenes in A Room with a View
Perhaps I have always been indifferent to the Lucy-George romance because my attention's always on Cecil Vyse. 

Thursday, 5 January 2017

Another young woman, another Italy trip, another boring man

What am I reading, after A Room with a View? Effi Briest
I attempted to read Effi Briest in Norwegian in 2015, and before putting it down to read Dracula, wrote about foreshadowing and "love" in 3 languages
Now I pick it up again, this time in English, and am enjoying it very much. 




______________________________________________

1/ In the 1st chapter, Theodor Fontane lays out the most important stuff: Effi Briest (her youth, childlikeness, vivacity), Geert von Innstetten (a man who once courted her mother), the Briests, and foreshadowing for the tragedy later in the story. 
2/ Geert's "enthusiasm for art": what does that make Geert sound like? Cecil Vyse. Does having an enthusiasm for art mean being deficient in human feelings? 
3/ Maybe I only say that to feel better about my own ignorance about art. 
4/ Childlike, vivacious... Look at this quote by Frau von Briest: 
"For soft and accommodating as she is, there's something reckless in her that will risk anything." 
That I like. 
5/ Now and then Effi reminds me of Natasha. Tolstoy's Natasha. 
6/ I like Effi. Who doesn't? She's so likeable. 
7/ Effi Briest is sometimes dreamy, and dislikes boredom. Like Emma Bovary. But compare how Fontane writes about her to how Flaubert depicts Emma. 

What we talk about when we talk about Anna Karenina's suicide

As written in an earlier post, just the other day a guy started a conversation with me and then called Tolstoy a bad writer, a hypocrite, a misogynist, adding that his wife rewrote all of his novels (this guy, as you can see, seemed to be fond of labels, and introduced himself as pansexual, non-binary, postmodern, feminist, etc.), I now have just come across this piece: 
http://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/13/books/review/throwing-anna-under-the-train.html?action=click&contentCollection=books&module=NextInCollection&region=Footer&pgtype=article&version=column&rref=collection%2Fcolumn%2Fbook-review-critics-take&_r=0
Okay, look at this: 
"... You try to disguise your appropriation by taking this woman’s name as the title of your book. But women everywhere see through your ruse. Real-life Anna Kareninas understand that you are projecting your ignorant, arrogant phallocentric fantasies onto a female character whose humanity you have stripped away." 
Wow. I mean, wow. 
I don't know what to say. Is this piece meant to be taken ironically or unironically? If it's a satire of hardcore, distorting feminist criticism, like The Madwoman in the Attic, I couldn't tell, because The Madwoman in the Attic is (unfortunately) very serious.