Tuesday, October 21, 2014

More Best Films Based on Classical Novels (2)

For a general introduction about literature and film, see my previous post Best Films Based on Classical Novels.

1. Octave Mirbeau: Diary of a Chambermaid (Le Journal d'une femme de chambre, 1900), filmed in 1964 by Luis Bunuel. With Jeanne Moreau, Michel Piccoli & Georges Géret.
The outspoken diary of Célestine R., a chambermaid, who exposes the hypocrisy and perversions of bourgeois society, before herself becoming "one of them." 
Although a political context is certainly not lacking in Mirbeau's fin-de-siecle, satirical novel (in the form of the Dreyfus affair), Bunuel changed the story into a strong anti-fascist statement, by updating the setting from the late 19th century to the 1930s. In the novel, Célestine comes to work for the Lanlaires (in the film called Monteils), an estranged couple living on a large estate in Normandy, while telling tales about her previous employers in flashbacks. The book was shocking because a chambermaid was given voice here via her so-called diary, and what a voice! She exuberantly hangs out all the dirty washes of her hypocritical bourgeois employers. (By the way, in Anglophone countries this French novel is often presented as "naughty" or "obscene," but that is absurd: it is a serious novel with nothing in the least "titillating.") In both film and book, the lecherous head of the household not only hunts game but also women (he has impregnated the previous chambermaid), and his miserly frigid wife indulges her pent-up frustrations by tormenting her chambermaids. Bunuel leaves out the loose stories the chambermaid includes in her diary about her past employers, but includes the first one by making the "shoe-fetishist employer" with whom the novel starts into the father living with the Monteils. In both cases, the man dies of excitement while embracing one of Célestine's boots. Like in the novel, there is the mystery of the murder of a young girl and the suspicion which falls on the brutish gamekeeper and handyman of the family, Joseph, who is also a fervent rightist. In the book, Célestine finally marries Joseph, because she is sexually attracted to his "animalistic spirit," and they start a successful cafe business together; in the film, she does even better by marrying a rich (though very old) neighbor and becoming a grand lady herself - lording it over her husband. Bunuel sets Joseph down as an outright Fascist - as a joke, at the end of the film the director has him join a rally where people shout the name of a Fascist leader... who is none other than the police chief who in 1930 had censored Bunuel's Un Chien Andalou. Nouvelle Vague icon Jeanne Moreau as Célestine gives a great performance: she is impeccably stylish and composedly serene even when facing off with the elderly shoe-fetishist, and above all, wholly inscrutable - her face is a true enigma. Although more straightforward and lacking the surrealistic teases of Bunuel's films made after Diary of a Chambermaid, the director takes care to include his usual pokes at erotic repression and religious oppression, and satirize the strange ways of the bourgeoisie who live behind a facade of respectability while secretly indulging their lower instincts. Although less well known, this a perfect film that deserves to be viewed more often and should take its place beside Bunuel's other great films, as Tristana and Belle de Jour.

2. Henry James, The Wings of the Dove (1902), filmed in 1997 by Iain Softley and with Helena Bonham Carter, Linus Roache and Alison Elliott.
An American heiress, who is seriously ill, is befriended by an impoverished English woman who lives with her wealthy aunt, and her journalist lover, for less than honorable motives: they need money to be able to marry, and hope the heiress will fall in love with the journalist, and leave her fortune to him... of course, things turn out rather differently.
I have included this film only because it is an excellent example of how NOT to film a classical novel. This cheap and sentimental film is an insult to the artistry of Henry James, who in The Wings of the Dove wrote a sensitive, ambiguous and multi-layered psychological novel, one of his best achievements. The film keeps the period dresses (although changing the time from late Victorian to Edwardian) but infuses the characters with late 20th century egotism and lack of principles ("I want it now!"). It includes various sex scenes which are not in the novel, starting with a bout of groping in an elevator, a scene of lovemaking on the cold stones of Venice, and a final sequence where the important discussion between Kate and Merton which changes their fate, has been made to take place during a soft-core sex scene. Can it get more silly? This is like drawing feet on a snake - cheap and commercialized, and totally foreign to the rather inhibited character of James' protagonists. The great psychological novel has been reduced to a sugary Harlequin romance. Despite the period dresses, the images are never impressive, not even in the scenes set in Venice, and neither are the performances of most of the "stars." This is all the more a shame as Helena Bonham Carter, as Kate, alone gives the performance of a lifetime.

3. E.M. Forster, Howards End (1910), filmed in 1992 by James Ivory and with Emma Thompson, Vanessa Redgrave and Anthony Hopkins.
The story of the hunt for a house called Howards End. Depicts three different classes in Edwardian England: the capitalistic and businesslike Wilcoxes, the cultured and humanistic Schlegels and the working-class Basts. Will they finally connect?
In contrast to the previous entry, this is a film adaptation that fully lives up to the great classical novel on which it is based. It is a first class and tasteful achievement, as is usually the case with director James Ivory, with superb acting from Emma Thompson and Helena Bonham Carter as the cultured Schlegel sisters, and Anthony Hopkins as the hard businessman Wilcox. Vanessa Redgrave is also great as the mystic - and dying - Mrs Wilcox. The screenplay by Ruth Prawer-Jhabvala does fully justice to the novel and accurately renders all the critical scenes. The unavoidable changes, such as removing the German family from the film, or having Helen visit the concert where she meets Leonard Bast alone instead of with her family, are all logical. In fact, there are few film adaptations which manage to be so faithful to the original, while at the same time enhancing it by great acting and beautiful visuals. The locations and period details are accurate as well. A most impressive film that I highly recommend.

4. Virginia Woolf: Orlando: A Biography (1928), filmed in 1992 by Sally Potter as "Orlando." With Tilda Swinton, Billy Zane & Quentin Crisp.
Mock biography of a perpetually youthful, charming hero/ine, who starts out as a nobleman living in Elizabethan times before traversing three centuries and both genders. 
A fairy tale, already in Woolf's novel and even more so in independent film maker Sally Potter's version. Potter remains true to the spirit of the book but has simplified the storyline and removed any events not significantly advancing Orlando's story. As Potter wrote in her Notes on the Adaptation, elements that can be abstract or arbitrary in the novel, had to be explained in the film. Orlando's long life (he has lived for many centuries and may still be around today) is never explained in the book, but in the film Queen Elizabeth bestows Orlando's long life upon him with the words "Do not fade, do not wither, do not grow old . . ." In the same way, Orlando's sex change is explained in the film as the result of his having reached a crisis of masculine identity when looking death and destruction in the face on the battlefield. The "moral" of both book and film is that gender is just a convention prescribed by society - it is the inner essence of people which matters. Thus, Potter's Orlando, on discovering (s)he is now a woman, declares, "Same person, no difference at all. Just a different sex." Like the book, the film follows its character through four centuries of sexual politics, by taking 50-year steps. In the 18th c. clad in an impossible dress, Orlando experiences society's disdain for women, and in the 19th century she looses her vast country house as women were not allowed to own property. The film ends at the present day, when unmarried mother Orlando rides on a motorcycle with her little daughter in the sidecar. The androgynous title character is played delicately and marvelously by Tilda Swinton. True to the gender-bending theme, Quentin Crisp has a great act as the aged Queen Elizabeth I. Despite the feminist message, the film is not at all preachy but rather deliciously playful. It also makes its modest budget go a long way - a most memorable scene is a skating waltz by courtiers on ice.

5. Vladimir Nabokov: The Defense (1930), filmed in 2000 by Marleen Gorris as "The Luzhin Defence." With John Turturro, Emily Watson, & Geraldine James.
A novel about a brilliant but socially awkward chess master who connects to life only through the language and conventions of chess and finally descends into madness.
Nabokov is truly impossible to film, although both Stanley Kubrick and Adrian Lyne had a go at Lolita. In my view, perhaps the best results have been achieved by Marleen Gorris' adaptation of an early novel written in Russian, when Nabokov lived in exile in Berlin: The Luzhin Defense. Gorris is a Dutch feminist film maker known for Antonia, who also made a wonderful film based on Virginia Woolf's Mrs Dalloway. In The Luzhin Defence she doesn't stick to the main details of the book but rather sets out to capture its spirit. The movie looks at things from a decidedly feminine point of view. Gorris has greatly enhanced the role of the woman Luzhin marries, and even made Natalia the heroine - while in the novel her name is not even mentioned! The novel ends with Luzhin's supposed suicide, but in the film Natalia finds Luzhin's notes (the "Luzhin defense") for the championship match he is then playing and decides to finish the game for his posthumous honor - and she wins (see this chess site for an evaluation of the realistic chess scenes in the film). Despite the dramatic ending, the film is filled with light humor as well. Luzhin is a near-autistic genius, dwelling only in the chambers of the mind, and wearing filthy suits while chain-smoking. He is unable to make small talk, so when Natalia asks him how long he has been playing chess, he answers, after calculating: "9,263 days, 4 hours and 5 minutes." Gorris sees him with great empathy and John Turturro gives a magnificent performance. Also Emily Watson is touching and convincing as Natalia, who has the inner strength to stand up against her aristocratic mother who wants her to marry an eligible count. A great and delicate film about the vulnerability of genius in our cruelly ordinary world.

6. Georges Simenon: The Engagement (Les Fiançailles de M. Hire, 1933), filmed in 1989 by Patrick Leconte as "Monsieur Hire." With Michel Blanc and Sandrine Bonnaire.
An introverted, middle-aged man who has no contact with his neighbors, and who is considered as "strange," is wrongly suspected of murder by police and neighborhood when a young woman is found killed in the vicinity. But M. Hire has his own secret...
The Engagement is one of the earliest "Romans durs," serious psychological novels with often an element of crime (and different from the Maigret-series) written by Simenon. It is a small book, almost a novella, in which the tragic tale is told with the utmost economy. Leconte has updated the film from the 1930s to the late 80s - his detective with long hair and rough clothes is a far cry from the neatly uniformed police officers in the original. But Michel Blanc as Monsieur Hire is perfect - just as I imagined him when reading the novel, with a white face, balding head but always overdressed in suit and tie. Monsieur Hire's secret is that he peeps into the room of a young woman living in a wing of the same building, just opposite a small courtyard (almost Rear Window-style). She never closes her curtains, and Monsieur Hire every evening switches off his lights and stands watching her, also when she undresses... When Alice finally notices his voyeuristic behavior, she approaches him, first by spilling a bag with tomatoes in front of his door (a great idea, only found in the film). Later they become friends, more so in the film than in the book where Alice works in a dairy shop; in the film she is more intellectual, admirably played by Sandrine Bonnaire. But in both book and film she has a boyfriend who is a small criminal, and who may be the real murderer, something which also means disaster for Monsieur Hire. His plan that she ditches her boyfriend and run off with him comes to nothing and then his own existence hangs suddenly - literally - in the balance... What remains a mystery is what Alice really thinks of Monsieur Hire - does she after all love him although she plants false evidence in his room and then informs the detective? Is she sorry for him? And what does that last look mean, when she stands behind her window, and Monsieur Hire sees her in an extraordinary final shot? It are the two main actors who make this a great film and worthy comment on the original novel.

7. Julio Cortazar: "Blow-Up" (original title in Spanish "Las babas del diablo,” “The Drool of the Devil,” 1959), filmed in 1966 by Michelangelo Antonioni. With David Hemmings, Vanessa Redgrave and Sarah Miles.
A photographer believes he has seen something intriguing through his camera, which when he blows up the picture, turns out to be possibly tragic.
In Cortazar's experimental story an amateur photographer living in Paris happens to snap a shot of a woman and a boy, wondering whether he has captured the seduction of an adolescent boy by an older woman. When the woman notices her picture is being taken, she starts shouting angrily at the photographer about the invasion of her privacy and the boy sees his chance to run away. After enlarging the photo and studying it again, the photographer realizes to his horror that the woman was in fact "pimping" the boy for an older man waiting nearby in a parked car. Then the story moves into the surreal: the photographer is drawn into the enlarged photo, he becomes the camera and also becomes the seduced boy, and is murdered by the man who has come out of the car, and finally  lies dead in the photograph staring immobilized as a camera at the sky, where the clouds pass by and now a then a pigeon flies past - the world has become a photograph. Antonioni uses the idea of the Cortazar story, but unavoidably greatly changes it. The most visible aspect is that he changes the scene to the swinging London of the 1960s, and his protagonist becomes a popular fashion photographer, Thomas, who leads an empty life of "sex, drugs and rock-n-roll." He is bored by all the gratuitous sex, the brainless models, the groupies and the languid pot parties, and goes soulless through the motions of his work. He happens to take pictures of a couple in park, a woman and an older man; the woman remonstrates with him and even follows him to his studio. She even takes off her shirt, wanting to seduce him and steal the film. Thomas sends her away with the wrong roll, but is intrigued by this woman, so different from the superficial girls around him. Then out of curiosity Thomas enlarges the photos and in a beautiful sequence, hanging ever larger and larger prints on his wall, discovers that he has photographed a murder - in the grainy image he sees is a man with a gun hiding in the bushes behind the couple and the elderly man who was with the woman later lies prostrate on the grass. Thomas checks again in the park, now by night. The mystery deepens and proves at the same time unsolvable as the mysterious woman has also disappeared... but for a short while, the mystery has woken him from his lethargy. Antonioni has filmed in a great style, with little dialogue, almost telling the whole film with the camera. In its day Blow-Up was notorious for an orgy scene with groupies and some nudity; today, the sex is tame, but what shocks is the cruelty and contempt for women of the protagonist as shown in the way he treats his models and girlfriends, an aspect of the 60s we seem to have forgotten. The film ends with a nice symbolic scene where a group of students with white faces mimic playing tennis in the park - Thomas pretends he can see the ball and we hear it on the soundtrack, but it isn't there, just like the core mystery of the film.



Sunday, October 19, 2014

Bach Cantatas (53): Trinity XX

The Twentieth Sunday after Trinity. The cantatas for this day are based on the parable of the marriage of the King's son, for which invitations are sent out but largely ignored because people are too busy; when finally guests do come, one person lacks a wedding garment and is severely punished. This parable may be mixed with the more practical message of the Epistle to avoid bad company and bad habits.

There are three cantatas for this Sunday.

Readings:
Ephesians 5:15–21, Avoid bad company: "walk circumspectly, ... filled with the Spirit"
Matthew 22:1–14, parable of the great banquet (marriage of the king's son)

Cantata Studies:
Bach Cantatas Website | Simon Crouch | Emmanuel Music | Julian Mincham | Wikipedia | Eduard van Hengel (in Dutch) | Bach Companion (Oxford U.P.) | Bach: The Learned Musician (Wolff) | Music in the Castle of Heaven (Gardiner)


[Parable of the Great Banquet by Brunswick Monogrammist (circa 1525)]


Cantatas:
  • Ach! ich sehe, itzt, da ich zur Hochzeit gehe, BWV 162, 3 November 1715 or 25 October 1716
    Aria (bass): Ach! ich sehe, itzt, da ich zur Hochzeit gehe
    Recitative (tenor): O großes Hochzeitfest

    Aria (soprano): Jesu, Brunnquell aller Gnaden
    Recitative (alto): Mein Jesu, laß mich nicht
    Duet aria (alto, tenor): In meinem Gott bin ich erfreut
    Chorale: Ach, ich habe schon erblicket

    "Ah! I see, now, when I go to the wedding"
    Text: Salomon Franck.

    Although the narrative of this cantata is based on the notion of a wedding, it is not at all joyous, but focuses on the worries of the invitees that they may be unworthy (lacking a wedding garment). Bach performed the cantata again in 1723 in Leipzig and then added a part for a corno da tirarsi, a rare Baroque wind instrument thought to have been similar to the slide trumpet (tromba da tirarsi). This instrument is used in the opening movement, an austere solo aria for bass. The slide trumpet adds a haunting note to the contemplative music. Not all parts for the embellished soprano aria have come down to us, so in some performances parts for a flauto traverso and oboe d'amore are reconstructed. Although the consoling duet for alto and tenor is only accompanied by the continuo, this seems complete. The cantata closes with a short chorale on a beautiful melody by Johann Rosenmüller from 1652.

    Rating: B+
    Video: Bach-Stiftung


  • Schmücke dich, o liebe Seele, BWV 180, 22 October 1724
    Chorus: Schmücke dich, o liebe Seele
    Aria (tenor): Ermuntre dich, dein Heiland klopft
    Recitative and chorale (soprano): Wie teuer sind des heilgen Mahles Gaben! – Ach, wie hungert mein Gemüte
    Recitative (alto): Mein Herz fühlt in sich Furcht und Freude
    Aria (soprano): Lebens Sonne, Licht der Sinnen
    Recitative (bass): Herr, laß an mir dein treues Lieben
    Chorale: Jesu, wahres Brot des Lebens


    "Adorn yourself, o dear soul"
    Text: Chorale "Schmücke dich, o liebe Seele" by Johann Franck

    Based on the beloved chorale melody "Schmücke dich, o liebe Seele" by Johann Franck and its associated melody by Johann Crüger. A joyful cantata in a swinging rhythm. The first movement is a chorale fantasy where two recorders as well as oboe and English horn dance lightly over a gigue-like figure in the strings. The following tenor aria is accompanied by a virtuoso flute, while the knocking from the line "Arouse yourself: your Savior knocks" is humorously depicted in the bass line. The soprano recitative and arioso feature a violoncello piccolo (today often played on the viola), playing a lively figuration beneath an ornamented version of the chorale. In the alto recitative the two recorders appear again and this is followed by a wonderful dancing soprano aria with the full instrumental ensemble, celebrating the joy of communion with Christ. The bass then asks for a rekindling of the fire of faith before a final chorale, one of Bach's greatest chorale harmonizations, brings this wonderful cantata to a satisfying end.

    Rating: A+
    Video: Bach-Stiftung



  • Ich geh und suche mit Verlangen, BWV 49, 3 November 1726
    Sinfonia
    Aria (bass): Ich geh und suche mit Verlangen
    Recitative (soprano, bass): Mein Mahl ist zubereit
    Aria (soprano): Ich bin herrlich, ich bin schön
    Recitative (soprano, bass): Mein Glaube hat mich selbst so angezogen
    Aria (bass) + Chorale (soprano): Dich hab ich je und je geliebet – Wie bin ich doch so herzlich froh


    "I go and seek with longing"
    Text: Christoph Birkmann

    A solo cantata for soprano and bass, a dialogue between the Soul and Jesus, her bridegroom, based on the parable of the wedding feast. The opening sinfonia is an arrangement for organ of the third movement of Bach's E Major harpsichord concerto. The bass as the vox Christi then sings the words of Jesus, based on a passage from the Song of Songs, in an opening aria that is full of longing. The aria is accompanied by an organ obbligato. Next follow a duet recitative and a soprano aria, the latter accompanied by oboe d'amore, viola and continuo. With the words "I am glorious, I am beautiful," the bride reflects on her beauty. This is one of the most impressive arias Bach wrote. After some more dialogue, the cantata is closed by a duet. While the bass sings of his happiness about the consummation of the marriage, the soprano intones a verse of the chorale, “Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern.” This is accompanied by quite magical organ music.

    Rating: A+
    Video: Bach-Stiftung


Bach Cantata Index

Friday, October 17, 2014

The Best Stories of Anton Chekhov (4): Period of Maturity B 1892-1895

In this period, Chekhov's finances had improved so much, that in early 1892 he was able to buy a country estate at Melikhovo near Moscow. He moved there with his family and would remain in this new home until 1899 (although also making regular trips to Moscow, St. Petersburg and Southern Russia) - a very happy period in his life. As landowner, he intimately got to know peasant life, something which he used in such stories as "Peasants" and "In the Ravine;" he treated the medical problems of his peasants free of charge and organized measures against the cholera epidemics of 1892-93. He also built schools and a clinic. In contrast to Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, Chekhov never idealized the peasants, but he portrayed them in a realistic fashion - in other words, instead of regarding them as the saviors of Russia, he showed how stupid, backward, superstitious, and debauched they often were. Life as a peasant was hell, and peasants were also hell to each other.

In 1894 Chekhov Tolstoy at his estate Yasnaya Polyana, and they seem to have been good friends despite their different views (Tolstoy was of course a peasant-adorer, trying hard to become one himself).

These were years that Chekhov wrote many excellent stories; in 1895 he also published one of his most original plays, The Seagull. The premiere in 1896 was, however, a disaster - it had to wait until 1998 when Stanislavski performed it successfully with his innovative Moscow Art Theatre.


Here are the stories from 1892, 1893, 1894 and 1895 (I have only left out a few sketches of which I could find no translation). I have provided links to the translations by Constance Garnett at Adelaide University and Gutenberg.

“My Wife [The Wife]” [1892]
Pavel is married to the much younger Natalia. Since two years, they live together-apart, the wife on the ground floor and Pavel on the first floor of the house. There is almost no communication between them, she hates him, he is indifferent to her. Then in the year 1892 there is terrible famine and the peasants are dying, also in the nearby village. Natalia organizes and coordinates the help from local landowners, but to her despair, Pavel also sticks his nose in it. She does it from conviction, he from duty. Everybody flees his pompousness. Finally, he returns to his wife and puts his fortune at her disposal to use for her charities. He will soon be ruined but feels at peace.
Adelaide; Gutenberg

“The Grasshopper [The Butterfly] [The Fidget]” [1892]
Ossip Dymov, a young hardworking medical doctor has married Olga, a gay and artistic woman. While he is occupied with his profession, she parties with artists and also makes a trip with a group of friends. She even has an adulterous affair with Ryabovsky, a bohemian-type landscape painter. But when her husband tries to save a patient from diphtheria and himself is infected and dies, she finally realizes that her quiet and hard-working husband was the person with much higher qualities than her artist friends. But now it is too late...
Adelaide; Gutenberg

“After the Theater” [1892]
The idealistic reveries of a 16-year old girl, who has just seen a romantic piece in the theater.
Adelaide; Gutenberg

“In Exile” [1892]
One of the few stories based on experiences during Chekhov's 1890 journey through Siberia to Sakhalin. Old Semyon and a young Tartar are working with other exiles as ferrymen at a river crossing. Semyon urges the Tartar to accept his fate. It is no use fighting. He gives the example of Vasily Sergeyitch, a wealthy aristocrat also sent into exile, whose daughter is afflicted with consumption. The father keeps looking for new doctors, often using the ferry crossing when he sets out on his searches, but Old Semyon mocks him, preaching the doctrine of accepting one's fate and doing nothing. This is the attitude Chekhov subtly criticizes: not only is the resignation of Semyon egoistic (he has no empathy for the struggle of others), on top of that he suffers from the common Russian ailment, fatalism - which "justifies" being stone drunk every day because it is no use doing anything.
Adelaide; Gutenberg

“Neighbors [1892]
About the problem of inter-human communication. Ivashin's sister Zina has left home to live as common-in-law wife with their neighbor, Vlassitch. A marriage is impossible as Vlassitch wife refuses to grant a separation. After hesitating for a whole month, Ivashin finally visits Vlassitch to clarify the situation. He does not understand what his sister sees in this man. But the visit is unsuccessful: Zina asserts herself and refuses to return home (causing her mother pain), Vlassitch appears to have mortgaged everything to buy off his wife without making any progress, and Ivashin returns home feeling depressed and empty. How will these people be able to find happiness?
Adelaide; Gutenberg

“Ward No. 6” [1892]
The director of a decrepit insane asylum (Ward No. 6) in a provincial town ends up committed to his own ward in a story criticizing repressive society. Doctor Ragin is a solitary man, who has neither pride nor pleasure in his profession. When he was young, he tried to take his duties in the hospital seriously (although he has always felt superior towards the country bumpkins around him), but gradually he has lost all interest and leaves most of the work to his assistant Sergey. The hospital is dirty but Ragin looks away and prefers to spend his time reading. He fails to empathize with the sick and believes that there is no point in trying to cure patients or alleviate suffering. "Dying is the normal end of us all." Then Ragin becomes fascinated by one of the five patients in the ward, Gromov, who is a well-educated man, but also a paranoid. Ragin daily spends hours debating with Gromov. Ragin's outrageous behavior finally leads to his dismissal, and incarceration as a lunatic himself. Happily for him, he soon has a stroke and dies.
Adelaide; Gutenberg

“Terror [Fear]” [1892]
Dimitry Silin seems to have everything needed for a happy life: Marya, a wife he loves, children, a well-run farm, and a friend who often visits him. That friend is the narrator, and he feels ill at ease as he is in love with Marya. One day, Silin tells him that his marriage is not really a happy one, he loves his wife, but she doesn't love him. That very evening the narrator happens to be alone with Marya and he confesses to her that he makes such frequent visits because he loves her, although she is the wife of his best friend. He spends the night with her in his room. In the morning, as Marya is leaving his room, Silin appears to say goodbye to his friend before going to his fields. Has he understood what happened? The shameful narrator leaves immediately and never again visits Silin and his wife.
Adelaide; Gutenberg

"The two Volodyas" [1893]
Twenty-four hours from the life of Sofya Lyovna. Just a few months ago, she has married Colonel Vladimir Nikititch (named Big Volodya) who is 30 years older - it was a marriage for money. In reality, she is in love with her youth friend Vladimir Mihalovitch (named Little Volodya), a military doctor in the regiment of her husband. Little Volodya plays constantly around with married women, but has never shown any romantic interest in Sofia. Sofia tries to persuade herself that she has done the right thing by marrying Big Volodya, and that she is happy. Driving home through the night with both Volodyas after a dinner with lots of alcohol, she stops at a convent to meet her friend Olga who has retreated there recently. Olga's seemingly fulfilling life in the religious order makes Sofya feel all the stronger that her own life is a mess. The next day Sofya becomes the mistress of Little Volodya, but a month afterwards, he already drops her. She realizes that she has a boring and vapid life before her.
Adelaide; Gutenberg

“An Anonymous Story” [1893]
One of the five novellas Chekhov wrote, a mix of bits and pieces of Russian literary themes. The narrator ("Stefan") seems to be a political activist or spy (reminding us of Dostoevsky's Demons), and therefore remains anonymous - he gets the job of footman in the house of Orlov, a young Petersburg playboy, whose father is an important political figure. But this is not at all a political story: it is a love story (in the style of Turgenev, with Orlov as the typical "superfluous man"). The narrator observes how Orlov charms a beautiful young married woman, Zinaida, who leaves her husband, and moves in with Orlov. But the playboy soon grows tired of her, even moving in with friends in order to escape her presence, although Zinaida continues to love him passionately. As it happens, the narrator in his turn has fallen one-sidedly in love with her, and finally manages to persuade her to flee with him to Venice, and afterwards Florence and Nice. But when he tells her about his love, Zinaida is disappointed in him for she believed he was helping her purely out of altruism. In the meantime, Zinaida discovers that she is pregnant (from Orlov) and the narrator has an attack of "pleurisy" (in reality tuberculosis, but just like Chekhov he does not admit this). When Zinaida dies in childbirth (with the help of some poison), the narrator decides to bring up the child which has been delivered safely. He returns to Russia to do so, but after two years his tuberculosis becomes worse, so he resolves his conflict with Orlov and takes measures for the care of Zinaide's child after his death. A strange story that does not entirely convince.
Adelaide; Gutenberg

“The Black Monk” [1894]
Kovrin, a brilliant scholar, is overworked and decides to take a holiday at the horticulture center run by his childhood friend Tanya and her father. Kovrin enjoys helping with work in the garden. But then he starts seeing the phantom of a black monk, a hallucination which strangely enough seems to give him new strength. In other words, Kovrin may be decidedly schizophrenic. As summer goes by, Kovrin keeps having the same hallucinations. But he has fallen in love with Tanya, marries her, and moves back to the city with her. His hallucinations now become so overwhelmingly frequent that he seeks a cure. The medical treatment helps him get rid of the "black monk," but also saps his energy and creativity. The marriage goes bad, both partners have started hating the other, and Tanya returns to her father's estate. Kovrin is offered the position of professor, but he has physically become ill, hemorrhaging from the lungs. After hearing the news of the death of his father-in-law, he sees the black monk again and then dies. A strange tale.
Adelaide; Gutenberg

“Rothschild's Violin” [1894]
The story of an ill-tempered old man, Yakov, who loses his wife, becomes depressed, develops pneumonia, and dies himself, to summarize the story in a nutshell. Yakov is a coffin maker who in order to supplement his meager income plays the violin in a Jewish klezmer orchestra - although he dislikes Jews. He in particular is antagonistic to the flutist, Rothschildt, whom he regularly beats up. When his wife lies dying, she reminds him of their shared past but instead of listening, Yakov already starts building her coffin. After the burial Yakov is overcome by an acute depression and regrets his coldness and indifference towards his deceased wife. Sitting by the river, he has a sort of epiphany, realizing what a nasty and quarrelsome man he has become. But he catches a cold, which develops into pneumonia. Before dying, he bequeaths his violin to Rothschildt.
Adelaide; Gutenberg

“The Student” [1894]
An Easter story. In the night of Good Friday a clerical student happens to meet two widows warming themselves at a fire in the open. He tells them the story of the Apostle Peter who three times denied Jesus, but later was overcome with remorse and forgiven - showing the hope of redemption for all humans. Both the student and his listeners are overcome by the story and filled with a feeling of mysterious happiness.
Adelaide; Gutenberg

"The Head-gardener's Story" [1894]
The story of Thomson, a doctor who was such a good man that nobody could imagine that anyone would do him harm. Then the doctor is found murdered and a vagrant is arrested as he is in the possession of the doctor's snuffbox. The judge, however, acquits the vagrant, because he can't admit the thought that anybody would sink so low as to willfully harm the good doctor. An instance of typical 19th century humanism and belief in basic human decency that would be shattered in the 20th century.
Adelaide; Gutenberg

“Murder” [1895]
Two conservatively orthodox believers who run an inn clash with a man who has a more relaxed view of religion. The argument becomes so heated that they end up killing him. Sent to Siberia, the murderer first looses his faith, but then regains it in a sort of spiritual rebirth.
Adelaide; Gutenberg

“Ariadne” [1895]
On a steamer bound for Sebastopol, Shamokhin tells the story of his love for his neighbor Ariadne, a most beautiful but also very cold woman. She elopes with another, married man, but when things go bad, asks Shamokhin to join her in Italy. But the married man is still there and obviously the lover of Ariadne, making for an awkward menage-a-trois. Only when his money runs out a year later, does he go back to his wife and children. Now Shamokhin becomes Ariadne's lover. He is caught in her web: although his money, too, runs out, and he feels his life has been destroyed by his obsession for Ariadne, he is unable to extricate himself, and keeps running after her.
Adelaide; Gutenberg

"Three Years" [1895]
Another of Chekhov's five novellas, showing how people can change in the course of three years. When visiting his severely ill sister, Laptev falls in love with Julia, the 22-year-old daughter of the doctor treating the sister. The bland Yulia marries the good-hearted Laptev, not because she is attracted to him, but because she feels bad about disappointing him and also because she wants to live in the big city, Moscow. Although Laptev remains in love with Yulia, the marriage is not a success - Yulia dislikes her husband and his family. But she does not act on the cheap advice of a friend to take a lover or return to her father. The sister dies and her children stay for a while with the couple. Laptev and Yulia have a baby but the child soon dies of diphtheria. Then Laptev's family business fails and his brother has to be put into an asylum. Now Laptev becomes depressed... and, for the first time, Yulia, starts feeling tenderness for her battered husband. The story shows how people are neither good nor bad, they all have their faults. They muddle through to make the best of a given situation and with the passage of time, accommodation occurs. From blind infatuation in the case of Yakov and dislike in the case of Yulia, the feelings between the married couple finally mature into mutual understanding and appreciation.
AdelaideGutenberg

Also read my other posts about Chekhov's stories:
Best Short Stories by Anton Chekhov (1): Earliest Comical Stories (1882-1885)
Best Stories by Chekhov (2): The Years of High Production (1886-87)
Best Stories of Anton Chekhov (3): Period of Maturity A (1888-1891)



Thursday, October 16, 2014

"The Road into the Open" by Arthur Schnitzler (1908)

The Road into the Open (Der Weg ins Freie) is one of only two novels Arthur Schnitzler wrote besides his many novellas, short stories and plays (see my posts about his short stories and about his novella Dream Story). The novel tells the story of the love relation between an aristocrat, Baron Georg von Wergenthin, and a lower middle class girl named Anna Rosner. Georg is a dilettante composer, Anna plans to become a singer and they first meet professionally.

The handsome Georg is rather experienced in love affairs - he has had relations with many women and Anna will not be the last one. Throughout the novel, which is told from Georg's perspective, he thinks in fact often with regret about these former girlfriends (he seems rather obsessed with the memory of one of them, Grace). The relation with Anna comes to a head after Georg has made her pregnant. They travel to Italy to hide her condition and later hire a house outside Vienna so that Anna can quietly have her baby.

[Arthur Schnitzler]

But Georg, who has a rather flighty character, is unwilling to commit himself and although he says he will not leave her in the lurch, he does not want to marry her either. In the end, after she has had a miscarriage, she sets him free to go his own way, to which "the road into the open" of the title alludes ("ins Freie"has the connotation of "Freiheit," freedom; and it refers literally to the many walks and cycling tours Georg and his friends undertake in free nature just outside Vienna). As always, Schnitzler is strong in his probing of the contradictory psychology of love.

The same flightiness appears in Georg's work as a composer: he is unable to finish any piece of music longer than a song, but instead is always dreaming about writing a certain opera for which the libretto has not even been written yet. Lacking the drive to get down to work, Georg spends most of his time socializing with friends and acquaintances, who are all from artistic circles. 

This gives Schnitzler the chance - besides the main focus on the story of George and Anna - to paint a wonderful portrait of fin-de-siecle Vienna, then the capital of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire: the cafés, cultural salons, and musical concerts frequented by the Viennese elite. That many members of that elite were Jewish, allows Schnitzler to write about the position of these urban Jews - about the various positions they took, running the gamut from Zionism (following the ideas developed around this time by another Viennese, Hertz) to full assimilation, as well as about the rising specter of antisemitism. Schnitzler even dedicates so much space to this sub-theme, that some critics have considered that as the main subject of the novel, but I believe they are wrong - it would be very much out of character for Schnitzler to write about a social theme, where all his work is of a psychological nature and about unconscious desires.


[Schnitzler's birthplace in Vienna]

As in his short stories, Schnitzler uses stream of consciousness techniques to delve into the unconsciousness of Georg. We see for example that Georg had repressed feelings of guilt about the suicide of a friend (that friend and Georg were traveling with Georg's previous girlfriend Grace in Italy when the suicide happened and as a result Grace left Georg), as well as the death of his father which has just happened when the novel opens. There is a strong suggestion Georg has these guilty feelings because he knows in his deepest heart that he in fact has betrayed his friend and his father - and he will do the same with Anna, leaving her in the lurch in a most ignoble way, while all the time trying to justify this act in his own mind. Georg has an unquenchable thirst for freedom for himself, but at the same time perpetuates wrong conventional attitudes towards women and lower classes (read: Anna), because that is convenient for him. He feels no empathy or compassion for others and in the end goes his own egoistic way, unable to balance his radical quest for freedom with even a modicum of responsibility. Everything in his life forms part of that same pattern. It is the great merit of Schnitzler that he brings this out by inner monologues which show how Georg lies to himself and how he suppresses his feelings of guilt. Without any authorial moralizing, the negative judgement about Georg by Schnitzler is clear.

The Road into the Open has been translated by Roger Byers and published by University of California Press. An older translation by Horace Samual (called The Road to the Open) is available at Gutenberg. The German original is available at the German-language Gutenberg site and at Zeno


"A Portrait of Shunkin" by Tanizaki Junichiro (1933)

A Portrait of Shunkin (Shunkinsho) is the most celebrated novella by Japan's greatest 20th century author, Tanizaki Junichiro, and like The Bridge of Dreams it is a story of an ideal world that is artificially (even monstrously) kept intact. The story is set in Doshomachi, the pharmaceutical district of Osaka (see my post about this area) and tells about Shunkin, the daughter of a pharmaceutical dealer and her servant / pupil Sasuke. Despite its dramatic character, the story is told in a classical, distanced manner, and is written in an almost hypnotically beautiful prose style (with very little punctuation as in classical Japanese). By the way, this use of a classical style was not a "return to traditional Japan" by Tanizaki, as is often asserted, but rather a Modernistic stylistic device used to give an impression of authenticity to the story.

[Tanizaki in 1913]

The tale is told by an unnamed antiquarian (living around the time the story was written, so the early 1930s) who has obtained a copy of a biography of Shunkin who lived in the late Edo to early Meiji periods (her life is given as from 1829 to 1886). This biography, which is rather a hagiography so that the narrator also warns against trusting it too much, is the main source of the story; the narrator either retells it (adding his own thoughts) or quotes it directly ("sho" in the Japanese title Shunkinsho is not a portrait, but a commentary on a text, and that is exactly what the narrator provides); to this he appends the personal remembrances of an old servant of Shunkin and Sasuke, obtained via an interview, as well as a brief account of a visit to their graves, sitting next to each other in a temple in Osaka. Shunkin's grave is larger, as Sasuke even after he became a great master on the shamisen himself, always treated her as his teacher. All these narratives are in a different register: the biography is in the classical style used in the 19th century, the servant speaks in Osaka dialect, etc., - subtleties which are difficult to bring out in translation.

Besides using different registers, Tanizaki also uses the in Japan all-important titles deftly: Sasuke does not allow his own pupils to call him "Master" (oshisosan) because that is his designation for Shunkin; the narrator, however, refers to him as "Kengyo," the most exalted, official title for a shamisen master and one that Shunkin never attained.

Sasuke, who was four years older than Shunkin, became her special servant when she was eight (just after she had become blind due to an infection) and he was twelve. Musicians were often blind people in traditional Japan, and as Shunkin was already interested in music, she now became a dedicated player of the koto and the shamisen. It was Sasuke's task to take the blind girl everyday to her music lessons.

Sasuke is very devoted to the meek and gentle-looking Shunkin and also develops an interest in music. He practices the shamisen secretly at night, sitting in a cupboard, and when that is discovered and he proves to have talent, it is decided that Shunkin will become his official teacher. Shunkin is a very strict and even cruel teacher for Sasuke, but he is totally devoted to her, even masochistically, in both his subservient roles. He follows her like a shadow and even ministers to her in the toilet ("she never has to wash her hands afterward"), something glossed over in the prudish English translation. When, after finishing her own studies, she sets up shop as an independent teacher, Sasuke accompanies her and starts living with her. That their relation secretly must encompass something more, becomes clear when the unmarried Shunkin has a baby, although both refuse to confess who is the father (the baby is immediately sent away for adoption).

Shunkin is nor only very beautiful, she also has a vivid character, and therefore she is a popular guest at social gatherings. But then - in the year she is 36 and Sasuke 40 - a terrible accident happens: at night, someone - probably a thief who panicked, or a pupil with a grudge - throws scalding hot water in her face which as a result is disfigured by scars. Sasuke says he can't endure looking at her destroyed countenance and therefore blinds himself by pricking with a needle through the pupils of both his eyes. Now he shares the same world as his beloved Shunkin. He remains her dedicated servant and even continues calling himself her pupil, although he has by now become a master on the shamisen in his own right. The apogee of sadomasochistic devotion!

[Detail of a monument in the grounds of the Sukunahikona Shrine
in Osaka's Doshomachi district, dedicated to Shunkinsho.
It shows the beginning of Tanizaki's manuscript.]

That is the story, as a casual reader will pick it up. But there are always many false bottoms in Tanizaki's literature, especially here. In the first place we have to note that the story has several layers of unreliability:

- As the narrator, a sort of local historian, notes, the Life of Mozuya Shunkin, the biography which is his main source for the story he tells us, is rather unreliable. It displays strong hagiographic tendencies, and on top of that the person who is praised most is not Shunkin, but rather Sasuke who is always presented as an example of the highest and most self-sacrificing devotion (note that Sasuke was the one who had The Life compiled). In other words, it is more "A Portrait of Sasuke" than of Shunkin...
- But also the narrator is not objective, and he, too, is on the side of Sasuke - note that after Shunkin's death, Sasuke became a much more famous musician than Shunkin had ever been, and the narrator may have been influenced by Sasuke's greater renown,
- The only other source is a maid who served Shunkin and Sasuke later in life - obviously, this maid was not present during the crucial events that took place earlier in the lives of the two artists.

Faced with so many uncertainties, we should ask ourselves if everything we read is true:

- Was Sasuke really unselfishly devoted to Shunkin?
- Was Shunkin really exceptionally cruel to Sasuke (note that teacher-pupil relations in the arts and crafts in traditional Japan - and even occasionally today - contain a certain amount of, if not outright cruelty, at least harshness)?
- Remember that when Sasuke became Shunkin's servant, he was twelve and she eight; although girls are earlier ripe than boys, with such an early age difference, initially Sasuke most have been more dominant.
- Considering their formal relation, how could Sasuke be the father of Shunkin's child, if he was not in a controlling position (he is the only one who can be considered, as Shunkin led a secluded life and had no other, private contacts)?
- Who threw the hot water in Shunkin's face? The story about a thief or pupil with a grudge looks very weak, intruders usually don't have the leisure to boil a kettle of water...

Here follows the most probably explanation, based on The Secret Window, Ideal Worlds in Tanizaki's Fiction (Harvard, 1994) by Anthony Hood Chambers:

Sasuke must have been the one who dominated Shunkin, instead of being controlled himself by a cruel and sadistic mistress. Outwardly, he played the servant and pupil who was masochistically dedicated to his mistress, but behind the scenes he, the older one, pulled the strings. When we follow these lines, Sasuke becomes rather repugnant, for wasn't Shunkin in that case little more than his sexual playmate whom he had completely in his power? More monstrous is that Sasuke himself may have been the one who threw the scalding hot water in Shunkin's face, to destroy her beauty out of jealousy, because he didn't want to share her with others at parties and gatherings, where she was admired for her beauty and where he was pestered and lost control over her. Destroying her beauty meant that she could not go out anymore and he would again have her completely in his power. By blinding himself and so for outsiders (and Shunkin) playing the perfectly devoted servant - and perhaps also on an unconscious level doing penance for his crime -, he finalized and stabilized his control over her. However warped it was, Sasuke had created a sort of private "ideal world."

The meaning we thus discover in the story is the opposite of what it seemed at first sight. As Anthony Hood Chambers puts it in The Secret Window: "Sasuke has molded a woman to dominate his fantasy life as his "ideal woman," and when he has maneuvered her right to where he wants her, he throws himself at her feet. When she has outlived her usefulness, he creates an idealized mental image to replace her." Instead of a masochistic slave, controlled by Shunkin, Sasuke was himself the sadistic keeper and even gaoler of Shunkin.

One passage of the story indeed gives a strong hint of Shunkin as Sasuke's prisoner. Shunkin liked to keep birds, nightingales and larks, and these captivated song birds are indeed an apt symbol for her own position as a musician who was the prisoner of Sasuke. Once, when one of her larks flew up to the clouds and didn't return, she seemed to follow his flight into the free azure longingly with her blind eyes...




Monday, October 13, 2014

"Dom Casmurro" by Machado de Assis (Book Review)

Dom Casmurro, written in 1900, is the greatest novel of the greatest Brazilian author, Machado de Assis, a superb feat of ambiguity and tragic comedy, featuring a wildly unreliable narrator. The name “Casmurro” means “the Morose,” and in this mock memoir written at an advanced age, Dom Casmurro explains the circumstances that made him eligible for this nickname. Machado writes with an almost postmodern sensibility, ironic, tricky and playful at the same time, in almost 150 short chapters of just two pages, full of digressions – which thanks to the shortness of the chapters are never too long – and with frequent direct addresses to the reader, not in the ponderous and patriarchal 19th century way, but in the light ironic manner of the 20th century.


[Machdo de Assis (at age 57. 1896)]


The story is simple. Young Bento Santiago is inseparable from the vivacious, irresistible Capitu, who lives next door, but there is a big obstacle to their future happiness: his mother has promised God that he will become a priest. Despite much effort and contrivance, Bento can’t avoid entering the seminary, but there he becomes close friends with Escobar, a more active and vital spirit than he himself. Escobar finally comes up with the luminous idea that sets Bento free from his religious and celibate course. Bento now studies law, and Escobar becomes a successful business man. After graduating, when he starts his law practice, Bento can finally marry Capitu, his childhood sweetheart; Escobar marries Capitu’s friend Sancha and they remain close friends. Escobar and Sancha have a daughter, and after a long wait, a son is born to Bento and Capitu. Nothing seems to stand in the way of future happiness... but at a bad moment Bento discovers that his child looks exactly like Escobar and from then on, his life is filled with torture. He starts doubting the fidelity of his wife and looks for proof in her smallest glance at Escobar – he notices that she has eyes like the tides, or like a gypsy. Bento moves from the happiness of first love to the dark shadows of jealousy and obsession, from a blessed boyhood as Bento he changes into the morose and warped Dom Casmurro.

The bulk of the story is concentrated on Bento’s happy youth and his love for Capitu. We get to know his family: a saint-like mother, a grumbling aunt, a sickly uncle and a sycophantic “dependent,” Jose Dias, who lives with the family. But the most interesting character is Capitu, who is charming, warmhearted, beautiful and perhaps just a little bit flirtatious. The marriage and dark years of jealousy only take up one-fifth of the total novel, as if Dom Casmurro in the first place wanted to speak about his happy youth. How high he values that youth is shown by the fact that he has a new house built that is exactly the same as the family house in which he grew up. He seems stuck in the memories of his happy childhood, wanting to forget that his wife has cheated on him with his best friend, and that her child is not his.

The question is of course: has Capitu really been unfaithful to Bento? Or is her supposed betrayal merely the product of an obsessed and paranoid mind?

Machado de Assis leaves this on purpose ambiguous, but the answer seems clear to me: Capitu has not betrayed her husband, everything is the result of Bento’s own corrosive jealousy. Bento apparently can’t handle marriage. He has something of a mother-complex, which the sharp Capitu has noticed early on, for she takes good care to become close to his mother, also during the time that Bento is at the seminary. That he himself has a short moment of fleeting intimacy with Sancha, the wife of Escobar, perhaps also makes him think by inversion of Escobar and Capitu as a couple. And, as is shown so beautifully by Proust in Swann’s Way, once one starts doubting a beloved, no proof of fidelity will suffice anymore, it is like a contagious disease (a pity there was no DNA testing yet). In all, a brilliant and heart-rending novel, but keep your eyes open for the false bottoms.

Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis (1839-1908) was born in Rio de Janeiro, where he lived until his death. He started life with several disadvantages: he was epileptic, born in poverty and his father was a mulatto in a Brazil where slavery still existed. Machado received almost no formal education and was entirely self-taught. Yet he became Brazil’s most influential novelist and short story writer. He also rose to become the president of the Brazilian Academy of Letters, and at his death was given a state funeral. Two other great novels are Memórias Póstumas de Brás Cubas (The Posthumous Memoirs of Bras Cubas, also known in English as Epitaph of a Small Winner, 1881) and Quincas Borba (known in English as Philosopher or Dog?, 1891). There are also scores of superb stories and novellas. Despite his enduring fame in Brazil and notwithstanding praise by great writers and critics as Saramago, Fuentes, Roth, Rushdie, Sontag and Bloom, Machado has never gained the popularity outside Brazil that he deserves.

Dom Casmurro has been translated by Helen Caldwell and was published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux (FSG Classic). The same publisher has brought out several translations of other work by Machado.

Photo Machado de Assis:
Unknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons