Monday, November 30, 2009

18: The Original of Laura

Vladimir Nabokov, The Original of Laura

A fragmentary review:

"Dear Mummy and Hummy," wrote Lolita, once upon another Nabokov book. Flora might have written something of the sort, but her mother's tenant is named "Hubert Hubert".

There is a lovely, nearly-complete scene wherein Flora is sitting on a bench at a train station and is accosted by an old friend, who presses her to read a book called Laura. She says "it is, of course, fictionalized and all that but you'll come face to face with yourself at every other corner. And there's your wonderful death. Let me show your your wonderful death. [...] You'll scream with laughter. It's the craziest death in the world."

You know, it's easier to write a fragmentary review than a coherent one. It's also easy to call a half-written, incoherent manuscript, which probably should have been burnt like Nabokov asked, a "novel in fragments" to excuse its lack of plot and cohesion.

Hubert Hubert sees his dead child Daisy in young Flora and his dead wife in Flora's mother.

Philip Wild sees his dead childhood sweetheart Aurora Lee in his young wife Flora.

Humbert Humbert sees his dead childhood sweetheart Annabel Leigh in prepubescent girls.

Naively: doesn't anyone like anybody in and of themselves? Why so strapped to the past?

In conclusion, there might actually be a novel here; there's a strong theme of being strapped to the past inherent in the characters and even in the fact that Nabokov's previous works are referenced and reminisced over. Philip Wild tries to erase his body parts by some kind of autohypnotism - the act of erasure is somehow in conflict with the bonds of the past. But I don't think one can actually find the story/concept, whatever Nabokov was aiming for, in this book, which includes photographs of Nabokov's original index cards that make up the "manuscript" of The Original of Laura.

There's only enough here for a coffee table book that says "I'm literary, yes I am, and a fan of manuscripts rescued from the fire".

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Why I hate Jane Eyre

I thought I would hate Twilight. From listening to friends and reading reviews, I'd already noticed its similarities to Jane Eyre and I read it, hoping for a bash-fest of a comparison between it and my all-time-least-favourite book. But I was wrong. It's only Jane Eyre that I hate.

Twilight is really not all that bad. It's a seductive, little fantasy about obsessive love on the dark side of mortality. The reader is swept (clumsily, of course) into Bella's shoes because Bella has no character unless you give her your own. There's a dangerous, handsome, gentlemanly boy who's dangerous and standoffish to everyone else but you because you're oh-so-special. It's the perfect rock-a-bye for a large percentage of the female population; a dark knight in sparkly armour (chastely) tapping Miss Insecure, Lady Fantasizing and Little Girl Goth - who all just want to be understood and held. It is what it is; it's not trying to be Tess of the D'Urbervilles or Lolita. And it's too dull to lull me.

The writing is as bland as my cooking. That's saying a lot, coming from the girl who burnt fish she was trying to steam by forgetting to put water in the pan - guess how my memory is with salt and seasoning ... But, really, who am I to lampoon a phenomenon that's brought manic highs to the heaving chests of girls of all ages?

On libraryThing, I found tons of reviews by well-meaning, well-read people, detailing (and mocking) all the ways in which Twilight's relation with Miss Insecure/Lady Fantasizing/Little Girl Goth becomes a bit rough (and not the nice kind of "rough" like in the sound of Bruno von Falk's voice that evokes a kiss that ends with a bite) and their recommendations to read more substantial works. Like Jane Eyre. Which I do have a hate-on for.

Let's review the ugly facts of Jane Eyre:
  1. The men are pigs.
    Rochester tries to fool poor, penniless Jane into marrying him even though he is already married. If he had succeeded, she would have been ruined - the society of Jane's England would have branded a letter more scarlet that Hester's Prynne's "A" into her forehead, making her unfit for any mode of life, except as Rochester's kept woman. How gentlemanly of him.
    Then, we are treated to St John Rivers. He wants to drag poor frail Jane to some hot, uncivilized country where she'd probably succumb to the elements faster than stout Englishman Rawdon Crawley. It's all very noble, this saving the souls of savages, but ... seriously? What about Jane?
  2. In order for Jane to be on equal footing with him, Rochester has to be disfigured and thrust into misery and Jane's fortunes have to be elevated by a hitherto unheard-of uncle. She was really that much below him who tried to commit bigamy with her?
  3. In the scene where Jane hears "Grace Poole's laugh", she stands on the roof and yearns for faraway lands. Why on earth does content, humble Jane need to wish for bigger things and distant dreams? She doesn't. Charlotte Bronte did. To paraphrase Virginia Woolf, Charlotte Bronte wrote herself when she should have written of her characters. It's why Jane's humility is so pronounced; Charlotte Bronte disliked how she was treated as a servant. It must have been comforting to seek refuge from constantly having to swallow one's pride in Jane's steely humility. C.B.'s projections of her own frustration bring Jane out of character. It's an example of inferior, amateurish writing. Virginia Woolf said so.
Despite all these ugly things, both times that I read Jane Eyre, at ages 11 and 22, I was entirely held by the first few chapters of the book. The 1st person voice is so personal and the portrayal of Jane's trials at school is moving and real. There are brilliant nuances in Bronte's telling and the events she chose to bring to the surface - Jane having to stand in from of the school and be branded a liar, Helen Burns always being punished by a stern teacher - breathes a vivid air on everything. Makes me think of the rapid, fervid breathing of some little thing - a bird - grounded, as the cat prowls closer and closer.

All this ... and then Charlotte Bronte unleashes her deep-seated fantasy for a reformed playboy with a crazy wife in the attic and a man so good that he's cruel.

Do the good things redeem the book of all its problems? Yes. Unfortunately, they do.

Jane Eyre can have all the lulling, poisonous things that Twilight has and get away with it. Jane can be like Bella and fit into the role of a battered woman; Rochester paraded his rich, beautiful almost-fiancee in from of Jane and forced her to watch as her employer. Jane can be like Bella and constantly go for men more liable to hurt her than love her. The book can be a blatant fantasy of dangerous men and attainment of desired traits: the Cullens are beautiful, rich, intelligent, good - everything a middle-aged woman with three kids would find desirable - and Jane is morally strong and humble - everything that C.B. wanted so badly to be. There are many people calling Twilight out on its deficiencies, from its lack of character development to typos. But Jane Eyre's strengths (remember the fluttering bird) do make up for its faults and, thus, I haven't found many people detailing the wrongs of Jane Eyre. Despite having enough ugliness to be reviled, it's still made every must-read reading list under Google's eye. Therein lies my dislike for Jane Eyre.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Reading Anais continued

I keep a diary because journaling is supposed to have therapeutic effects. It's supposed to help with depression and various mental illnesses. Recording one's life and being able to look back on it and think about what has happened and why ... this process is supposed to filter out the crazy in one's life. It's introspection and meditation and all those healthy things. One should be able to spot complications in life (falling in love with a married man, starting an affair with one's psychoanalyst, etc) before they take root. Journaling should temper one's more feral instincts, stabilize emotional swings and contribute to living a simple, uncomplicated life.

But secretly, I suspect, journaling only has that effect on people who are by nature temperate and not inclined to do crazy things.

As I'm reading Anais Nin's diary, I get the feeling that she's not being entirely candid. When I started reading, I was awed by how candid her depiction of June Miller is. It's so personal and she admits to being fascinated by June. I was inspired by the idea of this journal, in which someone can shed all of her inhibitions to tell the truth and honestly record all that she thinks, and thus free herself of hidden demons lurking at the back of her mind, that would usually be suppressed. As I read on however, I became more and more aware that this diary was always meant to be read. I can also see that she's not entirely honest with the diary.

In reading her episode with Dr. Allendy, I was hit with the realization that, when she questioned whether or not she was attracted to him, she already knew the answer, which she did not share with her diary. After this realization and casting Anais Nin in the role of an unreliable narrator (like Ishmael), I'm left questioning a lot of things. What does she feel about Henry Miller? Her relationship with him seems to hover between romantic and platonic. Even such a candid, beautifully-written diary suffers from omission and elision.

Diary-writing does not prevent life from being complicated; all the reflection and introspection leads to discovering one's problems, but not to fixing them. In fact, a diary is just a place to think and justify one's actions that might appear to the world as wrong - whereupon, one can live out questionable situations all the more systematically.

Note to self: must find more time to read ... and write in my diary.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

18: Swann's Way

"And, drying my eyes, I promised them [the hawthorn flowers] that, when I grew up, I would never copy the foolish example of other men, but that even in Paris, on fine spring days, instead of paying calls and listening to silly talk, I would make excursions into the country to see the first hawthorn-trees in bloom."

Proust, Swann's Way, somewhere towards the end of Combray chapter

I had been reading this book for a whole year before I finished it. Most of the time, I was lost in Combray, in the little remembrances that make up the whole books. In contrast, I read Swann in Love, the second half of this book is barely any time.

I remember the episode where the narrator soiled his fancy traveling clothes to say goodbye to a particularly fine hawthorn-tree and I wanted the quote, which you see above. Finding it was like wading through a pond of Combray-coloured memories, all of which are distinct yet so similar, and being lost. When I listen to a CD repeatedly, at the end of a track, I would start to hear, in my head, the beginning of the next track. Sometimes, when one rereads familiar works, at the end of a scene or passage, one gets the feeling of the next passage before it arrives. But this book, when I went through it, trying to find my hawthorns scene, so many passages gave me the feeling that the passage that I was looking for was immediately following - it all seems to be the same kind of moment, lived out in different actualities. It is only by the miracle of Project Gutenberg's searchable text, that the above quote was brought to you.

But all of the remembrances of the narrator's childhood summer home and perfectly every day occurrences there - the walks along Swann's way or Guermantes Way, tearful farewells to hawthorn flowers, and sleepless, miserable nights because maman would not come say goodnight - constitute the whole of this book and the story of Charles Swann in love is just a strange interlude, after which we return to the narrator and his unrequited love for Gilberte Swann, Charles Swann's daughter.

I might note that nowhere do we find the narrator's name. The only other book that I've ever read where we never see the narrator's name is Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier. Well, this book is technically not over yet. I have to go find the next volume.

"For what we suppose to be our love, our jealousy are, neither of them, single, continuous and individual passions. They are composed of an infinity of successive loves, of different jealousies, each of which is ephemeral, although by their uninterrupted multitude they give us the impression of continuity, the illusion of unity."

Marcel Proust, Swann's Way