'Hypocrisy, duplicity are my only chance. I'm sorry for it, but there's no baseness I wouldn't commit for Jeffrey Aspern's sake.'
So says the unnamed'Hypocrisy, duplicity are my only chance. I'm sorry for it, but there's no baseness I wouldn't commit for Jeffrey Aspern's sake.'
So says the unnamed narrator of Henry James' The Aspern Papers, a literary scholar who is writing a book about the fictional poet Jeffrey Aspern (loosely based on either Keats or Browning, depending on whose theories you choose to believe). At the beginning of the novella, the narrator discovers that Juliana Bordereau, to whom the poet addressed some of his most beautiful love poems, is still alive, a very old lady who lives with a niece in a dilapidated house in Venice. Not unreasonably, he suspects Miss Bordereau of having mementoes (possibly even love letters from the poet), and since a colleague of his has already established that she won't part with them the regular way, he inveigles his way into her house as a lodger. And then he waits -- waits for an opportunity to get his hands on the papers, or to get hold of them some other way.
In many respects, The Aspern Papers is an ideal book for people who dislike James, or think they do. A product of his middle period, it doesn't feature the late-period characteristics with which so many people associate him: the stupendous subtlety, the ponderous tone and the endless sentences whose meaning is obscure even after rereading them. The Aspern Papers is neither ponderous nor obscure. It's a perfectly straightforward and easy-to-read story about hope and obsession and where they will lead us. As is often the case with James, it's also about people using each other, but exactly who is using whom here is unclear. Indeed, a case could be made for all three leads using each other, which adds a bitter dimension to the tale. And it's a pretty bitter story to begin with -- dark and cynical with a bit of well-handled tragedy thrown in for good measure.
Reading The Aspern Papers is an interesting experience. It's quite fascinating to follow the narrator's progress, seeing him plot, attempt to justify his actions, pity himself and check himself whenever he's aware that he is about to do something which may ruin his chances. He's a calculating monster, but in a way you want him to succeed, both because you feel he deserves something for his efforts and because he has to put up with two very difficult women to get at the papers. For Juliana and her niece are difficult. The former poet's mistress has turned into a cynical, sarcastic and avaricious old lady, and as for her niece, Miss Tina, well, she's a bit of a simpleton, albeit an interesting one (the narrator nastily describes her as 'a piece of middle-aged female helplessness'). So how should the narrator go about dealing with them? How should he manipulate them into giving him what he wants? Jeffrey Aspern never offered any advice on that, so the narrator is left to find out for himself. But of course the women have an agenda of their own, and it doesn't necessarily match his.
As a story about academic obsession, The Aspern Papers is a bit too detached to leave a lasting impression. However, as a story about cold ambition and ruthlessness -- about the corrupting influence of want and need -- it's very successful. It's an intense and suspenseful novella with a few short bursts of melodrama, some near-gothic moments and an impressive, well-written ending. If it's a tad light-weight by James' later standards, I daresay there will be readers who will consider that a good thing. I know I do. In my weaker moments. :-)...more
'Welcome to my house. Come freely. Go safely. And leave something of the happiness you bring!'
These are pretty much the first words spoken to Jonathan'Welcome to my house. Come freely. Go safely. And leave something of the happiness you bring!'
These are pretty much the first words spoken to Jonathan Harker, one of the heroes of Bram Stoker's Dracula, upon his arrival at Count Dracula's castle in Transylvania, just minutes after a nightmare journey through the landscape of gothic horror: darkness, howling wolves, flames erupting out of the blue, frightened horses. Within a few days of his arrival, Harker will find himself talking of the Count's 'wickedly blazing eyes' and 'new schemes of villainy' and have some hair-raising encounters with the man who is now the world's most famous vampire: 'The last I saw of Count Dracula was his kissing his hand to me, with a red light of triumph in his eyes, and with a smile that Judas in hell might be proud of.' Several adventures involving sharp teeth, mirrors, garlic, crucifixes, bloody-mouthed corpses and big stakes will ensue.
The above quotations should make it abundantly clear what kind of book Dracula is. It's sensation fiction, written nearly half a century after the heyday of that genre. It's a cross between an epistolary novel, a detective novel and a save-my-wife story, and it's full of scares, horror and disgust, all described in a lurid tone that befits the subject: the living dead. Or the Un-Dead, as the book's other hero, my countryman Van Helsing, calls them.
Sadly, Van Helsing is one of my main problems with the book. While I love his heroism, his 'Let's-do-it' attitude and his unceasing struggle for Mina's soul, I find him entirely unconvincing as a Dutchman. I wish to God (with a crucifix and everything!) that I could switch off my inner linguist and appreciate the story for its narrative qualities rather than its linguistic aspects, but Stoker has Van Helsing indulge in so many linguistic improbabilities ('Are you of belief now, friend John?') that it quite took me out of the story, again and again and again. I'm aware this is not a problem that will bother many readers, but I for one dearly wish Stoker had listened to some actual Dutchmen before making the hero of his story one. Then perhaps he also would have refrained from making the poor man mutter German whenever he is supposed to speak his mother tongue. ('Mein Gott' is German, Mr Stoker. I mean, really.)
Linguistic inaccuracies aside (there are many in the book), Dracula has a few more problems. For one thing, the bad guy doesn't make enough appearances. Whenever Stoker focuses on Dracula, the story comes alive -- menace drips off the pages, and the reader finds himself alternately shivering with excitement and recoiling in horror. However, when Dracula is not around (which is most of the second half of the book), the story loses power, to the point where the second half of the book is actually quite dull. In addition, the story seems a little random and unfocused. Remember the 1992 film, in which Dracula obsesses about Mina Harker (Jonathan's wife) because she is his long-lost wife reincarnated? That conceit had grandeur, romance, passion, tragedy. And what was more, it made sense. It explained why Dracula comes all the way from Transylvania to England to find Mina, and why he wants to make her his bride despite the fact that she is being protected by people who clearly want him dead. In the book, however, Mina is merely Jonathan's wife (no reincarnation involved), a random lady Dracula has sunk his teeth into, and while this entitles her to some sympathy, it lacks the grand romantic quality the film had. I guess it's unfair to blame an author for not thinking of an improvement film-makers later made to his story, but I think Stoker rather missed an opportunity there.
And then there's the fact that Stoker seems to be an early proponent of the Robert Jordan School of Writing, meaning he takes an awful lot of time setting the scene, only to end the book on a whimper. The ending to Dracula is so anticlimactic it's rather baffling. Did Stoker run out of paper and ink? Did he want to finish the story before Dracula's brides came and got him? I guess we'll never know.
Still, despite its many flaws Dracula is an exciting read (well, the first half is, anyway), and Stoker undeniably left a legacy that will last for centuries to come. In that respect, Dracula deserves all the praise that has been heaped on it. I still think it could have been better, though. Much better....more
Carol Reed's The Third Man ranks among my favourite noir films. To a large extent, this is because of its stunningly atmospheric black-and-white cinemCarol Reed's The Third Man ranks among my favourite noir films. To a large extent, this is because of its stunningly atmospheric black-and-white cinematography (I just love those ruins and shadows...), but it's also because there's something quite compelling about the story about a Brit who is invited to post-war Vienna by a friend, only to discover that said friend is dead and may have been involved in a rather nasty racket. That story was written by Graham Greene, and was published by Penguin along with another Greene story adapted for the screen by Reed, 'The Fallen Idol'.
The Third Man is unlike other Greene books. As Greene himself points out in the preface, 'it was never written to be read but only to be seen'. In other words, while it's not exactly a film script, The Third Man was written to be turned into one, and it shows. By Greene's standards, the story is light on characterisation and heavy on descriptions of actions and situations. This is bad news for those of us who like Greene precisely for his characterisation, but it's not necessarily a bad thing per se, as for one thing, what little characterisation there is is solid and original (I love Rollo Martins' semi-split personality) and for another, both the plot and the atmosphere are great. Post-war Vienna (carved up into four spheres of influence by the Americans, British, French and Russians) makes for a wonderfully tense setting, and involuntary detective Rollo Martins' journey from indignation to disbelief to disillusionment to acceptance makes for compulsive reading, featuring as it does dramatic plot twists, some dark humour and a healthy dose of cynicism. In short, it's a fairly strong novella, even if it doesn't match up with Greene's longer works. Even so, I'm going to defer to the author's own assessment, which is that the film is better than the story (and not just because the story lacks the famous cuckoo clock line, which was written by Orson Welles). It's simply because the film (on which Greene closely collaborated with Reed) is, as Greene points out in his preface, 'in this case the finished state of the story', whereas the book version is merely an earlier draft -- a solid draft, but an unfinished one nonetheless.
As for the second, much shorter story in the book, 'The Fallen Idol', this is a tragedy about an innocent child who gets caught up in the nasty games adults play and ends up accidentally handing his best friend over to the police. As an exploration of the innocence-versus-guilt theme, it's rather interesting, especially since it is (unusually for Greene) told from the child's point of view. Due to the childish perspective, Greene doesn't get to indulge in his trademark cynicism (which is what I love best about him), but still, it's a well-told, well-observed story with great characters, some menace, several 'Oh, no!' moments and an abrupt but effective ending. It's not brilliant, but it's decent story-telling -- more proof (if any were needed) that Greene didn't need many words to tell a powerful story.
All in all, I'd say this is a solid 3.5-star book. Since it's closer to four stars than to three, I'll be generous and give it four....more
Great Expectations is one of my favourite Dickens novels. It's big but not overly drawn out; it's dark but full of brilliantly funny touches; and theGreat Expectations is one of my favourite Dickens novels. It's big but not overly drawn out; it's dark but full of brilliantly funny touches; and the characters are tremendously memorable without ever slipping into the grotesque. In short, it's one of the best things Dickens ever wrote. His contemporaries might not have agreed, but hey, what did they know?
The central question in Great Expectations is what it means to be a gentleman -- whether the word refers to a man of money and manners or rather, more literally, to a man who is gentle and caring (I think we can all guess the answer to that). The protagonist, the poor orphan Pip (son of 'Philip Pirrip, late of this parish, and also Georgiana, wife of the above'), initially believes the former, so when an unknown benefactor gives him a fortune with which to turn himself into a gentleman, he focuses on the outer trappings of the lifestyle and begins to despise the life he used to lead -- including his relatives, who are still leading it. For a while, he turns into an unbearable snob, but ultimately his better self prevails, and he ends up being a moral hero after Dickens' own heart. And the reader's, presumably.
As a story about status anxiety, Great Expectations is nearly unsurpassed. Dickens draws with great skill and psychological depth Pip's embarrassment at his lowly background, his shame of home and the lack of confidence it inspires in him. His snobbery, while unpleasant, is made understandable, and his sense of guilt at it makes up for much of it. Yet there's more to Great Expectations than a (still very relevant) wish for a cultural make-over. It's also a detective story, in that Pip has to find out where his unexpected fortune actually came from, and who the girl he loves, the stunningly beautiful but haughty Estella, actually is. Dickens ably weaves the psychological drama and the detective story together into an intense and compelling tale. For most of the book, the tone is rather dark, but there are brilliant flashes of humour in unnecessary (but highly entertaining) details and, of course, the characterisation. Melodramatic but impressive Miss Havisham is justifiably the most famous character of the book, but there are other inspired creations, such as the tough-as-nails attorney, Mr Jaggers, and his clerk, Mr Wemmick, who is two entirely different persons when he is at work and when he is at home with his Aged Parent. Furthermore, the novel boasts Joe Gargery, Pip's first father figure, whose speech patterns are just brilliant; the menacing convict whom Pip helps; and Estella, who is a living argument for why mentally unstable persons who have been greatly disappointed in life should not be allowed to raise children. They are all exquisitely drawn, and every bit as memorable as Pip's journey through Victorian society. Together they make Great Expectations an absolute classic -- one of the best novels to have come out of the Victorian era, I think. I'd give it 4.5 stars if I could, but since I can't, four will have to do. ...more
Call me a freak, but I have a bit of a crush on Hannibal Lecter. He may be the scariest fuck out there (certainly scarier than the supposed monster ofCall me a freak, but I have a bit of a crush on Hannibal Lecter. He may be the scariest fuck out there (certainly scarier than the supposed monster of the book, Buffalo Bill), but he just oozes style and knowledge. In fact, he has so much style and knowledge that he doesn't come off as a ridiculous prick when he says things like, 'A census taker tried to quantify me once. I ate his liver with some fava beans and a big Amarone'* or 'Can you smell his sweat? That peculiar goatish odour is trans-3-methyl-2 hexenoic acid. Remember it, it's the smell of schizophrenia.' Quite the contrary -- he sounds cool saying these things. Sophisticated, even. In this and many other ways, Dr Lecter is so utterly fascinating that you'll still find yourself rooting for him after he has committed several heinous (but brilliant!) murders, hoping he'll stay out of the hands of the police and live out his life in freedom. Now that's quality writing for you.
As you can probably tell from the above, I like The Silence of the Lambs, which is to say the book on which the movie was based. Except for the fact that Harris makes Clarice rather stupid** and that the dialogue in the book is a bit too clever and masculine for its own good***, it's a solid and exciting will-they-find-him-in-time-to-save-the-girl story -- a page-turner if ever there was one. The characters aren't terribly easy to identify with, but that's all right, because for one thing, they're cool (had I mentioned that yet?), and for another, they all have a clearly defined quest. They don't necessarily have the same quest, but hey, that only serves to increase the tension.
In some regards the book is better than the film. Remember those stupid anagrams from the movie? They're not in the book (except for the bilirubin one, which I actually quite like). The book makes its connections in a much more logical, less what-the-fuck?-ish way. It also has a more realistic romance, though not necessarily a better one. On the down side, I think Thomas Harris must have kicked himself for not having come up with the closing line of the film ('I'm having an old friend for dinner') himself. In my opinion, it's the best closing line in cinematic history, unmatched by the ending of the book. Still, it's a satisfying read. Very satisfying. As satisfying as the movie, and that's saying a fair bit.
* Yes, that's what he says in the book. Not 'a nice Chianti'. I've been reliably informed by those in the know (I myself do not actually drink wine) that Amarone and Chianti are not in fact the same thing. 'Chianti' does sound better than 'Amarone' in this line, doesn't it?
** In the book, Dr Lecter tells Clarice in one of their first interviews that Billy has kidnapped large-chested Catherine Martin because 'he wants a vest with tits on it'. He then goes on to say in their next meeting that 'Billy is making a girl suit out of real girls'. And despite these incredibly obvious clues (which cannot be rude jokes on Lecter's part as he's far too sophisticated to make such rude jokes) it takes Clarice, who is supposed to be really intelligent, the entire rest of the book to figure out what it is that Billy wants from his victims. They wisely changed that in the movie, where Clarice doesn't have her entire quest spelled out for her right at the beginning.
*** I've never met any women who speak to each other the way Clarice and Ardelia do. Then again, I've never met any brilliant FBI trainees, so what do I know? Perhaps they do speak to each other like that at Quantico. I guess I'll never find out. (Anyone out there have FBI-trained friends? Anyone? Bueller?) ...more
Since today marks a special occasion (this is my 100th review on Goodreads), I thought I'd do something a little different. So instead of giving you aSince today marks a special occasion (this is my 100th review on Goodreads), I thought I'd do something a little different. So instead of giving you an overly long, overly serious review of a book, I'm going to present you with some gorgeous art and tell you how I came to be in the possession of that art. And yes, it's a long story (even longer than my average review, natch), and it's utterly self-indulgent, but I hope it's somewhat worth reading, anyway.
Just over a year and a half ago, I flew first to Singapore, then to Australia for a three-month holiday. Due to circumstances I won't go into here, the trip came a bit earlier than I'd expected, meaning I didn't have as much time saving up for it as I would have liked. To make matters worse, I then went on a mad book- and clothes-buying spree in Singapore (a great place to go shopping). And just when I had forgiven myself for that, my father (who was keeping an eye on my financial situation) informed me that Her Majesty's Inland Revenue Service had just sent me a huge and rather unexpected bill which had to be paid at once. So after just a few days in Sydney, I came to the conclusion that my financial situation was bad and that I was going to have to live extremely frugally if I wanted to be able to stay in Australia for more than a couple of weeks.
So the day after I spoke to my father, I decided to be frugal. To save a few dollars, I largely skipped breakfast. To save a few more dollars' bus fare, I walked all the way from my hostel in Glebe to the sights in the Central Business District, which anyone who is familiar with Sydney will tell you is madness (particularly since the buses are really quite cheap). I spent my morning in the Royal Botanic Gardens (admission free), had the cheapest lunch I could find, and spent my afternoon at the Art Gallery of New South Wales (admission free), where I skipped the special Aboriginal art exhibition (even though it looked really interesting) because it cost seven dollars. And all the while, I was feeling really good about myself, really virtuous about all the money I was saving.
And then I made a mistake.
I entered the museum shop.
Oh, I was virtuous at first. I only bought two postcards, down from my usual twelve or thirteen (I collect art cards). But when I went to the counter to pay for those cards, my eye alighted on something which quite literally took my breath away: a Michael Kenna photobook, left over from an exhibition held the year before. Now I'm not sure if you know Michael Kenna, but he is in my eyes the greatest landscape photographer in the world. He doesn't go in for originality or irony; he simply focuses on objects with beautiful lines and takes square pictures of them, often long exposures taken at night or in the early morning. I'd seen (and fallen in love with) his work on the Internet, but had never come close to any good prints or reproductions. And here I found myself face to face with an absolutely magnificent book full of magnificently reproduced Michael Kenna photographs, which cost 160 Australian dollars. And 160 Australian dollars might not be as much as 160 US dollars, but still, it was an awful lot of money for a skint girl like myself.
I asked the lady behind the counter if I could see the book. She gave it to me, and for the next five minutes or so, I carefully turned the heavy pages, lost to the rest of the world. I knew I wanted to have the book, but I also knew I couldn't afford it, so in the end, I handed it back to the lady, literally aching inside at having to give up something so beautiful for so mundane a reason as a lack of funds. I walked out of the shop, and then walked straight back in, wanting to see the rest of the photos. So I asked the lady behind the counter if I could see the book again. She obliged, though not in a very friendly manner; by this time she probably had me pegged as a backpacker who was unlikely to buy a big, fat, heavy and expensive book. I then stood at the counter weighing the book against a trip I was hoping to make. I decided the trip was more important (after all, I had come to Australia to see the country, not to buy photography books), so after a few more minutes' agonised browsing, I walked out of the shop again, only to decide five minutes later that I really did want the book (damn it!), and that I was going to buy it because hey, it had been my birthday two days earlier and I deserved a present. So I walked back into the shop, got out my credit card, stammered apologies to my bank account and bought the book from the same lady who had helped me before, who obviously thought I was quite out of my mind.
And did I then go and find myself a nice place to savour my purchase? Hell, no. I went straight to the post office, because my rucksack was quite ridiculously heavy enough as it was (I had three cameras and a tripod with me, plus all that stuff I had bought in Singapore) and I honestly couldn't see myself lugging around two kilos' worth of art for the next ten weeks. So I bought a large parcel, put the book and a lot of other things into it and shipped it home. And then, incredibly enough, I forgot all about the book.
Two days ago, I finally remembered its existence, and sat down to admire what I had bought. And just like in the museum, I was transported by the beauty of the images. Michael Kenna's photos are very stark and empty, but so well composed and so gorgeously exposed that they're really quite mind-bogglingly beautiful. They're melancholy, nostalgic and full of trees, which I love as there is nothing I like quite so much as a good, photogenic tree in the right setting and the right light. (No, not even Beethoven and Jane Austen compare. I'm all about trees.)
And boy, does my book do Kenna's work justice. There honestly isn't a page in the book that I wouldn't like to rip out and hang on my wall. But I won't. I'll keep my book intact. I'll just have to find myself a real print somewhere to put on my wall. Or two.
You can see images from the book I book I bought here, but they're small and don't really do the originals justice. A collection of larger images (from other books as well as mine) can be found here. The scans are a bit dark and low-res, and don't look quite as impressive as they do in my book, but still, you'll get the idea. Seriously, scroll down. It's good stuff.
And for those of you who wish to know how the holiday story ended, a few days after buying the book I called my parents and asked them for a substantial loan so that I could stay in Australia a bit longer and travel on a slightly less tight budget. To my ever-lasting gratitude, they said yes. I then met a nice Aussie, and the rest, as they say, is history. I'm still paying off my debt to my parents, but I'm moving to Australia in a few months to be with my boyfriend. Yep, it was quite a holiday....more