Thursday, 28 November 2013

How Proust Can Change Your Life by Alain de Botton

I have never read a word written by Marcel Proust, nor have I ever felt the urge to do so.  The reputation for difficulty earned by Proust's books has encouraged me to keep my distance, I suppose.  I have, however read a few things written by Alain de Botton and I like his style.  I also like (and firmly believe) the premise that reading can change your life.  Now, having read this book I feel quite interested in tackling Proust.

In reality, every reader is, while he is reading, the reader of his own self.  The writer's work is merely a kind of optical instrument which he offers to the reader to enable him to discern what, without this book, he would perhaps never have experienced in himself.  And the recognition by the reader in his own self of what the book says is the proof of its veracity. - Marcel Proust

Alain de Botton leads the reader through nine different themes for how to live a better life using examples from Proust's life and writing.  This is a "self-help" book of the cheeky variety.  While maintaining a respect for the man and the words, he does enjoy poking a bit of fun.  For Marcel was an inveterate Mama's Boy, and fell into the unfortunate category of being a legitimately ill hypochondriac.

  1. How to Love Life Today
  2. How to Read for Yourself
  3. How to Take Your Time
  4. How to Suffer Successfully
  5. How to Express Your Emotions
  6. How to Be a Good Friend
  7. How to Open Your Eyes
  8. How to Be Happy in Love
  9. How to Put Books Down

There were no earth-shattering revelations for me in How Proust Can Change Your Life.  There was a re-enforcement of my own beliefs and that made it a really enjoyable and easy read.  As he describes Proust's style of writing I am reminded of the calm that comes over me when I am immersed in enjoying wonderful art: savouring the delight that can be found in the smallest details painstakingly rendered.

"Glen Williams" by A. J. Casson

As I read how Proust can teach us to open our eyes, to see the beauty in the details of our daily lives I was reminded of one of my favourite places online: for a little inspiration in appreciating the beauty around me nothing moves me more than Heather Bruggeman's wonderful blog Beauty That Moves.  I especially love the photographs that she shares; the vast majority are the visual equivalent of Proust's madeleines and tea cup, a little bit of calm pondered thoughtfully in the stillness of the moment.

The moral?  That we shouldn't deny the bread on the sideboard a place in our conception of beauty... Alain de Botton

I hope Alain de Botton inspires more authors to share how their favourite writers influence their lives. This book was a success for me as an enjoyable experience of reading, and as an introduction to Marcel Proust and his worldview.  I always find it fascinating to learn how books affect different people, and the meaning they find in fiction.

Alain de Botton

Monday, 25 November 2013

W;t, A Play by Margaret Edson

Margaret Edson’s W;t was a tiny little book that jumped out at me from the classics shelf at my local library.  I always find it interesting to see what works the library categorises as Classic.  I tend to think that fourteen years isn't quite long enough to earn that distinction but reading this play has me re-evaluating my criteria!

This Pulitzer Prize-winning play begins with Vivian Bearing, an English professor, as she is diagnosed with advanced ovarian cancer.  A scholar, she is used to relying on her rational mind to guide her as she untangles the metaphysical poetry of John Donne.  As her disease progresses she has a revelation about alternative ways of viewing the world and how to live.

How Margaret Edson manages to work so many layers of meaning, so many themes and perspectives into less than 85 pages, and how she manages to tackle such subject without ever straying into the maudlin or sentimental is a marvel.  As Vivian examines her own thoughts about mortality, we glimpse her relationship to her father, her students, her medical team and her colleagues.  It becomes clear that the real message is not how much cancer sucks (it does), and how hospitals could be more humane (they could), but about how we will choose to live our one precious life.  We are all moving inexorably closer to death: advanced ovarian cancer has accelerated the process for Vivian but the cancer itself is not the story.  The cancer is not the villan of the play, or of Vivian's life.  She comes to understand that the real villan is the lack of compassion with which we treat each other.

In 2001, Emma Thompson wrote and starred in an award-winning television adaptation of W;t which is entitled Wit.  This link should take you to the entire 99 minute film which is well worth watching.

I was nervous of how I would feel watching this film as the subject matter might hit a little close to home.  I am very sensitive about the whole hospital thing.  It was definitely more emotional to watch than it was to read the play, but it was not difficult.  Emma Thompson is at her very finest in this role.  I would highly recommend both the play and the film, and if you are ever lucky enough to see it live, do it!

Margaret Edson

According to Wikipedia, Margaret Edson "donated her Pulitzer Prize money to create a foundation to teach medical students how to interact more humanely with their patients" and continues to work as a kindergarten teacher with no intention of writing any more plays.

Friday, 22 November 2013

The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood

Margaret Atwood's The Penelopiad is part of the Canongate Books series of top shelf authors retelling the greatest myths of the world.  This is an alternate look at the Odyssey in which Penelope, Odysseus' long-suffering wife tells her version of the twenty years while her husband was away fighting the Trojan War.  This novella deals with themes familiar in Margaret Atwood's writing such as gender stereotyping, the nature of storytelling and myth-making, and the exclusion of the female perspective and is told with her usual sardonic sense of humour.

Penelope and her maids are in Hades and in a sometimes whimsical, conversational tone they tell their story in prose and song.  This is their story, that which has been left unsaid in Homer's epic is now retold explaining the relevant exclusions from the accepted version.  Penelope was a pragmatist and her arch enemy was not Odysseus (who comes across as something of a jerk), but rather her cousin Helen of Troy, a conniving, catty, vixen who plays the role of the middle school bully. 

Margaret Atwood

This is a fun book to read.  It is playful and enjoyable.  The voice of Penelope is rendered with exquisite realism.  It is not surprising that it was adapted into a play; Penelope rises from the pages as a real woman and begs to be portrayed on stage.  This is no two-dimensional image of the devoted wife, the faithful helpmeet.  Penelope has foibles and faults a-plenty, but they never distract from her likeablility.  I didn't realise until I'd almost finished the novella that I'd actually read it before.  That I had forgotten it is surprising in one way - I have a very good memory, if not for the content, at least for the titles of books I've read.  On the other hand, it wasn't a book that deeply resonated with me this time either.  It was a fun exercise in revisionist mythology and story crafting, but not one of my favourite of Margaret Atwood's books.

Wednesday, 20 November 2013

How Reading Changed My Life by Anna Quindlen

I recently picked up Anna Quindlen's contribution to the Library of Contemporary Thought series entitled How Reading Changed My Life.  It's a tiny little book - 84 pages including the acknowledgements - comprising four short essays and several lists of her Top 10 books by category.  Rather than a story of transformation, which you might expect from the title, this is a memoir of Anna Quindlen's reading life with gentle diversions into topics such as censorship, how technology is changing the way we read, the literary canon, and book groups.  I enjoyed her stroll down memory lane, and found myself nodding and agreeing with much that she wrote.  My only real disappointment with the book was with her Top 10 Lists which looked as though they were compiled from secondary school syllabi: so predictable.  I expected someone of her political persuasion not to be so heavy on the Dead White Guy, especially when she writes:

Most of those so-called middlebrow readers would have readily admitted that the Iliad set a standard that could not be matched by What Makes Sammy Run? or Exodus. But any reader with common sense would also understand intuitively, immediately, that such comparisons are false, that the uses of reading are vast and variegated and that some of them are not addressed by Homer. 

I think most avid readers will recognise themselves in many of Anna Quindlen's recollections.  Haven't we all walked down the street reading the last pages of a book we just can't put down?   Haven't we all escaped into the pages of a book rather than deal with real life?  It was fun to read about her journey but what this book did, was to encourage me to look back at my own reading history. 

I was the teenaged reader of E. Nesbit and Jane Austen, of Mazo de la Roche and Charles Dickens, of Agatha Christie and Robertson Davies and the Brontes.  If I'm being completely honest here, I also spent more than one evening with books from a teen romance series called "First Love at Silhouette" which included the baseball-themed Short Stop for Romance and the tennis-themed Courting Trouble.  My siblings and I used the library frequently, and my parents were always working through some non-fiction that held no interest for me (political biographies or social histories).

I have never been a prolific reader; I have always been slow and plodding, but I finished my degree in English Literature, and then I worked for some years (whilst pursuing my studies in Art History) in libraries and independent bookshops where I was in charge of the children’s books. During that time (pre-children-of-my-own), I spent most of my time endeavouring to read all the children's books I could. I discovered all the classics I had missed, and all the new authors of which I had never heard.   I became fascinated with historical Canadian children’s fiction, and Sheila Egoff’s critical work in the field.

When I entered the next phase of my life - The Mothering Years - I was able to put all that knowledge to good use with my own children.  Sharing all my own favourites and finding even more new books together has been one of the truly wonderful aspects of parenting for me.  My focus was on their reading, and because I chose to read them books that satisfied me as well, my own fiction reading declined.  For the first time in my life I began to search out non-fiction books.  I needed to find the answers to the questions presented by daily life. So, I read parenting books, philosophy of education books, cooking, sewing, lifestyle books, books about simple living, books about yoga, illness and nutrition, books about travel and learning a new language.

I am now recognising that I have settled into a new phase in my reading life, and this blog is part of that.  The search once so pressing for practical solutions to daily life seem less urgent. I am no longer focused so much on the simple answers to the simple questions (What do I make for dinner tonight?  Which is the best hike to tackle with a three year old?).  Now that the girls can (and do) read for themselves I find myself once again free to pursue my own interests.  I now find that I am looking for the complex answers to the complex questions of life, and the books to which I am drawn are invariably authors I encountered years ago and whose work I have not finished exploring.  I first met Aldous Huxley, Jane Austen, Robertson Davies, Josephine Tey, Orwell and Margaret Laurence when I was in secondary school; Margaret Atwood, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Alice Munro, George Eliot, Carol Shields, Hermann Hesse, Michael Ondaatje, Turgenev, and Hardy continue to appeal from my university days and all of these authors and more continue to speak to me.  I have loved being introduced to new authors through blogging and have found so much inspiration from bloggers.  I had never read Rumer Godden's adult fiction, Willa Cather, Dodie Smith, Beryl Bainbridge or Colm Tóibín's work before reading blogs.

For seven years I have been dealing with a chronic physical disease which affects my daily life.  I am fascinated by the mind-body link I have experienced during this time, and my fiction-reading has played a significant part in my treatment.  I have seen incredible links between my health and the books I am reading; the body follows where my mind leads.  I choose my reading very carefully especially when I am having a flare-up.  I will write more about this aspect of my reading life soon.

While I like my non-fiction simple and informative, I like my fiction deep and nuanced. I read non-fiction to learn what I do not already know. I read fiction to put words to the truths I feel deep in my soul. I like my non-fiction to-the-point and direct, well-organised and fast. I like my fiction with as many interpretations as there are readers, books that reward the re-reader, and the close reader. I search non-fiction for the simple answers. I search fiction for someone else's answer to the big questions that I can weigh against my own convictions. I like writing that is as complicated, and interwoven, and multi-layered, and symbolic, and challenging as life itself. I love reading.

Sunday, 17 November 2013

New Canadian Library: The Ross-McClelland Years 1952-1978 by Janet B. Friskney

On 17 January 1958, the McClelland and Stewart publishing house launched the New Canadian Library, a paperback series aimed at the general reading public, and the academic community in need of affordable, accessible texts for teaching and research.  The idea for the series had been championed by Malcolm Ross (1911-2002), an English professor who was to become the general editor.  He was able to convince Jack McClelland (1922-2004) of McClelland and Stewart to finance the creation of what would become a landmark literary series in Canada.

Author Janet B. Friskney has created a fascinating narrative using an astounding amount of documentary material.  She was able to interview both Ross and McClelland before their deaths.  The writing is accessible, and the research well supported.  The appendices are a treasure trove of information on the NCL: I found myself continually flipping back to refer to the chronology of publication, the graphs of annual sales of NCL titles and titles proposed but rejected for the series.

The collaborative process of creating the series was much more flexible than I imagined it would have been.  Ross is presented as a somewhat conservative academic mainly interested in reviving significant historical works of Canadian importance for public and scholarly consumption.  McClelland was the businessman whose main concern was the bottom line and keeping authors happy.  Their ability to find common ground explains some of the the anomolies, gaps and superfluities of the series (11 Leacock titles in the first 16 batches! and no W. O. Mitchell or Alice Munro?).  It made me more aware of how fickle the creation of a literary canon can be when a work of importance could be excluded merely because the publisher was unable to obtain the rights at the time when the market is favourable, or when trade-offs in titles were made to keep the series financially viable.

For anyone interested in the history of Canadian publishing, the early years of the New Canadian Library, or the discussion of the creation of the Canadian literary canon in the decades after the mid-century this is a fascinating book.

There is an element of nostalgia for those of us who grew up with these books.  I was assigned Margaret Laurence's The Stone Angel, Martha Ostenso's Wild Geese and Mordecai Richler's  The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz in high school and read a number of others on my own.  That was the beauty of the NCL series, and exactly the balance that Ross and McClelland were trying to find: how to cater to the academic market desperate for reprints of Canadian literature, and still appeal to the general public.

I had never seen any of the first covers until last year when I found an old copy of Gabrielle Roy's Where Nests the Water Hen.  I love the focus on the author's image, and the various artistic styles somehow reflecting what we can expect to find within the pages.

Jack McClelland (photo: Patti Gower)

Malcolm Ross (photo: Halifax Herald)

I know that I am probably the only person in the world who likes the post-1970 Don Fernby covers, but I do.  Their funky abstractions and wonky production value harken back to a time of brown and orange Tupperware, plastic covers on chesterfields and my dad in his brown polyester suit.

Okay, I know they are pretty ugly, but there is something about them...

Some additional bits of interestingness:
biography of Malcolm Ross
article and Robert Fulford's rebutal

Thursday, 14 November 2013

One Happy Moment by Louise Riley

[These primeval solitudes] suspend your forced sense of your own importance not merely as individuals, but even as men.  They allow you, in one happy moment, at once to play and to worship, to take yourselves simply, humbly, for what you are, and to salute the wild, indifferent, non-censorious infinity of nature.

G. Santayana, Winds of Doctrine
Published in 1951, One Happy Moment by Louise Riley has a surprisingly modern feel with its exploration of a woman's right to be her own person.  The novel begins as Deborah, the protagonist, arrives by train at a quiet mountain station, changes out of her skirt and blouse, pulls on a sweater, slacks and heavy shoes, shakes her hair free and tosses her suitcase into the lake.  Clearly, this is a woman shedding her past.  She is on her way to September Lake (set in the mountains between Lake Louise and Lake O'Hara) when she meets a wise old man of the bush who tells her:

These mountains have been here for a long time.  They will be here, real and powerful and eternal, when we are all forgotten.  They put us in our place.  But sometimes they give us something, too; strength, I guess you would call it.  Other people, like you, will come here for sanctuary.  Other people who are running away from something.

Of course, Deborah is running away from something; she is taking control of her life into her own hands, and escaping from under the thumb of a domineering mother and a manipulative lover.  Before she can begin a new life she must find solitude and peace in which to be able to come to terms with her past, to find the strength to forge her own identity, and to break free from these negative forces in her life.

near Lake Louise, Alberta

This is a coming-of-age story without any startling departures from the expected.  The really fun part of One Happy Moment for me is in the setting. There are beautiful descriptions of a landscape Louise Riley knew intimately, and clearly loved.  She uses this mountain landscape to explore the theme of nature as a source of healing.  Deborah, surrounded by the grandeur of the Rockies, is cradled and rejuvenated, gaining perspective on her own troubles, and tentatively re-envisioning her life with only her own happiness in mind.

Just ahead, with the sun shining on it, stood the green shoulder of a mountain.  To her surprise it looked friendly and protective.  Deborah gazed at it for a long time before she turned to look acros the valley at a towering peak, dazzling in its snowy majesty.  Suddenly she was conscious of a feeling of safety.

and later,

Deborah slipped away from the Lodge and found a sunny spot on the lakeshore.  She sat, with an open book on her knees, gazing toward the glacier at the head of the lake.  she was not consciously thinking of anything.  The warmth of the sunshine, the serenity of the lake, and the strength of the mountains combined to soothe her mind, and, for the first time in weeks, her body felt relaxed.

Rocky Mountain waterfall (Johnson's Canyon)

After the thrill of her escape has died down, Deborah comes to the realisation that she is still anxious about the past.  Although she has physically removed herself from her past life, she still has emotional ties - she is afraid of the power it still holds over her.  A fatherly character reads to Deborah from the poet/philospher George Santayana:

To be happy you must be reasonable, or you must be tamed.  You must have taken the measure of your powers, tasted the fruits of your passion, and learned your place in the world and what things in it can really serve you.  To be happy you must be wise.  This happiness is sometimes found instinctively, and then the rudest fanatic can hardly fail to see how lovely it is; but sometimes it comes of having learned by experience, and involves some chastening and some renunciation; but it is not less sweet for having this touch of holiness about it, and the spirit of it is healthy and beneficent.

Soon after this quote, Deborah "felt that here was a moment, isolated and complete, when she wanted to look neither forward nor back."  From this moment, Deborah feels the comfort of friendship, of confidence in herself, and happiness in the present moment.

The view from inside Chateau Lake Louise.

I especially enjoyed this passage - it felt a bit like an inside joke:

Deborah looked.  "Lake Louise," she whispered.  There it was, the shining blue lake, reflecting trees and mountains and the glacier at its head, its beauty waiting to bring infinite solace to the minds of men.

"It is even better than the picture post cards, isn't it?" asked Andrew.  "It lifts my heart up every time I see it.  But it will look better still after a beer and some lunch.  Come on."

They ate their lunch in front of a huge window overlooking the Lake.  "The C.P.R. should photograph you looking out with that rapt expression on your face, my dear.  They could make it into a poster and call it, 'Lucky Lady looks at Lovely Lake Louise'.

And there she is...

This novel has some interesting things to say about women finding their own way in the world and having the strength to determine their own destiny.  Each of the female characters reflects a different choice available to women: there is the feisty sexually liberated lodge owner who is unconcerned about social mores and always has the upper hand because of her confidence and beauty, there is the innocent young girl who shamelessly throws herself at the man she loves, there is the elitist snob who is so concerned with superficial that she never sees what is below the surface, and there is the busy-body who maintains power over her husband by brow-beating him.  Deborah finds not only a path for herself to travel, but influences the women around her through her graceful insistence on seeking her own way.  She is a strong women insistent on charting her own path, but feminine and respectable enough to do it without making anyone else feel threatened.

I enjoyed this novel.  It was delightfully escapist, but also contained some real wisdom about life and happiness.  It was fun to scamper through the same places I know so well. As the Wise Man of the Bush said, "These mountains have been here for a long time.  They will be here, real and powerful and eternal, when we are all forgotten.  They put us in our place."  It's funny to think how little has changed in those mountains since 1951! 

Who was Louise Riley?

Louise Riley was the granddaughter of Thomas E. Riley, an early Alberta pioneer rancher who worked the land along the Bow River.  The Riley family prospered as a result of the development of their ranch into the Calgary communities of Hillhurst, West Hillhurst, and Hounsfield Heights.  Her father, Ezra Hounsfield Riley donated Riley Park to the city in 1910.  Louise Riley became a children's librarian, storyteller and author.  She worked for the Calgary Public Library from 1930 until the time of her death in 1957.  A branch of the Calgary Public Library was named after Louise Riley.

Monday, 11 November 2013

All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque


You still think it's beautiful to die for your country. The first bombardment taught us better. When it comes to dying for country, it's better not to die at all.

Erich Maria Remarque's objective in writing All Quiet on the Western Front was "to give an account of a generation that was destroyed by the war - even those of it who survived the shelling." 

Paul Bäumer, the narrator, acts as our guide to the world of trench warfare.  We walk alongside him as he visits his mortally wounded friend in the infirmary, crawls between shell-holes in the mud dodging death, returns home to his village on leave, and remembers life before the war.  We are guided not just through the physical landscape of war, but he shares with us his most personal thoughts - thoughts that change, attitudes that adapt to his changing reality of life as a front-line soldier.

At the beginning of the story he is able to take comfort in the companionship of his comrades, and in the small, fleeting moments of beauty, such as the butterflies in the mud.  He sees poetry in the movement of a column of men, and a battlefield "like a storm-tossed sea, with the flames from the impacts spurting up like fountains."  Nature informs his experiences and links him to the world before the war.  But the longer he serves on the front line, the more difficult it is for him to forge those links with the past.  He becomes lost in the present, with no past to comfort and no future to inspire.  He is one of the lost generation.

It is very easy to forget that this is a depiction of a German, and not a British soldier for there are so many similarities to other depictions of the same battles from the allied side, such as Generals Die in Bed by Canadian Charles Harrison Yale, Under Fire: The Story of a Squad by Henri Barbusse, the poetry of Owen and Sassoon et al.  The power for me is in the depiction of Paul Bäumer not as a German, but as Everyman.  His Germanness was not emphasised.  He is a young boy just like thousands of English young boys who enlisted because his teacher gave a stirring speech, and because all his chums were signing up.  Paul and his fellow soldiers are shocked to see the kaiser and recognise that he too is just a human, and not a force of mythic proportion.  They cannot imagine that he "has to go to the lavatory."  The army necessitates the surrender and negation of individual personalities amongst the soldiers.  Paul has moments of clarity when he begins to see the enemy, and all humans, even the kaiser, as individuals.

Erich Maria Remarque

Although this was a difficult book to read because of the violence and destruction, I found the psychology of the soldiers (especially of the narrator) quite fascinating.  The mind is capable of protecting us from more than it can handle, and the amount Paul and his comrades endured during the war is unimaginable.  Yet, they were each in their own way capable of seeing their way through the events depicted.  He says, "We are dead men with no feelings, who are able by some trick, some dangerous magic, to keep on running and keep on killing." But he knows that when the war is over he will be forced to return to the world of the living, and this is what Paul fears:

One thing I do know: everything that is sinking into us like a stone now, while we are in the war, will rise up again when the war is over, and that's when the real life-and-death struggle will start.

Without dreams of the future, without wife or children, job or home, Paul thinks perhaps the elusive goal that he needs - the image of the future to which he can cling - might be the goal of one day being once again a whole human being: "Is this the task we must dedicate our lives to after the war, so that all the years of horror will have been worthwhile?"  Each individual must come to terms with his/her own participation in the war and find peace within.  But this moment of hope for Paul, the representative of his generation is in vain, for as Erich Maria Remarque has explained, his was "a generation that was destroyed by the war - even those of it who survived the shelling." There is no redemption, no hope, no future for the lost generation.

Saturday, 9 November 2013

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Last summer I re-read The Great Gatsby in anticipation of seeing the Baz Luhrmann film.  I watch very few films, and rarely go to the theatre so it wasn't surprising that the summer came and went without me seeing it.  But last weekend turned into The Weekend of Gatsby.  As a belated anniversary outing, we had matinee tickets to see the Simon Levy adaptation of the novel performed on stage.  On the way home from the theatre we decided... why not?... and we stopped to rent the dvd of the recently released film.  Of course, all the differences between play and film got me curious about the original text and I went to bed with a copy of the novel.   It was a wonderful immersion in 1920s New York! 

The set for the play was wonderful.  I especially enjoyed the curved staircase on wheels, a second story that doubled as a float plane, an actual fountain in the middle of the stage which later served as a bathtub, and even later as a swimming pool.  Music was provided by the jazz ensemble that remained on stage for the entire performance.  The costumes were absolutely perfect and the casting very well done.  I had no complaints!  Well, actually, I did think that the amount of swearing in the script was unnecessary and not in keeping with the original - although Levy did a great job using Fitzgerald's own dialogue otherwise.  This adaptation is the only one authorized to be performed in North America, and Simon Levy does a great job seamlessly interweaving the most important scenes and dialogue from the novel.  The fun part was that I got to see it again when I accompanied Elizabeth to the school matinee performance later in the week!

As for the Baz Luhrmann interpretation... what a wild ride that was! It is a riotous extravaganza of colour and sound!  It is a big, bold splash of life.   The sets are just as lavish as can be, and the props and costumes over-the-top - a festival of glitz and glam.  Leonardo diCaprio is convincing as Jay Gatsby.  He combines the controlled reticence and quiet authority of the character with old fashioned movie star appeal.

Baz Luhrmann's interpretation of the character of Nick Carraway really irritated me.  To my mind, Nick Carraway is far more refined and reserved than he was presented by Tobey Maguire..  There were moments I thought I was watching Pee Wee Herman.  Honestly.  And the device of having him recount the story to a therapist was counter to everything I think about the character.  This was a passing, albeit influential, episode in Nick Carraway's life - certainly not enough of a disaster to send him spiraling into an alcoholic stupor.

In terms of the cinematography, there were moments of brilliance.  However, it was the excessive use of CGI that stands out.  The heightened effects frequently brought me out of my willing state of disbelief and reminded me over and over that this was a movie that had spent a long time in post-processing.  The long shots into the city showing the wasteland between Long Island and Manhattan were cartoonish and the car scenes reminded me a bit too much of Who Framed Roger Rabbit?  The film was far too visually overstimulating for me.  And maybe that's just me.  I suspect this might have been the highlight for others.  I came out of the theatre after his "Romeo and Juliet" like a deer in headlights and it took me days to recover. I loved it, but it blew my mind a little.

F. Scott Fitzgerald

My reading of the novel (I realize after seeing these adaptations) is much quieter.  All the fabulous craziness of the 1920s is there - the jazz bands and the dancing girls and the drunken revelry - but the real action of the novel is internal and/or intimate.  People whisper secrets, they have small conversations, they interact with each other on a less riotous scale.  It also made me realise that this is probably because even the novel is an "adaptation" - a re-telling documented through the eyes of Nick Carraway.  We are removed from the action; it is not happening in the present tense even in the novel.

As an interpretation of the story, Baz Luhrmann's film did not add to my understanding of the characters or the action.  It was a show which captured all the surface glitz but offered no insight into the depth of motivations or personalities F. Scott Fitzgerald had created.  It was a wonderful escapist piece of film, as fun and frothy and frivolous as the characters it portrayed.

Thursday, 7 November 2013

The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje

Reading The English Patient immediately after Elizabeth von Arnim's The Enchanted April, I was struck by the similarities in setting and theme.  While von Arnim's English ladies rejuvenate in a paradisical Italian villa, Hana, Kip, Caravaggio and the burned patient reside in what remains of their Italian villa after the hellish war-time bombardment.  However, all are transformed by their experiences in their respective villas.

The story begins in the war-ravaged Villa San Girolamo, just north of Florence.  The First Canadian Division has progressed northward up the boot from Sicily and now, in April 1945 the war is all but over.  The mobile hospital units following the action have moved on, but a young nurse, Hana, has chosen to remain at the villa which had been used as a hospital for the wounded with the severely injured patient too fragile to transport.  The "English patient" as he has become known is unidentifiable, unrecognizable from his burns, and lacking clues to his name or nationality.

Both Hana and her patient are suffering the effects of their physical and psychological injuries.  They have found a place of solitude and security in which they adjust to their wounds, and together they create a refuge from war, and reality, in which they are able to nurture their souls.  In tending to her patient, Hana also administers care to herself.  They both find solace in reading, and in being read to.  The stories of others allow escape, and eventually lead back to themselves and acceptance of their own stories.  Into this minature world appear, first an avuncular David Caravaggio, secretive, morally ambiguous friend of Hana's father from home, a lost dog, and Kip, a Punjabi Sikh sapper and British soldier.

This is the story of the reclamation of the value of life after a war in which life has been a freely expended commodity.  It takes time to evaluate and re-assess that which is so devalued.  It takes time and trust and quiet.  The group of four (plus dog) find that space alone together. Hana's sense of loss is tinged with an acknowledgement of her own responsibility.  It was not just what was done to her, or done to those around her, but also the death and destruction that she herself caused with which she must come to terms.  The journey each character makes is reflective of the re-forming of society after great upheaval.  It is this healing journey that is documented so beautifully in The English Patient.

The use of stories during this time of healing is central to the novel.  Each character uses stories to explore their feelings, and the connection each has to stories informs the character just as much as their actions.  Each of the characters at different points in the novel play the role of audience and storyteller, and each reveal him/herself in the stories he/she tells.  They are reclaiming and reforming their identities in a new reality. 

Michael Ondaatje photo by Jeff Nolte

Michael Ondaatje is a master of figurative language.  The war-ravaged villa becomes another character in this story; the library of the villa has sustained shelling and "the rest of the room had adapted itself to this wound," which echoes what is happening within each of the other characters.  It is his layered and thoughtful crafting of story that makes you realise at the end of the book that he has created a world so rich, so nuanced, so real that it touches universal truth.  The English Patient is an anti-war novel without a single battlefield scene.  It is about the carnage that is left after the battle is over and the fighting has stopped.  But it is also about the resilience of the human mind and the human body, and the importance of taking the time to "step away from the war" as Hana does and find rest and solace in solitude.  But most importantly for me, it is about the power of narrative to make us who we are, to give us our identity and to make us whole.


Here is a long list of some of my favourite quotes from The English Patient:

This was the time in her life that she fell upon books as the only door out of her cell.

She entered the story knowing she would emerge from it feeling she had been immersed in the lives of others, in plots that stretched back twenty years, her body full of sentences and moments, as if awakening from sleep with a heaviness caused by unremembered dreams.

A novel is a mirror walking down a road.

Many books open with an author's assurance of order.  One slipped into their waters with a silent paddle... But novels commence with hesitation or chaos.  Readers were never fully in balance... When she begins a books she enters through stiled doorways into large courtyards.  Parma and Paris and India spread their carpets.

Read him slowly, dear girl, you must read Kipling slowly.  Watch carefully where the commas fall so you can discover the natural pauses.  He is a writer who used pen and ink.  He looked up from the page a lot, I believe, stared through his window and listened to birds, as most writers who are alone do.

She had always wanted words, she loved them, grew up on them.  Words gave her clarity, brought reason, shape, whereas I thought words bent emotions like sticks in water.

Whenever her father was alone with a dog in a house he would lean over and smell the skin at the base of its paw.  This, he would say, as if coming away from a brndy snifter, is the greatest smell in the world!  A bouquet!  Great rumours of travel!  She would pretend disgust, but the dog's paw was a wonder: the smell of it never suggested dirt.  It's a cathedral!  her father had said, so-and-so's garden, that field of grasses, a walk through cyclamen - a concentration of hints of all the paths the animal had taken during the day.

If you take in someone else's poinson - thinking you can cure them by sharing it - you will instead store it within you - Caravaggio

She was secure in the minature world she had built; the two other men seemed distant planets, each in his own sphere of memory and solitude.

To rest was to receive all aspects of the world without judgement.

So a man in the desert can slip into a name as if within a discovered well, and in its shadowed coolness be tempted never to leave such containment.

But I wanted to erase my name and the place I had come from.  By the time war arrived, after ten years in the desert, it was easy for me to slip across borders, not to belong to anyone, to any nation.

A man in a desert can hold absence in his cupped hands knowing it is something that feeds him more than water.

He wants the minute and secret reflection between them, the depth of field minimal, their foreignness intimate like two pages of a closed book.

She would have hated to die without a name.  For her there was a line back to her ancestors that was tactile, whereas he had erased the path he had emerged from.  He was amazed she had loved him in spite of such qualities of anonymity in himself.

We die containing a richness of lovers and tribes, tastes we have swallowed, bodies we have plunged into and swum up as if rivers of wisdom, characters we have climbed into as if trees, fears we have hidden in as if caves.  I wished for all this to be marked on my body when I am dead.  I believe in such cartography - to be marked by nature, not just to label ourselves on a map like the names of rich men and women on buildings.  We are communal histories, communal books.  We are not owned or monogamous in our taste or experience.  All I desired was to walk upon such an earth that had no maps.

Monday, 4 November 2013

The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim

As I began Elizabeth von Arnim's The Enchanted April I was immediately reminded of Elizabeth Taylor's Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont because of the setting ("a woman's club in London on a February afternoon, - an uncomfortable club, and a miserable afternoon"), and by the characters who were yearning for something better in their lives - something more exciting.  Mrs. Wilkins "was the kind of person who is not noticed at parties.  Her clothes, infested by thrift, made her practically invisible; her face was non-arresting; her conversation was reluctant; she was shy."  One afternoon, however, she was compelled by an inexplicaable impulse to engage in conversation with Mrs. Arbuthnot, and, because she faced her fear and took action wonderful things began to happen.  Mrs. Wilkins and Mrs. Arbuthnot decide to rent a small villa in the south, and after finding two other women to share the cost with them, they leave their grey London lives for the wistaria and sunshine of Italy.

Lotty Wilkins from the very beginning is the catalyst for change.  Sometimes taking leaps is worth the risk, and as she tells Ruth Arbuthnot: "sometimes I believe - I really do believe - if one considers hard enough one gets things."  She challenges the other women to have faith in the transformational powers they all have within, even while accepting that change can sometimes mean discomfort.  She takes on the role of seer, prophesying: "Mrs. Wilkins announced that at San Salvatore Mrs. Fisher would find her level. 'I see her finding her level there,' she said, her eyes very bright": she holds a vision in her mind until it happens - and it always does happen!  Lotty Wilkins connects with her inner divinity:
If she went on like this, soon a nimbus might be expected round her head, was there already, if one didn't know it was the sun through the tree-trunks catching her sandy hair.
This inner divinity originates in love, a commodity in short supply in their regular lives, but the most important ingredient in the power of transformation.

The women find an earthly Paradise in Italy.  They travelled through a kind of Purgatory during their voyage to escape the hellishness of London in March. 
"I suppose you realise, don't you that we've got to heaven?" she said, beaming at Mrs. Fisher with all the familiarity of a fellow-angel.
They immediately experience physical transformation, looking younger, and Mrs. Wilkins, losing her shyness and agitation, becomes personable and calm.  They are transformed by the sunshine, the flowers, and by their own happiness.   Mrs. Wilkins, appreciating the differences between the four of them notes that they are all together just as "the dandelions and the irises, the vulgar and the superior, me and Mrs. Fisher - All Welcome, all mixed up anyhow, and all so visibly happy and enjoying ourselves."  They are not required to do anything except enjoy themselves.  "Nobody helps anybody in heaven... You don't try to be, or do.  You simply are."

The ladies are able to release their attachment to the past and live in the present: "they were just cups of acceptance" which is more difficult for the oldest amongst them: Mrs. Fisher lives her whole life in the past until she allows the power of the present to break down her defences.  The search for happiness is something within each of the characters, and each one must overcome their feelings of guilt and their fearful resistance to change.

Elizabeth von Arnim

I enjoyed re-reading this novel, the plot which I had largely forgotten, notwithstanding the lack of subtly in language and plot devises (quite different than her cousin Katherine Mansfield!).  I did enjoy the frequent changes in point of view from the omniscient narrator to the interior monologue which greatly enhanced the development of the characters.  I enjoyed the reminders of E. M. Forster's A Room with a View and Where Angels Fear to Tread.  But mostly, and above all, I felt that it was the perfect book for lightening my mood, to reminding me that transformation is possible even when things seem grey and "hellish," and that love is always the answer.  We do have the power within to change the way we think, to change the way we feel, and to create a better life.

Many thanks to Lucy at Therapy Through Tolstoy for the recommendation!

Friday, 1 November 2013

Surfacing by Margaret Atwood

Surfacing by Margaret Atwood is a deeply satisfying book.  This is the kind of book that I can (and did!) turn from the last page back to the first and start over again immediately.  It captivated me in a way I love to be drawn in to a story.  I knew that I had to dig deeper, think more, and revisit it until all the divergent threads formed a clear (er) picture.  Margaret Atwood tackles some big themes in this novel: life and death, guilt, personal and national identity, feminism, the limits of language, power hierarchies...  This is a novel, like all of Margaret Atwood's, that rewards repeated investigation.

The theme I found most interesting in this novel is the struggle to create wholeness from separation and division, and the access to true identity by casting off the superficial.  This theme is explored through the main character's psyche and her interpersonal relationships, and is reflected as well through the exploration of the forging of a Canadian national identity.

A young unnamed woman, daughter of unnamed parents, sister of an unnamed brother, and the main character of Margaret Atwood's Surfacing, travels with three friends to her father's island home in the northern bush of Québec after she learns that he has disappeared.  Although on the surface it is an ordinary weekend-at-the-cottage excursion for the visitors, there is an undercurrent of tension for the main character as she becomes increasingly emotionally separated from her friends: the jovial but deeply misogynistic David, his emotionally fragile and submissive wife Anna, and her own boyfriend Joe, a silent, brooding, unreadable force.  Her friends never see the depth of her feelings as she slowly and silently comes to terms with her past.  The story is told in the first person, and almost exclusively seen through the eyes of the main character.  We are privy to her experiences, her memories and her thoughts.  There is no omniscient narrative voice.

The true self is deeper than surface appearance: clothes, cosmetics, the physical body, language, gender, and even nationality are just insignificant coverings of the true self - the deepest part of our subconscious.  All the divisions in the world are irrelevant to this inner truth.  The main character must merge all these superficial divisions that have been imposed on her, and must also confront the lies she has told herself which have split her in two before she can achieve healing and wholeness. 

When we accept these divisions rather than challenge them, the divisions do not go away but become engrained into our identity, further separating us from our humanity.  We tell ourselves lies that become truths.  By nature, our very humanness means that we embody a destructive force within.   We cannot escape this conflict.  We must resolve it, and we cannot resolve it if we do not know what we stand for.  Before we can challenge the oppression from without, we must resolve the oppression from within in order to be whole.

The novel is rife with divisions.  The main character has experienced an internal separation in her psyche that is manifest in the doubling of the life lines on her palm.  She spent her childhood moving back and forth between the northern bush and the urban south, where even language and clothing create divisions.  She has broken off communication with her parents.  Divisions are also central to the national identity in Surfacing.

Surfacing was published in 1972, the same year Margaret Atwood's seminal work of Canlit: Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature was released.  These two books share more than just a publication date, for they are both concerned with defining Canada's true national identity.  This identity does not rest solely on the post-colonial separation from its "parents" England and France, nor does it rest on its differences with America.  For, one's identity cannot rightly said to be whole when it is only defined by what it is not.  For a true identity of nationhood, we must look much further below the surface. When we look below the surface we see the experiences that we share, that bring us together, that have nothing to do with superficial divisions of language and appearance.

photo credit: John Reeve

This is a novel that has rewarded me with insights about myself and about the big themes in life: power, the subconscious, self-healing, the importance of history, feminism, innocence and guilt, independence, and the nature of good and evil, and the redemptive force of nature.  There are so many avenues to explore and question, so many connections to make.  Whenever I read Margaret Atwood's work I always marvel at her ability to weave a tale.

November 2013