Saturday, September 30, 2006

New York Film Festival

I was at the New York Film Festival whole day today. Saw the excellent Korean film Woman on the Beach by Hong Sang-soo. Also Jules et Jim and The Seventh Seal. Saw Kate Winslet walking down the red carpet who looked remarkably slim, at least as compared to the image I had of her in my mind. Her new movie Little Children was being premiered but the show was already sold out. Not that I was too excited about it but anyway. I am too tired now. Will try to write in detail later.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Sven Nykvist: Brief Retrospective

Collective Chaos film society in Bangalore is screening three films showing the work of cinematographer Sven Nykvist who died last week. Films include Persona, The Sacrifice and The Unbearable Lightness of Being. There is also a documentary Light Keeps Me Company. Link to the schedule.

Two Book Reviews

I hadn't heard of the Austrian writer Stefan Zweig before but his book Beware of Pity, which has been recently reissued, sounds extremely interesting specially after reading this excellent essay in the new york review of books:

Zweig was a friend and admirer of Sigmund Freud, his fellow Viennese, and it was no doubt Freud's writings, together with the experience of two world wars, that persuaded him of the fundamental irrationalism of the human mind. Absolutely central to his fiction is the subject of obsession. And so it is with Beware of Pity. To my knowledge, this book is the first sustained fictional portrait of emotional blackmail based on guilt. Today, it is a commonplace that one person may enslave another by excessive love, laced with appeals to gratitude, compassion, and duty, and that the loved one may actually feel those sentiments—love, too, of a sort—while at the same time wanting nothing more than to be out the door. But even in the iconoclastic Thirties, gratitude, compassion, and duty were not yet widely seen as potential engines of tyranny. It was partly for his cold examination of those esteemed motives that Zweig admired Freud—"he enlarged the sincerity of the universe," Zweig wrote—and in Beware of Pity he carried the analysis forward.

Like his fellow Jewish German writers, Paul Celan and Walter Benjamin, he also took his own life. Salman Rushdie calls him a "dark and unorthodox artist."

Daniel Mendelsohn, who writes about theatre and Classics in the new york review of books, has written a family memoir about the holocaust. Here is the review. It is very well written.

Reviews of the same book from new york times here and here. Sad and depressing but worth reading.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006


5x2 contains five scenes, of almost identical length, shown in a reverse chronological way, from the life of a couple (that's where the title comes from). It is very well written and exceptionally well acted but somehow it didn't really work. The backward storytelling idea was nice and it did create a great effect. It starts with divorce and a rape scene, not explicit but all the more violent, and ends with the couple falling in love and walking into the sunset! The main flaw I thought, and I also think it might be intentional on writer's/director's part, was that the narrative didn't convey any significant information and barely hinted at the inner life of the characters, so all the while you can only guess as to why all this is happening and the two people remain a mystery throughout. Still, their faces and mannerisms are so expressive that you get an impression that indeed a lot is happening inside.

This new york times review notes (and I loved this sentence), "told in the usual sequence, the story of Gilles and Marion would be a banal bell curve of infatuation, bliss, boredom, regret and recrimination."

Two excellent reviews worth checking out, even if you haven't seen the film -- at the village voice and the guardian. They were both very impressed with it.

And yes, the film has an excellent soundtrack, specially this song (in Italian) which I found on the youtube. After some googling I came to know that the song is called The Sparrring Partner written and performed by Paolo Conte, whose name I hadn't heard before. The video contains some homosexual cuddling, otherwise it is pretty chaste. Just in case...

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Roberto Bolano: By Night in Chile

Roberto Bolano, the Chilean poet and novelist, died three years ago just when his literary stars were rising higher and higher. I had come across his name recently in the book review sections of some newspaper and I was a little intrigued but then it went off my radar. It was only after I encountered his name again on Bhupinder's excellent blog and after his recommendation that I decided to pick up his book. By Night in Chile was his first work to be translated into English. After that in the last two years two of his other books have been translated, Distant Stars, another short novel like By Night in Chile and a story collection called Last Evenings on Earth. According to reports two of his latest novels The Savage Detectives and 2666, the latter of which was published posthumously, are being translated and will appear sometime next year. Also these two novels are more ambitious works, 2666 runs to more than a thousand pages. Based on my impressions of By Night in Chile I will really be looking forward to these works.

By Night in Chile is a 130 page short novel narrated by a priest and literary critic who believes he is dying. In fact it is almost as if he feels he is short of time and wants to justify his actions of his past to somebody in a hurry, who he calls "the wizened youth." Bolano creates this feeling of impatience by making his voice querulous and feverish and by making sure that there are no paragraph breaks in the entire text! The whole book is one sustained monologue, or rather a rant, without any break in thought. Also the sentences vary wildly in length, some are short and truncated and some go on and on. For example this is how the novel starts:

I am dying now, but I still have many things to say. I used to be at peace with myself. Quiet and at peace. But it all blew up unexpectedly. That wizened youth is to blame. I was at peace. I am no longer at peace. There are a couple of points that have to be cleared up. So, propped up on one elbow, I will lift my noble, trembling head, and rummage through my memories to turn up the deeds that shall vindicate me and belie the slanderous rumours the wizened youth spread in a single storm-lit night to sully my name. Or so he intended. One has to be responsible, as I have always said. One has a moral obligation to take responsibility for one's actions, and that includes one's words and silences, yes, one's silences, because silences rise to heaven too, and God hears them, and only God understands and judges them, so one must be very careful with one's silences. I am responsible in every way. My silences are immaculate. Let me make that clear. Clear to God above all. The rest I can forego. But not God. I don't know how I got on to this. Sometimes I find myself propped up on one elbow, rambling on and dreaming and trying to make peace with myself.

And then there are these long sentences which beautifully create the feeling of someone thinking and writing it down both at the same time. In that sense these long sentences differ from, say, those in Proust which are very well chiseled and thought through. This is one of the random examples...I like the way it starts from one thought and observation and then completely veers off to an entirely unrelated scene, all within a single sentence giving a sense of continuity of thought...
And the Catholic church can do without the Father and the Son, but not the Holy Spirit, who is far more important than most lay people suspect, more important than the Son who died on the cross, more important than the Father who made the stars and the earth and all the universe, and then with the tips of my fingers I touched the forehead and temples of the Castilian priest and realized immediately that he was running a temperature of at least forty degrees, and I called his housekeeper and sent her to fetch a doctor, and while I was waiting for the doctor to arrive, for something to do I examined the falcon, with his hood on, and seeing him there like that I felt it was wrong, so after getting another blanket from the sacristy and wrapping it around Fr Antonio, I found the gauntlet and took the falcon and went out on the patio where I contemplated the cold, crystal-clear night, and I removed the falcon's hood ....

And it goes on and on to almost two pages! I just loved these long sentences. It creates a feeling of immediacy and you are compelled to just go on reading. Content wise the book seems to be an indictment of Chilean literary elite for its role during the Pinochet regime. In an episode it is revealed that a fashionable literary hostess also runs a torture chamber in the same building where the literary soirees take place. In another scene General Pinochet is shown to indulge in petty games of one-upmanship. He claims that Allende, whose only claim to his fame as an intellectual is that he wrote second hand articles unlike him who wrote books, although meant for specialists!

I think the book also raises questions about the role of artists and intellectuals in politics, certainly one of the major questions in Latin American Literature. I was surprised to read that Bolano was a high-school drop-out because this book is packed with dense allusions to literature from all over the world (there is an episode involving an obscure German novelist Ernst Junger, who I didn't know existed) and he drops names all around (Baudelaire, Pount, Eliot..). And of course Pablo Neruda himself makes an appearance, as himself! I don't think I appreciated it fully, it was a little too dense and I thought it required some familiarity with Chilean politics to fully understand and put everything in right perspective.

For more. Here is a review from guardian and one in new york times. Long articles about his life and career here and here. And an obituary here.

Friday, September 22, 2006

Half Nelson

I was expecting a lot from this film after reading such glowing reviews but was disappointed. It is still an impressive film with a very fine performance in the lead by Ryan Gosling who plays an erstwhile radical and now a cocaine addled high school history teacher, with a Hegelian bent (he teaches them the "dialectics" of historical progress), in a black neighbourhood of Brooklyn.

I really admired the way it kept itself away from the false pieties and cliches of "inspiring teacher" movies but overall the whole thing didn't cohere. I was expecting a more politically coherent work and a more rounded portrait of a man whose hopes and aspirations are crushed by, ummm.... the dialectical forces of history. But the writers/directors seemed intent on not to lay blame on anyone's door, which might be a good thing, but to me it just made the whole thing confusing and utlimately devoid of any serious purpose. Some scenes were specially very well directed specially the one when Gosling meets his ex-girlfriend who is getting married to someone else. Also his relationship with the young black girl which is the centerpiece of the film is handled very well too.

Jonathan Rosenbaum calls it a masterpiece! Check out his review here. More reviews on Rotten tomatoes.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Sven Nykvist

Sven Nykvist, whose celebrated collaborations with director Ingmar Bergman included 1973's Cries and Whispers and 1982's Fanny and Alexander, for which Nykvist scored cinematography Oscars, has died after a long illness. He was 83.

This report in the Guardian and here is the obituary.

Guardian also has a short slide show from some of his films.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Kierkegaard: Some Random Notes on his Biography

I am a fiercely anti-religious person, so what am I doing with Kierkegaard, perhaps the greatest theological thinker in western intellectual history? Well, I am not exactly anti-religion, I consider theology to be a perfectly respectable discipline. I see religion as just one of the many, though the least interesting, competing philosophical systems grappling with important questions surrounding ethics and metaphysics and in any case, it is always good to understand any question from as many perspective as possible.

My interest in Kierkegaard however isn't because of his theological ideas. What I am mainly interested in is his works in existential psychology. I have always been intrigued by how these philosophers define these things like "anguish", "dread", "despair", "alienation", or even "melancholy" specially in existential literature. In fact, I first came across Kierkegaard's name in an article on Kafka. Of course, I didn't understand what the writer was trying to say. Something about the "loss of self" and "conflict between the finite and infinite". Something like that. I have always found it fruitless to read original texts of philosophy, they just expect too much effort. Although in Kierkegaard's case, there is at least one reasonably readable book called A Seducer's Diary, which is actually a chapter in his book Either/Or. Anyway, that's why I try to go for these short secondary guides to philosophers (you know books like, An Idiot's guide to Hume, Kant in 24 hours etc.) Also Kierkegaard had this special thing for choosing titles for his books which are absolute killers -- Fear and Trembling, The Sickness Unto Death, Concept of Anxiety, Concept of Dread and best of all Either/Or! A book with a title like An Inquiry Concerning Human Understanding won't stand a chance against these books!

So I was hoping to take the next step in my literary education with this Kierkegaard biography but was sorely disappointed. There is very little discussion of Kierkegaard's philosophy in the book and absolutely no attempt to place him in the larger western philosophical tradition. Instead what we get is year-by-year minutiae of his life. Some of it is interesting, specially his handling of the Regine Olsen affair, and to the author's credit his style is always lively and he never misses a chance to make a witty remark. And he is generally very insightful when analyzing any event of his life. For example this about his broken engagement with Regine:

This story (which could indeed have ended in happily banal fashion) is thus not merely about two people who for intellectual and psychological reasons were destined to pass each other like ships in the night. Rather, it became a grand drama about the extremes in the intellectual history of the West: immediacy and reflection, sensuous desire and self-control, presence and absence. And even though Regine is not named a single time in the whole of Kierkegaard's published works, she is intertwined with it like an erotic arabesque, full of longing, sometimes confronting the reader when one least expects it.

What the book mostly contains is a portrait of the Danish literary scene in the mid-nineteenth century, also called the Danish Golden Age. Also he goes in painstaking detail about the publishing history of each of his books, how it was reviewed at the time, how it was received by the critics and the public, who said what about whom etc. At one place, the book has a table about how many copies of the first edition of each of his books were sold out. Out of 525 copies of Fear and Trembling only 321 were sold out for example, as compared to his first work Either/Or which was sold out completely. Garff also informs us that Kierkegaard earned 3,674 rixdollars as his royalty from the sale of these books. Rather disappointingly he never mentions the purchasing power of a rixdollar in 1850s Denmark! Also Kierkegaard's troubled relationship with the Danish State Church and how it influenced his thinking gets a lot of coverage. I had of course no clue as to what was going on so I skipped all of these. In fact these chapters mostly eclipse the chapters detailing his affair with Regine, which was a little surprising because I had come to expect a major part of his biography to be about his relationship with her.

In that sense it is actually more a history of Denmark from a single perspective rather than a standalone biography of Kierkegaard. I read the first 100 pages then jumped the Regine chapters and then mostly skipped through the later chapters. The book didn't even have an index entry on despair! This book is for die-hard Kierkegaard fans only!!

Some links: John Updike in New Yorker calls this biography "monumental". Updike seems to be a fan. He has also written an introduction to A Seducer's Diary too. Also these articles from The New Republic and The New Criterion are very good introductions to his life and works, though they are both about an earlier biography.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Sansho the Bailiff

Sansho the Bailiff (aka Sansho Dayu) is one of the many acknowledged masterpieces that Japanese director Kenji Mizoguchi made late in his career. I was at the film forum this Saturday to catch a screening. I realized once again how important it is to watch movies on big screen, sitting alone in the dark. Also the print was new and sparkling which added to the visual lustre of the film. I sometimes wonder how my experience of watching B/W movies has changed over a period of time. I now prefer B/W movies more than the colour ones and not because I need a history lesson or something but because I find them more interesting in visual and aesthetic terms. I remember watching The Third Man many years ago, it was one of the first films I saw on the new medium of DVD, and was astonished at the visual clarity and sharpness of its images and how evocative the B/W atmosphere was. I had never expected such an experience from a fifty year old B/W movie.

Anyway coming back to Sansho, the film tells the story of a family of a humane provincial Governor in medieval Japan who is forced to go to exile because he refuses to follow his superior's orders to collect taxes from poor peasants. His family (wife, son and daughter) soon fall prey to the cruelties of the feudal system and the vagaries of fate. The kids end up as slave labour in a slave camp operated by the tyrannical titular bailiff and mother gets sold into a brothel. This all sounds melodramatic and an ordinary director would certainly have made it exploitative but Mizoguchi's style is very different. First he follows "one scene one cut" aesthetic and even when he uses cuts it is to distance the viewer from the apparent action. As a result he manages to postpone an immediate emotional reaction and allows all ends of narrative to come together and also to provoke the viewer into a deeper reflection about the characters and their situations.

Also since it is based on a folk tale (just like Ugetsu) the narrative on its own is very schematic and a trifle implausible at many places. For example years after the two kids are separated from their mother, they get to learn about the well being of their mother from a song that her mother sings, a song expressing her longing to see her children and lamenting the cruelties of life, which has become so popular that anyone arriving from that island sings it. In an ordinary film this wouldn't have worked but it works here because Mizoguchi devotes a lot of his attention to creating a very realistic mise-en-scene and in giving emotional depth to his characters. A straight-forward retelling of the folk-tale would certainly have failed because of the lack of contextual information.

This film reminded me of Satyajit Ray's Apu Trilogy in a number of ways. It was strange because it's been almost more than four years since I last saw those films. First in the way Mizoguchi shoots landscapes. Those landscapes are not just used to give contextual information to the narrative but they actually serve a deeper thematic purpose. Do they show the harmony that exists between man and nature and hint at the oneness of everything or is it meant to show the indifference of the universe to all kinds human suffering, the world carries on as usual while human beings experience life altering events? I think it is both, though I suspect Mizoguchi's vision is a little darker in the sense he veers more towards the latter. Also the final scene when the mother finally gets to see her long lost son reminded me of my similar emotional reaction to Aparajito (basically prepare yourself for a broken heart!).

Some links: Jim Emerson has a nice write-up on the film on This is another article from the reverse
shot blog.
Also this short review from BBC films website. Also, I had linked to more articles about Mizoguchi in my previous post on Ugetsu.

James Wood on Houellebecq

This is a nice review article about Houellebecq's latest novel The Possibility of an Island. I have so far managed to avoid it but I think I will pick it up sometime.

There are so many other books to read and so many things to do!

Monday, September 18, 2006

Why Literature?

This is an excellent essay by the Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa that I came across recently. It was selected for an anthology of best American essays (American because it was first published in The New Republic in 2001).

Good literature, while temporarily relieving human dissatisfaction, actually increases it, by developing a critical and non-conformist attitude toward life. It might even be said that literature makes human beings more likely to be unhappy. To live dissatisfied, and at war with existence, is to seek things that may not be there, to condemn oneself to fight futile battles, like the battles that Colonel Aureliano Buendía fought in One Hundred Years of Solitude, knowing full well that he would lose them all. All this may be true. Yet it is also true that without rebellion against the mediocrity and the squalor of life, we would still live in a primitive state, and history would have stopped. The autonomous individual would not have been created, science and technology would not have progressed, human rights would not have been recognized, freedom would not have existed. All these things are born of unhappiness, of acts of defiance against a life perceived as insufficient or intolerable. For this spirit that scorns life as it is--and searches with the madness of Don Quixote, whose insanity derived from the reading of chivalric novels--literature has served as a great spur.


Sunday, September 17, 2006

I came, I saw...

"I came, I saw, she conquered"

-- Kierkegaard writing in his journal about Regine Olsen.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006


I am feeling bored at office. I know, what a cliche! I wish I could be like those "men of action" that I see myself surrounded with. Instead I feel tired and exhausted, completely detached from official work and colleagues, pondering helplessly at the lowest ebb of desire, desire for career advancement, desire for accumulation of money and material comforts and even for sex(?)! The only thing I want to do is to get back home once it is evening and sink into the Kierkegaard biography or the Russian revolution book that I have been reading. What a life!

Anyway, this is the opening paragraph of Turgenev's Torrents of Spring... (this translation feels clunkier than the one in the penguin classics but it is the only one I could find on the internet). Things aren't this bad but...

Never had he felt such weariness of body and of spirit. He had passed the whole evening in the company of charming ladies and cultivated men; some of the ladies were beautiful, almost all the men were distinguished by intellect or talent; he himself had talked with great success, even with brilliance . . . and, for all that, never yet had the taedium vitae of which the Romans talked of old, the "disgust for life," taken hold of him with such irresistible, such suffocating force. Had he been a little younger, he would have cried with misery, weariness, and exasperation: a biting, burning bitterness, like the bitter of wormwood, filled his whole soul. A sort of clinging repugnance, a weight of loathing closed in upon him on all sides like a dark night of autumn; and he did not know how to get free from this darkness, this bitterness. Sleep it was useless to reckon upon; he knew he should not sleep.

He fell to thinking . . . slowly, listlessly, wrathfully. He thought of the vanity, the uselessness, the vulgar falsity of all things human. All the stages of man's life passed in order before his mental gaze (he had himself lately reached his fifty-second year), and not one found grace in his eyes. Everywhere the same everlasting pouring of water into a sieve, the everlasting beating of the air, everywhere the same self-deception---half in good faith, half conscious--any toy to amuse the child, so long as it keeps him from crying. And then, all of a sudden, old age drops down like snow on the head, and with it the ever-growing, ever-gnawing, and devouring dread of death . . . and the plunge into the abyss! Lucky indeed if life works out so to the end! May be, before the end, like rust on iron, sufferings, infirmities come. . . He did not picture life's sea, as the poets depict it, covered with tempestuous waves; no, he thought of that sea as a smooth, untroubled surface, stagnant and transparent to its darkest depths. He himself sits in a little tottering boat, and down below in those dark oozy depths, like prodigious fishes, he can just make out the shapes of hideous monsters: all the ills of life, diseases, sorrows, madness, poverty, blindness. . . . He gazes, and behold, one of these monsters separates itself off from the darkness, rises higher and higher, stands out more and more distinct, more and more loathsomely distinct. . . . An instant yet, and the boat that bears him will be overturned! But behold, it grows dim again, it withdraws, sinks down to the bottom, and there it lies, faintly stirring in the slime. . . . But the fated day will come, and it will overturn the boat.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Journey to the End of the Night

A nice essay on Celine's Journey to the End of the Night in the new york times book review. Another book that has been on my to-read list for long!

But if this biography suggests a varied and sympathetic apprehension of the world, it was with a far darker palette that Céline came to paint his word-pictures when he began writing in the late 1920’s. Straightforward fear adumbrates his invective, which — despite the reputation he would later earn as a rabid anti-Semite — is aimed against all classes and races of people with indiscriminate abandon. Indeed, if “Ulysses” is the great modernist novel most inspired by a desire for humanistic inclusion, then “Journey” is its antithesis: a stream of misanthropic consciousness, almost unrelieved by any warmth or fellow-feeling. I say almost, because Céline does have some weaknesses, notably for children. As Bardamu puts it, when his concierge’s nephew is dying: “You never mind very much when an adult passes on. If nothing else, you say to yourself, it’s one less stinker on earth, but with a child you can never be so sure. There’s always the future.”

Saturday, September 09, 2006

Ivan Turgenev: A Fire at Sea

One of the many hilarious parts (in an otherwise extremely dark novel) Dostoevsky's The Possessed is the satirical caricature of the character Karmazinov. Dostoevsky portrays him as a self-obsessed and pompous narcissist, given to naive and affected poetry and delusions of grandeur. Here's one example where the narrator discusses an article of his:

A year before, I had read an article of his in a review, written with an immense affectation of naive poetry, and psychology too. He described the wreck of some steamer on the English coast, of which he had been the witness, and how he had seen the drowning people saved, and the dead bodies brought ashore. All this rather long and verbose article was written solely with the object of self-display. One seemed to read between the lines: “Concentrate yourselves on me. Behold what I was like at those moments. What are the sea, the storm, the rocks, the splinters of wrecked ships to you? I have described all that sufficiently to you with my mighty pen. Why look at that drowned woman with the dead child in her dead arms? Look rather at me, see how I was unable to bear that sight and turned away from it. Here I stood with my back to it; here I was horrified and could not bring myself to look; I blinked my eyes—isn't that interesting?”

It is well known that Dostoevsky based this character on the real life model of Turgenev, with whom he had difficult relations. He also based the above description on a real life incident that happened to Turgenev. It happened when he was nineteen and going to the university of Berlin to continue his studies in philosophy. On the way the steamer caught fire and was completely destroyed. Most of the passengers escaped unhurt, among them Turgenev. But his behavior became a cause of lot of rumour mongering. Isaiah Berlin, in the introduction to the piece that Turgenev wrote about the incident when he was on his Death-bed, writes:
According to the stories that circulated in Moscow and St. Petersburg he had completely lost his head, loudly lamented his approaching end, tried to push his way into the lifeboat, brutally shoving aside women and children, and finally, in full sight of the entire company, seized a sailor by the arm and offered him ten thousand roubles in his mother's name if he would save him, saying that he was the only son of a rich widow and could not bear to die so young.

Berlin then describes how writers, journalists and the general Russian literati of the time contributed in keeping the rumour alive by embellishing their versions with more and more details as the fame of Turgenev grew higher and higher. At last when Turgenev was dying he tried to settle the account by giving his version of the events. The short article is quite good, very typical of Turgenev writing, naturalistic and observational, with fits of lyricism at regular intervals. He does mention the offering of roubles episode but in a very self-deprecatingly humorous way. Berlin writes:
At last the memory of a moment's weakness that must (if my hypothesis is correct) have preyed on him for more than forty years was exorcised, turned into literature, rendered innocuous and even delightful. He represents his own conduct as that of an innocent, confused, romantically inclined young man, niether a hero nor a coward, slightly cynical, slightly absurd, but above all amiable, sympathetic and human.

I have started to like Turgenev a lot. Specially after reading First Love, The Torrents of Spring and parts of Hunter's Sketches recently. Also about his life and the unhappy love affair that he was involved in. I had read Fathers and Sons long back and was disappointed to find the overheated style of Crime and Punishment missing in it... I thought all Russian novels were like Crime and Punishment! I want to read it again now.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Movies this Fall

This fall season is packed for the new yorker cinephile. The Village Voice gives a sneak preview of all the repertory screenings happening in the city in the next few months. Go here for more details.

Also the film society at the lincoln center is showing a number of film classics to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Janus Films, the film distribution company which first brought foreign films from Asia and Europe to the US. Program overview here and an introduction here.

*sigh* I wish I had more time, more money and more energy or at least I were living in the downtown!

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Witticisms from Stendhal

I have been reading The Charterhouse of Parma by Stendhal and found something which really cracked me up. It is not that funny, but somehow. Here is his description how a woman plans to revenge a man in Italy:

She [the countess] multiplied her attentions to Limercati, seeking to awaken his love and subsequently to forsake him, reducing him to despair. In order to render such a scheme of revenge intelligible to French readers, I should explain that in Milan, a region quite remote from our own, a man may still be driven to despair by love.

So how does it compare with what people do in France? He says, in his book on Love, "The great majority of men, especially in France, both desire and possess a fashionable woman, much in the way one might own a fine horse, as a luxury befitting a young man."

Stendhal was perhaps one of the greatest psychologists of love in literature. The Red and the Black is my favourite romantic novel. He is also credited with writing "the driest book about love ever written" (linked above), of course it will appear dry to those who don't get his irony and sense of humour. He shows that it is not just heart (or our emotions) which play tricks on us but rather our brain (the rational faculties) which force to see things in its own way, specially the kind of sweet hypocrisy and deceit that is involved in the act of falling in love. The keyword is "sweet", because unlike his fellow countryman and fellow novelist Flaubert he was not a bitter pessimist at all. Not that I have any problem with bitter pessimism but some liveliness and a sense of humour about bad things of life always helps.

Actually, I am finding The Charterhouse of Parma a little heavy-going and my pitiful ignorance of the history of the Napoleonic wars and general European history at the turn of the eighteenth century is not helping matters either. Looks like I will have to close the book and spend some time with the wikipedia!

To end here is another quote from the same page in the book:

That absurd courage known as resignation, the courage of a fool who lets himself be hanged without uttering a word, was not among countess's qualities.

Mizoguchi Retrospective

Film Forum is organizing a short film festival of Japanese director Kenji Mizoguchi's films. It kicks off this weekend with the screening of Ugetsu. More details here.

Articles/Notices from New York Times, New Yorker (a serious Anthony Lane, waxing lyrical) and Village Voice.

I will try to be there for Sansho the Bailiff at least. It is just impossible to go on a weekday. Why can't they show different movies on the same day?

Monday, September 04, 2006

On Russian Literature

I have been reading this remarkable and useful anthology of writings excerpted from the Nineteenth Century Russian Literature. The short introduction to the volume is very nice too. The editor in the introduction makes this interesting point:

Literature in Russia played a far broader role than in other societies. While Winston Churchill's History of the English-Speaking Peoples does not even list Shakespeare in its index, it would be unimaginable for a history of the Russian people not to give lion's share of attention to the country's great writers. They were an artistic, spiritual, and social force. Russian readers (and censors and opponents) looked to the great novelists, poets and playwrights for plots, characters and ideas expressive of the chief issues of their age.
And this is exactly what I love about the Russian literature. They are so deeply rooted in a specific time and place, and yet they paradoxically remain timeless and manage to address universal concerns and questions.

Of course Nabokov would scoff at this idea -- reading books of fiction to learn about culture, history or philosophy! He says, in his essay on Dead Souls, that only a fool would want to read the novel to learn about Russian countryside or life in nineteenth century provincial Russia. (I remember being very impressed with the chracter portraits (or caricatures) and the way Gogol captured life and the landscapes in the countryside and the provinces. It is one of my favourite novels ever. It is certainly one of the funniest books I have ever read.) Similarly Nabokov says that only a lazy and a philistine reader would read Gogol's story The Overcoat as a denunciation of the horrors of Russian bureaucracy.

But neither the person who wants a good laugh, nor the person who craves for books "that make one think" will understand what The Overcoat is really about. Give me the creative reader; this is the tale for him.

To Nabokov literature is all about experimenting with the langauge, inventing new ways of saying things, playing with words, metaphors and images. And this is what he expects from a "creative reader" of Gogol. Needless to say, it is a very narrow view of what literature is about, although certainly a valid one in its own right. I find this formalistic or narrowly aestheticised readings very boring. I am happy to be a philistine. Thank you, Mr. Nabokov. I will continue to read novels to learn about history, culture and philosophy! There is also a funny essay on Philistines and Philistinism in the Nabokov volume. Will write about it later.

Knife in the Water

This Wikipedia entry for the Roman Polanski film Knife in the Water informs me that some people believe it to be the "second best first film ever" after Citizen Kane. I don't know if I agree. It is certainly a very well crafted and extremely subtle psychological thriller. Perhaps a little too subtle, because at the end it left me slightly underwhelmed. Perhaps I was expecting a more dramatic payoff in the denouement.
The structure of the film is extremely tight. There are only three characters and Polanski isolates them from the rest of the world and observes how they behave for just twenty four hours. What he sees and what he shows us is I think quite familiar to all of us, because it is very true. It is about how the presence of a sexually attractive woman provokes a man to advertise his masculinity by showing his confidence and his abilitity to indulge in aggression, sometimes even violence. And if he is competing for the female attention with other males it is even easier because he can then win by mocking his competitors! It all sounds very base, uncivilized and indeed very Darwinian but Polanski thinks it explains normal human behaviour very well (he is right of course).

The film starts with a couple going to spend a day sailing on some lake in Poland. They give lift to a young hitchhiker on the way and the man then invites him to join him for sailing, perhaps for helping him with the paraphernelia of sailing or perhaps for just giving him a chance to show his skill and manliness before his much younger wife. Soon a subtle psychological warfare between the two men ensues. The young man is clumsy and doesn't have a clue about sailing but he can play with his knife pretty well. The girl watches the two with amusement (indeed she must have seen it before!). Soon things get more dire but the film never manages to achieve a good climax of which it was hinting at all along.

The most impressive aspect of the film was its visual expressiveness. It is brilliantly shot in what must be extremely difficult conditions. The action is limited to the boat for the entire period and to just the three characters and yet the film never manages to become less interesting. Also the acting is quite ordinary, specially the girl who is absolutely clueless about what to do. Polanski mentions this in the accompanying interview too. But actually I think it helps in creating her character. Also she has a great presence bustling with sexual energy. Also it is worth noticing how Polanski makes her shed her hair style, glasses and other trappings and reveal her more sexual side as the film progresses which contributes to the creation of sexual tension.

Polanski explored similar themes of how we indulge in powerplay and casual fascism in our everyday relationships in his bleak portait of modern society, The Tenant, which is also a masterpiece of psychological horror. His other two movies in the "Apartment Horror" series, Repulsion and Rosemary's Baby are my favourites too.

Here is an article on Knife in the Water from the criterion website. Another review and more stills from the movie here.

There are some very good articles on The Tenant. Here is one from kinoeye website and here is another. An interview with Polanski and another article which says:"...Polanski's films depict a Godless world in which the good do not always triumph, the outsider is always persecuted and the innocent is always abused."

Saturday, September 02, 2006

From Nabokov's Lectures on Russian Literature

From Nabokov's Lectures on Russian Literature...

On "The Good Reader":

[...]It is he--the good, the excellent reader--who has saved the artist again and again from being destroyed by emperors, dictators, priests, puritans, philistines, political moralists, policemen, postmasters, and prigs. Let me define this admirable reader. He does not belong to any specific nation or class. No director of conscience and no book club can manage his soul. His approach to a work of fiction is not governed by those juvenile emotions that make the mediocre reader identify himself with this or that character and "skip descriptions." The good, the admirable reader identifies himself not with the boy or the girl in the book, but with the mind that conceived and composed the book. [...]The admirable reader is not concerned with general ideas: he is interested in the particular vision

On Russian Literature under communism:
It is difficult to refrain from the relief of irony, from the luxury of contempt, when surveying the mess that meek hands, obedient tentacles guided by the bloated octopus of the state, have managed to make out of that fiery, fanciful free thing--literature. Even more: I have learned to treasure my disgust, because I know that by feeling so strongly about it I am saving what I can of the spirit of Russian literature. Next to the right to create, the right to criticise is the richest gift that liberty of thought and speech can offer. Living as you do in freedom, in that spirital open where you were born and bred, you may be apt to regard stories of prison life coming from remote lands as exagerrated accounts spread by panting fugitives. That a country exists where for almost a quarter of century literature has been limited to illustrating the advertisements of a firm of slave-traders is hardly credible to people for whom writing and reading books is synonymous with having and voicing individual opinions. But if you do not believe in the existence of such conditions, you may at least imagine them, and once you have imagined them you will realize with new purity and pride the value of real books written by free men for free men to read.

On Gogol's Dead Souls:

I repeat however for the benefit of those who like books to provide them with "real people" and "real crime" and a "message" (that horror of horrors borrowed from the jargon of quack reformers) that Dead Souls will get them nowhere.

On Gogol's The Overcoat
The Russian who thinks Turgenev was a great writer, and bases his notion of Pushkin upon Chaykovski's [Tchaikovsky] vile libretti, will merely paddle into the gentlest wavelets of Gogol's mysterious sea and limit his reaction to an enjoyment of what he takes to be whimsical humour and colourful quips. But the diver, the seeker for black pearls, the man who prefers the monsters of the deep to the sunshades on the beach, will find in The Overcoat shadows linking our state of existence to those other states and modes which we dimly apprehend in our rare moments of irrational perception.


At this superhigh level of art, literature is of course not concerned with pitying the underdog or cursing the upperdog. It appeals to that secret depth of the human soul where the shadows of other worlds pass like the shadows of nameless and soundless ships.

Friday, September 01, 2006

"The Ungodly Ties"

This is from the back of Tolstoy's Kreutzer Sonata:

While "The Kreutzer Sonata" caused a public sensation, Tolstoy's wife, Sonya, was hurt and furious that he should have enriched his scathing indictment of marriage with private details from their own life together. Tolstoy, during two years of obsessive unhappiness, had become convinced that the idea of a "Christian marriage" was an impossibility. Here he lets loose all his frustration and disgust at human sexuality, and the humiliating, ungodly, sensual tie that binds men to women. The curious result, part self-lacerating, confession, part Christian polemic, is moving, above all, as the story of a man whose sexual jealousy, inflamed by guilt, drives him to murder his wife.