Tag Archives: The Fictional 100

#TTWIB Travels in May: Reading Russia

15 May

Reading Russia

This month Becca of I’m Lost in Books is hosting a free-choice reading event of books set in Russia. I have a couple of books in mind for this:

Everyday Saints cover (Russia)

Everyday Saints and Other Stories by Archimandrite Tikhon Shevkunov is rather like a “Chicken Soup for the Russian Orthodox Soul,” to make a homely comparison. The author describes his awakening of faith and entry into the Pskov Caves Monastery in Pechory, near the Estonian border.

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I learned of this book from a review by Emma of Words and Peace.  It was reportedly a bestseller in Russia, with over a million copies sold worldwide.  The personal warmth and frankness of its author have surely been a big part of its success. He tells us that, although he and his friends were reasonably happy young men with promising careers, something strange and wonderful drew them to monastic life: “for each of us, a new world had suddenly opened up, incomparable in its beauty.” He attempts to share this beauty as it manifests in daily life, through his gift for storytelling. Understanding the beauty of this Orthodox way of life is one essential to understanding the foundations of Russian culture, especially relevant since the fall of the Soviet system.

I hope to read Everyday Saints during the remainder of May, but I wanted to mention another Russian book, Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate.

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In scope and importance, this World War II novel has been compared to War and Peace. At nearly 900 pages, this will take me a while, but I’d like to make a start on it in May during our Read Russia event.

In a much lighter vein, I’d like to recommend Rosalind Laker’s charming historical novel, To Dream of Snow, in which a Parisian seamstress travels to the court of the Empress Elisabeth to embroider the elaborate gowns of the monarch and her daughter-in-law Catherine–the future Catherine the Great (for more details, see my review).

To Dream of Snow

Finally, if you haven’t read Anna Karenina yet, there are so many good translations available now. I first read the older one by Constance Garnett; it has its critics these days, but it certainly won me over (and it is free on Kindle). I like the Louise and Aylmer Maude translation in the Dover Thrift Edition, and their version was used for the movie tie-in edition to Joe Wright’s brilliant (but underrated) film.

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Another Russian classic is One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Aleksandr Solzhensitsyn (trans. H. T. Willetts). Here’s a recent paperback edition.

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I hope some of these ideas are helpful; likewise, I hope to get some new ideas of mysteries, historicals, and contemporary fiction set in Russia, from other readers!

#ReadNobels and #TTWIB join forces in April!: Week 2

17 Apr

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Under the spirited #ReadNobels leadership of Aloi of Guiltless Reading, and in conjunction with Travel the World in Books (#TTWIB;  co-hosted by Aloi, Tanya of Mom’s Small Victories, Becca of I’m Lost in Books, Savvy Working Gal, and me), the April combined challenge is rolling along–it’s the end of Week 2! Guiltless Reader has provided us with questions each week to get the discussion going and prompt our own thinking about the great wealth of Nobel-recognized literature, which is out there, just waiting to be sampled.

This week the focus is on making a list of authors and their works we have read, from among those on the list of Nobel prizes awarded in Literature. This was an illuminating exercise, because it became apparent which authors had become dear favorites and which were merely respected acquaintances. When I was doing research (over quite a few years) for my book The Fictional 100, I tried to read a wide range of notable authors around the world, so I encountered many of these distinguished authors (though surely not everyone I might have read!). In Week 3, I will offer a list, as Guiltless Reader suggests, of Nobel-prize-winning authors and books on my wish list for future reading!

Week 2 question: Which Literature Nobelists have you read (at least something of theirs)?

Rudyard Kipling (1907)

Just So Stories

Rabindranath Tagore (1913):

Gitanjali (poetry)

William Butler Yeats (1923):

“The Wild Swans of Coole,” other poems

Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish

George Bernard Shaw (1925):

Man and Superman

Sigrid Undset (1928):

Kristin Lavransdatter

Gunnar’s Daughter

Thomas Mann (1929):

Buddenbrooks

Death in Venice

Joseph and His Brothers (Parts I and II)

Sinclair Lewis (1930):

Main Street

Babbitt

Dodsworth

John Galsworthy (1932):

The Forsyte Saga

Luigi Pirandello (1934):

“Six  Characters in Search of an Author”

Eugene O’Neill (1936):

Mourning Becomes Electra

Hermann Hesse (1946):

Siddhartha

The Glass Bead Game

T. S. Eliot (1948):

The Waste Land

“Four Quartets”

William Faulkner (1949):

The Sound and the Fury

Absalom, Absalom!

Ernest Hemingway (1954):

The Old Man and the Sea

Halldór Laxness (1955):

The Great Weaver from Kashmir (excellent, his first important novel)

Albert Camus (1957):

The Stranger

Boris Pasternak (1958):

Doctor Zhivago

John Steinbeck (1962):

Of Mice and Men

The Grapes of Wrath

The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights

Aleksander Solzhenitsyn (1970):

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich

Eugenio Montale (1975)

Selected Poems (still working on these!)

Gabriel García Márquez (1982):

One Hundred Years of Solitude

Love in the Time of Cholera

Wole Soyinka (1986):

“Madmen and Specialists”

“The Trials of Brother Jero”

“A Dance of the Forests”

Nadine Gordimer (1991)

Burger’s Daughter

Derek Walcott (1992):

Omeros

Toni Morrison (1993):

Beloved

Song of Solomon

Jazz

The Bluest Eye

José Saramago (1998):

Journey Through Portugal

V. S. Naipaul (2001):

A Bend in the River

A House for Mr. Biswas

India: A Million Mutinies Now

Orhan Pamuk (2006):

The Museum of Innocence

Other Colours (Essays)

Istanbul

Doris Lessing (2007):

The Golden Notebook

Canopus in Argos: Archives (sci-fi!)

Briefing for a Descent into Hell

Memoirs of a Survivor

Mario Vargas Llosa (2010):

The Perpetual Orgy (literary criticism, Madame Bovary)

The Temptation of the Impossible (literary criticism, Les Misérables)

*****

Looking over these works, they were all distinctly memorable reading experiences, and associated with obsessive bursts of enthusiasm. I remember when I was reading Doris Lessing with a passion, then I moved on to other authors. I would like to revisit her (Week 3!)  I love Mario Vargas Llosa’s literary criticism and found it influential in my own thinking. I used a quote from The Perpetual Orgy to open the Introduction to my own book. But his fiction has not grabbed me so far. Beloved still stands out to me, as unique and beautiful and heart-wrenching. I recalled being so thrilled when Toni Morrison won the prize! Sigrid Undset’s writing has long been deeply meaningful to me, and I still wonder why I didn’t include Kristin Lavransdatter in my top 100 characters. I want to recommend this book, a medieval saga written by a modern author, one which reads like a glorious triple-decker novel of family, love, loss, and redemption, a masterpiece in the greatest traditions of storytelling.

*****

TTWIB reading challenge latest image

 

 

Five books: In honor of Book Blogger Appreciation Week #BBAW

18 Feb

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I’m not officially participating in Book Blogger Appreciation Week ‪#‎BBAW‬ but here are five books very important to me, which was the theme for Day 1. I promised Emma of Words and Peace I’d come up with some!  (Follow this link to read her choices!)
1. Merton & Hesychasm: The Prayer of the Heart–The Eastern Church ed. by Bernadette Diecker and Jonathan Montaldo. This book on Thomas Merton’s embrace of the Prayer of the Heart (or prayer of quiet) led me to a wonderful trail of reading on this ancient and still vibrant way of prayer.
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2. Les Miserables by Victor Hugo. Still my favorite “classic” novel, and Jean Valjean is one of my personal favorites on my Fictional 100.
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3. The Mahabharata–one of the two great epics of India, and again a special favorite when I had the chance to write about its multifaceted characters and story.
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4. Novena by Barabara Calamari & Sandra DiPasqua. I keep this book close by, for its beautiful way of prayer, and for the utterly gorgeous images it contains. I became a collector of prayer cards, old and new, after this book touched me.
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5. Daughter of the Forest by Juliet Marillier. This was one of the first fantasy novels I read. This author and this genre are still a regular part of my reading. This novel also represents my great love of fairy tales from all over the world. It’s based on my favorite fairy tale, “The Wild Swans,” and I cry whenever I reread it (the novel, and probably the fairy tale too!)

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Thanks, Emma, for getting me to participate, even a little, in this fun way to learn about our fellow bloggers and friends!

#WintersRespite Read-a-thon Wrapup!

24 Jan

A Winters Respite button 2016

The sounds of snow plows and shovels hitting the pavement fill the air as I sit in my office contemplating this week’s read-a-thon harvest. Being snowbound and reading are a perfect pairing, especially since the power stayed on! I finished the two books I planned on reading–an unusual occurrence since I often end up sampling several books at a time to get future reading underway.  But the entertaining update posts on our Seasons of Reading Facebook group, also thoughtfully hosted by Michelle of True Book Addict,  helped keep me on track as I read about the many books being read and finished.

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First, I read In the Heart of the Sea by Nathaniel Philbrick. This is our January non-fiction read for TuesBookTalk, and I plunged in because of this and because of its connection to Moby-Dick, whose Captain Ahab is a character (ranked 62nd) on The Fictional 100. It is a compelling, well-researched true story, but an emotionally grueling read as one follows the long ordeal of the few survivors of the whaling ship Essex, shipwrecked far out in the Pacific, as they attempt to reach the South American coast. It was tremendously ironic to learn that had they chanced a landing on the mostly unknown “Society Islands,” which were a week’s sail away, they could have recuperated on the now-famous island paradise of Tahiti. Fears of cannibals made the crew overrule their captain’s plan to go there, and instead they became the cannibals themselves. Truly horrible. Captain Ahab is not a simple portrait of any of the men on the Essex, but news of the disaster inspired young Herman Melville to begin work on the greatest novel of his career–to many the greatest in American literature. Philbrick’s account of the whaling industry is unsparing and brutal, and it made me admire all the more the way Melville could convey the same facts but transform them into high literary art.  If Ahab resembles any of the crew, it may be Owen Chase, the First Mate (played by Chris Hemsworth in the recent film adaptation). As one of the survivors who returned to Nantucket, he continued to pursue the giant whales in the Pacific; some said he hoped to find and kill the one who wrecked the Essex.

Second, I read The Keys of the Watchmen by Kathleen C. Perrin. What an enchanting book!  You can see its beautiful cover, which shows the island fortress of Mont-Saint-Michel off the coast of Normandy. Perrin’s heroine, 17-year-old American teen Katelyn Michaels, is visiting the Mount as a tourist with her younger brother Jackson, when she becomes enmeshed in a centuries-long fight to destroy Mont-Saint-Michel and its place in history: both as guardian of France at a crucial time and as bulwark again Satan and his fallen angels. She is attacked by one of those demonic figures, called Abdon, inhabiting someone in her time. She is also given a key by a “Watchman” from the past, and to escape Lucifer’s henchman–her personal adversary–she must use the key to go . . . she knows not where. She wakes up in 1424 to discover that she herself is a Watchman. How will she react to this news? How would we? Kathleen Perrin’s instincts for portraying a 21st-century teenager’s speech and emotions are unerring, and she has created one of the most engaging, instantly involving characters I have read in quite a while.  She is confronted with a venerable mentor, Jean le Vieux, who teaches her to live and function in medieval France, and the 19-year-old Nicolas le Breton, who finds her exasperating and then, as you might guess, irresistible.  Together they must try to defend Mont-Saint-Michel, weakened after a long siege by the English, from an impending attack. Her wits, courage, and modern-day know-how will be tested to the utmost.  I am eager to begin on Book II of The Watchmen Saga, The Sword of the Maiden, which I will be reviewing for France Book Tours in March.

Sword of the Maiden cover

Thanks again to Michelle Miller whose Seasons of Reading blog is a welcome gathering place all year!

#TTWIBRAT Mini-Challenge + GIVEAWAY : Favorite Characters in Cover Art

25 Oct
Image courtesy of potowizard at FreeDigitalPhotos.net.

Image courtesy of potowizard at FreeDigitalPhotos.net.

I’m very happy to be hosting a mini-challenge for our Travel the World in Books Readathon. It’s about one of my very favorite things about reading–great characters! When a truly memorable character transports me to a different place and time, it’s even better, and speaks to my own longings to travel around the world and travel in time too.  A beautiful or striking book cover featuring the outstanding character I will meet in the story is sure to draw me in, whether the book is a favorite classic in a new edition or something totally new–a favorite in the making.

I’m sure you’ve had that experience too.  I like many kinds of covers featuring characters: original illustrations made just for the book cover; paintings or other art that suggests the character and gives me some notion of time, place, and personality (Penguin is a fan of this approach); or even photographs, modern or period photos of people who then become my mental image of the character as I read.

CHALLENGE

This challenge is meant to be easy, fun, and flexible. The goal is for us to share some favorite characters from around the world, especially those which have been depicted in memorable cover art. Your task is to select one or more book covers featuring any one of your favorite characters (they don’t have to be on my 100 list, of course), and post the result in the format of your choice.  Some details:

  1. You can share just ONE book cover that you especially like–that would be great.  Or, if you wish, create a COMPOSITE image, a COLLAGE, or GALLERY with several covers.
  2. Post your image on the social media of your choice. You can Tweet or Instagram it. You can post it in your blog. Whichever way you choose, be sure to include the hashtag #TTWIBRAT in your posting.
  3. Share the link with me by leaving a comment to this mini-challenge post.  Be sure that you use the specific link that will take me right to your post, tweet, or instagram page containing your submission.  I will be tweet-sharing your submissions @Fictional100, and I will feature as many as I can in a follow-up post at the end of the Readathon.
  4. This mini-challenge and giveaway will run throughout the second week of the readathon, from October 25 to 31.

GIVEAWAY

I am giving away a copy of one of the following books, featuring Fictional 100 characters on their gorgeous covers, to ONE lucky winner.  These are all chunksters, in acclaimed translations, and well worth adding to your personal library and your lifetime reading (or re-reading) plan.  Follow the links to Goodreads for more details about each one.

The GIVEAWAY is open to those who participate in the mini-challenge and share a fabulous character cover or covers! Because the prize is a print book, which I will ship to your doorstep, this print-book giveaway is open in the US/Canada only. International readers who enter will receive a Kindle version of one of these books if they win.

The winner will be selected by random drawing from those who ENTER using the link below. I will notify the winner by email and arrange to send your prize.

Entry-Form

I can’t wait to see and share your cover selections for favorite characters. If you are participating in the #TTWIBRAT Instagram Challenge, today’s theme is Favorite World Lit Characters, so feel free to share the same photo here if it is a book cover. Thank you for participating, and enjoy the rest of the Travel the World in Books Readathon!

And There’s More!

Also be sure to check out the main Travel the World in Books Readathon 2015 Giveaways Page and enter to win a book from among the 18 books generously offered there! See more details at Mom’s Small Victories.

Giveaways page button

Giveaway of The Fictional 100 — Indie and Small Press Author Blog Hop

5 Dec

blog-hop-51I am delighted to be participating in the Indie and Small Press Author Blog Hop, hosted by one of my favorite bloggers, Melissa of The Book Binder’s Daughter, and by Harry Patz, author of The Naive Guys. Melissa shows her dedication to fair-minded reviewing of indie and small press authors, day in and day out, with her consistently informative and thoughtful reviews of a refreshing variety of books. I always look forward to learning what’s been on her reading plate! I learned about Harry’s book through her blog and I was immediately interested in its inventive allusions to the Aeneid in a thoroughly modern coming-of-age story set in the 1990s.

******** Now for the Giveaway! ********

It is my special pleasure to offer 4 copies of my book THE FICTIONAL 100, 1 paperback and 3 e-copies in mobi (kindle) or epub format, as you wish. Here’s a little bit about the book and about me, in case you haven’t visited here before, and then below these, you will find the link to enter the Giveaway.

Synopsis

Some of the most influential and interesting people in the world are fictional. Sherlock Holmes, Huck Finn, Pinocchio, Anna Karenina, Cinderella, and Superman, to name a few, may not have walked the Earth (or flown, in Superman’s case), but they certainly stride into our lives. They influence us personally: as childhood friends, catalysts to our dreams, or even fantasy lovers.  Peruvian author Mario Vargas Llosa, for one, confessed to a lifelong passion for Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. Characters can change the world. Witness the impact of Solzhenitsyn’s Ivan Denisovich, in exposing the conditions of the Soviet Gulag, or Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom, in arousing anti-slavery feeling in America. Words such as quixotic, oedipal, and herculean show how fictional characters permeate our language.

Although not of flesh and blood, fictional characters have a life and history of their own.  The Fictional 100 ranks the most influential fictional persons in world literature and legend, ranging from Shakespeare’s Hamlet [1] to Toni Morrison’s Beloved [100]. Each short, lively chapter traces a character’s origins, development, and varied incarnations in literature, art, music, and films.  From the brash Hercules to the troubled Holden Caulfield, from the misguided schemes of Emma Woodhouse to the menacing plots of Medea, from Don Juan to Don Quixote, The Fictional 100 runs the gamut of heroes and villains, young and old, saints and sinners.  It explores their deeper resonances and the diverse reasons for their enduring influence.

“A strongly recommended read and fine addition to any literary studies collection.” ~Midwest Book Review

ISBN: 978-1440154393

496 pages; illustrated

Paperback, ebook

Amazon US

Barnes & Noble

 About the Author

Lucy Pollard-Gott has a PhD in psychology from Princeton University, where she specialized in the psychology of the arts.  She has published her studies in literature, including articles on the structure of fairy tales, the psychology of readers’ interactions with fictional characters, and fractal structure in the poetry of Wallace Stevens.  She shares the latest news and reviews about the Fictional 100 characters, along with other books she’s reading, here at her blog, on Twitter, and on Facebook.  She especially likes to read what others are writing about books they like, stories that move them, or characters who have changed their lives.

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Please click Entry-Form to win a copy of THE FICTIONAL 100. This Giveaway will be open through December 12th. I will select winners on December 13th and notify the winners by email; winners will have 48 hours to respond.  Thank you for visiting this blog, and I encourage you to follow the link below to visit more stops on the hop!

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Click here to see the other authors and bloggers participating in this blog hop and offering great giveaways!

How did I miss this? Review of The Fictional 100 in the IMSLP Journal

9 Aug

I just found this review of The Fictional 100 at the IMSLP Journal, which is the online journal of the International Music Score Library Project/Petrucci Music Library, or IMSLP. Since then I have compiled a fairly comprehensive catalog of music associated with each of the Fictional 100 characters.

Hamlet's theme, Act 1, opera by Ambroise Thomas

Hamlet’s theme from Act 1 of Ambroise Thomas’s 1868 opera

I hope this catalog will appear online soon, and I can report back with full information about it, along with my article discussing what I found when I went looking among the musical  riches themed for the great characters of world literature and legend. In the meantime, I am happy to share (belatedly) this review of The Fictional 100 book.

Breakage and Mending in “Anna Karenina” (2012): A review of the film by Joe Wright

4 Dec

Each new film adaptation of a classic must make choices about the images and symbols that will accompany its characters and help to reveal the significance of what happens to them. This is especially true when adapting a very long, profound, and polyphonic novel such as Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. 

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Such choices by a director and by actors will forever color the impressions of a viewer encountering the story for the first time, even if she or he should go on to read the novel or watch other films of it.   For viewers who already know it, from its original or other renderings, a new adaptation is still an exciting opportunity to experience the work in a completely new way. In its boldness, Joe Wright’s 2012 film adaptation of Anna Karenina does not disappoint, with its abundant creativity and fresh emphasis, attributable undoubtedly as well to Tom Stoppard’s screenplay.

I’d like to highlight one motif that struck me as I watched (and listened–sounds are very important in this film too).  That motif is the alternation of breakage and (when possible) mending, mostly concerning the delicate relationships between people but extending to other things as well.  The viewer learns right away that the film will dance between scenes explicitly framed on stage as moving tableaux and “real” scenes, often introduced by spillage of the action over the proscenium or stretching out across an infinite rear stage. This gives the whole film an impressive trompe l’oeil quality, where one can’t always be sure what one is seeing. (The last scene of the film is a particular triumph of Wright’s  technique.) This method yields the first “breakages”–breaking the habitual rules governing the boundaries between stage and life, and breaking with our expectations of how period novels should be told on film.  In effect, the director announces immediately, “This will not be a well-behaved costume drama, so watch carefully!”  And indeed we do, because besides being sumptuous, it is paced quickly with sudden switches and interruptions.  Interestingly, chronological sequence is obeyed, giving the viewer at least one reliable anchor.  Perhaps, since Tolstoy inserted so much foreshadowing into his plot, there is little need to rearrange events to hint at the final outcome.

The early scenes visit the daily life and family strife of Stiva Oblonsky, Anna’s brother, played delightfully by Matthew Macfadyen, who was Keira Knightley’s Darcy in Joe Wright’s 2005 film of Pride and Prejudice. As Stiva, Macfadyen turns in an expansive, scene-stealing performance! His arrival at his office is a tuneful, surreal dance that made me wonder if this would be a musical throughout?  But in the first of many abrupt ruptures, the background melody of the characters’ lives is broken by the jangling of tragedy, the death of the train attendant, witnessed by Anna and blighting her initial passing encounter of Vronsky at the station.

Anna comes to visit her brother’s family in Moscow on a mission to mend the marriage whose breakage is threatened by Stiva’s unfaithfulness to his wife Dolly. Anna’s appeal to her sister-in-law to forgive her straying (though loving) husband works, and the breach is mended, despite Stiva’s inability to change his ways significantly.  Anna’s visit, however, gravely disrupts the life of Kitty, Dolly’s 18-year-old sister, who has hopes of marrying Count Vronsky, a young army officer. Seeing Anna so utterly captivate Vronsky at the ball where she imagined he would propose to her sends Kitty into despair and illness.  Before she learns the truth about Vronsky, Kitty turns down a proposal from the progressive farmer and landowner Levin, but that is not the final word for them. Wright’s film handles this counterpoint tale of Kitty and Levin’s redeeming love with extraordinary charm and sincerity. I won’t spoil it with more details, but it unfolds through fine, restrained performances by Alicia Vikander and Domhnall Gleeson. Gleeson in particular captures Levin’s mysterious mixture of inner quiet and turmoil.

The rough outlines of Anna Karenina’s tragedy are well known, part of worldwide culture, but for any who are coming to her story for the first time, there are spoilers ahead…

As Anna, Keira Knightley must demonstrate layer upon layer of fragility as the character suffers a series of ruptures in all the major relationships of her life. Knightley does have such acting resources, which she showed in The Duchess (2008; a story with many parallels and some important divergences from the present one) and in the somber fable Never Let Me Go (2010).  But because the actress herself is so young, it is hard for her to show some of the nuances of Anna’s vulnerability and pain as she is compared to the young princess Vronsky’s mother intends for him. It is not only that she may be supplanted, but that she feels time slipping past her.  Despite her undeniable part in creating the fatal string of events, the word “inexorable” seems the only one to describe the cascading breakages–with her husband, lover, son, and her friends in Petersburg “society”–that leave Anna unconnected, like a beautiful marionette with all its strings cut. Although Vronsky and Anna were both judged by society for their behavior, their positions were never equivalent. Vronsky risked some things, notably in his career, but Anna risked everything. He could escape the situation by marrying, but she had no escape, she thought, but the one she chose.  In the end, she allowed herself to break like a fallen bisque doll.

I called “breakage” a motif in the film rather than simply a theme because Wright uses it repeatedly in both sights and sounds. I’ve never heard so many loud, sudden noises in a film that didn’t involve explosions or car crashes! Everyone seems poised to be startled (including the audience). The rapid scene changes and dislocations between stage and “real world” reinforce sudden revelations in the plot or strong emotions.  For example, when Anna flatly tells her husband that he is not mistaken, that she indeed loves Vronsky and is his mistress, the carriage they are riding in registers Karenin’s shock with a screech.  Often, Anna’s voice seems to catch in her throat and she draws in breath audibly.  Her gasp becomes a scream when Vronsky’s horse suddenly falls, in one of the most brilliant bits of stage business–and filmmaking–I’ve ever seen. (We know this is coming, but the surprise and horror are triggered as if we didn’t.)  Vronsky is thrown clear but the horse’s back is broken, and the unbearable shot rings out. Vronsky has lost one of beings he loves most, and the foreshadowing of irreparable brokenness is complete.

Wright’s film made me see Tolstoy’s great domestic novel as an especially poignant study in entropy, the tendency of the universe to increase in disorder: How easy it is for a horse and rider to fall, for a bone to break, or for a marriage to fail.  Mending, when it is even possible, requires tremendous energy and calls forth humility and steadfast qualities, especially love, loyalty, and forgiveness.  Without them, the din of heartbreak can be deafening.

 

“To Be Continued”: Scheherazade and the Arabian Nights (2)

25 Jul

Arabian Nights and Days: A Novel by Naguib Mahfouz, trans. by Denys Johnson-Davies, Doubleday,  1995. (Originally published 1979 in Arabic)

Whatever Gets You Through the Night: A Story of Sheherezade and the Arabian Entertainments by Andrei Codrescu, Princeton University Press, 2011.

“Shéhérezade” (ballet, 1910), choreography by Mikhail Fokine, The Kirov Celebrates Nijinsky [DVD], Kultur, 2002.

Rimsky-Korsakov: Scheherazade/ Russian Easter Overture [CD]. The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, Robert Spano, conducting. Telarc, 2001.

In my previous post, reviewing Marina Warner’s exciting new work of cultural criticism, Stranger Magic, I promised to discuss  a few examples of retellings that continue to expand Scheherazade’s legacy. The  corpus of such retellings and variations is truly a measureless “sea of stories,” to borrow a bit of the title from Salman Rushdie’s Haroun and the Sea of Stories, an illustrious example of this genre of storytelling art. One reader of my review of Warner, Ray Wilcockson, cited Robert Louis Stevenson’s New Arabian Nights (1882), a collection of Stevenson’s earliest stories that flowed from his own excitement over reading the Arabian Nights and which adapted its connected structure for his own modern tales. Warner mentions Stevenson, along with many other writers whose work has been prompted and inspired by the Arabian Nights. She recommends Robert Irwin’s excellent survey of such works in his chapter, “Children of the Nights” (in his book, The Arabian Nights: A Companion).

I will write about two books, Arabian Nights and Days by Naguib Mahfouz and Whatever Gets You Through the Night by Andrei Codrescu.  These two caught my attention because of their focus on Scheherazade herself and their further exploration of the frame story of The Arabian Nights. I will also consider the most famous musical exposition of the character of Scheherazade, Rimsky-Korskov’s (1888) symphonic suite, and how the ballet later choreographed to that music diverged from the composer’s conception. 

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The Egyptian writer Naguib Mahfouz, the 1988 Nobelist in literature,  is probably best known for his Cairo Trilogy (in Arabic; published in English with the titles Palace WalkPalace of Desire, and Sugar Street). I was delighted to read his later novel Arabian Nights and Days, which is a sophisticated retelling of the Nights’ frame story and some of its important tales.  Mahfouz refashions the stories to bring new insight into the characters of Shahrzad and Shahriyar (as they are spelled in Denys Johnson-Davies’ spare, yet mellifluous translation); they must truly grapple with the implications of all that gone before the moment when Shahrzad’s storytelling begins. Mahfouz connects each tale to the one that follows with seamless logic and suspense, and he brings greater depth even to such figures as Ma’rouf the Cobbler, Ugr the Barber, and, of course, Aladdin and Sindbad. But for me, the most arresting moment came when he implicitly asked the novelistic question, how would Shahrzad feel when she achieved her “victory” over the Sultan? His examination of this question plumbs new depths latent in one of the most well-known stories in world literature.

Before we see Shahrzad, Mahfouz shows us her father, the sultan’s vizier Dandan.  In the three years that his daughter has been suspending Shahriyar’s death sentence with her entrancing stories, the vizier’s anxiety has not been suspended–quite the opposite. Each morning he would go to the palace, waiting to discover if this dawn would be Shahrzad’s last.  On this day, “the heart of a father quaked within him” because he knew Shahrzad had done the unthinkable–she had ended her tale and her own fate must be decided one way or the other.

Dandan found Shahriyar alone, contemplating the first hints of sunrise:  he says,”It is our wish that Shahrzad remain our wife. …Her stories are white magic…They open up worlds that invite reflection” (p. 2). When the Sultan continues, announcing that Shahrazad gave him a son and brought peace to his “troubled spirits,” the vizier wishes him happiness now and in the hereafter. This innocent blessing triggers a biting response–the Sultan dismisses the notion of happiness and puzzles over existence itself. In this way, we are given the first hint that although death is forestalled, “happily ever after” may not come as easily.

Next the vizier seeks out his daughter. Her response to her reprieve is complex and profound, even though it unfolds in a brief exchange that barely takes up two pages. Shahrzad acknowledges that by “the Lord’s mercy” her life has been spared and the young women of the city–those remaining–are no longer in peril, but at the cost of her happiness: “’I sacrificed myself,’ she said sorrowfully, ‘in order to stem the torrent of blood’” (p. 3).  The vizier protests that the Sultan now loves her and that love works miracles, but Shahrzad answers  that, “Arrogance and love do not come together in one heart” and, most devastating of all, “Whenever he approaches me I breathe the smell of blood” (p. 4).

Mahfouz has seemingly told the end at the beginning, but is it really the end? As his brilliantly refashioned cycle of tales nears its conclusion, Shahriyar becomes prominent again as the auditor of Sindbad’s tales of his voyages, told by Sindbad himself as fables of the wisdom he won along the way. Shahriyar persistently queries him as if his (Shahriyar’s) life depended on the answers. Sindbad finishes and Shahriyar retreats to his lush flower garden, pacing and remembering, his mind in turmoil and his heart gripped by weariness and disgust at his life–at the follies of life itself. He summons Shahrzad for a new dialogue–one not known to the ancient tradition but equally fateful, and full of truths as ancient as humanity. He confesses his need for repentance and reveals that he has known all along of her that “your body approaches while your heart turns away.” In a masterful stroke, Mahfouz’s Shahriyar asserts that he kept Shahrzad close to him as a reproach–“I found in your aversion a continued torment that I deserved” (p. 217). Shahrzad weeps, her heart melting perhaps for the first time in his presence, and he sees at once that this weeping means more than all the pretense of her love up to that point.  He vows to renounce his kingdom and wander in search of wisdom and meaning, leaving his son, with Shahrzad’s counsel, to rule more wisely than he did. Now it is Shahrzad’s turn to see the bitter irony of this sudden decision–“You are spurning me as my heart opens to you. …It is an opposing destiny that is mocking us” (p. 218).

I hope readers of this blog will forgive the “spoilers” I have felt necessary to include. I shall leave one last surprise unspoken–what Shahriyar discovers on his quest for truth. But I wanted to disclose this much to make clear what a tour de force this new resolution of the frame story represents. Mahfouz’s alternative frame story refuses to find Shahriyar’s healing at the point when he rescinds the order of execution. No, that will not be enough to cure a soul that has strayed so far. Shahrzad feels this in her own heart, but she has done all she can do. She carries the wounds of all the sacrificed wives who preceded her, and now she too is in need of healing. Only Shahriyar’s act of atonement1 can change the equation. And with amazing poignance, it is only at the moment when the Sultan decides to leave Shahrzad that their real love story begins. 

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NPR contributor and prolific writer Andrei Codrescu offers a retelling, Whatever Gets You Through the Night, that could hardly be more different from Mahfouz’s in tone and aims. Mahfouz is spare and restrained, recounting events and suggesting feelings and motivations with great economy. Codrescu is expansive (his Sheherezad doesn’t appear until page 46!), revelling in digression and comment, in voluminous marginal notes that can sometimes ring the main text in small type.  In his ironic, punning treatment of the stories and in his commentary, he reveals his attitudes toward the gender politics of the stories as well as the whole historical enterprise of translating and transmitting the tales. Twenty-three different epigraphs, arranged together before the main text, quote sources ranging from Wikipedia to rival translators Richard Francis Burton and Husain Haddawy to critic J. Hillis Miller to the Rolling Stone, announcing that this retelling will be openly conscious of all the textual history that has gone before.  A preface of sorts includes these observations on Sheherezade:

“We are bound to tell her story no matter what our postmodern wishes or rebellious inclinations might tell us: simply pronouncing her name invokes her. When she appears, like the Genie in the bottle of literature that she is, we must obey the order of her stories [he doesn’t]; this is the exact opposite of the Genii and Genies who are freed or imprisoned in the bottles of her characters, who must obey their liberators….” (p. 1)

This passage is characteristic of Codrescu and of the experience of reading this book: expect trenchant observations delivered with irreverence, skepticism, and a winking eye. Also expect the story will linger on lurid details of the murders of the Sultan’s previous wives and explicit description of the sexual situations implicit in the story. This text attempts to startle the reader into taking a fresh look at an old narrative tradition. Within that tradition, Codrescu aligns his sympathy more nearly with Burton, whose titillating translation, cloaked in archaic language, fed a certain late-Victorian appetite, especially his own.

Codrescu makes crucial archetypal connections between Scheherazade and figures such as Penelope and Ariadne, as in this brilliant synthesis:

“Sheherezade’s job was to be like Ariadne to make the King believe that she was showing him the way out of the labyrinth of his insecurity and cruelty, while weaving [like Penelope] at the same time a labyrinth from which he could never escape to kill again.” (p. 97)

The net that is woven is an erotic one, but oddly Sheherezade herself is sidelined in favor of her sister, Dinarzad. The storytelling ménage à trois becomes a sexual pas de deux between the two listeners, Sharyar and Dinarzad, whose dalliance fails to reach its climax just as each story’s ending is postponed.

Codrescu offers what he calls the “unpopular” ending, one in which he posits there was no baby, no reconciliation of the Sultan to women, and, therefore, no pardon for his Sheherezade; he prefers to believe that the stories had no end and we can listen in whenever we choose.  In fact we need to listen, trancelike, he argues, because we cannot face our lives without entertainment. Thus, he concludes with an extended meditation on media culture where we are “angry mass-Sharyars” and “terrified when you are silent” (p. 173).  All of this does end up being intriguing and a very modern deconstructive performance, but I confess that I preferred Mahfouz’s Arabian Nights and Days, which explored more deeply the redemptive core of the Nights, while preserving the echoes of the imaginative realms that gave it birth.

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I was going to write at length about Rimsky-Korsakov’s gorgeously melodic symphonic suite of Scheherazade and compare it with Mikhail Fokine’s popular Scheherazade ballet of 1910, set to some of its music, and with a new libretto by Léon Bakst and Fokine. (Rimsky-Korsakov’s widow was apparently quite unhappy with the rearrangement of the score.) Despite its name,  the ballet dramatizes only events occurring before the intervention of Scheherazade, namely, the infidelity of the Sultan’s first wife. Most of the dancing is a sensuous, extended duet between Zobeide2 (the wife) and a “Golden Slave”–in Fokine’s Ballet Russes choreography, this role was a vehicle for the superlative genius of Vaslav Nijinsky.

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Unfortunately, Scheherazade’s recurring narration from bed does not lend itself easily to having her dance!   Ahh, but I see the night grows short, this post is already very long, and I must stop for now and send you to meet the musical Scheherazade for yourself in the lyrical space beyond words…

Notes:

  1.  In this connection, I highly recommend Phil Cousineau’s Beyond Forgiveness: Reflections on Atonement (Jossey-Bass, 2011), which collects essays from diverse authors on ways to move from words of repentance or forgiveness toward atoning actions which may potentially heal both parties.
  2.  I recommend a performance of Fokine’s ballet in The Kirov Celebrates Nijinsky (DVD), but be aware that the back-cover text incorrectly identifies the principal female role (danced by Svetlana Zakharova) as Shehérézade instead of Zobeide.

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“To Be Continued”: Scheherazade and the Arabian Nights (1)

10 Jul

Stranger Magic: Charmed States and the Arabian Nights by Marina Warner, Belknap Press (Harvard University Press), 2012.

 

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If you have any interest in the history of fairy tale and magical narrative, in the transmission of stories from East to West, and back again, then you may find Marina Warner’s new book, Stranger Magic, as captivating as I did.  Warner is best known for her brilliant critical syntheses of fairy tales and their modern cultural expressions, as in From the Beast to the Blonde (1995), and I believe Stranger Magic is her best book since that one.  Here she seeks to open readers to the complex history that has produced The Arabian Nights, as we read them today, whether they are told in Arabic or in one of many diverse translations, whether they include just a few selected stories or collect a wealth of the Thousand and One Nights, culled from various sources.  Although she herself chooses to retell and comment upon 15 illustrative stories (including “The Fisherman and the Genie,” “Prince Ahmed and the Fairy Peri Banou,”  “Marouf the Cobbler,” and “Camar al-Zaman and Princess Badoura”), she resists attempts to identify The Arabian Nights only with a “core” of originals rather than with the whole evolving tradition of stories that have grown up around the Nights through an interplay of oral and written transmission.  For example, although she retells the most “authentic” Aladdin tale, “Aladdin of the Beautiful Moles,” she cites the better known tale of Aladdin and the magic lamp, most likely written and added by translator Antoine Galland, as a valid accretion to the cycle as a whole.

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As Warner says,  the stories themselves are “shape-shifters” but standing apart from the shifting dream world of stories is Scheherazade.  Whether her name is translated as Shahrazad, Shahrzad, Sheherezade, or Shéhérezade (I have seen all of these, and more), she holds a unique place as the still point from which the tales arise and connect. In the frame story, Shahrazad (Warner and others have settled on this spelling, and I will too) has amassed a vast bank of stories learned by heart from her teachers and from her father’s library–her memory is her first magical gift. Thus, as Warner notes, in the context of the Nights, the only truly new story Shahrazad tells is the story of Sultan Shahriyar himself, one whose outcome she herself is affecting.  Technically, her stories are classified as “ransom tales,” each one buying her life and staying her execution, upon the orders of her bitterly jealous husband, for just one more day. They can also be seen as amulets, specially crafted charms to ward off the evil of her husband’s cruel death sentence (hence Warner’s subtitle, “Charmed States and the Arabian Nights”). Finally, as a matter of discourse structure, her stories are “performative utterances,” doing what they intend–delaying her death–by the very act of speaking them and inviting Shahriyar to listen. He in turn changes his utterance from “kill her in the morning” to “wait, I want to hear the end of this story.” The power of speech is implicitly celebrated with every word of the Nights, a fearsome power and, from Shahrazad’s mouth, a transformative power as well, gradually healing the Sultan’s once-incurable heart.

Biographer Peter Ackroyd describes The Arabian Nights–to my surprise–as “arguably the most important of all literary influences upon Charles Dickens” (Dickens, p. 45), forming some of his most beloved childhood reading along with Fielding and Smollett. Ackroyd notes many direct references popping up in his novels, and Warner highlights a wonderfully subtle example in A Christmas Carol, when Scrooge attempts to trap the first, bright Spirit who visits him beneath an enormous candle snuffer!  Warner sees the Spirit as a benevolent jinni, “intent on doing him good,” but Scrooge would much rather bottle him, so to speak, and go back to bed in peace. As the Nights show time and again, being visited by a jinni is always life changing, one way or another!

 

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[Scrooge extinguishes the First of the Three Spirits, illus. by John Leech, 1843; image scanned by Philip V. Allingham]

Sigmund Freud believed that elements of the unconscious were bottled up in his patients, making them ill.  One of my favorite chapters in Warner’s book is chapter 20, “The Couch: A Case History,” in which she interprets Freud’s psychoanalytic “talking-cure” as a symbolic instance of Shahrazad-in-reverse: “talking as a form of storytelling, with the roles reversed (it is the narrator who needs to be healed, not the listener-Sultan)” (p. 29, my emphasis).   As she says, “The Arabian Nights is a book of stories told in bed,” and Freud draped his “bed,” the famous analyst’s couch, with oriental cushions and a gorgeous Ghashga’i rug–a veritable magic carpet for patients to ride while free-associating, relaxing repressions, and liberating unconscious thoughts. This very carpet was moved from Vienna to London when Freud moved there, and the book includes a color photo of it in Freud’s reconstructed consulting room at the Freud Museum in London,  where it is exhibited.

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The parallels to the Nights are astonishing: “The seating arrangement Freud devised, still practised in analysis today, interestingly, set up a scene of eavesdropping, not conversation, which places the analyst in the position of the Sultan in the frame story of the Nights” (p. 419).  This refers to the fact that Shahrazad’s stories are not addressed directly to Shahriyar, but rather to her sister Dinarzad (or Dunyazad, in some versions) who has accompanied her sister on the wedding night for the express purpose of requesting a tale to while away the hours till dawn. Shahriyar’s ear is caught, then his mind and curiosity, and finally his heart, which, after the fabled 1001 nights, opens to a different view of women, or at least one exemplary woman, now his wife and mother to three children. In psychoanalysis, the analyst provides the recurring occasion and allows the stories to emerge–stories the teller is heretofore unaware of possessing inside herself.  Like Shahrazad, most of Freud’s patients were women.

What shall we make of the storytelling art as Shahrazad practices it? Besides its life-saving role within the story world, what is its role in our world?  Freud’s magic-carpet couch is only one possible answer. Warner writes with warm enthusiasm about the stories as instances of Jorge Luis Borges’ concept of “reasoned imagination” and she devotes much space to what she calls “flights of reason,” stories as “thought-experiments.”  She hopes to move discussion of the Nights away from the battleground of “Orientalism,” begun in response to Edward Said’s brilliantpolemical book about the reception of Arabic and Persian literature in the West, and edge it toward an alternative tradition of “the Nights as a genre of dazzling fabulism … the begetter of magical realism” (p. 24), which she traces to Voltaire (Zadig, or Destiny; Candide) and then more recently through Borges (Ficciones), Italo Calvino (If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler), Gabriel  García Márquez (One Hundred Years of Solitude), Salman Rushdie (Midnight’s Children; Haroun and the Sea of Stories), and others.  She writes:

“the Nights inspires a way of thinking about writing and the making of literature as forms of exchange across time–dream journeys in which the maker fuses with what is being made, until the artefact exercises in return its own fashioning force. …draw[ing] away from the prevalent idea of art as mimesis, representing the world in a persuasive, true-to-life way, and emphasis[ing] instead the agency of literature. Stories need not report on real life, but clear the way to changing the experience of living it.” (Warner, p. 27, my emphasis)

She concludes with thoughts about the ongoing political changes and the voices being raised in the Middle East and North Africa–artists, writers, and filmmakers working in a new time, but in the age-old lands that inspired The Arabian Nights. What they will create still holds the potential “to lift the shadows of rage and despair, bigotry and prejudice, to invite reflection—to give the princes and sultans of this world pause. This was–and is–Shahrazad’s way” (Warner, p. 436).

As an artefact in the world, The Arabian Nights is still living and changing.  The stories still call out for new tellers, new Shahrazads who remember the old stories and add new ones, who reveal something new in the telling and retelling, who heal wounds and transform hearts. Warner says, “the book cannot ever be read to its conclusion: it is still being written” (p. 430). In my next post, I will consider a few examples of these retellings and describe how they add to and remake the tradition. To be continued…

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