Shakespeare – The Winter’s Tale Sunday, Apr 12 2009 

I’m not very keen on plays as a general rule, but how can you say no to Shakespeare? It’s hard to beat watching the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of Lear in the summer of 2005 – in Stratford-on-Avon no less – even if I did have to leave 10 minutes before the end in order to catch the last train out. That wasn’t quite sufficient to justify the extravagant ticket price when Lear with Ian McKellen came down to Singapore a couple of years ago, but I decided I shouldn’t miss the relatively more affordable Winter’s Tale by The Bridge Project.

I haven’t read much of Shakespeare, The Winter’s Tale included, but I’ve taken it to heart that Shakespeare wrote his plays to be watched by a mass audience, not read by literature buffs or boffins. Anyway, anything with Ethan Hawke has to be relatively accessible, right? I didn’t know much else about this production, except that it received rave reviews in New York where it opened, which was enough for me.

We arrived only just on time at the Esplanade, with no time to grab a programme and not much more to prepare the mental palate. And being woefully out of practice in rapid-fire Elizabethan English, I literally did not catch anything of the first five minutes. Luckily, I got into it subsequently and followed most of the rest.

This production was agreeably surprising in several respects. While making use of a few familiar Shakespeare devices, the plot was interesting and altogether very effective. Having shed buckets of tears prior to the intermission, I was expecting pretty much the same kind of tone in the second half, only to be assailed by (early 17th-century) populist comedy and a good deal of laughs, before a goosebump-inducing denouement. No wonder this play has been described (in the press) as having an unwieldy structure – but the direction of Sam Mendes (otherwise known as Kate Winslet’s husband) got around it admirably. I liked the use of British accents for the citizens of Sicilia and American for Bohemia – a practical decision, too, given the transatlantic nature of Bridge Project. Then I was blown away by the standout performance of Rebecca Hall amid a uniformly excellent (and, for Shakespeare, restrained) cast: her Queen Hermione was utterly admirable where she could easily have come across as strident. I was delighted to recognize Dakin Matthews in a sizable role – I’ve always enjoyed his appearances as Headmaster Charleston on Gilmore girls. The sets and costumes were elegant and beautiful (rather than minimalist or deliberately rough), the lighting was very intelligent. And our seats were upgraded (no doubt due to the recession-hit attendance) to a fairly good vantage point.

To top it all off, I learned from the programme that the Old Vic theatre in London is the other of the twin homes of The Bridge Project, which brought on a nice wave of nostalgia because I used to stay just behind the Old Vic. Didn’t manage to watch anything at the Old Vic while I was there, although I recall Kevin Spacey was already there at that point (in Henry III I think); he must really have taken to it since he’s now the artistic director.

Anyhow, I thoroughly enjoyed this superb production, and am relieved that my brain hasn’t quite gone to mush since I started work. This was sort of a warm-up after a long hiatus from so-called intellectual pursuits – as part of my resolution not to waste too much time on mindless activities this year, I’m embarking on a major book-reading, film-watching, music-listening spree…

An Introductory Microeconomics Rap Sunday, Feb 22 2009 

I’m not quite sure what this falls under – poetry? music? But as an economics graduate, it gave me a giggle. ‘Think margin, think margin’!

Thanks to the Freakonomics blog for reproducing Dan Hamermesh’s summary to his introductory microeconomics class at the University of Texas.

It’s all about the Law of Supply and Demand,
Prices are set by the Invisible Hand.

A floor that’s put on your product’s price
Is something the consumer will find not nice.

If you raise your price when demand’s elastic,
Your revenue will drop and you’ll go ballistic.

Get the same extra utiles for each extra dollar,
The maximum utility is sure to follow.

Produce where price equals marginal cost
If you don’t you’ll find that your profits are lost.

Always think about cost, opportunity,
If not, you’ll find you’re hurting your community.

Think margin, think margin.

Monopolists set MR to marginal cost
The result is that consumer surplus is lost

Make sure your strategies are subgame perfect
Plan your strategic interactions without any defect.

Tax the inelastic, or you’ll be hurtin’
Because you’ve created a large excess burden.

With positive externalities it’s always wise,
To encourage more production — subsidize.

A tariff or a quota helps a few producers,
But consumers will always be the big losers.

Sometimes you gotta choose efficiency or fairness,
Ya need more than econs, ya need political awareness.

Think margin, think margin.

‘Table for One’ (Liz Phair) Sunday, Jan 13 2008 

Robert Christgau has been getting a lot of flak on the Rolling Stone website for his reviews of (what he deems) ho-hum or poor albums. Most readers’ criticisms centre on the dense, (in Singlish) ‘cheem’ nature of his writing, essentially a complaint that the review is difficult to understand. Well, that brings to mind a Terry Pratchett quote on the problems he has had with American publishers, captured for posterity in The Annotated Pratchett Files:

That seems to point up a significant difference between Europeans and Americans.

A European says: ‘I can’t understand this, what’s wrong with me?’ An American says: ‘I can’t understand this, what’s wrong with him?’

I make no suggestion that one side or other is right, but observation over many years leads me to believe it is true.

More difficult to dismiss is the criticism that Christgau’s negative reviews are just, well, off-the-mark – that he has somehow missed the genius at work, mistaken brilliant music for terrible music, &c. For whatever reason, however, I find almost all of his reviews spot on. A sample of negative reviews of artists I like reveal quite clearly that careful listening has gone into that particular album review. The great thing is that he will (for ‘Honorable Mention’ and ‘Choice Cut’ reviews) identify the one or two excellent songs on an otherwise dull record.

Liz Phair’s 2005 album Somebody’s Miracle received one such (B-plus, which is actually not too bad) review.

In pop, when the production’s solid and the voice a little less so, the songs had better be on the money (“Got My Own Thing,” “Table for One”)

And this is precisely the case. Somebody’s Miracle is not very remarkable save ‘Got My Own Thing’ and ‘Table for One’ – the two songs I find myself returning to, especially the latter. A simple but lovely melody, gorgeous classical Spanish-style picked acoustic lines, and a vivid, sweetly-sung account of alcoholism:

It’s morning and I pour myself coffee

I drink it till the kitchen stops shaking

I’m backing out of the driveway and into creation

And the loving spirit that follows me

Watching helplessly, will always forgive me

Oh, I want to die alone

With my sympathy beside me

I want to bring down all those demons who drank with me

Feasting gleefully

On my desperation

I delight in Ms Phair’s lyrical tricks, and many they are, too, like this mid-sentence switch of (grammatical) subject:

I hide all the bottles in places / they find

And confront me with pain in their eyes

And I promise that I’ll make some changes

Dodie Smith – I Capture the Castle Sunday, May 27 2007 

During this long hiatus, engendered by huge work events, I have listened to any amount of music and comforted myself by re-reading favourite Terry Pratchetts on the weekends. But the mere thought of writing about them was too draining, till today. The impetus: a wonderful novel by the enchanting albeit obscure title of I Capture the Castle, the first novel of one Dodie (short for Dorothy) Smith, more famously known for children’s novel The Hundred and One Dalmations. But I had picked up I Capture the Castle not because of the Dalmations connection (of which I was unaware).

In June of 2003, while on my (Singapore Airlines) flight back home after my first year in Oxford, I casually picked an in-flight movie – you guessed it – I Capture the Castle. That was one of the most delightful, quietly funny, subtle, intelligent, and evocative films I’d seen in ages, with all the gorgeousness of writing and cinematography associated with the English period (specifically 1930s) film. More importantly, it had real depth and warmth, and somehow managed to leave me with an intense feeling of nostalgia – for what, I’m still not quite sure. I subsequently acquired both the DVD and the original novel that the film was based on.

The cast of I Capture the Castle was astounding, but I’d never seen or heard of any of them before. Most striking were the luminous and phenomenal lead actress Romola Garai, who plays the intelligent young girl and sharply observant narrator/writer Cassandra Mortmain; character actor Bill Nighy as Cassandra’s (ex-?)genius of a writer-father whose persistent inability to turn out any successor to his well-received first novel has landed the family in deep but genteel poverty; and Australian actress Rose Byrne as Cassandra’s elder sister, Rose, who as the beauty of the family is determined to marry well and pull them all out of their poverty. The Mortmain family is rounded off by geekily clever younger brother Thomas; Stephen the family ‘hired boy’; and kind-hearted, kooky, self-consciously arty nude model and stepmother Topaz.

Now, this might sound like a bit of an English eccentricity-overload, especially when the film opens with Topaz running out of the family’s crumbling castle-home – they have it on 40-year lease from the owner – to ‘commune with nature’ on a rainy night. Naked, naturally. This eccentricity shows up quite strongly, especially in contrast with the American characters – brothers Simon and Neil Cotton, the owners to the castle who come to England to see it after inheriting it, and cause quite a stirring up in the Mortmains’ lives. But all the characters are genuine in spite of their quirks, their motivations and passions are real and relatable, and their story is absorbing and told not just with pathos but also well-leavened with that rarity, a great sense of humour. The film does a fine job of translating seemingly untranslatable tones and moods onto the screen; all credit to director Tim Fywell. But no film can ever be quite as good as one’s own imagination while reading the novel.

This scene wasn’t in the film, so my imagination of it is original. Miss Marcy, the village librarian, has come by the castle to drop off some detective books for Mr. Mortmain and be a little bit of a well-meaning kaypoh, helping to conduct an ‘Enquiry into the Finances of the Mortmain Family’. Mr. Mortmain has just come into the room in the middle of the enquiry. As recorded in Cassandra’s journal (slightly edited for length):

‘Well, don’t let me interrupt the game,’ said Father. ‘What is it?’ And before I could think of any way of distracting him, he had leaned over Miss Marcy’s shoulder to look at the list in front of her. As it then stood, it read:

Earning Capacity for Present Year
Mrs Mortmain – nil.
Cassandra Mortmain – nil.
Thomas Mortmain – nil.
Rose Mortmain – nil.
Mr Mortmain – nil.
Stephen Colly – 25s. a week.

Father’s expression didn’t change as he read, he went on smiling; but I could feel something happening to him. When he had finished, he said quite lightly: ‘And is Stephen giving us his wages?’

‘I ought to pay for my board and lodging, Mr Mortmain, sir,’ said Stephen, ‘and for – for past favours; all the books you’ve lent me –’

‘I’m sure you’ll make a very good head of the family,’ said Father. Then he thanked Miss Marcy again for bringing him such a good book, and said good night to her very courteously.

Miss Marcy made no remark about the incident, which shows what a tactful person she is; but she looked embarrassed and said she must be getting along. I went out to see her off. As we crossed the courtyard, she glanced up at the gatehouse window and asked if I thought Father would be offended if she brought him a little tin of biscuits to keep there. I said I didn’t think any food could give offence in our house and she said: ‘Oh, dear!’

The rest of this blog entry will consist of particularly memorable and/or characteristic bits from the novel that reflect just what I love so much about it. I suppose this is the modern-day equivalent of Cassandra copying letters into her journal. None of them actually made it into the film that I recall, but perhaps that is to be expected given the constraints of plot, running time and filming costs.

Rose is asleep – on her back, with her mouth wide open. Even like that she looks nice. I hope she is having a beautiful dream about a rich young man proposing to her. […]

I could easily go on writing all night but I can’t really see and it’s extravagant on paper, so I shall merely think. Contemplation seems to be about the only luxury that costs nothing.

———-

Father came from the bathroom and went through to his bedroom. The next second I heard him shout:

‘Good God, what have you done to yourself?’

He sounded so horrified that I thought Topaz had some accident. I dashed into Buffer State but stopped myself outside their bedroom door; I could see her from there. She was wearing a black evening dress that she has never liked herself in, a very conventional dress. Her hair was done up in a bun and she had makeup on – not much, just a little rouge and lipstick. The result was astounding. She looked quite ordinary – just vaguely pretty but not worth a second glance.

Neither of them saw me. I heard her say:

‘Oh, Mortmain, this is Rose’s night. I want all the attention to be focused on her –’

I tiptoed back to the bedroom. I was bewildered at such unselfishness, particularly as she had spent hours mending her best evening dress. I knew what she meant, of course – at her most striking she can make Rose’s beauty look like mere prettiness. Suddenly I remembered that first night the Cottons came here, how she tried to efface herself. Oh, noble Topaz!

I heard Father shout:

‘To hell with that. God knows I’ve very little left to be proud of. At least let me be proud of my wife.’

There was a throaty gasp from Topaz: ‘Oh, my darling!’ – and then I hastily went downstairs and kept Rose talking in the drawing room. I felt this was something we oughtn’t to be in on. And I felt embarrassed – I always do when I really think of Father and Topaz being married.

When they came down Topaz was as white as usual and her silvery hair, which was at its very cleanest, was hanging down her back. She had her best dress on which is Grecian in shape, like a clinging grey cloud, with a great grey scarf which she had draped round her head and shoulders. She looked most beautiful – and just how I imagine the Angel of Death. […]

Of course I have always realized that she is kind, but I should never have thought her capable of making that noble sacrifice for Rose. And just as I was feeling ashamed of ever having thought her bogus, she said in a voice like plum-cake:

‘Look, Mortmain, look! Oh, don’t you long to be an old, old man in a lamp-lit inn?’

‘Yes, particularly one with rheumatism,’ said Father. ‘My dear, you’re an ass.’

———-

When Neil was getting me my second glass of cherry brandy I took a good look at Rose. She was wearing her very oldest dress, a washed-out blue cotton, but it looked exactly right for sitting outside an inn. One branch of the chestnut came down behind her head and, while I was watching, a strand of her bright hair got caught across a leaf.

‘Is that branch worrying you?’ Simon asked her. ‘Would you like to change places? I hope you wouldn’t because your hair looks so nice against the leaves.’

I was glad he had been noticing.

Rose said the branch wasn’t worrying her in the least.

When Neil came back with my second cherry brandy, she said: ‘Well, now that we’ve finished lunch, I’ll have one, too.’ I knew very well she had been envying mine. Then she called after him: ‘No, I won’t – I’ll have crème de menthe.’ I was surprised, because we both tasted that at Aunt Millicent’s once and hated it heartily; but I saw what she was after when she got it – she kept holding it up so that the green looked beautifully against her hair, though of course it clashed quite dreadfully with the chestnut leaves. I must say she was being more affected than I ever saw her, but Simon appeared to be enchanted. Neil didn’t – he winked at me once and said: ‘Your sister will be wearing that drink as a hat any minute.’

A bit that quite sums up the famous British reserve (which I think I have, too, despite being Singaporean):

Neil had driven coming out, so Simon drove going home, with Rose at the front beside him. It was fun at the back with Neil. He told me lots of interesting things about life in America – they do seem to have a good time there, especially the girls.

‘Do Rose and I seem very formal and conventional, compared with American girls?’ I asked.

‘Well, hardly conventional,’ he said, laughing, ‘even madam with her airs isn’t that’ – he jerked his head towards Rose. ‘No, I’d never call any of your family conventional, but – oh, I guess there’s formality in the air here, even the villagers are formal; even you are, in spite of being so cute.’

I asked him just what he meant by ‘formality’. He found difficulty in putting it into words, but I gather it includes reserve and ‘a sort of tightness’.

‘Not that it matters, of course,’ he added, hastily. ‘English people are swell.’

That was so like Neil – he will joke about England, but he is always most anxious not really to hurt English feelings.

A particularly funny (and true) description of some of J S Bach, although I adore Bach:

‘Well, Debussy’s certainly made a hit with you,’ said Simon, ‘though I’m not sure you wouldn’t outgrow him. You’re the kind of child who might develop a passion for Bach.’

I told him I hadn’t at school. The one Bach piece I learnt made me feel I was being repeatedly hit on the head with a teaspoon.

An interesting conversation between Cassandra and the village Vicar which presents one aspect of ‘finding religion’ in a new light to me:

We got started on religion, which surprised me rather, as the Vicar so seldom mentions it – I mean, to our family; naturally it must come up in his daily life.

‘You ought to try it, one of these days,’ he said. ‘I believe you’d like it.’

I said: ‘But I have tried it, haven’t I? I’ve been to church. It never seems to take.’

He laughed and said he knew I’d exposed myself to infection occasionally.

‘But catching things depends so much on one’s state of health. You should look in on the church if ever you’re mentally run down.’

I remembered my thoughts on the way to the village. ‘Oh, it wouldn’t be fair to rush to church because one was miserable,’ I said – taking care to look particularly cheerful.

‘It’d be most unfair not to – you’d be doing religion out of its very best chance.’

‘You mean “Man’s extremity is God’s opportunity”?’

‘Exactly. Of course, there are extremities at either end; extreme happiness invites religion almost as much as extreme misery.’

I told him I’d never thought of that.

Once & Again: The Mystery Dance Tuesday, Feb 20 2007 

No single television series has ever spoken to me as much as Once & Again did – and does. No, I’ve never experienced divorce, either directly or indirectly, which is the basis of the basic storyline. Neither am I American, WASP or Jewish. None of the characters is my age. But Once & Again is perhaps one of the best-written, best-acted, and loveliest shows ever made; the best example for the case that TV can be educational, edifying, eye-opening. (My So-Called Life, the other series by creators Marshall Herskovitz and Edward Zwick, is pretty outstanding, but Once & Again is the very pinnacle of television.)

And it is moving. Today, as I re-watched the first season episode ‘The Mystery Dance’, a poem, read in turns by two characters at a crossroads in their lives, leapt out at me. It had never made the same impression before; its relevance had been confined to the characters’ situations. I suppose I’m at the point in my life that makes me ripe for it. This is my first Chinese New Year holiday since 2002, my first as a working person, at the start of the rest of my life.

‘George Gray’ is part of a collection of poems, each of which is a posthumous, autobiographical epitaph, by the American poet/biographer/dramatist Edward Lee Masters. It was originally published in 1915 in his Spoon River Anthology, which is proof positive that some things are universal. ‘George’ contemplates his headstone and his life-that-wasn’t – a sharp nudge in the ribs, a painfully sad reminder to those of us, still living, to live.

George Gray

I have studied many times

The marble which was chiseled for me –

A boat with a furled sail at rest in a harbor.

In truth it pictures not my destination

But my life.

For love was offered me and I shrank from its disillusionment;

Sorrow knocked at my door, but I was afraid;

Ambition called to me, but I dreaded the chances.

Yet all the while I hungered for meaning in my life.

And now I know that we must lift the sail

And catch the winds of destiny

Wherever they drive the boat.

To put meaning in one’s life may end in madness,

But life without meaning is the torture

Of restlessness and vague desire –

It is a boat longing for the sea and yet afraid.

Edgar Lee Masters

A. S. Byatt – Possession Monday, Feb 5 2007 

Sometimes I think that A. S. Byatt’s greatest appeal to me as a writer is the gorgeousness of her descriptions and her (related) ability to supply all the materials required for the reader to imagine a scene of great natural beauty. Consider, for example, this lavish and perhaps extraneous but – for an urbanite who has always hankered to revel in the Prince Edward Island described by L. M. Montgomery – wholly enjoyable paragraph, which was in the Postscript to Possession, no less:

There was a meadow full of young hay, and all the summer flowers in great abundance Blue cornflowers, scarlet poppies, gold buttercups, a veil of speedwells, an intricate carpet of daisies where the grass was shorter, scabious, yellow snapdragons, bacon and egg plant, pale milkmaids, purple heartsease, scarlet pimpernel and white shepherd’s purse, and round this field a high bordering hedge of Queen Anne’s lace and foxgloves, and above that dogroses, palely shining in a thorny hedge, honeysuckle all creamy and sweet0smelling, rambling threads of bryony and the dark stars of deadly nightly. It was abundant, it seemed as though it must go on shining forever. The grasses had an enamelled gloss and were connected by diamond-threads of light. The larks sang, and the thrushes, and the blackbirds, sweet and clear, and there were butterflies everywhere, blue, sulphur, copper, and fragile white, dipping from flower to flower, from clover to vetch to larkspur, seeing their own guiding visions of invisible violet pentagrams and spiralling coils of petal-light.

But it’s not fair to suggest that Dame Byatt is good for lovely prose and nothing else, since she is also full of intelligent and perspicacious observations on numerous favourite themes of hers, including literature and the academia. Possession exhibits this, and manages to cover plenty of other subjects big and small even while the story develops through the masterful use of all sorts of narrative methods. People who are impatient to find out ‘what happens next’ might skip the chapter that comprises solely an extended correspondence between two Victorian poets, to their peril. They’d be missing out on a whole lot of interesting ideas, not to mention the delightful repartee and growing fascination between (a) man and (a) woman. (They can skip the poetry without much loss, though.)

Excerpt from a letter from Randolph Henry Ash to Christabel LaMotte:

… I must tell you that I have been in some distress to think that my poem had occasioned doubt in you. A secure faith – a true prayerfulness – is a beautiful and a true thing – however we must nowadays construe it – and not to be disturbed by the meanderings and queryings of the finite brain of R. H. Ash or any other puzzled student of our Century. Ragnarök was written in all honesty in the days when I did not myself question Biblical certainties – or the faith handed down by my fathers and theirs before them. It was read differently by some […] and I was at the time startled and surprised that my Poem should have been construed as any kind of infidelity – for I meant it rather as a reassertion of the Universal Truth of the living presence of Allfather (under whatever Name) and of the hope of Resurrection from whatever whelming disaster in whatever form. When Odin, disguised as the Wanderer, Gangrader, in my Poem, asks the Giant Wafthrudnir what was the word whispered by the Father of the gods in the ear of his dead son, Baldur on his funeral pyre – the young man I was – most devoutly – meant the word to be – Resurrection. And he, that young poet, who is and is not myself, saw no difficulty in supposing that the dead Norse God of Light might prefigure – or figure – the dead Son of the God Who is the Father of Christendom. But, as you perceived, this is a two-handed engine, a slicing weapon that cuts both ways, this of figuration – to say that the Truth of the Tale is in the meaning, that the Tale but symbolizes an eternal verity, is one step on the road to the parity of all tales… And the existence of the same Truths in all Religions is a great argument both for and against the paramount Truthfulness of One.

Excerpt from a letter from C. LaMotte to R. H. Ash:

I do not say but there must be – and is – some essential difference between the Scope and Power of men and [women’s] own limited consciousness and possibly weaker apprehension. But I do maintain, as stoutly, that the delimitations are at present, all wrongly drawn – We are not mere candleholders to virtuous thoughts – mere chalices of Purity – we think and feel, aye and read – which seems not to shock you in us, in me, though I have concealed from many the extent of my – vicarious – knowledge of human vagaries.

That last bit about female self-censorship of opinions/knowledge is, sadly, all too familiar. Even today!!

Gosh, what long excerpts. (I’m guessing that the only place in which quotation at such length is appropriate is literary criticism; if this was meant to be a book review, it would surely have met with the instruction to edit.) And certainly the entire novel has quite substantial heft. However, this is one of the joys of Possession: the leisureliness and narrative manner of Byatt’s prose allows for some pretty tough ideas and characterization to be contained in an altogether relaxing read. It’s plenty impressive too as a post-modernist achievement, and probably quite deserving of its 1990 Booker Prize.

Still, it is because I don’t share her favourite themes that I don’t consider Byatt one of my favourite authors. I’ve always been unconsciously and consciously concerned about the exploration of ethics, and more recently have become very fond of humour in the stuff that I read/watch; as far as I can tell these are limited in Byatt’s novels. They are, at the least, quite limited in Possession. Nevertheless, it’s excellent fun to read and reread: literate (duh), awash with beauty, and completely escapist.

I watched the film adaptation too: as a fan, I felt compelled to, although I know quite well that the film can never quite live up to the book. But the storyline on the literary detectives was distorted by the very unfortunate decision to change the originally working-class Brit Roland into a hunky-but-nice-and-intelligent American played by Aaron Eckhart (the better to contrast, I suppose, with the classic chilly Englishwoman Maud played by ironically-not-English-at-all Gwyneth Paltrow). And Jeremy Northam and Jennifer Ehle (both of whom being actors I like and respect tremendously) simply weren’t given much to work with in their roles as the Victorian pair. In short: while the main plot was preserved, the focus and tone of the film was completely divergent from that of the book. (Isn’t it always the case? See Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, shudder.) Which sort of misses the whole point of Possession.

Irving Stone – Lust for Life Sunday, Jan 14 2007 

Vincent van Gogh, Four Cut Sunflowers, 1887. Scan obtained from the wonderful Carol Gerten’s Fine Art.

A while back I made my way through Irving Stone’s 1935 fictionalised biography of Vincent van Gogh – presented in fiction form, but based on Stone’s first-hand research and meetings with the people in van Gogh’s life. I daresay that is a one of the most palatable, readable forms of biography possible, especially for one who doesn’t much like biographies. This was no doubt one of the reasons that I actually picked up Lust for Life in the first place: as a casual appreciator of fine art I am fond of a few paintings by van Gogh (check out his stunning Four Cut Sunflowers above) but not a massive fan of his work. (Another reason was that I was completely blown away by The Agony and The Ecstasy – Stone’s equivalent biography for Michelangelo – when I read it years ago.)

I hate to say that Lust for Life demystified van Gogh for me. It did, but it’s just so darn cliché to say so! He seems to be a remarkable man first and foremost, and that makes him more endearing to me than he could ever be by being a great artist. (More on this another time.) Genius burned, to be sure, but he had to work on his craft – really work at it, like ordinary folks – and was plagued not just by the naysayers (who are unavoidable, I suppose) but by his own insecurities about his artistic ability. How refreshing to see, metaphorically speaking, a painfully earnest, socially awkward, religious-then-overtaken-by-a-higher-calling, communist-then-reminded-of-his-higher-calling, fellow, with feeling for human creatures – especially the simplest and humblest of them. As opposed to (say) a sophisticated, literary-verging-on-the pretentious, obnoxiously self-confident Artist who is supremely self-conscious not just of being an Artist but also of being a Great one.

Theo sent… the admonition to work hard and not become a mediocre artist. To this advice Vincent replied, ‘I shall do what I can, but mediocre in its simple signification I do not despise at all. And one certainly does not rise above that mark by despising what is mediocre. But what you say about hard work is certainly right.’

With regards to the actual art, Irving Stone perceives the most salient quality in van Gogh’s work to be a sense of the life and energy bursting from his subjects (be they trees or people), a sense of inherent ‘power’, conveyed by decisive brush strokes, thickly-laid paints and vibrant colours. I actually found this to be quite insightful, from the perspective of someone who has not studied art, whether in general or van Gogh’s in particular.

And learning about what van Gogh did in his lifetime – his stints in Paris, in Arles, in Provence, in the sanitarium; the people he met (the Potato-Eaters, the peasants wherever he went, Gauguin and various Impressionists) – imbues disparate works of art with a collective narrative quality. It’s strange. You do hear that good art stands on its own, but sometimes the art is better-appreciated, improved even, by some knowledge of the artist. I’ve found this to be true for popular music too. Anyway, this simply means that Lust for Life is a good read that also ups my enjoyment of something else. And that makes it cool in my book.

I never believed in Father Christmas, but… Saturday, Jan 6 2007 

What would have been a festive season-appropriate entry, if not for the earthquake that disrupted internet traffic throughout the Asia-Pacific around Dec 25, and the pick-up in workload that follows an extended hiatus:

It’s good to believe in Father Christmas for a while. It trains our imagination on the little lies, so that we can believe the big lies like justice, truth. – Terry Pratchett

(I may be paraphrasing what I read in our local paper. I don’t have an elephantine memory.)

MUM: ‘How cynical.’

ME (yes, that’s ungrammatical, but what the hey): ‘Really? I thought it was precisely the opposite of cynical.’

And that is one of the things that I like so much about Terry Pratchett.

Shakespeare – Othello Wednesday, Dec 6 2006 

Every so often I get hit with a sign of how much I must have learnt and grown since (say) 8 years ago, although I don’t necessarily feel much different. There can’t be any activity that does this quite as often as rereading a book, and suddenly discovering this and that detail/nuance which you never noticed before, or being affected by it in a completely new way. The former points to intellectual growth, perhaps, while the latter signifies emotional growth. I suppose it’s only natural for one to, ahem, mature – let’s hope that’s the case anyway – from one’s teenage years into the twenties, but it’s darn strange when you perceive it happening to yourself.

The reading material in question is Othello. I gleefully discarded my copy after my year-end literature examinations in Secondary 3 (I still remember that I wrote an essay on whether Iago’s nature was essentially evil), which was, yup, 8 years ago. And while I struggled with the language then, I found myself intuitively grasping the meanings of the Elizabethan colloquialisms and Shakespearanisms this time. And reacting to the characters as if they were real people who just happened to live a few hundred years ago. After I finished the play I flicked idly to the editor’s introduction (I was reading Arden’s 7th ed., copyrighted 1958) and found myself agreeing with some, and disagreeing with other, points in his reading of it. The fact that I was capable of forming my own opinion on Shakespeare is quite remarkable.

I recall a conversation with a good friend a while ago in which I remarked that I didn’t seem to get much out of many authors and works that people consider classics. For whatever reason, (more) contemporary writers were just that much more accessible and meaningful. I have shelvesful of books that I bought in a spate of self-improvement years ago. Lots of usual suspects are there: Dante, Homer, Dostoyevsky, Goethe, Hardy, Joyce, and of course Shakespeare. Most of them I haven’t cracked. (Okay, off the top of my head I remember that I read Jude the Obscure and The Aeneid, but precious little else). When I did find the time to read for pleasure I’d go for Pratchett, or L’Engle, or L. M. Montgomery. After all, reading The (Old) Greats seemed too much like hard work, even though Shakespeare was a crowd-pleaser in his time.

I’m starting to re-evaluate that prejudice (which was probably born out of fear). At least my parents will stop ribbing me about the money I spent on books that I never read. And then I can sell off – in clear conscience – those that I still don’t get at my advanced age. There is the possibility that in 10 years I’ll snort at how ignorant I was in my twenties, of course. But life is too short to keep returning to things which are trendy to like but that you don’t like, in the hope of eventually liking them. It is also a wee bit pretentious.

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Peter Mayle – A Year in Provence Sunday, Dec 3 2006 

After finishing Graham Greene’s rather depressing The Heart of the Matter, I thought an antidote – something a little lighter and brighter – was necessary. A Year of Provence was on hand (one of those books many years ago that I never got around to reading), and had the advantage of being both very British and very French. Now that I’ve gained a bit of geographical and emotional distance from Britain, where I spent four years, I’m starting to feel a vague nostalgia for the quirks of the British, especially their capacity for understatement, irony and self-deprecation. And since I’ve never been to the legendary French countryside and may never get to go, the next best thing might just be to read gorgeous descriptions of it.

The last part didn’t work out so well, though: you feel keenly that reading about Provence is merely second best. Is there any possible reaction to A Year in Provence other than to feel a terrible compulsion to go there yourself? It’s not all because of the pretty scenery or the great food either. Mr. Mayle is a veritable font of amusing anecdotes about living in the Lubéron. Some of them revolve around the renovating and upgrading misadventures that come of moving into a 200-year-old stone farmhouse with uninsulated pipes and no central heating, but most of them are variants on the theme of the bemused foreigner encountering the strange (in both senses: new and weird) ways of the native inhabitants. He is an eager observer of as well as enthusiastic participant in the practices and customs of his newly-adopted country, and does it all with gentle good grace, moderate unflappability and a sense of humour. That’s the best kind of travelling companion in real life, and evidently in travel writing too.

Mr. Mayle’s neighbours feature heavily in the book. As he says, and as I know from experience, ‘You can live for years in an apartment in London or New York and barely speak to the people who live six inches away from you on the other side of a wall. In the country, separated from the next house though you may be by hundreds of yards, your neighbors are part of your life, and you are part of theirs.’ A memorable bunch they certainly are, and if Mr. Mayle flirts a little with caricature, these people’s antics are so enjoyable that you don’t mind. They include:

The helpful, clarinet-playing, plumber Monsieur Menicucci, who prefaces all his estimated deadlines with the disclaimer normalement (i.e. in the absence of any imaginable cause of delay), taps you with an admonitory finger in the chest while expounding on one of his theories, and is the source of what is possibly the best synonym for ‘nonsense’ in any language, patati-patata;

The disagreeable and ferociously anti-social Massot, who contemplates sowing his garden with mines (and putting up a warning sign too, which after all is the only fair thing to do) to discourage German backpacking tourists, whom he considers the bane of his life;

And the inveterate worrier Faustin, a farmer who like all born-pessimists actually feels somewhat disappointed when his predicted weather-related disasters don’t come to pass and the crop harvests are successfully conducted.

I wonder if we will encounter them again in the sequel, Toujours Provence, which is absolutely going to be added to my reading list.

Terry Pratchett – The Fifth Elephant Saturday, Nov 18 2006 

If there is one gripe I could make about Terry Pratchett, it is that his plots and/or narratives are occasionally a little too complicated: you spend too much effort getting your head around them, at the expense of the really important stuff like character and meaning. I’ve never been one who lives for plot (whether in books or films); you can produce great stuff with character, meaning and minimal plot, but plot with nothing else is a little bit pointless. You can’t learn (or grow) from the latter.

Anyhow, The Fifth Elephant was one of those where, for the first few readings, trying to keep track of the story somewhat obscured the joys of everything else. It was after all about politics, which are complex enough when they involve only men, but which in this case also involve dwarfs, werewolves, vampires. And two countries (Ankh-Morpork and Uberwald), which means international politics. And a protagonist who thinks primarily like a copper, and now has to learn very quickly to act like a diplomat: the reluctant aristocrat, His Grace His Excellency the Duke of Ankh, Commander Sir Samuel Vimes, to use all his titles. (Although His Grace supposedly cancels out Sir.)

This time, however, I think I got enough of a handle on the story that the other things stood out more. Fantasy with characters, humour and a lot of heart, that’s Terry Pratchett. I have never read him because of the fantasy, though I appreciate that a world with multiple sentient species (including what we in this world would consider the supernatural), and magic, &c, just offers so many more creative possibilities to a writer. Pratchett stretches credulity enough, anyhow, with the absolutely wonderful creation that is Samuel Vimes.

The Fifth Elephant isn’t the novel that showcases most strongly this impossibly deep and rounded character – I think Night Watch would be a strong contender for that – but it does boast this gem of a description of Vimes, from the point of view of his wife Lady Sybil Ramkin, who is incidentally the richest woman in Ankh-Morpork.

In many ways, she told herself, she was very lucky. She was proud of Sam. He worked hard for a lot of people. He cared about people who weren’t important. He always had far more to cope with than was good for him. He was the most civilized man she’d ever met. Not a gentleman, thank goodness, but a gentle man.

Oof. I want a husband like that too. Of course, Sybil sees Vimes in a slightly idealised way, but at the bottom of it all Vimes is a Good Egg. Sybil is no slouch either; these two really deserve each other. Vimes knows this about her:

She got on with people. Practically from the moment she’d been able to talk she’d been taught how to listen. And when Sybil listened to people she made them feel good about themselves. It was probably something to do with being a… a big girl. She tried to make herself seem small, and by default that made those around her feel bigger.

Character aside, there’s some really super humour in The Fifth Elephant. The disadvantage to reading Terry Pratchett on the MRT is that you can’t help the odd grin and outright chuckle and the numerous jokes. Well, there’s nothing wrong with laughing to yourself in public per se, but you don’t generally want to come off as a lunatic. Terry Pratchett’s humour is extremely… varied. He does puns and wit and irony, and bizarre situational humour, and character-driven humour; he isn’t above slapstick, either. And there are the really true observations cut with humour:

It is in the nature of the universe that the person who always keeps you waiting ten minutes will, on the day you are ten minutes tardy, have been ready ten minutes early and will make a point of not mentioning this.

When people “We must move with the times,” they really mean “You must do it my way.”

Okay, so Terry Pratchett can tell it as he sees it, i.e. that the world is strange and wonderful. He doesn’t shy away from the dark aspects of it, either. The Fifth Elephant has werewolves and wolves and dwarves and men all doing terrible things to one another, cross-species and within their species, too. It makes you feel better to remember that werewolves and dwarves don’t exist (I don’t think they do, anyway), but only a little. But I wouldn’t much like a writer who is blind to the great stuff. For there is great stuff, too, alongside the horrible stuff. It might be silly to characterise Pratchett as having ‘heart’ just because he isn’t a complete cynic, but it’s not fair to suggest that he’s an idealist, either, since ‘idealist’ is something of pejorative term nowadays. And Pratchett is well aware that the great stuff in this world seldom consists in the so-called ‘big stuff’. Observes Vimes:

… the world wasn’t moved by heroes or villains or even by policemen. […] All he knew was that you couldn’t hope to try for the big stuff, like world peace and happiness, but you might just about be able to achieve some tiny deed that’d make the world, in a small way, a better place.

I think we can take this to be fair representation of Pratchett’s own views on the matter. It certainly is a fair representation of mine.

So, really, complicated as the story of The Fifth Elephant is, the story isn’t the point. It never really is, with Terry Pratchett. And to me that is a very big plus point indeed. Makes for good re-reading.

Madeleine L’Engle – The Other Side of the Sun Saturday, Nov 4 2006 

The history of America – more particularly of the United States – owes a great deal to slavery and the American Civil War. But I didn’t realise just how much until I read The Other Side of the Sun, even though I’d already read and loved the incredible To Kill a Mockingbird years ago. Subsequently, however, The Other Side of the Sun paved the way for me to appreciate the feeling (though not the philosophy) behind the ideology of Afrocentrism when I first encountered it in Public Enemy’s lyrics. And it introduced me to the truly amazing story of Liberia’s origins. Just about the only thing I knew about Liberia previously was that George Weah were born there. (When I was keeping up with football a few years ago, one of ‘my’ teams was AC Milan.)

Luckily for me – starting from a point of near-complete ignorance as I was – Ms. L’Engle eases the reader into the very complex and intense world of the Renier family, living near Charleston, South Carolina about thirty years after the end of the Civil War. This is because we meet the Reniers alongside the narrator: Stella Renier née North, a 19-year-old English girl who has just married into the family and is a bit of a naïf. (Her husband hasn’t had the time to fill her in on the goings-on either in the family or in the wider context of the deep South, having had to leave Stella very soon after the wedding on a secret diplomatic mission.) We learn about things just as Stella does. The War and the legacy of the slave trade is there, in the distant (so Stella thinks) past, but is somehow pressing very closely on the present, and especially on Stella.

This isn’t some sort of epic novel that tackles with broad strokes the broad issues of racism and (other forms of) hatred. It is far more intimate, being concerned with the fates of individual characters. But isn’t history ultimately made up – collectively – of the many small, small stories of ordinary people? And the lessons of history are probably most apparent on the small scale, too. For me, racism and hatred boil down to one’s view of what it means to be a morally autonomous human being and how to live as a morally autonomous being. That is, ethics. More specifically: shouldn’t I treat a fellow creature the way I myself would want to be treated? Hitler and anyone who commits a racially-motivated crime (I say crime as if it is synonymous with morally wrong, but of course the law does deviate from the moral consensus), suicide bombers and Crusaders, cold-blooded murderers, rapists, people who commit [fill in your heinous deed of choice here]… Perhaps if you are capable of doing such terrible things to another person, an underlying condition must be that you think of him as less than you, in fact less than human, and therefore undeserving of the treatment that an equal deserves.

But with slavery and the American Civil War, things were not so simple. Actual subscription to a notion of Roman property law (i.e.: the property-owner can do as he pleases with his property) is not necessary for one to treat people as mere objects, and I’m very grateful to Ms. L’Engle for making this so clear. As Aunt (really Great-Aunt) Olivia explains to Stella:

Slaves – we hadn’t seen any difference between having slaves and having servants. We treated our slaves a lot better than most people treat their servants. We didn’t see anything wrong. We all buy and sell people as well as things every day. It’s just more apparent when you call people slaves than when you hire them and then overwork and underpay them and cheat them whenever you can.… Stella, believe me, it wasn’t any of it cut and dried, black and white. The war wasn’t about slavery, not really. That was the smallest part of it.

The Other Side of the Sun was published in 1971 (according to my ex-San Diego County Library copy) and Ms. L’Engle has written numerous novels since, but I think this must be the best of her adult fiction (and also one of my favourites): I have read just about all of her novels, and the only one which rivals it for impact is A Severed Wasp. This isn’t as easily or immediately applicable to one’s (ordinary) life as is A Severed Wasp. But the central truth of The Other Side of the Sun is seared into the mind in a way that that of The Severed Wasp is not, if only because of the setting and the story. There are truly horrifying things recounted in this novel. And yet the acts of brutality and hatred are somehow balanced – countered – by one tremendous act of love by one of the most lovable characters I have ever encountered (Aunt Olivia). This is how I perceive it; I think this is also how Ms. L’Engle meant it; and this makes the novel lovable to me.

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Shakespeare – Much Ado About Nothing Friday, Oct 13 2006 

Okay, so I used to be intimidated by Shakespeare. I had a relatively hard time with the language while I was studying W.S. in school: Romeo and Juliet at age 14, Othello at 15, and Macbeth at 16. It never occurred to me to read Shakespeare for pleasure, more’s the pity: I suppose I thought of him as the preserve of English students. This despite multiple visits to Stratford-upon-Avon, including one time when I watched almost all of a performance of King Lear by the Royal Shakespeare Company (I left early for fear of missing the last train out of Stratford).

Recently, however, I’ve had cause to contemplate re-reading Othello, viz. to help someone out who’s having their own English lit. struggles with it. And in order to prep myself, I thought I’d give Much Ado About Nothing a go. Well! As it turned out, I zoomed through it quite speedily (about 1.5 hours, interrupted by the need to transfer trains and such). The key, I suppose, was not worrying about all the archaic words. I was aided by the fact that my Penguin Popular Classic edition puts all the annotations right at the back of the book rather than on the same page, which somehow compels you to look them up on the spot. So I actually managed to get into the flow of the story, and managed to catch quite a few jokes and barbs besides.

Well, it’s not a perfect play. Beatrice and Benedick are rather too easily turned from mutual dislike to mutual adoration, and the whole thing is a bit light and fluffy. Disposable. But then it is a romantic comedy, and therefore serves a substantially different purpose from one of Shakespeare’s tragedies. John the Bastard is rather a disappointing villain compared to Iago, for instance (but then I suppose almost anyone would be disappointing compared to Iago). But I enjoyed Shakespeare, and that is rather the point. What next?

Much Ado About Nothing, being populated with such witty characters as Beatrice and Benedick, is obviously peppered with bon mots. But this is my very favourite bit, if only because I agree so heartily with Leonato.

LEONATO: Did he break out into tears?

MESSENGER: In great measure.

LEONATO: A kind overflow of kindness, there are no faces truer than those that are so wash’d. How much better is it to weep at joy, than to joy at weeping!