Anna Karenina, A Painting

anna karenina painting
Anna Karenina, a painting.

He knew she was there by the rapture and the terror that seized his heart. She was standing talking to a lady at the opposite end of the rink. There was apparently nothing striking either in her dress or her attitude. But for Levin she was as easy to find in that crowd as a rose among nettles. Everything was made bright by her. She was the smile that shed light on all around her. “Is it possible I can go over there on the ice, go up to her?” he thought. The place where she stood seemed to him a holy shrine, unapproachable, and there was one moment when he was almost retreating, so overwhelmed was he with terror. He had to make an effort to master himself, and to remind himself that people of all sorts were moving about her, and that he too might come there to skate. He walked down, for the long while avoiding looking at her as at the sun, but seeing her, as one does the sun, without looking.

I am currently reading Anna Karenina and am already thoroughly swept away by the exquisite world of Leo Tolstoy. Russian literature, in general, has a deeply emotional effect on me, and Tolstoy, in particular, strikes a resonant chord with Anna Karenina.

The translation I am reading is by Constance Garnett from The Modern Library. Another excellent and more current translation is by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky from Viking as well as other publishing houses. It would be interesting to compare translations.

Whether I continue with this version or another one, you can be sure, I will be writing a blog-post on this book as soon as I’m finished with it!

A Japanese Literary Masterpiece

The Tale of Genji was written by Murasaki Shikibu, a woman who served among the royal court in the tenth century Heian period in present day Kyoto. This fascinating tale, the length of Wuthering Heights and Dickens’ David Copperfield combined, is revered as the finest work of Japanese literature and indeed one of the world’s greatest novels. Written in the lyrical style exclusive to Japanese poetics and prose, The Tale Of Genji flows in its original form as uninterrupted poetry. English translation does alter the original with paragraph-breaks and punctuation, yet the tale was so well crafted that the integral feeling of beauty holds forth, delighting and inspiring us.

Murasaki Shikibu, who was brought into the royal court as a girl, wrote her story probably with a brush and ink in the exquisitely painted characters of the syllabary, or alphabet, which had been developed over time as intrinsically Japanese and therefore distinguishable from its derivative Chinese. The Tale of Genji was written at the height of Japanese literary excellence, when artistic brilliance was cherished throughout the country, and women in particular were known to be the greatest writers of poetry and prose. Moreover, to be gifted in poetics was revered as a supreme talent in the royal court and among society at large and remains so today.

Of Japanese poetry, the Japanese poet, Kino Tsurayuki, has said,

The poetry of Japan has its roots in the human heart.

The Tale Of Genji, a masterpiece of poetics, reads as something of a Siddhartha tale; although, Genji, unlike the young Buddha, experiences a number of pivotal romantic relationships on his journey rather than spiritual encounters: Siddhartha, the son of an emperor, chose to leave the sanctuary of the court and follow his own yearning to know the world and all of human suffering first hand. In Genji’s case, his father, the emperor, forces Genji out into the world to save his beloved son from the jealousies and intrigues of the court, where highly contentious political backbiting could, his father believed, kill a spirit of such divine charisma as Genji’s.

In the genre of courtly romance, the extraordinary infuses Genji’s environment even as a commoner living amidst a realm far from the royal court. Beauty and refinement are written into the flowers, trees and things of nature. Coming from a tradition of, not only Buddhism but, firstly, the Shinto religion, in which reverence for feminine nature-deities, as the sun, mountains and rivers, Murasaki draws from these nature-tropes to imbue her tale with a subtle, supernatural ambiance. Here, the various relationships of our chivalrous Genji include the poetry, symbolism and quiet eroticism of flowers. Cantillation, or the reading out loud of poems as declarations of love, describes Genji’s character while also exhibiting Murasaki’s rarified art of poetic verse. Genji learns through his adventures the poignancy and anguish of romantic love as well as that of death’s shadow.

The evening sky was serenely beautiful. The flowers below the veranda were withered, the songs of the insects were dying too, and autumn tints were coming over the maples. Looking out upon the scene, which might have been a painting, Ukon thought what a lovely asylum she had found herself. She wanted to avert her eyes at the thought of the house of the ‘evening faces.’ A pigeon called, somewhat discordantly, from a bamboo thicket. Remembering how the same call had frightened the girl in that deserted villa, Genji could see the little figure as if an apparition were there before him.

‘How old was she? She seemed so delicate, because she was not long for this world, I suppose.’

The above excerpt is taken from the chapter entitled Evening Faces. Other chapter titles include: Lavender, The Sacred Tree, Wisteria Leaves, Evening Mist, The Wizard, Beneath the Oak, and The Drake Fly. Within these wilderness motifs, Genji embarks on his romantic adventures. As an Orpheus hero, the prodigy evinces the nobility of his ancestry, knows something of its effects, but disavows any show of rightful hubris.

Murasaki Shikibu was the daughter of a low ranking nobleman and was recognized as a gifted writer with superior potential and was thereby invited to serve in the salon of a royal consort. Shikibu’s father preferred the education of boys, but he too saw his daughter’s genius and so allowed her to live outside of her home, inside the opulence of courtly-life. It was here, in these most ideal surroundings, for classical education and writing, that a tenth-century Japanese woman wrote the world’s first novel.

It has been observed that any English translation of The Tale of Genji loses much of the natural grace of the original, and this may be a metaphor for the Japanese culture at large: we as Westerners are captivated by its charm, find mystery and adoration in it’s artistry; yet, we can perhaps never fully appreciate the essential beauty of its enigmatic language.

Dickens Mourning The Girl Who Loved Camellias

Book Cover

Book Cover

“For several days all questions political, artistic, commercial have been abandoned by the papers,” a bemused Charles Dickens wrote to a friend from Paris. “Everything is erased in the face of an incident which is far more important, the romantic death of one of the glories of the demimonde, the beautiful, the famous Marie Duplessis.” – Charles Dickens, 1847

When I read this Dickens quotation in the introduction to The Girl Who Loved Camellias, I wondered if Charles Dickens, one of my literary heroes, ever had an affair with this famous, or infamous, courtesan, Marie Duplessis. I read on and discovered something unexpected, and I’m probably the last to know, that Dickens did have a serious love involvement, not with Marie but with an eighteen year old actress, Ellen Ternan – an involvement that was kept secret.

Although, the attachment of the forty-five-year-old Dickens and the young actress did impress Marie Duplessis and gave her encouragement to pursue a love interest of her own with Alexandre Dumas (pere), the older, celebrated author of such works as The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo. So, even then, Dickens was an inspiration to young women! Still, it seems he did not get any closer to Marie than a distant admiration, though they did orbit around one another in the same elite circles.

The author, Julie Kavanagh, offers captivating minutiae about where Dickens stayed in Paris at the time of Marie’s death and what he said about her – he was very frank, though he never dishonors the beguiling courtesan. Indeed, Dickens wanted very much to write a book about Marie, “feeling that her short life contained a powerfully moralistic story.” Now, that sounds like the Dickens I know. I can imagine his novel being in the same vain as Little Dorrit or Oliver Twist - about the life of a young, coquettish courtesan who’d had a perilous childhood.

Dickens was obviously fascinated with Marie’s life, as many people were, and he felt compelled to report to his friends near and far the widespread reaction to Marie’s death. He describes the somber mood of the extraordinary crowds at an auction of Marie’s belongings: “One could have believed that Marie was Jeanne d’Arc or some other national heroine, so profound was the general sadness.” Hence, Dickens certainly did some general reporting about Marie but whether or not he was one of her lovers is uncertain.

Kavanagh chooses an interesting subject in Marie Duplessis and does an outstanding job of bringing her back to life. The story flows with rich details of Paris scenery, famous landmarks and characters, while mingling the life-style of a precocious Parisian girl with a bit of history in the time of Louis Philippee, the last king to rule France. The book depicts the drastic difference in social classes and how Alphonsine Duplessis straddles that chasm and becomes the lady, Marie Duplessis. Indeed, the story captures the reader’s curiosity. I find it compelling to learn about a contemporary of Charles Dickens and to see him woven into this historical rendering.

Marie Duplessis

Marie Duplessis

{Quotations from The Girl Who Loved Camellias by Julie Kavanagh}

The Romance and Comic Genius of Charles Dickens

Charles Dickens, 1812 – 1870

When Charles Dickens published Little Dorrit , the 826-page novel originally appeared in Dickens’ own, widely popular, monthly periodical in a series of installments, short pieces, or “teaspoons” as Dickens himself called them, from 1855 to 1856, including illustrations by Phiz.

A rags-to-riches tale, the first half of the book introduces the eccentric, intriguing Dorrit family, their heart-rending plight and a carnival of delightfully Dickensian characters – those dubious people who march through the life of the fallen William Dorrit inside the Marhalsea, the same debtors prison in which Dickens’ own father paid time for debt. The laggards, leeches and extortionists, the hapless, foolish, the large-hearted and everlastingly colorful characters are lovingly portrayed in the darkness and light of nineteenth-century London.

William Dorrit’s daughter, Amy, “Little Dorrit,” is the innocent but worldly girl who watches this pageant of people, loving some of them and fearing others. Soft-spoken and petite – indeed, so petite that she appears to be a child at first, Amy is hardly aggressive, though she is certainly industrious, in providing for herself and her father as a seamstress outside the prison, and assertive in her undying desire to comfort people, especially her father for whom she shows an extraordinary compassion and care; and in her benevolence for humankind in general and the deep love she feels for Aurthur. She does assert these interests but in a clearly humble way. Amy is utterly poetic.

As the tender relationship between Arthur Clennam and Amy Dorrit becomes the hoped-for, romantic denouement of the love-story portion of the novel, Dickens tantalizes us to the very end. It seems that they are meant for each other: Arthur’s childhood was one of harshness inside the dark house of his unaffectionate parents, while Amy was born in the Marshalsea Prison and grew up there never knowing any other kind of life until her father is able to claim his fortune, with the help of Arthur, as it turns out. Thus, Amy and Arthur are two tattered yet good-hearted souls isolated in a scheming world. Dickens has great fun devising numerous sub-plots that connect and interweave their story.

Amy writes a few bittersweet letters to Arthur when she is away with the Dorrit clan traveling the European continent where she sees, “misery and magnificence wrestling with each other;” these letters are forthcoming, poignant and touching, as they reveal Amy’s loneliness and ultimate difficulty in adjusting to the Dorrits’ new, opulent way of life – traveling through the sublime scenery of Venice and Rome; still, Arthur may never have known the exact nature of Amy’s love for him had it not been for a go-between, the devoted John Chivery, (Little John), who also serves as another supreme example of Dickens’ brilliant skills of characterization.

Fanny and Amy Dorrit, two sisters were never so un-alike.

Other exceptional characters become well known and fond personalities: Fanny Dorrit, Amy’s sister, a selfish and pretentious opportunist who can also be likeable if only for her entertaining dialog; Afry Flintwinch, Arthur’s childhood nurse who is continually throwing her apron over her face to save herself from witnessing the sordid things taking place in that infamous house; Flora Finching, the annoying but loveable young widow who has designs on Arthur and whose delightful monologues add high comedy; Monsieur Rigaud, that evil, ubiquitous presence who becomes the irresistible mystery of the tale, as continually, “his mustache went up under his nose, and his nose came down over his mustache;” and many others with curious and witty names; Mr. Tite Barnacle, Mr. Sparkler, John Baptist Cavalletto, Mr. Merdle, a white collar crook (not unlike Rupert Merdoch, the 21st century swindler), The Meagles, “Tip” and “Pet”.

Dickens’ descriptions and dialogs are profoundly hilarious, as is the Circumlocution Office, an impossible bureaucracy of tangled red tape, its only function being that of a satire on government and society.

But William Dorrit is the most humourous and tragic of characters. Dorrit was probably just as silly and pompous before he went into the prison as he was after coming out twenty years later a much wealthier man, just as his mental infirmness probably began inside the prison walls and became more and more apparent as he forced himself to adjust to his new way of life, which is really only a new kind of prison in which he and the false characters with whom he associates prance around in desperate displays of status.

It seems a wonder that William Dorrit produced such a loving and selfless daughter as Amy Dorrit, his one daughter who was born inside the Marshalsea. This father-daughter relationship, in part, resembles that of the mad King Lear and his best daughter, Cordelia, the daughter who really loved him most. Like Cordelia, Amy Dorrit is admonished, though lovingly, by her sister and ludicrously blamed by her own father simply because it isn’t in Amy to act the part of a privileged princess. Instead, Amy, in her genuine humbleness, only reminds her father of his past by being who she is.

‘Amy,’ he returned, turning shot upon her. ‘You-ha-habitually hurt me.’

‘Hurt you, father! I!’

‘There is a–hum-a topic,’ said Mr Dorrit, looking all about the ceiling of the room, and never at the attentive, uncomplainingly shocked face, ‘a painful topic, a series of events which I wish–ha-altogether to obliterate . This is understood by your sister, who has already remonstrated with you in my presence; it is understood by your brother; it is understood by-ha hum-by every one of delicacy and sensitiveness, except yourself-ha-I am sorry to say, except yourself. You, Amy-hum-you alone and only you-constantly revive the topic, though not in words.’

Thus Amy becomes the scapegoat for people of ambiguous morality and strictly guarded family secrets.

After reading Little Dorrit, the question lingers: in order for the world to produce a person as loving and selfless as Amy Dorrit, must she be raised in an oppressive environment where most of the creature-comforts in life are absent and she must create her own comfort and happiness based on the only natural love received in early childhood.

Dickens as a young man.

Charles Dickens: “A Letter From Little Dorrit” ~ from the novel, Little Dorrit

I hope you sometimes, in a quiet moment, have a thought for me… I have been afraid that you may think of me in a new light, or a new character. Don’t do that, I could not bear that – it would make me more unhappy than you can suppose. It would break my heart to believe that you thought of me in any way that would make me stranger to you, than I was when you were so good to me. What I have to pray and entreat of you is, that you will never think of me as the daughter of a rich person; that you will never think of me as dressing any better, or living any better, than when you first knew me. That you will remember me only as the little shabby girl you protected with so much tenderness, from whose threadbare dress you have kept away the rain, and whose wet feet you have dried at your fire. That you will think of me (when you think of me at all), and of my true affection and devoted gratitude, always, without change, as of
Your poor child,
Little Dorrit.

The Irresistible Short Stories of Kate Chopin

Kate Chopin, (sho-pan), was a master short story writer. She was a natural who, like most women of her time, had no formal training in the craft of writing. Equipped with just a French, Catholic school education in St. Louis and many interesting experiences in French Louisiana, Chopin taught herself to write with only her natural talent and the influences of Guy de Maupassant, Emile Zola and Walt Whitman, her favorite contemporary writers.

But Chopin developed an alluring style all her own. Indeed, the shortest of her numerous stories seem to end too quickly; many of these shorter works are about three pages long in hardcover – ending often with the milieu of a very personal, spiritual revelation. Thus, the reader wants more of the story and more of the characters; they linger, like music, creating a delicious surround-sound of Chopin’s writing-voice.

Her characters are vivid with life and personality, namely that of the Cajun and Creole people of French populated Louisiana; although, this locale is not always obvious. An Egyptian Cigarette, told in the first person, is a tale, which could take place almost anywhere, about a woman who smokes an exotic cigarette given to her by an architect friend who travels. Chopin renders sweet, sumptuous details – as in the very box containing the cigarettes: covered with glazed, yellow paper – you want to touch the paper and feel its crinkly texture – and to hold between your fingers the tobacco of the same golden color.

The woman gets high from the cigarette and has a disturbing “dream” told in intricate, burning detail. Her induced vision seems to reveal the promise of more hidden encounters, yet she snatches up the remaining cigarettes.

I walked to the window and spread my palms wide. The light breeze caught up the golden threads and bore them writhing and dancing far out among the maple leaves.

Chopin is not bogged down by scene-changes; she shifts from one event, or timeframe, to the next as easily as gliding out of a room. Plots and characters vary, so that one story will be verdant with Southern vernacular while the next will ring with Ivy-League pomp and English suspense.

When you meet Pauline this morning she will be charming; she will be quite the most attractive woman in the room and the only one worthy of your attention…

So begins, A Mental Suggestion, a short, suspenseful love-story – about nine pages long in hardcover. The main character is a young professor of psychology, Don Graham, whose primary, scientific interest is in mental suggestion. Chopin’s setting is rife with lush maple trees, green lawns and sprawling tennis clubs. Graham decides to test his mental suggestion theories on two of his friends who have no interest in each other, and the professor’s experiment works brilliantly, causing the couple to fall in love and thereby giving Graham a huge ego boost. But, when his friends decide to get married, the professor worries and obsesses over how long his ‘spell’ will last. So he resolves to break the spell in order to test their love.

This is where Chopin’s skills of suspense come in. Like an all-powerful god or Cupid, Graham works his counter-mental suggestions in the cozy living room of his friend, Faverham, the newly wed husband – as rain dashes the window outside.

…the two forces, love, and the imperative suggestion had waged a short, fierce conflict within the man’s subconsciousness, and love had triumphed.

Hence, for once, Chopin allows love to overcome the dark intimation of doubt.

Desiree’s Baby might be the most well known of Chopin’s short stories, having been in the literary canon of most high school and college English curriculums. It is a brief, exquisitely told tale concerning the country’s racial past, particularly in the South. Beauty pervades Chopin’s story in these lush, Southern surroundings and in the lovely, innocent Desiree. However, the ugliness of racism becomes the driving theme, and the final loathsome truth of slavery and deep seeded racism arrives at the very end of the story.

The Storm is one of Chopin’s more erotic short stories. Like her novel, The Awakening, which was criticized and rejected by society at the time, The Storm is filled with the secret desires of married women and men who are in a turmoil of feelings that can’t be expressed verbally. These stories are delightfully rich with a colorful mixture of people and languages: the Patios, a fusion of either Spanish or French plus the dialect of the region; Creole people who were born in Louisiana but were of French or French-Canadian ancestry; the blacks and Indians of Louisiana and always the presence of children.