intense sensations

Archive for the ‘Vintage’ Category

Brideshead RevisitedBrideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Oh, this book is sensational! Sensational and sad. At first I was suspicious of its sadness. The sentimental, drunken Sebastian, suffocated by privilege and mired in wealth, was not someone I could feel sorry for. Charles Ryder, who becomes besotted with Sebastian and the vast estate of Brideshead Castle that Sebastian calls home, was a bit lacking in judgement, I felt. Those snooty English upper classes don’t deserve our pity, I wanted to tell him.

But the whole point of reading is to broaden one’s horizons, and mine were in need of broadening. For this book is a work of profound and sophisticated intelligence, engaging the full scope of the human imagination and the very best of all our feelings.

“My theme is memory,” Charles tells us, “that winged host that soared about me one grey morning of wartime. These memories, which are my life — for we possess nothing certainly except the past — were always with me.”

Memories can, indeed, be profound but it is seldom that a writer can bring them alive on the page as vividly and with such compelling credibility as Evelyn Waugh does in this deeply moving novel.

I worry that perhaps the novel is overshadowed by the television series and the films that have been made of it. A flickering image on the screen has more influence and stirs us more deeply than words that have to be read. But I heartily recommend this book to anyone who loves literature because it is more subtle and more sophisticated than the films and because Waugh’s integrity and conscience resonate within it. It is a work of very great beauty by a writer who, when he writes of things that matter to him, cannot tell a lie. I was moved by it and it made me see Waugh very differently from the image I had of him after reading a few of his more satirical books.

This book will be in my mind on my journey back to China. I am already seeing my journey differently after reading it. I wonder if my parents and my home and the surroundings that were once so familiar to me will ever seem the same again.

I will certainly never look upon a stuck-up Englishman in quite the same way again. But I’m not yet ready to become a Roman Catholic. Sorry, Evelyn. Five stars, though. Perfect job!

The Torture Garden by Octave Mirbeau

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I wouldn’t recommend this book to someone who is looking for an erotic thrill at bedtime. It’s more of a literary curiosity. Here is a typical sex scene:

“The next morning, after a savage night of love, we put to sea again en route to China.”

It’s not that Mirbeau can’t write erotic descriptions. He can. Look at this:

“Divinely calm and pretty, naked in a transparent tunic of yellow silk, she was languidly stretched out on a tiger skin. Her head lay among the cushions, and with her hands, loaded with rings, she played with a long wisp of her flowing hair. A Laos dog with red hair slept beside her, its muzzle resting on her thigh and a paw upon her breast.”

But just when he’s getting you worked up into a lather of erotic anticipation, he sickens you with an image of horrific ugliness. He draws from a vast and various store of deformity, pain, violence, mutilation and disease. It’s grist to the mill for people who want to write like Tarantino or design a Vivenne Westwood fashion shoot; but for those of us who just want to nod off to a sexy story, it’s far too unpleasant.

Of course, the significance of setting the Torture Garden in China wasn’t lost on me. It’s a political book and the commentary on China is as politically charged as the commentary on France. Mirbeau is an iconoclast. His ideas deserve serious consideration, which they are not going to get from me here in this review. But he is also a sensationalist. China served his purpose chiefly because it was largely unknown to the West except as a source of opium, exotic flowers, intense perfumes, exquisite tortures and pretty girls with skin like porcelain.

The images are lush and striking but the plot is ultimately a frustrating one. In spite of the overt philosophising, literal meanings prove elusive. So it’s neither a good erotic novel nor an effective treatise on morbid beauty. But it is, nevertheless, extraordinary, bold and memorable. And if you enjoyed Mario Praz’s The Romantic Agony, you simply have to read The Torture Garden.

Rashomon and Seventeen Other Stories Rashomon and Seventeen Other Stories by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

When I first started writing book reviews and posting them to my blog I really didn’t care what I wrote. I never spent more than 10 minutes on any of them. I just wanted my name to be posted on the internet every day. The point was to publicise my stories, into which I poured my heart and soul.

Then something terrible happened. People began to read my reviews. Not just any old people. Experts.

I’ve had Chinese literary experts. Sex experts. Hard-boiled fiction experts. There’s an expert Haiku practitioner lurking out there ready to scrutinise my forthcoming poetry book review. And now, having just announced I’ll be reviewing this book of stories by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa, I’ve got a Rashomon expert. A violent one. With Ninja skills.

I feel a bit like Horikawa Yasukichi in the story The Writer’s Craft.

Yasukichi is an English teacher in the Naval Engineering School. His real love is writing stories. It is not easy for him to create literature while working in a school, especially when he is sometimes called on to write a eulogy for a dead colleague at the drop of a hat. But neither can Yasukichi easily abandon his artistic integrity and turn out a dud funeral speech riddled with hackneyed phrases.

What to do?

It’s quite a dilemma for the writer.

However, with a deadline for one of his stories pressing down on him, and the funeral only three days away, Yasukichi falls back on “the writer’s craft” and dashes off the eulogy in thirty minutes.

Can you imagine his shame when the dead man’s family start to cry on hearing his words?

Yasukichi’s first reaction to this scene was one of surprise. Then came the satisfaction of the playwright who has succeeded in wringing tears from his audience. But in the end he felt an emotion of far greater magnitude: a bitter self-reproach, a sense of wrongdoing for which there could be no penitence. All unknowing, he had tramped with muddy feet into the sacred recesses of the human heart.

I’m sorry, Sessha. Please don’t come after me with your katana, wakizashi and tanto. All I can say about these stories is that they filled me with shame and a heavy sense of my own inadequacy. Writing stories is not easy. There is a long, long literary tradition to live up to and an unforgiving writer’s code to uphold. But no matter what creative burden we carry, there’s never an excuse for writing a sloppy review.

Vanessa Wu is the author of Love Has No Limits

PersuasionPersuasion by Jane Austen
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book includes one of the most erotic passages in all of literature. A review is superfluous. Let’s just sit back and admire how a woman of genius handles the everyday drama of irrepressible sexual desires.

There is a slow build-up. Short, careful paragraphs set the scene. The participants are identified one by one. We have tension, conflict, obstacles in the path. Then a fleeting, surprise touch leads to a flurry of overwhelming sensations that can only be expressed in a long, tumultuous, panting paragraph that culminates in a climax, resolution and release.

This is Jane Austen in the full bloom of womanhood, supremely confident and accomplished in her power as a writer and a woman.

One morning, very soon after the dinner at the Musgroves, at which Anne had not been present, Captain Wentworth walked into the drawing-room at the Cottage, where were only herself and the little invalid Charles, who was lying on the sofa.

The surprise of finding himself almost alone with Anne Elliot, deprived his manners of their usual composure: he started, and could only say, “I thought the Miss Musgroves had been here: Mrs Musgrove told me I should find them here,” before he walked to the window to recollect himself, and feel how he ought to behave.

“They are up stairs with my sister: they will be down in a few moments, I dare say,” had been Anne’s reply, in all the confusion that was natural; and if the child had not called her to come and do something for him, she would have been out of the room the next moment, and released Captain Wentworth as well as herself.

He continued at the window; and after calmly and politely saying, “I hope the little boy is better,” was silent.

She was obliged to kneel down by the sofa, and remain there to satisfy her patient; and thus they continued a few minutes, when, to her very great satisfaction, she heard some other person crossing the little vestibule. She hoped, on turning her head, to see the master of the house; but it proved to be one much less calculated for making matters easy–Charles Hayter, probably not at all better pleased by the sight of Captain Wentworth than Captain Wentworth had been by the sight of Anne.

She only attempted to say, “How do you do? Will you not sit down? The others will be here presently.”

Captain Wentworth, however, came from his window, apparently not ill-disposed for conversation; but Charles Hayter soon put an end to his attempts by seating himself near the table, and taking up the newspaper; and Captain Wentworth returned to his window.

Another minute brought another addition. The younger boy, a remarkable stout, forward child, of two years old, having got the door opened for him by some one without, made his determined appearance among them, and went straight to the sofa to see what was going on, and put in his claim to anything good that might be giving away.

There being nothing to eat, he could only have some play; and as his aunt would not let him tease his sick brother, he began to fasten himself upon her, as she knelt, in such a way that, busy as she was about Charles, she could not shake him off. She spoke to him, ordered, entreated, and insisted in vain. Once she did contrive to push him away, but the boy had the greater pleasure in getting upon her back again directly.

“Walter,” said she, “get down this moment. You are extremely troublesome. I am very angry with you.”

“Walter,” cried Charles Hayter, “why do you not do as you are bid? Do not you hear your aunt speak? Come to me, Walter, come to cousin Charles.”

But not a bit did Walter stir.

In another moment, however, she found herself in the state of being released from him; some one was taking him from her, though he had bent down her head so much, that his little sturdy hands were unfastened from around her neck, and he was resolutely borne away, before she knew that Captain Wentworth had done it.

Her sensations on the discovery made her perfectly speechless. She could not even thank him. She could only hang over little Charles, with most disordered feelings. His kindness in stepping forward to her relief, the manner, the silence in which it had passed, the little particulars of the circumstance, with the conviction soon forced on her by the noise he was studiously making with the child, that he meant to avoid hearing her thanks, and rather sought to testify that her conversation was the last of his wants, produced such a confusion of varying, but very painful agitation, as she could not recover from, till enabled by the entrance of Mary and the Miss Musgroves to make over her little patient to their cares, and leave the room. She could not stay. It might have been an opportunity of watching the loves and jealousies of the four–they were now altogether; but she could stay for none of it. It was evident that Charles Hayter was not well inclined towards Captain Wentworth. She had a strong impression of his having said, in a vext tone of voice, after Captain Wentworth’s interference, “You ought to have minded me, Walter; I told you not to teaze your aunt;” and could comprehend his regretting that Captain Wentworth should do what he ought to have done himself. But neither Charles Hayter’s feelings, nor anybody’s feelings, could interest her, till she had a little better arranged her own. She was ashamed of herself, quite ashamed of being so nervous, so overcome by such a trifle; but so it was, and it required a long application of solitude and reflection to recover her.

Vanessa Wu is the author of Love Has No Limits

A Farewell to ArmsA Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I don’t care what anyone says, you don’t get to be a literary giant just by writing short sentences shorn of adjectives. There has to be something else there beating beneath the surface of your words. Something that you can only acquire through painful experience. Something you learn the hard way.

Frederic Henry, the hero in this novel, has the swagger. The war, he tells us, had nothing to do with him and was no more dangerous than in the movies. He has the machismo. He knew he didn’t love Catherine Barkley nor had any idea of loving her.

Then he acquires the experience.

Gradually we discover that the hard shell of his pared down vocabulary conceals a deep, intense, heartfelt, shattering, unsustainable emotion.

Then maybe we cry and we supply the adjectives Hemingway and Henry refused to give us.

A Farewell to Arms is for me Hemingway’s most perfect novel because it tells the story without any mannerisms or distractions. It is like one of his short stories, only longer. And it makes me cry with a minimum of adjectives.

Vanessa Wu is the author of Love Has No Limits

Heart of DarknessHeart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The people who call this book racist are not really reading it, I think. It is by far one of the saddest, most enlightened, most profound and most beautiful books I have ever read.

The story opens near where I now live, in Gravesend, on the River Thames.

The sun set; the dusk fell on the stream, and lights began to appear along the shore. The Chapman lighthouse, a three-legged thing erect on a mud-flat, shone strongly. Lights of ships moved in the fairway—a great stir of lights going up and going down. And farther west on the upper reaches the place of the monstrous town was still marked ominously on the sky, a brooding gloom in sunshine, a lurid glare under the stars.

“And this also,” said Marlow suddenly, “has been one of the dark places of the earth.”

And it’s to Gravesend and England that the story returns after an unflinching examination of the complete and horrific disintegration of moral values once they are no longer anchored in the superficially civilising cities of Western Europe.

Marlow ceased, and sat apart, indistinct and silent, in the pose of a meditating Buddha. Nobody moved for a time. “We have lost the first of the ebb,” said the Director, suddenly. I raised my head. The offing was barred by a black bank of clouds, and the tranquil waterway leading to the uttermost ends of the earth flowed somber under an overcast sky—seemed to lead into the heart of an immense darkness.

Vanessa Wu is the author of Love Has No Limits

Three Tales (Penguin Classics)Three Tales by Gustave Flaubert
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Flaubert is a rather cruel and beautiful writer who fascinates me. In these three stories you can find little morsels of his life’s great preoccupations, which he developed further in his novels.

In Un Coeur Simple (a simple heart), his subject is a selfless and stupid peasant woman. For Flaubert it was a great intellectual and aesthetic challenge to shape something of enduring beauty from the rough material of the everyday and the banal. It was a challenge he was to pursue with obsessive tenacity in Madame Bovary. In this tale he succeeds so brilliantly that it is impossible not to love this woman with a simple heart whose dying vision is of a gigantic stuffed parrot.

The antique sensuality and savage violence of his novel Salammbô is distilled into the two other tales in this collection.

One of the things that fascinates me about Flaubert is his restraint. For such a wild hedonist, who takes obvious pleasure in depicting scenes of barbaric passion, how can he write such controlled sentences, such careful, elegant, perfect paragraphs?

In the midst of his passion, he is as remote and unfeeling as a statue in the desert. That’s why I call him cruel. He can weep and feel sorry for his characters but there is a part of his nature that is forever detached, ironic, superior and disdainful.

He is a very great writer, though. Masterful.

Vanessa Wu is the author of Love Has No Limits

Clarissa, or the History of a Young Lady Clarissa, or the History of a Young Lady by Samuel Richardson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A lot of nonsense is talked about Clarissa. It’s essentially a rape fantasy, ending in the death of the victim. Condense it down to 60,000 words, stick a distressed nude on the cover and, if it isn’t banned, it would sell like hot cakes on Amazon.

According to Lord Macaulay, once entered in Clarissa, you are infected by her and can’t leave off for a minute.

On the other hand, says Samuel Johnson, if you were to read this for the story you would be so much fretted that you would hang yourself.

So, there you are. Rape, murder, galloping gonorrhea and suicide.

So much for “Virtue Rewarded.”

What do you think?

This story is nearly a million words long, so I always give a copy at Christmas to people who I don’t want to meet again for a while.

Vanessa Wu is the author of Love Has No Limits

Henry and June: From “A Journal of Love” – The Unexpurgated Diary of Anaïs Nin by Anaïs Nin
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I give it only four stars not because it is not an important, vital book, but because the journal entries are necessarily fragmentary, disjointed and a little hard to absorb sometimes.

This is a book that has to find you at the right time. You could easily become bored or restless reading it if you weren’t in the right mood.

Nin was a beautiful writer and I often think she is misrepresented as a writer of erotica. What she wrote about so well was her sexuality, in all its complexity. In her stories she tends to play down the most important part of herself, her poetic soul. For that reason they are not her best work. Much of her best work is here, in her careful analysis of her sexual responses and her frank, unflinching and persistent process of self-discovery. Do not expect it to turn you on, though. Some of it will make you cry and depress you for days. Some of it will make you euphoric to discover that at least you are not alone.

By the way, I did not like the film of this at all. Not at all.

Vanessa Wu is the author of Love Has No Limits

A Curtain of Green: and Other StoriesA Curtain of Green: and Other Stories by Eudora Welty
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

What lifts a piece of writing out of the ordinary and makes it great? What does immortal prose look like? Why do some stories lodge in your heart and never go away?

Eudora Welty knows. She writes of ordinary people and ordinary things but they resonate with extraordinary power:

“Night fell. The darkness was thin, like some sleazy dress that has been worn for many winters and always lets the cold through to the bones. Then the moon rose. A farm lay quite visible, like a white stone in water, among the stretches of deep woods in their colorless dead leaf.”

Her writing is elegant, unpretentious and clear. You feel it when you read it.

The extract above is from the opening of The Whistle. It’s a very beautiful and moving story. An extract can’t do justice to the overall effect of this story, for which the simple, pitch-perfect sentences are just a means to an end.

Vanessa Wu is the author of Love Has No Limits


Books by Vanessa Wu

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