intense sensations

Archive for the ‘Vintage’ Category

doctor-thorne It’s only by reading War and Peace all the way through without skipping a few chapters or throwing large chunks away that you can appreciate the towering genius of Anthony Trollope. He did what Tolstoy refused to do. He shaped life to make it fit neatly into a novel. He crafted a cunning plot, fleshed it out with all-too-human characters, spiced it up with scandal and plenty of jokes and served it up as a frothy concoction entirely for our pleasure and amusement.

It’s fiction, of course, but it’s also, as Nathaniel Hawthorne observed, “just as real as if some giant had hewn a great lump out of the earth and put it under a glass case, with all its inhabitants going about their daily business, and not suspecting that they were being made a show of.”

Doctor Thorne has one of Trollope’s best plots. It’s the plot he was most proud of. It’s neat. It serves his purpose well. For his purpose, of course, is not simply to tell a story but to dish up some situations that can entertain us, make us laugh and make us think.

There are one or two old-fashioned moral dilemmas in the novel. I say old-fashioned because these days anything goes. Whoever heard of a modern politician with a conscience or a doctor with a qualm? What banker or businessman would balk at profit? Self-interest is these days synonymous with commonsense. We put ourselves first in everything, “because we’re worth it.”

But if you can rise above our contemporary moral landscape and imagine a world where people have a burning desire to do the right thing, then there is nothing at all old-fashioned about the pleasure you will get from reading this superbly crafted and highly readable book.

You don’t have to digest indigestible sentences or wrestle with intrusive philosophical tracts. Trollope writes beautifully and simply. He sums up moral dilemmas with admirable concision. He is a genius at putting things in a nutshell. He lets his characters speak freely but he makes sure they always speak to the point.

Frank is told almost every day that he must marry for money. Frank knows he has a duty to his family and doesn’t want to see it go to ruin. But he is in love with a woman who has no money and no social status. What should he do?

It’s a straightforward quandary and no other novelist could spin it out so delightfully for over 600 pages without making us conscious of the novel’s length. Trollope is never a chore to read, unlike Henry James who accused him of “a complete appreciation of the usual.” There are no murders here, no shoot-outs, no car chases, no weird drug problems, no psychopaths. Instead there is a delightful lightness of touch, a mastery of motive and character, and an elegance of expression that makes us see everything with absolute clarity.

This will not get stretched beyond credulity the way the plot of Downton Abbey was. But it is getting the same exposure, on prime time Sunday night television, with a script by Downton’s creator, Julian Fellowes. I hope the script does the novel justice and the exposure gives Trollope the audience he deserves.

Lately my memory has become very unreliable. I keep waking up in the middle of the night with a recurring nightmare. It’s that I’ve reviewed the same book twice on my blog and expressed completely contrary opinions.

It has taken me five months to read this novel. I’d forgotten more than half of it by the time Natasha married Pierre. A compassionate author would have stopped there but Tolstoy had another 200 pages in him and was determined to give us every cruel word.

I formed some strong opinions of this book during those 200 pages. At the time they seemed very distinct and clear but they are fading fast so I’d better write them down quick before I forget them too.

Quite a lot has happened over the last five months. The six episodes of the latest BBC adaptation have come and gone. The actors and actresses have started to pop up in new projects. Andrew Davies has written half a dozen adaptations of other novels…

I heard that Andrew Davies ripped up War and Peace so that he could adapt it. He even threw large chunks of it away.

How I wish I’d thought of that!

I’m having therapy on my wrists because of the internal bruising caused by propping open its pages.

“The aim of an artist is not to solve a problem irrefutably,” wrote Tolstoy when he started this novel, “but to make people love life in all its countless, inexhaustible manifestations.”

The word “inexhaustible” is the most important word in that sentence. Life is inexhaustible and so must you be. It is a sprawling, unforgiving novel that follows the structureless confusion of real life. Intentionally so. Every minor character gets a starring role and an extensive backstory. The peaks become troughs and then peaks again and then hillocks and then peter out across a plain of infinite flatness stretching towards a horizon that we never approach.

Anna Karenina is a tightly-focused vignette compared to this. Infinite Jest is flash fiction.

I’m glad I read it, though. It was five months well spent. But then living my life would also have been five months well spent. And in a way I was living my life. War and Peace is life. That’s what it is. Not a novel. Life.

And I’ve lived it. Definitely.

There is one other thing I am very sure of. I can be absolutely confident that I will never review this novel twice.

HerzogHerzog by Saul Bellow
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

So, Philip Roth introduced this to me; Saul Bellow, the God of American letters wrote it; and Martin Amis — dreamy, cultured, super-sexy-son-of-iconic-Kingsley, Martin Amis — warmly recommended it. So how could I not give it 5 stars?

Well, to be honest, it nearly drove me out of my mind.

I have probably missed the point of it. I can sense Mr. Bellow nodding his venerable head and wagging an accusatory finger.

“The mixture of self-obsession and intellectual posturing that you found so dreary was, young lady, the whole point.”

Herzog is trapped and defeated by his own intelligence just as I was nearly trapped and defeated by this florid and extremely intellectual novel.

I have heard Herzog called a daring novel of ideas. I think the really big idea here is that when your (second) wife leaves you for your best friend and you discover that your ideas stink, you start to feel very depressed. Let me tell you, that’s nothing. Herzog didn’t know how lucky he was. Amazon hadn’t even been thought of back then. In the sixties American writers like Herzog had it really good!

Oh, but don’t forget that it’s a comedy. It is, thank goodness, ironic.

Woody Allen, though, it’s not. I saw another of Woody’s films the other day and — I have to be honest, I loved it. Blue Jasmine. Wow! Woody Allen writes sensational dialogue. In Blue Jasmine, even though the story is really depressing, the artistry is uplifting.

I didn’t feel uplifted by Herzog. I just felt, well, depressed.

Yet Herzog recovers. He manages, through the persistence of his irrepressible intelligence, to reforge and revive his sense of his writerly identity.

He learns to accept himself as he is … just a human being.

It sounds simple, doesn’t it? But it’s a really big idea. And it takes Herzog a long time and a lot of dense thinking to get there.

You might not need to go on that journey. If you already accept who you are, that’s fine. You don’t need to read this.

But if you’re a literary young lion and you want to know where you fit in … well, maybe not even then. Not anymore. This was 1964. Life and American letters have moved on.

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

Books by Vanessa Wu

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