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2011 will be the year of excessive reading. I’ve found it so, so hard to read properly since graduating. From reading like four books a week, I have now been going at the same novel for five months. Five months! To my defense, I have been working a lot, and I have been reading other stuff (erm, like the Internet). Nonetheless, it is just plain wrong. I can’t even look at my bookshelves; all the unread books stress me out.

Clearly, it can’t go on like this any longer. So, I thought I’d tag along on one of these many reading challenges that are going on at the moment. And as all good things come in threes, I thought I better do three of them.

I find the American South endlessly fascinating as a dramatic setting and I love Tennessee Williams and should really give Mockingbird a rest and explore new territory. So, I’ll have a glass of sweet iced tea and read Faulkner, Chopin and Margaret Mitchell (because, even though I might possibly, once or twice, have implied to have done so, I have never actually read Gone with the Wind) for the Southern Literature Challenge.

As I have a soft spot for the Irish I am also set on reading Oliver Goldsmith, John Banville and Elizabeth Bowen (and hopefully find inspiration for a fourth along the way) for the Ireland Reading Challenge.

Last, but not least, will be my own baby: The Decedent Reading Challenge. I’m thinking Theophile Gautier, Octave Mirbeau, probably some poetry and perhaps, as icing on the cake, a masked ball at The Last Tuesday Society (because one must give one’s body pleasure so that one’s soul is happy there).
Fingers crossed, this will work!

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What happened that night, inside your hours
Is as unknown as if it never happened.
What accumulation of your whole life,
Like effort unconscious, like birth
Pushing through the membrane of each slow second
Into the next, happened
Only as if it could not happen
As if it was not happening.

What a hype around this Hughes poem and yet it took me hours to find the whole thing online (OK, maybe not hours). It feels a bit like looking into the sun as it’s dying says Carol Ann Duffy about it. My favourite poets at the age of 17: Sexton, Plath and Boye. How bloody self-destructive and pitiful, right?  I used to, starry-eyed, commend suicides as bravely taking control of the one thing you cannot control but, alas, I think that this, as everything else, is false comfort. You can play with life but not with death. Now, with a bit more zest for life, I am a lot less morbid (but, I admit, still unreasonably fascinated by the  glorification of anguished artists). Anyhow, I’m just back  from a walk in da hood where I happened to pass by the tragic scene in question. The plaque reads William Butler Yeats (who lived there at some point and Sylvia’s plaque is on another house she lived at, just around the corner) but this is where it, indeed, did happen. What would it feel like, I wonder, to live in a house like that?

Anton and Olga

I’m reading a most divine compilation of correspondence between Anton Chekhov and Olga Knipper called Dear Writer,  Dear Actress.

They are such sweethearts, Anton and Olga. They spend much time reproaching each other for not writing often enough, long enough letters, or for writing about the wrong things. But ay ay, with such tenderness, such passion, such wit! Dear me, did those pre-technology folks know how to write letters. And, it has to be said, the 19th century European postal service appears to have been both more reliable and swifter than our modern-day Royal Mail (who would have thought?).

Heartless, savage woman, a century has passed without a letter from you. What does it mean? Now my letters are being sent to me properly and if I don’t get them the only one responsible, my faithless one, is you….

Anton, darling, dearest, why the sad letter, the despondency? Why the rust in the heart? … Throw of the gloom, my dove, my darling. Do you love me? … You ask about the play? What nonsense to think of failure! God help you! The play is terribly interesting to see. We haven’t been through it all yet. Everything is going well for all of us, only Meyerhold lacks joie de vivre and Sanin still hasn’t found the tone….

Darling little actress mine, exploitress of my heart, why send me a telegram? It would be better to wire about something yourself than for such silly reasons. How is Three Sisters? Judging by your letters you’re all spreading utter and complete nonsense. … Be healthy, sweetheart, my dear despondent actress, don’t forget me, love me just a little,  even a penny-worth…

And so Knipper is rehearsing Uncle Vanya and Three Sisters while Chekhov is penning away at The Cherry Orchard. And while the letters do give some insight into the work at the Moscow Art Theatre  and of the writing process of Chekhov, I think for the sake of focus, much has been omitted. And it is all the better for it. Knipper, herself full of joie de vivre, is impulsive, passionate and changeable in moods. Her writing, notes the editor, assumes the style of the character she is playing and is, during the rehearsals of Three Sisters, Marsha-like (And look how cute she is! And she dances the mazurka with Stanislavski til 7 in the morning!).  She meets the more serious-minded Chekhov in 1898, as  the MAT is formed. The tragedy of their story (and the reason there are so many letters) is that they are separated for much of their short time together. Chekhov is required to live in Yalta, or travel the continent, due to his poor health and Knipper is committed to the stage. They are dear friends and lovers before marrying in 1901, on the condition that everything must be as it was, i.e. she must live in Moscow and I in the country and I’ll go visit her. I can’t bear happiness that continues either from day to day or from morning to morning (My sentiment exactly). Chekhov dies in 1904, Knipper in 1959.

Despite being a hard-core Ishiguro-fan, I’m not too keen on Never Let Me Go and, frankly, found it quite bland. Someone said he does not do female characters very well and that might just be the case. It lacks those hidden, suppressed layers that makes his other novels so compelling.  I know most people disagree with me and think it is a most clever book (which it is, only that’s not necessarily a good thing, is it?).  They have now brought the novel onto the big screen and judging by the trailer, it is actually looking quite promising.

Hello dear blog, do you think someone timed our tutorial week with the Winter Olympics on purpose? Like someone actually wants me to fail? No of course not, but pretty typical huh? It is also at times like these that one grieves that one is not in one’s Home Country. Here, no one seems to be particularly interested in what goes on in Vancouver. Except the sports that aren’t really sports at all, like luge and ski jump (it’s funny how TV here tries to sell the winter games trough brain scans of head injuries). I am trying not to get too caught up in it, or in anything else except school work. It’s going…uhm, not so well.

On the reading front I have just finished If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller, which is the kind of book I used to love. I think Calvino might even have played a tiny part in my decision to do an English degree (actually, that’s a complete lie. I don’t think there ever was a decision being made about that. If there was, I sure wasn’t there when it happened). Reading it now, again, makes me realise how much I have changed as a reader. Gone is the curiosity, the naïveté, the wish to be impressed by the book. Now I’m critical, judgemental and trying more to impress myself and others with my reading. What used to be an intimate relationship between a book and a reader, quietly seated opposite each other, is now a chaotic dance party where both the book and the reader is drowning in loud beats and overwhelming commotion. It’s a crowded dance with contexts Historical, Cultural and Political. Arrhythmical shouts of recommended readings, essay-questions, course-criteria and grade requirements fill the air around us. Deconstruct relatively, psychoanalyse pragmatically, romanticise inconsistently, all of us are raving uncontrollably. Think, don’t think, think again, respond, react, compare, contrast, extract value, apply value. Don’t let stylistic flair deceive you, always be critical. But hey now, wait a minute. What if I want to be deceived, to be tricked, to be fooled? All this criticism, bordering on scepticism, bordering on destructivism.  I don’t want to hear of narrative techniques, gender biases or underlying sexual repression. Ignorance is bliss. Leave me and my book alone.

Walter Crane Such sights as youthful poets dreams

(It is such sights I want to dream of also, regardless of the poet being gay, or mad, or antisemitic. I want to be able to see such scenes mirrored in the glassy lake without Jakobson or Lacan splashing around the water to ruin its effect by explaining how the effect is achieved. I want…actually, now I started picturing Freud hopping around that lake, pretty funny. Ok, Freud is allowed for comedy value only.)

Caspar David Friedrich Chalk Cliffs on Rügen

(I want to go to Rügen so, so bad. My ideal travel plan this summer is Copenhagen-Rügen-St. Petersburg)

Ok, I take back all the bad stuff I ever said about Romantic poetry. Once I got going (and no I didn’t even mention Kant or the sublime) I enjoyed it tremendously. Wordsworth and I are now like Batman and Robin, like Thelma and Louise, like Simon and Garfunkel. I’m his bodyguard and he’s my long-lost pal. It’s potentially the best essay I’ve ever written (or rather, it has potential of becoming the best, so far my rather grand statements are fairly underdeveloped). I think this every time I write an essay, I must have megalomaniac tendencies. But honestly, isn’t it the nature of literary criticism? It’s so arbitrary and subjective. There are no facts, only opinions. And in my essay, only my opinions count. You hear, clearly not healthy for your gracefully modest sprit. Well, of course, getting criticized for your essay isn’t exactly an ego-boast, but it doesn’t mean I was wrong, it just mean I wasn’t able to persuade you I was right.

So, the LSE Literary Festival kicked of last night with a panel discussion on the somewhat misleading topic ‘How would a Robot read a Novel?’ Discussing almost nothing of what was initially promised, it was still amazingly interesting. The whole thing is very timely indeed. I am more than ever questioning the benefits of an English degree and the purpose of literary studies in general. I see no direct attachment to the real world; I find no specific benefits of Lit-crit in the greater context. I know culture is important; I’m just not sure what I’m doing is. So a weekend of exploring the relationship between the sciences and literature feels absolutely vital for my sanity (and probably good for other reasons too). And the LSE! Seriously, what a stimulating environment. What resources they have. I feel smarter just by being in proximity.

Now, Friday night has finally arrived. Time to put on a dress and drink some wine methinks.

I was just sent this:

“I think Tony Blair is one of the most un-Dostoevskian characters in Britain.”

The words are the archbishop of Canterbury’s, and I have to say, bloody brilliant.

If you read the whole Guardian article, you realise that the Dostoevsky reference was not taken completely out of the blue, but prompted by a question on Tony Blair’s performance at the Chilcot Enquiry, asked at a lecture given on Dostoevsky.  Nonetheless, rather amusing, especially coming from the clergy, don’t you think (Why do I imagine priests being dreadfully boring?)?

Oh, but wait, it gets better;

“I did once rather unkindly say that Tony Blair did do God but he didn’t do irony. Irony is when you recognise that your own sense of dramatic power is always something that is going to be absurd in the light of truth. The readiness to cope with that absurdity is something that you have to learn in order to grow up.”

Word.

Now I remember why I stumbled across the Slow Manifesto last night. I was about to google “Slow Man” when the automated suggestion “Slow Manifesto” caught my attention. Needless to say, I completely forgot about Slow Man.

So here we go again…Slow Man…Cotzee. Oh yeah right, C-o-e-t-z-e-e, thanks google (such a know-it-all).

Complete Review says “No consensus [among the reviewers], with quite a few quite disappointed.” I’m not sure whether I’m disappointing or not. I’m not overly familiar with Coetzee’s authorship so I suppose I did not really know what to expect. Except that it was about a man who lost his leg, and frankly how much fun could that be? So I read Elizabeth Costello before Slow Man because I knew they would interlink somehow. I wish I hadn’t. I did not really like Costello, an author (Coetzee’s alter-ego?) who gives, or listen to other people give, lectures. So her presence in Slow Man was annoying as hell. Otherwise, a quite pleasant novel. -What you would expect from a Nobel Prize winner? I don’t know, what do you expect from a Nobel Prize winner? -Something touching. Moving. That crawls underneath your skin? In that case, no. -But a literary experiment? Yes, perhaps. But a pretty boring one. Or maybe the experiment, the initial question, was interesting, but the result, the answer, was boring. Such things happens. -Pushing boundaries is not interesting? If you have nothing of  interest to say I see no need with pushing boundaries, only for the sake of pushing.

In Elizabeth Costello I took loads of notes because I thought she was quite clever to begin with. Then she loses her mind (Alzheimer’s?…I have no backing for this theory, I suspect it is not even the case. But either that, or I lost my mind because I could not follow any of her reasoning after chapter 6.). In Slow Man she is not so interesting, does not do or talk much at all actually. But there is something she says about language that hit a nerve with me:

‘Ever since you reminded me of your French past, you  know, I have been listening with pricked ears. And, yes, you are right: you speak English, you probably think in English, you may even dream in English, yet English is not your true language. I would even say that English is a disguise for you, or a mask, part of your tortoiseshell armour. As you speak I swear I can hear words being selected, one after another, from the word-box you carry around with you, and slotted into place. That is not how a true native speak, one who is born into a language.’

‘How does a native speak?’

‘From the heart. Words well up within and he sings them, sings along with them. So to speak.’

I have two word-boxes. One that once wasn’t a word-box at all. It was the true language of a native who spoke from the heart. But I pushed the language into a word-box because it wasn’t good enough for me. Too limiting. I still carry it close to heart, but it is not the same. As for the other word-box, I speak English, think in English and maybe, possibly dream in English, although I don’t think I dream in any language at all. But of course, there will always be that accent, that process of selecting the words, the unnaturalness in speaking, the contrived in the writing. I was too greedy and wanted a language that was not mine. Now, all I have are my two word-boxes, and no langauge. No song.

In the novel, Elizabeth Costello offers Paul language lessons. ‘I will teach you how to speak from the heart.’ So dear Mr. Coetzee, I know you are not Elizabeth Costello but I know a part of her is you. Would you please give me language lessons and teach me to speak from the heart?

On Woman’s Hour they are talking about Coco Chanel and now Francoise Hardy is singing about her friend the rose and also, I imagine, about withering away, decay and death (must learn French) and I’d like to be in Paris right now, more precisely with the cherubs and the nymphs on Pont Alexandre III, because over-the-top art nouveau is the perfect antidote to dreary autumn weather and that vacant feeling left by the long-gone melancholy glamour of the 60’s. And in Paris quality red wine is mandatory. Steel constructions and stone ornaments filtered through a red-wine haze is what makes it so beautiful.

But I’m not in Paris. I am sitting at home, eating lunch consisting of chai tea and riesen chocolate while wrestling with Mikhail Bakhtin. Actually it’s a bit of a triangle drama between me, Bakhtin and Milan Kundera. Francoise is cheerleading, although it’s not clear whose side she is on. Possibly on Dostoevsky’s. He is also here, standing in the corner, with his polyphonic novel, looking terribly misunderstood.

Milan Kundera says “The novelist is neither historian nor prophet: he is an explorer of existence” and “existence is not what has occurred, existence is the realm of human possibilities, everything that man can become, everything he is capable of.”

And I think, really, are we not all explorers of existence? At least our own existence. I think I’m going to put that on my business card either way. Explorer of existence and gratifier of human mankind. Charges on a pro rata basis. And Francoise sings j’ai besoin d’espoir sinon je ne suis rien which I think I will use as an advertising slogan (really, must learn French).

I clearly have nothing of importance to talk about. So bye. Au revoir, a bientot mes amis.

Today is not only the day when this year’s Nobel Prize in Literature has been announced but also National Poetry Day.

T.S Eliot has been voted the Nation’s Favourite Poet in a poll at BBC’s Poetry Season. Not a bad choice. Sadly, although not very surprising, not a single female poet made it to the top 10. I voted for Christina Rossetti, but I seem to have been in minority.

As for the Nobel Prize, it was announced at noon today by Peter Englund, the permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy. My predictions for these kind of things are never right but I did really think it would be an American winner this year, or at least non-European. But no, Rumanian-born German writer Herta Müller is the winner with the motivation that she with the concentration of poetry and the frankness of prose, depicts the landscape of the dispossessed, Apparently her first comment was I cannot believe it, I do not deserve it, I am overwhelmed. Congratulations Herta, I’m sure you deserve it!

There is lot of moaning going on about this new film adaptation of The Picture of Dorian Gray. Uhm, can’t everyone just chill out and wait for the film to actually be released instead of getting worked up about the trailer or the poster?

Like at the New Yorker, where they talk about Dorian Gray book-covers instead, so much more fun.

The cover of my edition, a very budget-friendly hardback copy, has gold-letters and a detail from this painting on it;

tissot_la balcon du cercle de la rue paris

Tissot’s club portrait; La Balcon du Cercle de la Rue Royale is usually seen on books by or about Proust. The Circle of the Rue Royale was one of the many Paris clubs imitating the gentlemen clubs of London, were the social elite of the 19th century could gather and…well, by the look of it, do nothing much. One of those men, is Charles Haas whom Proust used as a model for Charles Swann in In Search of Lost Time.

I like the idea of this cover very much:

dorian gray book cover

No title, no author, no picture of Dorian Gray. From Four Corners Books who does artistic interpretations of classics or something like that.

Or this illustrated Dorian Gray from Marvel;

marvel_dorian gray

Early tomorrow morning I will be going here, where the weather will be like this. (Obviously this will not work for long, there are 5 massive suns, yay!)

Right now I’m in the process of packing (while frantically swearing at Ryanair, Terravision, National Express, TFL and any other blood-sucking corporation that seem to do anything they can to make my travels as complicated, expensive and uncertain as possible) and it really isn’t easy. In fact it is close to disastrous. I’m terrible at packing. I always bring things I don’t need and leave the things I do need at home. And I always, always pack too much. And now I’m going to spend a week in a tiny East-European village where, I’m being informed, there is everything already and just ‘to bring the things I’d like to wear when we go into town’. Meaning; no need to bring boring things like towels, toothpaste and woolly jumpers, leaving loads of space for…well, everything else.  Argh, this is going to be a very long night.

As for travel companions I have settled for Les liaisons dangereuses and Oliver Twist which I suspect will be on my reading lists for next year. I started Les liaisons dangereuses just now and it is absolutely brilliant. I love epistolary novels (isn’t it such a shame that no one writes letters anymore?  By the way, it reminds me of this article I read today today. What a dream to find a package labeled ‘letters from distinguished persons: do not throw away’ and find correspondence form Oscar Wilde, Henry James and Flaubert.) and Marquise de Merteuil is so deliciously vicious. She writes to the Vicomte de Valmont (or as it plays in my head; Glenn Close writes to John Malkovich): He was very keen to arrange a return visit but I’m too fond of him to wish to wear him out too quickly. We must only over-indulge in people we don’t want to keep too long. He doesn’t understand this but luckily for him I’m clever enough for both of us. Brilliant.

I’m also bringing some Atwood novels, in case it gets too warm to read things I still need to remember in a couple of months. Atwood starts Life Before Man with a quote from Björn Kurtén, a name which sounded so Swedish I just had to google him a little bit. He is indeed a Finland-Swede and also a palaeontologist who wrote both fact and fiction. I had no idea this was even thought of as a genre but apparently he also coined the term paleofiction. I had an even lesser idea that this would be something I would get ecstatic about but I guess the Earth’s Children books, which was forced upon me in 8th grade’s history class, made some sort of impact. 

les liaisons dangereuses

Glenn Close and John Malkovich being immorally cunning + Rococo Sofa = Double Love.

I am trying really, really hard to find motivation for reading Don Quixote (Don Quixote or Don Quijote? WordPress seems to want me to go with the former, as do wikipedia but my edition, norton critical and all, calls it Don Quijote). Supposedly this is one of the best, if not the best novels ever written, not to mention the first. Well, that’s enough to put me off. So far, it has taken me two weeks to get though two chapters (only 120 or so more to go). Actually, those two chapters took about twenty minutes, since then it has just been lying there on the table, staring at me with contempt as I’ve gone through books that would never ever be in danger of being labeled as the best or even great in any category. It is summer after all.

don-quixote-dali

The Ingenious Hidalgo Don Quixote de la Mancha as seen through the eyes of the Equelly Ingenious Divine Dali.