Posted on 25 January 2014 | Comments Off

I’ve moved back to my old blog at WordPress. I just didn’t realise how challenging maintaining a self-hosted site was. I couldn’t keep up with all the tweaking and fixing and updating, etc., that always needed to be done. I’ve often wanted to blog but the maintenance has kept me from doing that, eating up my time until there’s none left for me to write. Thanks for the patience. x


Posted on 9 October 2013 | Comments Off

“I suppose I don’t know what I think.” This confession embarrassed me. It was a source of both terror and comfort to me then that I often seemed invisible—incompletely and minimally existent, in fact. It seemed to me that I made no impact on the world, and that in exchange I was privileged to watch it unawares. (105-106)

To crave and to have are as like as a thing and its shadow. For when does a berry break upon the tongue as sweetly as when one longs to taste it, and when is the taste refracted into so many hues and savors of ripeness and earth, and when do our senses know any thing so utterly as when we lack it? And here again is a foreshadowing—the world will be made whole. For to wish for a hand on one’s hair is all but to feel it. So whatever we may lose, very craving gives it back to us again. Though we dream and hardly know it, longing, like an angel, fosters us, smooths our hair, and brings us wild strawberries. (152-153)

Loneliness is an absolute discovery. When one looks from inside at a lighted window, or looks from above at the lake, one sees the image of oneself in a lighted room, the image of oneself among trees and sky—the deception is obvious, but flattering all the same. When one looks from the darkness into the light, however, one sees all the difference between here and there, this and that. Perhaps all unsheltered people are angry in their hearts, and would like to break the roof, spine, and ribs, and smash the windows and flood the floor and spindle the curtains and bloat the couch. (157-158)


I hated waiting. If I had one particular complaint, it was that my life seemed composed entirely of expectation. I expected—an arrival, an explanation, an apology. There had never been one, a fact I could have accepted, were it not true that, just when I had got used to the limits and dimensions of one moment, I was expelled into the next and made to wonder again if any shapes hid in its shadows. That most moments were substantially the same did not detract at all from the possibility that the next moment might be utterly different. And so the ordinary demanded unblinking attention. Any tedious hour might be the last of its kind.

And any present moment was only thinking, and thoughts bear the same relation, in mass and weight, to the darkness they rise from, as reflections do to the water they ride upon, and in the same way they are arbitrary, or merely given. Anyone that leans to look into a pool is the woman in the pool, anyone who looks into our eyes is the image in our eyes, and these things are true without argument, and so our thoughts reflect what passes before them. But there are difficulties. For one, the wreck of my grandfather’s train is more vivid in my mind than it would have been if I had seen it (for the mind’s eye is not utterly baffled by darkness), and for another, the faceless shape in front of me could as well be Helen herself as Sylvie. (166-167)

Memory is the sense of loss, and loss pulls us after it. (194)

There is so little to remember of anyone—an anecdote, a conversation at a table. But every memory is turned over and over again, every word, however chance, written in the heart in the hope that memory will fulfill itself, and become flesh, and that the wanderers will find a way home, and the perished, whose lack we always feel, will step through the door finally and stroke our hair with dreaming, habitual fondness, not having meant to keep us waiting long. (194-195)

Excerpts from Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping. Such a beautiful book. It explores family tragedies of the personal kind. How family ties are severed, physically and emotionally, both. How loneliness builds within one. Robinson’s writing is pure and understated, and that makes it so powerful.

Lives don’t end only with death

Posted on 19 September 2013 | Comments Off


It was the last book he read in its entirety. He had been a reader of imperturbable voracity during the respites after battles and the rests after love, but a reader without order or method. He read at any hour, in whatever light was available, sometimes strolling under the trees, sometimes on horseback under the equatorial sun, sometimes in dim coaches rattling over cobbled pavements, sometimes swaying in the hammock as he dictated a letter. A bookseller in Lima had been surprised at the abundance and variety of works he selected from a general catalogue that listed everything from Greek philosophers to a treatise on chiromancy. In his youth he read the Romantics under the influence of his tutor, Simón Rodríguez, and he continued to devour them as if he were reading himself and his own idealistic, intense temperament. They were life. In the end he read everything that came his way, and he did not have a favorite author but rather many who had been favorites at different times. The bookcases in the various houses he lived in were always crammed full, and the bedrooms and hallways were turned into narrow passes between steep cliffs of books and mountains of errant documents that proliferated as he passed and pursued him without mercy in their quest for archival peace. He never was able to read all the books he owned. When he moved to another city he left them in the care of his most trustworthy friends, although he never heard anything about them again, and his life of fighting obliged him to leave behind a trail of books and papers stretching over four hundred leagues from Bolivia to Venezuela. (92-93)

The General in His Labyrinth, by Gabriel García Márquez, is a fictionalized account of Simón Bolívar’s final journey down the Magdalena River in the last few weeks of his life. The author paints a perfect picture of a most imperfect man—proud but defeated, ailing yet forceful, sorrowful but bristling with passion. We should all be able to take something away from reading about this man.

“I refuse to accept that with this journey our life is ended,” he said.

“Lives don’t end only with death,” said the General. “There are other ways, some even more honorable.” (129-130)

When we feel less sharply

Posted on 13 May 2013 | 5 responses

The next day, when I was sober, I thought again about the three of us, and about time’s many paradoxes. For instance: that when we are young and sensitive, we are also at our most hurtful; whereas when the blood begins to slow, when we feel less sharply, when we are more armoured and have learnt how to bear hurt, we tread more carefully. (98)

Does character develop over time? In novels, of course it does: otherwise there wouldn’t be much of a story. But in life? I sometimes wonder. Our attitudes and opinions change, we develop new habits and eccentricities; but that’s something different, more like decoration. Perhaps character resembles intelligence, except that character peaks a little later: between twenty and thirty, say. And after that, we’re just stuck with what we’ve got. We’re on our own. If so, that would explain a lot of lives, wouldn’t it? And also—if this isn’t too grand a word—our tragedy. (103)

When you’re young—when I was young—you want your emotions to be like the ones you read about in books. You want them to overturn your life, create and define a new reality. Later, I think, you want them to do something milder, something more practical: you want them to support your life as it is and has become. You want them to tell you that things are OK. And is there anything wrong with that? (110)

Quotes from The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes. A beautiful, beautiful book. One of the most haunting I’ve read in a long time. It reminded me of Brooklyn by Colm Toibin and On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan, only this was by far the most heartbreaking. This little book is a life lesson everyone needs. Read it, please.

Manderley on my mind

Posted on 10 May 2013 | 10 responses

Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again. It seemed to me I stood by the iron gate leading to the drive, and for a while I could not enter, for the way was barred to me.

Strange how I know these opening lines by heart and yet I had only read Daphne du Maurier’s most famous Rebecca last night.

The unnamed narrator, a shy, inferior young woman from a humble background, marries into a wealthy and prominent family. Her move into the glorious Manderley, her new home, is fraught with much drama and mystery. The husband’s first wife, Rebecca, had only died a year before and her memory is still very much a presence in the house. Rebecca’s servants, Rebecca’s things, Rebecca’s way of doing things about the house remain, such as her usual lunch and dinner menus or where her favourite flowers were to be placed. Everyone’s adoration for the beautiful Rebecca, perfect in every way—clever, lovable, graceful, and fun—strangle the new Mrs de Winter’s hopes, taint her happiness, and strain her young marriage.

It is just as well I, the reader, only hear of Rebecca this and Rebecca that, stressing her importance. She garners the title to the book and every page trumpets her name, while the new Mrs de Winter only gains a couple of allusions to her name. Who is central to the story, really? Is it Rebecca or the kindly, obscure—almost invisible—narrator? While Rebecca is but a ghost by the time I get to know her, du Maurier purposefully strings her up with such life.

My sympathy lies where it should. With which Mrs de Winter, you say?

Read the book, I dare you. Lay in bed, under the covers, safe from the thunder ringing outside, and stay up till the morning, head heavy because you couldn’t put the book down. Do that, as you did in your younger days, when you had no responsibilities, just books to escape to whenever you wanted.

I get now why Rebecca is so popular. The woman’s ultimate book escape. I knew I had a penchant for gothic romances in little snatches but didn’t realise until now that I needed a whole section of it in my library, I do.

So still thinking about Rebecca. I would have liked to have known more about life after Manderley. Is there a reprise? I like to imagine what the young woman’s name might’ve been. Her husband Maxim thought it a rather fetching one. Her name, this young woman, as mysterious as Rebecca herself, though very different from her. I wonder.

The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas

Posted on 12 January 2013 | 76 responses

I’m beginning to regret this book. Not that it bores me, I have nothing to do and, really, putting together a few meager chapters for that other world is always a task that distracts me from eternity a little. But the book is tedious, it has the smell of the grave about it; it has a certain cadaveric contraction about it, a serious fault, insignificant to boot because the main defect of this book is you, reader. You’re in a hurry to grow old and the book moves slowly. You love direct and continuous narration, a regular and fluid style, and this book and my style are like drunkards, they stagger left and right, they walk and stop, mumble, yell, cackle, shake their fists at the sky, stumble, and fall . . . (111)

It must be said, however, that this book is written with apathy, with the apathy of a man now freed of the brevity of the century, a supinely philosophical work, of an unequal philosophy, now austere, now playful, something that neither builds nor destroys, neither inflames nor cools, and, yet, it is more than a pastime and less than an apostolate. (11)

As described, above, by the most unique of all narrators—a corpse—the book is such. Like a drunkard, staggering, cackling, stumbling. Playful, philosophical. Being readers in the modern world, we may be used to such daring theatrics in writing style, but thinking of how this book was written in the 19th century, it must have been quite the creative feat.

The hero recounts his life not in old age, where he might’ve been pensive and reflective, but from the void and nothingness after which his life has ended, and where his narrative reflects a detached air, which results in a rather comical one.

I am not exactly a writer who is dead but a dead man who is a writer. . . (7)

I was a handsome young fellow, handsome and bold, who was entering life in boots and spurs, a whip in his hand and blood in his veins, mounted on a nervous, robust, swift steed, like the steeds in ancient ballads . . . (33)

Ironically, he lived a rather passionate life, though heavily in the love realm, but he never lets us forget that he is dead. The reader gets reminded often. He describes himself as the most honest anyone can get, not being tied down by the scruples that come with society.

Perhaps I’m startling the reader with the frankness with which I’m exposing and emphasizing my mediocrity. Be aware that frankness is the prime virtue of a dead man. In life the gaze of public opinion, the contrast of interests, the struggle of greed all oblige people to keep quiet about their dirty linen, to disguise the rips and stitches, not to extend to the world the revelations they make to their conscience. And the best part of the obligation comes when, by deceiving others, a man deceives himself, because in such a case he saves himself vexation, which is a painful feeling, and hypocrisy, which is a vile vice. But in death, what a difference! What a release! What freedom! Oh, how people can shake off their coverings, leave their spangles in the gutter, unbutton themselves, unpaint themselves, undecorate themselves, confess flatly what they were and what they’ve stopped being! Because, in short, there aren’t any more neighbors or friends or enemies or acquaintances or strangers. There’s no more audience. The gaze of public opinion, that sharp and judgmental gaze, loses its virtue the moment we tread the territory of death. I’m not saying that it doesn’t reach here and examine and judge us, but we don’t care about the examination or the judgment. My dear living gentlemen and ladies, there’s nothing as incommensurable as the disdain of the deceased. (52)

The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas has a lot of depth but it’s a light, fun read. It feels very contemporary, too, though it was written in the 1800s. The book is intelligent and quirky and, most impressively, laughs at itself. Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis should be the one to turn to for anyone looking towards sampling a bit of Brazilian literature.

My brain was a stage on which plays of all kinds were presented: sacred dramas, austere, scrupulous, elegant comedies, wild farces, short skits, buffoonery, pandemonium, sensitive soul, a hodgepodge of things and people in which you could see everything, from the rose of Smyrna to the rue in your own backyard, from Cleopatra’s magnificent bed to the corner of the beach where the beggar shivers in his sleep.  (66)

And I’ll leave you with sound advise.

Uninstructed reader, if you don’t keep the letters from your youth, you won’t get to know the philosophy of old pages someday, you won’t enjoy the pleasure of seeing yourself from a distance, in the shadows, with a three-cornered hat, seven-league boots, and a long Assyrian beard, dancing to the sound of Anachreonic pipes. Keep the letters of your youth! (161)

Translated from the Portuguese by Gregory Rabassa. (He did a grand job.) I read this for Stu’s Advent in Brazil, for which I’m a month late.

The Old Curiosity Shop, January, and the new year

Posted on 2 January 2013 | 64 responses

Oh these holidays! why will they leave us some regret? why cannot we push them back, only a week or two in our memories, so as to put them at once at that convenient distance whence they may be regarded either with a calm indifference or a pleasant effort of recollection? why will they hang about us, like the flavour of yesterday’s wine, suggestive of headaches and lassitude, and those good intentions for the future, which, under the earth, form the everlasting pavement of a large estate, and, upon it, usually endure until dinner-time or thereabouts? (296)

A happy new year to you. With all the busy-ness about the holidays, I scarcely had time to read. I wasn’t able to finish The Old Curiosity Shop in time for Caroline‘s and Delia‘s Dickens in December, but I did finish it today. It’s the most long-winded Dickens I have read, yet still enjoyable. I have learned that with Dickens there’s never any point in wanting to hurry up to find out what happens. The only thing to do is settle back and allow the author to meander and entertain with a crop of other characters and other minor plots. A tale of good vs. evil with an impossibly selfless heroine and a stereotypical grotesque villain, The Old Curiosity Shop is your average Dickens rollercoaster, in good order. Not my favourite of his, though, and I’ll tell you why. The wordiness is rather off-putting if you are not a Dickens fan or if you’re an impatient reader. I was able to look past that because I’ve gained much love for his verbose sentimentalities. In fact, I cannot wait to read another soon, as conflicting as that may seem.

A new year, another promising start. I again resolve to read more than I acquire. I resolve to read more from the shelves at home than from the stores. I resolve to read at least one non-fiction a month. Better if two. I resolve to read books by Filipino writers again, as I’ve neglected to these recent years. I resolve to cut down my TBR pile to half, at least, by the end of the year.

My reading list for January include: The Posthumous Memoirs of Bras Cubas by Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis, inspired by StuDusk (Po-on) by Philippine novelist Francisco Sionil Jose, which I’m reading with a group of other Filipino readers bent on reading more Filipiniana this year; The Briefcase by Hiromi Kawakami for Tony’s January in Japan; and a couple of non-fiction titles.

Looking forward to an even richer reading year this 2013. Mine and yours. Happy new year.

*Edit to add: I also hope to read this month The Runaway by Elizabeth Anna Hart for Amanda’s Classic Children’s Literature Challenge.

On the eve of long voyages

Posted on 20 December 2012 | 35 responses

Why is it that we can better bear to part in spirit than in body, and while we have the fortitude to act farewell have not the nerve to say it? On the eve of long voyages or an absence of many years, friends who are tenderly attached will separate with the usual look, the usual pressure of the hand, planning one final interview for the morrow, while each well knows that it is but a poor feint to save the pain of uttering that one word, and that the meeting will never be. Should possibilities be worse to bear than certainties? We do not shun our dying friends; the not having distinctly taken leave of one among them, whom we left in all kindness and affection, will often embitter the whole remainder of a life. (113)

Charles Dickens, The Old Curiosity Shop

Alias Grace

Posted on 12 December 2012 | 65 responses

Mary said I might be very young, and as ignorant as an egg, but I was bright as a new penny, and the difference between stupid and ignorant was that ignorant could learn. (172)

Certainly in the eight books by Margaret Atwood that I have read, there’s a consistent, drilling monotonous voice. I would describe it as a sharp, bitter tone, but would fail to point out exactly how it’s so. This often leads me to receive her books less favourably though I might think them brilliant. This time around I think I’ve finally put a finger on it. It’s that her sentences are seriously curt and abrupt. I don’t know how else to explain it except that there’re no shrill, high notes of excitement, even in scenes of outrage. There’s always the sober, solemn, heavy period, so exacting. No question marks, no exclamation points, no flying. (This is only a slight issue I have with her tone, otherwise she’s an excellent writer.)

But, about Alias Grace, it’s another fulfilling read. Historical fiction based on true events that happened in Richmond Hill, Ontario. Grace Marks, a sixteen-year-old servant girl, and her fellow servant James McDermott, were convicted of murdering their employer and his housekeeper in 1843. Atwood gives Grace a voice by allowing her to tell her personal story beginning from her childhood up until the crime, although Grace is an unreliable narrator and we never know if she’s lying or making things up. Most people were divided against whether Grace took a major role in the murder or whether she was only forced to be an accessory. In turn, Atwood makes the reader sympathetic towards her, but at the same time suspicious of her.

Alias Grace is a romance and a mystery and a searing character study. The story is tethered on the brink of great discoveries in the field of psychology. A certain psychologist, Dr. Jordan, is the one coaxing her voice out. This unlikely relationship between doctor and patient is at the core of it. From their encounters we are introduced to Grace’s harrowing childhood, losing her mother and her best friend both, a firsthand witness to their death at a tender age; overcoming hardships that children are not supposed to experience that early and without the moral support of a family.

Mrs. Burt kissed me goodbye, and wished me well, and despite her fat mottled face and her smell of smoked fish I was glad of it, because in this world you have to take your bits and ends of kindness where you can find them, as they do not grow on trees. (150)

I usually kept a firm enough grip on my feelings, yet there is something depressing to the spirits about a birthday, especially when alone; and I turned into the orchard, and sat down with my back against one of the big old stumps that were left over from the forest when it was cleared. The birds were singing around me, but I reflected that the very birds were strangers to me, for I did not even know their names; and that seemed to me the saddest of all, and the tears began to roll down my cheeks; and I did not dry them, but indulged myself in weeping for several minutes. (302)

I don’t know if the real Grace Marks was this lonely. What I know is that someone who was able to do something horrific as what she and McDermott did, in some or many ways, has pains deeper than they seem to convey and wanting much inner joy than they can ever hope to get.

Any murder in real life can seem unreal, like something that only happens in books, and here is proof that, indeed, reality is stranger than fiction.

When you are in the middle of a story it isn’t a story at all, but only a confusion; a dark roaring, a blindness, a wreckage of shattered glass and splintered wood; like a house in a whirlwind, or else a boat crushed by the icebergs or swept over the rapids, and all aboard powerless to stop it. It’s only afterwards that it becomes anything like a story at all. When you are telling it, to yourself or to someone else. (345-346)

(Advent with Atwood hosted by Yvann, Alex, Iris, and Ana.)

This blog is four years old

Posted on 4 December 2012 | 112 responses

I totally forgot.
Yesterday this blog turned four years old.
Plus today my marriage turned thirteen.
In a few days I will be thirty-eight.
And my youngest son turns five.
And then Christmas.
December is a really big time around these parts.
Which means: that’s a load of books hubby needs to get me.
(I hope he reads this.)

Miss Lonelyhearts & The Day of the Locust

Posted on 4 December 2012 | 324 responses

“The trouble with him, the trouble with all of us, is that we have no outer life, only an inner one, and that by necessity.” (15)

Reading Miss Lonelyhearts & The Day of the Locust by Nathanael West put me in a sad mood. These are two very depressing Great Depression stories but written quite beautifully. Both are ironic and darkly comedic. Both are tragedies. Both satirical. Both contemptuous to commercialism. Both mystical, spiritual, sinister, bitter. Intense. I saw West’s characters struggling helplessly to cope. I wanted to scoop them up from the pages and shake them up and help them. I felt their desperation. Hollowness. Hopelessness.

Miss Lonelyhearts tells of a man fighting to unburden himself of depression. He tries everything: staring at life boldly, looking to religion, nurturing hatred in his heart, being maniacal, being spiteful, being soft and enlightened, retreating inside himself, tugging at another’s sleeve with a cry for help, etc. The Day of the Locust is a sad cast of characters trying to make it in Hollywood. Gritty streets, vaudeville stunts, the works. There’s a character named Homer Simpson which I’m convinced inspired Matt Groening’s Homer from The Simpsons.

That it is raining today isn’t any help, but thankfully West’s illuminated writing shines through in this black, bleak, exaggerated little book. That is to say, I really, really think it was brilliant although it made me sad.

It is hard to laugh at the need for beauty and romance, no matter how tasteless, even horrible, the results of that are. But it is easy to sigh. Few things are sadder than the truly monstrous. (61)

Norwegian Wood

Posted on 30 November 2012 | 143 responses

I have a really soft spot for literature littered with musical references, clichéd or not, I don’t care. There’s a lot of that in here, in Haruki Murakami’s Norwegian Wood, obvious enough from the title itself. Musicians I love, too, like Miles Davis and John Coltrane and Jimi Hendrix. But particularly The Beatles. Their songs I grew up with. My father played them all the time when I was but a toddler well into my early teens, when we still had the old record player, especially in the mornings. We would wake up to Do You Want to Know a Secret or I’ll Follow the Sun or Girl wafting loudly through the house. I miss those days, though I play them all the time, too, now that I’m grown and have kids of my own. My 10-year-old especially likes Hey Jude and I’ve probably told him a thousand times the story behind that song.

I have a soft spot, too, for Japanese literature. However, I had never had that special connection with Haruki Murakami like so many other readers have. I liked him well enough but would pick Mishima or Kawabata or Oe over him any day. But after Norwegian Wood, I’m a little—no, a lot—changed. I have a lot more regard for him now and suddenly eager to read more. At least, more of this kind of stuff. I don’t mean to say he’s a better writer here. Only that, since books are an especially personal experience, that this particular one struck a very deep chord within me. I mean that this is a very personal book. Maybe this is the reason why it’s pretty well-loved in general.

We often describe great books as being excellent for their unsentimentality, but there are times we need books that touch on the sentimental because we are creatures of feeling and it doesn’t make sense to forego that part of us while all the time wanting things to appeal to just our minds.

So. I really loved this book. And I feel kind of silly because it’s essentially a young person’s book. It speaks of first loves and pop culture and things I felt important or not important as a teenager, even a twenty-something. In this way, it’s a kind of The Catcher in the Rye, more profound if read when young. Only this is an R-rated version. But then what’s true is these feelings have been and will always be part of me. Norwegian Wood was like a trip down memory lane. A book of nostalgia. And that was what made it very relatable to my 37-year-old self. The same age as Toru as he begins the story, looking back, triggered by the song Norwegian Wood.

On another note, I find this book really important because it deals with suicide, a very real Japanese social issue. That’s just one thing, but there are so many other things here. I focused a lot on the strangeness of family dynamics here, which isn’t clearly evident on the surface. If you’re at all curious, do read this book. It’s a weird kind of beauty, but a real one, especially when reading it while listening to The Beatles which gives you that perfect hint of nostalgia. And when it’s cold or when it’s snowing, like earlier today while I was reading.

Death exists . . . and we go on living and breathing it into our lungs like fine dust. (30)

Death exists, not as the opposite but as a part of life. . . By living our lives, we nurture death. True as this might be, it was only one of the truths we had to learn. What I learned . . . was this: no truth can cure the sadness we feel from losing a loved one. No truth, no sincerity, no strength, no kindness, can cure that sorrow. All we can do is see that sadness through to the end and learn something from it, but what we learn will be no help in facing the next sadness that comes to us without warning. (361)

*     *     *

To those who’ve read this book, a few impressions. It may sound weird but I particularly related to the character of Naoko. I’ve often been like her when I was younger. Not to the extreme that was depicted in the book, but so many things about her. Nothing in particular concerning events, just general things.

I found Midori really pushy. While her animated personality does provide a strong contrast and balance to Naoko’s solemnity, which is understandable, I just disliked how insensitive she was to Toru. How selfish and childish. But she is just a child, after all, forced to grow up taking care of sick parents, so I did try to understand her.

Did anybody else feel the same or was it just me? I felt like Toru and Reiko defiled Naoko’s memory so easily right after the “happy” funeral they gave her. I do understand what that meant for them. A sort of release from the past. Still.

Also, my younger self is in love with Toru. Like Bellezza, I would like to go through his literary list sometime. Reread The Great Gatsby, and discover others like Beneath the Wheel by Herman Hesse. Plus many others.

I would really like to read more stories by Murakami that are similar to this. I understand this is a bit of a departure from his normal style, so I don’t know if he has other stories that would be able to give me this same sense of beauty that this book imparts. Do you have any recommendations? Or is this the only one? I really hope not.

I’ll be watching the 2010 film as soon as I can, hopefully this weekend. I would’ve watched it as soon as I set the book down this afternoon but wanted to watch it with hubby. We both like sentimental Asian love stories. Soap-opera-like, like Meteor Garden, if anyone has seen that series. Really sappy but we loved it v. much, thank you.

Translated from the Japanese by Jay Rubin. I read this along with Bellezza and company for the Japanese Literature Challenge 6.

The Idiot

Posted on 21 November 2012 | 17 responses

“Better be unhappy and know the truth, than be happy and live like a fool.” (496)

So many things. So many things about this novel, Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot. That it is very dramatic and quite histrionic. Extremely theatrical to the point of feeling like I was watching a play instead of reading a novel. I was talking earlier about passion in Russian novels and there’s no want of that in here. Definitely romance and passion. And obsession—delirious, raging, hysterical. Frantic emotions within turbulent characters. Yet in the midst of it all, the good prince. Or the idiot, as they like to call him.

The Idiot is a very Christian novel, I think. There are a few episodes wherein dialogues do take on faith and morality, but the really evident depiction of it is in the hero himself, Prince Myshkin, so absolute in goodness. A type of Christ, if you will, as Dostoyevsky himself made him to be.

Prince Myshkin is initially considered an idiot because of his epileptic fits, but as the story progresses we see that it is actually his purity and innocence that makes him an idiot in people’s eyes. In fact, he is much more brilliant and enlightened than most other people and is able to perceive clearly others’ characters and actions in such a profound way as to confound the common man.

One of Myshkin’s striking characteristics was the extraordinary näiveté of the attention, with which he always listened to anything that interested him, and of the answers he gave when anyone asked him questions. His face, and even his attitude, somehow reflected that näiveté, that good faith, unsuspicious of mockery or humour. (320)

Myshkin is a forgiver. He forgives those who have done him wrong and who’ve deceived him. All the same, he knows that these people are deceiving him and he allows it. He is patient and kind to those who hate him. He is immune even to lustful thoughts concerning the women he loves. These very qualities that we seem—ideally—to value in society, in fact, are the very qualities society laughs upon. By placing Myshkin in the centre of a sinning, unapologetic society, similar not just to Russian society of the time but also to the modern society of the present time, Dostoyevsky succeeds in showing us how unforgiving society can be towards a totally forgiving man.

It’s kind of sad to actually think about this. I know for a fact, based on experience, that “niceness” is frowned upon, considered uninteresting, spiritless. On the other hand, meanness is often attributed to being spunky and full of character. This novel definitely gave me much to think about.

“All that is natural: men are created to torment one another.” (376)

Moreover, Myshkin is likened to that of “the poor knight,” Don Quixote, who so innocently goes about, leaving everyone around him in a mess, a trail of chaos. I see Myshkin as in a sort of bubble of light, unaffected by everything going on and yet more sensitive to those than anyone else. The rest of humanity in shambles, emotionally, mentally, physically, even, and Myshkin remains pure, for the most part, at least.

While the novel’s plot can sometimes seem senseless and meandering, the ideas and philosophical ramblings contained within the conversations gave me so much more than I expected of this book. Prince Myshkin’s goodness, ironically the source of much intrigue, certainly hit a note. He’s an unforgettable character. Dostoyevsky himself said of this novel, “My intention is to portray a truly beautiful soul.” That he did.

“Listen! I know it’s not right to talk. Better set an example, better to begin. . . . I have already begun . . . and—and–can one really be unhappy? Oh, what does my grief, what does my sorrow matter if I can be happy? Do you know I don’t know how one can walk by a tree and not be happy at the sight of it? How can one talk to a man and not be happy in loving him! Oh, it’s only that I’m not able to express it. . . . And what beautiful things there are at every step, that even the most hopeless man must feel to be beautiful! Look at a child! Look at God’s sunrise! Look at the grass, how it grows! Look at the eyes that gaze at you and love you!” (527-528)

More passages hereherehere, and here. This edition translated from the Russian by Constance Garnett, which I liked enough. Though I’d like to read it again in the Pevear and Volokhonsky next time.

We are poor and hungry as dogs

Posted on 21 November 2012 | 1 response

More excerpts from Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot, translated by Constance Garnett.

There are people whom it is difficult to describe completely in their typical and characteristic aspect. These are the people who are usually called “ordinary,” “the majority,” and who do actually make up the vast majority of mankind. Authors for the most part attempt in their tales and novels to select and represent vividly and artistically types rarely met with in actual life in their entirety, though they are nevertheless almost more real than real life itself. . .  Yet the question remains! What is an author to do with ordinary people, absolutely “ordinary,” and how can he put them before readers so as to make them at all interesting? It is impossible to leave them out of fiction altogether, for commonplace people are at every moment the chief and essential links in the chain of human affairs; if we leave them out, we lose all semblance of truth. (439-440)

“I couldn’t endure the scurrying, bustling people, everlastingly dreary, worried and preoccupied, flitting to and fro about me on the pavement. Why their everlasting gloom, uneasiness, and bustle, their everlasting sullen spite (for they are spiteful, spiteful, spiteful). Whose fault is it that they are miserable and don’t know how to live, though they’ve sixty years of life before them? Why did Zarnitzyn lef himself die of hunger when he had sixty years of life before him? And each one points to his rags, his toil-worn hands, and cries savagely: ‘We toil like cattle, we labour, we are poor and hungry as dogs! Others don’t toil, and don’t labour, and they are rich!’ (The everlasting story!)” (373-374)

“There is something at the bottom of every new human thought, every thought of genius, or even every earnest thought that springs up in any brain, which can never be communicated to others, even if one were to write volumes about it and were explaining one’s idea for thirty-five years; there’s something left which cannot be induced to emerge from your brain, and remains with you for ever; and with it you will die, without communicating to anyone perhaps, the most important of your ideas.” (375)

“It’s life that matters, nothing but life—the process of discovering, the everlasting and perpetual process, not the discovery itself, at all.” (375)

Not the thing

Posted on 19 November 2012 | Comments Off

“And it’s not the thing for people of the best society to be too much interested in literature.”

Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Idiot, p. 241

Prince Myshkin’s party discussing Don Quixote and Pushkin. Fun.

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