Sunday, January 31, 2010

Fiction Review: Stevie Smith, Novel on Yellow Paper

Smith owes an enormous debt to Henry Miller, and she stands very much in his shadow, but her book remains a charming, freewheeling portrait of her life as a twentysomething middle-class woman in 1930s London


Novel on Yellow Paper, by Stevie Smith, is available for sale from Powell's Books. To purchase a copy, please click here.

Stevie Smith's Novel on Yellow Paper is charming. The obvious inspiration was Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer, which was the talk of London's literary circles when Smith began writing her novel in 1935. I wouldn't be surprised to learn that she pitched it to the publisher as her version of Miller's book, written from her perspective and experiences, and minus all the trouble-causing dirty parts. Like Tropic of Cancer, the book's foundation is a whimsical autobiographical narrative, which serves as the springboard for a variety of meditations on life, society, and writing. It's refreshing to get a piece like this from a woman's perspective. Most writers who work in this mode are men, such as Miller, the Beats, and Lawrence Durrell in The Black Book. The only thing by a woman that immediately comes to mind is Anaïs Nin's Diaries, but Nin's prose style is nowhere as freewheeling. She also writes from the perspective of an upper-class bohemian; Smith's point of view is educated middle class. Smith also has a sense of humor, something that with Nin is in very short supply.

That said, I think Smith's book is very much in Miller's shadow. She's just not the stylist he is at his best. She lacks his verbal wit and comic skill. She tries to mimic his misanthropy, particularly with the caricatures of various ethnic groups, but it seems more snotty than vicious, and the viciousness is what's needed to make it funny. She also tries to mimic his headlong rhythms, but when Miller goes into run-on-sentence mode, it feels like he's hurtling along in creative ecstasy. Smith can't evoke the feeling of breathlessness he does, so you look at the "and...and...and" passages and wait impatiently for her to resume using punctuation. The book also avoids the surrealist/automatist flights that are arguably the most interesting aspect of Miller's writing.

I apologize if I sound more down on the book than I really am. My basic complaint is that the book doesn't measure up to the masterpiece it modeled itself on, which is a pretty relative complaint. Taken on its own terms, Novel on Yellow Paper is quite enjoyable. The most important thing for a book like this is that the author have an engaging personality, which Smith certainly does. She also deals with a range of experience that I haven't seen a lot of in fiction. Life through the eyes of a single, twentysomething middle-class woman isn't something of which there's a huge supply, particularly not in the setting of 1930s London. I do recommend the book, although it's probably best to read it in short snippets. Smith describes it at one point as "a foot-off-the-ground novel," and that "if you are a foot-on-the-ground person, this book will be for you a desert of weariness and exasperation." I wouldn't go that far. The pleasures of the book are its spontaneity and tone, which can leave you unconcerned about structure, at least for a while. Reading the book is like drinking spirits. Too much in a short time may leave you cranky, worn-out, and hung-over, but a little bit here and there can brighten the days as you make your way through the bottle.


This was originally posted (with minor differences) as a comment on the Slaves of Golconda discussion forum. Click here to read the original post.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Fiction Review: Virginia Woolf, "Kew Gardens"

In what may be the greatest of her short stories, Virginia Woolf creates a structured, encompassing view of existence, one which includes people's thoughts and emotions, nature and human society, and even the movement of a random snail in a flower bed.




"Kew Gardens" is featured in Virginia Woolf's short-story collection Monday or Tuesday: Eight Stories, available for sale from Powell's Books. To purchase a copy, please click here.


“Kew Gardens” is a great short story, perhaps Virginia Woolf’s finest, and certainly the best of those in the Monday or Tuesday collection. She starts with what may seem like the homeliest and most disparate of particulars—e.g., a snail moving along the ground, a man taking his senile father for a walk—and she binds them together to create a larger whole. In his poem The Waste Land, T.S. Eliot described his reflections on life as a “heap of broken images” and the “fragments I have shored against my ruins.” In “Kew Gardens,” Woolf finds the underlying order of the fragments she renders and builds them into an encompassing vision of life, one that unifies the worlds of humanity and nature.

At first glance, the story appears to be a series of juxtapositions between scenes of nature and moments of human interaction. The setting is the Royal Botanic Gardens in London in July, and the story begins and ends with descriptions of a flowerbed. There are five episodes in between. The first features a married couple with children walking along the paths; the husband and wife think back on the most emotionally significant moments of their past—moments that, ironically, have nothing to do with each other or their children. The third features the aforementioned man with his senile father, who are followed along the paths by a pair of working-class women. The men are oblivious to what the other is saying, and while neither of the women is impaired, they talk past each other as well. In the fifth episode, the characters are a young couple who are courting, but who have yet to make the breakthrough to a deeper relationship. The second and fourth episodes depict a snail as it crawls through the flowerbed.

Woolf seems to identify nature with movement. The snail is always moving, of course, and everything else she depicts in the flowerbed moves as well. The people, though, all seem caught in a state of psychological stasis. The young couple, particularly the man, is trapped by desire for the other and the uncertainty of what to do next. Woolf even creates a trope for their predicament: his hand is atop hers as, together, they push the end of her resting parasol into the ground. The emotional significance of this is unmistakable, and Woolf duly renders it in rhapsodic terms:

The action and the fact that his hand rested on the top of hers expressed their feelings in a strange way, as these short insignificant words also expressed something, words with short wings for their heavy body of meaning, inadequate to carry them far and thus alighting awkwardly upon the very common objects that surrounded them, and were to their inexperienced touch so massive, but who knows (so they thought as they pressed the parasol down into the earth) what precipices aren’t concealed in them, or what slopes of ice don’t shine in the sun on the other side?
The young couple are frozen in their anxieties, as is the old man in his senility, his son in the helplessness the senility’s presence creates, and the two women in their combined affinity and indifference to one another. However, the young man and woman are most complemented by the married couple, who are as trapped in their anxieties about the past as the unmarried pair is in thoughts of the future. The portrayal of the married couple is also where Woolf makes the dichotomy between nature and people most explicit. The husband is caught in his thoughts about times gone by, specifically how stymied he felt proposing to a woman he was involved with before meeting his wife. Contemplating the situation, he finds an analogue to his circumstances in the flight of a dragonfly that was there at the time. As long as the dragonfly is flying—in movement—the man is frustrated by the woman’s unwillingness to say yes to marrying him. However, if the dragonfly lands on her shoe, i.e., comes to a stop, that means she’ll assent, his thoughts and feelings will flow freely again, and their life together can progress. (The dragonfly, of course, never landed.) For Woolf, rendering nature means showing it in motion; depicting people involves showing them at some sort of standstill. The ironic trope for this is nature halting when people progress.

The greater irony of the story, though, is that nature, at least in the garden, is caught in a stasis of its own—a stasis created by humanity’s actions and humanity’s world. The nature in the story is the gardens, a man-made construct built within the larger man-made construct of the city of London. Woolf, in a brilliant (and subtle) stylistic choice, emphasizes the constructed aspect of the gardens by rendering her imagery of its fauna and flora as if she was describing painting it. It is all depicted in terms of shapes and colors, with verbs such as “marked” and “staining” appearing throughout the passages. Man and nature always contain each other, just as Woolf’s perceptions of nature are so conspicuously contained by her words. She finds a superb analogue for this state of existence near the story’s end: life is like a series of Chinese boxes, one within the other within the other and so forth, “on the top of which the voices cried aloud and the petals of myriads of flowers flashed their colours into the air.” At the center is the (Wordsworthian) view that people’s thoughts, feelings, and memories are contained by their perceptions of nature. However, nature as people know it is contained by the world humanity has created, just as the gardens are contained by London, where, as Woolf puts it, “the motor omnibuses were turning their wheels and changing their gear[…].” It’s left unsaid, but the box of the city is contained by the larger box of the surrounding world. What isn’t left unsaid is that even the city can once again be contained within people’s perceptions and feelings. The series of boxes can begin again and extend unto infinity.

The genius of the story is the structured view of existence it presents. Woolf captures the assorted chaos of life—internal ones like anxieties and disappointments, and outer ones like the comings and goings of the city and the natural world—and she finds the structure within it. She highlights where everything exists relative to everything else, and further, she recognizes that the only limits to one’s perception of things are the limits the person imposes. Thinking back to The Waste Land, one is struck by the contrast between Eliot’s vision and Woolf’s. Looking for the encompassing order in life, he dramatizes his inability to find it in what he presents, ultimately resigning himself to faith that, regardless of the chaos, God has an order in mind. In “Kew Gardens,” Woolf finds the order Eliot misses. Her peace, unlike his, doesn’t “passeth understanding”; hers contains it.

For my discussion of The Waste Land, please click here.

Other posts discussing Virginia Woolf's writings (click title to read):

Friday, January 1, 2010

Movie Review: The Best Films of the Decade 2000-2009

By all accounts, the first decade of the 21st century has been an ordeal on almost every front. The world of movies, though, has been an exception to the rule. There's a great deal to be thankful for.

The most welcome development, by far, has been the growth of DVD market. Nearly every major film in the medium's history has been transferred to the format, with manufacturers going out of their way to ensure that the source print is of the highest quality. The rise of operations like Netflix now mean that one can see practically any film one is curious about within a matter of days. It's an enormous change from times past, when one might have to wait years (if not decades) for the opportunity to see a particularly intriguing film, or to fully acquaint oneself with the career of a favorite filmmaker or actor.

One should also be grateful for the rise of inexpensive video cameras, the growing ubiquity of editing software on personal computers, and, most certainly, the existence of YouTube and similar sites. Filmmakers can, for the first time, shoot, edit, and distribute their work at a minimum of expense and financial compromise. Granted, most of what has been (and will be) produced is dreck, but no art form advances without happy accidents and non-traditional talents. The more level the financial playing field is, the more likely it is fresh work will be produced, even if it's akin to a needle in an ever-growing haystack. Somehow, though, those needles always manage to get found.

As for the decade's commercial films, they've offered a pretty good selection. It's probably the best U.S. audiences have had since the 1970s. Hollywood films have focused more on content, and independent films are paying more attention to craft. The level of acting is probably the highest it has ever been. The greatest technical innovations, of course, have been the advances in digital imagery. Filmmakers no longer have to settle for approximations of what they see in their heads. They can now realize their visual ideas as fully and gorgeously as any painter, illustrator, or cartoonist.

In putting together my list of the decade's outstanding films, I decided to leave a number of things out. One was documentaries; I just don't see enough of them to make an informed judgment. I'm willing to consider TV movies and mini-series, but I'm not including open-ended TV programs. Even the best of them, such as The Wire and the reimagined Battlestar Galactica, are erratic, and none are as well-realized as the offerings on my list. There is also no animation. I've heard wonderful things about the Pixar offerings and the Shrek movies, but I don't expect I'll ever know for myself. The innovations in digital imagery have led to the extensive use of modeling and other three-dimensional effects, and I find it thoroughly off-putting to look at. I can't imagine immersing myself in these films' visuals for a couple of hours. And since I don't have kids, I'm not under any obligation to grin and bear it.

That said, here are, in alphabetical order, my choices for the ten best films of the past decade:

American Splendor (United States, 2003). Movies based on comic books have been a staple of the decade's movies, from costumed-hero franchise films (several of which were quite good) to graphic-novel adaptations like Ghost World, Road to Perdition, and A History of Violence. The decade's best comic-book movie, though, was American Splendor, adapted from the autobiographical comics of Harvey Pekar. Writer-directors Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini guide us through Pekar's life. Pekar (played by Paul Giamatti) is a cantankerous sort, but for all his bark, he's an engaging fellow. And like Pekar's comics, the film embraces the idiosyncrasies of the author and those around him. The film is sheer pleasure to watch. Pulcini and Berman give the film the crisp, graphically clean look of the comics panels, and they blend the dramatized material with animation, documentary footage of the actual Pekar, and excerpts from the original comics. Giamatti and Hope Davis (who plays Pekar's wife Joyce Brabner) are a delight.


Before Sunset (United States, 2004). By itself, Richard Linklater's 1995 film Before Sunrise is a lovely romantic film. The two main characters, played by Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, are an American and a Frenchwoman in their early twenties who meet and fall in love during a one-night stopover in Vienna. No film has better captured the high of the rapport love creates, and the couple's innocence and idealism made it especially sweet. At the beginning of Before Sunset, the characters meet again in Paris nine years later, and they once more fall in love. The difference is that this time, their feelings have none of the purity and naivete of youth: their rapport is colored by the disappointments and anxieties that come with being an adult. This second picture deepens the story of the first, and together, they are perhaps the finest love story in all of film.


Brokeback Mountain (United States, 2005). Director Ang Lee's adaptation of Annie Proulx's celebrated 1998 short story is so fully realized it almost overflows the movie's frames. The film begins in 1963, when two shiftless young men (played by Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal), are hired to herd sheep for the summer in Wyoming. The two, both avowedly heterosexual, become lovers as the weeks go by. They go their separate ways when the season ends, and both men take wives and have children. However, neither man can put the other behind him, and they resume their affair during occasional fishing trips over the years. The two love each other, but the anxieties and complications of their lives will forever stand in the way of their ever having a fulfilling relationship. The richness of detail is comparable to that of David Lean's 1940s films, and as with that period of the English director's work, the detail provides a powerful stage for a tremendously affecting story. Heath Ledger's great performance dramatizes the dark underside of the strong, silent masculine ideal; he suggests the character is so emotionally bottled up that it's painful to even talk, much less reach out to others.


Children of Men (Great Britain, 2006). Alfonso Cuarón's dystopian adventure film (loosely based on a novel by P.D. James) is set in the Britain of 2027. Eighteen years earlier, a plague of infertility swept the planet, and there has not been a single birth since. Much of the world has been devastated by war and social upheaval. Britain has become the unwilling destination for millions of refugees, terrorists are actively fighting the government, and the country has imposed martial law as a result. Clive Owen stars as Theo Faron, a low-level bureaucrat who gets sucked into a revolutionary group's effort to smuggle Kee (Claire-Hope Ashitey), a young African refugee, out of the country. It turns out that she is the first pregnant woman since the plague, and Faron realizes that for her and her child's safety, he must get them away from the clutches of both the government and the revolutionaries. Cuarón relies almost exclusively on moving-camera, single-take scenes, which give the story an extraordinary immediacy. The film is one breathtaking setpiece after another. The climactic section, in which Theo searches for Kee in a besieged seaside town, is one of the most brilliantly realized war sequences ever filmed.


The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (France, 2007). As a painter, Julian Schnabel’s rather dubious achievement was turning the “openness” approach of the great Robert Rauschenberg into kitsch. In The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, his film adaptation of the 1997 memoir by Jean-Dominique Bauby, he takes the same anything-goes free-associative tack to dramatizing the material, but the result is wonderfully inventive and poetic. The demands of narrative appear to have disciplined his imagination. Bauby’s story is about his experiences after becoming all but completely paralyzed after a massive stroke. He could only blink his left eye, and using the frequency-alphabet system to communicate, he related how his condition brought him a new appreciation of life. Schnabel shoots most of the scenes from Bauby’s point-of-view, and he creates a visual vocabulary from the blinks and whatnot that takes one right inside his protagonist’s thoughts and feelings. Schnabel also includes flashback scenes, fantasy sequences, and daydream collage-montages; the film often seems like one dazzling visual trope after another. The film’s cast includes Mathieu Amalric (as Bauby), Emmanuelle Seigner, and, in a touching performance as Bauby’s father, Max von Sydow.


4 Months, 3 Weeks & 2 Days (Romania, 2007). In 1980s Bucharest, during the latter days of the Ceauşescu regime, a young woman (Anamaria Marinca) gets caught up in arranging an illegal abortion for her flighty best friend (Laura Vasiliu). It sounds like the sort of movie most audiences would pay to avoid--grubby social realism is generally the province of masochists--but writer-director Cristian Mungiu redeems the subject matter in spectacular fashion. He conceives and executes every scene in terms of dramatic effect, and the dynamism of his approach gives the film the tempo and suspense of a first-rate thriller. Marinca's performance in the lead is a marvel of irony, expressive subtlety, and technical control.


John Adams (United States, 2008). Films about great historical figures usually go wrong in one of two ways. They either romanticize their subjects to such a degree that the people are no longer recognizably human, or they go so far in the other direction that one cannot understand what made these individuals great in the first place. Director Tom Hooper and scenarist Kirk Ellis triumphantly strike the right balance in John Adams, their eight-hours-plus adaptation of David McCullough's best-selling biography of the second president. The filmmakers demythologize the American Revolution and the creation of the United States, but they also bring one a fuller appreciation of the greatness of Adams and the other founders. They recognize that these were people who made history happen, and that the Founders had to be disagreeable, obsessive, and manipulative people to accomplish what they did. Adams, probably the most unpleasant personality among them, is the perfect vehicle for this gritty take on the United States' early history. However, Ellis and Hooper's work is notable for far more than its basic approach to the material. The seven episodes are beautifully shaped dramatically, and Hooper does a magnificent job of realizing the various scenes. (He even has some fun with the grittiness. The image of the newly built White House sitting in the middle of a bog is a terrific visual joke, as is the sight of the characters' gradually deteriorating teeth.) Paul Giamatti and Laura Linney are superb as Adams and his wife Abigail; they do full justice to the portraits of the couple created by surviving memoirs, letters, and histories, and they beautifully convey that the heart of the Adams' marriage was that the two were equally forceful--though complimentary--intellects and personalities.


Mulholland Dr. (United States, 2001). Writer-director David Lynch's Hollywood noir begins with a glamorously beautiful woman (Laura Elena Harring) fleeing a car accident with no memory of who she is. The story follows her in her efforts to solve the mystery of her identity, with Lynch piling on absurdist scenes, narrative red herrings, and inexplicable moments of pure weirdness. The film lurches further and further into the uncanny, until it finally turns itself completely inside out. The earlier scenes are revealed to be tropes for later ones (or perhaps it's the other way around), and the mystery story ultimately devolves into a character portrait of a failed actress (Naomi Watts). The film is Lynch's most imaginative and captivating since Eraserhead. Watts' breakthrough performance is an acting tour de force.


Pan's Labyrinth (Mexico, 2006). This dark fantasy picture, written and directed by Guillermo del Toro, is set in Spain a few years after the country's civil war. A young girl (Ivana Baquero) goes to live with her mother (Ariadna Gil) and stepfather (Sergi López) at a military outpost in the Spanish countryside, where the stepfather commands a unit charged with rooting out resistance fighters in the nearby mountains) The girl is unhappy; her mother is pregnant, and her stepfather takes no interest in her. One night, an insect fairy takes the girl to meet the Faun, who tells her she is the reincarnation of Princess Moanna of the Underground Realm. He gives her three tasks to complete in order for her to return to the fantasy kingdom where she lived in her previous life. The film has the makings of a children's story, but it is a dark, complex allegory of the conflict between authority and independence. The climactic scenes are both horrifically violent and terrifyingly beautiful. Del Toro intends the film as a fairy tale for adults, and it is gorgeously realized, both in terms of its visual design and its dramatic intensity. Peter Jackson's adaptation of The Lord of the Rings trilogy is considerably more popular, but I think del Toro's is the richer work, and it is my choice for the decade's best fantasy film.


Wonder Boys (United States, 2000). Michael Douglas stars as a middle-aged creative writing professor at a Pittsburgh-area university. He's at a crisis point. His wife has just left him, his department chair's wife (Frances McDormand) is pregnant with his child, and to the considerable chagrin of his editor (Robert Downey, Jr.), he still can't get a handle on his current novel. To top it all off, his most talented student (Tobey Maguire) appears to be going off the rails psychologically. This rich character comedy was beautifully adapted by screenwriter Steve Kloves and director Curtis Hanson from Michael Chabon's 1995 novel, and few authors will ever see their books so well-realized on screen. The film captures the atmosphere of contemporary academic life better than any other, and it leaves the viewer rooting for every single one of its characters, who, by the way, all get a happy ending. The cast, from Douglas and Maguire on down, is terrific.


In closing, if the coming decade can produce ten films as accomplished and entertaining as these, I'll be a very happy man in 2020.