Friday, January 31, 2014

Nothing existed except murder and lust

Thérèse RaquinThérèse Raquin by Émile Zola
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Q: What do you get when you cross Macbeth with Madame Bovary?
A: Thérèse Raquin

Zola's chef-d'œuvre isn't a pleasant read; then again, with any novel that (quote the blurb) explores the "darkest aspects of human existence," fair doses of morbidness and enormity are expected.

Abandoned by her father and left motherless at an early age, Thérèse Raquin's spends her childhood under the oppressive custody of her aunt, the haberdasher Madame Raquin, and in the same sickly bed as her frail cousin, Camille. Stifling her two children in her overbearing clutches and loving her son all the more for his weakness, Madame Raquin is determined to never lose Thérèse or Camille and decides to marry them. The two - Camille, in his "sickly languor and his saintly, self-centered calm" and Thérèse with her "mild indifference, [...] terrifying in her impassivity" wordlessly accept the future their aunt has drafted for them. Yet when the family moves to Paris and settles in the "acrid dampness" of Passage du Point Neuf, Thérèse is introduced to Laurent, Camille's colleague, and the two plunge into the "grim throes of adultery." Laurent entered it originally only to satisfy the appetites of his "bohemian existence" and find a woman who would "cost him nothing;" Thérèse, struck by the sudden arrival of "a real man," tired of putting up with a husband "shivering with fever" and resentful of the sickly home in which she had been kept in all her life, uses the affair as an outlet to unleash "passion dormant" within her.

Yet as the affair continues, both are unable to overcome the insatiable nature of their intimacy. The bulwark to their attachment suddenly reveals itself in the feeble, puny form of ... Camille. So, out of a wild, impetuous desire to cement their relationship, the two commit the crime that casts them into the anguish of a "desolate, intolerable, existence:" MURDER.

They are henceforth titled by Zola as "the two murderers" and between them, where 'love' should have flourished instead stems "an affinity of blood and lust." And the "terrifying disease" they contradict, "a sort of hysteria of murder,” drives them to hallucinations, abuse and - eventually - suicide.

Hence the Macbeth//Madame Bovary parallel.

If this novel were a proverb, it would probably be: "be careful of what you wish for." Indeed, drowning Camille did not give Laurent the idle life he desired or the freedom for romance he had envisioned. Moreover, after the repercussions of murder give him the "astonishing sensibility" he lacked before as an artist, he destroys his work because all the portraits he paints, although brimming with potential, manifest in each line and figure the contorted figures of the dead Camille.

In fact, everything the novel's characters hope to achieve arrives at the opposite effect. There is an overarching theme of karma. Camille secretly hoped for one of his colleagues to die so that he could take his post - he dies instead. Laurent, greedy for a life of gluttony and idleness, orchestrates a murder that haunts him forever. Madame Raquin, out of selfishness and an urge for self-preservation, encourages Laurent and Thérèse's marriage yet unwittingly bestows her life's savings to her murderers (at least she got her 'revenge.' Perhaps the only one in the novel who really did). The novel is poisoned by disparities. Elements such as blood and lust, meant to be sitting at the opposite ends of a table, find themselves sharing the same seat instead. The characters in the novel show their ugliest sides. Even Madame Raquin, after learning of her children's treachery ("my child was killed by my children"), loses faith in God and takes pleasure in the horrifying hobby of watching Laurent and Thérèse slowly but surely kill themselves.

Moreover, there is the theme of encasement. Whether it is exhibited in the way Thérèse has an "immense capacity for calm that hid[es] violent fits of passion," the morbid way in which Laurent locks himself in his studio out of fear of an imaginatined spectre, or the effing chilling manner in which the paralysed Madame Raquin foments her inner hatred, everything - from people to emotions - are entombed. There is an unsettling parallel between 1) Thérèse complaining that her aunt "buried [...her] alive in this vile shop" and 2) being “seized with hallucinations, [...thinking that] she was buried in some vault together with a lot of puppet-like corpses which nodded their heads and moved their legs and arms when you pulled the strings.”

So morbid, and to think that I actually read the morgue descriptions over breakfast.

The whole novel is founded on sickliness, disease. There is Camille, the physically weak, and then there is the affair between Laurent and Thérèse, equally feverish in its short-lived ardour. The "mean, soiled shadows" of Passage du Point-Neuf do not contribute to any sort of convalescence, either.

So this is not a novel you would take with you to read on the glowing beaches of Hawaii or when eager for a zen weekend. And the parts of the novel sort of falls int 'etc. mode,' where the reader is treated to extended (and to great effect) details of Laurent and Thérèse's suffering and insanity.

Yet we watch them descend into madness, plagued by fear. Perhaps not the same way François the cat does, eerily and silently, and definitely not the way Madame Raquin does towards the end of the novel ("a bright spark of joy glowed in her eyes when Laurent raised his broad hand against Thérèse's head"), but us readers observe nonetheless. And with each turned page, we are exposed to anguish, horror, madness... then with the speed of a "shaft of lightning," like their passion, it is all over.

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Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Hemingway x Rand

Hemingway wrote this:
True mysticism should not be confused with incompetence in writing which seeks to mystify where there is no mystery but is really only the necessity to fake to cover lack of knowledge or the inability to state clearly.
I love how it encapsulates what Ayn Rand was saying about Lois Cook.

Monday, January 6, 2014

The Empty Hearse

While I certainly don't fall into this category of Sherlockians upon watching Saturday night's episode of BBC's Sherlock, I nonetheless understand the hype. Having suffered a long wait (and on a cliffhanger, oh God) for The Empty Hearse's debut, conspirators and cynics alike spent the past two years
1) drawing their own deductions on how Sherlock survived the Reichenbach fall and
2) building a steadily-growing fandom.

 So, how did Sherlock survive? With help from his tramp connections? By a carefully-timed leap? Episode 1 of season 3 tells all.

 ...Or does it?

 The episode opens with a glimpse into Life After Sherlock. Some toast to his memory:

Others undergo the I've- grown-facial-hair-out-of-grief transformation:

Ah, yes.

At the beginning of the episode, Sherlock accuses Mycroft of enjoying watching him being tortured. This same harsh comment is applicable to Sherlock himself, who let John grieve and wither and grow facial hair although others knew he had faked his death.

Commenting on how Watson would react to finding out Sherlock was still alive, Gatiss said, "I always found it a little unlikely that Dr. Watson's only reaction was to faint for instance—as opposed to possibly a stream of terrible swear words." I’m glad Gatiss did bear in mind the 21st-century-aspect of it (f bombs, etc.) Sherlock certainly deserved to get attacked.

Moreover, the way he announced his presence, although humorous, was immature and improbable. Considering how the show has always been – to the best of its ability – realistic, or at least excusably purported when it comes to scientific evidence/mind palace technicalities, much of Episode 1’s screenplay seems drastically tailored to suit the show’s fan base.

Don’t even get me started on the gay kiss and ruffle-hair-then-kiss-Molly scenes. Episode 1 really indulged in some un-Sherlock-y lovey-dovey-ness that sent fangirls fangirling, as if they weren’t already. There was also a segment of wasted footage dedicated to the ‘deduction’ game between Mycroft and Sherlock. Ok, it’s been two years and fans have missed it, but really?

I’ve seen great shows ruined because the screenwriters decided to start writing for a collective, squealing fan base and not for the integrity of the show itself. Moffat and Gattis are definitely aware of the cult following their show has spawned – look at Anderson. He is the mascot for each conspiring Sherlock fan on tumblr. I just hope such recognition does not lead to the degradation of what is now BBC's most popular miniseries.

Yet this episode is nonetheless one that satisfies. Watson has found himself a fiancée who is great for him (and the show, I think). The train sequence at the beginning and the text-crossovers (I apologize for my lack of cinema terminology) show that Moffat and Gatiss still include classic BBC-Sherlock cinematography. So many scenes are laugh-worthy, especially the montage but perhaps not the ending scene – is it just me, or did Sherlock go too far in pretending to not know how to defuse the bomb? 

Anyhow, 1.5 hours spent being entertained by Cumberbatch and Freeman’s natural chemistry and being wowed by clever dialogue/deductions/plot twists is always time well spent.

2 more episodes left until the tumblr fandom is reduced to:

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Happy Birthday, Tolkien

My first blog post of 2014 is an shout out homage to one of the most celebrated,
respected and influential writers of all time: J.R.R. Tolkien
Having spent years absorbed in Middle-Earthiness and replaying LoTR theme variations
on the piano, I owe much of my happiness to Tolkien. I still have difficulty identifying each 
dwarf in the Company and I have yet to compile a modest Tengwar vocabulary list, 
but reading LoTR has sent me travelling to sweeping plains and rolling hills, hoping
to find a Shire on a "road [that] goes ever on and on."

I remember reading Dr. Seuss books as a kid and seeing - a few shelves higher up -
my dad's LoTR copies. Only a few years later, after studying The Hobbit in 
English class, did I tentatively flip through the first few pages of The Fellowship in 2010
(wow, that takes me back)  and commence what would turn out to be one of the longest 
- and most significant - reading journeys I've ever undergone. 

I remember the night I openend up The Two Towers for the first time, having
creased the spine of The Fellowship and blogged about it. That was when I
first began to post book quotes (and now I write reviews!). I remember
picking up The Return of the King (and blogging about that too)
and coming across what remains one of my
favourite lines in literature:

There, peeping among the cloud-wrack above a dark tor high up in the mountains, Sam saw a white star twinkle for a while. The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him. For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach.

It's so hard to believe that at one point, I loved LoTR and the Jonas brothers
at the same time. Ah, I ditched the latter but the former has never been so important
to me. Thank you, Tolkien.