Friday, June 27, 2014

Un bonheur inépuisable

Les ChosesLes Choses by Georges Perec
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

George Perec's Les Choses recounts the story of a French couple living in the 60s. Jérôme and Sylvie are pollsters: they live mundane and mediocre lives. Both dream of richesse and luxury, but such a life incessantly eludes them. Even after things look a bit brighter on the financial side, unwise spending throws them into the struggles of frugality once more. Finally, they decide to move to Tunisie (escape, really) - for a change of scene, for the possibility of materialistic promise - but even there they experience but an illusion of satisfaction and remain lost in the ironic depths of an insipid existence.

Indeed, "Ils étaient un petit îlot de pauvreté sur la grande mer d'abondance."

The whole novel brims with Perec's meticulous description of 'things - ' the first chapter offers us a very detailed view of Jérôme and Sylvie's dream home, analyzed down to the very rug. In the first chapter, we also glimpse the most characteristic, and frequently occurring element of the novel: Perec's use of the conditional tense.

Indeed, the whole novel is characterized by the 'unconditional,' the dreamed of and would be - their ideal room 'would' be like this, their lives 'would' turn out a certain way, they 'would' follow this routine... through the conditional tense, Perec captures the very malaise that strikes the novels' protagonists:

"Ceux qui ne veulent que vivre, et qui appellent vie la liberté la plus grande, la seule poursuite du bonheur, l’exclusif assouvissement de leurs désirs ou de leurs instincts, l’usage immédiat des richesses illimitées du monde, ceux-là seront toujours malheureux"

Pushed by their boundless materialistic desires, Jérôme and Sylvie lose themselves on the thread of life; however, their problem cannot be so easily summarized in the words "consumerism" or "materialism," and neither can the novel's main theme. Although it seems that Les Choses is, to a certain degree, an attack on a consumerist society that lusts after only 'things,' Perec's portrayal of the couple seems to extend the novel's scope in a different direction.

There's something about the vapidness of their lives, the emptiness of the consciousness and the fruitlessness of their ambitions that suggests something rather than merely materialism is at work. The novel captures a search for happiness and modernity in a world where both elements seem less and less mutually exclusive. Jérôme and Sylvie seem to embody a 60s (post-war, when job vacancies have plunged again) attitude - drawn to the modern, grasping only a meager essence of it and being lured instead by the 'things' that surround them.

Les Choses is short and direct: Perec spells out their young lives in a matter of chapters. In fact, certain arguments postulated in the Postface of the edition I read raise the question of whether or not Les Choses can even be considered 'un roman.'

Language-wise, this novel gets one used to heavy narration. Perec makes heavy use of synonyms and run on sentences to not only illustrate his descriptions of the many 'things' but also elaborate on Jérôme and Sylvie's condition. Long as such sentences are, they certainly serve to reinforce the characters' mediocre and repetitive lives reeking of sameness.

Les Choses is a great read if you're looking for some concentrated food for thought. Writing about only two characters (of symbolic significance, of course) and a LOT of detailed description to guide you through his thoughts on happiness in a modern world, Perec offers us the chance to unpack this novel, contemplate the characters' fears and desires and ultimately reach our own conclusions concerning the nature of leur bonheur - and the powerful influence of les choses around them.

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PS - I finally got instagram at

Sunday, June 15, 2014

The Luminaries

The LuminariesThe Luminaries by Eleanor Catton
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Warning: semi-plot spoilers ahead. Semi because I don't completely unravel the plot, but spoilers nonetheless because I've thrown loose details here and there.

The feeling that overcame me each time I opened Eleanor Catton's The Luminaries must have been the feeling Bear Grylls got each time he updated his travel vlogs: "This is day six in the safari. Water is running short and progress is slow..."

The 835-page Man Book Prize winning novel has rekindled my fear of big books. The one thing anyone who reads The Luminaries must do can be summarized in two words: keep up.

The novel is set in 19th century New Zealand, the time of the West Coast Gold Rush. Walter Moody arrives at Hoktita hoping to strike gold, but instead finds himself drawn into a complex and intriguing mystery. A certain Emery Staines has vanished; Anna Wetherell, a whore, has been discovered near-death under the effects of opium; Crosbie Wells has been found dead; and these are just some of the circumstances in which we find the 19 characters in the novel.

Of course, the plot thickens and the characters' fates intertwine. A large sum of money seems to have been bequeathed to Anna. Gold coins are sewn into the seams of her dress. A man has assumed a double identity - is he Francis Carver, or Crosbie Wells? Throughout the novel, Catton illuminates these different lives that bring this mystery together. It's impossible for me to give you a satisfactory plot summary - Catton warps time itself in her narrative. There is a strong sense of repetition, of events coming full circle.

The most magical thing about The Luminaries is of course its complex astrological elements, which we are immediately notified of in the "Note to the Reader". Star charts at the beginning of each new part in the novel indicate which characters will be particularly significant in the subsequent chapters. Each of the twelve men that Moody meets upon arriving at Hoktita are linked to a Zodiac sign, which of course indicates something about their inherent natures. Even the structure of the novel, whose chapters grow steadily shorter towards the end, mirrors the waning of a moon (courtesy of Wikipedia). I admit I was a bit flustered upon being left to decipher one-page chapters.

Destiny and fate are therefore important themes in The Luminaries. The characters' lives seem to be "aligned by the stars;" for example, the fortuneteller Lydia Wells rightly remarks that extraordinary things would happen if Emery and Anna (Moon and the Sun) were to meet. Indeed, it is such an encounter that leads Anna to quit whoring and quit opium.

Nationality is also significant in the novel. The Luminaries is set in New Zealand - Te Rau Tauwhare, an aboriginal, seems to flit in and out of the story but always returns with some sort of new perspective or makes a significant discovery. Hongkongers in the Chinatown such as Ah Sook are also the primary opium dealers in the novel, and often converse in Cantonese throughout the novel. Both Tauwhare and Sook are regarded differently by the others - regarded as enigmas, or even liars. Catton paints the faint undercurrent of discrimination quite well. So The Luminaries transcends not only time but nationalities, too, and such intertwining is what makes the novel all the more intriguing and complex.

Finally, the theme of women in the novel is also noteworthy. Anna Wetherell and Lydia Wells, the only two women in the novel, are distinct but key in the unravelling of the mystery. Anna, of course, is at its center. Although a whore and thereby resented by Francis Carver, she is arguably the most important character in the novel. Nearly all of the men have had relationships with her, are fascinated with her, or depend on her in some way. Clinch is borderline in love with her. Ah Sook nearly goes mental when he thinks that she is dead. Lydia, the fortuneteller, also commands a sort of unquestionable authority which - when matched with her cunning - is dangerous.

The Luminaries is driven almost entirely by dialogue, which - when coupled with its length - makes it a thoroughly challenging read. Trying to keep tabs on who thinks what of whom is difficult enough, not to mention keeping track of the constantly shifting interpretations the men devise.

Aware that the only thing standing between me and the rest of my to-read list was The Luminaries, I considered calling it quits. But I soldiered on because I couldn't help not finding out what would happen to Anna's unclaimed fortune, or what would happen to Emery staines. All I knew was that by the time I was 600 pages in, The Luminaries became both frustrating and irresistible.

I often questioned the legitimacy of the plot's development; my mind was predominantly cluttered with the many voices of the many characters; but even so I can't help but marvel at Catton's skill for melding so many lives and mysteries into such a work. I can't say I've completely processed the novel's denouement - and I don't think I will attempt to anytime soon.

Nonetheless, The Luminaries is a testament to thick books and a wild imagination. It is a novel one must tackle with stamina, patience and persistence.

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Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Mansfield ParkMansfield Park by Jane Austen
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I am NOT sure how I feel about this book, primarily because I buzzed through the last 100 pages.
Fanny Price is transferred to her wealthy aunt's family at a young age and immediately isolated. Miserable and lonely, she is unquestionably considered inferior to her well-educated sisters. Then companionship emerges in the form of Edmund, her well-meaning and empathetic cousin. It's clear from the onset of the novel that Edmund and Fanny's relationship will go somewhere - but unfortunately their coupling is not confirmed until the last pages of the novel. In fact, Edmund spends most of the novel hankering after the deceptive Miss Crawford and only regards Fanny under a 'sisterly' light. Thus I can't say that I'm convinced by the ending of the novel, or happy with their eventual marriage. Admittedly, Edmund seemed to be 'the man' for her at the beginning, but his ignorance and indecisiveness as the novel progressed weren't impressive. By the end of the novel, they are hardly a match made in heaven. More like a math made out of necessity.

Fanny, ever defenceless and subversive, is merely' needed' by the other characters in the novel and conveniently 'there.' That's perhaps what I most pity about her. Unappreciated as a child, and then an object of interest the moment she turns becoming. The worst part is that she never seems to have a final 'say.' She retreats back to her family towards the end of the novel, and her cousin's family's problems make her 'needed' once again. Where is her freedom?

I also think that Austen's world no longer (has it ever?) appeals to me. Reading her novels is a great exercise in language training - heaps of inverted syntax and run on sentences to digest. But her characters' problems, most of which revolve solely around MARRIAGE AND MEN are almost unbearable. Mansfield Park would NOT pass the Bechdel test.

At this point in my review I must say, however, that her characters ARE fascinating. There's Henry Crawford, who's an 18th century ladies' man until he meets Fanny. The irony is, of course, that he tries to get Fanny to fall in love with him (out of egotism and his idea of taking on a 'challenge') until he himself falls for HER. There's also the dislikable, self-centered Mrs. Norris who comes to life so vividly on the page that one cannot help but marvel at Austen's ability to flesh out her characters.

But ultimately my expectations for my "return to Austen" weren't so satisfying. Maybe I just wasn't patient enough to digest the novel properly. Maybe I'm already too used to 20th century literature. Perhaps I should reread the other Austen novels and give them second tries. Or perhaps I should wait a couple of years and see whether her characters' problems - marriage problems - will suddenly be mine, too.

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Monday, June 9, 2014

You see, there are still faint glimmers of civilization left in this barbaric slaughterhouse that was once known as humanity.

I'm not sure how I ended up watching The Grand Budapest Hotel last weekend, but I'm glad that I chose to spend my Saturday afternoon that way.

Wes Anderson's latest film is a story within a story within a story. We begin with a young girl reading a book by 'The Author' (Jude Law). Next, we are taken into the novel itself (set in 1968) and into a particular chapter where 'The Author' meets Zero Moustafa, the owner of the Grand Budapest Hotel. Finally, we dive into Zero's story (set in 1932) about how he came to own the hotel - and about his time with the late, remarkable concierge Monsieur Gustave, played by the witty and ever-talented Ralph Fiennes.

Zero is the hotel's new lobby boy, armed with zero (hence the name) experience but a heart of gold. His adventure begins with the death of Madame D, a wealthy aristocratic woman who frequents the hotel and has a very soft spot for Monsieur Gustave. Upon her death, Gustave suddenly finds himself heir to her mounting fortune - including the priceless painting, Boy with Apple.

Madame D's family, particularly her ill-tempered and foul-mouthed son Dmitri, is furious - how can his family's wealth fall into the hands of a "ruthless adventurer and a con artist who preys on mentally feeble, sick old ladies?" (quote Dmitri).

Dmitri's way of coping with the problem is to frame Gustave for his mother's death and send the bloodthirsty hitman Jopling to retrieve the painting and wipe out all opposition. The film revolves around how Gustave, with his trusty sidekick Zero, attempts to evade the cops and clear his name.

As with all Wes Anderson films, The Grand Budapest Hotel is first and foremost a visual spectacle. The aesthetics of each frame leave no room for questioning the amount of thought invested into each shot. Each item of furniture and every extra is prudently placed, contributing in some way to the atmosphere of pre-war Europe and the opulent setting of its grand hotels captured in the film.

Such detail, color and symmetry is masterful - but distracting. Indeed, one cannot watch the prison break without noticing the impeccable linear composition of the whole setting. I suppose such an effect is either delightful or frustrating, depending on individual tastes.

The Grand Budapest Hotel became progressively better as it advanced - the jokes increased, the plot thickened, Zero and Gustave's friendship grew more tender. Ralph Fiennes is truly the highlight of the movie. His character is sharp, eloquent, delightful, ignorant... quite simply one of the "faint glimmers of civilization left in this barbaric slaughterhouse that was once known as humanity." As the older Zero tells us, "To be frank, I think his world had vanished long before he ever entered it - but, I will say: he certainly sustained the illusion with a marvelous grace!" Such grace and perfectly accented "dahlings" is what makes Fiennes' character instantly loveable.

A note on the older Zero - his change in accent is perplexing. That, along with the seemingly arbitrarily thrown in characters are the two aspects of the movie I'm not so crazy about.

It's interesting, however, that the movie takes place in a time when the war is just about to smother Europe. We learn of this through scattered hints - it's on the front page of the newspaper at one point, and of course M. Gustave and Zero are stopped on the train to confront the soldiers twice. But we remain enthralled by the pink-hued magic of the grand hotel and delectable Mendel treats - until the end of the movie seems to throw the whole war situation into perspective. The war certainly isn't the focus of the film, and I wouldn't go so far as to say that Anderson intentionally 'veiled' it, but it nonetheless offers another take on the film.

So, what does the film hope instead to showcase? Perhaps the ancient grandeur of the grand hotels and their "marvelous grace." Perhaps an unlikely friendship transcending age and culture. Probably both. Regardless, The Grand Budapest Hotel is a whirlwind of a film that will leave your imagination and eyes dazzled after a good 1 and a half hours.