giovedì, giugno 23, 2011

Drown and toss

So, Villette. Charlotte Bronte was a romantic and the voice of the passions, lady-passions especially, and Villette is a very passionate book. The book's narrator Lucy Snowe is the most trippy, passionate (in the sense of emotionally present) and poetic narrator I think I've ever been narrated to by. As much as I enjoyed the first-person narrative voice of The True History of the Kelly Gang, Lucy Snowe makes that Ned Kelly look like a cardboard cutout with an Irish accent - a cheap trick. She makes Pip in Great Expectations look like an uncommunicative emotional retard. And she makes Jane Eyre look - well - stupid is the wrong word. She makes Jane Eyre look like Jane is fooling herself.

Lucy would have asked Jane why, if her marriage to Rochester is so great, the last words of her memoir are about the guy she turned down. Lucy would have asked Jane what she meant by telling Diana that she could imagine one day developing a 'torturing' kind of love for St. John. If Lucy had been in the room, that would never have stayed that one little sentence out of a million in Jane Eyre; and Lucy would have pulled out an explanation for why Jane nearly agreed to marry St. John when he stroked her hair, and why a fucking miracle was necessary to prevent her from doing so.

Far more than any other Bronte heroine, or any literary character who springs to mind at the moment, Lucy is emotionally merciless in her appraisal of the people around her, and most of all of herself - and yet that doesn't mean she's honest - not at all. She's a strikingly, gratuituosly dishonest narrator who conceals things or omits things for the sake of concealing them or omitting them. She reminds me of Kazuo Ishiguro's dishonest narrators, but all of Kazuo Ishiguro's books and the graceful slow reveals of his narrator's realities - and please bear in mind that every book I've compared in this post with Villette so far are books that I fucking love - look totally gimmicky relative to Villette.

The thing with Lucy Snowe is that she's a depressive, a complete fucking clinical depressive, with all of a depressive's cynical certainties, despair, cold eye for even the people she loves and dry little games of hide-and-seek with the truth. She has all of a depressive's passionate sense of the unfairness of the human condition; a sense which isn't just observational, but deeply experiential and personal - the sort of sense of the unfairness of the human condition that makes poets instead of Marxists. It's the thing that makes depressives hard to spend time with, and that makes depressives think that they're even harder to spend time with than they actually are.

Lucy as a narrator isn't hard to spend time with though, or at least not for a patient reader, because Charlotte Bronte was a poet, and all of these cynical certainties, etc., are delivered to us in her astonishing language. I'm always wary of attempts to link a book to a writer's personal life. But I can't help but think of Villette as a cri-de-coeur from Charlotte Bronte after the death of all her siblings, and after her emotionally humiliating relationship with her professor in Brussels; a shatteringly accurate and painfully extended poem exploring the mind of a depressive, and finally the grand and brutal gesture of drowning it like an unwanted kitten and tossing it, almost contemptuously, into the lap of the reader.

I believe in that sort of therapy for depressives and I've never seen a more perfect example of it than Villette, if that's what Villette indeed is. After all, they say that despite the utter shittitude of her family's fate - and it's hard to imagine that Lucy Snowe's family's fate, one of the things that she purposefully hides from us, is much worse - Charlotte Bronte was quite happy in the final years of her life.

martedì, giugno 21, 2011

Brussels, Brontefied

Holy fucking fuck me. Have just finished reading Villette and feeling absolutely drop-kicked by it. It's really good. You do get a sense from Jane Eyre that Charlotte Bronte wasn't the most psychologically rock-solid creature in creation, an apparent fact that is probably underappreciated due to her sister Emily writing so well about completely, demonstratively nutso people in Wuthering Heights. But with Villette the exploration of the brain of a totally fucking depressed narrator is so intense, so well-done, and so very fucking Charlotte Bronte that I feel awful for her that there was no Jungian analysis back then . . .

It's a really good book. You need a bit of a suspension of disbelief with Jane Eyre - well, a fuckload of suspension of disbelief - that you don't need with Villette. There are some pretty zany coincidences but they are quite believable ones, on the basis that they don't drive the plot - no I'm-telling-my-uncle-I'm-getting-married-he's-dying-sends-R's-wife's-brother-to-stop-the-wedding-in-nick-of-time-blundering-around-the-moors-meeting-my-cousins sort of thing. Just the sort of coincidences that happen. And the sort of unlikely events manufactured by a depressive personality. And yet it's not a tighter book than Jane Eyre - it's almost more of a breakdown than a novel.

My god. Lucy Snowe. Jesus. That's the most powerful narrative voice I can think of at the moment. Also she takes opiates and trips out on the streets of Brussels. That's right. Anyways it needs a few days to settle in before I can write coherently about it.

lunedì, giugno 20, 2011

That's not a cultural vaccuum . . . Now THAT's a cultural vaccuum.

Going from L--- to Shanghai is, I think, at least as refreshing as going from Shanghai to L--- would be for a Shanghaiese. Going to a place where the entire population of my present hometown could be accommodated on a single block is a good antidote to a lot of things. The truth is, as astute readers will no doubt have noticed, I've hit a pretty vicious wall of culture shock as far as Australia goes. If we were in one of the big cities it'd probably be different, but this place is the equivalent of my real hometown - the Australian equivalent - which means even more insular and even less cosmopolitan.

On the way home, I got stuck in Singapore for the night because of delays out of Shanghai. But as I was flying with Singapore Airlines - which I advise you to do if you have any choice in the matter - that meant the airline arranging for me to spend the night in a five-star and have a delicious multi-ethnic breakfast (and yes, the Asians have utterly won me over to the wisdom of a noodle or dumpling broth for breakfast), and then some time to chill out in Changi Airport which contains, I shit you not, a range of gardens, including a butterfly house. It vies with Vancouver Airport as the nicest I've ever seen, and I'm reasonably confident that I've seen a shitload of airports. I've just tried to count how many, and I can't. To put that in perspective, I can count the number of men I've had sex with and I used to be a card-carrying roundheels.

Anyhoo, I remember when the Singapore Airlines guy met us coming off the Shanghai plane around 1 am on Sunday morning, and handed me a pre-prepared envelope containing the boarding pass for my replacement flight and my Grand Hyatt voucher - I remember thinking as I stared at him, are you the same fucking species as an Air France or KLM or European or North American airline worker? If you fucked one of them, could you produce offspring? And if so, could you please have custody of it, you beautiful, beautiful Singaporean man, and raise it in your ways?

And then when I went to the Grand Hyatt, like so many Singaporean buildings, the hallways going to the room aren't hallways, but extended balconies. And I stepped out into the balmy deep night - I sniffed that baffling and deeply Singaporean smell of a tropical city that isn't dirty - and I regretted that the F-word and I hadn't moved there instead of here.

The sentiment probably shouldn't have come as a surprise going by what I've written in the past, but it did. The thing is, when were in Singapore in November, everybody told me it was an anodyne place, an uninteresting place, a culturally vacuous place. I believed them. I still believe them because even the Singaporeans said so. And you know what? Maybe it is, but there is no way Singaporean culture is more anodyne, uninteresting and vacuous than Australia's. As I was walking down that breezeway or whatever I remembered every person who'd said Singapore was culturally bland as hell and had a little mental fit thinking about that idea of vacuity versus the Australian cultural vacuity.

The port mentality of Singapore - its cosmopolitan, outward-looking quality - suddenly provided such a gut-wrenching contrast with the deeply insular quality of Australia. The contrast got even worse when I read the Singaporean papers the next morning, and realized that despite the country not having a really free press, the papers have immeasurably, immeasurably better foreign news coverage than Australia's do - that fucking monopolistic mess of what they call a media here, this damnable Velveeta of a national newspaper industry, compares poorly with the newspapers of an authoritarian, undemocratic state that canes and executes people.

Well, I'm still in the boat of not regretting moving here; I'm making a shitload of money, we have a big garden, good friends, kayaking, etc. But at that moment - if not for the garden, actually, it's the garden that stopped my hand - I had a real temptation to call up the F-word and tell him to come meet me, cos' I wasn't going back if he was willing to do so.

I suspect I'm mostly feeling this way because of weather - Singapore is endless summer, while Australia is having winter, a hard one for me to tolerate because everybody has spring and summer back home, and also because this place is even worse than Belgium when it comes to notions of keeping your house warm in the winter. As I type this I'm wearing five layers of clothes, despite feasting on animal fat in Shanghai, whose cuisine rivals that of northern Italy in terms of making animal fat deeply, astonishingly, mouth-wateringly delectable. But we'll see.