Thursday, 19 February 2009

The Essays of Virginia Woolf: Volume 5

What a glorious day. I now have my copy of the recently published fifth volume of The Essays of Virginia Woolf: 1929-1932, edited by Stuart N. Clarke. I'm not alone in thinking Woolf one of the best essayists (as well as novelists) of the twentieth century and while many of these pieces have previously appeared in her Common Reader: Second Series collection, or in other anthologies, I'm still pretty excited to add this 700 page tome to my shelves. As Clarke notes in his introduction, "The essays fertilised the fiction, and vice versa" (his emphasis) and he's noted the parallels in the footnotes. Woolf was writing The Waves and Flush during this period and if I ever get around to starting my 2009 resolution of re-reading her novels in chronological order, I will definitely be dipping into a similar selection of her essays alongside the fiction.
You can hear a radio interview with Clarke here (scroll down a bit).

Wednesday, 18 February 2009

A Flock of Holman Hunt comes to Toronto. . .

There's a great exhibition on at the AGO which I saw last weekend - Sin and Salvation: Holman Hunt and the Pre-Raphaelite Vision. And to my great delight, one of my favourite paintings was on display (Our English Coasts painted in 1852, and pictured above). I always go to pay homage to it at the Tate when I'm in London and now that it's hanging in Toronto until May, I'll definitely be making multiple visits to see it again. One of the best things about being a Cinematheque member is free admission to the AGO with every film ticket stub. This exhibition is also part of the regular admission price, so if you haven't yet checked out the renovations, here's one more great reason to go.
It was fascinating to learn about Holman Hunt's Canadian and even Toronto connections (there's a stained glass window in one of our churches that is based on one of his paintings) and I enjoyed viewing many of his other paintings, particularly a striking piece called Isabella and the Pot of Basil, based on a Keats poem which depicts a beautiful woman clutching a wild and healthy pot of basil containing the skull of her murdered lover. Alas, in the poem the pot is taken away from her:

And so she pined, and so she died forlorn,
Imploring for her Basil to the last

Can I ever look at pesto the same way again?

Wednesday, 11 February 2009

My kind of love story. . .

There was a recent article in The Globe and Mail about Michael Ignatieff, our Leader of the Opposition, and how he and his Hungarian wife Zsuzsanna, recently read War and Peace to each other (a similar article definitely couldn't be written about our Prime Minister Stephen Harper - he'd doubtless think reading books was too elitist, never mind reading them aloud). Meanwhile, single booklovers across Canada are sighing, and suddenly a dozen roses on Valentine's Day looks pretty ho-hum.

I've always thought the most interesting love stories are cross-cultural, especially when literature becomes a common point of reference. Such is the case with Tokyo Fiancée by Amélie Nothomb, translated by Alison Anderson. It's published by Europa Editions, which is also responsible for translating Muriel Barbery's wonderful The Elegance of the Hedgehog and the two novels, though very different, make wonderful reading companions. Again we have the story of a friendship between a French woman and a Japanese man, though Nothomb's story involves younger characters who are more romantically involved, and instead of sharing a passion for Tolstoy, it's Marguerite Duras's Hiroshima mon amour that is referenced(about yet another French/Japanese couple).

Amélie first meets Rinri when he answers her ad offering French lessons. She has come to Tokyo to work, learn about the country and improve her Japanese, and while their initial encounters are full of cultural and linguistic misunderstandings, they quickly become a couple and end up spending a lot of time together, though never at Amélie's own flat. But even as she revels in the beauty and customs of the Japan that Rinri introduces her to, her increasing uneasiness about the future of their relationship dampens her enthusiasm and independent spirit. In the end, she is forced to make a decision about both the man and the country that she loves.

This is a lovely, wistfully funny novel for world travellers, romantics and those who ponder (or obsess about) the "what ifs" in life. There's a beautiful chapter describing the climb up to the summit of Mount Fuji (definitely high on my list of things of things I want to do someday) and an instructive chapter on why tiny live octopuses are best avoided on the menu. Nothomb has a very breezy, personal style of writing - I read most of this delightful tale in one sitting. She's definitely an author I want to read more of, but I think I want to try and tackle her next in French. I have a copy of her earlier novel Stupeur et tremblements (actually referenced in Tokyo Fiancée) sitting on my shelves.

Monday, 9 February 2009

Three mysteries in translation. . .

It's been one of those weeks when my brain has been feeding on nothing but crime novels. So I managed to fully complete one of the categories in my Lost in Translation reading challenge, by devouring three mysteries in translation. And I can highly recommend them all.

Bernhard Schlink's bestselling book The Reader has been in the news a lot lately given the movie's Best Picture Oscar nomination and all the accolades and acting awards coming Kate Winslet's way. I also enjoyed Schlink's recent novel Homecoming which covers some of the same themes of second generation Germans trying to grapple with their Nazi past. Self's Punishment by Schlink and Walter Popp, translated by Rebecca Morrison, is the first in a series of crime novels featuring Gerhard Self, a man in his late sixties who also has to deal with a personal shameful episode stemming from the war. It is many years later, and he is hired to investigate a possible security breach at a local factory run by an old friend. Just when he thinks he has found the man responsible, a murder ensues, and the case becomes far more complicated. Of course I won't give it away, but the ending was shocking and unconventional for a mystery novel. I very much liked the character of Self - he's self-aware and self-effacing - and I look forward to reading more of his adventures.
I've been a big fan of Fred Vargas for a few years and love her Commissaire Adamsberg mysteries. My favourite so far has been Wash This Blood Clean From My Hand, mainly because it was partially set in Canada and featured a terrifically improbable but no less brilliant and original take on how to foil the police and exit a country via a major international airport without detection. I've just finished her latest to appear in English - The Chalk Circle Man, translated by Siân Reynolds - even though it actually is the first Adamsberg book she wrote (don't you just love how translation decisions are made?) This doesn't really pose a problem as all her books read perfectly as stand-alones and can easily be read out of order. It's nice to go the beginning however - Adamsberg has just arrived in Paris and his new colleagues are eyeing his methods rather suspiciously. Still, he knows that there's something sinister behind a series of blue chalk circles that show up on Paris sidewalks during the night. Each has the same engimatic quotation written around its edge and contains a seemingly innocuous object in the center. Until one night a murdered body is found in one of these circles. And then another. Vargas excels at interesting, quirky characters - suspects and members of the police force alike - and her plotting is second to none. She's probably my current favourite among contemporary mystery writers. I loved this book!

I also enjoy Nordic crime novels and my newest fave is Iceland's Arnaldur Indridason. His latest is Arctic Chill, translated by Bernard Scudder and Victoria Cribb. His detective Erlendur, must surely be the gloomiest of all the fictional sleuths working the bookshelves, and probably the only Icelander who has ever preferred the winter to the summer (Iceland only gets about two or three hours of daylight during the winter). He has problems with his estranged grown-up children, a complicated love life, and an unhealthy obsession with missing persons reports, stemming from a childhood trauma when his younger brother disappeared during a blizzard and was never seen again. This latest mystery touches on some of the current racial problems facing many Scandinavian countries as immigrant workers try to integrate into society despite language and cultural barriers. A young Thai boy is found murdered near his apartment building and in searching for his killer, Erlendur comes up against these racial tensions. It's an apt title - the identity of the killer truly is chilling. This is the fourth Erlendur mystery that I've read and I think it's the best one so far. I look forward to seeing if (and how) Indridason deals with Iceland's current bankruptcy in future novels.
Time for a break from mysteries now - I feel the classics calling to me.

Sunday, 8 February 2009

Joan of Arc x 2. . .

Cinematheque Ontario is presenting yet another fascinating series of films this spring - I'm basically camping out there for the next few months. One of their themed offerings is a look at six very different films about Joan of Arc. I decided that three was about my limit for watching the maid burn and I've now seen the first two - both rare cinematic treats. First up last night was Carl Theodor Dreyer's 1928 The Passion of Joan of Arc. Focusing on the end of Joan's trial and her death, this movie is a stunning example of the power of black and white films and why even a large tv can never replace the effect of the big screen in a darkened theatre. Dreyer zooms in on stark close-ups for most of the film with the faces completely dominating the screen against mostly a white or gray background. It's an astonishingly work of visual power - even scary at times. Every tear that slowly coursed down Maria Falconetti's face was riveting. This film also takes an extremely bleak look at death, from shots of maggots squirming in the empty eyesockets of a skull to the slowly blackening form of Joan dying on the stake. A special treat for this silent film screening was its live accompaniment by pianist William O'Meara. While I've certainly watched silent films on DVD from my couch (a favourite is Pabst's 1929 Pandora's Box with the enchanting Louise Brooks - the Criterion DVD allows you to choose from four different scores to accompany the film), this was the first time experiencing a silent film the way they were originally conceived in the cinemas. I was in awe of O'Meara - not only for being able to play non-stop for 80 minutes, but to completely react to the various moods and timing of the film. I think I now need to get the DVD, which has a different musical accompaniment - an opera entitled Voices of Light, composed by Richard Einhorn who was inspired by the film. It will be interesting to compare an orchestrated and multi-vocal musical score with the piano that I heard, though I think in some ways, one piano seems more appropiate for the camera's singular focus on mostly one character at a time. This was a wonderful, unique experience and I'm so grateful to Cinematheque for screening this film as it was meant to be seen.

It was back to the theatre this afternoon for a Hollywood treatment of Joan - Otto Preminger's 1957 Saint Joan, starring Jean Seberg in her first movie role, Richard Widmark (who I kept thinking bears an uncanny resemblance to Ed Harris or vice versa), and John Gielgud. This is based on the play by George Bernard Shaw. I've seen it on stage at the Shaw Festival and it's one that I like very much mostly because of the epilogue where all the main characters re-unite as ghosts some years later. It always makes me laugh at the brush-off given to Joan by the men. The screenplay was written by none other than Graham Greene who effectively starts and ends the film with parts of this epilogue. He also gives Gielgud an absurdly ridiculous bit of dialogue (something along the lines of how heaven and hell are like Oxford and Cambridge - they don't mix well) -and Gielgud delivers it so straightfacedly, one can't help but giggle. One doesn't often picture Joan of Arc as a woman with a fetching beauty spot on her cheekbone, but Seberg is so earnest and charming in many of her earlier scenes and so defeatedly haggard and hollow-eyed during her trial, that in the context of Shaw/Greene's character, I think she was a perfect casting choice.
These were two completely different films in tone, focus and technique and yet I very much enjoyed them both. We'll see how Ingrid Bergman fares next week in Victor Fleming's 1948 Joan of Arc. The film won an Oscar for Best Cinematography - it's in colour - and I'm curious to see how it will differ emotionally and artistically from these two black and white films.
I think I also need to dig out my copy of Marina Warner's book Joan of Arc: The Image of Female Heroism, which looks at Joan's constantly changing image over the centuries.