Cassandra at the Wedding – Dorothy Baker

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Dorothy Baker is a master of painting emotional landscape. After reading her book, I looked back at the cover (this particular nyrb edition), a small part of David Park’s painting, Figure with Fence, and pondered on why it was chosen for this novel. The girl’s face, melancholic and contemplating, against the simple fence with a few flowers on the other side, comes alive in a warm palette of colours, exuding humanity and compassion. Baker’s writing is much alike the cover painting: tender, forgiving and profound. A few themes stand out in this novel: identity, loneliness, and love and family.

Cassandra and Judith, throughout the novel, contemplate their resemblance and connection to one another, to define their own identity. Being identical twins, they form a close sisterhood and also become each other’s alter ego, or a mirror of reflection, to help them recognize their own uniqueness. During the first night that Cassandra returned home, Judith makes an observation about her sister’s voice through the telephone earlier that day, “it was the voice and the way it went. Like a play-back of something I’d have made up and recorded.” As they are aware of their identical physical features, we get the hint that they are trying to grow into separate identities, as Cassandra insists, “to have us become individuals, each of us in our own right, and not to be confused in ourselves, nor confusing to other people.” But hidden within the chaotic thoughts that clutter Cassandra’s mind, between her worries of her thesis, her soon-to-be brother-in-law, her granny and father, she also struggles with her identity separate from her mother, who was also a writer, and whose funeral last year was clearly still present on Cassandra’s mind. Perhaps her avoiding addressing Judith’s fiance by his real name and instead using a sarcastic nickname, and her fussing over her dress that looks very similar to her sister’s, are acts of defiance and escape. She hides away from reality, forming layers of complications in her mind about every small detail, and struggles to form an inner voice that is separate from those surrounding her. Cassandra loses her identity somewhere between being a sister and daughter and granddaughter, and therefore is lost amidst her complicated feelings.

Part of the reason Cassandra is closed off from the world and tragically collapses into turmoil is her loneliness. Her narration doesn’t really mention friends or relationships with other people that aren’t her family or therapist. She confesses to her sister, “You can’t know how it was – being in our apartment by myself after you went to New York. […] every time I think how lonely I was in that apartment.” But at this point the readers also realize that her loneliness isn’t exclusive, when Judith also confides, “I was pretty lonely there myself. […] waiting around for you to come home.” The sisters find themselves in a tragic emotional riff, unaware of each other’s distances. This distance keeps Cassandra from celebrating Judith’s marriage, and makes Judith feel helpless and locked out of Cassandra’s thoughts. It’s a tragic because although they love and understand each other, fail help each the other out of loneliness.

Ultimately, “Cassandra at the Wedding” is about family and love. The Edwards family is caring and lively, with everyone looking out for one another and loving without condition. The sister’s love is the spotlight of the story, and the complicated weaving narrations of the two describes how sometimes love isn’t enough. Judith contemplates, “There is only one thing that would help Cassie […] that would be for me to go to pieces in the same way she has.” In some kind of twisted logic of love, she knows Cassandra would save her if she was the broken one instead. Judith has trust and faith in Cassandra that she herself lacks – perhaps that is the best quality a family can have, faith in one another even when the person doesn’t believe in herself. And Cassandra, returns her sister’s love in her very own way, by offering to give her sister and her husband the piano they shared, “keep your half, and I’ll give my half to Jack. That way it’s all in the family. Different family, but all in it.” This gesture shines some hope on our protagonist – perhaps she had stepped out of the isolation that consumed her, to reach out to her sister. Perhaps she had overcome the crisis, “But I do know how I want to be, and how I believe I can be.” Baker didn’t give us a conclusive ending, but her writing, gentle and kind, gives me hope that with her family’s love, Cassandra would eventually find her identity and get a second chance at life.

 

 

The Picture of Dorian Gray – Oscar Wilde

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In his only novel, Oscar Wilde explores the themes of humanity, morality and corruption. This book garnered a lot of controversy at the time of published, due partly to Wilde’s discussion and criticism of the superficial English society, which he called “the native land of the hypocrite”. Furthermore, Wilde questions morality, using a metaphorical figure of Satan, and raises discussion of the moral implications of mentorship and corruption. Also, Wilde elaborates on the relationship between art and humanity and aestheticism, utilizing descriptions the environment to highlight inner thoughts and emotions.

Wilde did not paint a very appealing picture of the English society in the 1800s. Through Dorian Gray’s character, the society appears obsessed with superficial beauty and glamour. The importance of youth is so profound and entrenched, placing appearance above everything else. Lord Henry’s persuasive argument of the importance of beauty over thought reflects Wilde’s own opinion towards society at the time, “youth! Youth! There is absolutely nothing in the world but youth.” This obsession is highlighted through Gray’s obsession with his own looks, and with his lover Sibyl.  Once the outer appearances are slowly stripped down, Gray is left with no substance, thought, only cruelty. Sibyl Vane is the symbol and metaphor of objectification of beauty, whose real feelings and thoughts are disregarded and her presence only serves as pleasure for men as they choose to. There are themes of feminism weaved into Wilde’s criticism of the English society, as appearance of a woman is a lot more important than her personality, “as long as a woman can look ten years younger than her own daughter, she is perfectly satisfied.” Oscar Wilde recognizes that this obsession is evil, as once Gray was convinced of his own beauty, his road to corruption began. The relationship between aestheticism and morality is therefore a complicated one.

The author also raises difficult questions about moral influence. Lord Henry, who acts as a satanic figure to Dorian Gray, proposes ideas that are controversial, but hard to dismiss. One of them, as Henry says, “There is no such thing as a good influence […] all influence is immoral – immoral from the scientific point of view.” Here, Wilde revisits the philosophical debate of existentialism and humanism, argues that it is ethically wrong to cast any influence on another human being. Therefore, our societies, which are based on hierarchy and mentorship, are fundamentally immoral. Later, when Dorian Gray himself becomes negative influences to other English men, he projects the same characteristics of Lord Henry that makes him satanic. This may be obviously evil, but Hallward, who tried to show Gray beauty and morality, also should be guilty of corrupting him: “you met me and flattered me, and taught me to be vain with my good looks.” If Hallward and Lord Henry both push Dorian Gray to corruption, while one has “good” intentions and the other so clearly wrong, then influences are immoral no matter their substance. Wilde leaves this topic open to his readers to reflect on.

The centrepiece of Wilde’s novel is Dorian Gray’s picture, a piece of art that reflects Gray’s humanity. Art and humanity are therefore tied closely together, and art is a mirror of the deteriorating soul. Beauty, however, is not related to humanity nor art, and is left out of the dynamic equation. Dorian Gray remained beautiful, but his soul did not, and neither did his picture. A complex relationship is developed here, because in the preface, Wilde starts with this sounding statement: “The artist is the creator of beautiful things.” Tying with the discussion between aestheticism and morality, art brings a perspective that is separate from philosophy. There is something human and emotional that is a fundamental part of art, and as Hallward laments, “I felt, Dorian, that I had told too much, that I had put too much of myself in it.” This picture of Dorian Gray does not just reflect Gray’s soul, but also a part of Hallward, who had always only hoped the best for Gray. Beauty, morality, art and humanity are important themes of this novel.

Wilde’s description of the surrounding environmental also acts as reflections of Gray’s inner thoughts and soul. The beauty of the opening scene is described perfectly, “the studio was filled with the rich odour of roses, and when the light summer wind stirred amidst the trees of the garden there came through the open door the heavy scent of the lilac, or the more delicate perfume of the pink-flowering thorn.” This scene draws readers in with its fragrances and feeling of angelic purity, a perfect complement to Dorian Gray’s inner and outer beauty at the time. As Gray sinks deeper into debauchery, the scene also changes drastically, “dumb shadows crawl into the corners of the room, and crouch there. Outside, there is the stirring of birds among the leaves, or the sound of men going forth to their work, or the sigh and sob of the wind coming down from the hills.” Gray’s thoughts are heavy with guilt and paranoia, and in the dark nights, he thinks about the life he had chosen. Pages and pages of exquisite description of both Gray’s outside world and inner thoughts brings the character and his thoughts to life. Wilde had turned philosophical discussion into art.

The Go-Between – L. P. Hartley

“Isolation” would be the single word I’d use to describe the feeling that L. P. Hartley’s most prominent novel evoked in me. The Go-Between’s hero’s, Leo Colston, coming-of-age story is marked with a deep sense of sadness and loss of innocence that he could not share with anyone, and therefore his feelings buried in a past time. The novel sophistically narrates the sense of loneliness, shedding of naivete and realization of the complication of human feelings, all on top of a peaceful, upper-class backdrop, seemingly shielded from the chaos of the world outside.

Leo Colston is a character with a lot of emotional depth but little social connection. His social status prevents him from connecting with his host family, even though they are welcoming of his stay. The prologue sets the tone for the novel, and also foreshadows the loneliness that Leo will eventually live with throughout his life, despite his deep compassion and observant mind. Throughout the novel, Leo often withdraws into his own thoughts, or finds solace being alone in the field or farm. As the key player in two converging love affairs, he also is a secret holder, pushing him deeper into his own solitude and preventing him from trusting and opening his heart. Near the end of the novel, Leo reflects, “I was a Tower of Silence, on which lay whitening the bones of a dead secret – no, not dead in that sense, but very much alive and death-dealing and fatal.” So in every aspect of his life, not getting along with schoolmates, holding a lower class social status and involuntarily being the centre of a secretive scandalous affair, Leo finds himself locked away from the world around him.

Leo’s insistence of learning what ‘spooning’ is from Ted Burgess is symbolic of his loss of innocence. Some great pieces of coming-of-age stories, such as Catcher in the Rye and To Kill a Mockingbird, portray the painful and sad moment when naivete is lost and the realization of reality sets in. L. P. Hartley joins the ranks of amazing writers in describing this sadness, in The Go-Between’s case, also mixed is nostalgia and guilt. Void of a fatherly figure, Leo is drawn towards Ted, but their relationship is complicated. While Leo wants to be loyal to Ted, he could not have fully understood Ted’s motivation in using Leo as a go-between, and therefore when Leo comes to the maturity state to comprehend his role in Ted and Marian’s affair, he experiences a strong sense of abandonment and distrust.

In coming-of-age, Leo also starts grasping more abstract sense of morality through his role as a go-between. Though he involuntarily facilitated the forbidden affair, he “had a strong sense of ought and ought not. […] Now for some such scruple I felt constrained to take preventive action – and at a sacrifice to myself.” This is no other than altruism – which grew from a boyhood crush on Marian and boyhood friendship with Ted and Hugh. Leo, in growing up, has learnt to put other’s well-being above himself, because he feels a sense of responsibility to the situation that arose.

Finally, Leo develops a budding understanding of the sophistication of human emotions. When Marian and Ted turn on him, Leo’s world seems to have collapsed. Marian was the centre of his admiration – his “enchantress” – and with her anger towards Leo, she took away the world he held so dearly. Leo finally confronts the reality that he means little to Marian and realizes his true role in her relationship. But with this he also starts to comprehend the complexity of Marian’s emotion and her place between her affair with Ted and engagement to Hugh. Leo reflects, “I feared for Lord Trimingham, I wept with Marian, but for Ted I grieved.” Perhaps Leo feels the sense of tragedy of three people’s lives and bearing witness to each person’s angle of the story, is the only person who truly could understand what love is.

Unfortunately the tragedy and the deep isolation that Leo was put in made him distant to his emotions and could not transform his compassion and understanding of love into his own emotions. In the epilogue, L. P. Hartley invites readers to reflect on Marian and Ted’s affair – was it true love and was it beautiful? As readers had followed Leo’s footsteps throughout the entire novel, we have the chance to judge for ourselves what love is. This is where Leo’s world of facts and imagination collide and he ponders one last time: “A foreigner in the world of the emotions, ignorant of their language but compelled to listen to it, I turned into the street.” The Go-Between is a sophisticated novel in essence, and the weaving themes of love and coming-of-age bring out human nature’s deepest and most forbidden desires.

The First Book I Read

Yesterday, 23 April 2015, was World Book Day. I also recently read an article in the May edition of ELLE about a writer’s first book – The Shining. It inspired him so much that he became a writer himself. I used to want to be a writer! But I figured just because I won’t get paid for writing doesn’t mean I still can’t enjoy writing.

Anyway, I want to share my first experience reading. Perhaps no one can remember for sure what their first book was. Most likely it was a spelling book with squeaky buttons on it. But I think more people would remember reading their first novel, or collection of short stories.

The first book I remember reading (in Vietnamese) is “Heart” by Edmondo de Amicis. The book is a collection of diary entries by Enrico, a 9-year-old boy who is growing up and learning. As a young reader, I related to Enrico’s stories and feelings, and found solace in his words. The stories are filled with love and kindness, as expected from a children’s novel that tries to reach out to its young readers as a moral compass. I don’t remember all the stories in “Heart”, but there are two that have stuck with me throughout my life.

“Heart” by Edmondo de Amicis in Vietnamese

Both of them concern the relationship between mother and son. In one entry, Enrico pastes a letter that his father wrote to him regarding a time when he accidentally said something rude to his mother. In the letter, his father instead of chastising Enrico for impolite, writes to him about his mother’s love for him. The letter was an ode to mother love and the irreplaceable role that mothers play in their children’s life. At the end of the letter, Enrico’s father urges him to apologize to his mother, because even though she understands that he didn’t mean to be impolite, it is important that he lets her know how much he cares for her and that he understands his mistake.

In another entry, Enrico observes a particularly ignorant classmate who doesn’t try hard in school and fails. When his mother comes to school to ask the teacher not to expel her son, Enrico notices the sadness and tiredness in his mother’s eyes, and reflects on the mother’s care and love for her son, even if he disappoints her greatly.

Both these stories had deep impact on my relationship with my mother. Amicis’s morals aligned closely with my cultural values, placing family at the centre of society and human development. Whereas this book served a moral bible for me when I was growing up, now it is a deep reflection of cultural tradition and how it affects a child’s growth. Carrying conservative role models, “Heart” no doubt is a very prominent educational book for my childhood.

Politics aside, I think with “Heart”, I found an early liking for books because I was able to go beyond comprehending words and being able to feel and appreciate writing. Just like how Enrico’s diaries made me feel greatly about family values, some great books I read later in life inspired me to think abstractly and above my own experiences. They have challenged me to imagine and construct ideas and emotions that I could not directly access in real life. Books also create complexities in human morality and thought, weaving imagery that allow us to think and feel.

The Dud Avocado – Elaine Dundy

The Dud Avocado is an energetic and funny story about a 21-year-old who is very persistent on exploring Europe herself, carrying a defiant attitude with her everywhere. She reminds me a little of the girl-against-the-world motif, though I haven’t read something quite as sizzling and, I would say, tragic, as Sally Jay’s story. The chaotic backdrop of 1950s Europe, the twisted motivations of each character and the naivety of a young and attractive woman come together for a one of a kind coming of age tale.

Sally Jay’s journey is filled with parties that end in very comical and unexpected ways. Elaine Dundy showcases her brilliant talent in describing people – their gestures, language, attitude – and brings each person together to form vivid partying scenes and endless nights. The lavish social gatherings where elites backstab and steal and form plots against one another are chaotic and horrendous, but are also luxurious and generous: “by merely clattering up the used cups and saucers onto their trays, flicking their napkins over the table, the better to clear the stage for disaster, […], they could predict for you the whole miracle that was going to take place four hours later when you […] would emerge, talking the most utter balderdash, spilling beans of shattering truths or equally shattering lies, singing with friends, fighting with strangers, promising favors, promising love, scrambling into bed and clambering out again […]” At some of these parties, Sally Jay ends up in trouble; at others, she learns truths about the people she used to trust, and therefore “grows up”. It is a brutal coming-of-age story because she pays for her lessons with high prices, from losing her passport to being betrayed by a man she thinks she loves. Mid way through the novel, Sally Jay reflects: “Well, I’d certainly stayed out late and eaten what I liked. And I was meeting people I hadn’t been introduced to. […] I was more or less in jail. Uncle Roger, I thought, you can’t say I’m not trying.”

Not only was the social background of her journey chaotic, the motives of the people who accompany her – lovers, co-workers, friends – questionable and twisted, leaving Sally Jay lonely and abandoned. This was not very apparent in the first part of the book, but the foreshadowing of her sleeping alone many nights despite attracting the attention of many bachelors leads to her apparent solitude in the second and third parts. This feeling is emphasized by the dramatic change in the atmosphere: from energetic parties to the barrenness of the countryside, confined by the pouring rain and heartbreak that she experiences for the first time. In the second backdrop, however, she becomes wiser and start to see the truth without the veil of wealth and lust. It is loneliness that allows Sally Jay to “come of age” and eventually find what she wants in life (very unexpected she chose to become a librarian, which has a large amount of time being alone).

Sally Jay reflects some classic sentimentality the youth finding their way to adulthood. She is a headstrong woman who has the power to refuse the things she does not like, but it still takes a long time for her to realize what she does like. When she found a man who loves her and they share a mutual deep relationship, Sally Jay, however, recognizes: “I tried to remember one minute that whole weekend when Marion and I weren’t either feeding people, or clearing up from doing it, or preparing to do it again. And presumably she never stopped doing it. But I couldn’t quite see why just because she did, I should.” So she forsakes the traditional responsibilities of a woman, and she has the wealth and power to do so, but she is still lost in a world of possibilities: “what happens when your curiosity just suddenly gives out? When the will and the energy snap and it all seems so once-over-again?” Sally Jay – or rather Elaine Dundy – is so charming, however, that I root for her till the end, even when she is afraid she won’t “burst into bloom”, like “a dud avocado”. Once again, the themes of coming-of-age appears: the low self-esteem and anxiety of a young woman who does not have a life plan.

Through all her lovers and adventures, Sally Jay in the end still found a place she belongs. “The Dud Avocado” is a coming of age story as much as it is a feminist empowerment story. If you are not charmed by Sally Jay’s misadventures, then you’d still be dazzled by her bewildering world.

The Opposite of Loneliness – Marina Keegan

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When I first read Keegan’s last essay for the Yale Daily News, I was captivated by her writing. There is something earnest, sincere, heartfelt, brave, optimistic and hopeful in her last words as an undergraduate student that drew me, as well as more than a million other readers, to her. She described perfectly what it feels like to be in one’s early twenties and so uncertain, but at the same time so full of hope for the future. In the other pieces that she wrote, she experiments with a wide range of themes and genres. It feels like she hadn’t quite found where she belonged as a writer, but at the same time, she showed a unique eye and take on modern fiction. Exploring the relationship between people in the age of technology, insecurities, war and instability, she was certainly a talented budding author.

My favourite pieces are “Cold Pastoral” and “The Ingenue”; two very difference pieces. In the former, Keegan confronts the topic of death. Not an uncommon topic, but at such a young age, she explored the imminence of death and how that affects the precarious relationships between young people, and how they handle the tragedy. Facing death, the true value of relationships, long term and committed romantic relationships versus casual sexual relations, shows the different degrees of intimacy that we experience. I consider it a brave confrontation of the author with death and self-worth, evaluating earnestly and sensitively what we, young people, look for in our relationships. Keegan concludes that we all want and need intimacy, both on a physical and emotional level: “And suddenly, more than anything I’d ever wanted in my life, I wanted him to love me.” Somehow there is a tone and feeling of loneliness in her short story, subtly pervading her writing, but only became apparent in the last paragraph, where reality is put in contrast with the hopes and wishes of true intimacy. The piece is optimistic; death is not the end, but could be a beginning filled with hope.

In “The Ingenue”, Keegan shows her humour. A light-hearted piece, the short story skillfully portrays the ups and downs of a young relationship and how the little interactions between people can express a lot about a person’s true personality. The structure of the piece is interesting; it is told in a non-linear order, placing a short ‘hook’ at the beginning, which sounds very trivial and leaving lots of questions to be answered, before telling a longer story of the protagonist’s love story. There is an iconic moment of young love: the girl being jealous over the guy’s coworker who seems much more “compatible” with him than she is. (I must admit I related to it and I’m sure many other young people relate to it as well). But the breaking point of the relationship is quite an original point. The climax of the story reveals a key personality trait in Danny and why his dishonesty, even though is harmless, is ultimately the reason the protagonist could not accept him. The story’s ending paragraph connects back to the opening to explain its significance and wrap up a coherent story. Overall it’s a cleverly written piece that utilizes all the classic tricks of story telling to make it a compelling, believable and interesting read.

Keegan’s non fiction is not as charming, however, “Stability in Motion” is a standout. While she explored human relationships in the fiction, this piece described her love for her car, which acted as her friend and shelter for important life events. All in all, her writing shows a budding talent in the making. Even though they are not masterly executed, there is enough to see her knack for seeing people from different and new angles and describing them as interesting personalities. Her attempts to deal with death and other important life decisions are impressive.

 

Captain Pantoja and the Special Service – Mario Vargas Llosa

Mario Vargas Llosa - Captain Pantoja And The Special Service

Dealing with a sensitive and controversial topic, prostitution, Mario Vargas Llosa utilizes humour and elements of modernism to highlight the conflicts and irony that the protagonist faces in completing his job as an Army captain. Masterfully combining comic, tragedy, satire and irony, the Nobel prize winner presents moral questions relating to the existence and exploitation of prostitution – a topic that is as hard to discuss now as it was in 1973.

With a fluid and flexible format, ranging from linear story telling to segments of military documents, radio broadcasts, dialogue etc., the novel portrays different and varying positions on the Special Service that captain Pantoja is assigned to create and manage. To the captain, this is simply an order from the Army that he must complete and therefore his approach and view at the beginning of his assignment is methodological and objective.  The character displays no moral opinion of the subject and proceeds with careful analysis and calculations of supply and demand and planning the logistics of the prostitution service. To the religious people of Iquitos and surrounding areas, the women in the service are “those who dishonorably deal in their own body” and is an abhorrent and unacceptable practice. The women are considered shameful and disgraceful, filled with sin and utterly dishonourable. To the women themselves, service for the military is stable, low risk, well paid: “security working with the soldiers, feeling yourself protected by the Army”. These opposing views rooted in extremely different motives present the main conflict of the novel that the protagonist finds himself in. The captain struggles between orders from the general, pressure from religious groups and his own military discipline, which is further complicated by his lustful instincts, and pressure from his family. As the conflict builds up and escalates, ironically because the protagonist had “converted the Special Service into the most efficient unit of the armed forces”, the central question of the novel presents itself subtly: “should prostitution be accepted?” Llosa does not answer this but merely presents readers with story line and character branches that are vibrantly developed, charged with energy and strong motivation for the opinions they hold.

This chaotic environment is managed ingeniously by Llosa’s light and farcical tone, which worked extremely well for the topic at hand, one that stirs emotionally and heated debate. Due to the comical tone throughout the narration, the novel allows readers to take in the topic with a relaxed and open mind, hence making the novel effective at communicating different points of view. Most importantly, it has the effect of making Pantoja appear likable; if a more serious and grim tone had been employed, he would have been perceived gravely by the readers right from the start from organizing the service, in other words, being a “pimp”. The novel eases in to such serious topic playfully, but never normalizing or diminishing the importance of the novel’s central theme. However, half way through the novel, a drastic change in tone marks and foreshadows tragic endings. As Pantoja’s nightmare plagues him, the use of strong words such as “terror, distrust, frightened, devil, torture” marks the shift of the story’s direction.

The tragedy that happened to the Special Service has deep thematic implications. Up until that point in the novel, the Special Service has never been described as being a violation of another’s body and they have always been escorted with secure measures. However, the prostitutes’s attack, rape and murder reinstates the vulnerability of the women, placing them in the same danger they had been when they were working outside the army. In addition, the assailant of the women signifies a failure of the army to protect the people who rely on it, and work for it, and symbolically, combined with the bureaucratic implications in the army from the beginning of the novel, is a strong criticism of the Army’s inability to achieve its goals. The crucifixion of the beautiful woman can be interpreted as religion’s role in the danger that women in prostitution face: religion cannot make prostitution go away, and provides little help for the women in such situation.

Mario Vargas Llosa ultimately leaves it up to his readers to take a moral stance on the subject of prostitution. In the end, Pantoja is portrayed as a hero, one with compassion for the women he recruits and strong sense of discipline in the job he undertakes. He is a hero for standing up for the women under his control, by bravely saying to his General Scavino, “And as for the women who carry out this work with true self-denial, what they do has never been acknowledged.” He is a one of a kind hero, a controversial one no doubt.