All 3 entries tagged Literature

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June 11, 2005

Uncle Vanya

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Saw this last night with Anna at the Arts Centre and thought it was just fantastic. I didn't know the play at all until about 4 o'clock yesterday when I sat down and read it in Xananas. I thought that since it was going to be in Russian (thankfully with subtitles) it might be wise to at least figure out the characters and basic plot before I went along.

I found it a little slow-going until the interval (Russian seems to take a hell of a lot longer to speak aloud than the English translation would!), but it certainly succeeded in conveying a sense of the languid and suffocating atmosphere of provincial life, redolent with the characters' secret longings, frustrations and dreams never realised.

Both the first and the third act started with lights up in the main auditorium, with the lovelorn cast wandering listlessly onstage, addressing their soliloquies to the audience and gazing back out at us even whilst speaking to each other, suggesting a dissolution of the division between 'us' and 'them'.

Similarly, the acts themselves flowed together in a way that challenged conventional spatial and temporal parameters, as the actors themselves changed the scenes and moved props around. The simplicity of costumes and sparseness of the set emphasised the cast's superb acting, with actors making effective use of the few props on stage and moving the production beyond the original text outline.

For example, at the end of the second act, when her invalid husband forbade Ylena to play the piano in the middle of the night, she retaliated by using a spoon to create a quirky, obstinate little tune on his medicine bottles, laughing softly to herself before knocking them over like a petulent child. I thought this was a nice touch, simultaneously invoking humour, vitality, despair and desperation.

The online Guardian review of the moment when Vanya discovered the doctor kissing Ylena link sums up this moment perfectly, recalling an awkward and painful situation and encapsulating both its comic and tragic elements:

…the moment is not just great – it is perfectly sublime. Entering with a bunch of roses, a gift for his beloved, Sergei Kurishev's gentle giant of a Vanya is so appalled, embarrassed and shamed to discover her in a passionate clinch with Astrov that he becomes rooted to the spot and tries to hide his huge body behind his own small, dripping bouquet.

At the end of the play, Sonya's passionate speech 'We shall rest! We shall rest!' burst forth with desolation, frustration, sadness and rage, nevertheless retaining a grain of dogged stoicism (which I understand is the conventional interpretation of these lines). As the haystacks that had been ominously suspended over the stage for the duration of the play descended, representing a return to the 'normality' of farmwork and provincial life, we realise that she and Vanya will – and must – continue to endure the unexplained agony of their fate.

June 04, 2005

Le Journal de Ma Yan

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Have just started reading 'Le Journal de Ma Yan: la vie quotidienne d'une écolière chinoise', a book my mum brought back from France. I'm trying to get my French reading skills back up to scratch, and starting with the writings of a 13 year old girl seemed like a good idea!

It's the journal of a young Chinese schoolgirl from a remote mountainous province in NW China called Ningxia. The journalist Pierre Haski, a correspondent for the newspaper 'Libération en Chine' was visiting her village, and just as he was leaving a woman handed him a letter written on the back of a seed packet, as well as some notebooks containing the writings of her daughter, Ma Yan. In the letter Ma Yan had written: 'Je n'irai plus à l'école cette année. Je viendrai labourer afin de payer les études de mon petit frère. A chaque fois que je pense aux rires et aux plaisirs du campus, c'est comme si je me retrouvais à l'école. J'ai tellement envie d'étudier, mais ma famille est si pauvre.' (No more school for me this year. I have to labour in order to pay for my little brother's schooling. When I think of the laughter and happy times at school, I can almost imagine myself there. How much I want to study! but my family is so poor.)

Haski was moved by this letter and returned to the village to help Ma Yan and to listen to her story. He published an article in Libération in September 2001 entitled 'Je veux étudier' (I want to study), which attracted the attention of many French people, who sent Ma Yan letters and money. Haski established a foundation called 'Enfants du Ningxia' to raise money to help the children in Ma Yan's village and province, which allowed her to return to school and become the first girl from her village to go to college.

The diaries were initially translated into French and became a bestseller in France, and have since been translated into German, Japanese, Italian, Spanish, Czech and English. As Haski writes on the foundation's website, 'La bouteille à la mer est arrivée à bon port!' (The message in a bottle arrived at the right port).

Anyway, it looks like an interesting read, and it will certainly get the French cogs whirring in my brain again…

May 08, 2005

Perception, memory and Proust

Proust shows perception to consist of a multiplicity of layers, some of which only become salient retrospectively. The importance of the past as an unseen dimension of perception, separated from the present by a gulf of time and forgetfulness, is illustrated by his depiction of the Combray church and the young Marcel's sensitivity to its history. He appears able to apprehend the unseen fourth dimension, celle du Temps, suggesting that time and memory serve as a filter to colour perception. Voluntary perception results in only partial representations of memory, recalling the essential features of a situation for dramatic or practical purposes. Thus the narrator's initial perception of Combray is that of deux étages reliés par un mince escalier gives way to involuntary memory as illustrated by the Madeleine episode. Yet this involuntary memory is dependent on a sensory evocation or stimulus (e.g. the limestalks, the madeleine cake dipped in the tea), and its release is an arbitrary, fleeting sensation, both ephemeral and immortal, difficult to capture and futile to seek deliberately.

Our perception of time throughout Combray is a fluid, flexible one, rather than a fixed state where past and present remain firmly divided and one event clearly succeeds another. The fragmented narrative itself reflects this disjointed nature of experience and subverts the linear temporality of the traditional narrative discourse. This is symbolised by the jerky projection of the magic lantern in the child narrator's bedroom, depicting legends comme un vitrail vacillant et momentané. This image forms a key illustration of the complex and disconnected nature of perception, suggesting a Cubist combining of several perspectives, angles and times within the same work of art and implying a multilayering of perception, a fluidity often transferred to Proust's imagery. One of my favourite images from Combray is that of the old church steps, as that which is initially perceived as solid is worn away in an impressionistic dissolution of lines, from the cloaks of the generations of peasants sweeping in and out the doors:

comme si le doux effleurement des mantes des paysannes entrant à l'église (...) pouvait, répété pendant des siècles, acquérir une force destructrive, infléchir la pierre et l'entailler de sillons comme en trace la roue des carrioles dans la borne contre laquelle elle bute tous les jours.'

Proust questions our means of expressing experience and perception. While the child narrator's instinctive response to the reflection of light on the rooftops is a cry of 'Zut zut zut zut' the adult narrator is able to push the experience further and acknowledge the discrepancy between the initial feeling experienced and a more sophisticated mode of expression. Cultural background is shown to be an inhibiting factor in terms of achieving accurate perception, but it is also an enriching one. The world of the mind is depicted as being like un corps incandescent, which sheds its own heat and light as a means of judging reality (c.f. Abrams - the Mirror and the Lamp). The difficult of perceiving the material world 'accurately' is stressed, since narrative techniques (e.g. use of simile or metaphor) actually colour and distort reality. Poetic transformation of the narrator's initial perception occurs through simile and personification, such as the Martinville steeples that are alternatively depicted comme trois oiseaux posés sur la plaine, comme trois fleurs peintes sur le ciel and comme trois jeunes filles d'une légende. This determination to seek equivalents for the pleasure derived from the fluctuating reality of the steeples could be seen as superior to the actual perception because it is art. In this way Proust introduces us to a viable and colourful alternative to the problem of accurate representation, perception and memory – mere sensory perception is not enough, but rather extra effort is required to extract the hidden secret of memory and represent it using stylistic features, artificial in their very nature.

Writing this has been like my very own madeleine moment – Oxford in the summer term, mmm… I've only just come to the realisation that I actually quite enjoyed my BA. Writing this was also a good way to avoid doing the work that I should be doing for my MA :(

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