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Fauxscar Nominee: Les Misérables

January 7, 2013 in Classic Literature, Classic Writers, European Writers, Fauxscars, Film, French Authors, History, Literary Movies, Literature, Movies, Political History

Strictly speaking, Les Misérables is not a Literary Adaption; it’s based on the musical, not the Victor Hugo novel. The story has traveled far since it was first published in France. It’s always been a big, hulking phenomenon, and it’s always had its critics. What demolishes the criticism, however, is its emotional forcefulness. And the funny thing about the criticism of each successive adaption, is that it tends to focus on the new version’s faithfulness to the original, despite the fact that the novel was criticized at the time for being sentimental – unfaithful to reality itself. Flaubert deemed it “infantile” and Baudelaire privately called it “tasteless and inept.” But in the preface, Hugo outlined a social purpose for his book that was greater than literary accomplishment:

So long as there shall exist, by reason of law and custom, a social condemnation, which, in the face of civilization, artificially creates hells on earth, and complicates a destiny that is divine, with human fatality; so long as the three problems of the age—the degradation of man by poverty, the ruin of women by starvation, and the dwarfing of childhood by physical and spiritual night—are not solved; so long as, in certain regions, social asphyxia shall be possible; in other words, and from a yet more extended point of view, so long as ignorance and misery remain on earth, books like this cannot be useless.

In 1862 when Les Misérables was published, the American civil war was being fought over the emancipation of slaves. The noble hero of the book, Jean Valjean, is an ex-convict whose unnatural strength reveals his identity as a former galley slave. He is on the run for most of the film, trying to build a better life as a factory owner, and then stepping up to the role of adopted papa of the orphaned child Cosette. The film of Les Misérables, though based on the musical (it uses all the songs from the 1985 musical bar two) goes where the stage production cannot in portraying the misery of the poor peasants – and in this it rejoins the book. I’ve rarely seen a ‘costume’ production, where the cast is made to look as filthy and downtrodden as this. Most of the characters’ teeth are blackened – though I did notice that Hathaway’s angelic Fantine flashes a cleaner set than some of the lesser cast members. Also Helena Bonham Carter is allowed to get away with her usual steampunk, hallucinatory version of historical costume. This role finds her once again as a flouncy, amoral proprietress of a low dive establishment, even making sausages out of suspect bits of meat, just as she did in Sweeny Todd.

Aside from the comic filthiness of Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen, there’s no getting around the sentimentality of the movie and its antecendents, the musical, the book, and numerous film adaptions. But because it’s a musical, a version of willing suspension of disbelief sets in. Call it, “willing suspension of cynical running commentary” (we’ll wait ‘til the movie’s out on Netflix to relax our standards on that). But it’s more than that. The movie packs real emotional weight, especially through the performances of the leads. No one could fail to be moved by Anne Hathaway’s performance of “I Dreamed a Dream.” While they’re delivering their soliloquys, the shots are trained on the characters’ faces – often from above, as if to capture the desperation and abandonment which makes them invoke a higher power. By the time Hathaway’s Fantine bows out of the film, she is a broken woman, shorn of her locks and her dignity; the camera does not flinch from describing the dirt and tears on her face.

Hugh Jackman is also a great, sympathetic lead as Jean Valjean, and Samantha Barks is a sad, forlorn Eponine.  Eddie Redmayne and Amanda Seyfried are fairly wooden, but as the fairy prince and princess characters, they don’t have much to do besides adorn the happy ending.

Overall ‘Les Miz’ works because of its great cast rather than originality – but really, who was looking for that? It manages to stay true to the form of the musical – and to the intentions of the book: to portray the victims of poverty. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if some of those soliloquys bag a few Oscars for the leads.

Fauxscar Nominee: Anna Karenina

December 18, 2012 in Book Review, Classic Literature, European Writers, Fauxscars, Leo Tolstoy, Literary Movies

Great film adaptations of classic novels are all alike; every junk Hollywood movie is terrible in its own way. Which way will the 2012 adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina go? We don’t know yet, but I can guess.

The 2012 adaptation of the tragic romance was released at the Toronto Film Festival, and so far, reviews have been mixed. Some critics have praised director Joe Wright’s “bold new structure,” which highlights the theatrical nature of the novel by setting most of the action on a stage, but others have called the thoroughly modern version of the Russian love story flat, even emotionally distant. The Hollywood Reporter goes so far to complain that “whereas the book is sprawling, searching and realistic, the film is constricted, deterministic and counterfeit.”

It’s particularly disappointing to read this review (and others like it) because I love Anna Karenina, and re-read it quite frequently, probably every other year. The 900-page novel is a massive undertaking, and I have to admit I often pick and choose which scenes I focus on. Some—like the lengthy descriptions of Levin farming—are tedious and forgettable. But others, particularly the scene when Anna enters the ballroom in her black, low-cut dress, sparkling and pale like a diamond, transform the way I view the world. They make me look in the mirror differently, searching for traces of aristocracy in my own winter-pale face. They make me consider the terrifying and all-consuming nature of love, and the many ramifications of betrayal.

Though I do want to see Anna Karenina, I can’t help but feel that no movie could truly do that book justice. I also wonder whether Keira Knightly, who has been cast as Anna, will be able to live up to the role. I always imagined Anna as voluptuous, lush and gorgeous. Keira is certainly beautiful, but she lacks a richness that infuses Tolstoy’s Anna. More than just pretty—a compliment more aptly applied to the girlish Kitty—Anna is rich, poised and erotic. Jude Law, cast in the role of her somber, dry husband, might seem like the more shocking choice, but Law has shown a great range in the past few years. I’m interested to see what he can do with a character I never liked and often skimmed past.

The trailer, too, gives me some hope. It’s beautiful to watch, and while some might worry about style over substance, I happen to love a perfectly choreographed film. It doesn’t hit theaters until November 16, but I can assure you, I’ll be watching.

Mercy Brown: American Vampire

October 24, 2012 in American Authors, American History, American literature, children's literature, Dark New England, European Writers, Gothic Literature, Halloween, Horror Writers, Literary Movies, New England Travel, Vampires in Literature, Women Writers

Halloween is big in the Northeast – a liberating blast of Pagan thrills before the bleak snows and Puritan thrift of winter. As the festival approaches, New England’s colors turn from fresh blues and greens to the long black shadows and pantomime reds of autumn. Many associate this creepy side of New England with Salem and its persecution of ‘witches’. Vampires, it is widely believed, were a European legend that was successfully exported to America, and from there they entered myth, legend and popular culture.

For anyone looking for clues about the origins of the modern American vampire, the papers of a London playwright seem to offer a tantalizing possibility. It is true that Bram Stoker kept a newspaper clipping about the 1892 case of the exhumation of a Rhode Island ‘vampire’ called Mercy Brown, but the date of the source seems to have been too late to have influenced Dracula. These ‘hick’ vampires from a depressed Rhode Island farming community are not like the aristocratic vampire of Stoker’s fiction: for one thing they really existed, and for another they tragically reveal attempts to come to terms with an urgent problem – TB.

Like the vampire, tuberculosis visited ordinary communities seemingly at random – preying upon family members, slowly robbing them of their life and turning them into fevered ghostly individuals with a persistent bloody cough. The disease could manifest soon after it was contracted, dragging on for years – or, as in the case of Mercy Brown – it could lay dormant for a decade before it quickly progressed.

Mercy Brown was the second last member of her family to die from the disease. Several years after her mother and sister were buried, Mercy and her older brother Edwin took ill. When Mercy died, the community immediately began looking for answers. After a doctor reported that Mercy’s heart contained tuberculosis germs, the locals insisted on extreme measures.  They burned Mercy’s heart and fed the ashes to her brother, who died soon thereafter. It seems that Mercy’s father allowed the exhumation because he was under great pressure from his frightened neighbors in Exeter, Rhode Island.

Mercy’s grave is now a destination for tourists, goths, and ‘legend trippers’ – those who visit graves to seek evidence of the occult at supposedly haunted spots in Rhode Island. In Mercy’s time, these myths seemed disturbing eruptions of superstition. New fiction was even blamed by some observers for encouraging this superstitious behavior in a century that considered itself progressive and rational.

One thing that makes supernatural literary tourism so accessible in New England is the way real places and events often influence fiction. The great American horror writer H.P. Lovecraft referred to Mercy Brown’s case in his story, “The Shunned House.” Just as Mercy’s sad quiet grave can be found in a small cemetery in Rhode Island, the real Shunned House still stands – a private residence in Providence Rhode Island.  H.P. Lovecraft based his story on the history of the family who lived there, imagining the dead family members preying on the living, like the Exeter vampires. Even those who did not write about the vampire TB cases were aware of them. Thoreau for example wrote about a TB exhumation in his diary.

62 years’ after Mercy Brown’s exhumation, Richard Matheson published I Am Legend, a story about vampires that had a medical explanation. The story’s protagonist Robert Neville holes up in a house after a vampire apocalypse and studies the vampires that were his former neighbors until he finds the cause of their condition: a bacteria that fades with sunlight. Though the source of Matheson’s imaginings has not been revealed, it’s possible that he heard stories of vampire TB scares growing up in New Jersey.

For Young Adult author Sarah Thomson, history proved juicy enough to build her novel Mercy on. After many years of vampire fiction based on legend and folklore, Thomson’s is a historical vampire novel that tells the story of a real person, Mercy Brown, or the ‘last New England vampire’. As Thomson said in an interview, real life can often be scarier than fiction.

These days, thanks to its history of vampire panics, Rhode Island is the destination for ‘vampire hunters’, just as Salem is the home of witches. This time of year you’ll find a wealth of flamboyant tours, including the Ghosts of Newport and Providence Ghost Tour, of the area’s most haunted spots – but be prepared to find the real history a lot more frightening and tragic than your guides’ costumes.


Jessica Hische Designs for Barnes & Noble Classics

July 4, 2011 in amazon kindle, Classic Writers, ereader review, European Writers, Literary News

Though I love paperbacks and adore my Kindle, there is nothing that feels quite as literary, quite as solid and impressive, as a leather-bound book. I’ll admit, my current collection is made primarily of used books and well-thumbed paperbacks, but I treasure the few nice books I own. Someday, I like to think, I’ll have floor-to-ceiling shelves, displaying a Hogwarts-esque collection of weighty old classics, covered in just the right amount of dust.

My library fantasies were recently reawakened when I stumbled across a collaboration between Brooklyn-based designer  Jessica Hische and Barnes & Noble. Working with art director Jo Obarowski, Hische created an exclusive series of covers for a collection of classic novels. The books, which are available only in Barnes & Noble stores and on their website, are very reasonably priced. For $63, you can get the entire boxed set, which includes a copy of Dracula, Pride and Prejudice, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, and The Picture of Dorian Gray.

Though I already own many of these books, I’m still considering getting Hische’s set—mainly because they’re so gorgeous. I am not an expert in typography, but even I can see that the fonts are truly wonderful; each one is clearly chosen to fit the subject matter within. For example, the cover for Dracula is done in a vivid red and black, dripping blood and decorated with creeping vines that morph into batwings, rather than the expected three-pointed ivy leaves. In contrast, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn brings to mind a vintage fairground flier. Cattails extend from the sunburst corners and little leafy tendrils underline each carefully-set letter. The titles are in turn eerie and spectacular, whimsical and romantic.

A quick look through Hische’s portfolio shows that this isn’t unusual for the designer. Under her hand, letters don’t look like stark symbols, but individual pieces of art. We are so surrounded by the written word that it no longer feels at all miraculous (after all, a highway sign rarely evokes emotion, much less a feeling of admiration for the chosen font), but projects like this serve as a reminder that this doesn’t have to be the case. Books were once hard to come by, and letters were once treated with a sacred and artistic respect.

Leaving aside for a moment my personal bibliophile tendencies, I have to point out that this box set would make a perfect gift for a recent graduate—particularly if that newly minted scholar happened to major in English. Or you could consider them the first step toward the creation of your own perfect library, which is precisely what I plan to do.

Sigmund Freud, Renowned Psychologist or Literary Giant?

May 6, 2011 in European Writers, LIterary Traveler Birthdays, Psychology

Sigmund Freud, LIFE Photo Archive

Sigmund Freud is primarily recognized as an influential psychologist who developed the theory of psychoanalysis and famously authored The Interpretation of Dreams.  Then why have I received lectures on the Id, Ego, and Superego in multiple English Literature classes over the years and studied little to nothing about Freud’s works in Psych 100?

It seems that the field of psychology has changed drastically since Freud graduated from medical school in 1880. His subjective interpretations of patient sessions and his sweeping conclusions are no longer considered valid in a discipline where objective experiments employing scientific method, statistical surveys, and qualitative data are the norm. However, it is impossible to deny that Freud has had a significant influence on popular conceptions of psychology, as the common conception of the “therapist’s couch” is attributed to him and his use of talk therapy.

I believe W.H. Auden summarized Freud’s influence best in his poem, “In Memory of Sigmund Freud”:

If often he was wrong and, at times, absurd, /to us he is no more a person /now but a whole climate of opinion

In the public eye, Freud has become so influential that he is seen less as a man and more as a collection of concepts and arguments; though these ideas vary from the commonly accepted (repression) to the outrageous (penis envy) it is impossible to ignore their presence and influence in a variety of disciplines, including that of literary criticism.

For instance, I have always loved the writing of Ernest Hemingway, but whenever I read his work I can’t help but imagine the typical, high-school-English-class diagram of an iceberg. Though Freud never described human consciousness as “just the tip of the iceberg,” the analogy has become strongly associated with Freudian ideology as well as Hemingway’s minimalist style. When reading the short story “Hills Like White Elephants,” the tension and constraint present in Hemingway’s simple language suggests that the depth of the characters’ unconscious reaches far below the water’s surface.

Thus, perhaps it is not so surprising to find Freud’s theories of psychoanalysis present in critiques of even the most contemporary literature, since many would argue that good literature struggles to depict humankind in all its repression, oedipal impulses, and oral fixations. After all, Freud’s writings, as farfetched as they may seem, are like many great works of literature in that they strive to understand and make sense of the incredibly complex human condition.

Happy Birthday, Sigmund Freud! (b. May 6, 1856)


Charlotte Brontë and Jane Eyre: Independent Women

April 21, 2011 in British literature, European Writers, Literary Movies, Literary Movies 2011, LIterary Traveler Birthdays

Charlotte Bronte, Painting by George Richmond

Charlotte Brontë was no stranger to death. Her mother died when she was only five years old. When Brontë was nine years old both her older sisters died, and the rest of her siblings, Branwell, Emily, and Anne all passed away in 1848-49. Charlotte herself came to an untimely end when she died of tuberculosis at age 38, along with her unborn child.

However, this presence of death did not stop her from publishing the literary masterpiece, Jane Eyre and taking her place among the most prominent writers of the 19th Century. In fact, the hardships Brontë suffered may have helped her to portray the character of Jane with such realism and sensitivity. The orphaned Jane is forced to endure a variety of unfortunate situations throughout her childhood as she is passed from guardian to guardian: first her pitiless aunt, Mrs. Reed, then the cruel headmaster of Lowood School, Mr. Brocklehurst. Just when Jane appears to have finally found happiness at Thornfield Manor, she discovers that her fiance, Mr. Rochester, is in fact hiding a horrific secret that could compromise her blissful “happily ever after” ending.

It is precisely Jane Eyre’s strength in the face of adversity and her independence (characteristics not frequently ascribed to women of the time period) that make her such a compelling character. These traits are famously showcased in one of Jane’s speeches to Mr. Rochester: “I am no bird; and no net ensnares me; I am a free human being with an independent will.” This sort of empowering, proto-feminist discourse was rarely found in many novels of the time, and in fact, Brontë felt the need to write her first two novels under the masculine pen name, Currer Bell, because, as she later admitted, she had “a vague impression that authoresses [we]re liable to be looked on with prejudice” Later, however, her identity was very well known, thus Charlotte Brontë, herself was an independent woman who possessed the strength and determination so frequently attributed to her most celebrated character.

Jane Eyre is a character who has obviously left her mark on the public mind, as she has inspired various adaptations of the novel, including musicals, literary sequels, television series, and of course, motion pictures. The most recent film version was just released March 11, 2011 to positive reviews; it stars Mia Wasikowska (who also played Alice in Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland) as Jane, and Michael Fassbender as Mr. Rochester.



The Strange Aran Islands

March 16, 2011 in European Writers, Irish Writers, travel to Ireland

Aran Isles by Pixie, CCA

Since this week is all about Irish literature, I went back through our archives to read old Irish articles.  Joyce, Yeats, Beckett, and of course, John Millington Synge.  Originally, I wanted to write a blog post that focused solely on J.M. Synge, but then I started reading John Millington Synge and the Aran Isles by Gary Lehmann.  And my focus completely shifted.

I found myself reading crazy tidbits about the Aran Isles and how the islanders firmly believe in old world thoughts and traditions.  For a modern person, these beliefs are downright strange and at times, a bit dangerous. I won’t spoil the danger for you; you should read the article to see what I’m talking about.  But I’ll give you a hint: never fall out of a boat in front of an Aran islander!

Then there are the islands themselves.  The Aran Isles are unspoiled, Irish beauty.  They have everything you could imagine: the sea breaking over rocks, small cliff faces, lush greenery and stone cottages.  But what they don’t have is electricity, running water or vehicles of any kind on the roads.

J.M. Synge went to the islands in 1904 to seek inspiration to write.  W.B. Yeats suggested that Synge would find inspiration there.  He certainly did.  And he also found a pattern of strange behavior–at least to us outsiders–and people who did not encourage tourism by any means.  Writer Gary Lehmann reports the same types of findings as Synge, nearly a century later.  This shows that time, literally, stands still in the Aran Isles.

Please continue reading this quirky and strange article entitled John Millington Synge and the Aran Isles.


Behind The Article: Karl Marx's Communist Roots

March 1, 2011 in European Writers, Political History, Political Writing

Karl Marx in BrusselsKarl Marx is a controversial figure.  Some people grimace with the mention of his name while others celebrate his contributions to political history.  Marxism was a political ideology that swept through Europe and still exists today in some forms, even in democracy.  We may not embrace Marxism fully, but whether or not you realize it, you may be engaging in a Marxist principle … and liking it!

For this installment of “Behind The Article,” we asked Steven Hermans, writer of our latest article entitled Karl Marx’s Revolutionary Brussels, about Marxism today and politics in Belgium:

Literary Traveler: As you discussed in the article, Karl Marx’s communist vision had appeal with the poor masses.  In this deep recession, do you think communism will have a comeback?

Steven Hermans: Having traveled extensively in the former Soviet Union, I can safely say that communism is well and truly dead. Although the good sides of communist society are underreported in the West, I don’t think the idea of a dictatorial rule is appealing to anyone anymore, not to mention communism’s economic and environmental problems. Marxism however is alive more than ever, as we can see in the global protests against bankers, stock traders and multinationals, and with the demise of capitalism as we know it I see socialism making a comeback.

LT: How do Belgians view their current political system?

SH: It’s always tricky to speak about Belgians, since the country is so deeply divided between the Dutch-speaking and the French-speaking part. To generalize, I think most Belgians look at the current anarchy with apathy. Belgians are not patriotic people: as long as they and their families are doing fine, the state’s wounds can continue to fester.

LT: Since you live in Brussels, are there any literary sites you would recommend?

SH: I recommend the Comic Strip Museum. Belgium has a long and rich history of comics and graphic novels, and it is often referred to as the ninth art in Belgium and France. If you are not interested in comics, you can still admire the magnificent building: the Wacquez warehouse built by the famous architect Victor Horta in 1906. It’s the most beautiful Art Nouveau building in Brussels in my opinion.

Please continue reading Karl Marx’s Revolutionary Brussels.

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