quarta-feira, junho 15, 2016

Authority Without Domination: “Shibumi” by Trevanian

“Miss Swivven regretted two aspects of her career: this getting sunburned every week or so, and the occasional impersonal use Mr. Diamond made of her to relieve his tensions. Still, she was philosophic. No job is perfect.”

“Hana laughed softly. “Do call me Hana. After all, I am not Nicholai’s wife. I am his concubine.”

I’ve read "Shibumi" a long time ago. Its appeal was so great at the time that immediately after having finished it, I wanted to take up Basque lessons and learn to play Goo. Apparently and according to Trevanian, chess and Goo are utterly “different”:

‘”How would you compare chess with Goo?”
Nicholai thought for a second. “Ah…what Goo is to philosophers and warriors, chess is to accountants and merchants.”’

After more than 30 years I've read it once again, prior to tackle Satori by Don Winslow. I just wanted to have the novel fresh in my mind. Once again this is one hell of strange spy book. For starters Nicholai Hel, doesn't appear in the beginning of the book, and doesn't become an active part of the present-day action for almost another 200 pages. The first chapters mainly deal with either exposition provided by the antagonists or flashbacks to Hel's early life in Shanghai and in Japan before and during World War II. After that there's a long sequence involving Hel dilly-dallying in underground caverns in the Basque mountains. As in Goo, all the pieces are set in place and the plot moves to its inevitable conclusion. One wonders about choosing Goo as a game:

‘“Tell me, Nikko. Why did you choose to study Goo? It is almost exclusively a Japanese game. Certainly none of your friends played the game. They probably never even heard of it.”
“That is precisely why I chose Goo, Sir.”’

The novel’s strategy really shouldn't work, but it does. Without me noticing it, Trevanian manages to build suspense in unexpected ways, setting up set pieces filled with remarkable characters, dazzling action and elegant repartees (Le Cagot and Pierre the gardener are just wonderful characters). I still believe it’s one of the best spy novels ever written. There's no other like it.

At the time I remember discussing it with a friend of mine, and we both came to the conclusion that it was one of the great not-yet-filmed-novels, mainly because, for instance, there's the sequence in the cave that goes on for a long time in almost total darkness. But, sometimes what passes for art noveau in film, does not require major alterations for film adaptations…lol. I think this novel should be filmed by a set of directors:  Tarantino for the final sequence in the Basque mountains, Besson for the 2 sequences in the cave-diving episode, and Woo for the sequence at the beginning of the novel at the airport. I think only the combination of these 3 directors would do the novel justice.

There are not many (spy) novels as gloriously corny as this one. An apt sub-title could be something like "Master of art, culture, and also the world's most skillful lover and deadliest killer on the face of the Earth". I love it when an author is making fun of me...This is also not your run-of-the-mill spy fiction novel. Enter Trevanian's world at your own peril.

I know it’s a re-read, but it’ll be one of my best reads for 2016, without a shadow of a doubt.

terça-feira, junho 14, 2016

Comatose Literature: "Without Fail" by Lee Child

When summer is just around the corner, I start thinking about what books to take on holidays.   Beach or pool is also important, but the real clincher are the books. And the first question on the agenda is which books should I bring? More important even than my destination, are the books I’m taking with me. I’ve always been like this. My wife used to complain that I packed lots and lots of books in case I got stranded on a desert island by mistake… What else? Ah yes. The strategy to pick up books. More than selecting what to wear, which is also fun, what gives me great pleasure is selecting the books to take. Maybe they’ll have a light cover, title in pastel yellow, and italicized font. Sometimes I surprise myself I choose an outlier, i.e., I’ll marathon a book while sunning myself, meaning when choosing I go for something that lends itself to that. What is clear is that I’ll enjoy them in a beach chair under over-sized umbrella, sun hat either on chair or on head-face unseen.

In the last few years, I always brought home some of the books I found in Algarve (some people sometimes leave a good book behind for someone else to discover on their summer holidays; I must confess I don’t profess this “religion” of leaving books behind…). Sometimes I find stuff I never thought I’d read. It was in one of those serendipity finds that I “found” Lee Child. I don’t know why, but every time I read him outside summer, I always associate his books with summer. Go figure! That’s the reason behind my fixation with Lee Child’s books (Jack Reacher’s to be more precise). This time round I just anticipated my beach reading by one book, and this was the one: “Without Fail” (I still have one Lee Child book left to take to Algarve…).

Did I enjoy this “new” book? I sure did. I was still a little comatose at the end of it, but I just felt good having finished it. I’ve also confirmed my belief the FBI and the Secret Service only employs halfwits…

segunda-feira, junho 13, 2016

The War of the Sexes: "Othello" by William Shakespeare

This is one of the plays I’d never read. This was the first time I read it. I’ve watched lots of plays based on Othello, but I never got to read it. This fact alone confirms the fact, just by watching the plays something always goes over one’s head. Only by reading the play can we grasp its full mastery. Shakespeare indeed was the master of human mind's machinations! Every time I watch Othello on the screen or on the stage, I'd like to jump on it and slap both Iago and Othello; watching it was like sitting in a car driven too fast by a bad driver...you are braking so hard that your legs hurt. It’s excruciating… Mind you, I would also give wretched Desdemona a piece of my mind, too (I’m just kidding. Somehow I understand Desdemona's passivity: she's in a state of absolute shock, as she sees her life is built on very unstable sand: she left her father and her rank to marry Othello for love, and he starts calling her terrible names and mistreating her...she's completely alone in a foreign country, cannot trust anyone apart from Cassio, who helped Othello woo her, and Cassio is banished. Back in Venice her father dies, and by the laws of the times she was her husband's property. On top of that she was very young and innocent. Enough trauma to turn a person into half a zombie. That's why, no slap for her :-)

As for Desdemona (whom by the way I don't much like either) had no home in Venice, her father would not have her in the house. Probably Othello lived in military or bachelor quarters, unsuitable for an aristocrat. As it happened the war in Cyprus turned out to be a storm in a teacup , because the Turkish fleet was conveniently dispatched by a storm...so it could have been a dream honeymoon, were it not for dratted Iago and Desdemona lying about losing the blasted handkerchief !
Desdemona invites a lot of lively debate as to her character, Othello too. I bet Shakespeare would laugh out loud if he knew all the interpretations we put on them and others in his works and the lengths to which we take them!

After reading the play for the first time, Iago’s motives are inscrutable. It's almost like a menu, pick one: jealousy, resentment about the promotion, racism or possibly a combination plate. Which is why his character can be rendered in a multitude of believable interpretations. Rory Kinnear played him as an older more experienced blue collar warrior against Cassio's younger more upper crust gentleman soldier. So age is an aspect of the resentment. And Desdemona's presence does upset the band of brother's apple cart. Kenneth Branagh played him as pure evil. Another production emphasized the racial hatred. What a rich vein for an actor!

And now on to what took my fancy.

Close Reading of Othello Act 3, Scene 4:

Othello. Give me your hand: this hand is moist, my lady. (III, 4,2214)
Desdemona. It yet hath felt no age nor known no sorrow. (III, 4,2222)

Othello. This argues fruitfulness and liberal heart: Hot, hot, and moist: this hand of yours requires.....
Othello, in speaking of Desdemona's hand, is punning on her hand in marriage, as well as her physical hand. The heat and moisture of her hand as described by him, reveals her fertility and sexuality. These qualities arouse in Othello suspicion that Desdemona's heat, her passion, and her moist sweating palm indicate her interest in Cassio, when in fact it is Othello himself who has aroused her.
The many sibilant tones in the line allow the actor to express desire, suspicion, and restrained anger. He is practically hissing at her.

Othello's line, "This hand is moist, my lady" is almost an accusation. Othello has been talking with Iago about Cassio, and already suspects that Desdemona may be in love with Cassio. However, Desdemona in her innocence and honesty takes this line as a compliment from her husband. She has no reason to imagine that he would be jealous, because she has done nothing to warrant his jealousy.
Her reply to him, "It yet hath felt no age nor known no sorrow,"(III, 4,2215), has a feminine ending, however, indicating a certain puzzlement or lack of conviction in the way she delivers the line. She's gamely entering into the game of wits, but there is something in his tone which puzzles her, and makes her wonder where the conversation is really going. The many "o" sounds in her line connect her to Othello, whose name begins and ends with "o." It is hard to say "o" without making an open and frank expression, appropriate to Desdemona's mental state. She is open and honest, her conscience untroubled, not at all aware of his suspicions, but definitely aware that there is something off in the way he is speaking to her.
The "fruitfulness and liberal heart" Othello associates with Desdemona's type of hand are appropriate between husband and wife, and are exactly the qualities expected to bring the most happiness to their union, but already Othello fears the liberality, or generosity, of Desdemona's nature.

Othello is just beginning to seriously entertain the thought that Desdemona may be unfaithful. He bursts out with "oh, curse of marriage That we can call these delicate creatures ours And not their appetites" The “we” reflects the ambivalence that Othello feels about marriage by calling it "a curse." Earlier on the play he said he never would have given up his "free" state for marriage except for extreme love. By using "we" he emphasizes his camaraderie and male bond with Iago with whom he has just been talking. Moreover, he divides even the audience: we men versus those women. This is the war of the sexes. It reminds us strongly that Othello has spent his life in an all-male environment. By using the verb "call" he suggests that the women may only seem to be ours but are not really--in name only. "Delicate creatures" stresses the angel/whore dichotomy that Othello feels about women. As distinct from the rough soldiers, women are delicate. But "delicate" can imply overly pampered, overly luxurious. The word recalls the world of Venice in which Othello is an outsider but Cassio very much a part. Early in the play, Iago brings up this exact contrast in talking to Roderigo. Desdemona, he says, will soon fill her appetite with the rough Othello and crave someone more refined and delicate and young--the kind of Venetian she grew up with such as Cassio. The fact that he thinks "we men" can call women "ours" underlines the subservient status of even high-born women in society. A woman passed from her father and became the "property" of her husband who had nearly unlimited legal rights over her. Cassio is, in effect, taking Othello's property if he has sex with her. Finally, the key word in the whole passage: "appetites" refers specifically to women's supposedly voracious sexual appetites. Since women have a weaker faculty for rational thought, ran the argument, they are more likely to succumb to the lower passions. There is a long tradition of anti-feminist literature--written most by monks-- that asserts just this. The two sides of this dual Madonna/whore mentality are summed up in "delicate"--Desdemona's father thought her so delicate she would blush at any stirring of emotion--to "appetite"--unbridled desire that perhaps Othello has all along doubted he could satisfy. These few lines are the play in little. Othello begins by thinking Desdemona is a "delicate creature," but now fears she is a creature entirely of appetites he can neither satisfy nor control.

Close Reading of Othello Act 1, Scene 3:

For this close reading, I chose four lines that Desdemona speaks when defending her marriage to Othello to her father and the Venetian nobility, towards the beginning of the play. I chose these lines because they illuminate ideas about race, gender, and female agency in this play, albeit in a way that may seem contradictory to modern audiences.

My noble father,/I do perceive here a divided duty/To you I am bound for life and education. My life and education both do learn me/How to respect you. You are the lord of my duty, I am hitherto your daughter. But here’s my husband,/And so much duty as my mother showed To you, preferring you before her father, /So much I challenge that I may profess Due to the Moor my lord. (1.3.179–188)

Desdemona is speaking to her father whom she addresses with the formal “you”, as was expected of children towards their parents. She compares her love for her husband, Othello, to that of her mother's for her father (whom she is addressing). The grammatical structure “So much... so much“ is parallel and thus equates her own and her mother's acts. Desdemona makes a connection and creates continuity (she behaves like her mother does), so she presents a tradition of females “showing duty to“ or “professing to“ their husbands.

Through the parallelism, she at once includes her father and shows him as somebody to whom duty is due and at the same time refutes his authority over her. What is more, she presents her revolutionary act of marrying a “moor” as enclosed within the framework of tradition. The parallelism works almost to distract from the rebellion that she has just engaged in and in which she has demonstrated her agency.

This is possible because she stays within the patriarchal framework, although she leaves the racially determined boundaries it imposes, as we can see in the final parallelism, her final words in this passage (“the Moor my Lord”). He is a “moor”, yes, but he is also her husband and “lord”. Her agency is only partial, she must argue and act within the boundaries imposed by her society.
The fact that these acts of hers are in fact a shock and shake the system of the society is indicated on the level of meter. As expected for people of nobility in Shakespeare's plays, Desdemona speaks in iambic pentameter. Interestingly, the last line leaves out the final two feet: “Due to the Moor my Lord - ' - ' ”. It seems to me that this indicates a silence after Desdemona finishes, surprise on the side of her listeners.

Another close reading of the passage could run on different lines; it is an interesting excerpt because it shows Desdemona as good diplomat, defending her choice of a husband without offending any of the interested parties. It shows Desdemona is very skillful with language.
First, she addresses her father: she calls him noble, which has two basic meanings - noble as in belonging to aristocracy, nobility, which Brabantio undoubtedly does, of an elevated social status, and noble meaning morally right, behaving in a way which we should emulate, being a paragon of virtue. In this way, she emphasises that the father has positive qualities and is a worthy person, not only is he noble because of his birth as a nobleman, but also because of his character. In this way, she shows she is not a social rebel some of the Venetians may consider her. Then she goes on to speak of "divided duty." She carefully chooses her words so as to hurt neither her newly-wed husband, not her father. Division suggests some kind of a conflict, which mirrors her being torn between two people whom she loves. It is curious she does not talk about her feelings of love, but uses the word "duty" which may have some slightly negative connotations, as it is something one is bound to do by laws, rules or honour, rather than what one chooses to do. This is continued by her use of the word "bound" which brings to mind some other negative associations as "bonds" and lack of freedom, though these words can also be used to describe the strength of her relationships with her father. Desdemona enumerates the things she owes to her father, namely "life and education" - in return of these, she respects her father. Desdemona emphasises the importance of duty in the relationship between father and daughter by calling him "lord of my duty" - the one who can dictate what is her duty. Calling her father "lord" also emphasises his authority over Desdemona as his daughter, and hence a person he is the master of. So far, so good: the father is probably pleased, and Desdemona shows herself to be an obedient daughter who knows her place in the society.

With the word "But" Desdemona introduces the dichotomy between her conflicting duties to her father and her husband, which was hinted at in the phrase "divided duty." Now she explains what this "divided duty" means, why is her duty divided: because she should show it to both men/father/husband. "Here's my husband" - it changes everything in her relationship with her father, because now her "duty" is to her husband, and not her father; she calls Othello "the Moor my lord" - as a husband, he is now the most important man in her life, and now her "duty" is to Othello. She cites the example of her mother, who also considered the husband more important than the father: "preferred" him - in this way, Desdemona finds the justification of her behaviour in tradition. "Challenge" may have some legal connotations - Desdemona now passed from the power of her father to that of her husband. "Profess" has religious connotations, but it also means to claim something falsely, which may later give rise to doubts about Desdemona's sincerity of her feelings towards Othello.

This speech shows Desdemona as a courageous and independent woman, who has the strength to defend her choices and decisions. She is clever and does it in a very convincing way. Yet, at the same time she emphasises woman's position in the society, as a person who is dependent on male figures in her life, first under the care of her father, and then - husband. In a way, a woman belongs to these men, and by marriage she simply goes from hand to hand, becoming the property of her husband. So it is a bit ironic that this speech is a proof of Desdemona's independence. Here, she is the most outspoken in the play. As the play progresses, Desdemona loses more and more of her agency, until she is literally strangled.

Some more bit and pieces worth mentioning:

Due to the Moor, my lord. Act 1 Scene III v.189
My dear Othello Act II Scene I v.179
What is the matter, dear ? Act II Scene III v. 244
How now, my dear Othello? Act III Scene III v.280
My lord is not my lord; nor should I know him, Were he in favour as in humor alter'd. Act III Scene IV v.120-121
Good madam, what's the matter with my lord? With who? Why, with my lord, madam. Who is thy lord? He that is yours, sweet lady. I have none. Do not talk to me, Emilia; Act IV Scene II v.104-109
Commend me to my kind lord. O, Farewell. Act V Scene II v132

In general, the way that Desdemona addresses to Othello is “my lord”. That usual line drew my attention as well as the thoughts of Desdemona about her lord. The first time she addresses to him as my lord is before the Venetian Senate where she literally declares that the Moor is her lord. I think she names him Moor in order to imply that she knows his status in the Venetian society and his origins and the fact that these contrast with her own nobility. In the second and third Act she calls him affectionate dear Othello. Then in the Scene IV of the third Act she uses this address my lord in order to confide Othello's change in Cassio because that change affects him too. If it hadn't been so, Desdemona would have never admitted Othello's change because it is something she cannot realize and cannot deal with. She has never thought that his character would change so dramatically. She uses the words in a similar way with Iago (“I am not what I am”). She phrases a negative sentence which contradicts the subject by using it twice in order to emphasize the change of Othello. It is almost as whether she admits to herself this change, that she hears her own words. She makes a pause which stresses the significance of her confession and her distress and she continues verifying the change and analyzing it. In Act IV there is a whole scene that Othello abuses her and she replies repeatedly only my lord. In the Scene II of the above Act there is the dialogue between her and Emilia when she denies Othello as her lord. Although he had abused her not only verbally she doesn't act with rage or fury against him. On the contrary she is shocked, deeply sad and denies him with sorrow. Her remark “I have no lord” reveals a Desdemona fully submissive to Othello, a Desdemona who considers her value as a person not self-evident, but as a reflection of her lord's esteem. When she tells Emilia not to talk to her... she is shocked and devastated by the turn of Othello, of her marriage. In the last scene she tells Emilia to commend her to her kind lord. Until her last breath she is deeply in love with Othello naming him her kind lord. It is an oxymoron not only in words but and in actions since her kind lord has just strangled her and at the same time it is an irony, not a tragic one since she has deep knowledge of what happened. Then with a dramatic and noble farewell which is stressed with the O she dies.

In these scattered verses take place the transformation of Othello through the eyes of Desdemona. It is very interesting that the way Iago addresses to Othello in front of him is similar to Desdemona. If you isolate his lines you can easily pass Iago for Desdemona.

And now I return to Act t, Scene 2, lines 282-285. There are alternations of cold and heat that he expresses--the cold of Desdemona in death, cold as he describes her chastity juxtaposed against the heat he feels and the fire of hell, which he acknowledges in his word he will deserve because of what he has just done. In fact, he cries, "Whip me, ye devils," as if he is already in hell in that "Sulphur" and "liquid fire" he refers to in subsequent lines. He calls himself also a "cursed slave," clearly he knows he is deserving of eternal damnation even as at the very end of his speech he cries "O Desdemon! Dead Desdemon!" The truncation of her name significantly contains "demon" - the demon his words imply. Shortly afterwards when Lodovico enters the scene he will parrot Othello's words with "O thou Othello . . . fallen in the practice of a cursed slave." The fact that Othello calls to be whipped indicates he knows his act is deserving of grave punishment.

What is an enigma about Iago is that Shakespeare has created him without one ounce of humanity, which is quite different from the sort of "baddie" we see in Shylock or Lady Macbeth, both of whom evoke pity. There is nothing remotely sympathetic in the portrayal of Iago. We can understand to some extent what motivates Shylock and Lady Macbeth, but it seems that, just as Antonio in Merchant of Venice was by nature melancholic, Iago is essentially evil and consumed by envy - there is no external cause; he is just made that way. It is frightening to think that there are people out there just like him. Perhaps that is why we are reluctant to see him as believable - it is just too disturbing. it is not unusual in the world of business to find the “Second in Command” being the biggest betrayer. The world of Vice Presidents and Deputy Managing Directors is populated by people who think they are capable of being the top dog and rail at the system and those that they think are preventing them from getting that top job. It creates a jealousy that festers and can be eventually triggered by the smallest perceived slight. Of course, as the problem becomes noticeable there is less and less chance of a promotion and a spiral of jealousy and blaming of others leading to a justification of any type of behaviour as what is essentially a madness takes over. The interesting point is that the type of person that rises to second in command in many cases does so because they have an ingratiating manipulative personality to begin with “Beware of the trusted servant” why do you think the police always ask for the names of the key holders when a break in or fraud happens.

As a side note, I have been wondering about the name Iago. How do we know for sure the first letter was pronounce 'I' and not 'J' ? The play, shown here, with the title 'The Jew of Malta' clearly has an 'I' and not a 'J'. Could Iago really have been Jago? Jago is a dashing alternative to overused favorite Jacob.
Gender: M Pronunciation: jay-go or yay-go
Meaning of Jago: "supplanter"
Origin of Jago: Spanish and Cornish variation of Jacob.
This would presumably change his religion though.

An interesting note as well is when "Iago scornfully calls Cassio a Florentine". I think it's because at that time Italy contained many smaller kingdoms which rivalled each other for the Pope's favor. And it was well known there that Florentines were very proud, so I think that's why the ironic, scornful note by Iago.  I've read somewhere else where it was mentioned Shakespeare's clown, Will Kempe's Morris danced from London to Norwich, an event chronicled in his Nine Daies Wonder in 1600. It's a wonderful renaissance music and some interesting info about that time family life and of some interesting instruments. Don't forget that the Christian world was very anti-Semite, then, because of a theory by which looked the Jews as sinners for crucifying Jesus Christ. And Venezia built the first ghetto where the Jews could had lived, and what was locked at night for banning the out- or incoming.

NB: All pictures taken from my Rowse.

domingo, junho 12, 2016

Mono No Aware: "The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories" by Ken Liu

Published March 8th 2016.

After finishing "The Three-Body Problem", I was curious to know more about Ken Liu, the book's translator. And I picked up this collection. I've always thought short fiction is harder to write than longer works. And what a choice it was. Not all of the stories are clear winners, but the ones that are, oh my.

When I'm driving and the sun sets over the huge fields around me and the music's just right and the warm wind in my hair and my wife next to me and conversations go quiet and the long winding road ahead and my mind goes suddenly blank and I find myself staring into the distance and then I snap out of it, everyone knowing I've had – but can't keep – that moment that just passed.

We all know them. But we never know when they pop up. They stop time for me for just a second... and then I know I must move on. That's what it felt like when I read some of stories in this collection. "Mono No Aware" is but one of those stories where this kind of feeling is best shown:

"The image seemed to me at once so fleeting and so permanent, like the way I had experienced time as a young child. It made me a little sad and glad at the same time.
'Everything passes, Hiroto,' Dad said.
'That feeling in your heart: it's called Mono No Aware. It is a sense of the transience of all things in life. The sun, the dandelion, the cicada, the Hammer, and all of us: we are all subject to the equations of James Clerk Maxwell, and we are all ephemeral patterns destined to eventually fade, whether in a second or an eon.'"

Transposing this "feeling" to myself, how could I describe it? I think it takes place when my mind sometimes decides of its own volition it needs to take a moment to stare into the distance – preferably through a glass-tainted window. When I go out the door, I feel more at ease carrying in my pockets a tiny ball made of paper. Whenever I feel that tinge of sadness for the beauty of things going by, I try to retain those images in my mind. Somehow, it feels like a dearly important thing to do, as if I want to keep those moments in me forever; in a way give them more time than they had, until I’m ready to let them go.

Liu's collection is full of examples of "Mono No Aware" stuff, and I'm not talking just about the story that goes by the same name. I can find it in stories like "The Man Who Ended History: A Documentary”, "The Regular”, and "State Change". These last are all top-notch, but it was "Mono No Aware" that lingered in my mind after having finished the collection. I carried it around with me for these past couple of days, constantly coming back to it in my mind and thinking about all the different aspects it evoked for me. This is a story that really drives home my belief that the best, most vital, work being done in the short story form today is being done in SF. This is the kind of story that justifies the "invention" of the genre. Each time I walk away amazed at the talent and skill that can craft something so profound within the parameters of short fiction.

SF = Speculative Fiction

sábado, junho 11, 2016

Head-hopping Done Right: "Pena Máxima" by Álvaro Cordeiro

When you switch perspective at a chapter or page break, it's not considered head-hopping. It’s another beast altogether: SF third person limited. George R. R. Martin’s Ice and Fire series comes to mind. Basically what Martin does is, in every chapter, the point of view shifts to a different character. One chapter's point of view is Lana's while the chapter after that is through the point of view of Eddard's.

"Pena Máxima" = "Maximum  Penalty"

What Álvaro Cordeiro attempts here is head-hopping, i.e., point-of-view change within the same scene. I’m not that well-read, but I think third person omniscient is getting rarer by the minute. It seems to me the most popular books (the word “thriller” comes to mind) these days are third person limited. And head-hopping is getting even rarer than third person omniscient… If Nora Roberts is able to avoid head-hopping, even though she’s held up as an example of head-hopping done right. She does not, however, use head-hopping. She uses the very subtle baton-pass method, i.e., she does transitions, not head hops (yes, I’ve read Nora Roberts in case you’re wondering…).

I’ve always disliked the baton-pass method as a reader. It takes me out of the story if I have to figure out whose point-of-view a certain paragraph is in. It takes me out of the story, and that for me is a sign of failure, because the novel failed at making the story and the characters real. The same goes for head-hopping. The first time I came across it in “Pena Máxima” I had to pause. I said to myself, what the hell? What’s happening here?”

I wouldn’t say authors can’t use head-hopping, but I’d say they shouldn’t unless they know how to do it well and if there’s no better way to make the transition from one character to another.

Head-hopping in a novel is generally a bad idea. Only those who can really master the form can do it successfully. We have several examples where head-hopping is done in a sloppy way. If the writer switches viewpoints once in a scene, no problem. But if he’s changing it around every paragraph or two, though, and on top of that, he doesn’t have an omniscient narrator, the changes will get choppy and confusing. I always thought head-hopping is not bad in itself. It's only called head hopping if it's done in an inconsistent, unpredictable way that confuses the reader. There are writers who can effectively switch between limited narratives without a scene break, and there are omniscient narratives that are good at showing the reader what more than one character is thinking or knowing in a scene, sometimes even in the same sentence (e.g., Manuel found Ana wearing the cat glasses that looked very scary, but Ana simply thought she looked silly wearing them). I found that one of the biggest issues with head-hopping is me losing identification with the lead character in the scene.

All these rules can be broken, though. In “Pena Máxima”, Álvaro Cordeiro slips between point-of-view characters within chapters so elegantly that I hardly realised It was happening. Sure, the first time I came across it, it felt weird. “Head-hopping” is not after all your run-of-the-mill writing technic.  I think Álvaro Cordeiro didn’t want to wait for chapter breaks or even paragraph breaks to change the viewpoint of each one of the three characters (Afonso, Matilde and Damião), in order to give us a full-fledged scenario for each chapter using at least two characters. The only way he could have done that was by using head-hopping and sometimes the baton-pass technic. As soon as I got used to this way of doing things writing-wise, I just felt quite comfortable with the narrative. 

NB: All pictures taken by me at Fnac in Lisbon (Centro Comercial Colombo).

sexta-feira, junho 10, 2016

Old vs. New Testament in Shakespeare: "The Merchant of Venice" by William Shakespeare

The play is troubling and even disturbing. On one level, it's a comedy of love, with the ups and downs of courtship, a theme excluded from the casket story and taken up again at the end when the affair of the rings allows the wooing to start afresh. On another level, it's full of deep hatred, with Shylock's grisly demand of repayment in the form of a pound of flesh, and a play that asks searching questions about the value of things, with Portia at the centre of a plot about a grubby battle for money and life. Oddly, Antonio (a merchant in Venice) has a very small role, given the title of the play. Portia has by far the largest part. It's certainly a play that speaks to the contemporary world and seems very modern in its concerns about religious intolerance and conflict, as well as money, commercial exchange/trade, and conspicuous consumption. It’s a rather disturbing play. The lack of humanity with which Shylock treats Antonio, and the corresponding lack of humanity with which he is then treated by the Venetian establishment, seem to me to be evidence of a deeply fractured society. It is a difficult play to warm to but it falls into place when you realise you don't have to like Portia just because she is the notional heroine. She is clever and eloquent but she has a cruel streak-look at the way she puts the boot into Shylock (going far beyond her original brief which was to save Antonio) and torments her husband about the ring before the marriage has even been consummated. But to be fair, he is a shameless fortune hunter. I don't think their marital bliss will last very long.

I always liked the "The quality of Mercy is not strain'd" dialogue by Portia in the court scene. It suggests that the only way to confront racism or jealousy is to be merciful, the act of mercy can have bigger effect than violence.

Mercy is indeed the best way to disarm bigotry of any kind. Today we feel more sympathy with Shylock, but he was as religiously bigoted as the Christians around him (perhaps with greater cause though) and he mourned the loss of his gold as much as of his daughter. In Shakespeare's day, they might have thought that the court was doing him a favour by making him convert to Christianity. His daughter had already converted willingly for love.

Re-reading over the play now, I realised that there is a deeper conversation going on in it about the Old and New Testaments. The Old Testament says that one is subject only to the Law and that the slightest deviation from the Law will lead to your loss of your inheritance in God's Kingdom - Shylock represents the Old Testament. In the New Testament, God's justice (which would condemn us all) is tempered by mercy, by which we are saved, though we be undeserving, and by which we then inherit everything. Portia represents God's mercy - available to all - and she repeatedly asks Shylock about his position. By his answers he insists on being judged by the law and eschews mercy. Hence all he has is forfeit.

I loved Act 1 scene 2, where loved Portia's summing up of her suitors. This is Shakespeare describing national stereotypes that still hold up today! Definitely a bit of light relief before the introduction of Shylock whose first three words introduce his obsession with money: “Three thousand ducats.” I think it would work in a modern reading if we substituted 'jew' with 'banker'! I rather like the idea of, 'and you spit on my banker's gaberdine'. Sorry if there are any investment bankers reading this review...

Some marvelous speeches, and complex issues to be considered. As I was reading it, I kept thinking of the negativity of hatred which stems from Antonio's previous attitude to Shylock and Shylock's resentment of this treatment. During his life it would have been unlikely that anybody would have had any mercy with him. Own property? No. Be part of the community? No. Now, this one chance, for him, for the other Jews in Venice, his one chance of justice or fairness. Gone. Poof. In the blink of an eye. And even worse: All his life, his beliefs, he as a person with his rituals and everything: Gone. They might as well have killed him.

This play is a satisfying one as it resolves so neatly. It all seems to turn on Antonio - the title character, the Merchant of Venice (really?) - Portia, and the lead casket. Antonio, an older, unmarried man, loves Bassanio dearly. In fact he is the only character in the play who can comply with the inscription "Who chooses me must give and hazard all he hath". For Bassanio's sake, Antonio is prepared to sacrifice all his money and his life too. Antonio is no saint, but his unlikable traits only serve to make him all the more human and his sacrifice the greater.  Bassanio, unwittingly, picks the right casket, but only because he has rejected the other two. In doing so, he releases Portia from the dead hand of her father so that she can go and rescue Antonio by using equity, a tempered and enlightened form of legal process associated with mercy. Shylock cannot show mercy and therefore has only basic law to fall back on. Finally, as everyone has held steadfast and true in love, even Antonio's missing ships come home to harbour. The only one left out is Shylock who could not show mercy, the sign of love. How can this happy-ending play not be a comedy?

After having seen the BBC version with Jeremy Irons and in the first scene, the play says Bassanio is a noble kinsman of Antonio. Gratiano also says he loves Antonio, so I don't think there is a homosexual relationship implied on the part of the younger men, but certainly Jeremy Irons as Antonio seems to indicate there is some homo-erotic desire on his part, but it’s maybe seen as a version of 'agape' Greek love between an older man and a younger one. There seems to be a long standing enmity between Antonio and Shylock which is more than just that between Jews and Christians. I think Antonio finally demanding that Shylock converts to Christianity is the essence of cruelty - to deprive a man of his religion, to make him an outcast among his own people, particularly the Jewish religion in the city of Venice with its ghetto, does make me sympathetic towards Shylock. On the other hand, in Pacino’s film, Antonio is much older than Bassanio, and he looks and behaves more like a father than a friend .There is no mention of a family and his resolution to put his wealth in the service of his friend is really touching (Act 1, scene 1). Shylock bears a grudge to Antonio and Christians in general for ill treatment and defamation. When reminded of past offense Antonio will persist in his arrogant and abusing attitude, although he has come to ask for a favour. Had he changed his approach, who knows, maybe Shylock's hatred of him had been contained and never given vent to (Act 1 , scene 3).  The prince of Morocco considers Portia a true gem and in his mind no other box than the golden one is suitable to hide her portrait.. He is a wealthy man, used to having the best in everything and this very way of life will prevent him from seeing things beyond appearances (Act 2. scene 7).  Shylock's heart is wounded and wisdom is lost on him now that he has heard about Antonio's bad luck. Revenge dominates his thoughts and he is all the fiercer in his desires now that his daughter has eloped and taken with her an important part of his wealth (Act 3, Scene1). I found this play powerful, shocking and - with reference to Act4 Scene 1 - horrible! I last encountered it nearly 30 years ago but can only recall the casket scene.

While I doubt that Shakespeare was completely above the prejudices of his times, I think his portrayal of Shylock is sympathetic and moving. Our reactions are shaped by recent history to some degree, but no doubt Shakespeare would have been aware of events such as the massacre of the York Jewish community at Clifford's Tower in 1190. I feel his portrayal was made in the same spirit as Milton's Satan, an enormously sympathetic figure.

I find the psychological depth of many of Shakespeare's characters fascinating and never fail to be impressed by the complexity and breadth of the issues his plays raise. Money, compassion, "worth", prejudice - all so relevant today.

And “So shines a good deed in a naughty world.” I read Act IV Scene 1 three times over and gained more wisdom from it each time. The argument is brilliantly crafted: first as the Duke attempts to appeal to Shylock's better nature and then, when that fails, Portia leads him on, arguing cogently and increasing the pressure line by line, until he's hoisted by his own petard. As the saying goes, “Be careful what you wish for.” Reading it out aloud brought home to me the relevance of Grattiano's interjections, repeated like the chorus a refrain, in mocking imitation of Shylock's own “O upright judge, O learned judge,” as a sort of “Well you said it, Mate!”

We impose our own values and likes and prejudices on any work of art we interact with. It's inevitable, we can't help bringing the influence of our time and place. Writer's too are tied by the tide of opinion of their own times and only the greatest can think beyond these confines and produce the shock of the new. Modern artists are sensible if they refuse to discuss their work and remain enigmatic. Bob Dylan had the right idea, people of my generation were able to imprint our own meaning on his lyrics and personalize his songs. We live in post Freudian times and are still influenced by the notion we secretly love our mothers and want to kill our fathers. That any malady of the mind can be cured by analysis, counselling and discussion of the failings of our nurturing.. The Psychologists are inventing new complexes and syndromes every day, well it keeps them all in work, and perpetuating the idea that any cast of mind is due to the influence some past event. They will never accept that some things just are.

Re-reading this play in 2016 it also made think it’d be interesting to know a little more details about Venetian Law at the time. I find it absurd for the Duke and the others to sit back while Shylock holds Antonio's life at ransom, all contented that the law was in support of Shylock in endangering Antonio's life. I think that for every law in every country and in every era there is inevitably some loophole that had not been considered when the law was made and which a canny person can exploit for nefarious purposes - like Shylock - and everyone is bound by the law. It does seem ridiculous, but everyone works on the principle that if you begin to pick and choose which bits of the law you will follow at any one time, the entire legal edifice falls down, to everyone's detriment. The best we can do is review and amend the law after the event when a loophole has been exploited. One has only to think about some modern Mormon sects in America who practice polygamy, claiming freedom of religion, and get the US government to pay maintenance to finance their wives and children (though they curse the government as evil) and leave one wall of their house unfinished to avoid paying rates or taxes - and they still call themselves righteous.

It is interesting fact that Spanish and Portuguese Jews pursued by the Holy Inquisition left their countries and went to other places, including England, where they resided and started new life. It means that Shakespeare was able to have acquaintances or just occasional meetings with Jewish money lenders in London. The Jews represented the figure of Other in medieval Europe: different traditions and different religion, books with bizarre letters, etc. even their clothes was different (off-topic: David Liss represented a Portuguese Sephardic Jew in London in his "financial" novels).

It's interesting to also note that Shakespeare was influenced by a contemporary source in Marlowe's 'Jew of Malta'. Shakespeare brings more humanity to his Jew Shylock, maybe because he brings his reading of Montaigne's Essays to bear. Shylock becomes an almost tragic figure after the court judgement scene. He ends up as an outsider in Venice, miles away from his homeland, forced by Antonio's counter-revenge to renounce his own religion in favour of Christianity and so he is barred from Synagogues and at the same rejected by the traditional Christian community too. He is totally isolated, even from his own daughter Jessica too. It reminds me of “King Lear”. In some ways, Shylock is a man more sinned against than sinning... He's not entirely blameless, and clings too strongly to extracting his pound of flesh. But ultimately he suffers disproportionately badly at the hands of Antonio. Who is the Merchant of Venice really here? Again, these are not clear-cut issues.

An also interesting aspect of the play is the various father and child relationships. It would appear that Bassanio's parents are dead. Antonio is a kinsman and perhaps a surrogate father figure. Shylock would see his daughter dead. Antonio would die for his "son". Portia's father actually is dead but is trying to control her from beyond the grave. Even Lancelot Gobbo's father puts in a brief appearance. This play was probably written around the same time as Henry 4.1, where the king feels he hasn't the son he deserves, Hotspur definitely doesn't have the father he deserves, and there is the surrogate father Falstaff, who has the tables turned on him in the "play extempore". This theme of father-son pairs is revisited in Hamlet. I can imagine that Hamlet senior might have wished that Fortinbras was his son. It would have been a short play though. Claudius is Hamlet's "uncle-father" (and maybe his real father). Then there are Polonius and Laertes. So my current theory is that this play is also about children separating themselves from their parents. Antonio's duties as a parent are over, but his world hasn't ended. He hasn't lost everything after all, neither metaphorically nor literally. He can move on.
I really hope someone finds a sequel in their attic, “The Merchant of Venice II: The Merchants of Venice” where Antonio and Shylock have the same business interests and Shylock stomps round the place muttering darkly about people undercutting his prices for silk and Jessica rolls her eyes and tells people to ignore him. But then maybe Shylock meets a nice lady at church and they get married and then he's quite happy doting on his grandchildren and is only really enraged by the pet monkey which nicks all his fruit and pulls the plants up in his garden. I hope he gets his happy ending!

As for the “riddle” about who is the Merchant of Venice, even here, Shakespeare makes us wonder. I prefer to believe Antonio is the Merchant of Venice. He is the good guy. Shylock is the Wonga.com of his day. If he wasn't a Jew many of us would probably agree that Antonio was right to bail out people before they defaulted on Shylock's loans. Would an Elizabethan audience have thought Antonio went too far in physically and verbally abusing Shylock though? I don't know. Shylock has to be stopped from taking his pound of flesh, doesn't he? When Portia offers him the chance to be merciful, which he declines, is she just setting a trap? I don't believe that it was Shakespeare's intention, but I don't know. I like Stephen Greenblatt's idea that Shakespeare just couldn't write Shylock as simple villain, even if it meant "spoiling" his play. Whether for the sake of realism or out of sympathy, he cannot make Shylock a monster:

"Thou torturest me, Tubal: it was my turquoise; I had it of Leah when I was a bachelor:
I would not have given it for a wilderness of monkeys."

I think Shakespeare mitigates Shylock's pursuit of his bond by making him swear an oath at the height of his grief. That is why he cannot go back in the court scene:

"An oath, an oath, I have an oath in heaven:
Shall I lay perjury upon my soul?
No, not for Venice."

Antonio represents the system, who is prepared by all means to preserve his status by calling on favours from his fellow nobility and a judicial system, in the famous scene with Portia, which is designed to benefit the Venetian establishment. The play represents two types of commerce, the unyielding, tough outsider Shylock and Antonio who plays the system and ultimately comes out on top. Shakespeare does not signal which of these characters he prefers, he presents them as characters and it is the audience who decides which one they most identify with. In a sense Antonio is the 'insider'/insider trading. Maybe Shylock represents today's financial traders working outside the traditional banking system??? Intriguing. One has to read “Time magazine” in the May 23, 2016 edition: “Saving Capitalism” by Rana Foroohar page 23-28 to see how Shakespeare can still look so modern to us.

Shakespeare's plays are ever relevant. Our modern world is always changing and the changes ask of us that we should re-examine our attitudes to one another, question our values and what we consider to be important, to reassess our positions in the world and the positions of others, and to put ourselves in the positions of others. Shakespeare's multifaceted characters and his posing of questions that he does not glibly answer for us helps to provide the start of many a necessary conversation within and between ourselves. 

NB: All pictures taken from my Rowse.

quinta-feira, junho 09, 2016

Nature Abhors a Vacuum: “Will in the World – How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare” by Stephen Greenblatt

Is there a Shakespearean lover who does not know that there is precious little actual information about Shakespeare and as a result there are all these theories speculating about who he really was? I’ve read a few of them, and I’ve always considered these to be crap that show us more about the enthusiast of the theory than they do about the Shakespeare. I have read many books about Shakespeare, but none have provoked a more mixed and reaction in me than Greenblatts’. There are some great weaknesses. Read on.

As I was reading this what came into my mind was that celebrated statement, I think by AL Rowse that he was prepared to stake his reputation on the claim that all the Dark Lady from the sonnets 127-154 was in fact Emilia Lanier. Never mind that it’s never been clear that Lanier was a dark lady, let alone the Dark Lady – or indeed, whether or not there was a real Dark Lady at all in real life. By Jove, what if Shakespeare actually made the whole thing up? What if Greenblatt wanted to give Rowse a run for his money when it comes to reinventing Shakespeare’s life? I’m quite astonished that it found a publisher at all let alone that someone paid close to a million dollars to have it published. I’m not talking about being littered with spelling mistakes or grammatical errors; the worst is the utter lack of scholarly accuracy (e.g., Shakespeare hating Anne Hathaway, Shakespeare’s Anti-Jewishness, the meeting in Lancashire between Edmund Campion and the teenage Shakespeare, Falstaff as being a tribute both to Robert Greene and to Shakespeare's own father, the attempt at simplifying and normalizing the complex sexuality of Shakespeare, etc.). The level of 'dumbing down' in literary scholarship these days is shocking. Being sufficiently anal-retentive I did actually finish it and found, that it was Greenblatting as usual and, i.e., he managed to stretch it out to almost to 500 pages without adding a single extra worthwhile fact. Reading this makes me a firm believer on the importance of reading Shakespeare through his poetry and plays. What I’ve just read is Shakespeare-a-la-Greenblatt. When a book's chief claim is to far-fetching conclusions, it’s pointless to bash it by the standards of biographical scholarship, but I just felt I had to say my piece. We still not really know if there was really a lady in the first place as I’ve said above. I’m much better off reading and enjoying Shakespeare’s wonderful lines so full of tenderness and feeling, which gave the world the glory of those lines eternal. If characters in his plays were representations, male or female, of true personalities what does it matters if there was "a dark lady" or “a dark boy”? Shakespeare still gloriously reigns.

If someone asks me what biography of Shakespeare I’d profoundly recommend that has no fabrications, no romantic overtones, but just has the facts of the life and afterlife, it’s not this one. It’s “Soul of the Age” by Jonathan Bate. Bate is really prudent in his choice of what to take into account Shakespeare-wise.

I only found one single virtue in the book: its overwhelming enthusiasm. Alas, enthusiasm hardly justifies yet one more biography of Shakespeare, especially when there are more rigorous, and more well-documented books on his life as the ones I mentioned. If you’re a noob Shakespeare-wise, go on reading his plays, and practice the healthy habit of thinking for yourself.

Until a time machine is invented, Shakespeare will remain an enigma. I have always got the impression he was a man who lived a double life. He had to, as he “was” a Catholic and had to keep that one quiet and not to stir up problems (this is me, not Greenblatting, but Manuel Antãoing…).

quarta-feira, junho 08, 2016

Evil and Hell: "A Performance of Macbeth" by Trevor Nunn, Philip Casson

For me, the main source of evil as presented by Shakespeare is internal - it comes from within Macbeth himself but is fed and watered by external circumstances – i.e. the witches' prophecies and his wife's pushiness. It seems clear from the outset that Macbeth's personal ambitions and driven nature have led him to great success in battle and in political terms. The way his curiosity and interest is aroused by the witches suggests to us that he has previously harboured secret and dangerous ambitions known to none but himself (and I believe the text supports this - see Banquo's comment on Macbeth's reaction to the witches' prophecies on their first encounter upon the heath). But at this stage, although his interest is aroused, I don't believe we are looking at a murderer because, as we see later on in that scene, Macbeth is struggling with the implications of the news that he has been appointed Thane of Cawdor and he debates with himself whether these prophecies are good or evil, concluding that he may leave the outcome of the final prophecy to chance, 'Without my stir' as it was chance or fate that landed him the seat of Cawdor. Macbeth is very aware of the moral consequences of killing the King, and is also sufficiently self-aware of what drives him, his “Vaulting ambition, which o'erleaps itself/And falls on the other”, in other words, he recognises that it's his shallow ambition that threatens to overwhelm his moral judgement and everything else. He contrasts this with the King's goodness and virtues and has a vision of heaven's reaction to the deed he is contemplating. The contrast couldn't be greater - Macbeth's imagination is carrying him away and he is almost talking himself out of the act but then at that precise and critical moment, Lady MacBeth makes her entrance and proceeds to give him a talking to! The dramatic timing couldn't be more significant here. What is real and what is fantasy that make this play such a fascinating one. I think Banquo's words in Act 1 Sc 3 sum up brilliantly this fascination of Shakespeare with the relationship between evil forces and human nature in the play:

“And oftentimes, to win us to our harm/The instruments of darkness tell us truths/Win us with honest trifles, to betray's/In deepest consequence.

I believe that Macbeth is ambitious, and I think that before he meets the weyard sisters he has hopes of succeeding Duncan. Scotland was an elective monarchy, like Hamlet's Denmark. That's why Claudius became King not young Hamlet. Macbeth can reasonably hope, as a member of the Royal family (which he was) that he would get the vote over young Malcolm. So he gets a sort of confirmation of this hope from the sisters. He is then greeted by Ross with the words:

"for an earnest of a greater honour, He bade me, from him, call thee thane of Cawdor"

What can that greater honour be? Perhaps Duncan is about to pronounce his view on the succession? And that is exactly what he does, but to Macbeth's obvious disappointment Duncan names Malcolm as Prince of Cumberland, equivalent to Prince of Wales in Scottish terms. And in an elective monarchy, you do not 'name' your successor, the Thanes elect him. As Macbeth says bitterly:

"The Prince of Cumberland! that is a step            
On which I must fall down, or else o'erleap,        
For in my way it lies."

Waiting for old Duncan to fall off his perch is one thing, the chances that Macbeth will outlive young Malcolm quite another.

It is always interesting to see how different productions portrayal the relationship between Lady Macbeth and Macbeth, which one is strong and takes the lead in the murder. I have seen versions where Macbeth seems weak and needs Lady Macbeth to push him into the murder. This has always seemed at odds with the harsh treatment he dishes out to Banquo, and especially Lady Macbeth. However, these murders are carried out by others on his behalf, he does not have to get his hands dirty, and perhaps that is why he needs a push to murder Duncan himself. Lady Macbeth's character seems more complex, her descent into madness seems more sudden. This happens off stage, we don't see her meeting with witches, or even having the conversations with others, therefore the change in her comes as a greater shock to us.

The play is wonderfully open to interpretation in performance with directors and actors able to put their own ideas on culpability. Macbeth starts off as a man who has everything going for him - a lauded warrior who seems to have been widely admired but once the Weird Sisters set him on the path, he turns murderous. He seems aware of the depth of his degradation as a human being but is unable to move off the path he is following. And he loses everything on the way down. The psychology is complex and there doesn't seem to be a simple single answer to Macbeth's downfall.
Whether it's hamartia or not, Macbeth makes the choices he wants, because it suits him. He procrastinates enough in Act I against the initial murder, but his dagger soliloquy portrays his decision to go through with it. He reads the "air-drawn dagger" as an inevitability almost. The blood on the blade in his imagination almost suggest that the deed has already happened, in his mind at least, and by the end of that soliloquy journey, Macbeth is resolute. At any time, he could have refused to kill Duncan; he could have woken him and betrayed his wife by explaining the plan. He doesn't. The idea of being King suits his own ends, and he clearly thinks he can cheat the witches' prophecies of warnings regarding Banquo. He is more a man of action than thought when we meet him as a soldier, but once the Thane of Cawdor prophecy comes true, it is no great leap for him to assume he can be King. I strongly dislike blaming other characters for Macbeth's fall. Lady Macbeth has it right from the beginning--"Art not without ambition" and "wouldst wrongly win." Macbeth wants it all--the question is what it takes to get him moving. So a slight suggestion from some random maybe-women and a short nag session from the wife, and he's off to kill the king? And Banquo? And some poor lady he probably hasn't met and her little kids? Come on. He just wants to hear that his ambition is justified. Once he gets that, he's off. And the ambition, like any other unchecked desire, leads to evil because it overrides his morality. By the way, the only magic that we are actually told that the sisters can do is deprive people of sleep. So they can't really make Macbeth do anything. And, like Romeo, if you really believe in fate, why do you have to do something to move it along?

If the Macbeths were pure evil from the start the play wouldn't be tragic at all, because we'd be happy to see them suffering and defeated and getting what they deserve. I feel the true tragedy lies in the fact that in different circumstances the Macbeths had the potential to be excellent rulers - they both seem to have been well-liked and respected figures at the start of the play, and they're certainly both shrewd and capable - and things could have gone much better for them and Scotland (if they had just been patient, they probably would have ended up the rulers of Scotland without having to kill anyone, the same way Macbeth was made Thane of Cawdor without having to do anything - the prophecy fulfilled itself). They both struggle internally between good and evil (Macbeth swings back and forth between 'I'm going to kill Duncan' and 'I'm not going to kill him because he's a good king and I have no reason to' and later Lady Macbeth is racked with guilt over what they've done).

We're human beings and we all must choose our own course. Ultimately Macbeth chooses evil. And ultimately he has to be held responsible for that choice.

I was re-watching the Nunn/Dench/McKellen version and really noticed for the first time that Macbeth is the one who thinks up the idea of blaming the murder on the servants. He loses his nerve after killing Duncan and she ends up smearing the servants with the blood. Some have suggested that he is being the protective husband by keeping her out of the murder of Banquo. I am more inclined to think he wants to limit the number of people in the know as he starts to add cunning to ambition as a driving force for his actions. So he kills the servants before they can protest their innocence. As I recall he has not shared with Lady Macbeth the prophecy concerning Banquo, certainly not in the letter and there is no hint of it off stage. I have never been able to see Macbeth as a noble soul led astray by evil forces and a wicked woman. What can I say? I have always maintained that what we see and derive from reading Shakespeare depends upon what is in us - our own nature, intellect and mood. To see Shakespeare dramatised upon a stage is no different except that there is a fuller opportunity for audience joining in in its presentation; something that Shakespeare was very good at providing for, although its result always depends upon the quality of the film director, in this case Trevor Nunn. My definite Macbeth version.

So in summary (I could get carried away and write an essay...) I think Macbeth is influenced by the witches and their prophecies - whom I believe to be real as opposed to a figment of Macbeth and Banquo's imaginations. The reality of the supernatural world is extremely strong throughout the play and most people would have believed in it. But it is the interplay between the external forces and the internal motivations, and the power of the imagination and its ability to blur the distinctions between natural and supernatural evil.

NB: All pictures taken by me directly from the film.

terça-feira, junho 07, 2016

Flat, Flat, Flat: "Sharp Ends" by Joe Abercrombie

“There’s men chasing me! Gulping breath in the doorway and doing her best to look beyond desperate—no mighty effort of acting at that moment, or any occupying the last twelve months, indeed.”

One of the things that makes Abercrombie outstanding is his ability to write stuff in different styles. “The First Law Trilogy” reads like epic fantasy, “Best Served Cold” is all about revenge, “The Heroes” is bent on being a war novel, and “Red Country” masquerades itself as a Wild West romp.

This collection, being based on characters previously explored in the above-mentioned novels, draws inspirations from several sources. That in itself is not a bad thing, but nevertheless some stories felt flat. "Freedom", and "Yesterday, Near a Village Called Barden" are just two examples of what I’ve just stated. I've read everything Abercrombie has ever written. This means I'm quite conversant in Abercrombish, and this collection is flat, flat, flat. Those who are not so proficient in Abercrombish will have a harder time getting to know some of the characters by just reading these short stories. Abercrombie is at his best when he's challenging my SF preconceptions. He usually does that by enhancing the worst qualities of man...We still have plenty of that, but the Abercrombish chutzpah is absent.