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Not knowing how to read: Shelley’s Matilda

I was reading Mary Shelley’s Matilda today – a novella about a 16- to 20-year old girl, whose mother died at childbirth and whose father ends up developing an incestuous love for her, which leads him to suicide and her to becoming a lonely exile wishing nothing but death. This death quite quickly comes in the classically Romantic way of her getting consumption.

I’m writing of this because I didn’t like the novella particularly much. I usually love melodrama and Gothic elements, but this suffered from an overdose of gloomy vocabulary and didn’t seem well-contained.

The narrator is a 20-year-old girl. Her style is amateurish. Some of her thoughts, her high emotionality and glorification of death would bring to mind any average teenager of a gloomier disposition. Her thinking in extremes certainly reminded me of myself, and her style of my own style (if let loose).

But here’s the problem, and it’s a weird problem to have. I wanted to read a better-written story, while this was all over the place and didn’t seem believable. It was as if Shelley had tried to put a Greek tragedy into a contemporary setting and format, and it turned out…… a little silly? Excessive. Implausible. Maybe it’d have worked as a play. Even the long monologues had something of the style of play to them.

And yet it is not implausible, because this is how a 20-year old can think, particularly when on her deathbed, having little life experience and being an emotional person. So. My problem was that I expected a less emotionally overflowing and more refined writer. When reading a work of fiction, I expect the storyteller to have style. I’m sure that if this had been the diary of a real person, I’d have approached it differently and been touched by it. Because I wouldn’t expect good writing then. Right now, I felt it to be clumsy and couldn’t empathise with the characters. This again is strange because when I’ve read some other 19th century first person narratives, I’ve caught myself thinking the opposite – would a boy as young as this really be able to tell the story so eloquently? Would someone so little educated be such a good writer? I can’t currently bring specific examples, but I’ve felt those thoughts often. It’s not believable that all the narrators featured in these first person narratives of the 19th century had style. Some must have been as bad as Matilda, but well, she was sweet. Her style was sweet. And I wish she had had a less deep nature, so she could have moved on, but deep natures never can, can they?

The plot has potential though. I think I have some weird tendency to like a thing more for its potential sometimes than for what it is. Unrefined gems. Old wooden houses and creaky floorboards and people who sometimes wear ill-fitting clothes. I like the scope for imagination. What it could be. As it is, I didn’t care about this story, but it might make for a good tragic poem or play if one wants to preserve the melodrama.

But here of course the fault is in me and my expectations for literature. If the character never existed, if it’s fiction, I expect style and wisdom such as an average person of this particular type wouldn’t possess. And when I’m given it, a part of me rolls her eyes and feels inferior because when I was THAT age, I would never have been so intelligent and rational, or so good. These narrators of the 19th century seem such ideal people sometimes.

One thing I did like though. There were some flashes of great understanding of how life and people work. This. And I also enjoyed reading about the poet guy’s suggestion of how to move on and what to devote one’s life to if personal happiness is not an option. I’ve been trying to give the same advice to a friend, but no one ever listens to good advice, do they? I liked meeting, albeit in fiction, someone else who shares my views. I hadn’t seen it around before, not in this form that so closely copies my own philosophy.

Overall, it was an okay read. 3 out of 5.

Book destroyment

Destroy + enjoyment.

These are my favourite books from when I was a child, and remain among my favourites even now. Sadly, they look terrible.

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Of course our parents told us not to damage books, but what can you do. There is a distinct correlation between the more a book was loved, the worse state it ended up in. I plan to replace them all one day, unless overcome by irrational sentimentality urging me to preserve these ugly editions.

I am really in two minds about this sort of active interaction with books.

When I was a full-time English student, I also enjoyed writing into books, underlining bits and arguing with authors if they irritated me. I’ve not been doing that at all any more because to the current me, it seems a shame to ruin books, it seems disrespectful. And yet, I found it fun to take a look at my old favourites and see what parts had resonated with me enough to underline.

Anne of Green Gables was the first book in English that I bought together with Oscar Wilde’s collected works. I have no memory at all what made me buy it, but it was to become one of the influential books in my life.

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I found no logic in the sentences I had underlined in my Anne, except that they refer to her imagination:

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If you want a misery to pass faster, do like Anne:

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Next up is my Keats. He was my introduction to the Romantic poets and led me to see that there had been people who thought similarly to me. Of course, right now my take on the subject has become more nuanced, but at age 21, it felt like home-coming. My soul mates! Anne and the Romantic poets! It didn’t matter that they were fictional or dead. Not when you are used to thinking there is and never was anyone like you.

I think I was set on analysing Keats’ use of dreamy words and underlined all instances of “ethereal” and other words that sound distinctly dream-like, such as “eglantine”, “forlorn”, “myriads” “dryads” “nymphs” “gossamer” etc.

myriads of

ardent listless

I love those lines still. But my most favourite line by Keats is the following:

two luxuries real

It gave me such a chuckle. Keats seems completely oblivious to how amusing this pairing is, and that is why I love it the more. It was really his letters, rather than his poetry, that gave me this feeling of belonging with the Romantics

 

The following is a somewhat later extract from a biography of Patrick Pearse where I argue with the author. Excuse the handwriting. I can do better, but this obviously didn’t seem like the place.

pearse argue

 

I admit I found it fun to explore such books. Yet I still feel hesitant about taking up the habit again. I’m currently reading – took a break for a year – Jean-Christophe and often want to underline parts or comment on something, but I seem to have grown completely out of writing in books. I don’t want to ruin them. However, my Jean-Christophe is an absolutely ugly old edition I got for free, so maybe for ugly old editions or cheap new editions of no particular beauty I should take it up again. I’d definitely use a pencil rather than a pen, though.

Dreams

It’s a challenge to talk about dreams. The true dreams, not the things one wants out of life or the things they dream about at night. Those are easy. The former are part of one’s identity and the content of the second you are not responsible for.  If I should night-dream of being engaged to Delboy, I could share it with everyone and have a laugh. If I should daydream about it, on the other hand, people would most certainly think I have a major crush on him and that I have bad taste in men.

And that’s why sharing dreams is so difficult, so unwise. People tend to take them seriously. They become something quite other when shared. Frankly, even I would be more inclined to take them seriously once brought to the real world. While they are swimming around in my head, being nothing but stray thoughts and fancies, I’m not responsible for them. They are mine, but are not part of my identity. They are just visitors. Some I spend a little time with and hear them out, others are but fleeting glimpses into possibilities I want nothing to do with. Being prone to daydreams is part of my identity, but the substance of my dreams is an amorphous thing. I’ve never tried to define it or paid particular attention to it.

Sometimes, when I become conscious of the content of my dreams – most of the time I’m not – I can be a little surprised and amused. What on earth did I just dream of? Hold your horses, where do you think you are going with your thoughts? But of course, I usually carry on and pay no attention to reason or rightness.

I don’t dream very often these days. When I was younger, my favourite thing was to daydream myself to sleep. Sometimes I was quite annoyed when sleep came and I had to continue the following night. I even remember some of my dream landscapes. Things like a certain yellow wooden house with two-storeys. I lived in the upper storey and had a view of a vast empty field. Such dreams I indulged in and made permanent companions of for long periods of time. Maybe those would be part of my identity.

But then there is the other kind, the one-time dreams. Let’s suppose I entertained the thought of what a great monarch I’d make and how I’d rule the world. If I spoke of it publicly – if I said I’ve dreamt of ruling the world (or Europe) – I’d be taken more seriously than I’d ever have meant it. Psychologists would prick up their ears: hmm, delusions of grandeur? Narcissistic or bipolar personality disorder? Mania episode?

And so, one fancy is taken out of the millions and added to my personality map. I don’t mean to say that the things I daydream about have no connection to who I am and are unwanted intrusions, but that there are so many one-time idle fancies of no significance that extracting any would lead to severe misunderstandings. So they stay in the dream world. All the bizarre, evil and too beautiful things alike. My dream world really has no boundaries other than those of the imagination.

I can share a  few, but most stay where they belong.

And now, one totally unembarrassing and uncontroversial dream: I caught myself missing the presence of flowers. To the point that if I had any space and not a cat that eats everything when in a bad mood, I’d get ten pot plants and fill ten vases with various flowers. Daffodils, roses, more daffodils, and hyacinths. Such a longing for colours and scents. I’m going to spam the blog with flower pictures as a result.

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These little white flowers smell the best! Even if they don’t look like much theirs is one of my favourite scents.

 

This is my own peony. I was so proud of it when it actually blossomed for the second year.

This is my own peony. I was so proud of it when it actually blossomed for the second year.

 

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Of all days, that day

It struck me just now. Why do I remember those days of all days?

One could have countless vivid memories, but I have days where nothing happened etched upon my mind. Vividly. My spots of pause and poetry.

My first year of school. I walk home on one of those golden autumn afternoons. It is still warm, the sun is out, the trees are tinged with a mixture of yellow and green. Nothing happened. I walked. I dreamt. I realised at some point on the road that I had not paid attention to where I was. My thoughts were too absorbing, whatever they were. I recall the surprise at having got home completely unmindful of the road. It was lovely.

Another moment of pause and poetry from early childhood. I sit on the staircase of our veranda. I have a bowl of strawberries with milk and sugar in my hand. It must be early July. The sun is soon to set and now peaks through the treetops, giving the greens of the garden a golden hue. It’s a very warm evening. I am barefoot and totally happy.

A later one. Of which I even have photographic evidence. I have gone for a stroll in the park. It is October and already chilly, but not overwhelmingly so. It remains pleasant, the crisp air and the smell of decaying leaves. I wear two ponytails and a red coat. I think of my sweetheart and send him a text message. I feel hope amidst delicious melancholy. We had had a fight, but it is going to be all right.

The fifth of October

 

Book impressions: The Golden Pot

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E. T. A Hoffmann is a German Romantic author. If I had to compare him to another Romantic, it would be E. A. Poe. In particular, the imaginary world created in the Golden Pot reminded me of Poe’s The Domain of Arnheim. This is a lesser known Poe story about bliss, to put it in one word. It contains over-the-top dreamy descriptions of nature and landscape. Although not his most celebrated story, it’s the one Poe work that truly stayed with me, along with Landor’s Cottage.  One of the reasons was the beauty of the setting, the other the ideas in it. The author’s philosophy is that the attainment of true happiness is possible if we have something that is our life’s work. A project we can constantly add to and perfect, something that never runs out or becomes completed. In this story, it was a landscape garden. But it could be anything. A farm, an epic novel, a fantasy world, a sculpture. Something one creates. It resonated with me very much, as I too have experienced that “the only thing worse than not getting what one wants is getting what one wants”. Having everything you ever dreamt of has rarely made anyone happy long-term. There has to be something you spend your whole life walking towards, but I suppose, there also has to be belief in its final attainment. Otherwise, it cannot be a happy pursuit.

What connects The Golden Pot and The Domain of Arnheim is that they both describe a paradisal dream world and show imagination and creativity as the keys to the magic. But, cutting the idle meanderings of the mind short, on with Hoffmann only.

I really got into the novella when the allegory behind it revealed itself to me. It happened some time in the middle. At the beginning, I was unsure of who were the villains and who the heroes, whether the witch-applewoman was right and the salamander was up to no good with Anselmus, or vice versa. I also didn’t know what to make of Anselmus as he did seem quite unstable to me at the start. I mistrusted the salamander and had more faith in Veronika.

But then – the allegory unfolded itself to me – it was a battle of idealism and imagination versus rationalism and common-place living. Anselmus got shown the magic world because he was sufficiently pure-hearted and capable of believing in magic and love. When his faith waned, he was denied the entry, but since he could not exist in the ‘real world’ either, he regained his faith and was returned to magic and beauty.

What I consider praiseworthy and fresh is the portrayal of the down-to-earth people who have no faith in otherworldly things. Typically, in a story with such opposites, the fantasy world  is elevated and the ‘real world’ and its inhabitants are ridiculed and shown as inferior. In Hoffmann’s story, however, Veronika, her father and his friend are depicted more as distinct, but not necessarily lesser humans. Even Veronika’s love for pretty earrings and status didn’t strike me as a harsh criticism. She was very young, and young girls have silly fancies. She seemed quite brave to me in her efforts to win back Anselmus’ love (and possibly his sanity). So overall, I really this aspect.

Storms outside and in

There’s a delicious storm outside and since the blog has not yet had a post dedicated to this phenomena, what better time for it.

I’m not entirely sure why I love stormy days as much as I do. It’s just one of those things that you love without knowing why. Like cats, books or strawberry ice cream.

Although I like sunny and warm days, they don’t quite touch my soul. They are lovely and warming, but seem to lack the X factor. Maybe it is because the essence of a pretty summer day is not compatible with the core of my nature.  I’ve seen too much of the darker side and have a contemplative, melancholy turn of mind, even if I do indulge in careless, childish abandon every once in a while, and am a rather optimistic sort.

Or maybe it is just my love of wild things. Uncontrollable, powerful, and yet not absolutely life-threatening (we don’t get hurricanes here anyhow, so I don’t actually know, but I assume I’d be very scared). Things that toss you about and play on your emotions, but don’t absolutely destroy or control you. Maybe it is a kind of partnership, really. The storms within being released and running with the storms outside. But like classical music, wordless, just pure feeling and chance of communion.

One of my favourite childhood memories is being at sea with a storm. How the boat tossed and the winds blew. People were falling over, but I, with the childlike lacking sense of danger, was absolutely gloriously happy. I also loved “swimming” on a stormy day, jumping into the waves and being thrown back towards the shore with them. It is little wonder then that water sports figure in my list of dreams.

And lastly, imagine the joy of returning home after being outside with a storm. Or the choice or chance not to venture out at all and relish the safety and warmth of the indoors. Today, I’m opting to stay at home – to write, sip tea, read and contemplate my future. Storms make being indoors seem a little magical, don’t they? I definitely love both being with them first-hand and observing them from indoors.

Sea

 

Book inebriation

I didn’t touch Jean-Christophe for a while due to exams. Today,  I opened it again while passing the time by the river.

What a book this is and the things it does to me. I’m so grateful to the author for having written it and for the fact that it is three volumes of 600 pages each. I love, love this book.

I love it so much I feel our identities with the titular character are merging. I read it for 4 hours today and it has left a distinct mark on my mood and character. I’m highly strung and in a rather ‘passionate’ mood. I want to kick stuff, run around wildly, argue with someone or do anything that corresponds to the torrent of life that this book evoke.

Life.

Not the calm connectedness of my last post, with its pastoral tranquility, but a tempest of the heart. A wild, wild thing.

The joys of being a highly sensitive empath. I must ration my consumption of this novel. Right now, it has left me with a feeling that I experienced all these things myself, the tumultuous ups and downs of Jean-Christophe’s life. And I feel exhausted emotionally. And his neuroticism and passion have fused with my recently calmer moods and re-awoken the old haunts of the mind.

What a mood, what a mood. I wish I could take someone along who shared my intoxication (for life, art, or beauty) and we could drive off to some pretty private spot and read poetry. And throw dandelions in the air.

Psychedelia

Or an ordinary Saturday.

Something was different at the forest today. When I began my walk, on a pretty Saturday afternoon, there were many people out by the seaside as well. I never thought there wouldn’t be, but as I reached my destination, I was completely alone. Not another human in sight for miles and miles.  All the crowds had decided to leave that spot to my sole enjoyment.

My pastures

I love to be in that particular place alone. Such delicious serenity and it allows me a glimpse into one of my dream lives. On both sides of me there are coastal pastures with cows grazing, a forest grove behind me and the sea facing me. I like to imagine that this is my farm land and I’m overseeing my fields and livestock. Whilst wearing a 19th century gentleman’s outfit. With a walking stick and all. Or to lie down on the bench by the sea, and imagine I’m a Romantic vagabond, with a fedora hat and the compulsory piece of grass in my mouth.

Cow stare fest

As I was leaving, some of the cows took a particular interest in me. First it was one that started staring. Then three more followed. Stood in line and stared. Maybe they disapproved of my strangeness.

Thoughts on death

I spent this afternoon reading the first part of Jean-Christophe and his feelings about death resonated with me particularly.

It must be peculiar to relate to a young boy’s discovery of the full horror of death. He was only 11. And yet, it is the first time I see my own state of mind reflected. Now that the memory is no longer as fresh, it was comforting somehow. Like drawing strength from a shared sorrow and understanding. Sadly, one rarely gets to talk of death with their friends and family. Too morbid, I guess. But it is nice that books still talk of it.

Who sees it (the agony of dying) for the first time, realises that he knows nothing yet, neither of death nor of life.

(my back-translation of Rolland’s line)

I very much liked this line because that was how the experience of death at first-hand changed me. Fundamentally. I had been aware of death before, even experienced death of a close family member, but nothing had turned my world upside-down quite the same way the close encounter did. I have never even been able to talk of all that I felt, it would not be understood, so reading this book was like the first interaction on the subject, even if with a fictional character. Sensitivity connects.

I do wonder, however, whether I’m an anomaly for having realised the full horror of mortality only in my 20s. Or is it characteristic of our privileged European society where children are generally not exposed to death. Or is it also that a lot of people don’t realise it at all or at least not before their old age? One thing is certain: I took it like a child.

I look forward to reading how Jean-Christophe’s perception of death develops. Yet, and although I love epic novels, there is something sad in the finality of a biographical novel. You know how the story began and how it ends (if a proper biography) and it makes human life seem so small and insignificant. And sometimes, it is nice not to know the past or the future of a character. It is nicer to imagine that Holmes had a happy childhood than to know he did not. Or to assume Elizabeth and Darcy were happy in their future life.

Graveyard charms

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Most people consider graveyards to be grim places. Quite often, when I’ve chanced upon the subject, either as a suggestion of taking a stroll through the graveyard or by mentioning my fondness for local graveyards, I’ve met with raised eyebrows, avoidance or a mixture of reverence and horror. And no doubt, this is the proper reaction to graveyards.

To me, however, graveyards at day time have never been gloomy, but sunny and peaceful oases to escape to. It’s as if I lacked the symbolism and associations.

This is taken in the graveyard near my home.

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When our family moved to a more densely populated and traffic-heavy area, the graveyard was the closest thing to a park one could find nearby. So whenever I wanted to be alone amongst nature and was in a hurry with it, I crossed the street and found relief in the calm of the graveyard. I went there when in distress and in need of a private spot to be miserable and ponder my existence. I went to have an idle happy stroll and look at the spring flowers coming to bloom around the grave sites. I probably also went when in the first euphoria of early love. I’ve composed poems and come to understand a few personal truths. Graveyards are part of my very childhood and adolescence. They are like my home outside home. Snug and safe.

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My favourite graveyard is located on one local island. It is surrounded by a cobblestone wall, as seen above, and at the other side is the sea. I had never encountered a place of such perfect delicious tranquillity. The sound of the sea and the tree tops rocking gently in the wind.  If I ever become famous, may I be buried there.

This old graveyard is almost abandoned.

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Very few people visit their buried there. Most are long forgotten. Almost no names or gravestones are visible. One gravestone did mark the death to have occurred in 1913. How short is human memory, but at least the flowers remember. No graveyard I’ve been to is as beautiful in spring.