Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Les Liaisons Dangereuses - Pierre Chordelos de Laclos

“Pour vous hommes, les défaites ne sont que de succés de moins. Dans cette partie si inégale, notre fortune est de ne pas perdre et votre malheur de ne pas gagner.”

The Marquise of Meurteuil to the Vicomte of Valmont

Boy, this book sure shows how human nature is able sink very, very low. This would be a scandalous story in any period of time but in that specific context it is even worse.

Set in the pre-revolutionary France, the Marquise of Meurteuil and the Vicomte of Valmont are two former lovers who use sex as a weapon to control, humiliate and take advantage of others. They consider it a game and are proud of being the best at it. Because this book consists of letters, the reader is able to see how the two of them change their tone, opinions and manner of addressing, depending on the person to whom they are writing. They are incredibly manipulative and wicked, taking pride on the amount of lives they have ruined. 

The Marquise is the evil mastermind of the story. She is even more skillful than Valmont and a greater hypocrite and liar. She doesn’t really consider his conquests as victories because he has nothing to lose, unlike her, who has a reputation to protect. 

Valmont is a handsome, seductive man who is very proud of the amount of women he has “conquered”. I have seen this type of character (or men) before but what makes him different is how much he actually enjoys ruining his victims. It is not enough to “possess” them, he must ruin them too, otherwise it is not a challenge. 

[Spoiler Alert!] The story begins with the Marquise wanting to take revenge against his former lover, Monsieur de Gercourt, for dumping her. She decides to do this by “ruining” his future wife, the young and innocent Cécile de Volanges. She asks Valmont to seduce Cécile but he refuses because he is too busy pursuing his own goals: he wants to seduce the very uptight and virtuous Madame de Tourvel. She is THE unattainable woman and therefore the best and greatest challenge to him; he wants to become a legend for having seduced the most virtuous woman known to their society.

The Marquise does not believe he will succeed and makes a bet with him: if he succeeds and is able to prove it, she will spend the night with him. He accepts and they both start working on their corresponding tasks. The Marquise discovers Cécile is actually in love with the Chévalier Danceny, a handsome but penniless nobleman, and decides to “help” Cécile with this forbidden love, with the purpose of getting her to give herself to him.

As the plot develops we see how both the Marquise and Valmont achieve their goals. Madame de Tourvel finally gives in after months of resisting Valmont’s advances and declarations of love and Valmont rapes Cécile as a punishment to her mother for gossiping to Madame de Tourvel of his previous adventures (and yes, he rapes her even though Cécile later says, in other words, that she kind of enjoyed it. This is still rape). The problem is that they end up driving each other to destruction. Valmont really falls in love with Madame de Tourvel but the Marquise tricks him into leaving her by making him feel he is no longer the great seducer he once was.

When Valmont fights Danceny in a duel and is mortally wounded, he gives Danceny all the letters telling the truth about the Marquise (and him). Thus, the Marquise is exposed and scorned and ends up fleeing France, ruined and deformed (smallpox!).

Madame de Tourvel first goes crazy and becomes delusional when Valmont leaves her and then dies when she hears the news of his death. Cécile returns to the convent and takes the robes because she is forever ruined. Yay for all the happy endings! :S

There are several aspects of the story that stood out for me:

Even though women, as always, had a very difficult position, the Marquise played skillfully with it. She was the ultimate hypocrite, preaching and appearing one thing and acting the complete opposite. I enjoyed her letters the most, so scheming but so smart at the same time. I enjoyed the tone with which she addressed Valmont, always teasing him or lecturing him in some way.

I liked Valmont's character at first but does someone else also finds his letters to Madame de Tourvel creepy? He was supposedly acting as a man desperately in love but he rather came off as a stalker. And I don’t say this because I knew he was reading her mail or having her followed, I say it because his letters to her were those of an obsessed stalker; a very well educated and eloquent one, but a stalker nonetheless. Why did she fall in love with him? I would have been scared to death of this man.

The idea of “shame” is very present at all times; the shame of ruined women and their shutting out of society. Cécile was raped by Valmont but it would have been considered a sin that ruined her and made her no longer suitable for marriage  She was the victim and the one punished for it. I guess victim-blaming and slut-shaming is nothing new to the world. It's been going on for centuries.  

The one thing that I found really annoying was the way Madame de Tourvel died. She is supposed to have died due to a broken heart. I know this was written at a time when people thought women were so frail and delicate they could actually die of shame, sadness or heartbreak, but I found it way too melodramatic and it kind of pissed me off. 

Also, the ending was too short and fast considering how much time it took for the story to develop. The consequences for Valmont and Meurteuil are as great as their crimes, but it was just too easy. I don’t understand Valmont’s final action: was it justice or revenge? Was it to stop the Marquise from doing more harm or was it to get even with her? I have to admit that at the beginning of the book I was rooting for Valmont, but then I started disliking him. My opinion is that he gave the letters to Danceny out of spite, not because he wanted to make amends. People don’t change like that and he was horrible. 

This is a great book, a very scary portrayal of the pre-revolutionary France and the depravity of its aristocracy. It also shows the difficult and particular position of women in a depraved society. It is definitely a story of extremes: extreme wickedness, depravity, hypocrisy and extreme naivety and virtuousness. I consider this to be the complete opposite of a love story. 

I would definitely recommend this book to others, especially those who enjoy epistolary novels, rich literary French and learning more about the aristocratic France before the revolution.

PS. I have seen the film adaptation with Glenn Close and John Malkovich. She is perfect as the Marquise of Meurteuil, so cold and scheming. I don’t really see Malkovich as the handsome seducer that Valmont is, though he does manage to grasp perfectly the stalker thing. The part when he says to Madame de Tourvel (played by Michelle Pfeiffer) that he “adooooooooores her” was creepy as hell.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

La inquilina de Wildfell Hall - Anne Brontë

La semana pasada terminé de leer La inquilina de Wildfell Hall. Tenía expectativas muy altas para este libro por todo lo que había escuchado y todas mis expectativas fueron completamente superadas. Creo que Anne se ha convertido en mi Brontë favorita, a pesar que no sabía que podía admirar a alguien más que a Charlotte. Ella está en mi lista de escritores épicos, los que me emocionan demasiado, de los que nunca me canso, los que me inspiran y me hacen querer ser una escritora. Ahora Anne ha ingresado a esa lista y se ha robado el primer puesto.

La inquilina de Wildfell Hall es una novela compuesta de cartas escritas por Gilbert Markham a su amigo acerca de esta misteriosa mujer que se ha mudado a Wildfell Hall. Él escribe sus propios pensamientos y recuerdos pero también copia del diario de la mujer misteriosa, conocida como Helen Graham al comienzo de la historia. De esta manera tenemos dos perspectivas diferentes de la historia y la parte del diario de Helen es súper íntima y conmovedora.

Esta no es una típica historia victoriana: es cruda, realista e intensa. Creó tal escándalo en su tiempo por retar las ideas contemporáneas de decencia que incluso Charlotte sintió la necesidad de suprimir el libro después que Anne murió.

Algunas personas dicen que La inquilina de Wildfell Hall es el primer libro feminista. Yo no estoy necesariamente de acuerdo con esto porque no creo que esa fuera la intención de Anne. Creo que ella escribía de manera muy clara, no había ninguna propaganda intencional escondida en el libro. Ella escribía lo que consideraba correcto, lo que debía ser. El hecho de que la heroína de la novela deje a su marido vicioso y abusivo no es un mensaje o argumento feminista. Es lo que ella pensaba que era verdad y correcto. Muchos de los críticos de la época se quejaron de la manera en que lo "feo" estaba retratado, se sintieron ofendidos por tener que leer algo tan desagradable para sus gustos decentes. Ella les dijo: "Cuando tenemos que ver con el vicio y personalidades violentas, yo mantengo que es mejor representarlas como son de verdad y no como les gustaría aparecer".

Es interesante que la hermana que todos pensaron era la menos talentosa haya escrito este libro, tan adelantado a su tiempo, tan poderoso y completo. Me he estado preguntado, ¿por qué es que todos la ignoraron de esa manera? ¿Qué la hacía diferente a sus hermanas? 

Hay que admitir que el estilo de Anne es menos romántico, tiene menos imágenes poéticas y los destinos de sus heroínas son normales. Entonces, ¿es que en esta época, la necesidad por algún romance dramático era tan importante que una realista como Anne, que escribía las cosas tal como las veía, sin adornarlas para hacerlas más agradables al lector o a ella misma, fue subestimada y olvidada? 

Encontré este comic el otro día (fuente: Hark! A vagrant). Es una exageración y no es muy justo con Charlotte y Emily pero hay algo de verdad en él y ciertamente me hizo reír. Mi opinión es que esta es la razón por la que Anne no es tan popular como Charlotte o Emily: ella no fantaseaba e idealizaba tanto como ellas. 

Cuando leí la biografía de la familia Brontë por Juliet Barker no sabía mucho sobre Anne. Había leído Agnes Grey y me había encantado pero seguía prefiriendo Jane Eyre. Luego, cuando descubrí un poco más de la familia, pude ver lo que Anne quizo transmitir cuando escribió Agnes Grey. Todo el mundo siempre ha pensado que Charlotte fue una revolucionaria porque fue la primera en escribir sobre una mujer simple y normal como la heroína de una novela, pero fue Anne la que lo hizo primero con Agnes Grey. Este libro representa mucho mejor la realidad y las dificultades de ser una institutriz. 

Ahora pienso que los libros que ella escribió van muy bien con su personalidad. Ella era la tranquila, la bebé de la familia, la que todos parecían olvidar siempre, pero era su pilar silencioso. Tenía una fuerza increíble, un sentido del deber que la hizo querer educarse para poder ganarse la vida. Anne fue la que trabajó más, a pesar que probablemente lo hizo en las peores condiciones. Ella dijo que Agnes Grey estaba basado en la verdad y según esto, los niños de las familias para las que trabajó eran la plaga.

La inquilina de Wildfell Hall hizo que mi corazón latiera más rápido mientras leía no por un romance, una aventura o cualquier otra cosa parecida. Lo hizo latir porque podía ver el talento detrás del libro, la mujer centrada que lo escribió sin buscar fama o aceptación. Anne escribió lo que era verdad para ella. Fue una experiencia completamente distinta a las de leer Jane Eyre o Wuthering Heights.

Si hay algo que no me gustó tanto en el libro fue el final relativamente corto, en comparación con el crecimiento y la progresión de la historia. No me parece que la relación entre Helen y Gilbert se haya desarrollado lo suficiente como para hacerme creer que son el final feliz de cada uno. ¿Por que Helen se enamoraría de Gilbert? Entiendo porque podría pasar en la dirección contraria, ella era una mujer hermosa y misteriosa, pero ¿quién era él para ella? Era un hombre simple y normal. Y de repente esa es la clave. Después de sufrir tanto con un "hombre extraordinario", extraordinariamente encantador, rico, apuesto, pero también extraordinariamente borracho, abusivo y manipulador, de repente ella quería algo normal, un hombre bueno y decente. No estoy segura. Todavía no me parece que la relación sea verosímil pero es una pequeña manchita en un libro realmente bueno.

Cuando terminé de leerlo me sentí triste. Triste de que ahora ya había leido los dos únicos que Anne Brontë escribió, yo quería más. Me pareció injusto que tuviera que morir tan joven. Sin embargo ella murió de la misma manera tranquila en la que vivió. Hasta el final, ella fue la serena y comprensiva. (Barker, 2012) “Incluso cuando estaba muriendo, sus preocupaciones eran para con los demas: al ver a Charlotte casi incapaz de contener su pena, Anne susurró: 'Se valiente, Charlotte; se valiente'. Consciente hasta el final, Anne murió tranquila y delicadamente a alrededor de las dos de la tarde del lunes 28 de mayo de 1849." 

Planeo releer Agnes Grey en las próximas semanas. Creo que será un experiencia completamente distinta sabiendo más de ella ahora. Quiero animar a los demas a que lean y disfruten de las obras de Anne y que superen el prejuicio de que ella era la menos talentosa. No creo que alguna de ellas deba ser etiquetada como la menos talentosa, todas eran diferentes y geniales en su propia manera y cada una de ellas contribuyó en el cuestionamiento de las tradiciones y convenciones victorianas y la forma prestablecida en que se suponía las mujeres debían escribir.

Y para los que adoren a las Brontës tanto como yo: El restaurado museo Brontë (en inglés).

Monday, February 18, 2013

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall - Anne Brontë

I finished reading The Tenant of Wildfell Hall last week. I had high expectations for this book because of everything I had heard of it and all my expectations were completely exceeded. I think Anne might have become my favorite Brontë, even though I didn’t know I could admire someone more than Charlotte. She’s in my list of epic writers, the ones I get too excited about, the ones I never tire of, the ones that inspire me and make me want to be a writer myself. Now Anne has entered that list, going directly to the first place.

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is a novel formed by letters from Gilbert Markham to his friend about this mysterious new woman living in Wildfell Hall. He writes his own thoughts and recollections but he also copies from the diary of the mysterious woman herself, known as Helen Graham at the beginning of the story. This way we get two different perspectives of the story. And the part of Helen’s diary is extremely intimate and touching.

This is no conventional Victorian story. It’s raw, realistic, intense. It created such a scandal in its time because it challenged the contemporary ideas of decency that even Charlotte felt the need to suppress it after Anne died.

Some say The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is the first feminist book. I don’t necessarily agree with that because I don’t think that was Anne’s intention. I think she wrote very straight forward, she didn’t have any intentional propaganda hidden in the book. She wrote what she though was right, what should be. The fact that the heroine of the novel leaves her dissolute, abusive husband was not a feminist message, plot, or whatever. Its is what she thought was true and right. A lot of critics at the time complained about the way the “ugly” was portrayed. They felt offended for having to read something so disagreeable to their decent tastes. She said to them “When we have to do with vice and vicious characters, I maintain it is better to depict them as they really are than as they would like to appear”.

It is interesting that this book, so ahead of its time, so powerful and complete, was written by the sister who everyone thought was the least talented. I’ve been wondering, what was it that made everyone disregard Anne in such a way? What made her different from her sisters? 

I’ll admit that Anne’s writing is less romantic, has less poetic imagery, the fates of her heroines are normal. Is it that at the time, the need for some dramatic romance was so important that a realist like Anne, who wrote things as she saw them, without embellishing them to make them more agreeable to the reader or herself, was underestimated and forgotten? 

I found this comic the other day (source: Hark! A vagrant). It is an exaggeration and it’s not really fair to Charlotte and Emily but there is some insight to it. It certainly made me laugh. My opinion is that this is the reason Anne is not as popular as Charlotte or Emily. She didn’t romanticize as much as them. 

When I read the Juliet Barker biography of the Brontë family I didn’t know much about Anne. I had read Agnes Grey and loved it but I always preferred Jane Eyre. Then, as I found out a little more of the family I saw what Anne meant when she wrote Agnes Grey. Everyone always thought Charlotte was a revolutionary because she was the first one to write about a plain, ordinary woman as the heroine of a novel, but it was Anne who did that first with Agnes Grey. This book portrays much better the reality and the difficulties of being a governess. 

I now think the books she wrote fit perfectly with her personality. She was quiet, the baby of the family, the one everyone seemed to forget, but she was its silent pillar. She had a core of steel, a sense of duty that made her want to get an education that would let her earn her own living. She was the one who worked the most, even though she probably did it in the worst conditions. She said Agnes Grey was based on the truth and according to that, the children of the families she worked for were the plague.

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall made my heart beat faster as I was reading it, but not because of a romance, an adventure or anything else you would expect. It was because I could see the genius behind it, the down to earth woman who wrote it without seeking fame or acceptance. She wrote what was true to her. It was a completely different experience than the ones of reading Jane Eyre or Wuthering Heights.

If there is something I didn’t like that much of this book was the relatively short ending, compared to the build-up of the story. I don’t think the relationship between Helen and Gilbert developed enough to make me believe they were each other’s happy ending. Why would Helen fall in love with Gilbert? I can see why it would happen the other way around, she was a beautiful, mysterious woman, but who was he to her? He was a plain, ordinary man. And maybe that is the key. After suffering so much with an “extraordinary man”, extraordinarily charming, rich, handsome but also extraordinarily drunk, abusive and manipulative, maybe she wanted normal. A good, decent, normal guy. I don’t know. I still don’t think that relationship is believable, but is just a small thing in a great, great book.

When I finished reading it I felt sad. Sad that now I had already read the only two books Anne Brontë ever wrote. I wanted more. It seemed unfair she had to die so young. But she died as calmly as she lived. She was, until the very end, the collected, supportive one. (Barker, 2012) “Even while she lay dying, her thought was for others: seeing Charlotte barely able to restrain her grief, Anne whispered, ‘Take courage, Charlotte; take courage’. Conscious to the last, Anne died, very calmly and gently, at about two o’clock in the afternoon on Monday, 28 May 1849.” 

I will reread Agnes Grey in the coming weeks. I feel it will be a completely different experience knowing more about her now. I want to encourage everyone to read and enjoy Anne's work and to overcome the prejudice that she was the least talented. I don’t think any of them should be labeled as the least talented, they were different and great in their own way and each of them contributed to the challenging of the Victorian traditions and conventions and the way women were supposed to write.

And for those of you who love the Brontës as much as I do, check this out: The newly restored Brontë Museum.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

My Classics Club Spin List (with result!)

The Classics Club is hosting a Classics Spin challenge. We have to list twenty books that we have left to read from our Classics Club list and then next Monday they will select a number and we have to read the book corresponding to that number during February and March. The idea is to challenge ourselves a little bit and list at least five we are pushing back in our reading schedules.

These are my twenty books. 

Five I’m hesitant to read:
1. von Goethe, Johann Wolfgang – Fausto
2. Mann, Thomas – The Magic Mountain 
3. Joyce, James – Finnegans Wake
4. Camus, Albert – The Plague
5. Dostoevsky, Fyodor – Crime and Punishment

Five I can’t wait to read:

6. Shakespeare, William – King Lear
7. Shakespeare, William – The Tempest
8. Dickens, Charles – Bleak House
9. Hodgson Burnett, Frances – The Secret Garden
10. Nabokov, Vladimir – Lolita

Five I’m neutral about:

11. De Balzac, Honoré – Eugenie Grandet
12. Fuentes Carlos – La muerte de Artemio Cruz (The Death of Artemio Cruz)
13. James, Henry – The American
14. Kerouac, Jack – On the Road
15. Turgenev, Ivan – First Love

Five free choices: Re-reads I'm really looking forward to.

16. Bronte, Emily – Wuthering Heights
17. García Márquez – Cien años de soledad (A Hundred Years of Solitude)
18. García Márquez – El amor en los tiempos del cólera (Love in the Time of Cholera)
19. Cortázar, Julio – Rayuela (Hopscotch)
20. Woolf, Virginia – Mrs. Dalloway

This should be fun, though I don’t feel like reading James Joyce just yet. I’m really in the mood for Shakespeare so I will cross my fingers and hope I get one of the two plays I chose for this Spin list. Let’s see what happens!


The number chosen was 14! I'm so relieved I don't have to read Finnegans Wake yet. I was hoping for one of the Shakespeare plays but maybe it is a good thing I can wait until I get the glossary I need to be able to really understand the Shakespearean language. 

I've heard many great reviews of On The Road, so I'm actually looking forward to reading it.

Monday, February 11, 2013

February Ramblings

February is proving to be a challenging month in some ways. As some of you may know, I’m a freelance translator (working my way to having my own translation company). I love my job, I do, but it is not an easy one. It requires continuous education, specialization and a little bit of courage to take the risk of being independent or freelance in an emerging country where my profession is still rather unknown commercially. 

Sometimes it gets harder than usual and I feel that maybe I don’t have the strength to do this. Fortunately, there are some people in my life that remind me why this is worthwhile. I just have to keep pushing until I get the results I want. I really hate uncertainty and that is what is killing me right now, the feeling that not everything is under my control. I don't like this part of my job. Maybe it will get better with time as I become more experienced, who knows. I try not to bring myself down and look forward to the future with enthusiasm.  Every day I wake up with the sun shining through my window and it makes me feel more optimistic, at first. Unfortunately, I start hating the sun and my optimism goes a little to hell around 11 am, when the heat gets impossible. That's the other reason of why I'm not liking February that much.

It’s really difficult to work, concentrate or read with this heat. I feel like I’m surviving rather than enjoying this summer. The other day I heard someone mocking people who complain about the cold during the winter and the heat during the summer. I’m not one of those people, I’m a winter girl. I love wearing layers of clothes, drinking lots of hot coffee and wearing nice, warm boots. It’s true that winters in Lima are gray, foggy and gloomy, but for some reason I feel much more comfortable with the cold weather. Lima doesn't really have cold winters, they are rather mild compared to, well, anywhere in the northern hemisphere, but I loved the winter I spent in Europe, so yes, I’m a winter girl. When the summer started I said to myself I would try to enjoy it and I have tried, but this heat wave defeated me.

Despite of all this (or maybe because of all this since reading is my way of escaping what is troubling me), I’ve managed to read considerably these days. I miraculously finished the first part of Les Liaisons Dangereuses, even though for a moment there I thought I wouldn’t finish it on time. I’m enjoying this book for many reasons. Number one, I’m reading it in French. It’s the first book that I’m reading completely in French since college and I’ve decided to do that more often. Number two, I do love good intrigues in a book. Valmont and Merteuil are so Machiavellian and amusing, what a couple of liars! They are such hypocrites but so much fun to read. I can’t wait to see what happens next. 

I also finished the four Sherlock Holmes novels. My favorite by far was The Hound of The Baskervilles. I had read a couple of the novels during my teens and a lot of the short stories but I had forgotten a little about Sherlock Holmes until the BBC series came along and made me want to read them again. I will write my review of the four books in a later post. (And for those who haven’t seen the BBC series yet, please do. It’s so smart, fun and classy. Even though it is a modernization of the stories, it is still pretty faithful to the essence of the books, I think.)

Right now I’m also reading La Mujer Justa (Portraits of a Marriage) by Sandor Marai, a Hungarian writer, and just started The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë. I’m still not sure how I feel about Portraits of a Marriage, I’m not enjoying it that much yet, but I haven’t even read half the book so I should wait and see. On the other hand, Anne Brontë just rocks. My love for the Brontës in general has no boundaries, but Anne is something really special.

Anyway, I’m sorry if this post is all over the place, I guess it is a reflection of my present state of mind. I’m just looking forward to more reading and better (colder) days.

Friday, February 1, 2013

About starting February and my plans for March

This week has been crazy for me. Just one of those weeks when the universe decides that it is going to give you a hard time and you find yourself running around, trying to get things done. On top of that, the heat is getting ridiculous here. Every errand I had this week was done while dripping sweat and cursing for not having a pool (or at least a bigger bathtub) to jump in. Friday is here and I am tired. Fortunately, February is also here and I hope to have some peace and quiet from now on. Although there’s not much I can do about the heat, which only promises to get worse.

I started reading Les Liaisons Dangereuses this morning, as part of the French February event hosted by O from Délaissé. So far it’s going good. I had forgotten how much I love reading in French. Sometimes I read out loud because French is so goddamned beautiful.  

I decided to follow O’s example and read one part each week (the book has four parts). I will write my thoughts on the first part as soon as I finish it and will take part in any conversation, debate, etc., regarding this book.

I published my post about A Moveable Feast yesterday. Hemingway has left a mark in me with this book. Then I found out that Allie from A Literary Odyssey is hosting "A Modern March" for The Classics Club so I’m obviously going to join and read more Hemingway. My Modernist March reading list would be:

The Sun Also Rises - E. Hemingway
A Farewell to Arms - E. Hemingway
To the Lighthouse - V. Woolf (I started reading this one last year and left it in the middle for some reason.  Probably work.)

I’m very happy I joined The Classics Club. I've gotten to discover really wonderful blogs and bloggers who are an inspiration to me with my reading. It’s a great motivation and I love to be a part of it.

Have a great weekend!