Thursday, 28 May 2020

#8 At home...with more books and my thoughts


Kew Gardens

I can't wait to end this enforced stay-at-home, like most of us. When I go out, I see that people tend to regard the lockdown as more or less over - masks have disappeared, social distancing is observed with much laxity, the weather is gorgeous so everyone tries to be in parks and outdoor spaces. The Dominic Cummings affair has also upset, rightly so, several people and many are deliberately breaking the lockdown rules, in the belief that 'if he did it, so can we'. 
I am waiting for my favourite park, Kew Gardens,  to reopen (on June 1st) and then I will venture out there, I will be renewing my membership soon. Entry to the  Gardens is not free and this means many people will not go; consequently, it will be far less crowded than other spaces.  
Being at home all the time has brought on some mild agoraphobia. I have never liked crowds, a contradiction, really, since I live in a metropolis, but now going out feels like a major undertaking, just walking to the supermarket makes me a little anxious.  
Overall, I don't mind being home, I have been able to fill my little balcony with plants and looking after them has taken up a lot of my time - when it was very windy, a few days ago,  I really feared for their safety (and that of my downstairs neighbours) and fiddled with pieces of string and superglue to make sure the pots would stay in place after one of them was smashed by the gale-force wind. 
Reading, of course, is still my favourite activity. The Don Quixote spell is over, and now I am reading -belatedly I know, I should have done it long ago - Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall trilogy set in the times of Henry VIII and following Thomas Cromwell's rise and fall. I did watch the TV adaptation a few years ago and relished it, the acting was excellent, I am moreover a great fan of Mark Rylands. (Thomas Cromwell), whom I met many years ago when he was not yet famous and led a William Shakespeare Walking Tour from Westminster Abbey to the Globe.
 I thought Anne Boleyn, beautifully played by Claire Foy who was able to bring out all her contradictions,  did not come across as particularly likeable as a character, nevertheless. Anne is portrayed as petulant and ungracious, constantly belittling 'bastard' Mary Tudor, also known as 'Bloody Mary' when she finally ascended to the throne, daughter of Catherine of Aragon. Anne  constantly mocked her diminutive stature,  repeatedly referring to her as 'the dwarf' and even has a little woman (as we say today)  in her retinue, whom she rechristened Mary as she proudly tells Cromwell.  One is almost tempted to say 'good riddance' when Anne  is finally beheaded, except that, obviously, the punishment was extremely violent and, frankly, excessive.  But then she would not go quietly! What else could Henry do to get rid of her?  Henry is...let's not discuss Henry, I positively dislike him,  even if I take into account that he was a 16th-century monarch. But the actor, Damian Lewis, makes an almost likeable and definitely very dashing Henry VIII. 


In fact, Hilary Mantel has penned a great portrait of Anne Boleyn, in the book,  but also in articles (see this one) though I would not go as far as calling Anne a feminist.  Anne Boleyn has always had supporters and detractors, I am neither. I see her as a woman of her time, ambitious and out for herself which is not necessarily a bad thing. Maybe she really did sleep with her brother to beget a son,  since Henry was not always obliging in the bedroom, having already taken up with Jane Seymour and Anne felt she was running out of time. Maybe she did not. She was condemned to die as she was found guilty of treason, however, not witchcraft, as many seem to think.
I do not believe that just because Anne was a woman I should like her, nor do I think it is useful to put feminist tags on women who lived in pre-modern times, feminism did not belong to the 16th century. The Tudor court was a very treacherous environment, it goes without saying, and Anne had to learn to navigate it as best as she could. Her daughter Elizabeth became the most revered English sovereign ever, but Anne was not around to see her triumph.
Anyway, the Trilogy will keep me going for a while. As soon as lockdown is over, I plan to visit Hampton Court again. There will be no summer holidays abroad this year, so I shall have to make the most of what is available here and turn myself into a tourist, as if visiting London for the first time. Let's hope the weather will not disappoint.

Hampton Court Palace; Clock Court, Anne Boleyn's Gatehouse and the Astronomical Clock 
Photo: David Dixon


I wrote  'my thoughts' in this post's title. The following remarks have nothing to do with my books which really are my best friends at the moment, but I need to mention these 'thoughts'. 
I don't know about you, but I am very tired of friends who keep on sending via WhatsApp videos which are meant to be uplifting or who send various bits of news, mostly fake news, as if I were unable to access news channels. And if I politely ask them not to, they launch into a long tirade about me putting my head in the sand like an ostrich. Then there are those who think they have to tell me about all their woes in long WhatsApp messages, which keep coming in, and those who simply have to send me pictures of the cakes and various types of bread they bake. These are things for Facebook and other social media, not for sharing among friends and acquaintances through WhatsApp, Messenger or even  Skype! 
I am too polite to block people, but fortunately, WhatsApp allows you to mute. When I get all these messages I just thank people with an emoji and don't bother to read their entire texts. What is this urge to share absolutely everything? Do people not believe in privacy anymore? Do basic rules of politeness no longer apply? Why should everyone be interested in absolutely everything you do?
Sure, there are very personal things I share with my sister (my sister, not a stranger and I am allowed to quarrel with her, that's what siblings do) or with my son and his family. I love getting pics of my granddaughter, for example,  but will think not twice but two hundred times before sending them to others, unless they specifically ask for one (and even then I am most careful, as my son and his partner are fiercely private people).  
Social media has turned all of us into narcissists and the lockdown has made it worse, with selfies taken in the shower or in bed,  Tik Tok galore, people posting pictures of deserted city streets taken on their morning or evening walks. However, I can scroll through a social media feed and then forget all about it,  and move on.  But the constant ping of inconsequential WhatsApp messages irritates me, this is why I have been making ample use of the 'muting' facility.  
Ghosh, I have written a very long post and about different topics too, there's two different posts squeezed into one.
Never mind, I shall do better next time!

Friday, 15 May 2020

#7 At home...with (still) Don Quixote




Google Images

Don Quixote is a guest that stays with you for quite some time,  not only in terms of how it shapes your thinking but, also, in a very tangible and physical sense, as the book cannot be read hastily.  Thus it will be with you, in your living room, your bedside table and wherever else you choose to rest it to pick up the narration.
 I am still at volume 1 (almost finished) but am also reading around it, which is slowing me down as well as giving me food for thought. I am also reading, simultaneously,  Quichotte by Salman Rushdie, which I earlier described as a novella, but which is, in fact, a two-volume novel, bringing Quixote to contemporary America, as a retired salesman in love with love who names himself Quichotte, à la français (more about Rushdie's version in another post). 
I have also read Lennox's The female Quixote, which I mentioned in my earlier post, and in which Quixote becomes Arabella, an 18th-century wealthy woman who sees herself as the heroine of one of those French romances set in the era of chivalry which was her staple reading, constantly reinterpreting reality in accordance with her imagined world.
And... I have finally been able to watch The man who killed Don Quixote in its entirety.  I enjoyed it and I totally disagree with those critics who have reviewed it negatively. It is not an adaptation of Cervantes' masterpiece, it is inspired by it and by a twenty-five-year long engagement with this extraordinary novel, retaining its magnificent chaos, flights of fancy and at times raucous humour but clearly changing the storyline to suit contemporary viewers.



Next on my list is Kathy Acker's Don Quixote which was a dream, in which the Don is again a woman who becomes a knight to defeat "the evil enchanters of modern America". I have ordered it, after reading Victoria Tomasulo's critical appraisal and am waiting for it to arrive in the post. Can't wait to get started!
As you can see,  I am quite taken with Don Quixote. And, in truth, who fails to fall under the spell of the Don? The more you read this book, the more it strikes you as relevant, so utterly contemporary - the speech made by Marcela, for example, who claims independence of action and thought and refuses to bow to men, choosing not to marry, is unexpected and very heartening, endorsed by Don Quixote, rather than being condemned.  (See the exhibition by Google Arts on the female world in Don Quixote)



I disagree with those who attempt to place a proto-feminist tag on Cervantes, but I concur with Edith Grossman who in 2004 translated Don Quixote into English, a new translation to mark the 400 years anniversary of the novel. The last in a long line of translators, whose work began as soon as the (great)work was published, Grossman who has clearly engaged with Cervantes in great depth, believes that to think of him as a proto-feminist is rather over the top but acknowledges that his female characters are often presented as strong women eg the above mentioned Marcela.
Personally, what intrigues me is how Don Quixote is a novel about books and reading, thus I am inclined to reflect on the transformative encounter one has with literature.
Don Quixote begins by asserting it is a book about other books (and their pernicious influence). I am reading it as a woman of my own time and obviously, I notice the values and conventions contained in a work of literature of this magnitude, and am overall aware of how these have, historically, been shaped by men. Cervantes is a 16th-century man, there is no doubt about it.  I cannot but be struck by the portrayal of the characters, both female and male, the complex language of the text, the attitude(s)  of the author and the relationship between the characters as also  the comments the author seems to be making about society as a whole.

Don Quixote by Salvador Dali

But most of all  I am fascinated by the role of fearless quester embodied by the DonI ask myself about women taking on that role as writers: through the evidence I have cited - there are many more examples, I can mention here the Italian author Elsa Morante, also discussed by Tomasulo -  women seem to have been in a quixotic pursuit of self-representation in an androcentric universe, in ways that invite a reflection on the relationship between life and literature, as noted by said Victoria Tomasulo.
However, I am still grappling with the real meaning of 'quixotic' and ways in which it can be applied to my (day-to-day) existence - is my quest to subvert warped perceptions of beauty and age quixotic? Am I tilting at windmills?  I am not, as yet, able to answer. It remains to be seen how Covid19 will change our priorities.

Sunday, 3 May 2020

#6 At home...with Don Quixote




Trailer of  the movie by Gilliam 'The man who killed Don Quixote'



(When I began this series of posts written during the lockdown, I chose the title 'Life in the Time of Coronavirus'. But after a while I found the title unmanageable, so now I am simply numbering the posts and using the tag #At home with...)

I recently took part in the '10at10' series of interviews on Instagram Live by designer Ira Iceberg, with whom I worked in 2019  (you can watch the interview here. and also below).  I mention this because, in the course of the interview, Ira asked me about my strategies to survive the lockdown. This post complements the interview.



By now we have all developed our own ways to cope with the lockdown. What am I doing? Apart from going out food shopping, which still remains one of the dullest tasks ever, despite the opportunity to walk through my local park, I am sleeking (doing sleek technique) regularly, even more so now than I ever did, though I was always a dedicated sleeker even in pre-coronavirus times.
I also alternate between repurposing old clothes and experimenting with knitting and crochet and obsessively, I look after my plants, having discovered that my tiny balcony can be put to some good use, after years of utter neglect - it needed some good cleaning. So I bought a dwarf wisteria, which was delivered on Friday (a day of deliveries, I also got my Vaara dancewear but I will tell you about it in a different post) and am encouraging my jasmine to cling onto the railings of said balcony, where I have also tied some large umbrellas to protect my plants from the rain, following the advice found in this post). I am dreaming of the luxuriant growth of both climbers, as in the picture below;  the reality is infinitely more modest.


Wisteria on a balcony in Crema, Italy. Photo: Nicky Deo (via Pinterest)


Time drags during the lockdown and I have found some solace in reading. I occasionally scribble but no, the real pleasure is in reading or re-reading the classics.  Why the classics? Because, as Calvino said in his Why read the classics? they are "books, which the more we think we know them through hearsay, the more original, unexpected and innovative we find them when we actually read them".
Thus I  read the entire Clarissa, the history of a young lady by Samuel Richardson (see the previous post) and really enjoyed it; it was a fortnight very well-spent. Then I read an article about Salman Rushdie's rewriting of Don Quixote (the novella Quichotte, which I plan to acquire soon).  It sent me straight to LibriVox for an audiobook of Cervantes' classic. I am now listening to it and rediscovering its power and intensity.  It is the John Ormsby translation  - I also have the Penguin Classic edition translated by John Rutherford, which I am consulting when the  LibriVox reading gets tedious - I have commented on the uneven quality of volunteer readers in connection with the Clarissa audiobook.
A favourite of my mother's who used to quote extensively from it, in earlier attempts at reading it I never went past the windmill episode and skimmed through the two volumes, finding it too taxing to follow in its entirety. Don Quixote, published in 1605, is a complex book, whose translation has always been a vexed issue because Spanish has a natural grandiloquence that is most difficult to render in other languages without sounding exceedingly pompous and affected. I will not elaborate on this; there are many learned papers one can read about translating El Quixote, as Cervantes' masterpiece is affectionately known by Spanish speaking people - and, incidentally, Cervantes too raises the issue of translation in volume one, when Don Quixote's books are being burnt by the hidalgo's well-meaning friends.
There are also a few movies around attempting to render the book cinematographically, the latest is the one by Terry Gilliam (2019), who took a good twenty years to make it (you can also watch the documentary he made in 2002 Lost in La Mancha, when it became clear that making the movie was going to be quite an undertaking, due to lack of funding.)


I was curious to know about novels inspired by Don Quixote. The list is long as Cervantes has been admired by many writers. Madame Bovary by Flaubert is but a female Don Quixote, evident in her quest for romantic love - Flaubert regarded Don Quixote as one of the most important works that helped him to develop as a writer.
But there is also The female Quixote by Charlotte Lennox, published in 1752 and appreciated by the literary establishment of the time, especially Samuel Johnson, and which was subsequently used by Jane Austen as an inspiration for her Northanger Abbey - in all this one can see how writers are constantly in dialogue with one another, across time and space. It also makes one aware that,  to be a good writer,  one really needs to read widely.
So thanks to LibriVox, I am also listening to The female Don Quixote, alternating between the original and Lennox. 
I recently told a friend  (in an email) that plan to emerge from the lockdown as a very well-read person, with a better knowledge of world literature and of the classics. I can't keep on checking the news and feel sorry for not being able to do this or that, I need to focus on something positive.
I have always enjoyed reading, but now, I have taken to it with a vengeance. 
Will I be a better person for it? Possibly not. One thing is certain, however: I am definitely not getting bored. And this is more than enough to justify the effort.