Tis About Lit and Reading It

Category Archives: 20th Century

We haven’t quite covered M Butterfly in class but I have to say that it was, like my wonderful Prof said, quite a “sexy” play.

Being a bit of an Asian American Lit ignoramus, I have never quite comprehended the appeal of M Butterfly. Neither have I liked Asian American Literature (or Asian Literature) in general. I suppose if I were to quote Frank Chin, he would say that “[t]hat is very white and nothing but very white of [me]” (“Rendezvous”, Frank Chin).

It is always obsessed with colonialism, racism and gender. Personally, I find it rather cliched. Of course, it goes to show the extent to which our colonial masters, the British, American, Spanish and Dutch, have brutally inflicted on us Asians for the rest of eternity.

I have never thought of myself as a subjugated person in society. I’m a girl and I’m Asian, so I suppose that makes me doubly subjugated if one were to adopt the militant feminist position.

But anyways, back to the play.

In a nutshell, M Butterfly is about a French diplomat (Rene Gallimard) who falls in love with a Chinese opera singer (Song Li-ling) who turns out to be a man. Unable to grasp onto the reality of the situation, he commits suicide.

It is quite a compelling play and extremely straight-forward. You don’t need to have studied Literature to appreciate the finer points of the play though I have always believed that anyone can appreciate Literature if they take time to do so (but that is for another time).

During an Asian American Lit tutorial, it occurred to me that Gallimard’s painting of his face in the mirror could perhaps his attempts to preserve the imperialist fantasy. The mirror has often been regarded as the site of a fantastical land that parallels reality, though is inverted to show a mere shadow. So he commits suicide together with his Butterfly.

(Un)fortunately, my classmate responded by saying that Gallimard is committing a masturbatory act with himself.

I was not quite so sure of what to make of that so I gave any response that any sensible person would have:

By blabbering “What no.”

I’m sure anyone in my position would be flabbergasted as well. Who wouldn’t?

The last scene of M Butterfly:

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“Once upon a time, in the forest, lived a woman who was so beautiful that the mere sight of her healed the sick and gave a good omen to the crops… Meanwhile, in a part of the forest that had become a town, a great prince roamed sadly along the corridors of his palace.” – Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit. Chapter: Leviticus.

This charming introduction to an ‘authentic’ fairytale in the Chapter Leviticus is simply subversive, yet may seem like a digression from the main text or body of the book. Though digression has a purpose in “diverting” the reader from the main text, this ironically points the reader to a deeper meaning and understanding of the apple and inner garden of the text.

Sterne himself was quite partial to it:

“Digressions, incontestably, are the sunshine; – they are the life, the soul of reading; — take them out of this book for instance; — you might as well take the book along with them; – one cold winter would reign in every page of it…” – The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman. Laurence Sterne.

Imagine yourself in a field. Surrounded by wheat and blue skies. You know you are physically present- that bluey-blue sky cannot be false. Neither than the swaying wheat gently pressing on your feet. They are undeniable facts. But the “why” may elude you. Naturally, you walk in this endless field. As you are walking, you find apples on the ground. They don’t look terribly bad. Apples are a part of nature and so are wheat. Cognitive dissonance. It looks odd. Why are apples in a wheat-planted field? Of course, you don’t know that at the end of this wheatfield is a garden carefully managed by a farmer.

And that, my friend, is like reading texts within a text. At least to me.

Intertextuality is a feature that Postmodern critics have been quite (lack of a better word) critical about as it is made up of odds and ends. However, it is deemed as a more political gesture and social commentary of society. Even today, Postmodernism is still largely the reigning queen of modern Literature.

Like the previous chapters, Winterson parodies her chapters according to the title. Leviticus is the book of priests; it is a manual that the Levites (priests) used. And perfection is emphasised quite a lot. It is also the first chapter in the book (Oranges) that Jeanette has her “first theological disagreement”.

Perfection is not flawlessness. To Jeanette, it calls for a “perfect balance of qualities and strengths” and not utter un-blemish. This is a battle that she will fight cudgels against theologians about but it also signifies her rebellion against a patriarchal order and the war that they fought previously; Winterson makes a subtle reference to World War II and Hitler’s pursuit of an Aryan race.

Winnet Stonejar and Sir Perceval are what make Oranges the Postmodern novel. Without it, tis be like eternal winter.

 


Available at Kinokuniya (Singapore) at 40.14$.

The Andreas sisters were raised on books – their family motto might as well be, ‘There’s no problem a library card can’t solve.’” – Summary taken from Eleanor Brown’s website.

Indeed, I was hooked from reading this very quote, perhaps it appealed to the Shakespeare geek in me or that I enjoy everything to do with Literature that is cleverly interwoven into texts, especially one so wonderfully written by Brown.

Yes, the use of the hyperbole is justified if you read the excerpt to her novel.

Of course, first impressions can be deceiving. But who cares? My literary appetite knows no boundaries and is hankering for a read of this  novel.

Of late, there has been a trend of writing “literally literary” novels, joining the ranks of books like The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows (an epistolary novel) and one of the earliest I can remember reading, Love Walked In by Marisa De Los Santos. Some may mourn its lack of originality but really, I enjoy it because of the clever textual references. For the elitist in me, it works as an ego-booster.

And when one looks at Modern/Post-Modern books, you’ll realise that there is a trickling-down of original scripts, words, phrases, wit. And you start to realise.. There is a limit. Unfortunately, writers do not have the luxury of languishing in the sun or be trapped in their ivory tower. And writers are still human. And humans imitate each other. And yes, this is linked to Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit.

Writers like Winterson today rewrite words and texts so much so that this recycled material is made new. It is almost a religious process, which brings to mine several Biblical verses (Does 2 Corinthians ring a bell?). They recognise that there is no longer any sense of originality, that they do not reflect reality but rather, it participates in reality’s deceit and hypocrisy.

The natural step would be to re-write, re-construct and re-cycle.

“People like to separate storytelling which is not fact from history which is fact. They do this so that they know what to believe and what not to believe… Knowing what to believe had its advantages. It built an empire and kept people where they belonged, in the bright realm of the wallet…” – Winterson, Jeanette. Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit. Chapter: Deuteronomy.

It is something for you to think about really. Shakespeare too is re-written so many times, though purists may mourn, the essential core remains unchanged. And perhaps I will go so far as to say that it too remains untainted. Indeed, it is wonderful that the possibilities are endless in Literature.



Time and tide has taken me to the realms of 18th Century novels that it has not allowed me to crash on the couch we call “Virginia Woolf”. However, reading To The Lighthouse has been a pleasant experience.

Su Reid comments on how readers often misinterpret the difficulty of Woolf’s novel. Thus despite my initial exasperated difficulty to understand the novel, I was glad that I endeavoured through it. I don’t pretend to be used to the diction and form of the novel; in fact, most of it was a struggle.

Because To The Lighthouse is truly a Modern masterpiece.

There are many reasons why I believe Woolf’s novel is a Modern masterpiece. In her famous essay “Modern Fiction”, she writes about how the “[typical] writer seems constrained, not by  own free will but by some powerful and unscrupulous tyrant who has him in thrall, to provide a plot…” Indeed, how true that is. To The Lighthouse has eluded the conventional novel structure, instead, she models for herself a new “framework of steel”, an alternative (?) for the novel.

The Modern Novel places an emphasis on realism. To stay as true to reality as much as possible. You know, when one reads about “reality” and staying true to “reality”, we often like to think it objective. However, what if “reality” is an amalgamation of subjective thoughts, hearts and minds? People are the source of all things “refreshing”. We may be creatures of habits, but when different creatures of habits meet, there is an explosion of colours.

“The perpetual task of poetry is to make all things new. Not necessarily to make new things.” (Eliot, T S). Hark that. To The Lighthouse has somehow, by an insidious (and perhaps conniving) and clever way, breathed life into novels. She does not claim refuge in the petty things like pandering to her readers, but there is still a hint of stylistic devices used to convey her thoughts to us.

 

 


Once upon a time and a very good time it was there was a book and this book that was assigned as a reading met a nicens little teenager named Nic..

No, this is not a story. But every thing is of Historical Fact. Her name was Nic and she had to read The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.

Not the best parody of the beginning of Portrait but I’m sure my endeavours paid off by amusing you plenty with my follies and idiocy. Haha. On a more serious note, encountering Joyce again in Portrait induced a sort of “weariness” in me (the same sort of “langour” that Stephen himself experienced in Chapter 4) that may be attributed to having read and done papers for the exam before. Also, I was more partial to his collection of short stories The Dubliners (an excellent read in my opinion).

However, the lovely and wonderful quality about Literature is that each book is like a never-ending onion of layers. You may think you have gotten to the core, but revisiting it, you realise that you have only just touched the surface and not core of the book. Unless every book is like Twilight where the layer is one fathomable ball of tissue, then Literature would perhaps not be a subject worth studying.

So back to Joyce.

My twentieth-century buff of a friend was hysteric over the book (albeit in a positive way, one need not fret for her nerves), possessing a certain Modernist streak herself. So you can imagine that I was not wildly enthused about the idea of reading Portrait again, not that I disliked it but the character was someone I had a love/hate relationship with. Fortunately, taking a second look at Joyce, the ambiguity that festers between the pages and yearning to create a new piece of Art is highly commendable. And I have begun to truly esteem the writer quite highly.

Stephen, however, remains a kind of hero. From one in childhood where he successfully triumphs over the ‘evil’ teacher, to several different overtures of religious piety and artistic epiphanies. He constantly eludes understanding (surely it is done on purpose) and categories that one never quite knows how to ‘deal’ with a character like Stephen. His blasphemies also border on a sacrilegious tone that seems to compliment the Eucharistic nature of the act of recreation- priests may balk while atheists may scorn the religious dependence.

Most of all, he creates empathy for the Irish. I never quite saw them as an oppressed race really. His patriotism is one that exceeds the romantic follies of his compatriots. Perhaps we inherit the same situations and circumstances. I speak a language I am not native to, and the betrayal on our tongues is a subtle indication of past and continued oppression. It is no longer that of physical invasion, but cultural and spiritual invasion. At least that is what Joyce intends to convey.

More on Joyce soon, but perhaps I shall venture on to Pamela (by Samuel Richardson) who has continued to delight me in every turn of the page.


20th Century Literature has largely been marked by interesting figures- most of which have been the avant-garde type; those that do not inspire sequels, variations (well, hardly anyways). It is perhaps one of the reasons I have never quite looked so kindly on them. How is their deviation from the conventional novel an attempt to relate to their readers? Is their reality really reality?

As many of you know, the novel, like any story, has a certain structure. A plot, a climax and an ending.

For the Modernists, the Novel  seems to elude.

The evolution of the novel thoroughly fascinates me and today’s lecture on Modernism has put a dent in my prejudice against 20th Century novels, namely modern and post-modern novels. No doubt, their flexible structure often irks me (and they probably will continue to) but I believe I have found a soul-mate in a certain Virginia Woolf.

Is it not the task of the novelist to convey this varying, this unknown and uncircumscribed spirit, whatever aberration of complexity it may display, with as little mixture of the alien and external as possible? – Virginia Woolf.

Yes. Yes. Yes.

The novel derives from its literary counterpart of the word “novel”, it refers to the experimentally new. I have never quite seen it in that light before, and have often stuck to my own notion of what a novel should be. My prejudices ran counter to the original idea of a novel.

However, I do understand that books are meant to appeal to everyone and anyone. It really depends on who reads it and how they read it and the meaning they receive from it.

 


It has been a short while since I have last blogged. Nevertheless, my reading remains constant still, no less.

There are times when I think of what Austen and her other writing contemporaries would say if she read Woolf, Joyce or even Winterson; I am sure they would be appalled at their indecent exposure of their follies and vulgarity.

Anyways, in this chapter (Exodus), Winterson continues her background story as a missionary child who is overzealous about the Bible, the Church but she has yet to mention God. She makes an interesting allegory to Mary and Elizabeth (from the Gospels) in her attempt to make something meaningful out of her endless drought of receiving academic recognition. To be religious, was to be abnormal. Unfortunately, her attempts to “make [her]self as ordinary as possible” pay little dividends and thus, explains the reason for the chapter title: Exodus.

“I had told all the others about the horrors of the demon and the fate of the damned. I had illustrated it by almost strangling Susan Hunt, but that was an accident…”

Exodus was the book in which Moses was put in front of the Pharoah and told him to “Let my people go!”. Winterson perhaps portrays herself as the little ‘modern-day’ Moses; the pseudo-Hebrews are no less the children who are too young to comprehend her (mis)intentions. In an ironic twist, later in the novel, Jeanette is banished from her ‘cosy nest’ of overzealous Pentecostal evangelists.

The child Winterson tries to make sense of her surroundings and the society she lives in by opening up her imagination- ironic. On one hand, her imagination conforms to Biblical themes. On the other hand, she is at a loss as to who she is. Like the Emperor Tetrahedron, she  “[has] so many faces”.

Interestingly, the persona does not experience or personify her emotions. But rather, uses events to illustrate her point of view and her surroundings. The narrative is driven by events that run along the tangent of her religious overzealousness.

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