Tis About Lit and Reading It


As a literary nerd, I make it my business to visit online book catalogues on a regular basis. Before this makes me sound like the Paris Hilton of book-shopping, you should know that I derive utmost pleasure in being able to skim through the catalogue and search for books that I would like to read.

If you are any kind of shopper, you would hone my exact feelings about shopping catalogues in general.

Of late, Kinokuniya Singapore’s book catalogue received a face-lift. Unlike its previous vapid, one-dimensional interface. This was rather refreshing:

Doesn’t it look awesome? Or perhaps I am biased since Borders US has fallen to ruin although they do have lovely stores that do not deprive their books of air and freedom.

Well, that’s all I guess. I hope you were not expecting a full post about the glories of the Kino book catalogue, that would be rather strange.


Faulks on Fiction

“Read, read, read, read, my unlearned reader! read…” – Back of Oxford Edition of The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman.

Personally, I wish this could be a book review but this would not turn out to be what you, the reader, would expect. If you are a Singaporean student, I pray you won’t disparage that I even have time to indulge in reading luxuriously. Reading for me is important. If I did not read something (________ fill in the blank) before bed every night, the sky would not be blue. The ocean not green and grey. The sun not shining.

Every inversion of nature could be invoked. But I shall not bore you with the hackneyed phrases.

But Literature today is an incredibly misunderstood subject. They think we sit in ivory towers and are from out of this world. When we speak to people, it seems like they tremble in fear of what these crazy pseudo-elitists might say.

At least that’s what I imagine it to be in my little fantasy world.

“How did we come to this? It’s not, after all, the natural state of affairs. A child first marvels at the invention of a story; he doesn’t ask who Rumpelstiltskin was modelled on; he just loves it that a wishing chair can fly or animals can talk. In adult fiction, the element of wonder has somehow been lost; some readers seem to find it frightening to think a writer can conjure people, scenes and feelings from a void… [so they attribute them to intense autobiographical elements]”

– Introduction, Faulks on Fiction. Sebastian Faulks.

Hook. Line. And Sinker.

This may not quite tempt you to read the book but perhaps the “Lovers” chapter may entice you to, especially when I saw the name “Mr. Darcy”.

How can one not love an academic essay about Mr. Darcy?


Fops and Cravats

It has been a short while since this blog has seen any new content. Oh I am still enjoying the 20th Century texts, however, I have not yet churned out a post that will not make me look like a cathartic poet who needs release of her emotions through writing these blog posts.

Reading The Female Quixote (Charlotte Lennox) brought a slight reprieve to my other reads, but it was a wonderful prelude to re-reading Northanger Abbey (Jane Austen) now. But it was no wonder, since Austen herself used it as an inspiration for her first piece of work (Northanger Abbey, written in her early twenties!). Unlike Austen’s first fully written novel, however, The Female Quixote does not receive as much publicity and fanfare today.

According to Wikipedia, Norma Clarke has ranked it with Clarissa, Tom Jones, and Roderick Random as one of the “defining texts in the development of the novel in the eighteenth century”. Not that Wikipedia has been a defining authority on books and Literature but it would astonish me to think that Wikipedia would purposely fool its earnest readers to gain more credibility to its perceived nature by academics.

Written in imitation of the manner of Cervantes (Don Quixote),  Lennox was a female writer with a great amount of humour and sensibility. Possibly a female celebrity writer in her hey-day, given that Samuel Johnson was rather enamoured with her literary output. Nonetheless, Austen today overshadows her female contemporaries.

No matter. They all enjoyed writing about fops (Sir Clement Willoughby), men with little or no sense (Mr. Collins) and (hypochondriac) women who indulged too much in the social life that dresses becomes their only occupation (Mrs. Allen).

“I will allow the Ladies to be sollicitous about their Habits, and dress with all the Care and Elegance they are capable of; but such Trifles are below the Consideration of a Man, who ought not to owe Dignity of his Appearance to the Embroidery on his Coat, but to his high and noble Air, the Grandeur of his Courage, the Elevation of his Sentiments, and the many heroick Actions he has perform’d”

The Female Quixote, P. 280, Charlotte Lennox.

Indeed, even fops today are regarded with a degree of censure by me. Oh don’t mind me, I have no quibble with the man who dresses “nicely” but there is a fine line between dressing attractively and dressing to attract. Although Arabella was prone to such romantic sensibilities and foibles, she does make a sharp observation about society, that appearances are of utmost importance. “[H]eroick Actions” are more likely secondary or forgotten. Their superciliousness would raise the eyebrows of our fellow Austenites.

Oh but tis a perennial ailment of society today too, but instead, gaining the approval of the media and society.


Virtuous Satire

“The Ugliness of Vice… ought only to be represented to the Vicious; to whom Satire, like a magnifying Glass, may aggravate every Defect, in order to make its Deformity appear more hideous; but since its End is only to reprove and amend, it should never be address’d to any but those who come within its Correction, and may be the better for it: A virtuous Mind need not be shewn the Deformity of Vice, to make it hated and avoided; the more pure and uncorrupted our Ideas are, the less shall we be influenc’d by Example. A natural Propensity to Virtue or Vice often determines the Choice…”

Lennox, Charlotte. The Female Quixote (p. 277).

Instead of following the conventional reading list assigned to the 18th C module, a student has expanded her knowledge of eighteenth century literature to include The Female Quixote into her repertoire. No matter, she is still very much subordinate to her readers and scholarly texts; much as she would like to flatter herself that she is a notch above the lesser reader.

Naw I’m kidding.

If you happen to be doing an eighteenth-century Literature module now, perhaps you would know that the typical eighteenth-century individual believes that Virtue derives from within or the inner Spirit as I like to call it. Skeptics today believe otherwise, but that debate should be left for the disenchanted and disillusioned twentieth-century novelist.

The eighteenth-century novelist/writer endeavours to expose the follies of the un-virtuous (namely the aristocrats), which is ironic as their nobility has been usurped by their rude and terrible manners. The satire was particularly popular because of the role it played in mocking, ridiculing and just poking fun of the higher-ups. Personally, I do not think it any different from what we do today- as much as we try to maintain the facade that we are a classless society – the ‘higher-ups’ take another form, like political or government authority (@FakeSarahPalin or @FakeObama). I can imagine Henry Fielding, Laurence Sterne or even Charlotte Lennox to amuse their audience with their ‘superfluous’ social commentary. What dost thou think?

However, unlike their 20th C counterparts, they still had vehement faith in the cultivation of the inner Spirit and that goodness still existed. It was only the performative ‘goodness’ or gentility that they were highly critical of. It was only when Virtue wore no mask or was not privy to motives of deception that they were convinced of its purity. And it is this same purity that they upheld.

A Note on Sensibility

“In some the feelings, perceptions, and passions, are naturally dull, slow, and difficult to be roused; in others, they are very quick and very easily excited, on account of a greater delicacy and sensibility of brain and nerves.”

– Robert Whytt, Observations on the Nature, Causes, and Cures of those Disorders which are commonly called Nervous, Hypochondriac, or Hysteric, To which are prefixed some Remarks on the Sympathy of the Nerves.

Some have often wondered about the excessive use of the word “sensibilities” or “sensibility”. A sensible reader would know that “sensibility” does not mean what today’s context would have it to be. Rather, it is very much the opposite of what today’s definition demands.

Rather, it refers to the “acuteness of feeling, both emotional and physical..”. The words may bamboozle you there so I shall refer to the example of Mrs. Bennet  (Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice) falling into constant fits. Or perhaps Madame Duval’s (Frances Burney’s Evelina) tendency to exaggerate her illnesses to be much worse that it is (hypochondria). Of course, I don’t pretend to be smart and know everything about sensibilities. Austen’s revamp of Sense and Sensibility could also give you a clearer idea of what sensibilities  are. Also, Wikipedia may also give you a short-handed version of sensibility.

Many 18th Century novels are devoted to the ‘study’ of sensibilities that perhaps mock the aristocratic and upper classes. The caricatur-ic faints and excessive dramatics can be attributed to their high sensibilities. Today, drama is reserved only for theatre and film (Not so much today due to the emphasis on modern realism). However, perhaps it is also because we have become less in touch with our sensibilities and senses. Passion is deemed a dangerous thing. Not to mention that fainting from a man’s touch is considered abnormal and a method of drawing unnecessary attention to one’s self, which also may be something that Fielding mocks in Richardson’s Pamela and makes the subject of his novels.

Leviticus: Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit

“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.


Oranges and Eleanor Brown’s The Weird Sisters

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.