Sunday, April 8, 2012

Film Review: Belle de Jour

 “Belle de Jour is the tragedy of a divorce  -- between body and soul, between the tenderest love and the implacable demands of the senses…..” proclaims its trailer. You can’t blame them, I suppose – back in the sixties, Buñuel’s adaptation of Kessel’s novel was a little too absurdist, a little too psychoanalytical, and a little too frank with regards to that touchy topic of sex to allow for any kind of interpretation other than a traditional one.

But the tale isn’t as simple as that. There is certainly a sort of divorce, as the film’s protagonist, Séverine (Catherine Deneuve), divides her identity into two: trophy wife by night and prostitute by day. Initially fearful and repressive of the sexuality that she relegates to her fantasies, she becomes increasingly intrigued; escaping the elegant and aristocratic Paris of Haussmann that she knows, she ventures into a brothel - and a world of discovery. It is here that she finds a haven without which she cannot live, here that she goes through a sort of initiation into sexuality, introduced to the most bizarre and humiliating of human desires by Madame Anais (Genevieve Page) and her girls; it is also here that that she lives out her most depraved fantasies, especially in the arms of Marcel (Pierre Clementi), a crook who’s just sufficiently threatening for Séverine’s desires.

The separation here is not the simple divide between love and lust, and that’s precisely what makes this film intriguing. In a highly sexualized world, Séverine maintains an opposition between love and sex because one represents the greatest tenderness, while the other rough violence. They must forever remain at odds, in a paradoxical conflict in which sex can never be the extension of love because their very natures are so different.

“It’s the other one that you love?”  Marcel asks her once.
“Why do you come here, then?”
“I don’t know. They’re two very different things.”

Unfortunately, Deneuve is hardly the perfect actress to incarnate this duality: though her icy, pale, blonde beauty is undoubtedly fitting for a virginal Maddona, she retains this frozen demeanor even in the scenes of passion. If one believes the actress’s commentaries that are appended to the DVD, she had very little idea of Séverine’s internal struggle and very many issues with Buñuel’s artistic vision, which, quite possibly, is explanation enough for her iciness.

Nevertheless, Buñuel’s film is a chef-d’oeuvre. It is unflinching in its treatment of truth and also merciless in erasing the lines between reality and imagination. Séverine’s fantasies are as disturbing as some of her real escapades, and also indistinguishable from them. The film ends with no clear moral message, no punishment for a woman’s adultery, but no vindication of it either – in fact, Buñuel himself admitted that he doesn’t understand the ending. The movie deals with a topic that has, no doubt, been addressed to death by our day and age – female sexuality – but it also deals with a grander human question, that ever-elusive nature of both love and sex; the masterful ambiguity with which Buñuel unravels his story in what now feels like the Paris of by-gone days is precisely why Belle de Jour remains a masterpiece even today.

This is an edited version of a review that first appeared at Blogcritics. This movie's a "classic" by now - what are your thoughts on what it "means"?  

Friday, April 6, 2012

Parisian Escapades

In case you haven't noticed yet, I''m in Paris, that city of light, culture, and broken technology...and I've finally started writing about it. The first of my articles over at The Cool Ship is about the Paris Sex Museum - check it out! 

Friday, March 23, 2012

Review: Boy in Darkness and Other Stories by Mervyn Peake

Mervyn Peake and I just don’t get along.

Perhaps it’s a tragedy of missed connections, varied personalities, and drastically opposed attitudes towards tale-telling. Maybe I’ve had the misfortune to chance upon his works at inopportune times, but whatever the case, his stories have never evoked that imaginative stirring in me. I had plunged into his Gormenghast novels with high hopes, but found that world too oppressive. I fared no better with Boy in Darkness and Other Stories.

My impression of this collection of tales was that of reading a compilation of literary templates. Any of these tales could easily be the outline that an aspiring writer could use to create his own tale, much as a blogger might customize a template design. These stories are the bare bones of tales, waiting for color and details, strung together with a theme of underdevelopment.

The eponymous story tells of the journey of Titus – of Gormenghast fame – into a dark wilderness, where he encounters a Goat and a Hyena who serve a demonic Lamb. It’s a bewildering world, as the Lamb – a Biblical symbol of God and salvation – is a sort of devilish deity, while the Goat and Hyena who serve him are men degraded to animal form, rather than raised higher by a god. The Boy – who has not yet become Man – must make his way through this darkness, but his path through it is at once too long and too short. The intriguing premise itself is passed over, while the atmospheric descriptions drag on.

The other stories are five in number, and suffer from the same flaw of underdevelopment. The first of these, “The Weird Journey”, is supposedly a play on Baudelaire’s idea of Correspondances, but Peake seems to have tried too hard. Its opening paragraph reads so much like an exercise from a creative writing class that I seriously debated whether I should read the second one:

“Once upon a time-theory, when alone on the great bed, I found that no sooner had my head left the pillow than I fell wide awake. How far I fell I cannot say, but the light was brilliant all about me and the shrill cries of birds were loud in my eyes – so loud, they seemed, that I could not tell whether they were in my brain or whether, all around my head and limbs, they spiraled in a flight too fleet for vision.”

The story goes on in more or less the same vein, and while this oversaturation of metaphors might be someone’s cup of tea, I found it to be unpalatable.

The next tale is a short one, “I Bought a Palm Tree,” and this is perhaps the most enjoyable of them all, for its humor adds spice to a volume that is otherwise rather lacking in it.

Next, one encounters “The Conoisseurs”, two art lovers whose dialogue is supposed to read like a “snippet from one of Oscar Wilde’s short plays,” as the introduction claims. The tale’s ending does indeed have the biting irony of Wilde, but Peake’s style holds it back, preventing that harmony of form and function that was such an integral part of Wilde’s charm – and artistic credo. The following piece of hyphenated callousness, for example, lacks the aesthetic context of Wilde’s writings, and thus ultimately fails as a witty imitation of Lord Henry Wotton’s posturing, which it clearly intends to be:

 “yes, yes, the vase. But, surely, very far from poor. Are the poor ever so elegant? I have been told they have their own kind of beauty – somebody told me that once – I don’t remember who- don’t ask me- but all the same, leaving the poor aside (as one usually does, God help us) – if you see what I mean – they are hardly vases – nor are they rare – my dear chap – one might say they are never rare.”

The penultimate tale is “Danse Macabre”, which, as the introduction claims, “takes a familiar image from the traditional Gothic tale and gives it a new and sinister twist.” But this story finds itself in an uncomfortable tug-of-war between its Gothic atmosphere and its drawing-room setting. The Poe-esque nightmare with which the tale begins – not entirely unreminiscent of The Tell-Tale Heart – is quickly followed by an elegant dinner and drinks party; its attendees are the mere sketches of socialites, lacking the psychological depth that made Poe’s tales so sinister.

The volume ends with “Same Time, Same Place,” a yarn which could perhaps be subtitled “Same Story” for its predictability: a young man, curious for adventure, leaves his familiar home and finds a beautiful woman with whom he falls in love and to whom he rash makes promises. Well, of course she turns out not to be what he imagined, and of course the promises he made to her are meaningless, and of course he returns back home, better able to appreciate what he’s left behind.

This simplicity could perhaps be excused by the fact that these are supposedly children’s stories – except that children’s stories rarely utilize the word “adumbrate” in the opening paragraph or attempt to define themselves as Kafka-esque or Poe-esque. Peake’s collection of tales seems to be having a sort of internal identity crisis, oscillating desperately between simplicity and attempted complexity.

 This article was originally published at Blogcritics

Friday, March 2, 2012

Book Review: Professor Moriarty: The Hound of the D'Urbervilles

Imagine two men. The first: a mastermind who lives for solving pretty little problems. Eccentric and amoral, he sees the truth through the fog of that distant Victorian London. The second: a war veteran from Afghanistan, tough, scarred, addicted to danger. He’s a faithful sidekick and chronicler. Admittedly, I didn’t mention a deerstalker or pipe, but nevertheless, Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson come to mind.

Except that that’s not who I mean. That description applies equally to Professor Moriarty and Sebastian Moran. Moriarty, Sherlock Holmes’ arch nemesis, is mysteriously – and tantalizingly – absent from most of the Sherlock Holmes stories. He was created by Doyle to kill off Holmes in The Final Problem, turns out to be beyond the events of The Valley of Fear, and appears in none of the other fifty-eight tales. Holmes only encounters him once (with the exception of that fateful meeting at Reichenbach Falls), and Watson himself never actually meets the Professor. In fact, the only time the reader actually “sees” Moriarty is in a narrative by Holmes later related by Watson. That makes Moriarty a rather tantalizingly mysterious blank slate.

Kim Newman has courageously taken up the challenge of filling up that slate in his book Professor Moriarty: The Hound of the D’Urbervilles.  He’s put together a delightful series of stories – tied together into a novel – narrated by Moriarty’s right hand man, Sebastian Moran. The idea of Moriarty and Moran as a sort of dark-double duo of Holmes and Watson, with Moran recording Moriarty’s crimes, is not entirely new – there are hints of it in Doyle’s stories (referred to as the Canon), and in a few of the more obscure Holmes movies. But never has it been developed to this extent, and never (with the exception of a particular Neil Gaiman story), as delightfully as this.

These stories don’t take place in Holmes’ world, but in a mirror reflection of it. Everything is exactly the same, except that Moriarty’s quite literally replaced Holmes. Newman has carefully, methodically disassembled the edifice that is the Canon, added a few crooked building blocks of his own, and reassembled the entire thing in a skewed, backwards, disturbing and utterly brilliant way. If Neil Gaiman can be described by a reviewer as a demonic chef, then Newman is certainly a possessed architect.

Newman’s Moriarty makes tea, plots dastardly deeds, drives his enemy to lunacy (or, as the latter would prefer, “moonacy”), and avoids being a walking cliché – all before breakfast. The stories are absolutely stunning in their inventiveness, the crimes are ingenious, and the humor is literally breath-taking. Yet they contain just enough reverence for Doyle’s originals. Particularly remarkable is “The Red Planet League,” a play on “The Red-Headed League” and perfect for fulfilling one’s daily humor needs. The prose – which I can’t call “stunning” because there must be a limit to how many times that word can appear in a review – is sizzling, engaging, witty, and punctuated by particularly remarkable passages, such as the following:

“They’ve called him the Napoleon of Crime, but that’s just putting what he is, what he does, in a cage. He’s not a criminal, he is crime itself, sin raised to an art form, a church with no religion but rapine, a God of Evil. Pardon my purple prose, but there it is. Moriarty brings things out in people, things from their depths.
He poured me tea.”

And, of course, the book has its fair share of witty variations on famous Canonical lines: “To Professor Moriarty, she was always that bitch,” and “the worst and wildest man I have ever known.”

There’s only one downfall to the novel, which is more of a small bump in the road than a pitfall, and that’s the question of the intended audience: avid Sherlockians or casual readers? The book is packed with clever references to minor Doyle villains and other Victorian literary works. The avid Sherlockian likes nothing better than a puzzle to solve, and finding these well-hidden hints to familiar works is like getting an early birthday present – except that the endnotes give it away. Answers at the back of the book may make the story clearer for the casual reader, but it certainly spoils the fun for the Sherlockian. And yet, to enjoy the clever, provocative twists on the Canon Newman offers at the deepest level, the detailed knowledge of a Sherlockian is necessary. For example, Moriarty presents himself as a scientist, juxtaposing himself to a conjurer who dabbles in deductions. It’s a clever contrast to Doyle’s Holmes, who is often referred to as a magician or wizard for the deductive skills that make him a beloved hero. Presumably the Sherlockian who catches this twist would know about the conundrum of why Watson had never heard of Moriarty in The Final Problem? Yet this explanation, like many others, finds its way into an endnote. But that’s a minor complaint, really.

In a world overcrowded with Holmes adaptations, pastiches, sequels, prequels, and re-writes, true gems can be as rare as the Pearl of the Borgias, and this is truly one of those gems that Moriarty himself would create a dastardly plot to obtain. There’s much of the Canon Newman left untouched, and one hopes that one day, more ink may flow from his pen onto paper…

This review was originally published at Blogcritics

Friday, February 17, 2012

Book Covers, Ayn Rand, and some ranting

Living in Paris, I sometimes miss good old English language bookstores. As much as I love the 4-story Gibert Jeune with its 3 euro copies of almost any literary classics, sometimes I yearn for those good old Penguin Classics. That's when I head into one of the few English language shops available: either the wonderful, always crowded, creaky and dusty Shakespeare and Company or its shiny, squeaky clean alternative, the foreign language section of Gibert Jeune. Of course, Paris being more in the vicinity of England than the United States, many of the English language titles tend to carry the British covers rather than the American ones. Which led me to stumble upon the following covers of Ayn Rand's novels:


This is not going to be a "cover comparison" post. It's more of a "cover complaining" post, that is, a response to seeing the above covers for the first time and finding them utterly ridiculous.

Let me start out by saying that I am actually rather fond of Ayn Rand's novels. Her philosophy has problems, yes, and one could argue about it until the cows come home, but I've always found her stories inspiring. Her characters are heroes, who have their own principles and act according to those principles. They are smart and courageous and self-sufficient, and those are things I will always admire. They represent the greatness of man, and that's always inspired me. That's perhaps why I'm so fond of the American covers - they show skyscrapers and trains and sunlight and they do give one the feeling that man can reach the heavens with his creations.

But the above covers...made me laugh. The Atlas Shrugged cover looks rather like John Galt is trying to be...Mr. Darcy? with a bit of Heathcliff? But in America? the Fountainhead one looks like it's trying to be The Great Gatsby (and yes, it's the correct time period). Now, if I were more of an art history expert I'd probably be able to say what artistic movement the covers are pretending to be a part of, but I can't. All I can say is that the covers are pretending to be something, something stylish and literary and artistic and utterly not fitting with the stories themselves. While Rand's stories do have their fair share of snobbishness, elitism and aristocracy, that was not the focus of Rand's stories. It was not the glittery gems and money, it was the personality and intelligence of the characters that earned those rewards that she focused on. Which is why portraying John Galt, a nameless factory worker with the world's greatest mind, as an aristocrat on the cover sort of fails. The woman on the cover of the Fountainhead is presumably Dominique, and she does indeed spend a lot of the book being all tall and skinny and blonde and exquisitely beautiful, just like in that cover illustration, but the Fountainhead is not her story but that of Howard Roark, and of the fountainhead of human creativity: the human mind.

And now I've just spent an inordinate amount of text over-analyzing book covers. At this point, is anyone going to judge Ayn Rand by a cover? She's a bit infamous, at least, in the United States, and those who pick up her books - mostly the young - will do so based on recommendations, the allure of the Ayn Rand Institute's essay prize, or because it made some list of literary classics. But this brings me to my next question: what is the attitude towards Rand in the UK? She's an American author, very concerned with American politics and the American system, and it's easy to see how some people might see her "current." That's not the case in the UK, obviously, and yet she's an English-language author, meaning that there's no barrier of translation. So are these covers the result of a need to market those stories to a UK public? Is their artsy, literary style a way to market these stories as literature, because to a non-American reading public, it's more difficult to market these stories as political and economic and philosophical texts?

Monday, February 6, 2012

Monday Masterpiece: Heemskerck’s "Course de taureaux à l’antique"

Continuing the trend of focusing on obscure works of art instead of actually masterpieces…(I promise I’ll get to Titian eventually)…this week I’ll be looking at Heemskerck’s Course de taureaux a l'antique, which I stumbled upon in the art museum at Lille, and which I've had a bit of trouble hunting down a picture of since. Click on the image for a larger version of the painting.

Heemskerck was an early Dutch Renaissance artist who helped introduce Italian art to the Netherlands. Like many Renaissance painters, he seems to have been rather fond of Roman ruins, which were rediscovered during the Renaissance. They served as inspiration for the artists and writers who looked back on antiquity and strove to emulate it in their art; Heemskerck in particular is known for his series of paintings of the seven wonders of the ancient world, several of which are classical edifices.

This particular painting falls into a tradition stretching back from the Renaissance through many centuries of painting Roman ruins; it’s a tradition of depicting a great civilization in ruin, paintings of people dwarfed by the broken remains of grandiose columns and dilapidated arches. Yet Heemskerck plays with that format. He creates a tension between past, ruin, destruction and the present, memory, the cycle of life.

The Coliseum-esque arena in his painting is a grandiose ruin that represents the ruin of a grandiose civilization. It towers above the people, but it’s falling apart, cracked and forgotten. The people in the arena are but ghosts, memories of a society long gone. They aren’t really there. Their presence is overshadowed by the medieval looking figures towards the front, who are certainly present and who recall a later age. Some are reminiscent of medieval courtly scenes. They suggest a new age that’s come. The cycle of history will continue as the sands of time obscure what’s past.

And yet…the painting itself is a record, a memory. The ghosts, even if they’re ghosts, are present to us, the viewers. The ruin is still there – it has not been completely effaced from the face of the earth. Greenery, representing life, grows from the very stones, suggesting that even from ruin comes life. The cycle continues, and human life is preserved by memory. Human life will not be effaced. 

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Living in France, part 1

Since I'm in Paris until June and highly opinionated (or overly observant), I thought I'd do some weekly post sharing my thoughts and some interesting highlights. By which I mean, I'm going to complain about how weird/inconvenient living here is. So, here is this week's list:

  1.  Apparently falling in love is a valid excuse for missing a deadline, not doing a particular piece of work, or being late.
  2. Apparently, you cannot view any transactions on your bank account that happened more than 45 days ago. 
  3.  The library of the university I attend has a lower limit on the number of books you’re allowed to borrow, a shorter loan time, and a poorer selection than the Paris public libraries. Deduce what you will about the education system.
  4.  To learn what my grade is, I can't look it up online. I have to go to the campus of the university, find a particular hallway in a particular building, and look for my grade posted on the wall. Sometimes it's there. 
  5.  The book I bought for one of my classes yesterday – a novel- cost the same amount of money as a coffee. Another book I bought – a Moliere play – costs half as much as said coffee. Um. Priorities?
  6. Something is always broken. The elevator, the credit card machine, the metro, the RER, the ATM, the internet…..
  7.  I went out to lunch with a dozen French people today. They said that two bottles of wine would be “too much.” Wait…what?

Friday, January 27, 2012

The Sherlock Holmes Method of Literary Analysis

It was at some point during the twenty-four-hour cycle we call “the day,” and the line between night and morning was becoming just as blurry as the text before my eyes. The play count of several select songs on my iTunes had increased significantly, contributing largely to my feeling of accomplishment, copious amounts of graphite had been left on the pages of a well-worn book in the form of notes and underlining, and I was almost finished with my essay on Wilde’s artistic philosophy as presented in The Picture of Dorian Gray.

It was in that bleary-eyed state that I went for a stroll through the utterly deserted Hyde Park in Chicago. As a part of my brain wondered whether there was another human being left on the planet – hardly likely, it seemed in that complete and utter emptiness – the rest of it considered how well some of Sherlock Holmes’ statements about crime solving applied to literary study.

Of course, that idea is nothing new. That’s what the whole idea of playing “The Game” is about.

If you don’t know what “The Game” is, allow me to explain.

“The game is afoot!” figures among those famous Sherlockian quotes that pop up ubiquitously along with “elementary” and “you see, but you do not observe.” To Sherlock Holmes, that phrase meant that there was a crime to be solved, a challenge to be faced. To us Sherlockians, the notoriously obsessed, it also means that there’s a mystery to unravel. It means pretending that Sherlock Holmes was real and applying his sleuthing skills to fill in the gaps in the Canon. Gaps such as trying to figure out what happened to Holmes’ cocaine habit after The Final Problem, or finding the location of Watson’s strangely mobile war wound.

But what occurred to me during those early morning hours is that those sleuthing skills apply not simply to speculating about how many times Watson was married (between two and six, depending on whom you ask). They apply to writing the kind of literary criticism that the aforementioned essay on The Picture of Dorian Gray involved.

For example:

“I have no data yet. It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts,” Holmes states in A Scandal in Bohemia.

The above quote embodies the first rule of the study of literature. One does not come up with a thesis and then look for evidence to support that thesis in the book. One lets the book speak. Each quote, symbol, image, color, literary reference, each word, really, is one piece of data. All the pieces of data must be weighed and examined. Then (in my case, at least), lots of logorrhea must ensue, during which thoughts become theories and theories are refined and perfected. And then a thesis emerges. Which makes it sound, of course, like throwing a bunch of pieces of data into a brain-machine, cranking it up, and coming out with a thesis. That’s not inaccurate: Holmes is described by Watson as a reasoning machine, and I like to be able to immodestly say that I emulate his methodical process.
But the ability to reason like a machine is not the only important one. In The Sign of Four, Holmes outlines “three qualities necessary for the ideal detective.” They are: “the power of observation, the [power] of deduction, knowledge.” The literary critic is also a sort of detective, searching for Truth (or a publishable thesis, as the case may be), and those three qualities are invaluable.

Observation: to know what to look for, to notice themes and images and be able to pick out the significant phrases from a text. To notice the imagery of light in a text dealing with knowledge, or in a science fiction novel – such as the fire at the end of Frankenstein. Knowledge – the knowledge of what those themes and images mean, of literary history and context and the influence of both upon the text in general, of what the author knew and how that could have influenced him or her. The knowledge that light is a metaphor for knowledge, for example, or that the word “miracle” comes from the Latin word “to look.” Deduction – the ability to apply knowledge to observations and make deductions. To deduce, for example, that Frankenstein’s death in a fire at the end of the novel symbolizes his destruction through knowledge.

All of that makes it sound, of course, as if books have one clear, unarguable message; that each classic contains one Truth that is as impossible to contradict as the results of Sherlock Holmes’ hemoglobin test. Which just really isn’t true. Literature does have wrong answers, I would argue, but it doesn’t have one right answer. It has right answers. It’s the search for those answers, and what they mean to us, that makes literature meaningful. A wonderful teacher once said to me that when you come up with a thesis that applies to a work of literature, it “clicks.” Really, I think this is true. There will be certain theories about literature that will feel “right.” They will feel like the truth, even if it’s the truth of one’s subjective world, and Sherlock Holmes just might have had something to do with finding that truth. 

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Monday Masterpiece: Procession on Good Friday by Darío de Regoyos y Valdés

The first post (finally!) of what I hope will be a long tradition of presenting artworks and some of my amateur art-lover thoughts on them.

If you’re slightly put off by the above image and find it unexciting….keep reading (though if it sparks your interest, keep reading also).

That was also my first response to this work when I saw it at the Musee de l’Orangerie’s exhibit on Spain titled L’Espagne Entre Deux Siecles.On second glance, I was convinced that this was a very clever piece of artwork. In fact, it’s a brilliant illustration of the way in which a painter can use a composition to turn objects and people into ideas. 

This painting symbolizes three ages in history. Below, the procession of the monks, that is the Middle Ages, a time of faith.  Above it is a Roman bridge – the distinctive rounded arch is a feature of Roman and Romanesque architecture. It symbolizes both ancient Rome and the Renaissance – both times of thought and scientific advancement. And above that, the locomotive symbolizes the modern age, the Industrial Revolution. It’s no coincidence that the train is speeding along on the bridge: after all, the advancements of the Industrial Revolution could not have happened without the Renaissance, without the re-awakening of knowledge. And so the technological progress of the nineteenth century is here, quite literally, supported by earlier ideas, an earlier scientific age.

This sort of vertical composition also implies a hierarchy. Though the painting is titled The procession of Good Friday, the procession – and belief, which it represents – are found in the bottom part of the painting. Both the bridge and the locomotive tower above it, literally. The train blows its steam into an iridescently blue sky, an ethereal blue that contrasts with the dry, dead yellow color of the ground. That steam resembles clouds, as if man had made his way to the sky and reached the clouds. And indeed, a few decades later, man would learn to fly and airplanes would overtake trains.

This is a particularly interesting idea in the context it was in: the exhibit I found the painting in was focused on Spain “between two centuries,” the nineteenth and the twentieth. It was a time of turmoil as the nation simultaneously clung to the past and looked to the future. Here, we see a response to that turmoil, and a hint of the future. 

Sherlock Holmes and "Normality"

I would wager that the average person, if asked to describe Sherlock Holmes, would quite probably mention a detective in an armchair, smoking his pipe, putting his fingers together, and saying “elementary, my dear Watson.” The famous deerstalker cap might come up, too, as well as Holmes courteously questioning his clients and coming to a conclusion without leaving the house.

If you asked that same person whether Sherlock Holmes is “normal,” (s)he would probably say yes. A bit eccentric, perhaps, incredibly smart, but a “normal” British gentleman.

“You have really done very well indeed. It is true that you have missed everything of importance, but you have hit upon the method…”

That, if the reader allows us a quote from A Case of Identity, is quite probably what Sherlock Holmes would say.

Of course, “normality” is one of those words that require quotation marks every time I use them. It’s quite possible that I have a profound fear of making an outrageous or unsupportable claim about something so relative as what is “normal.”  But, whatever the reasons, the point remains that “normality” is subjective. Standards change across time and distance.

With that said, I’d like to point out how, well, not “normal” Sherlock Holmes is.

It’s no secret (to Sherlockians, at least) that Holmes never actually says “elementary, my dear Watson,” in the stories. That comes from a film. He also never actually wears the famous deerstalker cap, which is the invention of illustrator Sidney Paget. And as for the pipe, well, Holmes seems to alternate between that and his cocaine addiction.

In fact, when we first meet Sherlock Holmes in in A Study in Scarlet, he comes off as arrogant and eccentric, has an obsession with crime, the IQ of a criminal mastermind, and a complete ignorance of the fact that the earth goes around the sun.  Instead of being the rather altruistic detective who sacrifices himself to free the world of the greatest criminal mastermind, he complains about the lack of criminality:

“There are no crimes and no criminals in these days,’ he said querulously. “What is the use of having brains in our profession?”

Yet the image of Sherlock Holmes that remains in our minds is the one I began this article with. That image is accurate if one reads nothing but The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes. In those stories, Holmes is an entirely different man from the one we first meet. He does, indeed, appear to be a normal British gentleman, quotes Goethe, and often laments his inability to prevent a crime.

So, what happened? Why is Holmes so different in the first two novels than in the stories, and why is the latter image of him more prevalent?

I think it would be safe to claim that the most popular Sherlock Holmes books are The Adventures and The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes; even in Doyle’s time, they were far more famous than the two novels that introduced him, A Study in Scarlet and The Sign of Four. Thus, it seems safe to assume that, given two rather antithetical images of Holmes, the more prevalent one comes from the more famous stories.

But then the question remains: why this discrepancy? That is, if one does not write it off as an error on Doyle’s part, what happened? Did Holmes change and, if so, why?

One possible reading is the influence Watson had on Holmes.  Watson, dear Watson, sometimes comical, always at a loss as to where Sherlock gets his conclusions from, but a loyal friend and chronicler…Holmes finds him indispensable and cannot work without his Boswell. May we deduce from this close relationship between the two that Watson has actually changed Sherlock?  That their “intimate relationship” changed Holmes from a slightly sociopathic loner to a more sociable, though still “Bohemian,” soul?

In any case, one may do well to remember that the original Holmes that readers were introduced to was not the calm, educated gentleman. He’s a man who probably hasn’t heard of Shakespeare. Which raises the question: does the impression we have of the detective come, perhaps, from seeing what we want to see?

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Review: The Scar Crow Men - Mark Chadbourn

It’s been said once, it’s been said a million times: sequels are hard.

Mostly, that’s because the author has to compete with his own originality. A first novel of a series often introduces a stunning magical world that will whisk the readers away by its very originality. In a sequel, however, the novelty of a faraway land fades away; the unexpected becomes familiar. Hence, the characters, plot, storytelling and humor in a sequel need to be pretty damn amazing to make up for what’s lost in novelty. The author can’t just do the same thing – he has to do something twice as good.

That, unsurprisingly, is the problem with Mark Chadbourn’s The Scar-Crow Men. It’s a sequel. 

It's set in the same intricate, but now familiar world, a magical Elizabethan England, and continues the story begun in The Silver Skull of Will Swyfte and Walsingham's band of spies (though Walsingham is dead by this point) in their fight against the Unseelie Court. Chadbourn's originality in the ways he intertwines history and myth is still stunning: the Plague becomes the doing of the Unseelie Court, Marlowe's Faustus actually conjures up a devil...but the characters and plot are less engaging this time around, and that, coupled with a familiar world, is a death sentence for a story.

In my previous review of The Silver Skull, I explained the kind of characters that we women like to develop infatuations with (and who are heroic enough for men to probably like reading about them too). We like our bitter, cynical, disenchanted yet heroic men...we really, really don't like it when those men whine about it. Perhaps two hundred years ago, back when Romanticism was all the vogue, and writers from Byron to Chateaubriand were inventing being emo, that would've been cool. Nowadays, an occasional bitter line is quite attractive, proffered tantalizingly here or there. Mark Chadbourn, however, has treated the readers to very large helpings of such lines. This is true not only of Will Swyfte, but of all the protagonists of this novel. They complain disenchantedly about their happy past, about what they've lost, about how they can't be happy, about their sacrifices. Oh, shut up already, and actually do something interesting. 

It's not even that the characters are unlikeable, or pretend to be heroes when they're not, or that I"m a terrible, heartless person who doesn't care (I am a terrible, heartless person, but fictional characters have been known to melt the ice that I have in place of a heart). It's that they'd be much more interesting as characters if they actually did things instead of complaining about things. After all, with the first book, the reader signed up for reading a book about Bitter, Cynical Heroes doing Heroic Things (and not for reading The Sorrows of Young Werther). In this book, the bitter and cynical is there, but the heroic seems to have gone for a walk somewhere.

That's why I'm rather hard-pressed to summarize the plot of the novel. It begins with London being stricken by the Plague, and Marlowe getting murdered. After that, there's a lot of angry Will Swyfte running away from things and blundering about, only to then conveniently be informed of the enemy's plot by an ally a few chapters from the end. An appearance is made by Red Meg, a feisty, red-haired Irish spy, who strides her way confidently through the story and rescues Will on more than one occasion. She brightens the story with her flaming red hair and fiery personality, but it's certainly not enough to make the tale colorful and engaging.

It may be universally agreed that sequels are hard, but it's also universally agreed that the third time's the charm. The question remains: will the next book be just the sequel of a sequel, and hence even less up to par, or will Chadbourn work his magic again?

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

The Hounds of Baskerville: Review, Analysis, and Thoughts

My thoughts on Hounds of Baskerville (though there’s only one hound, unless some more are lurking in the shadows…). Spoilers below!

So, last week’s episode provided the resolution to a cliffhanger, the expansion of a 20-page story into a 90 minute episode, and thus complicated, convoluted plot. This week’s episode was much more straightforward, and, arguably, better for that reason. As fun as twists, turns, and guessing games are, there’s a point at which beautiful story arc can get too tangled. This was almost the case last week.

Of course, it could be argued that this week’s plot was overly simple and that the hallucinogens as the solution to the mystery were patently obvious. I thought not. I guess it’s just one of those things where, well, “your mileage may vary.” I didn’t suspect hallucinogens for a variety of reasons, mostly the fact that I found it difficult to believe that several people would be hallucinating the same thing so exactly. Also, Sherlock and hallucinations?

Though where they took that idea is brilliant. Sherlock and doubt. This is yet another example in which the series makes Sherlock just a bit human, just enough to be able to explore his character sufficiently, without making him into a normal, feeling, breathing human being (which he isn’t). He feels fear and doubt – but the story explores to kinds of fear that he has. One is the fear of a being of superior intellect: fear of himself. He doubts, and he fears not knowing – and hence the unknown. The other is the fear of a human being: fear for another he cares about. That’s why he sees Moriarty at the end: because he’s begun to care for John, and knows that Moriarty threatens that. This is a change, of course, from his phrase in The Great Game, “I’ve been informed that I don’t have a heart.” He’s developing one, just a bit of one, and the vulnerability that comes with it. Someone who does not feel has no vulnerabilities, and Sherlock likes to pretend he’s invincible – but he’s not. His one vulnerability is himself, both in the doubt and the sentiment that he experiences for the first time.

The story and the setting are perfect to bring to light that vulnerability. The Hound of the Baskervilles – the most famous Doyle novel - is a Gothic novel, of the supernatural explained variety. It’s supposed to be dark and scary and kind of supernatural, almost a horror story, but there’s a logical explanation at the end. That’s Doyle’s brilliance: he adopts the Gothic novel for his purposes, juxtaposes fear and the supernatural with Sherlock’s realizations. As an adaptation, the episode was brilliantly done. It was bloody scary. I don’t get scared too easily, and I can’t say I was terrified, but nevertheless, I can’t say I watched it calmly. The episode with Watson in the lab, in particular, was nerve-wracking. (in his position, I’d lock myself in the cage too. Smartest solution. Though I figured out pretty quickly it was an experiment of Sherlock’s – did anybody else?)

The interaction between Watson and Sherlock is also wonderful. I’m not quite ready to ship them together yet (I don’t think that’s where the series needs to go), but their relationship is certainly developing. They’ve gotten to the point where their friendship is strong enough that they can insult each other and yet help each other and trust each other. There are scenes where they are being complete bastards to each other: Sherlock running that experiment on Watson, Sherlock giving Watson coffee with sugar which he believes contains a hallucinogen, Watson’s inability to understand Sherlock’s fear. That last scene was particularly grating – Watson just would not shut up, and the idea that there might be something wrong with Sherlock was just so incomprehensible to him. But other scenes make up for that and which show that their friendship can survive: “I don’t have friends. I have one,” is possibly one of the best lines in the entire season. And Sherlock’s worry about John after the little “experiment” is patently genuine.

Also, can I just point out what a perfect piece of cross-referencing that Star Trek reference is? In J.J. Abrams’ 2009 film Star Trek, Spock (who is having a conflict between his emotions and his cold logic, rather like Sherlock, which makes it a really apt reference), says “if you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” He’s quoting Sherlock, of course. So then, when Sherlock says his own line, Watson calls him Spock. Sherlock and Spock being two of my favorite fictional men (read: crushes), that was perfect. Add to that the fact that Benedict Cumberbatch recently got cast as the villain in Star Trek 2 (I really hope his villain is a clever character who can have a battle of wits with Spock…then my life would be complete). And all those lens flares – remind anyone of J.J. Abrams? It’s like the writers/creators knew Benedict would be cast in the Star Trek film before he was….

And now time for the criticisms. There are few, but they exist...

The beginning, where Sherlock, to borrow an expression, “really doesn’t have his shit together.” We know that Sherlock’s mind rebels at stagnation. That it’s like an engine, always running. In fact, that phrase, “my mind rebels at stagnation,” is taken from The Sign of Four, the same one in which Holmes takes a 7-percent-solution of cocaine (hence, talking about needing something “seven percent stronger”). In said novel, Holmes calmly takes his cocaine while Watson watches in despair (at least here Watson has the guts to prevent his friend from being on drugs). Nevertheless, there are other instances throughout the stories that suggest that Holmes can occupy himself with other things: chemistry, books, his monographs. In A Scandal in Bohemia, for example, he remains at Baker Street, “buried among his old books, alternating from week to week between cocaine and ambition, the drowsiness of the drug, and the fierce energy of his own keen nature.” Clearly, Watson (and Doyle) are suggesting that, despite Holmes’ dependence on the drug, he still has the ability to occupy himself somehow. Surely that engine of a mind must be able to think of something, to solve other problems than detective ones? In any case, Holmes’ anxiety and restlessness at the beginning seem overdone, though it’s clear that they’re a setup for his later breakdown of self-doubt.

Sherlock’s mind palace. The concept is very cool (and quite real, there’s even a wikihow on how to build a mind palace). But the way it was shown was inadequate. Part of the charm of Sherlock’s brilliance is that it’s so beyond the average human mind. It’s something special and of itself. The idea of attempting to transcribe that into a visual medium through words on the screen, manipulated by Sherlock through some ridiculous gestures, is frankly a bit of an insult to Sherlock’s mental abilities. It really does look like the editors decided to have a fun time playing around with different fonts and Google image search. Not to mention that it is rather reminiscent of the slightly hallucinogenic thinking-dream of Robert Downey Jr.’s Sherlock in the Sherlock Holmes movie.

The password. That whole scene was superfluous. It’s a top government secret – and it’s a six letter password, and a name at that? People who work in top secret government facilities are not that predictable with their passwords. And having a brilliant detective character guess the password through profiling really is the oldest trick in the detective story-writing book. It feels like the writers just needed another scene of Sherlock being clever, and this was the best they could do.

Now, on to the most important question: Moriarty the ending, and The Reichenbach Fall(s). The last ten seconds end with Moriarty being released from prison; his cell is covered in the word “Sherlock.” It’s clear that Moriarty has a very intricate plot up his sleeve. A master criminal like him would not allow himself to be caught like that. I’d guess that his arrest is a decoy for what the real crime is; scribbling Sherlock’s name all over the walls as a way to pretend to be insane seems to be a good way to do so. That scene in the teaser which Moriarty is being led from his cell to the courthouse is also rather telling (and, at the same time, not really). It is certainly brilliantly filmed, however - just as it looks like Moriarty’s starting to smile, he walks through shadow, and then his face fades away. But it’s certainly an evil smile….

Which does not bode well for Sherlock, of course. We all know what happened at Reichenbach Falls and about Sherlock’s “death,” and Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat haven’t stopped taunting fans with suggestions of the tears they will have to spill after the next episode. My two cents: we all know that Sherlock didn’t actually die when he fell off the Reichenbach Falls. Doyle brought his character back to life – apparently Holmes faked his death. Both Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss are students of the Canon, and I doubt they would differ from Doyle on so important a point. And besides, the two are rather fans of what is called “trolling.” They are probably relishing the fact that we are falling for exactly what they want us to fall for. But what have they actually said?

“..only the fall remains. You have one week to brace yourselves.”

“St. Bart’s Hospital..end of route” (this was a picture that was tweeted).

“somebody certainly [dies].”

Can I point out that none of those actually confirm Sherlock’s death? Moriarty is also supposed to die at Reichenbach. And given how attached some fans are to Moriarty, isn’t it possible that this is what they’re playing off of?

Furthermore, as much as we like to pretend that art is Art with a big “A,” and not subject to things like money and what the audience want….that’s kind of not true. Sherlock is possibly because the BBC commissions it. And Sherlock is one of the BBC’s most popular shows right now. They will probably commission a third season, and our oh-so-clever screenwriters will have to find an oh-so-clever way to bring Sherlock back. Of course, I (obviously) haven’t seen the third episode, and therefore I can’t vouch for how possible it is for Holmes to come back. Benedict Cumberbatch has said that it’s “quite difficult” for Sherlock to return, but, once again, how ambiguous is that? After all, Sherlock Holmes is the master of the impossible, and besides, we’ve seen characters fake their deaths on the show before (i.e. Irene Adler). I have no doubt that Gatiss and Moffat are clever enough to think of something.

Of course, maybe I’m just in denial, because I really, truly cannot accept the idea of there being no more Sherlock. I haven’t even considered that possibility, because I know it will involve me weeping for hours on my bed. Let’s hope my logical reasoning prevails over an emotional breakdown.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

The Silver Skull - Mark Chadbourn

It all started in the bookstore. Borders bookstore, to be exact, back when it still existed. My friend Amy and I were bravely fighting our way through shelves of spinoff vampire romance and formulaic sword-and-sorcery in a quest for literary treasures of the science fiction and fantasy variety. I picked out a book with a man in Elizabethan dress on the glossy cover; he was holding a sword and looked to be in the midst of an exciting scene.

“Meet Will Swyfte -- adventurer, swordsman, rake, swashbuckler, wit, scholar and the greatest of Walsingham's new band of spies,” the back cover proclaimed.

Amy glanced over and laughed.

“He sounds like exactly your type,” she said.


Will Swyfte is, after all, exactly the type of character that women (including me) tend to develop literary crushes on. He is a bitter, disenchanted figure with a dark past, yet on the inside he hides a heart, a heart that once loved and suffered terribly. And now, he has become a hero with a mask of cynicism. We women have a weakness for our anti-heroes with a heart of gold (and his wits about him), and I admit that I spent a large part of the novel with a minor infatuation with Will Swyfte.

That’s not to say that Mark Chadbourn’s The Silver Skull has nothing else going for it besides its main character; it simply means that it’s a novel for people who like a certain kind of story with a certain kind of character. In some ways, Will Swyfte is like the Elizabethan James Bond, with John Dee as his Q, and the scenes in which Swyfte gets his latest “gadgets” really do mirror those of the Bond movies. It’s a story whose hero is unheroically heroic: he’s really good at saving the world, and despite all the cynicism, he’s going to be the Hero who does Right in the end.

And he’s going to become famous for it. In fact, he’s going to become known as England’s greatest spy.

But what is the point of a spy who is famous for being, well, a spy?

The already-intriguing back cover has an answer for that, too:

“Swyfte’s public image is a carefully-crafted facade to give the people of England something to believe in, and to allow them to sleep peacefully at night. It deflects attention from his real work — and the true reason why Walsingham’s spy network was established. A Cold War seethes, and England remains under a state of threat. The forces of Faerie have been preying on humanity for millennia. Responsible for our myths and legends, of gods and fairies, dragons, griffins, devils, imps and every other supernatural menace that has haunted our dreams, this power in the darkness has seen humans as playthings to be tormented, hunted or eradicated.”

Mark Chadbourn has a talent for intertwining mythology and history to create a unique setting and a unique story, and he’s certainly done it here. It’s not uncommon knowledge that Walsingham was several centuries ahead of the MI6 when he created his vast spy network; it’s quite probably the first secret intelligence service in the modern world. But Chadbourn adds another defining part of Britishness to the Elizabethan era – Britain’s mythology. He is extremely well-versed in both history and mythology, and he intertwines two worlds intricately, seamlessly, and with fastidious attention to detail and accuracy.

Of course, that makes it very easy to say that he allows the reader to truly plunge into a different world and live in it – after all, isn’t that what fantasy is supposed to do? But Chadbourn’s book does more. It’s engaging and well-researched to such an extent that it’s amazing how much one can learn about Elizabethan Britain. Reading it is, in a way, reassuring – it’s not necessary to worry about whether somebody actually dressed like that or if some minor event actually occurred. The accuracy with which Chadbourn writes of his time period makes the story as real as the best of fantasy worlds.

The plot itself is part Indiana Jones, part spy story (rather more Mission: Impossible than James Bond, though), and part fantasy. There are labyrinths, riddles, gadgets, sword fights, and all manner of magic. There are also some really scary bits – it’s not just fog and darkness, but a feeling of foreboding about a mystery that Will Swyfte spends the book hunting for. But saying any more than that would be spoiling the story.

A swashbuckling fantasy spy story in Elizabethan England – you know you want to read it.

Announcing....A Sherlockian January and Art History Posts

January is very much a Sherlockian month even without my help. The great man, Sherlock Holmes, was born on January 6th, and this year, both the second series of BBC's Sherlock and the new film Sherlock Holmes: Game of Shadows come out in January (well, at least, in France, where I live at the moment). This has resulted in many January Sherlockian-themed events, dinners and other fancy Goings-On. It has also resulted in my present infatuation (again) with Sherlock Holmes.

Hence, many January posts will be dedicated to Holmes - to analyzing and reviewing the newest episodes of BBC's Sherlock, a review of the film once I see it, thoughts and ideas about Holmes as a character, and some posts about the Fancy Sherlockian Dinner I'll be attending later this month. I'll still be posting thoughts and reviews of other things, of course, but I think that posts will be predominantly Sherlockian.

I'm also going to be trying out a new thing that I'm going to call Masterpiece Mondays until somebody thinks of a better name. Each Monday, I'll be posting some thoughts and ideas about some masterpiece of Western art - after all, I do need to do something with all the thoughts that crowd my head every time I go to the Louvre. I must add that I am by no means an art history expert - I'm a literature major. However, I'm immensely interested in the history of ideas, and will be applying that knowledge and my literary skills to talking about art. We'll see how it turns out.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Sunday, January 1, 2012

DVD Review: Sherlock, Season 1

Fog rolls through the gas-lit, cobblestone streets of London as a gentleman in a top hat descends from his elegant carriage. But somewhere in the distance, the streets are lit by electric lights, while trains thunder through the countryside, punctually following the law of the printed timetable. The Sherlock Holmes stories conjure up a charmingly old fashioned Victorian England, but it’s a romantic illusion. The Victorian Age was a period of change and technological innovation, a time when so many of the inventions we take for granted today were developed and perfected. And so perhaps transplanting the Sherlock Holmes stories to the modern day is not a sacrilege against the beloved tales. In fact, the BBC’s new series Sherlock, a witty, thought-out adaptation of Doyle’s stories in the 21st century, is truly homage to the great detective and everything he represents.

Sherlock Holmes was the superhero of his day. The stories about him were so popular that Conan Doyle received fan mail addressed to Sherlock; people seemed to feel the need to be reassured by his existence. Perhaps it was because Sherlock could face a world made terrifying by change and find logic in a universe in which it seemed like the human mind might get ahead of itself. He always had all the answers and he found the culprit using the latest technology. In the first Sherlock novel, for example, he’s shown discovering a new test for blood stains. He’s an innovator, always ahead of the game and in control. BBC’s Sherlock responds similarly to our time: Sherlock texts instead of sending telegrams, for example, and thus similarly uses the latest gadgets to bring order to a complex, changing world. He reassures us, too, that in the 21st century, it is the human mind, and not its inventions, that will be in control. He becomes, in our world, the reassuring figure that he was for Doyle’s readers. Thus, the series takes on a tricky parallel that it manages to pull off spectacularly.

The screenwriters, Stephen Moffat and Mark Gatiss, closely follow the first Sherlock Holmes story, A Study in Scarlet, in their pilot episode, A Study in Pink, which is arguably the best of the three. There’s certainly more suspense than exists in Doyle’s original, as the writers have replaced the drawn-out backstory of the criminal with the development of Sherlock and Watson’s relationship, as well as thrown in hints of Moriarty’s scheming. The other two episodes take more liberties; in fact, the second episode, The Blind Banker, even borders on the ridiculous. The ending hinges on Watson being mistaken for Holmes, something highly when everybody caries around IDs – driver’s licenses, library cards, gun permits (in Watson’s case)…The third episode, The Great Game, is an epic battle of wits between Holmes and Moriarty. As usual, the writers take from the common trend of making Moriarty the archenemy; despite showing up in only two Holmes stories, he is, as usual, the scheming mastermind behind everything from the very first episode. However, the cliffhanger ending with which the writers taunt the viewer suggests that at least this time the two a bit more evenly matched.

But the storytelling’s only half the battle. It’s Holmes himself who is the real enigma to solve. As Doyle tells us in A Study in Scarlet, “the proper study of mankind is man,” and, in our case, of this particular man. Benedict Cumberbatch, with his lanky frame dressed in perfectly pressed suits, becomes the cold, calculating, and heartless detective. He’s both fascinating and disturbing in the depths of his brilliance and his ignorance. There are, of course, a few moments in which exchanges that calm composure for some comic relief, but that feels strained and unnecessary. Martin Freeman truly seems to be one of those shape-shifting actors who can take on any role: he’s gone from Arthur Dent to Bilbo Baggins to Dr. Watson and incarnated each one perfectly. Watson likes his adrenaline rushes as much as Sherlock likes to risk his life to prove he’s clever, and with that dangerous combination, the best New Year’s present one could get is the second season, which does, in fact, air today on the BBC.

Note: this is an expanded and edited version of a review of mine that appeared on Blogcritics.