Should You Travel to VILLETTE?

Villette is the third published novel by Charlotte Bronte (and also the last novel she wrote). The novel bears more than a passing resemblance to her more well-known novel Jane Eyre—mostly because it, too, draws from much of Charlotte’s real life—but it has grown more critically acclaimed than its predecessor. But only a critic could find something important in such an aggravating novel. (I should know, since I, too, am a critic.)
The story follows the tragic, tumultuous, and frustrating life of Lucy Snowe. Written in the first person by an older Lucy, the novel serves more as a psychological study of a woman (in the 1850s) than as a plot-driven story. For plot is the one thing almost completely absent from Villette (hence why it’s such an aggravating novel).
9780141199887It begins when Lucy is a mere 14 years old, and seems to focus more on the petite doll-like Polly and her budding friendship with young Graham than on what orphaned Lucy is doing in her godmother’s home. But soon Lucy moves on from home to job to the French-speaking town of Villette, facing discouragement and tribulation along the way. The entirety of volume one feels disjointed as Lucy makes her disheartening journey to this foreign town (a not unfamiliar journey for readers of Jane Eyre).
Volume two, however, opens with a plot twist! An important character that has been popping up in Lucy’s Villette life turns out to be a character from her past. While it’s a nice surprise (if, indeed, you are surprised by it—it seemed like an obvious twist), the revelation is frustrating. Lucy is quick to point out that she knew from almost the first moment she met the character who he really was. She merely chose not to reveal to us (or him) this little revelation. This immediately makes her not only an untrustworthy narrator but also a very manipulative one. An interesting dynamic that makes you want to both pay more attention to what she is telling you and disregard everything she says.
It also sets up high expectations that more plot twists may be provided in the future of the novel. But it’s hard to insert plot twists when there is almost no plot. In fact, just as you begin to accept the novel as psychological examination of a very passive, depressive woman, you get a glimmer of hope that more will happen volumes two and three! And, while some stuff does happen, there’s a lot more to slog through to get to it.
Villette-Page_n8But how rewarding is Villette? Every third chapter my eyes would glaze over at the sheer monotony of Lucy’s unhappy life and her apparent inability to do anything to make it even a smidge happier. Or yet my eyes would lose focus at the random bouts of French inserted into conversation but lazily not translated—either by Lucy Snowe (who knows you don’t read French, since she barely knows it upon arriving at Villette) or by the Bantam publishers who released this copy (I would have happily flipped to the back of the book Infinite Jest-style to read translations of these conversations*). But loose story arcs with other characters liven up even her dullest recounting of a trip to the opera. It’s a tough sell to any reader, much less one who actually enjoys reading Victorian Era novels. (Especially when at every turn you just want to drop Villette and revisit Jane Eyre*.)
Villette forces the reader to exert patience and luxuriate in the text (a hard thing to do when you’re reading 7 novels at a time, but not an awful thing in and of itself). Yet I felt wholly satisfied with the novel’s ending. Over halfway through the novel, I began to realize that I greatly resembled Lucy Snowe (I most certainly would end up with her in the “Which Bronte Heroine Are You?” Quiz). Her dilettante ways are unappealing but her lack of amusement with so much of life mirrors my steely attitude. If she were a character written today, I know she would be just as snarky as I am (her asides to the reader throughout the novel show promise of that). There’s an essence of Lucy Snowe inside me, and so I felt compelled to finish the novel to see how much of it will mirror my own life (the somewhat ambiguous ending seems a fitting enough life for me to look forward to).
Charlotte definitely packs in plenty of her defining plot points. Instead of a mysterious woman in the attic, there is the haunting figure of a ghost nun lurking about the school that Lucy works at. Lucy gets her own love triangle of sorts, including one who seems to think of her more as a sibling than a “lover” (sound familiar?). Yet whatever good fortune we assume Jane deserves, it would feel unjust to expect similar happiness for Lucy. A woman who constantly denies herself happiness should not be rewarded with “eternal joy,” right? But then maybe you should read the novel and decide that for yourself.

*If anyone finds a copy of Villette with translations, please notify me ASAP!
*If, for some reason, you haven’t read Jane Eyre, please do so ASAP!

Inter-Dimensions of Sci-Fi and Folklore Collide in Rushdie’s Beautiful Debut Novel “Grimus”

grimusThe Amerindian Flapping Eagle has just crashed on the shores of Calf Island (via a special portal a la LOST season 5), an island of immortals like himself, and meets the immensely fat and eccentric Virgil Jones and his hunchback companion Mrs. O’Toole. In his quest to find his sister, Flapping Eagle must enlist Virgil’s help in ascending the ominous mountain of Calf Island to reach the town of K from which Virgil left in shame. While not thrilled to return to his ex-wife and myriad of enemies, Virgil hopes that Flapping Eagle is the key to course-correcting the problems that Grimus has inflicted on their lives and the Island.

Grimus combines familiar elements from science fiction, fantasy, and cultural folklores as framework for a compelling narrative. This is the first novel by Salman Rushdie, one of the world’s greatest writers, and his sense of voice and style are just apparent here as they are in his most recent work, the memoir Joseph Anton. Although critically derided in its day, Grimus feels like a very contemporary novel. The exploration of inter-dimensions could easily serve as a textbook for understanding the works of J.J. Abrams—I swear the answers to LOST are unwittingly contained within these pages.

When undertaking this small, yet dense, novel it is important to be open-minded and ready to expand your imagination. There is a vast wealth of stunning imagery and cultural allusions that serve for both foreshadowing and winking asides.

This is a thoroughly rewarding novel, and I welcome its inclusion on The List (much of Rushdie’s writing is, and rightfully so). Even if sci-fi stories don’t intrigue you, Grimus relies more heavily on cultural mythologies, giving it a universally appealing quality. While I loved Fury (my first personal introduction to Rushdie’s writing), Grimus is a much stronger novel and far more engrossing. (And I’ll keep you posted as I delve into Rushdie’s expansive oeuvre this year.)

Book vs. Film: “The Shining” Will Haunt You in Both Forms

39473d46f1de866e1c7a3763c23d2054The film The Shining is beloved by many, but how many of them have actually read the book? Turns out: hardly any. One fan even said he heard that films adapted from Stephen King’s novels are better than his actual books. While I can’t categorically attest to that, I can say that the film The Shining pales in comparison to the novel The Shining. It is one of King’s best novels, combining brilliant imagery with complex psychology for a truly haunting experience. It’s no small wonder that this is the only of his novels to land a spot on The List.

The story focuses around Jack Torrance who is so desperate for a job that he becomes the off-season caretaker for the secluded Overlook Hotel. He, along with his wife Wendy and 6-year-old son Danny, will spend 8 months alone in the hotel, preventing the pipes from freezing over and the boiler from overheating. Wendy is frail and fearful of her husband whose previous history of alcoholism led him to break their son’s arm (and attack a student); yet she loves him enough to follow him to the Overlook in the hopes that a secluded season of writing will rehabilitate him. It is only little Danny whose “shining” premonitions of the horrors within the Overlook give him trepidation for this venture.

129_shiningnewThe chapters shuffle through the main characters’ perspectives, giving striking point-of-view perceptions of what is occurring in the present while also imparting insight into the characters’—and hotel’s—backstories that help frame their deteriorating psychological states. While this helps provide the framework for the story, it’s the recurring imagery used throughout that elevates this novel into profound horror. Iconic images and phrases like the roque mallet, the topiary animals, Room 217, and, of course, “REDRUM” enhance the eerie mood and building tensions of the story. Thus establishing King as a renowned horror genre writer.

As iconic as the novel is, the film is equally iconic in its own regards. Stanley Kubrick’s film is considered one of the best horror films, and that’s a worthy assessment. The film sets an uneasy mood with flashes of horrific images that Danny (Danny Lloyd) can see combined with Jack’s (Jack Nicholson) descent into mania—not to mention a creepy score by Wendy Carlos and Rachel Elkind. The overall look of the film is brilliant thanks to help from Roy Walker, for production design; Les Tomkins, for art direction; and John Alcott, for cinematography. These elements combine to make a visually appealing and eerie film.

tumblr_m0hkxhPS6f1r1au5yo1_500But, as great as the film is, it seems to miss the point of the book. In King’s Shining the Overlook itself is an important, menacing character. It has motivations and manipulations that slowly become central to the story. In Kubrick’s Shining the Overlook is just an expanse of open rooms with mismatching color schemes spread throughout. It acts as the playground for Jack’s psychotic breakdown but has very little influence on his actual mental state. The film also eliminates nearly every piece of character backstory; sacrificing story for languorous shots of the empty hotel or Danny pedaling around in his little tricycle.

There are smaller things that are altered or lost in the adaptation as well. Would it have been so hard to have Jack chase Wendy around with a roque mallet? (A baseball bat makes an appearance, however.) The sound of the clock chiming still rings in my ears from reading the book, yet that inciting moment for the climactic chain of events is missing from the film. The overheating boiler and creepy topiary creatures are swapped out for intense outdoor blizzard shots and a hedge maze chase scene (presumably for budgetary reasons). Even the haunted Room 217 is changed to 237 in the film (presumably for superstitious reasons). It seems that only the slight alteration to how “REDRUM” is written (with the inverted letters) manages to add the visual punch needed for its reveal.

The-Shining-movie-poster200All such changes make for a disappointing cinematic experience (when read in close conjunction with the book). King’s novel is rife with delicious visual imagery that yearns to be depicted onscreen, yet the film fails to capture much of that. An inevitable remake of the film may be able to capture these, but without Nicholson’s ingenious and iconic performance will it be as effective? Even Shelley Duvall as Wendy, with deeply hideous costumes, perfectly captures the intense anxiety of the character. Only the depiction of Danny and his imaginary friend Tony was a major acting disappointment. When Danny first spoke as Tony through his finger, the film nearly lost all sense of believability. A new adaptation would better capture Tony as the distant figure who subconsciously speaks to Danny.

It should come as no surprise that the book is overall better than its filmic adaptation. (When, if ever, has the reverse been true?) The film is a visually stunning piece that has impacted pop culture for decades, but the novel is much more effective at telling the story while greatly engaging the reader. So this is one case where I can safely advise that you see the film first before tackling the novel—yet I certainly recommend that you do both.