Monday, May 14, 2012

Pride & Prejudice - The Play

I love my books and I like good adaptations of them as movies, plays, musicals, television series, etc. So, when my Deutschlehrerin casually told me that she was going to watch Pride & Prejudice I went, literally, berserk. How could I have not known about it?!

A little theater company called the Lifeline Theatre was putting up a two month production of Pride & Prejudice - the third in its history. Naturally, I didn't care where it was (just a half-hour ride on the CTA Red Line, so that was good) or how much the tickets cost (a reasonably priced ticket actually), I looked for a weekend when I would be able to attend, not even bothering to consult the guests I was supposed to be hosting last evening, and got my tickets.
I was excited, but a bit subdued. No use getting my hopes up only to be disappointed, I told myself. This is, after all, my most beloved book ever. Nothing else that I have read in the thirteen years since has compared to Miss Austen's writing. North & South comes a close second in the genre, but over all, P & P has never been ousted from it's position of 'No. 1 Favorite of All Time'. Thankfully, it wasn't to be so.

It was a small stage, very well setup, with a cast of ten - some playing multiple roles. It begins as it should - 
"It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a large fortune must be in want of a wife."
And for two and a half hours - with a break after the first act, which ends with the Bingley quitting Netherfield - one is treated to the very story that has given rise to many a fantasy, for women, to find their own Mr. Darcy. There are several scenes from the book that are cut out, and characters remain unused, but it isn't noticeable in the flow of the adaptation. The essence of satire and drama, the very ones that Miss Austen intended bring out in her works, are retained admirably. The actors were good - each of them taking on their characters easily. You could believe that they are the ones from the book. Of course I wished it were Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy, because he is my favorite Mr. Darcy, but this performance didn't leave me wanting for more. The script stayed honest to the lines from the book - I caught myself reciting with the actors many a time - and some added jibes which had a very Austen-esque feel to it.

An aspect that very few plays take into consideration is the audience participation - mainly because the actors shouldn't be distracted - but this one did it well. Elizabeth Bennett speaks to the audience, not necessarily expecting a response, just as Austen speaks to the readers occasionally.
I had the added advantage of sitting in a corner of the very first row and could see every actor and every part of the stage with great clarity. It was like being a part of the whole story once more. I could imagine the grounds of Pemberley, the Netherfield ballroom and the assembly rooms at Meryton with ease, just using the characters as puppets in my imagination. That's what you're supposed to do, right? ;)
Fact remains that the book is always better, no argument there from any quarter, and it isn't exactly easy to adapt anyway. At least, into a stage performance. For that the adaptor and director have my congratulations. They've done it justice - and it isn't very easy to satisfy die-hard Austen fans.

A short talk with the director and a member of the Jane Austen Society of North America, which was also attended by the principal cast members - Mr. Darcy, Eliza Bennett and Mr. Bingley, was a good way to end an enjoyable evening.

I have now discovered another gem within the city and I know I will return for more.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Harry Potter und der Stein der Weisen

This is not exactly a review - because I don't know the language well enough to write a German review, but I will, in due time. Reviewing the Harry Potter books would take its toll on me because of the details in it - the same goes for the Lord of the Rings. Maybe if I'd  reviewed them as I read them it would've made it easier but...

I'm re-learning the language - signed up for the A1 level once again because I haven't retained what I learned three years ago. I can understand random words and simple sentences and make wild guesses at what the more complex sentences convey, but I would like to know the grammar, the structure and the foundation of the language so that I may indulge in German literature. These being my baby steps towards reading Goethe's Faust in German.

I thought I'd start with something simple. Fairy tales, not so much, so I picked up a book that I know very well - Harry Potter und der Stein der Weisen - which translates, literally, to Harry Potter and the Wise Stone. Notice that the book cover is different from the English editions. The story is obviously the same but it is very much fun (= spaƟ) to read. I will take more than twice as long to complete the book, obviously, but I will strive through and complete it and then proclaim it to be the first German language book albeit translated that I've read.
I considered reading Pride & Prejudice in German but couldn't find a copy at the library.

My initial response to the book is the difference in literature itself. Voldemort is a Dark Wizard in English and is a Practitioner of Black Magic or ein Schwarzmagier in German. The idea is the same but the way it's said is different so the image the words paint are rather different from those that English words induce.
I believe I'm going to very much enjoy reading books in another language. Eventually, I'll read German books as they were meant to be read - in German!

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

The Painted Veil

If I recall rightly, one of Guy de Maupassant's short stories, I forget which, that led me W. Somerset Maugham's writing, his short stories in particular - Footprints in the Jungle, Rain and several others that appeared in his collective works. I never went back to reading either of their novels until now.
I've known the story of The Painted Veil for a long time, having read excerpts of it here and there and watched the trailer to the movie adaptation starring Edward Norton (sigh) and Naomi Watts, and finally bought the book just last week on a whim - I haven't yet watched the movie.

It is the story of a young, silly girl named Kitty who marries Walter Fane, a bacteriologist working in Hong-Kong, soon after her younger sister announces her engagement to a man with a title. While in Hong-Kong, Kitty has an affair with assistant colonial secretary Charles Townsend, a selfish man who believes Walter would rather forgive his wife and continue to live in assumed ignorance instead of creating a scene and possibly losing his job. Instead, a disappointed Walter gives Kitty an ultimatum - she either travels with him to a cholera ravaged town in interior mainland China, or she and Townsend marry as soon as both their spouses give them a divorce. Townsend, being as shallow as Walter expects, refuses and Kitty finds herself resigning to a fate of death in the epidemic which is readily claiming any victim. It is in this town that Kitty begins to understand Walter, who is not only just ashamed of her but despises himself for having loved her. Realizing that she is now alone in the world, Kitty begins to offer her services to the French missionary in Mei-Tan-Fu. She discovers how repulsive her actions have been and how badly she has mistreated Walter. She loses him at the cusp of new beginnings but is fully aware of her own stupidity. Though she doesn't necessarily redeem herself she does gain a larger emotional understanding of people and learns of what is really important in life.

I loved the writing. So very simple but filled with such emotional depth that I had to take a couple of moments to get past the moment before delving into the story again.
Kitty is portrayed as a silly woman, who knows nor cares for the meaningful things in life. She isn't intelligent but has the looks and marries Walter, knowing that he loves her much more than she is capable of returning the emotion.
"I tried not to bore you with my love; .... and I was always on the lookout for the first sign that you were impatient with my affection. What most husbands expect as a right I was prepared to receive as a favor." - Walter (when confronting her of her infidelity)
Kitty pretty much takes him for granted through the first quarter of the book -
"...perhaps Walter loved her so passionately that he was prepared to accept any humiliation is sometimes she would let him love her."
It is only after Townsend's rejection of her that she realizes and appreciates, to a certain degree, Walter's character. She doesn't grow to love him, but she does learn to respect him. His compassion for little children and the people of a dying town make him every bit the man that Townsend can never be. But he remains that man that Kitty can never love.

It's wonderful reading this book because you know that a man has written it from a woman's perspective. The feminist in me cries in protest at the portrayal of the protagonist, obviously. But Maugham, in very precise sentences, lays out all of a woman's emotions - which are supposed to be difficult to understand! He minces no words when Kitty reasons quietly why she could never love a man like Walter. She knows that others would hate her for it as he dies a martyr's death and though she respects him she acknowledges that for her it living life with him would have been terribly. They wouldn't have made each other happy, even though he once loved her.
I like the character of Waddington, a British deputy commissioner stationed in Mei-Tan-Fu. He is written to be shrewd (in fact, all characters except Kitty and Townsend seem to be rather perceptive) but doesn't let on more. Walter elicits sympathy - though the story does focus more on him through Kitty. His last words - "The dog it was that died" - (from Oliver Goldsmith's An Elegy on the Death of a Mad Dog) are as enigmatic as the man himself. Simple but to the point, still.

One of the things about this book, and the writing, that puts this on my 'favorites' shelf is that it speaks out loud the things most beings would hide. The contrast between self-centered and shallow characters and the more righteous and world/people aware ones is stark. It shows that while some people can change one's character still remains defined just as it always was. It is the choices you make that make you different. The innate qualities of a person, be it their will to sacrifice worldly pleasures to do good for humanity - like the nuns, their ability to attach themselves to another person because of their love - like Waddington and his Manchu mistress, their ability to feel compassion for others though their own personal feelings have been taken for granted - like Walter, their high opinion of themselves which are only skin deep - like Townsend and to some extent even Kitty, can never be altered. I consider the line "he did of a broken heart" to be one of the saddest in the book. It makes you wonder...

The movie adaptation is supposed to bring closure to Kitty and Walter, which is what (a romantic) one would want, I suppose, but personally I think Maugham's writing does the story enough justice. The story lives up to its title taken from P.B. Shelley's sonnet -

Lift not the painted veil which those who live
Call Life: though unreal shapes be pictured there,
And it but mimic all we would believe
With colours idly spread,--behind, lurk Fear
And Hope, twin Destinies; who ever weave
Their shadows, o'er the chasm, sightless and drear.
I knew one who had lifted it--he sought,
For his lost heart was tender, things to love,
But found them not, alas! nor was there aught
The world contains, the which he could approve.
Through the unheeding many he did move,
A splendour among shadows, a bright blot
Upon this gloomy scene, a Spirit that strove
For truth, and like the Preacher found it not.