Review: Perfume – The Story of a Murderer, by Patrick Süskind


I have just finished one of the most fascinating books I’ve ever read. I can’t wrap my head around it, though. I don’t really know what it meant. One can interpret it in a number of ways, and I have been doing that for the past few days. The meaning the author wanted to convey can be as elusive as the book’s subject matter: SCENT. 

There was a copy of Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, by Patrick Süskind, at my mother’s house when I was in college. I never touched it. I’m glad I didn’t, as I’m sure I wouldn’t have liked it then, being too young to deal with its abstractions. Now I read the English translation from the German by John E. Woods: The language is amazing, a pleasure in its own right. I wonder what it sounds likes in the original. There’s a movie based on the book, but most of my friends told me it wasn’t nearly as good as the novel. So I guess I won’t see it.

The content of the book wafts from the page in its mixture of aromatic words, fragrant images, perfumed beauty, pungent corruption, and putrid evil. What does it mean to be human? What can satisfy a person? This is what the story seems to ask. Read this masterpiece and let’s discuss it. 

However, after reading the book, you will never think of scent, odor, perfume, and stench – or France in the 18th century for that matter – in the same way again.

Have you read the book? What are your thoughts about it? Let us know.

Jorge Sette

Euphoria (HBO): second season (review)


Now that Zendaya won a Best Actress Emmy for the role of the drug addict Rue in the successful HBO series Euphoria, I’m rewatching the second season. I want to check out her performance and decide if the show is as good as I thought it was when I first saw it.

The series is definitely not for the faint of heart. The story, set in the fictitious town of East Highland in California, is about a group of High School teenagers, most of them still living with their highly dysfunctional middle-class families.

Drugs, sex, and cell phones abound. These characters are portrayed in all their rawness, brutality, and emptiness by an extraordinary cast of young and mature actors.

The highlight of the second season is a play within the show (“Our Lives”), created and directed by one of the students, Lexi, who seems to act as the moral center of the story. The play – stunning in itself for us, the home audience – helps the characters sitting in the school theater see themselves as they really are, with all their flaws and inconsistencies (rather than the fake personas they try to create and project), therefore stirring strong emotions, and leading to a huge unscripted fight on the stage. “Art should be dangerous”, says an assistant to the devastated director to soothe her. But the show must go on.

Most of the relevant current themes are discussed in Euphoria, to some extent: friendship, loyalty, love, the opioid crisis, fluid sexuality, transsexualism, pedophilia, toxic masculinity, feminism, sexual orientation, the breakdown of the traditional family and its values, the difficulty to communicate real feelings or develop an authentic personality.

There’s a lot of physical and verbal violence too. Keeping in mind that the objective of ambitious shows is not only to entertain but also to discuss controversial issues and provoke change, Euphoria is a great show, if you can manage to watch the frequent uncomfortable scenes.

Have you had a chance to watch the show? Please leave your comments in the section below.

Jorge Sette

The War of the End of the World, by Vargas Llosa – Book Review


I read Euclides da Cunha’s The Backlands (Os Sertões), a brilliant journalistic account of the War of Canudos, a couple of years ago. The report is extremely well-written, precise, and exciting – to the extent that non-fictional pieces of writing can afford to be, even when they incorporate techniques more typically used in fiction. However, regular readers will agree that nothing can be more thrilling, more stimulating to the imagination, than great novels.

Therefore, even if you loved The Backlands, which I certainly did, don’t miss reading Peruvian writer Vargas Llosa’s The War of the End of the World, the novel based on the same event – a war waged between the official powers of the recently proclaimed Brazilian Republic and a gathering of some 30,000 jagunços (the name given to the impoverished and undernourished inhabitants of the backlands), who built a community, Canudos, in the northeast of Bahia at the end of the nineteenth century.

First of all, I was impressed by how much Llosa knows about Brazil. He must have undertaken extensive and in-depth research about this period of our history. As a consequence, he is quite familiar with the different groups of people who lived in the region, their customs and physical characteristics, the regional names they gave to the native vegetation and geographic locations of the backlands, an area of the interior of the northeast of Brazil punished by constant droughts, leading to poverty, scarcity of all kinds of resources and, as a result, illness, ignorance, and predisposition to all kinds of superstitions and fanaticism.

The War of Canudos is a very complex conflict, involving clashes between opposing political interests,  different economic classes, idiosyncratic religious views, and diverse cosmologies to sum it all up. It was a war between myths, in the broadest sense of the word. The military sent to the region claim they were defending the interests of the Brazilian Republic against heavily armed conservationists backed up by the English and local aristocrats who were trying to revert the country to a monarchy. Nevertheless, the jagunços who came in droves to put together and live in the community of Canudos were mostly Catholics who followed the somewhat peculiar doctrine of the charismatic religious guru Antônio Conselheiro, the Counselor. This religious leader had, with the mere strength of his words and personal example, the power to persuade the simple-minded people of the backlands to turn their violent and empty lives into something more peaceful and meaningful; he gave them loftier aspirations.

Antônio Conselheiro

The War of Canudos needs to be interpreted from different angles and perspectives. The lines separating right and wrong as far as the confronting ideologies went are not clear-cut. Lots of gray areas. The horror, however, made itself rather concrete and clear, through the brutality and violence that took place in those forgotten and distant dry lands of the interior of Brazil during the conflict. Llosa’s novel is not for the faint of heart, by the way. The explicit descriptions of shots, throat slashes, decapitations, stabbings, bombardments, disfigurement of faces, bayonet perforations, dismembering of body parts, causing corpses to accumulate in piles or lie strewn around, exposed to the voracity of famished vultures, dogs and rats, disputing the remains, are nauseating and shocking.

On the other hand, a strange beauty permeates the novel, when it shifts to the narration of the resilience, bravery, abnegation, cooperation, and empathy shown by the jagunços toward each other. It also emerges in the description of the cold star-studded skies at night that alternate with orange moonlit landscapes lacking in water and vegetation – only cacti, mandacarus, and shrubs could survive in such hostile climate – or, also, in the rare and quick passages portraying the sudden and brief storms that brought hope and happiness to the fighters.

The War of the End of the World is a hard book to read, with many different themes to take into consideration and reflect on. Although, at a more superficial level, it seems to be simply the fictionalized account of a real conflict that took place more than 100 years ago, the novel encapsulates relevant and current themes, especially for Brazil, a country whose stark economic inequality and cruelty toward the lower classes are still a sad reality.

Have you read any of the books mentioned in this article? Did you like them? Please leave your comments below.

Jorge Sette

The Rolling Stones drive 70,000 Brazilians wild during their last show in São Paulo


This text was first published on February 28, 2016. I felt I should republished it now after the death of Charlie Watts this week. This is for him.

Feb 27th, 2016: Rolling Stones Latin America Olé Tour. After the competent and traditional paulista band Titans, who opened for the Rolling Stones in their two São Paulo shows, completed their participation, the stage began to be cleaned up and prepared to receive rock’n’roll royalty. 

The atmosphere of anticipation was almost unbearable; you could sense the electricity in the air. The Stones’ clever choice of Jumpin’ Jack Flash to kick off the evening struck the unfailing spark to detonate an explosion of historic proportions. The crowd went crazy. It may be only rock and roll but we love it!

For the next two hours, some 70,000 fans, composed of grandparents, parents and kids, rocked, sang and responded, as if in a trance, to Mick Jagger’s antics, which, besides great singing and dancing, included greetings, swearing, and jokes in clear, yet heavily accented, Portuguese – he introduced the circumspect drum player Charlie Watts as Rainha da Bossa Nova (Queen of Bossa Nova). I hope poor Charlie did not get the joke.

In certain moments, the show just felt like some sort of ritualistic exorcism, with people jumping up and down, yelling, sobbing and pulling at their hair – I hadn’t seen this kind of fan hysteria since the worn-out footages of the Beatles arriving in the USA in the early 60s.

As the Stones were not promoting any new record, the show was a dizzying succession of classic hits (Wild Horses, Brown sugar, She’s a Rainbow, Miss you, Paint it Black, Honky Tonk Women, You Cant Always Get What You Want – the latter accompanied by the members of the Coral Sampa – which both moved the older guys who packed the Morumbi stadium, and drove the teenagers and 20-somethings wild. I don’t think the younger generations had ever experienced anything as good in terms of a rock and roll concert here in Brazil. Even better: the band seemed to be having the time of their lives: playing like fiends, smiling widely, being nice and friendly to their adoring Brazilian fans.

The show was indeed iconic, offering the public, at least, two sublime moments:

1. Mick Jagger and the beautiful black vocal singer Sasha Allen took the stage catwalk, which jutted into the audience, and sang what will surely become a legendary version of GIMME SHELTER while the light rain that began to fall shone against the bright spotlights, providing a wonderful and unexpected cinematographic context to the song. As the singers danced, embraced – and even simulated copulation on the stage – I noticed people’s eyes welling up at the exquisiteness of the performance. The rain lasted for the entire number and felt like a momentous gift from heaven to enhance the show. See the unedited, raw video clip below:

2. The audience was also awarded a historic 10 min long rendition of MIDNIGHT RAMBLER, electrifying the crowd, who either sang along or just stared wide-eyed at that mysterious 73-year-old sage, a force of nature, with the face of an old and battered seaman who’s been exposed to the harshest elements, yet carrying the body of a supple teenager, serpentining across the stage with his trademark moves, and slyly raising his t-shirt now and then to show off his well-defined six-pack abs!

But when we hear the first chords of Sympathy for the Devil (three-quarters into the show), and witness Mick Jagger stepping onto the stage in a flaming red boa (repeating an act he had already performed in Martin Scorsese’s documentary SHINE A LIGHT – with the difference that, in the movie, they used real fire!!) everything falls into place: we get confirmation of what we have known all along and yet refused to believe. Mick Jagger is either Faust, having struck a pact with Satan, or an alien dropped by mistake and forgotten on this planet!

To say the concert was perfect would be accurate, if only Keith Richards had refrained from singing two songs half-way into the event. Embarrassingly out of tune, he must abandon this recurring fit of narcissism and stick to what he does best: playing the guitar like a god.

The concert finished with the anthemic I can’t get no satisfaction, followed by a discreet display of fireworks. To its credit, the whole show keeps visual effects and pyrotechnics to the barest minimum. What we get is two hours of solid, raw, and uncompromising rock and roll. Worth every cent you may have spent on the ticket!

On a final note, let’s just point out that, although Mick Jagger avoided making political comments on the situation of the country during the show, whenever the movie crew who was registering the event trained their cameras at the audience, small groups would spontaneously break into offensive chants against President Dilma Rousseff.

Jorge Sette

5 Classic Movie Dads


Here are some of the most popular dads in classic movies. Celebrate the upcoming Father’s Day – Sunday, Aug 8, in Brazil – watching any of them with your old man. Some of them are available on Netflix. Maybe there’s still time to purchase a DVD too.

To Kill a Mockingbird (1964): The Open-Minded Dad 

One of the most beloved movie dads of all time, Gregory Peck plays the widowed lawyer Atticus Finch, who goes up against an entire town in Alabama in the 1930s to defend a young black man accused of raping the daughter of a drunken bigot. The movie is based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning autobiographical account of the late author Harper Lee’s childhood. The story is seen through the naïve eyes of Atticus’ adoring, tomboyish daughter Scout, who leads a happy life, playing in the bucolic countryside in the company of her older brother Jem and a younger, precocious boy called Dill, who, most likely, represents her lifelong friend Truman Capote. Scout learns, by observing her dad’s impeccable behaviour, to respect and promote diversity in all its forms.

The Godfather (1972): The Mob Dad

This seminal mob movie from the early seventies reinvented the gangster genre by showing the Mafia from the perspective of family life. The portrait of a close and loving relationship between a father (Marlon Brando) and his sons, depicted against the backdrop of a violent war among mob families in New York, has both shocked and mesmerized audiences for almost 50 years now. The unexpected rise to leadership of the least likely of Don Corleone’s sons, the college educated and sensitive Michael (Al Pacino), who, on assuming the role of the head of the family, surpasses his father in coldness, decisiveness and cruelty, still has the power to galvanize audiences.

Jaws (1975): The Superhero Dad 

Based on Peter Benchley’s bestselling book, Jaws was the first of the so-called blockbusters, earning an estimated $407 million at the box office. Chief Martin Brody (Roy Scheider) will be forever remembered as the worried dad who, not only grows overprotective of his two young boys, but becomes the surrogate father of the whole beach town of Amity. Brody sets out to kill the great white shark that haunts the summer resort, in a Moby Dick–style expedition. The repetitive chords of the iconic John Williams’ music score and the line you’re gonna need a bigger boat, uttered by Brody after his first glimpse of the huge shark, have been a part of pop culture since the movie’s release.

Back to the Future (1985): The Goofy Dad 

A strong premise, great acting across the board, lots of action and humor, plus a a wonderful soundtrack, combine to make Back to the Future a landmark 80s movie. The focus here is on Marty McFly (the ultra charismatic Michael J. Fox), but the majority of the story revolves around his efforts to duck his mother’s romantic advances, while trying to create the necessary conditions for her to meet his shy father so that they can fall in love and marry, resulting in the existence of the family in the present.

Confusing? Not really, Marty is accidentally sent back to 1955 (from 1985) in a time machine made from a car, a 1982 DeLorean DMC-12, by his friend, the mad scientist Doc Brown (Christopher Lloyd). Marty attempts to put some order into his future parents’ chaotic lives.

Wall Street (1987): The Sensible Dad

The movie begins with Bud Fox (Charlie Sheen) looking to climb the Wall Street ladder. His father, Carl (Martin Sheen), is a head mechanic at Bluestar Airlines, and reveals the results of an investigation into a plane crash. By using this inside information to presell the airliner’s stock before it crashes, Bud becomes the protégé of Wall Street wolf Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas). Bud climbs to the top quickly, accumulating money, power, and women. Eventually, he becomes a heavy drug user. Luckily, his father is there for him to cushion his fall.

Can you add any other famous Dads from movies you have enjoyed to this post? Go ahead and use the comments section below.

Jorge Sette

Highlights from the book Machado de Assis: A Literary Life, by K. David Jackson


In his in-depth work, K. David Jackson, Professor of Portuguese at Yale University, focuses on the oeuvre of Machado de Assis, rather than on more personal aspects of his life. If, on the one hand, you wish you’d get to know more about the man behind some of the greatest works of the Latin American literary canon, Jackson’s choice is understandable. Machado was a very private person, who led a rather uneventful and quiet life, totally devoted to his artistic objective: the construction of a philosophical and fictional world.

This detailed work by K. David Jackson isn’t, therefore, your typical biography, but a fascinating study of Machado’s output, illuminating unsuspected aspects of his fiction and acquainting the reader with hidden facets of his creative process.

Here are some of the most engaging points made in the book:

1. Biographical landmarks: Machado de Assis, known as the Wizard of Cosme Velho (the neighborhood in Rio de Janeiro where he lived), was the co-founder and first president of the Brazilian Academy of Letters (1897). His most famous works are the Carioca Quintet (a set of five novels published from 1881 to 1908: The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas; Quincas Borba; Dom Casmurro; Esau and Jacob; Counselor Aires’ Memoirs). He died in 1908 at the age of 69. His image was used on a Brazilian banknote in 1988, and he was the featured author at the International Literary Festival Party of Paraty (FLIP) in 2008, to celebrate the centenary of his death.

Brazilian academy of Letters

2. His importance: According to Jackson, Machado’s writings ought to be placed alongside the works of Dostoevsky, Gogol, Hardy, Melville, Stendhal, and Flaubert.

3. Innovation: Having started off as a romantic writer and progressively become associated with the Realist artistic movement in Brazil, Machado is said to have anticipated the modernist narrative features found in Proust, Joyce, T.S. Eliot, Camus, Mann, and Borges.

4. Features: Machado’s work is hybrid and cannibalistic (intertextual). Through extensive reading, he assimilated and digested an incredible amount of information on Western culture as a whole (arts, music, philosophy, and literature), and based on these sources produced a very original body of work, using the social context of the city of the Rio de Janeiro during the Empire as a means to discuss and represent, mainly through parody and satire, universal truths and human dilemmas.

5. His most important works (such as The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas and Dom Casmurro) feature unreliable character-narrators, whose hallucinations dreams and obsessions are said to anticipate Freud’s psychoanalytic theories.

6. Theater and opera: These are among the main influences in the construction of the fictional space of Machado de Assis. Rio de Janeiro hosted a great number of European theater and opera companies in the 19th century, which allowed Machado to be exposed to a lot of comedic operas (opera buffa) and plays, which are not only frequently referenced in his fiction, but are also woven into the fabric of his works.

7. Shakespeare’s Othello: the classic story of the Moor who kills his wife Desdemona out of jealousy is reflected in the feelings – if not the actions – of important protagonists of Machado’s fiction. Othello is, for example, one of the main inspirations of Bento Santiago, the character-narrator of Dom Casmurro, whose insecurity and obsessions prompt him to write his memoirs as a way of persuading himself and the readers that his wife, Capitu, had an affair with his best friend Escobar, bearing an illegitimate son, Ezequiel.

Desdemona and Othello, Théodore Chassériau, 1847.

8. Social Darwinism and Positivism – dominating scientific theories at the time – were strongly criticized and ridiculed by Machado, especially through the fictitious philosophy of HUMANITAS, summarized by the motto To the Victor, the Potatoes, created by the mentally unstable character Quincas Borba, who first appeared in The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas. He later made a comeback in the novel Quincas Borba (although, in typically oblique Machadian fashion, he’s not the protagonist of the book).

9. Main themes: Machado’s work is a profound depiction of Rio de Janeiro society during the Empire. This microcosm, however, is used by the author only as a familiar context for the highlighting of universal themes, such as legitimacy, chastity, honesty, hypocrisy, adultery and cruelty, which receive a modernist treatment in his hands.

If you haven’t had the chance to read Machado de Assis yet, K. David Jackson’s book will surely whet your appetite. For those, like me, who have read and reread Machado on a regular basis, Jacksons’ work was a surprising and welcome source of new interpretations of the familiar novels and short stories the Brazilian author is most famous for.

Jorge Sette

Tent of Miracles, by Jorge Amado: Racism and Parochialism Against the Backdrop of a Mythic Bahia


Jorge Amado (1912-2001), one of the most popular and internationally known Brazilian authors, started his career writing realistic books that carried a biting criticism of the economic elites and their exploitation of the working classes and the poor. This Marxist phase characterized the first of his works. After the publication of Gabriela, Clove and Cinnamon in 1958, however, his novels became more populist and satirical, with a stronger focus on the sensuality and picturesque aspects of the afro-Brazilian culture of the author’s native state of Bahia, located in the northeast of the country. The author was harshly criticized by many for having changed his tone.

With Tent of Miracles, first published in 1969, one could say that Amado managed to strike a fine balance, providing a serious examination of Brazilian socio-economic issues and highlighting the hedonism and colorfulness of the Bahian culture, with its stunningly beautiful mulatto women, the freewheeling sensuality of its people, their lively songs, and dances and the prevalence of African-originated religions and cults.

The Themes

Tent of Miracles is a strong satire on the parochialism of the Brazilian intelligentsia – which needs validation from developed countries, especially from the US, before appreciating local talents in all areas of art and knowledge. The novel is also an inspired ode against racism, praising the power and beauty of miscegenation. In that respect, we can say that the themes of the book are more relevant than ever in today’s global context of generalized xenophobia, racism, and prejudice against diversity.

The Plot

The story kicks off when a Nobel Prize-winning North-American scholar, D.J. Levinson, comes across some forgotten books in the library of Columbia University and decides that their author is one of the best anthropologists he’s ever read. The racial considerations and the detailed description of the customs and “folkways” of the racially-mixed people of Bahia found in those four dusty volumes deserve to be known and discussed by the global academic community. The author, a black Brazilian called Pedro Archanjo, lived in Bahia for 75 years (1868 -1943), doing menial work in the streets of the city of Salvador (called Bahia at the time), destitute and unrecognized by his upper-class contemporaries. Levinson then comes to Brazil to experience first hand the theories put forward in the books and to promote their author.

Of course, the announcement of the arrival of the US luminary makes headlines in the biggest newspapers of Brazil. This arouses the interest and greed of the local authorities, intellectuals, and politicians, who wish to advance their own personal agendas, tapping into the newly-elevated status of Pedro Archanjo to scientific prodigy. It’s decided that the centenary of Pedro Archanjo’s birth – about to take place at the end of the year – deserves a fitting and official celebration in the city after all.

At this point, the lesser writer and poet Fausto Pena is hired by Professor Levinson to do research into the life and times of Pedro Archanjo, spanning more than 70 decades. In reality, Levinson’s main objective is to get Pena out of they way so that he can enjoy the pleasant company of the poet’s girlfriend, the journalist Ana Mercedes, an unashamedly social climbing mulatto beauty.

As a result, it is through Fausto Pena’s eyes that we get to know the story of Pedro Archanjo, despite all the gaps, incongruences and half-truths he gathers in his notes. We learn about Archanjo’s popularity among women, the innumerable children he fathered out of wedlock, his work as a runner for the School of Medicine and, finally, his rising awareness of the social conditions of the underprivileged people of Bahia, subject to all kinds of oppression, violence, and prejudice. Archanjo then decides to self-educate, write about race relations, and become a political militant.

Despite its important and political undertones, the story, of course, unfurls against the backdrop of a poetic and colorful Bahia, with humorous anecdotes and detailed descriptions of the rituals of the local afro-influenced religions, the local foods and spices, the dance and music. Jorge Amado kept many original African words in these passages – wisely kept in the translation into English – presenting a complete glossary in the back of the book.

The Characters

The characters of Tent of Miracles are not entirely realistic, but ironic representations of specific types that populate the Brazilian collective imagination. We can split them into the powerful (corrupt politicians, controlling newspaper editors, arrogant college professors) and the disenfranchised (the malandros, bon vivants, ruffians, drunks, gorgeous mulatto women, old wise men, and gold-hearted prostitutes). 

Most of them, however, come across as a bit underwritten; they are not fully rounded characters. Pedro Archanjo, of course, personifies all the contradictions of a typical popular hero, as all his facets are praised in the Carnival celebration held in his honor at the end of the book: minor candomblé priest, vagabond, striker, runner of the School of Medicine (where he started his more formal education), heavy drinker, womanizer, teacher, sorcerer and writer! 

The Style

Although the book has strong elements of magical realism, especially in the scenes that take place in the candomblé terreiros, the space where the afro-religions and cults have their rituals (devotees embarking in trances; divinities taking possession of their bodies; supernatural events occurring; myth and reality getting intertwined), most of the plot develops in a fairly realistic and straightforward way.

The Relevance of Tent of Miracles Today

Jorge Amado

Written during the first years of the Brazilian military dictatorship, the passages depicting the brutal repression by the police of the Afro-Catholic cults, the bloody raids against the terreiros, and the beating or killing of their members – which happened especially during the 1920s and 30s – can be interpreted as a fitful metaphor of the times.

The novel, however, does not feel dated at all, as its themes are still universal and very concrete. The irony made explicit in the story is that miscegenation deeply permeates the whole of Brazilian society, and, thus, the bigotry and racism of people whose mixed-race blood is either carefully hidden in the family past or even naively ignored are laughable and hypocritical. It’s time for Brazil – and other countries in the world – to bury the myth of white supremacy and come to terms with the fact that we’ll carry on living in an irreversibly multicultural, mixed and diverse society.

Jorge Sette

Hemingway’s Views on Writing


In his book Ernest Hemingway on Writing, Larry W. Phillips does a wonderful job of collecting the great author’s thoughts on the field of writing. Phillips draws from various sources including personal letters, books, novels, essays, commissioned articles, and interviews. Sectioning our post in the same way Phillips did with his book, let’s try to summarize some of Hemingway’s most interesting ideas on the topic.

What Writing Is and Does

• Good books are all alike in the sense that they feel true. Communicating genuine experiences to the reader is essential. It’s the writer’s job to convey to the reader feelings, sensations, and even the weather, as he narrates the experience he’s writing about.

• Literature is, after all, poetry written in prose and it should read like that.

• Good books may be reread as many times as the reader wishes: they never lose their mystery, there’s always something new to learn.

The Qualities of a Writer

• Writers need the talent of a Kipling and the discipline of a Flaubert. They also must be intelligent, honest, and disinterested.

• Writers must be able to detect anything that doesn’t sound genuine in their texts. Their minds need to work as radars to avoid artificiality.

• To write novels, writers need to have an inbuilt sense of justice and injustice. Otherwise, they had better be doing something else.

• Writers need to be fast learners. Knowledge of the world is an essential tool for this job.

The Pain and Pleasure of Writing

• You write for two people basically: for yourself (and you need to make it perfect) and for the person you love, so they can read it and share the experience.

• Hemingway says he never suffered when he wrote. He felt empty and horrible when he was not writing. This is the opposite experience of many other writers, as you probably know.

• Writing is a difficult and challenging process, yet, so rewarding. It’s a disease some people are born with.

• Sometimes a writer will need to reread something good he has written in the past to convince himself he can still do it, and then, will continue writing.

• Writing is an obsession. Maybe a vice.

• There are no rules to writing: it may come easily sometimes, and at other times it can seem almost impossible.

The Old Man and the Sea

What to Write About

• Don’t write about your personal tragedies: nobody really cares about them. But you can use your hurt feelings to convey truth in what you are writing.

• A man has to have suffered a lot to write a really funny book.

• Writers should stick to what they know profoundly.

• Readers expect the writer to repeat the same story every time they pick up one of their new books. Don’t do that: the new book is not going to be as popular at the last.

• War is a good subject. Experiencing war can teach writers a lot. Some are jealous because, never having taken part in a war, they can’t write about it firsthand. Other good topics are love, money, avarice, and murder.

Advice to Writers

• At the beginning of your text, write one true sentence. The rest will stem from that.

• Write about what you really feel, not what you are supposed to feel. Only real emotions count.

• Remember the details of the experience that inspires you in order to pass on to the reader real feelings and sensations. Readers should relive your excitement.

• Listen carefully and actively when you talk to people, so you can understand their perspective and use it in your writing. Learn to put yourself in other people’s shoes.

• Hone your observational skills.

• To be truthful, you can’t put only what is beautiful in a novel. You need to add the ugly and the bad.

• Distrust adjectives.

• Write like Cézanne painted: Start with all the tricks and then get rid of all the artifice and bare the truth.

For Whom the Bell Tolls

Working Habits

• As you are writing, stop when it’s going well. So the next day you feel energized about the task and pick it up knowing where you are going.

• When you are not writing, don’t think about it, try not to worry about your novel; do something physical or read other books. Let your subconscious work on it.

• Every time you start writing, reread everything you have written so far. When it begins to take too long to cover all the written passages, reread only the last few chapters.

• After writing a novel, give it a couple of months before you start rewriting it. Let it cool off. So it looks and feels fresh in your mind when you go back to it.

• Hemingway needed to be left completely alone to focus on his writing. He said writing, at its best, is a lonely life.

Characters

• Hemingway refused to write about living people. He didn’t wish to hurt anyone. Unless he deliberately wanted to.

• Use what you know as well as other people’s experiences to write fiction, but don’t make them recognizable. Invent it.

• Let people be people, don’t turn them into symbols.

A Farewell to Arms

Knowing what to leave out

• Hemingway compares writing to an iceberg: only the tip shows, but the underwater part is the knowledge the author has about what he’s writing, and it matters.

Obscenity

• Avoid slang (except if it’s needed in dialogue).

• Only use profanity that has existed for 1000 years. It may go out of fashion fast.

• Don’t use profanity merely for its shock value. Make sure it’s really necessary.

Titles

• It takes time to find a good title.

• A great number of good titles comes from the Bible, but they have all been taken.

Other Writers

• Other writers can teach you a lot.

• A selection of books every writer should read: War and Peace and Anna Karenina  (Tolstoy); Madame Bovary (Flaubert);  Buddenbrooks  (Thomas Mann); Dubliners (Joyce); Tom Jones (Fielding); The Brothers Karamazov (Dostoevsky); Huckleberry Finn  (Mark Twain); The Turn of the Screw (Henry James)…

• Authors should write what has not been written before or try to beat dead men (which means: write better than former writers on a certain subject).

• Hemingway thought War and Peace was the best book ever written, but that it would have been even better had Turgenieff written it.

Politics

• Do not follow the political fashions of your time. They are temporary and will wear off soon.

• There is no left and right in writing: only good and bad writing.

• Patriotism does not make good writing either.

• Don’t write about social classes you don’t belong to or don’t know deeply about.

• Writing about politics may get you a good job in government but it won’t make you a great author.

The Sun Also Rises

The Writer’s Life

• Writing is more exciting than the money you make from it.

• When writers make a lot of money, they get used to an expensive lifestyle and have to carry on making money to sustain it. That’s when they compromise.

• Good writers don’t keep their eyes on the market.

• Publicity, admiration, adulation or being fashionable aren’t worth it.

• Writers should be judged on the merit of their writing and not on their personal lives.

• Critics have no right to invade the writer’s personal life and expose it.

• Critics will find hidden symbols and metaphors in a text when they are simply what they are.

Please let us know your opinion about this post.

Jorge Sette

Vincent van Gogh’s Short-Lived Dream: The Yellow House Project


The Yellow House, in Arles in the South of France

In February 1888, Vincent van Gogh moved to Arles, in the south of France, to make use in his paintings of the bright colours under the Provence sun. He had a dream and a plan to make it happen. He wanted to create a community of artists, all living together, exchanging ideas and techniques, inspiring one another, sharing their innovations and taking art to a whole new level. A new Renaissance would be the inevitable outcome of this experiment. This was the utopia Van Gogh conjured up in his unstable and tortured soul. This is why he moved from cold, gray Paris and rented the famous Yellow House at 2, Place Lamartine, in Arles, in the south of France. It would be the sunny headquarters of a commune of innovators and founders of the Studio of the South, where a new tropical art was to be born.

The Yellow House, Vicent van Gogh, 1888

Van Gogh’s Plan

Whether Van Gogh’s true ambition was to finally fit in, to become part of a group of avant-garde artists and to make up for a life of social ineptitude, loneliness and failure is anybody’s guess. He was no longer young, and he knew he had to find a way for his art to be recognized if he was to accomplish, if not fame, at least financial independence. He probably thought it was high time to free his brother Theo from the burden of supporting him. Perhaps he hoped to pay Theo back all the money he had spent on Vincent over the years without ever receiving any returns. Wouldn’t it be marvelous if Theo’s expenses finally turned into a highly lucrative investment?

Trying to entice Paul Gauguin

Self-portrait, Paul Gauguin, 1885

Paul Gauguin, the wild artist Vincent and Theo had met in Paris, was Vincent’s first choice for a guest in this community. Gauguin had spent time in Martinique, painting powerful, idealized versions of a tropical paradise. He could teach Vincent something – or so Vincent believed. Gauguin was older and wiser, with a lot more experience and more refined painting techniques. Vincent needed a mentor, a friend, a guiding hand. Surely Theo could help him out with this last financial contribution, supporting the Yellow House project, until their new art became profitable. Vincent was convinced it wouldn’t take long for this to happen. Recognition, fame and fortune were just around the corner.

With this in mind, Van Gogh started a relentless campaign to bring Gauguin – who had also left Paris but chosen the wild primitiveness of Brittany, in the northwest of France – to the Yellow House to share the Studio of the South. Gauguin seemed open to the plan, but he kept putting the trip off. Van Gogh sent him dozens of invitations, trying to lure Gauguin to Arles by singing the praises of the “Midi” (as the south of France is known colloquially), the healthy air of the region, its incomparable light and colors. Gauguin kept accepting the proposal but never actually came. Months went by until, in the autumn of 1888, Gauguin finally decided to travel south and put Van Gogh’s ideas to the test.

The Yellow House

The Yellow House had four rooms. Van Gogh’s plan was to have one of the downstairs rooms turned into a studio, which the artists could share. The other room would be the kitchen. The upstairs rooms were to be the bedrooms. To get to his room, Gauguin would have to walk through Van Gogh’s, but this would certainly not be a problem. Vincent asked Theo for more money to decorate and furnish Gauguin’s room in a suitable manner. His own bedroom would be more monastic. He thought of himself as a monk after all, one whose religion would be his new art. He had decided to live for it. Most of the artists’ time should be dedicated to painting. Their energy should be channeled toward the production of this new art. Despite the famed beauty of the Arlesian women, they would have less sex, avoid distractions and focus entirely on their work.

Le Pont de Langlois a Arles, van Gogh, 1888

Unfortunately, it turned out Gauguin had other plans. He and Van Gogh were very different types of men, with idiosyncratic ideas about art and lifestyles. The weeks right after Gauguin’s arrival were peaceful, as Van Gogh made sure to show his guest all his favorite spots in the region, extolling its beauty and the benefits of painting outdoors (en plein air) and explaining his ideas about having nature and people right before the painter’s eyes as models. He also stressed the importance of contrasting complementary colors in paintings and talked about applying the strength and simplicity of Japanese art techniques.

The peace didn’t last long, however; soon, the fabric of Van Gogh’s dreams began to come apart. Gauguin preached about how important symbolism was to art. The motifs, the forms, the colors of a painting should not be linked to direct observation of the subject, he maintained, but come from memory, with all the distortions this might entail. Art must stem from the idea, from the mind, not from the eyes. Art should be enigmatic and mysterious. Gauguin wasn’t interested in painting outdoors. He would see something outside, maybe sketch it and then paint it as he remembered it in the peace and quiet of a studio.

Around this time, reports arrived from Theo in Paris, celebrating the success of Gauguin’s paintings, which had started to attract a lot of attention – and buyers. Theo was very excited about his investment.

Gauguin versus van Gogh

Detail of self-portrait, van Gogh, 1888

Gauguin painted slowly and methodically; Van Gogh, furiously and passionately. Serious tension began to build in the Yellow House, which assumed a claustrophobic atmosphere when both men were there together. The fear of being abandoned by his mentor reinforced Van Gogh’s latent paranoia, and he soon started to behave in erratic ways, which both bothered and frightened Gauguin. Van Gogh’s mind began to spiral down toward his inevitable breakdown. Gauguin’s success became another source of conflict, as the younger artist resented it and became even more frustrated with his own lack of recognition.

Despite clashes between the artists, Van Gogh was terrified of losing Gauguin and having his dream of the Studio of the South fail like all his previous enterprises. Gauguin, on the other hand, felt sure he needed to leave Arles as soon as possible, before Van Gogh became violent; his behavior was becoming increasingly explosive and unpredictable.

A final altercation between the men on Christmas Eve made it clear to Van Gogh that Gauguin would abandon him and his dream would be crushed. The tortured artist resorted to an act of self-mutilation out of sheer despair: with a razor, he cut off part of one of his ears, wrapped the torn piece in a newspaper and sent it to a prostitute he thought Gauguin was with at the time. Soon afterwards, Van Gogh was committed to a mental institution in Saint-Rémy.

That was the end of the utopia of the Yellow House. Van Gogh’s dream had lasted only nine weeks. However, the works both artists produced during this troubled time are worth millions of dollars today.

If you wish to know more about Vicent van Gogh, please click here: https://wp.me/p4gEKJ-1B6

If you are interested in our series of ebooks TEACH ENGLISH WITH ART, please click here:  http://wp.me/p4gEKJ-1lS

Watch our promo video on TEACHING ENGLISH WITH ART: VAN GOGH, below:

Jorge Sette