“Everybody else is working to change, persuade, tempt and control them. The best readers come to fiction to be free of all that noise.” Philip Roth
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.
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.
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.
The very well-produced Netflix show The Crown has been generating a lot of controversy all over the world. It seems there’s a great divide: British people and the royal family themselves hate it, as they wish it were more faithful to reality and less disrespectful to their beloved monarchy. Commoners around the globe, on the other hand, love the exceptionally good writing, the dazzling performances and thrilling storylines. They watch it as a soap opera – as they should.
What nobody seems to be taking into consideration are the important lessons viewers can extract from the show. That’s what I’m here for: To assist you. Read below the main takeaways, which will help you become a more successful and happier human being:
Don’t try to emulate your opponent even if you admire and envy her: be authentic. Spread as much jam and butter on your toast as you want, while your beautifully slim rival, sitting across from you, sips tea, dreaming she could be bathing in a chocolate tub. You will win their respect eventually.
Keep quiet and do nothing in most situations: They will sort themselves out eventually.
Don’t give in to your children. No displays of love and affection, which will only weaken them. Discipline is what they need most. Let them be bullied and brutalised at school to prove they are real men.
Love your pets more than your family and friends.
On the other hand, if animals are not pets, just go out dressed as a peasant and shoot them ruthlessly.
Complain, complain, complain about the constraints imposed upon you, as much as you want…but never try to live a freer and more fulfilling life: The privileges and pleasures of the royalty prove unsurpassable.
All problems can be solved by heavy drinking and chain smoking, or by huge doses of extramarital sex.
Pretend you are the only person on Earth that has direct contact with God – whatever your religion. People will believe you if you don’t waver.
Power has a lot to do with accents. Especially in English. Open your mouth minimally to enunciate your vowels. Let people struggle to understand what you are trying to say.
Use the word Indeed as often as possible. It will impress most commoners.
Keep a bell next to you at all times and ring it often, even if you don’t have any servants to summon.
Don’t get a real education, it will not do you any good. Learn about manners, rites, some French travel phrases, and all about the Constitution. More than that will be useless.
Lie, lie, lie.
Never touch a book. Spend your free time in long walks in muddy terrain and cold weather, drinking tea or hugging your dogs.
Go back on your promises without hesitation if it servers your agenda.
If you are having domestic problems (like your wild son went missing), go bombard some faraway country – such as Argentina – to relax a bit.
I strongly recommend you watch the show. It is already a classic.
Please post your comments below.
Philip Roth died on May 22, 2018, at 85. This is the last article I wrote about him:
Before you read this post, you must understand and accept that nothing about it is objective or detached. I’m a huge fan of Philip Roth, who is considered by many one of the greatest American writers. I love his books. From the first Philip Roth I ever read – I was 17 or 18 at the time, young and impressionable – I was hooked for life. The fact that it happened to be the outrageously funny and scandalous Portnoy’s Complaint undoubtedly had something to do with my obsession. So my disclaimer is this: partiality will color this article; I’m a pro-Roth kind of person. My plan in this article is to tear down ingrained myths about the life and work of this brilliant provocateur, in my own inartistic words.
1. Philip Roth was an anti-Semitic, self-hating Jew.
Have you ever read any of his books? The fact that he was Jewish pervades his work. His self-deprecating comments can only deceive the naive. He was very proud of his ethnicity and his family and friends, although he was far from orthodox or even religious. Roth was an atheist. The misunderstandings arise from his greater pride in being an American and his love for the fundamental (although perhaps more ideal than real) values the US stands for. He never took for granted the freedom and lifestyle that are the simple result of being born and having grown up in the geographic space that comprises the United States of America. Unlike the Anne Frank of his book The Ghost Writer, he had a childhood. And if he refused to be “a good boy” to be accepted, it’s because he believed that being a good boy made it even harder to fit in. You need to be outstanding, outrageous, infamous to break down walls and belong in the world of the goy.
2. Philip Roth wrote about his own life.
Of course, reality informed his stories, and reality is apprehended through personal experiences as much as from vicarious ones – from books we read, movies we watch, things that happen to our family and friends. So there’s certainly a lot of Roth’s own life in his stories, but these experiences are transformed by imagination; they’re not necessarily exact representations of things that happened to him or that he did himself. Everything is filtered through the powerful lens of language and fiction. Life becomes larger and its dark corners are illuminated by the spotlight of Art. Hyperbole, amplification, metaphors, and masks are all part of the process. You can’t put your finger on a single paragraph in any of his books and guarantee it describes something that really happened to him. Even the famous Nathan Zuckerman, who first appears in The Ghost Writer and continues to feature as either the protagonist or the narrator in many subsequent novels, isn’t a warranted alter ego. I’ll admit Zuckerman is the mask that most closely resembled the author behind it, but he’s not Roth. There are a couple of books, however, in which Roth dares to unmask himself and write about reality – as far as this is possible since experiences are based on memory and language, which somehow always transform them. One of these non-fictional books is The Facts: A Novelist’s Autobiography, written after a serious bout of depression caused by taking the drug Halcion for pain in his back. He wrote this short autobiography covering only the first 30 years of his life as a healing exercise, stripping himself as much as possible of his imagination and the usual masks. The second is the moving but never sentimental Patrimony: A True Story, a “snapshot of his father in movement,” as he states in the BBC documentary Roth Unleashed (which I strongly recommend), and a portrait written so he could remember his father in as much detail as possible. “I mustn’t forget anything,” was his mantra at the time. His father was dying of a brain tumor, and Roth realized he had the makings of a book – a tribute to the old man – in the notes he took at the end of each day, after coming home from the hospital where he looked after his father.
3. Philip Roth was a misogynist.
All I can say is Claudia Roth Pierpont (no relation to Philip), the writer of a very interesting book titled Roth Unbound: A Writer and His Books, is a woman, and she strongly disagrees with the view that Roth hated women. She gives the reader great insight into his body of work, including the themes, language, characters, and masks explored in his novels, and she maintains his books probe deeply into the human soul and bring up everything, the good and the bad, and therefore include a wide spectrum of women characters. It’s not accurate to say that he always depicted women as shrews. Besides, who’s to say that the women depicted as shrews in certain novels are representative of all women? If he hated women, he must have hated men as well, or haven’t you met one of the most despicable and depraved heroes ever created in Western literature: Mickey Sabbath, the protagonist of Roth’s gripping novel Sabbath’s Theater?
4. Philip Roth was a misanthrope.
Writers, as a rule, aren’t the most sociable people in the world. They need hours of solitude if they’re to produce something worthwhile. Roth was a well-integrated and sociable person in his years as a child, teenager and young adult, and made many friends in college. Some of these friendships lasted until the day he died. He survived a tumultuous marriage to an older woman he met when he was only 23 and entered into a long-term relationship with actress Claire Bloom, during which time he lived mostly in London. He had other lovers and mistresses throughout his life. As he grew older, however, he became more and more of a recluse, spending long hours on his books, which grew in scope and importance to become indisputable masterpieces. According to writer Salman Rushdie, the growth and maturity reflected in these books were a direct consequence of Roth’s turning his creative beam from the obsessive self-analysis of his early works to the depiction and discussion of what lay around him, focusing on the bigger issues and themes of his beloved America. In his early 80s, he was perfectly happy living alone in his beautiful country house in Connecticut. When asked if he ever felt lonely, he replied, “Yes, sometimes, like everyone else,” but that the absence of friction – the inevitable result of contact and negotiations with other human beings – was something he never missed. It’s bliss not to have to cope with this any longer, he claimed.
The best way to get to know the real Roth – or rather, the Roth that matters – is by reading any of his 31 books. Immerse yourself in his world of masks without worrying too much about what’s real or imaginary. Engage in his game of mirrors. Appreciate his language and power of imagination. The life of any human being is composed of memories, so its account is never 100 percent reliable. We create and recreate reality all the time, so why expect anything different from a man who earns his living writing fiction? You will never get to his core because it’s impossible to grasp, being unpredictable and transient.
I have always been a huge fan of audiobooks. I have been reading them since they were available only on cassettes. My number 1 priority when purchasing audiobooks was a practical one: I used them to improve my English. They were a fun way to learn pronunciation and new words.
Then I started to enjoy the stories and the information they conveyed as well, since I have always been keen on both fiction and non-fiction books. At that point, they were already available on CDs, and, whenever I went to the US on business trips, I would make a point of purchasing a number of audiobooks at Barnes and Noble. They came in huge boxes, some containing up to 10 CDs, which made them hard to pack and bring back home. But the sacrifice was well worth it.
With the advent of the iPod, I graduated to e-files. Then I could download dozens of audiobooks on my device and carry them along happily in my pocket. Although I prefer reading books, listening to them has its advantages, as you can multitask as you do it – in my case, I can only listen to audiobooks and do other things at the same time if the latter are mechanical and do not require concentration: non-intellectual, menial work. I can’t listen to a story while I do my tax returns, for example, or when I’m filling in a business spreadsheet. However, listening to audiobooks while you are doing the dishes, cleaning your house, shopping for groceries, riding a bike, working out at the gym or going for a walk is an awesome experience. Lying on the beach is also a good moment to have your audiobook on. If you have not done that yet, it’s an experience I strongly recommend. You will not regret it.
By now, I have a huge library of audiobooks from Audible.com, and, in this post, I am going to list five of my all-time favorites. Some of them are fiction, others, non-fiction. I don’t discriminate, and you shouldn’t either. The more exposure to different kinds of books you get, the more broad-minded you will become. It’s enlightening to start to see the world from as many different perspectives as you can. Here’s my list;
- The Exorcist (written and narrated by William Peter Blatty): I’m fascinated by this story and have been exposed to it in every shape and form. I have read the print book a couple of times, watched the movie dozens of times and I have it as an audiobook too. I consider it a classic in all respects. It’s thrilling, exciting and you can’t turn it off once you start listening to it. The story can ben interpreted on so many levels it would be hard not to please the fussiest reader (listener). Very literally, it can be read as the story of a teenage girl possessed by the Devil. Metaphorically, one can interpret the novel as an allegory of the battle between good and evil you go through when are young and vulnerable, not having made your main decisions in life yet. It can be also be read as how we fear what we don’t know, and, also, as how powerful motherly love can be.
- Jane Eyre (Charlotte Brontë, narrated by Juliet Stevenson): This is the quintessential romantic novel. The funny thing is that it’s not the love story per se that sustains my interest in this book – which I must have read/listened to a dozen times. I love the gothic atmosphere of Lowood, the charity school for poor and orphaned girls Jane grew up in; later one, Thornfield Hall, the house she works as governess seems like a fantastic place to live in, with its dark atmosphere of mystery and the horror emanating from the inexplicable cries and yells that come from the attic of the old mansion. I relish the rough and unforgiven countryside she runs into, when she tries to escape her failed marriage to Mr. Rochester: The humidity of the weather, the rough beauty of the heather, and the wild rugged rocky terrain of the desolate Yorkshire landscape. If you share this peculiar taste for gloom, you are more than welcome to join in the listening of this masterpiece.
- The World According to Garp (written by John Irving and narrated Michael Prichard): This novel was my first contact with New England writer John Irving. I first had the book in print. I may have still been in college at the time, and the story had a strong impact on me. I had never come across anything so strange and new: The book was funny, sad, weird, ironic and poignant. The fact that the story was located in a small college town and the main characters lived on the campus made me fall in love with the academic life. Possibly, reading Garp made me want to become a writer for the first time in my life. Feminism plays a strong role in the novel and that, also, opened my eyes to what many typical Latin American males like myself could not see at the time. This is basically the story of a very independently-minded nurse, Ellen, who decides to get impregnated by a fatally wounded Second-World-War pilot who comes under her care in a coma, as a vegetable. However, she notices, he is able to keep an erection. Ellen sees that as a unique opportunity to have a child and avoid any dealings with the father, as it’s clear the patient will not live much longer. So she takes measures into her own hands, so to speak, and ends up pregnant. Garp, the kid born out of this strange connection, is named after what she understood the father’s name was, as the pilot could only babble some words.
- When You are Engulfed in Flames (written and narrated by David Sedaris): Sedaris is the ultimate comedian of our times. In this sixth collection of essays, the openly gay writer remains as ironic and outrageous as ever. A typically jaded New Yorker (despite the fact that he was born and grew up in Rayleigh, North Carolina – into a very dysfunctional family of Greek origin, whose members he ruthlessly depicts in his stories), this audiobook is ideal to listen to on a long car or bus trip. It will keep you laughing throughout the journey, as you hear his troubles trying to make coffee without water; the anecdotes he tells about the friends he made living in the countryside of France; his experience, while on a plane, having a throat lozenge fall from his mouth into the lap of the asleep passenger sitting next to him, with whom he happened to have had a row minutes before. Hilarious.
- The Kid Stays in the Picture (written and narrated by Robert Evans): is the autobiography of mega-powerful Hollywood producer Robert Evans. It tells the gripping story of his rise and fall. If you like cinema in general, especially the great movies that came out of North American studios in the late 1960s and early 1970s, you will love to listen to the audiobook. Evans was one of the most powerful producers of his day, having close contact with the greatest celebrities of the time, such as Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, Mia Farrow, and Ali MacGraw, to whom he was married. The story is so outrageous, funny, and revelatory that it was turned into a film documentary in 2002. You will hear compelling backstage stories of how movies such as Rosemary’s Baby, Love Story, Chinatown, andThe Godfather and were cast and made.
Warning: it goes without saying that audiobooks must be unabridged and well-read. Also, it’s important that you like the reading voice. Therefore, listen to the sample before completing your purchase.
Neurologist, researcher, clinician, but especially a great storyteller, Oliver Sacks has millions of fans around the world. His books, which are essentially collections of case studies from his experience looking after patients with brain disorders, can be said to have established a new literary genre.
To me, the appeal of reading Oliver Sacks’ autobiography, On the Move: A Life, was to catch a glimpse of the real man behind the public figure and to learn more about the amazing neurological cases and concepts I’d read about in some of his previous books.
The autobiography tells us about aspects of his private life that didn’t make their way into his clinical stories. We learn, for example, about his rebel side as a lone motorcycle rider in the 50s and 60s, and about his love of strenuous – and sometimes foolhardy – physical activities, such as extreme weightlifting, swimming in dangerous waters and hiking alone. We also find out about his Jewish family background, his evacuation to a boarding school run by a sadistic headmaster during the second world war, his homosexuality, solitude and 35-year celibacy, and his drug addiction during the 1960s (although he was considered only a weekend “tripper,” having to cope with a challenging job during the week).
What struck me particularly was Sacks’ peripatetic nature, made explicit in the title of the book. It seems he was trying to escape from something, perhaps from himself, due to the fact that he was different – like his patients – but also from his family and the burden of growing up with a schizophrenic older brother. However, being constantly on the move may have been a consequence not only of the restlessness of his soul but also of the strong mental and physical energy he exuded until very late in life.
What mainly resonated with me was his account of his obsession with writing. Sacks kept journals, taking notes of his experiences, registering his observations, thoughts and feelings. He always had a notebook on hand, even when he went swimming – which, he claimed, stimulated his mind – and he would sometimes dash out of the water to scribble his thoughts down on the pad lying nearby. He may never use those notes when he was writing his books later on, but putting his thoughts down on paper was a powerful way of clarifying his ideas and reflecting on intriguing points; it was like carrying out a conversation with himself.
Laypeople cannot judge how good a doctor Oliver Sacks was. His track record as a researcher and even as a clinician has been disputed a number of times. Also, his decision to base his stories on the cases of real patients caused controversy, as some people claimed it was unethical. His first book, Migraine, was aimed only at the medical community, but it inevitably appealed to a wider public and generated popular interest. He then gave up trying to make his accounts mere reports on medical facts and purposely imbued his stories with themes, metaphors, and humanistic and philosophical considerations, which took his writing to a whole new level.
Sacks’ case studies never give the reader the impression he’s taking advantage of his patients or exploiting them for commercial purposes. He doesn’t come across as someone who’s treating human misery as a circus show. He genuinely seems to care, and his stories, despite the unthinkable suffering of many of the people involved, are mostly uplifting. He reinforces our belief in the power of humans to come to terms with tragedy and even to overcome it.
Following the publication of Awakenings and A Leg to Stand On, Sacks gained notoriety, but it was the publication of The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat in 1985 that turned him into a public figure and a celebrity recognized worldwide.
One of the most interesting passages in On the Move covers the time Sacks worked as a consultant for the movie Awakenings, based on his book. Although Sacks hadn’t loved the script, which contained some fictitious subplots he wasn’t comfortable with, he decided at one point that the movie was not his, and, therefore, not his responsibility. This realization liberated him, allowing him to adopt a more relaxed attitude and to accept his role in the project.
In his autobiography, Sacks praises actor Robert De Niro’s extensive and detailed research to play the postencephalitic Leonard L., stating that De Niro would sometimes stay in character for hours or even days after filming. Sacks also comments on how weird it felt to be mirrored by Robin Williams on the many days they spent together as the actor researched the model behind the character he would portray – based on Sacks himself. I watched the movie again to write this post and found it a bit dated, lacking a drier, less sentimental approach to the subject. It could have benefited from a wittier and more creative script, since it wasn’t supposed to be a faithful replication of real life. I wonder how much better it might turn out if it was remade today, especially as an HBO production. I loved Robin William’s performance – subtle, subdued and contained. As for Robert De Niro’s, I’m afraid he didn’t convince me in the role of a postencephalitic patient.
In summary, reading On the Move: A Life was as fascinating an experience as reading Sacks’ previous books. His language and fluency are remarkable. He writes through examples; he doesn’t explain or define concepts in technical ways. That’s what makes it easy for us to appreciate his stories.
Reading Sacks’ books, I learned a lot about curious brain conditions I never suspected existed. I became familiar with a wealth of new words and concepts: aphasia, amusia, musicophilia, synesthesia, visual cortex, auditory cortex, Tourette’s syndrome and prosopagnosia, to name just a few. In his wonderful book Seeing Voices: A Journey into the World of the Deaf, he made me understand that sign language is just another mode of language, not unlike verbal language in its sophistication and capacity to express all kinds of concepts, both abstract and concrete, through perfectly structured grammar. These kinds of enthralling revelations are the stuff his books are made of. You simply can’t put them down once you get started. On the Move: A Life is equally irresistible.
Sacks found out he had melanoma in his right eye in 2005. When it metastasized to his brain and liver in January 2015, he knew his death was imminent, but he seemed to have already come to terms with it. When he publicly announced his predicament, he added: “I want and hope in the time that remains to deepen my friendships, to say farewell to those I love, to write more, to travel if I have the strength, to achieve new levels of understanding and insight.” On the Move: A Life gave me a sense of a life well lived, packed with adventures, experiences, profound learning and fulfillment. Oliver Sacks died on August 30, 2015.
The Booker Prize or The Man Booker Prize for Fiction – initially called the Booker-McConnell Prize, due to the company which sponsored it – is an English literary prize created in 1968. It is awarded to the best novel of the year. At first, only Commonwealth, Irish, and Zimbabwean writers were eligible, but as of 2013, the eligibility was extended to any novel written in English and published in the UK. Being awarded, or even shortlisted for it, is a great honor, as the prize warrants success and fame for every writer who’s associated with it.
As a voracious reader, I can assure you that, whenever you finish a novel and are left with that familiar void, yearning for another great book to come your way, taking a look at the Booker Prize list of winners or shortlisted books is a great way to begin your search. You will hardly be disappointed.
The list below is my personal choice of great Booker Prize Winners. I’m sure they will stay with you long after you finished reading them, as the language is stunning and the plots are both original and gripping. The books below are listed according to the year they received the prize:
- Paddy Clark Ha Ha Ha by Roddy Doyle (winner of the 1993 Booker Prize)
Funny, moving and poignant, this novel is told from the perspective of a 10-year-old Irish boy growing up in the 1960s. As he narrates his experiences – using the logic and language of childhood – we get to know his discoveries, games and adventures with his little brother, the relationship between his parents and the daily routine of his family. Despite the cheerful tone of the book, at some point, readers begin to suspect they are being misled by the unreliable narrative of a child: not everything is going well at home, the truth is his parents are drifting apart and about to break up.
- Amsterdam by Ian McEwan (winner of the 1998 Booker Prize)
Three former lovers cross paths at the cremation of their common mistress, Molly Lane, without realizing that the meeting will be a turning point in their lives. Their careers and personal lives will be cleverly manipulated by the woman’s jealous and resentful widower, George, who will set them on a collision course with one another, crafting a spiderweb of blackmails, mutual blames and lies, tabloid stories, debauched cross-dressing photographs, sinister euthanasia doctors and, ultimately, violence and tragedy. Clive Linley, one of the lovers, is a musician who, after attending the cremation, embarks on a depressive behavior, worried that he may get sick and die as young and unexpectedly as Molly. As a consequence, he is having a mental block, which prevents him from finishing up the Millennium symphony he was assigned to compose. Fame and recognition are at stake here and he is frantic (the language used by the author to describe the composer’s creative process and its drawbacks is already a good reason to make you love the book); Molly’s second lover, Vernon Halliday, is a mediocre editor of a serious and conventional newspaper whose circulation and readership are going seriously down. He is suddenly given the chance to resort to dirty and cheap tabloid tactics to try to reverse the process, publishing intimate photographs which are likely to destroy the family life and career plans of the third lover, Julian Garmony, a foreign secretary with aspirations of becoming prime minister.
- Life of Pi by Yann Martel (winner of the 2002 Booker Prize)
A hymn to religious tolerance, a celebration of life in all its forms, and the recognition of the power of storytelling make Life of Pi an unforgettable novel. The story contrasts myth and reason, religion and science, asking the reader to compare the effectiveness of simply narrating the factual sequence of events of a journey with the alternative of fictionalizing it through the use of allegories. Which version would you choose as the more insightful and helpful way to understand the world? A Canadian writer in search of ideas for his new book is promised the opportunity to hear a story that will make him believe in God. With this aim, he agrees to meet and listen to the life story of an Indian man who spent 227 days adrift in the Pacific Ocean, sharing a lifeboat with none other than a Bengal tiger, after the shipwreck of the Japanese cargo ship which would take his family to Canada. Brutal, scatological, philosophic, funny and poetic, Life of Pi saddens, cheers and inspires the reader, who will certainly come out of the experience loving tales and metaphors even more than when he started the book.
- Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel (winner of the 2009 Booker Prize)
The first part of this trilogy tells the known story of the marriage of Henry Tudor and Anne Boleyn and all the political, religious and social upheavals involved in making it happen. The novelty is the choice of perspective chosen by the author, who decides to focus the novel on a lesser historical character, whose life details are not very well-known: Thomas Cromwell. Choosing Cromwell – who rises from being the son of a Putney blacksmith to Master Secretary of the kingdom, due to his intelligence and cunning – as the protagonist of the story allows the author to fill in the blanks of history books with her fertile imagination, transporting and placing the reader smack in the middle the exciting events that happened more than 500 years ago.
- Bring up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel (winner of the 2012 Booker Prize)
This is the second volume of the Cromwell trilogy, and, in my opinion, better written and even more exciting than the first – to me, it sounds like the author finally found the best way to tell the story. Despite all the efforts and machinations of the court to bring Anne Boleyn and Henry Tudor together, causing England to sever links with the Catholic Church, and antagonizing its powerful neighbors in Europe by appointing Henry VIII the head of the Church of England, the queen fails to deliver a male heir and will have to be ousted. Craftily paving the way to Henry’s new marriage to Jane Seymore, Cromwell will become Anne’s main nemesis, ruthlessly plotting the annulment of her marriage and driving her to a thunderous fall, which will bring many others down with her. Terrific reading.
Have you read any of these books? Share your comments with us. Also, watch this space for further suggestions on the wonderful books out there you may not have heard about.
One of the most controversial paintings in Western Art History is Velázquez’s intriguing The Maids of Honor (Las Meninas). Painted in 1656, it’s considered the Sevillian artist’s masterpiece. Critics and specialists have been debating how best to interpret this work for centuries, and of course, no analysis is conclusive.
The first question seems to be what Velázquez, who’s depicted on the left of the scene, in front of a huge canvas, is painting on it. Is he working on the very painting we see? This seems to be suggested by the palette in his left hand, whose blurred and mixed colors appear to replicate the image in front of us. However, how and why would he include himself in it?
Others, on the other hand, point out that there’s a mirror in the center background, reflecting the images of the king and queen of Spain at the time, Phillip IV and his second wife, Mariana de Austria, who would occupy the same position as the viewer as we look at the painting. This would explain why everyone seems to be gazing outward from the picture. They are actually staring at the royal couple, who would be the subject of Velazquez’s canvas within the painting. Complicated? Wait, it gets even more complex.
A third theory says that Velázquez is painting in front of a mirror (the clue is the way the parting of the hair of the Infanta Margarita, the blond girl in the center foreground, is reversed from what it would look like in reality). This would explain how the artist managed to include himself in the painting. This would also mean that everything we see is also flipped.
More interesting facts about the picture:
The central figure of the scene is the Princess or Infanta Margarita, who was about 5 years old at the time. Who are the other ten people represented in the painting? We can identify all of them historically, except for one. Flanking the Infanta, who’s at the center of the painting, we see the maids of honor. To the right of the Infanta, bowing – possibly due to the arrival of the king and the queen – we see Isabel de Velasco, and to the left, kneeling, as she offers the princess a glass of water or some kind of grease for the princess to dip her fingers in, as she seemed to have had some kind of disease, we have Doña Maria Augustina Sarmiento. On the right, we see the dwarfs Maria Barbola and Nicolas Pertusato, who is playing with the dog. The job of the dwarfs was to entertain the court members.
Behind the dwarfs, obscured by the lack of lighting, we notice Doña Marcela de Ulloa, the princess’s chaperone, and next to her, the only unrecognized figure in the painting, possibly a bodyguard. At the back, going up the stairs and opening the door, the queen’s chamberlain, José Nieto Velázquez, can be identified. The other three people are Velázquez himself and the reflections of the king and the queen in the mirror.
Another question is what kind of painting is this? It does not seem to be a portrait of Princess Margarita, due to its informality. Velázquez was a great portraitist and we have plenty of examples of what a portrait of the higher members of the court of Philip IV should look like: formal, pompous, rigid, authoritarian, exuding power. This depiction of Princess Margarida is nothing like that, resembling more a genre painting, like the bodegones (kitchen and tavern paintings Velázquez produced at the beginning of his career): this could be a snapshot of a regular day in the painter’s studio, known as “el cuarto del prince”.
Ultimately, Las Meninas could be a very personal statement of the artist about his own social status. A self-promoting artwork, to show his intimacy with the higher members of the court. The red cross painted on the left of his chest, which represents the Order of Santiago, seems to indicate this, although some critics guarantee this cross was painted only after the death of the artist, as a way of honoring him for his work under the king.
Now, all this complexity only adds to the attraction of this unique work of art, which not only shows masterful draftsmanship and use of color (the brushstrokes that make up the dresses of the ladies and their decorations seem to anticipate the Impressionist movement in some 250 years), but also to establish the concept of the painter as an intellectual.
If you ever go to Madrid, don’t even think of skipping a visit to The Prado, the museum in which this artwork hangs in all its majesty.
Lima Barreto, the acclaimed journalist and author of the Brazilian Belle Époque, is more popular than ever these days. The author was honored at the FLIP (International Literary Party of Paraty) a couple of years ago and that made him even more well-known. New editions of his work have been released since then. Along with these, there was also the publication of a very well-researched biography, Lima Barreto – Triste Visionário, by historian Lilia Moritz Schwarcz (Companhia da Letras), available at the main bookstores.
Lima Barreto was born in 1881 in Rio de Janeiro and dedicated his life to writing and literature. His father was a typographer with connections with the powerful Empire Senator Viscount of Ouro Preto, who became Lima Barreto’s godfather. His mother, a freed slave, was a school teacher. She died when the writer was only six.
The key to understanding his artistic work is the overlap between the stories he created and his biography. Dark skinned (a mulato, as we say in Portuguese) and born in the lower echelons of society himself, he understood very well, and experienced first hand the issues discussed in his novels and short stories.
The main themes of his realistic pre-modernist fiction are the problems of the recently founded Brazilian Republic: class and race prejudices; the cynicism, incompetence, and arrogance of academics, journalists, politicians and the police force in general; the oppression women were subjected to. Not surprisingly, many of the problems Brazil had a hundred years ago are still current, making Lima Barreto’s works powerfully modern and still very relevant.
Lima Barreto had a productive but short life. He died at the young age of 41, plagued by alcoholism and related mental illnesses.
The books listed below have not been translated into English yet (except for The Sad End of Policarmo Quaresma), but, if you speak Portuguese, you can easily order them from Bookwitty.
- Recordações do Escrivão Isaias Caminha (Memories of the Clerk Isaías Caminha)
Lima Barreto’s debut novel was received coldly by the critics and the literary community of the time. The resentment of the protagonist-narrator and the sarcastic (although disguised) way in which he describes powerful figures of the contemporary society irritated many people who possibly identified themselves with the characters depicted in the novel and felt ridiculed by it. In the novel, Isaías, a boy from the countryside, does exceptionally well in school and is predicted to have a bright future, due to his intelligence and hard work. As a young man, full of hopes and willing to expand his horizons, he leaves his family and hometown, coming to Rio de Janeiro with a letter of recommendation for a congressman. Isaias thought it would not be difficult to find a good job, given his previous scholarly success and this single connection with a powerful politician. It does not take long, though, for his dreams to be crushed. Rio turns out to be a concrete jungle, where the doors are tightly closed to dark-skinned men. The novel tells the story of the deterioration of the young man’s self-esteem and his progressive submission and passive acceptance of the brutal rules that govern Brazilian society.
- The Sad End of Policarpo Quaresma
This novel marks the transition from Realism/Naturalism to the Pre-Modernist literary movement in Brazil.
Policarpo Quaresma, the protagonist, is a methodical civil servant who lives with his spinsterish sister in the suburbs of Rio at the end of the 19th century. He is a naïve and rather optimistic nationalist, who believes that he himself can act as a force to preserve the traditions of Brazil in the face of the fast modernization and internationalization the country is going through.
To accomplish his nationalist objectives, first, he writes a letter to the Parliament proposing that the national language be replaced by Tupi, the indigenous language spoken by the local tribes who lived along the coast of the country before the arrival of the Portuguese. The idea is received with such mockery and disbelief that Quaresma suffers a nervous breakdown, being confined, for a while, to an asylum for the mentally ill.
Recovering from the illness, Quaresma decides to move with his sister to a farm on the outskirts of the city to live a more peaceful life in contact with nature. There, he tries to initiate, again practically single-handedly, an agricultural reform, aiming at setting an example to his countrymen, teaching them how to make the most efficient and rational use of the fertile soil of his beloved fatherland. This results in another failure, as he cannot count on any official help with his endeavour.
Finally, he sides with President Marshal Floriano Peixoto (a real historical figure), joining the military, to fight against the Second Naval Revolt, only to find out that the leader, contrary to Quaresma’s idealization, lacks the brains and military-strategic mind of a Napoleon, being nothing more than an authoritarian and unskilled dictator to a barbaric country in the periphery of civilization and capitalism.
- Clara dos Anjos
Published after Lima Barreto’s death, the novel has a simple and direct plot. It’s the story of a dark-skinned girl from the suburbs (the impoverished neighborhoods on the outskirts of the city of Rio de Janeiro, rarely portrayed in our literature) who gets seduced and abused by the white guitar player Cassi Jones, a notorious crook from a slightly higher social social class. However, the focus of the book is not really the plot. Clara’s sad story is just a pretext for the author to explore important connected issues. The main theme of the novel is the suburbs and its inhabitants: the members of the poorer classes of Brazil. Lima Barreto, with his precise journalistic prose, describes their small and difficult lives, the destitute environment they are forced to live in – despite the high taxes they pay, which are hardly used for their own benefit; the excessive drinking habits of the men; their music and literature; and the repression suffered by their passive and conservative women.
- Contos Completos de Lima Barreto (Lima Barreto’s Complete Short Stories)
Besides journalistic articles and novels, Lima Barreto also left us a great number of short stories. Again, in those works, his main themes are the description of daily life in the city of Rio de Janeiro and its suburbs during the years of the Brazilian Old Republic (the period comprised between the end of 19th century and the beginning of 20th century), written with irony and sharp criticism against the political system of the time, the ingrained racism of our society, the oppression of the lower classes in general and the limitations imposed on women in particular. He also rebuked the mediocrity of the cultural and literary elites of the country. His attempts to mock Brazilian society while denouncing its serious flaws have made a profound mark in our literature.
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You don’t need to know anything about the artist’s life and his times, or understand his technique and motivations to be able to appreciate his work. There’s a quote by Monet, the quintessential Impressionist painter, that addresses this issue:
“People discuss my art and pretend to understand as if it were necessary to understand, when it’s simply necessary to love.”
However, many people will agree that learning about the artist’s background is a great source of pleasure. Besides, it helps you identify their obsessions with certain themes, observe details of paintings you had not noticed before, understand what he’s trying to accomplish with a determined piece of artwork, and, therefore, enhance your whole experience as a viewer. Reading biographies is a great way of gaining this knowledge.
I would recommend the following ones, as they’re all carefully researched and written books, bringing to life the individual characteristics of the artist and the historic moments they lived in
1. Van Gogh: The Life, by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith
A careful and very detailed account of Van Gogh’s life, this biography starts at the painter’s childhood, when he lived at his father’s parsonage, and takes us all the way to his alleged suicide. The work borrows heavily on the steady correspondence between Vincent and his bother Theo, giving us a comprehensive and in-depth view of the tormented life of this brilliant artist.
2. Winslow Homer at Prout’s Neck, by Philip C. Beam
A succinct account of the rather uneventful life of Winslow Homer, considered the best American artist of the XIX century. Although Homer’s life was nothing like Caravaggio’s or Van Gogh’s in terms of thrilling adventures, it’s great to understand the rationale behind his technique and to find out where he painted his best works. Geography is the key to unlock insights into Winslow Homer’s works of art.
3. Winslow Homer: a short illustrated biography for kids, by Jonathan Madden
A simplified account of the life of this great American Writer meant for teenagers, it brings a great number of images of Homer’s greatest artworks in full color. An interesting way to introduce the artist to young readers.
4. Matisse and Picasso: the story of the rivalry and friendship, by Jack Flan
Matisse and Picasso were close friends and fierce rivals. This book draws clever parallels between the lives and works of these great modernist artists. It shows how the art of each one of them was in constant conversation with the other’s, borrowing themes and techniques, but always adapting the acquired influence to each artist’s own style and moving it one step forward. This rivalry became a very enriching cooperation, making us believe that it was essential to the artistic development of both painters.
5. Jackson Pollock: An American saga, by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith
Written by the same authors of Van Gogh: The Life, this carefully researched work won the 1991 Pulitzer Prize for biography or autobiography. Based on family letters and documents, as well as on interviews with the artist’s widow and his psychologists, it focuses on the controversial aspects of the troubled life and revolutionary art of this extraordinary American Abstract Expressionist painter.
6. M: The Man Who Became Caravaggio, by Peter Robb
In this masterful biography, Peter Robb delves into the dark and violent spirit of the end of the XVI century to explain the forces that shaped and influenced the life and art of the brilliant and controversial artist. The Counter-Reformation, the Inquisition, the scientific discoveries, the vibrant and competitive artistic atmosphere of Rome – the city considered the center of the world at the time – are all factors that converged to create the man and his oeuvre.
7. American Mirror: the Life and Art of Norman Rockwell, by Deborah Soloman
Art critic and biographer Deborah Soloman explores the art and complex personality of the man who helped forge the idealistic American identity of the first half of the XX century, working for almost 50 years as the main illustrator for The Saturday Evening Post. A big town boy who loved the countryside, Rockwell could be very cold and insensitive towards his models and was subject to frequent bouts of depression. He was treated by the famous psychotherapist Erick Erikson. This biography explains how the compulsive work of Rockwell helped keep him mentally healthy, explaining the way his obsessions found their way into his art.
8. The Letters of Vincent Van Gogh, by Vincent van Gogh (Penguin Classics)
If you don’t wish a mediator to lead you through this great artist’s harrowing life, delve straight into the primary sources of all other biographies and read his letters to Theo, his closest brother and confidant. They kept a steady correspondence throughout their lives, so this is the most direct way to get to know the events he went through, his thoughts and innermost feelings. Vincent had a hard time finding his artistic path in life; he thought he wanted to follow in his father s footsteps and become a preacher, but he failed at that; he didn’t make a good teacher or art dealer either. But when he discovered his true vocation, he gave himself entirely to his art, and suffered the consequences of such radical surrender. Through the letters, we also get to know about his religious struggles, his admiration for the French Revolution and his love life
9. Leonardo Da Vinci: The Flights of the Mind, by Charles Nicholl
In this brilliant yet dense autobiography, Nicholl focuses on the man behind the myth, by offering an in-depth analysis of Da Vince’s notebooks. The author doesn’t dwell on Leonardo’s works, and the comments on his oeuvre are only superficial. The book covers the whole life of the Renaissance genius, from 1452, when he was born, the illegitimate child of peasant girl, in the countryside of Tuscany near Florence, to his death, when he acknowledged with sadness that there was so much more to learn and do. Da Vince was a visual thinker who translated his thoughts into drawings – a designer, with both artistic and engineering skills. He didn’t believe that words could represent nature as precisely as sketches, blueprints, drawings and paintings. Yet, Nicholl’s biography tries to penetrate Leonardo’s mind and show it to us – not through images but in glowing words.
10. Georgia O’Keeffe: A Life, by Roxana Robinson
This iconic artist’s biography discusses the events of her controversial life, fiery personality, as well as the people close to her and her relationships. It goes beyond that to also offer the reader a detailed and insightful critique of her modernist work. The author had the cooperation of members of her family to write the book. Considered a heroine by the feminist movement of the 70s, O’Keefe had been profoundly influenced by the feminist suffrage movement before World War I, becoming one of the first American women to succeed professionally as an artist.