The Things We Said in Venice

Venice, Italy — A gondola, Venice, Italy — Image by ¬© Royalty-Free/Corbis

There are many reasons why we enjoy traveling. The desire to see dreamlike places, the thrill of meeting new cultures with their art, food, drinks and folklore are of course the most common ones, but sometimes for somebody traveling could also be a way to heal wounds, thus giving the scars the time they need to be barely seen. A change of scenario could reasonably be regarded as the most natural way to turn your back to a distressing past, put all the pieces together and give yourself a new chance.

This is what the two protagonists of Kristin Anderson’s novel “The Things We Said in Venice” have in mind. Sarah Turner, a high school counselor in her late thirties has recently faced a dolorous divorce. She decides to leave her job and home in Bend, Oregon to go on a six-week holiday to Europe. It is a solo adventure. During this time Sarah needs to learn to take charge of her life, to be independent, even because once in Amsterdam, her final destination, she has made plans that will radically change her future. Alone.

For Fokke van der Velt travelling has always been a significant part of his life since he is a renowned travel writer. He is on a trip with a group of friends to the Dolomites, trying to blanking out the painful memories of a betrayal. He needs the company of his mates, who with their presence and laughter try to ease his mind from the recurrent ghost of his sorrow. Sarah and Fokke have one thing in common for sure: they are not looking for new partners.

A benign fate, however, will play its cards to make the two meet. An exchange of backpacks, a snowfall, a strike and above all Sarah’s diary, which is ungentlemanly read by Fokke, will allow him to have knowledge of the most intimate and delicate aspects of her life on one side, but it will light his interest for that stranger on the other. Of course any entanglement between two people with such a painful past never runs smoothly. Having become emotionally defenseless, they are ready to set barriers whenever they smell the danger of being wounded again.

The romantic background of Venice with its alleys and canals will be the perfect set where the two develop their acquaintance, but only once in Amsterdam, Sarah’s final destination, she will have to ponder whether new plans may replace old plans. At the end of a journey we are never what we used to be at the beginning, this is the wonder of traveling, so when you get to the harbor you know that other goals must be set if you want to move on. Your choice,whether it is right or wrong, will depend on what you have learnt on that journey.

 

I would like to thank Kristin Anderson, author or “The Things We Said in Venice” and fellow blogger for having given me the opportunity of reading her novel. It has been an honor. I did all my best not to spoil the end! ūüėČ

 

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Romantic Buddhism

Year after year of lessons on the Romantics, in particular those of the first generation, a question has gradually taken shape in my mind : “but were these Coleridge and Wordsworth a kind of Buddhists?” I know, it’s hazardous and I have to confess that my knowledge of Buddhism is actually basic: I’ve read Thomas Mann’s Siddhartha and the Autobiography of a Yogi about the Yogi Paramahansa Yogananda, that is all. But I want to try to outline an analysis anyhow. Well, Buddhism is a religion /philosophy based on the teachings attributed to Siddhartha Gautama, who is commonly known as the Buddha (the awakened). For the Buddhists he is the enlightened teacher who shared his insights to help men end sufferings through the elimination of ignorance by way of understanding and the elimination of¬†craving, thus attaining the highest happiness: Nirvana. Wow, but this¬†the Indian version of the Preface¬†to¬†the Lyrical Ballads!!!

Rewind: the Romantic poet as the Buddha is the enlightened man with that superior sensibility/imagination who teaches men how to feel and keep memory of their emotions,¬† in order to better¬†bear the inevitable sufferings of life, thus reaching happiness. He is a poet and poetry is his weapon. Coleridge,in particular, had understood that the burden of our ” wants” can’t help us¬†understand the true nature of happiness and confounds us. Siddhartha seemed to have whatever life had to offer: he was young, handsome, rich and, naturally,¬†admired and envied at the same time. Hpwever, that wasn’t enough for him. He wanted more.¬†So, he got rid of that burden of things to¬†be free to choose his way, exactly as St Francis of Assisi did.

The ticking that marks the rhythm of our actions, prevents us from fully enjoying that dreamed happiness too. We are so¬†used to stuffing our days with¬†as many actions as possible¬†that we have no time to pause to think about what we are actually doing. “Stop the ticking!” said Captain Hook, but how?¬†We are not characters of a¬†fairy tale. How is it possible to reach our Nirvana, if this is¬†the frantic pattern¬†of our modern age?

In the eighteenth century Romantic artists had already understood  that man somehow would have undergone a great psychological change due to the impulse of the industrial revolution. Macaulay had said that the social-scientifical growth of England was equivalent to what men had done in three hundred or maybe three thousand years. Clock time had replaced seasonal time and from that moment on we have kept moving faster and faster.

That’s why one of the main characteristics of¬†Romantic poetry is¬†its meditative tone.Time had to slow down to understand the real nature of the self and life.¬† Remember, for example, the amazing “Elegy” of Thomas Gray where the knelling of the curfew toll¬†which pervades the first stanzas gradually fades to give way to the poet’s deep reflection. In the poem “Daffodils” only in a moment of beautiful stillness Wordsworth can experience that pure happiness destined to be enjoyed forever and in Coleridge’s “Rime” the Ancient Mariner stops with a spell a reluctant young¬†Wedding Guest in order to be able to communicate with him and then let him meditate¬†on the meaning of his tale.

So the point is that these “Romantic Buddhists” had understood the¬†importance of meditation to reach the necessary awareness that might lead to happiness.¬†Meditation is, in fact, the primary means of cultivating ¬†Buddhism. Your mind¬†focuses on an object, this image¬†expands to your mind,¬†body and entire surroundings till your mind¬†is able¬†to gain insight into the ultimate nature of reality and reach a sense of beatitude. In that state, time does not exist and we are in harmony with ourselves and the world outside reaching our Nirvana. Yes, but¬† ……..excuse me, what time is it? I’ve got to go.

 

The Aesthetic Retreat

Aestheticism and Romanticism have a lot in common: the rejection of materialism in general, an emphasis on sensibility and imagination, the quest for that striking, unforgettable emotion that gives meaning to life and more. There are many similarities, for sure, but the Romantics had a distinctive optimistic feature: they were dreamers and revolutionaries at the same time.They believed in the power of poetry and in particular in the mission of the artist, a super sensitive genius, whose task was to defend man’s natural sensibility, which they felt was about to be worn away by the values expressed by the new industrial and capitalistic society.

Their ambition was to talk to the heart of men, any man, however, if they wanted to reach a wider public, the dominant taste of the time would not do for the purpose. That is why Romantic poetry became a “bourgeois” sort of poetry, as it was purged of¬†all classic refinements, thus losing its aristocratic trait and with a selection of a new simple language which made accessible to anybody¬† the poet‚Äôs message. As their noble minds were fueled by the inspiring principles of the French Revolution, they aimed at fighting against conformism, indifference, ignorance but very soon, when that revolutionary wind weakened, the artists started to question: must art have a purpose of some kind? Must artists pursue goals different from giving life and form to their creative inspiration? A Romantic poet like Keats had developed pretty soon another opinion about it, in fact, in his “Ode on a Grecian Urn” he had clearly stated that art has only one goal : beauty. He even reinforced the concept adding : “That is all… Ye need to know“, thus anticipating the Aesthetic creed.

For the Aesthetes, in fact, those people, whose hearts the Romantics wanted to touch with their lines, resembled the crew of Baudelaire‚Äės poem: Albatros, that is, hopelessly¬†rude, ignorant, insensitive. A poet, who, like the Albatross, happens to descend among them, cannot but become the¬†martyr of common ignorance and blindness. In¬†his flight the poet/Albatross is magnificent and elegant with¬†his¬†vast wings,¬†he is ‚Äúthe prince of sky and clouds‚Äú, but when the men of the crew catch him and place him on the deck, well, everything changes. The¬†bird has to walk now, seems to¬†have lost¬†all the confidence he had before, thus becoming pathetic,clumsy, ashamed and those beautiful wings which used to take him up to the sky, now seem like oars that drag him down. This fallen angel has become so gauche and weak that appears to be like a cripple.The¬†men show no pity, but rather, they sneer at him.

The poet/Albatross¬†belongs to the sky and¬†he is used to facing the tempest. Only up there he is¬†the king that laughs at the(bow)man, but when he is on the earth, when he is “exiled” among the jeering men,¬†his wings become useless, as they ‚Äúprevent him from walking‚Äú. Modern society, like the deck of that ship is no longer for poets, as it is peopled by men who do not wish to learn anything from them. Any attempt of communicative effort cannot but be destined to failure whatever the choice of language might be; they couldn‚Äôt and wouldn‚Äôt understand. Poetry, just like the wings of the Albatross, is of no use.That is why the aesthetes chose to keep on flying in their sky made of taste and beauty, thus avoiding the risk of being entrapped by men’s ignorance and violence. Art is for art‚Äôs sake and nothing more. On this point they were quite firm, as we understand reading Wilde‘s “Preface” to “The Picture of Dorian Gray“. The artist is the creator of beautiful things. Full stop. The critic should judge the form rather than the content of an art. Full stop. An artist should not pursue a didactic or moral aim. Full stop.¬† All art is quite useless. The end.

The Novel Recipe

I: Mr B. Finds Pamela Writing 1743-4 Joseph Highmore 1692-1780 Purchased 1921 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/N03573

As everybody knows, those  writers who are commonly regarded as the fathers of the English novel started to write their masterpieces late in their lives. They were in their fifties or sixties at least, that is, after having done or seen much. Novel-writing was just their new playground at first. Daniel Defoe, for example, had a great writing experience and skill as journalist, but novel-making was something else. It was not about drawing up articles any longer, but rather, creating an organic structure where characters could move and interact for many pages. Since there was no psychoanalysis to help him yet, the simple ingredients he used were: an interesting subject, space, time. For what concerns the first ingredient, he was very lucky, because he was the witness of an age of great changes, that is, when the middle class was growing in importance thanks to trade and new politics. So, if we believe that literature is the mirror of the times, in that mirror Defoe saw the image of a bourgeois hero reflected: Robinson Crusoe.

He was perfect: young, middle class, Puritan, slave trader, traveller and sinner too. He was fit for an adventurous story.That was the second ingredient : the world.  He made him travel a lot, shipwreck and then placed him on a desert island where he remained in solitude for a long time before enjoying the company of a cannibal he named Friday. The narration was linear, chronological. But he felt that in those big spaces and with a few chances of human relations he had to do something for his hero so as to avoid the puppet effect, he needed more insight. So Robinson’s diary became part of the novel and his deepest thoughts surfaced on the page. Realism, intimacy, exoticism: a success.

But, what happens if we modify the dose of one of those ingredients? If we decide to¬†make our characters act¬†in smaller spaces: a house,¬†for example. Very likely¬†the complexity of their personalities will come out better, because the writer will have to¬†deal more with¬†the world¬†inside¬†rather than the world outside.¬†This is exactly what happened in Richardson‚Äės novels,¬†which are mostly focused on the dynamics inside family¬†circles and their¬†connections. Furthemore, they were written in the epistolary form so the reader was more deeply involved in the agonies of Clarissa or Pamela‚Äės moral fight¬†between love and proper behaviour.

When Sterne decided to write not only about ‚ÄúThe Life‚Äú, that is the chronological sequence of somebody‚Äôs events,¬†but also¬†about the¬† ‚ÄúOpinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman‚Äú, that is¬†his thoughts,¬†he felt instinctively that time ingredient should have been¬†employed in a complete different way. So, anticipating Bergson‚Äė s theory of “la dur√©e”, he understood that in our mind past, present, future co-exist in random order and that the usual¬†chronological¬†sequence was no loger fit to mirror that chaos in a novel.¬†As no psychoanalysts could have ever given him any advice about it,¬†he created that chaos in a primitive way. First of all he upset the order of the novel and¬† placed the preface in the third chapter, rather than in its usual place, then he filled¬†the book¬†with digressions, blank pages, drawings, dashes , skipped chapters etc.. The experiment was a successful one, because¬†out of all that chaos the delicate¬†complexity of Tristram‚Äôs soul materialized.¬†One last¬†thing, no recipe works without another ingredient, the most important one, of course:¬†‚Äúthe genious touch‚ÄĚ.

Oscar Wilde in Naples

Many words can be used to describe Oscar Wilde’s genius and personality, but wise is not one of them, to be sure. Having spent two years in jail after having been charged for “gross indecency”, the echoes of the scandal were not over yet, so he decided that Paris would have been a better place to try and start over again. In those months in Paris he could work on his famous “Ballad of Reading Jail”, but the signs of hard labour on his body and the awareness of the terrible humiliation his family had suffered were not enough to make him ignore the reasons of his heart. Against his better judgement, if he had any, Wilde yielded to his desire to see again Lord Alfred Douglas, Bosie, the man who had brought him to a tremendous downfall, so the two decided to spent the winter in Naples as Bosie ‘s relations were already there. Of course, his friends and family were furious for his going back the man who had ruined not only his but the life of those who had been close to him.

Towards the end of September 1897 the two lovers arrived in Naples and settled at Villa del Giudice on the charming Posillipo hill. Even though he used the name of Sebastian Melmoth, his coming to Naples become soon the tittle-tattle of the moment and only a couple of weeks after their arrival Matilde Serao wrote an article about the presence in town of such a famous, irreverent artist on the most popular newspaper: Il Mattino. “The secret of Pulcinella” we would call it¬† here in Italy and this expression particularly fits, as Pulcinella is a character who belongs to the Neapolitan Comedy of Art. By the way, how Wilde meant to keep the secret, having started soon to attend the Neapolitan literary circles, I cannot make it out, but as I told you before, wisdom has never touched him. Of course, being in reduced circumstances he was trying to have his works translated, but the tittle-tattle could not be stopped when the couple started to be seen in the company of other men, who were not part of any artistic society. A waiter of a hotel said he had seen Wilde with five soldiers and that he had spent the entire night with them.

So very soon rumors became scandals. It was only October when the couple decided to visit Capri and lodged at Hotel Quisisana. When the Swedish doctor and writer Alex Munthe met them the following day, they looked particularly depressed as they were waiting for a boat to go back to Naples. “They denied us even bread” said Wilde laconically and Bosie explained that some Uk customers had recognized them at the hotel and as they could not tolerate their presence there and the two lovers were politely sent away by the property owner. They had tried to find shelter in another hotel but they had received the same treatment. Axel Munthe invited them to dinner and offered them to be his guests at Villa Lysis, for some days. Afterwards, Wilde went back to Naples the 18th of October 1897, while Bosie decided to remain few more days at Munthe’s “Villa San Michele”.

The fact that Wilde and Bosie were a continuous source of scandal, brought both Douglas’s and Wilde’s families first to ask, then to intimate and eventually to force the two to separate. Which was their weakest point? Money. Wilde was deprived of the small income guaranteed to him by his separated wife, while¬† Bosie’s funds were cut by his mother. Even an emissary of the Embassy of England in Rome came to Naples expressly to see Douglas and make him understand that he would have to separate from Wilde immediately and such a conduct was considered like misbehaving towards the embassy itself.

 

It might be regarded a little harsh, but the cut of the funds worked well, and shortly after, at the end of November 1897, Douglas returned home after having written a warm letter of apology to his mother, who, by the way, had paid the (many) bills left pending by the couple. Wilde even received some money from her, which he used to take a trip to Taormina. Ah, the pangs of love!

 

The SimpleTruth

If somebody asked me to pick my favorite among Jane Austen’s novels I would promptly¬†reply: Pride and Prejudice, of course, but if I were given another option,
that would undoubtedly be Persuasion.That is why I heartily recommended this novel to Chris, a fellow blogger, who last summer was experiencing the joy of exploring Jane Austen’s world. Of course, since he had many other good reads he had scheduled, it took a while to know his point of view, but he did it at last and the long-awaited review of Persuasion appeared under my WordPress tree on Christmas day.

Only, differently from what I had expected I felt that Chris had not enjoyed that novel much, not as much as Emma, to which he had dedicated three posts. Of course, it was a very neat, professional, interesting review, but I couldn’t feel in any line a shadow of the admiration he had shown for Emma and at the same time, it was as if he couldn’t understand mine (and the many other Persuasion fans who usually comment on his blog).

However, scrolling down the comments, I realized that he had actually understood the root of our fervor, only, being a true Gentleman, he didn’t want to speak his mind frankly. In his very last reply to another blogger , in fact, he hinted at something that sounds like this:”I can see the appeal of Anne as a character for us, ahem, older readers, Helen, compared to the younger Austen heroines like Lizzie, Fanny or Emma. ” Ahem, there he went, ladies, like a dagger in my self-esteem. Everything was clear, that’s why we have enjoyed Persuasion so much, because we are, I can’t say the word, well, let’s put it in this way, a little advanced in years.

Anne Elliot is, of course, the heroine that gives any mature woman hope. She is very much alike the Charlotte Lucas of Pride and Prejudice: plain, modest, accomplished, clever but too old to aspire to a good match with the bliss love. However, differently from Charlotte, Anne doesn’t settle for a Mr Collins; she, unexpectedly, has the occasion to meet again Captain Wentworth, the love of her life, the opportunity she had missed when she was much younger and in her full¬† bloom.The grown-up Anne has learnt to be less yielding than her younger self and this time she will be able to conquer a much deserved happy ending.

So, if this is true, we have been unmasked, ladies; therefore, when somebody next time asks you, for example, which Jane Austen heroine you would like to beūü§Ē…..what about Lydia Bennet as an answer? ūüėú

A Matter of Age

No wonder Jane Austen and her sister never married . If your imagination
keeps giving birth to amazing, charming, deserving young men, how can it be possible
to avoid the inevitable disappoint of harsh reality? Much better to end up an old maid.
Emma’s Mr Knightley is another Mr Perfect of Jane Austen’s fine gallery of men: rich, sensible, caring, sporty, quite the gentleman and if it were not enough, even handsome.
However, there is something not fully convincing about him, let’s call it a slight
imperfection especially at the eyes of a modern reader: the question of his age. At 37
he might be with reason considered too old as a life partner for Emma who is only 21.

In the previous post I explained Jane Austen’s choice of an experienced man at the side of her heroine with the necessity of a guide for a spoilt and still childish young woman
like Emma, and, of course, it has been rightly pointed out among the comments that such a difference of age in a married couple was not at all not something extraordinary at those times. By the way, the fact that this difference somehow mattered can be noticed in the passage where a possible attachment between Jane Fairfax, who is more and less Emma’s age, and Mr Knightley is talked of with positive remarks upon the whole, but for their difference of age, an issue that, of course, would have been easily overcome, considering who he was.

A modern reader might also turn up his nose at the point when Mr Knightley confesses he had been in love with her at least since she was thirteen. Thirteen?! Well then, when she was 13, he must have been 29, and nowadays there is a precise word to spot such an
interest toward a young girl and laws to protect her, but let’s leave this hero
safely to his time, we wouldn’t wish to ruin his impeccable reputation of righteous,
trustworthy gentleman. After all,these kind of matches did happen and even among well-known people. An example? Edgar Allan Poe.

If you are still wondering about Mr Knightley’s feelings toward a girl of 13, who was also his
sister-in-law, well, you should know that at the age of 26 Poe married his cousin,Virginia Eliza Clemm, and she was 13! Virginia was only seven years old when she met him the first time, that is, when her widowed mother Maria had then allowed Poe, who was 20 then, to stay with her family. Virginia saw her cousin with the girlish eyes of love and spent a lot of time with him. She even helped him in his love affairs delivering his letters of ardent admiration to a neighbor, until one day, his affections for her little cousin changed and decided to marry her.

Reality is always quite different from fiction. Of course, there was not the general approval at the announcement ( and if I do remember well, neither John Knightley was that enthusiastic once received the happy news from his¬† brother) as her mother Maria didn‚Äôt approve the match because of their age difference, and besides, Poe was practically penniless.¬† Regardless of family ‘s opposition, the couple did follow the example of many characters of Austen’s novels and eloped in Baltimore on September 22, 1835 to be married¬† in Richmond, Virginia, on May 16, 1836. The wedding was held at a boarding house, where the couple and Virginia’s mother stayed the night: a desperate attempt to preserve her daughter’s reputation.

What kind of marriage was it? Confused. The couple never had any children and it seems that their bond was more like brother and sister than husband and wife. By the way, Virginia adored him, but he was not indifferent to women’s charm and she was fine with it. Of course he was a women’s favourite. Poe‚Äôs friendship with the married 34-year-old poet Frances Sargent Osgood, for example, turned on the jealousy of another woman, Elizabeth F. Ellet, a fellow poet who had a crush on him, so that she started to spread rumors about their affair and Poe‚Äôs ‚Äúlunacy.‚ÄĚ The scandal which followed affected Virginia so deeply that on her deathbed she declared Elizabeth Ellet her murderer. Virginia died at the age of 25 of tuberculosis after 11 years of marriage and her afflicted husband “ used to cry over her grave every day and kept it green with flowers.‚Ä̬† It seems he had loved her very much, in his way, of course, which is not the way Jane Austen would have ever dreamed of, but it was intense, maybe selfish and desperately real.