Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Fat Pig

For the past 4 years Neil LaBute’s Fat Pig (7 short acts, 84 pages) has sat on my bookcase in a total of five apartments/ houses/ residences. For some reason, or another, I have always glanced over it and never got around to actually picking it up and reading it; that all changed this month.

It is such a shame that I never read this play before! The dialogue is fast paced and witty no matter which characters are conversing. LaBute doesn’t aim to make any major statements but gives us a glimpse at a real situation that could be happening to anyone around us and shows us how it stands. The play gives us an account of the courtship between Tom and Helen (a woman on the heavier side of the scales) from their initial meeting to the demise of their relationship. It also gives a perfect representation of the struggles people face if they decide to fall in love with people outside of the norm (even if they seem to be the perfect match).

Remember back when I read Maurice and the main character explained himself as ‘an unspeakable of the Oscar Wilde sort’? Well a very similar famous figure is used in this book as an representation of being homosexual, “I don’t want to come off like some Elton John here, but you’re a good-looking guy” (LaBute 70). Kind of funny how these famed individuals can sum up a life choice without any detailed context. Be it Oscar Wilde, or Elton John, we know exactly what these characters mean when they use them to describe a particular part of themselves.

LaBute also gives us a very good look into a small issue of our internet-centric generation; the problem of some individuals not being able to deal with issues directly;

Carter I know. The guy who first thought up the whole “I hope we can still be friends” thing must be giggling his dick off somewhere…

Tom Probably. (Beat.) You think maybe I should go down there and talk to her? Just…

Carter Oh, yeah, that’s a good idea. Meet her on her turf… with all those accounting chicks around. Perfect.

Tom I don’t want her all mad, though. Maybe just an e-mail…

Carter Yeah, with one of those smiley-face icons or something. Come on, be serious! (50)

I think the above short interaction between those two characters really does show us what is fundamentally wrong with many of the people walking around nowadays- the inability to communicate.

Although it is a very short play, the length of Fat Pig is one of the reasons it succeeds, at least to me, so well. It gives us a situation, lets it play out a bit, then ends on a sad note (the two main characters are actually crying as the ‘curtain’ goes down). There is no moral in this story. There is no happy ending. It simply is what it is. It is really nice to get a snippet of another life with no real context and just enjoy the ride.

The edition I read was ISBN: 978-0-571-21150-0.

LaBute, Neil. Fat Pig. New York: Faber and Faber, 2005. Print.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Death in Venice, Tristan, and Tonio Kröger

I got hold of a nice old (you know one of those books that smell like your great grandparents house and seem to crumble as you turn the pages) collection of Thomas Mann’s three novellas; Death in Venice, Tristan, and Tonio Kröger (191 pages).

I didn’t go into this with any particular expectation (my only knowledge of Mann was a few small references in a number of essays) but I was very pleasantly surprised. This is a translation (by H. T. Lowe-Porter) of originally German works released in the very early 1900s. However, this cannot be seen at all, the work flows off the tongue (figuratively anyway, seeing as I don’t ready out loud) and the beautiful prose appears to have been written for an English speaking audience.

I won’t say that the three stories are amazingly interesting or that anything exciting happens but they are worth the read. All three seem to have a few things in common;
  1. Each involves a loving connection between two individuals which is very much one-sided (Gustav and Tadzio, Herr Spinell and Gabriele, and Tonio Kröger and Hans Hansen/ Ingeborg Holm).
  2. Each involves a forbidden love (a young boy, a married woman, or another man).
  3. Each involves a writer (Gustav, Herr Spinell, and Tonio Kröger).

It seems as though Thoman Mann uses these familiar stories, and tweaks them just enough, not to make interesting narratives but to make a commentary on art, artists, and the difficulties in creating and classifying art.

I have read a number of essays over the years around the creation of art, and the criticism of art, yet I found these novellas hit the point more successfully than some of the better essays I have read (e.g. Walter Pater’s The Renaissance).

For example (from Tonio Kröger);

But what is it to be an artist? Nothing shows up the general human dislike of thinking, and a man’s innate craving to be comfortable, better than his attitude to this question. When these worthy people are affected by a work of art, they say humbly that that sort of thing is a ‘gift’ […] they never dream that the ‘gift’ in question is a very dubious affair and rests upon sinister foundations. Everybody knows that artists are ‘sensitive’ and easily wounded. (Mann 154)

These novellas are filled with insights like the above giving us a much better insight into the mind of Mann and his theories of art than the minds of his characters.

Remember the description I gave of the young girl back when I wrote of Lolita? Well a very similar description appears in Death in Venice. The main character, Gustav von Aschenbach, is obsessed throughout the story with a young boy, Tadzio, and gives descriptions similar in style that those in Lolita; “he was barefoot, ready for wading, the slender legs uncovered above the knee […] a masterpiece from nature’s own hand” (Mann 36-7). It is very interesting that, from what I can find, this novella didn’t provoke the same kind of uproar as Lolita. Is it okay to be obsessed with a child if they are either a) a boy, not a girl, or, b) you don’t act on it?

I really did enjoy this book but mostly, as you’ve probably guessed, for the insight into Mann’s view of art. If you can’t read John Ruskin’s Modern Painters (not that he holds the same views as Ruskin) without falling asleep then I don’t believe these are the novellas for you because the actual plot really isn’t all that interesting.

There was a very interesting bookmark in the secondhand copy I picked up. Whoever had it before me used an old Canadian National Railway ticket holder to keep their place (I also use anything in sight as bookmarks sometimes). The appealing thing about this place holder isn’t what it is but perhaps how old it is. The Canadian National Railway runs for far distances (not short commutes like the GO train) yet the ticket price was only $3.70! I wonder where and when they traveled and how long this ticket has sat hidden in the book. Wow I’m quite a boring person to wonder such things!

Mann, Thomas. Death in Venice, Tristan, Tonio Kröger. London: Penguin, 1962. Print.

Monday, June 20, 2011


I have been aware of Bernard Shaw for quite a long time but, for one reason or another, I have never got around to reading or watching one of his plays. However, that all changed as I read Candida (122 pages).

The story centres around a situation that has been around as long as story telling has (that’s just an educated estimation!); two men fighting over one woman. The woman in question is Candida and the two men are Reverend James Morrell (Candida’s current husband) and Eugene Marchbanks (a young poet).

The first thing I found very surprising about Candida is Shaw’s treatment of stage direction. It seems as though Shaw was worried that whoever would direct his play in the future would, in current terms, f*ck it up! You can see this through his unnecessarily long descriptions of characters and settings (for example the beginning of the play has over 3 pages worth of stage direction before the dialogue begins). His stage direction seems more fitting for a novel, or short story, than a play.

Shaw gives a very interesting insight into love throughout this book. An example of this is when he has Marchbanks explain why shy people can’t find love, “I see the affection I am longing for given to dogs and cats and pet birds, because they come and ask for it” (Shaw 43). So the moral of this is- if you are shy you are less likely to find love than a dog!

The play ends on a very interesting note. Part of the final piece of dialogue (given by Marchbanks) is “I have a secret better than that in my heart”, and the final stage direction is “they do not know the secret in the poet’s heart” (Shaw 81). Up until this point the play has been very straight forward with lots of discussion about love and beliefs yet this final line adds a twist. I can’t say it really adds anything to the play, it is more of a frustration due to the fact that nothing prior provides anything that can be read into as a secret.

During an argument between Morrell and Marchbanks, I came across another of my new words; whelp! Morrell says to Marchbanks, “You sniveling cowardly whelp” (Shaw 39). I have never heard somebody use a synonym for a puppy as an offensive term (although I supposed it makes sense coming from a reverend instead of something really offensive).

My final point about this play is in regards to an ‘extra’ at the back of this book which is called a ‘Glossary of Cockney Words’ (page 120-22). The glossary is given to help understand Mr. Burgess (Candida’s father), when I saw this I assumed it was provided because Mr. Burgess would use cockney slang (I had noticed it on the contents before starting the play). However it only really outlines words that mostly involve Mr. Burgess dropping a h when it is needed and adding a h when it is not needed. Including this somewhat undermines the intelligence of the reader especially when it tries to say it is for “a dialect used by uneducated Londoners” (Shaw 120); as an educated individual from the North West of England (nowhere near London!) that also always seems to drop the h I can assure you this isn’t a special dialect by any means.

On a non-Candida side note: I am getting really bored of the photos I include of books on this blog so seeing as I have an abundance on knick-knacks from second hand stores, you might seem little figures starting to make appearances in the images I provide!

Shaw, Bernard. Candida. London: Longmans, 1964. Print.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011


Before I start this entry I want you to keep a couple of things in mind;

1) The back cover of my edition has a quote from Vanity Fair describing the novel as “The only convincing love story of our century.” This quote is apparently on a number of editions but I cannot find the review it came from (if you know where I can find it please tell me because I’m quite intrigued to read it).

2) If this novel can be described as a love story I would like to present the following description Humbert Humbert (the narrator) gives of the individual he loves; “honey-hued shoulders, the same silky supple bare back, the same chestnut head of hair […] her lovely indrawn abdomen where my southbound mouth had briefly paused; and those puerile hips on which I had kissed” (Nabokov 39). Pretty lovely and sensual description, right?

3) I was drawn to read this book after it was suggested as a perfect example, during a discussion, of how narration can greatly affect an reader’s view of the subject matter.

If you are not aware, Lolita (317 pages) is Vladmir Nabokov’s infamous novel that at its core is about the love a pedophile, Humbert Humbert, holds for his 12-year-old step-daughter, Dolores Haze (although, you must understand, this is an overly simplified description of this novel). The novel is given as a ‘confession’ from the narrator, Humbert Humbert, as he sits in prison (this is set out by a short introduction from a the friend of a lawyer, John Ray, Jr, Ph.D, who is given the manuscript to edit after Humbert has died in legal captivity).

Although English is not Nabokov’s native language (originally born in Russia) his mastery of the English language and the elegant prose he allows his narrator to use is remarkable. I believe it is this noteworthy use of language that leads to the Vanity Fair review in my first point above.

Throughout my reading of the novel, which I found hard to put down, I found myself feeling considerably sorry for the narrator and somewhat rooting for him. It is only through mentions of Dolores ‘Lolita’ Haze’s age that I was pulled out of these sentimental feelings for Humbert and realized that, no matter what, this protagonist should not get what he wants and desires.

Due to the narration coming from the pedophile himself the subject matter of the novel gets lost within explanations and excuses for his urges and is not shown in the awful light you would expect but given a ray of normality as though every man across the world holds these same desires. I am not saying that I hold desires like this myself but Nabokov’s language tricks you into believing it is ‘regular’.

The novel is spilt in two parts (the first part explaining everything leading up to the joining of Humbert and Dolores and the second part explaining everything afterward- including their two plus years living together across America as ‘lovers’) and the first part ends with a particular passage that sent shivers down my spine and really explains the situation the young girl is in. This comes after Humbert has told Dolores that her mother is dead and that she only has him; “At the hotel we had separate rooms, but in the middle of the night she came sobbing into mine, and we made it up very gently. You see, she had absolutely nowhere else to go” (my italics, Nabokov 142). If helpless had to be described in one sentence it would be that last line.

I will not lie and say that this novel is an ‘easy’ read (although it flies by) because many of the more descriptive passages can be hard to swallow, as a reader that is disgusted by the idea of pedophilia, but it is worth it in the long run. Nabokov walks a very fine line through Lolita, between an awful subject matter and beautiful narration, but he walks the line well; for this reason I will definitely be reading his work again.

The final comment I want to make about this book is something for you to think about. In my last post, I wrote about E. M Forster’s Maurice; the main controversy around that novel wasn’t about it being a terrible love story but that the main character was in love with somebody they shouldn’t be, another man. If Maurice, viewed by a modern reader, can now be appreciated as a good love story, due to an acceptance of homosexuality, is it possible that one day, in many years to come, Lolita may be viewed the same way? That is not me arguing for an acceptance of pedophilic relationships but rather pointing out that the only difference between the two novels would be that one socially unacceptable love is now more acceptable but the other still isn’t and therefore the latter can only currently be viewed as a sickening love story, with a few exceptions, like Vanity Fair.

The edition I read was ISBN: 978-0-679-72316-1.

Nabokov, Vladmir. Lolita. New York: Vintage International, 1997. Print.

Saturday, June 4, 2011


I have just finished E. M. Forster’s originally controversial novel Maurice (255 pages). If you are not familiar, it is an early 20th century novel (wrote between 1913 and 1914 but only published until 1971 when the author died) that follows the life, from boyhood to early adult life, of a homosexual man by the name of (you guessed it!) Maurice!

Coming from a very accepting-of-everyone family, thankfully, I naturally wasn’t ‘shocked’ by the novel (wow who could have guessed a man could love other men and not women!) but I can appreciate how courageous and adventurous Forster was by writing a gay novel at a time when homosexuality wasn’t just frowned upon but punishable by law. Hence the reason why there was such a gap between writing the novel and its publication (the author only showed it to close friends during his life).

Anyway, enough about the book as a controversial piece or work, how about we actually talk about the novel?

I have two main things to blog, rant, rave, write, and talk about in regards to Maurice; the main character, and the epilogue (it is no secret now that I loathe epilogues).

I hate to compare good literature to movies but I will do that just now to articulate how I felt about the main character. You know when you are watching a romantic comedy or, more accurately, a romantic drama the main aim is for you to love the main character (the hopeless romantic) and root for him/her to end up with the man/woman of their dreams. However, there are those exceptions that, either due to the writer, director, or actor, when you just can’t root for them because they are just awful people. Maurice belongs to the latter group.

Throughout the novel I did feel sorry for Maurice trying to fit in a world where his happiness (romantically anyway) is dependent on a legally unattainable end. That being said, I could really feel sorry for him at all because he just wasn’t a nice human being; he was arrogant, awful to his friends and family, and just generally full of himself.

In regards to the epilogue; there wasn’t one. Why mention something in a novel that isn’t there, you ask? Well, an authors note at the end of the book mentions that originally he did have an epilogue (basically a ‘where are they now’ idea) but decided against it and I am so happy about that! Forster made the decision (that so many other authors avoid) to let the book end on an interesting note and allow the reader’s imagination decide what happens later on, instead of spoon feeding us an epilogue that offends our intelligence by hinting that we, as readers, as incapable of independent thought. I also read a short summary online explaining what was in the epilogue (apparently it is still in one particular edition of the novel) and it would have completely ruined the whole book for me!

The final thing I want to say is another of the interesting words I find in the pages of the numerous novels I read. This isn’t exactly a ‘new word’ but a new way of describing something. When Maurice is trying to explain that he is gay, without actually addressing it directly, he says, “I’m an unspeakable of the Oscar Wilde sort” (Forster 159). If you are a member of the small amount of people that don’t know who Oscar Wilde is, feel free to search him online to see how funny this description is! Also, at the side is an image of him in all his dandyism.

The edition I read was ISBN: 0-393-31032-9.

Forster, E. M. Maurice. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc, 1993. Print.