Saturday, April 21, 2012

be on the one hand good, and do not on the other hand be bad

Rich Beck has a terrific discussion of The Last Samurai on Emily Books, of which this is my favourite line:

DeWitt, working at a time when critics routinely praise writers for their “generosity of spirit,” is ungenerous, even mean.  

This also made me laugh:

She is neither a likeable protagonist nor the kind of charming, charismatic jerk who populates Martin Amis novels. She is just genuinely unlikeable, full stop.

Not that I actually agree, mind you; it still made me laugh.

When I started work on the book it had a single mother whose name was Ruth, a Shavian character of perfect self-possession.  She decided to raise a child following the principles of J S Mill and did so. Her many strong opinions set her at odds with the rest of the world; she remained sublimely untroubled.  It struck me at some point that this was rather dull.

I then read Kurosawa's account of his problems with the script of Drunken Angel, in which a virtuous doctor looked after tubercular patients in the slums.  Kurosawa explained that his breakthrough came when he realised the character was too good, it wasn't interesting.  He saw suddenly that the character would work much better as an irascible alcoholic.  I then thought of Wilkie Collins' Armadale, and in particular of the marvellous Lydia Gwilt: an acerbic drug addict, plotter, murderess.  (Best line: 'He put his arm round her waist - if you can call it a waist.')  How much more appealing my single mother would be if she were as tormented, as acerbic as Lydia Gwilt!  It was immediately obvious that her name must be Sibylla, from the opening epigraph of the Waste Land (quotation from Petronius, where two boys see the Sibyl at Cumae, ask what she wants, are told she wants to die).

I do also feel somewhat wounded and misunderstood, since I think I was generous to a fault: I think of the hours spent incorporating Greek and Japanese and Old Norse into the text, all to enable the reader to see for him- or herself how delightful they were; the months, or rather years, wrangling with typesetters and copy-editors in multiple editions, to share these delights with readers throughout the world . . .  I contemplate the misery involved in clearing permissions for quotations from 26 separate sources, all to share passages with readers that I might otherwise have saved for my own personal enjoyment in the privacy of my own personal library . . .  A woman who has suffered to share the aerodynamic properties of the grebe with the reading public is likely to feel that her distinguishing characteristic is wanton prodigality. 

But I still thought this was a very clever take on the book, and in some sense I would agree with Mr Beck: the book does not make much of an effort to be nice.

Meanwhile I am taking a weekend intro to Dutch, which is very cheering.  The language feels shocking after German: j = y, w = v, but you have to learn to pronounce the e of 'me', 'je', 'we' like that in French 'me'.  Also, you have to learn not to pronounce final n in words like 'kennen', 'leren' and so on. G is a harsh guttural, like Arabic kh: geboren = khebore(n), gegeten (G. gegessen) = khekhete(n). 'ui' = the ow of 'house' (duizend, Zuid-Holland, huis).  oe = the oo of moo (boek).  This is hard to get used to, but great.


Philip Duncan said...

Likability is so inherently subjective, it's strange to see someone treat it as a character trait. Sibylla is misanthropic, opinionated, and tormented, but she is also forthright, passionate, and hugely intelligent. What's not to like?

(by the way that link doesn't work for me).

Helen DeWitt said...

Well... I suppose if someone tried to be perceived as likeable by, say, the kind of person who is repelled by logical thought, that might be a character trait.

I have fixed the link; thanks for pointing out the problem.