Tuesday, June 15, 2010

More Machado: Dom Casmurro

I read the 19th-century Brazilian writer Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis's brilliant The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas two years ago, and I'm now finally getting around to reading some of his other masterpieces. Machado is a very contemporary-seeming writer. He uses metafictional techniques that came to be called postmodern, although they date from the beginnings of literature: The Odyssey has an unreliable narrator, The Canterbury Tales and The Decameron call attention to themselves as texts, Don Quixote has multiple layers of narrative, and Tristram Shandy employs unusual typography. These, along with the plays of Shakespeare, are among Machado's literary inspirations, and his works belong in their company as classics of world literature.

Dom Casmurro (Sir Dour, originally published 1899; translated into English by Helen Caldwell, Farrar, Straus and Young, 1953) has the same sort of lightly ironic and self-aware narrator as The Posthumous Memoirs. But—like Brás Cubas—Dom Casmurro has some rather large blind spots, of which the reader gradually becomes aware over the course of the novel.

Bentinho (our narrator) and Capitú are neighbor children who grow up together and, as teenagers, discover the emergence of new feelings for each other. (In a pattern which becomes typical, other people are aware of those feelings before Bentinho himself is.) Bentinho's mother and other relatives raise objections to the prospective match: his mother because she has always wanted Bentinho to become a priest, and the relatives because Capitú's family is distinctly lower on the social ladder. Machado—himself the son of a wall painter and a washerwoman, and with mixed-race ancestry—must have known something about social and class barriers.

(Mild spoilers follow, so if you're planning to read Dom Casmurro soon you may want to skip this paragraph.) Thanks largely to Capitú's patience, steadfastness and good judgment, obstacles which seemed insurmountable are gradually overcome, and the couple embark on what should be a life of mutual felicity. But the poison of Bentinho's jealousy is soon doing its destructive work. Masterfully, Machado implicates the reader in Bentinho's suspicions. But after the tragedy unfolds, in one chilling sentence he casts doubt on everything that has gone before, and suggests that Dom Casmurro's jealousy—like that of Othello, to whom there are multiple allusions in the text—is entirely baseless.

Because we see events entirely through Dom Casmurro's eyes, a certain ambiguity lingers over the narrative, and we can't be sure which interpretation of events—Dom Casmurro's or the one we begin to suspect—is the true one. And in the end, the truth, whatever it may be, matters less than the consequences of Dom Casmurro's caustic jealousy. Dom Casmurro is a compelling and disturbing portrait of a man systematically destroying his own happiness.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Sadder but no wiser: Dil Kabaddi and Mixed Doubles

After my post on Konkona Sen Sharma I realized that there were a number of her films that I'd never seen. Trolling through Netflix I discovered that she has appeared in not one, but two comedies of marital infidelity: Mixed Doubles (2006) and Dil Kabaddi (Game of Hearts, 2008).

Dil Kabaddi (written and directed by Anil Sharma) is the story of two married couples, both of which are thrown into crisis when one of the couples decides to separate. Samit (Irrfan Khan), freed from his "too intellectual" wife Mita (Soha Ali Khan), wastes no time in starting a torrid affair with his airheaded (and much younger) yoga instructor, Kaya (Payal Rohatgi). This causes their friends Rishi (Rahul Bose) and Simi (Konkona) to re-examine their own relationship in the light of their friends' dissatisfaction. It soon becomes clear that Rishi and Simi have been together long enough for the initial romantic impulse to have worn off and for boredom, routine and irritation to have settled in.

Both Rishi and Simi, it turns out, are conducting mild flirtations with people they know at work. Simi has been giving her handsome coworker Veer (Rahul Khanna) her poems to read (though she won't let her husband look at them because he's "too critical"), while film professor Rishi finds himself attracted to his (much younger) student Raga (Saba Azad). Meanwhile, Mita decides that what's sauce for the gander is sauce for the goose, and allows Simi to set her up on a date with Veer. Of course, no sooner does Samit catch wind of his wife's activities than his jealous possessiveness is aroused.

There's a certain amount of comedy wrung from Samit's ludicrous affair, Rishi's shocked titillation by Raga's sexual openness, and Mita's disastrous date. But there's a strange shift in tone that starts to occur about three-quarters of the way through the movie when we come to realize that our sympathies for every character have been called into question. By the end, the same patterns that led to the couples' crises have been re-established in both old relationships and new, and we recognize that the characters are doomed to repeat the same mistakes (or resign themselves to perpetual dissatisfaction). In the final moments of the film the only compatible couple is made up, we're told, of "predator" (her) and "prey" (him). These characters have been left sadder, but no wiser; we're left with a pretty sour taste.

If Dil Kabaddi starts out as a bedroom farce and turns into a bitter portrait of male-female relationships, Mixed Doubles (2006) follows the reverse trajectory in a way, but ends up at the same place. Thanks to the pressures of work and raising their son and the dullness of routine, Sunil (Ranvir Shorey) and Malti (Konkona) are facing a loss of desire in their eight-year marriage. Helped along by fanciful stories of the sexual escapades of his friends and coworkers, Sunil starts pressuring Malti to try partner-swapping. Of course, she's bewildered and hurt, but Sunil adopts a series of outrageously underhanded and manipulative tactics until Malti gives in. By this point Sunil is so repellent that I found myself thinking that he was going to deserve every bit of the disaster that was so clearly looming—and just as clearly, this is exactly what writer/director Rajat Kapoor wants us to feel.

The movie starts to hit its comic stride during the "date" that Sunil and Mita have with a more experienced couple, Vinod (writer/director Kapoor) and Kalpana (Koel Purie). Sunil's interaction with the wildly capricious (and capriciously wild) Kalpana is especially appalling; this is bedroom farce with a vengence. The morning after, as Sunil and Malti tentatively settle back into their former routines, their regard for one another seems to have been permanently damaged by their supposedly liberating adventure. This couple is sadder and wiser, but the wisdom has come too late.

Konkona and the other actors are excellent in both films, but I find myself unable to recommend either one. Unless, that is, you enjoy the spectacle of people who should know better causing unnecessary pain to themselves and to those that they ostensibly love.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Shakespeare's sisters: Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel and Maria Anna Mozart

In A Room of One's Own, Virginia Woolf speculates about what the life of Shakespeare's sister might have been like had she existed. If she had been equally as talented, and equally "as adventurous, as imaginative, as agog to see the world" as her famous brother, she would have been prevented—thanks to the constraints placed on Elizabethan women—from making use of her gifts.

But some great artists really did have sisters. When Wolfgang Mozart was a child prodigy he toured Europe giving concerts with his older sister Maria Anna, known in the family as Nannerl. Nannerl was clearly very talented; her harpsichord playing was described by observers as "masterly" and "brilliant." In a letter published in the Augsburger Intelligenz-Zettel of May 19, 1763, an anonymous reviewer wrote, "Just imagine a girl 11 years of age who can perform on the harpsichord or fortepiano the most difficult sonatas and concertos by the greatest masters, most accurately, readily and with an almost incredible ease, in the very best of taste." [1]

Nannerl also wrote music; in a letter from 1770 Wolfgang praises one of her songs, writing "I am amazed to find out how well you can compose. In a word, the song is beautiful. Try this more often." [2] Unfortunately, none of her compositions have survived.

But when Nannerl was 18, her father Leopold began to focus all of his attentions (and the family resources) on promoting Wolfgang's career. Nannerl and her mother were left behind in Salzburg as Wolfgang and Leopold toured Italy and travelled to Vienna. Wolfgang wrote many piano pieces that were clearly intended for performance by Nannerl, including his first piano duet (K381, from 1772). The conductor and musicologist Jane Glover writes of this piece, "It is significant that there is absolute parity between the Primo and Secondo parts; as a player, Nannerl was entirely Wolfgang's equal." [3] But while she played with her brother in public occasionally over the next decade, her life as a performer began to draw to a close, and ended entirely with her marriage in 1783.

Fanny Mendelssohn was Felix Mendelssohn's older sister, and received musical instruction from the same tutors as Felix. Like Nannerl, Fanny was a pianist and composer. But because she came from an upper-class family performances for paying customers were considered unseemly, and so Fanny played only in the family home and for invited guests. When she was a young woman her father wrote her, "Music will perhaps become his [Felix's] profession, while for you it can and must be only an ornament, never the root of your being and action....You must...prepare more earnestly and eagerly for your real calling, the only calling of a young woman—I mean the state of a housewife.” When their mother urged Felix to help Fanny publish her music, he wrote her that to do this "is contrary to my views and to my convictions." [4]

Fanny continued to compose, however, even after her marriage to the painter William Hensel (who fully supported her musical activities); ultimately she produced more than 400 works. It may have been contrary to Felix's convictions to publish Fanny's works under her own name; however, he included six of her songs in his song collections Opus 8 and Opus 9. Finally in 1846 Fanny began to publish her songs and piano pieces under her own name; unfortunately she died of a stroke the following year, and after a few more works were published at William Hensel's request, nothing more appeared until 1987.

Today, however, Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel is recognized as one of the most significant 19th-century composers, and a definitive biography of Fanny by R. Larry Todd has recently been published (Fanny Hensel: The Other Mendelssohn, Oxford, 2009). In her post "Celebrating Fanny Hensel," Jessica Duchen has conducted a fascinating interview with Todd and included a performance of one of Fanny's duets, "Aus meinen Tränen sprießen viel blühende Blumen hervor" (From my tears spring many blooming flowers), sung by Barbara Bonney and Angelika Kirchschlager with pianist Malcolm Martineau:


The words in German and English can be found on WikiBooks.

Many thanks to acatalano2641 for the video and to Jessica for including it in her wonderful post on Fanny, which inspired mine. There is also a website devoted to Fanny which includes links to CDs, books, sheet music, and concert performances of her work (mainly in Germany).


[1] Quoted in Otto Eric Deutsch's Mozart: A Documentary Biography, Stanford University Press, 1966, pp. 17-26.

[2] From letter 102a in Emily Anderson's Letters of Mozart and His Family, Vol. 1, MacMillan, 1938, p. 219.

[3] From Jane Glover's Mozart's Women: His Family, His Friends, His Music, Harper Collins, 2005, pp. 43-44.

[4] Quoted in Carol Neuls-Bates's Women in Music: An Anthology of Source Readings from the Middle Ages to the Present. Northeastern University Press, 1996, pp. 144-148.