You came home the other day
And solemnly said to me
You wanted to have a long life.
And when I asked you why
You said you wanted to be around
To make sure I would get
A proper funeral.
I would’ve been moved
I would’ve thought, “Aaw, how sweet!”
Had you not forgotten
My birthday yesterday
Had you said sorry
That you forgot.
But you didn’t .
I’m still alive.
Here I am.
Can’t you see me?
One of the many things that I like about Dostoevsky’s style is the distinct voices of each of his characters. (Perhaps credit is also due tothe translator who understands the nuances of the Russian language.) If the character is highly educated, then he or she can speak eloquently in long, complex and profound sentences on a variety of subjects with numerous allusions to literary works. Such as the narrator of White Nights, who speaks so eruditely, that Nastenka, who considers herself a simple uneducated girl has to say to him: “You describe it all so splendidly, but couldn’t you perhaps describe it less splendidly?” The narrator’s language is reflective of a person who is used to internal monologues, and not that of one accustomed to conversing with other people.
Nastenka, on the other hand, simple as she is, expresses herself in the simplest way possible. Her sentences are short, even incomplete sometimes reflecting a very conversational use of language.
White Nights, a sentimental story from the diary of a dreamer
It makes a huge difference that Dostoevsky included “a sentimental story from the diary of a dreamer” in the title, because then the reader can excuse the sentimentality of the story, for are we not prone to sentimentality ourselves, albeit only in our heads?
The narrator, a 27-year old dreamer, who hasnever been with a woman, meets an 18-year old heartbroken woman, and they become friends and each other’s confidant. The woman, Nastenka, asks of him only one thing — not to fall in love with her, which of course, is impossible, she being the only woman (beautiful at that) to ever spend time with him, and listen to him.
Nastenka is distressed because the man who promised to come back to Petersburg to marry her has not come to see her yet even though it is past the date they have agreed to meet. The narrator counsels and comforts her, until he falls in love with her and finally one evening tells her. Nastenka does not turn him away, saying she will learn to love him as she already loves him as a friend. They walk, holding hands, happy with life when the man she has been waiting for, appears and she runs to him. And they walk away, leaving our poor, poor hero behind.
Days later, the young man receives a letter from Nastenka that says, “We shall meet, you will come to us, you will be for ever a friend, a brother to me.” And she asks him to forgive her, and to continue loving her because “when one loves a wrong is forgotten.” Then she tells him she is getting married and wishes for him to be there at their wedding.
Our poor hero ends his story with these words(only in his head):
“But to imagine that I should bear you a grudge, Nastenka. That I should cast a dark cloud over your serene, untroubled happiness; that by my bitter reproaches I should cause distress to your heart, should poison it with secret remorse and should force it to throb with anguish at the moment of bliss…. Oh never, never! May your sky be clear, may your sweet smile be bright and untroubled, and may you be blessed for that blissful happiness which you gave to another, lonely and and grateful heart!
“My god, a whole moment of happiness! Is that too little for a whole of man’s life? “
I know very few women and not a single man who could love that way.
Apart from parents, how many people can truly love selflessly? To wish nothing for oneself but to see the happiness of another, even if it means being neglected, abandoned?
“I don’t know how to be silent when my heart is speaking.”
The narrator says these words to Nastenka as he tells her about himself.
These words remind me of the biblical verse, “Out of the fullness of the heart, the mouth speaks.” Rare is a person who can keep his secret love totally secret from everyone but himself.
When one is in love, why is it difficult to keep that to oneself? Even if one does not admit he is, he will not be able to stop mentioning the subject of his affection in every conversation, and he will always find a way to keep in touch with the same person no matter how mundane it is that he says to her.
But indeed some secret feelings are better carried to one’s grave, especially if they will not do any good to anyone.
If the narrator were my friend, I would have advised him to keep his feelings a secret, then he would not have had the unwanted pity that Nastenka must have felt for him. And he himself would not have felt guilty for making Nastenka worry about him, and their friendship would have remained pure and unsullied by knowledge of romantic feelings one had for the other.
To keep a friendship one has to be silent sometimes. Or even silence one’s heart.
Restraint is key.
Most people I know who love reading novels read at least two books a month. I could not, cannot do that. Excuses: (1) I prefer reading philosophical novels, which require more time (at least for my slow brain) to process, and (2) I have a job, a 4-year old son, and a husband and I do 95% of the housework.
This summer I took a break from reading the Russians (or just Russian, Dostoevsky) and read three “contemporary” (meaning the authors are still very much alive) books – a memoir and two novels. It is quite interesting to me how I chose to read the two novels after the memoir, and only later realized that there seemed to be a link in the order in which I read them.
The first book I read was “Three Brightnessess: The Quintessential Story of Learning Chinese And Falling in Love in China – Over and Over Again” by William Shoemaker. I read it because I know the author, had invited him to my class a couple of times to talk with my students about his short stories which I had let my students read, and promised him I would read his first book.
I enjoyed reading Will’s memoir because, having lived in China a long time, I can relate to the things he wrote about – the place, the people, the culture, what one can like or dislike about them. Several times while reading this book I laughed so hard, and I think that’s a good way to judge whether a writer is good or not – if he/she can make you cry or laugh.
Will speaks fluent Mandarin, dated Chinese women, has Chinese friends with whom he can speak Mandarin. And yet, I don’t think he has ever felt at home or that he belongs.
One of the things he said that resonated with me is this: “In China, no one waits. Nothing stays the same for long. You can try to understand the place, but anything you learn, the moment you learn it, becomes an artifact of the past. The thing that doesn’t change is the memory – the version of the place that you knew.”
If you’re thinking of moving to China or are interested in China or the Chinese culture especially as it is now, read Three Brightnesses.
The second book is called Lost in Translation by Nicole Mones. What attracted me to this book is the quotation from Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s book The Phenomenon of Man, right at the beginning of the book, which goes,
“Since the inner face of the world is manifest deep within our human consciousness, and there reflects upon itself, it would seem that we have only got to look at ourselves in order to understand the dynamic relationships existing between the within and without of things at a given point in the universe. In fact so to do is one of the most difficult of things.”
The novel is about a thirty-something American woman who is running away from her troubled past (being the beloved daughter of a racist politician), and wanting to start a new life and to find love (in the form of a Chinese man, had to be Chinese), in China. (Why is it so easy for Asian women like me to accept a relationship between a western man and an Asian woman, but we tend to be surprised or even shocked, incredulous when we hear of relationships between western women and Asian men? Well, I know my answer to that one, but I would really like to know how other Asian women think!)
The main character, Alice, being fluent in Chinese, works as translator in Beijing. She translates for an American archaeologist who is doing a research on the Peking Man. Being in China, the American archaeologist has no choice but to work with Chinese archaeologists, one of whom is Lin Shiyang whose main reason for joining the team is to be able to track his wife who was put in a labor camp in the northwest of China during the Cultural Revolution. Shiyang and Alice fall in love, but right after he finds out for sure that his wife died years ago in the camp, he also finds out about Alice’s promiscuities. But that’s not the ending. You will have to read it to find out how it all ends.
It’s a story within a story, as the writer leads us to the story between Pierre Teilhard de Chardin and Lucile Swan in the early 20th century, and the love story between Alice and Shiyang in the 21st century.
After reading this novel, I promised myself I would read The Phenomenon of Man.
But I ended up reading Forty Rules of Love by Elif Shafak, which, just like Lost in Translation is a story within a story. The main character in the 21st century is a 40-year old Jewish-American woman, Ella, married to a successful Jewish man and together they have three children, the eldest being in college and the youngest in elementary school. For twenty years she lived what seemed the peaceful and content life of the perfect wife and mother. But one day, she reads a book called Sweet Blasphemy written by a man called A.Z. Zahara, and this book changes her and her life forever. While we are reading about Ella and her life and her consequent meeting and falling in love with Aziz, we also get to read Sweet Blasphemy which is about the spiritual friendship between two Sufi mystics, Rumi and Shams of Tabrizi.
This novel contains so many quotable quotes all from Shams’s Forty Rules of Love. One of my favorites is
“There is only one way to be born into a new life: to die before death.”
In the novel, Ella’s new life entails leaving her husband (he was cheating on her anyway), and her three children, to be with a man she just met and whom she “loves”. I put love in quotation marks, because even after reading the novel and Sham’s Forty Rules of Love, I do not consider passion as love. How can you truly love somebody you just exchanged emails or text messages with? To finally meet that person and find he is even more interesting than the one you have been texting with may be very exciting indeed, but excitement does not equal love. And finally I cannot see any justification for leaving one’s children to pursue one’s happiness. Perhaps if the children are old enough to live without both parents. But for little children, I can only imagine the difficulty of growing up without both parents to guide you and make you feel secure in this world. But I have to say this, leaving a philandering husband is perfectly fine, (also the husband who forgets his wife’s birthday and their wedding anniversary, yeah!) I salute women who do so.
That said, I am grateful for this novel for introducing me to Sufism. I promised myself I would read more about Sufism, after reading about Pierre Teilhard de Chardin and the Phenomenon of Man, that is.
But Dostoevsky’s White Nights is calling….:)
What book are you reading?
“Mad Men: Tomorrowland (#4.13)” (2010)
Don Draper: I met somebody and… we’re engaged.
Faye Miller: Are you kidding me?
Don Draper: I know, I know. It’s a surprise. It was for me, too.
Faye Miller: Jesus. Who is she?
Don Draper: What’s the difference? I fell in love. I didn’t mean for this to happen. You’ve been very important to me.
Faye Miller: So you’re not going to put an ad in the “New York Times” saying you never liked me?
Don Draper: Faye.
Faye Miller: Well, I hope you’re very happy. And I hope she knows you only like the beginnings of things.
Quote Source: http://www.imdb.com/character/ch0303746/quotes
Two totally unrelated happenings I was a witness to today reminded me of this line from Faye. In fact I have never forgotten this line ever since I heard it because I think in relationships, everyone is guilty of this. Well, perhaps not everyone, but most people.
This morning in a restaurant, I sat at a table for two, and next to mine was a table for six and there sat a septuagenarian-looking couple. Instead of sitting directly across from each other or next to each other, they sat diagonally opposite each other, directly facing an empty seat. And they were just eating. In silence. Companionable silence, perhaps, but they seemed lost in their own thoughts. Only one time did the woman say something about the food without even looking at the man, and I just heard the man make a sound like “hmm.”
This scene was in sharp contrast to the text messages I was receiving from my friend, who has met somebody new whom he says he’s not interested in romantically, but who he cannot stop talking about. His excitement over a new person he has met (and this has happened several times in the few years I’ve known him) amuses me. I enjoy observing his reaction and understanding how men think, and reminiscing the times I, too, got excited about meeting somebody new.
When you meet somebody new that you like, you cannot stop thinking about them and getting in touch with them and telling your family, friends, and anyone who’s willing to listen, about how wonderful/cool/nice they are. To me, it’s like being in high school all over again, where every word that’s spoken (now, texted or posted on social media) by said person seems to be directed at you or is related to your “friendship”; every gesture or action seems to be a code you have to decipher (when, really, there is no hidden meaning whatsoever.)
Dr. Faye Miller, being a psychologist, must know that Don’s behavior or preference for beginnings is all too common. But knowledge does not equal acceptance, especially when that knowledge hurts our feelings.
I like exciting beginnings, but I can’t bear boring endings. I don’t like how after a few weeks of “friendship”, your “friend” acts like you don’t know each other. It’s something I experienced in my youth, and I often hear from young friends who ask “Why? What happened? What did I do?” Sigh. (It’s what you didn’t do.)
One thing I’m grateful for, being in my 40’s, is the wisdom to see through exciting beginnings. Most of them don’t last. But one can work on it, I guess. They don’t have to have a boring ending. I know I wouldn’t want my husband and I to end up not looking at each other anymore, or worse, not talking. After 9 years, we still talk a lot about the things we both are interested in, and laugh at ourselves and at each other in a loving way.
I would not trade that for an exciting beginning that has an uncertain ending.
May you always have exciting beginnings that won’t have boring endings! 🙂