Wednesday, 28 May 2008

A General Forum on The Blind Assassin

Yesterday the weather was gray and the mood around here was melancholy. Big daughter was in Spain, playing in the sunshine. Sigmund was in Rotterdam, for the usual "meetings." Little daughter and I were stuck at home.

Little daughter was in a funk as she had lots of "revision" for her upcoming exams. (Brief aside: "revision" is the English word for homework. The word bugs me, as it is not very accurate. Really, it should be called "memorization.")

When you are depressed, and the weather is off-putting, and you have way too much homework, there is an obvious solution: Procrastinate by making a big bowl of popcorn and watching a well-loved movie! Little Women was the movie of choice, and it was so good that we watched our favorite bits at least twice!

Even though I've read the book at least a dozen times, and watched the movie almost as many, the story can still work its magic on me. I'm on the verge of blubbing at least four or five times, and I enjoy watching the story unfold -- even though I know what's going to happen. In this particular version, there is the added bonus of Gabriel Byrne as Friedrich Bhaer -- even though I know that he is really too good-looking for the role. (Another aside: Although it doesn't exist in the book, I cannot help swooning at the scene in the movie when Jo and Mr. Bhaer visit the opera together. He translates the following words for her, making it obvious from his intense gaze that they have personal meaning: Your heart understood mine. In the depth of the fragrant night, I listened with ravished soul to your beloved voice. Your heart understood mine. I put it to you: Can you think of any words more beautiful or romantic?)

So you may be thinking . . . I thought that this was going to be about The Blind Assassin? And what the heck do these two works of fiction have in common? Well, I can think of two things at least: they are both about sisters, and they both have a war lurking in the background. Of course there are lots of differences, too -- but here's the big one for me: the characters in Little Women are like real people to me, and I care about them. Laura and Iris from The Blind Assassin? Well, I never really could believe in them.

A characterological reading of a story -- or, understanding a story through identification with the characters -- is a pretty unsophisticated way to read a book. And yet, when I think about the books that I really, truly love I have to admit that the characters do play a huge role in making the story seem alive, seem real, seem relevant.

So many dead people at the beginning of The Blind Assassin -- and yet, the process of "solving" the mystery of their deaths did not make them seem one jot more real or alive to me. I kept waiting for the story to "start;" but now I see that I waiting for the moment when I felt truly engaged. My final analysis: I enjoyed it in parts; I admired the writing; but I always retained a feeling of distance, of detachment -- at times, even of disinterest.

I would really like to know what the rest of the "Assassin" readers think.

I also want to examine these questions:
Did the science fiction narrative serve any true purpose in the story?
Is the title a good one?
Did everyone guess that the different narrative voices were actually all the same person?

And whatever else you want to talk about, of course.


Brave Sir Robin said...


Seeing as I have not yet finished Blind Assassin and therefore cannot contribute anything of value to the discussion, I will say that I adored little Women (the book), and I must have read it at least 8 or 9 times. in fact, along with The Little Princess, it was one of the "girlie" books of my childhood that could never get enough of.

When I was in high school, I had a copy of little women on my bedside table one day when a potential girlfriend came over. She picked it up, and I was mortified that she had seen it, until she said, "Oh I loved this book! I haven't read it in years, can I borrow it when you're done?"

I dated her for a long time.

Alyson said...

Sorry, I have nothing to add about the book as I have not yet read it either.

I will say that I completely agree with you about "Little Women" - the book and the movie. I'm actually planning a visit to Louisa May Alcott's house very soon.

Bitty said...

I will say more later because I am bone-weary, but you might put a spoiler alert in there somewhere as you segue from Little Womento Assassin for those who haven't read/finished the book yet.

A few words, however, easily spilled, about LW:

1. My daughter's name -- her real name -- is Amy. I'd never heard the name before I read LW at about age 12. (I guess Amy wasn't a hot name when I was a kid.) When I first met my best friend and we were exchanging info about ourselves, I told her my daughter's name. She said, "Oh? As in Little Women?" :)

2. BSR learned early how to attract the right kind of women. ;)

Just a Plane Ride Away said...

I love Little Women and The Little Princess (and the Secret Garden).

The words from the LW opera (I must get that movie!) are romantic, but Austen's "You pierce my soul" gets me every time :-)

Brave Sir Robin said...

BSR learned early how to attract the right kind of women. ;)


Ahh Cruel Irony! Thy name is Bitty's comment!!

If only Bitty, If only.


Bitty said...

BSR: Perhaps you have not yet come across the right kind of women.

Or you need to carry around a copy of Little Women.

Anne said...

It's pretty clear to me that the sci-fi narrative was meant to parallel Iris's own story, but I'm not convinced that it added much to the overall story. I thought from the beginning that the flashback voice and the present-day voice were the same, but it took me a while to be certain that the sci-fi narrative voice was hers as well.

Was the title fitting? Perhaps. I can see it... but for me, the jury's still out on whether or not it was a good title.

As far as romantic words go, the text of "O Soave Fanciulla" (of La Boheme) takes the cake for me. "In te ravviso il sogno ch'io vorrei sempre sognar!" translates roughly as "in you I see the dream I'd like to dream forever," followed by some trembling in his soul and extraordinary sweetness and so on. It's better in Italian, and of course it helps to hear Pavarotti (in his heyday) sing it--that aria always gives me goosebumps.

maurinsky said...

Little Women is my older daughter's favorite book, and one I read frequently as a child. The characters felt very real to me because I have three sisters, and we were all very similar to a March sister, almost perfectly tracking by birth order.

I'm Jo, of course. My older sister Theresa is totally a Meg, nearly always sensible; my sister Kathleen is Amy, she's the great beauty in our family and has matured into a lovely woman after being a rather bratty child; and Bernadette is our Beth: she's not a total invalid, but she suffers from a severe case of Juvenile Rheumatoid Arthritis, still lives at home with our parents, and will need to be cared for for the rest of her life.

That particular version of the movie is why my older daughter has decided that she will definitely have the hymn "For The Beauty of the Earth" at her wedding.

The scene at the opera is definitely swoon-worthy.

I cannot comment on The Blind Assassin because I have woefully failed to even begin the Booker Challenge.

Sarah Laurence Blog said...

Sorry, Bee, I must add my voice to those above who haven't read Assassin and from your description have little desire to do so. Such a shame as Atwood's other novels were so good and rich in character. She usually writes so well so don't give up on her.

As a writer I am happy to hear your view on character. For me a novel always starts with the characters - I need to get to know them before they can tell their story. When I finish writing a book, I miss them - they feel as real to me as old friends.

Great to hear in your earlier post that you visited an independent bookstore and bought current fiction. I'll be curious to hear what you make of them. All your walking sounds intense but for a good cause. It does sound like the nice part of being English - the gardening, country walks - is taking root. As for the weather - I agree - totally dismal. Such a waste of vacation week. I left Devon/Cornwall early in muddy dismay.

BTW revision stands for both homework and studying for exams. I know as my daughter just took year 6 SATs and my son is "revising" over vacation for his 3rd form exams which are huge.

Maurinsky, that's touching how Little Women has become your family's story on such a personal level.

Sir Rob, that is the sweetest story about young love - both for books and between readers.

Bee said...

Well, apparently what we all have in common is that we are "Little Women" lovers!!

Did you know that "Little Women" is considered the first "adolescent" book to be published? It was really revolutionary for its time -- although it seems to be the sweetest, homiest, most comforting book to us now.

Maybe Bitty is right: You should carry a copy around with you and see if you can "pull" another LW lover.

I would LOVE to visit Alcott's house. How far is Concord from NH do you figure? Alcott's family were fascinating; in fact, I find that era of philosophy(transcendentalism)to be fascinating.

I tried not to be too spoiling, but I will go back and add a spoiler alert.
Your Amy story reminded me of an interesting anecdote that I had forgotten -- and one that bizarrely ties LW and Atwood together.
When I was in college, I met Atwood -- along with someone called "Amy" -- at a reception. (My real name is Beth, as you know.) Atwood said to us, "All we need is a Jo and a Meg and we will have all of the little women!)

You picked one of my favorite all-time scenes!! (Love, love, love Ciaran Hinds as Captain Wentworth.) In fact, "Persuasion" is my all-time favorite Austen novel. Funnily enough, I was in Bath yesterday . . . visiting the Jane Austen Centre; and I watched "Miss Austen Regrets" last night. I WILL be writing on that, of course, when time permits. I am off to Oxford today.

You also picked some gorgeously romantic words! I declare a three-place tie.

I am going to post again about the Blind Assassin issues.

You are so lucky to have sisters!! (How fascinating that you align so perfectly with the March sisters.)

I always felt sad that I didn't have any sisters -- and I tend to be attracted to books that examine that relationship.

"For the Beauty of the Earth" IS beautiful.

I should clarify about Atwood, I guess. I have read LOTS of Atwood's work, and generally like her. In fact, I found "Cat's Eye" enthralling. I thought the character of Iris had an interesting voice, but all of the other characters (filtered through Iris's perceptions, we realize) seemed like cardboard cut-outs. Perhaps that was the point, but I didn't like that aspect.

We are on our way to Oxford today! Maybe I will see you at the Trout!

Alyson said...

It depends on where you are in NH, but it can't be far. I heard that she used the home in Concord as the model for the home in "Little Women". So it should be fascinating to see. said...

I know I'm late on the comments for this post but I think that "revision" has to do with reviewing previously learned information and the "homework" revision is with the intention of re-iterating previous studies. The British system puts a huge amount of emphasis on exams and learning to study for exams is an inherent part of the educational curriculm. It's a lot of pressure from a pretty early age here in the UK.

But, back to literature. I gave up on the Blind Assasin (or as a friend of mine misspelled in a protracted email exchange about it the "Bling Assassin"). I too love Margaret Atwood and am a big fan of a lot of her work but this...Just couldn't get into it.

Love, love Little Women. Also, as mentioned the Secret Garden. I'm reading the latter to my middle daughter at the moment and though I find the accents hard to do we are both really enjoying the story. Little Women is on-deck. It's the nice thing about having kids is getting to re-visit some of my favourity childhood stories.

Sarah Laurence Blog said...

Bee, next time you're heading to the Trout or similar let me know. My e-mail contact form is on my website. It would be fun to meet up while I'm still here. I move back to the USA July 14. Tonight hubbie and kids just got back from Devon.

Bee said...

Yes, I think that "Little Women" as autobiographical in most ways. I have a book on Alcott's father that I need to get around to reading.

Let me know how it is if you decide to go! In the meantime, I am going to try to make time to visit Jane Austen's last home -- which only an hour from me.

It really is a pleasure to reread your childhood favorites with your own children. We've been going through the "Little House" books. The best childhood books are all pleasurable adult reads, too, I find.

I'm glad that I wasn't the only person to form a dislike to "Assassin!" It was better in the last 200 pages, though . . . if you didn't mind reading 300 pages first!

I will happily MAKE time to visit you in Oxford! We should compare "diaries."