From the author of bizzare and amazing “The Moustache”, and the frightening “The Adversary”, this non-fiction novel, a blend of biography and auto-biography, is a kind of good idea: using the lives of others, those who undergo life changing experiences, such as finding themselves victims of the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami, to reflect on their own lives and relationships, as well as tracking the effect of the lives of these others on his own life, his approach to relationships and life in general. That this is non-fiction is definitive: this is not merely a novel based on true events. There is something about the fact that this is based on what really happened, and what was happening, to the author, that render it something else completely. Another interesting read from the best French author you’ve probably never heard of (according to The Guardian).
There may be no more a macabrely misogynistic sentence in English literature than Edgar Allan Poe’s contention that “the death… of a beautiful woman” is “unquestionably the most poetical topic in the world.” (His perhaps ironic observation prompted Sylvia Plath to write, over a hundred years later, “The woman is perfected / Her dead / Body wears the smile of accomplishment.”) The sentence comes from Poe’s 1846 essay “The Philosophy of Composition,” and if this work were only known for its literary fetishization of what Elisabeth Bronfen calls “an aesthetically pleasing corpse”—marking deep anxieties about both “female sexuality and decay”—then it would indeed still be of interest to feminists and academics, though not perhaps to the average reader.
But Poe has much more to say that does not involve a romance with dead women. The essay delivers on its title’s promise. It is here that we find Poe’s famous theory of what good literature is and does, achieving what he calls “unity of effect.” This literary “totality” results from a collection of essential elements that the author deems indispensable in “constructing a story,” whether in poetry or prose, that produces a “vivid effect.”
To illustrate what he means, Poe walks us through an analysis of his own work, “The Raven.” We are to take for granted as readers that “The Raven” achieves its desired effect. Poe has no misgivings about that. But how does it do so? Against commonplace ideas that writers “compose by a species of fine frenzy—an ecstatic intuition,” Poe has not “the least difficulty in recalling to mind the progressive steps of any of my compositions”—steps he considers almost “mathematical.” Nor does he consider it a “breach of decorum” to pull aside the curtain and reveal his tricks. Below, in condensed form, we have listed the major points of Poe’s essay, covering the elements he considers most necessary to “effective” literary composition.
- Know the ending in advance, before you begin writing.
“Nothing is more clear,” writes Poe, “than that every plot, worth the name, must be elaborated to its dénouement before any thing be attempted with the pen.” Once writing commences, the author must keep the ending “constantly in view” in order to “give a plot its indispensable air of consequence” and inevitability.
- Keep it short—the “single sitting” rule.
Poe contends that “if any literary work is too long to be read at one sitting, we must be content to dispense with the immensely important effect derivable from unity of impression.” Force the reader to take a break, and “the affairs of the world interfere” and break the spell. This “limit of a single sitting” admits of exceptions, of course. It must—or the novel would be disqualified as literature. Poe cites Robinson Crusoe as one example of a work of art “demanding of no unity.” But the single sitting rule applies to all poems, and for this reason, he writes, Milton’s Paradise Lost fails to achieve a sustained effect.
- Decide on the desired effect.
The author must decide in advance “the choice of impression” he or she wishes to leave on the reader. Poe assumes here a tremendous amount about the ability of authors to manipulate readers’ emotions. He even has the audacity to claim that the design of the “The Raven” rendered the work “universally appreciable.” It may be so, but perhaps it does not universally inspire an appreciation of Beauty that “excites the sensitive soul to tears”—Poe’s desired effect for the poem.
- Choose the tone of the work.
Poe claims the highest ground for his work, though it is debatable whether he was entirely serious. As “Beauty is the sole legitimate province of the poem” in general, and “The Raven” in particular, “Melancholy is thus the most legitimate of all poetical tones.” Whatever tone one chooses, however, the technique Poe employs, and recommends, likely applies. It is that of the “refrain”—a repeated “key-note” in word, phrase, or image that sustains the mood. In “The Raven,” the word “Nevermore” performs this function, a word Poe chose for its phonetic as much as for its conceptual qualities.
Poe claims that his choice of the Raven to deliver this refrain arose from a desire to reconcile the unthinking “monotony of the exercise” with the reasoning capabilities of a human character. He at first considered putting the word in the beak of a parrot, then settled on a Raven—“the bird of ill omen”—in keeping with the melancholy tone.
- Determine the theme and characterization of the work.
Here Poe makes his claim about “the death of a beautiful woman,” and adds, “the lips best suited for such topic are those of a bereaved lover.” He chooses these particulars to represent his theme—“the most melancholy,” Death. Contrary to the methods of many a writer, Poe moves from the abstract to the concrete, choosing characters as mouthpieces of ideas.
- Establish the climax.
In “The Raven,” Poe says, he “had now to combine the two ideas, of a lover lamenting his deceased mistress and a Raven continuously repeating the word ‘Nevermore.’” In bringing them together, he composed the third-to-last stanza first, allowing it to determine the “rhythm, the metre, and the length and general arrangement” of the remainder of the poem. As in the planning stage, Poe recommends that the writing “have its beginning—at the end.”
- Determine the setting.
Though this aspect of any work seems the obvious place to start, Poe holds it to the end, after he has already decided why he wants to place certain characters in place, saying certain things. Only when he has clarified his purpose and broadly sketched in advance how he intends to acheive it does he decide “to place the lover in his chamber… richly furnished.” Arriving at these details last does not mean, however, that they are afterthoughts, but that they are suggested—or inevitably follow from—the work that comes before. In the case of “The Raven,” Poe tells us that in order to carry out his literary scheme, “a close circumscription of space is absolutely necessary to the effect of insulated incident.”
Throughout his analysis, Poe continues to stress—with the high degree of repetition he favors in all of his writing—that he keeps “originality always in view.” But originality, for Poe, is not “a matter, as some suppose, of impulse or intuition.” Instead, he writes, it “demands in its attainment less of invention than negation.” In other words, Poe recommends that the writer make full use of familiar conventions and forms, but varying, combining, and adapting them to suit the purpose of the work and make them his or her own.
Though some of Poe’s discussion of technique relates specifically to poetry, as his own prose fiction testifies, these steps can equally apply to the art of the short story. And though he insists that depictions of Beauty and Death—or the melancholy beauty of death—mark the highest of literary aims, one could certainly adapt his formula to less obsessively morbid themes as well.
It’s not Borges.
“…the title story …is one of the most moving I have ever read, a testament to both the power and the weakness of literature and human memory; it’s both an elegy and a howl of impotence, resonating in more dimensions than the two of the printed page. It tells of how a scholar on a cultural visit to Sweden is let into a library late at night in Stockholm (after a performance of August Strindberg’s The Ghost Sonata; I think that’s significant). There, she finds a volume in which her father’s entire life is written, even though he had died only two months before. There is every conceivable detail:
As for my father’s military service, the book traces the marches he took with the Fifth Infantry stationed in Maribor, and specifies the names and ranks of the officers and NCOs and the names of the men in his barracks, the quality of the food in his mess, a knee injury sustained in a night march, a reprimand received for losing a glove, the name of the cafe at which he celebrated his transfer to Poñarevac.
“There is also a key principle: “The only condition … for inclusion in The Encyclopedia of the Dead is that no one whose name is included here may appear in any other encyclopedia.” In other words, it is a profoundly democratic undertaking; and only someone who was of a thoroughly democratic spirit, someone who could recognise, and not only in theory or abstract, the importance of every single individual, could have thought of it. Its egalitarianism is such that those who have already made their mark on history, or think they have, have no need to be included.
“Which might shed light on how Kiš felt about history, and what the people who made history thought of him. He was born almost as an incarnation of central Europeanness on a train running from Hungary to Yugoslavia, in 1935, according to one story. The son of an assimilated Hungarian Jew (from the same town as James Joyce’s Leopold Bloom’s ancestors) and a Serbian Orthodox mother, he was never easy to pin down in terms of political or national allegiances, only in his commitment to freedom. Kiš was due to win a prize for the first story in this collection, “Simon Magus”, until a party official suspected it might be an anti-communist satire. (If it is, it is many other things, too, the most important being that it is a humdinger. Based on a gnostic story about a heretic itinerant preacher, it is a parable that both courts and yet firmly resists interpretation, which is something that can be said for much of his work.) He died in Paris in 1989, at only 54.
“This country does not need the censor to make an author unknown or forgotten, so Penguin must be congratulated for bringing him back into our ken. Kiš was one of the greats of the century, not just an original mind but a compassionate one, too, and capable, as he is with this collection, of reinventing and invigorating the short story.”
Some of the stories are magical and intruiging – real works of art. But some a little tedious. He is not Luis Borges, but it’s hard to read him and think of him as anything other than falling short of Borges.
The Guardian goes on… “He owed much to Jorge Luis Borges, and acknowledged it; but there’s something warmer about Kiš, something that for all its intelligence knows more the pain of being human. He is one of those writers you feel is on your side.”
There is though a very interesting story based on the infamous antisemetic tract “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion” called “The Book of Kings and Fools”, which is interesting for how it deconstructs how such works sneak into the murky edges of our culture/society/literature.
Overall – interesting, and at times exciting.
If nothing else, Beard acknowledges that writing history is a business fraught with difficulty and laden with dangers. Everything we know about Rome is probably wrong, and yes, I know a lot more of it now. But hey ho. At least this large book also provides an interesting insight into how history is always being rewritten – a case in point being what we know of the Roman Kings before the Republic: most of it having been made up by those writing in the time of the republic, and latterly (kings were always a no-no in Rome subsequently – better a dictator – which is perfectly ok). However, when it comes to the history of the republic itself, which ran up until the dictatorship of Julius Cesare, it seems that later commentators were just as keen to present it as positively as possible (aka lying) – but was the Roman Republic a time of great freedom and a peak in Western civilisation? No. Were the emperors which followed it for the next 200 years so blood thirsty, mad and cruel? No. What was it like to be a woman in Rome in 200BCE? Did Nero fiddle while Rome burnt? Was Agustus the saviour of Roman civilisation? No one will ever know. But it was interesting to learn, or recall the myths, just as they were being punctured on the page in front of me.
Over the years, we’ve featured a large number of literary works that have been wonderfully re-imagined by animators. Rather than leaving these works buried in the archives, we’re bringing them back and putting them all on display. And what better place to start than with a foundational text — Plato’s Republic. We were tempted to show you a claymation version of the seminal philosophical work (watch here), but we decided to go instead with Orson Welles’ 1973 narration of The Cave Allegory, which features the surreal artistic work of Dick Oden.
Staying with the Greeks for another moment … This one may have Sophocles and Aeschylus spinning in their graves. Or, who knows, perhaps they would have enjoyed this bizarre twist on the Oedipus myth. Running eight minutes, Jason Wishnow’s 2004 film features vegetables in the starring roles.
http://rcm-na.amazon-adsystem.com/e/cm?o=1&p=12&l=ur1&category=audible&banner=1KNMQ6Z91A8KDJ552HG2&f=ifr&lc=pf4&linkID=71b928b0f5e8aaaedd1e4fcd5612159c&t=openculture-20&tracking_id=openculture-20One of the first stop-motion films shot with a digital still camera, Oedipus took two years to make with a volunteer staff of 100. The film has since been screened at 70+ film festivals and was eventually acquired by the Sundance Channel. Separate videos show you the behind-the-scenes making of the film, plus the storyboards used during production.
Eight years before Piotr Dumala tackled Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, the Russian animator produced a short animated film based on The Diaries of Franz Kafka. Once again, you can see his method, known as “destructive animation,” in action. It’s well worth the 16 minutes. Or you can spend time with this 2007 Japanese animation of Kafka’s cryptic tale of “A Country Doctor.” And if you’re still hankering for animated Kafka, don’t miss The Metamorphosis of Mr. Samsa (Caroline Leaf’s sand animation from 1977) and also Orson Welles’ narration of the Parable, “Before the Law.” The latter film was made by Alexander Alexeieff and Claire Parker, who using a technique called pinscreen animation, created a longer film adaptation of Nikolai Gogol’s story, “The Nose.” You can view it here.
The animated sequence above is from the 1974 film adaptation of Herman Hesse’s 1927 novel Steppenwolf. In this scene, the Harry Haller character played by Max von Sydow reads from the “Tractate on the Steppenwolf.” The visual imagery was created by Czech artist Jaroslav Bradác.
In 1999, Aleksandr Petrov won the Academy Award for Short Film (among other awards) for a film that follows the plot line of Ernest Hemingway’s classic novella,The Old Man and the Sea (1952). As noted here, Petrov’s technique involves painting pastels on glass, and he and his son painted a total of 29,000 images for this work. (For another remarkable display of their talents, also watch his adaptation of Dostoevsky’s “The Dream of a Ridiculous Man”.) The Old Man and the Sea is permanently listed in our collection of Oscar Winning Films Available Online and our collection of 1150 Free Movies Online.
Italo Calvino, one of Italy’s finest postwar writers, published Italian Folktales in 1956, a series of 200 fairy tales based sometimes loosely, sometimes more strictly, on stories from a great folk tradition. Upon the collection’s publication, The New York Times named Italian Folktales one of the ten best books of the year. And more than a half century later, the stories continue to delight. Case in point: in 2007, John Turturro, the star of numerous Coen brothers and Spike Lee films, began working on Fiabe italiane, a play adapted from Calvino’s collection of fables. The animated video above features Turturro reading “The False Grandmother,” Calvino’s reworking of Little Red Riding Hood. Kevin Ruelle illustrated the clip, which was produced as part of Flypmedia’s more extensive coverage of Turturro’s adaptation. You can find another animation of a Calvino story (The Distance of the Moon) here.
Emily Dickinson’s poetry is widely celebrated for its beauty and originality. To celebrate her birthday (it just recently passed us by) we bring you this little film of her poem, “I Started Early–Took My Dog,” from the “Poetry Everywhere” series by PBS and the Poetry Foundation. The poem is animated by Maria Vasilkovsky and read by actress Blair Brown.
E.B. White, beloved author of Charlotte’s Web, Stuart Little, and the classic English writing guide The Elements of Style, died in 1985. Not long before his death, he agreed to narrate an adaptation of “The Family That Dwelt Apart,” a touching story he wrote for The New Yorker. The 1983 film was animated by the Canadian director Yvon Malette, and it received an Oscar nomination.
Shel Silverstein wrote The Giving Tree in 1964, a widely loved children’s book now translated into more than 30 languages. It’s a story about the human condition, about giving and receiving, using and getting used, neediness and greediness, although many finer points of the story are open to interpretation. Today, we’re rewinding the videotape to 1973, when Silverstein’s little book was turned into a 10 minute animated film. Silverstein narrates the story himself and also plays the harmonica.
During the Cold War, one American was held in high regard in the Soviet Union, and that was Ray Bradbury. A handful of Soviet animators demonstrated their esteem for the author by adapting his short stories. Vladimir Samsonov directed Bradbury’s Here There Be Tygers, which you can see above. And here you can see another adaptation of “There Will Come Soft Rains.”
The online bookseller Good Books created an animated mash-up of the spirits of Franz Kafka and Hunter S. Thompson. Under a bucket hat, behind aviator sunglasses, and deep into an altered mental state, our narrator feels the sudden, urgent need for a copy of Kafka’s Metamorphosis. Unwilling to make the purchase in “the great river of mediocrity,” he instead makes the buy from “a bunch of rose-tinted, willfully delusional Pollyannas giving away all the money they make — every guilt-ridden cent.” The animation, created by a studio called Buck, should easily meet the aesthetic demands of any viewer in their own altered state or looking to get into one.
39 Degrees North, a Beijing motion graphics studio, started developing an unconventional Christmas card several years ago. And once they got going, there was no turning back. Above, we have the end result – an animated version of an uber dark Christmas poem (read text here) written by Neil Gaiman, the bestselling author of sci-fi and fantasy short stories. The poem was published in Gaiman’s collection, Smoke and Mirrors.
This collaboration between filmmaker Spike Jonze and handbag designer Olympia Le-Tan doesn’t bring a particular literary tale to life. Rather this stop motion film uses 3,000 pieces of cut felt to show famous books springing into motion in the iconic Parisian bookstore, Shakespeare and Company. It’s called Mourir Auprès de Toi.
Other notables include: a two minute take on Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita; a 1977 experimental adaptation of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, which marries the classic engravings of Gustave Doré to an Orson Welles narration; and “Beer,” a mind-warping animation of Charles Bukowski’s 1971 poem honoring his favorite drink.
Are there impressive literary animations that didn’t make our list? Please let us know in the comments below. We’d love to know about them.