Sunday. A dark day at noon. The snow and rain were both falling at once, a scene almost reminiscent of Dostoevsky’s St. Petersburg, but this was Toronto in April. At the corner of Bloor and Bay, I spotted this lonely glove – probably one of the last orphaned gloves of this winter – and again I felt a bit sad: gloves should have come in pairs; they take care and are expected to be taken care of by a pair of hands. But everyday in Toronto’s winter I spot lonely gloves abandoned by careless hands and lying desperately at street corners. I always wanted to take pictures of them and keep an album as their virtual funeral home. However, in the end, this is the only picture I took this winter.

The last paragraph and its sentimentality do come as mannered and unnatural, but it is so only because I, an anonymous person, put them into words – and words are things, words are objects,  words are inevitably artificial. It takes a real artist to unify “objective” lyricism with philosophical aloofness.

There are two ways: aesthetics of anecdotes and aesthetics of drama.  Feng Zikai’s art belongs to the former category, probably consistent with a Chinese tradition. In relating his failure to go into details, Feng said:

“At times a vague and fleeting vision would appear before me. I would take up my brush and immediately set to capturing it in ink, but I would only manage to sketch an outline before the vision faded. All I had caught on paper was a rough impression; the face [of the figure depicted] would be incomplete. But that is why it was a true expression of my vision, and there was no need to add any more details. Once I tried altering a painting that I had done some earlier, but I only succeeded in making a very different picture from the original that had come to me; the painting was ruined.” (see Geremie R. Barmé An Artistic Exile: A Life of Feng Zikai)

Realism (or naturalism), I believe, is the result of dramatic passions very particular to the time and space they are allowed to be practised. Feng Zikai claimed an disinterest in and ignorance of science,  but he did manage to depict objects sympathetically, either in image or in words. His feelings are those of small ones, and they show up in his art as humorous anecdotes, but I doubt he is very far from Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey where gothic architecture and myriads of details are ruled by drama, passion and history but come down to lyric humor of modern life.

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Ode on Solitude
Alexander Pope 

Happy the man, whose wish and care
A few paternal acres bound,
Content to breathe his native air,
In his own ground.

Whose herds with milk, whose fields with bread,
Whose flocks supply him with attire,
Whose trees in summer yield him shade,
In winter fire.

Blest! who can unconcern’dly find
Hours, days, and years slide soft away,
In health of body, peace of mind,
Quiet by day,

Sound sleep by night; study and ease
Together mixed; sweet recreation,
And innocence, which most does please,
With meditation.

Thus let me live, unseen, unknown;
Thus unlamented let me dye;
Steal from the world, and not a stone
Tell where I lye.

The impression the second rendition gives is probably closer to truth, for Alexander Pope wrote the poem before he was 12 (although I’m not sure if the poet was also a jock).  Child prodigy, it seems, besides a natural talent for technical command, could also possess profundity in thoughts and feelings.

It’s not all that surprising really, considering developmental psychology is regarded by some as microcosm of the evolution of human thoughts. Somehow, we already know all we are about to know. Empiricism is inevitably rooted in its poetic gene. After all, outside the realm of natural sciences and engineering, who would claim with full confidence that we are smarter than the ancients who lived more than 2000 years ago?

There is poetry, and there is prose. There are child prodigies, and there are those who “come to terms” late in their lives. As it happens, Stendhal is said to be ashamed of his youthful attempts to write poetry, and Leo Tolstoy is said to hold contempt for those who wrote poems only because they could not think clearly and who could not do anything more useful.

In the Milos Forman film Amadeus, an adaptation of Peter Shaffer’s play about Salieri, Mozart is portrayed as a goofy genius with silly laughs. This  image is probably as false as the senile portrait of Alexander Pope above – you only have to listen to the subtle sadness in his Symphony No. 1, written when he was about 9:

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None in Russian

Dostoevsky has not been particularly well-served on big screen, despite the dramatic and sometimes melodramatic nature of his stories and novels . Well-known adaptations are few and far between. A snapshot of shows that by votes the top five Dostoevsky films are: Bresson’s Pickpocket (1959), based on Crime and Punishment; a certain Saawariya (2007), a Bollywood musical based on White Night; Visconti’s Le notti bianche (1957), again based on White Night; Kurosawa’s The Idiot (1951), and finally Richard Brooks’ The Brothers Karamazov (1958).

Conspicuously, all five films were made outside Russia in five different foreign languages: French, Hindi, Italian, Japanese and English. Except for the Brooks’ film, all of them transplanted the stories from Russia to their respective lands. Excluding the Bollywood musical, all other four adaptations were made in the 1950s by major directors of the time.

It’s likely that the absence of Russian adaptations is partially due to’s Western-centric world view: some good old Soviet films are simply not documented. Leaving this issue aside, among the five adaptations by well-known filmmakers, I suspect there is only one true masterpiece: Bresson’s Pickpocket.

Bresson’s film is at the same time most un-Dostoevskian and the most Dostoevskian. Un-Dostoevskian, because of its ultimate simplicity in style and because of its silence. Dostevsky’s chaotic ramblings and psychological imbalance are replaced by a very French sense of serene classicism that climaxes in the passionate finale. The film is first of all French and Bresson, then it’s Dostoevsky. But its Dostoevskian nature is not to be underestimated: the painful converge of the high and the low, the traumatic existence of poor gentry in inner cities, an upward society that is looking confusedly for a dignified way to express herself in the most sincere way … all those Dostoevskian elements find their perfect expression in this Bresson film. Is the film really as quiet as it looks? No! Look and listen– behind all those shadows, gestures, serious looks and bright eyes, there are waves of passionate yearnings.

Admittedly, among other three adaptations, I have only watched the Visconti version of White Night. As with most of his other films, this is a disaster. Visconti is probably one of the most overrated filmmakers. The only spontaneous work he made is his early comedy, Bellissima. The rest can be used to define the word “cheesiness”.

I skipped a recent local screening of Kurosawa’s Idiot for two reasons. First of all, I’m currently reading the book (Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky’s translation). Secondly, I think all Kurosawa’s non-Samurai films (Ikiru, High and Low, Dersu, Uzala, etc.) are overrated bland fares, although whenever they are screened, here in Toronto the audience would give a round of warm applause – it seems there is still market for grandstanding. Kurosawa is good at “big talks”. Dostoevsky’s strength, however, lies in his “small talks”.

I’m an admirer of Richard Brooks’ Elmer Gantry and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. But those two films are quintessentially American. How is his Dostoevsky adaptation? I could not tell at the moment.

All those films appeared in the 1950s. At this point, Cinema, being a young art, reaches modernity. Can Dostoevsky survive on the new screen? It’s still too early to tell.

, latest New Yorker published Helen Simpson’s story, Diary of an Interesting Year. A rather typical apocalypse story, geographically centering on London, England. Nothing new in terms of conception: it is just part of the environmental focus of the whole magazine issue, echoing the ongoing Copenhagen Conference. What interests me is the story’s terse conversational language. At the risk of being accused of sexism, or “reverse sexism”, I would point out that women authors tend to use less pompous and livelier language. Here is an example from this story:

       We met a pig this morning. It was a bit thin for a pig, and it didn’t look well. G. said, “Quick! We’ve got to kill it.”

       “Why?” I said, “How?”

       “With a knife,” he said. “Bacon. Sausages.”

As a male reader, another thing I find extraordinarily rewarding when reading first-person stories by a woman writer, is the opportunity to indulge myself in the feminine psyche. That’s probably one of the many reasons why I love Jane Austen so much.

Three other woman writers I would like to talk about in the near future is: Alice Munro and her new collection, Too Much Happiness; Beatrix Beck and her French Resistance novel I read recently, Morin, the Priest (translated as The Passionate Heart) ; and Marjorie Rawlings and my childhood favorite, The Yearlings.

The best humor is probably the self-depreciating ones, and Englishmen are good at it. Ian McEwan’s new story The Use of Poetry 98t/24/huty/12467/06in last week’s The New Yorker can be read as such: Michael Beard, an Oxford student of sciences, who later “won Nobel Prize in physics”, is an apparent philistine and cares little about arts and poetry. Yet, being a big fat man with strong lust for life, especially the love of women, and equipped with superior intelligence, he makes himself more or less a Milton scholar in the process of pursuing a “dirty” and pretty Oxford girl who majors in English and specializes in Milton. In the end, Beard knows more about Milton than this girl does – and as it turns out, in many ways, he has a more poetic and sentimental personality.

For me, this nice little story demonstrates a kind of ongoing anxiety those who study humanities may have: all their high thinking is no match for a scientific philistine’s logic mind, or a common folk’s vulgar lust;  purity of heart is not a prerequisite for truth-seeking.

I call the story self-depreciating because Ian McEwan studied English at college. Besides, being a graduate of the University of Sussex, he writes about Oxford.