29 March 2009

The Ideal Reader/Viewer and Leonard Bast

E.M. Forster's Howards End is one of my favorite novels, though it isn't the first book I think of when people ask me what books I like. I have always been drawn to those books which are soaked in some kind of stark ideology on the absurdity or pain of life (Camus, Dostoevsky, Kafka) because I like the ideas. Even so, I find that many times my actual enjoyment of those works is heavily influenced by thinking about them rather than actually reading them. Often the style would be difficult or trying, needing supplementary aid in order for me to understand it. And yet when I read Howards End I found myself so easily pulled into the story, enjoying the characters without any resistance. On top of that, I found Forster had addressed profound ideas on class ideology, English society, and desire in a seemingly effortless way that didn't sacrfice the pleasure of reading. It reminds me of some quote I had read by Zadie Smith in which she says that there is always an author that we absolutely connect to in an intrinsic way -- the author for whom we are the ideal reader.

"Ideal reading is aspirational, like dating. It happens that I am E. M. Forster's
ideal reader, but I would much prefer to be Gustave Flaubert's or William
Gaddis's or Franz Kafka's or Borges's. But early on Forster and I saw how
we suited, how we fit, how we felt comfortable (too much so?) in each other"s
company. I am Forster's ideal reader because, I think, nothing that he left on
the page escapes me. Rightly or wrongly, I feel I get all h
is jokes and
appreciate his nuances, that I am as hurt by his flaws
as I am by my own,
and as pleased when he is great as I would be if I did something great. I
know Morgan. I know what he is going to say before he says it, as if we had
been married thirty years. But at the same time, I am never bored by him.
You might know three or four writers like this in your life, and likely as not,
you will meet them when you are very young. Understand: They are not the
writers you most respect, most envy, or even most enjoy. They are the ones
you know. So my advice is, choose them carefull
y so that people don"t roll
their eyes at you at parties (this happens to me a lot).
The definition of a genius might be the reader who is ide
al for
multiple writers, each of them as dazzling and distant from each other as
religions." - Zadie Smith

I don't know who my author is yet (though reading Lolita now, it may be Nabokov -- maybe Forster, maybe Raymond Carver) but I think I know who my director is.

My favorite director is Akira Kurosawa; or, I am his ideal viewer. My attachment to him and his films is almost automatic. He was a starting point into my exploration of world cinema and my general entrance into serious film studies/appreciation, but even after several years he remains my favorite. His films are almost always enjoyable (a high priority for Kurosawa) and is able to make use of highly artistic elements of cinema or deeply profound thought, but never at the sacrifice of enjoyment. Sometimes I wish I would be more attached to someone as uncompromisingly subversive as Godard or as radical as Altman, and I do love those directors, but many times my relationship with them is akin to my attraction to Camus and Kafka -- the enjoyment comes from thought rather than experience. This is an obvious conflict of avant-garde-inclined cinema/art, but I suppose I am always trying to understand why I am attracted to certain things, especially in the arts (I won't even get started on music). There is always an x-factor, which is frustrating when you try to lay things out in a logical way, but there it is. But anyway, I don't want to dwell on Kurosawa now, for this post is really about Howards End and the one fictional character with whom I feel most connected to: Leonard Bast.

Leonard Bast is a side character to the Schlegels and Wilcoxes in Howards End, and Forster acknowledges Bast's peripheral relationship to the central characters by saying:

"We are not concerned with the very poor. They are unthinkable, and only to be approached by the statistician or the poet. This story deals with gentlefolk, or with those who are obliged to pretend they are gentlefolk."

This is clearly tongue-in-cheek, undermining the focus on the rich when the poorer character is of infinitely greater interest and tragedy. Leonard is not desolately poor -- he is, I suppose, our equivalent of lower-middle-class -- which means he can see the abyss of poverty below him and the comfort of the rich above him, leaving him to desire and crave things he cannot have, which is really the curse of the middle class. Leonard reads books as escapism into fantasy but also in a desparate way -- in order to gain some education, wit, or insight relegated to the rich. "He hoped to come to Culture suddenly, much as Revivalist hopes to come to Jesus." He attends lectures on music in much the same way, working towards refinement and class. Around the rich he is both reverential and passively bitter; around his wife and the other poor he is empathetic and passively haughty.

I am attracted to Leonard in many ways, but mostly in his peripheral relationship to the world and those who get stories written about them. In Merchant-Ivory's beautiful, beautiful adaptation of Forster's novel (playing now for free on The Auteurs), Leonard Bast is a thin, forgettable young man with a thin mustache and bowler who lives with his Cockney wife in a shabby apartment next to a train track. The film has several fantasy sequences in which Leonard walks through a field of purple flowers as a V.O. narration has him reading from some piece of literature -- highlighting his romanticism and his need to escape. But when Leonard actually tries something like that in real life, walking through the forest until the dawn, he finds it disappointing.

"But was the dawn wonderful?" asked Helen.
With unforgettable sincerity he replied: "No."
..."The dawn was only grey, it was nothing to mention -"
"- and I was too tired to lift my head up to look at it, and so cold too. I'm glad I did it, and yet at the time it bored me more than I can say. And besides -- you can believe me or not as you choose -- I was very hungry."

His admittance of such a disappointment to the laughing Schlegel sisters (played wonderfully by Emma Thompson and Helena Bohnam Carter) is liberating for Leonard, but the content of such an admittance is terribly sad. Those things he wishes for, those romantic notions in his head, are not real; they cannot exist, for he is tired, cold, hungry, and poor. Later, he is out of a job due to the passing advice of millionaire Henry Wilcox, who later admits he was wrong about his advice but is not sorry for it. (How's that for relevence in today's economy and the massive losses due to the bad decisions and advice of the priveleged players on Wall Street?) Leonard's only fulfillment of a wish, making love with Helen Schlegel, ends up terminating his life -- but I suppose in the greater view of things his life was over from the beginning. Poor Leonard!

The film itself is a gorgeously-shot and faithful adaptation of the novel. The characters were fantastically realized and even Howards End itself, the name of a house between the country and the city, looked just as I imagined it while reading the novel. I suppose this type of cinema is simply pleasure cinema for me, transcending any ability or desire for me to think of it in critical terms. And I was especially grateful to see Leonard Bast on screen, a wonderful "side" character that in many ways reminds me of the fascinating Cecil Vyse in another Merchant-Ivory adaptation of Forster's A Room With a View. Cecil is not poor (in fact the very opposite), but despite his sincere intentions he simply does not fit into the grand scheme of things, a tragedy similar to Leonard's.

Who are those characters of fiction or film who only get a supporting role but who steal all of your attention and compassion? For whom are you the ideal reader/viewer?


Arthur said...

I like your blog Kazu. It's laid out really well and your writing is thought inspiring. The idea of an ideal reader is interesting. I suppose I'm still trying to find my ideal author. I think Kurt Vonnegut comes close but I want to read more of his work to be able to verify that feeling.

Spinoza comes close too.

I took a seminar on him at RU in my senior year. I finally had a philosopher I could point to and really say, "that's my dude." But I don't reach for his Ethics as pleasure reading. Learning the historical context of when he wrote and his courage to speak out against the status quo were things I learned in class to supplement the readings. Reading his works are pretty much mental calisthenics. I take him out once in a while to squeeze some mind juices.

DW said...

I don't know why it's posting as "Arthur"

DW said...

There it goes

kazu said...

Thanks Dan. I never studied philosophy, but I am very curious to know who I would resonate with most.