Archive for the ‘Autobiographical’ Category

Ekaterina Gordeeva and Sergei Grinkov: husband & wife, he died suddenly, age 28, of a heart attack during a practice workshop

Dear friends and readers,

I find irony in my reading, finding some shared thought, and now passing part of the night by writing about Didion’s A Year of Magical Thinking, which like, the apparently naive My Sergei: A Love Story tells of the sudden death of the author’s beloved husband. Some of the intense distress, exasperation and justified anger I have experienced the last two weeks derives from my husband’s death not having happened with the same single night or moment suddenness as Didion’s husband, John Gregory Dunne, and Gordeeva’s husband, Sergei. We’ve experienced 3 and 1/2 months of partial truths told us sufficiently to lead our natural desire to clutch at anything to escape malignant esophageal cancer, no matter how horrendous — like an operation to remove someone’s esophagus and re-arrange his digestive tract and other nearby organs which in itself has nothing whatever to do with what causes, spreads, contains, stops the cancer. And equally 3 and 1/2 months of many medical people’s carefully calibrated behavior controlled fundamentally by each person’s desire to protect & advantage his or her career/job while pretending some other motive paramount. From my vantage point today I almost (not quite) feel as I never thought I would before: as the blow was (as one begins to see as one reads) foreseeable, to fall, the four people (husbands & wives) were lucky to have it fall this way.

Didion, Dunne & their adopted daughter, Quintana (ca. 1970s)

Didion’s considered thesis throughout, and Gordeeva’s natural perspective (just at the outset of her book) is “life changes fast, Life changed in the instant.” This is the refrain of Didion’s book sudden instant transformation of everything upon the death of a beloved partner. As she well knows however (this is in the book) her thesis is thin. She tells of how for a year previously her husband had insights and hinted to her he felt he was at risk of death at any time — and that at least a year before he’d had a bad heart attack and was now living by using an implanted pace-maker. So (like say Causabon in Middlemarch or “young” Jolyon in To Let of the Forstye Saga) she did know he was in danger – or ought to have taken seriously a doctor’s outright warning.

Didion’s book is initially, and every time she recurs to the shock of the scene of Dunne’s sudden keeling over during dinner, powerful. Her book is recursive. She has two further traumatic sudden near deaths incidents to retell. Twice in the book her daughter comes near death: it escaped everyone that a viral infection of a few days before Xmas, because not x-rayed in the hospital the night Quintana came (as it ought to have been) was a serious flu which then (as Dunne said) morphed into an episode of pneumonia that came near killing Quintana too. Quintana later collapses on an airport tarmac as she is being triumphantly coming home; a paralyzing seizure nearly carries Quintana off. It’s one of those real shocks often talked of (“in comparison” to what we usually watch on TV), including the death before your own of your own child.

After the initial power of the husband’s death, there is this falling off as if Didion’s casting about for what to say next and repeats herself, and I feel there is too obvious a sense of this is another occasion for making a book. It picks up roaring as she moves back to her daughter’s two encounters.

Speed of transformation through illness is important, even if common. We do not go about expecting a hammer to come down on our heads. ON one level, my husband Jim seems to have been transformed from recovering slowly from a drastic operation and and then recurrence of cancer diagnosis (liver, “the worst” someone said) inside a week — to man seemingly near death, weak, frail, fatally ill; then I could say it’s been only 3 months since the initial diagnosis, but I know that before that last autumn he had stopped going to the gym gradually and I saw was somehow not himself, not physically well, suddenly looking older. We had no clue to run to the doctor to check with — though he did go for his legs and other things but the problem was not where he was feeling. Engineering term: the point of origin is often not the same as the place of manifestation; one’s bottom body is tired (manifestation) because a cancer is growing in one’s throat (origin, cause).

Her second theme is her magical thinking: once her husband dies, she plays games with her mind. After his death, she asks him for advice and pretends he’s there. She stays away from places which will evoke deep emotional reactions; or if she goes, she plays games in her mind to avoid thinking about that. She can tell us the next morning magical thinking relieved from having to be realistic. Myself I think the term is capable of wider application. Because a hospice person is in the house, you might feel your relative or beloved is safer. He or she isn’t, statistically. We think magically when we rely on rituals. My grandmother tied onions to my feet when I was 3 and came down with a high fever; she was drawing the evil spirits out of the foot. I had a hard time removing the apnea monitor off my younger daughter because I had begun to believe it was saving her. If we do X, Y will surely occur. Make a rain dance, and it will rain. Pray for X, and you may get it (prayers are magical thinking). Human beings attempting to control the natural world.

Yet we do this faced with imminent or present death. But she does not adequately explore kinds of magical thinking (nor the dangers of atavistic behavior they bring), though she shows her wisdom in she defending those people who in need use magical thinking.

Joan, John, and Quintana at home

Other superficialities: She’s not deep about anything beyond these moments. Beyond no real truth-telling about troubles in her life, she presents hers as a life of utter privilege upper class American (she can commandeer a plane and helicopter to take her daughter across the US from California to NY), all the right schools are gone to by all three people (husband, wife, daughter). In the middle of the book she does not want to talk frankly about her family and its realities so she is without matter since she has no criticism to make of attitudes or the medical establishment either.

It reminds of Carolyn Heilbrun’s autobiographical essay in not being willing really to tell and like Heilbrun Didion presents her life as simply happy; Didion tells more but not enough so there’s nothing gripping. We hear of the dinners she goes to (with famous names dropped). She never questions the values that support her privileges; apparently she lived very conventionally inside a small circle of wealthy family and semi- and famous friends. Hints of darker interpretations here and there of their privileged lives, of antagonisms within her relationship with Dunne, especially from her husband’s remembered words, are left on the surface of the narrative. This problem did not arise in the earlier masterpieces (e.g., Salvador) since she was not personally involved.

Life-writing is demanding in ways many writers won’t submit to. They’re afraid – maybe rightly – of the public.

But then her strengths: her style is as marvelous as I remembered it (in Salvador). She never forgets the literal meaning of her words and so has quiet ironic fun with the language medical personnel use. At Xmas she is told Quintana “may not leave the table.” Of course she must leave the table; what she may not do is be taken off it alive. She makes quiet fun of the stilted euphemistic jargon language, the sticking to a high enough level of generality so nothing is acknowledged. Since contained in her words are a thoughtful critique of this language one can’t fault it, but looking at it tonight from my perspective I’d say she can do this since she did not suffer directly from it beyond the “mere” having useful information withheld, nothing explained. Neither she nor her husband were dependent on the medical community as except afterwards (and then he was dead).

It’s not many people who can write of their intimate thoughts while grieving. In the later parts of the books she talks of how she tried to compensate and cope; she speaks of her memories that were good and she helped me sitting there here in my workroom last night to try to relive happy memories. I mentioned some to my husband much later at night (3 am when we were in the front room) who was sitting across from me in his now usual half-stupor and bewildered, unconscious, hallucinating (from all the drugs he’s given for this and that) and he appeared to understand what I was saying. He smiled and corrected a song I said I liked from the 1970s which came to me at that moment as about us:

Only he attributed it to the The Who.

A Year of Magical Thinking is mostly a superb book, deeply felt in many ways, but what makes it is the feeling that what she tells of the traumatic incidents (three) in the book are literally authentic, true, how it happened and her usual bag tricks of style from her interest in literal and playful words (and names), in ironies, and ability to write windingly graceful involved kinds of sentences that are yet readable.


I did not know until I finished and looked at some reviews that Didion’s Quintana whose near-death experiences (two of them, frantic emergencies coming “out of the blue”) provide some ballast for her book — she can include the girl’s childhood through memory flashbacks too – her daughter died in a third seemingly bizarre episode before The Year of Magical Thinking was published. She would not change her book, but instead wrote about the daughter’s calamitous fatal experience of pancreatitis in her next book. I can’t help wondering if there are not aspects of her daughter’s situation that led to 2 times getting to the hospital nearly too late (the 3rd, in the book) is more than the result of errors and infections/blood clots caused by hospital people not doing or doing their job, in this case too cautiously.

So Blue Nights is about her loss of the daughter, an adopted only child. I’ve bought a copy for $3.45 despite several vows to buy no more books now that I’m not going to have someone with me to shoulder the burden of so many or read and use them together in a universal of our own making. I’ll get to it after Ekaterina Gordeva’s My Sergei, co- or ghost-written by E.M. Swift.

Ekaterina was left with a small daughter by Sergei: Daria


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leigh anna kareninablog
Vivien Leigh as Anna (1948 film, scripted Jean Anouilh)

Ralph Richardson’s Karenin, reasoning with Leigh as Anna

Oblonsky to Levin: It’s Kitty I’m sorry for — not you! — Stoppard’s Anna

Anna to Vronsky: I would never see my son again. The laws are made by husbands and fathers … Unhappiness? I’m like a starving beggar who has been given food — Stoppard’s Anna

Dear friends and readers,

After seeing Wright and Stoppard’s recent film of Anna Karenina, featuring Keira Knightley, Matthew Macfayden, Jude Law, I determined to read the book. I had tried when I was in my teens but been defeated because I found the Levin matter intolerable; this time I thought I’d manage by listening to it read aloud while driving my car. It took time so I lingered over it (sometimes at night reading this or that passage on my own) as Davina Porter’s reading was brilliant.

I found I much prefer the meaning of the story & characterizations in Wright and Stoppard’s from Tolstoy’s; that Tolstoy’s story is meant to be and is harshly punitive on Anna even if he feels for her loneliness married to a repressed easily resentful man much older than she. He presents her adulterous love as an evil impulse in her which moves from impelling her boldly to leave her husband and live an amoral life, and then twists her to destroy her relationship with her lover because she cannot accept her despised position. She cannot find something within herself to give her life meaning because she has moved away from religion. Greater sympathy is allotted Karenin. Tolstoy’s unique greatness seems to me that he conveys a sense of every day life slowly passing for all. He dramatizes people’s working lives, how they pass time in the evening; he reveals the tedium of existence. He is said to be respected for his rounded apparently believable characters, but when I listened to it with my husband in the car with me, they emerged as types, stereotypes from other novels in part. He does not offend against conventional standards of good taste — as forged by male oriented readers.

Tolstoy is not interested in Anna’s lack of happiness or fulfillment as a woman; the system needs to change, and that’s the point of the Levin part of the novel. Levin is said to marry wholly for love (which is basically an animal passion as we see once they marry they do not understand one another’s minds at all); he is not performative. Tolstoy writes against personal ambition, performativeness. Levin is also contrasted to the drone Oblonsky (Anna’s brother) who is unfaithful to his wife, Dolly, does no useful work, conceives of positions in gov’t and elsewhere as sheer plums of money for him to collect to support his habits. Not only does Levin work the fields and keep his house, Levin would change the political complexion of the nation to be more equal, to provide more education and opportunities for the lower orders.

Domnhall Gleeson as Levin (Stoppard and Wright’s version — it’s hard to find images of earlier Levins as non-entities often played the part and were forgotten by the public)

Here he is stopped because what is valued in political gatherings is the ability to network, to flatter others, to be congenial in an amoral kind of way, to look handsome. All these Vronsky does, and if Vronsky had not been destroyed by his relationship with Anna, the way he fits into his regiment and is liked and the way he immediately is a social success the one time he goes to a political gathering, shows he would have risen to power.

Sean Bean as a decent intelligent well-meaning Vronsky in 1997 (BBC)

He has a conscience and some decent ideals (unlike Oblonsky); when in the novel with Anna and she is still behaving, he opens and supervises a hospital, schools, but he would not begin to go further than reforming his own area and property and people within it without giving up one iota of power.

In short, Tolstoy writes a 19th century novel which (like Flaubert’s Madame Bovary) has been over-rated because he does at least deal with adultery directly. The way to value it is the way we value Gaskell’s Ruth where the heroine is similarly punished – this time for having a child out of wedlock where at least an attempt is made to present a woman’s sexual life. We can also liken Anna Karenina to Trollope’s novels (Tolstoy admired Trollope enormously, said Trollope’s books “killed him”): they are debates about the political and economic and to some extent social arrangements of the era where a kind of moderate reform is proposed, and how political life is really carried on exposed.


Structure — I assume the reader knows the story, if not you may find it in the wikipedia article.

Gretta Garbo as Anna (1935 film, director Clarence Brown)

Frederick March as Vronsky to Garbo’s Anna

The novel made be said to be made up of two novellas which could’ve been very short but are here blown up into a large book by modern psychological and realistic techniques. At the opening of Is He Popenjoy? Trollope says he wishes he could write his story in the brief strong way of railway novels, but must make it middle class through subtilizing it, then it becomes acceptable to Mudie’s lending library.

If I were to see the novel as an outgrowth of the 18th century novel (it’s set in the early part of the 18th century), I’d say Anna-Vronksy comes from Lafayette’s Princess de Cleves (same central types in the couple) by way of 18th century depth psychology: the president de Tourvel in Les Liasions Dangereuses, and this is a deep vein of fiction important in functioning for liberty. In Anna Karenina, paradoxically the story that functions for liberty is Dolly’s — how badly Oblonsky treats her shows how a woman needs more liberty and independence.

Anna Karenina
Matthew MacFayden as the conscienceless, self-satisfied bureaucrat, Oblonsky (given star billing in Wright and Stoppard’s play, considerably softened, he grieves for Anna at the movie’s close)

The Levin material is by comparison Sir Charles Grandison matter. I’m sure Kitty breast-fed, no need for Tolstoy to tell us.

A wholesome Alicia Vikander as Kitty (Wright and Stoppard’s version)

It’s exemplary, optimistic, leisurely, leaving time for disquisitions on art (though there are some of these in the Vronksy-Anna story when Vronsky takes up painting for a while), politics, farming, social life. In mood it’s closer to section in Rousseau’s Julie, ou La Nouvelle Heloise when the heroine goes to live in Switzerland with her husband. I do like the debates over politics whose nuances remind me of arguments between Plantagenet and Phineas: Levin wants moderation; he does not wan to exploit so ruthless and yet wants his property and place. The others take the modern position of Republicans like Romney which are recreations of this older indifference to anything but the one narrow classes utter comforts. Where the story becomes fascinating again is realism (not in Grandison as character). Levin’s jealousy of Kitty before worldly men, the hunt and his resentment. No kindness in Tolstoy towards the poor animals slaughtered so effectively by Oblonsky who has the admiration of all, very chic in rags and the best guns. I imagine like Trollope over hunting foxes, Tolstoy hunted grouse, and farmed the way Levin does.

D’Epinday’s Montbrillant (mid-18th century long memoir as novel) has the same two types of fiction squashed together only the Grandison part is about salons, and Vronsky-Anna stories of adultery and sexuality are really seen from the woman’s point of view forced to acquiesce in her husband’s adulteries, and attempts to sell her to pay his debts.


From my reading experience as I went through the book and remembered the movie I had just seen and what I’ve read about the other movies and Tolstoy and other 19th century novelists:

At first: Tolstoy’s book feels so rich. It seems to contain in it other novels: well when Anna first meets Vronsky, he is just about engaged to Kitty, Anna’s brother’s sister-in-law. It’s deep attraction at first sight for Anna and Vronsky — which we are warned is bad news for Anna by Anna’s brother’s father-in-law’s attitude towards Vronsky.

It reminds me very much of Galsworthy’s Forsyte Saga. Anna is regarded as this icon of mysterious beauty in just the way Irene Heron is. The possessive successful male sweeps her up, but he cannot understand or satisfy her. The dark continent.

Eric Porter played both Soames in 1967 and Karenin in 1977 for the BBC

Unlike Irene, Anna resists this attraction at first, but then she’s nowhere as unhappy as Irene with her husband. She has had a child, she is satisfied with her friendship with Dolly, her sister-in-law. In Tolstoy’s novel by this point we see that Levin is actually the central hero or presence of the novel, however ironized, for by beginning with Anna’s brother Oblonsky, Levin his friend is brought on novel’s stage and (unlike the 2012 play and movie) becomes central for chapters and chapters.

Tom Stoppard and Joe Wright’s movie is literally true to the book as it opens (they deviate later) — but then cut off at all the Levin material.


Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Wright and Stoppard’s debauched, half-crazed Vronsky

I’m into part 2 of 5 and remarkably very early on Tolstoy makes it clear that Vronsky lives the life of a shallow drone, someone Anna should have walked away from. In the play he is neurotic, over-emotional in the extreme whatever he does; in the novel is he an average aristocrat, perhaps a little better than many, capable of shame and good feeling. Others see this — Dolly’s father, for example. We see the low-life demi-monde Vronsky favors. The text feels for Anna very much, but Tolstoy sees love and coupling as sheerly drivingly sexual and has no inward understanding for real.

Myself I find Tolstoy’s a male view — it’s found in Trollope. Tolstoy does sufficient justice to Anna’s tight bond to her son and how much she is as yet comfortable with, respects Karenin at first, but she has tired of the way he is cold, stays away from her, is controlling from the outside. The words Anna used to express her love for Vronsky to Vronsky upon trying to explain why she is not degraded by their affair (all the while made to feel terribly shamed) could be a translation of the words Laura Kennedy uses in Trollope’s Phineas Redux when they walk in Konisberg at the castle over the parapets. The words in Trollope to describe her passion are close to those in Garnett’s translation. It’s uncanny.



Comparison of an incident: Bronte’s Villette and Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina

I can’t resist making a note of this. I had earlier been listening to Bronte’s Villette where there is a striking parallel and contrast to Tolstoy’s book.

In Bronte’s a powerful sequence shows Lucy all alone coming to Brussels and with her tiny amount of money seeking a hotel to stay. She is given an address by a kind stranger. Lucy Snow sets out. It’s nighttime. She finds herself followed by two young men who are laughing at her, to her they seem semi-thugs, they call out. In euphemisms it’s suggested they are after her sexually. Terrified she gets confused where she is and goes the wrong way altogether. This results in her landing into the school which takes her in. It determines the course of her life. It’s a harrowing sequence. Izzy was in the car with me and both of us gripped. Told of course from the woman’s point of view.

In Tolstoy’s AK, Vronsky tells this “amusing” story to the demi-monde woman he finds in his flat which he is sharing with a drone low-life officer, she this man’s mistress. It seems that two young men in his regiment saw a young woman coming home and they thought her living alone. What fun. For a lark they follow her upstairs. The next day an irate husband challenges them. Vronsky (good man they all think) has been negotiating to avoid a duel. The woman was his pregnant wife returning home early from the theater. Vronsky is much amused at how often the husband so easily become irate: his honor is involved. To do Tolstoy justice he gives us a glimpse of this young woman coming home and in distress.

But the accent is not there quite. The sequence is not harrowing. The incident reveals Vronsky whose concern is with his regiment. Yet it is told. It is part of Vronsky’s view of women: he tells it to the demi-monde as a joke. I have not got up to her response.

Only in the novel I’m typing slowly, Charlotte Smith’s Ethelinde (English Jacobin & sentimental novel), do we have an harassment incident where the point is at least made that an attitude of mind by men towards women causes this at least by implication. Emily is staying with a cousin who does not care to protect her from the men in the house; they know she’s a poor, a nobody, no father and they chase after her through the landscape. The result is not a plot-hinge but it is significant in Ethelinde’s determination to quit this house. We are made to feel this sort of thing is what Ethelinde would have to contend with in this house when she arrives.

As a woman who has had such experiences I know they can drive a girl who has partly succumbed to the pestering and aggression (which is presented as just fine) to avoid going out. The Steubenville rape is a crude ugly bullying version of what I’m pointing to here. How far it can go.

Tolstoy as a young man, 1848 — he could be Levin

Tolstoy skips over the long year of deepening involvement — unlike another neglected novel which explores adultery seriously as an alternative to a miserable marriage where one can find companonship (Charlotte Smith’s Ethelinde).
What Tolstoy is interested in, “does justice” to Anna’s horrific guilt once she and Vronsky have sex. There’s more of this self-horror than anything else. This is utterly different from Stoppard and Wright’s movie too -there we have the woman who wants to escape imprisonment and exploitation. I prefer the movie though I grant the depth of writing and intensity in Tolstoy is powerful

Levin is a sort of surrogate for Tolstoy, and again in the movie this is not so. He is more than half-caricatured by Wright and Stoppard. Oblonsky is sensible in comparison. It’s interesting to see this 21st century amoral modern take as opposed to Tolstoy’s Victorianism which makes Oblonsky into a semi-Skimpole type.

I find myself remembering what I read about Tolstoy about the time Jay Parini’s book, The Last Station, focusing on Tolstoy’s wife was made into an interesting film. The film made Sophia self-centered, materialistic, seeking sex for herself and not for procreation, but it was my understanding Parini’s book in fact was a real critique of Tolstoy as self-deluded, a powerful aristocrat who took advantage of his status all the time, with real sympathy for Sophie — which Helen Mirren picked up on.

Mirren counters the distrustful anti-sexuality thrust of Tolstoy’s conception of his wife and women

Tolstoy’s last text was one where he presented sexuality as such as loathsome even when inside marriage, Kreutzer’s Sonata.

Frances Trollope’s novel of an unwed mother, Jessie Phillips: A Tale of the Present Day is another 19th century novel which shows far more understanding of women’s vulernability and inner life. But she too (like Gaskell) makes her heroine suffer without showing what was the pleasure. Yet I had to drive 90 minutes in my car once again yesterday and found myself listening to a very long loving description of every detail Levin and Kitty’s wedding ceremony. The equivalent of a bridal magazine today. It so irritated me. Why so much time on this? Tolstoy is clever and he makes ironic jokes about how a couple of years from now for just about everyone this long ceremony seems idiotic, false, but that’s not what the lengthy text does. It insists that each detail the wedding counts; that’s why Levin is late in dressing, why Kitty spends months and months in planning with her mother. Bridezilla.

It could be a woman’s magazine today. It explains why fools complained that in Downton Abbey Fellowes had the brains to present Lady Mary and Matthew’s wedding only in terms of the fuss and trouble leading up to it.

Just before the ceremony Levin is not the ideal exemplary man having won the love of the sweet chaste Kitty, almost alienates her by letting her see his diaries with his disgusting affairs. This great novel of adultery is deeply against sex. When in Downton Abbey Dan Stevens had to play some of this kind of nonsense, he looked excruciated.

Not Wright at all and not Stoppard; they skip the wedding.

Meanwhile in the book Vronsky rushes to Anna in bed who has given birth to their little girl, confessed to Karenin and been forgiven. But Anna cannot stand her husband’s presence or embraces; she is beyond reason or humanity towards Karenin who (in the novel) turns emotionally noble and is willing to be shamed and take her back. Vronsky throws himself onto Anna, she cannot resist and three sentences later they disappear from the narrative only to turn up chapters later several months later so we can see them despised. We only saw their affair a year later.

I hadn’t realize how much Wright departed from Tolstoy until I’d gotten well past the mid-point of the book. In Wright and Stoppard’s version Anna leaves Karenin half-way through the narrative, and takes up life with Vronsky; has her baby daughter by Vronsky while living with him. In Tolstoy’s book she has not left Karenin as yet; Karenin has begun proceedings for a divorce and custody of his (now apparently detested) son. But Anna nearly dies in puperal fever, she hysterically calls for her husband, declares him great, noble-souled, and herself so much crap; she and Karenin manage to humiliate Vronsky and in the throes of this scene Karenin forgives Anna. Vronsky goes home, shamed, and realizing suicide can be brought on by humiliation and the world’s scorn tries to shoot himself through the chest and nearly dies. Both though do not die — Tolstoy implies perhaps Anna would have been better off if she had and so too Vronsky. She lives to regret, and in Tolstoy Vronksy lives on to want to get her back, only much later to be destroyed by her suicide.

It’s theatrically effective in the book and films which use it, and the discourse about forgiveness and how Karenin wants to keep to that, how it brings out the good soul in him is probably (I do believe) the conscious message. But I find the scenes at the bedside absurd and improbable — but perhaps a 19th century reader would not have.

Much of Tolstoy’s text is taken up with how badly Kareinin feels. He naturally becomes the prey of religious fanatics like the old countess, Lydia. It’s the only way he can hold up his head; she is responsible for Karenin’s keeping Anna’s son from her too. So the man is absolved and sympathized with again and again.

Not so in Wright and Stoppard’s film where the narrow, sexless and vindictive seething of the man is emphasized — here Jude Law has a tight mind and body


Horse race as done in the theater of Wright and Stoppard’s conception

This is not to say there are not many remarkable and interesting passages in Tolstoy’s book — sort of interwoven in as part of the story but reflecting both Tolstoy’s high sense of himself and his fiction and its purpose.

From the penultimate sections of the book, before the final crash of Anna and departure of Vronsky to a useless war where he and his regiment of desperate men will be killed for nothing — and the qualified contentment ending of Levin’s choice to marry Kitty and live the life of an aristocratic landlord-farmer.

The depiction of Vronsky’s attempt at a career as an artist and patron of the arts in Italy in the earliest phase of his time with Anna, when she is still in control of herself and enjoying life well away from Russian society. This sequence allows Tolstoy to present thoughts on art and the 19th century scene.

The death of Levin’s brother is another sequence — we see the poverty of most hotels in this rigid ancien regime world. We see how badly the supposedly idealistic leftist brother treats the prostitute he has taken in as his wife. On this level, Tolstoy feels for a woman; she ought to have stayed with a peasant husband somewhere. I’m sure Levin would have found her one had she come to him first.

I’m also “enjoyed” the realism of the relationship of Vronsky and Anna as it slowly hurts so badly from being outside the rest of the world, the ostracizing, and even Levin and Kitty with their lack of real understanding of one another and explosive fights in early marriage.

Keira Knightley as the grieving mother

Extraordinarily strong because so believable Anna’s stolen visit to her son and the responses of the servants, her meeting Karenina and his half-mad behavior. You can prove anything if you get to make up the evidence, but far more than Trollope successfully I think Tolstoy does persuade us a woman of this milieu, religion, would feel the intense guilt of Anna, digs deep into it, how it functions to twist her and give her little chance to finally live a life that is fulfilling for both with Vronsky. The scene at the theater where she goes out of some kind of inner-directed spite at herself and Vronsky equally strong. Vronsky needs to be accepted in the world and live in it; she needs just the respect.

Anna supported by the corrupt Princess Betsy (Ruth Wilson)

She is mortified and humiliated. I wish I could believe Tolstoy critiquing this double standard but he’s not.

The linchpin connection between the Vronksy-Anna matter and the Kitty-Levin is Anna’s brother Oblonsky and his wife Dolly with whom the book and Stoppard and Wright’s movie opens. Dolly feels for Anna; her husand, Oblonsky a careless rake and roue who is ruining them by his continual spending of money (leaving nothing for the household, saving nothing for the children’s education).

So, Oblonsky’s harried put-upon wife, Dolly, goes to visit Anna. Anna had persuaded Dolly to stay with Oblonsky after one of Oblonsky’s many affairs (the man has casual encounters and sex like some people have meals) was exposed — because it was with the governess. He spends all their money, he impregnates her carelessly; she is worn, her children will have no decent schools unless her father pays for it — reminds me of Montague Dartie in Forsyte Saga. She knows he does not love her. She is miserable. She thinks Anna is no different from her, just braver. When she arrives, Anna is ecstatic to see her and Vronsky so glad. She notices the people around them are third-rate hangers on as the world judges these things. We are made to notice how rich Anna is through her eyes — the riding out, the hat, the horse, the house they stay in.

So, were this an English novel, this moneyed state of Anna would be accounted for — it’s not in AR. It is probably not from her husband. Would she have her own estate? I don’t know. It seems to come from Vronsky who we are told in an early part of the book has to borrow to keep up his lavish life style.

The moral nature of what’s happening is central. Probably because I’m reading Galsworthy at the same time I am so aware of how Tolstoy too makes of Anna this beautiful mysterious icon. In her case being torn apart. Slowly after Vronsky and Anna return to Russia, whether St Petersburg or Moscow, their relationship sours badly. No one respectable will be friends with them; they get only hangers-on. People they once would have passed over, come to them and Vronksy and Anna cling to these fringe types.

Yet he can live with it, he can suffer the loss of his army regiment (very much a Rawdon type — from Vanity Fair); it’s more her fault than his because she cannot live the unconventional part of a mistress and woman of the world. Why she should want the friends we saw at the opening were all so hollow I can’t say. She has Dolly and her brother who seemed to be the only people she enjoyed herself with before. And men do visit. She is pathetically grateful to have Dolly’s loyalty, but we see Dolly becomes sickened at what she sees as their false friends, false lives and stays only one day on a visit meant to go on for a long time.

Mary Kerridge as Dolly (1948 version, sentimentalized Oblonsky, glimpsed weeping with remorse)

We then get the encounter of Anna with Levin who is drawn to her as mysterious alluring icon but then reverses himself when he sees his wife. Anna here has become evil as she is presented as consciously trying to seduce Levin sexually.

I also very much enjoy some of the political drama and discussions about art in the Levin sections; I don’t have space to detail this sort of thing. The political meeting with Vronksy emerging as successful had the sceptical understanding of Trollope and the principles and parties were of interest similarly. Tolstoy defends realism in pictures.

At the same time I was so grated upon by the long drawn out childbirth, especially the turning from ravaged screaming on Kitty’s part to bliss. No thanks Mr Tolstoy for your moral lesson here. I writhe to have to listen to this nonsense — Trollope wouldn’t have minded and might thought it was just the pap (like the wedding) women might want.

Very interesting are the less cliched stories: Oblonsky, Stiva, near bankrupt trying to get a lucrative post where he does nothing and thinking he deserves it! Some amusement there – this is how Felix Carbury behaves in Trollope and Davies’s TWWLN and Matthew MacFayden played both parts.

The story of Anna’s son being slowly turned against her and made to be cold from his life’s experiences with the angry embittered father and morally stupid tutor.

Why is Anna not afraid she will be broke and end in the streets? she is so sure of her aristoratic words & norms to reach for.

A 19th century illustration of the end of the novel
The novel concludes:

Again I am deeply engaged by Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina in the final phase of Vronsky and Anna’s story. It is more than grippingly believable. Tolstoy lays bare how someone (Anna) can act destructively against herself and her interests, because there is not enough on offer for an erasure of those parts of herself necessary to play the part in her world Vronsky as her open lover allows her. She is in too much pain over her own loss of self-esteem. I can see myself acting like that and have in life acted that way.

I continue mostly bored and irritated by the Levin matter.

At the close of book 7 is the powerful sequence where Anna finally loses all perspective, and throws herself under a train. I’ve just ambivalent responses to the depiction. I think the way to get round the worst is to lower expectations – that’s why when I first started reading I suggested Tolstoy is over-rated. If we think of him as just another Victorian-19th century writer, we don’t expect as much, give him more slack, and as with reading say Gaskell’s Ruth, we look at what is gained by an attempt at a frank depiction of a transgressive woman (Anna) or a woman who has transgressed (Ruth) sexually. Trollope will depict no such figure; Dickens would not touch this with a 50 foot pole.Most women didn’t dare lest they be accused of sexual transgression.

I know were I to have read the book in my 20s even I would just have utterly bonded with Anna and felt for her and not noticed as I felt continually Tolstoy’s continual corrective: Anna says everyone is hateful to her, and immediately Tolstoy brings home to us how most people are not hateful; everything she feels or says is quickly shown to be an exaggeration and coming out of her. The worst is how he talks of an “evil’ spirit inheriting her soul — surely this is God punishing her.

He also does not spare us. We are shown that Anna did not die immediately but felt pain and knew what was happening. When we are told that Vronsky saw the body he never got over seeing what was in her eyes. Or her mangled body.

One can read the sequence sympathetically from her point of view too. It is true Vronsky is tired of her. We can see she is trying to reach him as best she can. It’s his choice to stay in Moscow, visit his mother. What he wants is for her to make the best of it or go herself into the country where he would visit her or stay with her and come back to his social life from time to time. She seems unable to manage with this. Myself I know how she feels from the exquisite details about egoisms conflicting that Tolstoy does manage. I’ve experienced this in family life, feeling oneself disdained some, really not respected, and how painful this is, especially when something is done which points to it and the person denies it. Trollope knew our egos mattered: many of his scenes show characters reacting internally emotionally violently over this.

Months have passed when the last book (8) begins again. When we next see Vronsky, now worn, having again nearly gone mad with his remorse and leaving for the war front with a group of less than admirable types because he can’t get anything better together and listen to his mother’s vicious tongue about Anna this is a reinforcement of empathy for her — and him.

1899 Twilight Moon by Isaak Ilyich Levitan

One then has to wade through at least a hundred pages of Levin material where we learn God is good, well-meaning, dwell in the Russian landscape, and if Levin is also dissatisfied, this are the terms on which we have life. At the close of the book Levin has a vision which shows him the value of his existence and makes him think he will act more loving to everyone no matter how much they irritate, but soon discovers he cannot change himself. I thought of the long shooting bird (grouse) sequences and how vividly (very like Trollope) Tolstoy entered into these and told them in detail; unlike Galsworthy though he did not at all feel for the animals endlessly murdered (by Oblonsky and finally done in by Levin too) — to show his manhood, nor even so much as register them as presences (which Trollope at least concedes).


Ideally I would after listening to this reading, watch the recent Wright movie and read carefully Stoppard’s screenplay to see how the Anna character has been altered — and it has much — to make it speak to us today. I know Vronsky is blackened in the movie: in the book he was willing to give up much if only she would be at peace with the freedoms he sought and he was not seeking to have any other women (as he is in the movie).

The movie marginalizes Levin into sheer Lawrentian material (how often Wright turns a book into Lawrentian material, even Austen) and plays up the ironies of the Oblonsky story as relevant to us today. Wright also emphasizes the role Vronsky’s mother plays as Anna’s fundamental rival and enemy.

He also makes Oblonsky our everyone; at the close of the movie Macfayden is the only one in the room as the family gathers (including Levin and his wife) for some ritual who remembers Anna

He is though as corrupt and useless to anyone but in his kind moments like these as he is in the novel

The Levin group must be put into the movie, but in the movie they function as the vast majority of human beings who buy into conventions and are made safe enough by by them.

The first sentence of AK now strikes me as potentially if unintentionally ironic about happy families, happy people. Tolstoy may be read against the grain.


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Cover of graphic novel

Harvey Pekar and Joyce Brabner at the time of the book

Dear friends and readers,

As those people who read my Sylvia blog know, my husband, Jim (“the Admiral”), was diagnosed with esophageal cancer this past April 28th, and he and I have been coping ever since. He had major surgery on June 3rd, and has been slowly recovering; it is probable he will have to endure chemotherapy and radiation when his natural body processes have re-asserted themselves.

During this time I have been told many success stories about people who survived nearly inoperable cancer. I have heard of a few who died. I’ve also had recommended to me books to read — to pass the time, to teach and sustain me. One stood out & I bought a copy of the graphic novel, Our Cancer Year, text by Harvey Pekar and Joyce Brabner, pictures by Frank Stack. Pekar is famous for his powerful because truthful American Splendor comics, adapted for film.

I find I often respond to graphic novels very directly and can get irritated by them in ways I wouldn’t by a sheerly written text. Have others found this? does this genre enter into people’s lives at some sore angle? I found I had a direct visceral personal response to this graphic novel about an experience of malignant cancer in the husband, Harvey, that he and his (third) wife Joyce, are sharing which Jim and I are now analogously experiencing. Harvey and Joyce live in a run-down apartment in Cleveland — the way the real Harvey and Joyce did. They have many books, about the number Jim and I probably had when we lived in an apartment.

Here they are told by the super they will have to move and argue about it

The super will later be shown to be a man trying to cheat them at every turn, trying to set up a kickback situation for himself at the same time. That this may be common shows why some people who persist in this property cherishing DIY.

I am interested in the genre of graphic novel and how it differs on the one hand from comic books and on the other from textual novels. It has depths the comic book does not have: not just the drawings which can be artful, but the text itself comes in at an angle different from that of text. There is an implied authorial and an implied illustrator presence. It is a collaborative and complex new sub-genre of the novel.

Thus far I’ve read adapted graphic novels (from Austen’s (S&S, P&P, NA), and from Radcliffe’s Udolpho; three original great ones by Posy Simmons (Tamara Drew, Gemma Bovery and Literary Life), two powerful gothics by Audrey Neiffenegger’s (Night Bookmobile and The Incestuous Sisters), and a couple of women’s memoirs (Persian whose author’s name and title I can never remember, the pictures too tiny, the writing too dense; Jewish, Bechtel’s which is really half-lies not simply autobiography with imagination; and Phoebe Potts’s Good Eggs, which I found unreadable and ludicrous). This book is closest to these memoirs by women but reaches the level of Posy Simmons’ work at moments.

Moments from early in the book (my reading & gazing experience):

Well I’m well into the book, and as yet Harvey has not gotten himself to go the doctor, undergo surgery, to find out what his lump near his prostate gland is. He knows of the lump (near his prostate) and has thought of cancer. But (we are told) he had surgery once and it was a disaster. Their lives are busy: she politically active (traveling to Israel, to Palestine); he’s a file clerk in a Cleveland hospital and writes. They make a striking contrast to Jim and my own as we were not at risk of being thrown out of our apartment, not being driven to buy a house above what we could afford, not politically activist, now armchair socialists.

Harvey and Joyce must move as the apartment house they are in will be condemned when its present owner gives it up — which he’s about to do. Harvey hates to buy a house, he is one of these US people who think the house owns them, and she agrees, but Joyce says that she will hire a handy man. (Glad to do this act it seems.) They are about to close the deal on the house, and Joyce goes to Israel because while at a conference she got herself involved with some people and takes this so seriously, she travels to this country and attempts to (in effect) interfere with their lives. She is astonished these conference friends are responding hostilely to her, differently than at said conference. Whole real contexts, experiences of their lives comes out.

She did not realize that there would be Palestinians who side with Saddam Hussein: after all the US lets Israel take over the West Bank and do what it pleases; why should Iraq not have access to the oil rich fields of Kuwaiti? The gassing of people by Saddam is brought up, but not how the US has crushed all social movements in the Middle East ruthlessly.

What gets me here is not these larger issues but that Joyce leaves Harvey in a lurch after promising she would be there for this house she wants and he doesn’t. He’s bad at email and computers. This is irresponsible given that she has reason to believe he is ill.

The airport scene where she leaves him

He thinks about it

We cannot tell from the pictures or the text where the implied author stands in all this. I suspect we are to take Joyce’s action as right. Later when Harvey persists in carrying things to show how strong he is, part of life (is this the way we measure being part of life), while she waxes exasperated it’s clear this behavior is admired. But when he wants to throw himself out a window, all he gets is anger.

I would not respond this way to most books – it’s not just the incident but how I am made to feel somehow viscerally — yet the pictures are not great (nothing like Posy Simmons) nor the dialogue — which for once is not that self-involved I suppose. It’s a kind of stubborn stupidity, deserting the person she is attached to for people, when if she only understood reality is not her concern in this way. Have others had this experience (I wonder).

The pictures are however good enough and differ from cartoons in comic books. First they resemble the people (look above, the photo of Pekar and Brabner). Second, when the characters (for are they not characters? or is this is a diary in comic form?) when the characters are miserable, they writhe; the kind of strokes change from average comic looks to blackness, or anguished lines on white. There are many close-ups of anxious vexed faces.

Harvey Can’t Sleep

The above is typical. Intimate. The drawings of places, of the offices, the hospital, of things are all resolutely naturalistic. Stack had to work closely with Brabner and Pekar: his drawings give rise to their thoughts and vice versa.

Finally Joyce drives Harvey to go to a doctor and he has a procedure. That he was anxious about this lump after all is shown by his getting up hours early — before dawn — to get to the hospital, and even after Joyce refuses to go at 3 am, getting her up way too early still and getting there at least an hour early. We see her the first instance of how she is not extra-nice or good to him, but impatient immediately.

This is not emphasized by any narrator, but is clearly meant to be there, so we have an implicit author presence. It’s not clear who is it. Often the story is told from Brabner’s point of view (that of the care-giver) and yet there is a double-author. This is another instance of the presence of the dual author different from the text in front of me.



Joyce finally hires a handywoman to fix her house continually; they bond over memories of her mother’s cancer

In the middle of the story when they finally face he had cancer what struck me is how once they are told he has lymphoma, they at first treat cancer almost as if it was just like any other of their problems. They do go BANANAs over the words and we get several frames where the word is put in GIGANTIC caps as the two characters take this information in but then they don’t proceed really to discuss the new development in any terms different than say their moving. This did astonish me. But among the stories I’ve been told I’ve recently come across one where the couple appear to be doing just that. That they are cannot be discerned.

People behave outwardly as if cancer is just another problem. They never mention the word death. I wonder if their doctors play this silence game with them. I know in hospital the usual greeting is “how are you” very brightly and the expectation is you’ll say “fine!” If you don’t, they ask why. The crass unreality of this false brightness is justified I suppose because otherwise emotionally such places would soon be messes of criss-cross uncontrolled emotions.

Well, Harvey and Joyce’s unexamined notion they must fix the house they are getting well beyond what the code violations require is what takes possession of the narrators’ minds. This leads to Joyce’s hiring their super as I said; but now he turns out to be crook and is subtracting and collecting “finders’ fees.’ That’s a kickback Joyce says. Hundreds of dollars will be spent, but she does have brains and fires him and finds a handy-woman after my own heart who confronted with a “solution” that costs $600 prefers a fix that costs $49.95. In that frame I wondered if the author saw what her characters don’t: how absurd they are in this fixing business. I can’t tell for then they go on with the renovations. Further (as in the pictures directly above), the handywoman is presented idealistically. She never talks about whether things match. The handywoman is not imbued with ideas of fashion or what “re-sell.” She is not believable.

Meanwhile the man in the story and real life too has cancer and it begins to dominate their lives will-they nill-they. They are going to chemotherapy sessions, love to talk about doctors and medicines continually (we are told). Joyce is given a schedule as a nurse like the one I had — totally indifferent to her needs. Should she quit her job, she asks. Answer: It’s up to you, with a refusal to acknowledge money or her personal fulfillment is involved here.

I note there is little open discussion between them and none with the doctors that amounts to any acknowledgement of what is at stake on any level. In our case the doctors did discuss this — maybe because we did. We did not and do not treat Jim’s cancer as if it were just another problem or vexation in our lives.

Fixing a house is a non-serious thing, cancer which brings death is not. Yet frame after frame does show the man suffering: he has to have chemotherapy and there are several frames where they are given this 12 week protocol which turns them both into continual nurses. Friends talk to them and sometimes give them mostly useless advice (go for alternative medicine) or nag at them in a scolding fashion (I would not tolerate this kind of thing for an instant), or tell stories of who died and who lived – the latter we’ve had.

On the contrary, I found neighbors gave good advice, or they tell sensible stories, or they smile and stay away

There are similar scenes of his times at chemotherapy clinics and in the waiting room.


As the book progressed towards its end, I admit I became appalled, more shocked than I usually am at stories of thousands massacred and raped.

Where the nurse cares more about disinfecting the chair than her patient and wants to eject him because his blood count is too low for his chemotherapy

As Harvey declines in strength, is subject to the pains and miseries of chemotherapy, the cold indifference and indignities of the staff: one nurse demands he be sicker or she’ll throw him out; when he does vomit from his treatment, she throws him out in disgust for that. Joyce’s unkind behavior to her husband was not just unforgivable but something I could not understand. Her mother pointed it out to here, and she justified this as “this is the way I am” and Harvey would not like anything else.

Really? He liked being scolded and threatened? He is writhing on the floor, miserable in the chemotherapy clinic, going wild with fear an pain. So she scolds him to behave better. She presents this time as her being simply irritated at being coerced into taking care of Harvey and nothing else. After she shows a film about autistic adults as part of her do-good politics, Joyce is less adamant as long as Harvey represses his misery. She says the feeling against her seems to be, “How dare she?” as if this is wrong; it’s not. She changes his pants, and seems to think he owes her big for this but she takes advantage of his debilitated state. Joyce bullies and pushes Harvey throughout.

It’s not just the big things, but the small ones. Does she help him quietly and kindly and tactfully? Is she tender in gesture? it does not seem so; the gush of sudden togetherness happens periodically but that is not daily life for a person with a fatal painful disease trying to cope with treatment that is harsh and administered with indifference.

Here I thought about the source of genuine liberal generous politics. Joyce does practice this with her vote, but what is the source of her leftism? It seems to be a practical and social bent where she wants to interfere with others, have power intimately, experience other lives intimately, and yet she does not like if the other people really tell her what they are thinking and feeling.

One sequence shows her finding Harvey near paralyzed and she curses him, hits him, damns him for two pages, she hits him with her fist and asks him what is he doing to her? He’s doing nothing to her.


The man may be dying, surely now is the time to be courteous, forbearing. And he to her. He is merely silent — while Jim was cranky at moments. She does not after this sequence behave better to him. Again there are loving scenes; of her taking his wedding ring too big for him now and putting it round her neck. But when push comes to shove, she’s not with him.

My learning curve on these nurse duties was large — I am first of all miserable at machines. But it was all mechanical. I didn’t need to learn to be tolerant, courteous, kind. I read and followed instructions, I wrote everything out I was told I had to do. In the face of high risk, my husband simply behaved the way the doctors and nurses said to, and I helped and protected him. We never lied to one another, no mincing words, and no accepting that from physicians. We demanded a minimal from one another, kept up courtesy and made jokes. We did not regard cancer as just another problem nor did we look upon ourselves or any sick person as dispensable, a cog in a crew.

Again, her political activism seemed to me a species of interfering with other people. She was not as bad as the people in the clinic sometimes were — his job is gone and he has to learn the computer while so sick. Now she ignores him and cuts him little slack. The book ends with a visit she is having from her Israeli and Palestinian friends and one of her friends helping Harvey down the stairs. (That’s not in Joyce’s instincts you see.)


We are told in a closing note that they omitted many people who did help them. This reeks of “It Takes a Village” sentimental false pretenses. We do need help beyond ourselves; there is such a thing as a community, but only a minimum is given. The closing pictures are of the two of them overlooking a park and the new house and unkempt large yard-garden they will now have to cope with. At least that’s the way they see it.



One is left with many questions. How should one take the story of Joyce? Is it meant ironically? How literally true is it? Are we finally to see the story through Harvey’s point of view? His face is suddenly there in frames and many of the nicest pictures are of him. Many pictures and sequences are about his pain, his misery, his loss of his job, how he is just replaced after 20 and more years of working at the hospital as a lowly file clerk. It is insisted he learn the computer and take on a different function. Were he to have been more ambitious, risen higher would he have been treated better? This kind of specific question is not dealt with.

Their cancer year is a year of learning about many things beyond cancer but its core is the cancer. Why else name the book this way? to sell it? The book is as complicated as any textual novel but the authors are not people who question themselves or their culture deeply enough to have created a masterful novel. So they produce a book which imitates what makes people miserable but does not explain how this comes to be: it is grating and feeble (Joyce’s rage, Harvey’s refusal to buy a house all these years) where it should be exposing US values and its economic system which isolates and does not help this couple. They are a pair of victims (a very unpopular word and one not part of the vocabulary of this book). The artist, Stark, too does not have original pictorial insights — though he is capable of great expressivity with lines. Maybe he needed them (his authors) to see what was happening to them more clearly. In short it remains popular rather than important — as perhaps the movie American Splendor is.

There’s a wikipedia article on Harvey Pekar which tells of his death in 2010. It seems he died of an overdose of medicine after his cancer had recurred for the third time. (Or so the article says; we may suspect suicide.) This would be nearly 20 years later as Our Cancer Year seems to occur in 1992 or so. I’ve never read any of his comic books before nor did I see the film American Splendor.

Joyce survives him and she does look like her photo in this comic book: she remains politically active — brave woman who I find very irritating in what I’d call her neurotypical personality traits.

As for Frank Stack, he is an “underground cartoon artist” who has a very hard time surviving because he would like to practice a genuinely questioning art in the American south.

Frank Stack’s picture of himself, the last frame of the book

I do recommend the book to anyone who has experienced cancer, especially from the angle of the care-giver.


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‘They are surely happy,’ said the prince, ‘who have all these conveniencies, of which I envy none so much as the facility with which separated friends interchange their thoughts.’ —Samuel Johnson, Rasselas

… still, saved as we all are by some comfortable feeling of superiority from wishing for the possibility of exchange, she would not have given up her more elegant and cultivated mind for all their enjoyments — Jane Austen of Anne Elliot, Persuasion

What the deuce is it to me?” he interrupted impatiently: “you say that we go round the sun. if we went round the moon it would not make a pennyworth of difference to me or to my work.”—— Sherlock Holmes, Conan Doyle, A Study in Scarlet

Emma Thompson as Carrington in the 1995 film of that name, Jonathan Pryce as Lytton Strachey, scripted & directed by Christopher Hampton, adapted from Michael Holroyd’s biography — today she’d be on the Net, and a laptop might be in front of him too

Dear friends and readers,

I’ve had several thoughtful responses and have been moved to write again taking on a new aspect of the topic, or at any rate, a different perspective and emphasis.

I wrote my paper in 2006 and would like to think there has been progress in the area of understanding cyberspace experience itself as well as how cyberspace impacts on physical local (so to speak) space and vice versa. That people continue to try to understand the first, the interaction between physical/local space and what happens in cyberspace is so; this morning I saw a Call for Papers whose subtitle is “The Digital Turn” and its interest is how cyberspace is affecting book history studies; what they are after is how power relationships are changing and thus what’s written about. They are not concerned with cyberspace experience in and of itself. People who are those who would not be interacting with others the way they do if not for cyberspace and are listened to (say bloggers who are political but not hired by conventional newspapers or political organizations) are partly to blame for this, for that’s how they justify their presence on the Net. They are there for influence and social connection. To be sure, the latter is a strong part of why all people are on the Net, but it does not go anywhere near far enough in understanding what happens here.

And that’s hard. It’s one thing to say that content is only part of what’s happening and maybe not the most important, especially surface content; it’s another to try to articulate what are the equivalents to physical of what’s happening that influence content and make people behave on the Net the way they do. It’s easy to describe this through connection. Women learn early on to fear violence and humiliation; ergo, they are afraid, and rightly for them safety is the central issue. For men not so much; my experience here is men say (in off-list communications is where you learn this sort of thing) they don’t trust the other person posting; they can know too little for sure about them unless they’ve met them face-to-face or have some certain history about them and know this is their identity. This trust connects to holding onto a job and promotion and pride (saving face) — issues central to manliness, respect as a man as understood by our society.

And it’s not hard to take what is known about women’s psychology growing up — the real importance of intimate friendship as a support mechanism — and try to see how this works. The woman one commenter mentioned who pretended to be a male is escaping these continual influences or pretends she is. This woman was apparently (someone known to all) a tenured professor. I suggest therefore she is also successful because she is credentialed high. Katha Pollit has that and it makes a big difference in how people react to her postings on the Net.

Two responses were about false identities on the Net. One friend I know revels in games where he says that in fact these false identities are aspects of ourselves that we get to be, or act out (using the common life is a stage metaphor) there where we can be them nowhere else. Another inveighed against it when the identity was presented as real on a list-serv or blog. Said she was “very offended,” a phrase I note that is not much in use in physical local space but is a common way of beginning a debate or quarrel with someone on the Net. It’s put in polite terms but what it means was “you piss me off” or “how dare you,” a stance people don’t dare face-to-face unless they are willing to take the argument very far (into something physical or vengeful).

I do dislike intensely the false identities on the Net but know from the get-go, in its origin, people immediately began to take advantage of that, and a lot of people appear to love it. Those who play games don’t seem to care in the least that what they are doing will have nothing to do with what happens in real space. At least they hope so. (Sometimes they are caught up and find they are badly hurt in the real world because they have believed a false identity). I find it to be cheating, a fundamental lying but that’s because I want experience on the Net to count, though it need not in regular physical space to count.

The reality is there are a whole group of peculiar circumstances on the Net not replicated in regular physical space which are at work (how is it she speaks to me? knows something, though not much, of me? she does), elements which keep some people from posting (all these unknown make them nervous) and which encourage others to post (I’m more comfortable and freer when I am not looking at someone’s face, can speak so much more freely). The largest is it’s a writing space; you have to have a writing self, love writing and not be bothered with revealing this self which is a more private self than the social one.

In my paper the best book was Technology and Women’s Voices: Keeping in Touch (ed. Chris Kramarae) and after that Women@Internet (ed. Wendy Harcourt) because they really genuinely looked at women — for example, that we are so much less technically educated, so much more uncomfortable with technology — but both and (from the title you see this) Communities in Cyberspace essays (ed Marc C. Smith and Peter Kollock) include one on women tenants empowering themselves to fight a local landlord) (are often most on about how cyberspace and regular physical space interact. A slew of individual essays in periodicals were very good too but I no longer remember which was most helpful. For me whose identity is partly that of an academic these were Jill Arnold and Hugh Miller, “Same Old Gender Plot? Women Academics’ Identities on the Web,” paper presented at Cultural Diversities in/and Cyberspace Conference, University of Maryland, 2000; Jill Arnold and Hugh Miller, “Academic masters, mistresses and apprentices: gender and power in the real world of the web,” Mots Pluriels, 19 (October 2001).

My husband Jim taught Information Technology: he’d have 1 or 2 women to 11or 12 men every time. Conferences are 90% male and the women there are often in personnel. The kind of talk men indulge in as social grease is highly sexist and makes women uncomfortable. Men don’t want these women there so they can carry on that way.

I concluded that the internet was an equivalent of the railway in the 19th century in changing our world because I took on that aspect too. People using the railway did not get to say where it would stop or how be organized. That’s what women are today still.

But today I want to begin to dwell on another aspect, one as or more crucial. You can see it’s ignored because most photos on the Net are of people apart from their home environment, on a laptop, shown in business places, out on the street (buying hotdogs as a joke), and mostly with other people around, people in rows with laptops. That’s not accurate. Yes the cell phone has become a little computer in our hands, but that’s someone phoning someone else, acting pragmatically most of the time, killing time too, distracting themselves as with crossword puzzle. It’s not computer cyberspace experience that leads to blogs, websites, web-rings, list-servs.

Much of that time on the Net is spent at home, alone outside (it can be a common room, a library, a coffee place where you can sit for hours), ensconced in an individualized environment.


People’s computers and laptops are at home, an essential part of the whole environment, but just one part

It needs someone or a group like that of Freud and his early disciples to really delve this new area of life, new way of communication. A great deal of what people write is about how a newspapers and communities in regular conventionally organized physical space are impacted by someone who has the courage to break social and political codes, manners, and tell real truths or falsehoods on the Net. It’s not just a matter of finding analogies for family life. Maybe it seems impossible to do but in the 1880s it would have seemed crazy to come up with Freud’s theories and nowadays it’s all commonplace and some of it essential to understand what happens to us. My intuition tells me we have to begin with a new experience of solitude (with others there and not there), how this is recuperative. Then how people feel when they are alone in the pre-cyberspace way, and how much this empowers some when they know they are alone (and hence as women in the immediate sense safe) and how these feelings are transformed into something new. What kind of person does it empower? why? what has been their background to make them feel so? we have to get over dismissing the very real urge of people to be asocial at crucial moments of their lives.

We need to think about how much we can reach on the Net and why it is so vital to keep it un-exclusive. How much information and insight one can have in a day by reading on the Net it would not just take years of books to have, but would not be in books. What are the conventions of postings, list-servs, blogs, webrings that make them so different from what is put into still unchangeable print.

We need to think about why face-book where people do identify themselves and form small but distant groups is so enjoyable. Not scold people and despise them as delusional. They are not. We need to understand the dysfunctional nature of a lot of physical local life and how hollow it can be, impossible to find any satisfaction in. What happens at twitter? Why is this place important to the people doing it, not the important people outside the Net quoting and writing about it.

We need to be frank and examine the hurts people experience on the Net. What are the specific circumstances each time? how did the relations unravel when they would not have in physical local space apart from not being face-to-face. What was allowed and what came out? What were the results? If we cannot tell them aloud to others on the Net individually, think individually and then generalize.


Finally, two people, one the same as the above, brought up the issue of gender lying. Both women. I wonder if men would bring this up. It’s a separate issue. She said to watch a woman, say Sally, pretend successfully to be a man, discuss football, sex as a man, be aggressive and be respected (and perhaps help Sally’s life outside the Net) made her want to be a man intensely. It is possibly true that a woman can and experience power because on the Net she can have an imaginative experience of being a man, and in cyberspace that’s as good as physical experience. There is such a thing as internet sex. For my part, I would never want to be a man, never have. I don’t know how usual or unusual that is for someone who is a feminist. I don’t care that being a woman gives me much less power in most areas because my experience is this particular lack is not much worse than my class (which I saw robbed me from the time I could understand my environment), who I was born to, how little money or connections I had in growing up or after.

It’s not just the old Austen saying (Anne Elliot) that we like ourselves best after all and do not want to trade (see epigraphs at the top of the blog). It’s that I know myself fundamentally as a woman that’s what I want to be. I do think of myself first as much a woman as a person. Frankly (Rhett Butler stuff) I’m relieved that I never have had anyone tell me I had to support a family, had to have a certain kind of job to do so. I’m glad to have options women are given like staying home if I have another source of income beyond marketplace work remuneration. I’m glad to be free by option of having to do well in social interaction to rise to power. It’s not expected of women and they can survive without it and (if they have brains) even now when masculine values have taken over women’s worlds, can still ignore or cast it aside. I dislike and reject some of the disadvantages. I felt under no obligation whatsoever to have children. But then I basically regard life as in itself meaningless and all these things are unreal and one can if lucky pick and choose — and can try insofar as each of us can (what are our genes, where born, to whom, what gender, race, class). Like Woolf, I see that women don’t have identities in the same way at all as men; our gender cuts across all these and cuts us off from much power that comes with this or that identity.

But then gentle reader I do prefer women’s books to men’s, women’s films, women’s poetry.


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Dear friends and readers,

Jim and I are not entirely through with coping with my mother’s estate, we still have some stuff to do about the money she left, which has come to me. Sunday, though, we finished the physical things. This is the story of unfinished business going back to 1971/2.

Shortly after I left my first husband and was living with my parents in an apartment in Bedford-Stuyvesant (for a few weeks before I was to go to England), I found myself wandering in an department store. I no longer remember why. I came across this picture I just fell in love with. I didn’t know the artist’s name and still don’t. It was not an original — it was just a print. But it seemed to contain in it a vision of a mood, a life, a lifestyle that had deep appeal. I knew most of NYC city didn’t look like this row of picturesque brownstones through which one could view a young woman walking quietly. It has something of a feel of my favorite painter, Pissaro. I wished I could live in a part of a city that at least faintly resembled it. Its frame was plain wood and the cost $14.00.

Readers of this blog or the list-servs I post to will know how much I care about pictures.

I took it home. It was not easy since I had to bring it by subway. Then I hung it over my new cherry wood bed. It had come with string and all I needed to do was bang a couple of nails in the wall. When it came time to go to England, I knew I couldn’t take it with me. It was way too big. I had to leave it with my parents in the apartment they had just moved into in Fresh Meadows. This was 1967/68.

Fast forward a couple of years later I had returned from England, was now married to Jim and I came to my parents’ apartment. There was that picture again, but now it hung over the central sofa in the living room. Alas, my father had to some extent ruined it. He had re-framed it with an “better” wood frame that had a gold lining in it. It didn’t fit it. It was too pompous. He admitted that was so. It had become his picture in appearance as well as possession. What else would he put over that couch.

So I said nothing.

Well when we came to clear out my parents’ apartment, bag and box everything and remove what we wanted, I almost didn’t take it with me. I still couldn’t bear that new frame. Further, the picture itself had faded and embrowned over the years. (It’s not as dark as it appears in this blog; that’s the result of the darkness of the corridor.) Morning I used to think in the city was the best time of day, the time before people’s faces took on the growing anxieties and stresses of the day. But who would hire someone to clean a print that had cost $14 30 years ago? It had lost that early morning freshness of colors it had had. Also where would we put it in the truck. It was silly of me to care. It was self-indulgent in a way I couldn’t find reason for. Yet I wanted it. As Izzy wanted the china lazy Susan in the front of the house, and a small reproduction of a fin-de-siecle painting (cost $3 in a supermarket sale) that was in the front room.

In the end I took the Susan, small painting and my large one home. My big painting took up the side panel of the truck and it got scratched. Since I decided on this the last moment, the Lazy Susan didn’t get properly wrapped and one of the china pieces got smashed.

Still she was happy with them. She put the three (one chipped) on the round thing that swings about and now has her pencils, pens and other things in it on her new cherry wood hutch and desk affair that stretches from her desk to Laura’s now ex-desk with a new wide-framed TV on it.

When I got my picture inside though, it was not clear where I could put it. We have 54 bookcases. Most of our walls are covered and those which are not have favorite pictures already. There is Jim’s three Italian sloops in the front room. He found that similarly, took it to work in the Pentagon, and the day he retired brought it home.

It was more like $30.00, but then this was 30 years later he bought it.

Walls with small ones: an acqua nymph on a rock, looking dreamily up from the waters to the sky; an Alma Tadema in black-and-white of pseudo-classical figures listening to someone read aloud Virgil (these from auctions); from thrift antique shops, some commedia dell’arte figures sitting and wandering wearily in a park where some kind of masquerade is occurring; and this print of an engraving in bad shape of a salon with a gentlewoman to the side holding (cuddling) a cat:

A Chardin of musical instruments:

But I did have behind the door in the hall and over the small thin bookcase (with audio books), a stretch of wall that had a sort of reproduction of a Monet of an exhibit from a museum in France that I really didn’t care for. Had it had been a Pissaro that would have been different. Would this fit? just? and how could I put it up? My father had taken away the original string set.

Well yesterday Laura and Rob brought over their drill. I had bought a new string set from Home Depot, and voila Rob put it up so it was straight and beautifully cover the whole wall. The bookcase under it prevents the door from slamming at it. It’s a bit dark in that corridor since there is no window and just one light bulb so you can’t tell how the painting needs a cleaning and the frame somehow loses its prominence.

I had held it against my father that he had gotten my painting. I had acquiesced in giving it up because he had made it his by that frame. But over the years it had become his, it had somehow in my mind stood for where we did share a taste, for he liked it as much as I did — though could not just leave it be, had had to make it conform to some imposed norm of impressiveness. But then when he had done it, he saw he had lost part of its charm.

So, at long last I got it back. But I got it back with this new meaning, that it had been his, but time has now reverted it back into being mine through the operation of shabbiness.

Almost there.


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Amos Brown house, Whittingham, Vermont (seen from angle of the front porch)

Some of our stuff all over the desk in the front room: guidebooks, the log book of Landmark, my French dictionary

Dear friends and readers,

We returned a few hours ago, from our latest venture staying at a Landmark Trust house, the so-called Amos Brown house, in central-south Vermont, a short walk from the borders of Massachusetts, and not too long a car ride from the Berkshires where remarkable theater, museum shows, festivals of music and art go on during the summer months each year. This is our tenth Landmark house (we have gone to these many more times than 10, having stayed at Amos Brown twice now, and Cloth Fair, in London, many times), and that we did enjoy staying in this place may be seen by our having returned to it, and our new plan to stay at Danescombe Mine in two autumns from now, to be able to explore Poldark and DuMaurier sites in Cornwall.

Danescombe Mine turned into a vacation place, Cornwall

But we did return early by two days and because this time we had a working ipad, I was able to write genuine diary entries each day, I offer to these who are interested to explain why we returned early (a problem with the Brown house), and give more of a genuine immediate feel of our travel experience than I usually do — since travel to and from this house we did.


Ellen reading later in the evening front room

Jim upon arrival, in kitchen

July 30, 2012

We arrived yesterday afternoon. It is now morning and I am describing our experience yesterday. The place felt lovely partly because it is so quiet. I am now made aware of noisy even our Alexandria suburban block is. Few or no cars pass by here, and we have a minimum of electric appliances. Sitting in the garden on a rocking chair the air is restorative too — as it’s so cool in comparison to Virginia. All is comparison. The house is a genuinely later 18th century house tactfully restored. We can live here in comfort. On the drive here, I finished Graham’s The Angry Tide, began Baker’s The Rise of the Victorian Actor, and am now going to try Holroyd’s A Strange Eventful History (the enormous book you see on my lap). Jim made us a lovely meal and we once again explored the house.

The handwriting style on this iPad is so pretty but I cannot share it.


I find a working radio!

Said to be paintings of Amos and Sarah Brown

July 31, 2012

Morning again.

I should have said yesterday that I regretted not staying to see Laura (that is, getting off at 9:00 am yesterday morning), as after all we got here by 4:30 pm. Last night our i-pad enabled us to listen to Leonard Cohen and Mahler. This morning we found a working radio and outlet and have listened to Boston’s version of NPR. So we had news (Nevada judge says forbidding late term abortions doesn’t get in anyone’s way, India having life-threatening storm), weather (cool), and now Ravel’s Pavan for a Dead Princes.

It is better having this connection to the outside world. I find this time (as I did the summer we stayed in the 19th century New York house, near Glimmerglass in Cooperstown), that I want to have this sense of connection. I miss the Internet and my Net friends, I miss knowing the news. I wished I could work my DVD player to help tire myself at night so I could sleep 6 hours in a row.

At the same time I like staying in centuries old houses. It makes me feel special, as part of history, conjoined to others. After its history as the Amos Brown farm (basically an agriculturally-based middle class family group), this place became a pleasure second-home for upper middle class people. For example, In the 1930s the rich Grace family played polo here with friends. It reversed this trend in the later 20th century, when it became a Carthusian monks’ sanctuary; it was the monks who let the place go to ruin (while they dreamed of paradises), and devastated the still unrestored Unit (it would cost so much to fix) by using cheap materials to fix things (like cement instead of bricks).

Like the other Landmark places, this house’s furnishings are tasteful. The chandelier in the dining room is such as the Brown family might have had had they had electricity, modern materials to look like lovely imitation iron, and a taste for simplicity. The pictures in the house are much improved. Beyond the supposed portraits of Amos and Sarah Brown, nice landscapes, flower still-lifes.


One of the many new pictures in the Brown house: a landscape in the bedroom

Armide, Cupid, with Hatred (the soprano and two dancers), from 2012 Lully’s Armide, Glimmerglass

August 1, 2012.

Morning again. Last night I had that strange experience I sometimes have at home: I could make out everything in the rooms in this house even though I didn’t put the lights on. This time yes it was the full moon outside. I love the luminosity of the darkness. At nearly 10 pm we did walk out to see the stars and I could make out so many despite the moon making the sky less black. The light comes from 100s of years ago.

Yesterday (July 31st) we drove to Glimmerglass, a long drive there and back (3 hours) but worth it. Beautiful place, friendly talk with people like ourselves in taste, a witty lecturer, Lully’s Armide. The second half very good: Armide is turned from Tasso’s evil witch into a sentimental romance heroine enthralled by Rinaldo, and I feel the story is Dido and Aeneas. I found the music dull, non-expressive. The singers playing the parts looked right. Rinaldo very handsome. The whole thing done accurately as a Baroque opera, costumes, much dancing and beautifully woven in. We ate our own picnic and had white Riesling wine, and ate our dinner at home too.

When we returned, we looked at the Landmark Trust book and discovered we’ve stayed in 10 places: Cloth Fair (London, Smithfield, many times); Fox Hall (Chichester, a duke’s hunting lodge); Elton House (Bath) to follow in the footsteps of Austen, Burney, Radcliffe; Peters Tower (clock tower, near Exeter) to go to a Trollope conference; Shute Gatehouse (Devonshire) to go to Lyme;, the Old Hall (Somerset) to go with Laura and Izzy to neolithic sites, great houses; Georgian house in Hampton Court, the gardiner’s house, wonderful wandering around the grounds at night; Steward’s house (Oxford), from which I went to the British 18th century conference and Jim bought and cooked pheasants; Amos Brown farmhouse, Vermont. Now we hope to stay in Danescombe Mine, Cornwall.

I found in the library in the house (each house has an appropriate library) and red Charles T. Morrissey’s Vermont: a History. Informative, lightly written, decently mundane. 23per cent of people in Vermont live in dire poverty. It’s 19th century iron industries sailing trade, and farming are gone. Factories too — along the road they are arts buildings. Tourism, people who come to second homes, vacationers, and local economies (people serving one another’s needs) are its bases. It’s unlike New Hampshire which is arch conservative, has no income tax, and practically no services for its people. But the decent socially responsible attitude of Vermont’s legislature can be thwarted by the way business is conducted: a meeting is held for passing each law (includes the public and is advertised), thus no laws can get passed constraining hunters to control themselves and keep the deer population up. Hunting and gun types come and shout down, threaten the legislators, and will have brought enough people to vote down the representatives.

We move across centuries in our imagined places.


A picturesque but not untrue photo of main street area in Williamstown — first built in the 18th century

One part of one portion of a wall in the Clark Museum Remix/UCurate exhibit

August 2, 2012.

Morning coffee done I sit and write. The first part of yesterday (August 1st), we enjoyed. I wrote on this iPad, breakfasted, and were happy together. We went back to bed, afterward talked, then rested, and then we drove to Williamstown, to the Clark museum. The drive was pleasant, past quiet streams, around mountains.

We had a good time at the Clark even though most of the museum is closed for extensive renovation. The people running the museum set up two spaces which could give you hours of delight. One, made up of three large interlocking rooms was called Classic Clark. The rooms had the usual set-up pictures on its walls (say 4 to a wall), and these had been taken from the museum’s most beautiful interesting paintings: the curators showed their stuff, they have good taste, intelligence, a sense of humor. We saw some favorites we remembered from last time, a few startling ones (one by Laurence Alma Tadema), each group set up by era (such alluring Constables, and set up with respect to the doors and arches so that when you see one set you have an amusing counterpart looking at you (it seems).

The characters in Alma Tadema pictures are so English upper class — these resemble the actors in the BBC I, Claudius — yet the painting is so good, especially the marble

The other was one huge room called Remix/UCurate was a work of inspired tricksters . I had noticed that there was a selection for small paintings in Classic: I thought the criteria was unusual, no it was small to fit more in. So Remix had many small gems as well as some medium-size, and a couple of well-chosen large. Extraordinarily good and unusual choices juxtaposed in non-era and non-school ways, but whose content made all sorts of comments on one another, often ironic. What made it though was words.

On a ledge were about 10 or more i-Pads, tablets like this one. You took one round with you and it was easy to get to literally several intelligent easy-to-read paragraphs on each, sometimes the painter, sometimes the painting – making you see so much more than you can on your own – I have been persuaded (you’d think I would not need this) words can be an intrinsic part of an art museum experience. And of the wonders of technology. They had four cabinets of small sculpture, plates, silver work, all keyed to paragraphs on the i-Pad. They had fit in in effect a floor of fascination in one room. They had two desks with large versions of these tablets: there the reproductions of the paintings could be large, and, candor here, vied with the tiny painting themselves, at least for clarity.

We stopped half way through and lunched at their service cafeteria and had fine meals. Mine was salmon, good lettuce and tomato salad, and yummy potato salad (with egg and onion), with cabernet sauvignon.

It was too hot to walk much and we could not find anything having any wi-fi. We came home. Jim was too tired to go out and we decided to walk to Massachusetts (half hour walk), and stay in to eat our roasted chicken, carrots, salad. Alas, after putting the stove in, it rained, and it seems Green Mountain Electric Company is not prepared for thunder or rain. We lost power. We found we had no water, and the stove provides no way to shut it off. No on of off button, no plug could be found. We feared leaving the house lest the stove set the place on fire. Even if we had planned it, the Bennington concert (we had thought of going to) was out.

The kitchen, showing the stove we could not shut off

This occurred at 5:30 pm. We called the caretaker number we were given and were assured someone would come to shut off the stove. No one ever came. So we couldn’t leave lest the chicken inside set the house on fire. There was one large candle and we drank wine ate peaches and cheese and bread, but soon it was dark, and we were aware of how isolated this house is. I phoned the electricity company several times, each time getting more response. The last call produced someone for me to talk to. We were promised power back at 8:30 pm but in fact it came back after 11 pm by which time we had gone to bed. No water means no working flush.

Someone in the Landmark log book said they had been this way for three days and nights. Someone else said this house is haunted. We heard what seemed to be human howling down the road twice. Jim suggested screech owls but my guess we are again near a man who beats his wife. In NYC across the alley from our apartment every Saturday night we’d hear this snarling gnarled male voice and then a woman screaming screaming and then she’d cry and then silence; this went on for some 7 years.

The working radio this morning (Vermont NPR) says rain, thunderstorms today and tomorrow. Yesternight involved 1044 houses. I know travel means travail, but last night did not amuse Jim. I began to have bad thoughts about my life. Jim says today we will fit in 2 days activities and go home tomorrow. I am willing to chance until Sunday, partly not to lose the money or time away. I have said to him, let’s not over-react, let’s see how the promised rain affects the house today.

I would be sorry not to go through with my plan to spend a day translating poetry by Elsa Morante, using French intermediate verse in a bilingual edition of her Rime I found on the Net. That’s why I brought my dictionaries.


A tall bear made of woolly roses from Oh Canada

Mass MoCA, the outside and parking lot

August 3, 2012

Morning again. Yesterday (August 2nd), we ended on a high note. We have been very good here together, very happy — in the car, walks, touring towns and countryside, a lake, and our bed much used.

We went to another museum, Mass MoCA it is called, in North Adams City. Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, it made the MoMaA look staid. Three exhibits, and a tiny permanent collection.

Most objects were not paintings on walls, and those which were used the cartoon-y style that has become common. I found charming a large dollhouse complete with furniture. There was one called “love which dare not speak its name and it included a dramatization of the Lone Ranger and Tonto (partly meant to be funny). Much was hard satire on modern culture, the capitalist exploitative sexist absurd and cruel arrangements and norms but much was not preachy, and actually understandable. A book of photos of stealth airplanes used to kidnap people and take them to interrogate, torture and imprison them in secret places. Shell planes run by the U.S. There was a hut with a bed, surrounded by electronic gadgets, the hut a hexagon tent on which were beautiful films of nature, the natural world, including people.There was the usual self-indulgent kind of thing which shows no art (a film of clouds given explanations, surrounded by detritus), but Oh Canada (an exhibit) was superior to much contemporary art.

From the dollhouse exhibit

I remember the bad taste of junk across the Whitney one year by star pupils, doubtless conceived in a strongly competitive environment. Oh Canada had scenes of snow, wilderness used, and history. Two paintings on the Acadian deportations and massacre, parodying the lies of Benjamin west and Edward Dicksee. Artist Marie Doucette.

The building itself was a vast factory where the art was continually to show us the bare brick walls, pipes, all the stairways metal, all doors metal, ceilings with bare pipes. This decor was kept up everywhere, toilets too. We ate in a cafe which had good small meals. I note all the people we see in these places are clearly middle class looking, modern dress versions. Near us in this cafe a man read a Wall Street Journal, his wide had her hair carefully died and cut so as to look super casual.

A photograph of the company for A Month in the Country, set against a photo of the theater

The piece de resistance of our trip, and perhaps all the performances we’ve been to this summer was the Williams Theater production of Turgenev’s A Month in the Country. I’d never seen or read it. We arrived about an hour before the performance was to begin, and it took 3 hours, including intermission.

A very great play modestly put before us with a minimum of stage props and costumes and lights. The actors performed it wonderfully well. Real inward selves versus intermittent public facades to protect themselves was the basic perception with a real attention to power relationships undercut by irresistible human emotions and inescapable social arrangements made the perception Turgenev had of the characters. I felt so for the male friend of the family, living off them, and us by them. Hard parts were sympathetically done — like that of the husband. Comedy, pathos, even quiet tragedy as the young girl is driven by our heroine to marry a rich kind man the girl feels nothing for, yet this problem is and was and is the central arrangement of our heroine’s life.

There is just too much to say so I’ll leave it at that only saying my respect for Trollope went up as I remembered how much Trollope admired Turgenev, that Turgenev wrote an empathetic biography of Gogol. I hope Tyler on Trollope19thCStudies is willing to read and talk about Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons.

I remembered the parking garage and the theater from 5 summers ago when we saw here a superbly rich Lilian Hellman play set in Louisiana and a southern woman’s play about 3 sisters. WTF (a pun) is willing to do quiet Chekhovian as well as radical farce plays. Last time we saw 4 plays (a Stoppard comedy, Shaw’s Mrs Warren’s Profession), a Glimmerglass production of an Offenbach opera; we had one day at a lake. This time we have not been as lucky with the summer theater on offer just when we came, and we have had one bad night.

We then drove back to and toured North Adams City, found an assuming good restaurant where “casual American food”, scotch and ginger ale (for me)’ and artisan beer (for Jim) was to be had, and where there was at last wifi. Jim emailed Izzy we would be home today in time for supper; Laura responded almost immediately. They were at the tennis match together.


Our bed

Our clothes across the way

Jim has surprised me by his determination to go home early, as maybe I surprised him with my willingness to stay, not until Monday, August 6th by 10 am (I had thought that overdone), but till Sunday — to see the musical Class Act, about Chorus Line, which Jim had bought Saturday matinee tickets for in Stockbridge where there is an exquisitely good Italian restaurant; to go to a lake (Friday, today that would have been), and in the l’apres-midi sit and translate Italian out of the French Morante.

But no. We had been away from home long enough. I never heard him say that before. Myself I started perhaps for the first time to talk of how I understood now why people took vacations. This year I had had a culmination of more social experience and interaction than ever before, and understood vacationing was getting away from the stress, self-comparisons and beratings of all that. I really was willing to stay, but as I am ever intensely relieved to be home. I remembered how Laura had said “be sure and come back,” and wanted to know how Izzy was doing, how the cats were too.

On the radio the weathermen kept predicting a hard rain, thunderstorm, maybe even lightning (and perhaps the Vermont electricity company was not prepared for this). I had been scared again last isolated position of the house. Ever since I read Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood I’ve been unnerved at the idea two lone gunmen can come into someone’s house and bully, emotionally torture and then kill everyone in the house. The recent Aurora massacre had reminded me how the US is a violent place, filled with people driven wild by excruciating demands, norms, and deprivations.

And I usually do what Jim wants. I spent my life by his side and he takes care of me. So we packed, and drove home. I’d like to go to the Berkshires again, next time stay in Massachusetts or New York where we are surrounded by people, houses I can see, and feel I am in an area served by an electricity company prepared for rain.


Chairs in front room

I did read Kate Summerscale’s Mrs Robinson’s Disgrace: The Private Diary of a Victorian Lady (excellent, recommended), Lucasta Miller’s The Bronte Myth (which I hope to blog about), am almost finished with Graham’s Stranger from the Sea (Poldark novel 8, which I hope to write about as I’ve changed my view on it, and now like it very much), and began Charlotte Smith’s Young Philosopher, Margaret Kennedy’s Troy Chimneys (a historical novel set in the Regency period — who knew?). I gave up on Holroyd’s overdone saccharine book on Ellen Terry and Henry Irving and never got into his wife, Margaret Drabble’s Arnold Bennett (another time …. ). Jim read Irving Howe’s Notebooks (critical essays), John Hollander’s poetry, and Sondheim’s Look, I Made a Hat. We listened to much music together, and Jim & I read to one another Hollander’s poem, “The Ninth of AB” which begins

August is flat and still, with ever-thickening green,
    Leaves, clipped in their richness; hoarse sighs in the grass
        Moments of mowing, mark out the lengthening summer.
        The ground
We children play on, and toward which maples tumbler their
    Reaches beneath us all, back to the sweltering City:
        Only here can it never seem yet a time to be sad in.
Only the baking concrete, the soften asphalt, the wail
    Of wall and rampart made to languish together in wild
        Heat can know of the suffering of summer. But here, or
        in woods
Fringing a pond in Pennsylvania, where dull-red newts
    The color of goals glow on the mossy rocks, the nights
        Are starry, full of promise of something beyond them,
        Of the north star, south of the warm dry wind, or east of the
    There are no cities for now. Even in this time of songs
        Of lamenting for fallen cities …

It ends with the poet not escaped after all, in a room dark with the old tropes of despair as he turns to fallen cities, to ruined places, wailing walls, human history. It is a profound lamentation

As I used to say to my daughters, when we got home from a trip, home again, home again, jiggedy-jig.


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Bryant Park, at the back of the NYPL, since 1992 a vibrant area where we had breakfast each morning (croissant and coffee)

Dear friends and readers,

Duty brought Jim and I to New York City this past week: we had to help make a decision about how and where my aging frail mother (now 90) is to live, and, as we had expected some of our time during the week was devoted to this. This blog is not about this search, discussions, and decision with relatives (she will go into what’s called assisted living), but rather what the need to come back to the city caused us to do so we can visit more regularly and our time away itself as an exhilarating rejuvenating holiday. People people everywhere, we were knee deep in people wherever we went. And the culture I record is one which is a cooperative reaction to having so many people in a small space. You make way for people on the sidewalk, you weave in and out, so social street events are mass cooperative moments where all try to enjoy something in life side-by-side.

It’s a large room with TVs and blown-up photos of Princeton looking idyllic on the walls: one commercial: “Join the 1%!”

About five years ago, the Williams Club closed its doors (on 37th St just off Madison Ave), and since then, Jim and I have not found anywhere to stay that we found to be comfortable and (for what we experienced) worth the money asked. We had been there since Jim is a graduate of Columbia University (math) and Columbia does not have its own “clubhouse” (as the buildings are called), and had resisted moving to Princeton (on 43rd St just off 5th Ave). It’s more expensive and maybe we would not find it as “home-y.” We gave in, re-joined and the event showed us this rooms are much nicer (bigger, airier), there are more amenities, such as a working library; a front drawing-assembly sort of room, open from noon to 6 where one can find coffee, tea, comfortable tables and chairs, working computers attached to the Internet, and yes lovely chess and backgammon tables too; a nice gym; a interminably open bar (with snacks), dining and breakfast rooms open much of the time. Like the Williams, it has staff who sponsor events like parties, lectures, tours, singles nights. There are conference groups. It’s located more centrally: close to Tickets, a block away from Bryant Park, within walking distance of several museums, parks and of course subway and bus anywhere in the city.

We liked the place that much that we have booked again for early October as that is our 43rd or 44th wedding anniversary, depending on how you count it. We were married 43 years ago October 6th, at 1:30 pm in a Leeds registry office (that’s Leeds, England, up north), but we were also married a year to the night we met, an October 6th, 1968. My joke is I invited him back for coffee and he never left. A JASNA and Burney Society meeting is also occurring that week, and I’ll attend the Burney group whose panels are meeting in a building on 44th St off 5th Avenue.

Beyond drinking, eating, relaxing, talking with congenial people we met there (as we used to in the Williams Club), my reading (including Doris Lessing’s delightful and profound On Cats, on which I’ll write separately) and Jim watching movies using his laptop (one of Wagner’s opera Tristan and Isolde), what did we do that renewed our relationship, brought us closer too once again?

We walked from 43rd and 5th to 30th Street and 10th Avenue and climbed the stairs up to the new HighLine Park. Part of its deep gratifying pleasure is you remember the intensely crowded and noisy streets you had to wade through before you can “get on.” The stairways are places where people get on and get off. This meandering narrow walk with natural seeming greenery, flowers, bushes all along turns those parts of the city next to it into art works as you see them from the perspective of this park — from alleyways to buildings you walk among. The view over to the Hudson is spectacular. The place is quiet, people strolling, sitting, playing and listening to music, reading, just looking out. We exhausted our knees as we couldn’t resist staying on to the end when we debouched around the Village and found a nearby restaurant where we were relieved to sit and have a decent meal out on the sidewalk and watch “the world” go by. We had watched others on the Highline probably also seeing us.

Had we known, we could and would have watched the 1954 movie, On the Waterfront for free at Byrant Park when we returned. As we did not, we listened to music in our room and soon were asleep.

The gateway to the building and grounds

Tuesday we managed to spend a few hours at the Hispanic Society of America, a brief visit to the Morgan Library, and in the evening saw a fine production of a rarely-done Cole Porter, Nymph Errante in the Clurmont Theatre on Theatre Row off 10 Avenue and 42nd Street. I’ll dwell on the absurdly neglected Hispanic Society site: it’s made up of several buildings desperately in need of air-conditioning; the organization lacks the money to renovate because it lacks the audience its rich collections of great Spanish art, potential gardens should have. Within its narrow range it offers experiences likes those at the Metropolitan museum.

Sea Idyll by Joaquin Sorolla y Bastida (1863-1923), whose work the museum has some stunning examples of, especially one vast mural around one room

We found playful work by a 16th century woman sculptor (Luisa Roldan), Goyas we’d not seen before, and unexpectedly striking interesting pictures from the later 19th to early 20th century. The pottery and arts and crafts rooms would have held us but they were stifling. We went into a small library where we saw about 20 dedicated scholars: the society owns 600,000 items from the 10th century to the present day from Spanish and Portuguese speaking cultures around the world.

We walked to a nearby building where Jim said was right now available a huge old-fashioned 8 room apartment for $400,000. We need only sell our house … (I do love my house.)

Jennifer Blood as Eve, Abe Goldfarb as Alexei

Nymph Errante is a paradoxically innocent play: the heroine never manages to lose her virginity; she journeys from finishing school with her friends to a succession of half-mad wild romantic places in the company of risque males, none of whom attempts anything more than the latest Twilight vampire. While its conventional approach to sex for women is grating and some of the dialogue hopelessly naive (a full audience became less than full after intermission), the music is so appealing, lyrics witty and amusing enough, and the tone of the characters and situations so good-natured, and actresses and actors doing their parts so well, the whole is hard to resist.

We enjoyed it, and I recommend trying to see it if it comes near you or you come near it. It was blotted out by the super-successful Anything Goes (both of them starring Gertrude Lawrence). No film has ever been made. That’s a shame since the costume changes (Eve visits that many cultures) begin of themselves to intrigue.

We did get to the two big Manhattan museums. We went to the Metropolitan Museum Wednesday morning. I saw a (to me) horrifying exhibit: Naked it was called, and it was made up of photographs of the naked women famous artists used. It exposed the ruthlessness of these artists, how they used these women sexually. Not one woman’s name appeared. These were handed about instead of hiring more poverty-striken girls. Sheer unconscious porn some of it. That Diane Arbus’s photo of two elderly middle class people naked in their living room just fit in tells you what the curators were implicitly showing you.

I refreshed my mind with staring at a Monet of a lashing sea under a ston-y arch.

A few years back now the Metropolitan Museum in NYC began a policy of
bringing up to the galleries lots of paintings hitherto consigned to the basement as inferior. Among these was Henry Lerolles’s The Organ Rehearsal.

I did notice it when it was first brought up — as who could not. It’s so big and filled with a quiet passion, and the woman dressed like the heroine of Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park with George. The conventional prejudices were against it (it’s anecdotal, about middle class doings) as well as a relatively unknown painter (another no no still), but it is winning out now. here’s a fine lecture from YouTube from an ex-ballerina French woman now involved in conserving and bringing back paintings, Isabelle Duvernois:

Walking away we went through Central Park, and wound about and about (we did a lot of walking), then on the block between Amsterdam and Columbia, West 76th Street where we used to live. I hardly recognized the brownstone we rented a flat in for a year. It did seem the same size. I had forgotten there was a synagogue on the street; now it houses an international school. We ate at the Amsterdam Ale House, not there when we lived there either.

In the evening we went down to 16th Street, to a new complex of small theaters (Potomac Theater Project) to see Caryl Churchill’s prophetic 1980s Serious Money. I could not understand all the details of the money-transactions going on (as I cannot today derivatives and the like), but I certainly got the central point: these amoral thieves and gamblers with everyone’s money are preying on the rest of us, destroying us, while they one-up, needle, and use one another.

A Spanish type Mrs Thatcher keeping up with the lying Mitt Romney (American) wheeler-dealer type

It includes suicide, and inspired wackiness (see review) in the service of showing how little these wealthy people care to help those they impoverish (that’s why in the play they pretend not to know what to do).

The Modern on later Thursday morning to mid-afternoon. A long-twisting and turning line to get in. It had left over from its Cindy Sherman triumph the book of the exhibit and several others; I just bought the cheapest, in paperback, the book of the exhibit. It’s filled with riches, especially the earlier series of untitled black-and-white stills where she is at her finest — her exposing, imitating, parodying whatever word you want to chose how women presented themselves in life and the media 1950s to 60s.

Someone studying one of the Living Man Declared Dead and other Chapters exhibit

Less famous apparently but stunning, maybe more is was a long exhibit of part of a huge book of photographs by Taryn Simon. The museum’s carefully neutral description does not convey the horror and terror of individual lives (some of whom were responsible for this horror and terror) that she got at by tracing the genealogy of the relatives afterward, photographing them and gathering and photographing the detritus of their lives. It was not necessary to find victims of pogroms to do this, though some of the chapters are about descendents of Nazis and the Nazi lives and doings; others are about the winners whose winning ought to appall; ways of desperate lives in Africa. One particularly got me: an Indian region where relatives of one branch of a family will often bribe officials in a court to declare the legitimate heirs to some property dead and take over that property. We see what happens to the disinherited.

Take the time to listen to the brief YouTube on the side. Usually I stay away from anything having to do with genealogy since usually the people want to find famous numinous pasts. It’s silly; you can prove anything about your genealogy too. But I had not taken into account an intelligent use of researching different family patterns in different cultures. Simon herself gets on and discusses what she does. Many are women who can’t be photographed — not allowed by men, or frightened by what others will use of this. And so sad – these rabbits deliberately killed in Australia, how given disease and all their pictures. Tons of money to kill. Trying to stop people gathering chocolate rabbits. Representing a massacre in the 1990s. A woman who hijacked planes. We are all forms of the dead, living ghosts of the past shaping us today.

We even got down to the Strand for an hour or so. it has not gone down! They have just as many and maybe more books than ever. In fact, they’ve improved: nor more turnstiles with lots of suspicious searches of customers. You just walk in :). Downstairs has not changed much: still not air-conditioned, but the reviewer books section is now alphabetized:

Our house is like a library too

The books I treated myself to: Adeline Tinter’s Edith Wharton in Context, Kate Summerscale’s Mrs. Robinson’s Disgrace: The Private Diary of a Victorian Lady. I found a whole row Winston Graham Poldark novels under “G” in the fiction section. Very high up. I had to climb a ladder and then made a young male clerk worried about me as I came down; he came over to stretch out a hand as I tottered up there. These were a 1960s set of books, Poldarks 1-7, a Bodley head Oxford edition whose suggestive illustrations reminded me of an edition of Susan Hill’s Women in Black or the Oxford set of Palliser books.

Demelza on the back end paper

I can’t afford to buy books just like this but as I have just one Jeremy Poldark (in the series the third novel) I bought a second. The set didn’t go beyond novel 7, confirming my sense that novels 8-12 have never been read as much. The best of these latter is Twisted Sword, novel 11 of which I have only a book-of-the-month club version.

For last Christmas Izzy and I got Jim a book of lyrics with attendant comments put together by Stephen Sondheim and a team, Finishing the Hat;; well he bought himself the second volume, Look, I Made a Hat.

Then it was time — just in time — to hurry ourselves to Grand Central, and get on the train to go home again home again, jiggedy-jig. We made very good time, arriving at Washington DC by 7:30; we took the Metro from there and we were Izzy by 8:05 and sitting down to Chinese food with her before 8:30 pm.

We had had some ill luck. Just when we were there Shakespeare in the Park was dark; we found we had just missed out on this lecture or were not in the right week for that show. My spirits were more consistently cheerful than I usually am, I was up to it. What we did not get to do this time we’ll do in October.


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March daffodils to the side of my house (close up)

Dear friends and readers,

Yesterday I had to expend a goodly sum to a group of workers (acting with alacrity to obey their boss), the man who owns Residential Lawn Management, to cut my grass, ground down the hedge in front of my house, hand-cut my new flower bed (which unfortunately I had not thought through so didn’t realize I had to set aside an area they didn’t just mow through), cut down and take away a tree in the back of my garden-yard which had been growing upside down (!). First I phoned him twice (landline and cell phone), half an hour later they arrive; I try to re-tell them the message, they listen patiently and then go about the business after themselves phoning the boss.

They did it with good humor and very well — especially considering they don’t understand English very well and my Vietnamese is non-existent.

So this morning I was drawn to a story by Alex Ulam in the Nation (entitled “Foreclosures” and this exhibit), which I found reprinted and slightly revamped here, How to Rehouse the American Dream, about a new unusual exhibit in the Modern of Modern Art, which exposes how the way Americans end up in car-dependent houses in the suburbs (and lawns of grass to have to cope with) is the result of right-wing polemics as well as control of public media and dreams. Really worth reading about and looking at. I can’t send you to Ulam as one needs to be an online subscriber (I’m only paper subscriber and the Nation is not generous this way), but I can to the exhibit itself:

Rehousing the American Dream

Jim and I also have car troubles, large car bills. Luckily we do live in a city-like suburb with strong pro-social attitudes, Alexandria City, where we don’t have to drive miles and miles to get anywhere that’s fun and interesting and has other like-minded friendly people.

My nearly 20 year old chariot

See Surroundings. The truth for me is I love my unpretentious house set in a series of quiet green-laden streets. Sitting in my screened porch this afternoon, I remember how for nearly 30 years I’ve lived here as I look out at the familiar trees, flowering bushes, houses, streets. But the point I make here is there should and could be an alternative within the reach of a majority of people’s incomes and place.


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Dear friends and readers,

Hitherto I’ve put all my conference reports and news about my papers on this blog. Since the beginning of this year when I created a new blog just for Austen and 18th century studies and women writers, I decided that my reports of 18th century conferences, papers and Austen should logically go onto Reveries under the Sign of Austen. However, as I know I have a small audience for such reports here, I thought I’d cross post just the URLs to the reports of the SC/ASECS conference for which I read so much for an Ann Radcliffe paper and at which Jim and I had such a good time.

So, on the good time we had socially and what touring we did, and my paper:

South Central ASECS: The Nightmare of History in Ann Radcliffe’s Landscapes

The above photo is me giving the paper.

The first day and one half of sessions and papers:

South Central ASECS: Panoramas (gothic, animals in, the Biltmore), Scottish fidding, Rameau & Jane

The third day and evening, a panoply of papers, eating and drinking, ending in a dance:

South Central ASECS: Women writers, poets & actresses, and myths

Just today Jim confided in me that he took the above photo and this one of the central spa in the center of the hotel (whose three buildings formed a horseshoe surrounding the spa, which could be seen from anywhere in the building when you looked down:


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Filmic rendition in Welch’s movie of the famous opening scenes of Dickens’s Our Mutual Friend: opening shot of movie; Lizzie (Keeley Hawes) at center; John Harmon (Steven Mackintosh) back from the dead and drowned the last

Dear friends and readers,

Over the past 10 weeks I’ve been listening to Mil Nicolson (Librivox) read aloud Dickens’s last complete great novel, Our Mutual Friend while in my car. Alas, I didn’t get very far: I was hardly in my car after the 1st week of December, and I was that awkward with the thumbnail drive and the ipod, I kept re-listening to what I had heard. I managed to get near Chapter 20. At the same time though I did read a number of essays on Dickens’s novel and found myself remembering my first reading of the novel while I was in my thirties, when I reached the point of the strained marriage
of Bella Wilfhur and John Rokesmith and Dickens’s presentation of Rokesmith’s way of educating Bella out of her materialism and prestige-oriented values. It seemed to me a reverse of Ibsen’s The Doll House: he was tyrant and she obdurate pupil. I was pulled along by the ferocious rivalry of Headstone (his deep injuried) and the nihilism, arrogance of that expert needle artist, Eugene Wrayburn. Finally the abject Lizzie despised at some level by both and all but Jenny Wren, her loving self-annhiliation.

So I sought quick entry into the novel by way of Sandy Welch’s masterpiece film, a transposition (faithful), Our Mutual Friend. And I found I got closer to the book than I might have done in the text had I been able to read at night. (I no longer can most of the time.) Welch is (as she often is) faithful to the plot-design, keeps all major characters (and invents no new ones), keeps all the hinge points (central plot turning points), famous lines (well what there is of fame). She respects Dickens — and her audience. I just loved this film and writ here about it to suggest it is a deeply humane way reading of the novel and present another case for the greatness of costume drama and mini-series.

Welch’s film is deeply melancholy, sad and opens where Dickens’s does: the river. I remember OMF as being highly unusual for Dickens for its central exploration of sexuality twisted and gone wrong and the conflict of Headstone and Wrayburn, but this far in the book (Chapter 8) the idea that what is driving the world into sickness is not that everyone is longing to love one another and be loved — which is Welch’s particular emphasis.

Dickens’s book had stayed with me: I still remembered the opening on the river between Liz and her bird of prey father after all these years. The 2nd chapter of the Veneerings is generalized out to depict the dysfunctional — unreal, utterly insincere lying — basis of social life and the goals of those who practice dinners. The 3rd chapter gives us some understanding of what we saw in Chapter 1, and we meet Eugene (a do nothing, this type embitters Dickens so, only here we are allowed to see how hard it is to do something and how it’s all wrapped up in money and performance) and then 4th, Lizzie who can’t read because it would offend her father and she can only hope “to influence” if she gives up her inner life.

Dark and bitter and lost. I miss the use of the narrators in Bleak House (Esther Summerson versus the saturnine voice) and the use of 3rd person free indirect discourse in Little Dorrit. We are at such a distance from these figures we listen to and see thus far.

Welch’s film worked for me as all was presented as deep grief from Lizzie’s horrified bewildered point of view. The settings were most of them of narrow spaces, no room to turn, dark too, scary as allowing people to come up behind you and destroy you. Or abject public spaces.

It’s a world based on the river. Everyone gets their living off the river and around it. Even dredging up corpses. People throw themselves into the river or are thrown there.

It’s a world of garbage dumps. Of people making their living scavenging. The Boffins for years have run a huge garbage dump.

Mr Boffin (Peter Vaughn) showing Mr Rokesmith (Steven Mackintosh’s second disguise, now hired as Boffin’s secretary) his house and environs

In the film after the river scene and the party salon choral scene:

Lady Tippins (Margaret Tyzack) in the center

we cut to the scene in the public tavern which comes out of the river: In both book and film we encounter the hard indifference of behavior Miss Abbey Potterson (Linda Bassett in the film) could enact before Lizzie Hexam when Lizzie refuses to separate herself form her father, disliked by Miss Potterson as much for his low status and what people therefore think of his possible horrible crimes as these crimes themselves: he seems to kill poor people, throw them in the river and then retrieves them for money.

Dickens’s descripion of The Six Jolly Fellowship-Porters, like the use of caricature and abstraction, brings us right back to early Dickens. apparently there was such a pub; here is a later illustration by Sol Eytinge (From Victorian Web)

The house is alive, it’s a person or character in itself, a world built of meanings reflecting its significance in its surrounding by its physical characteristics. Stone had not illustrated it.

Part Two of the film veered off to Welch’s emphasis. She presented the characters are intensely eager to reach one another, to love, to be interdependent. Three love affairs in Dickens which I remember as fiercely devouring, finally selfish, are here presented under the aegis of intense need and hurt. Eugene Wrayburn intensely needs Lizzie to give his life a meaning and him meaningful action (to teach her and Jenny to read). David Morrissey delivers a brilliant performance as a half-mad anguished Bradley Headstone, intensely sexually repressed and hating anyone who is not (especially women): he wants to take over Lizzie to prove his self-worth and loathes Wrayburn for dismissing him, laughing at him.

Headstone (David Morrissey) in his school

Wrayburn stands for the world. It’s hard to see if he has any concern for Lizzie (Wrayburn seems to) but the performance is sympathetic. At least I think so.

Paul McGann as the louche drone who is finally reclaimed

The third affair shows us Rokesmith falling in love with Bella whose kindness to her father is made much of. He takes the father out to dinner, and shows him respect. They have a beautiful day doing things like going to a museum, dressing up, courtesy interchanges; she has bought the father a new outfit all at once (Dickens makes the point that this man never before had a new hat and trousers at the same time). He loves her and she is beginning to see the man who is hovering over her with the same intensities as Headstone and Wrayburn has a heart.

Father-daughter, Mr Wilfur (Peter Wight) and Bella (Anna Friel)

John and Bella

The movie is filled with shots of people hugging one another. Jenny Wren imagines herself being beaten and beating others, but she is all loving kindness to Lizzie whom she has taken in as a seamstress and she needs Lizzie as much as Lizzie needs her.

Lizzie and Jenny Wren (Katy Murphy) hugging together

Thus far the Boffins are loving; even Wegg is respectful, enjoying his cake while reading The Decline.

Regret, anger, grief, alienation from one another: the Lammles (Anthony Calf and Doon Madkichan shortly after marriage

Against this the Lammles are obviously a sick couple, full of hatred because they have married perversely; Lizzie’s brother does stand out as inexplicable in character compared to the others. He throws Lizzie off for not accepting Headstone: he seeks status as well as money, We do wonder why? There seems no reason to — the day out of Bella and her father is not at all connected to having status and money; it seems one can pull this off as long as one has a heart. The Lammles have one only for themselves.

Marcus Stone’s illustration


Lizzie’s brother, Charles (Paul Bailey), sent to school

A crucial moment in the book. Chapter 6, the scene where Lizzie comes home and tells her brother he must leave them to go to school full-time and stay away, and then the profoundly affecting/affective scene of Lizzie telling her father, his sudden (to me) unexpected murderous rage, taking his knife and stabbing the table, saying that if his son rejected him, he rejected the son totally and would smash (or some other word) that son, and Lizzie’s abject cringing horror.

The pictorialism of the scene remains in the mind: the outline of the girl cringing in horror more than terror for herself, the old man again a bird of prey at that table.

I took it that Lizzie is not afraid of her father, but we are to understand that though she insists to herself her father does not murder people, throw them in the river and then retrieve them to sell as corpses, at some level (not very deep) she believes it. And it could be he does.

At any rate she wants to separate her brother from him more to keep the brother from the moral contamination than even the shunning of the father that has begun as Rumor becomes explicit. She refuses to protect herself either from social isolation and pariah-dom and refuses to learn to read well and to teach herself because this would arouse the father’s jealousy and hatred and she no longer be able to influence him.

The complete self-sacrifice of this position is intolerable and the contradictions not improbable. If a girl were so electrified with moral horror, she’d not stay; if she had this kind of intelligence, how could she (like a Radcliffe heroine) refuse to acknowledge wrong-doing even to herself; if she refused to believe it, she’d probably be narrow, obtuse, filled with the usual family loyalty that is a species of hypocrisy (so I see it) and clan protection. By doing this Dickens does make such a scene. I would not call her an angel since her behavior is as morally imbecilic as the Radcliffe heroine of Udolpho faced with terror and refusing to run away because forsooth she has to be obedient to her aunt, some piety.

The brother is such a weasel and now I’m remembering this way he and we meet Bradley Headstone (whose second name refers to death, the graveyard, he’s a headstone, and also his great bodily strength — made of stone, his obtuseness). And that is the way Welch has the boy actor do the part in the film.

We see the breakup of families and how it happens and real internecine feeling.

The shunning by Gaffer by crowd or group mentality against his “pollution” as well as self-protection.

This is a novel and film for this decade — not thus far as to analysis of institutions but the way people are just turned into hideous poverty. I was watching DemocracyNow.Org last night and film of the Syrian people, desperately poor, being shot in the streets by their gov’t’s military forces, their home hovels. They have no access to the great wealth of their own country, it’s kept to the few, in this case including not only the elite of their country running it (1% indeed) but the US which gives millions to support that elite (ditto in Yemen, ditto Bahrain). And we need not go so far: the Tories are busy doing this all over England (impoverishing people, destroying jobs, social services, social institutions for public meeting) and the US gov’t here (billions for drones for surveillance, no money for people foreclosed or the least job).

The real trouble with the book is the picture is not attached to anything the way I have just attached it. Welch I think achieves this with her larger landscape pictures and use of choral commentaries (ironic, bitter) in the rich people salon and party scenes.

Did Dickens expect his readers to understand? or simply have an urge to rouse them against the conditions of their time? the problem is the readership is not Gaffer and Lizzie — they are not real people at any rate. I remember how Madame de Stael said the problem with writing novels is you have to appeal to readerships which don’t understand, will get offended, and get past conscious censorship too.

It appeals through inarticulated pictures and a dependence on the reader having the moral reaction which is comprehensive but the readers often do not :) For example, readers online complain of Stone’s illustrations as ugly or weird or not pleasing. They are spot on — and a product of collaboration between Dickens and Stone. I’ve put a few of them into our albums.

Mr Wegg wants some of his body parts back; Mr Venus (Timothy Spall) charges

Mr Venus’s shop in the pictures scarcely captures the morbidity of the bodies. They are done in both the caricature and idyllic style. Headstone writhing on the floor is the latter:


Peter Vaughn as Mr Boffin asking Wregg to become his reader

Crazed madness of Wregg (Kenneth Cranham) before Boffin’s new mansion

The dwarf is a disabled figure who turns up as an evil grotesque in Dickens — and again it’s bodily and again dwarves are often shown to be twisted people where they are blamed for having poison in them, not that their emotional state is a reaction to how they’ve been treated, which is much more the reality. A powerful black singer (Eric Owen) turned the anti-semitic portrait of a dwarf in Wagner’s Ring into a figure that resonated with justified resentment in a recent Met HD production, and the stance seems to have resonated in many heart and ear. I have never read The Old Curiosity Shop. I can’t think of any dwarves this morning. We have to try to remember disfigured characters perhaps to find an equivalent in realistic fiction.

I remember feeling for Jenny Wren who takes Lizzie in. I understood how she could come to love-hate her clinging devouring father.

Dickens’s Mr Boffin seems to me a male type that has disappeared. Literary types do disappear when whatever social reality that gave rise to them goes. He’s the male simpleton, usually or almost always working class. Such men were used in the Shirley Temple movies. I suggest they come from the strong culture of deference which at once deprived most males of higher education and taught them they would be punished hard if they did not appear happy and complacent and even ignorant of the terms of their lot. The type may be seen (paradoxically perhaps but neutralizing the archetype) in Walt Disney’s Snow White’s 7 dwarves. Dickens does improve this by suggesting Mr Boffin is socially insecure, sensitive, avoiding class hurts. Why else go to Silas Wegg? Mr Boffin feels he’s least likely to be despised, and his tiny sums of money appreciated. So there’s a little insight …


Lizzie as Madonna saving the beaten Wrayburn

In Sandy Welch’s film, we have the uncommon case of a male novel turned into a woman’s film — for all the characteristics of women’s films are here, plus distinguishing elements of Welch’s art. Among these both are this peculiar emphasis on the large landscape as a scene of intimacy. We have one here: in the story Eugene Wrayburn as been in effect stalking Lizzie, trying to get her to come live with him outside marriage. He does it tenderly as if he cannot resist and needs her, but he will not marry her as beneath him. She our ideal woman of course knows it’s unthinkable for him to marry her so flees him, but does stubbornly hold out when he finds her out through bribing Jenny Wren’s father — Lizzie has been working as a seamstress for Jenny who took her in when her father died.

But his stalking her is just one stalking; he is stalked in turn, by Bradley Headstone who tells himself his intentions are all honorable. He wants to marry her. That means in reality crush her spirit utterly. He despises her as he daughter of the lowest of the low, a grave snatcher, perhaps a murderer, who drew bodies from the filth of the Thames. He would control and bend her to his will, with an iron mind. This is honor? This is marriage Victorian style yes. Bradley stalks Lizzie too but he also stalks Eugene who drives him mad by his mockery. Wrayburn won’t acknowledge Headstone is there and gets a thrill out of this stalking.

Wrayburn is a sick man, as sick as so many of the people in this novel are.

Unfortunately Welch softens Wrayburn as many do. What she does do — is make the film about people reaching out to one another, prevented from succeeding by the norms of the private property system, prestige, social performance. The madness of dysfunctional behavior if we were to consider what might make good people happy is pictured for us repeatedly in the landscapes. There are astonishing moments of a crippled man named Wegg dancing in the screen against garbage dumps, against rich houses. Most of the scenes are of garbage dumps, broken down places. Others are of the river, wet, stodgy, dangerous, glittering. Some are the corridors of the city, pictured as narrow labyrinth prisons (like a Renaissance painting). Only nature has beauty. Only there are people together intimately because away from the social group.

The colors are so rich. The film much reminds me of her Turn of the Screw, Jane Eyre, North and South in this use of landscape. Here, for example, is Lizzie reversing what her father did. Her father drew dead bodies from the river which he perhaps killed, and he sold them to doctors or anyone who would take them Ah ha another parallel for today: the animal torture business, people kidnap and enslave animals for experiments and if you protest for real, you can be imprisoned as an eco-terrorist. It also shows the ruthlessness of the medical industry then too.

She is going to save Eugene Wrayburn. She has found him smashed up on the wet grasslands (!?) just outside London, done in by Headstone who he Wrayburn did egg on to this.

It’s deeply felt and the book provides the depth behind the vignettes, each story fully played out with details and thought. I loved the music too, slow, rhythmic like a swaying boat in a river.


In the feature Pam Ferris likened Mrs Boffin to a working class woman today who wins the lottery; she is better than that for she has a very good heart, and unlike Mr Boffin is never corrupted into even seeming mean
Some contemporary analogues and characters in other novels by Dickens:

Some of the description of Mr Podsnap (hardly there at all in the film) put me in mind of Newt Gringich, lines about his solid sliminess (words to this effect). He is not the lout the American politician is. Otherwise his narrow hypocrisy and obnoxiousness is probably an accurate rendition of a Victorian type still partly with us.

Miss Podsnap (not in the film) reminded me of Flora in Little Dorrit: made nervous and unsure of herself by never having been allowed to live or have any independence. I wonder if this type is found elsewhere in Dickens. If she reflects Dickens’s wife’s character, then considering he understood that, his leaving her feels worse. OTOH, I was not sure in either Flora or this Georgiana’s case I’m not reading sympathy into the character rather than derision.

IN the book, Riderhood comes to snitch on Hexam in order to get the award and both Lightwood and Wrayburn return to the Hexam residence. The picture of Lizzie weeping by the fire, her loneliness, her desperate circumstances is moving. She is this still picture of abjection and loss. We are not allowed to see inside her hardly at all in this book.

Rokesmith and the Wilburs are brought in very late: almost an afterthought, something that came to Dickens later. Yet a central group. By contrast, in the film adaptation the supposed murder of Harman comes first, and the character of Harmon to Rokesmith brought in very early. I’ve put a still of Steven Mackintosh talking to Bella after they are married on our website page. He’s a brilliant actor and really best at fierceness, anger and I think has just the right amount of intense sternness towards Bella for the part Dickens meant. I just wish his bitterness had been directed elsewhere or Bella had not been made into this shallow type; Welch changes that a lot, and makes Bella have a warm good heart which very quickly learns to be better once she leaves the Wilbur mother (a misogynist bully figure to my mind).

The surroundings are so oozy and ugly and eerie in the book, but then London was not nice place for most people and Wrayburn’s words about the desperate street life he saw Paris (people picking up garbage to make ends meet) probably I assume reflects what Dickens saw and wants us to realize are the real cities too.


As I watched the first hour or so of the fourth and last part (thus half of it) of Sandy Welch’s OMF, it set me thinking more about Dickens’s OMF. The last part of Welch’s OMF moves very slowly: we have a longish sequence of each of our sets of characters waking: everyone getting up to face the day and what they see: Mortimer Lightwood gets up and Eugene not there; we see the desperate houses by the water, Jenny out anxious and deeply resentful but worried about her father; Wegg vowing vengeance — and we see the misery of the workers at the garbage dump (especially symbolic this); Bella looking at John in bed; Mrs Noddy sad in her splendid loneliness; the Lammles smoking nearby as they prepared to enter to offer themselves as replacements for the real friends the Noddys had (the crippled disabled boy is gone as well as Bella): Mr Riderhood finding Headstone bloodied in the grass near his house. Again when a series of climactic events where Mortimer discovers Wrayburn near death with Lizzie; Jenny’s father dredged up from river where he drowned; John outted as John Harmon finally, the Lammles refused, Headstone back in the school where LIzzie’s vicious brother now says he will have nothing to do with Headstone we get another such sequence.

One does not have time for this in the recent (by Andrew Davies) Bleak House and Little Dorrit films, or most Dickens films I’ve seen. Welch is registering a peculiarity about OMF, one which Christine Edzards tried to pull out of Little Dorrit by removing the idiosyncratic grotesques and concentrating just on two central figures as if the story were seen from their consciousness (Amy Dorrit and Arthur Clenham). It’s set up as a mystery with complicated plot, but that’s not what the text really lends itself to. It’s more a series of dramatic picturse linked through allegory. I noticed for the first time that the Podsnaps are totally omitted from Welch’s film, and how sidelined Mr Twemlow is. That’s in line with Edzards’s film. Mr Twemlow is a comic repeat of decency, only comically puzzled and the Podsnaps another set of grotesques, more hateful in their effect than the Lammles who are at some level (especially in Part 4 of Welch’s film) pathetic, as contemptible in our eyes as they ought to be in their own and the world’s were the world’s values humane. (At the end of the Part 4 the Lammles hook on to another innocent couple to live off them.)

I’ve been very moved by Welch’s film; I love how the characters finally come together — the sudden wild violence of Steven Mackintosh as “our mutual friend” — for he has provided the wherewithal to support Bella, by extension Bella’s father, the Boffins. On Welch’s account it’s John Harmon who is the Dickens figure in this novel, the alter ego, not the more dramatically riveting Wrayburn or Headstone.

All three are Dickens in a sense (Wrayburn what he rejected but impulses in him), but Harmon stands for what is good — as does Arthur Clenham, what is right. Seeing the book this way turns it on a pivot for me and makes it if not easier to get into and engage with at least growing out of a central vision underlying the later books. This time he’s simply made a quieter book.


The green and lovely gardens surrounding the house John Harmon can provide the Boffins and Bella and his child with; we see Jenny and Sloppy join them in a picnic scene

Lammles forever playacting, forever to be humiliated hangers-on

When I came to the end of the film I was very moved. This is one of the great — of many great film adaptations done by the BBC or British TV — and occasionally by commercial groups for movie-houses. The idyllic ending for some had been prepared for in Part 3 when they reached out to one another (Bella and John’s beautifully unadorned marriage with just the father behind them walking in the park); the lousy ending for others by their egoism (the Lammles with their opulent wedding and now cold mean life). Welch had filled out Dickens’s characters with her projection of human need. I can only hope the new spirit abroad of making travesties which assume the audience has not read and would not even like the book fall down on the reality the audience they seek really is not keen on this genre for real – not done with depth of emotion and seriously conceived interaction between era, text, film.

The film also ends with yet another stalking sequence: now the fierce hateful Riderhood stalks Bradley Headstone. We do feel very much for Headstone: this man is a rat, a snake; David Bradley the actor who did the part looks like the actor who did Wegg: Kenneth Cranham. Both are older thin man with heads that can be made up to look skull-like.

Headstone says he never had a friend and when it’s clear that Riderhood (David Bradley — have I done justice to his performance) is going to suck him dry, he’ll starve. He walks away and Riderhood follows and of course what happens is the lonely desperate hurt man (whom no one would know any more than the people at the end of the film will know Lizzie) turns on Riderhood and takes him down to drowning with him.

So the antepenultimate scene of the film is the filthy scary greasy polluted waterways with bodies seen floating in it. Where we began. (The pipeline so touted that Obama did reject would take filthy oil down the center of the US to be exported; not to get any jobs for anyone in the US, and it would pollute). Have people heard of fracking? OMF is about 19th century fracking.

The penultimate scene is a montage partly scene from Mortimer Lightwood’s point of view — he is the only unpaired presence:

Mortimer Lightwood (Dominic Mafham looking down at Eugene in bed)

where we see Sloppy taken in by Jenny and they become a couple interspersed with Rokesmith and Bella and baby and the Boffins on a blanket. Mr Wifur seems forgotten here. (So too Lizzie’s brother but then he wanted to be.) We hear Eugene talk of how he might go abroad with Lizzie but Lightwood would miss him. The perspective on this scene is Lightwood as outsider but needing these people too. Wrayburn wants to go abroad for the wrong reasons: he’s ashamed. He should not be he’s told. Rokesmith rowing and his face seen.

I loved the last scene. After all Podsnap might have been in the social scenes: if the fat nasty man so gussied up is him. Well he and Lady Tippins and everyone are sneering at a party at Wrayburn for marrying this waterman’s daughter. They are disgusted. Why Lightwood stays with these people is beyond me — but it’s what makes us see them. Lightwood appeals to Twemlow and Twenlow has his great moment: they are shits, and what’s most their point of view is stupid and ugly. It’s articulated very generally: anyone who lives in accordance with what he or she thinks is the imagined respect of society is a fool for in a way there is no such thing. “Society’ is a shallow mirror we make up with our own minds, and anyway (to be particular) Wrayburn never cared for these people any way.

A curious contradiction: we are to grieve for Headstone for not having any friends but at the same time see that false friends and the world’s admiration is not worth the loss of your soul. The camera ends on Twemlow and Lightwood.

I liked that ending very much though I’m not sure it was Dickens’s emphasis. It seems to me to speak to 21st century people and come out of a particular perpsective often seen in the finest costume dramas made by women and a few men too.

Eugene and Lizzie’s hands holding tight to one another

In Welch’s film, the pair are never shown in close conversation — except one scene half suggestive itself where he is trying to get her to come and live with him. Even then it’s seen from
afar. It’s all vignettes. When Wrayburn talks, it’s to Mortimore
Lightwood; when Lizzie talks it’s to her brother, father, Abby, Jenny Wren, and except to her brother, it’s all reactive. We see Bella visit her but hear no conversation. In the book is it that we are made aware of how different in class and education they are?

Welch’s is quite different from Davies’s presentation of Amy Dorrit and Clenham: Davies fills in the relationhips, and in Dickens’s book while the scenes between Amy and Arthur are not dramatized, they are told in the third person indirect mode. (Too much is made of showing and not telling, until the 20th century the scene described was as common as the one dramatized.)

This film and book certainly made my spirits soar and validated what I know to be the correct view but one it needs strength to hold to because there are too many Lady Tippins and Podsnaps and Lammles about, to say nothing of their instruments and the hateful complicit angry people serving them too.


At work in the garbage dumps of the film’s world — out of which money is to be made; the actor here when he pulls off his mask turns out to be Sloppy (Martin Hancock), the disabled young man Mrs Higden took in

Finally, we come back to the river. It is the case that in the 19th century the Thames River was (relatively speaking, say compared to today) stuffed with corpses. The vision that Our Mutual Friend projects is not a fantasy nightmare. Many ways to look at this, but I’ll content myself with being literary and say it’s another instance of how the gothic genre is as real, and can actually tell us more about what’s important in life than books which adhere to what’s called “realism” (Trollope is called realistic).

Unfortunately, we have no photos of people dredging the Thames for corpses or dropping them in, but I did see a reproduction which has something of the same meaning as Our Mutual Friend‘s real life symbols: at the Museum of Modern Art there’s a show on of murals by Diego Rivera (see just below for the LRB column by Hal Foster on this) and one includes “Frozen Assets:”

Our modern more decorous version of corpses at least here in the US (outside the US until very recently it was rare for the armies of capitalism to attack citizens outright — now drones are okay too inside the US) does not include soaked human bodies floating in or underneath our waterways as a usual thing. For dead bodies we must go to the streets where they are dragged off to the side, or better yet, hospitals (yes hospitals) where if the person is brought back, it’s with a huge bill. In a way what a black joke is there: the body brought back is priced (chattel slavery priced people too)

Anyway Hal Foster describes the Rivera mural impeccably:

“Frozen Assets is an inspired montage: Rivera based the vault on those he had toured in Wall Street and the hangar on the interior of the Municipal Pier on East 25th Street, while his skyline combines a few downtown banks with several new buildings in midtown, including the Chrysler, Empire State, McGraw-Hill, Daily News and Rockefeller Center (the last three of which were designed by Rockefeller favourite Raymond Hood). The allegory of this literal exposé is explicit: the building boom that gave us the great skyscraper city depended on the cheap labour represented by the subway drones and the sleeping bodies as much as on the stashed assets. In this not-so-divine comedy, the pier is a grey purgatory and the vault a brown hell, as much prison as bank (in this faecal cavern, Rivera almost suggests the anal sadism that Freud associated with money). Only the skyscrapers have any vitality, but their animation is fetishistic; indeed, Frozen Assets depicts a fetishisation of capital on a metropolitan scale, in which urban liveliness counts far more than the actual livelihood of working men and women; unlike the labouring bodies in the other murals, they are the real ‘frozen assets’ here.

Diego Rivera, Frozen Assets (1930)

It may be not be realized but today again aging people in the US fear nursing homes the way the poor in Dickenss’s time feared the poor- and work-house

Another death scene: Lizzie caring for Mrs Betty Higden (Edna Dore), Welch’s interpretation emphasizes the loving care, but the words are the terror Dickens gives the old woman

I understand there is a film adaptation of Edwin Drood “in the works”. I hope so for I’d like to see a good film adaptation in the tradition of the older ones like this of that last book. There is enough there to figure out an ending Dickens probably meant.


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