Archive for the ‘men’s memoirs’ Category

Pete Seeger on stage 1960

Dear Friends and readers,

I just watched a 90 minute American Masters program about the life and singing of Pete Seeger, an extraordinary hero. If only more people were as brave and good as he was, what a better world this would be. I put this link here in the hope others will watch it too:


One of Seeger’s choices to pay attention to: he refused to do a commercial selling cigarettes with the Weavers. The other three were willing in order to be paid the big sum. He saw correctly this was agreeing to sell cancer, and would change the meaning of their folk group ever after. A small but important gesture. However, not powerful beyond himself since so many would sell themselves. The program is well worth watching for understanding the success of the political hounding of this man and how what could have been a progresive politically galvanizing change in the US through folk music was thwarted: Seeger was centrally responsible for the folk revival in the 1960s, but it could in the 50s (when he was part of the Weavers) and more recently been a force for political change but has not. We see the role the FBI has played in the US since the 1940s.

For more songs, testimony, and life history of Seeger see my blog Pete Seeger has died.


Read Full Post »

The important thing is not to take it [whatever happens] as a punishment

I do like to be beside the seaside

Vince (Ray Winston), Lenny (David Hemmings), Ray (Bob Hoskins), Vic (Tim Courtney) — Jack’s son & his friends about to throw Jack’s ashes into the sea

Amy (Helen Mirren), Jack’s wife saying goodbye permanently to June (Laura Morelli), Jack’s daughter

Dear friends and readers,

Last Orders in Graham Swift’s magnificent and moving book, and in Fred Schepisi’s film of the same name refers to closing time in pubs: just before 11 when it used to be time to close, everyone drinking placed his or her last orders; it also refers to Jack Dodds’s last orders before he died: he asks that his ashes be scattered on Margate Pier where he and Amy, his wife, spent their delayed honeymoon, nearly 50 years ago.

Jim’s last orders were to cremate him, buy an urn which looked like the urn in the HD Met opera, Giulio Cesare, engraved with a witty turn on Rupert Brooke:

If I should die, think only this of me
   That there’s some corner of a foreign mantelpiece
That is for a while England.

Beyond that nothing indicated, only (implied) do as little as possible. I probably did not follow that last (implied) instruction, but then in Swift’s novel & Schepisi’s film, Amy does not herself go to Margate, but rather spends one more day visiting her and Jack’s severely retarded daughter, June, for nearly 50 years an inmate of a mental asylum (of a large type that doesn’t exist any more).

As the day begins, three men waiting for Vince to arrive with fancy car, look at Jack’s ashes

First startling flashback: Jack (Michael Caine) feels larger than life, drinking

I got through the last two nights and days and this morning by rereading Swift’s novel (which I’ve assigned to classes several times), watching the film twice (once with Schepisi’s voiced commentary) and reading in a favorite book of poems for Jim: John Betjemann’s Summoned by Bells. Both texts and movies evoke & picture worlds, milieus in England that Jim growing up participated in. And Last Orders is the story of a post-funeral rite: Jack’s four friends take a journey, drive across southern England, from London, into towns, to a war memorial, a farm (Wick’s) where Jack’s parents as young half-broke adults met and made love in, where June was conceived (so a couple of night’s love-making determined their lives as the two married), Canterbury (the cathedral), onto Margate by the sea. During the journey through (in the film) flashbacks and (in the book) intertwined subjective meditations, they each travel in memory to different stages in their shared pasts.


Inside the car

On the bus

It’s a quest into the self for each of them. A return. In the book it is towards the end that we learn it was to Margate Jack and Amy went for their honeymoon, a honeymoon taken after they married (a forced marriage) and the birth of a severely mentally retarded daughter. In the book they fail to rejuvenate their marriage; the film wants us to believe that Jack’s love for Amy and hers for him made for a solid relationship; in the book we see that though they continued to live side-by-side for 50 years, both were dissatisfied; both felt trapped. Nonetheless, Jack wanted to go back; he dreamt of returning (though it’s probable he knows he didn’t have the money), but he wants to make up to Amy what he had not in him at the time to do: to be some substitute for all she ever wanted out of life. Not having gone back in life, he asks that he be brought there in death. She refuses to accompany the men. He has not compensated her for all she has given up to comfort his hurt male ego: one way a man is said to be manly, the effective man, is to have successful children. Jack wanted more: he wanted a son Amy adopts while he is away at war, Vince, to follow him in his butcher business as he did his father though he would’ve liked to try to become a doctor. Three of the men would have preferred a career other than the one they ended up with: Lenny wanted to be a star boxer, and Ray a jockey.

Young Jack (J.J.Feilds) and Amy (Kelly Reilly) with very young Vince and Sally at the seaside

Ray and Amy reading Jack’s last orders — the Thames a continual presence in their bench scenes

Thematically it’s a return to the sea. Margate is haunted by memories in the minds of the characters, though the sea is unchanging and seems not to notice the human beings or time that passes through it; human beings can’t leave a mark on it; life comes from it and Jack returns to it. People came from it
as life did; they return to it to enjoy themselves. I do like to be beside the seaside, by the beautiful sea. Is man a noble animal? He has aspirations and we see in these aging men their disappointed aspirations.

Amy also takes a trip: a long bus trip to the asylum where weekly she goes to see (never recognized) by their daughter, June. One summer 25 years ago Ray and she went there and then for the rest of the summer they traveled about in a camper: the most fulfilling heterosexual love she has known is with Ray. It’s her words about him being a lovely man that we remember at the book’s close: “Oh Ray, you’re a lovely man, you’re a lucky man, you’re a little ray of sunshine, you’re a little ray of hope.” He is the providential figure of the book, winning great sums at races when people need it, personally unambitious. Ray thinks Jack knew (p. 284). We see in Michael Caine’s eyes in the hospital whenever the camper mentioned that he did know and he expects (ambiguously it’s hinted) Ray and Amy will now become a pair. And his sole concern is to make sure the £20,000 he owes on the shop is paid so Amy will be free of harassment and solvent. But I noticed this time how scared Amy is now on the bus; you wouldn’t think Jack no longer being alive in the world would affect her safety and security, but she feels this blank as fear. (That’s how I feel w/o Jim; it is my strongest emotion, the source of anxiety attacks.)

In the film it seems certain Ray and Amy will now travel to Australia; she’s no longer land-locked, but in the book we never know for certain. The weekly trip is partly spite, partly to get back at Jack for not wanting her. She presents it as a love gesture, a gesture of deep longing as the mentally retarded individual can’t even recognize Amy as her mother (or refuses to). Over the course of the novel Amy adopts three other children in compensation: Vince, whose family is destroyed by a bomb from a plane, who becomes their son; Sally (Lenny and Joan’s daughter) who they have to exclude from Vince’s aggressive sexuality aimed at Sally; and then Mandy, who seeks to run away from abusive parents but ends up in a new home quickly, and whom Vince marries. But Amy never does give up that weekly bus-ride — until this day of Jack’s death. She will not return again; it’s time to make a new life for herself. I find that true to life.

I noticed that in the movie flashbacks move chronologically; in book they are placed so as to give us the most emotional impact at the right moment.

Old Jack and Ray where Jack is showing Ray his debts and Amy’s photo once again

Young Jack and Ray (Anatol Yousef), where Jack is ever slightly taunting Ray

It’s a book written from a strongly masculinist point of view, more interested for example in Ray’s betrayal of Jack (who half-teased Ray cruelly about Ray’s lack of height and physical prowess) than Amy’s in this deeply happy love affair. In book and film it’s left ambiguous whether Jack knew, but it seems he did and never tried to gain any revenge. Ray manages to have these trysts by the use of a small camper he takes Amy to June with. Their times together are described as “traveling about.” Amy thinks how the bus ride is the high point of her week. “It’s where she belongs,” what she enjoys most. We see her riding on the top of a double decker looking about her. High up. I know I love a train ride for similar reasons

Camper at races, Ray and Amy making love inside

As opposed to the men of the book, the women never get a chance to wander away from their community; they are enclosed in relationships dominated by men or reaching toward men. At the close of the book Ray tells Amy he has won the money necessary to pay off a mortgage to (presumably the usual brutal debt collectors), and asks her if she’d like to go with him “down under.” “Well Ray, Australia is very far away, but I always did like traveling about.”

Most of the pub scenes do not include the women: here we see the younger actors

Women characters are important though they are seen through the perspective of men and their lives are controlled by men. A kind of archetypal femininity going on: seduction, wife, the one in the home who makes it; who is bound by it. Mandy tries to escape and ends up with a new father and mother; she doesn’t get very far — she is a good wife to Vince; both live close to parents and see each other daily. Vince may not become a butcher, but he remains close to his father, needing him and needed.

Women’s journey is landlocked; domesticity as tedious, as historyless. They are seen as inward. They lack a story of their own; but the men’s stories are pre-determined by their cultural norms of masculinity which tie them up in knots. Men cannot dismiss the unreal and illegitimate norms that they (Lenny as prize fighter and now peddler) has allowed to blight and control his real inner emotions. His earlier youthful sardonic realism is now bitter and angry as he lashes out at Lenny for having impregnanted Sally, Lenny’s daughter, and deserted her. She now makes money selling herself, her present husband a convict. But it was Lenny who insisted she have an abortion rather than shame him. Your gender determines your kind of freedom or lack of it and this book shows us unfree women. Thejourney and ceremony are a male enterprise in the film; the males go off to war. But they are bound by state and money and class they are born in.

Old Jack, dying, asking Vince to find £1000 for him

Younger Vince telling his father, Jack, you must go work for supermarket, and then giving Jack a few quid to tide him over

It’s also about parents and children: we have generational conflicts. Vince keeps his father at a distance, wants his self-interest to reign above all. We do see the emotional isolation of these people while they all yearn to connect. Mutual disloyalty binds them to one another. Like life.

They are entrapped in frailty and biology, in nature’s processes, in society where they are thrown. It’s also an excess of affection and intimacy which betrays people. You give too much; you burden the other person, and you want too much back. Fantasies of idealism lie behind slogans of family values.

Coming into present time Margate

The book is also an elegy to an England that no longer exists, several Englands (like Summoned by Bells), the film a trip through history. Pub, restaurant, meadow, great cathedral which goes back in time, but most centrally a natural place again: working class holiday in Margate. Simple language
resonates out to deeper truths contained in simple statements. “It was the luck of a summer night (p 268) why you are saddled with one person and not another.” Comical wry as well as gallows humor: Jack is now “a Jack in the box;” he’s carried around in a plastic bag one can carry a jar of coffee in. England’s continual raining: “Atrocious weather” (says Amy, p 276) “Not far to go now Jack” Says Vince craddling the box with the ashes in it as they near Margate (in November).

Walking up to the cathedral

Places: Canterbury Cathedral, an historically specific site and spiritual place, a threshold into old religion; Margate a seedy holiday resort and out of season too, yet place of oceanic timelessness, of dreams and departures. Along the way, the pub they met at all their lives, Bermondsey; the pub they eat at, the war memorial with all the names of who died; and they remember being torpedoed Wick’s farm (the wick of a candle) where the agricultural techniques go back centuries. Places become meaningful to us as they embody our memories and the history we share with others. The hospital and race-course. The phone where Amy hears of Jack’s death from heart strain. Lots of deaths are told over a phone today. The present is dwindled. I like the lack of condescension; I like his choice of working people. A vision of a modern industrialized country as average people.


In cathedral others tour and Ray remembers

the day he propositioned Amy by telling her he’d retired & can now come with her to visit June

The book reminds me of Faulkner in that chapters are named after characters, and in each character’s chapters we are in that character’s consciousness traveling through the past. Schepisi says one of the difficulties of the film was to make it appear a narrative. It jumps around in time zones. In life thogh when someone tells a story, they don’t tell it straightforwardly. You go back in time; then relate that to another past, going back and forth by association. Since the book is written in London working class dialect, this can make for hard reading. In a film you must let the period shown tell itself – not cut to furniture or prams or signs; must keep drive of emotional drama; absolute accurate detail will give the time away so the viewer does not get lost.

Jack Dodds — he’s dead when the story opens. Jack was a powerful intense presence in these people’s lives. In a sense he’s really not dead at all. In the film they alternate Michael Caine alive with scenes of the box of ashes. What is striking about the box of ashes as we look at it? We think that’s what we’ll be someday. Get used to it. In the book he remains a central figure in their minds.

Ray Johnson. It’s arguable he’s the chief character is Ray Johnson. He gets the most chapters. He is the most perceptive and articulate. His words are sheer poetry. He is tempted not to give Amy the £20,000 we watch Jack engineer for her: by asking Vince for £1000 and then asking Ray to bet on it extravagantly. Jack dies at a moment of intense happiness when on TV he watches the chosen horse win. at times. Ray does replace Jack by the end; Ray enabled Vince to open his car business; and it seems that Ray was a central supporting character in Jack’s life and Jack in Ray’s. Ray will take Jack’s place; Jack knows this. He is the single organizing consciousness; he gets the most profound lines. We are told he is intelligent; he has it “up here;” he does not come from people who would send him to university. However, he is no more of a worldly success than the others and he retires as soon as he can — reminding me of Jim. Vince wants to make big money, have fancy cars, go on fancy vacations. If you don’t, you’re nothing. Swift’s story critiques this idea as cruel and unreal demands. People can’t get much farther than they start out. Truth is we are thrown. Ray the odd fairy godfather of a book where the world is supposedly ruled by “blind chance.”

His daughter, Susie, leaves him; he gets the money for her to go to Australia with the young man she has fallen in love with. In that one moment he is a sterling human being in kindness, insight, offers her a life she wants. But as a result his wife leaves him too (!). She can’t bear to lose the daughter. We don’t own and can’t control our children to follow us in life is an important lesson of the novel. When young, he’s scared of sex, small, chubby, unprepossessing. Swift explodes false notions of males. He is in a way the strongest of the four males — emotionally. He carries weight of Vince when Jack can’t; Vince goes to live with Ray. Uncle Ray. He’s a brother to Jack too. Carol, Ray’s wife, leaves him too because the camper is the last straw — her idea of travel is far more elegant, glamorous; she would love to travel far (like Amy she wants something not in her husband),

Winston as Vince deeply moved remembering and scattering ashes of father into English farm

Vince Dodds (originally Pritchett). Given the most complicated personality. In conflict with the father yet loves him intensely. Hurt because adopted, hurt over June as his real sister. Wants to compete and come out high. He vomited in the meat van; did not like being poor or working class. He never for a moment considers that what hurts him most are values he need not believe in and in fact doesn’t really live by. He’s his parents’ son; he marries the girl they brought home to him; he lives near by. He shops for his wife. Indeed he’s got the tenderest of hearts. He has consciously taken on and believes in vicious values as in his exploitation of Lenny’s daughter’s vulnerability, he beat her too (Sally).

In the novel he’s not a nice person. A bully, a manipulator, not too honest. He desert Sally pregnant. He allows his daughter, Kath, to sell herself to a wealthy comer. He betrays his daughter, Kath just as Jack betrayed his, June — according to Amy. Lenny also betrayed Sally though in paying for her abortion (with money Ray again won at the races) though Lenny meant well. It is important to understand the terrible stigma of a child out of wedlock in the 1940s; her life would have been ruined. It was ruined anyway, but not really Lenny’s fault. Vince didn’t try to help Kath. Yet makes money for others, & must take care of them; & has a tender heart and strong passions and at moments means well. Ray Winston is wonderful in the part.

Vince is also very domestic. He is a house-husband to Mandy who in a sense was his sister. The ultimate rebel never left his father’s aegis; stayed close; is there all the time. That’s another reason he’s a success in a way. But maybe this value is a good one. Swift leaves you to think and decide. Why should men be ashamed of having feelings? This is awful to jeer at. Modern too: he moves way from the earth, from flesh, to machines. He wants to move fast in a powerful automobile.

Ironically Mandy seems luckiest in some ways. We don’t see much of her and don’t know how she feels about Vince or her daughter, Kath. Later in the book Amy thinking about the world as intense competition and failure, says to herself maybe June was better off where she was. She does not mean that fully.

Emphasis in film on four men and their view of world — here in a pub having lunch

Victor Tucker, an undertaker who took over his father’s business too. Learnt to accept his role during WW2. He tucks people away. We are asked to see him as the most content. He’s the priest of the book. He’s come to terms with himself. I find his portrayal the least satisfying of the novel. He
ought to be more conflicted. However, a brilliant actor, Tom Courtney, got the part. Courtney decided to emphasize Vic as conciliator and one who says “you can’t judge other people.” We do like that value. He did the first funeral; he brings the jar. We are seeing a much better funeral than usual. No false ceremony; no huge amounts of money. Here we find real grief and an attempt to confront real conflicts among the men. Vic is Unobtrusive, the mediator; he knows to keep secrets. Victor also suggests Victory. His beautiful descriptions of Canterbury cathedrale bring out history and rootedness.

Lenny held back from trying to fight with Vince

Lenny Tate. A disappointed man; in the book we see he will die next. Not in good health. Exboxer he now peddles fruit and vegetables. He doesn’t want to use the word death. Says the uncomfortable thing, the truth. He is bitter, resentful. He can’t help but punch out. And he points to things: Why is Amy not here? Amy ought to come. He calls Vince Big Boy to needle him. High point of drama in the movie is when Lenny attacks Vince at Wick Farm while Vince is scattering ashes where his parents first met and also told him he was adopted.

What’s Amy like? Her voice really first emerges in the second half of the novel. A beauty, a siren (Kelly Reilly is beautiful) when young attracts Jack, Lenny, Ray, but herself entrapped by her body and nature. Mandy is her replacement for Vince. Both Amy and Mandy make love in the camper (so too Sally). We see in the film and hear about in the book how Vince is comforting Amy now that Jack is dead. Some of the finest moments are hers fully remembering. She does like retreat. The world a hard harsh place, p 239. But retreat costs and were it not for the fairy tale winnings she’d have vicious thugs at her door demanding £20,000.

Narrators: Ray, Amy, Vince, Lenny, Vic, Mandy, Jack. We don’t hear from Joan, Pam, Carol, Sally or Kath. We hear Mandy only once (pp 153ff), and near the book’s close, Jack (p. 285). In the film Ray and Amy do the remembering outside the hospital a week before Jack dies, and the men in the car do the remembering as they move through the day.


Young Jack telling very young Vince he’s adopted and about June

Young Amy looking on and wishing Jack wouldn’t

I have read that much in the book reflects Swift’s own life. Fred Schepisi said that the actors he hired all connected back to this working lower middle class background in England as did he in Australia. Jack a version of his father and Amy of his mother.

I read the book and watched the movie to extend my enactment of a funeral and cremation. So as not to feel so alone. Graham’s point of view on life is one I agree with. And its Englishness brought me close to my husband no longer alive, more gone than Jack in the fiction since so few got to know him, and only I have tried to extend his consciousness into the world.

The last still of the movie

Where has Jack gone? What is death? What do we mean by it? Swift explores the body and how people feel in their bodies. When the body dies, the person dies. But the person was not just his or her body. Jim is still here in my memory and in all the things in the house he helped acquire and enjoyed. He is not yet cremated and I don’t know how I shall really feel about having Jim-in-an-urn in this house on the mantelpiece. I want to scatter the ashes — preferably in England if I can get back — he need be “only for a while” on that mantelpiece: I shall interpret that line that way. I’m not a character in an ancient drama. I’m with Amy in Last Orders who was chary of accompanying her husband as ashes to Margate.


Read Full Post »

Marquis of Steyne (Gerard Murphy) the one strong man in the film who sees through Becky (Natasha Little) as a liar, thief but wants her intensely (1998 BBC/A&E Vanity Fair, scripted Andrew Davies, directed Marc Munden)

The Marquis of Steyne (Gabriel Byrne) propositions Becky (Reese Witherspoon), played for comedy (2004 Focus Vanity Fair, directed Mira Nair, scripted Julian Fellowes)

the Dobbin figure, though apparently clumsy, yet dances in a very amusing and natural manner: the Little Boys’ Dance has been liked by some and please to remark the richly-dressed figure of the Wicked Nobleman, on which no expense has been spared — the Manager

Dear friends and readers,

I recently re-watched Andrew Davies’s magnificent film adaptation of Wm Thackeray’s Vanity Fair and felt I had walked into a terrain shared by Anthony Trollope & Thackeray too. In Davies’s depiction of the male characters in Vanity Fair he makes visible what drew Trollope to Thackeray and where Trollope’s texts resemble Thackeray’s. So much criticism and ordinary reader commentary concentrates on Becky Sharp and Amelia Sedley This criticism marginalizes a large group of characters by Thackeray given equal importance: Dobbin, George Osborne and his father; Joseph Sedley and his and Amelia’s father; Rawdon and Rawdon’s son (made more important in all the movies), the Marquis of Steyne; the older and younger Pitt Crawleys, not to omit Becky’s memories of her drawing master alcoholic father (and how no one else forgets such a man was her father).

I began to realize how in his Thackeray, Trollope’s perspective on Thackeray derived from how Trollope was consciously looking at Thackeray from the point of view of his success as a novelist and more generally as a man: Trollope had in mind criteria of masculinity and what makes a man admired. Trollope measured Thackeray from the point of view of the man’s career and unlucky marriage. In the sections in Thackeray on Thackeray’s novels Trollope shows a fascination with Thackeray’s strong women (Rachel and Beatrice as well) and ethical men. Thackeray’s is a strongly gendered fiction as is Trollope’s and Davies strongly gendered films.

Strong women, weak men — a development of this kind of contrast is central to Davies’s films, Thackeray’s VF and Henry Esmond, and some of Trollope’s novels, but especially He Knew He Was Right, one of the two Trollope novels that Davies has chosen to do, and the choice is highly unusual because of the explicitness of the theme of the partly despised because anguished male. I’d been reading Trollope steadily once again for months now, criticism, writing papers & proposals, and watching Davies’s movies. A couple of months ago I returned to Thackeray through Trollope’s literary life of him, and feel that it was Trollope’s life of Thackeray enables me to see a shared territory between the three of them in a nervous exploration of real men’s lives and psyches against what is expected of them.

The blog is about how one can see the convergence of Thackeray and Trollope’s points of view in the way Davies adapts them. As I’ve gone over these themes in other blogs on Trollope, I’ll concentrate on Vanity Fair here, one where the exploration of masculinity’s ordeals and losses is insufficiently emphasized, especially given how prevalent it is in the book & films.


First shots & male: POV child Becky looking at her sick, impoverished dying drawing master father (1998 BBC/A&E Vanity Fair, scripted Davies)

So, memory too a bitter desire for revenge may be part of Becky’s motives in Davies’s film, brought out as partial explanation for her coldness; but its source for Davies is her relationship with her father which Davies’s film begins with. This father is referred to many times in the film adaptation as that which in her background makes her unacceptable: Thackeray did make her a daughter of a drawing master and everyone refers to it at some poit. Who was her grandfather? In the film Becky’s memory is this picture. She’s getting back.

The young men are tied to and dependent on the women in this book and film:

George Osborne (Tom Ward) about to collapse into Amelia (Emmy’s) arms the night before Waterloo (Davies’s VF)

Lady Jane (Sylvestre le Touzel tells young Pitt she’ll leave him if he allows Rebecca to be part of their lives again (Davies’ VF)

Older men are part of the continuum. An unexpectedly powerful thread in the story-line of Davies’s film is a contrast between the anguished failure of Amelia’s father and the seething loneliness and self-hatred of George Osborne’s father in his scenes first with his son, then bullying his daughter, and then trying to reach his grandson (hopelessly) through drink:

Grief striken Mr Osborne (Tim Woodward) with his grandson (Davies’ VF)

The depiction of Mr Osborne is extensive: his grief for his son George and his mis-bringing up his grandson — he is but a child and cannot drink with his grandfather the way the son did.

Thackeray gave Davies’s the trajectory of the abject Dobbin finally at the close realizing he’d wasted his life in worship of a small foolish woman too late:

Philip Glenister brilliant in the part (Davies’ VF)

Where Thackeray neglected a potentially tragic male, Davies built the character up: Davies gives us Rawdon and Becky’s courtship, Rawdon’s becoming subject to Becky, sharing, giving his all, trusting her naively (while not naive in any other area of his life), then gradually awakening to her coldness (to his boy) and unconcern for him. Rawdon cries. His becomes the moving story of the movie:
Rawdon (Nathaniel Parker) looking at her, saying I gave you all (Davies’ VF)

In a sense he dies of the loss (escape is his solution, but Coventry is a death sentence) giving the boy to Lady Jane who not having a child of her own, ironically the boy Rawdon becomes the owner of the estate

The accent is on heterosexual males except perhaps Joseph Sedley who modern critics tend to turn into the book’s closet (or unaware) homosexual, his debonair plumpness and lack of military prowess and woman companion inviting this.

The awkward Joseph (Jeremy Swift), the films first shot (Davies’ VF)

Some critics go so far as to suggest it’s not Dobbin or George Osborne Thackeray has put part of himself in, but Joseph Sedley with his love of gourmet eating too. At any rate, the sexual angle in Davies’s Vanity Fair brings home the vulnerability of males to female sexuality; the males whatever their orientation are presented as enthralled and subject to women again and again, even where it’s not admitted or maybe especially.

Characters degraded, debased, become, however sordid and ugly, poignant in their vulnerability to loneliness: thus the aging Pitt (David Bradley) whose children by his 2nd wife Becky first becomes governess to and is a harsh semi-grotesque character is pitiable when we last see him and he’s lost Becky:

Old man (David Bradley) lonely at desk (Davies’s VF)

Nair and Fellowes pick up the depiction of comic lechers in Thackeray as shattered pitiable. Davies gives Steyne insight into Becky’s lies, thievery, ridiculous veneration of ribbons and the highest-ranking people.

In my paper Trollope’s “Comfort Romances for Men” I argued Trollope was developing an unconventional portrait of manliness out of identification and concern; last week I came across similar approaches to a continuum of males in Trollope: from Gordon Ray and Peter Shillingsburg to Joseph Litvak (Strange Gourmets); I’ve been aware for a long time how Davies’s key identifications are with the non-macho transgressive males, the inept and inadequate, the Oedipal struggle, gay men. This is not the first time Davies has made me aware of an underlying stratem in work no one ever wrote about before.

I know that Davies changes the story. For his exploration of masculinity I’d call it (the term would be manliness in Victorian times), the story of Rawdon and Becky’s relationship is much extended and show more centrally — to the point that when Rawdon is rowed away to Coventry (and we know death), the series seemed to suddenly collapse for a moment or so; we had reached its natural ending. Davies though picks up strong with the reappearance of Dobbin and bringing Emmy centrally onto the stage, and again he has changed the story as it’s not until very late in the book that Emmy realizes the piano was from Dobbin. The way Davies at first shows them as clearly a pair after Dobbin returns from India, with Emmy appearing to fall in love with Dobbin is not in Thackeray

Dobbin (Glenister) given more dignity by having Emmy (Frances Grey) in love with him and her boy look up to him in Pumpernickel (Davies’ VF)

so that in the film adaptation Dobbin gets two powerful scenes of her betrayal while (if I’m remembering right) there is but one in the book, and Dobbin’s disillusion is omitted except that the words used in his second betrayal are about how she is not worth his devotion much more emphatically. The men’s bullying their wives is given full play — the way men treated women in the 1820s. Admittedly this is not in Trollope except late in his career (it’s in The Way We Live Now but early books has women liable to bully men) — that’s a real part of Thackeray’s and Davies’s feminism.

Steyne terrorizing his otherwise snobbish aristocratic wife by implicitly threatening to tear her ear with her earring (Davies’ VF)

Gambling and cheating (in all its aspects) are elements in the build up of perverted men, destroyed men (by the system they live in). Gentlemen must not work and when disinherited are simply without funds to carry on because they must inherit money as gentlemen or are businessmen, but they must not fail as Mr Sedley (David Ross) did:

His mind shattered, he clings to rolls of paper

This would have been George Osborne’s case had he lived. The woman are oddly not destroyed and remain strong psychologically — that is very much Davies, I am not sure about Thackeray not having read him enough but do remember how strong Beatrice was in Henry Esmond and something I read by Sutherland suggests the strong woman who is amoral and yet a heroine is what struck Thackeray’s contemporaries.

Gambling is bisexual in the sense that Rawdon acts with Becky until she goes too far and betrays him — and that life’s a gamble in the book.

First shot of Becky and Rawdon married — she’s counting up his winnings (Davies’ VF)

Davies shows how Rawdon allows himself to be corrupted and is cheating for Becky for years; but Becky has been stealing since she first left Miss Pinkerton’s and the stash of jewels found by Rawdon are many years in the making. This is re-emphasized in the coach when Lady Jane recognizes Becky’s super expensive shawl as a shawl that was in Queen’s Crawley years ago and has (she now realizes) gone missing. Becky does gamble to live by the end.

I have meant this blog to be about a convergence of themes in Trollope, Thackeray and Davies, so some areas I’ve not looked into as yet: for example Thackeray’s distaste for snobbery that Davies shares but Trollope defends. Seen in the light of depiction of problems of masculinities, its false materialistic values, “snobbery” destroys people — ethically too. Thackeray shows us how sentimental folk turn away from financially ruined snobs especially.

Davies’s Melmotte’s (David Suchet) downfall: he wanted to be an English gentleman: part 2 of film opens with dumb show of him having himself painted with a gun, dog, and backdrop of country house and curtain (2001 TWWLN, scripted Davies, directed Diarmuid Lawrence

Another is the characters’ urge to find a high status as a gentleman and the demands this elite image makes. Robin Gilmour’s 1981 book, *The Idea of the Gentleman in the Victorian Novel*, contains a long chapter on Thackeray’s gentlemen, focusing on the shift from dandyism and military glory to domesticity. It’s the kind of book summaries don’t help with as the insights are intricate to the argument and come fast and many over each page. The best review I could find was by Alexander Welsh, half of whose review is on Mark Girouard’s Idea of Chivalry.

The nervous edgy violence of Jonathan Rhys Meyers captures this aspect of Osborne best (Nair’s VF)

Simon Raven’s book about the death of the ideal and type of gentlemen in the UK is relevant because Raven wrote the first The Way We Live Now script (1969), which I suspect Davies’s based his adaptation on — but I cannot get to see as I cannot travel to London this summer.

Emily (Laura Fraser) and Louis (Oliver Dimsdale) fail to cope with the arch rake, Colonel Osborne (Bill Nighy) who knows just how to insinuate himself (2004 HKHWR, scripted Davies, directed Tom Vaughn)

I’ll close on parallel concerns with masculinity between Thackeray’s and Trollope’s books: He Knew He Was Right dwells on internal psychological intangible states as brought out in psycho-social dynamics, all shaped by sexuality, social norms and fears (especially male anxieties, ego needs), and money and power; The Way We Live Now an analysis of the larger forces of society as we see them enacted by individuals, not just prophetic of today, but enacting the same patterns we see today albeit different costumes.

Trollope’s attitudes emerge as closely similar through his paradigms and voice-presence. Davies of course saw this in his choice of the two and the ways he handled them, though his TWWLN reminds me of modern mini-series like the 1991-5 House of Cards, the modernity of his and Hooper’s Daniel Deronda and subversion of costume drama’s pieties in Davies’ Moll Flanders; HKHWR takes on some cheer and strong women from Plater’s Barchester Chronicles. Davies though specifically has his younger males, like Paul Montague, repudiates the model of the “mature” man marrying the girl (she forced into it) as tyrannical, egotistic, appetitive disgusting (so much for Plantagenet Palliser ….)

Davies in his one original novel, Getting Hurt, gives us a man as uncertain, anxious and shattered as Louis Trevelyan. And as lonely as Dobbin. Our aloneness another theme angled similarly in Trollope, Thackeray and Davies.

Ah! Vanitas Vanitatem! Which of us is happy in this world? Which of us has his desire? or, having it, is satisfied? — Come, children, let us shut up the box and the puppets for our play is played out — the Manager


Read Full Post »

Thackeray’s drawing of the jester-narrator of Vanity Fair

Dear friends and readers,

Over the last several weeks a few of us on Trollope19thCStudies read Trollope’s An Autobiography and, as a coda, his Thackeray. Trollope had spent the time of writing An Autobiography thinking about the relationship of his life to his fiction, and he carries on with a similar perspective in Thackeray. As his Thackeray is not much discussed, I thought an account of its parts might be welcome. It is much much better than those who have read it have acknowledged.

In The Cambridge Companion to Trollope, ed CDever and LNiles, Victoria Glendinning has an essay on Trollope as autobiographer & biographer and, unusually, deals with Trollope’s Thackeray and Life of Cicero. As she does in parts of her biography of Trollope, she says while Trollope clearly revered Thackeray Trollope’s tone is of a friend watching a good friend play tennis and “agonizing as he sees him knocking the ball into the tent.” It is true as she says though that Trollope is exasperated by Thackeray’s lack of work ethic, view of society, destestation of “snobbishness” (I’d call this in Thackeray hatred of what Thackeray sees as worship of rank and hierarchy), Thackeray’s “abnormally bad” characters (that’s Trollope’s view).

For those unfamiliar with Thackeray’s writing who are daunted by too many pages, you cannot do better than A Shabby Genteel Story and Other Tales, as edited and beautifully introduced by D. J. Taylor in the Everyman edition. A Shabby Genteel Story is a sort of Vanity Fair in little; Thackeray’s “Going to a Hanging” is included; as Hugo’s Last Day in the life of a Condemned Man presents the cruelties of the rituals & realities of state murder from the condemned person’s point of view so Thackeray exposes the crowd enjoying it. There’s “On Being Found Out,” good notes.

Wm Makepeace Thackeray (1811-63)

The Introduction: Trollope begins by telling us he is hampered by a lack of papers and knowledge of Thackeray’s intimate life, so has determined to write a literary study, consisting of a brief general sketch of Thackeray’s life and character, and individual discussions of Thackeray’s writing. He makes use of whatever he has, including Thackeray’s friends’ memories. What Trollope creates is the picture of a successful literary career. Trollope was unusual for his time in presenting his own life as an author as a life of a career professional, and now repeats this perspective for Thackeray. This is how he puts his aim:

it certainly is not my purpose now to write what may be called a life of Thackeray. In this preliminary chapter I will give such incidents and anecdotes of his life as will tell the reader perhaps all about him that a reader is entitled to ask: how he became an author, and will say how first he struggled, and then how he worked and prospered, and became a household word in English literature; — in this way, he passed through that course of mingled failure and success which, though the literary aspirant may suffer, is probably better both for the writer and for the writings than unclouded early glory. The suffering no doubt is acute, and a touch of melancholy, perhaps of indignation, may be given to words which have been written while the heart has been too full of its own wrongs; but this is better than the continued note of triumph which is still heard in the final voices of the spoilt child of literature, even when they are losing their music. Then I will tell hew Thackeray died, early indeed, but still having done a good life’s work. Something of his manner, something of his appearance I can say, something perhaps of his condition of mind because for some few years he was known to me. But of the continual intercourse of himself with the world, and of himself with his own works, I can tell little, because no record of his life has been made public.

So we learn of Thackeray’s birth in India, his father’s early death and his schooling in England. Thackeray did not lose his fortune sheerly by gambling, dissolute life or incompetence; he invested in a magazine, a very difficult way to make money. We see Thackeray slowly through journalism achieve reputation and financial success. He does not write hagiography, but his evaluation of Thackeray is conditioned by memories of his own arduous struggle. So although Trollope speaks of Thackeray with the highest respect, he harps on Thackeray’s lack of diligence and procrastination=someone who will do it badly. At one point he says had Thackeray gotten a gov’t job he tried for (using influence and for the money) he’d not have had what it takes to get up early in the morning — the portrait is of himself. Trollope does bring in Thackeray’s suffering helped cause the procrastination. Trollope does not specify that Thackeray found urination very painful, probably the result of venereal disease, for which there was no cure and no painkiller but opium. Nor that this disease probably caused Thackeray’s early death.

Trollope’s way of describing Thackeray’s early career rings with truth: how hard it was to break in, how a connection led him to Fraser’s, how his style and genius was recognized. He says again how easy it is to begin being a writer, but to make a career how one must go step-by-step. Thackeray’s way was through journalism. I was impressed by the candour which states that Thackeray fulflled his potential utterly three times really: Vanity Fair, Henry Esmond, Barry Lyndon and in some of the character portraits beyond these books (Colonel Newcombe and literary life in Pendennis). There is a striking comparison of Thackeray with Dickens: Thackeray distrusted his talents and Dickens thought well of his; Trollope feels that the public liked Dickens immediately was not a sign his work was greater at all, and that Trollope’s sympathies are with Thackeray.

Trollope says that Thackeray’s great flaw is a kind of holding back, a refusal to say fully what’s on his mind, a failure to present his vision fully. I suggest some of Thackeray’s holding back is that he was afraid to offend by telling the truth so wrote gentle satire when it was in him to write satire more in Swift and Johnson’s veins. That is the implication of Barry Lyndon which is more like Fielding’s Jonathan Wild in outlook than Tom Jones.

Trollope also critiques Thackeray as an artist: his drawings highlight and visualize the spirit and tone of his books superbly well, but Thackeray can’t draw (with verisimilitude is what Trollope means).

So there is much here on Thackeray as such, irrespective of Trollope. All biographies are after all a picture of the subject through the writer’s mind. Trollope is much troubled by Thackeray’s cynicism and tries to argue he was not a cynic based on his kind heart and generosity to friends and family. To assert that the latter precludes the former is to misunderstand cynicism. Because you generally see the world in bleak hard and realistic terms does not mean you don’t love people; indeed a cynic might be more inclined to help his family (as we see Thackeray desperate to do for his daughters – that’s why he did the lectures which were distasteful to him, very) because the word is such a hard (mean too) place. The false formula comes from a negative view of cynicism. It reminds me of how people — often of religious turns — think atheists are not moral. They are. I’ve found that if a person is religious is not guarantee he or she will be decent or moral; their religion is function of their character not the other way round so many religious people use their religion to justify cruel and inhumane behavior.

Thackeray in Punchblog
A Punch cartoon by Thackeray

Chapter 2: Fraser’s Magazine and Punch. Trollope’s as good as G. H. Lewes in pinpointing what is the central urge of his author’s texts as well as central techniques and use of just the right passage to convey these things. As Trollope says of Lewes’s limited audience, since few people themselves can see these things, this kind of writing often is not appreciated. Again Trollope is also judging Thackeray by his own conscious morality.

Since Trollope clearly enjoys Thackeray enormously and certainly understands his meaning, it may be suspected that without being able to admit it, Trollope sees the validity of Thackeray’s vision. Only Trollope won’t write it. He simply will not write a Catherine as the subject matter is so “deeply unpleasant.” He simply will not present the full amorality of society’s structuring, whether in the ancien regime with an aristocratic pattern the one lauded or after it with the bourgeous one. Trollope doesn’t approve of telling partly because he sees by telling you make what is — this cruel amorality — appealing, even if at end the hero ends up in a bad way (punished). Trollope sees the meanness of human kind as the real target of Thackeray’s snobs, but he says isn’t Thackeray “hard on people?” and they are having sparks of good nature and enjoyment while they behave in these phony ways. Trollope’s right that snobbery is hypocrisy and if you are genuinely wanting to show your luxuries, that’s not wanting to show them as a evidence of your status so as to definition yes the word snob won’t do, but it’s something else Thackeray is fueled by, and Trollope may be right that to make money Thackeray over-worked this vein, but the key here is Trollope doesn’t mind “the humbug” of people as much as Thackeray; he is not against snobbery, finds hierarchy and a climb up and satisfaction in that valid.

For myself everytime Trollope quoted Thackeray and I heard Thackeray’s words I agreed with Thackeray, e.g. “The Broker of the exchanges who bull[ies] … ” (p. 73) When Thackeray says ironically “it does my ‘art good” (p. 78) it is a kind Swiftian vision presented as utter good nature and makes me think of Goldsmith’s Vicar of Wakefield. In each case Trollope analyses Thackeray’s texts to bring out their qualities. The opening with the satire on other novelists Trollope has picked passages which send up the very pith of what novelists had begun to claim was their genius: I’ve “fathomed the mysterious depths of the human mind’ (Trollope society edition, p 64). I love how Trollope marveled at how Thackeray was able to keep up the ironic stance of Barry Lyndon throughout (see paragraph beginning, “The marvel of the book … “, (pp. 72-73)

I rather enjoyed Trollope’s quotations. In the era presenting misspellings was seen as hilarious. There is a class-bias here, but I felt that Thackeray’s misspellings created satires of their own, on the concepts hypocritically supported, some were salacious puns. Stil this kind of thing is easily overdone — most modern readers seem not to have much tolerance for it.

There was only one place where I thought Trollope didn’t get it. The poem he quotes at length about a girl leaving home who almost kills herself. Trollope presents this as simply a ludicrous form of joking about a foolish girl (pp. 68-69). And perhaps consciously Thackeray presented it in this light — it’s quoted without its contextualizing story. But reading it myself straight it seems to me to have real feeling for this girl who wanted to escape and really wanted to kill herself but after all didn’t have he nerve and so went home to unsympathetic and dense people whose response was to “punish” her by depriving her of tea for a fortnight.

Thackeray’s character sketch of Becky Sharp — with dolls

Chapter 3: Vanity Fair. The chapter is much less wide-ranging and has fewer surprises than the previous. There is also not as much about Thackeray’s style in this chapter, but then he’d talked about that in the others. While it seems at first that Trollope has his doubts about Vanity Fair’s moral tendency and thus its value, by the end of the chapter, he has come round to say that the novel gives us a rich journey through the world where we learn something on each page; we see much of its evils and follies but are not allured (says Mr Trollope). First he follows Becky and is ironic himself over her continual successes: Trollope does not believe a Becky would have these successes and thus aims a quiet shaft at the book. He will have it that Becky did love at least a little her very stupid captain. Trollope cannot stand her at some level: over and over again we hear how false Becky is. His own Lizzy Eustace is a loser and not presented at all with any tenderness or identification. (He comes much closer to Thackeray’s Becky with Arabella Trefoil in The American Senator.

Trollope thus also half-disbelieves any man could be so besotted with Becky so Rawdon has got to be stupid. Trollope stands up for Amelia — even then most readers were frank enough to complain about the exemplary heroine – here Trollope does not seem to see that Thackeray is very ambivalent about
Amelia’s kind of goodness and he only quotes how Amelia gets her strong tree to twine herself about; he does not quote Dobbin’s disillusion with Amelia by book’s end and the sense that she’s a parasite on him. (That disillusion may be part of what fuels the ending of Gone with the Wind when Rhett finally gets Scarlett and looks at her and is not keen: “Frankly, my dear … “) But the world around them he cannot deny.

Dobbin (Philip Glenister) home from Waterloo, having left George Osborne dead on the field (1998 Vanity Fair, scripted Davies)

Trollope made me remember Andrew Davies very great 6 hour VF and want to re-see it. I feel that Trollope’s way of seeing Thackeray’s book is closely like that of Davies only Davies is not bothered by Becky’s amorality the way Trollope is. Davies’s idea of Pitt is just such another as Trollope’s Pitt and the actor who played it — David Bradley — perfect. Here Davies’ comic vein succeeds masterfully.

Illustration for Pendennis by Thackeray
Thackeray: a sketch in Pendennis (colorized)

Chapter 4: Pendennis and The Newcombes. I really liked Chapter 4 better than Chapter 3 because I felt Trollope went into the heart of Thackeray more. There are a number of striking insights into the “condition” of Thackeray’s mind that arise from each of his accounts of the books he examines. Trollope does not go in chronological order in order to show us how The Newcomes comes out of Penndennis: like Trollope Thackeray has recurring characters in recurring partly imagined partly real landscapes across books, e.g., Pen is editor of Newcomes; Costigan a mean man (in every sense of the word) recurs. Trollope’s comment is Thackeray’s novels are all like “a slice from the biographical memoirs of a family” (p. 115)

A particularly good general insight: “A sardonic melancholy was the characteristic most common to him, — which, however, was relieved by an always present capacity for instant frolic” (p. 119) The passages Trollope chose to quote were to me like Arnold’s choice of touchstones. For example, on p 118 of the Trollope Society edition, beginning, “What’s the use of it all …” Where Trollope goes off: he’s displeased that Thackeray doesn’t follow conventions (!) and provide happy endings for admirable heroes and heroines. He, Trollope, often does not do this; I wish Trollope did it even less than he does. We have to remember it’s Trollope who thinks a character like Miss Quigley is an ass; Thackeray may not. (p. 117)

For my part I didn’t like Pendennis because I felt despite the satire Thackeray thought altogether too well of Pendennis as s an important type of male. Trollope is right that he’s selfish, worldly, false, padded, caring altogether for things mean and poor in himself. Nor did I like Dickens’s Pip nor Austen’s Emma. To me these characters are dream selves of authors who forgive them because of their social status.

Thackeray’s first illustration for Esmond: the boy: ‘Le pauvre enfant, il n’a que nous’
Chapter 5: Henry Esmond and The Virginians. Henry Esmond appears to be Trollope’s favorite novel, and he thinks it Thackeray’s finest masterpiece. Why? The psychological complexity, the genuine historical content (serious) and the distinctive true (not falsely sentimental) depiction of Esmond’s mother and Beatrice appeal. Trollope admires how Thackeray managed to invent a language that seemed later 17th century and was not pastiche, not false — though on the other hand, Trollope adds that Thackeray never “dropped” this tone and kind of style altogether later. He does use it in the sequel, The Virginians. (In another place Trollope said it was the problem of inventing a language redolent of 1790s French that defeated him in part in La Vendee.)

Trollope prefers HE to VF because of what he takes to be the lack of cynicism in Esmond: its gravity of tone. Trollope keeps emphasizing also that this is a planned book and that is most unlike most of Thackeray’s. (He, Trollope, planned his books and it’s rare — Framley Parsonage is one place — he began to publish a book before he finished it even if after FP he wrote his books as if they were all going to be published in instalment chunks – that was a way of shaping his narrative. Trollope does — as he does most of the time everywhere – avoid discussing the deep sexuality of Thackeray’s Esmond which has the central male loving his mother and marrying her.

I should mention how much I liked Henry Esmond. We’ve read and discussed it twice (!) on Trollope19thCStudies and if anyone cares to you can find weekly postings on it there. Judy Geater put many of the original illustrations into an album. While it’s heavily indebted to Scott (17th century Scotland is part of it), it’s not about politics but private experience, inward. Andrew Sanders has a good chapter on this novel in his Victorian Historical Novel, 1840-1880.

Thackeray’s image of Beatrice come to womanhood

For the concluding three chapters (6 & 7, 8, and the conclusion), see comments.


Read Full Post »

Colm Toibin when much younger

Dear friends and readers,

Last night we went to a local bookstore which regularly hosts talks and classes about books (as well as a weekly storybook hour for children and tours too), Politics and Prose. We’d never been there before, and to the area only once, when last July we were invited to come to a fourth of July barbecue (what a treat for us). A member of the Irish embassy asked all those who came to read James Joyce’s Ulysses on Bloom Day. We heard about this because Jim got an email from the Irish embassy which now has his name.

A large old-fashioned bookstore, two floors (!), where books are actually set up by their categories and within that the author’s name (like a library, like Borders once was). A couple tables upfront with latest sellers, and in the back audiobooks on CD. You can wander about and come upon treasures just like this. I saw Alice Kessler-Harris’s A Difficult Woman (a biography of Lillian Hellman) on display, but had decided for Toibin’s Love in a Dark Time: And Other Explorations of Gay Lives and Literature, a book of somewhat rewritten essay-review meditations published elsewhere (the LRB, the NYRB and other places). If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you know how much I like his essays, and how I’ve loved those of his novels I’ve read thus far. It turns out I’ve read 4 of 7 (In praise of Colm Toibin: Un-put-downable).

Last night he was there to promote his latest novel (apparently the 7th), The Testament of Mary. Yes the central character is the Virgin Mary (does she have a last name like the rest of us?). It’s a really a novella, a short one at that, and from what he wrote a retrospective meditation by Mary some 20 years after the brutal crucifixion of her son. She is now living in safety, relative peace, left to herself by all and two visitors show up, one Lazarus. Yes he takes liberties — good historical fiction often does. The core idea is the irretrievableness of what happened and how she cannot forget and if she could change it, do it differently somehow, how she longs to. It’s memories poured out. As a subjective narrative by a women it harks back to his great The South. He seems to have a predilection for writing heroine’s texts (Brooklyn, Henry James in The Master is a kind of male heroine).

What a large crowd. It did not overwhelm the store, but it was much larger than we’d expected of such an intellectual sensitive author. There were not enough chairs for all.

He began by telling us of his trips to Venice and two paintings of the Virgin he had stood before repeated: a Tintoretto, perhaps The Presentation of Jesus at the Temple, and a Titian, The Assumption. What he seems to have liked especially about the latter was her red robe and how she soared above reality. He is himself getting older.

Recent photo — he does look like this, only he is a small man, somewhat bent, light brownish-white skin, light brown hair

Today I see that the Tintoretto has Mary in a red robe too, and the picture’s content against the reason for its festival, takes us across her life.

They were the inspiration for the book. He did not tell us why he wrote it, only that he would like it to be taken seriously and he didn’t mean it as a mock. He didn’t think the church would bother notice it — he said this in answer to one question afterwards. He does read very well, and his voice was how I’d imagined it, Irish lilt but not too heavy. I stayed awake and listening for much of it, though when his register came too low I couldn’t hear it all. We were in the back, having arrived only ten minutes before the “reading” started.

It was obvious he’d done this many times. He was smooth, and seemed such a sweet man. These sorts of things are part of what makes an author successful. The book launch. He’s learned how to do it. Among questions asked were does he have a routine, a place he always writes, what does he write with. He said he writes anywhere and with any thing (mostly a pen) and no he’s not a routine type. He does sometimes have to write a book quickly or whatever quickly lest he forget it; get it down, and then he comes back to work at it. He is not a man who has written a lot of very long books, say like Dickens, Trollope, Margaret Oliphant, Wm Dean Howells, and they all had fixed routines and places they wrote. He has made his career through socializing too and his oeuvre (in pages) most actually be preponderantly non-fiction.

I wanted to reply to something he had said before starting his readings. He said that other “classic” fiction novels, 19th century, were no help “here.” He comically alluded to Lady Catherine de Bourgh, Dickens’s Miss Havisham, they could not help him. Nor Henry James. Perhaps Mrs Touchett (Ralph’s mother, isolated, alone, an “odd” woman.) While he was reading I thought of Daniel Deronda’s mother, Eliot’s older heroine who returns 25 years after giving her son up to another so she could have an operatic career, a life of her own. Now bitter, not remorseful, but regretful because after all she ended up marrying and having children anyway. The dreams she had had not been realized and how here was this son reproaching her.
But the mike was too far away.

I didn’t try to buy anything directly afterwards. The line became very long. Instead we walked three stores down to the Comet, a pizza place with ambience. A large screen played over and over the poignant short Italian film, The Red Balloon. No sound just the images before you. The walls gray. The tables ping-pong, the seats benches. Soft lights. We had two pizzas, small, a white (all cheese, garlicky nothing else) and a red (just tomato sauce topping, more spicy, reminding me in its heavy dough and yummy surface of pizza in NYC in the 1950s, so-called Napoles-like). A carafe of chianti. The place was moderately full.

We talked. We realized this was probably the first book reading we’ve ever gone to as such. Play readings by a group, lectures, maybe a book reading within a performance of other things, but not alone. Jim said we never went to the Folger poetry readings because they cost. This was for free. Also the people were less known and there was obviously time for too much talk. So too much egoism would be on display he felt. I remembered going to listen to Empson read his poem in the Graduate Center in the 1970s. How he read little and talked much of his poetry. But the talk was splendid, really insightful (as Toibin’s was not quite, though not deliberately misleading as say Andrew Davies on his films), and how John Hollander got up to ask questions, all admiring and how Empson (spiteful in this but perhaps made uncomfortable) cut him down, half-mocked him. Also a lecture by Margaret Mead at the Museum of Natural History. All I can recall is how intelligent and humane she was and ever after have reacted to all dismissals of her work, denigrations of her with a memory of this seeing her and knowing they are unfair to her.

We decided we would try some more at this place. Then to support the bookstore, we went back. That’s when I bought Love in a Dark Time. All the Testaments to Mary were gone. To tell the truth, I was not sure I wanted it, as I felt it would be wrapped up in Catholicism as some level, and I’m an atheist. I was sure it’d be feminist in intent. If Toibin had said he found out or invented a last name for her, and told us of it, I might’ve. They had only had his most recent novels: (Blackwater Lightship two copies, one still left, and mostly Brooklyn and The Master, latest and best known. I have them all plus The South and Homage to Barcelona (not there). But there was suddenly one copy as if from deep in a basement (the girl at the counter said it was “a backlist” book), this book of essays. So I snatched it. His essay on Wilde’s exposure of his homosexuality as “found out,” as a person wanting to be “found out” has influenced my thinking ever since.

We got home by 10ish, not too long to write one final blog on Jane Austen’s letters. I’m not going to give them up, but maybe go yet slower and do it by myself. The prompting from Austen-l helps, and the sense (however deluded) of reaching people, but the flak, the continual cliched readings and occasional either preposterous or theoretical agendas don’t help me at all. I waste time and make no friends refuting them.

Earlier that day I had talked on WWWTTA about Temple Grandin’s film about how animals form bonds, friendships, and people’s perception of them, and the trajectory the film belonged to. Really worth while and gotten into other debates on the growing dissemination of how it’s okay for women to subjugate themselves to sadism, even light fun … ), but I’ll add these as brief comments here later today.

We wished we could have more such nights. People are only gradually becoming aware of what a delightful city DC is slowly turning into. The neighborhood around there is small houses, apartments further off, and some shopping blocks. It’s marred by a large street which traffic streams through daily and that obscures the quiet ambience of the play otherwise. I’ve vowed to myself to read Love in a Dark Time, Homage to Barcelona, and (connected to Toibin and the project on book illustrations to Trollope which I’ve just finished — a blog this weekend), Amy Tucker’s The Illustration of the Master.

Reprinted by Tucker, it was chosen by James as a frontispiece for A Portrait of Lady, and could serve as frontispiece for Toibin’s The Master.


Read Full Post »

Simon Keenleyside as Prospero

Dear friends and readers,

Lest it be thought I’ve gone over-the-top in my praise of so many of these Met Operas transmitted by HB, my reaction to the first act of Ades’s and Oakes’s Tempest was it’s so still, and “there’s nothing doing.” I didn’t like the (to me) screetch-y high notes of Ariel, nor the lack of long melodic arias. The costumes were trying too hard. Keenleyside with his skin tattoos, feathers on his head, was still not US Indian-like; Ariel in pink fluff with ludicrously heavy-make-up – all green eyes; the lovers far too well-fed and smooth, he like something out of When Knighthood was in Flower, she like some fairy tale maiden in the Blue Fairy Book. Robert LePage’s re-building of aspects of La Scala on stage could have made for a disconnect, it added nothing.

What took time to emerge was the focus on an ethical-psychological relationship between Caliban and Prospero: when Prospero loses Ariel, he’s left without consolatory dreams. Ares really gave us an adaptation, serious interpretation of Shakespeare’s play (Enchanted Island was more Dryden/Davenant).

Audrey Luna as Ariel

The play-story does not depart from any of the hinge points of Shakespeare’s; Meredith Oakes’s script brought over to operatic music Shakespeare’s austere visionary core with its intimations of dream aspiration and realities of brute animal creatures and vicious envious evil (Caliban and the Milanese apart from Ferdinand). The young lovers were appropriately innocent for their short beautiful songs and their and all the music was like Debussy (Pelleas et Melisande) — ever there quietly beautiful. After a while the set also turn of the century, with its conceit the people are in an opera house grew tiresome. Yes there was a computer island, soft sea, and we began to see the slow emergence of Prospero’s character as regretful, remorseful, bitter yet in act willing to forgive began. That’s part of the play’s naturalistic miracles.

The last part or act was so moving to me. Keenleyside showed how well he can act: I identified with him as the older person having to give over, to let go, and I liked the presentation of Caliban as an aspect of the solitary Prospero. None of the really powerful lines were omitted, and Prospero’s response to Miranda’s “O brave new world,” was plangently disillusioned.

Alan Oates as Caliban

I’d like to see it again so I could enter into Act 1 from the perspective of what is to come.

As to the interviews, Deborah Voight can carry these off. To some extent she asks real questions about singing technique. You could see in Ades’s eyes a moment’s oh I wish I didn’t have to do this hype but he managed and gave eloquent interviews where he spoke more simply and directly about writing and putting on the opera and his relationships with the singers. He said that he saw himself as their support.

Some reviews: this review particularly insightful and with good photos and stills. See New York Times review. Another review.


Read Full Post »

Antonio (Alessandro Tiberi) a young husband cut off from his wife, and Anna aka Milly (Penelope Cruz), a prostitute who has substituted for her (2012 To Rome with Love)

Dear friends and readers,

This year’s Woody Allen, To Rome With Love is a pleasing film. It’s cheerful yet melancholy; we are presented with a array of artificial stereotyped couples who play musical chairs among themselves and other characters in scenes of mortification, confusion, anxiety, distress such that I was continually either uncomfortable and or worried what would happen to one or another of them. The central paradigm which repeats over and over is of a character in a situation or saying something which ought to be and is shameful which few around them recognize, and they themselves only intermittently. It seems this is a good thing too or none of us’d survive.

On a searingly hot afternoon to sit in a cool dark theater and watch his cameramen take loving shots of familiar older streets, houses, and stairs in Rome (he must have paid a lot for the Spanish steps), as these paradigms dissolve into the person coping the film manages to convey a world-weary odd relief. The situations become a kind of game, fun even (see the nerve this character has, what that character gets to do or see), and yet incident after incident seems to have roots in a curious despair. The couples all return to those they started out with because they might as well, and anyway life’s chances will surely now and then once again give give all of us an opportunity to fuck, walk, cook, eat and drink with, someone else momentarily more interesting.

Monica (Ellen Page) and Jack (Jesse Eisenberg) trying to cook up a gourmet meal together before they go off to a car to betray Sally, Jack’s live-in girlfriend and Monica’s best friend

It’s not the best Woody Allen film I’ve ever seen, and I’m not going to patiently go through the four sets of couples, two lone male confidants and wise advisor, and one lone female and whore, and their stories. Certainly it’s better than last year’s Midnight in Paris which I thought ludicrously over-praised. Like that, it’s an aging male’s wet dream. Jim often says he cannot understand how it is that when he reads many a male book or sees a male film it’s just filled with these females beautiful or not who are dying to jump into bed with all the males in sight, and when they do, are ever so ecstatically pleased. He seems to be on the wrong planet or these females are on another street from those he walks. It just never happens to him and he’s just like other males. How can this be? This is a film filled with such women. And it’s not really fun when people you are attached to are sexually or otherwise unfaithful.

The real Milly (Alessandra Mastronardi) near going off to bed with the famous actor Luca Salta (Antonio Albanese) she’s just met because she got lost (her cell phone fell through a street grate)

A gesture is made to remember the depression engulfing much of the world’s people when Woody’s daughter’s fiancee, Michelangelo (Flavio Parenti) sticks up for the importance of unions. But mostly everyone is rich and untroubled about how to pay for anything. When Woody nags, tempts, maneuvers his prospective son-in-law’s father into singing operatically in a shower on stage in front of mass crowds at opera houses because only when he sings naked in a shower does his voice soar, there is not a smidgin of difficulty making this happen. A young architect said to be living according to idealistic goals with a female studying for a degree live in a bounteous flat on a lovely little corridor of a street with tons of free time.

Jack buying vegetables and flowers with live-in girlfriend Sally (Greta Gerwig)

All somehow detached. The reviews of the opera Woody puts on describe him in Italian as an “imbecile” and in character Woody reads this aloud. Because he knows no Italian he is chuffed. Allen also comments self-reflexively on his own film, its internal audiences and maybe us watching it all.

Judy Davis as Phyllis, Woody’s wry patient wife, spending life by his side

He has made some great films recently: genuinely satiric and grave ones, Vick, Christina, Barcelona and You will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger. This one seems in some sequences an attempt to get back to his early films with their wacky sequences of events that don’t make logical or realistic sense but are hilarious. The spirit somehow is not high enough to make these moments come off.

John wisely advising Jack with the coliseum in the background

What’s here instead is a kind of witty wry self-dialogue. Woody is there himself and as two other men. Alec Baldwin as John plays a sold-out aging architect who has made tons of money building soulless stadiums and buildings and he takes to following our young architect, Jack, around and telling him from several points of view what a fool Jack’s making of himself, how Monica is a liar, a phony, a poser, pretending to know great literature when he knows famous lines, and when at the close of the film she deserts him without a second’s thought because a role in a play has come through Baldwin nearly says, “what did I say?” Jack returns to Sally and Alec goes back to the street corner where he and Jack first met and walks on his way.

As Leopoldo, Roberto Benigni plays a man made senselessly famous for several weeks, each of his daily doings and small acts made subjects for intense reporting, famous because he’s famous and during much of the movie seeming to try to escape the wild noisy argumentative Italian crowds, though not here

With Monica Nappo as his wife whose runs in her stockings are oo-ed over

He too has a Woody-Allen surrogate, male accompaniment who tells him when he is lonely after the world moves on: it’s better to be miserable and a celebrity than miserable and invisible (or some such words). At least then you didn’t have to wait on line.

Don’t go expecting a lot, just two hours or so of inspiriting humane entertainment. Woody is clearly for us all enjoying enjoying what there is to enjoy from life as far as we can and feels for all those mortified by the laughter and dumb applause of audiences — they, we are as imbecile as he has become. He may have put himself into the movie because he looks so feeble. The father of his prospective son-in-law whom Woody tries to rescue for an opera career is a mortician and fictional Woody keeps telling Phyllis how he has these dreams of death and she keeps saying, nonsense, nonsense lots of time left. (Still he hates “turbulence” periods in planes.) The singing mortician is wiser than his tempter and at the close of the film returns to his niche in his family group in the world.

As I say do all the characters return to where they are comfortable when they started out, e.g., the young couple leaves Rome where they had hoped for some splendid promotion. Antonio just couldn’t hack the pretenses wanted. He doesn’t like football. Anna has her compliant customers (the creme de la creme of society) waiting morning, noon, and night — as I say this is fantasy. The weakest point was the young heterosexual glamor couple, Woody’s supposed daughter, Hayley (Alison Pill) and her fiancee, Michelangelo (not Michael but Mickel) who we began with:

But they are soon put at the margins. You can almost measure the success of an Allen film by where this fatuous normative blond and her escort are in the film (they are central to Midnight in Paris and Matchpoint). I think of them as the wooden romance couple at the center of Walter Scott’s fiction and never can understand why Allen finds it necessary to pander by keeping them among the presences in his films.

When I remember back to the great films by Allen in the past (Love and Death, Stardust Memories, Purple Rose of Cairo, Annie Hall come to mind) I realize we were not bothered by this fake normativeness because Allen was the hero. He is too old now, even too old to pass as this heroine’s father, and he knows it.

I didn’t go with Izzy; she is not drawn to Allen (though she liked the Gemma Jones film). My neighbor from across the street and I have become friends and we went together. She is a woman near my age, and it did seem to me most of the people in the audience (however full) were older people. Woody is winding down and he does make a better film when he has a different type of male than himself (say Javier Bardem) or genuinely believable woman at the center.


Read Full Post »

Toibin’s Ireland

Dear friends and readers,

It’s about time I wrote in praise of Colm Toibin, of his biographical and critical essays, of his novels, his biographical fiction, his travel books. I can’t think of any writer as originally thoughtful, perceptive, humane, quietly iconoclastic, informative, absorbing, who reads authors as interesting or simply writes as well so consistently. When I see his name on a list of contributors to any periodical I subscribe to, I go to him first and he doesn’t disappoint. This morning I was lifted out of bleak loneliness (Coping) into a consoled companionableness by his review of Julian Barnes’s The Sense of an Ending (for New York Review of Books LIX, 8 (May 10, 2012)9-11 where he quoted Larkin in ways that resonated with my feelings, validated them.

Toibin an Irish journalist who comes from precisely the area he has set his story in; he is himself gay or homosexual and he has written out of this perspective more directly at times. While he does write about overt politics, there is much travel writing and three of the novels at least center on this business of the compromises and concessions you must make if you want to stay in a family circle at all, or the difficulties of being in a family setting. He is interested in colonialists and hybrid-identities and literature: Anglo-Irish, Anglo-Indian, French-African, Irish-American. Catholic by faith, liberal-leftist in outlook, sympathetic to revolutionary movements, he’s a gifted writer: delicately powerful stories. He now lives in Dublin.

I can’t list all the essays by him I’ve read, over the years especially on Henry James, Oscar Wilde; his arguments stay with me and I use them in my essays and postings and they become part of my thinking. I’ve not read his short stories, but I have read The Master (a fictional biography of Henry James, see my blog on Kaplan’s biography), The South, Blackwater Lightship, Brooklyn. I wish I had read more, and now that my reading time at night is limited I shall have to turn to him during the day.

The South

I remember parts of the book vividly still. Reading The South made me choose to read his The Master and teach Blackwater Lightship and most recently (as my Christmas treat) Brooklyn.

The heroine in The South leaves cold husband and unsympathetic son to make a new life for herself in the south with a wholly unconventional painter who had fought on the left side against Franco; he had been tortured, is now under surveillance and the way he leaves is to retreat to the mountains to live very meagrely (since he has little money and no way of getting any kind of middle class income-producing job). She loves the escape, release, life with him, and herself begins painting. Much on Spanish landscape and customs of a leisured pattern of days. Eventually she gets pregnant by him and years pass and they do improve their (what some would say) squalid living arrangements. Alas, the authorities decide to come after the man again, he is again trying to do some good in the political world. He is again imprisoned, perhaps tortured (I’m not sure on this latter detail), at any rate deeply distraught once more. He has retired from society as a reaction to what he saw in the thirties. (The texts to read here is Orwell’s Reflections of the Spanish Civil War and the Homage to Catalonia). Alas, a horrible accident kills both this man and the new son — we are to see this accident is also wanted; the man wants out and he takes his son with him.

The devastation to our heroine is for a time crushing — though her behavior manifests the same pragmaticism of approach. Some wandering, and meandering and eventually she does return to Ireland, partly lured there by her son by the first husband. Not forgiven (for what should she be forgiven? is the sense of the text) nor forgiving (they are not sorry for what they are), nonetheless, her older family finds a place for her to live in Ireland.

Meanwhile (I’ve left this part out) her career as an artist has gone on quietly flourishing with paintings recording her sense of Spain and experience. She has lived an authentic life and continues to do so until the book quietly closes and at whatever price she had to pay in others’ refusal to countenance this since they did not.

The reverse is true of the heroine of Brooklyn. Indeed the slightly shocking close shows the heroine returning to Ireland and her originally intended husband because 1) she had promised to, and under the stress of circumstances been pressured into literally marrying the first lover, he having surmised she might just not come back when she sees improved living standards and freedom — he had been her only choice; no jobs anywhere that are fulfilling or money-making for such as someone from her family); and 2) the authority figures in Brooklyn discover she has married elsewhere and threatened to expose her; she knows she will become a pariah because this is the way such people as a group work, so home she goes, leaving then the man who had come to love her in his compromised way (he needs her, she fits in &c&c).

I remember the devastatingly accurate assessment of her relationship with the mother, used and she knows using her. We had been thinking the heroine was better than all these, but she is exposed as just like everyone else. And we are to feel for her, deeply feel for us all in her case.

The heroine in The South escaped all this; hers is the reverse story. But she did for much of her life live hard, in poverty, alone, her beloved man tortured, hounded and escaped through killing herself and she ends in this cottage provided for her, silent again (as the kind of talk in her Irish family is once more irrelevant to anything that matters to her for real).

But the meaning inherent in The South and Brooklyn is the same, the perspective out of which they come and the ultimate message about the obstacles to living an authentic life.

I love candour and hard-truth telling in a book; the unexpected ending exhilarated me. So many falsely easy and happy pseudo-optimistic stories are told; rather than give hope, they irritate and depress me as having the effect of throwing the blame on people who don’t do well. On the the other hand, wanting to think very well of the heroine, Eilis Lacey, when she was in the very final pages of the book obviously willing to overthrow her Brooklyn husband, Tony, and marry the new Irish man, Jim, who owned a pub and was admired by all, in a situation where she saw that instead of being ignored as the useless superfluous second sister, she would get a better job than in NYC (the competition in NYC was too keen for her to rate an office job), I liked her less. I was anxious for her because I thought it would matter to her so much to lose the beloved Tony, but when I was shown how she would give this up, I acceded it was truthful but cared less.

I loved the portrait of the mother who knew or had enough to suspect all along
her daughter had formed new ties in Brooklyn but ignored it, pretended not to
know in order to pressure the girl into lying and staying. But when the girl was
to go because her marriage in Brooklyn was found out, instead of showing affection, the mother shut the door on her. Here we see how people really value one another and what for. Now she can’t get from the girl what she wanted: not just a companion but someone who this pub owner would marry so she the mother would be admired in public.

On the immigrant patterns: I grew up in the south east Bronx mostly, in a slum which at first was heavily Irish but by the time my parents moved out was heavily black. The patterns of Irish life were to me no different than the working class Italian life I saw in Richmond Hill, a neighborhood near the one we moved to. I didn’t dislike them; they seemed to me American catholic working class by the time I was in my teens, only on the surface different from middle to upper middle class Jewish life in Kew Gardens where we did move. The Kew Gardens neighborhood I did hate and had a hard time getting used to: much snobbery, ostentation, and we lived in a 3 bedroom apartment on the ‘low end’ of life there. My name, Ellen, is partly the result of my mother imitating the names she heard around her in the Bronx. (It’s also the name of the mother in Gone with the Wind, which however she denied knowing and said it was just the people around her. I doubt she would have called me Colleen though as my mother was Jewish and that would have been gonig too far.)

Toibin sets the two other novels I’ve read by him partly or wholly in Ennisworthy. It’s where he comes from. And he has a poignant statement about missing it (boyhood memories) in Blackwater Lightship.

The Brooklyn New York parts were truth to life. My mother’s people lived in Brooklyn and for about 2 years (one year when I was small) I lived in Brooklyn and did on occasion visit these relatives growing up. The climate would seem extreme after the British Isles.

I read with an intense anxiety on behalf of Eilis, worried for her as succumbing to pressure. I had to peek ahead to assure myslf she broke away and returned. But when I experienced why and how my feelings for her changed dramatically. But this is a truthful probable portrait. It showed me patterns in my family’s reactions to me I’ve seen repeatedly.

Blackwater Lightship throws yet another permutation and light on this central experience — as does The Master, only then the partial escapee is James. This novel is about a homosexual young man who returns to his family for a weekend just before he died. They had nothing to do with him until then because they didn’t want to know or allow anyone else to know he lived a gay life. We see all their estrangements from one another too.

It’s been criticized for not centering more emphatically on the issue of homosexuality, even marginalizing it. To my mind that Toibin presents Decclan’s sexual orientation, and condition as another important element in the life of the family, not more devastating or central than say the father’s death (Mr Breen) or Lily’s long time adjusting to being alone and her giving her two children to her mother, Dora Devereux while she coped is one of its strengths.

It’s realistic: no false sentiment about family life, but that biological ties are there and for reasons that are hard to explain pragmatically except that people turn to families and families take them in as a matter of survival; there is no alternative to rely on so people come through for one another most of the time. Not all. Homeless people not uncommon. People living away from families and managing to support themselves and find company and worlds with friends happens a good deal.

Still the family pattern is the dominant one whether in a modern country and culture like the US or traditional one like Zimbabwe and India (there we have an arranged marriage and couple who come to live in the US.

Key theme of this and two other of his books, The South and The Heather Blazing (I’ve read about it), and his fictional biography of Henry James called The Master are The key themes, “are the compromises and concessions involved in belonging to a family and in calling somewhere “home”.

The DVD cover of the TV movie adaptation

Three complex female characters: Helen (now married to Hugh O’Doherty), her mother, Lily Breen, and the grandmother, Dora Devereux. All three have similar characters: proud, standoffish, determined with the ability and knowhow of domineering, running a situation, self-contained, self-possessed, but like most people wanting affection, support, and Helen shown as having sensitivities like her older son, Cathal; Manus has mean bullying personality from the get-go, huge ego. You might say it’s about the problem of mothering; by no means does this come more naturally to women than men though the task is forced on them by social arrangements and expectations.

There is no easy reconciliation. The family’s fumbling attempts at change are set against the natural process of erosion that is eating away the coastline close to the family home in Cush. The liminal space of the beach as a setting for the beginning of Helen and Lily’s reconciliation, and the novel ends with the muted triumph of Lily spending the night at Helen’s home after returning the now severely ill Declan to the hospital in Dublin.

It’s a delicately powerful story of a family’s failure to face difficult feelings and their stubborn refusal to admit need (especially the grandmother). He through them delve into memories with a visceral, unsparing depiction: main character through whom we see action is Helen: snapshots of the family’s fraught past are filtered through her memory.

When Helen was 11, she had had to deal with her father’s illness and death virtually alone – she was left with her 8-year-old brother at her grandmother’s house for six months while her mother nursed her father, or tried to. Gradually Helen withdrew from everyone except Declan into a watchful guardedness. She “trained herself to be equal to things, whatever they would be.” But her defenses against the pain of the past are a barrier against present life. She mothered Decclan, came into his room at night the way she does for Cathal and Manus. Helen’s memory of the day before her father’s funeral when she arranged on her parents’ bed a suit of his clothes complete with underwear, tie, socks, hat, and shoes, then lay down beside the father figure she had made.

There is no father figure here; Hugh kept from us; Helen and Decclan’s father died young, we see almost nothing of the grandfather. We have instead Decclan and his two friends, three male characters match three female ones: the strong Paul (a counterpart to Helen) who tells us of his marriage with Francois, and Larry, who has had bitter experiences with his family about his homosexuality and shows us the hypocrisy of the world, but is bright and cheerful in temperament and gets along very well with the grandmother, planning architectural changes to the house we know she’ll never do, and she and he know it, but he does teach her to drive a little a stick-shift car.

The theme is not coming out but coming to terms with oneself. And humour — evolving from camp Larry’s unlikely affinity with the grandmother and from her own sardonic wit–leavens a sombre load. Each has a story:

Larry tells how he came out to his family on the six o’clock news. Paul tells how he and his mate were married by a priest in a traditional Catholic ceremony.

Granny Dora tells how she got the switchblade knife that’s in her apron pocket. Helen’s mother, Lily, who fled into a fast-lane business career and a huge designer house she occupies alone, tells Helen about her father’s last days.

Then we get Declan’s graphic deterioration. The family members and friends do not avoid him

It is about homosexual man regarded as other and I understand the frustration of some gay critics because Decclan is kept at a distance from us: he seems dependent, unable to make a permanent relationship like Paul, acting out as a child to Paul. But there’s revisiting the same theme over and over: Toibin has written novels focusing on a gay man, the one I’ve read is The Master, and Henry James lived away from his family, estranged. Looking at otherness is kept away to some extent

The sense of place, here, is germane and its adjoining strand–close to a disintegrating cliff, caught in the reiterative sweep of the lighthouse–permeate the book with an elemental atmosphere.

Beautiful spare graceful prose: measured and restrained as a Victorian memoir yet poetic in precision-“extraordinary skill for rendering time and place. This quiet novel achieves its effects gradually and with subtlety

The presence of Decclan’s homosexual friends influence the behavior of his family to one another and him as he lays dying in Blackwater Lightship, and we discussed pretty fully of the six main characters, three women, daughter who is now a mother, Helen, mother, Lily, and grandmother, Dora; and we went briefly the three men: Decclan, Paul and Larry.

Decclan is dependent, not strong, looks for help from friends. He has no permanent relationship with a significant other unlike Paul and perhaps Larry. We don’t learn much about his private life for the past years. He is the person in the book dying about whom we learn least. He is kept away from us, except to give us these graphic descriptions of his suffering as perceived by the other characters. Who does he seem to depend upon? Paul.

Paul knows what to do; he finds the emergency room to bring Decclan back to at the end. He is in charge. And he and Helen, as a similarly strong character exchanges stories. Thing is they are not that strong: they need someone depending on them. We see that it’s Helen’s husband Hugh who has the friends, who is the open more giving person, really there, and she needs that. Paul’s partner. What is his story? Francoise who was an only child and needed to be married to have security. Waiting for Paul to return.

Larry, you might call him the comedian, but he’s getting through life that way. Let’s look a little more carefully at the passage where he tells his parents and family he is gay: he gets involved with public politics and finds he appears on the six o’clock news as a gay person, which his family was watching. What is the hard thing? Not the actual event or even the retelling, but the reaction in the room to when he tells of his present love relationships with a nearby family where the men lead overtly heterosexual lives.

The book is named after a lighthouse that no longer exists. Helen and Lily are talking. We don’t learn much about Decclan’s private life nor about him directly; when we learn about Larry’s life it’s indirect and the powerful stuff is about here and now and yet what is not there matters; so too Paul’s relationship with Francoise. About how important memories are and the intangible invisible lives we don’t show publicly shape the public. At the close of the edition I ordered into the bookstore, we have Toibin’s statement about his book: he gains meaning and solace through reliving his memories, and bringing them alive again.

There are eight chapters with some of the stories (memories plus present time) achieving a kind of quiet climax in the 7th, with 1st as prologue, Helen at home, and 8th as the denouement as they prepare to and bring Decclan back to the hospital and Helen brings Lily back to her house. her mother has never been there before. For those working on Blackwater Lightship for this coming journal entry: a series of inset stories or memories embedded into the narrative. People talking with Helen present, Helen and Paul confiding. Then Helen and Decclan’s story from when their father dies We see grandmother and grandfather watching TV and arguing over what they see. Then Larry’s story, Lily’s story, Paul’s story (Toibin a Catholic and has written about Catholicism in travel book on Barcelona central here); Helen’s story (Decclan the spoilt favored child as the boy). Back to Lily’s story; how Blackwater Lightship as a long gone lighthouse is central; Helen’s story again; Helen’s portrait of Lily.

Our cat (Ian) facing forward

The cats — They run away and to the Grandmother this is a bad loss. Cats are affectionate clinging creatures; Lily’s story again; told to Helen, talking of grandmother and past, signals some understanding

Book about the rhythms of the night, and how people cope with death: the Grandmother turns to these mediums who feed people’s desire to reach the dead. A dark theme of redemptive power of death runs through all his books.

The comfort in The Master is James got to live his own life to some extent. He lives as the heroine in The South, only because he has money, property and connections he manages far better than our heroine and ends up with his measure of independence, until of course he’s done in at the end by terrible sickness and death and again finds himself taken over. We see how he lives a life apart, the price of it and the achievement he managed by remaining apart.

I find I don’t have separate notes on The Master, but I do on an essay he wrote for the LRB: The Importance of Aunts. in his usual cagey or elusive way Toibin manages to say what he pretends would be “too crude” to say: especially with respect to James. The problem with Austen’s getting rid of the useless mother (which Toibin does connect to her relationship with her own) is the caricatures she creates are in danger of being taken non-seriously; you can laugh at Lady Betram, which would be to misunderstand or ignore her effect on Fanny Price.

I particularly like how Toibin deals with James’s family: he says how James loved his mother, but in the same breathe, how he kept away from her as it was all too painful to contemplate or let touch (and destroy) him. In Washington Square despite the understatement and careful avoidance of offering the readers ways of not reading what’s in front of them, her heroine has to cope with a loathsome father, a morally idiotic scheming aunt and her own pent-up sexuality. Her nobility comes from her enduring steadfastly being alone in the world. She escapes the fate of Isobel Archer because she knows how to feel and is not to be dissuaded by those around from to violate herself.

She is then a cynosure for James himself.

On Austen’s use of aunts: Austen feels free, on the other hand, to make Lady Catherine de Bourgh both imperious and comic, her wealth and power serving to make her ridiculous and unworthy rather than impressive; but she is not meant merely to amuse us, or to show us an aspect of English society that Austen thought was foolish. She is an aunt who does not prevail; her presence in the book succeeds in making Darcy more individual, less part of any system. Her function is to allow her nephew, who refuses to obey her, a sort of freedom, a way of standing alone that will make him worthy of Elizabeth ….

From the 1983 BBC Mansfield Park: Mrs Norris (Anna Massey) berating Fanny (Sylvestre le Tousel) in front of the whole family

The reader is invited, then, to dislike Mrs Norris for her cruelty and to admire Fanny for her forbearance. Austen’s biographer Claire Tomalin sees Mrs Norris as `one of the great villains of literature'; Tony Tanner thought she was `one of Jane Austen’s most impressive creations and indeed one of the most plausibly odious characters in fiction’. All this is clear, at times rather too clear. What isn’t clear is what the reader should feel about the other aunt, Lady Bertram, mistress of Mansfield Park. Tomalin dislikes her. `Fanny’s experience at Mansfield Park is bitter as no other childhood is in Austen’s work. Her aunt, Lady Bertram, is virtually an imbecile; she may be a comic character, and not ill-tempered, but the effects of her extreme placidity are not comic …

Just one from James: This sexualisation of an aunt figure is what gives the book its power. James radically destabilises the category, moves Madame Merle from being Isabel’s protector, who stands in for her mother without having a mother’s control, to being someone who seeks to damage and defeat her

More generally: The idea of the family as anathema to the novel in the 19th century, or the novel being an enactment of the destruction of the family and the rise of the stylish conscience, or the individual spirit, has more consequences than the replacement of mothers by aunts. As the century went on, novelists had to contemplate the afterlives of Elizabeth and Darcy, Fanny and Edmund, had to deal with the fact that these novels made families out of the very act of breaking them. It was clear that, since something fundamental had already been done to the idea of parents, something would also have to be done to the idea of marriage itself, since marriage was a dilution of the autonomy of the individual protagonist. There is a line that can be drawn between Trollope and George Eliot and Henry James: all three dramatise the same scene, each of them alert to its explosive implications. What they are alert to is the power of the lone, unattached male figure in the novel, someone with considerable sympathy, who moves unpredictably, who keeps his secrets and ego intact …

Photo of Henry James as the master, late in life


Toibin’s greatness also lies in his quiet unassuming style. He gets so much in
and yet does not seem to stretch or have to overwrite at all. It’s part of what makes the novels seem so truthful.

He teaches we must find and live out our own identities at the same time as he compassionates those who do not as the cost can be so high.

From the movie adaptation of Blackwater Lightship

I need to read his Homage to Barcelona next. See the LRB archive for treasures.


Read Full Post »

Helen Mirren, final shots: walking quietly away from a lifetime of work

Dear friends and readers,

I have now watched this last mini-series (two episodes of well over an hour each) and found it did not disappoint. The final act shows Jane Tennison understandably faltering before her own need for companionship with a girl as she imagines she once was (as her father lays dying and she is made to understand it’s time to retire) but then upon recognizing that Penny Philips (Laura Greenwood as the adolescent girl who seemed to so cling to Jane, admire her) had to have been the deliberate murderer of her friend, grimly obtains the evidence from an interrogation once more.

The full circle is that Prime Suspect has dealt with so many larger social issues: hatred of women, of black people, of immigrants (or racism), exploitation and abuse of homosexual men, boys; of the disparity of rich and poor, drug culture, sheer crazed psychopathy, colonialisms. It’s time to get in touch with our apparently more or less sane adult close-to-home issues again. Here one Sally is her parents’ world, she is champion of all, well-liked, outgoing cheerful as yet. They wanted to end in the inner circle where the larger problems first take shape.

Jane and Mr Tennison

In the first half I was almost unbearably moved. More than in “Scent of Darkness” (where Mirren as Jane’s affair with Stuart Wilson as Patrick is made nearly as important as the events of the police story), Jane is now brought to the center. Her drinking (she is now seen as alcoholic — her drinking is occurring not just in the lonely nights), her loneliness, her dying father (Frank Findlay brought back) are made the parallel plot for the police story where she also finds herself increasingly shut off. The father tells her what she does is not for him (she wants an expensive second opinion, cannot face he is dying and accept it) but for herself. We are to see that goes for why she has spent her life the way she has: she has felt genuinely useful.

She looks back on her life and finds she is not at all satisfied with what she did and what she has become. Need I say how I identified with this? I do think as a feeling it is common — a motivation for many an autobiography where people try to retrieve the loss and justify their lives to themselves. She is alcoholic and must control her drinking, goes to alcoholic anonymous where she sees Tom Ball. He has and she is at long last facing retiring: what she will do with herself she doesn’t know. She is not well enough to continue.

Talking together, much older, in non-pretentious cafeteria

A beautiful thing is they did get a few of the actors to return who were in the first programs. Frank Finlay was her father in 1991. He and she do look alike: the same gene pool comes out in their facial features. Tom Bell who was her rival-enemy Otley is back and we have an example of that truth that knowing one another over years in itself makes for bonds through memory; he too has slid into alcoholism we are asked to take it. A crushing loss is he gets involved in an altercation that Jane herself started and ratcheted up, and following hard upon her father’s death, Otley is killed. In fact this episode had far more moments of sheer panic than most of them as people saw their intimate assumptions and needs and lives gone haywire.

A note: Brendon Coyle who is given the difficult role of the masochistic Mr Bates in Downton Abbey is Jane’s boss (who tells her it’s time, she must retire) and he is very good in this role — his earlier career is in fact in detective, male-oriented programs: he is so differently photographed from Downton Abbey and Cranford that at first I did not recognize him.

The second half moved into the police procedural mode and this last time we had no larger issue but really an exposure of family pathologies, the lies schools use to cover up what teenagers’ real lives are, and at the close Jane finding she’d been fooled once again. She had not seen that it was Penny who killed her friend, Sally, partly because Sally was going to bed with Penny’s father, a person high in the school hierarchy and under much stress, Sean Philips (Stephen Tomkinson). This series has four sets of parents (family groups): Sally’s parents to whom the unbelievable must be face: their innocent daughter, has been having sex with a young black man, with a teacher, become pregnant and is now dead, gone forever. Their lives desolate, stunned, they must start again:

The first shock, the mother (Katy Murphy) comforted by a black man sitting next to her so calm

Penny’s where the mother is again stunned by the ordinary: her husband having an affair with her daughter’s friend, that daughter gone out of control:

Neither pair understands. The third family group is the young black man and his sister, and her child whom Sally had dumped herself on. He, violent because afraid (the chase scene occurred over his flight), his sister, his mainstay. The last set of parents or family-friend group is Jane Tennison’s: her mother never seen (ah), but father and sister there and towards the end a niece; Otley, killed, and yes the last police group she departs from.

The particular characters of this episode in the second half begin to realize what has happened, grow angry, bitter, and finally cope, Jane manages to control herself, curb the heavy drinking during the day; we are probably to applaud or feel her “confession” of drinking was right; for myself I saw her as again yielding to what she had to yield. Her sternness as a last turn towards the father who betrayed his student, daughter, wife, school, was appropriate though; towards Penny too, who in fact killed, followed the wrong impulse of resentment, envy and now is at a bleak loss.

Nothing lachrymose — the sadness of the first half was justified. And not overdone. And the bewilderment, anger and finally stoicism of the second simply spot on as what would or could be given what people had succumbed to.

And I loved the close. Sally’s parents saying goodbye to her, the father thanking her, she giving the cross to the mother, the two seen from the back clinging together. The office is giving Jane a final party and all are getting drunk and whooping it up. Does she go in there (as she did in the first episode’s triumph). No. She puts on her dark coat and walks sturdily, bravely into the night.


I liked these moments of quick sudden insight throughout the series

The feature attempted to have scenes from across the 15 years the series had been filmed. They rightly did congratulate themselves upon having made a serious drama with humane and relevant import, and absorbed us all the while. Entertained too: how I loved her affair with Stuart Wilson, her getting back, the excitement of her life, entered into her despair, her affairs, her decisions (as not to have a child), her aging, her peculiar strong humanity, decent values.

I’m really glad I bought the whole series. I could not have seen it properly otherwise. You do need to see all the episodes and you need to see them in the order they were done. This is Jane’s story, her life and the life of her police world as seen through her perceptions. As I told a friend on facebook, I don’t identify with Jane Tennison’s power but I do all her emotional stances and thus love the show and go to sleep feeling better for having watched her. This was why I so loved Poldark and the Poldark books: the stance of the hero was the same as this heroine: a loving renegade.


Read Full Post »

Dear friends and readers,

Another blog where I’m turning my lecture notes into a blog for my students and in the hope other readers involved in some aspect of medicine (and which of us is not?) will find them of interest.

I begin with Gawande’s Complications: A Surgeon’s Notes on an Imperfect Science, his introduction, a summary and exemplification of his book’s major arguments: Medicine is a strange and disturbing business: it is messy, uncertain and surprizing. Is that true of other sciences? Yes. Are there other applied uses of science where what happens is very often unpredictable? We have had one this term: the NASA shuttle. John Harrison’s invention of watch that could tell what longitude a shiop is at. We see him aboard ship showing how hard it is to cope with knowing this abstract placement.

Gawande opens with anecdote (pp. 3-5). The doctors were frightened, meant to help a young man shot through the buttocks, cut him open, what damage was done was done by them; they couldn’t explain how it happened. Then the case of boy in danger of death. He, Gawande, had to guess. They didn’t know how gravity would affect what they were doing (p. 6). Lee Tran. They guessed right.

Medicine is an imperfect science, diagnosis and offering medication are ways of investigating what’s wrong with someone (p. 7). The stories in a sense all exemplify this idea. Book’s sections organized thematically to highlight sub-points he wants to make: doctors are fallible: they have to learn and on patients and they “go bad.” Much mystery and many unknowns in medicine and struggles of what to do about these (back pain with no physical explanation that drives a person wild; nausea won’t go away and is literally killing her): we see that evolution has made a creature at odds with the demands of our modern lives and society. Then uncertainty itself driving the whole experience, shaping it.

The major flaw in book: “While people continue to bear the high cost of medical care, negligence and over-commercialization, Gawanade offers analysis of intangible though important dimensions dimensions through stories and leaves out of his discussion any ethical burden on the above issues affecting the nation and society: our attitudes towards one another because of race, sex, ethnicity, and the kind of illness we show up with.” “He prefers to throw dust away from medical profession by called medical science ‘imperfect’.” It could be called a distraction.

The candid stories conceal a biased and conciliatory analysis that favors a gainful status quo of practitioners; the way medicine is practiced today (in the US and elsewhere) where good health benefits are distributed like cookies to certain high incomes and luckily placed people and age groups.”

On the other hand they are candid and for many they open up cracks in our own attitudes towards medicine and doctors that are unreal and dangerous. He is smart, learned, and gives us a chance to think. What medicine is despite the plethora of programs remains mostly hidden and misunderstood.

Part 1: Fallibility

Atul Gawande

Essay 1: Education of the Knife (pp. 11-34): it’s people doctors must practice upon.

He is frank about how hard it is to learn. I’ve read this kind of thing where the doctor/nurse/medical technician shows him or herself trying to put in an IV. What makes this different is he shows himself trying to put in a scalpel, in the center of someone’s body. The reader pays attention.

What are the motives of someone who does this? Enjoyment of power. Darwin was originally going to be a doctor; his father sent him to one of the best medical schools on the earth at the time, at the University of Edinburgh (also good were Paris, some in Italy). He shuddered in horror: no anesthesia; he found it particularly hard to take how the poor were treated and also children, particularly the children of the poor. Gawande gaps in awe (p 15), exhilarating the power (p 16)

Real experience daily is of ordinary things all the time: someone gets a screw in her leg from a chair and can’t wrest herself free, (p 18)

He doesn’t tend to see hand-eye coordination genes per se as central. What you need is the ability to practice, practice, practice. The genius or talent is the one which leads you to practice (pp. 18-21)

It is hard to talk to patients about this (p 23) People won’t let you learn on their family or friends if they know about it (pp. 29-30). He didn’t let a resident learn on his child. Truth is the wealthy and well-connected wriggle out; he’s for setting up a system insofar as you can, where choices are offered or born equally (p. 33) How much should trainees be allowed to participate? (Is there anyone in the classroom who feels or knows that a physician-in-training did something and the result, while not fatal, is not so good?)

Introduces important theme or insight which carries throughout the book: the way to eliminate errors is not to demonize individuals; it’s to study a system, a practice, a habit, a group and see what patterns of errors happen and then see how to eliminate them. Everyone makes mistakes, everyone. No matter how hard you try not to. Gawande shows they tend to be of the same kind: like misreading the machine which puts someone under anesthesia because the companies put the controls on the front differently; like copying out prescriptions.

What to do? Get after the companies; make doctors use preset prescriptions in computers (that is shown to work better because then they are not misread, another systemic problem). We want to believe in some hero and then we sue him; he’s just another “flawed human” being in a team, in a subculture.

We see the team that learns quicker and does better, is one where people cooperate, are not competitive or domineering, and we see why: they are really a team (p 29): trust, getting people to do their best in security.

It is hard for someone to adjust to and face your own fallibility.

Essay 2: The Computer and the Hernia Factory (pp. 35-46): what makes for needed excellence

Gawande begins with examples of how approaching medicine from a systemic point of view, relying on machines can help eliminate certain kinds of errors. The problem: people are mistakenly discharged; one reason is misreading the computer printout. Machine is better at it (p. 37).

Well, there are hospitals where doctors do nothing but hernias. They get good at it. Repetition changes the way you think. Is that to be better? Depends, maybe in the case of this sort of operation. Doctors do rely on intuition too; a lot of doctoring is sizing you up. Do we eyeball our groceries to determine how much they should cost us?

The problem in the book of celebrating technical virtuosity. Is Gawande too much into this technical virtuosity? Our films (Wit, The Doctor) stress the need for humanity. Jason a technique freak; so too Kelekian; alas so too was Vivian Bearing when she taught poetry. All avoiding the human. The human is so painful and so uncertain. It’s hard to make friends. I’m one of those who goes to the library and finds books as friend.

Essay 3: When Doctors Make Mistakes (pp 47-74): again doctors must learn on people and how to bring down the number of mistakes

Gawande is concerned to show us that medical error is not fundamentally a problem of bad or crooked or inadequate or corrupt doctors. He tells the story of his bad judgement is one that has been excerpted again and again. It’s brave of him; it also probably precludes some other person getting very mad at him (he can’t make enemies telling of his own failure).

I talk a lot to my dentist. Dentists are doctors. For about 15 years, maybe a bit more I’ve had very bad troubles with my teeth. He’s a nice man, honest, a good dentist. When I told him about this book and quoted the line, “It was a clean kill” (p. 61), he said to me people he knows have said this to him. One surgeon says you are unlikely to carry on through a life doing surgery without killing someone. I said, “is that true, do you think?” Well, he said, he’s lost people’s teeth when they didn’t need to lose them. He feels bad when people lose their teeth unnecessarily.

Gawande’s pride was at stake. He wanted to do it himself

While I don’t think suit prevents errors, and agree that fear of suit can make errors, I disagree with the inference some may take away from this chapter that we ought not to have suit (pp. 55-58).

It’s the only place we as patients have to fight a lack of autonomy. It’s a crude highly fallible mechanism which is screwed up by the adversarial court system (and you get money for pain and injury, not from mistakes; juries award much bigger sums when outcome back regardless of whether there was a mistake or some egregious misconduct as in the stories Gawande tells in the essay called “When Good Doctors Go Bad.”

I lived in England for a time where you can’t sue; patients have less rights in custom; custom and norms are more significant in determining how people behave than law. Laws forbid things; they don’t tell us what to do, but what not to do. The language is sometimes phrased as the law allows you this or that, but it’s felt as what is not permitted. Scotland you have to prove a tort; here only pain and injury.

Would they discuss their errors if we didn’t have lawsuits? I don’t think so (p 58). Nonetheless, I agree demonizing errors is a bad idea. As doctors are not gods, so they are not demons.

M&M: Mortality and Morbidity: with all its evasions, it’s what they have and it needs to be protected. Let us remember lawyers make money from suits. He agrees it’s inadequate and shabby. The individuals don’t take responsibility; the doctor does not want to see himself as part of team or system. There’s the problem of collegiality and the problem that you fear someone will accuse you of bad or poor practice. But they do look into errors; the person is known to have made it, and his or her career is on the line.

Probably the most important part of this book is the argument that “people err frequently and in predictable patterned ways.” We know this but do not act upon it except when something seems singularly risky: like airplane flight. People don’t have wings. He tells the case of anesthesiology where error was brought down to a tiny percentage of what it had been when the systems and patterns of behaviors were studied (pp 64-67).

I notice that one cause of the young woman’s death can be said to be an unwillingness to spend money on new machines that make no money. It cost to replace the monitors with better ones (p 67). That takes money out of the budget which individuals can glom up. City of Alexandria is always very unwilling to replace a stop sign with a red/green light. They say people don’t like red/green lights, but they also often add the $90,000 bill or so these things cost. Only after a number of accidents at bad corners, do you see a red/green light go up.

Doctors should still work to utter capacity; bodily harm at stake. Effort makes; diligence, attention, care (p 73).

Gawande did err; he did not make the most of the hand of cards he’d been dealt with. Not always easy to see what is the best thing to do.

Essay 4: Nine Thousand Surgeons (pp. 75-86): people go to conferences to be with their tribe.

A considerably lighter essay. Time our for a little humor that teaches us something. What do professionals go to conferences for? A good question. Feynman distrusts conferences. He says they are mostly for display, political networking, personal aggrandizement. There are things sold which are worthless; little original research or ideas for real anywhere. Maybe so. Still people go and he went too. Anyone here ever gone to a convention or conference of people engaged in the same endeavor or having the same interests?

You go to be validated; to talk to people in your community like you. To share feelings and thoughts. The conversations on the bus. You are among your particular tribe. A tribe not linked by genes or biology. If nothing original, a lot of development. You are in for conning of course and have to figure out what’s valuable and what hype, what personal aggrandizement sheerly and what interesting.

You can experience the occasional illuminating or just so moment: the telling paper, film, procedure, encounter. For him it was the man with the real books of thought (pp. 81-82) in the midst of frivolous nonsensical gadgets and freebee give-aways.

Essay 5: When Good Doctors Go Bad (pp. 88-106): the problem of inadequate means to stop bad doctors from practicing; the lack of help for them.

Story of Hank Goodman is memorable: he began as intensely caring and ambitious and became “burned out.” Had had enough.Surprisingly common and no one with the power to do anything acted (p. 95). Gawande says there is an honorable reason: “they don’t have the heart.” Well what about the patients. He does not include how people fear for themselves. He says the intentions of everyone are good. Are they? (p. 95). Goodman was depressed. Most whitewashing moment in the book.

People just beneath this doctor in the best position to know (p. 96). Some brave enough to steer patient away.

But it’s brave and decent of Gawande to bring this up; to tell this story and how the man who started this effective clinic could not get monetary support. We should look to what someone does and not what they didn’t do altogether.

He names 4 types of abusive behavior, p 100: persistent poor anger control or abusive behavior; bizarre or erratic behavior (which people get away with when in high positions); transgression of proper professional boundaries (ditto — mostly having to do with sex); and the familiar marker or sign of a disproportionate number of lawsuits or complaints.

What we really are: 32 percent of general population has some serious mental disorder (1/3) be it depression, mania, panic, psychosis or addiction.

Gawande would like readers to stop being ready to view doctors as sociopaths; they are struggling human beings too. I wonder if we are able to look at ourselves.

Do you think people prefer a system of don’t ask, don’t tell? Well which people. Doctors may prefer it, but do patients? (P. 103) There are people who don’t want to know about their sickness, who don’t want to be asked to participate in the decision-making process for real. I don’t prefer don’t ask, don’t tell. But this is a character trait with me. I want to know. I feel stability and safety can only rely on truth. I may be wrong. In life I’ve seen where I have been.

Part 2: Mystery

Essay 6: Full Moon Friday the Thirteenth (pp. 109-114): our intuitive thinking wrong

People see patterns and meanings where there is none; do a study and discover that our intuition is wrong. There is no connection, but as we experience the misery or trauma, we persist in remembering the previous time we experienced it and its details and trying to find some pattern.

Essay 7: The Pain Perplex (pp. 115-129): suffering because and out of things outside our control.

Have you ever had a pain and everyone said “it’s in your head”? Gawande is here to agree it’s in your head but that does not make it any the less real. Have you ever had a pain and no one could find an explanation for it and dismissed your pain? Gawande writes of the common condition of ” a patient who has chronic pain without physical findings to account for it.”

It’s common for doctors to dismiss them as cranks, not real, needing psychiatric care (“whinging”). Such people go to acupuncturist and alternative medicine.

Gawande is here to believe you and say there are some other scientifically medical people who will try to help you. The story of Rowland Scott Quinlan (pp. 115-118). Story not atypical but common.

Theoretically the problem is the mechanistic theory we adhere to about medicine. We have to find a physical agent to push something
before we will believe it’s been pushed. Gawande leaves out psychology: people don’t want to allow this; it’s inconvenient; they only want to take seriously what is physically there.

Underlying this story is an argument that psyche is as real and significant as soma, e.g., panic disorder. It’s real. But it gets no respect. It’s hard to get an etiology. Gawande is for resorting to drugs if they work — and also operations. After all, he’s a surgeon. Health is a complicated state. People aren’t faking it if misery in the job or marriage or wherever is giving them acute pain (P. 128).

Gate-control theory of pain has been replaced by a new theory which seems to be accurate: the brain is not a bell you pull with a string, and the idea of to stop the bell from reacting to the pull (that is find distractions and other things to make you ignore pain, though it’s true that people in certain professions and situations will ignore pain longer: ballet dancers and men who escaped with their lives from battle even with terrible maiming injuries.

Pain comes from the brain, and it doesn’t need a physical stimulus necessarily. This makes pain political because it demonstrates the source is social arrangements. If we want to eliminate the pain, we need to change the social arrangements.

Essay 8: A Queasy Feeling (pp. 130-145): the uses of nausea.

A woman friend has told me that there are people who “don’t believe” in this condition of a woman during pregnancy; they deny that near fatal vomiting can occur in some pregnancies.

Parents have an adversarial as well as supportive relationship with children. There is a conflict between the interests of the mother and child when it comes to childbirth. Nature does not care for the individual but species. Until 20th century childbirth was often fatal; it’s still dangerous. Explanation comes from evolution: pelvus we walk on is not quite big enough to accommodate large brain which developed a little later. We are claptrap machine. Horses have trouble too.

So here is a place where natural selection has developed erratically: some foods safe for adults are unsafe for embryos; pregnancy sickness may be evolved to reduce an embryo’s exposure to natural toxins. Common morning sickness does usually end by the end of the first trimester. It’s said that women who are pregnant naturally prefer bland foods; I can say that when I was pregnant the second time I stopped drinking wine – and other liquors. I couldn’t. They just made me sick. This unhappy state ended upon giving birth.

I don’t know that motion sickness is relevant here; he does not want to go into the adversarial nature of the symbiosis.

Story of how woman endured this killing pregnancy: she did have someone to care for her; she had money and health care; many women would not and many would not endure this. They’d have an abortion. It was advised but she said she was Catholic. The doctors also attached her to a device that made her hear a heartbeat much louder than it really was. I wonder if the nurse did that voluntarily or was it imposed on this woman (p 139)

Gawande goes into the phenomena of nausea and tries to explain why people dislike it so. Our understanding of this is primitive. Pharmaceutical companies make millions of dollars selling drugs. Best way to cope is start treating the condition when it’s mild. So habit comes in here

Larger interesting issue about suffering Do we do enough about suffering? The problem is when we see someone suffering we look at it as something to test and then look to see if there is a practical thing we can do. Instead of trying to cope with the suffering. Nausea is one condition where we are forced to deal with the suffering itself because people really dislike nausea.

Essay 9: “Crimson Tide” (pp. 146-161): the blush

This one interesting because physiology is clearly intertwined with someone’s character. They are not separate facets of existence which people might tend to think. Blushing useful. You signal you are embarrassed, you self-deprecate; you are kowtowing to group, confessing anxiety.

Essay 10: The Man who Couldn’t Stop Eating (pp. 162-183): eating disorders.

I. The story of Vincent Caselli and his Roux-en-Y gastric-bypass operation. This one too has evolutionary implications. All of the essays in this section do: be it the one about blushing or how we impose patterns on things (which we are skipping) we have evolved in reaction. So our bodies work hard to keep our calories going safely in our bodies.

Story of Caselli includes much detail which tells you he is working class: the way it’s done makes me a wee bit uncomfortable: it’s stigmatizing. Both he and wife good at business: he construction, she assisted-living. He ate a lot, big portions and everything on his plate. We eat out of habit too: it’s time so we eat.

So history of weight-loss one of unremitting failure (pp. 169-70). We are built to survive starvation, not deal with abundance. If you diet, your metabolism goes slower to compensate. So it can be a terrible battle to lose weight.

People who have this operation seems mostly to chose not to overeat anymore, to eat less. Though not all. Alas Vincent is eating less because he is forced to, not because of operation. He is not a thoughtful fellow and it may be it’s hard to sink in that this operation has endangered him so that if he overeats he’s at risk. Gets rid of diabetes.

I’m glad to see this emphasis on weight problems through this operation: most of the time you get stories about anorexic women which show little sympathy and less understanding (p. 182): “how can you let yourself look like that?” (see “Girls Want out” by Hilary Mantel, at London Review of Books)

I’m glad to see that Gawande expresses concern at merely plump people opting for this serious operation.

Very recently a study was published which showed our awareness that we are overweight can be attributed to strong advertising on the part of the weight-losing industry. The claim is that some of this distaste for the least fat on women in commercials and films is a product of advertising. Some of the “worry” about obese children in particular may be a construct of advertising campaigns.

Part 3: Uncertainty

Essay 11: Final Cut (pp. 187-202): the need for autopsies to continue.

An intelligent argument on behalf of autopsy. He thinks its decline is due to doctor hubris — not money or distaste of families of dead patients who give in if pressured. He says that people have always protested autopsy so that it’s unlikely that a new religious motive is coming in here.

How do others feel about autopsy? Why is it in decline? You don’t have to be religious to be emotionally attached to the corpse of the person. Perhaps also a distrust and dislike of hospitals and doctors. Don’t want the body cut up. Final cut.

Gawande shows long history of medicine demonstrates the importance of autopsy in learning about the human body. A corpse can be treated more aggressively. He felt he didn’t need to do autopsies until he discovered a bad mistake.

A long history of misdiagnosis continues (pp. 197ff): 40% in 1998 and not getting better. Why? the nature of fallibility. The tests shows accurate results, but the physician doesn’t call for the right test. People are somewhere between being like hurricanes and ice cubes. Remarkable that he thinks he can come up with what’s wrong with Charlotte Duveen.

Essay 13: Whose Body Is It, Anyway (pp. 208-27) autonomy and having to choose

This essay revolves around the question of asking the patient for their input? Gawande seems to think our communities have begun asking too much of patients to hand them the responsibility?

This is a complete switch-around from earlier practice: much hidden and patient not consulted; treated like a child or someone of a lower class. Gawande says the current medical orthodoxy says let the patient decide.

Is that your experience? Mine is the mildly dominating doctor with a pretense of consulting me.

Case of man who chooses badly (Lazarus, symbolic name) because he can’t face that they don’t have life to offer him but continued near death and misery and yet more misery to sustain that (p 215)

Gawande makes a strong case that patients are themselves emotional, confused, don’t know enough, can’t hear: exhausted, irritable, shattered or despondent (p 222). Gawande preferred to have decision made for him; Dr K saved the life of the man who didn’t want “another machine.”

What is really needed is kindness. That’s the real task (p. 222). Autonomy is but one value among others, but it is an important one. He’s not saying don’t get a second opinion, don’t ask questions, but that ethicists have gone overboard. But Gawande too strong on the side of the doctor deciding. Just about all his stories have patients succumbing to doctors and ending up better off. As usual, he forgets corrupt, indifferent, and bad-choosing doctors.

To sum up: There’s a direct conflict of interest between the pregnant female and the fetus in the sense that childbirth endangers her life and her body; there is the problem that people cannot always hear the truth about anything and make bad decisions, a result of naivety, misinformation and inability to take in the hard reality.

I suggest the man who chose the horrific operation because he couldn’t accept there was nothing doctors could do for him and the woman who had naive ideas about childbirth (knew nothing of history) may be taken as conflicts of interest. We don’t treat suffering itself; we go after what we think we are supposed to care so much about yet do we care about it?

Essay 14: The Case of the Red Leg (pp. 228-52).

Gawande falls into sensational mode: here are these heroic doctors cutting cutting cutting to save. Here we see how Gawande falls into technical virtuosity. Is Gawande too much into this do you think?

Our films, Wit and The doctor stress the need for humanity. Jason a technique freak; so too Kelekian; alas so too was Vivian Bearing when she taught poetry. All avoiding the human. The human is so painful and so uncertain. Wit is about the human condition seen through the prism of illness: how hard to make contact with one another.

For Gawande’s later essays, see comments: Bell Curve; The Score; The Way We Age Now.

Atul Gawande recently withd Jack Cochran, a high official at Kaiser Permanente


Read Full Post »

Older Posts »


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 173 other followers