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Posts Tagged ‘Travel Writing’

The.Trip.to.Italy
On their way to Pompeii (2014)

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Somewhere in the West Riding (2010)

Dear friends and readers,

I’ve been wanting to see Michael Winterbottom’s The Trip to Italy, featuring Steve Coogan and Bill Brydon a second time before writing about it as what is referred to as “a summer movie,” but summer is just about over and I’ve not made it back to Cinema Art this week when it opened there (and a few other movie theaters). I have, though, now watched The Trip twice (a DVD from Netflix), the previous travel-film, near two-hour feature made by the same director, with the same pair of males, and even female friends and lovers (Rebecca Johnson as Rob’s wife) and associates (Claire Keelan as Emma) in 2010. They went to Yorkshire or the West Riding, so that reinforcement and slow re-watching (pleasurable) will have to do.

The Trip to Italy is not a great film in the way of Richard Linklater’s 1995 Before Sunrise, with Julie Delpy, Ethan Hawke, as the loving and then vexed friends, with each reprise (Before Sunset [2004], and Before Midnight [2013]), not quite as fine; but it’s in the same mode, and unlike most sequels, an improvement on The Trip: all five seem to move us deeply into an intimate relationship (not sexual in the case of Coogan and Brydon as they keep reminding us and themselves) which we are glimpsing continual outward signs and conversation about. One of the joys of all five is you are made to feel you are listening to real spontaneous conversation and have to remind yourself that, to stay just with Coogan and Brydon, this is a fiction and this is not Brydon’s wife to whom he is sexually unfaithful while away, nor is this Coogan’s somewhat estranged son (in the fiction of the second movie, having been separated from her mother, his ex-wife). And the conversation is almost perpetually stimulating, often intelligent, fun, touching. Coogan and Brydon have some advantages over Delpy and Hawke as both are superb mimics and their patter in the second movie is a matter of their competing with transforming themselves into familiar male actors, and they visit superbly beautiful places.

It speaks well of Linklater’s three movies that he does not rely on offering us a deeply pleasurable travelogue, but this summer I could not resist it. Jim and I and our two daughters in 1994 spent five weeks in Italy, mostly in and around Rome, but we were in Pompeii, to Naples, and three days in Ischia and I had to admit we were immersed in nothing so beautiful, a salutary admission as films eliminate the hard realities of travel, the real world one is surrounded by.

As a dream fantasy of photography the earlier film was as spectacular. Brydon says they are in a Turner painting, but to me (like Alan Bennet) it’s John Atkinson Grimshaw (a famous 19th century painter of Leeds) who captured the area best and this time, having lived in Leeds and traveled across the West Riding for 2 years I did experience some of the scenes captured.

Landscape (1)
I’ve walked and driven through landscapes like this

Landscape (2)
Stone pubs look like that on a sunny day

They do omit Leeds itself with its hard older parts of the cityscape (some impoverished), and towns that are barely surviving today,and the bourgeois heavy mansions in the outskirts of cities but not in the countryside:

John Atkinson Grimshaw - An Autumn Idyll
John Atkinson Grimshaw’s forte: An Autumn Idyll

But then to me parts of Naples looked like the Bronx circa 1950s.

Both films have been reviewed favorably, Maohla Dargis in the New York Times (June 2011), and David Denby in the New Yorker (September 2014). Both reviews underline the vexed abrasions the men have now and again, and the undercurrents of melancholy, especially in the second film where the men are older, and Brydon no longer presented as happily married. The films are self-reflecting and in the second film Brydon remarks he was thought to be too “affable” in the first film: it’s been fixed, as Brydon betrays his lovers more than Coogan, and is every bit as wounded over his career losses as Coogan (who after all was in last year’s “Rabbit-Proof Fence,” Philomena with Judi Dench). I also found the increased level of sexual talk (bodily jokes) at times distasteful and (to be expected I suppose) masculinist: the hurts are those of males, women seen as objects, comfort dolls, or irritating bosses. At the Cinema Art Film Club where I saw The Trip to Italy, Gary Arnold (the Washington Post film critic who chooses the films and leads the discussion afterward) said if you didn’t like the actors’ characters you would hate the film; that’s one way of putting it without referring to gender. Some might be bored by Delpy and Hawke.

Perhaps The Trip to Italy had realer fuller (because darker) emotions than The Trip: the moving sequence at Pompeii is the film at its best — the talk over the stone corpses and how we relate to them. In The Trip Coogan and Brydon rely on reciting poetry by Coleridge and Wordsworth to make ironic some of their passing through tourist places; in The Trip to Italy the awareness of mortality, almost a fixation (it comes out in the 2010 film when the two are standing in a grave side and Brydon gets Coogan to anticipate what Coogan will say over Brydon’s tomb), comes out as one man wanting to open himself to his loss and vulnerability (Brydon) and the other bitterly walking away (Coogan), suggesting this sensitivity is phony.

overthetomb

Winterbottom made a great film out of Jude the Obscure where he similarly meditated loss, death, and in The Trip to Italy Winterbottom’s use of Strauss’s Four Last Songs was pitched just right. For me who nowadays see in Before Sunrise a re-enactment of Jim and my first week together,

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Before Sunrise: the young Delpy and Hawke

there was here a personal connection to our first ceremony ending (I intend to scatter his ashes in England), as Jim loved these songs and I made them part of the soundtrack for the video that played at Jim’s funeral.

Denby tells us the two films are derived from six part mini-series made for British TV. He felt nothing was missing and you could hardly tell this origin; I can’t agree. Now and again references seem to be made to something in the film we had not experienced (not just a between chapter) and especially the second film where there was much more sexual interaction with women along the way perhaps I would have not reacted to the talk negatively had the full time of the relationships been presented. At the very least the films profited enormously from their cyclical structure. In the second especially we are made to feel this is not closure: Coogan has to go home to cope with the son he has in part failed, and Brydon wishes he could avoid returning home and suggests a hope, however improbable, of coming back. Improbable is part of the movie’s wit: they are supposed on a hard assignment to eat these exquisitely cooked meals it’s almost an embarrassment to watch being made, so detailed is the luxury appointment of the plates, and so hushed the waiter’s descriptions.

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Yorkshire being photographed

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Yet another wine-savored feast

A testament to the world of the 1%? That’s my one serious objection to the second film. The first seemed to avoid that: maybe it had less fancy meals, less luxurious surroundings, there was a sense of roughing it. If you define a summer movie as escapism, metaphysically and psychologically at least they are not that, with the second funnier and yet sadder than the first.

Both sets of films have prompted caricature:

Cartoon
Eating your way through

WakingLife
Waking up: “I keep thinking about something you said.” “Something I said?”

Ellen

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We work in the dark — we do what we can — we give what we have. Our doubt is our passion and our passion is our task. The rest is the madness of art — Henry James

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An English Home, Albert Coburn (1907 illustration)

Dear friends and readers,

I began Gorra’s marvelous book as an alternative read to Rebecca Mead’s My Life in Middlemarch, a kind of companion-match antidote: I felt it was the same sort of book, one which took the reader through a deeply-felt reading experience of a book, in this case James’s The Portrait of a Lady. I discovered that Gorra’s does not pretend to be a semi-confessional autobiography as semi-literary criticism; indeed I learned very little about Gorra’s life, though I did learn how he reacted not only to James’s The Portrait of Lady but many of James’s other books — without any particular references to Gorra’s life, except that Gorra is also American and regards himself as having an American identity (whatever that is). Gorra’s book rather elaborated in how James’s other books and The Portrait fit into James’s private and writing life, into James’s career, and into how James’s readers and critics have seen him since he began publishing and up to the time of his death.

In other words, this is an unconventionally-written biography. Gorra’s can offer insights into James’s life not allowed by most methodologies: his method is to bring together how he feels (impersonally put) about James’s writing, what he Gorra sees, and how James wrote James felt about it with what we know of James’s life from all sorts of angles, some of them drawn from phases of writing The Portrait of a Lady. Gorra weaves a sort of biography where the writer does not have to follow the life history of the subject but can weave in what he or she wants and when, with the justification that well I’m going through associations from this novel. So we skip dull parts of the person’s life and also get new sorts of insight as the material is reconfigured.

We out James in a new way: this is a new sort of biography, one which moves out from one central great book, rather like someone deciding to write Trollope’s biography by intensely going through every detail of say The Way We Live Now or The Claverings — or both together. Mead’s book was not a biography of Eliot in disguise it was “her life” in Eliot

For example, Gorra can’t prove it yet he makes a persuasive case for seeing Isabel Archer and Ralph Touchett as a doppelganger out of the dying Minnie Temple, James’s cousin. Sometimes the method is inadequate: I was much entertained by his reaction to Henrietta Stackpole – only he seems not to know that Stackpole is also an unkind caricature of Kate Fields, beloved of Anthony Trollope, an entertaining travel writer, journalist in her own right.

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Martin Donovan as Ralph Touchett (Portrait)

Another example: Gorra re-sees Isabel’s early refusal to marry in terms of James’s — for James was under pressure to marry; her going to Europe, her choice of waiting to see (Ralph Touchett’s) of being a witness not a doer — all these three are brought together with James’s gayness and made sense of — he is masking himself in Isabel is the point and it’s an interesting one, for else we just do really have another story of the chaste heroine making a bad or good marriage.

He dwells on Madame Merle who emerges upon Isabel getting the money (women has a good nose) and how she stands for a social animal. She and Isabel have a debate with Isabel coming out on the side of that she is not expressed solely or nearly solely by her outward behavior, dress, occupation — as Madame Merle implies. I’ll add that From Daniel Deronda the mother shows one has a self apart which will break away, but Isabel’s tragedy will be she cannot

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Barbara Hershey as Madame Merle (Portrait)

In a section early in the book called the Envelope of Circumstances where Gorra talks almost of himself — at least of an American identity (which often makes me uncomfortable) — he elaborates on the idea that Portrait is unusual in its lack of religion and Gorra says this is true of all James’s work but the ghost stories. I know I like James and feel he is equally European/English (not British)

I much enjoyed the chapter in Gorra after the one detailing all James’s homosexual friends, contacts, strains (“An Unmarried Man”): in “A London Life” he tells of how James came to live in London, that it was no foregone conclusion: he tried Paris first; about an expensive apartment he lived in for quite a while that was well located for theater, plays, making a life of going out to dinners and socializing with the upper class, near enough to publishers and parks. I quite envy James — we also get a strong sense of him supporting himself through writing for magazines and the kinds of texts he was writing to do that. I knew all this but not in this way and Gorra quotes from James’s wonderful thick diary commonplace book so well. He intuitively holds onto and writing about the most astute utterances of James: after G.H. Lewes died, James visited her and described her as “shivering like a person who had had a wall of her house blown off.”

It may be these names of James’s possible lovers and his relationships with them are known, but I’ve never seen the series of men set out so clearly, the stories told so intelligently, and rightly the doubts sowed over the idea James was physically celibate without overdoing it. People are still today writing books which obscure this aspect of James’s life and when they do write about James’s complex feelings, they write turgidly, with embarrassment, hedging. Gorra tells of James’s important life long relationship with his woman amaneunsis-secretary, Theodora Bosanquet whose biography of the boss she spent 2 decades with and lived in close intimacy gives us a lot of the leads and details that help us see this aspect of James’s life. Her book: Henry James at Work and published by Hogarth Press (the Woolfs).

Thus I found finding Gorra’s book more satisfying than Mead’s because I was made to realize more about James and his writing. Most of what Mead wrote I knew about Eliot — and while she is applying our information about Eliot is more subtle autobiographical ways, it does not change what I have seen. Since James’s homosexuality has only recently been openly admitted to and discussed as central to his life — as it was the way what gender you are is — there are new insights to be gotten

He begins with the richness of the letters and how much we can learn about James from them (most have not yet been published, a many year project by many people). The question is how far can we be ourselves apart from social life and within ourselves how much there is a real separate I from construction. I agree with him (and James) it’s there but vulneragble and fragile — as we see in Isabel Archer. Touchett is in retreaet and sinks his life in Isabel’s – I believe that outside his job Jim sunk his life in mind and job in the last years was also endured to support the two of us. That it was not him is seen in how he didn’t mind retiring and only thought of going back in order to move to England.

Still the great source for all people wanting to know James is a book edited by Mattiessen, a continuous diary: it’s vignettes of going out, little bits of stories he later worked up into his great novels, thoughts on aesthetics, whatever popped into his head: The Notebooks of Henry James. I read it while doing my dissertation and trying to understand the creative mood of reverie underlying novels. Gorra emphatically uses this book.

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Rome, outdoor Market, Piazza Navona by Guiseppe Ninci (1870)

Gorra first shows us James’s situating himself in London and ambivalent; how he tried Paris, and we go on to his trips to Italy – where much of the later action of The Portrait of a Lady takes place and we get a chapter on Madame Merle and Osmond – not moralizing but how they represent some real aspects of the expatriots. It was not all high (or today unacceptable) art. Then Gorra moves into a portrait of the community in Florence and Rome at the time. Several interesting pages on his relationship with Constance Fennimore Woolson’s. As sympathetic to the people caught up there as Mead on Main – I’ve been at least to the Spanish Steps and some of the places Gorra describes – which he takes you through with him as your walking guide – and connects them to the atmosphere of the novel which is un-Victorian … bringing all this to bear on Isabel’s wrong choice gives it a whole new kind of aspect – and connects it to the modern reader too.

Gorra follows James from place to place as James writes The Portrait of a Lady. James was escaping his American identity as he traveled from place to place in Italy, and tried to find a quiet place to write a lot and yet have some company and enrichening landscape. From expatriats he moves onto strangers, and how James was surrounding himself with strangers, was himself an exile, a stranger, and saw that the American communities were themselves disconnected from Italian society, didn’t understand it, in search of what they couldn’t find at home. Then he says they were – -and James is – drawing on the heritage of different countries and cultures to make a new amalgam for themselves.

That aspect of American identity as self-invention I do see in myself, though the amalgam is mostly from English sources. I turned to read James’s Roman Rides as Gorra said it’s better than just about all James’s early fictions — and it struck me that’s right. The opening is a meditative piece on the landscape of the campagna. Jim and I went there and walked alone one morning — we did not take our children who were with us on that holiday because they would have been so bored. Often the places he and I wanted to go to were to them places with nothing there. James does a gorgeous rendition of the feelings one can have just outside Rome among these ruins in this desolated place — it was still that way in 1994. How important place and history are to some authors.

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John Malkovich as Osmond (Portrait)

Gorra then moves onto Isabel’s strange choice of the stifling Osmond and how Isabel came to make such a bad choice. Gorra suggests we don’t bring in the sexual angle enough and Isabel was attracted to the man who declined openly to chase her. I did not remember that time went by and Isabel traveled with her sister I Europe and then Madame Merle in the Middle East (that was dangerous). Ralph tells her she is going to be put in a cage but it’s no good. We are not shown the moment of submission, the marriage or its first experience. Why? It’s a sleight of hand that takes us to thwarted aspiration, imprisonment, narrowing but not how she got there. Are these James’s fears for himself?

The book moves onto Venice as James does – and an immersion occurs as James is drawn into this defeated place filled with poverty striken people, even then dying, dependent on tourism. James himself eat and drank expensively as Gorra finds this out by going to the same place (still there). A political fight over the vaporetto and the vaporettos won – James didn’t like the noise either. He makes two friends whose houses he can stay at, ordinary upper class American and English, not the resident famous homosexual population …. It’s the evocation of these places through quotation of James’s travel writing that makes this section so appealing …

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John Singer Sergeant, An Interior in Venice (1899)

Gorra is trying to relive the experiences James had while writing the book at the same time as he re-imagines what the characters feel as the story progresses: tracing James’s steps in Venice, looking at paintings Sergeant made of the expatriot people into whose houses James was welcomed. From James’s letters Gorra picks up that the landlady was offering her daughter as a sex partner by sending her to hang around the fourth floor. Byron took up such invitations, not James. He moves onto the this kind of atmosphere in Venice, and its treacheries, the grim whiff of the closed streets (seen in Sergeant”s pictures too I know) and says this seeped into Portrait of a Lady and what Isabel’s chose of Osmond brought her

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Constance Fennimore Woolson

Venice prompts by association the really poignant story of James’s long time and finally failed relationship with Constance Fenimore Woolston. Gorra characterizes her with great empathy and tells a lot I didn’t know or had forgotten. Again he brings together what is not usually brought together: how they quietly lived in one building she on the first and he the ground floor — in Florence. She apparently went to Venice to live on the assumption he would follow her but he never did. The letters to and from and her were burned. As everyone knows she killed herself by jumping out a window and he tortured himself by trying to drown her dresses — why he just didn’t throw them out or give them away as rags I can’t guess.

Woolston’s death though partly in reaction to James’s behavior is obviously not his fault. She suffered depression much of her life. When she’d finish a book she’d be in a state of nervous collapse. It’s said some people are exhilarated by it. I was neither. Eliot went into collapse mode.

As he tells the story, Gorra connects it James’s “Aspern Papers,” “he Beast in the Jungl”e (Sedgewick renamed that “closet”) and a couple of other uncanny stories (“The Romance of Old Clothes) which he retells very well — and The Wings of the Dove.

Quite what this has to do with The Portrait of a Lady? it illuminates James’s feelings towards relationships, the real life of expatriates … A central “sin” in James is when one person uses another, makes them an instrument for his or her needs. Imposing your will on them. He suggests Lyndall Gordon (who wrote a conventional biography) accuses James of doing this to Woolson. Now the second version a Portrait of a Lady occurs well after Woolson’s death and so we are left to make our own allegory here.

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Paris, La Rue de Rivoli, Anonymous, undated

I love the illustrations in this book, picturesque, in the mode of Alvin Coburn, the illustrator for James’s turn of the century complete revised edition.

Following upon the chapter on James and Constance Fenimore Woolston, we move into “sex, serials, the continent and critics.” A full chapter on how near impossible it was to get into print and distributed in the UK and US too a story which told what every one know to be the case with sexual life; you could only tell supposedly what life was supposed sexually to be like, to teach lessons. The French were much freer.

This part of the book includes a chapter on the magazines James wrote for and Gorra uses is also valuable beyond telling us how James dealt with the problem of instalment publication: demands for a certain length, for cliff-hangers, who and where his work appeared (with what provided the context of respectability for the reader); it’s an intelligent portrait of a world where people are still reading magazines. James was apparently a writer who had in mind his whole book so would start a new instalment not with a reader turning the pages of a magazine who might need (as we call them today) recap. Today’s American context is alluded to: the importance of Atlantic, Harper’s then – New Yorker today

Gorra is showing us how Isabel Archer could come to say she did not want to hear anything that Pansy could not hear — this is supreme foolishness on her part; far from being dangerous for her, it will be dangerous for her not to have more knowledge of what a man can do to his wife once he marries her — Cameron’s movie makes Osmond into a sadistic man in bed too — as does Andrew Davies make Grandcourt in his film of Daniel Deronda. This is chapter comparing French fiction of the period that was admired by the English with the English. A rare novelist to break through what was allowed was George Moore (Esther Waters) but his novels were not distributed by Mudie’s.

Gorra spends a long chapter on the whole long chapter in Portrait of a Lady after Edward Rosier comes to call – he is the young man who loves and could be loved by Pansy, but Osmond won’t allow it, and he lets Isabel know that she ought to use her sexual pull on Warburton to lure Warburton into marrying Pansy — for Osmond assumes that’s a front for a love affair Warburton means to have with Isabel.

Isabel is sickened, appalled, desolated — we come upon her well after the marriage has taken place, we even missed the birth and death of a young son. Gorra says this is deliberate on James’s part: he does not want to show us directly (remember our thread on showing and telling) such dramatic moments but their affect on consciousness.

I was not surprised to see Gorra attribute some of James’s sophistication to his reading of Daniel Deronda where Gorra finds the same kinds of techniques. The difference is that James goes on for much longer (he says) and makes the narrative stop still and ruminate a past we’ve not seen.

He also says the shrewdest most aware appraisal of Portrait was by Constance Fenimore Woolson. So James is in a women of ecriture-femme — with Oliphant ranging herself on the other side in defense of what she thought of as English fiction.

He finds this so original. I don’t think so — Trollope does it, Austen does it, Eliot does it a lot but the interior monologue is important and Gorra’s way of discussing it as becoming central to the art of fiction does show one important innovation. Hitherto story was said to count a lot and more; and it’s clear that for James the actual story matter — the events that manifest the inner life — does not matter. Gorra says this changes the novel’s emphasis and is part of a switch over that finds an extreme in Woolf.

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Romola Garai as Gwendoleth Harleth Grandcourt telling Daniel Deronda (Hugh Dancy) about what her life has been (2004 Daniel Deronda, scripted Andrew Davies)

No what makes the difference is the content. Trollope’s Julia (The Claverings) does not think one really unconventional thought. She never thinks to herself these people are shits, why should I want to sit with the housekeeper, look at their terrible values. Nor any of them until Daniel Deronda with the magnificent portrait of his mother (the same actress who played the role in Davies’s film played Madame Merle in Campion’s film) Isabel does not break away but she has utterly subversive thoughts about the values of those around her. Eliot invents another set of ethics using Gwendoleth Harleth’s experience (which Davies’s film brings out), implicitly anticipating Flaubert but much more sympathetic to the woman, as is James. Again and again Gorra links James to Eliot. So when Gorra exaggerated because he so goes on about it, one can learn and see …

He is tracing an important direct new line — into it was fed the travel writings that he has been going over too. Roman Rides, Venice. Also William James’s books on cognitive psychology show up the new interest. The new line was objected to intelligently by RLStevenson in his Gossip on Romance and James’s prefaces, his Art of Fiction was intended to intervene in this debate. Gorra’s discussion of James’s use of stream of consciousness in Portrait of a Lady is so rousing that I become eager for Phyllis Rose’s A Year of Reading Proust to come — I just hope I’ve read enough of Proust’s volumes to be able to appreciate it. I’ve only read one and almost to the end of the second volume.

Gorra then uses his analysis of Isabel Archer’s long meditation to launch into more than James’s Art of Fiction; he makes large claims for James as an innovator of a new kind of novel: one based wholly on inner life, nuances. Of course these were written before — in epistolary narratives of high quality in the 18th century but not self-consciously. Gorra argues that Woolson was one of the first to understand, and Howells to defend James and his Art of Fiction should be understood as part of a debate which includes RLS’s Gossip on Romance.

I like how Gorra fits this into the growth of serious literary criticism of the novel, taking it seriously. James could not get himself to write in the other “new” school of naturalism (Princess Cassamassima is the one that may be linked): too pessimistic, too bleak he felt, though Howells did it in his Modern Instance. The novel’s stature is going up

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Henry James by Katherine McClellan (1905)

The last part: putting out the lights. This one takes us through James’s response to the deaths of his father and mother; he came for the funerals, just missed the dying. I think he’s right to argue against Edel’s insistence it was the mother who screwed the family up: common sense and all evidence suggests it was the father (if people can be screwed up who produced what Wm and Henry James and even Alice did and lives the lives the first two did) with the mother complicit. It seems to have been a contest which of the parents self-destructed first and in reaction to the other’s coming demise. They did cling together.

As with Mead at the close of her book, but without personal references, Gorra then makes leaps into the fiction to find analogies about death. Gorra shows how often James wrote about death after this period, and how a metaphor for loss. In this chapter he says it was at this time James began to keep his journal of all anecdotes, an important source for this book (and many others).

And he suggests it was after this or around this time several of the great Victorians died and I’m glad to say — serendipitiously — for James this includes Trollope. Trollope for James a major voice like Eliot, Flaubert and Turgenev. James’s essay on Trollope has been very influential — perhaps too much so but I didn’t know about the line calling Trollope a “difficult mind.” That’s good. What a different list from the modern canon, no?

James’s “The Altar of the Dead” is about the ghosts we live with, the ghosts in our memories of who died and Gorra speaks eloquently of it. Alice was another great loss by then and Constance Fenimore Woolson. No wonder I liked this chapter and it leads a powerful chapter centering on the last image Isabel has at the end of her mediation: Madame Merle and Osmond talking together. Gorra takes us through to Isabel’s realization that when Madame Merle said to her “let us have him” (italics added) Madame Merle has given away 1) that she and Osmond think that Isabel wants Warburton for herself, not that she is appalled by the proposition that she should use his attraction to her to win him to marry Pansy as payoff for a liaison; and 2) they assume what bothers Isabel is not the amorality of all this but that she wants Warburton for herself, and finally 3) Madame Merle is Pansy’s mother.

When Osmond’s sister comes to tell Isabel of this truth however indirectly it’s after the realization and this is followed hard on by the most quiet and devastating of needlings I’ve ever read. Madame Merle comes in to tell Isabel as Isabel is contemplating visiting Ralph as he lies dying (after Osmond has forbidden it) that it was Ralph who gave her the enormous sum of money that made her “a brilliant match,” spoken in bland feigned innocence she is nonethleless triumphing over telling Isabel that Isabel owes this hellish marriage to Ralph. And pointing our to her yes “she was perfectly free” so she did it to herself.

One problem for the modern reader who wants to read hard truths about life is these earlier novels (and many since) end ambiguously in ways that allow us to think the characters will be all right, make do by following conventional norms and thus uphold the very structures that the whole novel has been designed to expose.

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Nicole Kidman as Isabel Archer Osmond (Portrait, scripted Laura Jones, directed Jane Campion)

It is a startlingly even terrifying moment when Madame Merle so quietly and blandly lets Isabel know it was after Isabel who chose to marry Osmond and she was given all the clues she needed to what he was if she had only looked.

Austen has scenes of withering corrosion where the speaker does not realize what he is saying and the listener is mortified and hurt, but nothing quite so horrible in feel or mean and malicious in intent. Madame Merle’s purpose is to make Isabel angry at Ralph and prevent her going — as Lucy Ferrars in telling Elinor of the long engagement was to make Elinor give up on Edward, be very angry with him. The increase in subtlety and what has been done is a hundredfold.

For the book’s last chapters, see the comments.

Ellen

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Dear friends,

In the computer disaster I had two days ago it appears that the course proposals I had made for a summer teaching course at an Oscher Institute of Learning may have been permanently lost; as I want these documents and today (as yet) have no writing program I can put them on — the new computer with Windows 8 is hellishly cutsey, tricksey. I cannot figure out how to write on Word on this Macbook Pro without the whole screen being transformed, so that I appear unable to reach my gmail with hitting F3 which minimalizes everything and let’s me see, and get back to gmail and the row of programs I have at the bottom of Macbook Pro. So I am saving two sets of documents or writing here — I used to use this blog to work out my thoughts on books, films, teaching; well read these as 5 sketches towards a summer course for retired people.

The Gothic

This course will explore the gothic mode in fiction and film. The gothic as a mode is a vast terrain with many differnt subgenres, yet images, plot-, and character types repeat like a formula. Take one huge labyrinthine ancient or partly ruined dwelling, place inside a murderous incestuous father or mother (preferably chained), heroes and heroines (various kinds), get a tempest going at night, be sure to have plenty of blood on hand, owls, and stir in a great deal of supernatural phenomena, have the action occur in the deep past or be connected to a deep past … We’ll use short stories on-line, beginning with ghosts and terror, moving onto vampire, werewolf, and wanderer paradigms and horror, and last socially critical mystery and possession. The course culminates in two recent novellas, Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House and Valerie Martin’s Mary Reilly, and the justly famed film, Robert Wise’s The Haunting (1963, featuring Julie Harris).

Texts on-line will be chosen from among these: Wharton’s “Afterward” and/or “Kerfol,” M. R. James’s “The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral;” Sheridan LeFanu’s “Green Tea” and/or “Carmilla,” Marion Crawford’s “For the Blood is the Life,” R. L. Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Suzy Charnas’s “Unicorn Tapestry; Arthur Conan Doyle, “The Adventure of Abbey Grange.” This spares students buying an expensive anthology.

Memory, Desire, and Self-fashioning: Life Writing

This course will enable students to better to understand and recognize the nature of life-writing: diaries, books of letters, journals, memoirs, travel narratives, autobiogaphies, biographies. Our three texts will be Richard Holmes’s Footsteps: Adventures of a Romantic Biographer, Iris Origo’s War in Val d’Orca: An Italian War Diary, 1943-1944 (or George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia) and Margaret Drabble’s The Figure in the Carpet: A Personal History, with Jigsaws. We will ask what is the nature of the truth autobiography produces and look at the relationship of a biographer to his subject. We’ll look at writing done to the moment when the writer does not know what the future holds (diaries, letters); how far is a biography the product of a biographer’s memories interacting with text by his (or her) subject. We’ll talk about the importance of childhood and play in this form, how aging, imagination and disappointment work are part of the mental materials that make up life-writing. If time permits and the DVD is available, the class will conclude with the 2013 film, The Invisible Woman, based on Claire Tomalin’s biography of a long love-relationship between Charles Dickens and Ellen Ternan (an actress), where most of the evidence for the events was destroyed, and thus be able to discuss events that happen, and are important in people’s lives and yet have left no discernible clear record.

The Political Novel

The course aims to enable the students to recognize what is political novel and how such novels can function in our society. We’ll read Elizabeth Bowen’s The Last September, Walter Von Tilburg Clark’s The Ox-Bow Incident, and Valerie Martin’s Property and see William Wellman’s film, The Ox-Bow Incident (1963, featuring Henry Fonda and Anthony Quinn). We’ll look at the nature of political allegory: how ideas about society penetrate the consciousness of the characters and can be observed in their behavior. Why some events enter what’s called history and why political novels often lend themselves to historical treatment; why other events are not discussed as serious history, which can limit what we perceive as political behavior. Finally, how films contribute to understanding a novel or its political meanings.

The Historical and Post-Colonial Turn in modern novels

This course will examine historical and post-colonial (or global) turn that English fiction has taken in the last quarter century. We’ll read and discuss three novels: Paul Scott’s Staying On, Graham Swift’s Waterland, and Andrea Levy’s Small Island. The first poignant novel is also about two aging people now retired, who have seen the word they were part of disappear and must cope with new arrangements hostile to them. The second will enable us to discuss how some events enter political history and others don’t, and thus our past is past is something we invent through imposing choice and order based on hierarchies in our present culture. Historical romance can therefore be liberating acts of resistance, a way of redressing injustice, and creating a more humane usable past. The third novel shows the centrality of nationalistic identities in enforcing exclusions or forming imagined communities. The course will conclude by watching an excerpt from a mini-series adaptation of Small Island (2009, BBC, featuring David Oyelowo and Ruth Wilson). I hope the class will see the connection of these novels to young adult fiction, counter-factual fictions, and romantic history as well as TV costume drama.

Jane Austen: the early phase

This course focus on Austen’s first published novels: Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice. Love and Freindship (a short hilarious burlesque which we will read first), Austen’s Steventon years, and letter fiction provide prologue and context for reading S&S and P&P. An alternative perspective provides the last phase of the course: Austen’s Bath years, a brief mid-career epistolary novel written there, Lady Susan (with an utterly amoral heroine), and discussion of how Austen revised the novels when she settled at Chawton. Last, we’ll see Ang Lee and Emma Thompson’s S&S (a 1995 Miramax product), and discuss what this film makes visible about the way film-makers think readers read these novels and how these interpretations differ from this course’s historical, autobiographical and aesthetic readings.

Ellen

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MelmotteFacingThemAllblog
David Suchet as Melmotte facing them all (from Davies’s 2001 TWWLN adaptation — in the last phase Suchet has in mind Charles Laughton’s moving performance as Quasimodo)

Dear friends and readers,

I’ve returned to Trollope with a plunge. A writer for our time. Like Dickens, a geographer of our imagination, utterly televisual (via Andrew Davies), and aptly post-colonial.

Over the past two weeks I’ve been reading his (magnificent panoramic) The Way We Live Now and his brilliant psychological-social masterpiece, He Knew He Was Right. I had begun them once again (I’ve read both at least twice) and gotten about one-third of the way through each when I wrote a proposal for a paper to be part of a collection of essays on British Historical Costume Drama on TV (from The Forsyte Saga to Downton Abbey), and though I’ve not had an absolute acceptance, it’s as near as firm yes as one can get. The only doubt will be if the group can get enough essay proposal to go forth for a fat volume.

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Donald Pleasance played the character whose presence began for Trollope his Barsetshire novels: here he plays his cello (1982 BBC Barchester Chronicles, Alan Plater)

It would not be due until next fall, but my problem now is my proposal for Mapping Trollope was accepted by Sharp, and that will be due mid-summer. To map Trollope, to delve his re-creation of London, the mythic Barsetshire, the counties of Dillborough and surrounding areas from The American Senator (Ayala’s Angel), to say nothing of Barsetshire country (which includes both series, Barsetshire and Pallisers), I shall have to read in detail, taking down specifics from several very long novels. I know from experience the whole picture of Barsetshire first emerges in Doctor Thorne, that the chronology of the Barsetshire and Palliser books is more or less consistent and the mapping say of TWWLN fits into that of the Pallisers. And I did want to include the careful mapping of Western Ireland in Trollope’s 5 Anglo-Irish novels and two stories (consistent with the Phineas books), which are no where well enough known.

One world Trollope.

On top of this from my trip to NYC to listen to a lecture at the NY Trollope Society by Prof Nicholas Birns on Trollope’s La Vendee as historical fiction, I’ve again come into contact with this generous scholar who years ago (really) encouraged me to send him a paper on Trollope’s travel books for his Antipodes: a Global Journal of Australian/NZ literature. He told me he loved my book (I never forgot that), especially the Irish sections where I argued for the central importance of Ireland in Trollope’s life and work. I found myself unable to write the paper because at the time I didn’t understand post-colonial theories and perspectives, and the only thing I could think of was descriptive and that meant (I felt) going to Australia. Jim won’t listen to that (cost, distance), and how could I begin to spend enough time anyway.

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Walhalla, Victoria 19th century print

Since then I’ve learned about post-colonial theory (see my blogs on Christopher Hodson’s Acadian Diaspora and Diasporic Jane and Indian films) and have been able to come up with a perspective which would enable me to discuss say the relationship between Trollope’s travel book, Australian and New Zealand and his novels set in Australia — without going to Australia, or if I did for a relatively short time (I do long to go). On line I’ve done that for his American Senator and North America, which we read in conjunction with one another on Trollope19thCStudies when it was still Trollope-l.

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Trollope’s section on New York City and American culture as fuelled by a worship of money ever relevant (see this week’s New Yorker column, George Packer reading TWWLN).

I told him my idea for “On Living in A New Country: Inventing an Australian Identity” (a play on Patrick Wright’s On Living on an Old Country), and he seemed to like it very much, and more or less told me I could be on his pane, “The Australian Trollope,” in a coming Trollope conference. Yes a group of Trollopians are not waiting another 25 years to get together again (see Exeter conference), and in fall of 2015 plan to meet in Belgium at the University of Leuven. If I did that it would mean reading another set of long Trollope books but some new (and to me) interesting Australian literature which I have grown to love. I should say I was once part of a group looking to publish on Trollope as traveler (this was 10 years ago) when I read AngloAustralian novels (e.g., Henry Kingsley’s Geoffrey Hamlin) and Australian & New Zealand famous classics (Marcus Clarke, For the Term of His Natural Life, and Jane Mander’s The Story of a New Zealand River, Ethel (Henry Handel) Richardson’s enormous trilogy, The Fortunes of Richard Mahony.

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Holly Hunter and Anna Paquin as Ada and Flora McGrath (1993 The Piano, Jane Campion)

The rest of my blog summarizess my proposal to discuss the film adaptations of TWWLN and HKHWR (“Andrew Davies’s Televisual Trollope”) and throws out a few ideas for “On Living in a New Country.”

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“Andrew Davies’s Televisual Trollope” will include two great artists, Andrew Davies as well as Trollope. I will show that

in Andrew Davies’s adaptations of Trollope Davies developed sophisticated televisual techniques expressively to convey Trollope’s interior monologues, epistolarity, and panoramic plot-designs and Trollope’s themes of delusional sexual paranoia and anxiety, and economic corruption. TWWLN and HKHWR rely on filmic epistolary sequences, montage, flashbacks and voice-over; Davies also breaks naturalistic conventions to allow for characters directly to address the TV audience, and for the TV screen to picture emblematic allegories. We will also see that Davies engages with Simon Raven’s famous 26 part Pallisers to replace a cynical patriarchal Tory implied author with a humane, liberal feminist one, and while so doing, critiques Trollope’s texts from a feminist and Oedipal standpoint ….

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Mr Gilson overpowered by Arabella French’s chignon, and getting back when she says she will do anything he bids her including of course removing it: modelled on one of Marcus Stone’s illustrations (from Davies’s 2004 HKHWR)

The first part of the paper will examine the filmic art, themes, character types, plot-designs of TWWLN and HKHWR as a similar pair: since not enough films made from Trollope in close proximity have survived, Davies cannot (as with his Austen or Dickens films) conceive of these as part of a subgroup of author-connected films. Instead they belong to Davies’s own political satiric type films made from socially-concerned novels … In the second part how scenes and dialogues in TWWLN allude to scenes in Raven’s Pallisers to comment both on Raven’s and Trollope’s work. I will also show that Davies brightens and makes much gayer and more hopeful the perspective of HKHWR by imitating the décor and kinds of gentle caricature created in the Barchester Chronicles

For “On Living in a New Country” my idea would be to follow Trollope’s unusual (so I think) trajectory of dramatizing colonialism not from the angle of the higher echelons but from that of the desperate lower middle, working class person and family, or the angle of the younger son who is not the heir. It’s such people he tells his fiction about, and it was to them he directed his Letters from Liverpool.

In the part of Australian and New Zealand just on New Zealand where he visited the Maoris and went swimming with a group of them, we have Trollope as Bohemian (sort of), but (and now this is vague) I recall I thought he was prophetic in looking forward to how ethnic politics would work out, how these would be a core of conflict, that they would seem to replace class- and money-based politics. (It was an analogous foresight to those found in his Anglo-Irish novels about how communities react to outsiders, the use of scapegoats, and collusive officials.) Trollope saw that the person or people who live in a “new” country (so they see it) have to evolve a new identity, one connected to the old one, but different and while in his novels (John Caldigate) he warns out “gentlemen” could fall to lower ways of life, he was very enthusiastic about this new identity.

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20th century illustration for Trollope’s John Caldigate (originally called Mrs John Caldigate)

I was amused to find that Robert Hughes actually ends his great book The Fatal Shore (one of the great books of the 20th century; it can stand alongside Primo Levi’s If this be man) by quoting Trollope’s graphic portraits of two men kept in prison for a very long time. I did want to produce a paper. I remember seeing a film at the time, The Proposition, which seemed to me to go into the areas I was interested in from an angle of high violence — and “Aaron Trowe” (the protagonist villain share’s Trollope’s initials, AT) is a story of high violence; so too Harry Heathcoat. Here’s a wikipedia article on the Australian film The Proposition just about this group of people, which starred Emily Watson and Ray Winstone.

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The Stanleys (very much the sort of couple Trollope writes about).

TMI? If you were wondering what I’ve been reading while watching all these films and going to operas, what thinking about and why, there you have it. Next up will be a blog on Trollope’s novels HKHWR and then (separately) the TWWLN

Ellen

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Mort_de_La_Rochejaqueleinblog
Death of Henri de la Rochejaquelein, painting by Alexandre Bloch

Dear friends and readers,

We’ve been to NYC with the excuse of hearing an (in the event) wonderfully suggestive lecture by Nicholas Birns on Trollope’s La Vendee. Prof Birns spoke at the Groliers’ Club, an older building with full library along 44th Street.

On the novel itself, we read this twice on Trollope19thCStudies and I’ve put the postings onto my website so the reader can find many good essay-postings on the novel there. What I have to offer here are notes I took from Professor Birns’s talk: heads of topics, sketches of themes, historical writing, and an insight into the visualization of place in La Vendee which connects it to Trollope’s novella, Cousin Henry where Professor Birns ended his talk.

One problem with the talk wwhich Prof Birns confessed upfront was Prof Birns had not read the French aristocratic woman’s memoir on which book is based: Memoirs of the Marquise de la Rochejaquelin (translated by Scott). It’s very difficult to access. Trollope did much research and other sources are Lamartine’s recent history, The Girondists and a long history of the French revolution by one Archibald Alison whom Disraeli mocked as Mr Wordy. Trollope did general research too — as he did for his travel books, one of which (abortive) was an Irish one around this time.

First Prof Birns offered a preliminary set of thoughts as a preface. This is Trollope’s third novel, and comes out of intimate relationship with Ireland and his experiences of countryside and marginalized world there. Trollope knew French culture and history. Prof Birns suggested that Trollope was looking for successful topic, and his two Irish novels didn’t sell. Representing a place became for him a way to represent hus metaphoric thinking … There is rich forest and landscape in novel. (Trollope is not known for his descriptive abilities but they are important as is his use of place, houses as symbols, landscapes too.)

Professor Birns reminded us that 1848 was a year of revolution in Europe. (There was much interest in revolution in this era of open class struggle and the first building of unions.) Carlyle has a real success with his French revolution book which is hard to read; Dickens writes or will write Barnaby Rudge and A Tale of Two Cities. Trollope, though, chooses counter-revolution emerges. Why? He asks and tries to asnwer, Why did peasants not support revolution? They are guerillas. Prof Birns instanced the Spanish peninsular war as analogous complicated event. Prof Birns brought up Balzac’s Les Chouans, a violent book (it seems), but it was of course Scott who Trollope is centrally imitating in La Vendee. Prof Birns also recommended Flanigan’s 20th century historical fiction, Year of the French as a companion insightful book, showing French and Irish parallels? (I have it and could not get into it. Must try again.)

As to the kind of historical fiction, La Vendee represents: Trollope uses real historical characters. It is probably also true that place is central to historical writing. It was Prof Birns’s insight that Trollope resorted to historical fiction to write a book and used the characteristics of historical fiction to try to get into what was to him another time and place and also present an inner meaning or vision about the way human politics works:

What happened was the provinces resisted a central power. Rich lords against any revolution; military leaders had allegiance to ancien regime. This was also a conflict between modern secular groups and Catholic conservatives. Trollope take sides, clearly with rebels. The question would be, why.

The central appealing character killed off in Trollope’s novel, which comes alive around that point. There is an emotionally held-in unhappiness here (said Prof Birns). Trollope also against romanticism and revolution; Prof Birns then connected book to Cousin Henry, a self-flagellating book, where place is crucial. Wales the setting of this novella and Henry ostracized and terrorized by others in the village; Henry cannot understand brutal unsubtle culture.

Prof Birns said Trollope resorts to ekphrasis because he has trouble getting into these cultures. Ekphrasis is a word that has become fashionable nowadays; it appears frequently in academic discourses (and also talk about poetry). Myself I don’t recall Cousin Henry as visual but rather an intense psychological study of a man who is outcast and susceptible to cruel bullying, but I do recall La Vendee is striking in its visual portraiture, especially one scene where the wife of an openly loving married couple (unusual for Trollope) look out a window and the wife describes the battle seen to her husband much in the manner that Rebecca describes a battle to the wounded Ivanhoe.

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Olivia Hussey as Rebecca from the famous scene, and a felicitious still of Anthony Andrews as Ivanhoe (from the 1982 mini-series)

(Trollope’s novel has never been filmed.)

At this point my notes give out. I was really cheered by the friendly greeting of the man who runs the society, Randy Williams; by meeting Stephen Amarnick and hearing how his edition of the complete Duke’s Children is coming along. Two people told me they are on Trollope19thCStudies and read my postings sometimes. One woman said she could not stand I gave away something about Downton Abbey (! see my P.S). I hope now that I’ve retired to be able to find time to come to NYC to attend the society’s meetings, e.g., go to this year’s dinner and come far more regularly to the lectures.

For the rest of our trip, a diary journal (we saw 3 operas, 1 play, a movie, went to Central Park, the Met Museum, the Strand, and walked a hellavu lot: From NYC: a diary of shopping, theatre-going, walking …

Ellen

Postscript: Still on the train earlier in the day, coming into the station. We are waiting in the space between seats in a crowd of people pushing holding luggage, I see a young man with largish black laptop at the same time watching his screen. I peek. There’s Miss Obrien in her usual corner spot at the table next to her Shirley Maclaine’s maid, POV Anna, across the way Mrs Hughes … .. Later I go to lunch and open New Yorker, first joke I come to: lady visiting prison on phone reporting to husband “the bad news is Lady Sybil died but Bates is home … “

TablescenePOVAnna

Jim now tells me the man had all 3 seasons of Downton DVDs on his table set up in his seat area …

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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.

Ellen

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An internet photo (we do not yet carry an ipad camera as a regular thing)


A cat curled up in its pod (Detail from A Lady with a Harp below)

We spotted the turtles before we did the pussycats, probably because the turtles moved and the pussycats didn’t. Also we were out-of-doors and it was earlier in the day.

Saturday morning our plan was to return to Madison Square garden & exchange our 5 o’clock train on Sunday for one much earlier in the day since for Sunday the reasonable prediction was much colder and heavy rain all day, and thus far our three visits to NYC had involved much living in the streets, walking, eating, watching, strolling, gazing. We’d had our Starbucks coffees and croissants in Bryant Park on the usual teetering pastoral green chairs and wobbly table while reading the New York Times, then succeeded in the exchange ($120 extra), taken the subway up, and entered the Park at 76th and found ourselves in the Ramble.

A lovely thick green lake with people rowing beckoned, so we got on that path, and following the stones I thought I saw a fake (stone sculptures very small) set of 4 turtles sitting very still on some stone or log. In Alexandria, where we live there are fake ducks in some of the ponds so life-like you think they are bobbing for fish. We came up to the log and I thought I saw one of the turtles move its head. Nothing unexpected. Often in Alexandria I see real live ducks come up to the fake ones. But then a much smaller size turtle began to climb the log. It struggled to pull up, and almost fell back, but somehow held out and heave-ho, up it got. Then I saw another turtle on the log appear to squiggle in response, and realized the whole lot of them were alive. This new medium-sized one, then four adults, each with a flipper on the others, and finally a very tiny baby turtle, at first hidden by the mother and facing another way.

We had happened on turtle pond. Over across the other side, nests of turtles.

I don’t know how long we walked, it was such a beautiful morning, in the 70s, sunny, breezy. We passed by some area where people were bird-watching: cameras, binoculars, special outfits, alert-looking with books all announced this. One man smiled from a bench and said hello as we passed.Past a playground named after its benefactor (the one with the three-bears statue) took us to the piazza before the Met museum and we went in.

It’s a vast people’s playground nowadays. We tried two of the exhibits and found one was done from a curator’s perspective (the Bernini clay models a vast distance from the blown up photos of the spectacular installation art (so to speak) everywhere in Rome, another mindless (how people love to fake photographs with no sense of what this implies). On the roof this Escher contraption for which one has to get a timed-ticket. So we visited a couple of favorite places — a room of Hubert Roberts badly hung and badly in need of cleaning amid the formal detritus, all uncomfortable to live in, of the super-rich 1% of ancien regimes (“period rooms”). This day for a time the museum, with its continual atavastic scary animal-like bizarre gods (a middle eastern room) and high hierarchical (wealthy, war-like) subjects (everywhere), reminded us how 90% of art has ever been deplorable.

Jim joked to a guard, where is the nearest elevator. He not getting it, I said “we want to get out.” “Get out!” the astonished man smiled. “Don’t we love it here?” I excused myself that my feet were hurting and I am old. He pointed to a corridor leading to stairs and an elevator.

I don’t mean to say it was all loss. A few good moments here and there. The Hubert Roberts. A Reynolds of a small woebegone young boy aristocrat not yet trained out of his humanity. And Marianne Dorothy Harland (1759–1785), Later Mrs. William Dalrymple by Richard Cosway (English, Okeford 1742–1821 London), which used to be exhibited as A Lady with Harp:

Bad picture, absurd posture, showing off what luck had thrown the young woman’s way (as long as she obeyed all materialistic and rank demands), it had nonetheless caught my attention because of the title (I thought of Austen’s Mary Crawford, of Mansfield Park fame), and when we went over what did we notice but that 200 years ago people were providing pods for cats to curl up in — just the way our scared-y cat Ian loved to. The thought crossed our minds that in this era only rich cats might have this luxury, but then when over an hour later we happened on a museum-school we had never heard of before, the National Academy Museum, and went inside to view its collection, we came across an American picture with a perhaps not quite so rich little girl and lo and behold near her feet, a cat curling up in a more home-made pod.

We’ve become very fond our our two pussycats and as a consequence stronger animal lovers, more alert to the presence of cats than we’ve ever been before and to how others treat them and other animals too. I’m convinced we were too young when we had our dog, Llyr, and were not sensitive enough to her presence and needs.

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We spent 5 days & nights to NYC, the first full day of which I had attended a Burney conference, and the second morning I was with a long-time (constant) Janeite friend and her son. I’ll blog about the conference separately on Austen reveries. Herewith is another travelogue, a record of Jim and my good times together away from home. And again our choice was the exhilarating tolerant good city.

For the first time ever we bought ahead for all 4 evenings plays we wanted to see. The last three times we’d been back to the city this year and last year too we had had some good times, but managed never to see even one serious play. A combination of family emergencies & tragedy, the reasons we had come to the city, and just plain bad luck had got in the way: nothing on at half-price tickets we wanted to see or there between times when the opera or ballet is on or when the Delacorte did one of its marvelous performances of Shakespeare and other plays.

So we determined to make up for lost time. After Obama’s empty-chair indifferent performance against an exultant bully-boy Romney, we needed their inspiriting rebelliousness. How do New York City’s stages differ from those of DC, Virginia, & Maryland? Well, with no effort and on particular aim to see anything closely commenting on the political and economic catastrophe wreaked on the world for the last 30 years by a succession of US reactionary militaristic regimes and all their allies, client states, collusive victims and flunkies, three of the four did just that, and the fourth was not far off.

I’ll begin with the most magnificent and powerful of the lot, the great Brian Friel’s Freedom of the City, at the Irish Repertory Theater, on 22nd and 6th (not far from where Jim and I lived for well over a year — 22nd and 10th)


Joseph Sikora as Skinner dressed up in the Mayor’s robes, Napoleonic hat on head, cavorting about on the Guildhall

The play’s occasion was the slaughter of 13 people when on January 30, 1972 British soldiers shot down a peaceful civil rights march in Derry, Ireland (“Bloody Sunday” it became known as). The Commission and judges set up to investigate found no one responsible, no soldier or officer was tried or even disciplined. Only in the last 10 years has another enquiry been set on foot which reversed the findings of the early court and the Tory PM apologized.

Way too late. One of the awarenesses Friel’s play brings home to the audience is the three people who in the play stumble by mistake and panic into the guildhall will never be brought back. Nothing can ever undo what was done nor make up for it. The fantasy elaboration is to put before us three characters, Michael, an embittered young seemingly permanently unemployed man who longs to live a productive self-respecting life with wife, children, goals, good work; Lily, an impoverished mother of 11 living in a condemned shack behind a railway, with no hope of any improvement in her life or for that of her family (she has had no access to contraception), and a loner outsider, Skinner, refusing to be coopted into, or justify the stupefying displacements and compromises the other two seem silently to accept — all the while endlessly talking. These three inside are interwoven with the cold impassive judge coming to his inexorable conclusion they are dangerous armed terrorists, using the evidence of a constable, and a psychiatrist; a ludicrous professor with her deconstructionist understandings; a reporter. Hovering over them the British soldiers armed, in camouflage outfits, with terrifying weapons at the ready. I reread the play tonight and was so moved. I can’t find any reviews so link in just the wikipedia article on the play itself.

At the Booklyn Academy of Music The Paris Commune, a Cabaret by Steven Cosson and Michael Friedman as directed by Steven Cosson. BAM is now made up of 3 (!) theaters: beyond the opera house, this modernistic building with its black box, and another I saw across a parking lot disguised as a green park.

Most people seem not to have heard of this bloody slaughter, much less know that as many people were killed by the French military in this 4 month period as were murdered in the 1792 Fall Terror so often detailed as a peculiarly horrific occasion in order to indite the French revolution. Basically what happened was the people of Paris took over the gov’t of France and for a time succeeded in holding on and beginning to reform and plan a sort of new deal (separation of church and state, no night work, pensions, remission of rents, ease of debts). This time it did not take the armies of four countries (England, Prussia, Spain and Russia united to defeat Napoleon’s armies) to crush and slaughter the rebellion.


Daniel Jenkins as the baker

Cosson and Friedman present the incident by a combination of rousing songs, actively rebellious character types in soliloquies and scenes interspersed with (ironic) songs of a soprano (Offenbach) and citizen types (baker and his wife, seamstress, politician). Everyone had to work very hard to give us a sense of a large crowd in frenetic activity. The language at the end and final song made the parallels with our own time and the recent destruction of the Occupy movement in the US and elsewhere.


Cock: the title refers as much to the staging of the play (in an apt cock-pit) as the lead actor’s penis

Cock by Mike Bartlett has (I think) an unfortunate title. It is not at all pornographic, not salacious: I took it to be the playing out of the lives of three unlucky people involved with a self-indulgent bisexual young man, John (Cory Michael Smith): M (Jason Butler Harner) the unfortunate male lover who supports him in a fantastically expensive apartment in London, W (Amanda Quaid), a young woman he meets and brings to a dinner cooked by M; and John’s father, F (Cotter Smith) who wants his son to marry and produce grandchildren. The acting is superb, controlled; I didn’t find it funny but rather poignant, a stinging representation of relationships endured under the circumstances and pressures of our era.


The two brothers confronting one another with Kathleen McKenny as Katherine, Dr Stockmann’s wife, as moderating influence

The least exhilarating (the proscenium stage realism creaks) and yet most directly relevant and at moments suddenly so eloquent was the fully (elaborately) staged Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People in a new translation by Rebecca Lenkiewicz in an elegant Broadway theater, formerly the Biltmore now called the Manhattan Theater club (probably the first time Jim and I had been to Broadway in years). The acting was again superb, minor and major roles, but especially Boyd Gaines as Dr Stockman who has discovered the water of the town is contaminated, and Richard Thomas as his brother, Peter, a politician. Reviews have been rightly excellent (see highlights). I just wished that the central speech was not against what the majority wants or needs. Ibsen’s language derives from his own rebellion against the restrictive social mores of his country and class when what is on the minds of US people today is a political and economic and military oligarchy enforcing vast capitalist profits for a very few at the expensive of the decent lives and the earth itself for everyone else.

The four theaters were all just about filled. We also in the DC area do not have a population which goes to the theater like this. To be fair, we are talking about millions living in, close to, or near Manhattan, while in my area we have suburban distances to travel and theater is scattered across the area. This matters.

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What else did we do?


Mickalene Thomas: this tiger cat image conveys some of the glittery texture of her work

We made it to the Brooklyn Museum for the first time in a few years, and were fascinated by Mickalene Thomas’s determined reversal images of much French impressionistic and white male art in The origin of the Universe: she replaces the white men & women with black women, and her pictures of the natural world and art in-doors sparkle with glitter and bold colors. It’s true that central to her project is supposed shock, but what has not been emphasized anywhere I can see is there is a story she tells here: of her and her mother’s supportive relationship (many of her pictures are of her mother), of her mother’s hard life (one where she endured physical abuse in a coerced marriage for many years). If you go, you’ll find this one touching rather than just about hard success. We again saw Judy Chicago’s Dinner Party, some favorites in the American collection (new ones brought up) and the kind of odd new art (like a covered wagon made out of Christmas lights) found everywhere in active museums nowadays. There is a real attempt at the Brooklyn to mirror its surrounding population’s history and culture too. We were too tired to go very far into the Botanical Gardens once again.

We did, though really look at some some 300 out of 7000 [!] pictures said to be owned at the National Academy of Art. We just happened on the place later in the afternoon. A thin townhouse, its sign for an exhibit of self-portraits by women artists caught my eye, and we went in. It was like a trip through the history of American academic art, and quite revealing it was — we spent 2 hours there. Modernity and women’s art first hit these people around 1970, but they are making up for lost time. I now know what one of my favorite modern artists, Jane Freilicher looks like. Unfortunately, the feel of the place is exclusive, the behavior of some of its patrons snobbish, and online they don’t share much. By contrast, the Neue Galleries make the experience comfortable for all, even non-members. (This business of membership is creating little coteries — one is now found on the fourth floor of the Metropolitan museum.)

I won’t omit Lord and Taylor’s flagship store. Everyone who looks like they have money enough to spend is welcome. It too is filled with lovely art: really nice women’s clothes (probably men’s too) galore set out beautifully. I discovered that just like Kohl’s, L&T today indulges in putting prices on garments they don’t mean. When you get to the cash-register you just may find (not always) several different sales at once. The styles, choice, price and help everywhere account for the store becoming filled by the time Jim and I left. I bought myself a new fall jacket — and when we got back to the Princeton threw out my now ragged black one. Bras, a warm hat, neat thin woolen elegant gloves. I had to restrain myself not to go for more.

And we didn’t miss bookstores. At the Strand I got myself a new edition of a new translation of Lampedusa’s masterpiece, Il Gattapardo (complete with new introduction, notes, appendices), a new volume of Leopardi, a pleasurable and not too untrue anthology of bellestristic essays on Central Park (well chosen and inroduced by Andrew Blauner), a novella by Wm Dean Howells, A Sleep and a Forgetting, I’d never heard of.

Jim did not buy himself any new clothes nor books. I should perhaps have labelled this blog good or magical moments from our celebratory time away: Jim’s 64th birthday (yes we sang the Beatles’ song) and our 44th wedding anniversary. He seemed content to be open to experience, have it accessible, among the endless stream of people, seemingly sleepless once you go outside, staying again at the Princeton, enjoying what we did, being alive together at liberty. We ate out in fancy restaurants two different evenings, once Italian, and (recommended) once French (a place called the Marseille). We inhabited the bar for a time each night, and twice were content just to dine on its snacks, and sometimes talking with the other like-minded circumstanced inmates.

As I trundled my bag behind me on our way home through the tunnel and a narrow space where another person was standing I said to her, “I don’t want to hit your feet” so she smiled obligingly moved them.

Ellen

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