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A photograph from a New York City production

Friends,

This is my second blog honoring or remembering what Martin Luther King told us. I went to see The Humans last week at the Kennedy Center, and I saw The Gabriels last early January at the Kennedy Center. Both brought over from NYC, with somewhat changed casts. These two plays expose what has happened to the middle class in the US since the values and norms King stood for, the kinds of laws and social and racial and economic programs he would have passed have not been passed or have been rescinded, and what there was of social progress is now being further corroded –the realistic stories of Stephen Karam’s The Humans and Richard Nelson’s The Gabriels (see my review) are true to US life and measure the deterioration and impoverishment inflicted on the US population at large by its wealthy masters (corporations, individual very wealthy people and their obedient politicians).

The Humans and The Gabriels hold up mirrors to the destruction of the lower and middle middle class white family that has been let to happen in the past quarter of a century; The Humans shows the process at our later stage, the results of the Trump regime’s past year re-enforcement and acceleration. The Humans is a sort of speeded-up imitation of The Gabriels, shorter, one play with no intermission rather than three plays over three nights. The Humans are on the edge of bankruptcy and a need for welfare that no longer exists, for supplemental benefits and unemployment insurance; they have not fallen off as yet, but only two have jobs. The Gabriels are in better shape, all but the aging mother have jobs, no matter how menial, or an income, widow’s pension; they can afford to keep an tangential extra relative, a single woman (a stray type familiar to most older women in our society); the first wife of the widow’s husband (she the daughter of the one older couple) rents the widow’s attic. This single woman is very nervous waiting for a male date to show up; he never does. The Gabriels have lost the larger family home but still own the cottage we find them in. The Humans will soon all be in small apartments; the Gabriels (it’s the family name) come from such summer people made permanent and people once the servants of the super-rich. The Gabriels are probably better off because of this previous history of stability.


The set of The Humans

Taking Karam’s family, the Blakes, to be a sort of continuation of Nelson’s Gabriels, we might say the situation has become much more desperate, though both sets of people are grim as they face a bleak, opportunity-less future. In The Humans, there is a young heterosexual couple living together (not married) in an apartment which has been put together from the first floor of a broken down pair of rooms, one turned into a kitchen (not meant to be) and a make-shift iron stairwell down to a basement room. The couple invite the young woman’s family there for Thanksgiving dinner. The young woman is one of two daughters; the other comes too, and it emerges she’s a lesbian whose partner has left her and whom she phones at least once (perhaps more than that as she keep running out of sight, upstairs, into the bathroom). She has been abandoned and hurt emotionally and since she was economically partly dependent on her partner, she has had to move back with her parents very temporarily.

Kasam’s Blake parents are near retirement age (the central couple was just this age group in The Gabriels) and the Blakes bring an older woman who is the mother of the husband and demented, but they can’t afford to put her in a assisted living where she’d be treated terribly anyway. Probably die. She has a violent fit at one point and he has to subdue her. Nelson’s Gabriels also includes an Aged female P, but there is money to put her in better assisted living though not truly decent and at a very high cost which is stretching her son and his wife’ resources. In the case of The Gabriels, the family house has been lost, because the older woman fell for a deceptive scheme which seemed to promise her endless money and that she would never lose the house; she become a life-tenant in it, but the fine print allowed the new owner to throw her out. And he has. It was a bank-engineered scam she grabbed at because she couldn’t make her house payments. In neither case does the society help at all. In the US society allows such egregious theft to happen with impunity.


Yet another production where you can see how a situation comedy can be emerging

I felt that The Humans is not as good a play, though it got some very high praise in some reviews. At moments it edged towards situation comedy, obvious eliciting of laughter at mainstream predicaments. The use of cell phones signaled this. The laughter might have been the audience: I found myself not in the Theater Lab (where Izzy and I saw Twisted Dickens two weeks ago was as well as me The Gabriels last January), but the big Eisenhower theater, and while not every seat was taken, many were, and I was in the 2nd balcony. (I sometimes can’t tell where I’ve bought a seat — I don’t focus my mind on practicalities.)

So you had an audience who wanted to laugh comfortably; somehow the average person sniffs out mediocrity and then reinforces it by inane reactions. The Gabriels did take more effort to understand (there is much more there); you really should go all three times, though like Ayckbourn’s Norman Conquests decades ago, you don’t have to see them in the correct order.

The subtitle of The Gabriels is Election Year during the Life of One Family. Interwoven were comments about the election where Clinton was running against Trump. That meant naturally they debated some of the issues; and that included health care for older people, and (surprisingly) foreign policy because so much of their high tax bill went to pay for wars. Why are there no young men in the Gabriel set? because one man has left his wife for a younger woman and to avoid the pressures of a bigger family to answer to; others connected to the family have died or been destroyed by drugs. In The Humans outside politics is never brought up nor is there an attempt at explanation as to why most of the characters they talk of and all of them are women but two.

Hungry
Public Theatre
LuEster
HUNGRY
Written and Directed by Richard Nelson
Featuring Meg Gibson, Lynn Hawley, Roberta Maxwell, Maryann Plunkett, Jay O. Sanders, and Amy Warren
Sets & Costumes Susan Hilferty
Lighting Jennifer Tipton


The humor of the Gabriels results from the character’s deep talk to one another, not superficial guffaws

The art of The Humans needs improvement too. The desperation of the individuals in The Humans and each of their stories is not brought out slowly over many hours (as in Nelson’s 3 plays worth of time) but suddenly in the second half of the second act the calamities were admitted to and piled on towards the end — a series of sudden revelations, that felt like distress upon distress. The Blake father has lost his long-time job just before he was eligible for his pension; the excuse was a one-time affair with a fellow teacher. I should say this is nothing new: my father’s mother in the 1980s was 2 years away from retirement from many years as a cleaning and forced out so deprived of her pension; my uncle (my mother’s sister’s husband) had to endure 10 years of deliberate very hard work than he’d had before to hold on to actually get that pension; he just managed it. So these retired parents are selling their house in Pennsylvania, which they bought because it was inexpensive but now they can get less for it than they paid. The Blake daughter making the Thanksgiving has no job. They are living in a slum like street, in an apartment somehow to the back of a store. The mother works (glad to get out of the house).


The Gabriels’ table, dishes

You might say we can measure the distance the middle class has declined since last year in furniture, dishes, and appliances. The characters in The Humans sit on plastic and metal folding tables; their meal is half-ass stuff, much of it fast food, not cooked much as their stove is minimal. Their dishes are plastic cups and they use rubber as central places to put the food out on. The Gabriels had a leftover lovely round wooden table and ate decent food decently cooked in a good stove on set of real dishes. The Humans are dependent on cab services to go all the way to Pennsylvania from NYC. The Gabriels have two cars — their immediate area is one without much public transportation — as is true of much of the US.

The Humans can be cheated some more at the close because instead of a small car, which they ordered, a van comes. The Gabriels live in an ex-summer middle class community; now the people who used to come are fewer, and the super-rich taking all back. Outside the young Blake couple’s apartment they see a cement area, called an “interior courtyard.” The Blakes have bars on the windows.

It should be said that what The Humans had was much more open anguish. The Gabriels are still committed to decorum, and The Gabriels had sub-theme: the suffering of widows, of women left single alone. If The Humans meant to defend an older man accused of sexual transgression, it never did; the father-older husband told his story, apologized profusedly to all in the room (his wife is not there) and that’s all there was to that. What was hurting or mattered was he now had no pension. His wife does keep nagging her daughter to marry her partner but nowhere it is said she should do this to be marginally economically safer. It was apparently just this parroted-prejudice.

My older daughter tweeted the other day all her friends are worse off this year than last; some have lost their jobs. She did not say she is worse off because I gather she is making as much money literally as she did one year ago (but not two years before that where she made twice a much), but she has no pension, no health care except through ACA and is paid by the hour week-by-week in the supposed secure job she works at.

It is now commonplace in the US for people working full time to have no pension, no health, and no paid vacation leave. Fewer people going to college. Who can have a dream of joyful fulfillment now? Least of all those about to be deported to nowhere at all after building a world for themselves and families for decades.

No film I’ve seen in theaters comes near the truthfulness of The Humans or the subtlety of The Gabriels. Real family life in the US today. I ordered the stage plays of The Gabriels the night I came home from The Humans. Nelson’s play seems to be the kind of fertile pool of art that other plays can build upon — the way Tennesse Williams and Arthur Miller’s plays at mid-century were.

Ellen


Nicola Paget as Anna Karenina in the snow when she is still falling in love with Vronsky (1977 BBC AK)

Friends and readers,

Two summers ago our Trollope and his Contemporaries listserv on Yahoo (Trollope19thCstudies@yahoogroups.com) began nearly 6 months r reading Tolstoy’s War and Peace together, and a few of us watched just some of the many movies made. And to remember it, & make some of the conversations available to others, I blogged on all these. We thought it such a success and enjoyed it so that we repeated ourselves over Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina,starting this past Indian summer. We took less time, 4 months to be accurate; instead of some 1400 pages, we had a book of over 800. We posted less: perhaps the issues of adultery, erotic enthrallment, marital and sexual conflict, class disdain, are less comfortable subjects to exchange thoughts about than sequences of war and sequences about the society that supports this. Although the list of Anna Karenina movies is longer than than that of War and Peace movies, I watched fewer. None had the reputation the War and Peace movies had.

Yet the experience was comparable. I had listened to the book read aloud once before looking at the book as I went along and years ago tried to read it on my own. This with a group was the first time I really read the book slowly and truly. I finished both books with the same group of people convinced they are great literary masterpieces in the novel tradition, and yet have fundamental inescapable flaws: for War and Peace, Tolstoy wants to write history and persuade the reader experience human experience is providential (controlled by some divine purpose); in Anna Karenina he cannot get himself to enter into the full emotional range of motives or sexual experience of verboten adultery, and sees marital experience far more from the point of view of sexual satisfaction and practical money support than genuine mindful understanding and compatible interests.

Again it was the 1970s BBC version of the book that seemed to me the soundest, giving enough time for complexity: the 1977 AK written by Ken Taylor, directed by Donald Wilson, featuring Eric Porter, Nicola Paget, Stuart Wilson — Wilson gave us the 1967-68 Forsyte Saga; and Taylor, the 1987 Jewel in the Crown respectively — compared to the 1972 BBC War and Peace, a Jack Pulman product, featuring Anthony Hopkins, Morag Hood, Frank Middlemass (to name just three). Both books had also prompted comparable recent film adaptations which brought out the disquieting transgressions and marginalized people’s (women mostly) point of view, the 2015 War and Peace scripted Andrew Davies, featuring James Norton, Lily James, Brian Cox (limiting myself to 3), the 2012 Anna Karenina, directed by Joe Wright, scripted by Tom Stoppard (no less),featuring (as usual with Joe Wright, Keira Knightley, Jude Law and Matthew Macfayyen). Here is a list of all the AK films I know of for those interested.

The parallels between the character types in both books, and the contrasts of their ultimate fates are striking. Both books open with an astonishingly persuasive portrait of a central male, in W&P Pierre Bezukhok, a self-doubting socially awkward, yet brilliantly aware character of great integrity; in AK, Oblonsky, known as the contrasting Stiva, Anna’s insouciant socially skilfully comical conventional (unless you have to live with him), utterly amoral, a careless adulterer. Some of us loved the opening skating scene in AK between Tolstoy’s troubled man of integrity, Levin and the girl he eventually marries, Kitty (in type close to the W&P Natasha). The opening two chapters on the Scherbatsky family: this group is the equivalent of Natasha and Rostov family. Very early we see Vronsky will be an inadequate lover-companion for Anna’s need once she defies society to go and live apart with him, Karenin, her aging husband, originally deeply well-meaning, will be unable to flex in a modern amoral environment, and punish them all. Stiva’s long-suffering wife, Dolly who is counseled by Anna to stay with him, and consequently endures yet more wretched years until he finally cannot pay her way, is contrasted to Anna who chooses not to stay, and ends in a tragic obsessively self-destroying life and death.

The issues outside the book we talked of again that are textual include the insoluble problem of and access translations provide. It matters which other language you read the book in and which translation. I found for myself the Maude War and Peace captured the rich texture of the original War and Peace in English, yet a mid-century French translation by Elisabeth Guertik was yet better. For Anna Karenina, the simpler P&V was what was wanted to reach that interior life so crucial to AK, and I just didn’t have, didn’t have time for a French translation (much to my regret as this theme is Writ large in great originally French novels, e.g., Madame de Lafayette’s La Princess de Cleves). I found Tony Tanner’s Adultery in the Novel, which I hoped much from, a disappointment, and we dialogued over this (see comments).

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Eric Porter as Karenin when Anne is trying to tell him she loves Vronsky (1977 BBC AK)

Sex and Marriage

About half-way through Diane Reynolds wrote that she had been reading Joel Fassler’s collection of essays, Light the Dark: Writers on Creativity, Inspiration, and the Artistic Process; Mary Gaitskill had written there of how she felt inspired by Anna’s deeply felt impulsive cry after coming near death in childbirth (from a pregnancy by Vronsky), and begging the returned Karenin to forgive her — that she has two selves, and her real self is the presence who pleaded with Karenin to return to him, while the self in love with Vronsky (we know loathes sex with her husband, Karenin) is “another woman in me, I’m afraid of her,” someone she “cannot forget, the one who is not me.” Stoppard picks up the importance of this scene and moment and has Keira Knightley as Anna say

“Oh, my dear [to Karenin] don’t look at me like that. I am not the one you think. I’m afraid of her, She fells in love with another man. I’m the real one. But I’m dying now, then she’ll be dead too. Poor man! [meaning Vronsky?] Let him come in. Alexis! Alexis!”

Now it’s not clear which Alexis as that is both their names. This might startle some readers were they to pay attention. Our modern predilection is to see the coerced self as the married women, not the fleeing one. Once Anna recovers in Wright/Stoppard’s film, she behaves like a hateful tigress to Jude Law as Karenin. In the 1977 BC AK Eric Porter captures the feel of a Karenin who wants to love and to forgive, to bring Anna’s daughter by Vronsky up as his own, but before the onslaught of society’s scorn for him, and her behavior, is puzzled, hurt, cold and finally subject to religious delusions invented by a woman who flatters and soothes him. All the Vronskys in the films I saw were true to the book as they tried to but could not be content with Anna. Tolstoy’s Vronsky needs social prestige, to be active and admired in the world, to be integrated as a landowner and his society will not permit this as long as he lives openly unmarried with Anna.

One reading is that Tolstoy thus indicts society for twisting the characters and/or refusing to understand and act with empathy. Another is Anna is turned into this another dark self as in Robert Louis Stevenson’s explanation for Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde: a doppelganger, a motif for expressing an atavistic self underneath our civilized selves, perhaps an amoral self whose appetites take over at night, or a sick self in reaction to the society that married a young innocent woman off to Karenin who has learned to dislike sexuality with him (this is not that far from Tolstoy in his Kreutzer’s Sonata. Yet Anna’s real self is that of a mother too; she misses her son truly; does not want a divorce if this means permanent separation from him. She does or can not understand that once she has left her husband, she will never have her boy back.

In the novel Anna’s frantic visit to her son once she and Vronsky return to Moscow: early in the morning, at dawn practically, laden with gifts, preceded by two scenes: the first of Seyozha with his Slav tutor, Vassily Lukich, and his especial friend, the hall porter, Kapitonych. He is presented as happy but nervous, proud of his father for winning awards for his gov’t work on behalf of the people of Russia; underneath is stress (he cannot bear the religious woman Lydia, whom he is sent to): he has not learnt the lesson, he cannot learn it, but no one presses him. The father comes, means to show affection, but is so cold and hard because the boy cannot produce the answers. We are told it’s not that he’s stupid or didn’t read the passages, they just mean nothing. He has been told his mother is dead and we are told also he refuses to believe it. Then Anna’s visit: disguised, how she is not let in at first, how the servant disobeys what he knows is wanted, and stands up for this because Anna never was unkind to him ever. In the end the child is confused, he is punished for not knowing his lesson; all the better he thinks, he can stay with his tutor, they build windmills. All he wants to do is forget her. The word love is used of all Anna’s feeling towards her son repeatedly; she says she is worthless (note that) and her husband a good man but when she encounters her husband fleeing his own house, all she feels are spite and hatred.

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Stuart Wilson as Ferdinand Lopez in Phineas Redux (1974 Pallisers, scripted Simon Raven): there is a closely similar shot of him as Vronsky (1977 BBC AK)


Frederick March played Vronsky in the 1935 AK with Greta Garbo as Anna (his is the strongest performance)

In reading the book, its story is so familiar and the types Tolstoy’s characters correspond to are superficially and functionally in the story part of commonplace moral lessons or protests so the reader is in danger of understanding what he or she is reading in stereotypical framed ways. It’s reading the details that bring out what makes it alive, thought- and feeling-provoking, original and effective. Vronsky as a character suffers a lot here: he is often underestimated, dismissed as a shallow cad, utterly egoistic; in some of the films he is treated this way too.

For example, after Vronsky and Anna’s first erotic encounter at the train station, Vronsky visits Stiva and when he learns Anna is there, he tries to flee. Yet he wanted to see her again intensely. The narrator says: “he raised his eyes, saw her, and something ashamed and frightened appeared in his expression;” then when Stiva tries “loudly” to usher Vronsky in, we are told his was a “soft, gentle and calm voicing … declining.” Anna blushes and thinks she understands why he came to Stiva’s and and then didn’t come in. But all she says is “he thought it was late.” At the dance it is Kitty’s jealous POV which thinks “Anna was drunk with the wine of rapture she inspired”. It’s not the admiration of the crowd, Kitty thinks, “but the rapture of one man. Each time he spoke with Anna, her eyes flashed with a joyful light and a smile of happiness curved her red lips.” Vronsky “wishes to fall down before” Anna, and “in his glance there was only obedience and fear.” His glance seems to say he wants “to save himself:” “There was an expression on his face that she had never seen before” There’s an “irrepressible tremulous light in [Anna’s] eyes and [her] smile burned him as she said it.” Then it’s the narrator and Anna who “feel themselves alone and this crowded ballroom.” Again from Kitty on Vronsky’s face “that expression of lostness and obedience that had so struck her, like the expression of an intelligent dog when it feels guilty”. Kitty finds “something alien and demonic” in Anna. Earlier Kitty had seen that Anna was “serious,” had a “sad expression” on her face; “in her some other higher world of interests, inaccessible to her, complex and poetic.” We should recall that Vronsky grieves in mortification when Anna loves Karenin during the childbirth, and shoots himself in the chest afterwards, does attempt to remain faithful to Anna until her crazed needy vulnerability hazes him ceaselessly for a peace of mind (“repos” in French) not in him to give himself, much less anyone else.

For several other nuanced close readings across the book see the Trollope and his Contemporaries archives.

After the lovers flee, Vronsky is intensely desirous to believe he and Anna will be accepted and to do all he can to promote this. He needs this. He tries his sister-in-law but she says she can’t visit them; the sleazy amoral Betsy comes stays briefly and offers a return visit at a specific time, Anna knows that means that Betsy will set up the evevning so that no one who matters will be there, and says, that is precisely the time she cannot come (this is kept in the 1977 BBC AK), and Betsy sends a note she is sorry she will not see Anna and Vronsky before they leave.

Key incidents in the Vronsky threads:

Before he and Anna consummate their love at the racrtrack. First, where Vronsky goes into the stable to look at his prize horse. It seems to me the mood of the felt detail makes an analogy with Anna, and the way Vronsky rouses, pets, and soothes the horse is analogous to the we are to imagine he rouses, pets and soothes Anna. Emphasis is laid elsewhere on how calm and gentle he can be and still convey physical strength. Calm down, calm down he says to the horse. Tolstoy enters into the consciousness of the horse without having to make thoughts for it: lean head, shining merry eyes, nose widening, flaring. The English jockey tells Vronsky too he must not be upset when he rides – and he does become upset because Karenin (I half remember) shows up and Anna must move to her husband’s place.

It’s a very subtle far more carefully version of what Trollope shows us in Burgo Fitzgerald vis-a-vis Lady Glencora Palliser. Trollope is coarses, not as subtle — Burgo will mistreat the horse, pressure it too much despite his fondness for it – -the fondness is seen as a distance as about what it’s worth (the money).

Most of the time I’m bored by Trollope’s scenes of racing horses, hunting, but not here. Tolstoy has filled the scene of Vronsky with his cronies and then at the races and especially close up to his horse, Frou-frou — what a name. It resonates sexually, trivializng femininity. Tolstoy seems to be able to come close into realities of the presences, man, horse, the interaction of people. I suggest we are to feel that Vronsky has last his “cool” because for the first time in his life he is truly emotionally engaged with someone (Anna) and this spills over into the rest of his life .He cares more if he wins or loses, or he cares differently. A deep relationship between the man and the animal is felt. Then when it lays there all quivering and he must kill it, have murdered this horse. I suggest the horse can stand in for Anna too. She is becoming herself nervous, losing her calm and I would say unjustly and unfairly hates her husband. But before we exculpate Vronsky into a man of sensibility, notice how he kicks the horse. I felt that as a shock. We are to bond with this poor creature driven to race for these selfish aristocrats.

From the talk we can gather that there was an anti-hunting, anti-racing group of people — this is a circus spectacle.

After they have run away, had the child, gone to live together in Italy, found it impossible there and in the country and return to Moscow:

The humiliating incident in the theater — dramatized (like the horse race where Vronsky loses, shoots his horse dead, and Anna exposes her attachment to all). Vronsky’s mother’s exultation. Vronsky’s military mates act to accept Anna and to support him but it’s not enough. He rushes back after her and they have this scene where he agrees they must leave immediately, it’s too painful and then is forced to say how much he loves her. But he is now intensely put off. He cannot stand her beauty. In the 1977 BBC film he is not alienated as yet, not hostile, and doesn’t become so until near the end. The word love is only used by the characters when it’s this frantic clinging emotion of Anna towards the first child which we are told was the result of her not loving its father, her husband; the baby girl she feels little for. Or when you no longer feel it as Vronsky doesn’t or are demanding it because you have lost your identity. But this is an anti-adultery reading. People living apart form society who have left partners can adjust, can feel love, do not crack so quickly and often it’s for other reasons than the adultery or separation (as in Tolstoy’s case).

Part of their misery is they are surrounded by hangers-on, phonies. The carelessly flirting male cousin Levin kicked out is here flirting with Anna — and note she doesn’t mind nor Vronsky. But he’s a mindless limpet. Princess Varvara – Stiva’s aunt — is there because she gets free meals and a place to live. She’s utterly phony another limpet. Then there’s the male counterpart to Betsy who we now know told Anna unless Anna is married she will not see her. These are people who simply hide their amoralities — like Vronsky’s mother. Anna bursts out about Betsy: “Au fond c’est la femme le plus deprave qui existe.” (Ruth Wilson enacts this to a T in the 2012 Wright/Stoppard film.)

Vronsky is trying for respect by building his hospital and going to meetings and begin a responsible landowner in the community. But it’s the social activity they share that somehow they fight over. We see it doesn’t satisfy him and the functionaries in the hospital are not good enough as guests. He wants the relationship legitimized, and his children legitimized. We feel he wants children. Anna must beg Karenin for a divorce: she finally bursts out she can’t stand the humiliation and thinks she would not get one. She also doesn’t want to give up her son. We see she is not able to love her daughter in these circumstances. She can’t indulge in “that inexhaustible intimate conversation” she says she longed for. She does say not an hour goes by but she doesn’t think of this divorce matter, doesn’t reproach herself. She then preys on Vronsky, asking him for what is not in him to give, full validation, companionship which looks nowhere else, and when he does not give it, she accuses him of not loving her, of betrayal and he breaks out in frustrated fury.

Stuart Wilson played the part in the 77 series and also Ferdinand Lopez in the film adaptation of The Pallisers — we are going to be watching that one all spring — whether 24 or 26 episodes, it’ll take us into summer. One can do that with films. Transfer one actor into another film or book: Wilson played a type that included Vronsky, Lopez (a hard mean man in the novel) and a cold predatory cad in The Raj Quartet who lures Sarah to go to bed with him, challenges her and when she’s pregnant her mother insists on an abortion. He was tall dark and handsome, very thin. A critic made fun of this type in Jeremy Irons: tall, thin and tortured is the way women viewers like this hero type. Is it still the fashion somewhere? or are characters made too hard?

In the aftermath to Anna’s suicide Tolstoy avoids Vronsky at first and sets it two months later: we only see him from the outside. Well the last shot of Wilson as Lopez show his face in a frozen horrified look, so dark and brooding are his eyes. I’ve not forgotten that moment in the mini-series: it’s the last shot of that episode. I now transfer the look of Wilson’s face to Vronsky in the novel by Tolstoy. In the film adaptation we never see Vronsky again after he drives off in his carriage. I thought they did that because they ran out of time and didn’t have enough for a 11th episode and hadn’t planned one. The look in his face could also be Anna’s look as the train comes hurtling at her.

I will talk of Eric Porter’s performance as Karenin in the 1977 BBC production and Jude Law in the 2012 film as in both cases these conceptions and actors went beyond even the brilliance of the book.

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Robert Swann as Levin and Caroline Langrishe as Kitty ice-skating (early joyous scene, 1977 BBC AK)

Some readers are led to find the Levin story superfluous (not connected to Anna) or not what they are reading for (no matter how dull utterly persuasive) as at the same time this story matter increasingly takes up much of the space of the novel. Levin is Tolstoy the way Pierre was Tolstoy; his ideal, again here when first met (and at the last) the nervous person who doesn’t fit in. When Levin returns to his home after his first attempt in the book to win Kitty, he is so relieved to be in a world he has created for himself. But this takes strength too — you must be satisfied by living in and on yourself, believe in your goals, which differ from others. When Levin first arrives, he thinks he can do it, but even with his housekeeper’s kindness and companionableness, the memories of the outside world are a continual leaking poison. For example he wanted Kitty and couldn’t have her, so he thinks another woman will do as well, but he soon gives that up. After his hard work on his farm, with his peasants, we get a paragraph about how “doubts, an eternal dissatisfaction with yourself, vain attempts to improve, and failures and an eternal expectation of happiness” elude him and make him have to strive to be at peace.

This is as important in life as eros. It’s how Levin differs from Vronsky in a deep way and why he’s a worthwhile human being. He has original depths, he has real feelings and thoughts; he need not in his behavior mirror society’s norms as he has examined them and found them wanting. I found Tolstoy’s depiction of the naturalness of the animals in this world of nature also such a relief. The calf that seeks its mother and wags its tale. I read this in context as showing (for Levin and me) how animals are superior to human beings with all their phony subtexts. I was startled but won over by how Tolstoy entered the consciousness of a dog.

The deeper truer point about Levin is not that he’s exemplary but struggling against other human beings who just don’t take anything seriously but their own appetites. So he can’t get his workers to work — even if he paid them more – -the way he would. He can’t get things done even if he does some of it because he needs the others to. In my life I’ve never been part of team really but can guess from very early projects in school with others how frustrating this is — why people appreciate those who will work. I’m impressed by how deeply into the sense of the realities of agricultural worlds Tolstoy gets — Hardy tries but does not reach this. The 2013 film adaptation Far from Madding Crowd tried to by showing us the actors/actresses in the fields close up working.

An opposition in the novel is those who feel deeply good humane emotions (Anna, her husband, Dolly, Kitty, Kitty’s father, Levin’s brother) someone with much self-thought (Agafa Mikhailovna) and the cold performative manipulative types (Vronsky, Stiva instinctively, Betsy): not everyone falls into these two types but close enough as a theme. His brother, Nikolai, is the vulnerable idealist whose ideals of equality do not extend to women; whether Tolstoy meant us to see they do not extend to people beneath his class whom he is in intimate contact with rather than women, his behavior shows that too. He’s in fact a frustrated domineer; yet unhappy because he does not know how to live out his communist ideals (the society leaves no room for him as some of us may have experienced it leaves no room for parts of us central to us that don’t fit in)

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Anna’s throwing herself under a train.


Vivian Leigh in the final sequence of the 1948 movie

Trains matter in the novel, are focused on — as well as the brilliant movie, The Last Stationby Jay Parini, with a good movie by Michael Hoffman I blogged about years ago.

It’s a long deeply eloquent pictorially realized sequence; the choice of words to capture her intensely depressed state of mind is to me perfect. There are many words about light and darkness. But mostly her mind goes over and over again the recent incidents that have led to Vronsky fleeing, and she backtracks to the whole situation they are in, and she has truthful accurate remarkable insights into how he feels about her, and why she is so tormented. I wrote too much at length in response to Light into Dark so I won’t go into these: we’ve covered them, e.g., he’s tired of her, resentful, angry at the situation; she keeps asking him for what he cannot give her, all his self and a whole reason to live. She is preying on him (she doesn’t put it this way).

Anna does not know what to do with herself. She asks her maid, what should she do? Vronsky will not come back to help her.

She feels her views are clinched when she visits Dolly for advice and comfort. Alas Kitty is there and immediately it’s clear Kitty does not want to see her as a stigmatized “wicked” women. Anna speaks plainly that she sees this so of course Dolly denies it, and Kitty comes out and we see Kitty immediately soften, be attracted to this still beautiful women, drop her jealousy and be kind. But it’s too late

Tolstoy captures the confusion of mind such a state encompasses and (to me most impressive) the kinds of bad thoughts that revolve through the mind. I’ve had psychiatrists ask me when I say I had bad thoughts all night, what kinds are these, could you tell me them and I can’t because it’s too embarrassing — they are like Anna’s and thus probably common as types: seeing everyone in the world as angry or unhappy or looking at you and despising you; interpreting everything as ugly, cruel, miserable, resolving to do things you know you can’t do or fix and you feel absurd and know you will be told this is skewed by someone’s else “rational” mind. One problem in the way Vivien Leigh enacted this one is she over-did, she was over-the-top neurotic and we had no over-voice to listen to her reasoning because it’s a form of reasoning that leads to a desire to escape the world. I now think Nicola Paget’s quiet enactment much closer. But what’s needed is voice-over, and quotation quite literal from the novel – this P&V translation is very good.

I suspect thus far every single movie has been too embarrassed, unwilling really to put this before us. Telling that Andrew Davies at any rare was willing to put before us a slow agonizing secular-like death. I wonder if he has the guts to put this death before us. The point that such a scene needs is suicide makes sense for Anna — as it made sense for Richardson’s Clarissa.

Anna’s suicide is so interior, so much an extended almost stream of conscious that it would be extremely difficult to convey what Anna is feeling. A voice over would have to be done very carefully and directly from Tolstoy in order not to drown the scene in bathos. A series of images flashing or firing through her mind as she heads toward the scene and perhaps slo mo flings herself in front of the train could work. Especially if we have seen them before, if they replayed distorted to be uglier, meaner, more nightmarish we would understand that, though not if it were overdone in any way. This is a place where the genres don’t mesh easily.

It’s a hard scene to film and all the movies struggle with it. In this case I thought the most successful the 1948 film directed by Julian Duvivier, scripted by him and Jean Anouilh with Vivian Leigh as Anna, Ralph Richardson as Karenin. Leigh was superb at enacting the neurotic (the heroine for A Streetcar named Desire, for The Roman Spring of Mrs Stone). There is a consciousness so deeply gone into when Tolstoy takes the plunge, we are persuaded we are experiencing life. In Phineas Redux where Wilson in the film as Ferdinand Lopez throws himself under a train, we similarly have a long extended stream of consciousness, about Lopez’s shame (he is killing himself like other males in Trollope who does this because they have lost their place in the world after being publicly humiliated — far worse than Mr Slope); Trollope’s novel gives us an astonishing paragraph of metaphor about being smashed to smithereens. Tolstoy stays longer and more resolutely still the character’s mind, until she realizes she doesn’t want to do but it’s too late to pull back. In Trollope’s Nina Balatka, the heroine is about to jump the Charles Bridge into the river and is pulled back by the arm by a friend (a Jewish Rebecca character), but she was hesitating and slightly moving into the “wait a minute” mode, but there was no train on top of her going at high speed.
All comparable achievements.

Film-makers hesitate at the voice-over; maybe they fear audiences will be put off by the emotionalism. It’s said by film critics it’s thought of as feminine, as too intellectual for the average movie-goer, but I love it. I think it makes the Outlander series far better and deeper because it is used so often (and the words taken literally from the book). I’ve been watching Bergman this week; he uses it all the time in his and often Woody Allen (who was much influenced) does it too. It would jar with the sudden train so there’s a media conflict.

Then the fiction switches to Levin until the end of the book …

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Tolstoy in his study (1891, Ilya Repin)

Which story was the afterthought? According to A.N. Wilson, Tolstoy began the book when he had experienced a prolonged period of depression, and been told the real life story of the mistress of a man who lived nearby and who had thrown herself under a train when he tired of her. Tolstoy poured his depression into Anna; Levin came as a relief. But together, they create a thickly felt set of realities, specially criss-crossed by Anna’s brother, Stiva, and his relationship to Levin’s wife’s sister, Dolly.

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Matthew MacFadyen stars as Oblonsky in director Joe Wright’s bold, theatrical new vision of the epic story of love, Anna Karenina, a Focus Features release. Credit: Laurie Sparham

Anna and Levin, heroine and hero; Dolly and Stiva, contrasts: another angle

Both Anne and Levin are characters of integrity, sensibility, who cannot quite fit in. Levin is given far more slack; Anna easily ends up outside this realm of safety and acceptance. Much of the later part of the novel is given over to the Levin group partly perhaps because Tolstoy cannot get inside Anna and Vronsky in the same way — he cannot believe that they are living in similar nuanced conditions. Everything must be overshadowed by their adulterous relationship, but in fact that didn’t have to be. Levin is overwhelmed by “frivolous” people and wishes he could escape. He is not presented as alienated as he might be — finally again Tolstoy is wholesome. To them of course this that they are expending their lives on is not frivolous; the trivia of existence – water in jam, picking mushrooms is what matters or how they live.

Stiva comes to visit Levin many times and Levin overjoyed because Stiva will sit and listen to him. He has so much to say in himself he’s no one to say it all to. I feel for him — again like Pierre in W&P, socially naive, but not putting himself out for others, working for himself whose proceeds he puts back into the land. Ironically Stiva is not really pleasant, it’s that he’s indifferent to all but himself. When Levin tries to elicit a response, Stiva’s half-listening because he wants to produce a speech on “political economy” (conservative laissez-faire politics for the sake of impressing others) not the rural experience Levin is describing. Levin exposes his concern for Kitty– for himself and Stiva’s off-hand discreet comment about how interesting “Ossianic women — women of dreams are” is him musing over the women he has affairs with. How cold his heart to others – -this warm man. Tolstoy conveys this and I remember the deep feeling Dolly.

The two plot-designs are drenched in deep sex, one about fucking (Anna, Vronsky, Karenin) and other about a woman’s body producing a child (Levin, Kitty, her family). We do know that these things don’t have to be on everyone’s mind. I thought too Levin’s memory of his brother’s death and his seeming lack of memory of his difference from this older brother worth noting.


Kelly MacDonald as Dolly (2012 Joe Wright AK)

Dolly, Oblonsky’s wife, Kitty’s sister. Dolly goes for a visit to Anna and Vronsky: of course it’s her POV, but she is deeply sympathetic even and has every reason (as her thoughts tell her for 3 hours on the way there) to reprehend everything about the way marriage is practiced in her society and wish she had done what Anna stopped her from doing: while she was still young enough, a couple of pregnancies before, she should have left Stiva she thinks, tried to divorce or separate herself. Then she might have had a chance to find someone who would truly love, care, protect her – – the way Levin is doing for Kitty. She has utterly unspeakable thoughts about motherhood. What does she get for it? a worn body “Nothing but trouble. No work, no nothing. Just bondage.” She resists this thought by saying to herself she can’t live without them now but they suck the life out of her. One of the most interesting moments in the text is silence — Anna reveals to Dolly something that is so shocking Tolstoy gives us ellipses. I surmised it’s some form of contraception physically; they use anal intercourse or some form of ejaculation where she’s not inseminated by him. Dolly is horrified but remembers other couples with just two children.

Why horrified? If she would suggest this to Stiva, he might go along? or would it interfere with his pleasures. The BBC 1977-78 does try to dramatize this hard material including Anna’s choosing not to have a child and Vronsky’s hard resentful response to this to Anna’s face. This is not in the book, for it seems Tolstoy cannot get himself to question endless pregnancies inflicted on women even if he sees how motherhood is such an ambivalent and sometimes destructive experience for women.

We move very slowly through all this experience, many many pages devoted to slowly seeing Vronsky and him finally opening to Dolly and ditto for Anna, and how at the end Dolly wants to escape and quickly. Vronsky is as good a manager as Levin or Karenin and good thing (though we wonder where he gets the money from — the house is an old family house-heirloom) for they are emotionally miserable at the gut level. Lovely envious surroundings do help is the moral here, but are not enough. Basically they are not enough for one another, and neither has some inner goal or vocation to make up for the loss of society. I would like to suggest there are such people since I think Jim and I were all-in-all but I have to admit in the same breathe we were married and lived conventionally enough to him to maintain a full time job in the fed gov’t of some responsibility.

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Ralph Richardson as Karenin, one of the politicking scenes (1948 AK)

Politics, religion, art. There’s a lot more here than is ever discussed: Levin, Karenin and Vronsky all go to political meetings, and in all these Tolstoy dramatizes what he sees as the uselessness of what happens from the point of view of doing any good for society as a whole. Karenin is outwitted by a conniving man who deludes Karenin’s people into accepting an exaggerated version of doing good and then that is rejected as unrealistic; Levin cannot interact well at all (his brother can but is only interested in issues abstractly), he cannot even figure out what is going on it’s all so implicit, nuanced, morally reprobate at core; Vronsky is a personal success in the same meeting and ends inviting the vicious man who behind the scenes manipulated factions to win the high powerful place to a dinner Vronsky pays for. Tolstoy more than once blames the victims who are subdued for allowing themselves to be subdued. In one-on-one vignettes: Karenin with the lawyer; Karenin and the religious fanatic lonely woman, Lydia, with the religious charlatan; in group scenes of trying to get people to change their ways to be more productive for themselves and work less hard, Levin fails; Stiva has the greatest political successes in what he tries to do (win money and position for himself). the extraordinary protracted death scene of Levin’s brother where instead of validating a religious point of view (as in Andrei’s death in W&P) it is wholly a biological process.

There are also brilliant chapters on art — the way there are in War and Peace. Vronsky is imitating being a great painter and Tolstoy tries to explain why: he has nothing to communicate deeply through his art, no emotion he cares about. Anna understands art in ways that Vronsky can’t even if she can’t be a writer for in writing she has nothing she wants to do for real — acting for the social benefit of others or for something to do or prestige produces schlock.

Much of this is omitted in all but the 1948 and 1977 films — where the actors playing Karenin are so strong the film-makers kept some of this material. It is important; it is the deep background to Anna’s stranded tragedy as an outcast. It takes chapters after Anna’s suicide where we are with characters who are minor and care nothing for our major presences. When we finally hear from someone who supposedly cares it’s Vronsky’s vicious mother. Anna is a bad vile woman she says; why? because she acted out of the sincerity of her heart — and yes body. When last heard of Vronsky is taking a job to where slavs are suffering very badly. This will get him back into the military. Although his behavior has been enough to allow people never to appoint him again, since this is a job no one wants, he gets it. Will he do any good for these ethnic minorities. We are supposed to remember that Karenin’s important rules and laws to put in place have been defeated.

So the last chapters are about Levin and how he is coping with the idea he has that the world is meaningless — there is no God in this world. This time Tolstoy will not nag us for chapters on end to accept his providential ideas about history but instead presents Levin as wrong, not seeing deeply enough while Kitty his wife so unintellectual does. Levin has learned how difficult it is to reform anyone and loses himself in coping everyday with the selfishness of everyone else and their problems. We are told Dolly and her children are now his province. Levin considers suicide when he starts to think about life and read his philosophy so this matches what happened to Anna, but unlike her he is embedded in his society as a landowner, husband, father, brother-in-law,in doing a little good, so he has little time to think about suicide much less do it. Very like Pierre at the close of W&P proper (not the coda where we hear of his gross political mistakes years later which end him in Siberia for years, the idea Tolstoy had about Pierre as he started W&P).

And so the second long masterpiece ends. Tolstoy did not write a third.

Ellen


John Millais, “Christmas Story-Telling,” “Christmas Supplement,” London News, 20 December 1862

In his Autobiography Trollope put himself firmly on record as resisting not just the commercialization of Christmas, but the way a cultural conformity of imposition leads people to pretend to Christmas feeling, resulting in meretricious art: he uses memorably negative images and metaphors to capture his “distaste” over the hypocrisy and artifice of being paid to produce a story filled with “cheer” and other manufactured “good feelings” because the “market” called for it. Since he makes a point over and over that he was never ashamed of writing for money, I assume he didn’t like being hired to pretend to feel what he did not feel, and especially with regard to Christmas where he thought some genuine worthy feelings were being corrupted (hollowed out, destroyed by exploitation):

“While I was writing The Way We Live Now, I was called upon by the proprietors of the Graphic for a Christmas story. I feel, with regard to literature, somewhat as I suppose an uphosterer and undertaker feels when he is called upon to supply a funeral. He has to supply it, however distasteful it may be. It is his business, and he will starve if he neglect it. So have I felt that, when anything in the shape of a novel was required, I was bound to produce it. Nothing can be more distasteful to me than to have to give a relish of Christmas to what I write. I feel the humbug implied by the nature of the order. A Christmas story, in the proper sense, should be the ebullition of some mind anxious to instill others with a desire for Christmas religious thought or Christmas festivities, — , better yet, with Christmas charity. Such was the case with Dickens when he wrote his two first Christmas stories. But since that the things written annually — all of which have been fixed to Christmas like children’s toys to a Christmas tree, have no real savour of Christmas about them. I had done two or three before. Alas! at this very moment I have one to write [said by Julian Thompson to have been Christmas at Thompson Hall], which I have promised to supply within three weeks of this time,– the picture-makers always required a long interval, — as to which I have in vain been cudgelling my brain for the last month. I can’t send away the order to another shop, but I do not know how I shall ever get the coffin made.”

Since he felt thus strongly, I have thus far not written any blog on his Christmas stories, individually or as a group. But time wears the spirit down, we compromise and the reality is quite a number of the stories are superb. One can even find (as with Dickens, or Oliphant or other Victorian authors who wrote a number of Christmas stories) a recurring set of themes, and motifs whether the story takes place in the fierce (fiery) heat of Australia (Harry Heathcote), centers on Christmas or just takes place at that time of year regularly or at a climax (“Catherine Carmichael,” “Two Generals”, “The Telegraph Girl”). He was deeply sceptical (not a mystic element in this man’s mind) and you will not find any ghosts or miracles, no revenants seeking revenge or to awaken the better nature of the person visited,no places haunted by some invisible past. He tends strongly not to focus on Christmas itself (the holiday or even its customs, with Mistlebough an exception) but let the time of year or the setting, the expectations built up around the holiday provide the emotional temperature. Then you find stories exploring the nature of charity, forgiveness, reconciliation, compromise, how the holiday functions as a memory device (it marks time), and brings out what is most characteristic in the nature of dominant characters. He wants his story to be a genuinely felt experience too.

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John Everett Millais, “Christmas at Noningsby” (Orley Farm)

Trollope wrote ten of them in longer and shorter stories, and four comparative chapters inside a remarkable novel, Orley Farm: I picked these out as stories taking place around Christmas time, where Christmas an experience or time-maker figures in the story), and in Orley Farm anthropologically considered. I’ve written (together with others conversational style) analyses, commentaries, summaries of these (linked in).

4 chapters in Orley Farm (Christmas in Harley Street, at Noningsby. at Groby Park, in Great St Helens (Chapters 21-24) (written 1860)
The Widow’s Mite (written 1862)
“The Mistletoe Bough” (written 1861)
“The Widow’s Mite” (written 1862),
Two Generals (written 1863)
Harry Heathcote of Gangoil (written 1863)
“Christmas Day at Kirby Cottage” (written 1870)
“Christmas at Thompson Hall” (written 1876)
“The Telegraph Girl” (written 1877),
“Catherine Carmichael; or Three Years Running” (written 1878)
“Not If I Know It” (1882)

My favorite once was “Christmas at Thompson Hall,” because I saw it as a story of comic anguish, not about the reunion home but the experience of intense pressure when obstacles get in the way of getting there, especially if you have lost status in some ways vis-a-vis against the other members of your family over the years. Mary Brown’s husband has lived a supine drone-like existence, they have no children, and they have rarely returned until now when she feels she must because her sister is marrying. We see how her husband has used a supposed weakness of constitution to control her and in this case almost thwarts her getting there in time. She takes this punishment of her out on the staff and also him, but is herself humiliated. Alas, it’s not the husband who ends up over-medicated – which would provide some poetic justice. (But then life doesn’t). In a way were her dithering trips around a vast freezing cold palace of a French hotel not done empathetically, many would not be amused. The story is edgy.

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But recently I found myself much preferring, enjoying once again, “The Widow’s Mite” for the full sociological and economic context, the character types, and especially Trollope’s revision of the familiar parable. The deeper lesson I glean is that it does not matter if the giver has to give up something, the way to measure how much good you do is how much you gave to the person in need and how much it helped them practically, not you morally (because that is too hard and ambiguous). I concede I may be reading against the grain here.


Newchurch in Pendle, Winter — Lancashire — K. Melling

A summary, in Judy Geater’s words,

“shamelessly pinched from John Sutherland’s introduction to the Oxford World’s Classics Early Short Stories. Sutherland explains that the publisher of evangelical magazine “Good Words”, Alexander Strahan, wrote to Trollope asking for a short Christmas/ New Year tale for the January 1863 edition of the magazine, passing on a suggestion from Scottish minister Norman Macleod that the title should be “Out of Work” and that it should deal with the unemployment in northern textile mills caused by the cotton famine as a result of the American Civil War. Trollope agreed but politely objected to the title. ” ‘Out of Work’ would be a very nice name for a story – But it would be needfull with such a name that the chief character should be an operative. I do not think I could manage this. But the line of the story shall be of the same nature – if possible.”

Sutherland writes: “‘The Widow’s Mite,’… was one of Trollope’s strongest efforts to date. He had visited the United States for six months over 1861-2 and his mind was full of the country and its turbulent condition. The story is narrated in Trollope’s increasingly relaxed comic mode, but the mood is hotly topical – angry, almost… the story, while maintaining its easy tone of social comedy, probes the sorest of middle-class sore points – is it ‘charity’ if you don’t feel the donation as loss? ‘How many of us,’ Trollope asks, ‘when we give, give from our own backs, and from out of our own mouths?’ Walk through the streets of London or New York and it is still a topical question.”

We learn about the Lancashire cotton famine, the cost to the workers of supporting the anti-slavery states. Jenny Uglow in her biography of Elizabeth Gaskell writes:

The mills had no American cotton, but the masters were reluctant to change their machinery to suit Indian supplies if there was hope of the Civil War ending. Elizabeth set up ‘Sewing-schools’ to provide part-time work and corresponded eagerly with Florence Nightingale, hoping that some of the laid-off mill-women might train as nurses… ‘The poor old women’ were her special concern: ‘at present they have only the workhouse allowance; barely enough for the cheapest, poorest food – only just enough to keep life in. They have worked hard all their working years – poor old friendless women, and now crave and sicken after a “taste of bacon” or something different to the perpetual oat-meal.’By late summer the Plymouth Grove household had to check themselves from talking about the distress, ‘which was literally haunting us in our sleep, as well as being the first thoughts on waking and the last at night’. Gaskell’s words, in a letter, but this is very much the feeling you get in Trollope’s story, too, where the family are increasingly feeling guilty about every little luxury while others have nothing.


Pissaro, Chestnut Trees at Louveciennes, Winter (1870)

Judy Geater wrote of the story:

“The story is written with a wonderfully light touch, but still gets its powerful message across, probably as effectively as any preacher. At the start, most readers will be likely to laugh at the argument between Charley and Bob, where Bob tries to prove that if everybody gave up their Christmas dinner the savings would be “two millions and a half” – and Charley brings him down to earth by pointing out that the grocer and butcher would be ruined. However, if as readers we continue to scoff at Nora as she decides to make her own personal sacrifice by doing without wedding finery, I think the laughter soon dies on our lips as we realise that there is indeed a real point in her giving up her two mites.

My idea (Ellen here) is it is the feeling that people ought to have a decent dinner on such a day, some warmth, something to feel hopeful about that gives rise to the action of the story. What shall this middle class family do, if anything, to help the Lancashire cottonworkers of the area? Is it in good taste for the family to have an expensive wedding and the bride a luxurious dress when all around them others starve. Trollope seems to think this talk is phony, the characters don’t really mean it — or he has one of his characters (the American alas) assert that.

As the story opens we are told the American civil war has led to the Lancashire cotton workers losing their jobs and as it has gone on for some time they are now beginning literally to go without food, without warmth, without clothes, and some are nearly starving. They have been laid off as there is no cotton to work upon, but as Trollope develops the story there seems to be little resentment against the war against by the people it’s hurting. (It has been suggested they identified with the slaves.) The heroine, Nora, wants to help her uncle, the Reverend Mr Granger, gather money to feed the workers, but she feels she wants to feel she’s done something. It’s not enough to give out of her superfluity; she wants to give up something she will miss. It may seem odd that she finds this difficult to do — but she is middle class, gentry, genteel — and by the end of the story, has not pulled it off, quite. She is about to be married and the question arises, how much money should they spend in this situation. Will they look bad? to themselves, it seems.


An illustration for a 19th century wedding dress

This ‘problem’ is one that seems to speak to some middle class people as important. To those who starve or are homeless, such a question is egocentric: the concern suggests that the middle class is more interested in its own feelings than in giving to those who are in need. Still this is the way the story is often read; when I assigned it to my classes, one girl gave a long talk about how when she was young, someone forced her to give up an expensive doll she liked to a cousin. She was told that wasn’t charity at all as she didn’t even need it. I’m afraid this little girl wasn’t impressed.

The story is done in Trollope’s usual multi-perspective narrative: we look at the characters as products of their class and type and nationality. Their attitudes reflect their situation in life and what cultural group they grew up in. Nora’s cousin, Bob, suggests all the people in England, Scotland, and Ireland should simply not eat a Christmas dinner, take all the money saved, and hand that out. He is only momentarily non-plussed when he is told the problem is the Irish don’t have a Christmas meal to give away: “They never have any in Ireland, Bob.”

Charley, Nora’s other cousin, takes her to task for not spending money on finery, for in her efforts to help the cottonworkers she will leave those who make clothes without work: “Charley condemned [Nora] altogether, pointing out that it was bad policy to feed the cotton spinners at the expense of the milliners.” He is the one who feels the others are pretending to themselves they feel this regret.

The characters argue explicitly over how the wealthy in their community should go about giving to the poor: should they give charity or does this ruin the independent spirit of the workers? In the situation at hand this is an absurdity. It is said by the Newt Gingrich of the piece, Frederick Frew, Nora’s bethrothed and an American, who we are told “trusts to syllogisms which are often false, instead of to the experience of his life and daily workings of his mind.” Trollope tells us explicitly and through the use of heavy irony that our American Fred is wrong when he scorns charity givers as degrading the poor, that his analogy of “how dogs let other dogs starve and therefore we but follow nature if we do likewise to other people” is wrong, and that his idea “the widow would have done better to have invested her small capital in some useful trade,” is a hilarious bit of anachronistic and here obtuse American capitalism. Trollope was not a Tory in his own time; he ran on the Liberal ticket. Alas, this kind of thinking is running rampant in the US again today — at least among the powerful in Fox and other corporate news media.

Back to the story. How does Nora solve her problem? (Note it’s her problem; the angle is taken focuses on Nora and not the starving people.) Well, what she tries to do is to give the money she was going to use to make herself expensive finery to wear on her wedding day to her uncle for the use of the cotton-mill workers. She is about to be married and decides she will have a plain wedding, and she refuses to allow her American (and Unionist) husband-to-be to pay for the finery which he could do. I would liken Nora to the person with one pair of very fancy boots walking in the snow who sees someone with nothing on his feet. She gives up her boots up so she can feel the snow, although she has a small pair of ordinary shoes in her bag and is close to home where there’s another pair of boots waiting for her.

What Nora discovers is she doesn’t miss her very fancy boots at all, and — and this is what is interesting about the story — she doesn’t get the uplift she had longed for. She thought it would make her feel good to walk through the snow shoeless ( to keep up my metaphor) or with inadequate shoes, but it somehow doesn’t. This is the subtlest level of the story. Trollope suggests such a feeling is fleeting at best because luxurious goods are not what make us happy.

There’s an anti-materialism at the heart of this story and perhaps this is what makes it an idealistic or Christmas story — and it’s why I like it. This anti-materialism is figured forth for us in the closing scene of the wedding — Nora does have a very plain one. Nora finds that she didn’t need the finery. More: its absence is not only unimportant but actually adds to the beauty of the moment. The narrator underlines this moral lest we not pick it up:

“For myself [Trollope speaking as narrator within the story] I think they all looked more comfortable on that cold winter morning without the finery which would have been customary than they could have done without it. It had seemed to them all beforehand that a marriage without veils and wreaths, without white gloves nd new gay dresses, would be but a triste affair; but the idea passed away altogether when the occasion came. [The immediate family heads for church with the bridegroom with them, but said bridegroom], Frederick F Frew had met with a rebuff in the hall of the Parsonage, in being forbidden to take his own bride under his own arm; but when the time for action came, he bore no malice, but went through the work manfully. On the whole, it was a pleasant wedding, homely, affectionate, full of much loving greeeting… this, at any rate, was certain, that the wedding clothes were not missed. When they all went down to their breakfast in the Parsonage dining-room, that little matter had come to be clean forgotten.”

We might read the story as against turning something privately meaningful into an occasional for conspicuous consumption. (Gentle reader, can you tell how I dislike large expensive weddings? — I know of relationships which broke up over the wedding; others where years later the people are still paying for it as well as a divorce.)

In this moment Nora does feel the uplift she longed for. Her uplift is in her actual preference for the simple and for plain emotion, not in having deprived herself of some luxury. Nonetheless, we are left with some decent thought about the parable which Trollope also consciously emphasizes. Through the parable, he asks, Why was it necessary for Nora to “feel” deprived in order to feel her charity was charity? It seems to me that Trollope’s text shows us this parable projects a very selfish kind of charity, one which is egoistic: Nora’s feelings about her charity giving were were more important than the results of the charitable act: feeding hungry people, providing them with warmth and clothes.


A woman fallen on hard times bringing her baby home in a snow-filled landscape

Ellen


Demelza (Eleanor Tomlinson) singing, after Christmas dinner (2015 Poldark, episode 4)

Someone — a Latin poet — had defined eternity as no more than this: to hold and possess the whole fullness of life in one moment, here and now, past and present and to come — last chapter of Ross Poldark)

Friends and readers,

Not such a small but a short note for those engaged by Winston Graham’s Poldark novels and the two sets of film adaptations.

I’ve been rereading the novels again, and have confirmed an old memory that while Christmas is in itself not valued for any kind of religious belief, a number of the novels end around Christmas time with the characters gathering together to enact a yearly ritual, and memories, and talk emerges far more for real at moments than other times of year. Some of these endings are melancholy sweet, strained, or near breaking point: Ross Poldark, Demelza and Warleggan (1st, 2nd & 4th Poldark books) respectively. At the close of Demelza:

“They watched the scene on the beach.
‘I shan’t have to finish that frock for Julia now,’ she said. ‘It was that dainty too.’
‘Come,’ he said, ‘you will be catching cold.’
‘No. I am quite warm, Ross. Let me stay a little longer in the sun.

Some are bitter, and then the emphasis is on winter itself, December into January, dark, cold, bleak or wild: The Angry Tide (the 7th) when Elizabeth has just died.

All we know is this moment, and this moment, Ross, we are alive! We are. We are. The past is over, gone. What is to come doesn’t exist yet. That’s tomorrow! It’s only now that can ever be, at any one moment. And at this moment, now, we are alive — and together. We can’t ask more. There isn’t any more to ask … Demelza to Ross (last page of The Angry Tide).

Some are quiet-reflective, The Miller’s Dance and The Loving Cup (the 9th and 10th books). In The Twisted Sword (the 11th), the deep tragedy of Jeremy’s death continues to the end, only lifted somewhat by the birth of Lady Harriet Warleggan and then Cuby Poldark’s baby, while Demelza keeps the festival.

Deliver us from swords & curs — The Twisted Sword

Lastly, Bella (the 12th) just after Valentine’s death and Ross’s nightmare, the characters all return to Cornwall for Christmas. We pass a bleak Christmas in the second half of the novel Jeremy Poldark, but it is not emphatic, just part of the year made much harder because of desperate conditions during this festival time, and we observe Christmas more emphatically in The Black Moon during the birth of Clowance when the news comes to Nampara that Dwight Enys is still alive.

I’ve only followed the devices and desires of my own heart … Demelza, again the close)

So only four novels do not end in December/January or Christmas: Jeremy Poldark (a christening), The Black Moon (very bitter at the close), The Four Swans (very uncertain, all the women having been forced into bad choices), and The Stranger from the Sea (an uneasy unsettling).


A painting of Cornwall, the shore for fishing, early 20th century impressionism (photographed from a visit to a Cornish museum, summer 2016)

As important, all the novels are carefully keyed to seasonal time-lines, from autumn to winter, winter to spring and summer again; attention is paid to the relationship of what’s happening to daily customs, agricultural and other rhythms, the weather, and Christmas is part of this, and made more of when it coincides with some crisis. I conclude the natural world as central to human existence (and Graham’s love of Cornwall), and holiday rituals meant a good deal to Graham for their creation of a sense of community and humane comradeship, for their enacting memory and for hope of renewal.


Stanhope Forbes, Fisherman’s wife (Cornish painter, 1890s – 1910s)

*******************************

Even among my nearest and dearest there is no transference — can be no transference — of experience. One can feel empathy for someone suffering, but one cannot feel the suffering. We are all alone —- desperately alone. What are we in this world? A conjunction of subjective impressions making up something that is accepted as reality — Graham, Memoirs of a Private Man

One reason these patterns may not have been noticed is they are not observed in the either the older or newer serial drama. When Christmas does emphasize something special in the story at the moment (new marriage, desperate poverty, worry over the life of an imprisoned friend), then it’s there. But not the seasons and no sense of a sequence of customs to which Christmas belongs for themselves. The interest in Cornwall is decorative; in the older, there is reveling in the place, in the recent they attend to the workaday world.

We don’t have adaptations past The Stranger from the Sea for either series, but looking at the older 1975-76, 1977-78, the only transitional moments from one novel to the next where this kind of coda is observed is in a mid-book, the bare bleak half-starving Christmas from Jeremy Poldark, complete with a family dinner, caroling, Demelza wanting to ask the Brodugans for money).


Bare strained family dinner (1975-76 Poldark, Part 11, Episode 3)


At Nampara, Demelza (Angharad Rees), pouring port, asks Ross (Robin Ellis) why cannot they ask other friends for money (1975-76, Poldark Part 11, Episode 4)

One could cite the mood and bleak outdoors in the final episode of the second (and as it turned out) last season (1978), The Angry Tide, which ended, with Demelza and Ross looking at their children holding hands, and George grieving at the window from which the camera takes us to gaze at wild waves and rocks. Except it is not Christmas nor December as it explicitly is in the novel. A good deal of the original series was filmed on sets, and the focus was strongly on particular personalities in a story. So even just two scenes from the older Poldark show the intense attention paid to interweaving a Christmas piece with the realities of the characters’ dispositions, circumstances at each moment.


Christmas dinner at Trenwith (2015 Poldark, episode 4)

The recent 2015-16, and now 2017: in the first season (2015), the fourth episode near the end corresponds closely to the end of Ross Poldark, Ross and Demelza now Poldark go to Trenwith for a visit and (as it turns out temporary) reconciliation, and details from the book are dramatized, such as Demelza’s singing (above), though not Elizabeth on the harp.

Then again in the second season (2016), scenes corresponding to the observation of Christmas during a hard time in Jeremy Poldark, and the third season (2017), scenes corresponding to The Black Moon and placed just before the rescuing of Dwight Enys where there is a quiet Nampara Christmas and Caroline and Demelza and Verity seek funds at a party.

For all the rest while we might have a funeral at a close of an episode (we do twice, Jim Carter and then Julia), nothing is made of the year’s seasonal patterns nor Christmas. The perpetual coming out on the cliffs is not keyed to any season, any activity but the openings of the episodes at the mines. Scenes are not complexly nuanced in quite the way they were in the older series.

********************************


Elizabeth Adele Armstrong Forbes, later 19th century woman painter in Cornwall, a Ring of Roses

What this suggests is how different are the rhythms and internal structures of the episodes of both Poldark film series from that of the novels: the exception in the series is Jeremy Poldark and The Black Moon in the first iteration (1975, 1977), and Jeremy Poldark and The Black Moon in the second (2016, 2017). But also how important season, time, holiday ritual was to Graham and has not been to the any of the film-adapters of his work thus far.

A curtain of mist hung over the Black Cliffs at the further end of Hendrawna Beach, most of it caused by spray hitting the tall rocks and drifting before the breeze. There was a heavy swell which reached far out to sea, and a couple of fishing boats from St Ann’s had gone scudding back to the safety of the very unsafe har­bour. Gulls were riding the swell, lifting high and low as the waves came in; occasionally they took to the air in a flurry of flapping white when a wave unexpectedly spilled its head. No one yet expected rain: that would be tomorrow. The sun was losing its brilliance and hung in the sky like a guinea behind a muslin cloth.
Clowance squinted up at the weather. ‘Have you got a watch?’ ‘No. Not one that goes.’ — Bella

It might be objected, Does any movie? some do, and some film adaptations. One set that comes to mind are the film adaptations of Jane Austen’s Emma, especially the 1996 ITV by Andrew Davies (with Kate Beckinsale as Emma, Mark Strong as Mr Knightley, Samantha Morton, Harriet) and the 209 BBC Emma by Sandy Welch (with Romola Garai as Emma, Johnny Lee Miller as Mr Knightley, Tamsin Grieg as Miss Bates), keep to seasons and emphasize Christmas or the winter holiday, snow. Have a look here.

So they all went to look, at least as far as the stile leading down to the beach)· further it was unsafe to go. Where the beach would have been at any time except the highest of tides) was a battlefield of giant waves. The sea was washing away the lower sandhills and the roots of marram grass. As they stood there a wave came rushing up over the rough stony ground and. licked at the foot of the stile) leaving a trail of froth to overflow and smear their boots. Surf in the ordinary sense progresses from deep water to shallow) losing height as it comes. Today waves were hitting the rocks below Wheal Leisure with such weight that they generated a new surf running at right angles to the flow of the sea) with geysers of water spouting high from the collisions. A new and irrational surf broke against the gentler rocks below the Long Field. Mountains of spume collected wherever the sea drew breath) and then blew like bursting shells across the land. The sea was so high there was no horizon and the clouds so low that they sagged into the sea (from The Angry Tide, quoted by Graham at the opening of Poldark’s Cornwall, 1983 version).

This matters because these books are in the peculiar position of fake knowledge. A lot of people think they know them because they’ve seen these film adaptations. Others may read the books after the adaptations and have their understanding framed by the films. What they remember is what the film emphasized. There is a long respectable history of publication for the first four books from 1945 to 1953; and the second trilogy (the novels of the 1970s, Black Moon, Four Swans, Angry Tide) have been in but watched partly as a result of the films and seen through the films. The last five are much less well-known. Many classics are in effect in this position: far far more people saw the film Wuthering Heights in 1939 than had read Emily Bronte’s book in the previous 150 years of publication and availability. But the Brontes have true respectability and people went on to read WH and other Bronte books; they have now gotten to Tenant of Wildfell Hall and the film adaptation was made as a result of Bronte popularity. That’s not the case with Graham’s books. For my part I’d love to know what sales of the books have been like over the past 60 years and have a way of measuring how much that reflects actual readership.

Ellen


From Bergman’s Wild Strawberries (1957)

In terms of sexual politics, however, to borrow Lee’s own phrasing, women are also getting kind of funny about other people telling their stories — Thomas Chatterton Williams, a NYTimes Magazine semi-fluff piece on Spike Lee

Dear friends and readers,

My last was about this past year’s life in reading; this is about this year’s life in and through films and stage-plays, except I doubt I can remember all the films I saw this year. I watch late at night and into the morning hours (that’s how I saw the first season of Grantchester — fascinating for what it mirrors of our culture just now). I probably can’t distinguish those I saw this past year (2017) from last (2016). While books are surely also dream matter, for myself I have to admit no matter how absorbed and intensely engaged I can get, the experience of a movie (especially large screen, in color, up close, with strong appropriate music) is just ontologically visceral. Two of the first books I read when I began to study and write about film were Parker Tyler’s The Hollywood Hallucination, and Magic and Myth of the Movies.


Nicholas and Smike on the road of life (Nicholas Nickleby 2002)

At the same time one must keep hold of the understanding these are unreal ratcheted up works of art which are not imitations of life, but emotion-creating, emotional sharing technological concoctions. I try during daylight waking hours; I don’t vouch for what I let my mind do when I’m in bed falling asleep, nor here tell my movie dreams. Sometimes waking I am coming out of a dream world made up of one of the TV serial dramas I’ve watched; they can make a bigger impact because I live with them over weeks of watching. I wrote about only a few of these: Poldark, The Handmaid’s Tale, Outlander (1st season; 2nd & 3rd seasons). I’ve yet to write about the Anna Karenina films (I’m just finishing the book) and The Crown. I was glad when I saw that Elisabeth Moss, Caitriona Balfe and Claire Foy were all nominated for Golden Globes for the best actress in a TV drama series. A 2002 BBC adaptation of Nicholas Nickleby (Charles Hunnam; Juliet Stevenson, Jim Broadbent, Romola Garai, Anna Hathaway, Christopher Plummer, Timothy Squall, Tim Courtney — oh it had everyone). How important these star presences are. I do (fingers crossed) mean to write on The Crown and Anna Karenina.


Pamola Baeza as Bathseeba (we read Hardy’s Far from the madding Crowd this summer — no it was not one of my favorites)

Favorite individual films this year (excluding HD opera screenings) seen for the first time, in no particular order:

Baldwin: I am not your Negro
Ashgar Farhadi’s Salesman and A Separation
Mrs Dalloway and To the Lighthouse (older movies seen on DVDs)
Wadja’s Afterimage
Two Far from the Madding Crowd movies: the 1998 BBC with Nathaniel Parker, Paloma Baeza and Jonathan firth, Natasha Little; 2013 with Carey Mulligan, Michael Sheen (the famed 1967 with Julie Christie and Alan Bate is over-rated)
Kedi — the street cats of Istanbul
Lucky
Neruda (post-modern political film, superb)

Favorite Re-seen movies: Last Orders, Barchester Chronicles (perfection), North and South.

This excludes this year’s about eight HD operas, which included a few which were I admit superb precisely because they were films, permitting subtitles, close-ups, great acting. The finest and moving Eugene Onegin; astonishingly intelligent Exterminating Angel

I also took my first course in film, “The History and Aesthetics of” (at the OLLI at AU) a deeply grating experience since every single film we saw (10) and every single one the teacher (retired from teaching in a private high school) mentioned were by a man and about men. There was not one which even focused on a woman. I did tell the professor about this, but it took 2 emails, one of which was a comments on the course type, and weeks before he brought this up. Five men and over ten women in the class and only then did a few women clap and say “hurrah, Ellen.” These women were all aware of this then but none would have spoke up for me; nonetheless, all his lists of famous films carried on being by and about men even after that, no matter what type (French new wave, African-American). Talk about erasure and marginalization, for of course these films had women in them — as sex objects, mothers, nurses, nuisances, victims, not one all term long had any ambition but to be wife or mother. The teacher’s talk about these was very educational, context, close reading of techniques, biographies, remarkably intelligent conversation in the class. My guess is he never watches films by women — though he’s seen some made by men about women and knew of Jeanine Basinger’s great book, A Woman’s View: How Hollywood Spoke to Women, 1930-60 (he was able to cite her high position at a university, which I could not have done, would not have thought of), which I read with a group of women on Women Writer through the Ages @ Yahoo several years ago.


Jean Arthur and Ronald Colman (1942, Talk of the Town, never got near being mentioned, one of my favorite films of all times; as the wordpress search engine does not go back before 2012 I see I shall have to rewrite that blog)

The teacher’s choices were Modern Times (Chaplin and Paulette Goddard towards the end), Fritz Lang’s M (Peter Lorre, a troubling film made during the Nazi era because its content readily confirms the pathological paranoia towards anyone but white “upright” males), Welles’s Citizen Kane (fascinating but in the experience too jocular, and thus pandering too often), the Hitchcock Rear Window (artistically remarkable but the usual mean voyeurism, also paranoia from the point of view of white males), The Graduate (moronic), Casablanca (at times hilarious and yet at times the intensity of Boghart’s performance carries it), Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, Ingmar Bergman’s Wild Stawberries, and Francois Truffaut’s 400 Blows (all phases of men’s lives). It was a course in male classic films; the male canon of films.

It was a sort of shocking experience. To be amidst a group of people where the existence, outlook, experiences of some 2/3s of them were ignored, distorted, marginalized. It was like being in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. Not that I have not had this experience. I taught for 23 years at George Mason University: in no catalogue was my name ever cited, when I left there was nothing recorded about it. But that was long range, done ever so cleverly, indirectly. However it’s such experiences that make African-American films and their political outlook undersandable to me; often there I can guess how they will vote. The highest ratings I ever had as a teacher occurred when my classes were predominantly African-American. One summer, the summer Barack Obama was running to be nominated for president for the Democratic party for the first time I had a class of 11 students for Advanced Composition in the Natural Sciences. I had two European-American (white) students in it. I got a 5.10 out of 6, and my only letter of commendation in all the years I was there signed by Rick Davis, then dean of humanities (or some such title).


Tracy Camilla Jones in She’s Gotta Have It (1986)

So a little, however inadequate, and here too women were secondary, basically chorus or scolds, on Do the Right Thing. First the full context I’d give it is bell hooks’s take on She’s Gotta Have It: “Whose Pussy Is This: A Feminist Comment, Hooks described Lee’s protagonist as “ ‘pure pussy,’ that is to say that her ability to perform sexually is the central, defining aspect of her identity.” The film, in Hooks’s view, was contaminated by “the pervasive sense that we have witnessed a woman being disempowered and not a woman coming to power.” See Chatterton’s paragraphs describing this film which is about a promiscuous female who finds herself by finding the right male partner. His great film, said the teacher, is Malcolm X, who in Haley’s rerwrite in acceptable English (readable) of Malcolm’s autobiographical diary notes frequently uses bitch as a synonym for women, though it is reserved especially for white women. It was the English freshman community text for adjuncts to use one term I was teaching at American University (as an adjunct); need I say, I didn’t assign it? You could find a substitute: mine was James Baldwin’s The Price of the Ticket; now I’d use Ta Nehesi-Coates Between Me and the World.


Closing moments of Do the Right Thing (1989)

Of the group the most contemporary alive films still seemed to me Lee and Bergman’s. Lee’s Do the Right Thing is a depiction of the lives of black people seen angrily and harshly (the women berate all the men continually), also allegorical (with Ossie Davies and Ruby Dee as allegorical figures of compassion. Like the others, it’s been written about so much, I can hardy add to the great criticism and studies, my take is Mookie (played by Spike) destroys Sal (Danyl Aiello) the decent white owner’s pizzeria because it’s the only way he can get himself to stop working there. All film long his girlfriend berates him castigatingly for having such a demeaning job (that’s her one function beyond being the mother of his son), but as far as we can see it is all he has been able to persuade anyone to offer him. And the title is ironic as in this situation these people have been coerced into and kept no one can do any right thing at all. So fundamental and sweeping and decades long must be the changes done across the whole country-society to educate everyone together, to allow African-Americans to build self-esteem, make good incomes as a group, be free from incarceration and/death as daily risk.

Ingmar Bergman’s Wild Strawberries, also analyzed and described in so many places, gives me a chance to talk about the second of two good plays I saw this year, one by a woman: Private Confessions, Liv Ullmann’s directed play out of Bergman’s script from his movie. The film, Wild Strawberries, is about a tough old physician’s inward journey (depressed, angry, isolated, unaccepting) to face up to the central mistakes he’s made all his life through a series of dreams he has on the way to get a life-time achievement award with his daughter-in-law driving him. It put me in mind of the (by contrast) child-like A Christmas Carol where the old man faced with death and visited by three spirits who show him his past suddenly reforms and retrieves what has gone before. Borg feels his life has been a failure no matter what others see or think. What we see is the almost near impossibility of retrieval. So many he hurt or who hurt him centrally have died or turned away so finally and unforgivingly. We see his son has become a hard mean detached man to protect himself (ironically mirroring his father). Like Do the Right Thing and so many great films (and books) Wild Stawberries is highly autobiographical. Bergman had a harsh cruel hypocritical pastor for a father; he himself had affairs (as did Borg in the film — one of his mistresses functions like the benign ghosts in Dickens’s tale). Bergman is searching to make a meaning in life now that we know there is no god, and the ethical values you once thought could hold sway you now find are a veneer for giving a pretended order to the chaos of reality. My father took me to see this movie when I was about 11; he had identified with the man.


Private Confessions (from the production I saw last week, 2017)

The play, Private Confessions, is not listed in the wikipedia entry for Liv Ullmann, probably because she didn’t write it. I saw the play Friday night week last at the Kennedy Center: it was as if Ullmann had plucked out the deep core center of Bergman’s films and we watched in an almost bare stage the sheer internal memories and life, this time, of a woman who found she had married a man she didn’t love; she has an affair with a much younger man, almost leaves the husband (a pastor who is cold in nature), but decides not to. The cast includes her mother and her friend. It was acted with subtlety at the same time conveying hard intense passions. It was superb if filled with much suffering — I can see why Bergman is made fun of. This one without the film apparatus did not come across as allegorical in the way other of his films do. The film’s cast list is the same, though the description on IMDB emphasizes the roles of the priest, husband and lover. As the play the character on stage all the time whose point of view we are is the woman, Anna. The actress was Marte Engebrigtsen. Like other of Bergman’s films it is a transposition of his own autobiography: this time (or again) about his parents Like other of Bergman’s films it is a transposition of his own autobiography: this time (or again) about his parents.

The other great play I saw this year took three nights, it came in three parts (like the Norman Conquests), The Gabriels, which I began the year with, last January. (I did see a few stage plays done by N.Va repertoire companies when the friend who has now dropped me drove us to the Fairfax and Arlington community centers they played in.)

So all these are this year’s memories. They help me though my days — dream matter given structures (designs of visions) to experience and and significance contemplate by how they are made and put together in their media. The very best steady me through a kind of perspectival moral compass. Like The Roofmen of this Patricia Fargnoli’s poem:

Over my head, the roofmen are banging shingles into place
and over them the sky shines with a light that is
almost past autumn, and bright as copper foil.

In the end, I will have something to show for their hard labor –
unflappable shingles, dry ceilings, one more measure of things
held safely in a world where safety is impossible.

In another state, a friend tries to keep on living
though his arteries are clogged,
though the operation left a ten-inch scar

and, near his intestines, an aneurysm blossoms
like a deformed flower. His knees and feet
burn with constant pain.

We go on. I don’t know how sometimes.
For a living, I listen eight hours a day to the voices
of the anxious and the sad. I watch their beautiful faces

for some sign that life is more than disaster –
it is always there, the spirit behind the suffering,
the small light that gathers the soul and holds it

beyond the sacrifices of the body. Necessary light.
I bend toward it and blow gently.
And those hammerers above me bend into the dailiness

of their labor, beneath concentric circles: a roof of sky,
beneath the roof of the universe,
beneath what vaults over it.

And don’t those journeymen
hold a piece of the answer – the way they go on
laying one gray speckled square after another,

nailing each down, firmly, securely.

As I say I know this is illusion and underneath these structures, all around them, shut out sufficiently so as to maintain control in my journey’s spaces are abysses …

Ellen

Net Neutrality fight

Friends,

Do you enjoy communicating with me; I do with you. We only have 10 days to fight the FCC & the repeal of #NetNeutrality! Thanks to John Oliver there’s a SUPER easy way to do this

If net neutrality goes away, our Internet bills go up and we give power to companies like Comcast and Spectrum o cut us off from whom they please.
Here’s what you can do – takes less than a minute.

1. Go to gofccyourself.com
(the shortcut John Oliver made to the hard-to-find FCC comment page)
2. Click on the 17-108 link (Restoring Internet Freedom)
2. Click on “+ express”
3. Be sure to hit “ENTER” (or tab) after you put in your name & info so it registers. (I used my SPAM email)
4. In the comment section write, “I strongly support net neutrality backed by Title 2 oversight of ISPs.”
5. Click “Continue to Review”
6. Review and then Click submit
– Make sure you hit submit at the end!
**share this** (COPY AND PASTE)

Ellen


John Prebble, Culloden

Friends,

I sometimes think that nothing I write anymore comes from an singular me, but it’s all somehow coming out of shared experiences, sometimes with one or two people, sometimes a larger group, maybe as much as 20, itself a group part of a larger group, sometimes here in cyberspace and sometimes in real physical space. That’s probably a pardonable exaggeration as even now or still the initial experience of the text or movie by me whether chosen as a result of relationship, or project, or lingering effects of an experience is the motivation or inspiration to carry on sincerely. And I don’t carry on without real engagement.

So a friend told a group of us on Trollope19thCStudies@yahoogroups.com, aka Trollope and his Contemporaries at Yahoo of a book of brief essays she read, Light into Dark: Writers on Creativity, Inspiration and the Artistic Process, ed. Joe Fassler, one of which by Mary Gaitskill is a meditation on the two selves of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina (“I don’t know you any more”). Reading this made me realize that yes Tolstoy (and after him also) Tom Stoppard and Joe Wright (in their 2012 move) help make sense of Anna’s experience by attending to her idea she is now following a deeper truer self than the one who married Karenin and obeyed her society conventions. I bought the book (easy thing to do since the Internet), and discovered that what Fassler asked his contributors to do initially was write about a text that inspired him or her to write about something passionately, or to work on some project of writing for years.


St. Peter’s in Rome from a bridge across the Tiber River, copyright Vittorio F. DiMeglio

Well that was easy for me to answer. When I read a group of French translations by a mid-20th century scholar, Suzanne Therault of Vittoria Colonna’s mostly sonnets to her husband (mostly after his death, some 600 poems), I was so moved and agitated I couldn’t sit in my seat and had to get up and walk about to calm down; I determined to teach myself to read Italian so I could study and translate these sonnets. I spent at least 15 years of my life on this, and while a few have been published individually, and they have been used by graduate students doing theses on Colonna and read aloud at festivals, the way to read them is on my website. This led to my discovery of her contemporary Veronica Gambara, who I related personally to much better, whose letters I enjoyed, and whose 90 odd poems (she wrote far more than is usually attributed to her) I also translated and then wrote a short life of Gambara, Under the Sign of Dido, and a first chapter of a biography of Colonna, The Dark Voyage.

But my friend took the assignment (so to speak) differently, as asking the writers what passage or work meant a great deal to them as readers and people (and so writers, though more indirectly), or what kinds of texts he or she was deeply drawn to. As I read on into Light the Dark, I found many of the writers there took the task this way. for myself I agree with her that passages of compelling deeply-felt talk between two characters thoroughly realized pull me in, domestic interiors, indeed long chapters on ways of home life between daily intimately connected characters, I cannot do without realism, without being led to believe in what I am reading as occurring really in front of me or what I immersed in order to care; long reverie-like description that’s philosophical and aesthetic and personal, and to come down to more concrete, literary biographies, books by women which fall into the type called l’ecriture-femme, ghost stories (about loss and grief and attempts at restoration, presences in our lives).

All this to say I know that last year’s list of books and movies (read for the first time and re-read) conformed to this set of criteria and so did many of this (watched for the first time, or re-watched and re-watched). It was strongly biography, women’s memoirs and fictions, travel books. I didn’t do what my friend, Diane Reynolds, did this year and divide by genre or her experience of them (best letter and essay collections; best fiction and biography; and best rereads), but only set out a list. My excuse for mostly doing this again is it’s hard enough to remember what was most meaningful inside the year; but I will talk more of a few because this year I found my most meaningful books, which of course I must want to recommend, are histories, books often by men, literary criticism (and then after that) my usual diet of brilliant literary biography, memoirs, letters, novels by women. My movies also differed and I expect that was the result of joining Netflix streaming, Amazon prime streaming and taking a course in “classic films” (it turned out all by men, and about men centrally all the time). They are books that led to other books, and books that are ultimately political, post-colonial, anti-war. Some I am still moving through.

These are in the order I think of them

Chiefly, to my astonishment:

History and Science

John Prebble, Culloden; The Highland Clearances.
Alongside these John Lister-Kaye’s spiritual nature writing, Song of the Rolling Earth: A Highland Odyssey
Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States: this one alone as it’s such crucial reading for today I’ll send along a summary:

Zinn is simply telling all the history left out of most history books, and what’s vital about it is it explains and is analogous to what happens today. As I read the chapter on how slavery was instituted and how a whole people were subdued (worked to death, exploited to the nth degree, cowed utterly) I felt I was reading a series of events parallel to those we see today. What’s striking is that Arpaio’s behavior is not some subtler version of what was done to keep slavery central to the system, but is closely that of what was done in a daily way to black people.

It’s far more explanatory of daily experience than the ideals we are taught motivated any of the founders. In “persons of a mean and vile condition” we see the wealthy of the era take over vast amounts of land and wealth; their fear of middling whites combining with poor whites, blacks, Indians not through his thesis, but through the actual deeds, acts, and rhetoric — which uncannily echoes that of today’s renewed attempt to make a small group of whites superwealthy with what might be called fringe people supporting them. I was struck by the way power was quickly monopolized; Zinn quotes a lot of people and describes many acts and wars and rebellion; he has a lot of statistics. Poor houses are forms of prison; mechanisms of control the way outright prisons are today. The stories of how middling whites rose to be prosperous turn out to be rare. Colonial society was not democratic at all, not egalitarian and in the next chapter when he goes on to discuss the formation of this new gov’t under a constitution the oligarchy that was set up makes sense.

I don’t know if I’m depressed so much as appalled — it seems there was a period in the 20th century where real progress was made for the 80% and now this is fiercely being destroyed. The election of Obama terrified these white rulers — they must stop the country going further into progressivism and becoming multiracial, cultural and tolerant. Probably, Tyler, I never believed the US gov’t had any different aims from any other. Especially as a woman I have thought (hoped) that we were “modern” contemporary with socially enlightened ideas because of our meritocracy but I see that if a huge number of people are on the side of genuine progress for all, liberty for women, it’s a weak reed and they can be turned readily to losing out as each family is so individual and each person thinks in utterly immediate terms when it comes to living their lives. I didn’t think we could go backwards inside the US and we are and have for a few decades now — oddly the Trump triumph makes this all so much more public.

Tyranny is tyranny

I carry on however slowly. This chapter gives the full — or real — background of the US revolution. Zinn tells us what I’ve read only in a few places, though he has a group of books to cite: that the actual numbers of people who fought against the British in the US army were small, that it was a time of rebellion, not against the British per se, but by the average person (often indentured servant) and lower people and artisans against unfair conditions of all sorts. Zinn describes and names the people who led the revolution: all upper middle, all seeking to free themselves of control from the British and to (successfully) set up power structures for themselves. Land hungry farmers, in Philadelphia a full-scale attack by artisans, tradesmen and laborers found themselves stymied by laws set up and rebelled, mechanics demanding real democracy, people angry at the destruction of individual lives from impressment, in North Caroline (once again, showing southerners not naturally reactionary), white farmers organized against wealthy and corrupt officials. The conflict was bitter with insurrections, “small” massacres; people organized to prevent the collection of taxes. The point of these founding fathers was to try to organize all this against a perceived enemy: blacks weren’t it then, but the British, and to invent a rhetoric appropriate for the discourse of the time. Indians were a perpetual easy target as they were fighting back themselves. Not as bad as our own time, tax rolls in one study show that 5% of Boston’s taxpayers owned 49% of the wealth. Paine’s pamphlet appealed to the a cross section of people; he himself came from the lower orders but as time went on he was not for action from these lower orders and himself became patronized by wealthy colonists — for a time. Locke one of the bases of the constitution spoke for property.

how it explains how it is and has been so easily possible for a small group of wealthy people to take the reins of US gov’t and military might and direct it to profit themselves ruthlessly and punish and oppress 90% of others so that they submit to small wages, debt no educational opportunity. I had thought, assumed, he would not be a feminist but no chapter 6 is one of the best feminist accounts of how women are still coopted today. His description of how women are manipulated into accepting the position of cherished object to be used as he wills is closely reminiscent to the idealized relationship of Claire and Jamie in Outlander. Uncannily like.

When I’ve finished the chapters on the 19th century (many), I’ll report back again.

Nicholas Dodman (Dr) Attitudes, Emotions, and the Psychology of Cats (the pathos and cruelty of how human beings misunderstand and abuse cats when they have them as pets!).
Saunaura Taylor, Beasts of Burden: Animal and Disability Liberation


Taylor’s Beasts of Burden (part of animal liberation course)

All five have altered my thinking and behavior and even eating habits.

More in my usual line:

Biography and Art

Claire Harman, Charlotte Bronte (magnificent)
Nick Holland, In Search of Anne Bronte (touching and persuasive)
Francis Spalding, Roger Fry, Art and Life (uplifting)
Virginia Woolf, Roger Fry, A Biography (deep psychological portrait supporting philosophical aesthetics)
Whitney Chadwick, Women artists and the 20th century Surreal Movement (importantly dismaying)
Josephine Ross, The Winter Queen (on Elizabeth Stuart of Bohemia)
Hermione Lee, Penelope Fitzgerald and Essays on Biography


Norma Clarke’s Ambitious Heights — you do not read it for the cover

Literary criticism and book history:

Martha Bowden, The Descendants of Waverley
Norma Clarke, Ambitious Heights: Writing, Friendship and Love: The Jewsbury Sisters, Felicia Hemans and Jane Welsh Carlyle
Richard Todd, Consuming Fictions: The Booker Prize and Fiction in Britain Today

Bowden altered my thinking on historical fiction and romance. Clarke made me understand and read more empathetically women writers of the 19th century; Todd taught me about the fiction industry in the last part of the 20th century. I realize why women artists went into a deep counter-productive era and produced so little of worth in the years from the 1930s from Chadwick


Susan Sontag (Photograph 199 Lynn Gilbert) — I took it as an occasion to read other of her essays

Novels and poetry for the first time:

Susan Sontag, The Volcano Lover
Tolstoy, Anna Karenina
Patricia Fargnoli, Hallowed
Caryl Philips, Cambridge
Elizabeth Strout, Olive Kittredge
Penelope Fitzgerald, The Bookshop
Daphne DuMaurier, The King’s General
Diana Gabaldon, Outlander and Dragonfly in Amber


Caitriona Balfe, opening over-voice for series (“people disappear all the time”) in the autumnal Inverness, gazing into a glass

I cannot speak too highly of Tolstoy, Fargnoli and Sontag. The Volcano Lover is the outstanding novel I read this year. I admired Cambridge for its deep insights into racism, slavery, empire. Diane’s citation of “spectral texts” help explain (not wholly) how irresistible I’m finding these Outlander texts thus far, despite their pernicious valuing of violence, essential frivolity (superficial on war): it’s the bringing back of the ghostly deeply loved presence, the past come to life, and 1950s style feminocentric dream over-voice over and over that rivets me.

Rereading non-fiction and fiction:

Richard Holmes, Dr Johnson and Mr Savage
Paul Scott, Staying On
Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall
Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse

I seemed to be reading them for the first time. Holmes has yet to fail me.

As to movies, five of the Anna Karenina films (of which more and Tolstoy anon), The Handmaid’s Tale (very hard to watch and alas truer than people will admit) and (as a result of Culloden, going to Scottish highlands) the spectacularly well-made Outlander (into its third season); The Crown (I admit it), several films I saw as a result of my summer film club; Kedi (documentary on the cats of Istanbul); and now a few extraordinary films from a course in the history and aesthetics of film, so see I had better post separately on movies.


The second season started today and I look forward to what Emily Nussbaum has to say: Claire Foy has become another favorite actress for me

Ellen