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Del (Brian Dennehy) and Cody (Lucas Jaye) companionable silence on Del’s front porch (Driveways, 2019, Andrew Ahn)


Dr Daniel Larcher (Robin Renucci) on trial (A French Village, Season 6)

Dear friends and readers,

It’s not that I’m not reading a number of books (if you are wondering why no postings on individual good books for some weeks now), but that I am reading so many I have a hard time getting to the end of any particular one. A more positive reason for another blog on on-line movies is I worry one will disappear from the on-line theaters and I want to put together the rest of my thoughts on the other before re-watching all seven seasons once again.


Kathy (Hong Chau), mother of Cody (Driveways)

Driveways is a suggestive title: the inference of the use of driveways for human encounters in the story is that the US has become a place where opportunities for entering the general community are so rare, space for public interaction so distrustful and therefore fraught, that driveways become a major artery to the uncompanioned heart. The US as shown in this film fosters aloneness through a lack of social structures. You have constantly to be on the move, or it doesn’t matter where you live as you connect through the ubiquitous Internet (for which however you must have electricity). For old people a bare bingo place with rigid rules; for the young a noisy neon-lit darkened areas. Junk food everywhere, what people eat not quite recognizable as food. OTOH, many of the driveways are double and it could be suggested that all these driveways keep people apart as they have little way of meeting one another as they jump in and out of their cars.

We’re given a touching, intelligent, quiet – not improbable pair of stories. Yes this favored sentimental trope of the boy (rarely if ever a girl) at the center finds a kindly father-brother figures, but unlike many such stories, all the circumstances surrounding their relationship do not flinch from realities. Among the non-flinching is at the end the old man is going to live in a unit far away because it is actually the best thing for him to maintain independence and get some care from someone who can be relied on – his daughter, said to be a judge. It’s too far for Cody and his mother, Kathy, to even visit Del. The theme of the movie is not friendship or kindness; it’s that in their situation friendship and kindness is a kind of band-aid that helps pass the time fleetingly but cannot keep people together. Although the story is set in New York State we are never told the name of the town;. I thought that was to suggest this is Everywhere bourgeois America. It’s the situation all are in that’s the core of the story’s narrative.


Driving together — she offers to drive Del to where he needs to go

A single mother – in a flashback we see how she met the father – in a shooting gallery, a bar – he phones her once and it’s clear she wants nothing to do with him nor does he know much about her. And displaced son. Remarkably controlled and effective performances from Hong Chau as Kathy and Lucas Jaye as her 8 year old son. Across the way an aging not well man, widower, who is dependent on others to drive him places, Del, the rightly much respected admired Brian Dennehy – still remembered for his conception and realization of Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman, also in Long Day’s Journey into Night & other such plays. I never saw them but read he played the role of Willy as hard, brash, real mean on the surface — and also originally successful. The two reviews I read (Ebert.com and NY Times) said he made long career by being the authority figure male. So he is here, but now in tender vein, sensitive mode.

Kathy is cleaning out her dead sister’s house which she must do before the real estate person will sell it for her. A big deal is made over how much stuff the sister had – why not? She lived her life and expressed herself through what she gathered — I have a lot of stuff, a nest of comforts all around me — but it does seem as if life literally overwhelmed her. Her cat died and she never noticed. Kathy brings the unfortunate animal out in a plastic black garbage bag but Cody, determined to provide some dignity for the creature, is helped by Del to bury it. Kathy’s job not one to make for connections or rootedness. She writes up medical reports sent her. She need not be anywhere near anybody – it’s also tenuous too probably.

So no one to have a birthday party with – mother and son rescued by the old man in the bingo place and what Tennessee Williams called the Kindness of Strangers. The old man’s happiest memories bound up with his experiences of the Korean war, friends he made there. That says a lot about the US too.

Both reviews complained the film was understated. Well, what a relief. The problem with Fisherman’s Friends was it was forced, forced situations, hyped up exhilaration. You’re at risk of not being pulled in, said another critic.  Right. The film didn’t have ratcheted up melodramatic high points, but its moments of understanding and quiet respect shine out. Del’s long eloquent speech at closure about his regret over opportunities lost, his life too hurried over is then its high point – and the lows, quiet depths, like in the flashback where we see Kathy walk away from said probable father with a lie, are given space and feel.

For me the worst was the humor I was supposed to feel at the transparent ignorance of the nearby white neighbor, Linda (Christine Ebersole). A nosy-body and unconscious racist. I wasn’t amused but I suppose there’s something farcical in how she mistakes fireworks set off by her own bullying son for a terrorist attack. She does make the boy apologize – we can say that for the character.


The library provides rare community space for people to be together.

It’s probably not a film that transcends in any way — except maybe Dennehy’s final eloquence. The movie had so many intriguing differently arranged shots: in the car, suddenly from on high, odd angles. It’s artful.   The producer’s name that comes first is James Schamus. He has had a long career of fine and often low budget movies: with Ang Lee (Taiwanese) a long while back Eat Drink Man Woman, Sense and Sensibility, The Ice Storm, Ride like the Devil. The writers Hannah Bros and Paul Thurteen say in the feature they were reflecting incidents in their own lives. The message: the devastation of the US economy and social life as a result of unmodified disaster capitalism has turned lives into bleak minimal encounters uplifted by rare spirits with kindness and needed friendship meeting now and again.

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Hortense Larcher (Audrey Fleurot) humiliated by chopping off her hair for having had an affair with a Nazi male (this was done to women in France in 1945)

I’ve now written twice about A French Village, probably more times in passing, but in more detailed way just twice, about the opening two seasons (years, 12-13 episodes each in the DVD arrangement) and then seasons three to four (Scroll down). I’ve been so moved and taught so much by seasons 5-7 I want for a third time to convey something of this experience you should not miss.

Season 5: It opens with an ironic title: Paris is liberated. What happens is what when once it is apparent the hideous people in charge during a war are losing, will lose, and may end up killed, all hell breaks loose and no one is safe. People begin killing individualistically. War is a time when killing is allowed, even encouraged, worse gloried in. So these Nazis go about now carrying on last minute spiteful killing (as it were). We see one sadist bully a young officer into shooting to death two children. The collaborators are busy trying more openly to get the Resistance people to help them. People are fleeing who can and are amoral; suddenly many care nothing for relationship or the place. It’s not an original insight but it is courageous and good and salutary of this group of film-makers to show us this happening. This is so rare. It is deeply anti-war.


Marie Germaine

In episode 3 another major character is killed — hung — I saw it coming, or worried about the character, Marie Germaine (Nade Dieu). What is again brilliant is with how much depth she was seen, how unsentimental the depiction — maybe that’s why the stories feel so exemplary. Now I see that Marie was too alone, too solitary and too determined. Raymond Schwartz her first lover (and the chief male star of the series as far as the French TV audience is concerned, Thierry Godard) long ago estranged sort of, but now back with Marie, driven to be in the Resistance – his wife attached herself to a chief collaborator who became the new mayor, but in the dangerous mayhem now ensuing executed as an “example.” So don’t be a collaborator if your idea is to save yourself. We witness a horrifically cruel spiteful scene; just before they leave the Nazis hang 5 men in front of the villagers, many of whom are related. Marie is beginning to, Raymond suddenly declares, take too many risks, and as with real people I’m now seeing that she was too determined, frantic almost to blow up the bridge. (In these war movies one side or other is ever trying to blow up a bridge — this happens in War and Peace.) She risks her life for this symbol under fire to reach a connective wire and Raymond pulls her back. She then flees because she says she must contact someone else. She should have stayed with her companions.

She is unexpectedly captured, and about to be shot, but events turn, and turn again and what happens is she lands under guard with the occasionally remorseful but also brutal Jean Marchetti (Nicolas Gob) in charge. He has been guilty before and he has begun to start negotiations, lets people go, but she needles him, curses and calls him coward and drives him to drive his men to hang her. How sudden the whole moment is. How senseless. She had lost perspective. Raymond worried for her, Anselme says how she combines discretion with courage. She forgot her discretion.

I thought about how at the end of a 17th century memoir I’ve read by a Scotswoman on the king’s side who cannot understand how it could be that a minority of people could murder the king. I’ve finally got the answer: all it takes is land in the custody of someone who is lethal with his own rage with a gun and a group of people who will obey him.

I began to feel for people I thought I couldn’t -l Heinrich Muller (Richard Sammet) the Sadistic Nazi officer flees with Hortense and they are behaving like Tristan and Isolde — just about — or Jamie and Claire Fraser (Outlander)

I never fully imagined what the scenes must be in war zones just as one side declares victory and the other defeat — from somewhere else, as it must be a particular places or places that such things are declared. I should say some characters manage to keep some minimum of morality intact. Interestingly beyond Dr Larcher (we expect this but he is more honest now as to why he collaborated) and the hero of the parade Antoine (Martin Loizillon). There is an attempt of the cooler heads to try to return to decent behavior but we see how horrible the need for revenge, for an assertion of some pride turns people into horrible actors. Larcher asks if they can kill all the collaborators? All the militia? On principle, no, but they will kill who they have at the moment …. I became so nervous for the characters I want them to live. Jules Beriot (Francois Loriquet) kills his first person, Kurt, the German man his wife, Lucienne (Marie Kremer) now openly prefers to him; Beriot smothers the half burnt sufferer to death. At the ball he had been the same merry cheerful man we met in the second season. Old relationships and new re-assert themselves; at the same time, people turning on one another. Larcher had sound real plan for town and Beriot would have been the mayor, but they are not allowed; they are not perceived as powerful enough. Antoine, now the police chief, arrests Marchetti (neat ironical reversal), Rita (Marchetti’s Jewish love, Axelle Maricq) gone missing


Now Suzanne, Antoine and Anselme (guerilla fighter, farmer-peasant, Bernard Blancan) elevated briefly as judges in trial meant to justify executing the French who acted as militia for the Nazis

Season 6: This is for me continually educational. In this light the experience is superior to most books — this is rare for a film. Season 5 we see how many relationships fall apart, how few people seem to have learned any humanity or understanding of what justice is after years of living under vindictive injustice. They are meting out to others who were often not responsible or on lower rungs what was meted out to them. Now the war is definitely finished, people back to civilian life so traits that had been valued by people in war no longer are no longer — so Antoine is no longer valued as he is working class, even especially as he is a man of integrity. The old hierarchical relationships spring up again. Marie Germain herself left a thug of a son, Raoul, who kills indiscriminately to avenge her (so he claims); she was surrounded by unthinking uneducated people. It’s a matter of chance who is punished, who not. Unexpected bad results: Gustave (Maxim Driesen), Marcel Larcher’s beloved son, Daniel’s beloved nephew, growing up, is in danger of becoming a criminal as he has taken up with angry young men who are genuinely bad people. Our favorites even behave badly under the pressure of other behaving unfairly: Beriot now all ambition, cold and mean to Lucienne (weary of failing to make her love him). A rare spirit of consistent humanitarianism and usefulness and reason is Dr Larcher.


Beriot in effect tries to rise above his station as principal or teacher — but finds he cannot

Larcher makes another moving speech about truth but it doesn’t help; he is not executed but “merely” dishonored. It is noteworthy that Marchetti, as we first see him is an ambitious man looking to be promoted and in class below the Larchers. His willingness to be brutal, to kill and his leadership qualities (like Antoine) leads him to be put at the head of the Villeneuve police for the Vichy gov’t. Servier who is executed for making up a list of 20 and cutting it down to 10 — was a nobody, a child who followed others — and he had married up, an arranged marriage.


The phony ceremony

The sixth season shows a remarkable innovation: We are used to flashbacks where people remember the dead. The innovation is these memories are scenes we were not privy to in the earlier parts of the movie mostly: no, thes were memories we didn’t know the character had. So it meant the actors are called back to act again, but now as haunting and haunted figures, memories evoked by the new lies everyone is determined to tell – about who was a resister, who not. Antoine sees Claude, his friend who he was forced to desert to save himself and others, walking about the phony ceremony which excludes communists (to thank the Resisters). We see how immediately all communists are excluded even if it means completely distorting who the Resisters were — there is a refusal to commemorate them. No Marcher Larcher street because he was a communist.


Jeannine threatening Raymond

They even all go back to the kinds of people they were only writ large, desperate. Lucienne takes to emotionally torturing a priest who we see emotionally twists her. Strong anti-catholicism there. Last seen poor Raymond Schwartz is frantically shagging his wife, Jeannine away. He has in him a good deal to be better as we see from what he has to say — “do you realize so many died” to his amoral imbecile egregiously snobbish wife (Jeanine’s father is never seen; it’s his power and money that sustain her — Emmanuelle Bach) — but he seem unable to rid of him of the connection because he wants to be the Big Businessman. One of the four resisters Antoine had to desert is forever maimed mentally — in an asylum — a sweet man. Hortense goes out to buy herself many hats and is last seen trying them all on. We do learn (flashback that informs us of something hew) she was a miserably abused child.

The Americans are angry it seems since one of theirs was murdered by Gustave who enters the adult world this way. I’ve seen a number of movies and read plays where one of a group of rebels insists that one of the members kill himself to prove himself. So deep does bullying and the ability to withstand or obey it go deep into human grouping. Who would be part of a group then. There are no features but my guess is anonymous letters such as we see here were common after the war — people destroying others out of seething destructive emotions.


Raymond receiving an anonymous poisoned letter

The film does justice done to how women are still treated. Genevieve (sister to the man who was coerced into murdering children (he could have been shot had he not done it) and was then brutally mocked and hanged — Genevieve is raped while Antoine is gone. At first Antoine distrusts her! — did she want it? they go to the police station and there is Alain Loriot (Olivier Soler) still in charge; he treats her like a suspect; only Antoine’s insistence (the male) makes Loriot file a complaint. Later when the trial comes on it appears a black man was blamed, and he did not rape her. She is offered 30,000 francs to drop the case and she does, thus enabling Antoine to escape Jeannine’s bullying of Raymond and the strike. He and Genevieve will live out their lives in peace as farmers with a family of children.


Marcher Larcher (Fabrizio Rongione) and Gustave as a child brought back as memories

The last 7th season: shorter than the others. It goes back and forth in time: sometimes we are in 1946-46, then in 1975, and last in 2001. But somehow coherence is kept and we know where we are, and thus the stories are condensed but given full depth. Several of our characters are now living hard lives –- fast forward they are very old and state still refusing to care for them; from being exploited driven at sawmill, to striking. 1975 Beriot and Lucienne hate one another and she pours poison into his wine; Larcher and Hortense don’t get along but it is not a matter of hatred; she is ill, he is so hurt; Tequiero, grown up (the baby they stole and then adopted) is an oddly estranged man – he too will not forgive Larcher. The story of the Larchers is still a mainstay: what happens is Hortense has a nervous breakdown and has angry delusions, is spiteful and Larcher is finally driven to put her in an asylum where she is badly treated; when he pulls her out he discovers that his business has been destroyed by the verdict; few will come to him for doctoring and so they move to Paris; as the episode begins they have returned to exhibit her art (Larcher ever kind) and he meets once again Gustave grown old. Leonor has left him. Tequiero never left the village.

Jeannine the hateful fascist-type still; Raymond trying to reach yet another woman … sometimes they’ve aged the actor and sometimes they seem to have hired another who looks very like the younger man (hard to tell). The two Jewish people (one Rita, who loved Marchetti after all and is with him when he dies from the poison she brings him so he will not have to face a firing squad) Rita and the Jewish man who survived so luckily are murdered in the earliest phases of Jewish occupation of Israel. Many return to mild or strong corruption – some yield immediately others hold out or try to – hold out include Raymond, Suzanne, Edmond (a communist leader), Loriot, Larcher is ignorant of Hortense’s misery when he puts her in asylum for a month – horrible treatment, pulverizing her to get her to obey society – repeatedly motif is that a letter or info does not get to Larcher. When he does realize only a life where he had authority teaches him how to threaten in the effective way and extract her.


Lucienne and Beriot are the same actors aged enormously; Francoise their daughter (actually Kurt’s) now takes care of them at intervals; she pushes his wheelchair

The technique of using as flashbacks things that occurred in the past that we didn’t see is brilliant. I wondered why no one else does this. We catch up with old stories. The actors come on again. And they use tiny things to reassure. We think finally some husband is about to kill Raymond in 1975 but then in the last moments of the series, a note arrives from Raymond (it’s not 2001) apologizing for not coming to Hortense’s funeral so we know he survived and we do not need to see him. We know who and what he is and he will not have changed. Antoine, another hero who rescues Anselme from becoming the town drunk — last seen in a govt’ office trying to get money to help Genevieve, who now has Alzheimers. No one will help him because he hasn’t got the documentation. He has a heart attack and we last see him in a hospital. We continually witness later in life lives are not rounded out happily as they are just about all the time in fast forwards.


Larcher and Hortense are the same actors made much older

In the 7th season we have several encounters with the communists or non-communist resisters and they say over and over, did we do this to have this tin-pot second rate general in charge? Who is de Gaulle? where was he for the four years? And we see the French state not changed at all — I mentioned Antoine can’t get help for his aging wife. Most telling is those who were police in the Vichy era and didn’t like it (DeKevern) turn to be police in the de Gaulle era and their behavior every bit as amoral, maybe more so, more ruthless, less compunction. DeKevern is a much worse man without Judith (who died so long ago now) by his side. In reaction to the strike, they send in riot police. Raymond Schwartz tries to fix a compromise but his wife sabotages it and the communists and resisters want the strike to build themselves up. Suzanne then does emerge as an intelligent heroine (you see her as the one woman on councils) and arranges a negotiation. But Edmond, the leader, lies and — since he as the man is phoned — the police come. Had this been the US, I’m sure there’d have been a massacre. But individuals, Raymond especially active and listened to, manages to cool things done, assert in place they have an agreement — Anselme is killed because like Marie he has lost all perspective. The Nazi officer,  Muller, is last seen working for the CIA again torturing people. But someone, a woman gets lose, and I think manages to shot him dead in the face.

In the back and forth we see how Hortense has driven Larcher beyond coping with her. She puts the boy into a closet, locks him in, and he knows could ruin the story of Santa for him (how guilty that made me feel — but also that others have done this). So he puts her in an asylum; he thinks she spitefully lied to tell him Sarah had died; the Jewish maid whom he says is the only person who ever loved him. But he learns the story was in fact true.


The parade (end of 4th season) in memory becomes a cherished moment of their existences, a high point of courage and identity

I was deeply moved by the final close: at the end the our central true hero, Dr Larcher dies — he is very old. It’s supposed to be 2001. His adopted son, Tequiero and Gustave, now men in their thirties attempt to solace him and say they will visit and he is to come to them now Hortense has died. They leave and we see him puttering about, but he has a bad memory, and then a heart attack, writhes, falls to the ground. His brother comes to him in a vision and tells him something he did as a child was noble. He has been a noble spirit throughout — human with failings, trying his best, sometimes very blind — someone says of him in this last hour he could enter into other people’s cases — the thing is in the series we see how few people can. He walks off at last with Marcel. A vision.

One real reservation; no heroine in the series comes near either Larcher or Beriot (most of the time) or Antoine.  The values we are most to value throughout intelligence, self-control, steadiness, calm, altruism, a real distrust for violence, individual integrity.  Among the women, Marie Germaine comes closest, but she dies too young and she is too thoughtless, impulsive, she (we are made to feel), should have stayed by the side of Raymond towards the end where she would have been safe. That says it all. The good women are the ones who want to be and are faithful wives. In the end Lucienne is — she tried but we discover failed to poison Beriot. And her last words are: I was there – at the parade. The parade is the great memory of everyone’s lives.


Marchetti trying to help Suzanne Richard (Constance Dolle) as communist resister

Suzanne comes near but her activity as a communist is not sympathized with. After all, as a whole, the series does justice to the communists — I had not realized how many of the resistance people were communist and the series shows how communists were sidelined, repressed — done in.  But Suzanne will not only murder in hot rages, just throws off her husband, has several lovers, she eggs others on to kill in revenge. Those women who are very active are criticized as promiscuous or mean.  So the series is I’d say, if not misogynist or anti-feminist, definitely masculinist in its outlook. All sorts of things revealed, among them many women at the end of the occupation were shattered — some ended up in awful asylums, treated horribly, shocked and starved to death. Never take anyone to an asylum (like almost never call a cop) say I.


One of several trailers — this for the 6th season into 7th

I shall start watching from the beginning tomorrow night. It’s like a huge complex novel.

Now I have the companion book too – In French from French Amazon, a hardback cost less than the paperback – I didn’t see an ebook. It’s a beautiful book, sewn, on art paper, glorious pictures. Lots of information about the occupation — and explanations for the stories I didn’t understand, what many characters and events stood for. I got a used copy — hardbacks come cheaper than paperbacks once the books is used. Names of everyone, and in most cases the name of the actor/actress. The moving spirits, the historians, film-makers, diplomats, script writers, all named: centrally the film was shaped by Jean-Pierre Aczema, a historian. I hope, gentle reader, you have learned something from all three postings on this remarkable French TV series.


The companion book for the series

Ellen


John Lewis as Congressman not long ago

Good Trouble: its value is it shows the courage, bravery and real intelligence of John Lewis and brings together through flashback and forward what a horrific struggle and sacrifice it was to get the vote finally for African-Americans, with the Civil Rights Voting Act of 1965, and at the same time how this right, almost upon the gutting of the bill, was immediately challenged, threatened, eroded and the suppression of black and other poor people’s votes has led directly to the election of the Geogian governor and Trump. The footage shows Lewis as a young man, his hard life. It also centers on Lewis as a man enacting non-violence. I did not know how closely he aligned himself with non-violence as a technique for advancing reform – together of course with demonstrations and protests (just now the Trump administration is accusing another group of people of felonies with sentences of 40 years who were protesting something).


Ella Fitzgerald singing her heart out & below a famous rendition of Mack the Knife where she forgot the words half-way through but who cares?

Then Lin-Manuel Miranda as Alexander Hamilton

I watched Hamilton for the first time as a film on the computer with Izzy (who bought the subscription for the year). It is not a flawless musical (see below) but it transcends its problems, and was a good show to watch on July 4th. Its intentional humanity and the cast of all but one people of color was salutary tonight: here they are, the descendants of the people the powerful named white men and their tamed white women enslaved, exploited, worked to death. After 3 years of Trump opening up before all of us the horrible entrenched racism, violence, and profoundly brutal cruel anti-social autocratic and bigoted religious currents in the people who live in the United States, the cast itself makes an important statement — about a figure hitherto sidelined, the part white, part black genius Alexander Hamilton. And musically and for its wit it’s very interesting

Friends and readers,

Tonight it is no safer (perhaps less safe) to socialize with others than it was two months ago when I wrote my first blog on WFH movie-watching, or 4 and 1/2 months ago when Izzy first started to work from home through her computer, or when we first understood that all were at risk from serious disease to death from COVID19 (Pandemic). Tonight again I have three online films, which differ from the first three because all of them directly relate to the ripping open before us, partly due to the calamities of this pandemic (unemployment, further immiseration and impoverishment), the virulent racism that is at the heart of the way US society has maintained and increased inequality over the last four decades. For the calculated origins watch Heist

For the uses of racism, I recommend listening to or reading the transcripts from interviews by Amy Goodman with Keenaga-Yamahtta Taylor, Cornel West & Bakari Sellers This blog is about the movies, and these issues as they emerge from the movies.

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The best of the three and the one I urge you to see if you’ve not already, Good Trouble.

The film makes central to his story John Lewis’s alignment with non-violence: to understand why he was not assassinated (he was also a secondary character at the time, did not attract the same attention because he was small, young, not a rhetorician), why he won out for one of the few black seats in Georgia at the time over Julian Bond (and thus appeals to white voters) you need to know this. To see and listen to Lewis talk about non-violence tells you about the courage and risks this man took to try to obtain the vote for African-American people. Violence in the US is now a way of expression; punishment is what US society resorts to first, and brutal police who act with impunity its instrument. In the cases of mental illness, drug addiction, all sorts of social problems, the police are called, imprisonment the option. Lewis stands for reasoning, and for improving the lives of all through negotiation, talk, understanding.

The film’s second crucial topic is the vote: we learn of the long hard struggle, of the final signing by Johnson, and then how it did need to be renewed (and was so by George W Bush) — but how it was immediately undermined and is now badly eroded since the Supreme Court gutted it. We see white politicians take office who illegimately win because the votes are suppressed (not enough polling booths, back to demanding documents, to intimidation, throwing votes out). If it has a flaw, it does not sufficiently show what was gained by the vote — or what those voted in by a majority of the people are for. For example, we do see the beginnings of school desegregation but not what having a congressman or woman representing African-American and poorer white people could try to do: instead of entrenched localism, funding of schools through small local areas so the schools in a wealthy area are very good, and the schools in a poor, inadequate, there could and would be attempts through the tax system to equalize funding across a state. Redlining policies which deprive black entrepreneurs of needed loans to start businesses are mentioned. But we don’t hear enough about discrimination in employment.

But it does convey Lewis’s character: his young years in Georgia as a sharecropper’s son, his early studious ways, his joining with Martin Luther King, the beatings he took, and then after the Civil Rights Bill, his first elections and how central he had become in his district. At the close there is a 15 minute recent interview with Oprah Winfrey. Don’t miss this one.

Where you can see it


President Obama presents 2010 Presidential Medal of Freedom to Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., East Room, White House. Proud moment

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Ella Fitzgerald, 1940.

As with Good Trouble, Just One of Those Things covers Fitzgerald’s early life: born in Virginia, in her early years she was an outstanding student (like Lewis), with a talent for and love of dancing; her earliest experiences are shown to be harsh — when her mother died and she was left with a stepfather, she became disturbed in behavior (not mentioned in the film, perhaps her stepfather abused her), was moved to Harlem, and ended in an orphanage and (her nadir) a New York state reformatory. She managed to come out not that damaged, and supported herself by singing in the streets (reminding me of Piaf). The famous moment is when she went on stage at the Apollo theater and instead of dancing, she sang. She was not long after introduced to Chick Webb, bandleader and drummer and she became the singer for their troop. The film then traces her success from the years in Harlem (Harlem Renaissance clubs until 1935), through hard struggles to get on stage (helped by Sinatra and Monroe). Her body shape was held against her; she was not white looking


Photo by Carl Van Vechten

We see her with her son, the house she bought; that there was a estrangement. Norman Ganz was a benevolent mentor. She does seem a lonely woman, perhaps sad, but working hard and ceaselessly. Then her later years, a guest on TV variety shows; live performances in Europe. The film does skim over her relationship with other African-Americans during the Civil Rights era; we move quickly to her growing older, frailer as she develops diabetes. The narrator is Sophie Okonedo, and the people speaking are contemporary singers who see themselves as singing in her tradition. One wishes the film had been made 20 years ago so we would have more of her contemporaries (a review).

My real complaint or objection is we don’t experience her singing enough. So, here is another YouTube, a fifty minute show in Berlin, 1968:

Basically Ella Fitzgerald made her way most of the time on her own, and stayed among African-American people where African-American music was wanted and welcome — went to US cities where they had clubs and singers like Louie Armstrong (New Orleans, Detroit). The film (like the one on John Lewis) was too discreet — both films were unwilling to offend the very audience that used to exclude these people (and to tell the truth, let’s say in schools and neighborhoods still does). So you had to pay attention to pick up hints about how much greater was her acceptance abroad and again how brave she was in maintaining her independence.

Where you can see it

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Of Hamilton let me begin by saying I wanted to like it better and probably my reaction was the result of not seeing it live plus having too high expectations. That I was aware I was watching a movie shows in my regret there are no subtitles.

Miranda’s Hamilton is traditional great man history — though with the important salutary reality that instead of white men playing these roles, people of color today are playing them, the many great-grandchildren of the enslaved women and men owned by these people. British white friends have told me that this switch in races lacks some of the resonance that is felt in the US and so the play wasn’t quite as ecstatically received. It is in fact the usual patriotic history about the colonies, which attributes to the hero’s success, his individual ambition, intelligence, drive, luck, a phenomenal rise in rank. I didn’t like the militarism. Yes in effect duels are criticized, but not by anyone in the play. Hamilton had a son who died this way too. And we watch him grieve, but not learn a lesson. We are not shown that the reason men did this is if someone refused he was for the rest of his life scapegoated, ridiculed, was himself at risk from continual badgering if not more challenges.


Phillipa Soo as Eliza

It was certainly not feminist: the women are all adore the great man, want to bear his child. His wife is presented as spending the rest of her life making him into a saint. Maybe she did. I admit I thought the mockery of Jefferson overdone. Washington was treated with super-respect, and yet he enslaved people. I remember a letter by him where he is inviting another “gentleman” to his house, and tells him of a slave girl the man can have in his bed. Maybe I am overdoing it here, but where are the native Americans?

While I found parts inspired and compelling, giving a new angle, a new twist, I had been led to expect something quite above or different from the kind of show that makes for a Broadway musical hit. It is somewhat different: the hip-hop music, the brilliant rhyming verse, and the reverse of racial/ethnic groups. But stomping kinds of music? I found nothing particularly beautiful, tender; the poignancy came from the acting and at times story. What makes it inspired is the fervor of identification with Hamilton that Miranda conveys.

Miranda read Chernow’s book and took it seriously. He adapted into a musical arguments from treatises, material that is difficult to make a musical out of. Hamilton’s life was spent — a lot of it — was spent writing. There was an attempt at explaining some of the complicated issues. Miranda too offered a strongly pro-immigrant theme, that immigration is the way the US was made, but we should remember the characters on stage were were many of them the bourgeois and rich from the UK. Like many another top-down history, this one tells the tale from the perspective of those in power (men) and the rich (the Schuylers). In a sense its visceral impact lies in substituting the usual white stars for people in the story in power for people of color where refreshingly one could not tell quite who was what ethnicity — and that delights and fools us. It is a musical and as such I was impressed by how tragically it ended and how ironic and satiric it often was. Most musicals are utopian.

To be fair, here is what The Guardian reviewer, Sarah Churchwell, had to say:

Hamilton is the kind of transformative theatrical experience that has only happened a few times in the history of American musicals. It joins the likes of Show Boat, Oklahoma! and West Side Story as game changers, innovative productions that forever redefined what came after them. Unlike most of its predecessors, however, Hamilton was created by one man, Lin‑Manuel Miranda, who wrote the music, lyrics, and book about the musical (only Stephen Sondheim can claim as much, and none of his shows were such blockbusters). Hamilton fuses American history with current politics, using a soundtrack of American popular music and one of the most inventive librettos ever written. The result is that nearly every song in the show works as a complex historical concert, layering musical pasts with the musical present, just as the historical past mingles with the political present …

Miranda had already created a successful musical (In the Heights) when he impulsively decided to read Ron Chernow’s prize-winning biography Alexander Hamilton on holiday (Miranda’s whim has made Chernow, who reportedly gets 1% of Hamilton’s profit, a very wealthy man). Hamilton represents something of an anomaly in American history, a founding father who never transferred from official histories into popular mythology. There are many reasons for this, not least that Hamilton’s positions were incompatible with many of our myths – he was avowedly elitist, for example, and supported the idea of a president for life – while his expansion of the federal government prompted the Whiskey Rebellion of 1794, which he brutally suppressed. Neither of these facts makes it into Miranda’s musical, which is the story of a “young, scrappy and hungry” immigrant from the West Indies who became the quintessential American success story through a combination of brains, hard work and audacity. Miranda creates a myth for Hamilton by celebrating him as a symbol of immigrant inclusiveness, egalitarianism and meritocracy: historically it’s a stretch, but theatrically it’s genius.

Eventually Hamilton became a hero of the American revolution, George Washington’s right-hand man, the nation’s first secretary of the treasury, the co-author (with James Madison) of The Federalist Papers, and the primary proponent for federal government over state government. He argued for a national bank, created the national reserve as well as the national debt, and laid the foundations for the US’s economic success. His dramatic life came to a melodramatic end when he was killed in a duel by the sitting vice president, Aaron Burr. And yet, despite all these achievements and dramas, Hamilton has been marginalised by most popular accounts of American history. Washington, Jefferson, John Adams have been the subject of countless books, films, miniseries and even their own popular musical, 1776. But 1776, which tells the story of the battle over writing the Declaration of Independence, does not even mention Hamilton …

Yes he has been left out because he was mulatto, and Miranda identified. As Hilary Mantel has changed the way historians understand and write about Thomas Cromwell (Wolf Hall), so since this musical Hamilton is quoted, described, become part of US central revolutionary and constitutional history once again.

Again from The Guardian: Hamilton … explor[es] mainstream history through the music of subcultures. Lines about racism from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific (“you’ve got to be carefully taught”) rub shoulders with Busta Rhymes; Sondheim’s experiments in perspective from Pacific Overtures meet Snoop Dogg. There is a running gag about Adams, in which Miranda riffs on 1776; its opening number is the resounding “Sit Down, John!” in which the Continental Congress tells him to shut up. Miranda is doing the same, telling Adams and the Anglocentric American history he embodies to step aside. He sidelines Adams, waiting until the second act to mention him, and then has Hamilton sing, “Sit down, John, you fat motherfucker!” Less explicit (in every sense) is Miranda’s decision to give Hamilton a signature refrain – “I will never be satisfied” — that echoes Adams’s line from 1776, “I have always been dissatisfied, I know that.”

Miranda’s lyrics are dizzying: he rhymes Socrates with mediocrities, before linking manumission, abolition and ammunition. Gilbert and Sullivan are not only sampled, they are schooled; Miranda gleefully told a journalist he felt he’d improved the rhyme in Gilbert’s famous patter, which becomes George Washington’s rap: “Now I’m the model of a modern major general / The venerated Virginian veteran whose men are all / Lining up, to put me up on a pedestal.” Puns abound with the exuberant energy of a word-drunk writer: “Local merchants deny us equipment, assistance / They only take British money, so sing a song of sixpence.”


Daveed Diggs — in one of many exhilarating moments

More reviews: the New York Times, fact-checking, and problems with the movie, e.g., we lose the POV of Burke, and it feels complacent: Alissa Wilkinson of Vox

I’m sure I’d like it better if I read books on Alexander Hamilton and then watched and re-watched to pick up the subtleties, nuances of the dialogue and genuine arguments on behalf of this or that measure, which are brought into the play script. I’m probably just now so exacerbated, irritated, jaundiced (from the present regime) that I want other ways of remembering history beyond great men and who did what violence to whom. What has made me so welcoming to the documentaries on Lewis and Fitzgerald has made me have a hard time accepting another male-centered musical with a central train of violence and heterosexual sex, Hamilton.

Alas, perhaps perversely I remembered Eileen Power’s Medieval People and Medieval Women.


The Magdalene Reading by Van der Weyden, 1445 (from the cover)

Ellen


No these are not dogs practicing social distancing ….

I’ve written a companion piece to my blog on cat stories, cat pictures, and a literature about cats: I make the case that dogs have been used and depicted, especially in fiction and legend as examples making a strong case for animal rights, their animal’s consciousness as somehow equivalent to people … Stories about dogs are focuses in the development of feelings and arguments on behalf of abolishing cruelty, respecting animals as we would want to be respected …. The second half I go into wonderful later 19th century novels, stories for children, and then recently a new breed which is non-fiction meant for adults, not sentimental sometimes with the dog as POV — from Woolf’s “Gypsy, a mongrel,” to Auster’s Timbuktu (about a dog living with a homeless man who is dying, both of them poignantly worried about the near future), to Garnett’s Lady into Fox, and finally Ackerley’s My Dog Tulip and the wonderful animated film.


A photograph of Ackerley’s female German shepherd, Queenie, re-named Tulip in the memoir

What strained and anxious lives dogs must lead, so emotionally involved in the world of humans, whose affections they strive endlessly to secure, whose authority they are expected unquestioningly to obey, and whose mind they never can do more than imperfectly reach and comprehend. Stupidly loved, stupidly hated, acquired without thought, reared and ruled without understanding, passed on or “put to sleep” without care, did they, I wondered, these descendants of the creatures who, thousands of years ago in the primeval forests, laid siege to the heart of man, took him under their protection, tried to tame him, and failed — did they suffer headaches? — from Fierlinger’s animated masterpiece film My Dog Tulip

Dear friends and readers.

Here is a companion piece to my Cat stories, cat pictures, cat poetry: there is a literature of cats (no those cats are not practicing social distancing), though the two do not quite correspond. In cat stories I tried to single out what distinguishes the way people write about cats, especially when the cat is your pet, from the way they write about pets and animals in general, some quality and feeling evidenced in the stories (as admiration for them in situations where it’s a question of endurance, understanding, something that provokes resilience, resourcefulness, a stalwart demeanor, at the time time as having the tenderest fondness for them as adorably affectionate). I also cited scholarly studies of art and poetry about cats.

In this blog I am not going to single out a dog’s or dog traits because so far as I can tell stories about dogs, photos, art do not marvel at this animal nor have I to hand (because I have not read) a history of the depiction of dogs (I think it would be long). Instead I mean to make the case that they have been used and depicted, especially in fiction and legend as examples making a strong case for animal rights, their animal’s consciousness as somehow equivalent to people. I think of how Montaigne wrote of a dog coming to a crossroads, and having to decide which was to go next, “the dog discourseth to itself thus … “. Stories about dogs are focuses in the development of feelings and arguments on behalf of abolishing cruelty, respecting animals as we would want to be respected. Why? because they publicly, shamelessly love us, yearn for us, are faithful, hard-working, constant, single-hearted, incorruptible. They deserve rights …


An ancient Roman mosaic

I begin with the earliest part of human history: non-human animals often pictured on caves, usually ones people hunted, religious rituals where animals signal aspects of humanity people want to develop, admire, increase, and so ingest – where the earliest dogs are pictured as companions, fellow hunters, with men as the leader of the pack. Unlike early cat pictures, these are about human beings: people using animals to define themselves, caring about animals insofar as they relate to us, aid us, are our friends. The second early manifestation I’ll mention is an opposing kind: satire, the beast fable, Aesop’s fables which are satiric classical stories: you reduce people to animals to expose us. Chicken Little an American story, the ant and the grasshopper (I’m with the grasshopper and think the ant a self-righteous prig), fox and grapes – many many of these, all with morals, sometimes ironic. Are any of these about dogs? One 18th century anomalous novel is: Francis Coventry’s Pompey the Little, or the Life and adventures of a Lapdog. It is a bitter send-up of humanity, a variation on the “it-story” so favored by semi-pornographers of the era (stories where a sofa tells all, a necklace), except (significantly) the dog is given a consciousness, becomes narrator and will worry human-like questions, for example, is a dog property? is owning a dog wrong? Alas, Coventry never takes this far enough to be an abolitionist of slavery. The form of beast fable, Aesop tale (as in the brilliant poetry of La Fontaine) did have a resurgence in the 18th century, but its concern is not non-human animals but people.

It’s when you begin to find depictions of a dog saving people, of their attachment to us, and ours to them, we begin to see the turn taken towards the development of animal rights — Edward Landseer made a career out of this: if you click, you’ll find as many pictures of people with horses as dogs


Attachment (1892) – he was a foremost animal painter in the 19th century, specializing in dogs

There is more than a core truth about this focus: it is the center of Ackerley’s brilliant 1956 My Dog Ackerley — continually Tulip fixes our hero with her “anxious bright eyes.”

This is also the core of the 1970s poignant also somewhat comic tale by Paul Auster, Timbuktu about Mr Bones, who loves his master dearly, accompanies Willy G. Christmas, a homeless mentally disabled man everywhere, with his (the dog’s) heart-breaking because Willy is dying. Willy’s mission is to find an English teacher he last communicated with shortly after leaving college, who encouraged and respected him: they are seeking out a 20 year old address in Baltimore in the hope she will take Mr Bones in, for Willy fears for Mr Bones’s life and spends much time warning him to stay away from “shelter” people. Meanwhile Mr Bones has gathered there is an afterlife called Timbuktu and Mr Bones fears he will not be able to get in.  What Auster does is imitate the state of mind he imagines that a homeless person must know — loinliness, aimlessness, coming near death through accidents, alienation — and mate that to Mr Bones’s faithful loving state of mind. Half-way through Mr Bones dies (in a half-dream sequence) and Mr Bones is on his own: we are into a (to me) deeply engaging picaro narrative invested with extraordinary depth.  The dog tried to kill a pigeon in order not to starve but does not know how.  Eventually he feeds on thrown away ice–creams, garbage. Just before taken in by a boy (first adventure) he begins to howl. Piercing unforgettable moment.

I think of how I’ve watched a psychiatrist succeed in communicating with a withdraw child by taking out an animal puppet who is reminiscent of a dog. Not threatening. So early on in children’s literature (in Dickens, as in the disabled Barnaby Rudge and his raven), there is deep camaraderie in a child and his or her dog — and animals are made to talk.


Barnaby and his Raven by Fred Barnard

By the later 19th century when fine literature for children emerges beautiful tales: usually the animal is badly oppressed or abused and child loves her and the animal the child: so Anna Sewell about cruelty to a horse in Black Beauty (often a horse substitutes for a dog, or vice versa), or Wilson Rawls on two faithful loving dogs and a boy (Where the Red Fern Grows – socialist really, pro Indian). A Canadian early classic, Margaret Saunders’s Beautiful Joe about a real dog who endured terrible cruelty – as many non-human animals do.

Behind this a history of people in the Enlightenment first valuing non-human animals for themselves, keeping them as pets, companions, and legislation for animal rights – they are still owned by people and people have complete control. Earliest legislation on behalf of the dreadfully badly treated horse. People don’t want to hear what happens to make a horse race. Kathryn Shevelow’s book For the Love of Animals traces the rise of the animal proection movement memorably. We have not solved the problem of stopping human beings being cruel to animals for fun, torturing animals to madden and terrify them. No rooster was born with a steel spurs in its head (as Winston Graham’s Demelza tells Ross Poldark in Poldark) — Graham’s books manifest a real identification with and concern for all animals’ vulnerability.

For longer than the last half-century, a specialty in animals studies is the woman scientist who goes to live with a group of animals to study and observe them — from Jane Goodall’s wonderful books about her 30+ years with chimpanzees, to Diane Fossey with gorillas, Birute Gildikas with orangutans, and lesser known, Sy Mongomery’s several studies, e.g., Walking with Great Apes. Women are willing to give up their ego and identity to be with the animal. Sooner or later, they take on the role of protector.

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This was what I found myself developing when I sought to introduce the peculiar take of the Bloomsbury circles when they came to write memoirs of pets and about animals — as context for Ackerley’s peculiar memoir. As usual, they took angles that led to new insights — or so they tried to. They wrote wrote pro-animal imaginative literature for adults that is not sentimental. Or they try not to be. It is not instructional: Elizabeth Marshall Thomas writes books about the nature of dogs and how you take of them, ditto for cats. You don’t read My Dog Tulip, or Francis Power Cobbe’s The Confessions of a Lost Dog, Woolf’s Flush, a biography; or David Garnett’s Lady Into Fox or the recent Paul Auster’s Timbuktu (see above) for advice on how to take care of your dog. All of them are about us too, about our nature, and how we are aligned to, closely related to animals, they are critiques of us, our society through the animal’s life and personality alongside of and observing us.


The earliest edition of Flush: A biography resembled the layout and picture of Cobbe’s dog and book

Earliest version of this comes before the Bloomsbury 1910 date:

by Francis Power Cobbe, an important suffragette, who was among the first to try to stop useless and cruel animal experiments, especially vivisection, the use of animals for experiments; her slender novella anticipates Woolf’s Flush, and I would be much surprised if Woolf had not read Hajjin’s story. The Confessions of a Lost Dog include being taken in by a very genteel controlled single lady, and both have as the central incident how the dog is kidnapped held up for ransom, mistreated and nearly killed. Because that happened a lot in Victorian England. Cobbe also wrote non-fiction, “The Consciousness of Dogs” (Quarterly Review), then “Dogs I have Met,” which dogs have sometimes had very bad times (boys’ careless cruelty, eminent scientist’s’ deliberate torture, a man who kept a rat pit in Paddington and aristocrats shooting pigeons sprung from traps).

Flush was a present from Sackville-West; and Woolf’s book is a researched biography of both Elizabeth Barrett Browning and her dog, from a dog’s point of view insofar as Woolf could do it. There are letters, documents, and Woolf is brilliant at not overstepping so that the dog somehow understands others the way a dog might (not through language). I taught the book as a canonical modernist biography. To this I have added (for the class I’m teaching) from Woolf’s The Complete Fiction, a touching short fictional memoir,

“Gypsy, a mongrel,” about Tom Bagot’s memories of a dog he loved, whom he tried to kill and could not (because of the way she looked into his eyes and grinned), who was a burden, bothering the cats, getting into mischief, but then falling in love (it seems) with a pedigree male, Hector, and when Hector was removed (as too much of a burden) so pined for him, that she disappeared one day in search of him. The retrospective memoir begins after Gypsy has vanished and is by turns poignant and funny.

Woolf had a dog who one day just disappeared.

Then there’s Bunny or David Garnett’s (yes he is Constance Garnett the translator’s son) Lady Into Fox.

It is a chilling book (not horrifying in the way of Kafka’s Metamorphosis where a man wakes up one morning to find he’s become a cockroach in body). One morning the narrator’s wife wakes to find herself become a fox. The first thing Garnett has to do is kill two perfectly fine dogs lest they kill his wife — we feel these as murder. She is regarded by all the world as vermin, as there to be killed. Gradually her eyes and whole demeanor become less and less human woman, more and more a fox as she mingles with other foxes, has a liter. Our narrator tries to become fox-like too Doesn’t work. He is not accepted. The book has a tragically felt ending.

It is sometimes printed with Garnett’s The People in the Zoo (in this one you see the original origin of animal literature in the satiric beast fable.)

So to come to Ackerley’s comic masterpiece; he might be said not to practice so much as to undermine the dog memoir. It is a love story, the story of his devotion to his female German shepherd whom he wants to have full life – not to miss out on anything, and that means for him, mating, sex, pups. As told it is surely a man’s idea of what sex is, and the obsessiveness of the quest (and graphically told failures) reveal Ackerley’s purpose as also to make fun of heterosexual sentimentalities about sex and marriage (as well as homosexual ones). As in portrait biographies, we also learn as much about Ackerley as Tulip. The humor is exquisite: it’s a matter of language and tone: our narrator is every so polite and impeccable, very dignified in the language he chooses; also startling and inventive: he began to think he had an “undoctorable dog.” He shows the cruelty indifference and urge to master and make others bend to your will in how many owners treat their ever so yearning dogs. I began to realize how many dogs might be emotionally abused.

Here is Dean Flower from the Hudson Review:

As he put it in his autobiography, My Father and Myself, “peace and contentment reached me in the shape of an animal, an Alsatian bitch … [who] entered my life . . . and entirely transformed it”:

She offered me what I had never found in my sexual life, constant, single-hearted, incorruptible, uncritical devotion, which it is in the nature of dogs to offer. She placed herself entirely under my control.

From the moment she established herself in my heart and home, obsession with sex fell wholly away from me. The pubs I had spent much of my time in were never revisited, my single desire was to get back to her, to her waiting love and unstaling welcome. So urgent was my longing every day to rejoin her that I would often take taxis way, even the whole way, home to Putney from my London office, rather than endure the dawdling of buses and the rush-hour traffic jams in Park Lane. I sang with joy at the thought of seeing her.

Here is the language of a man in love, for the first time and irrevocably. The scales fell from his eyes. This was love, as he had never understood it before. He does not voice it so directly in My Dog Tulip, choosing rather to dwell on his own innocent confusions and anxieties—a con firmed bachelor of refined tastes at the center of London’s literary life, driven to care for a creature who cared so utterly for him. For Ackerley, loving Tulip (whose actual name, Queenie, was deemed too prosaic for the book) meant understanding her desires, her emotions and charac ter, her spiritual as well as her sexual and excretory nature, her myste rious and essential beauty as well as her irreducible dogginess. Inevi tably, that led to some comic incongruities, which Ackerley skillfully played. … Recent admirers too have commented on Ackerley’s excessive, perhaps ironic use of Renaissance sonnets as sources for these bursts of eloquence:

Her ears are tall and pointed, like the ears of Anubis. How she manages to hold them constantly erect, as though starched, I do not know, for with their fine covering of mouse-gray fur they are soft and flimsy; when she stands with her back to the sun it shines through the delicate tissue, so that they glow shell-pink as though incandescent. Her face also is long and pointed, basically stone-gray but the and lower jaw are jet black. Jet, too, are the rims of her amber eyes, though heavily mascara’d, and the tiny mobile eyebrow tufts that set like accents above them. And in the midst of her forehead is a kind of Indian caste-mark, a black diamond suspended there, like the jewel on the brow of Pegasus in Mantegna’s Parnassus, by a fine dark thread, no more than a penciled line, which is drawn from it right over her poll midway between the tall ears . . . her skull, bisected by the thread, is two primrose pools, the center of her face light gray, the bridge of her nose above the long black lips fawn, and upon each a patte de mouche has been tastefully set.

But here again the language of love is unmistakable. The elaborate anatomizing, the fine penciling and drawing, the chiaroscuro, the classical allusions and chiasmus (“are jet . . . Jet are”) all attest to the lover’s devout gaze. What may be harder to see is that Ackerley had no wish to be witty or extravagant in passages like these, least of all ironic. He put all his art and heart into them. Yet many readers were disgusted nevertheless. Why did Ackerley have to focus so relentlessly on feces and urine; or in the chapters concern ing sex, i.e., his efforts (all failures) to find Tulip a mate, why did he have to dwell on vaginal lubricants and penile stimulation and the odors of a bitch in heat? The answer is at least threefold: (a) nothing—again —is by love debarred; (b) the problem is with humans, not dogs; and (c) Ackerley chose that means to demonstrate something fundamental about love and sex. As to (a), Ackerley earnestly sought to understand the facts of canine sex, on Tulip’s behalf. He consulted her most trusted veterinarians, but also dog breeders and other self-professed experts, plus all the books available, and learned that the process of “marrying” two dogs is not simple or straightforward, and that a great deal of ignorance, misinformation, and mystery still surrounds it.

On the film, from “One man and his dog,” The Spectator (V315, #9532, 7 May 2011, p. 48 — no author cited)

a labour of love, the visuals mesh with the words perfectly and capture all the various moods, from melancholy and autumnal, to comic and skittish. The film comprises nearly 60,000 drawings hand-drawn digitally (that is, on to a computer), and are just so lovely, like the best ever watercolours come to life … Tulip has her foibles. Tulip can be flirtatious one minute and fiercely possessive the next. Tulip can be infuriating. Tulip sometimes earns herself a biff on the nose. But, all the while, Ackerley marvels at her every detail, rhapsodising not just about her beauty and constancy, but also her defecations and urinations. There isn’t a bit of Tulip he doesn’t find fascinating, or isn’t curious about. Occasionally, the animation leeches into black and white pencil sketches where Tulip appears half human wearing a little skirt and holding court. … The film, like the book, does not directly address Ackerley’s loneliness and homosexuality and childlessness, but it is there in the chinks … It’s marvellous, probably the best dog-flick you are ever going to see, based on the best dog-lit you are ever going to read. What more can I say?

There are three levels of cartoon:  beyond the beautiful colored pictures, which dissolve at the edges and turn into black-and-white satirical exposures of the less than admirable passions and impulses driving the characters, which turn into lovely lines of classical gods (now archetypally psychoanalysing).

Once again here is the vimeo:

https://vimeo.com/264796405

Ellen


The cover for the first edition of the Last Chronicle of Barset


Lindsay Duncan as The Rector’s Wife (BBC, 1994)

Dear friends and readers,

A few weeks ago now I wrote a blog-essay on The Last Chronicle of Barset after a group of us on Trollope&Peers finished reading the book together.  I followed that up with reading Joanna Trollope’s The Rector’s Wife and writing a blog-essay on the book as a post-text to Trollope’s novel. I had been during this time joining in on a reading and discussion of Trollope’s Framley Parsonage (the 4th novel of the Barset series) with a group of Trollope readers on-line on zoom sessions sponsored by the London Trollope Society. They decided they would like to read The Last Chronicle next, and the Chairman of the Society was gracious enough to ask me to give a talk about the book as a prelude, preface, or food for thought just before we began. (I mean to re-read it with them. They start again this coming Monday and will be reading this very long book across the summer (the schedule).

I decided to write a talk that combined my two blogs with a perspective that emphasized the modernity of Trollope’s masterpiece and called it The Modernity of the Last Chronicle of Barset (click and you can read it on academia edu.  Errata: there is no way I can edit the text of the paper on this site except by taking down so here say: paragraph 8 should read Chapter 4, not Chapter 5, and late in the paper Major Grantley is “just under 30.”)

The thesis of the talk is that this masterpiece of Trollope speaks as directly and relevantly to us today as either of his more (recently featured) signature books (The Way We Live Now and He Knew He was Right). That it’s a piercing account of the way inequality works in the character of Rev Mr Crawley, and a dramatization of a young women traumatized by her experiences of sexual life. I bring in The Rector’s Wife as Joanna Trollope’s atttempt to give Mary Crawley what she is denied by Trollope: a fulfilling independent life of her own. I also cover Major Grantly & Grace as not quite past their sell-by date and end on the beautiful patterning and wonderfully accurate comic and moving accounts of other characters.

I write this blog to share the video recording of me delivering this paper on-line yesterday at the introductory session to The Last Chronicle of Barset. If you want to go to the Trollope Society site and view it there, click and scroll down:

The Last Chronicle of Barset

One of Crawley’s many cogent utterances in defense of his behavior: is featured there, one many people of those in a position to do something to stop illegal cruelty seem to lack the courage to act upon: “Opposition to usurped authority is an imperative duty”

You can also go directly to the YouTube site:

Gentle reader, if you have been curious over the years you have been reading this blog to see what I look like, how I sound and my workroom, here I am.

Ellen


Mecklenburgh Square (in the Bloomsbury area), by Margaret Joliffe (1935)

For a 6 week summer course at the Oscher LifeLong Learning Institute at George Mason University
Day: Wednesday mid-day, 11:45 am to 1:15 pm,
June 24 to July 29
Zoom, Virtual Classroom
Institutional location: 4210 Roberts Road, Fairfax, Va 22032
Dr Ellen Moody

Online at:

Description of course:

This course will examine novels & art included in the term Bloomsbury through the fiction of four of the novel writers: we’ll read E.M. Forster’s Maurice; J. R. Ackerley’s My Dog Tulip; Virginia Woolf’s short fictions taken from two books: The Complete Short Fiction (which includes Memoirs of a Novelist) and The Death of the Moth and other essays; and Vita Sackville-West’s All Passion Spent. Bloomsbury books (non-fiction, biography, essays, poetry) are written by people who belonged to an amorphous early to mid 20th century creative group, associated with a specific area in London, who were friends and associates, or whose works were printed at the Hogarth Press. The group lasted a long time, going through several phases, and left a rich legacy in books and people writing in alignment with the original goals and aesthetics, political and economic and social ideas. Thie works produced by this group are splendidly interesting, different, quirkly, at an angle from the mainstream, critiquingit, and remain strongly influential until today, are in various genres, often subversive and original texts. You don’t forget them. There are good movies to watch for Maurice, My Dog Ackerley, & All Passion Spent. I ask everyone before class to read E.M. Forster’s “What I Believe.”


Dora Carrington (1893-1932), The Mill at Tidmarsh (her most famous picture)

Required texts (in the order we will read them):

E. M. Forster, “What I Believe,” Online at http://spichtinger.net/otexts/believe.html or https://www.bl.uk/collection-items/what-i-believe-by-e-m-forster (if you want to buy, it’s reprinted in Two Cheers for Democracy. Harcourt, Brace, 1951; rpt. many times)
E.M. Forster, Maurice, ed., P. N. Furbank, introd., notes by David Leavitt. Penguin 1971; rpt 2003. ISBN 978-0=141-44113-9.
J.R. Ackerley, My Dog Tulip, introd. Elizabeth Marshall Thomas. New York Review of Books classic, 1999. ISBN 978-1-59017-414-2
Virginia Woolf, The Complete Shorter Fiction, ed., introd. Susan Dick. Harvest book, 1989. ISBN 978-0-15-621250-2 (this contains the whole of Memoirs of a Novelist).
————–, The Death of the Moth and Other Essays. I will send the whole book by attachment. It used to available at an Australian University of Adelaide site and is still on an Australian Gutenberg site:  http://gutenberg.net.au/ebooks12/1203811h.html. It exists in book form: The Death of the Moth and Other Essays. Harcourt, Brace, 1970 ISBN 0-15-625234-1
Vita Sackville-West. All Passion Spent, introd. Joanna Lumley. Virago 1982; rpt 2011. ISBN 978-0-86068-358-2.

Format: lecture and discussions

June 24th: Defining Bloomsbury philosophy, ethic, describing the aesthetic. “What I believe.” We will begin Forster’s Maurice
July 1st: Forster and his posthumous novel, Maurice.
July 8th: Pro-animal literature & Ackerley’s My Dog Tulip. Read also for this day Woolf’s “Gypsy, the Mongrel” (in Complete Fiction) and “Sporting Party.”
July 15th: For this week read Woolf and her “Mysterious Case of Miss V,” “The Journal of Mistress Joan Martyn,” “Memoirs of a Novelist,” “The Widow and the Parrot” (all in The Complete Fiction); then “Art of Biograpahy and “Professions for Women” (from Death of a Moth). I’ll tell of Andre Maurois’s Aspects of Biography.
July 22nd: Experimental fiction & feminist poetry: Woolf’s “The Death of the Moth,” “Twelfth Night at the Old Vic,” “Street Haunting,” “Thoughts on Peace During an Air Raid” (from The Death of the Moth), then Woolf’s “Kew Gardens,” “The String Quartet,” Mrs Dalloway in Bond Street,” “Nurse Lugton’s Curtain,” “Uncle Vanya,” “The Shooting Party,”  from Appendix C, “The Dog,” “Ghosts,” and “English Youth” (in Complete Fiction). I will send by attachment poetry by Elizabeth Bishop, Adrienne Rich, & Sackville-West.
July 29th: Vita Sackville-West, her life, scholarly editions & biographies, poetry and All Passion Spent.


James Wilby as the ebullient sincere young Maurice


Hugh Grant as the hardened self-depriving older Clive

Recommended: 5 movies

All Passion Spent. Directed by Martin Friend. Screenplay Peter Buckman. Perf. Wendy Hiller, Maurice Denham, Harry Andrews, Eileen Way, Phyllis Calvert. 3 part (hour each) series. BBC, Masterpiece Theater, 1986. On YouTube. Delicate gentle comic poignant masterpiece of a TV series.

Carrington. Directed by John McGrath. Screenplay Christopher Hampton. Perf. Jonathan Pryce, Emma Thomson, Rufus Dewell, Samuel West, Penelope Wilton. Le Studio Canal, 1995. It’s literally accurate in some ways, but it panders to myths about the Bloomsbury people. Grim, with a caricature of Strachey.
Maurice. Dir.James Ivory. Screenplay Kit Hesketh-Harvey Perf. James Wilby, Hugh Grant, Rupert Graves, Phoebe Nicholls, Simon Callow, Ben Kingsley, Judy Parfitt, Denholm Elliot. Merchant-Ivory, 1987. Available as Prime Video on Amazon. Fine mostly faithful movie.
My Dog Tulip. Animated artistic Film written, drawn, edited by Paul and Sandra Fierlinger. Voices Christopher Plummer and Lynn Redgrave. Produced by Howard Kaminsky. Axiom, New Yorker film, 1999. It is available as a Vimeo if you keep searching for it. A masterpiece of tenderness, comedy, strongly pro-animal rights.

https://vimeo.com/264796405

To the Lighthouse. Dir Colin Gregg. Script Hugh Stoddard. Perf. Rosemary Harris, Michael Gough, Suzanne Bertish, Kenneth Branagh, Lyndsey Baxter, Pippa Guard. BBC, 1983. Online at YouTube. Brilliant combination of Woolf’s novel of the same name, aspects of her family life, and filmic versions of her novel techniques.

Other online texts: by Woolf
Granite and Rainbow (contains “The new Biography”)
To the Lighthouse

Available as complete, unabridged audiobooks:

E. M. Forster, Maurice, read by Peter Firth for Audiobooks. MP3. 978-1531874155
J. R. Ackerley, My Dog Tulip, read by Ralph Cosham for Audiobooks. MP3. 978-1441786401
Vita Sackville-West, All Passion Spent, read by Wendy Hiller, for Cover-to-Cover. Audio CDs. 978-1445801582 (hard to find, out of print, but just inimitable beautiful poignant funny)


Recent edition

General Studies, life-writing, other Bloomsbury and connected people:

Beard, Mary. The Invention of Jane Harrison. Cambridge: Harvard, 2000.
Brennan, Gerald. The Face of Spain. Farrar, Strauss, 1956.
Cavafy, C. P. Poems, ed, trans. Avi Sharon. NY: Penguin, 2008.
DeSalvo, Louise. Virginia Woolf: The Impact of Childhood Sexual Abuse on her life and work. NY: Ballantine Books, 1989.
Edel, Leon. Bloomsbury: A House of Lions. Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1979.                 Gerzina, Gretchen. Carrington: A Life. NY: Norton, 1989.                                           Johnstone, J. K. The Bloomsbury Group: E.M. Forster, Virginia Woolf, Lytton Strachey. Noonday Press, 1954
Moffatt, Wendy. A Great Unrecorded History: A New Life of E.M. Forster. NY: Farrar, Strauss, & Giroux, 2010.
Power, Eileen. Medieval People. 1924: NY: Harper Perennial, 1963
Raitt, Suzanne. Vita and Virginia: The Work and Friendship of V. Sackville-West and Virginia Woolf. Oxford, 1993.
Shone, Richard, ed. The Art of Bloomsbury: Roger Fry, Vanessa Bell, Duncan Grant. Tate Gallery, Princeton UP, 1999.
Summers, Claude J. E.M. Forster. NY: Ungar, 1983.
Rosenbaum. S. P. ed. The Bloomsbury Group: A collection of Memoirs & Commentaries. All sort of essays by many Bloomsbury people. Rev. Toronto Press, 1995.
Rosner, Victoria, ed. The Cambridge Companion to the Bloomsbury Group.  NY: Cambridge UP, 2014. Covers ground by typologies, themes, perspectives.
Sackville-West, Vita, ed. Mary Ann Caws. Selected Writings of Vita Sackville-West. NY: Palgrave, 2002.
Spalding, Frances. Roger Fry: Art and Life. LA: Univ of California Press, 1980.                         Stansky, Peter. On or About December 1910: Early Bloomsbury & Its Intimate World. Harvard, 1997.
Wade, Francesca. Square Haunting: Five women, freedom and London between the wars. Faber & Faber, 2020.

A few of my blogs:

Thinking about biography: Andre Maurois’s Aspects of Biography
Upon first reading Virginia Woolf’s
Death of a Moth”

Virginia Woolf’s Flush as canonical modernist biography


Bridge over the Allier c.1933 Roger Fry (1866-1934)


Mary Beard

The truth is that ‘peeling away the encrusted myth’ of Cleopatra reveals there is very little underneath the ancient fictional surface, and certainly nothing that can be the stuff of a plausible life story — unless it is padded out with half-relevant background … the best we have is a possible ‘signature’ on a document authorising tax concessions and the report that in her final days she muttered again and again ‘I shall not be led in triumph — Mary Beard, “Cleopatra, The Myth,” Confronting the Classics

I don’t remember when I first heard the name, Mary Beard, nor how I came to acquire and read her Confronting the Classics (a short review), but since then I’ve followed her, nowadays on twitter, as well as off. I remember how I was bored silly by the to me inane Epic of Gilgamesh, and couldn’t understand how anyone could substitute this as an assignment in college as from the ancient world instead of Virgil’s profound, beautiful, intelligent Aeneid. And then I read Beard’s defense of Roman or Latin literature not as opposed to but as texts as interesting as these originally Greek ones. Beard was, is, also continually a fresh thinking original feminist. She is still the only writer I read, to talk about women in the ancient world in ways that make them living relevant presences.

Then years later, since my younger daughter, was a lover of Latin, minoring in it in college, and is a reader, I was actually anxious that she should want to read and enjoy Beard’s SPQR.  When I bought it for her for Christmas, was so relieved when I’d see her reading it — with avid interest. Tonight I was reading Beard’s The Invention of Jane Harrison, and am not surprised to find that she is writing about this woman and her peer, Eugenie Sellers, in ways no one hardly ever writes about admired people: telling the inward petty and crucially important personal politics that shaped their careers. It takes hard research to get to that sort of information. Were they and most of the people she is writing about not dead, Beard would now have as many enemies as the maligned journalist, Julian Assange, for this is how he began.


Don’t be satisfied with the tale of Harrison in Francesca Wade’s Square Haunting, for, good as Wade’s book is, she falls for the myth of Harrison as exposed by Beard; there is even more to Harrison’s achievement than is recorded by Wade

Then recently I opened up her Women and Power, two essays. The first is about how the public voice of women is treated: their sound is too high-pitched, so shrill, and not acceptable, their content emotional and when obviously knowledgeable school-mistress-y. She offers example after example of men silencing women, and several were close to my own experience. One happened the other day on Trollope&Peers! a male bully who hardly ever posts, suddenly got on to excoriate me for writing about Australia: how dare you? you are not Australia and show what an ignorant moron you are. No compunction whatsoever. She had the effect of validating my sense of this insult and revealed the pattern beneath it —

There are so many reviews of her books, that while I have needed her, I decided she does not need me or another blog or review to tell people what you are missing out on – for she is witty, idiosyncratic in her choices, personal, and I’m ever learning new information about another place, another figure, another work, or some unexpected insight. I also thought to do justice to her would take a book. All I could do is cite the books and urge you not to miss any. But about a year ago I started to feel compelled to write something when I came across an excoriating attack on one of her TV entertaining documentaries. Women as well as men castigating her for exposing the fallacy that when we look at naked bodies of women in art, we react to them viscerally as bodies, even when they are ever so tastefully done, and given learned names to obscure that they have most often functioned as pin-ups. The idea of the pompous Kenneth Clark unclothed (so to speak) was gratifying.


She allowed a drawing of her naked: this Guardian article brings out the Berger-take of the program

But when I started to watch her Shock of the Nude, I found she was misrepresented: far from dwelling on this (as it is so obvious) the programs were about how a single type of European woman has filled the space of what is reproduced when there are so many types of bodies, not to omit gene pools and ways of depicting bodies. It’s an elaboration on the specific topic from the perspective John Berger developed in his Ways of Seeing. We glimpse the actual motives of the people who made the object, the politics projected at an audience by an establishment “voice.” But to be as frank as she, what the men especially hated most of all is the way she looks. They cannot stand that she refuses to turn herself into as close a version of the Barbie Doll or socially comely academic woman in interview outfit for her shows. Her hair is unstyled (would be the word), her body lumpy, she wears only what make-up the film-makers must put on her to withstand film lighting. Those are her real long and discolored teeth. Of course it’s a pose, and she now has a trademark with her bike, but it’s a pose in another cause for candor as the only humane wisdom: this time what aging and other women actually look like.

Now I’ve just watched (and re-watched — a habit of mine) her early series, Meet the Romans, her contributions to Civilisations, and her [Ultimate?] Rome: Empire without Limit, and feel I ought to say something relevant to this dangerous and destructive era the Republicans, their Trump mascot, and all the wealthy and powerful people increasing a stranglehold of immiseration and downright murder on not only the US but people around the world variously connected to us: the theses of her two Roman series, which she makes convincing is that this ordinary village on this boot-like peninsula in the Mediterranean became a successful society, and extended out to become prosperous, educated, and (dare I say) a comfortable people because they were inclusive.

It was their original idea to make everyone who came within the purview of their power and ever extending land-mass Roman, to welcome into their civilisation all sorts of people, and thus circulate the knowledge, skill, and yes labor and natural products of lands across the globe. Indeed much that the vicious regimes of the world today are doing (except the step-by-step process in the US, and jump elsewhere into terrifying dictatorship) is what what the Romans didn’t do: race hatred especially. I took down my daughter’s book for the first time and found that in SPQR are the theses for these documentaries (read Emily Wilson’s more detailed review). They were flexible when it came to changing laws; they went in for people power. It was a genuinely mixed society because in the province power was given to local elites. Join with Rome, and you too can have this salary, these benefits. Everyone above say the working class level and the enslaved gets a percentage of the take. And the enslaved can buy themselves back.

The book and these series are not about its decline and fall (which it did) but about why it succeeded for so long — besides ruthless fearful military brutality — she does not mince words over the cruelties and harshnesses of this empire. In one episode (Part 3 of Ultimate Rome) we see a frieze of a fierce Roman soldier subduing and about to rape a supplicant woman, an image of Rome triumphing over Britain. One episode of Meet the Romans she seeks out how the average Roman who lived in the city survived & shows them in tiny dark flats in apartment houses, where just about nothing was in the space except room to sleep: all other functions, including drinking water, bathing (defecating), eating had to be done outside this space which was heavily peopled. To her credit, she does bring out what life was like for the average person.

Perhaps the Roman story is still too upbeat. Unlike the books, she does omit women. She doesn’t lie. She warns that stories about the fun adulteresses might have had are masculine bad dreams; stories of fiercely violent Amazons are probably glamorized fantasies based on what the Romans saw in the violent tribalism of Scythian groups. (Anyway who wants to idolize violence?) It was not the brutality of the Romans that made for their ultimate success, just a first step (bad joke alert). In her Pompeii, she takes us into excavated homes of the victims; she tries to realize what a family life might have been. The figures chance immortalized at moments of terror do convey what people are up against in nature (as well as what is often missing in other episodes from one another)


Pompeii people

These programs have our present era very much in mind.


From Ultimate Rome, Episode 3

They are also wondrously enjoyable because they are travelogues to places you, I, or your package tour company is not going to think of going to. I did not feel as if I was looking at fake pictures of landscapes, but genuine filming of out-of-the-way places where Roman buildings, forums, monuments, roads, these circular stadiums (levels upon levels), acqueducts, left over remnants of households are still extant. She films in Northern England, along the Hadrian wall where archeaologists have been very busy, in Algeria, southern Spain, Turkey, western Germany. Even if I had the money and the profound unhealthiness of airplane and modern boat travel had not been exposed, as an ordinary person I could not see what she shows in museums, factories, not to omit Pompeii and Herculaneum. She is invited to go where the rest of us who are not in the profession can’t. You see people in the marketplaces and in Rome today too — in France, in London.


In Bath — where I have been

I admit I sometimes enjoy her straight lectures on YouTube more than I do her documentaries, which are meant for a much wider audience than my taste. Her patter to me can be contentless; if there is a line of argument, sometimes it is obscured by gnomic suggestiveness. She is unwilling to criticize where I think she should. One of her assignments on Civilizations was to showcase (would be the word) religious buildings around the world once Roman (Europe and the middle east as it’s called mostly), but had it been Simon Schama (he is the main presenter) he would have managed to include sharp observations on what religious practices can mesmerize people into accepting. Her books provide more honest scrutiny. She is inclined to be optimistic, altogether too cheery — during this pandemic, she has had BBC shows in her kitchen. That sort of thing …

But she is always intelligent. During the Brexit controversies when there was still time, to put a stop to this lunacy of some segments of the British upper classes and the ignorant deluded nationalist solutions to economic distress in working class people, her TLS columns were ever on point and I wished she was in Parliament. I still do. Probably my favorite book is also still Confronting the Classics.


Filming in Rome

The Englishwoman poured tea, informing us
that the Duchess was going to have a baby.
And in the brothels of Marrakesh
the little pockmarked prostitutes
balanced their tea-trays on their heads
and did their belly-dances; flung themselves
naked and giggling against our knees
asking for cigarettes. It was somewhere near there
I saw what frightened me most of all — Elizabeth Bishop
“Over 2,000 Illustrations and a Complete Concordance”

Ellen


Ackerley as busy editor of The Listener, nearby Tulip (the movie)

For a 4 week summer course at the Oscher LifeLong Learning Institute at American University
Day: Monday afternoons, 1:45 to 3:15 pm,
June 1 to June 22
Zoom, Virtual Classroom
Institutional location: 4801 Massachusetts Avenue, Washington, D.C. 20016
Dr Ellen Moody

Online at: https://ellenandjim.wordpress.com/2020/02/16/a-spring-syllabus-the-novels-of-e-m-forster-at-olli-at-au/

Description of course:

This course will examine novels & art included in the term Bloomsbury through the fiction of four of the novel writers: we’ll read E.M. Forster’s Maurice, J. R. Ackerley’s My Dog Tulip, Virginia Woolf’s short fictions taken from two books: The Complete Short Fiction (which includes Memoirs of a Novelist) and The Death of the Moth and other essays, and Vita Sackville-West’s All Passion Spent. Bloomsbury books (non-fiction, biography, essays, poetry) are written by people who belonged to an amorphous early to mid 20th century creative group, associated with a specific area in London, who were friends and associates, or whose works were printed at the Hogarth Press. This works produced by this group are splendidly interesting, remain strongly influential until today, are in various genres highly original texts of powerful art. There are good movies to watch for Maurice, My Dog Ackerley, & All Passion Spent. I ask everyone before class to read E.M. Forster’s “What I Believe.”


Dora Carrington (1893-1932), The Mill at Tidmarsh (her most famous picture)

Required texts (in the order we will read them):

E. M. Forster, “What I Believe,” Online at http://spichtinger.net/otexts/believe.html or https://www.bl.uk/collection-items/what-i-believe-by-e-m-forster (if you want to buy, it’s reprinted in Two Cheers for Democracy. Harcourt, Brace, 1951; rpt. many times)
E.M. Forster, Maurice, ed., P. N. Furbank, introd., notes by David Leavitt. Penguin 1971; rpt 2003. ISBN 978-0=141-44113-9.
J.R. Ackerley, My Dog Tulip, introd. Elizabeth Marshall Thomas. New York Review of Books classic, 1999. ISBN 978-1-59017-414-2
Virginia Woolf, The Complete Shorter Fiction, ed., introd. Susan Dick. Harvest book, 1989. ISBN 978-0-15-621250-2 (this contains the whole of Memoirs of a Novelist).
————–, The Death of the Moth and Other Essays. I will send the whole book by attachment. It used to available at an Australian University of Adelaide site and is still on an Australian Gutenberg site:  http://gutenberg.net.au/ebooks12/1203811h.html. It exists in book form: The Death of the Moth and Other Essays. Harcourt, Brace, 1970 ISBN 0-15-625234-1
Vita Sackville-West. All Passion Spent, introd. Joanna Lumley. Virago 1982; rpt 2011. ISBN 978-0-86068-358-2.

Format: lecture and discussions

June 1st: Defining Bloomsbury philosophy, ethic, describing the aesthetic. “What I believe.” We will begin Forster’s Maurice
June 8th: Forster’s Maurice; beginning JR Ackerley’s My Dog Tulip. Read also for this day Woolf’s “Gypsy, the Mongrel” (in Complete Fiction) and “The Art of Biography (in Death of the Moth)
June 15th: My Dog Tulip, book & animated movie. Woolf’s “Mysterious Case of Miss V,” “The Journal of Mistress Joan Martyn,” “Memoirs of a Novelist,” “Kew Gardens,” “The String Quartet,” “The Widow and the Parrot,” “Uncle Vanya,” “The Shooting Party,”  from Appendix C, “The Dog,” “Ghosts,” and “English Youth” in The Complete Fiction). Then “The Death of the Moth,” “Twelfth Night at the Old Vic,” Professions for Women,” “Thoughts on Peace During an Air Raid” (in Death of the Moth and Other Essays).
June 22nd: First half of period: Woolf, biography, experimental fiction; Sackville-West & biography & fiction; her All Passion Spent.


James Wilby as the ebullient sincere young Maurice


Hugh Grant as the hardened self-depriving older Clive

Recommended: 4 movies

All Passion Spent. Directed by Martin Friend. Screenplay Peter Buckman. Perf. Wendy Hiller, Maurice Denham, Harry Andrews, Eileen Way, Phyllis Calvert. 3 part (hour each) series. BBC, Masterpiece Theater, 1986. On YouTube.

Carrington. Directed by John McGrath. Screenplay Christopher Hampton. Perf. Jonathan Pryce, Emma Thomson, Rufus Dewell, Samuel West, Penelope Wilton. Le Studio Canal, 1995.
Maurice. Dir.James Ivory. Screenplay Kit Hesketh-Harvey Perf. James Wilby, Hugh Grant, Rupert Graves, Phoebe Nicholls, Simon Callow, Ben Kingsley, Judy Parfitt, Denholm Elliot. Merchant-Ivory, 1987. Available as Prime Video on Amazon.
My Dog Tulip. Cartoon Film written, drawn, edited by Paul and Sandra Fierlinger. Voices Christopher Plummer and Lynn Redgrave. Produced by Howard Kaminsky. Axiom, New Yorker film, 1999. It is available as a Vimeo if you keep searching for it:

https://vimeo.com/264796405

To the Lighthouse. Dir Colin Gregg. Script Hugh Stoddard. Perf. Rosemary Harris, Michael Gough, Suzanne Bertish, Kenneth Branagh, Lyndsey Baxter, Pippa Guard. BBC, 1983. Online at YouTube

General Studies & life-writing:

Ackerley, J. R. My Father and Myself, introd. W. H. Auden. NYRB classic, 1999.
Johnstone, J. K. The Bloomsbury Group: E.M. Forster, Virginia Woolf, Lytton Strachey. Noonday Press, 1954
Raitt, Suzanne. Vita and Virginia: The Work and Friendship of V. Sackville-West and Virginia Woolf. Oxford, 1993.
Shone, Richard, ed. The Art of Bloomsbury: Roger Fry, Vanessa Bell, Duncan Grant. Tate Gallery, Princeton UP, 1999.
Summers, Claude J. E.M. Forster. NY: Ungar, 1983.
Rosenbaum. S. P. ed. The Bloomsbury Group: A collection of Memoirs & Commentaries. All sort of essays by many Bloomsbury people. Rev. Toronto Press, 1995.
Wade, Francesca. Square Haunting: Five women, freedom and London between the wars. Faber & Faber, 2020.


Bridge over the Allier c.1933 Roger Fry (1866-1934)


Un Village Francais; — first episode as Germans take over


My Brilliant Friend aka L’amica geniale, Elena (Lenu) Greco (Margherita Mazzucco) and Lila, Raffaelle (LiL) Cerullo — principal heroines


Antony (Ralph Fiennes) and Cleopatra (Sophie Okonedo) — National Theater

Friends and readers,

During this earliest phase of living with pandemics (WFH for those who can), a new but probably temporary genre (as popular blogging goes) has emerged among those paid to do it: the column telling readers what good movies series, recent and long ago, are available for viewing on-line; sometimes for free (YouTube, PBS portals, National Theater from London), sometimes part of a subscription (Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, Acorn, BritBox). I do not pretend to compete. The accent is on new or very recent programming (I have not seen or read about even one Game of Thrones episodes) when older, mystery thriller, British costume drama, “classic” serials (though I am kept up, this will not be about Inspector Morse & progeny); cable channel star products aligned with fashionable seeming politically serious series (say The Plot Against America, West Wing). I am a novice at learning what precisely is among the cornucopia. I just learned of a YouTube presence of Joanna Trollope’s The Rector’s Wife, with a young Lindsay Duncan — who knew? I’m not trying for little known, and, at a minimum, such blogs will recommend six to eight titles.

But I am offering advice in the same spirit, slightly altered — and much fuller. What you should not miss, on offer because of the pandemic and reflecting our hard era.  Not one made in the USofA, two cannot be watched without subtitles; and the third, Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra comes with subtitles. Maybe I should have called this Subtitled Movies.

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


The exemplary hero and heroine — doing their best, meaning well enough — the mayor, Dr Larcher and the workman’s wife, Marie Lorrain

I’m only half-way through the seven seasons of Un Village Francais. I am hooked. What can I say that will be adequate (and not go on for too long). The first episode of the first season begins with three children killed as the Nazis fly a plane over shooting everywhere everyone in sight, accompanied by implacable bullying of the citizenry by men in trucks armed. We are introduced to three or four family groups plus others, several professional offices, see the Germans. The ongoing story justifies to some extent collaboration. It does more than explain how this happened, but leads us to sympathize with those who succumb, and even actively do the Germans’ bidding in return for favors not just personal but for the village as a whole. There is some unfair treatment of the communists (as senselessly killing): The communists were the backbone of the resistance: they were often the backbone of many of the parties against fascism – -in Spain, the Republicans, in China, around the world. Each was more or less locally run.

One way to sneer at the resistance has been to deny it existed in France — Caroline Moorehead is among those to demonstrate not so in either Italy or France. In two of her books, she demonstrates they were careful, cautious, respectful of one another’s lives – or they could hardly have survived though thousands were murdered. Importantly these many hours of believable sincerely imagined tough lives, wih their intermittent pleasures, griefs, warns us what fascists are and if they ever gain complete control in the US what we are to expect. 90,000 deaths and still counting, a collapsed economy with a stubborn refusal to help 85% of Americans for real is just a start; a laying on of the groundwork as the rule of law is savaged and the many agencies of the gov’t run by corrupt sycophants, made to rot from within. We see this in quiet enforced business practices that have the effect of starving and stealing all resources from the French to send to German privileged. Get rid of the weak, exploit and enslave those somewhat stronger, kill imprison the uncooperative.

So much of the power of fascists stems from those of decent beliefs for the real good of a public believing the people you are dealing with will operate decently, from at least roughly the same moral norms. It was extraordinarily creepy and awful —- I felt it in my body —as the mayor and police chief, etc, think they can turn the French thief over to the French authorities, and he will be treated justly, then are betrayed. There is nothing to do as the villager, who deserved a slap on the wrist, is turned over to the Nazis for what we know will be a horrible fate -— again and again, you feel the vulnerability of his body and the bodies of the men who unwittingly allowed this to happen, how they turn away, can’t watch, feel so utterly helpless and bad. Torture in front of us by burning people with cigarettes during interrogations as a first step.

Step-by-step is the process. (As we in the US are experiencing under Trump and his vicious Republican regime.) You understand, too, why the mill owner, simply seeing the immediate great benefits, makes the creepy deal with the Nazi commander to supply the wood planks to him. You know it will end badly, but you also realize that the French collaborator is not evil, just doing what seems to make sense at the time. Women now have to be careful who they have sex with — you are then identified as of that party. Interesting how the people fool themselves. Each person thinks individually oh I’ll just do this or that and I’ll survive. Schwartz switches to concrete when a new German commander has a new crony he wants to do deals for wood with. Contracts are worthless where law and justice don’t exist. The Jewish man thinks he will be alive when the war is done, and that he can take what’s left of his business back then so he does a deal too.


Schwartz

Mr Schwartz is a fascinating one: he is driven to murder a man who was trying to blackmail him into betraying the Jewish man who was lending him the money to transform his business and his wife — he is central, his well-meaning capable educated authority has led to him being a collaborator. His brother is now being pressured to move up from resisting by handing out pamphlets to killing in reciprocation, except the Nazi will kill as many hostages as they feel like for every murder the French commit. Lucienne, the schoolteacher now pregnant by the Nazi officer. Marie, a peasant’s wife who evolves into independence because she is gifted with strong intelligence, Henri De Kervern is the bearded policeman who becomes involved in the resistance.

For the most part there are no black and white villains or heroes/heroines in this drama. Everyone has to deal with complicated choices. Which I think is true to life. No one can say what they would or would not do given extreme circumstances. What I really also like about the series is how the characters evolve in ways you would not expect. We are in the middle of series three and could not have foreseen many of the developments. One of my favorite characters has been Gustave, the young son of the communist Marcel Larcher (brother to the mayor).


Schoolteacher, Lucienne

One of the many stories of private life: Lucienne is now pregnant by the German (Nazi of course) soldier. At first he has given her the cold shoulder. Despite her religiosity (and we see her praying repeatedly by the bed) and going to a priest to confess her sin (fornication apparently). Each man has a reason beyond himself why this is unacceptable. Priest: we will just about excommunicate you. You are a pariah if you do this. Lucienne leaves the church, having determined for own sake (and probably that of any baby caught up in this horror) to get an abortion.

What’s remarkable is again it’s the men who stop her. Reluctantly, but determinedly Marie visits Lucienne to see why she’s upset, suspecting all the while Lucienne is pregnant. Marie has self-aborted but takes her to a Jewish midwife, and they are in the midst of their operation, just about to start and De Kervern stops them. He says it’s against the law, he’ll get in trouble and he’s about to throw Hortense out. So they stop. Lucienne goes home and tries to self-abort and ends up bleeding profusely in the school; Mr Bedier (in love with her) rushes her to Dr Larcher who saves her life but refuses her an abortion. It’s not safe; just think of how much joy and meaning a baby wil give you. &c&c. Anyway he won’t. Then he bothers Mr Bedier who he thinks the father to care for her. Bedier is willing — this gives him power and purchase over her, but he is also a good man. The Nazi soldier comes back with all these offers of later loyalty. He is in love with her and wants her to have his baby. They are thwarted by the spiteful Mrs Schwartz who loathes Lucienne for not choosing her cake in a yearly cake-baking money-raising contest.

The story brings out how the women would all help but the men have the power and all stop her. The girl herself casts aside her religion (another force controlling her) and would risk her life to abort this burden and trouble – she will be despised by many for having a child out of wedlock, it will be despised. Not everything that happens in this series is the result of this particular war …

For commentary (analysis, evaluation on Seasons 3-4 click here).

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Across Lila’s kitchen table

My Brilliant Friend is one of these mis-named series from a cycle of books where the title of the first book becomes the title of the whole series. My Brilliant Friend is the title of the first volume and was the source of the first film adaptation series; the 4 novels are called The Neapolitan Quartet (they are mostly set in Naples); this season, the second, ought more accurately to be called The Story of a New Name as it is an adaptation of the 2nd novel, with this name. Lara Zuram in the Rolling Stone offers one of the best general assessments and interpretations of this second season I’ve come across. unfortunately this is not many: in Italian, Italian in feel, culture, places, on HBO, as one of the best TV films this year, and as a deeply woman-centered exploration, the 8 episodes are not getting the attention they deserve.

Here first is my review-essay of the second and third (Those Who Leave and Those who Stay) books. It is Lenu who by the end of the second series is being enabled literally to leave Naples: by going to college in Pisa, she has met and is about to marry an upper class young man who is himself becoming a professor, and through his mother found a publisher for her autobiographical novel (based on a story Lila wrote in their shared childhood), and by the third novel is living out her life among the intelligensia of Northern Italy, in Turin and Rome to be exact. Lila is said never to have left Naples and its environs (Ischia) ever.

Now to the second season for the second book:  From the fourth episode: The Kiss


A viscerally felt experience of the beach at Ischia with Pinu (married to Lila’s brother, Lila is married to Pinu’s brother)

I’ve not seen or felt anything like this in a long time. It’s not just that all the actors and actresses project real feelings fully that we can enter into, but the whole ambience of the situations. Thes= prologues often focus on characters other than Lenu or Lila so in this way that part of the novels is brought into play. Or we see an incidents or strings of incidents that are to the side of the main plot-narrative. Only by having many more episodes than the company was willing to fund can you bring in these “minor” characters. They are often suggestively complex about characters falling to pieces by the system.

After said prologue, we first see them on Ischia as they trudge down the beach. In an other film it would be all surface, glamor, here we feel how tiresome beaches also are, how heavy the umbrella, how weary the walk, hot the sun, and a sense of sticky sand. I put it down to not magazin-ing everything. The house is like a house I would stay in, the curtains thin, the stone steps hard, the doors ugly and off-center, painted in such a way that the shades are not perfect. All the surroundings are like this — a boat is not super expensive, perfect in way but messy, slosh slosh.

Their dialogues are what people might say: not elevated into top wit or reflection, but such wit and reflection as comes out is from offhand, slightly spiteful distrustful talk, the way people do ever one-upping one another — a real sense of contingent interaction

The fights every one has, the ambiguity of positions only once in a while made explicit: Lenu who is treated as a servant and yet is the educated person there with books with her. The mother says I’ll be blamed. When a quarrel happens, the debris and then how sordid
things can be — yet the beauty of the air, light. When they swim, they swim as awkwardly as I do — I mean the girls, as feeble in the sea and yet moving along. What the film does is give us in a way what book can’t — the viscera through sound, music, real presences — the series fulfills the book.

Yet OTOH, it has to simplify so the central story line stays with Lenu/Lila in conflict, Lila and her husband’s inadequate (I’ll call it and for both) relationship, and the entry of Nino into this mix. Lila begins an affair with Nino when he chooses her over Lenu (who is profoundly hurt and turns to Nino’s father and allows him to have sex with her one night on the beach) Another parallel is Pinu’s relationship with Lila’s brother, Rino — it’s too based on sex for her taste and now she’s found someone who she likes better and treats her as a person more, Bruno, and she wants to escape the conflict but also Nino. Almost she’d rather have neither man, but she is not permitted that choice of no man.

In the book other more minor characters are also developed: especially Pasquale Peluso. That he’s a communist bricklayer matters. The book and series wants to present Italy as it’s felt through the class system with all its nuances. Pasquale has no chance whatsover of getting to the beach. He gets his books from the library or cheaply made ones, and rag newspapers. So this stream-lined season (only 8 episodes) would or could be so much richer

From the sixth: Rage

One of many moments where it’s apparent Stefano has beat up Lila in his rage


Enzo picking Lila up to take her home (to Stefano) when Nino has abandoned her

Lila has been in a repressed rage since she was a young child and thrown out of a window by her father, and not allowed to go on to school beyond the most basic primary learning. The rage comes out again and again, mostly in the form of what’s called bad behavior. She is often mean to people, says things that hurt others very much, spiteful, mocking.

The episode opens with Lenu doing spectacularly well with another of these public questionings in front of all her classmates and all the teachers, told she should go on to university, demurring but urged by the teachers, and then when she tells her parents and her mother goes into a rage and forbids it (she is getting above them, where will she get the money from), defying them, going by train, arriving at this pretty looking city and off to take the exams, which if she does well she will be supported. She then says the hardest thing to tell now is what happened to Lila during this time.

We see fleetingly Lila give Lenu a box of notebooks; these are Lila’s life story, and then we see Lenu walking by a canal with them — in the book you are told what she does — and thus are prepared for why Lenu when she is in her sixties writes these 4 books after (the opening scene of the whole series), Lila in her mid-sixties disappears.

In this episode — for the rest of it — we see Lila in probably the first year or so of the marriage to Stefano defies the deeply entrenched norm of these people and leaves her husband for Nino. They live in a slum in a broken down apartment; only very briefly and from afar do we see their 23 days of joy. That’s all they have because suddenly without much preparation, Nino turns on her, and begins to complain ever bitterly about her lack of middle class manners, nuance, that she does break out and say what she thinks, she is an embarrassment to him. He packs and leaves.

Meanwhile upon her leaving — in a scene where Stefano is stunned, astonished, finally tells her how he loves her and has done all he can give her everything. She begins her telling him by saying she will no longer go to the shoe store, the grocery, hates staying home, hates him. He does not believe she will leave and goes to work and when he comes back she is gone. He weeps, and goes to the family, they are horrified and accuse one another of knowing where she is. They decide she has gone to stay with Lenu because they can’t bear any of the alternatives. What happens is the gangster type threatens Antonio, home from conscription and emotionally destroyed when Antonio asks for a job, then threatens him to go find Lila but not tell anyone. This mode of threatening is Mafia stuff – just what we see nightly on TV in the killing criminal Trump.

Antonio promises, but wandering near where Lenu has gone can’t find Lila; he goes to a neighborhood spectacle and tells Pasquale, who loves Lila and he and Enzo say she must be found. They do find her after Nino has left her. She is writing on a typewriter. After some
talk Enzo persuades her she must return to her husband, she is starving in this dump.

She does return, and there is Stefano all rejoicing. She tells him she is pregnant, and he is delighted until she says it is not his Now this is cruel: not only is there no need to tell him but she was pregnant before going off with Nino, and in the book it’s obvious she flees because the pregnancy is a final nail on the coffin. How can she now ever escape.

I’ve heard that phrase many a time from my father — a nail on the coffin that kept me here … What’s missing is the inwardness for you are through Lenu as narrative in the subjective consciousness of Lila at last.

From the seventh: Ghosts


Lenu studying


Lenu’s mother while caring for Lenu

We fast forward to Lenu being integrated into the university (Pisa, Normale superieure); she is the girlfriend of a wealthy young man who tries to buck the exam system where we are shown “orals” are a form of bullying or humiliation (if you don’t produce the right answers). We have seen Lenu go through this 3 times. The young man refuses; says what we are leaning is divorced of all social, economic, political context, he is excoriated, mocked, dismissed from college. She realizes when she goes off with him and he tells her he must leave now (deprived of all income) that she has not integrated socially into the college. She has spent her time in the library studying — so now he’s gone she is alone — not part of some group

She grows ill and very touching her mother shows up and takes care of you. The rough hard selfish seeming woman loves her daughter. Lenu slowly gets better. We get flashback where Lenu and Lila are together after the birth of Rino and where Stefano has asserted himself to the point he control her body and her movements. She fears her notebooks will be found and destroyed. She gives them to Lenu but Lenu sees them as Lila’s way to dominate and control her and make her choices seem inferior, lousy. There is truth to this: Lila has acted as a kind of DuMaurier’s Rebecca to Lenu with Lenu the submissive second Mrs DeWinter.

Lenu has to get rid of them — and she stunningly throws them into the river. These are all that Lila has created that’s worth while. They are better than anything Lenu can write since Lenu has been educated out of telling such direct truths.

OF course we are to infer that these four novels are Lenu’s way of retelling her friend’s story which she did read.

While reading Lila’s story is dramatized: from her first refusal to come out of the apartment and let all these people use her, to her giving birth, to her trying to educate her boy to be something quite different from a fascist male. At first Stefano is submissive and loves her but slowly he becomes enraged. He has a relationship that satisfies him with Ada (I think she might be Paaquale’s sister) and Lila knows that Ada represents a direct threat to her, for she needs the set up she has to bring her boy up. She comes out to mingle and of course finds there is no good choice for her. She won’t go live with Solaro — just another fascist relationship based on sex and money.

It is time to go and she gives Lenu a letter to give to Enzo — in the book we are expected to understand this is Enzo who promised to care for her absolutely. But Enzo is not someone who has either a degree or business from his family.

We return to Lenu and see her mother leaving. The film of her walking away to the train and finding her way with difficulty was so touching to me. I know I may not be able to do online teaching because I may find they are lying and will not give me the support and direction they pretend. Getting on a train if you have never done it is hard.

When I finished I found myself wishing Ferrrante could have won the Mann Booker or some such prestigious prize or that her oeuvre would be given a Nobel – never happen because the focus is on women, women’s lives and the aesthetic l’ecriture-femme.

I’ve joined a tiny group of 4 to read or discuss these books together but do not know if it will come off – it’s online. Without benefit of a listserv

The last for the season, the 8th The Blue Fairy Book: This was a powerful episode. A wonderful finale to the book which ends just as the movie shows.


Lila as dressed for hard work in freezing environment of meat-packing factory


Lenu uncomfortably listening to disdainful criticism of her book at her book launching

An unexpected direct parallel to today — when Lila pays the price of freeing herself from her violent husband and the comfortable way of life he can provide her and her child, she cannot do this alone, not in this dangerous patriarchal society. So she accepts Enzo’s offer but that means helping support herself and she descends rapidly. We find her where? in a meat-packing factory, yes. The movie version does not begin to describe the filth, noise (screams of killed animals), the blood, the disgusting techniques for making sausages, the cold the people must endure, how they are cut, their skins bruised, the word hard and long.

So while the US meat packing workers are probably more comfortable because of improvements in technology, my guess is the rest — low pay, low status, long hard hours, coercion as a way of dealing with workers – is all there. Nowadays on top of that you can catch a lethal virus, but don’t expect unemployment insurance if you don’t come in. There are very high numbers of people sickening and then proportionately dying.

Ferrante is no fascist and last night’s concluding episode showed us how Lenu was being led to stay in the longer rungs of the upper class — be a teacher in a high school because you haven’t got the accent or the generations of family to justify putting you in a university level academic job. The way she nearly reaches that is to marry in. She has recognized this is also her path to getting her novel published. Piero Airota introduces her to his family and she is found acceptable, so he produces a ring. They will have to wait two years for him to get the position he needs to support them as upper middle people — there is no worry in his voice he won’t get that position, and as the next novel opens he has it.

We see Lenu come home and how she has been educated out of belonging and yet still belongs because at a gut level she understand. The scenes with her family and her mother seen now as a denizen of this pitch perfect. Their pride in her too.

The story of Lila’s replacement by Ada is told by Ada in the book as it is here. We see in both that Stefano’s way of coping is still to beat up a woman, and his deepest impulses conformity. Had Ada not gotten pregnant, not had the nerve to come to Lila, and Very Important, Lila accepted her, let her into the apartment and start just living there, it is possible she would not have been able to take her place as Stefano’s new woman. She does have to work long hours in the grocery store, and then a new baby to care for and also obey this man. A look in her eyes shows she knows the price of the ticket.

One of the beauties of the book is how the working class women can band together and recognize one another. So too the middle class but the middle class does not recognize those beneath them. We see that in the teachers’ behavior, women even more than men.

One interesting aspect of the price of refusing to conform to the role of wife in Lila is we see that in Enzo there is no violence, no forced sex so at night. She likes him for that. I feel we are to feel both our heroines capable of liking sex, but the way it’s practiced (so to speak) makes it a chore or betrayal after a while. Lila has some liberty to study, albeit supposedly with Enzo and for him — though as to talent for mathematics we will discover in the next book that Enzo doesn’t have much. She does remain grateful to him.

I was very touched by the closing scene. How both girls say let us not be lost to one another — because they could be. I knew that Lila would burn that child’s book — we have had in the series all the scenes between Lila and Signora Oliviera to know how Lila knows now how little er talent mattered once she did not go on to the conventional trajectory of schooling.

The concluding scene where the novel is published and Lenu is unable to commandeer the room or present a presence that is intimidating so the male reviewer gets up and condescends. Pietro had told Lenu to “remove the racy bits” and this guy makes fun of the presentations of the scenes of sex. They are so necessary to the women’s stories (see above). But suddenly our ambiguous hero stands up and defends Lenu. There he is, Nino, also part of this upper middle class, and he’s read Lenu’s book

I left out the touching flashbacks, especially of the two girls as very small, reading Little Women. Lila curled up in Lenu’s arms, the thinner one, dressed in a cheap sack dress. There are others and they correspond to moments of flashback in the book


As children, Lila in Lenu’s arms, reading Little Women

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Antony and Cleopatra at the National Theater

I recommend watching as strongly as one can — there may be as good productions as this one but probably since A&C is not that often done, it’s unlikely to get to see one better.


A playful moment

What impressed me is how the the actors (Ralph Fiennes, Sophie Okonedo, Tim McMullan, Tunji Kasim) and director (Simon Godwin) did not flinch from Shakespeare’s un-idealized Antony and Cleopatra. He is an older man, old, declining, spends a lot of his time drunk and befuddled, lascivious and lazy; she is a continually grating sort of mate, continually teasing, asking for validation, giving Antony a sort of hard time as a version of fun. Samuel Johnson endlessly claims Shakespeare’s real strength is the true characters. That’s one of the strengths of production. They had the uncomfortable comedy and the ridiculous.

When Antony is at that party roaring drunk with his fellows, we see (first time I’ve seen this), which the language allows, homosexual sex as part of Antony’s make-up and tastes. He’s false at times – he knows very well he won’t stay with Octavia. He takes the easy way out. She acts senselessly too — badgering her messenger. He also is too self-glorified. His strength is as a soldier, on land, but no he will fight at sea – and then lose. He is jealous of Octavius as this young effective man. Similarly the actor who played Enorbarbus is not done heroically (the way I once saw Patrick Stewart do it) but as a flawed human being whose flaws fit Antony’s but sees (as Antony does not) Antony’s self-destructiveness; when he hates himself for deserting it’s all the more effective.

But they have another side, and they do love one another, like their Egyptian life together; and as the play went on gained in stature based on being what they are, true to it, non-politicians, warm passionate, as opposed to the prig Caesar who is part of a long line of politicians in Shakespeare, starting with Bolingbroke in R2, Claudius in Hamlet. Antony owes a lot to Richard II, the development of this figure of a non-politicians, not a wheeler-dealer, a Hamlet, can’t be bothered to fit in, like the young Hal; also to Henry VI – aspects of these characters. It’s a very hard part to play. Cleopatra has no progenitor that I can see in Shakespeare except maybe some of the women in the history plays — those who love, those who are politicians; she played Margaret of Anjou, Henry VI’s wife in Hollow Crown. A flaw (it must be admitted) is the actor playing Octavius is too sweet, too young, not hard, mean, dense determined for power in the way of Shakespeare’s politicians.

Until they begin to fail and then as actors they can soar – – I was very moved by the ending. See how they both botched it and yet were just the embodiments of what love can be – sometimes so stupid — why did she flee and he flee after her during the sea fights? As he died in her arms, I remembered Jim dying in mine.


I also saw Frankenstein last week with Jonny Lee Miller as a powerful Frankenstein and Bernard Cumberbatch an astonishing creature; next week at the National Theater is Streetcar Named Desire; and if you want an alternative, or more traditional Shakespeare, the Globe is also on YouTube, for free for now (I spoke of Twelfth Night with Mark Rylance, Stephen Fry and others on a Sylvia II blog,scroll down)

So there you have it — how to wile away your hours in the evening (after work from home is done) with deep pleasure and growth in understanding and life

Ellen


“Dogged as does it” — Giles Hoggett advising Josiah Crawley (Last Chronicle of Barset, Ch 61, F.A. Fraser)

‘I believe, as I am sitting here,’ said Lord Lufton, ‘that he has told the truth, and that he does not know any more than I do from whence the cheque came.’
‘I am quite sure he does not,’ said Dr Thorne ….
‘I don’t see it,’ said Lord Lufton, ‘I might have a lot of paper money by me, and not know from Adam where I got it.’
‘But you would have to show where you got it, my lord, when inquiry was made,’ said Mr Fothergill…
‘Nothing on earth should induce me to find him guilty were I on a jury.’ [Lufton]
‘But you have committed him.’ [Mark]
… I simply did that which Walker told us we must do … ‘ (“Mr Crawley is taken to Silverbridge,” “Dinner at Framley,” Last Chronicle of Barset, Chs 8 & 10)

“If you take a young tree and split it, it still lives, perhaps. But it isn’t a tree. It is only a fragment’
‘Then be my fragment.’
‘So I will, if it can serve you to give standing ground to such a fragment in some corner of your garden. But I will not have myself planted out in the middle, for people to look at. What there is left would die soon’ (“The Shattered Tree,” Last Chronicle, Ch 77)

Friends and readers,

There is just no doubt in my mind that had the Rev Josiah Crawley’s story unfolded today, he would have become infected with the coronavirus, & perhaps died, compromised as his health was after years of arduous hard work on scarcely any food, of intense stress from grief, loss, and humiliation because his pay as perpetual curate was egregiously derisory, the nature of his work to go perpetually among the poorest to help them with the plainest tasks, to teach them, the poorest who of course would have been dying in large numbers. We all remember how his wife, Mrs Crawley, almost died in Framley Parsonage, having gotten sick with “typhus fever” (as it was called) from her contact through her husband with the Hogglestock people.

I maintain in this blog that Josiah Crawley is more of a hero for our time than Hugo’s man for Trollope’s theme is how inequality works: Like Jean Valjean, Crawley is accused of the smallest of crimes, he cannot remember where he got a £20 note, which seems to have been used to pay down a debt for desperately needed groceries; but unlike Hugo’s hero, the point our author makes is not that Crawley was driven to steal — neither our author or anyone in the book can believe Crawley could ever mean to do something said to be morally wrong; it’s rather that the pressure of living under such deprived conditions as he must daily endure has made him unable to pay attention to the most embittering of details of open charity. In the book’s first chapter we are shown how Crawley is regarded with distaste and distrust by the males trusted to be magistrates and sit on juries.


Crawley before the magistrates (Last Chronicle, Ch 8, G. H. Thomas)

Eyeless in Gaza, at the mill with slaves (from Milton’s Samson Agonistes, Rev Crawley’s frequent reading)

By the time of the grand jury trial it has been suggested there is no pity due this man: why did he take this position, when he knew the salary by itself would not provide enough money for him to live as a clergyman with a family, someone asks. The community feeling is it’s somehow his fault his family starves, live in embarrassingly worn-out clothes — his personality is to blame; otherwise, it’s implied he’d have been promoted.  Chapter 5 depicts the acute poverty of the Crawleys. Not one person challenges the establishment which has made such a position for a learned gentleman to work in. No one but Grace seems to pay attention to or value her father’s learning, and she is after all forced and it does her no economic or social good once it’s discovered her father is disgraced.

We do learn that any scene involving money is traumatic for Josiah Crawley and that’s why he was a vulnerable scapegoat for those who might actually stole the check as a convenient cover for their own crimes.  Mrs Proudie exploits the sort of loophole that often exists in power shared by various people where it’s not clear that the Bishop has the authority to stop Crawley from preaching because he has not been found guilty. We watch Crawley stand up to this treatment and express the agony of his soul in a letter to the Bishop:

I am in a terrible straight. Trouble, and sorrow, and danger are upon me and mine. It may well be, as your lordship says, that the bitter waters of the present hour may pass over my head and destroy me. I thank your lordship for telling me whither I am to look for assistance … But the deeper my troubles, the greater my sorrow, the more pressing my danger, the stronger is my need that I should carry myself these days with that outward respect of self which will teach those around me to know that, let who will condemn me, I have not condemned myself’ (“The Bishop’s Angel,” Last Chronicle, Ch 13)

In this same book Trollope provides another set of characters in London, who are much richer, & get away with very crooked dealings — as stockbrokers with other people’s thousands of pounds; but no one arrests them. Crawley’s intense pride and sense of his own good character make him unable to cope with the scorn and indifference to him, he behaves re-actively, masochistically, and when he refuses to give up his position and salary on the grounds there has been no conviction, Mrs Proudie, the ecclesiastical wife roars he ought to be prison. What is this but a mirror of the “advanced” economies of quite a number of nations in 2020?


The formidable Mrs Proudie about to intrude herself into her husband’s ecclesiastical business (modeled on one of Thomas’s vignettes for Last Chronicle; from the BBC 1983 Barchester Chronicles, played by Geraldine McEwan)

Crawley does stand up brilliantly up for himself when not intimidated by a court of law as when he tells Mrs Proudie: “Opposition to usurped authority is an imperative duty” (“The Bishop of Barchester is Crushed,” Chapter 18), and he does follow his wife’s suggestion to go to London to get advice from her cousin, Mr Toogood (“Where did it come from?”, Chapter 19).

The solution to the book’s mystery (“Where did he get it?”) at book’s end is capable of being seen as having a peculiar anti-feminist and feminist twist. The origin of all the Crawley’s misery is (as is alas not uncommon with Crawley) partly unconsciously self-inflicted. A woman, Mrs Arabin, has inherited a legacy from her first husband (John Bold, way back in Barchester Towers) and she has the power to transfer bills she gets as rent on her property to other people; being a woman she either does not know the particulars of bill transmission or she is careless about it. Thus do we learn women should not be entrusted. She simply slipped the bill into a folder of bills her husband was intent on giving Mr Crawley as charity. (To be fair, how was she to know this bill had come to the tenant from his brother who had gotten it from a crook who saw it fall from the hands of an aristocratic lord’s man of business, snatched it up, and put it forward as rent.)

Now for the feminist twist: hitherto the Arabins had been slipping these sums of money and other gifts into the silent willing hands of Mrs Crawley, but the husband, indignant and irate that his wife should take it upon herself to accept such moneys and not tell him, demanded that people no longer give Mrs Crawley anything but rather make the offers to him. Now had it been Mrs Crawley whose mind is clearer, she would have been able to account for who gave her these bills in this folder. So his taking over the will of his wife, demanding her abject obedience backfired. I am not sure Trollope meant us to see or himself saw this whirligig of time taking its revenges on Crawley as a merciless bully over his wife. Perhaps Joanna Trollope, though, saw how unfairly Mrs Crawley was treated by him and could not bear her abject life (see my blog on The Rector’s Wife as a post-text to LCB).

We began a reading of this book as a group on Trollope & His Contemporaries (@groups.io) with the thought it had perhaps become dated because it is no longer the famous signature book Trollope readers go to first or are recommended to read as his masterpiece. It undoubtedly manifests some obsolete attitudes. We did discuss these and I digress from my central comparison of the parallel between Crawley and Lily Dale to show how they fit into the book.

There is a spectrum in this novel of social-psychological behavior and motives in the characters represented by the old-fashioned world of Barsetshire as we have come to experience it for 6 books, and the modern one of London as depicted here and in, say, the world of Sowerby in Framley Parsonage. The two ends are represented by the saintly Mr Harding, on the one hand; and the unchaste morally imbecilic women and greedy male money-lenders in London, on the other.

Mr Harding is the only person in the novel simply to guess how naturally and probably Mr Crawley happened to have the note: he was given it by Mrs Arabin, whom the novelist artificially keeps away from Barsetshire and her husband too by travels into Europe. He writes Eleanor to ask, thus himself initiating a bearable ending for Mr Crawley. He compounds this deus ex machina role by dying and asking the Archdeacon to give his sufficiently remunerated position to Crawley. The Archdeacon still has to be pressured into it as Crawley is not the type the establishment will respect & will not kowtow to the Archdeacon. Through Mr Harding Trollope also makes fun of the complicated explanatory plots of how things occur in a Wilkie Collins detection novel. We agreed on the list that Mrs Proudie has to be killed off or she would have prevented Mr Crawley from taking a decently paying position by persuading the Archdeacon (not hard to do) that Mr Crawley is surely unfit.

Trollope both jeers at and disdains the London women, showing no understanding or empathy for how a woman can come to sell sex and her body in the commercial hierarchical world of London. They must be sub-human in their stupidity and animal-like in their tastes. His problem is to link them in (perhaps the Broughton-Dalrymple plot is material he had worked up on its own) through John Eames and he cannot in this respectable novel show Eames is coming to Madalina Desmoulins to go to bed with her. He does show that Eames enjoys triumphing over her when she accuses him of using her. He just (almost inexplicably) cannot keep away unless threatened by marriage. (John Eames is supposed to be a kindly generous man, but not here at all.)

Trollope’s nasty misogyny reaches its height by having Conrad Dalrymple, a male artist (friend to Eames) paint the corrupt nasty wealthy woman’s daughter as Jael in the Jael-Sisera story of the Bible (see Judges 4-5, the Book of Judith). Jael kills Sisera by driving a nail into his head, a woman’s revenge story of the type Artemisia Gentileschi painted. Women painted this kind of thing from time to time, not men. In Trollope’s novel such paintings of stories are not women releasing anger but merely glamorous titillating sexy silliness. This conclusion or contempt for such paintings is represented by having Dalryple tear his painting, showing how little he thinks of it.


One of G. H. Thomas’s vignettes in the concluding London chapters of the book

The height of cruel bullying and punitive values in the novel is, however, shown in  Mrs Proudie’s behavior to her husband, to Crawley and a height of self-inflicted punishment (Dalrymple could have asked a large sum for his picture) is matched by the persuasive brilliance of the depiction of the complete collapse of her hold on her unfortunate husband and her subsequent death.  What has she to live for if she cannot inflict her power through pain on her husband and through him on other people? (she is the Trump of the book insofar as there is one). And the distastefulness and egregious stigmatizing of the London women is matched by the depiction of crooked real business dealings among the London males, and the collapse of Dobbs-Broughton’s business and his suicide.

Here too we have simulacrums of the modern world but mostly wholly out of spirit with what readers of contemporary novels and watchers of contemporary movie series accept as readable and watchable entertainment — not altogether unfortunately: you can find this kind of material on Fox TV and recent violent sexed-up movies in the form of mystery thrillers and fascistic fantasy action-adventure movies.

There is also a somewhat obsolete story in the romance of Major Grantley and Grace Crawley.  He insists on marrying her because he loves and values her, even though his parents are horrified at the thought of having as a daughter-in-law and wife to their son, the daughter of the impoverished and now accused Rev Mr Crawley.  I’d say it’s not wholly obsolete as today many a wealthy parent will move heaven-and-earth to prevent an adult child from marrying down, which in our world means to people of less money and less prestige.  But there is (out-of-date?) cloying element in the story as Grace is ever so grateful to Grantley and herself regards herself as beneath him and his parents. The material also includes a debate over the the obligation of an fully adult upper class male in the book (Major Grantly, a widower with an adolescent daughter), to marry only with his parents’ full approval of his chosen bride.

Further twist, the Archdeacon is as Major Grantly’s father, had persuaded his son to give up a good income in the military in order to live the life of a gentleman of leisure near his parents. Now he is wholly dependent on that father and the father is (an act of betrayal, of going back on his word) going to take the son’s income (an allowance) back if the Major marries the accused much despised impoverished non-networking curate’s daughter. He is put up to this by the malicious Griselda Grantley, now rewarded with one of the highest ranks for women in the book (Marchioness of Hartletop). Trollope empathizes with the Grantly’s parents’ idea they have the right to ask of their son he not lower their status in the world by his life choices.

I  think Trollope meant us to see at least how dangerous it is to give up one’s monetary independence based on a promise. What happens, however at moments cringeworthy the romance  (especially the scene between the Archdeacon just about salivating over the docile Grace) is at least capable of a humane turn of interpretation. Trollope enables us to see that Grace need not be punished all her life for the way the community regards her father; nor Grantly’s possible experience of joy taken from him because his longing for a gentleman’s life tempted him to give his father such power over him. Grantly fils can in modern terms choose an authentic existence; Grace can live with someone who will appreciate her talents. They can go to live more modestly on the continent. Of course our deus ex machina (see above) prevents this less than prosperous future.


“She read the beginning, ‘Dearest Grace'” — we see to the left, Grace Crawley intently reading a love letter from the Major; on the right, Lily Dale more relaxed posture, from the back, reading her newly arrived letter, with Mrs Dale with the newspaper in hand, a middle class breakfast scene (Last Chronicle, Ch 36, G. H. Thomas)

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

For a few days — for a week or two, when the blow first struck here, she had been knocked down, and the friends who were nearest to her had thought she would never again stand erect upon her feet. But she had been very strong, stout at heart, of a fixed purpose, and capable of resistance against oppression. Even her mother had been astonished, and sometimes almost dismayed by her strength of will … (“Down at Allington,” Last Chronicle, Ch 16)


Lily and Grace Crawley sewing together, early in the book, becoming friends (a vignette by GH Thomas)

The book’s second traumatized character, Lily is (I gather from group discussions) often attacked for refusing to marry. I cannot say Trollope is wholly on Lily’s side. The Last Chronicle in part rehashes a story told in The Small House of Allington where Lily Dale is stunned and her deepest private feelings violated; she also experiences a Crawley-like public humiliation.  After not only engaging herself to Adolphus Crosbie, but making it plain to all she has given him her heart and soul (and perhaps body too), made herself abjectly his, Lily is, within less than a week of the engagement, cast aside by Crosbie for a cold rich titled woman. A young man, Johnny Eames, has loved her as a boy and offers himself in marriage, but apart from her never having been attracted to Eames sexually, she is emotionally shattered in ways analogous to a raped girl. In LCB, Crosbie, now a widower, of small but adequate means (his wife’s family having fleeced him), I suppose similar to Major Grantley, thinks to offer himself again to Lily.

The problem is Lily still loves the man who betrayed her. Lily’s idea that what is most painful is Crosbie’s notion he is making it up to her. In other words, he considers she cannot do with him. He is doing her a favor. And we are made to see that given his shallow nature, were she to marry him, he would soon act on the idea she needs him far more than he does her. He would let her know it, he would not appreciate her since she did not value herself enough. Her mother hates him & writes the cold distance rejection (Ch 23). It is very nervy of him to offer himself again to her. Again there is a parallel with Crawley: Lily’s pride is as strong as Crawley’s (and Major Grantly’s) and she could not bear a life of isolation with Crosbie, who is not accepted by any of her friends. In all Trollope’s novels, pride is central to people’s mental health itself so badly are we all in need of self-esteem.

In the later parts of LCB, in London and Allington (Chs 45,52, 76), we trace Lily’s coming to choose an independent unmarried life. She only goes totally to pieces when she is directly confronted by Crosbie in front of all the others but inwardly she craves peace and calm in order to be able to live with herself with any kind of psychological security.  It’s not Eames’s strategy to confront her with the demand she must marry to have a legitimate life, but he does send women friends to make this point!  Lily’s deepest impulse now is self-protection; she will not open up to sexual and social hurt, not  any one (man or women) the opportunity to control and humiliate her again. She knows that Eames has been “toying” again with another woman, but her refusal is predicated on her shattered state.

I suggest Lily Dale at the end of LCB is the closest Trollope ever comes to depicting for us a girl who has been raped or sexually abused badly – and in public.  She does say point blank to Emily Dunstable she thinks the better choice for all (it’s implied) is not to marry. Trollope’s narrator insists Lily loves Eames, and that she was near saying yes until knowledge of Eames’s affair (in our period it would be sex) with another nasty women determined her to say no; the sense is MD’s letter informing Lily of the affair made Lily angry over being likened to this base person, made her distrust and regard Johnny Eames as shallow for being able to become involved with her. But Lily does escape the charge of snobbery, self-estrangement and thinking too much about what’s to come from having thought too much about the past. And I maintain that we need not equate narrator with Trollope (as implied author).


Lily Dale and Johnny Eames, a last walk (Last Chronicle, G. H. Thomas)

Driven by Eames and then Mrs Arabin, Lily says 1) she “will not have myself planted out in the middle, for people to look at:” she feels Eames wants her as a trophy, symbol, his pride is what is driving him to want to show people after all she did prefer him; and 2) she is a shattered tree and once you axe the tree its fibers are never the same. It could be Johnny will be kind, generous, loyal, but that does not mean she is not maimed and will be able to respond to him. She cannot be what he wants.

When I have said I was maimed as a teenager by sexual encounters and abuse I experienced, I have gotten back the comment you should not be, & there is something wrong with you.  This is what Mrs Thorne aka Miss Dunstable implies to Lily when Mrs Thorne asserts Lily should be able to get over it. Sometimes it’s implied in ordinary life that the admirable person just emerges the stronger. In a conversation I once had with my father, he presented as an explanatory image a piece of wood, originally strong and fine, but then someone took a big axe and struck hard and the wood was never the same again, immeasurably shaky, un-sturdy. To switch from these metaphors to people, my father was telling me sometimes such a person needs to take care of him or herself in a different way from others. Keeping yourself intact from here on in is going to take work. Modern readers could sympathize more were Lily to go traveling, write for the newspapers, have a vocation, but Trollope is profoundly against regarding women as having value individually, they must be wives & want to be mothers to be seen as useful & respectable & whole. So he will not permit Lily to travel or have a vocation or even get a job.

I have omitted much that is enjoyable and beautifully done in the book. The slow gradual pace, as the pairs and trios of chapters unfold, reach emotional climaxes consonant with the action, occasionally parts of the London stories (especially brilliant, persuasive bitterness between characters over corrupt money dealings),  a host of minor characters well-observed, the pragmatic philosophy of that wonderful sleuth, Mr Toogood, and his goodness. Wonderfully realized believable types: Dr Temple, man of business as clergyman; Mark Robartes now grown older; Miss Dunstable is a disappointment but still herself.  I agree with Stephen Wall, Mr Harding’s visits to his cello are among the most moving passages Trollope ever wrote:

But he would … gaze upon the thing he loved, and he would pass his fingers among the broad strings, and ever and anon he would produce from one of them, a low, melancholy almost unearthly sound. And then he would pause, never daring to produce two such notes in succession — one close upon the other. They were the ghosts of the melodys of days long past. He imagined that his visits were unsuspected .. but the voice of the violoncello had been recognised by the servants, and by his daughter, and when that low wail was heard through the house — like the last dying note of a dirge — they would all know that Mr Harding was visiting his old friend’ (“Near the Close,” Last Chronicle, Ch 49)

To analyse Crawley & Lily & a number of these others (even the waiter at the tavern in Barchester) could take a small book in itself. We did feel maybe there was too much reiteration, so that what had been done with such freshness and subtlety was here reduced a bit — the romance from The Small House, and the thick ethnographic landscape of the Framley Parsonage world, though not Lady Lufton who again springs to complex life. A rare strong good and now at any rate a guardedly independent and forceful woman.


Lady Lufton meeting and besting the Duke of Omnium (Framley Parsonage, John Everett Millais)

The Last Chronicle of Barset is one of Trollope’s masterpieces in the novel way.

Ellen


Cover illustration: an image of a painting by Felice Casorati, a favorite painter of Natalia’s (whom her father presented as a not-so-comic tyrant then naturally abhors)

Of one of the Nazi functionaries Levi meets in Periodic Table, he writes: “, “è nostro dovere giudicarlo, non perdonarlo” [it is our duty to judge him, not forgive him].

Prison Box: Inventory (Rome, February 1944)

copy War and Peace
cyrillic type
(fading, spine bent)

cashmere scarf,
arm length
(dirty, white, torn)

photographs of a girl,
two boys
and a woman (frayed at the edges)

pencil stubs
(carbon
tips spent)

lined spiral notebook
(nine pages left,
yellowed, blank)

pair of wire-rimmed glasses
(left lens shattered,
nose support gone)

— from Peg Boyers’ Hard Bread, a poetic autobiography for Natalia, this poem the imagined box of things she could have gotten after her husband, Leone, had been tortured to death

“See, see where Christ’s blood streams in the firmament!” — Faustus, in Christopher Marlowe’s play

Gentle readers and friends,

Perhaps not altogether by chance, I’ve been reading a series of Northern Italian and Jewish writers tragically directly relevant to what is happening in the US and elsewhere today — slowly before our very eyes, keeping at this point millions of people quarantined at home with no testing for said virus, or humane exit plan (except death for millions). This in a course I’m taking with Judith Plotz at the OLLI at AU (as after all she picked the books and authors); most of them written between the mid-1930s and not long after WW2; you see the assigned books above. I’ve not been content with these, but added to them Ginzburg’s The Little Virtues (with her rightly much admired “Winter in Abruzzi”), a book of essays on her and Peg Boyer’s extraordinarily good recreation of her autobiography; I went back to Primo Levi’s If this be man and The Truce (which I read in Italian in the early 1990s), about If not now, when?, and Carlo Levi’s Fear of Freedom, in William Weaver’s Open City (an account of his relationship with post-war writers in Rome (these three and Ignazione Silone, Alberto Moravio, Elsa Morante).

I cannot recommend them too strongly —

The longer texts assigned were all ultimately forms of life-writing. In The Periodic Table Primo Levi retells his life through a series of ironic essay-stories which take their immediate inspiration from 21 different chemical elements, each of which allows him to tell of aspects of his life more or less chronologically, as boy and man in Northern Italy, before, during and after WW2, often seen from the aspect of him practicing his profession as a chemical engineer (this helped save him from death in the extermination camps). We meet his family, friends (Sandro and Rita who help him resist fascist culture), people he loved, whimsical utopian dreams, and (in one case) now exposes for committing without ever with understanding or acknowledging the evil enacted. We are led to see how central to our lives is chemistry. Personal stories filled with life’s troubles, philosophical reflections, whimsical irrational doings, often intertwined with his sense of an imposed alienation and stigmatizing as a Jew lead to our seeing a collective experience of humiliation and oppression lightly presented. Unusual and elusive accounts of life in a laboratory or chemist’s shop often ending in a characteristic sobering gesture. I liked especially the individual scenes, with their unexpected turns. This is a kind book by a kind man who has endured much.


Primo Levi at the New York Public Library

Natalia Ginzburg’s Family Sayings (another translation of the book’s title) feels de-centered: she hardly ever gives us her or her family’s thoughts hidden from the collective outward life; the anecdotes are mostly about others, with her as the quietly presiding POV. Yet the book is about her life, starting with the time she has consecutive memories at age 5 to near the end of her life when she visited England with her second husband, and now somehow freed of her immediate Italian world can spill out what happened the intimate events and calamities inflicted on her family and close friends and associates as well as their relationships, achievements, losses. Family sayings are repeated phrases, words, sentences that the family uses as collective comic glue for themselves. And we can track them (as they add and subtract people) from one place to another as they move around Italy, or are forced to move, hide, become imprisoned, escape (her brother swam across a part of the Mediterranean in winter to reach unoccupied France). Part of the reason for her reticence is this is a memoir, all the people are real, and the events really happened, so she must protect them and herself. I suggest frustration at this led Boyers to write the feelings and thoughts we do surmise (we are given enough to extrapolate) in poems that give Natalia’s repressed reactions and only partly expressed critiques and celebrations full play. I loved her plain matter-of-fact style: simple sentences expect us to provide in-depth understanding as when she says of Jewish and other displaced now vulnerable peoples they are “without a country.” While the surface is prosaic, quietly telling about all sorts of interesting people (many involved in politics and literature), the underlying pattern is tragic. Boyers calls her style and tone “astringent yet passionate.” The refrain: I never saw him again (of her husband); they never saw one another again. Like Virginia Woolf in Jacob’s Room, she produces a portrait of humanity as seen through the lens of a personal rich Italian secular-Jewish culture — during a time of aggressive fascism.


Natalia Ginzburg

One of the unexpected pleasures of Boyers’ poems is that in elaborating, imagining Ginzburg’s relationships to a number of Italian writers mentioned and central to her book (e.g., Pavese), we get close to these.


Peg Boyers reading her poetry

Christ Stopped at Eboli is more than a poetic masterpiece; it is a political argument and ethnographic study. It covers the year he spent in internal exile — a peculiarly Italian form of imprisonment descending from the Roman period, where a person is cut off, exiled from his or her community, isolated in a remote spot and watched to keep him or her from any kind of political activity, news of the world he or she understands. (A number of the Jewish and socialist/communist literati in Italy were treated this way: Ginzburg’s memoir includes a couple of years in Abruzzi.) Carlo Levi may be said to have thoroughly internalized his exterior culture — he acts as physician (he was trained to be a doctor), paints (his vocation), writes, joins in tangentially — which culture during his sojourn expands to sympathize with these strange and victimized (for centuries) people he finds himself among, whom since the Northerners know little of them, he is determined to bring before the world of his readers (the book was written in 1946 after Mussolini fell from power). I think his conclusion that these people live in a timeless realm they cannot be plucked from wrong: they have been given no opportunity, no good choices (like the working class whites of the US), exploited by every group that has taken power over them, and the result has been seething just repressed destructive violence. (The lesson for our era is more direct in Carlo Levi’s book’s conclusions than the above books.) He compels our attention by the riveted and insightful nature of the chronological settling in and living alongside story he tells. His sister visits him at one point, and we see this world from her experienced sophisticated compassionate eyes.


Carlo Levi

Late in life both Carlo Levi and Natalia Ginzburg became directly politically involved, both as independents in the parliament with ties to the socialist parties. They wrote journalism, she worked for Einaudi all her life. Both seem to have been known by other much respected writers and artists — from Croce to Pavese and Elsa Morante. It is a small and elite world these people belong to, but one with a pro-social democracy tradition – now under threat too.

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


Movie poster

I’ve now begun the fourth author for this term, Giorgio Bassani whose Garden of the Finzi-Continis (I have the Isabel Quigly translation) has some wider fame because there was a popular movie adapted from the book. I began this autobiographical novel after reading an apparently famous meditation: “A Memorial Tablet in the Via Mazzini.” He differs from the other three by his name (no Levi), because he comes from Ferrara (the others Turin and Rome), and because his tale is of fascists. This epitomizes one of Bassani’s central themes: the moral problem of assimilation. A man whose has suffered unspeakably from the camps and seen so many friends worked to death, outright killed (probably raped — this is only very recently recorded as on Marta Hiller’s A Woman in Berlin) sees his name as having died on a memorial plaque on a wall where there was once a synagogue. He wants to inform all that he is still living, but they are willing (good of them) to acknowledge the mistake and seemingly welcome him back, seemingly sorry for all that has happened, in fact they want him to be silent about what happened, to enable their own forgetting of the roles they played in betraying neighbors, often enough taking their furniture, their things, their property, their positions. It seems to be his moral duty to assimilate in the way demanded in order that the society can return to functioning. But is it? What happens is the one survivor refuses to pretend nothing happened, refuses to forget, demands his house and furniture back. And we see that the others (outright fascists and those who supported the fascists) want to return to the status quo that favored them after the war as well as before. They want to carry on wearing fascist costumes, acting like fascists (the partisans with their machine guns are behaving like fascists).

The Garden of the Finzi-Continis seems to be about how uUnlike the Levis in Turn), Bassani’s family in Ferrara, surrounded by fascists and sometimes fascists themselves, were not aware that they could and would be destroyed — they thought their insulated wealth protected them. This naivete is found in Olivia Manning’s depiction of a wealthy Jewish family in Bucharest in her Balkan Trilogy: with what ease the father is imprisoned, personally crushed, his property taken from his family whose best option is flight (if they can manage it).


Giorgio Bassani

The relevance here works a little differently. With the increased monopolization of all trade by a few giant corporations, the film has become one of these unaffordable super-expensive DVDS, no longer on Prime Video on Amazon (gradually such films are being removed) and available only as a blu-ray, merely now very high-priced. A 4 part film of Christ Stopped at Eboli is available only in Italian (as who would get a profit from this, so why provide translations) and at astronomical prices.

While I have my own long-time favorites in Italian poetry from the Renaissance and again the later 19th century to our own time, I’ve been introduced to new poets I hadn’t read or known about. Bassani’s style in his novel seems to be long sinewy sentences moving back and forth in time, drenched with an edgy-raw sort of nostalgia, but here is a poem by him where the emphasis falls on the here and now. The problem is what do you do when fascistic groups have taken over the land you live in and are working to do all they can to impoverish (so as to enrichen themselves) and terrify you into submission. (I cannot reprint the stanzaic form, which you can see here.)

The Racial Laws

The magnolia smack in the middle
of our Ferrara house’s garden is the very
same that reappears in almost every
book of mine

We planted it in’39
ceremoniously
just a few months after
the Racial Laws were brought to bear
it was a solemn-comical affair all of us
fairly lighthearted God permitting despite
being encumbered with the dull historical appendix
Judaism

Walled-in by four walls forewarned
Soon enough it grew
black luminous wide-rimmed
pointing decisively up towards the imminent
sky
full day
and night with grey
sparrows dusky blackbirds
unflaggingly scanned from below by pregnant
cats and by my
mother—
she too confined defenceless behind
the windowsill forever brimming
with her crumbs

Straight as a sword from its base to its tip
twenty-some years on
it overtops the neighboring roofs
beholding every bit of the city and the infinite
green space that circles it
but now somehow stumped I can guess
how it feels unsure
of a stretch up there in the heights a narrow space
in the sun
like someone at a loss
after a long journey
as to which road to take or
what to do
Giorgio Bassani, tr. James McKendrick


Felice Casorati — untitled

Ellen