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Archive for July, 2013

AllingtomGerouldsblog
The Allington Estate, big & small house & grounds (The Small House at Allington)

Dear friends and readers,

I’m delighted to be able to announce a third essay by me on Anthony Trollope is now on the Victorian Web.

The latest is my Mapping Trollope; or Geographies of Power (see Geographies of the Book). What differentiates this text from the one on my website is the maps are much larger and clearer and you can click on them to further enlarge them. For example, here’s Trollope’s drawing of Barsetshire enlarged. The Victorian Web also has software which allows the scene I transcribed from the BBC 1974-75 Pallisers, Part 9, Episode 8, Madame Max (Barbara Murray) conferring with Mrs Meager (Sheila Fay) as a separate clear document. As in the other two essays, the footnotes are far more accessible: you can click on the raised number and go rapidly from text to footnote, and in this new set-up the notes and bibliography are to the side.

In 2006 I wrote my second conference paper, this time in accordance with the conference’s theme (Trollope and Gender), about how male sexuality and norms of manliness and/or masculinity are presented in Trollope, Trollope’s Comfort Romances for Men: Heterosexual Male Heroism in Trollope. I am finding that this aspect of his work is central to the film adaptations still available: Raven, then Plater and now Andrew Davies explore the problems of having to abide by norms of masculinity and manliness in Victorian society, presented as not all that much different from analogous problems today.

RogertoPaulblog

PaultoRogerblog

Upon finding Paul Montague [Cillian Murphy] at Lowestoffe (2001, TWWLN, Part 2, Ep 12) with Mrs Hurtle (a woman whom Paul was formerly engaged to and will be led to have sex with that night in their shared room), Roger Carbury [Douglas Hodge] (an older cousin-uncle) berates Paul scornfully for sexual faithlessness and for abusing Hetta Carbury to whom Paul has now engaged himself and Paul replies:

‘You think so little of me (near tears). Are you so proud of your own dealings with Hetta? … you think of her and speak of her as a child, Roger, all your intercourse with her has been as a grown man with a child and now you offer yourself to herself as a lover? How could you regard your advances to her as anything but an embarrassment and with disgust (anger in his voice rising) that is what I mean …

I’ve learned to understand how Mark Turner’s book, Trollope in the Magazines shows the importance of male audiences to Trollope’s narrator’s sexual stance. What I now realize is Trollope’s novels are not as comforting to men as I had thought. And modern film adapters see the contradictions, cruelties and human tragedies in the conceptions of masculinity enacted in Trollope (say the Pallisers where a young Lady Glen is married off, sold to the much older Plantagenet) and bring these out.

breakfastlettersblog
G. H. Thomas, “She read the beginning — Dearest Grace”, Breakfast Scene, The Last Chronicle of Barset

My first paper on the Web is of course still there: are “Partly Told in Letters: Trollope’s Story-telling Art, which I wrote some 13 years ago now. As the years progress I become more and more convinced that epistolary narrative in a genuinely conceived epistolary situation is central to Trollope’s creation of insightful interiority: the readers, reader and character, cannot know what will happen next, the letter readers’ response is as important as the letter itself, and the letter is presented with an awareness of all the surrounding conditions and internal lying (posing) it brings, how it is also potentially an incriminating document.

Both my first and most recent paper, letters and maps in Trollope, became part of Trollope’s art partly because was himself a postal employee, himself literally mapping Ireland and southwestern England, and cared intensely about everything having to do with letters. From his Autobiography:

Early in 1851 I was sent upon a job of special official work, which for two years so completely absorbed my time that I was able to write nothing. A plan was formed for extending the rural delivery of letters, and for adjusting the work, which up to that time had been done in a very irregular manner. A country letter-carrier would be sent in one direction in which there were but few letters to be delivered, the arrangement having originated probably at the request of some influential person, while in another direction there was no letter-carrier because no influential person had exerted himself…

It was intended to set this right throughout England, Ireland, and
Scotland; and I quickly did the work in the Irish district to which I was attached. I was then invited to do the same in a portion of England … the object was to create a postal network which should catch all recipients of letters. In France it was, and I suppose still is, the practice to deliver every letter. Wherever the man may live to whom a letter is addressed, it is the duty of some letter-carrier to take that letter to his house, sooner or later. But this, of course, must be done slowly. With us a delivery much delayed was thought to be worse than none at all. In some places we did establish posts three times a week, and perhaps occasionally twice a week …

It is amusing to watch how a passion will grow upon a man. During
those two years it was the ambition of my life to cover the country
with rural letter-carriers. I do not remember that in any case a rural post proposed by me was negatived by the authorities; but I fear that some of them broke down afterwards as being too poor, or because, in my anxiety to include this house and that, I had sent the men too far afield. … I would ride up to farmhouses or parsonages, or other lone residences about the country, and ask the people how they got their letters, at what hour, and especially whether they were delivered free or at a certain charge. For a damnable habit had crept into use, which came to be, in my eyes, at that time, the one sin for which there was no pardon, in accordance with which these rural letter-carriers used to charge a penny a letter, alleging that the house was out of their beat, and that they must be paid for their work. I think that I did stamp out that evil … (Chapter 5, pp 87-90)

I love book illustrations, and to immerse myself in the worlds of books, and have been fascinated by the intersection of these with Trollope’s texts since I began reading him. when the Sharp people announced their topic would be maps, I knew I had to write about these in Trollope. And my long interest in epistolary narrative (I wrote my dissertation on Richardson’s Clarissa and Grandison), just love of reading novels told in letters and 1st person subjective narrative novels and studies in the 18th century also led me to take this perspective. I’m now interested in filmic epistolarity, how historical films imitate earlier illustrations and acquire interiority through the use of letters, voice-over, flashbacks, montage, all attached to letter writing, receiving, reading.

04Emilyreadingthenwritingblog
Soft focus: Emily (Laura Fraser) writing Colonel Osborne and saying she would like to see him again, he can come any time, after we have heard his voice-over in a letter to her (2004 HKHWR, Part 1, Ep 5)

And I’ve also shorter piece on the Victorian Web: The Art of Biography, Modern Style: Thackeray, with a response by Peter Shillingsburg. I do love life-writing.

All gratifying. I am very grateful to the people on the Victorian Web who made this possible.

Ellen

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WesternHemisphereOldMap
Geographies of the Book

Dear friends and readers,

During the all too short time (about a day’s length) I was able to be at the Sharp conference this year, held at the University of Pennsylvania, in Philadelphia, I enjoyed myself and heard some engaging informative papers — and gave one myself. Although I was able to attend the conference only briefly (as my husband was still recovering from an operation), I would still like to remember and share the gist of what I heard and experienced (as I did two years ago) and what I wish I could have been there for.

I arrived on Saturday, July 20th, around 2:00 pm, in time to attend two panels and in the evening go to a scrumptious banquet (at which there were Philadelphia mummers) and walk around the campus.

No surprise when I decided on “studies in the long 18th century” (e-7, 3-4:30 pm) and “the circulation of 19th and early 20th century genres of medical knowledge” (f-1, 5-6:00 pm). I’m originally an 18th century literary scholar, and for more than 20 years I regularly taught Advanced Composition in Natural Science and Technologies where I devoted a third of the course’s reading to texts on medical science as it’s really practiced in the US today.

Studies in the long 18th century covered shaping French and Polish georgraphical contexts. Elizabeth della Zazzera suggested how the different locations in which literary periodical production occurred Restoration Paris can teach us what were the social worlds and different political agendas of these locations — and how the periodicals in question reflected this. There were many geographic centers in Restoration Paris, some had students, others the rich, clubs here, and booksellers in commercial areas. Ms Zazzera studied and explicated imaginative geographies too. Lorraine Piroux argued Diderot’s Natural Son should be reprinted as it was in the first edition with its preface, 3 conversations, and 2 dramatic narratives as part of a contextualized text. Diderot was trying to establish a new kind of bourgeois authentic drama. A play should be played as if it were life, not art. He was writing experimentally and offering a novelistic contextualization for his play. These texts are today printed separately, divided into different genres.

Partitions_of_Poland
Partitioned Poland — 1795-1918

Teresa Swieckowska described the difficult position of Polish authors in the 18th and 19th century — and compared the situations in Germany and England. Poland had been cut up into different terrorities dominated by other national courts and companies; and copyright (a system of privilege with a contradictory evolution) was not an effective except as it aroused interest in a work’s author(s). Most Polish writers of this era were aristocrats, for there was no money to be made. Literary books were not profitable and not respected. Commodification in Poland starts in the later 19th century.

HistoryofMedicalCollegeofGeorgiablog
Medical College of Virginia also a library

The papers on how medical knowledge reached physicians and patients too showed how entangled were social, gender, and racial politics in deciding who could get information, what was available, and how presented. Brenton Stewart’s paper was on 19th century southern medical an surgical journals. He described and discussed specific medical colleges and hospitals (some meant just for “negroes”) & how the dynamics of local power politics shaped knowledge. To disseminate and share medical information across the south physicians and surgeons turned to highly politicized medical journals whose findings included examinations of medicine and surgery forced on slaves. (Afterwards I asked and was told that The slaves were named as well as their “owners”).

HYGEIA-The-Health-Magazineblogsmall
Early health magazine published by the AMA

Catherine Arnott Smith told of the early invention, spread and codification of the Layman’s Medical Journal (a kind of consumer health magazine) by women. She began by saying libraries were places where people could find information, but medical journals were written for other physicians; the earlier policy of associations like the AMA was to withhold information from patients (in order to control and make profits from them). She described the lives & roles of Addie and Julia Riddle who became physicians; of Jessie Leonard who censored movies; hygiene was their goddess; of later titles (Journal of Preventive Medicine, 1910), of political complications, like a Race Betterment League (contraception seems to lead back to eugenics, and women (Martha [?] Stearns Fitts Jones; Lady Cook; Virginia Woodhull) whose class and political positions (especially on the question of prohibition) made it difficult for them to work together. Both scholars studied ads and diaries.

Sunday I went to the session I was giving a paper at, “imaginary geographies iii” (g-3, 8:30-10:00 am), and Ian Gregory’s plenary lecture on using GIS to map and analyze geographical information within texts (10:30-noon).

WinnethePoohblog
Winnie-the-Pooh world mapped

Elizabeth Frengel gave a charming paper on the ideas about, illustrations and lives of Walter Crane and Ernest Shepard. She began with the history of end-papers (where from the later 19th century maps are often found), told of Crane’s writing on the importance of harmonizing text and illustration, and how described Shephard’s maps and illustrations realized the imaginary worlds of Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh and Graham’s Wind in the Willows.

I gave my own paper, Mapping Trollope: Geographies of Power where I argued Trollope’s visualized maps are central means by which he organizes and expresses the social, political and psychological relationships of his characters and themes, that they names places important to him personally; & that through his Irish maps he aimed to put Ireland into his English readers’ imagined consciousness. I show also how his use of maps changed in the later stages of his career to become minutely studied and sceptical geographies of power and take the reader well outside the corridors of power to show that what happens in ordinary places matters too.

The session concluded with Iain Stevenson on the life and “achievements” of a remarkably nervy entrepreneurial crook (soldier, husband of rich wives, Ponzi-scheme initiator), Gregor MacGregor who (among other things) was able to set up and enact crazed schemes of emigration (see my review of The Acadian Diaspora by Christopher Hodson) by exploiting the delusional dreams of independence and wealth among the ignorant abysmally poor and lower middle class. Gregor invented and produced imaginary money as well as countries and Prof Stevenson brought along some original specimens of his Poyais notes.

It was a well-attended session, and there was much stimulating talk for the half hour of time we had. As I wrote, people thanked me for the packet of maps — I gave out old-fashioned good xeroxes of maps from Trollope’s novels instead of doing a power-point presentation. During the discussion on my own paper I raised a note of doubt: Trollope’s maps are not accurate portrayals of the real worlds of Victorian England: for a start, they omit the prevalence of the abysmally poor, the huge industrial complexes (which here and there in his novels he does describe, like St Diddulph’s in He Knew He Was Right, an imagined version of London East End docklands), and thus erase and mislead modern readers and can function as propaganda. I quoted Orwell: “Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.” People defended the escapist aspect of these imagined worlds. Many more were interested in the history and development of end-papers (which Ms Frenkel had gone over in some detail), and maps for children’s books and mysteries in general. One woman had given a paper earlier in the conference about the practice by one company of putting maps (automatically it seems) on the back covers of published mysteries.

PosySimmondsMappingCranfordblog
Posy Simmons map of Cranford for the book that accompanied the TV mini-series adaptation of Gaskell’s short stories — just the sort of end-paper map people were discussing

Ian Gregory showed the conference how analytical and pictorial mapping of the frequency of specific words in paired (Wordsworth and Grey’s written tours of the lake district) or comparative texts (19th century official reports of the incidence of diseases like cholera and small pox in cities in England) can enable a researcher respectively to grasp unexpected emphases and large trends, and suggested the understanding gained this way can be added to close and/or deconstructive readings of texts. He made a lively wry talk out of philosophical, somber and abstract material.

It was then noon and as I had a 1:30 pm train to catch to return home to Washington, it was time for this Cinderella to leave imagined maps and return to her hotel and modern pumpkin coach (a cab) and head back for the 30th Street train station. What I wish I could have heard: more discussion on how maps are exercises in imposing power. I would have gone to session a-2 about maps and reading habits of soldiers and poets of WW1 (especially the paper on Edward Thomas reading Shakespeare); a-8 about why imaginary geography matters to book history; b-6, “books down under”, Australian convict memoirs, radical publishing and schoolgirl books (the Australian session probably included a paper on Ethel Handel Richardson); c-5 which had a paper on Chaucer’s portrait; d-4, the survival of WW2 concentration camp publications and letter culture; d-5, erotics of family books like Jane Eyre’s German daughters in the US (“emigrating books”). But fancy had had to be reined in.

WindinWillowsblog
Wind in the Willows illustration by Shepard

Ellen

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

BeckySteyneVanityFair2004blog
The Marquis of Steyne (Gabriel Byrne) propositions Becky (Reese Witherspoon), played for comedy (2004 Focus Vanity Fair, directed Mira Nair, scripted Julian Fellowes)

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

Dear friends and readers,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

GriefStrikenMrOsborneVanityFairPt5blog
Grief striken Mr Osborne (Tim Woodward) with his grandson (Davies’ VF)

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

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

dobbinRealizinghesgivenlifeforfoolPt6blog
Philip Glenister brilliant in the part (Davies’ VF)

Where Thackeray neglected a potentially tragic male, Davies built the character up: Davies gives us Rawdon and Becky’s courtship, Rawdon’s becoming subject to Becky, sharing, giving his all, trusting her naively (while not naive in any other area of his life), then gradually awakening to her coldness (to his boy) and unconcern for him. Rawdon cries. His becomes the moving story of the movie:
NathanielParkerasRawdon1998VanityFairsmaller
Rawdon (Nathaniel Parker) looking at her, saying I gave you all (Davies’ VF)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DestroyedSedleyblog
His mind shattered, he clings to rolls of paper

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ellen

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KingwheelsRooseveltInblog
George V (Samuel West) pushing Roosevelt’s (Bill Murray) wheelchair into the library where they can talk freely

DaisySmokingblog
Same night, Daisy (Laura Linney) smoking freely by small cottage on the grounds of Hyde Park

Dear friends and readers,

Until I read the reviews which came out around the time this film was released, this past Christmas (yes I’m 7 months late, but then this is better than my usual 10-20 years), I was going to tell of how much I enjoyed the movie the first time I watched it around 1 in the morning so perhaps in the mood for a sort of odd “midsummer night’s dream” about real people escaping the world of day. Then how I grew to dislike it as I considered all it had left out about the importance, greatness, nobility of the finest, best president the US has ever had bar none, his decent associates, and listened to the tasteless and hypocritical voice-over commentary of the film-makers. And then how I reversed again upon third viewing, again at 1 in the morning (gentle reader it’s been so hot here), realizing its appeal lies is that it’s traditional costume drama of the BBC type done for film adaptations with a quirky difference. It is a genuine defense of unconventionality; of people with what’s called and in the case of Roosevelt certainly was after polio disabilities. Its center is a spinster with little ambition.

Inthefieldblog
Love-making in a flowered field — Daisy also begins to smoke in this scene

So, quirky, but not so much because of the female narrator whose marginalized kindly, apolitical, private point of view permeates the film: that’s par for the course in these sort of films. They often have such women only they are usually made beautiful and married by the end. The usual nostalgia there is (including the use of film taken from a historical picnic at the time which provides the film’s penultimate scene), alluring landscapes, wistful light music, the leisurely pace, the complex psychology of some of the characters, multi- and parallel stories. Rather it’s quirky because of its self-deprecating non-solemn or off-hand presentation of the unconventional, the disabled, women no one wants (but Roosevelt it seems), the usual slice of life angle from the upper class (Hyde Park house is a sort of Downton Abbey, with several extensive staffs, steward, butler, man to carry the president when needed), one presented so wryly and combined with an important political reconciliation (this was the first visit of an English king to an American president).

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Daisy and Missy (Elizabeth Marvel) as friends playing cards, fringe hangers-on — the happy ending

The quirkiness is also in presenting disabilities (a stutterer, cripple), spinsters (Missy LeLand is as much a spinster as Daisy Suckley), and an unconventional marriage (FDR and Eleanor’s) as not needing to be normalized. There is none of this heroic overcoming we had in King’s Speech, no great win as in Lincoln, the stuttering and bigotry (the butler is simply let go for not being willing to allow black men on his staff in the kitchen) and unromantic sexual habits go on.

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As in a novel the opening sentence is telling so in a movie the opening still: we begin and end with Daisy’s voice and here she is from the back answering a phone call to come help cheer the president

It was the second thought, the doubts I was going to emphasize. This is one of the cases where the over-voice commentary on the DVD is worse than a waste of time: Roger Michell and his buddies talked false hype: continual
self-regarding stories about “the stars,” silly stories about Roosevelt; if the film-makers understood anything of the film techniques they were using (which they surely did) it was the last thing they were going to discuss. What do they think people listen to commentaries for? To be given a commercial in disguise. And the feature was not a feature but a trailer, which like most trailers distorted and dumb-downed the movie to make it appeal to a larger audience many of whom would not like this movie. I was particularly offended with their salacious references to the “hand-job” Daisy is said to give FDR in the film, and thought they had handed the public a deliberately degrading and debased way of viewing the man responsible for the few social ameliorations US people enjoy today and whose laws until they were repealed controlled the rapacious banks.

I thought one typical remark in the commentary revealing. The film-maker apologized for cutting the scenes of Blake Ritson as Johnson (luxury casting here), the butler who refuses to work with black men whom Eleanor has hired.

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Scene filmed from odd angle, Eleanor (Olivia Williams), president’s mother (Elizabeth Wilson) faced by Johnson (Blake Ritson) and other staff, two black men from the back

He says it’s them or me. Eleanor says it’s you and Ritson as butler is fired. All cut — you can view it in the DVD’s deleted scenes. No explanation from Michell beyond how sorry he was to lose Ritson’s performance. This is a part of the lavish flattery of these features for all the people participating in the film and pretense of happy times for all doing the film seen together with no rivalry (it seems). I think they cut it because it lacked the semi-humor with which everything else was dramatized.

I know FDR was the greatest (best, most decent, unbeatable as to programs) president the US ever had (bar none), though I’ve never sat down and read a full-length book about FDR or Eleanor — only what essays have come my way in periodicals we get in the house. I’ve the highest respect for Eleanor — and feminist avante la lettre as to her expressed points of view — I’ve never even read her memoir which I’ve had in my house for donkey’s years. I don’t know which is the best and don’t know where to ask, and know what is written about him is so skewed — during his 4 terms (my father used to say) from the newspapers you’d think he was the most hated man in the US and each election it was presented as astounding that he’d won again and big. His one mistake (driven to it, partly by illness) was to give up Wallace as his vice-president in that last term. History might have been different. I’m telling myself I’ll find out the best book and get to that memoir. I’m no “Americanist” — just don’t read much American literature though most of the books as a child and young woman without trying were US authors and types. I do like American gothic.

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But then I read the reviews and realized the film was dissed as “imbecilic” and idiotic because it told the story from Daisy Suckley’s, an obscure woman’s point of view: Daisy has “a termite’s view of history” said one reviewer. Who could care about her? I love that it was as much a heroine’s movie as say Frances Ha or an Austen film.

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Daisy (Laura Linney) appealing to and FDR (Bill Murray) reciprocating affection

A film without great stirring events and resolutions offended reviewers: it wasn’t going anywhere, had no point (like Lincoln). (None of the adulterers is punished like Anna Karenina [another Xmas movie], except if you think being told that while FDR shared his estate with Missy he did not visit her in the hospital when she felt fatally ill.) Eleanor (who did keep a second house) looked dowdy! (but she did in life). Those who recognized the film’s genre complained about what was the point: its discomfort, the unease. I agree a sceptical harder view of who these individuals were and why they hooked up (more characters should have been individualized) would have improved it (see Peter Bradshaw) — there were more serpents in this garden than the disabilities never discussed.

There is something odd in this film, but no one asks what it is: why did Nelson choose the incident of the king and queen’s visits (he adds it onto Daisy’s diaries) to show Roosevelt’s astuteness and humanity? it’s not only singularly devoid of hard mean politicking, war enter only through the king’s pity for the children in Spain bombed out of existence, and it does focus on the most privileged pair in the UK, partly trivializing them too, though Elizabeth’s (Olivia Coleman) needling George (Samuel West) with pointed references to his more suave brother, Edward VIII (who vacated the throne) seemed not improbable. The film is explicitly, consciously a defense of keeping secret the private lives of these politicians – that can be used by conservatives to cover up the their personal uses of their offices, I see that, but ti also allowed a crippled man to be president greatly. Should people’s sex lives and vulnerabilities be exposed when its their economic and social ideologies that count? In this film the characters have freedom in private.

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Roosvelt catching himself with his hand

Its central scene is where the president comforts the king for his stuttering by showing himself lurching along a desk as a crippled man to reach his cigarettes. And its climax occurs when Daisy discovers the president is having an affair with Missy as well — in that cottage she thought he had set up for her. And how the two women then became close friends, buddies in a car together.

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So instead I will emphasize how the film does not enforce normalcy. How it shows people behave irrationally: that the British King should eat an American hot dog as a great symbolic act is silly, and yet that is what happens in life. How Daisy remained the spinster around the place, the president’s friend except to those in the know. Daisy’s point of view is good-natured, open, tolerant, caring about others (her aunt played by Eleanor Bron who also lurches) as she hopes to be cared for,

DaisysAuntblog.

and this wins me over.

As with The King’s Speech, I felt sorry for the king while his character played so adeptly and slightly comically by Samuel West is not paid enough attention to. He makes the film fun. I liked his jokes (lame as they were) when the poor servants dropped those trays heavy with dishes and food.

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And the performances were very good. My view of Laura Linney has changed: I’d hitherto only seen her enacting that godawful introduction to Masterpiece theater where she is dressed in a ludicrous trussed-up sexual way. Here she is a Fanny Price who gets to stay on, everyone’s confidante.

As one commenter said, it’s a fine summer romp that I recommend. A beautiful movie.

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The president asks Daisy how does she like the landscape; she says very well.

And then sit down and read a good book on FDR, Eleanor, Henry Wallace, the political, economic and social worlds of the later 1930s. Yes we would have learned more to have Frances Perkins in the film (and political associates of FDR), but that and Eleanor’s politics require a separate documentary or biopic. Due to some good talk on Trollope19thCStudies I’ve ordered Kirsten Downey’s book on Frances Perkins. Also Closest Companion: The Unknown Story of the Intimate Friendship Between Franklin Roosevelt and Margaret Suckley, ed Geoffrey Ward — Daisy’s diaries and private papers (nowadays very cheap), and Hazel Rowley’s Franklin and Eleanor: An Extraordinary Marriage (ditto).

Ellen

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Greta Gerwig as Frances frantic to find an ATM (money machine)

Dear friends and readers,

The last time I saw Greta Gerwig was in Whit Stillman’s Damsels in Distress; an upper class sentimental fantasy set in a never-never land-college, she kept it alive by her ability to seem so real; as Frances Ha began I recognized her immediately, and although I’ve never seen a Noah Baumbach film before, I knew what was coming would differ from mainstream films — and not simply because it’s in black-and-white — though given Josh Whedon’s recent use of it maybe it’s a new “in thing. Her acting style allows for a depth of feeling and thought continually that does not seem virtuoso acting; she’s not at all conventionally pretty; I came to the conclusion she was not making it because she’s too tall, clumsy, not thin, her hair a mess, her nose large and bony and she reveals herself too much, is somehow too warm, too eager, not dressed right.

What is she not making? a career as a professional (salaried) career in the upper echelons in her case, the dancing world that’s what. Nor does she hold onto friends or want lovers (or a husband it seems, at least no good husband material addresses her). As in life, no one ever explains to Frances why she is not chosen to become part of the company; she is praised to the hilt by her mentor and then told she won’t be needed at all for the Christmas season. As the film opens, she refuses to go live with a boyfriend who is adopting two kittens as a pressure device (a family responsibility for them) to get her to. She cites her obligation to her roommate and best friend, Sophie (Mickey Summer), who in the next few minutes shows no compunction about deserting Frances for a place in a flat in Tribeca because she’s always wanted to live there.

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Sophie and Frances

Despite all rumors, reviews and promotional stills to the contrary (like the one directly above), this is not a film about female friendship. Almost immediately after the opening Sophie deserts Frances, on the rare couple of face-to-face meetings Sophie is embarrassed by (and most people are) Frances and wants her either to be different or go away; and at the conclusion of the film Sophie shows up to unburden herself again, claiming how unhappy she is with her fiance, telling of how she hates living in Japan, fighting with Him directly in front of Frances, only to desert the next morning and return to Him. True, the final breakup with Sophie driving away fast to this successful young man with the good job and promise of marriage (but probably many another pregnancy to be endured, and miscarriages are not to be depended upon), makes Frances accept the one job offer she has during the film: to be a receptionist in the office from which the dance company is run. Had the film ended there, it would have been realistic enough to be effective. Time to face reality. She is no longer in college and summer jobs as counsellors meant for girls 5 years younger than her won’t do. She must compromise, get enough money to pay if not for an apartment of her own, a space in one. Dissolve. Credits.

Alas it doesn’t. We then get this utterly improbable fantasy of her as magical choreographer; all the characters in the film we’ve seen are in an auditorium watching a wondrous (we are to feel) ballet and applaud her and it tremendously. Everyone suddenly has cooperated with her, done her bidding — danced what she wanted, where, made up costumes for her. Sat there. The 21st century equivalent of the heroine princess of 17th century romances. Well. She’s just possibly on her way to The Career, at any rate fulfilling her Vocation; and she’s not got just a space, but a fine new apartment in Washington Heights, and the young man who regarded her as fun to talk to as long as she paid her part of the rent for the weeks agreed upon, suddenly wants to go out with her. Matchpoint won, acceptance, admiration, money, love … Spare me. It’s endurable only because it’s done so fast, in soft focus, through montage and without much dialogue. Tacked on.

This film is addressed to today’s 20-30 year old middle class audience, especially women probably, who it seems still harbor fantasies and have instilled norms they expect to work them miracles and most of the time don’t any more (never did): remember today’s unemployment rate, think of the kind of jobs young people who’ve graduated college (paid a lot) often end up with. The film is a slow hit — it’s been in our local semi-artsy movie-house for weeks. I think of Sarah Franklin’s My Brilliant Career which ends with the heroine having no place to go to to fulfill herself in.

The film is also somewhat marred by the fantasy element that dominates Girls and many another film: the ease with which upper class 20-year olds live exciting super-socialized arty lives in Manhattan and other world cities. Frances is 27 — the age of old maid-hood in Austen films. I did not spot any African-American people in this film. No Spanish people either. Did I say it purported to give us random shots of New York City? So the fantasy ought to be obvious. The film is a fable and the depiction of this milieu kept exaggerated; we never see the lawyer at the dinner table who takes Frances seriously at work. Real world jobs are gotten by a few of the males but we never see what they are doing, how they got them, why they seem to have to move to places like Japan. Everyone has rich parents as does Frances — she visits a Father-Knows-Best pair of parents for Christmas in a fantasy suburbia in California where families are look happy and well-adjusted (I glimpsed a sister with a husband and children, all well-dressed).

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She bikes through a Donna Reed block in a 1950s style sweater and pony-tail

Rather we are most of the time presented with this glittery (black-and-white dream) ideal city life people have in their heads they are not part of (and long for) that we watch Frances failing to become part of.

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She takes a male friend out on a date to a very expensive restaurant

One person (doubtless a great performer and cool networker herself) wrote about the film as about a psychopath: she was that horrified by Frances’s sudden frankness about her miseries in public and her social awkwardness. The reviewer not only missed the point, she watched the film without for a moment realizing it was sending people like her up, displaying them like unconscious fish in a bowl.

What makes one stay for the whole of the film is puzzling, for a couple of times I had to resist the impulse to turn to Izzy and suggest we leave. Why? The nuances of the scenes, the believable dialogues kept me on the edge of uncomfortable pain for her; the film asks you to bond with a person who’s gauche, over-reacts, makes bad impulsive decisions; those who call her an “endearing underachiever” are distancing themselves into her parents. I know I’m Downton Abbey obsessed but I can’t resist saying here we have the New York indie equivalent of Lady Edith Crawley. For those with only a passing acquaintance with this serial drama, she’s the ugly 2nd sister, the one seduced by deformity, rawly humiliated at the altar. Both of them even have a big nose; both wear their hearts on their sleeves (tell too much), only when hurt because of this Lady Edith gets back while when someone spits in Frances’s face she says it’s raining. Both get stood up repeatedly, only Frances professes to believe the lies she’s told, and Frances is not permitted openly to lose it ever, as Edith does here:

RawlyHumiliatedblog

At moments (when she’s on the phone trying to get people to meet with her), Frances made me realize the name Crawley is uncomfortably close to crawling … At last I understood why Edith is scapegoated.

Art to have an effect on us must not be coercive; it must seduce. Social popular art must jolly us along. Movies present themselves most of the time as about the make-believe “we” not the real “I.” Insofar as this film comes close to that “I,” it’s worth the $8 and time-spent. My favorite line: Frances says to someone they must not go to a movie in the middle of the day. That’s just giving up altogether. That’s why I often tell myself. No I must do my “work” in the middle of the day, except that I did go to this movie with Yvette at 2:30. I’m getting old, giving in, my excuse my Admiral is not up to making supper for us while I’m gone. So you see I’m a victim of this killing ambition for dream-lives that don’t exist too, or to be franker, I wanted one I didn’t seriously believe I could make because (I know now) I didn’t know how to, and so I never did, but have not yet divested myself of its habits of thoughts.

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A quiet talking moment in the film

See Izzy’s similar perspective — no we did not consult before we wrote.

Ellen

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

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Ralph Richardson’s Karenin, reasoning with Leigh as Anna

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

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

Dear friends and readers,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Frederick March as Vronsky to Garbo’s Anna

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Keira Knightley as the grieving mother

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

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Anna supported by the corrupt Princess Betsy (Ruth Wilson)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I continue mostly bored and irritated by the Levin matter.

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

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

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

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

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

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1899 Twilight Moon by Isaak Ilyich Levitan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ellen

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Cover of graphic novel

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Harvey Pekar and Joyce Brabner at the time of the book

Dear friends and readers,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The airport scene where she leaves him

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He thinks about it

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

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

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

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Harvey Can’t Sleep

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

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

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

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Handywomanblog

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Close

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ellen

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