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Archive for September, 2015

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Kim and her child, poster for Miss Saigon

Mark Rylance
Mark Rylance as the king in a contemplative nervous moment

Dear friends and readers,

As with New York City, it seems to me to be in London and not go to the theater to miss out on what’s unique and deeply appealing about the city. So since during our 10 days and night travel last week, Izzy and I had three nights in London, two free, we saw two plays.

First a play I knew might seem slow or staid to her but whose content she would be sure to take an interest in, indeed know more about than me, but which I thought I’d like. All that was true of her reaction to Claire van Kampen’s play with much Baroque music, Farinelli and the King, about the mutually fulfilling relationship of an 18th century castrato, Carlo Boschi called Farinelli, and an apparently depressive and ill (he died relatively young) Spanish King, Philip V. Farinelli gave up a promising lucrative career in London to be this king’s musician-companion. Much of the barebones outline of the story is historically accurate; the queen’s love of her husband and an implicit affair with his castrato was added as audience pleaser.

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Farinelli (both actor and singe, Sam Crane, Iestyn Davies)), King and Isabella his wife (Mark Rylance and Melody Grove)

I longed to see Mark Rylance live and was not disappointed by his performance. As Rachel Halliburton writes, the text is weak, there are too many resorts to easy jokes (jocularity) and creeky comic courtiers (who lose their tempers). It’s a vehicle by a husband-and-wife team (Kampen is Rylance’s wife and both worked together at the Globe as chief composer and director). Clever staging ideas livened it up. Audience members were given seats on the stage, the actors interacted with them and were here, there and everywhere in the auditorium. The characters pour over maps, astrological charts, medicines; there is much playing of 18th century instruments on stage. The king dies off-stage and the queen in the last scenes is a widow.

It’s the radiant idea at the center, that delicate beauty and mutual generosity exist and can sustain people, especially as enacted by Rylance — he was tenderly joyful — that makes it, and it’s touching, really conveyed persuasively. No small feat in such a large playhouse (the Duke of York brought back to look 19th century on the stage too), with just outside the curtained doors all the elements of a rough hard competitive commercialized city and social drinking nightlife. A little oasis of fleeting delicate happiness.

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Afterwards Izzy and I talked about opera in London in the 18th century — she did her BA thesis on Handel. Jim would have enjoyed this play.

Our other choice was a famous musical which we had missed out on when Eric Schaeffer did it in our local Signature Theater and Laura went and said she thought of Jim while watching it because he would have liked Schaeffer’s sardonic production. The musical as done in London by Cameron Mackintosh (an expert in making hits) is a brassy, blaring concoction by the people who wrote Les Miserables, Alain Boubil and Claude-Michel Schonerg. Miss Saigon had music that reminded me of Les Mis, and its over political content, a semi-cynical take on American soldiers in Vietnam. A long way from Rogers and Hammerstein’s sacarin South Pacific. As is common knowledge, it’s Madame Butterfly story where our Asian heroine, Kim, ends up giving her child by an American soldier she fell in love with and married, to him and his American wife. She kills herself and the final scene has him grieving over her body, with the wife clutching the child, and the Engineer again deprived of an opportunity to get a VISA. This coming spring she and I will go to an HD performance from the Met of Madame Butterfly — which each time I’ve seen has made me weep copiously — how they will cope with the self-effacement of Butterfly I know not.

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Kim (Eva Noblezada) and Chris (Chris Peluso) — hero and heroine

The problem with Miss Saigon is the music is not beautiful or thrilling as was Les Mis. It’s also hopelessly corny at the opening, presents American soldiers as boys at play, exhorts you to see the US as having meant well (absurd), doing what it can afterward to compensate (as if this were even in thought possible). But it also has strong satiric moments (especially over this shibboleth referred to by the words the American dream). The most effective songs and acting were by the Engineer, a pimp and nightclub owner who longs for a VISA to go to the US to make a million, performed with outstanding energy by Jon Jon Brighes (he does not do it every night, he could not).

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Charles Spencer conveys the piece accurately: it even has a helicopter at the back of the stage for the iconic scene of the fall of Saigon (soldiers jumping in, leaving the Vietnam complicit people behind). It had an unexpected new resonance with the audience, as its central leads and songs are about an immigrant child and his mother. The songs on this issue drew more applause than the rest.

Both auditoriums were overflowing with people, both provided bars open at least an hour before performance with rooms for socializing. Outside the twisty turning streets (several were no cars are allowed) too were filled with people drinking, eating, talking, spilling out of restaurants and pubs.

There were other plays I wished we could have seen: at the Globe Measure for Measure alternating with a play about Nell Gwynne; not far from the Prince Edward Theater, Branagh’s A Winter’s Tale. Just before this Farinelli Hattie Morahan had stunned all with her daring perceptive performance of Beatrice-Joanna in The duchess of Malfi. but these were the two that we could get tickets for, fit into our schedule, and I could imagine Jim at with us. The playbill booklet I bought for Farinelli actually has real information about the era so I’m saving it to remember.

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Photos from the production of Farinelli

Ellen

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The cast at the end

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Laurence Gobbo (Tim Samuels), who transitions from being Shylock’s to Lorenzo’s servant — the world as dark masquerade seen in this facial make-up

Dear all,

This is the third HD film of a production of the RSC Shakespeare company that I’ve seen at the Folger Shakespeare library theater. Their Love’s Labor’s Lost was excellent as one of the first genuine attempts I’ve seen to present the play’s content seriously, but when it came to the play within a play, their concept couldn’t take in the humor or irony; unexpectedly their Love’s Labor’s Won (a retitled Much Ado About Nothing) was a disappointment: I had watched a Future Learn which focused on this production and it lead me to think it must be marvelous: it was very good but its dark or pessimistic interpretation was unable to make sense of the play’s supposed happy ending. Still both productions persuaded me that at every opportunity where a film of a live production (HD screening or encore) existed within my reach, I should go.

I am now convinced the latest phase of the RSC company is as deeply rewarding as any phase that has gone before it. For the very first time in all the productions of The Merchant of Venice that I’ve seen, in this one directed by Polly Findlay, the character of Antonio and his relationship to Bassanio makes sense. As the play opens, Antonio (Jamie Ballard) is on stage in a deep depression: the cause emerges as his love for Bassanio (Jacob Fortune-Lloyd) who loves Antonio in return but longs to marry Portia (Patsy Ferran), a wealthy beautiful Venetian — because Bassanio is capable of bisexuality, because he finds her attractive and compelling and to get her money. It is the deep betrayal of Antonio that this means that causes Antonio’s melancholy. Nonetheless, because he is an abject lonely man in his heart, he agrees to the bond with Shylock in order to supply Bassanio with the wherewithal to woo the rich lady of Belmont. The words of the last act which indicate intense quarreling as well as the poeticisms of heterosexual romance at the opening suddenly made ironic sense. At the close of the play Bassanio must go off to bed with his wife, and leave Antonio alone again.

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The stage was a wall and floor made of golden metallic substance, all smooth and glittering. All the characters who are active in choosing their fate (servants or hangers-on like Gratiano imitate) are out for money every time. Lorenzo (James Corrigan) wants Jessica (Scarlett Brooks) for her body but were the money not here he’d not be seeking to elope with her. She has to tell him about (Shakespeare’s words are there) the jewels, the casket and money to come to excite him to act. It’s clear from words that she is regarded as inferior. The production added an enactment which made Jessica feel bad that she had deserted her father (Makram J. Khoury) and was the abject person subject to Lorenzo as we see them exit the stage.

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Shylock (Makram J. Khoury)

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Those (Portia in disguise) appealing to him

The production put the anti-semitism of the text in your face. Makram J. Khoury looked like a caricature of a Jew, though what was brought out was that despite Shakespeare’s clear empathy for the man, Shakespeare’s presentation of the Christians as just as mean and amoral, greedy, hard as Shylock. This the first production I’ve seen that brought out how Shylock points out to the Duke were he to ask the Venetians to treat their slaves humanely they would laugh or just ignore him. Nonetheless, this Jewish man is a hate-filled figure; he says bitingly, bitterly of Antonio that Antonio is himself getting money by his trading and why should he the Jew not do likewise where he can, and says it seethingly. Shylock’s reaction to Antonio who openly despises and actually spits on his face (which the actor does twice!), is natural but this sort of human reaction is rarely shown so clearly. We see humanity as it is, the thing in itself on both sides. Still the Christians seem more forgiving: they have one another to comfort them. Shylock had only Jessica and she fled; Tubal (Gwilym Lloyd) is a confidant but there is little emotional relation between them felt and Tubal is not there for very long.

The scene where Antonio bares his chest to be cut up functions as a trope of torture. Shylock prepares to torture Antonio before our very eyes.

The production add an enactments (gesture as well as Shakespeare’s words) which insisted on Shylock’s hurt at the loss of this daughter and her betrayal of him (as well as the loss of the ducats and jewels), but the bare cruelty and greed of the man was undeniable. The play’s text exposes him when he turns to ask for his money when he can’t have his pound of flesh without blood. When it is required of him by Antonio that in return from keeping one-half of his money until he dies and it goes to Lorenzo, he become a Christian, he grovels. This is the play. In the 21st century the gov’t of Israel has acted according to Shakespeare’s conception of how an ostracized alienated person, a Jew, would act.

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Lorenzo and the (rightly) insecure Jessica

The money angle of the play is important. In Mantel’s Wolf Hall, Thomas Cromwell tells Henry Percy, the Earl of Northumberland, the world is not run from war sites or by swords but from Antwerp and by money transactions of bankers. In his mesmerizing series of lectures for Future Learn on Shakespeare’s plays, Jonathan Bate included a long section on the function of interest (usury) in making the Renaissance happen and talked of money and usury and Venice in his comments on this play. Love & friendship and money are the focuses of this play.

I was not surprized to hear a number of audience members talking during the intermission as if in shock; and while the theater was packed as the film began, after the intermission, sufficient numbers of people had left to reconfigure the way people were seated so new people were sitting up front (where I was). Those who left couldn’t take it, didn’t like it? Not only was the Shylock too hard, but perhaps when Antonio and Bassanio kissed so passionately and made it clear they were the true lovers, audience members were also turned off. None of Shakespeare’s words were changed and I heard no one say that what was being shown was not in the play. I love when art is hard and candid in this way, shows you what you are or could be, shows what people hide because of socially acceptable pious norms. Were the production not equally hard on the Christians, I would castigate it, but it is as hard on them. I have not mentioned that Gobbo impregnates Portia’s servant (as Shakespeare’s words imply) but does not want to marry her – she has no money. The first two suitors, Morocco (Ken Nwosu) and Aragon (Brian Protheroe) are jackasses. The male cronies of Antonio and Bassanio unscrupulous roughs. Gratiano (Ken Nwosu again) is funny because he is so unguarded.

The RSC has turned The Merchant of Venice into the unsentimental tragedy it is, and demonstrated to me why 18th and 19th century critics and readers kept saying how real much real human nature Shakespeare’s plays enact. They came out on stage as a group but they did not (as is so common nowadays) break into a happy dance at the end. Even enactments of the tragedies sometimes end this way. I was glad they did not.

People seem to want to forget that Shakespeare’s plays are plays meant to be read. Reading plays have existed since there were written down plays and exist still. The text also offers profound meditative material on law, justice, mercy, pardon (forgiveness) and (just as important) learning to turn a blind eye on what’s in front of you in order to carry on. Patsy Ferran carries or pulls off this difficult content superbly well. The business of “the ring” at the end of the play shows Portia that Antonio is Bassanio’s preferred love. It inheres especially of course in her fully-emotive and eloquent treatment of the several phases of Portia’s appeal to Shylock (the famous speech about mercy). When he will not yield, she turns on him to show him how words may be interpreted against him so easily. Never depend on your bond, your contract. Who has the hegemonic powe is the person who wins out in public life — public life shapes the private. And as a Christian male (who hides his homosexuality from everyone but Bassanio) it’s Antonio who holds public trumps. The point of the first scene where Antonio refuses to say why he is sad is to show him hiding what he knows is the reason for his sadness from his male buddies. He does not win in private life, but then Shylock does not either. I’ve wondered before if the title refers to both Antonio and Shylock, making them parallel. Both outsiders.

The Merchant of Venice Royal Shakespeare Company 2015 handout ....
Portia and Nerissa — note how intwined they are, how they need one another’s support

Perhaps the production sought to disquiet and disturb complacencies beyond what is in Shakespeare’s text. The actress playing Nerissa, Portia’s servant, Rina Mahoney has had one of her arms amputated or it was lost in some dreadful accident above the elbow. She did not wear a prosthetic so that again and again the audience was confronted with the stub of an arm. Mahoney is small in comparison to Nwosu (Gratiano) and he swung her around in ways that suggested when out of sight of Portia, Nerissa would not be able to enact an imitation of Portia’s power. Samuels’ behavior as Gobbo put me in mind of Roy Kinnear as the bizarrely heartless theatrical Common Man in Robert Bolt’s play of A Man for all Seasons (as filmed in the Charleton Heston production).

There is a new style of acting or delivery of Shakespeare’s lines afoot in all 3 productions I’ve seen: at top speed which imitates psychological reality and yet each word or phrase super-clearly heard so as to try to reach 21st century audiences who may never have read any Shakespeare play; there are editions of Shakespeare’s plays for students where on one side is Shakespeare’s English and the other a modern paraphrase, as if this were a dual-language text. I find this style acceptable to working well — though it must be said the mode relies on artifice of delivery which takes away from in-depth psychological presences. The only actor performing in the old style somehow more naturalistic way (stylized but differently, in this case wittily) was Protheroe, an older man playing Aragon, the second suitor who chooses the silver casket. Protheroe spoke more slowly, and it was a sort of relief to have this less demanding kind of projection.

This is a courageous and intelligent production of Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, demonstrating again (as if we needed to be taught this) that William Shakespeare’s almost preternatural intelligence left us plays audiences and readers have not yet been able to come to terms with. The RSC is trying to lead the way.

Ellen

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Bronze Age Tomb in Cornwall

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Launceston Gaol, early modern to 19th century prison …

A Syllabus

For a Study Group at the Oscher LifeLong Learning Institute at George Mason University
Seven sessions: Wednesdays, 11:50 to 1:15 pm, Tallwood, 4210 Roberts Road
Dates: Sept 30th to November 11th
Dr Ellen Moody

Description of Course

In this course we’ll read Winston Graham’s Ross Poldark and Demelza, the first two of a twelve novel series, and we’ll watch and compare episodes from the first and second Poldark TV mini-series (1974-7, 2015-present). The first two Poldarks are brilliantly realized regional romances, part of a set of four (the other two, Jeremy Poldark and Warleggan) excellently researched historical novels dramatizing issues of concern to a war-torn world; the second trilogy (The Black Moon, The Four Swans, and The Angry Tide, written 1973-1977) dramatizes 1960 and 1970 feminist and political movements; and the second quartet and coda (The Stranger from the Sea, The Miller’s Dance, The Loving Cup, The Twisted Sword, and Bella, 1981-91, 2003), colonialism, war, parliamentary politics, and even animal rights. All though the prisms of the Cornish landscape, history, the industry of mining and business of smuggling, and medicine; and issues of law and (in)justice, poaching and gaming laws, courts and prisons, and class and marital customs, and European wars. The 1970 and the new 2015 series adapt and re-boot the books across 40 years. Graham wrote other historical fiction, one history and travel book (about Cornwall), and many mystery and psychological thrillers, for some of which he won prestigious awards; others were made into famous respected films which helped “make” the careers of the central actors (e.g., Sean Connery in Hitchcock’s Marni; Devid Hemmings in Till and Bluestone’s Walking Stick). We  will treat the novels as serious historical fiction and compare and discuss the films

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Robin Ellis as Ross Poldark, leaving fair, Angharad Rees as Demelza climbing up

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Clive Francis as a sympathetic troubled Francis Poldark

Required texts: Graham, Winston. Ross Poldark: A Novel of Cornwall, 1783-1787 and Demelza: A Novel of Cornwall, 1788-1790. They are available in the US in two different editions: NY: Sourcebooks, 2009/10 (RP is 330 pages, D is 374) or NY: PanMacmillan, 2008 (RP is 472 pages, and D is 422).

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Click on map to make larger: the imagined map of Poldark country is placed on top of the real Cornwall

Format: Study group meetings will be a mix of informal lecture and group discussion.

Sept 23: No class as I am unable to be there, but read ahead for the first class, RP, Bk 1, Chs 1-9.
Sept 30: In class: Winston Graham, life & career; what is historical fiction and/or film? Read for next time RP, Bk 1, Chs 10-18, Bk 2, Chs 1-4.
Oct 7: Ross Poldark. For next time read RP, Bk 2, Chs 5-8, Bk 3, Chs 1-8; read also NMoody, “Poldark Country and National Culture.”
Oct 14: Ross Poldark. For next time finish RP, Bk 3, Chs 9-10; and read Demelza, Bk 1, Chs 1-13
Oct 21: Ross Poldark and Demelza. Read for next time, Demela, Bk 1, Ch 14-15; Bk 2, Chs 1-12; read also RMoseley, “‘It’s a wild country … passionate and strange.”
Oct 28: Demelza. The class watches brief clips from the 1975 Poldark; read for next time, Demelza, Bk 2, Chs 3-11, Bk 4, Ch 1, and EMoody, “I have the right to choose my own life.” Online.
Nov 4: Demelza. For next time finish Demelza, Bk 4, Chs 2-11. Read Julie Taddeo’s “‘Why don’t you take her:’ Rape in the Poldark narrative.” It appeared in a book on the BBC costume drama, as about film adaptation. Sent by attachment.
Nov 11: Demelza. The class watches brief clips from 2015 Poldarks; we finish Demelza and I anticipate Jeremy Poldark and Warleggan.

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Aidan Turner as Ross sitting among, part of the working mining men

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Eleanor Tomlinson as Demelza, walking and playing with her dog, Garrick

Recommended books (articles sent by attachment):

Graham, Winston .Poldark’s Cornwall. Oxford: Bodley Head, 1983.
————— Poldark, Novels of Cornwall, 1783-1820. London: Panmacmillan, 1924-2003.
—————. Memoirs of a Private Man. London: Panmacmillan, 2003
Hay Douglas, Peter Linebaugh, E. P. Thompson, et alia. Albion’s Fatal Tree: Crime and Society in 18th century England. NY: Pantheon, 1975.
Marsden, Philip. Rising Ground. London: Granta, 2014.
Moody, Nickianne. “Poldark Country and National Culture,” from Cornwall: The Cultural construction of a Place.
Moody, Ellen. “‘I have the right to choose my own life:’ Liberty in the Poldark Novels,” on-line my website.
Moseley, Rachel. “‘It’s a Wild Country. Wild … Passionate … Strange’: Poldark and the Place-Image of Cornwall,” from Visual Culture in Britain.
Poldark. Dr Christopher Barry, Paul Annett. Writers. Jack Pullman, Paul Wheeler. Perf. Robin Ellis and Angharad Rees, Jill Townsend, Ralph Bates, Paul Curran, Norma Steader, Richard Morahan. BBC/1975-76, 1977-78.
Poldark. Drs. Wm MacGregor, Edward Bazalgette, Writer Debbie Horsfield. Perf. Aidan Turner, Eleanor Tomlinson, Kyle Soller, Ruby Bentall, Jack Farthing. BBC/ITV, 2015-
Porter, Roy and Dorothy. Patient’s Progress: Doctors and Doctoring in 18th century England. Stanford: StanfordUPress, 1989

Further on-line materials:

Authorized updated website on Graham, his life, novels, films.
The Poldark novels, and other fiction, non-fiction and films.
Winston Graham: lists of books, essays and other websites.

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Winston Graham and Garrick, still a puppy, at Perranporth Beach

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Godolphin House, Cornwall (used as Trenwith, Poldark family home, 1975-76)

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Wheal Owles Mine, Penwith, St Just, Cornwall (fallen into desuetude, for far shots of Ross’s Wheal Leisure, 2015)

Ellen

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Nievo

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Dear friends and readers,

As felicitously translated by Frederick Randall, Confessions of an Italian, edited, introduced and annotated by Lucy Riall, Confessioni di un italiano (or Confessioni d’un Ottuagenario or Confessions of an Octogenarian), a profound and extraordinarily instructive 19th century novel about the risorgimento became our summer project on Trollope19thCStudies. We didn’t mean it to become that, but the book is very long, not susceptible to skimming, and so complicated, meandering in its storyline, and going through so many revolutions in so many different areas of Europe from the 1790s to nearly 1859 that it took time. It began as a suggestion by me after I read and sent to the listserv group an essay by Tim Parks, “Revolutionary Italy: The Masterwork,” NYRB (April 2, 2015) which praised the book so highly and did not honestly tell some of its flaws and problems.

It does live up to Parks’s promise in this way: it is a sort of alternative to Manzoni’s I Promessi Sposi, which those who read 19th century novels will have heard of, and perhaps read, an equally long novel set in the 17th century, a sort of cross between Walter Scott and Victor Hugo. Unlike Nievo’s novel, it is set in the past, and does not begin to touch on revolutionary issues openly. Nievo’s book was published posthumously, and because it was radical in its approach (even to call yourself an Italian was problematic), it never achieved the circulation, much less the translations Manzoni’s work did. Randall’s translation may be the first to make the book readable to an English reader. See Angela Scordo-Polidori, “Beyond good and evil: Pisana and the birth of the Italian nation.” Italica 91.3 (2014): 343+, an essay on why, how the book was repressed, retitled, marginalized.

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19th century Italian history painting – probably a depiction of Garibaldi

Here are a group of reviews which do justice to its finest qualities as well as suggesting that you do need to have an interest and some knowledge of Italy, the 19th century world of revolution, and willingness to meander, a love of meditative reading to enjoy it. One offers a summary which I’m going to attempt (briefly I promise) too. Dacia Maraini, a good 20th century novelist, lists and describes it as among the great novels of 19th century Italy, in the way that Trollope used to be discussed for 19th century English novels. And a Thackerayan blogger (who must have patience if he reads Thackeray’s lesser known historical fiction, to say nothing of Pendennis which I never finished) found it something of a chore: Wuthering Expectations.

I admit that each time I put it down, having finished the very long chapter or (as we got towards the end) couple of chapters for the week before, was not enthusiastic to start up again, as I didn’t feel compelled by a forward thrusting story nor did I become intensely involved with individual characters who lasted sufficiently — I kept preferring characters who would be killed off, or twisted into repressed people (like Clara, turned into a nun), or who’d disappear into flight or exile. It was too masculinist: women, our narrator asserts, exist to give birth to men, love to be nurses to men, all self-sacrifice, and their surprisingly free sexual lives must be kept hidden by him (for fear not just of the contemporary reader at the time, but as part of a code of not telling truths about women’s lives today). But I was startled to learn the heroine, who I didn’t like much, was a TV character in a program on Italian TV, is today the source of feminist controversy about the book: La Pisano is seen as standing for Italy itself. See Stephanie Hom Cary, “‘Patria’-otic Incarnations and Italian Character: discourses of nationalism in Ippolito Nievo’s Confessioni d’un Italiano.” Italica 84.2-3 (2007):214+.

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Then each time I’d pick it up, I’d become involved again, interested, wanting to read Carlino’s thoughts, learn more of this ancien regime world (to which we kept returning) as the Castle of Fratto in Venice. A world recreated and evoked ironically and so vividly in Lampedusa’s The Leopard, which I read in the Italian as Il Gattopardo. Lampedusa’s novella might be read as an ironic coda to this book of revolution: here’s what the people turned to afterward. And then the revolutionary struggles, and then Napoleonic (a sort of Stendhal Julien Sorel world is evoked in some of Italy), and then the rigorismento and then reactionary regimed world of failed wars (Byron turns up, we spend time in Greece and Turkey). At each turn each group which ended up in charge (and it felt like musical chairs) turned out to be utterly self-centered, corrupt. The few idealists (like Garibaldi) were wished away, not helped deliberately. I’d soar with his meditations: thoughts on shadows of the mind, imagination, time and memory — to the point I bought myself the edition in a Pleiade-like Italian text (with much fuller and better notes, and an introduction by Marcella Goria which made the book pertinent today).

Arguably there are twelve different novels at least trying to get out, sometimes for a stretch a story which should have taken far more pages to come to life, or deep anguish is there and passed over. The first volume sets the scene at length: the world of the castle the boy grows up in, the destructive legacy. The second volume, the large perspective of the cities and movements across Italy, with the new arrangements of the 1830s, all collapsing ending in many deaths, exiles, women married off, gambling, in nunneries. Volume 3, the reaction and concluding wars and resolutions of the 1850s, including a long section taking place in America (south) where we see colonialism from the standpoint of settler colonialists. The author returned to war and died before he could revise. He is writing out of fear he would soon be killed. He saw all these people around him being ferociously slaughtered – and he records this fictionally. He wishes he could live to 80 but does not think he can and the book is his wish-fulfillment to live.

*********************
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Castello di Tricano

A few notes:

The narrator is an old man of 80 looking back to where he grew up as a child. He was a menial servant, a bastard nephew (his mother’s marriage a kind of Jane Eyre story where she dies in the streets after rebelling against an arranged marriage) in a great castle-house in the land just outside Venice. All the facets and types of the great house and its liens. There is a sophisticated in his understanding of the underbelly of political groups in charge, of the under-groups for position n household, in larger offices, in the countryside, and we are shown how in the end it’s the individual’s personal interests that makes him decide to do this or that.

I cannot begin to survey the characters. One of my favorite characters was Lucilio Vianello, a well read sensitive type, a reader, whose father makes him a doctor, and who eventually has to flee to England to remain alive (perhaps modeled on Mazzini) — his story early on has a biting satire on medicine at the time. Gradually a three sets of lovers emerge, and they (like Anthony Powell’s Dance to the Music of Time, change with an era, play different but not unexpected roles, have children and their children children. The book’s undertow is deeply melancholy. We see how the Venetian curia and other Italian regional leaders retained power through their use of violence, prisons, egregious taxes; how the church kept its stranglehold on thought, families their place by ruthless use of arranged marriages. The matriarch spends her life gambling. A story of a smuggler, someone who began by trying to evade the horrendous taxes, harassed and hounded by the judiciary, the thugs who are looking for a Scott-like mysterious person on a horse, he dwindles into a hanger-on at the castle, who understands the tightening nooses around others and is protected not because he’s personally liked, but again for what he stands for. The way of life in the cities and great houses, in the peasant countryside, and why people cling to it, of Italian catholicism and its hypocrisies, a sharp sceptical light playing over everything (from gambling casinos to inward passionate natures. How men with groups of thugs backing them up is finally the basis for much local power, given legitimacy by laws, prisons. Some of the analogies with what happens are with today’s military oligarchy, its use of torture, with Austria-Hungary as the colonialist power.

Again and again Nievo has in mind an Italian great book, or poem, and is writing a story or producing a character which is a modern revitalization of the older type — Dante, Ariosto, Tasso, Foscolo, then minor types too, like Melusine. In the 19th century — and today too — poor people’s children led hard lives. We have this deeply romantic sequence of the boy escaping to the landscape and his dreams of himself as a hero with an utterly transgressive and endlessly deceitful) La Pisano as his beloved, a twist on the Daphnis and Chloe, Paul et Virginie scenario. We hear of the English romantic poets in their lairs too. This is the romantic period.

La Pisano is an Armida where we are shown the hypocrisy of the Venetian culture. Yet Carlino appears to accept the marriage of La Pisano to an old corrupt man and accept her liaison with an officer, Miniato. Then he rejoices when she leaves these people out of boredon and also disgust at their political behavior. She flees to him and they have a renewal of days of love. More troubling: he insists not only has she remained a virgin since marriage (or chaste), she has never fucked. I must use that word because there is every indication that lots of foreplay is what she repeatedly has indulged herself, all the men she has known, and Carlino too. This sick point of view that without genital intercourse sex doesn’t matter and one remains chaste is what we have seen in our own culture publicly more than once (if fucking is deniable) and is found in books from Richardson’s Pamela to the worst porn. When she visits Clara she lies endlessly. Carlino talks about honor and propriety as a surface thing so their living together is shameful only if it’s known. Elena Ferrante’s choice of anonymity has a long historical context.

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19th century Italian school

The relationship between Carlino and his father is as problematic for a 20th century reader: the man deserted him, and first turns up well into Volume 2; it seems that is just what happened, no close parental nurturing is expected; the father is still this numinous figure partly because he comes across with money, partly because he enacts physical bravery. Children were expected to abase themselves; this is one of several areas Nievo never questions personally as Carlino. There are epistolary sections to carry us back and forward in time in these kinds of sudden non-explorations. The final section includes a long diary-journal. It’s a book which crosses waters and lagoons.

It’s structured as Carlino emerging from and then returning home, and then emerging again to join this and that group, a brief arduous quest, meeting world-historical people (from Napoleon to then famous generals and political leaders), and then collapse. On and off in the book he and La Pisano live together; at one point to save their lives they must flee to England, he is badly wounded, weak, so she turns into a beggar-prostitute to support them, and grows ill (TB) and dies. She has persuaded him into an arranged marriage, which at first seems equable but his wife is anything but an idealist, and their several children lead very different lives (from utopianist, to entrepreneurial careerist, to someone in retreat as a close son, a daughter, an exile who keeps slaves and dies abroad), only 2 out of 6 surviving to the end ….

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One of the novel’s romantic covers

In one section close to the book’s end: Count Raimondo (this is the heir to Castle of Fratto) finally writes a book that has been long in birth: A Historical Analysis of Venetian Trade. The whole section is unusually comic, especially to someone who has written anything today, published or self-published a book, endured all the joys and trials and tribulations of the early writing, the attempts to obtain a publisher and their grating refusals, and then somehow publish it. In Raimondo’s case he finally self-publishes (does it by subscription). Then he reads reviews of it, and discovers most of the reviews hardly bothered to read it (at least with any care), that the reviewers copy one another and not to accurately so that by the ninth copied-out half-review the book’s real tone and interests is wholly lost. Few are interested in anything but what happens today so eventually people say they’d like to read it for help in modern trade. The title is a satire on Venice’s power. What struck me most was how little has changed since the mid-19th century — I could recognize so many behaviors I’ve seen today.

I am a very unusual reviewer not necessarily for reading a book, but reading it carefully and writing a genuinely descriptive and analytical review. I sometimes think in self-satire that I do this because I’ve nothing better to do with my life. I didn’t have the problems of publishing — that came from the famous person Raimondo couldn’t seem to harness (in my case John Letts) but much of the rest of the process I experienced. Tyler wrote: “I loved all the stuff about Count Rinaldo trying to get his enormous book published – I wondered whether Nievo was trying to prophesy about how his own book’s publication would go … Some experiences haven’t changed much in the book publishing world in the last 150 or so years [since the rise of a literary marketplace and all its types of people]. We have the author presenting an indirect mirror of the way he supposes his book might get into print and be treated. Alas he didn’t live to do it – and as he seems to fear his own death there is poignancy in this section too.

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A statue of Nievo in Mantua

The book is more relevant to us today than Tolstoy’s War and Peace to which I’d compare it. Its strength is its candour about how power works, who has it, groups of thugs as behind it, and in the end its depiction women. The history. Tyler wrote: “It almost reads like a long dream, nearly a nightmare, from which we eventually hope to awake and find a unified Italy.” It’s a much darker and despairing book than is being structured into the plot-design. It needed revision to bring out its more nihilistic apprehensions. Nievo wants a unified Italy but no where is there any sense that any place or group of people who will support this. Its great weakness is its important characters are insufficiently realized.

This from a 1906 enthusiastic review of the book by Kennardon (Italian Romance Writers, Brentano, 159-92):

Each phase in the life of Carlo Altoviti answers to an historical period; each stage of the national evolution corresponds with a crisis in his life. His childhood is spent in the midst of the obsolete feudal Venetian world, in the Frioul … No history could present a more accurate or more vivid description of the political and social life in the Italian Venezia, during [the] early years of the nineteenth century, than this romance of Nievo’s…. But it is more than a history of a political movement, more than a vivid picture of the social life of the times. [It may be read as] a psychological study; full of reality, power, and modernity. It lives!”

Germaine de Stael was the first writer to produce a treatise arguing that a particular text (say a novel) mirrored and explored, was a piece of the national culture it came out of. Before that people didn’t think of or discuss texts in that way. Another innovative aspect of Nievo’s book is he is doing just that (for more on this Nicolaek Iliescu, The Position of Ippolito Nievo in the Nineteenth-Century Italian Novel, PMLA, 75:3 [Jun., 1960]:272-282).

The listserv we read the book on being one usually devoted to Anthony Trollope, I’ll conclude: we might think of Trollope’s short story about the “Last Austrian who left Venice” as another coda to this novel. It takes place towards the close of the Austrian occupation and during its short span, a revolution is fought, and the Austrians ejected. Our heroine who decides she loves an Austrian officer must leave with him if she is to be his wife. Her brother and mother stay in Venice, loyal to their new national and old Venetian identities. If Lampedusa ironically shows us the same upper class groups are still in charge, and everyone still loving the old castle-countryside culture, Trollope brings home to us how important it is that different peoples forced to live together in an militarily occupied country genuinely come together, and that individuals hold fiercely to a social identity even when they see how it is imposed while resisting the thwarting of individual fulfillment. Nievo’s modernity is in line with Trollope’s.

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A 19th century image of the occupation of Venice

Ellen

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