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Archive for June, 2017


Boguslaw Linda as Wladyslaw Strzeminski (Afterimage directed by Andrzej Wajda, 2016).

Friends and readers,

The almost systematic erasure by Trump of whatever the Obamas and their gov’t did legislatively and through executive order, most of it tending to provide better lives for the peoples of the countries involved (one must except the wars and use of drones to kill without trial people “suspected” of “terrorism”) has been noticed. Down to removing a school lunch program set up by Michelle Obama. Hatred of black people and deep resentment that a black man’s gov’t (which included two black attorney generals, one a woman) should shape the US future lies behind this as much as hard-line ruthless capitalism. I remembered this as I watched Andrzej Wajda’s Afterimage, a movie whose central story shows Polish gov’t agents, police, and officials of the Communist party systematically erasing the work, all means of living, the right to food of a then famous avant-garde artist, Wladyslaw Strzeminski. Strzeminski is refusing to make and teach art which under the banner of “socialist realism” is made up of cliched, stilted propaganda images celebrating the military might and ultimately (it is hoped) socially beneficial policies of the Communist party. This erasure and larger undoing of an art school, museums, any cafes and ejection of any students or other faculty who objected was chilling: it is the act of a state which is a dictator. Or (as we see in the undemocratic rump that now rules the US and its corrupt lying leader) aspires to be.

“Powidoki” 2015 rez. Andrzej Wajda
Fot. Anna Wloch
http://www.annawloch.com
anna@annawloch.com
Na zdj od lewej : Zosia Wichlacz, Adrian Zareba, Mateusz Rusin, Irena Melcer, Boguslaw Linda

— opening of film, with his students

Our film club at the Cinemart Theater in Fairfax, Virginia: once a month for 5 months, beginning in May, a retired film critic who wrote for the Washington Post (among other papers), Gary Arnold screens an unusual and fine film. A much respected film and theater director, Andrezej Wajda (he made over 40 films, considered one of the world’s renowned film-makers) has ended his career (he just died, at age 90) by telling the inexorable slowly devastating story of the destruction of a great artist, Wladyslaw Strzeminski between 1951 and ’52, when the Soviet Union consolidated its hold on nearby Communist states under pressure from the hostile fiercely anti-communist US and other allies (NATO): one means was imposition on everyone of single uniform thoughts (education) in all areas of life. I am not sure all people were so regimented, but someone as visible and prominent as Strezeminski was important: his case is rather like Sir Thomas More. He is ripe to be made a symbolic example of. If anyone protests openly, they are arrested, beaten up, transported to camps deep in eastern Russia. You can view a summary of Strzeminski’s artistic aims and movements he belong to and images of his art

The painful process is covered step-by-step: first the school authorities are replaced by hand-picked loyal agents; then the professor is denied a classroom; then his students are told his courses are cancelled; his rooms are given over to someone else. He is told if he will preach the Communist art norms, show his students to paint that way, himself paint that way, he will be reinstated. He refuses. We see the hired thugs come and rip up paintings in a exhibit, destroy the students’ art in the building. He gets a commission to decorate a club and his work is ripped up and the cafe destroyed — though in this case the image was realistic enough, of black people exploited in Africa by corporate bosses over a chain. No matter, Strezeminski is not obedient. The gov’t agent turns up and offers him his place back, his students, his daughter, an “existence” if he will cooperate. Streminski can get himself to reply only “I don’t know.” It won’t do. His identity papers are confiscated; then his ration card is taken away. One of his students gets him a menial job where it’s said the employers will not recognize him, but the agents catch up and he is fired. He cannot get food, money, heat for his rooms. Still he holds out to protect his legacy: pictures put in a basement of an art museum, his typescript smuggled out of Poland. We see him stumbling along in the streets until he falls, is taken to hospital, found to have TB in a late stage. He gets a job working on mannequins in a department store window, but sick, weak, confused, he cannot handle these creepy dolls, fall down among them, and dies.

“Powidoki” 2015 
rez : Andrzej Wajda
zdjecia : Pawel Edelman
fotosy: Anna Wloch 
www.annawloch.com
anna@annawloch.com

— his daughter

The story is is made subtle and nuanced by the on-going relationship of Strzeminski with his daughter, various of his students (especially one young woman who is in love with him and attempts to come and live with him), some of his friends (a poet, colleagues at the institute) which evolve into estrangement — or they are whisked away by arrests or threats — or his advice to him. His daughter, Hania (Sofia Wichlacz), who is at first visiting him from her mother, his wife’s apartment. The mother dies (estranged apparently, an artist herself) and the girl attempts to live with her father, but she is gradually alienated from him as she naturally adheres more and more to her school. So she leaves to live in a “girls’ home,” where she is treated as an impoverished orphan. He says he knows his actions will lead to her having a hard life. We glimpse these individual fates as events on the side. It’s filmed partly in black-and-white so it feels as if it were made 40 years ago; in fact like some somber classic of the 1940s. Perhaps the film is too relentless, allows for no one under this new regime to be having a good time. But its message is all the more effective, and make no mistake as it is also about what is happening across the world today as dictatorships spread and humanistic ideals and goals are swept aside, impoverished, punished. As they are in Poland today. It’s also cinematographically beautiful: the austerity of the shots, numbers of them feeling like artists’ photos, or pictures (Hania seen from the side of a window is like a Vermeer), its gritty realism precludes its being felt as didactic.


Wajda filming in 1974

A review by Glenn Kenny in the New York Times: an angry, vivid, passionate film. Piers Handling of Tiff includes some effective clips.

Strzeminskis’s Theory of Vision is not on-line, and very few of his pictures made available to the public. Here are three:


Lodz — The film takes place in Lodz where in a ghetto there was a systematic starvation and enslavement of Jews during the war; a hard-to read book about this slow-motion humiliation and extermination by the Nazi was edited by (among others) Robert Lapides.


Cubism

Arnold (as he often does) retold the artist’s life briefly and then went on to talk about Wajda’s parentage, career, and why he identifies with Streminski. Both were products of poorer people, both lived through the traumatic years of World War Two, Wajda’s father was one of the Polish calvary officers slaughtered by part of the Russian military so as to destroy its most effective middle class members, thus enabling the USSR to dominate Poland in the 1950s with ease. Wajda himself was harassed and never given a lot of money by the state for his films or theater, but unlike other artists (Polanski) did not move to France, the UK or Hollywood. He more or less stayed the course as Polish public figure doing important art for his country. The screenplay by Andrzej Mularczyk (Arnold said) is old-fashioned, long dialogue, literary in its feel, with allusions to history, other art. Arnold did not bring up the parallels with today in the US or elsewhere but he had them in mind while he talked of peers of this director (I couldn’t catch the names, except for Ingmar Bergman).

I don’t know if the film will achieve much commercial distribution. It is not playing anywhere in the DC area just now, and the list of places where it’s been screened are all art festivals (a recent one in Munich). But I daresay it might turn up on Netflix, or as a DVD to buy. Until very recently Strzeminski’s art was relatively neglected. Decades after his death, the work left was exhibited in the school he worked at and founded. There has been an exhibit and a book of essays. You can view all the many awards the film-maker received on wikipedia.

“Powidoki” 2015 rez. Andrzej Wajda
Fot. Anna Wloch
http://www.annawloch.com
anna@annawloch.com
Na zdj: Boguslaw Linda /Strzeminski/

— the great actor, another Vermeer like shot

Ellen

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Friends and readers,

Our second Trollope novel for spring and early summer was another novella, the very late Dr Wortle’s School. Not quite as little read as The Golden Lion of Granpere, it is written more in Trollope’s familiar vein: we have an intrusive self-reflexive ironic narrator, and despite the single-story plot-design, a variety of tones, from earnest seriousness about damaging hypocrisy with respect to failed marriages and hidden partnerships. Trollope would not use the term for living together despite knowing the other person is not your legal spouse — the case of Mrs and Mr Peacocke. And from satire over how castes operate (church and school), to the experience of painful exposure of someone’s life and mistakes (to destroy that someone) in newspapers, through letters and mean insinuating gossip, in this case Dr Wortle and his school. The experience of Dr Wortle vis-a-vis the press is strongly reminiscent of The Warden, the very first of Trollope’s 13 novellas (novels “under 300 pages he called them), only Dr Wortle is an aggressive man determined to have the last word, stubborn, not to be fooled by cant, eager to convince, to vindicate himself. In this he resembles Dr Thorne.

The central issue or “dilemma” of this book is a couple takes up a position as usher and wife (where she will fulfill certain comparable functions, like eating with the students) who are in fact not married. The American Mrs (Ella) Peacock while living “out west” married a Mr Ferdinand Lefroy and in a brief time discovered he was violent, abusive to her, continually drinking, gambling, a cheat, cold and indifferent; much to her relief he deserted and then (she was told by his brother, Robert Lefroy) died. This around the time she meets a decent honorable and deeply compatible (congenial) Englishman, Mr (or the Rev. Henry) Peacocke, who is deeply supportive; they marry thinking Ferdinand Lefroy is dead, and then one day he shows himself to them. Horrified, Mr Peacocke is nonetheless deeply attached (as is she) and they flee to England and the obscure job at an English boys’ preparatory school. They are both uncomfortable (she much to my irritation refuses invitations to social events, thus enacting the idea she’s polluted) and think to tell the headmaster the truth, when they are forestalled by the arrival of Robert Lefroy as a blackmailer who when his demand for large sums is refused, proceeds to elaborate the story as hostilely as he can to Dr Wortle. Wortle (who has the same clear perception – I’m slightly ironic — as Dr Thorne), sees the man is a liar. Wortle is capable of irony: “Of course,” said he [Mr. Wortle], “if the lad turns out a scapegrace, as is like enough, it will be because Mrs. Peacocke had two husbands.” And then, not ironic: “It is often a question to me whether the religion of the world is not more odious than its want of religion.” Peacocke then confides the whole story to Wortle, and touched, admiring the man, Wortle just about agrees to keep them on — no matter what.

It would be a more complex work if the couple were not so virtuous and Dr Wortle so ethical at the same time willing to buck the public, risk his living; in reality people aren’t this good (more or less consistently) and why they divorce and how they go about separating at least is not straight forward. There is also no acknowledgement in the book how miserable these preparatory schools often were. Think of Dickens’s satire in Nicholas Nickleby, Bronte’s exposure of the sufferings of young women and girls sent to boarding schools by genteel (fringe often) people. One cannot but remember Orwell’s Such such were the joys (an usher’s wife also “does” the tea) and Trollope’s own wretchedness at school. The story of the boy who almost drowned does not give us the boy’s testimony, and so readily exculpates the school (a mere accident, and he is saved). We’re told how happy they are in language that casts an irony on “parents who love to think that their boys should be happy at school” (Chapter 2). Trollope is caustic over parents who want to think to be told or given the impression their boys are happy at school. Maybe he also sees how impossible that is for many boys, but in his Autobiography Trollope said it was good for boys to get into debt and trouble as it taught them lessons. The boy who was unhappy is presented as spoilt. The ammunition is aimed at his mother, Mrs (Juliana) Stantiloup who is presented as a horror.

In the introductory essay to the Oxford World’s Classics paperback, Halperin points out what a complex subject this is for a book of this length. This story of an illegal pair of lovers is set in a school, so is also about living in a community. According to Halperin, this is a rare book for Trollope where he sides with the unconventional (which means more than sex, you can be unconventional in all sorts of ways, Josiah Crawley is), for the alienated (in some way) individual against the social group. I don’t agree that this is rare: Bill Overton’s The Unofficial Trollope has made a strong persuasive case that Trollope’s books are about the struggle of the self to find some modus vivendi or space to exist in an often stiflingly conventional and obtuse social group. Nowadays this is talked about in general deconstructionist thematic and political terms, that Trollope (for example) undermines primogeniture in Sir Harry Hotspur of Humblethwaite, but this older way of seeing the crux at the heart of Trollope’s fiction in terms of social psychology and individual values is truer to the text. Halperin suggests the pervasive theme across Trollope’s works is the hypocrisies of religious. He is as interested in the risk to Mrs Peacocke she will be accused of bigamy as he is in revealing how ugly gossip can insidiously destroy someone. It’s rare novel for Trollope to be so explicit, but then this is explicitness and the examination of taboos is central to most of his broad-art novellas.


Elizabeth Armstrong Forbes (1859-1912): “School is out!” — a depiction of a school for boys — and girls

The novel is proto-feminist. One of Trollope’s narrator’s lines about Mrs Peacocke recalls the violence Lady Carbury experienced before her husband died (TWWLN): “That fate had betaken her which so often falls upon a woman who trusts herself and her life to a man.” This tone of empathy for women found across Trollope’s writing. For example, Trollope’s mid-career The Belton Estate has a Mrs Askerton who was married to brutal man, left him, and lived with the present Mr Askerston for three years before her first husband died. Mrs Askerton is much more ambiguous figure than Mrs Peacocke, her thoughts are hidden from us and suggestively subversive at moments– like Lady Carbury. But, like Mrs Peacocke, Mrs Askerton treats herself as a pariah, a forever polluted thing (the word “purity” as applied to women’s sexuality ought to be expunged from our vocabulary) and has hardly any social life because of what happened to her in the past. Today so many scholar critics want to claim Trollope for feminism; but I have thought that is not so, or it’s a super-qualified feminism when he’s not for the revision of the child custody act, seems against women going out to work for a living, traveling alone and so on. The double standard is very strong: Mrs Peacocke is blamed, and had Mr deserted and she ended up on the streets or a menially-paid occupation, the problem would have been solved! Dr Wortle’s response:

Dr. Wortle, when he read and re-read the article, and when the jokes which were made upon it reached his ears, as they were sure to do, was nearly maddened by what he called the heartless iniquity of the world

The book passes the Bechtel test: there are chapters on women, between women, where the concern is their lives. For example, three chapters with long dialogues between Mrs Wortle and Mrs Peacock: how moving are Mrs Peacock’s frank words: her distress, her love for this husband, the truth of her marriage, what a misery the first and her life then had been, and how much this well behaved intelligent kindly English man transformed her life. We could say this is an argument for allowing divorce on grounds of incompatibility. But the novel – through Mrs Peacocke moves rather to the idea that when in effect Mr P asked her to marry him, she couldn’t refuse — even if she had her doubts which she preferred not to state. Listening and identifying, Mrs Wortle at this point expresses a similar love for Mr Wortle. She also tells Mrs Peacocke “No body has condemned you here.” In fact Mrs Wortle at first did.


R. F. Delderfield (1912-72) — the atmosphere of Delderfield’s novels are the closest thing in films to Dr Wortle’s School when the feeling about the school is paramount

The chapters proceed through clashing intense dialogues whose effect is to examine all the beliefs and norms surrounding marriage’s sexual aspects, sexual possession, how society impinges on marriage, enforces and how social control through hierarchies of authorities and news operates. (The use of these bare dramatic scenes anticipates Henry James.) There is curiously little about children — it’s convenient Mrs Peacock has never had a child – neither Mrs Hurdle or Mrs Smith (another highly transgressive woman who lives with men outside marriage), two equally compromised women — nor does Mrs Askerton have any children come to that. Trollope avoids this important part of marriage and what makes breakups so destructive. Then we expand out to see Dr Wortle warring with respected high males in the community, the Bishop, a fellow cleric, Mr Puddicombe, people Mrs Stantiloup’s letters have managed to make nervous (and begin to remove their sons from Dr Wortle’s school. Trollope’s usual wisdom supports Dr Wortle’s perplexity — should he close the school? It appears he can do without the money. In fact to close the school is to close his life: he has poured his life into his work and his salary, and Trollope says truly anyone who denies that their career and their salary meant little (people do that and say their family means more or something else idealistic) is hypocritical. Wortle does not to close the school and he cannot get himself to.


From Andrew Davies’s Peculiar Practice (it’s about a medical unit within a school):Jock McCannon as the retiring handmaster (Andrew Davies has also produced meaningful film adaptations about school life)

Wonderful portraits of types in the hierarchies and coteries who we have met in the world abound: this seems to me Chaucerian:

The bishop was a goodly man, comely in his person, and possessed of manners which had made him popular in the world. He was one of those who had done the best he could with his talent, not wrapping it up in a napkin, but getting from it the best interest which the world’s market could afford. But not on that account was he other than a good man. To do the best he could for himself and his family,—and also to do his duty,—was the line of conduct which he pursued. There are some who reverse this order, but he was not one of them. He had become a scholar in his youth, not from love of scholarship, but as a means to success. The Church had become his profession, and he had worked hard at his calling. He had taught himself to be courteous and urbane, because he had been clever enough to see that courtesy and urbanity are agreeable to men in high places. As a bishop he never spared himself the work which a bishop ought to do. He answered letters, he studied the characters of the clergymen under him, he was just with his patronage, he endeavoured to be efficacious with his charges, he confirmed children in cold weather as well as in warm, he occasionally preached sermons, and he was beautiful and decorous in his gait of manner, as it behoves a clergyman of the Church of England to be. He liked to be master; but even to be master he would not encounter the abominable nuisance of a quarrel. When first coming to the diocese he had had some little difficulty with our Doctor; but the Bishop had abstained from violent assertion, and they had, on the whole, been friends. There was, however, on the Bishop’s part, something of a feeling that the Doctor was the bigger man; and it was probable that, without active malignity, he would take advantage of any chance which might lower the Doctor a little, and bring him more within episcopal power. In some degree he begrudged the Doctor his manliness.

Of Mr Puddicombe, Nancy (one of the members of our listserv) wrote:

Mr. Puddicombe is of a different order. When Dr. Wortle consults him on the subject of the newspaper article, Puddicombe carefully sorts out what is true and what is implied, to Dr. Wortle’s considerable discomfort. In Chapter V of Volume II, Correspondence with the Palace, we enjoy the letters exchanged by Dr. Wortle and the Bishop regarding the Bishop’s actions. Two days after he sends the letter to the Bishop. Dr. Wortle invites Puddicombe’s judgment. He waits because, “Mr. Puddicombe would no doubt have advised him not to send it, and then he would have been almost compelled to submit to such advice.” Although Puddicombe recognizes both the truth of the letter and the case for not sending it, he understands why it was sent: “Had I been in your case I should have thought it unnecessary. But you are self-demonstrative, and cannot control your feelings.”

Puddicombe’s analysis is pertinent: “Of course he [the Bishop] made a mistake. But don’t you think that the world goes easier when mistakes are forgiven.” And, very realistically, “I value peace and quiet too greatly to quarrel with my bishop, — unless, indeed, he should attempt to impose upon my conscience.”

Many of the objections to Wortle’s actions do not impress me because they depend on silly conventions or personal animus. This is different. Puddicombe sees clearly that Wortle’s sensitivity has caused him to lose all sense of proportion. That is, of course, the point of Wortle’s character. He is generous and honest and also somewhat self-righteous, and this gives him the strength to defend the Peacockes of this world.

As is so common in Trollope, letters play a key role in a number of the chapters and one chapter is given over almost entirely to “correspondence.” It’s partly told, not all epistolary narrative so the narrator can inject comments, show us the characters reading the letter are looking over the shoulders of the writer. I wrote a long paper once on Trollope’s uses of epistolarity. In this novel epistolarity is funny and anguished. The section where Dr Wortle becomes so exasperated and indignant and vexed over the newspaper stories and the Bishop’s collusion with them (as a source) did remind me of Mr Harding — only the last thing Mr Harding would do would be to write to the newspapers and be so pro-active. He’s have closed the school, quit his job — indeed he wouldn’t be running a school in the first place. At the end of the section when Wortle has not had a decent reply from anyone — meaning no one has taken his bait, for the bishop is too suave and controlled to respond personally but at first has an underling send a reply that is a refusal to reply on the grounds of Wortle’s discourteous tone — is when Dr Wortle discusses shutting down his school altogether. They are now down to 20 students and a lord who lives far away has written to say his two sons will not be returning. Then the bishop does reply one final time and Wortle calls it ‘beastly.” The bishop simply refuses to acknowledge any part in the newspaper and, from on high, a condemnation of Wortle as behaving in a way unsuitable to his office. Letters permit this kind of thing as face-to-face communications do not. What drives Wortle to exasperation is the assertion he is doing this (and visiting Mrs Peacocke while Mr is off to the US to find proof that Ferdinand Lefroy died since they saw him) because he finds Mrs Peacocke so attractive. She is, and he is drawn to her. The chapters delineating Wortle’s visits to Mrs Peacocke is title; “‘Amo in the cool of the evening.”

The book is drawing to a close when Mr Peacocke pays Robert Lefroy to travel with him to the US and find the needed documentation. The dramatic scenes between Lefroy and Peacocke caught me: Mr Lefroy is remarkably sordid and hard. Lefroy wants more money, and relentlessly goes after it: he invents a transparent lie: there were two Ferdy Lefroys. The reality of people is (we see this in the way the Trump followers react to the news do see) would dismiss anything they don’t want to hear and agree with what they do, however improbable. We have been given enough to see that the context for Wortle and Peacock is such that such a lie (two Ferdys) won’t go over. Wortle sees Lefroy as a liar upon seeing him (not only Dr Thorne comes to mind but the Vicar of Bullhampton, Frank Fenton, the father in Is He Popenjoy?, Henry Lovelace, Dean of Brotherton). Dr Wortle is just so much thinner as his book is so slender. Robert Lefroy after uttering this lie to Peacocke threatens to come back to England; they are alone in a hotel room and he takes out a loaded gun. Again given our modern cultural moment, and how rare it is in any British novel for anyone to pull out a loaded gun, I’m wondering how deep this custom of murdering people goes in this violent culture. Peacock has one too (we learn later it wasn’t loaded — which is cheating) but then two more men come in. At first one might be afraid they are Lefroy people and will murder Peacock but turns out they are law enforcement — come with guns.

Then we turn to Wortle who receiving the news that Ferdinand Lefroy has been dead for a while, sits down and writes an indignant self-justifying letter to the Bishop. He can’t resist it and it’s a good letter. Meanwhile Mrs Peacock is all abjection, how much she loves her lord and she will hurry to London — with Mrs Wortle turning into a happy doormat to Dr Wortle too (except in the case of her daughter’s marriage). We are given the letter but then comes Mr Puddicombe who advises Dr Wortle to write nothing. Silence is best and will contribute to bringing an end to what has happened. No closure but no more remarks. And Wortle does think the better of it, he and Puddicombe too go to London to countenance the Peacocks’ quiet re-wedding.


Frank Middlemass as Algy Herries, headmaster, hiring David Powlett as the shell-shocked John Dutting (another Delderfield book, movingly and comically adapted by Andrew Davies as a 16 episode mini-series, To Serve Them All My Days)

There is then a bad falling off. Trollope produces a weak fairy tale romance] as filler. Lord Carstairs who so admired Mr Peacocke, has fallen in love with the Wortle’s daughter, Mary. Lord Bracey, Carstair’s father is all humanity, impossbily idealistically reasonably easy about what Mary’s dowry could be as he has just tons of money himself. Perhaps Trollope in his old age felt a need for some counter thrust to the sordid. He couldn’t do without “normalcy” (a revealing comment about how Trollope’s viewed his everyday experience is that he uses this word of Mary and Carstairs years later — they had two “normal” children). It is weak stuff with no conflict, only happy anxieties as Mary worries she will not see Carstairs for 3 years, but then, accepted by Wortle, he turns up and before you know they are walking in a wood. Carstairs claims to have come to honor Peacock and we see in a dialogue he is just exemplary in every way. The Peacockes did nothing wrong, says Carstairs, but but we are not to forget Puddicombe once again who said it was wrong to continue to live together and give the impression they were married, wrong of Mr Peacocke to take the position. Fundamentally, Trollope doesn’t care about the story; he is going through a routine; for example, as narrator he says of Mary’s visit on Christmas to her coming in-laws: “of course she stayed at Christmas, or went back to Bowicke for a week.” Which is it? does it matter?

Trollope has not ruined his book — there is much to think about in its central chapters. I’ve heard Stuart Curran (editor of romantic texts, essayist) argue for many novels to see the real meaning ignore that last chapter. Look to see where characters are, which ones presented, in the penultimate chapter. It won’t really do here since the newspaper satire is central to the story too and at the close is brought back as well as the Peacockes settling in again. The truth to be conceded is Trollope did infinitely better in The Warden, Nina, Sir Harry Hotspur, An Eye for an Eye (a poetic masterpiece) and is fascinating in his Orwell-Swift fantasy, Fixed Period. There is too much broad humor now and again. Some readers were reminded of Wodehouse’s tone; others were reminded of Barbara Pym (who can do quiet anguish too, a Booker Prize winner let’s not forget for her Autumn Quartet). I thought of the Delderfield books and films (see above).

But there is just not enough depth of the type Mr Harding conveys; the strongest emotions are found in love and gratitude utterances of the Peacockes to one another, only these are scenes told of later in time. There is falling off here. A late novella. 1881. It anticipates later fiction but not seriously enough quite — I’m thinking of Hardy’s Mayor of Casterbridge 1885, Margaret Oliphant’s Ladies Lindores (an interrogration of marriage in effect) 1884.

Ellen

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Dave Jones as Daniel Blake in front of a grafitti he drew, demanding his appeal occur soon

Friends,

Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale turned into an often harrowing grim mini-series is not alone this season. Two more films and one play, all magnificent of their kind, and all appropriate to the newly transparently cruel and hypocritical (at least here in US) regime that has taken over. Three concise reviews.

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


Katie (Hayley Squires) driven out of the office, later accused of stealing in similarly focused humiliating scene (in fact she did steal as the money she was given was not enough for their needs)

I, Daniel Blake might be dubbed Cathy Come Home Redux. Cathy Comes Home traced the gradual degradation and ruthless abandonment of the young woman at its center: surely no one who has seen the final scene where Cathy’s children are forcibly taken from Cathy in a bus station where she is left homeless can forget it, no matter what your response. I, Daniel Blake, directed by Ken Loach, scripted Paul Lavery, is clearly a fictional story while Cathy Come Home is still taken as a documentary by some (so real does what happens feel) and ends similarly in a final memorable blow, slowly coming on over the last part of the film.


He’s not followed the rules; what he’s done is not good, it won’t do

The story: An old man, Daniel Blake (Dav Johns) whose wife has recently died, who spent his last years caring for her, has a heart attack and is advised by his physician not to work (to retire). He applies for a pension based on his sickness. He is given such a heartless round-around in the gov’t pension offices: the Forms he must fill out, and on line (to prove he’s looking for work he must apply online); inflexible criteria; with punishments of delay or ouster (no hope of any money ever), that we must gather, they are there to make him go away, and find a job — no matter if he dies of his sickness. It would be more humane to tell him in the first place. I can see some of the scenes as a modern Bleak House where misery of “Nobody’s Fault.” Only one employee of this pension place shows any understanding of his case, the absurdity of what’s demanded. The parallel plot is of a young London woman, Katie Morgan (Hayley Squires) escaping a brutal husband with her two children; she too applies to the same place for help Ha! she is thrown out as disruptive. There are very long lines in from of the food bank. Daniel is treated abusively on the phone by a prospective employer. She and Daniel meet, become a supportive team (he makes shelves for her, shops with her, shares his food with her children) until he discovers she’s succumbed to prostitution to make ends meet, and he has his application for disability funds (what we’d call) rejected. He finally cries out against this system which demands he find a job that doesn’t exist and he should not work at. He retreats in despair to his empty flat — he has sold everything off to have some money to stretch out. At the film’s close someone has hired a lawyer for him who assures him that he will now have the pension wrongly kept from him after a hearing (which does not look easy). Katie is there with, having become emotionally dependent, wants permission to go and live with him. Daniel nervous, under considerable pressure, goes off to the bathroom ….

I leave it to the reader’s imagination what happens next, only say the event leaves Katie howling.


Daniel, Katie, her two children constituted a family

Blunt, dignified and brutally moving says The Guardian. What struck me (see World Herald) is how many scenes were familiar to me — from similar phone calls I’ve made, similar attempts to get justice from a stone (where you thought there was a human being there), lies, what friends unfortunate enough to have to go to what once was called “Welfare” (now mostly abolished) went through. It played to a crowded audience at my local arts-movie-house.

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The answer if you’re black in America, is it’s not improbable and at any time you could be called to give evidence or arrests.

The above image taken from, 13th, commissioned, directed and written by (among others) Ava Maria Vernay, has a plot-design which allows a gradual realization (then enforced by some of the interviewees) that the present mass incarceration of blacks is a re-incarnation of slavery. Before mass incarceration, the lynching system and demand for utter self-abjection and apartheid policies were a re-incarnation of slavery; before thatafter the civil war the wide-spread convict labor system (men working in chains), and of course before that slavery was open and frank. As Ava DuVerney moves us from the present, back to deep past and then forward again, she interviews a set of extraordinary and ordinary people on the situation of black people and individual cases where a great leaders was outright murdered, or put in prison, or exiled (if he escaped). The 13th admendment is said to forbid slavery but it has this clause “except when the gov’t [decides] a crime has been committed.” What a loophole. How could it be that such a horror as slavery could have been tolerated? one person asks. Well, the horror of the prison system is tolerated — and it’s not kept wholly invisible. As I’ve become convinced every single person in the US or UK (maybe Canada too), the people I talk and write with has had him or herself, or a beloved relative or close friend cancer, so every black family in the US is has lost a relative and/or friend to this (now privately owned capitalist) devouring people machine.

It’s a deeply pessimistic film for at its end several of speakers suggest that this kind of re-incarnation is almost impossible to stop — unless you were to smash the central structure and beliefs of the US. People are living in hideous punitive slave conditions in many of these hell-holes. Sometimes decades of solitary confinement. Most committed no crime when taking a drug which only harmed yourself (and you should be sent to a medical center) is the basic cause of the sentence. When the old man lays dead on the bathroom floor, someone announces explicitly he died because of decisions of the state. A seemingly anonymous world. “Nobody’s fault, I’m just doing my job say all the authority figures but one

To see this you need only go to Netflix streaming, after which you can listen to an intelligent discussion of the film by Oprah Winfrey and Vernay.

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Ian Merrill Peakes as Timon seen through mirrors

A rarely performed play, I suggest that Timon of Athens (directed by Robert Richmond, and many technical people made the set and atmosphere), the play, I say, was chosen because like I, Daniel Blake and 13th, Timon is a profoundly indignant and angry work. Shakespeare just shows this more than Vernay and Loach; I hear him again as I did in Hamlet and Lear, indirectly in Macbeth, pouring his soul out throgh these tragic figures. Like the two films, it too is appropriate to what’s happening in our world today. Barbara McKay’s critique includes a concise summary of the nature and contrast between the play’s two parts. Kristin Franco’s review emphasizes the greed, hypocrisy, total lack of loyalty, hateful core of this society in the first half and the despair of Timon alone on stage with 5 visitors (rather like a Greek classic play, or anticipating Samson Agonistes). The dramaturgy is set up as an analogy. In the first half everyone overdressed, over-talking, neon lights, ceiling light, a light use of strobe creates this pervasive madness, which after a while others do not realize is around them (because they’ve produced normalizing discourses). People run about with ipads, there is a great deal of sheer flash. Everyone pretends, everyone on the hunt for best personal advantage. The one exception is the Jacques-like characer (AYLI), Apemantus.


Grovelling
Crowd-sourcing —

There is a Kent character too: Flavius, played by a black actress.

Everyone else lives off Timon, pretends gratitude. He loses all his money, his place at court, and no one will lend him money or help him. The noise, the extragavant dancing, the extroversion of the inner heart of the play was good. Effective theater. They sneer, say he must’ve deserves it. Things he cherished (books) mean nothing as he becomes disillusioned of his imaginary images of a better state, fine people, any chance for decent humane forgiving values to prevail. I thought of Coriolanus who had given his all to his people, but could not come down from his arrogance and when he fought hard and did not get the rank he deserved, he crosses over — only to find himself brutally murdered.


Individual moments show intensely good feeling – as if the actors knowing they would not be permitted to have generous hearts or the nobility of those black heroes risking their lives

I loved the second half. Now we are on a bleak bare stage. Timon keeps calling for a tree (you’d think he’s read Waiting for Godot). Timon the ultimate deportee, in rags, lucid raging, the great actor who made the production, Ian Merrill Peakes kneels, grounds himself to the ground. Here is the famous misanthrope. He is justified in his conclusions, but the play leaves open room that he had the responsibility to go under, to fight Trump and his gang. All he accuses his ex-friends for is what we hear praised and excused each day. He insists on his excuses: this made me anticipate a hard comeuppance, and so it is. His house, the natural world now turn on him. No friends. Timonechoes Hamlet: as in response he plays half-ironic anticks in word and deed, I was reminded of Lear on the heath. Timon does feels for the “unhoused.” Also of Beckett as Timon goes into another hell-hole, soliloquizing. They reject all the glitter and vanity of opulent riches. No one from the first half of the play is forgotten, all brought back and all exposed. But they are not forgiven because they do not repent. At end Timon dies of heartbreak, exhaustion, inanition from self-starvation.

A play, a documentary and a fictional film which feels like a documentary for our time.

Ellen

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Marie and her uncle, Michel, in daily life together (F. A. Fraser, the original illustrator of Golden Lion)

Dear friends,

For a few weeks on Trollope19thCStudies we’re reading two of Trollope’s novellas, The Golden Lion of Granpere (written 1867, serialized 5 years later) and Dr Wortle’s School (written 1879, serialized 1880). From the sparse commentary on Golden Lion (my chapter on Trollope’s 14 novellas in my book, Trollope on the Net is one of the rare published criticisms of the story, Chapter 4, pp 95-96), and its infrequent mention, I fancy it is truly one of Trollope’s lesser known fictions. In general, Trollope readers much prefer his long (and very long novels), and I know I was unusual in defending these books as in many ways as interesting as the longer ones, just using a different set of artistic techniques. While I wouldn’t claim Golden Lion a masterpiece, after we finished reading and discussing (about 4 to 5 of us), I want to call attention to it as like other of these novellas and some of Trollope’s stories, it’s a sort of experiment and in this case offers (mutedly but there) a daring insight into human psychology. In brief it presents the story of a father, Michel Voss, who tries to prevent his son, George, from marrying as servant girl in the house, Marie Bromar, because he the father has become so attached to her, he cannot bear to see his son replace him. In this novella, although there is no overt incest, Trollope quietly explores incestuous feelings (as Michel looks upon Marie as a kind of daughter) as in others he explores other verboten areas of human psychology under pressure.

What has happened is George and Marie have more or less grown up in close proximity and fallen in love. The rationale Michel uses is that his son has no right to want to marry Marie until he has created a thriving establishment; although not voiced this way, Marie is also a servant girl (rather like, as one member of the listserv, Diane Reynolds pointed out, Sonya in War and Peace) and George ought to marry someone more in his class; the father waxes intensely angry, driving the son to leave immediately to take over the management of a nearby inn not doing very well under the management of a widow, Madame Faragon.

The qualification here is neither Michel nor his wife, treat Marie as an inferior; Michel shows delicacy towards her feelings (he looks upon Marie’s defense of her love for George as “gallant” and “made notes of it in the notebook of his heart,” p 20). He then sets about to find her a fine match and he does in the person of a successful linen-dealer, Adrian Urmand, who is (from point of view of status) condescending when he agrees. I had not paid sufficient attention to Urmand last time either: another member of our listserv suggested Urmand has gay traits (small, a “dandy,” dressing elegantly and, though the word is not used, effeminate, not masculine, not forthright, physically there in the way of Michel and George). Urmand in fact never cares deeply for Marie; he leaves after the engagement calmly to wait until she’s ready; his pride has become involved when he agrees to engage himself publicly to her, and he would give her up when he reads her letter telling him she does not love him, but that the putative father-in-law insists he must not lose face and come back and claim the fulfillment of the engagement. Last time round I saw mostly the Oedipal struggle between father and son; this material is mined for much more than that.


Michel, the father, telling George, his son, he will protect Marie from George

Trollope said of this novella it was written on the pattern of Nina Balatka and Linda Tressel (written 1865 and 67, published 1866 and 67 respectively), both of which have had strong defenders, including Henry James. Trollope insisted Nina was a better book than The Eustace Diamonds. It does not end tragically (as does Linda, a Clarissa story, and as Nina almost does), but it may be said to support the point of view Prof Jim Kincaid argued for in his brief intervention in the recent Routledge Research Companion to Anthony Trollope, where Kincaid suggests that Trollope “can be read as a tragic novelist,” who chooses plot-designs which most of the time don’t end in tragedy, and whose mood is part of the comic low-mimetic mode, but nonetheless participate in the same Dionysus-like emotions we find in tragedy and skirt tragic insights into the human condition (“Trollope’s Tragedy,” pp 137-41), in this novella’s case I’d say the same kind of perverse violations of human emotion engineered by social and economic norms Richard Holt Hutton found in An Eye for an Eye. Using 3rd person indirect discourse the narrator and Michel towards the end realize how perversely Michel is behaving: working hard to send Marie away to live with Urman when he’d be himself desolate without her, the household without its central vital spirit (he does say he “won’t have her hurried,” chapter 9, p 116), knowing (though denying) that she does love his son, and himself loving that son, and preferring him to Armand. Pride, a desire to control everyone else, to be seen to be master, and as (so he says more than once), Marie’s “keeper” (Chapter 18, p 227) drives him on.

Another aspect of its quiet power and Trollope’s originality comes out when one compares it to Lady Anna (a marvelous book, recently adapted into a play, my essay on it in my book is Chapter 7). In Lady Anna (written 1871, serialized 1873), one of Trollope’s medium length novels, Lady Anna rebels against her mother and just about everyone in her world to insist on marrying Daniel Thwaite a tailor to whom she has engaged herself. She has been told that her status as a lady is tenuous, and her mother insists that for the mother’s sake who has sacrificed so much for this daughter, she, Lady Anna, must marry someone who is (if she is legitimate which is questionable) her cousin, and lord (like Urmand, very handsome) in order to secure that status as well as hand the family money over to a male heir who comes from a branch of the family relatively without funds. When Lady Anna finally defies her mother, she does this on principle: she stands up for her right to choose for herself, for her identity and past and memories. She makes an ethical argument intended to free herself of her mother’s control (see Chapter 41 especially, “ten times again did she tell herself that were she to yield now, she would be a slave for life,” p 434).


One of the small vignettes: Marie writing her letter

Marie makes as forceful an argument, only in accordance with the deeply sexual angle Trollope is exploring, she actually insists on her right to marry for love, and not to be forced to marry someone she does not love (which in context does refer to going to bed with the man). First Marie (Chapter 18 of Golden Lion) and then George himself (Chapter 19) accost Urmand (and Michel) on the grounds how dare he insert himself into a situation where the girl does not love him. Urmand is an intruder; hovering over this is an idea that such a marriage would constitute a form of (however muted) rape. Michel explodes with his usual word, “nonsense;” and she will love Urmand after a while, but she insists on a sexual right, on her right to choose who she will know passion with. (Quite different grounds from Lady Anna, grounds the great Solicitor-General and other lawyers who become Anna’s friends might not have agreed so readily with as an ethical principle of liberty and identity.)

For me the fascinating aspect of a number of these novellas, the first two of which Trollope (Nina and Linda) insisted on publishing as by anonymous, is how they break taboos through the exploration of a brilliantly-conceived and then delved dilemma. Critics have famously (well among Trollopians it’s famous) why Trollope at the height of his career (he was the author of the Can You Forgive Her? publishing The Last Chronicle of Barset at this time) suddenly want to try himself out again, court failure again. Trollope offered as an excuse that he wanted to see if he deserved his great reputation and if his books were selling so well just because of his name (brand is the word used today). Was this some self-flagellating gesture, masochism? Perhaps he wanted to publish a different sort of book — one not Anglo-Protestant and upper-class centered? And indeed Nina takes place in Prague, Linda in Nuremburg. Trollope attempts lovingly to create a world of French bourgeois Catholicism bordering eastern France and Germany in Golden Lion. He does not go in for nuance, but large general paradigms in a kind of thick ethnography (the same kind of feel is found in his short stories taking place in French inns, for example, “La Mere Bauche” which ends in a tragic disaster).

I’ve thought he wanted to obscure his name because in many of them he dares to deal with questions of central psychological interest for his period in ways that might disquiet and offend readers. In the second novella we are going to read on Trollope19thCStudies, Dr Wortle’s School, Trollope warns the reader early on he has an unmarried couple and if the reader doesn’t like this, the reader should stop reading right now (close the book and go away). Sir Harry Hotspur of Humblethwaite has rightly reminded many readers of James’s Washington Square; Kept in the Dark (also very late story, written 1880, published 1882) is a tale of seething intense sexual anxiety and possessiveness (darker even than the central story of He Knew He Was Right); The Fixed Period is a Swiftian Orwellian satire, where a law decrees that people aged 67 must be deposited in aslyums and the next year killed. Even the old stand-by which most Trollopians know so well was remarkably daring in its references to real living church officials and attack on unmerited sinecures, the whole church caste system.


A beautifully shaded and lined illustration of George and Marie’s reconciliation

To return to this neglected (at the close) sunlit tale. Perhaps it’s neglected because it does end in a comforting way. If this were Cousin Henry (perhaps an even less known novella than Golden Lion) Urmand’s diffidence, sensitivity, hurt pride, and withdrawal would make everyone behave with strong contempt towards him. Not so in this story. As we all agreed, by the end the characters all behave justly towards one another, and throughout the tale too Trollope is utterly even-handed, generous in his treatment of them. It all ends in a picnic no one wants to go to, but is engineers to soothe the wounded ego of Urmand — who all agree has been “ill-used.” Michel does love his son; if Madame Voss is somewhat grated upon by Marie (after all she is much younger than her husband and did not marry for love and has accepted her lot), she yields (as so many of Trollope’s characters in these novellas will not) and never quite brings to the surface her jealousy of her. Madame Faragon wants the savior of her inn to be able to marry Marie.

This can make us overlook one area of thought and feeling which is not resolved away at the book’s close. A priest is hauled in to bully Marie into marrying Urmand by insisting she is deeply sinful if she refuses to marry Urmand. Urmand is Catholic and George Protestant. M. le Cure makes the mistake of equating deep sinfulness with obedience to Michel Voss (and himself). Marie sees through this at once as transparent unfair manipulation, false equations. She reminds him that the marriages he is talking of were made for money. At one point Trollope tells us Marie is a “better hypocrite” (Chapter 13, p 153) than most around her (ironically), but it’s really more that even if she half-agrees to marry Urmand and be a “good wife” to him, she never loses sight of her real feeling which is “that she loved another man” (Chapter 9, p 103). She agrees only to please her uncle; her uncle’s demands, her uncle’s pressure, her uncle’s feelings are what she most attends to throughout the tale; the original illustrations to the tale emphasize this relationship.


Marie and Michel, like to go on long walks together and talk

Overlooked, unemphasized but here is one of Trollope’s motifs throughout his books: religious hypocrisy. The priest is behaving as badly as the Proudies who also manipulate religion to inflict an abusive power; and he never does back away, only disappears. A sidelight here is how frequently in Trollope’s lesser known novels he can also present a deeply sympathetic portrait of a Catholic priest (the first and most moving in The Macdermots of Ballycloran, Trollope’s first and a tragic novel).

As I argued in my book, but here for different reasons, I think this is a fine novel by Trollope, and have written this blog to recommend it to readers who have not read it and suggest rereading to those who have. Among the older forgotten studies of Trollope that would illuminate this book is L. J. Swingle’s Romanticism and Anthony Trollope: A Study in the Continuities of Nineteenth-Century Literary Thought. The novel turns Arcadian in the close but it uses lyrical rhythms in many passages of description throughout; at the same time Trollope shows a real interest in ecology in this book. In its happy ending the characters are enabled to follow an inner innate nature and find contentment in life.

Ellen

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