Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for January, 2022

I don’t always make a blog from the books we read but I felt I ought to in the this case. It would be remiss not to — especially
since it is loaded with divisive concepts …

Friends and fellow readers,

It was in October of this past year, that a group of us on TrollopeandHisContemporaries@grous.io began to read the whole of Hugo’s massive novel as translated, introduced and massively annotated by Christine Donougher. We’ve just finished this week. During this time at least one person also read Graham Robb’s massive biography of Hugo, I returned to Bellos’s Novel of the Century, Victor Brombert’s Hugo and the Visionary Novel, and, with a couple of other people, re-watched Andrew Davie’s magnificent film adaptation, as well as the film version of the world-famous musical.

Myself I had seen Eric Schaeffer’s stage version twice (once in London), and concert presentation years before, and for good measure this time re-watched twice Simon Schama’s The Romantics and Us, whose second hour is mostly given over to Hugo as finally, or at the time of the writing of this book, radical revolutionary in his thought.


Mass protest scene from 2012 film

Given how the matter of all this material speaks so home to us today, I can’t see myself not making a blog about it, though I sincerely doubt I have anything new to add to all that has been said and written – and drawn and sung and danced too. One can say with the usual semi-pompous language, the book is an extraordinary prose narrative — a combination of history, political and philosophical thought, fantastic visions, with novel framework and larger than life presences we can call characters to carry us through. And the French is visceral poetry. Full of contradictions, not to omit much muddle.

But this does not put into language that what is so crucial is how it captures the misery, thwarted aspirations, and fleeting joy in grief of millions of desperately poor, imprisoned, ravaged people, most often seen today in the form of endlessly punished refugees. Jean Valjean is Leonard Peltier, Fantine is exploited, derided, and raped woman hidden in plain sight who when she fights back becomes an outcast Christina Casey Ford (she who accused Kavanaugh and ridiculed ended outcast) without funds or friends. Mabeuf our adjunct lecturer scholar. The vast disquisitions about Waterloo, and morphing of gov’ts rarely even addressing a country’s needs, and when it tries, quickly reversed by those who cannot bear to lose a stitch of power or authority. Each type, the good priest, the barbaric cop, the base criminal and his wife, the orphan child, selfless nun, street prostitute — they stand before us.

It seems to me important to say — and maybe another reason I write this blog — that you cannot rely on any of the movies (there have been several, and I’ve tried a couple beyond Davies’) or the musical or (worse yet) the recent popular film of the musical (2012, directed by Tom Hooper), to convey the spirit or meaning of the book to you. Everything is done that can be by way of setting and choices of scenes to turn Hugo’s book into a seeming Catholic religious parable where God’s mysteries are beautiful in his churches and good people there (a reductive travesty). The movies are apolitical, with personal love the key to people’s happiness.  Nothing could be further from the feel and mood of Hugo’s book despite so often the good people being a church functionary.

Of course in the film musical you are worked up to revolutionary-like fervor and cumulatively end crying at the deaths of these good well-meaning people. And there is tragic catharsis: I found myself beginning to cry at Marius’s song too: the words “There’s a grief that can’t be spoken/There’s a pain that goes on and on” felt directly a propos. Empty chairs: that’s a phrase found in an old Civil War song (union side). And the book’s true heroine, Fantine (according to my way of thinking but not the book where Hugo chose a shallow conventional hero and mindless version of the heroine) is taking its true hero off with her to where (like Lear) he will no longer be wracked on this world’s fiery wheel of searing loneliness, and find rest. In Hugo’s book the emphasis is not personal and its significance more like what is found in a Camus novel like La Peste.


Lily Collins as Fantine after the mountebank has done with her, gathering material for dolls


Hair also needed for wigs – and teeth?

I here single out Davies’ film for making modern secular humane sense, with attention to the pathos of several of the characters (reinventing or changing some, like Courfeyreau). Davies’ script shows how despicable are others (Fantine’s seducer, the thug Madame Thenardier, however brutalized by her husband), and terrifying (Ron Cook as the mountebank who scissirs off Fantine’s hair and yanks out her teeth to leave her looking memorably ghastly). He tightens up the story, makes some realistic turns for the story, makes far more sense of Javert as a character (homoerotic, and thus obsessed with Jean Valjean), as well as filling out and making consistent the other characters in ways that bring out the egalitarian strains in the book. The only film adaptation of a classic that comes up to the presentation of the relentless killing of ordinary people practiced by the militia of the state that we see in the Paris streets in Davies’s Les Miserables here is Davies’ own Dr Zhivago.

I don’t feel that Davies quite captures the sinister and chaotic reality of a senseless unjust society and downright evil in law and deepest thought patterns (punish, isolate) of Hugo’s book: in Davies’ Dr Zhivago he has the totalitarian state as run by seething madmen whom ordinary people are terrified by. Dr Zhivago differs from most of  Davies’ work where there is a Trollopian or Dickensian (Victorian?) comic-realistic vision of the world.  Hugo’s world is tragic and exaggerated so in feel with the beautiful French fantastic.  Both project in their different mediums, Hugo with his story, Davies with the considerable apparatus of film adaptations today, the prisons, trials, hierarchical social gatherings, servitudes, what good and powerless people have to contend with. Both are short of the kind of thing we must turn to Primo Levi to find presented consistently (in If this be Man).  Nonetheless because of Davies’ skill in characterization (dialogue, instructions for gestures, collaboration with Tom Hooper, the director), when you finish Davies’ film you will have understood the underlying politics and source of some of the passions of Hugo’s work better.


Hugh Jackman’s lonely face as the dying scene begins


An unusual moment for Madame Thenardier: Helena Bonham Carter bringing out a flatness Olivia Coleman never attempts (and is not in Hugo either)

As for the musical: as presented (no matter where, stage or film), the book script and songs assume we know the story. Hardly anything is explained. It’s arguable nothing need be explicated clearly, except I appreciated what the composers and lyric writers were doing now: it was one long symphony or piece of music which had interruptions for a little dialogue but basically one long song I’ll call it; it changes mood and character voice but it seemed to me consistently a expressionist reaction to Les Miserables basic concept: here are the wretched of the earth, mixed in with cruel senseless authority figures and rules which have nothing to do with these wretched people. At any rate do not help them but seek to control and to punish. Sometimes a voice of kindness is singing, sometimes profound loneliness. The driving rhythms are a build up of rage, passion kept caged and finally reaching some height as the people climb the barricades.

The out-of-whack piece, brought back more than once, “Master of the House,” is a subversive and mindless mocking contrast, with one of the lines referring to Voltaire — as music and song it seemed to say the Voltairian Candide vision might be seethingly hilarious, a release but no use at all to suffering people.  Costumes and settings are imitative of Marat/Sade (that wild grotesque burlesque protest piece of so long ago), intermixed with Dickensian tropes so Gavroche in the film musical is an adorable Artful Dodger cut down.


Reece Yates (2012 Davies’ film) escapes both the cuteness of the Hollywoodized Artful Dodger and Hugo’s own (to me) unfortunate way of not taking the boy quite seriously

************************************************
It is so much easier to write about a movie or stage musical than one of the grand novels of the 19th century. To say I loved the long supposed digression (but the book is more digression than it is story) on language and slang won’t do.


Donald Sumpter as Mabeuf (still prosperous, in front of the church with his volumes, 2018 film)

But in order not to go on for too long, we shall have to limit ourselves tonight for exemplary detail to the ending of Hugo’s Part 4, Book 8, Chapter 7, where Mabeuf, once a lowly functionary in a church, is living in a hovel, and due to conditions out of his control, finds he can no longer pay the ridiculous rent for such a place with what he once did.  He is driven to sell his precious collection of books. He refuses to take a gift of money left for him (he would not steal a loaf of break presumably) and takes it to a bank. The last place that needs it. The cry of anguish from his heart matches the cry of Marius’s mean ancien regime grandfather when he cannot threaten Marius into loyalty, much less love in just the previous chapter. At core there is stark grief in the old man’s unwillingness to open up to his grandson or inability, and in the destitute idealist.

This does happen. Charlotte Smith in the early 19th century had to sell all her books to keep herself and family afloat. It was a terrible bitter experience for her – she didn’t quite sell them all, but those which fetched a good sum. Ever after she couldn’t write the same books. I’ve a male friend who lost his tenure, and came to DC and tried to live and get a job and couldn’t and was finally driven to sell his books in order to pay up his rent, move back home (horrible place – deep south, utter Trump country) — but then he was okay for he had a small job there and place to live with his family , a family which the high-minded Marius would have rejected and, as he does in the book (improbably) make his way (to use a very Trollopian phrase).

Looking at the book from a distance, it is very controlled. The story is minimal but it has enough twists and turns and new archetypal characters to take us through several related climaxes while moving along a trajectory of imprisonment, desperation.  I refer to JVJ’s encounter with M. Bienvenu, the priest at the opening of the book whose transformative goodness to him finds a parallel in Jean Valjean’s transformative forgiveness or lack of vengeance to Javert.   Then luck and cleverness enable JVJ to build a business and take care of a whole community, Montfermeil. He is elected Mayor despite not wanting to call attention to himself. While the slender plot-design unravels – Javert finds him after he has rescued Cosette and secured a hovel room for them both.  Like the Zorro he is, he escapes with her (using a rope pulling her up a wall he climbed up himself)  into a convent, and finding a grateful friend, stays for 18 years. And so it goes. He and Cosette leave so she can enter the world, have a chance to see it, and the spite of an old woman once again precludes their quiet retired but unconventional life. Now and again we stop for long meditations, disquisitions on war, society, language, the right type of wedding …


Dominic West as Jean Valjean reading with the little Cosette before they are forced to flee and end up in the convent

Our Jean Valjean is all heroes. Today I have been reading Christa Wolf’s Cassandra, where the one good man in the whole of Troy and among the Greeks is Aeneas, with whom Cassandra falls in love. She plays a part like Dido’s, and he must desert her out of a sense of duty (pius Aeneas), to care for his people. Well this reminds me of Jean Valjean’s behavior towards the people of Montfermeil as mayor: he thinks about them when he is about to give himself up because he can’t face allowing another person to be taken for him and put in jail. Like Foyle (in the justly respected World War II British ITV mystery series), JVJ decides that the greater general hoped-for good (that when such a good mayor leaves, all the prosperity might fall apart) does not substitute for doing a clearly concrete moral act: you must not use someone else. So he gives himself in and must escape again before he can rescue Cosette, and Fantine dies without having seen her child, in Hugo’s book believing herself forever damned.

I think that Hugo does want us to remember Aeneas carrying his father on his back during the siege of Troy and saving his life when JVJ carries Marius on his back through a sewer, almost drowns with him in filthy quicksand. But when Jean Valjean pulls himself and Marius up and comes to the locked door, who is there? Thenardier asking for money. A sardonic joke subtextually.

True heroism is caring, strength to do the truly moral thing, though the world’s consequences show how you cannot escape hurting someone. Amid all Hugo’s investment in heroic maleness, Les Miserables is as anti-war as it is anti- the capitalist spirit. Thenardier let us recall in the book ends a slave-trader in the US.

Ellen

Read Full Post »


This is a scan of a postcard sent to me in 1994; it was done as part of the campaign to have a plaque for Anthony Trollope in Westminster Abbey

Dear friends and readers,

Now for something a little different. Just, or focusing on, photos. Over on the Trollope Society face-book page, someone suggested people send in photos of their Trollope books. So I took four photos of what I have that is real, physical books, folders, papers, and share them here.

First, there’s my main bookcase, which stands to the left of my desk: half books by Trollope (some several editions), the other half the first part of an alphabet of critical, biographical and other non-fiction books on Trollope or an area of concern to him. I didn’t get the very top, which is another row of books.

Second, behind me as I face my PC (some of it visible in videos), my folders of essays, all sorts of primary stuff xeroxed, hard-to-get texts by Trollope, especially lots on illustrations and handbooks:

Third, the books and folders that didn’t fit and are in the closet to the right of the shelves of folders:

And fourth, lastly, a row and a half of notebooks on (some screenplays I copied out) and DVDS of Trollope movies. It’s the second shelf starting one third the way through and the third. All in my enclosed porch where I keep all my DVDs and notebooks in two similar bookcases.

And of course separately, the short stack of what I’m reading now: two copies of Orley Farm, one with original illustrations. On a table in my workroom. After I finished my Joanna Trollope blog I put back her books. These or she sit/s in another room next to novels and travel books of Fanny Trollope (some of these in xeroxes in folders) and Thomas Trollope’s What I Believe.

I necessarily omit all that I now have as digital books and files in my computer. Around 2004 I stopped xeroxing things, stopped printing out except when I needed a final paper to take with me to a conference to read aloud (or now on zoom).  I now have a couple of books by Anthony Trollope as digital files (How the Mastiffs Went to Iceland is one of them), a few more secondary books and all the essays and articles gathered from online databases since.


Anthony Trollope by Julia Margaret Cameron, albumen print, 1864

I believe I could do the something similar (write a similar photo blog) of my Jane Austen library:  it would take two photos, one full bookcase of books by and on Austen (same size bookcase so 7 rows of books); and a second of three rows of shelves in my enclosed porch, not just notebooks and DVDs of Austen movies, but one of the shelves has sequels (many unread) and translations of Austen’s novels into French and Italian (some read).

Ellen

Read Full Post »


From a BBC Ghost Stories series: opening still from M.R. James, “The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral” (1971)

Gentle readers and friends,

I got the idea to read for Christmas a few non-traditional sequels to Anthony Trollope’s work one day at a Trollope Zoom meeting when Christopher Briscoe presented his imaginary history of Barchester (scroll down, it’s there). I had heard that Joanna Trollope’s The Choir was another early Trollopian original story (using her legal, not the pseudonym, Caroline Harvey), where the cathedral itself was central.

I had so enjoyed Joanna Trollope’s The Rector’s Wife a sympathetic modern version of the story of Mrs Crawley from The Last Chronicle of Barset, and the film adaptation with a favorite actress, Lindsay Duncan, well I didn’t quite rush out, but went to my computer to buy the book, and soon I was acquiring the DVDs to the serial (Region 2) and an audio reading of the complete book by Nadia May. I now vow to read some later books by J. Trollope, not sequels to a 19th century vision, but about 21s century social and other issues (her Other People’s Children, for example, about adoption)

I also pulled out from its shelf with Henry James books, a book Jim used to read aloud to me from: a beautifully produced (art paper) and illustrated (by Rosalind Caldecott) Ghost Stories of M.R. James, and read a few. All intended for Christmas, to evoke the time and the unknowable natural world through the uncanny. One alluded to Anthony Trollope.

And I’ve now seen two versions of The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral, one done as a group of actors listening to one man playing James reading aloud to them and/or telling the whole story in a setting that looks like James’s rooms in Cambridge at Christmas, and one acted quietly well with Clive Swift as Rev Haynes (Swift was Bishop Proudie in the 1983 BBC Barchester Chronicles).


Rev Haynes confiding his tale to his friend played by Peter Vaughn


Sally Ashworth (our heroine, Cathryn Harrison) eating companionably with her friend & father-in-law, Frank (again Peter Vaughn) from the BBC The Choir, Episode 1.

As you can see a cathedral and its atmosphere (stone gargoyles) are never far from overt consciousness in these books & films

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

As with The Rectors’ Wife, The Choir is an original novel in its own right, which at the same time creates characters and events reminiscent, even closely of Anthony Trollope, especially the church politics of the Barsetshire series. What makes it inimitably Trollopian in feel and art is an intertwined cast of closely-associated characters who when they should be working together, compete against one another to achieve intensely desired private goals (of love, friendship, personal fulfillment of talents and tastes), which will create a social world they must all share (they cannot escape) and each would love to dominate or control in some way.

It fits Elaine Showalter’s study of academic politics, Faculty Towers, which she claims got their start in Barchester Towers, just as Mr Slope interviews Mr Harding for a job he already has. In the case of The Choir, it is the cathedral which is discovered to be crumbling (from damp and neglect) when, out of vanity, Dean Hugh Cavendish (played by Edward Fox), decides to install modern aesthetic lighting arrangements for atmosphere. A great deal of money is needed.


Choir practice

Just then, Frank Ashworth (Peter Vaughn), a long-time labor activist, a socialist, decides the gardens of the cathedral close are going to waste because they intimidate the average citizen, and proposed to buy a beautiful 18th century house the head master, and a canon of the cathedral, Alexander Troy (David Walker) has lived with his wife, Felicity (Jane Asher), just now run away. Frank also wants to reorganize the boys’ choir his own grandson, Henry (Anthony Way) sings in, as he says it is as presently recruited for elitist. And as part of his personal life, he has a good friendship with his daughter-in-law; his wife long ago left him, and his son, Alan, Sally Ashworth (Cathryn Harrison)’s husband is unable to establish or keep up genuine relationships with other people. Alan works in Saudi Arabia. He has been in flight since his mother left his father; the book suggests some empathy is needed, but not the film. In the serial, he is your philandering hypocrite.

From the BBC film serial adaptation of Joanna Trollope’s The Choir: opening still where through the tops of the Cathedral (it’s Gloucester) we glimpse Nicholas Elliot returning to the sanctuary of his choir years (1995)

I will not be party to a scheme that wears an altruistic mask to cover a heart of envy (JTrollope’s The Choir p 69; repeated in Episode 2 of Ian Curteis’ film script) — remember John Bold in ATrollope’s The Warden, gentle reader

The kindly bishop, Robert Young (John Standing) accuses Frank of concocting these reformist schemes because Frank envies the people who get to dwell in such beautiful places and make such rarefied beauty; his scheme will end up destroying what he says he wants others to share. In the event, when city council takes over the headmaster’s house, it does not become the beautiful community center Frank said he was envisioning. As with Anthony Trollope’s The Warden, where the break-up of the church’s unjust use of a 14th century will does not lead to the old men getting a just allowance, so the Dean’s house becomes a hollow shell of offices for people doing supposedly socially-good jobs they have no belief in for real. The beauty of the house now obscured.

Out of obscure envies and resentments of his own, and an absolute determination to be in charge, Dean Cavendish (the Archbishop Grantley character) decides the church can do without its much admired choir of boys singing sublimely, something which means a great deal to Troy. So too another group of characters, beyond Henry:  the organist, Leo Beckford (played particularly well by Nicholas Farrell), Sally (Cathryn Harrison), Henry’s mother whose husband (Alan, see above) lives thousands of miles away from her so he can be free and unfaithful. Sally seeks solace in her son’s achievements and a bookstore she works in. A central storyline dramatizes how Sally and Leo fall in love.

Alexander Troy, the headmaster and canon’s wife, Felicity, has “gone off again” as the novel opens: like Anna Bouverie (yes Flaubert’s heroine alluded to), the rector’s wife, Felicity had much to bear, and finds herself thwarted of usefulness she can value.


Felicity Troy (Jane Asher) spreading posters about (later in the novel, see below)

Reader, there are other complications. Nicholas Farrell (Oliver Milburn), an old boy grown up and now homeless, has returned to the cathedral world, and is given employment by Ianthe Cavendish (Claire Cox), lusting after Leo (who is cold to her).  Ianthe has invested in a record company, run by Mike (Peter de Jersey, the only black person in the cast) who is capable of making money out of music.

It’s worth saying (and important to this depiction of modern British middle class people) that for a number of the characters their love of music, and working at their roles in it is sincere: Leo Beckford, the most striking; Alexander Troy (who defends the choir at the cost of losing his house), Nicholas Farrell (once upon a time and still), Henry, the young boy, and Mike too.

The Cavendish family (parents and children) are the most directly Trollopian elements in the book: Joanna has in mind Archbishop Grantley as the archetype under Dean Cavendish: the same strong materialism, ability to dominate, strong self-esteem, ruthlessness; his wife, Bridget (Richenda Carey) is a Mrs Proudie softened; their children as obnoxious as most of the Grantley children. Joanna has a less than favorable take on the male Grantley figure whom many Trollope fans profess to like (they identify!).

Our sweet Bishop Young harks back to the Bishop in The Warden, only here we see the cowardliness, or reluctance to fight where he should. As in The Rector’s Wife, to me surprisingly, The Choir is seriously examining the place of Christian (meaning unselfish, charitable, pro-community and mystic) beliefs and acts among the characters.


Henry with a cardboard cat, after Sally has left him temporarily, taking with her Mozart, their cat (Joanna Trollope is delightful the way she describes pets’ behavior in her books)

I found myself following intensely how everything played out, with favorite characters experiencing hard blows, really felt and on-going losses, and yet or also support, kindness and courtesy, and help so that they gradually carve or find out a niche in which they can make some happiness for themselves. This sentiment: we have to make our happiness is stated explicitly.  It represents a way of viewing what the characters are doing at the close of The Rector’s Wife.   The idea enables Joanna Trollope to dramatize a modern version of a typically qualified Anthony Trollope ending.

Joanna Trollope is a deft writer who can include so much action and thought in her tightly interwoven threads. She gets a lot in for 261 page book. This one has many allusions to quite a number of my favorite and less well known or not particularly popular or super-respected books that I just like, e.g., Joan Lindsay’s Picnic at Hanging Rock, the Merchant-Ivory films from E.M. Forster, and much beautiful music cited and then in the film heard (Bach, Britten, Vaughn Williams)

The film is faithful in its realization of Trollope’s characters, and it makes superb use of Gloucester and Worcester Cathedral (the two churches filmed), and Cheltenham (for the town).  Curteis dialogue is superb (often taken straight from the book).  The serial is particularly strong in the final episode where we experience a temporary resolution and movement for a hopeful time to come, carrying forward love and burdens.

Those who present themselves as hurting worse are the Dean and his wife, though he got his way in everything he said he wanted (including firing those who bucked him); she is only momentarily crushed as we see a bitterness underneath her part of her nature. This is not a feminist tale in the way The Rector’s Wife is, and Bridget’s thwarted ambition with no high rank is part of what makes her so eager to vex others.

The reunion and touching coming together of Alexander and Felicity and then their shared fight the Dean for their house appealed deeply to me. I value my house. He was lost without her:

A traditional sequel you see fills out a story that Trollope told (like John Wirenius’s Phineas at Bay, which picks up the Palliser novels from the end of The Duke’s Children; M. R. James did not do this for Barchester Towers, but tells dark tale of a man whose ambition took him into realm where he was out of his depth. I linked in the story-line and an interpretation, this too of church politics, spinster sisters and servants (above) so here let me just provide you with the movie itself — no longer available to buy or to see on Netflix or Amazon prime.

M.R. James is a much darker writer than A or J Trollope, and at his best disquieting (that link takes you to “Canon Alberic’s Scrapbook,” after reading which I had to find Jim and sit near him for a while).

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

I meant to have written this for “Twelfth Night,” but did not meet my goal by a day. No matter, January 6th will for some time to come not be connected by most in the US to the solstice holidays, but to a criminally-led attempt to take over the US through violence as country via some fragile pretense of legality in order to set in place a White supremacist and fascist dictator state, with all the horrors we’ve seen attached to that in its wake.  Remember 1943 ought to be a rallying cry.


Dean Cavendish (Edward Fox) making a deal with an unscrupulous politician in order to get his way

Ellen

Read Full Post »