Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for the ‘20th century culture’ Category


E.M Forster by Dora Carrington (1920)

A Syllabus

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

For a course at the Oscher LifeLong Learning Institute at American University
Day: Monday afternoons, 1:45 to 3:15 pm,
Mar 2 to May 4
4801 Massachusetts Avenue, Washington, D.C. 20016
Dr Ellen Moody

Description of Course

In this course we will read Forster’s best-known fiction, A Room with a View, Howards End, and A Passage to India. We’ll discuss what makes them such distinctive literary masterpieces capable of delivering such pleasure while delineating the realities, tragedies, comedy, and consolations of human life. We’ll place them in the context of his life, other works, Bloomsbury connections and era. We’ll also see clips from some of the brilliant films made from them. I ask that before class begins everyone read his short explanatory Aspects of the Novel.


Above Lucy Honeycomb (Helena Bonham Carter) and Miss Charlotte Bartlett (Maggie Smith), 1987; Lucy (Elaine Cassidy) coming into Florence, 2007 — Room with a View

Required Texts (these are recommended editions; there are other good ones you could buy, i.e, with notes and annotations):

EM Forster, Aspects of the Novel, ed. Frank Kermode. Penguin ISBN 978-0-141-44169-6
EM Forster, A Room with a View, ed. Wendy Moffat. Penguin ISBN 978-0-14-18329-9
EM Forster, Howards End, ed David Lodge. Penguin 978-0-14-118213-1
EM Forster, A Passage to India, ed PN Furbank. Everyman ISBN 978-1-85715-029-2


Above Leonard Bast (Samuel West) in a reverie sequence, 1992; Margaret Schegel (Haylet Atwell) at breakfast, 2018 — Howards End

Format: The class will be a mix of informal lecture and group discussion. Please read for the first session, as much of Aspects of the Novel as you can.

Mar 2: 1st week: Intro, syllabus, Forster’s life and work; the Bloomsbury group (one of his groups of friends); his aesthetic point of view. We’ll cover Aspects of the Novel, Intro, and Chapters 1-5

Mar 9: 2nd: Aspects of the Novel, Chapters 6-10. The first two novels. We begin A Room with a View: Part One

Mar 16: 3rd: A Room with a View: Part Two. We’ll see clips from the Merchant-Ivory-Jhabvala Room with a View (1985) and Andrew Davies’s Room with a View (2007)

Mar 23: 4th A Room with a View, transitional; we begin Howards End: Chapters 1-14

Mar 30: 5th: Howards End: Chapters 15-26

Apr 6: 6th: Howards End: Chapters 27-43: We’ll see clips from Merchant-Ivory-Jhabvala Howards’ End (1992); Lonergan’s 4 part Howards’ End

Apr 13: 7th: Forster’s Maurice; we begin A Passage to India, Chapters 1-11 (Part One)

Apr 20: 8th A Passage to India, Chapters 12-28 (Part Two)

Apr 27: 9th: A Passage to India, Chapters 29-37 (Parts Two into Three). We’ll see clips from David Lean’s A Passage to India (1984)

May 4: The other 46 years: travel writing, biography, essays, short stories.


Adela Quested (Judy Davis), Dr Aziz (Victor Banerjee) and Mrs Moore (Peggy Ashcroft), 1985 — A Passage to India

Recommended biography, essays & by Forster:

Beauman, Nicola. Morgan: A Biography of E.M. Forster. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1993.
Forster, E. M. Abinger Harvest. London: Penguin, 1967.
Forster, E. M. Maurice, ed. David Leavitt. NY: Penguin, 2005.
Moody, Ellen. E. M. Forster’s Howards End and A Room with a View. A Blog. https://ellenandjim.wordpress.com/2018/11/29/e-m-forsters-howards-end-and-a-room-with-a-view/ Ellen and Jim have a blog, two. November 29, 2018
Summers, Claude J. E.M. Forster. NY: Ungar, 1983. Excellent essays on the novels
Trilling, Lionel. E.M. Forster. NY: New Directions, 1965. Liberal imagination, humanistic perspective.


House (Peppard Cottage) used as Howards End in 1992 movie

Films:

Howards End. Dir. Hettie Macdonald. Screenplay: Kenneth Lonergan. Producer: HBO. Perf. Hayley Atwell, Matthew Macfayden, Joseph Quinn, Philippa Coulthard, Alex Lawther, Rosalind Eleazar. 2018.
A Passage to India. Dir. Screenplay. David Lean. Perf. Peggy Ashcroft, Judy Davis, James Fox, Alec Guinness, Nigel Havers, Victor Banerjee, Roshan Seth. Columbia, 1985
A Room with a View; Howards End. Dir. James Ivory. Screenplay Ruth Prawer Jhabvala. Producer: Ismail Merchant. Perf: Denholm Elliot, Maggie Smith, Helena Bonham Carter, Cecil Day-Lewis; Simon Callow (Room with a View); Anthony Hopkins, Emma Thompson, Helena Bonham Carter, Samuel West, James Wilby (Howards End). 1985; 1992.
A Room with a View. Dir. Nicolas Renton. Screenplay. Andrew Davies. Producer: ITV. Perf. Elaine Cassidy, Timothy and Rafe Spall, Timothy West, Sophie Thompson, Mark Williams, Sinead Cusack. 2007.


Alex Lawther as the appealing impish, but marginalized Tibby in Howards End (2018) — the character reappears more fully developed, older, articulate in Cecil Vyse (played by Daniel Day Lewis) in A Room with a View

Read Full Post »


Opening moments of Fortunes of War (1987 BBC 7 part series)

Dear friends,

Tonight I had intended to write a blog-essay on the first two novels of Manning’s superb six volume cycle of novels, Balkan Trilogy followed by Levantine Trilogy set across World War Two (1939-44) and its equally fine film adaptation by Plater and Jones, Fortunes of War, famously starring Emma Thompson and Kenneth Branagh. But I find to my slight amazement, I’ve already written a blog on precisely this material, where I had also finished The Great Fortune, and reached the end of the second novel, The Spoilt City and vowed to go on to the third, Friends and Heroes, and then the second trilogy — and never did. (I have begun Friends and Heroes.) As when I first began reading these novels for two sessions of a five session course at Politics and Prose (bookstore in Northwest Washington DC), and discovered my mind was a complete blank over them (I forgot I had made my files of notes), so I had completely forgotten this blog.

I know why. I read the novels during the first half of the summer when Jim was dying but I thought he might live and then had the shock of realizing the doctors had filled us (or me) with false hope and allowed, nay encouraged him to take a dreadful operation (an esophagectomy) on the supposition it could help stop the spread of the cancer. It did no such thing, and when the cancer metatasized into his liver, his inability to eat anything without having it slosh back with acid and sour tastes of the worst sort made the last two and one half months of his existence a yet worse hell than even it was.

2013 was a long time ago now. Seven years have gone by in my life, and I’ve changed a lot and had many new experiences (yet not changed at all and remain the same person unable to do very different things — mostly because I don’t want to). I remember reading somewhere the body replaces itself every seven years. More to the point for Manning’s books and TV series, the political world has shifted dramatically so that my perspective at the time — one where I compared the art of the books to the art of Jane Austen — emerges as obtusely unimportant, showing how this influence led to the making of a more delicate nuanced art, but missing or de-emphasizing why one reads these books and what made them important in shifting political world of 1970s as a reflection of the world of the calamitous 1940s. I grant my old blog this much: I retell the basis story and outline the themes of two of the books and the movie. But in 2013 we still had Barack Obama as president, and however troubling was the state of the world and retrograde many of the attitudes in public that dominated over social, sexual, economic, political life inside the US and the cultures worlds like it, all that is nothing to what this US gov’t, the public world of our society, and all sorts of norms have become or been contested into since Trump took office in January 2016.

Suddenly Manning’s depiction of how the average person will experience the step-by-step closing in of a military dictatorship, disintegration of many aspects of society (from closing of schools, to wiping out of all sorts of accustomed freedoms — like movement, to new forms of imprisonment, destruction of social services, many protections), ruthless killing in say the streets and just over the hill of the skies in another country (where “anything goes”) is starkly relevant. This first part or the first three novels are basically a woman’s view of war, what she gets to see (a lot) and how she copes with it. The second three take us to Egypt and into the desert war where the characters who dominate (or become Harriet’s friends) are men fighting in battle and coming back shell-shocked; we witness war itself, the blowing up of people, of trucks, of towns directly. Gentle reader, I cannot rewrite the blog nor do I want to transfer it so I leave it to you to read the details of its summary up to the third of six books and about the TV film series.


An evening in the Pringles’ flat in Rumania ….

To that I want to bring out this time the brilliance of making Yakimov as third central character through the first trilogy. Because he is so perceptive, alienated and amoral, yet calm because he expects nothing else, his reflection as a mirror of say the fearful and hurryingly hidden passengers on the trains, the seeming and real luxury of the hotel lobbies become electrifyingly frightening in an uneasy tragi-comedy. I want to do more justice to Harriet as our moral commentator: she registers far more than I was giving her credit for. Guy is not a joke, but a genuine idealist and sociable man whose idealism as socialist-communism, and lack of personal ambition, his philosophy wholly inadequate. That’s important.


Ronald Pickup as Yakimov — oddly we grow very fond of him, our Pandor, despite his betrayal of his friends — he is suddenly senselessly killed

There is also Manning’s uncanny ability to create the atmosphere of war for civilians just outside a war zone (the book is autobiographical). We feel the cold and we feel the hunger as Guy and Harriet are helping others in a kitchen for a job and themselves not fed. The not knowing what is happening while you watch the bombs go off. While you watch one group of people take power and another be imprisoned, tortured, disappeared. Then how do most of us experience war in a war zone? as unnerving terror, as flight, as death and disappearance of people all around us, how the dreadful to see and experience becomes the normal. We can’t imagine it until we’ve lived it and only those who try to get it down in imagination can help us — so I must now read the Levantine Trilogy.


The Danger of Tree was a considerable literary success (she was disappointed not to win the Booker); the other two are The Battle Lost and Won, and the posthumous The Sum of Things

Now I refer my reader to Manning’s Extraordinary Cats, and conclude this brief survey of Manning’s masterpiece by returning to that first blog once again where my then close and now old friend, Judy Geater spoke of how the film adaptation lacked the deeper sense of the books about hunger, about clothes turning into rags, about desperate living conditions.

I did feel the whole theme of hunger and poverty which dominates large sections of the books is underplayed in the series, and in the books everybody is also increasingly ragged – Yakimov’s grand fur coat is falling to bits. Of course it would be difficult to show all this fully, as you can’t starve your actors, but the desperate beggars in the streets are a constant presence in The Balkan Trilogy and almost never seen in the series.

She saw the two cats as not only creatures to whom the love-starved Harriet can attach her but also doubles, doppelgangers for Harriet herself

In the novels Harriet also starts to look after a second cat later, which is half-starved, at a time when the characters are all desperately hungry – this cat didn’t feature in the series. While reading the books I felt as if both of the cats were possibly doubles for Harriet, playing out what is going on in her mind, as her thoughts become increasingly “fierce” and desperate and then later she is starving for both food and love and with nowhere she can call home, like the second stray cat.


The kitten in the TV series

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

Last time I had a chapter from Thomas Staley’s Twentieth Century Women Novelists to recommend and summarize (see last quarter of the blog), a review of Deirdre David’s biography by Margaret Drabble to convey and one essay by Mary Salmon about Manning’s deep feeling of not belonging to cite. Now I can add David’s biography itself, and say I find it to be far better than is acknowledged — insightful, beautifully written, giving full depth to Manning’s life, taking the reader along that life and moving back and forth between time past when a novel takes place and time present when she’s writing it. Manning spent her life writing so the effect is to go from book to book, sometimes the book providing the past and sometimes its context another parallel present time. Her Anglo-Irish background and time in Palestine are done justice to. I also found a book-length literary reading and study: Carmen Oliver’s A Literary Reading of Olivia Manning’s World War II Trilogies. I found it as a pdf (which has now vanished, but if any readers are interested, contact me and I’ll send it to you by attachment). Finally a new pattern interests people: the refuges, the hard lives Harriet and Guy live — half-starving as refuges are discussed by Eva Patten, Imperial Refugee: Olivia Manning’s Fictions of War, reviewed by Heather Ingman, in the Irish University Review (43:1, 2013).


I am just now reading two further books about women at war: DuMaurier’s King’s General where the heroine is hopelessly disabled (her legs paralyzed, twisted) and for a time lives in a war zone; Sontag’s Volcano Lover where the core deeper characters are the women attached to William Hamilton, our collector, and for a stretch we experience the terrors and insane cruelties wreaked on the Jacobin revolt in Naples.

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


Olivia Manning (an appealing close-up)

Olivia Manning had one close woman friend, Stevie Smith, also someone who didn’t fit in, didn’t belong, was at heart a spinster type (no matter if she had affairs too), and could also become close to cats, as seen in Smith’s Cats in Color. My two close companions nowadays are my beloved cats too. So as I began with myself I end on similar use of the cat, unsentimental and metaphorically to that found in Smith and Manning’s The Balkan Trilogy.

The first is by a post WW1 and 2 German poet, Marie Luise Kaschnitz (1901-74): Die Katze

The Cat

The cat that someone found sat in a construction site and screamed.
The first night and the second and the third night.
The first time, passing by, not thinking of anything,
He carried the scream in his ears, heard it waking from a deep sleep.
The second time he bent down over the snow-covered ditch,
Trying in vain to coax out the shadow prowling around there.
The third time he jumped down, fetched the animal,
Called it cat, because no other name occurred to him.
And the cat stayed with him seven days.
Her fur stood on end, refused to be smoothed.
When he came home at night, she leapt on his chest, boxed his ears.
The nerve in her left eye twitched constantly.
She leapt up onto the curtains in the hall, dug in with her claws,
Swung back and forth, so the iron rings rattled.
She ate up all the flowers he brought home.
She knocked vases off the table, tore up the petals.
She didn’t sleep at night, sat at the foot of his bed
Looking up at him with burning eyes.
After a week the curtains were torn to shreds,
His kitchen was strewn with garbage. He did nothing anymore,
Didn’t read, didn’t play the piano,
The nerve of his left eye twitched constantly.
He had made her a ball out of silver paper,
Which she had scorned for a long time. On the seventh day
She lay in wait, shot out,
Chased the silver ball. On the seventh day
She leapt up onto his lap, let herself by petted, and purred.
Then he felt like a person with great power.
He rocked her, brushed her, tied a ribbon around her neck.
But in the night she escaped, three floors down,
And ran, not far, just to the place where he
Had found her. Where the willows’ shadows
Moved in the moonlight. Back in the same place
She flew from rock to rock in her rough coat
And screamed.

(from The Defiant Muse: German Feminist Poems from the Middle Ages to Now, ed. trans. Susan Cocalis)

The second a paragraphy by Hilary Mantel, her final devastating critique of life in Saudi Arabia is in her last paragraph of Eight Months on Ghazza Street: how relieved she is not to have to see the state of their cats, like ours, an emblem of us:

The street cats swarmed over the wall, looking for shelter, and dragged themselves before the glass. She watched them: scared cats, starving, alive with vermin, their faces battered, their broken limbs, set crooked, their fur eaten away. She felt she could no longer live with doing nothing for these cats. Slow tears leaked out of her eyes.

Ellen

Read Full Post »


Porgy (Eric Owens) and Bess (Angel Blue)

Friends,

I have little to add to Anthony Tommasini’s finely discriminated strong praise of the new Metropolitan Opera production of Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess as realized by a group of effective nuanced performances — the nuance, subtlety, and self-reflexive comic distance, which the actor-singers brought to the parts did a lot to de-emphasize and re-shape most of the white perspective on black people. I invite my reader to click and read Tommasini on the individual singers and specific events within the opera on stage.

To me it was a splendid appropriately pitched production. I sat there mesmerized.  The songs were beautifully sung by each and all the performers, the play acted believably, the dancing, singing and then individual behavior of the large black chorus on stage made the action into a modern masque that figured the pleasure and repeatedly last minute, unexpected (yet perpetually expected) tragedies of the people in the streets and on the docks, in the apartments and in the symbolic community buildings, and its Esser-like structures. The opera reminds me of the couple of mid-20th century American operas I’ve seen, e.g., Aaron Copeland’s A Tender Land: it is an ensemble meditative lyrical piece. There are dramatic scenes and a story line, but the emphasis is the group, individuals stand for types within a group, acting out necessary roles.

I thought Owens as Porgy outstanding and Angel Blue as Bess perfect in each phase of her role — the acting was in general pitch perfect from caricature to deeply felt. Everyone else is supportive or contrasting (the two bully males who Bess succumbs to).  I was drawn by the strong women characters, amused by the comic males (Sporting Life was done tongue-in-cheek), aware of the stories and losses of individuals. Archetypes were used and strongly emphatic performances.


Sporting Life (Frederick Ballentine) and Bess (Angel Blue)

There was a continual use of comic exaggeration to distance us and make us think about what we are seeing and as entertainment:


Maria (Denyce Graves) and upside-down the bully Crown (Alfred Walker)

The applause at the end was thunderous, and without meaning to take away anything from what literally happened on stage, as John Berger averred long ago, nothing occurs in a vacuum and I felt that everyone watching and acting was aware we as a group are living in a larger society now driven by bigotry, a renewal of race prejudice and open vile violent punitive behavior not seen openly in several decades. To do this opera and in this lavish way is to create a meaningful counter-punch against all Trump and his Republican party and their ignorant voters can do and assert belief in. The production is selling out and more performances than originally intended are now scheduled.


One of many ensemble scenes — there is much dancing, some ritual-like

The opera has a complicated often thwarted history because it has had to make its way in a racist society. The talk here shows how the opera is being seen as rooted in its context; its past and the surrounding society then and now embedded in the present production which has a message of hope, at least endurance and survival in a better future. Now we attend to the use of African music, the songs of African-Americans intermixed with the Broadway music and song rhythms and how this is worked into mid-century operatic traditions, both sentimental and stereotypical. And it is still daring to have a home-y kindly aging disabled man for a hero, a heroine who is raped in one scene (when Crown drags her off from the picnic) but in others succumbs to temptation, who sees the better way and cannot leave off her addiction.


Bess and Porgy in a companionable moment

Just a taste of the memorable poignant sensual Summertime as sung by Clara to her baby, a lullaby (the soprano Golda Schultz):

For this production the Met has mounted a show of black performers at the Met since its inception: it’s made up of pictures and the memorabilia of all black singers, and dancers too who were in operas on stage. It’s called Black Voices at the Met, though some of the people commemorated are there for costuming, sets, choreography. It seems also to remember those excluded: Paul Robson is there

I end on two poems by Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872-1906)

We wear the Mask

We wear the mask that grins and lies,
It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,—
This debt we pay to human guile;
With torn and bleeding hearts we smile,
And mouth with myriad subtleties.

Why should the world be over-wise,
In counting all our tears and sighs?
Nay, let them only see us, while
We wear the mask.

We smile, but, O great Christ, our cries
To thee from tortured souls arise.
We sing, but oh the clay is vile
Beneath our feet, and long the mile;
But let the world dream otherwise,
We wear the mask!

Sympathy

I know what the caged bird feels, alas!
When the sun is bright on the upland slopes;
When the wind stirs soft through the springing grass,
And the river flows like a stream of glass;
When the first bird sings and the first bud opes,
And the faint perfume from its chalice steals—
I know what the caged bird feels!

I know why the caged bird beats his wing
Till its blood is red on the cruel bars;
For he must fly back to his perch and cling
When he fain would be on the bough a-swing;
And a pain still throbs in the old, old scars
And they pulse again with a keener sting—
I know why he beats his wing!

I know why the caged bird sings, ah me,
When his wing is bruised and his bosom sore,—
When he beats his bars and he would be free;
It is not a carol of joy or glee,
But a prayer that he sends from his heart’s deep core,
But a plea, that upward to Heaven he flings—
I know why the caged bird sings!

Ellen

Read Full Post »


Fonny (James Stephen) and Tish (Kiki Layne) as we first see them walking together


Gradually appearing intertitle introducing the film

I wanted to write something for Martin Luther King day on the web itself. So I read most of Baldwin’s If Beale Street could Talk, and then rewrote a blog written about If Beale Street could talk mostly just as a movie and from commentary about the book: I was startled to find what a tender tone is suffused throughout the book because of the inner spirit of the narrator, Tish (Clementine is a give-away of sorts, a symbolic name). It is a sort of romance! But also a book much like The Bluest Eye (a Coming of Age for girls book), except (one could say) Bluest Eye is l’ecriture-femme, Beale Street from a more masculine point of view. My theme is the tragic waste of US American racism for all, the pity of it, the terror too.

Yesterday was Martin Luther King Day: here in Virginia finally some mild gun control legislation has been passed by a democratic house and governor, and the result has been a threatened violent riot in Charlottesville, Va., organized by white supremacist groups with credible evidence they mean to cause havoc and use their guns; they are misrepresenting the legislation which does not at all infringe on the right of legitimate gun ownership. This demonstration and its misrepresentation of the passed gun control law has been endorsed by Trump. Governor Northam called in the FBI to investigate and three people were arrested. The day chosen was naturally this one, our National Holiday for remembering Martin Luther King, who might have been the best president we ever had — if he had lived. Murdered at 37 (before 40 like Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and other black male leaders), MLK was responsible for a movement which culminated in the 1964 Civil Rights act, today partly gutted by the Supreme Court. The demonstration was not violent but was immense as was the state police presence; OTOH, something a sizable majority of Virginians support gun control, and the democrats won on the issue. It is hopeful that no violence occurred because it may be that if Trump loses the next election, riots on his behalf to keep him in the presidency will be prevented.

Friends and readers,

If Beale Street could talk, book and film, tell the same terrible tale we learn about in When They See Us. A system of incarceration whose structure and rules give African-Americans no hearing, only injustice and the felt hostility of blind chance & dependence on other vulnerable frightened people.

I began with the film, which I’ve wanted to watch for quite some time:  we are thrust into the story of two lovers walking down a paved alley in a park, and they vow love to one another, and determine they will tell their families, who, it seems, may not approve. Cut to Tish’s voice saying “I hope that nobody has ever had to look at anybody they love…through glass:” we now see her sitting in a prison visiting room on one side of a glass waiting for Fonny to be brought out to sit on the other side. They cannot touch one another, they cannot hear unless they pick up the phones attached to each side of the booth they share. We are puzzled for a long time: why is he in prison. He seems utterly upstanding, he makes little money as a sculptor, but he is the son of church-going people, not an alcoholic, not drinking, trying to get together money to bribe someone willing to rent to them. Much of the film is interwoven flashbacks and we see in one: someone finally offers them a concrete garage space that is described as a loft (so the man can charge more). Most of the time no one will rent to them.

Gradually the story unfolds bit-by-bit: flashbacks interwoven and a narrator’s voice to connect is the mode: so throughout with increasing poignancy we see their ecstatic first days and nights of love.  But then after he is jailed, she finds she is pregnant, then (something she dreads) she has to tell her family and then his without him, because he is in prison (still unexplained): her family accepts the baby and coming marriage:

His mother does not, nor his sisters who speak in ugly spiteful ways using church dogma as a cover.

More time goes by in the ongoing forward time narrative as Tish gets a job selling perfume (one she is told she should be grateful for as she is black), and then one night in a flashback while they are walking in the street we see how from out of nowhere Fonny was accused of raping a Puerto Rican woman, Victoria Rogers (Emily Rios), he never met and was nowhere near. They are told she singled Fonny out in a police-formed row of men; and are gradually led to a white lawyer (Finn Whittrock), well-meaning, who tells them the woman has fled to Puerto Rico. Fonny is beginning to become angry, frantic, violent, resentful, half-crazy in the bare cell room.

Then finally, either as flashback, just before or after, we see a brief encounter between Fonny and a sly angry-looking, resentful white police officer whose name we learn is Bell (Ed Skrein) grows livid when after he accuses Fonny of stealing, the store owner vindicates Fonny. Fonny himself is proud, often hot-tempered and has to be controlled by Tish. Bell warns Fonny he will get back. Early on Tish remarks what happened was the result of Fonny’s strong pride. Yes and it took just one resentful white man.


The police officer, seen only once, his sneer hardly has time to register

And all came clear to me. This white officer incensed at Fonny has lied, pressured the woman into accusing him, probably helped her to flee. There is no way Fonny can clear himself of this crime unless the Puerto Rican woman comes back to refute her testimony.

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

The movie seemed to me and now I know is a deeply felt adaptation of a novel by Baldwin, both of which (book and movie) dramatize as the on-going story the need African-American people have of one another. Again we see the two family groups early on, and Fonny’s mother and sisters are incensed, cruel and corrosive in what they say. After Fonny is imprisoned, the two fathers getting together to steal little-by-little to get up the money for Sharon Rivers, Trish’s mother (Regina King) to go to Puerto Rico to speak to the woman.

Mrs Rivers is so brave, ever changing her clothes, her wig, wanting to look presentable, right somehow, so intense, worried, tight, hopeful still, goes and at first is rebuffed by the woman’s older male relative, but eventually he yields (perhaps a bribe) but then Victoria becomes hysterical and refuses to go back to withdraw her testimony. She asks Mrs Rogers if she has ever been raped. This is the desolate climax of the film.


Mrs Rivers trying to appeal to Victoria


But Victoria is herself walled in by her own anger, resentment hopeless impoverishment

When it’s clear they can’t count on any evidence in their favor except there is no evidence but the identification by a woman who won’t come to the court, at first the lawyer holds out, but we see the case is going nowhere, there is no trial set.  Tish gives birth to her baby; fast forward and Tish tells us that he plea bargained and it’s clear they are waiting for the years of prison to go by as they meet regularly in a freer prison room for visitors. His son is a small child and they try to act as a family during the time they have together. Eat, play a board game, tell each other how the week has been. This is how the  film ends; the family in a visiting room in a prison, with the wife’s salary and will power holding them together.

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

I now got hold of and read the book, before rewriting the original blog — as well as returning to David Leeming’s commentary and quotation of Baldwin in his James Baldwin: A Biography, and Joyce Carol Oates’s review for the New York Times of the book and film before writing this blog.

Crucially, no one in the feature that came with the film never anywhere said that Fonny was framed; that he will spend years of his life behind bars helplessly. Not one person said it was the spite of a single police officer. I wanted to read the book to make sure (since in the film this is never made explicit) this a parable about how vulnerable black people are at any moment to be plunged into non-life, death in prison. Why keep silent? This is supposed to be Beale Street talking at last, telling. What is startling is how tender the tone of the novel when it comes to Fonny; the book is also a loving deeply sad romance, mourning how Fonny never had a chance.

It’s an instance of what we experience in When They See Us: it is the same story writ little from the point of view of the woman who loved the man. In the US if you are black and someone somewhere with some authority who is white can destroy you.

Baldwin emphasizes the story is a parable about “the black man’s bondage … everywhere; and “the emotional imprisonment of whites.” I again admit I didn’t see that much, only that the lawyer was as helpless as his client finally. In David Leeming’s biography, Baldwin says he also meant to show how isolated black are at the same time that they recognize they must be involved with one another, recognize their need of one another, share and bond experience in a way of imprisoned (if often invisible) life. The context is a “battle for integrity” in a world where the struggle to survive makes them have painfully to give integrity up — or compromise reality.

Joyce Carol Oates, like the people in the feature to the DVD, seems to want to make this an affirmative story about the endurance of African-American people helping one another Oates says it is a “traditional celebration of love:” and it is all she says, including a portrait of the white lawyer as sympathetic and doing his weak best.


Regina King as Sharon and Colman Domingo as Tish’s parents


The white lawyer

Her review doubts the wisdom of using Tish as a narrator (voice-over) retrospectively — there seems to me her doubt of this young girl having gravitas enough doubt about a woman’s gravity and seriousness, and a black woman. I admit Oates goes over and makes plain the horror at the center of this disaster, but did she have to say “so patiently,” of course the police officer is a villain (who has killed a 12 year old black boy some time ago), and to de-emphasize this seems racist to me.

Now I see that the film, through an integrated back-and-forth series of flashbacks tells the story of both Fonny and Tish since they were children bathing together, the stages of their earliest life in black-and-white photos. I thought of the third-century Greek romance, Daphnis and Chloe, the later 18th century Rouseauistic Paul and Virginia. We see his friendship with a man who gives evidence him (coerced); moments of Fonny doing sculpture, Tish selling things, coping with customers, the two of them begging a meal when they have no money, fixing their apartment, but I suggest a thread through the love affair is Tish’s mother’s support of them, of her; Tish’s sister gets the lawyer but Tish’s mother helps her to give birth and bathe the baby first. And especially Tish coping from pregnancy to still waiting.


Tish giving birth with her mother’s help


Bathing the baby

The film rightly was nominated for many awards; it should have won more. At least Regina King won for Best Supporting Actress.

It’s a beautiful book and wish I had known about it before; I had placed a version of this on my Reveries under the Sign of Austen blog because the narrated voice and point of view is that if the young woman and her mother. It has many scenes of intimate domestic life: the kinds of furniture black people can afford; Fonny and Tish doing all sorts of things in their lives: he with friends, she in the subway. The book is a heroine’s text. A poignant romance where courage is holding out (like Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Bookshop). It is a woman’s film using the characteristics of women’s art to powerful effect.


An iconic scene from their beginning love story

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

But today I know it belongs on my general blog and I have moved it here, and widened my purview in a coda where I offer my first response to Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, which I began reading for the first time yesterday.

What a masterpiece of a first book. I recommend it and her Beloved on this day. The Bluest Eye is quiet, unassuming, the story of an American black family from the point of view of one of the younger daughter/sisters, Claudia. It brings home to me what a tragedy it is that working class white and black people in the US do not realize how much we have in common. As I read although my family did not have quite these hideous experiences (the house is burnt down – something white people did regularly and got away with until the last part of the 20th century) many of the desolating exclusionary experiences her family members know we knew. The attitudes of mind remind me of what we knew. So much in common and denied because of the use of “middle class” which skews whom one identifies with and enables people to ignore their real circumstances, what are their real expectations/hopes. Howard Zinn in his History of the People of the US shows that from the very beginning of the US state, the upper classes have been concerned to keep better off and poor whites from identifying with Native and African-Americans.

The story of the girl being given a white doll and destroying it bit by bit reminded me of Maggie Tulliver in Eliot’s Mill on the Floss. How Maggie hated that doll too and took it up to the attic to abuse it. I didn’t hate my dolls but an ugly story occurred around one, after which I destroyed it and had no more dolls but one Ginny (age 11) and tired of her soon with her fancy wardrobe &c The title comes from a little girl in the book, Pecola, who Claudia’s mother is kind enough to take in (her family has been smashed) and who tells her new friends, Claudia and her sister, Frieda, she longs for a blue eye, though all her features are African. Claudia is out of sympathy with this, thus producing an alienated perspective within an implicitly alienated earnest one.

The book has several of the classic incidents of a mature young girl’s novel, for example, when Pecola menstruates for the first time, is very frightened and how she is treated. By the way none of these occur in Little Women (another is sexual harassment, the closest Alcott gets to this is Meg Goes to Vanity Fair when Meg allows her hostess to sexualize her dress.) My last image for this blog is Emily Watson playing Maggie Tulliver in a 1997 BBC Mill on the Floss; she has been the best Marmee thus far too (in the 2017/8 BBC 3 part Little Women). When I got to the end of the book I was so angry, I threw it across the room and then through it out. The book ended with her forgiveness of a brother who had destroyed her life, her senseless death trying to rescue him.

We are reading these two novels by Morrison now on WomenWriters@groups.io; the last two months we read Simone de Beauvoir’s Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter: she mentions only three girls’ books but two are Little Women and Mill on the Floss — she identified with Jo and Maggie. Well Claudia and Pecola and Clementine (Tish) are three more such heroines in the same vein ….

For Martin Luther King day a great powerful African-American literature and its close parallels with great powerful European-American literature by women — novels of girls growing up and the choices inflicted on them …

Ellen

Read Full Post »


A still from Keri (Cats of/in Istanbul) – touching movie as much about the people who care for the cats as the cats themselves – they are waiting for fishing ships from Greece


Charles Burton Barber, Coaxing Is Better than Teasing (1883) — didactic Victorian narrative art

For every house is incomplete without him, and a blessing is lacking in the spirit
— Christopher Smart, My Cat Geoffrey

Friends,

I’ve been wanting to write a blog on the literature of cats, about cat stories, cat pictures, cat poetry, so as to suggest that there is a particular quality to stories about cats, poetry about them, even pictures that distinguishes the “kind” from stories about animals in general, other animals, dogs, people, a sort of tone or stance that underlies and unites them all. Well, stories, images and movies not hostile to cats, not produced by crazy people who in history have conducted massacres (see Robert Darnton’s “The Great Cat Massacre” in a book named after this essay) and persecuted the cat (cats endured a long period of persecution in Europe, starting in the twelfth century and ending only sometime in the nineteenth). I kept putting this off. No longer.


George Morland, The Artist’s Cat Drinking (1792)

The quality is admiration, admiration for their resilience, for their individual and group persistent survival. Stories told of stressed cats, of how against all probability, great odds, seeming counterproductive behavior, and sometimes (to the reader and poor creature enduring it) inflicted torture, they carry on. We marvel at their individuality — since there is a continual repetitive catness about their casually observed postures, stances, relationships with us.

I am moved to make this seemingly unprovable assertion and cite some of the best writing I’ve read by a given author (cat as muse), as well as about the cat, because I just read and then re-read, savoring as I went V. S. Naipaul’s The Strangeness of Grief, posted online December 30th, 2019 and printed January 6th in the New Yorker.

Naipaul, a wonderfully poignant ironic writer (deserved his Nobel, and the one Booker) begins with his father’s death but his essay morphs into the calamitous deaths of two cats, one carelessly murdered (the mother), the other torn to bits by desert dogs (its kitten), and then a long history of the life and death of a kitten whom the author adopts, brings up, provides for, is companion, staff, lover and finally protector and life-prolonger of: Augustus. Augustus a cat whose life has been at risk, and near extinguished several times, but saved again and again by a vet.

My simple-minded take-away is that an outdoor cat is in very great danger of loss of life and that modern human life also presents real dangers to a cat it can’t recognize for itself. Also how fragile they are. That they have been such a successful species as a species is because they have evolved to be women’s best lover … Naipaul whose work is characterized by a deep kindness and melancholy.


Henriette Ronner-Knip (1878) — famous for her luxurious cats, this one may have been a real one she owned


Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Minette the Kitten (1894)

My favorite, maybe the best book by Doris Lessing is her On Cats, which also opens with cat massacres that occurred periodically in the South Africa of Lessing’s childhood, after which she goes on to be the biographer of a Grey Cat and Black Puss, then Rufus the Survivor, and finally “the old age of el magnifico.” I wrote an appreciative essay on this book (scroll to the bottom to read her magnficent peroration) more than eight years ago: From this essay:

The closing stories are the most moving of all “Rufus the Survivor” is about a cat who has a bad home. He is mistreated. He is shut out during the day; he is too thin; it’s clear he is sometimes hit. He is cowed and has learnt to be a sycophant. It’s a story of how slowly he insinuates himself into Lessing’s home and gradually ever so gradually gets first her to allow him to stay, and then to stay for a while, and hen to live there. How he has to maneuver to get grey and black cat to accept him. How she takes him to the doctor for his ills and how he does not like it ever. Gradually he becomes braver and more confident and leaves the house to make friends. He even probably visits his ex-owner. She worries about this, but it seems the ex-owner does not try to keep Rufus. Rufus learns to show love and allow others to love him.

El Magnifico is a hero’s story. As the cat grows older, he gets cancer, and in order to have more years of life Lessing must amputate one of his legs. He cannot of course understand this. He assumes that she has utterly betrayed him not just in taking him to the Vet, but allowing this terrifically painful thing to be done. Ever after he has the worst troubles going to his litter box just outside the house (in a garden or yard), going up and down stairs, climbing things. But she cannot explain she is giving him more life.


Manning’s Miou

Then there’s Olivia Manning’s Extraordinary Cats: Lessing had tough cats; Manning had vulnerable ones. I wrote an essay on Manning’s book too (scroll all the way down). The central core of Manning’s book is a life history of specific cats she has owned and their personalities, how they interacted with other cats. She is (unexpectedly) more inward than Lessing. There are many fine deeply humane moments — a love of these animals that is deeply empathetic making the reader their valuable lives. Manning also offers real insights into the interrelationships of people and cats.

By now the reader may be saying, ‘This is ridiculous. She writes of cats as though they were humans.’ But are they so very different? The fact is that when an animal, any animal, enters one’s home, it becomes something more than an animal. The change is brought about not merely by human fantasy and human need: the animal itself is drawn out of its animal world and advances to meet our wider understanding.


Desmond Morris’s Cats in Art is the best general philosophical art history I’ve read.

The text is better than my other omnibus volume: Caroline Bugler’s The Cat: 3500 years of the Cat in Art has more pictures but her text soon gives out into a catalogue which is sheerly informative and descriptive of a particular image and they are not so well-chosen, do not delight or interest as Morris’s continually do. Morris too critiques and presents attitudes towards the cat and what we can know of the lives of the domestic cat since we have first proof of their existence. Early on they were seen as “working” animals in the sense that they attacked small animals people considered vermin; but they were also early on companions and associated with women. Then the medieval period where horrendous persecution of cats began or was first recorded. It seems to begin with the decline of learning, a deep resentment of nuns using cats as companions, and male fantasies of witches. Especially endangered (and still in danger) are black cats. The cats’ pigment system was another element that led to human cruelty in times or places where people find enjoyment in animal torture. I was roused to indignation on their behalf and getting a fuller picture of what lies behind 18th century and the kind of mass shooting of cats, throwing them from great heights recorded in the 19th century as well as by Doris Lessing. And the pictures unexplained by Bugler fall into place. I hope he traces the growth of decent behavior towards non-human animals across the 19th century. I have found talking to people today they resist the application of the word “persecution” to systematic cruelty towards cats. Throughout his book Morris uses this kind of language for not only cats but all the animals he includes: mostly domesticated, for his topic is human relationships with cats as revealed in pictures.


Paul Gaugin’s Mimi and her cat (1890)

He shows how expensive cats are the ones most painted with super-rich people in the 19th century. He is tracing art movements, and it’s telling that impressionism consciously focuses on moods of cats, their relationship to the world. The post-impressionistic yield surprises: I don’t know a number of these painters loved cats. There is a painting Earl of Southampton, Henry Wriothesley (to whom Shakespeare’s sonnets to a gay young man may be addressed) while in prison with his cat Trixie nearby; they have the same expression. Morris describes all the cats carefully — he gives In choosing non-realistic images he is wonderfully intuitive about what speaks to us, giving them equal importance with any human animal, aware they too have a burden of existence too. I wish I could scan in them all — but you must buy and then love and savor this piece of cat literature.


Bunny and Kipper by Beryl Cook

I have too many books to talk of so now must be content now to cite but a few more of the best: by a professional vet: Nicholas Dodman, The Cat Who Cried for Help (the obtuse cruelty of owners is chilling, one removed her cat’s voice-box because the sound of the crying grated on her nerves), about attitudes, emotions, psychology of cats; Jenni Diski begins and ends with her cat, Bundy, What I Don’t Know About Animals

She calls herself “post-domestic. ” A “domestic” life in animal studies means you grew up with working animals around you (cows, chickens, horses). So her first experience of animals includes watching her mother buy, cook and then serve a chicken for the family to eat. She says soon after she felt impelled to save a baby bird from a nest who was not grateful but terrified. The bird couldn’t understand what she was aiming at, could not trust, much less love her. The result was the poor bird hid behind the stove in their small kitchen where it was dangerous, and they had to pull it out by force. By the time they prodded it out, it was badly wounded; Jenny ended up wishing the bird would die immediately. The point was how vulnerable animals are to us in our habitats.


Rosa Brett, The Hayloft (1828-82), pre-Raphaelite artist

Most books about living with animals are by women, but this very good one A Cat is Watching is by Roger A Caras: his idea is to try to enable us to see how a cat sees us; this is an enjoyable and informative book filled with revealing photos of cats at play, eating, sleeping, frightened and many black-and-white drawings and illustrations. A wee bit dull in the writing, Elizabeth Marshall Thomas’s The Tribe of the Tiger has much to tell of the inward life of the whole tribe of cats. Different species brought together, cats in different milieus and a myriad of questions and tentative answers. I suggest Abigail Tucker’s The Lion in the Living Room is a (morally stupid) book which pretends to be sympathetic to cats, and keeping animals as companions (pets) but is a stealth attack on cats as ruining our environment. Don’t be fooled. Rather like Kate Chisholm’s Hunger Games is a ferocious attack on anorexics by someone claiming to have been anorexic, Tucker pretends to be a cat lover while telling us all much that we believe about having a relationship with cats is a delusion. I know how Jane Goodall would reply.

To conclude, or as to cat poetry, don’t miss Stevie Smith’s Cats in Colour or Marge Piercy’s Sleeping with Cats. This poem is from an anthology I bought as a memento from the Charlotte Smith conference (in a shop in Sussex), Cats: A Literary Anthology ed. Carolyn M. Jones (from medieval and Montaigne, to French and recent, to science, to comic chapters in novels)

Cats sleep anywhere
Any table, any chair,
Top of piano,
Window-ledge,
In the middle,
On the edge,
Open drawer,
Empty shoe,
Anybody’s lap will do,
Fitted in a cardboard box,
In the cupboard
With your frocks–
Anywhere.
They don’t care!
Cats sleep anywhere.
— Eleanor Farjeon


Les Aristochats — popular French Cartoon

I collect books about and with images of cats, from Edward Gorey to Kliban cats to Susan Herbert’s quiet parodies of “great art” and famous scenes or photographes. Here’s Gene Kelly cat in Singing in the Rain:

This has ended up a cheerful blog.

Ellen

Read Full Post »

Dear friends and readers,

Last night meaning to read a Christmas story by Anthony Trollope, I was deterred by Amazon. Amazon strikes again. On my stoop I found one of their harassed employees had left C.W. Lewis’s A Grief Observed, and, finding the book irresistible, read it through instead of Trollope. And naturally a blog came …


Skating by Moonlight — Ladybird Advent Calendar

Someone — a Latin poet — had defined eternity as no more than this: to hold and possess the whole fullness of life in one moment, here and now, past and present and to come — last chapter of Ross Poldark, where we have just experienced a sequence of Christmas scenes

In a (to Trollopians) a notorious screed against most matter produced for Christmas, Anthony Trollope defined what he thought a work for Christmas should contain:

Nothing can be more distasteful to me than to have to give a relish of Christmas to what I write. I feel the humbug implied by the nature of the order. A Christmas story, in the proper sense, should be the ebullition of some mind anxious to instill others with a desire for Christmas religious thought or Christmas festivities, — , better yet, with Christmas charity” (from An Autobiography)

Should it be that? Trollope’s own “The Widow’s Mite” is the story by him that comes closest to this but not all the others are quite that.  “Christmas at Thompson Hall” the one he produced after writing his frustrated thoughts is a story of comic anguish and strong stress in a woman trying to reach her relatives once a year from abroad on Christmas day.

What I discover is typical is a story usually set around Christmas, but it need not be (not all Trollope’s are, as for example, “Catherine Carmichael,” The Telegraph Girl,” and “Two Generals”), a story where characters are in need of kindness and show kindness, characters who forgive, reconcile or accept themselves with one another or something, but also make sudden philosophic comments appropriate to the story, who reach for some meaning.

I have a few recent Christmas movies and stories as examples, and C.W. Lewis’s A Grief Observed, a meditation on the story behind one of them, for a coda.


The last pair of lovers, the lucky Mary (Michelle Dockery) and Matthew (Dan Steevens) clutching one another wildly in front of enormous house …. (Downton Abbey, 2011)

I’ll begin with the TV “Christmas special” (two hours) I watched tonight:  appropriate to Christmas eve, thought I, a “feature” or coda which ended the second season of Downton Abbey, itself set during World War One and mostly about World War One (much softened). The sequences of events, the stories, what the characters are doing are all shaped by their occurring from a few days before December 25th, until what seems to be Twelfth Night, or January 6th, at any rate some time after the 1st when we’ve just had a “servants ball.”

Has what we have just experienced been Christmasy — well, yes, as the characters have put up and decorated a tree, had two servants’s special lunches and dinners, a Christmas eve party complete with charades, went shooting, exchanged presents. But have the individual stories been imbued “with a desire for … Christmas charity.” Not altogether but there has been much forgiveness of others and the self, some growth in self-acceptance and acceptance of one’s circumstances without blaming someone else, there’s been some real selfless love enacted, and just scenes of feeling good, partly by the characters all making sacrifices (however small) to enable another character to feel better about themselves, and have a good time. There’s been regret at having done a bad deed (but the deliberately lost dog was found), and we’ve even had ghostly doing with a ouija or spirit board.

My favorite line in the two hours is Mrs Hughes’s answer to Daisy’s “Don’t you believe in spirits, then?”: “I don’t believe they play board games.”


Audrey (Carolyn Farina) at Patrick’s Cathedral with her mother (1990 Metropolitan)

Two nights ago I saw a similar effort. The way Whit Stillman appropriated Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park is to set an analogous set of characters and action in Manhattan Christmas week (starting a few days before Christmas and ending just after New Year’s Eve) in the 1990s. Metropolitan is to me a deeply appealing movie because it’s one of the few appropriations which use words from Austen (more from Emma than Mansfield Park) and mirrors some of her central ethical questionings.

We see a group of upper class twenty-year olds from very wealthy families accept among them a young man with far fewer funds (he lives on the West side, not East, takes buses and walks instead of hailing cabs); they discuss what is a good person, reject sexual harassment (and rape), worry the question of success for upper class people like themselves who have too high expectations and have never had to endure boredom, hardship or work hard as yet. The Fanny character (Audrey) rejects Lionel Trilling’s reading of Mansfield Park as egocentric, narrow-minded and domineering. (He does not like Fanny Price and says no one can; well, Audrey loves Fanny.)  The characters squabble, insult, and even fight one another (to the point of toy pistols), but the stories show our favored characters ending up tolerating, understanding, controlling themselves more out of respect for others, getting a wider perspective.

I admit I respond most deeply to the filming of typical NYC scenes during Christmas week at Rockefeller Center, on TV (the burning Yule log on Channel 11), shopping, lonely crowded streets and people going to rituals. Each time I watch I cry when Audrey and her mother sing carols in St Patrick’s cathedral.


Abel (Jean-Paul Roussillon) reads Goethe to Elizabeth on Christmas Day eve (towards the end of A Christmas Tale)

Last year it became my favorite Christmas movie and still is — why I began with Arnaud Desplechin’s A Christmas Tale. A family strained for many years by an estrangement between the middle living child, Henri, who facing bankruptcy, took advantage of the father and made him liable for his debts. The family would have lost their beloved ancient spacious house and their cloth dying business gone under, but the oldest girl, Elizabeth, is a money-making playwright and paid off the debt with the proviso Henri must be excluded from the family from now on. But Junon, the mother (played by Catherine Deneuve) has leukemia, is probably dying, so all now must pull together, including a younger son, Ivan, and Sylvia, his wife. It is explicitly a story of attempted reconciliations of all sorts.

What I love about this movie is what I like so about the Downton Abbey piece and Metropolitan, only here this central characteristic is so much stronger, more in play: just about all the characters are so complex in the way of characters in a novel, and (like Rohmer and Bergmann’s movies) you can watch and re-watch and each time learn more about all the characters. A viewer probably tends to focus on Elizabeth who is so bitter and who has a good relationship with Abel, her highly intelligent reading father, but not with Paul, her son who we’d call autistic and whom she wants to put in an asylum; her husband, Claude, has little patience with the boy. Also on Henri who dislikes his mother since she dislikes him, his grief over his dead wife, and restless Jewish girlfriend. It is Henri who helps bring Paul back to himself by paying attention to Paul: Henri identifies with the boy

This time (my fourth through) I noticed Junon, the mother, had self-consciously married a man who was ugly, not of high status, because Abel is kind and competent, a protector, loyal, and that he has enabled her to spend her life keeping at a distance from everyone. Also that Simon, the best friend of Ivan, Junon and Abel’s youngest son, and Sylvia, Simon’s wife’s has been leading a depressive life, until (in this week) he and Sylvia become lovers and Abel takes him into the factory. It seems that he was a rival for Sylvia long ago and she chose (probably not wisely she sees now) Ivan. This time I noticed it is Abel who takes both Simon and Paul into the family home they all find so precious, a kind of sanctuary inside a hard industrial city. Abel is seen quietly cleaning up, always there, the mainstay those who need to, lean on. In other words, the parents as complex people began to emerge in my mind.


The Come From Away cast as puzzled passengers ….

I’ve two more, neither occur around Christmas. Briefly this past Saturday afternoon, Izzy, Laura and I saw at the Kennedy Center the extraordinary (in the depths of feeling it occasionally reached) for an group concept, Canadian musical; and astonishing (in sudden individual moments, separate soliloquies, character sketches), Come from Away. It is the upbeat story of how a large group of American planes were landed in Newfoundland, Canada, because the area had a large unused airport, and how the people living in the towns all about welcomed the people on the planes, took care of them.

It’s a story we are much in need of since the spread of hatred and fear these past few years by Trump and his regime, and others like itaround the world. I’ll content myself with a review in the New York Times. Ben Brantley explains this show and its context better than I could.


Deborah Winger and Anthony Hopkins as Joy and Jack

More at length: last week with a friend I watched Richard Attenborough’s Shadowlands, the story of the slow coming together of C.S.Lewis in his later year as a Don, with Joy Gresham, an American woman with whom he had been corresponding for years. If Christmas is mentioned, that’s because the movie covers a number of years. It does show characters behaving with singular charity and forbearance towards one another. It’s Christmasy, though, because it seeks to put the events of the story, especially a painful death of Joy Gresham (played by Deborah Winger), a relatively young woman, from bone cancer; a framework that makes it meaningful at the same time as the central character, “Jack” Lewis (played by Anthony Hopkins) cries out in anguish over the senselessness, cruel suffering and loss such a death entails. It is shaped by Christian apologetics, so to speak, especially on the existence of pain (as found in Lewis’s own writing). In the film we see Jack giving sermons on this topic.

Shadowlands was a hit the year it came out, gained many prizes. C.S. Lewis is nowadays known widely for his children’s fantasy series, Narnia Chronicles, whose stories may be allegorized as about the life and figure of Christ. I knew Lewis’s work from my 20s in graduate school as a brilliant literary critic (The Allegory of Love springs to mind), but Jim when I met him knew and was still under the spell of Lewis’s religious apologetic polemics ( which years later Jim found abhorrent): The Screwtape Letters, Mere Christianity, and Surprized by Joy, the story of his supposed conversion from atheism to Anglicanism. Maybe this is why the movie was dared and accepted.

The problem is, for some, maybe many, Lewis’s arguments can be seen as ultimately sadistic, a romancing of pain and suffering. The movie is hagiographic, follows an idealizing biography of the Gresham-Lewis relationship (with the same title): by contrast, another by Abigail Santamara tells of how Gresham pursued Lewis consciously, was very ambitious, and how Lewis was at first reluctant, married her yes to provide her with the right to live in London, and gradually fell in love. It’s a popular-oriented film so we get this reductive idea Lewis was simply cold, inhibited, in retreat, not daring risks like the figure in The Roman de la Rose (which he lectures on), and Joy brought him out of this. She is presented probably as she was — slightly obnoxious, rude in her bluntness. But the romance is very well done, the script intelligent, tasteful — the history of Joy’s cancer; the diagnosis, first radiation treatments, the remission, the return and then the decline into death is done realistically (to some extent) and made moving. We watch Lewis by Joy’s side throughout; he is there for her as she goes out — as I was when Jim died. The movie does not stop at her death but carries on, showing Lewis at first in a rage, then slowly calming down, and towards the end still with his brother and now Joy’s boy, his son growing up, if not accepting what happened, able to deal sanely with this unexpected past.

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


Helen Dahm Swiff (1878-1986), Silent Night

I’ll end on the book I was prompted to buy after seeing Shadowlands. It arrived today, just in time for Christmas Eve: Lewis’s A Grief Observed, yet another memoir of someone dealing with extreme grief over the loss for him or her of a beloved person, and the death and suffering that person knew. All four of these movies record deaths: in Downton Abbey, it’s the hero’s fiancee, then her father, the scullery maid and cook’s husband, son of a farmer who has lost all his children. A Christmas Tale begins with the death of the first boy of Abel and Junon, age 6; he is never forgotten during the film. In Metropolitan we are told of the death of some of the characters’ parents, the divorce of others, and one of the intelligent young men discusses what he says is everyone’s need to believe in God, and what he regards as the probably that there is a God. How else carry on? These kinds of inference I think come from over-reaching: you can see life as good and enjoy much even if it has no meaning beyond the experience of life itself. Come From Away shows awareness that thousands have just been killed in an engineered disaster.

As I began to read, I found myself remembering immediately what a wonderfully alive writer Lewis is, how eloquent, how daring his use of language. And how brilliant he is, and how persuasive he can be — partly because he tells enough truth, is so perceptive about whatever experiences he is getting down. He spoke home to me, and ranged widely. He kept several notebooks from which this slender book came. Towards the end he talks of the “arrogance in us to call frankness, fairness, and chivalry ‘masculine’ when we see them in a woman; it is arrogance in them to describe a man’s sensitiveness or tact or tenderness as ‘feminine.’ “Poor warped fragments of humanity.”

The first chapter is his own strong anger, and fear. Lewis finds grief feels like fear — yes, I felt profound terror when I first truly had the thought I would have to be alone in the world without Jim. He talks of how “it is hard to have patience with people who say, ‘There is no death’ or ‘Death doesn’t matter.’ In this first state he is an embarrassment to others; he cannot endure to listen to them. It resonated with me when Lewis says he cannot remember Joy’s face (he’s seen too many versions), hear her voice, imagine what she would say or do in this or that situation. She is now an absence. I like how he says Joy remained the other, a self apart, and when she would be with him, he would see how he had distorted her in his mind.

In the second chapter he draws himself up and realizes he has been thinking only of himself: what of her, of the pain she knew, of her loss, what happened as she experienced it. Then the cant: she is in God’s hands. Right. Will fatal disease be diagnosed in his body too? “What does it matter how this grief of mine evolves or what I do with it? what does it matter how I remember her or whether I remember her at all? None of these alternatives will either ease or aggravate her past anguish.”

The third and fourth chapter are much harder to capture. Unlike Julian Barnes’s masterly grief memoir in Levels of Life, Lewis does not move as an argument because in a way there is none: he sees the senselessness and cruelty of what has happened and then refuses to infer there is no God, and so moves in circles around the torturous draining traumatic and gradually therapeutic experiences he is enduring. He questions himself a lot. “If I had really cared, as I thought I did, about the sorrows of the world, I should not have bee so overwhelmed when my own sorrow came.” He explores what love is. We all experience “love cut short; like a dance stopped in mid-career … bereavement is a universal and integral part of our experience of love.” Then what grief: “something new to be chronicled every day. Grief is like a long valley, a winding valley where any bend may reveal a totally new landscape.”

There is much more: on God, on human consciousness, on misunderstanding less, on mystic experiences, and how he and Joy their intimacy could only reach so far. He ends with a quotation from Dante where Joy is likened (if I am not mistaken) to either Beatrice or some eternal presence and “Poi si torno all’eterna fontana.”

I hope all who read this manage a contented cheerful Winter Solstice.

Ellen

Read Full Post »


Warleggan, the original or first 1953 cover — in line with the first covers for Ross Poldark and Demelza (we gaze through the windows of imagination into the Cornish landscape & seas)


The Black Moon, the original 1973 cover

Study of allusions (or intertextuality), uses of dramatic and plot-design irony, female POVs, working class allegiances yield a new kind of reading of Graham’s books

My readers, I hope, have not begun to give up hope on my projected book on Winston Graham — not that anyone should care but me. Well, I’m still working on it. Since last in mid-July I outlined very sketchily a new approach to this book I’ve decided I must take (The Poldark World: A Matter of Genre), I am ever working on it, sometimes more slowly and for entertainment, as it were living with the characters in Poldark (participating in the detailed discussions of these 12 books which go on on a face-book page called Poldark Book Discussions; watching the two series, one every few nights with occasional breaks), and sometimes more progressively, consistently and as study. Before the fall term ended I read two written during the first quartet of Poldarks:

Night Without Stars, 1950
Fortune is a Woman, 1952


Night Without Stars, 1950, the original or first cover

Like so many of Graham’s novels, Night Without Stars features a disabled person, this time seriously disabled, the hero, a man blind for a long period after his war-time service; it also (unfortunately kept secondary) includes a telling story of the nearly destroyed life of a French woman during the war

Still I must admit I couldn’t understand why or how Graham could take time out from the Poldark world to write these since they seemed to me so faded, at moments so cliched, without strong vivid characters (especially Fortune is a Woman), inferior to all Graham’s historical fiction (I much admired The Forgotten Story, 1945, set in 1898 Cornwall; Cordelia, 1948, set in the 19th century with a female point of view). One must conclude writing in this male genre was compulsive to him. Even stranger to me, both were adapted into commercial cinema movies, with Night Without Stars presented so weakly, and Fortune is a Woman downright embarrassing to watch. The first movie adaptation of a Graham novel, Take My Life, 1947, had been turned into a memorable film noir.

But once term started to slacken off (early November) I’ve been steadily reading these or what I call his mid-career non-Poldark books, the ones written during the 20 year interval after Warleggan and before The Angry Tide. I’ve not yet finished this phase of his writing career, but have read for the first time, begun to study, or re-read and/or read some background books for

The Little Walls, published 1955 (the only one of Graham’s books to win a prestigious prize)
The Sleeping Partner, 1956 (a movie was made, just awful)


An attractive stark cover for the first edition: the appeal in the letters

Greek Fire, 1957 (remarkable use of the internecine politics of the era)
The Tumbled House, 1959 (very fine, impressive)


The Portuguese cover for Marnie: a rare one to suggest the actual content of the book with some discrimination

Marnie, 1961 (the notorious but nowadays much admired and influential Hitchcock film, 1963)
The Grove of Eagles, 1963 (but begun 5 years before, worked on for a long time), set in Cornwall
After the Act, 1965
The Walking Stick, 1967 (one of Graham’s best non-Poldark novels, & made into an intelligent movie)


A still from the movie, Walking Stick, suggesting Graham’s derisory description of it as a kind of Elvira Madrigan is false — this flat just off the docks is one of the central settings of the movie

I skipped Night Journey, 1966, having read it the 1941 version, which I found had something of the power of the amoral “entertainments” of Graham Greene during the war (say The Ministry of Fear); at the time I immediately went to on to compare this WW2 book with this shorter, 1966 revision and found the later one commercialized, slicker, so much lost by the streamlining and updating, “modernizing.”

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

I stepped back, and have now reread my various blogs on the earliest novels (1930s), and the World War Two ones (you may find them by clicking on the tag Winston Graham, or using the search engine for the blog). I have three to go: a final suspense book for this period, Angell, Pearl and Little God, 1970 (I have read it and found it powerful – I can here imagine a strong movie); a 1971 book of varied short stories, gathered under the title The Japanese Girl (some gothics, one ghostly; one historical fiction, one rather nasty O. Henry type story among them), and the non-fiction 1972 history, The Spanish Armadas (once again it’s a matter of Cornwall, this time the battle during the late Elizabethan period). But I thought first I would use this blog (as I have others) as a way of thinking about, seeing some patterns in this group that interest me.


Cordelia, from the 1960s Bodley Head edition of 12 of Graham’s novels — most covers for this novel are anachronistic (the characters are given mid-20th century clothes, or they are much sentimentalized doll-like visions of a picturesque 19th century set)

I’ve been paying attention to which books have a female POV: thus far:

1938 Giant’s Chair (rural Wales), Mary Seymour, 3rd person
1939 Keys of Chance, Norah Faulkner, 3rd person
1945 Forgotten Story (1898 Cornwall): young boy moves into older cousin Patricia Veal Harris, back and forth, 3rd person
1949 Cordelia, Cordelia Blake Fergusson (19th century fiction Manchester), 3rd person
1963 Marnie – Marnie Elmer, genuine first person point of view* (with intermittent breaks and movement into omniscience, for Mark’s point of view
1967 Walking Stick, Deborah Dainton, who is lame genuine first person point of view*
1998, Ugly Sister, Emma Spry, maimed on one side of her face, genuine first person point of view*, historical fiction, 19th century Cornwall

So just two in this mid-career sub-set.

In this mid-career sub-set, though, several take place in and around the Mediterranean world or have long sequences which occur on one of the islands, all of which show much knowledge of these areas. Greek Fire practically maps Athens and parts of Greece for the reader. Water ways are ever important in Graham’s fictions

More interesting as art:  several use irony centrally. In Marnie, the POV may be Marnie (except when the author has changed allegiances to Mark) but there is perpetually an ironic distance between the author and his character, one only implied and not without sympathy. This ironic distance is even stronger but less obvious in After the Act, where Morris Scott’s self-loving view of himself is even less shared by the author; arguably, he is an unredeemable shit. In The Walking Stick it takes us most of the novel to realize the heroine has been lured into a web of lies, and most of what she believes of this working class deprived man she falls in love with is not true; he is a self-pitying utterly conscienceless criminal. The character see himself positively (as does the sexually promiscuous wife murderer of After the Fall) as perhaps does Stephen Carrington in the Poldarks

Last, four have remarkable central uses of allusions to other books or films that I found wholly unexpected, and lifted the Graham book into another realm of meaning. He had used literary, art and even music allusions interestingly before (Strangers Meeting, Merciless Ladies) but not so intertextually.


Richard Chamberlain and Eileen Atkins, said to have been the best actors in the central roles of Lady’s Not for Burning

Christopher Fry’s The Lady’s Not for Burning is important in The Tumbled House (one of the superior suspense novels, indirectly highly autobiographical)

Shelagh Delaney’s A Taste of Honey tells us how Marnie is intended to be understand as about an angry working class girl, to fit into the literature of the period about exploited downtrodden (not that Marnie will allow that) working class lives

A.L. Rowse’s Tudor Cornwall is simply the central source for Grove of Eagles (despite much research into documents too)

Jean Anouilh’s Waltz of the Toreadors (a bitter farce about man wanting to murder his aging inconvenient wife turned into a tasteless movie with Peter Sellers) for a frame for After the Act (one-third of the way in this “hero” murders his nagging embarrassing wife and the rest of the novel is his remorse and ultimately the ironic showing of him getting away with this in a kind of triumph because his work makes so much money for others — a personal nightmare, self-flagellation?)

Ingmar Bergman’s Wild Strawberries (called by WG in the novel “a strange somber classic” with the narrator a woman writing three remarkable paragraphs about the movie); and Shaw’s Doctor’s Dilemma for the remarkable Walking Stick (another superior book, WG said it sold more than any other or made him more money). A cornucopia of allusions to Browning, Shakespeare, Donne

Over the last couple of days I’ve been reading and then watching the really fine 1987 TV film adaptation of The Lady’s Not for Burning, featuring Kenneth Branagh, Cherie Lunge, a very young Susannah Harker (impeccable in her part), and thinking about the parallels between what is said in it about human life and relationships and what is found in The Tumbled House; also how it can be related to other of Graham’s fictions. I just loved the movie and scripts (both stage-play and screenplay are by Fry).

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

But this blog has gone on long enough.  I’ll end by recording I’m about to embark on the same study of A Taste of Honey (play, 1961 movie by Tony Richardson) for Marnie. Also relevant the French film Tony Lee Moral discussed: Sundays and Cybele (about a child deprived of parents, or a home life taken up by a mentally troubled man after WW2). I find all movies made after Hitchcock mentioned by Lee, of which I’ve now tried three, are mesmerized by the core paradigm Hitchcock pulled out of it, which resembles the core paradigms of most Hitchcock movies so are more or less worthless — not Sean O’Connor’s play but I cannot reach the text. I’ve a good book on Delaney and will return to Margaret Foster’s fiction of this era, and Carolyn Steedman’s Landscape for a Good Woman (about two working class [one “in service” for a while] lives).

I mean to go on to do the same for Waltz of the Toreadors (which I saw at age 13 with my father watching too and commenting on what was then Channel 13 in NYC — a remarkable production) and After the Act, which to my mind anticipates Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along. I must re-watched Wild Strawberries and I’ve obtained a copy of Shaw’s Doctor’s Dilemma and will rent the movie (yes there was a movie made). Graham is much interested in doctor’s dilemmas in his work, most notably through his beloved Dwight Enys. My heart has warmed towards Luke Norris: I’ve come to love the way he does the part in the New Poldark.


This promotional shot of Luke Norris as Dwight Enys in the 4th season emphasizes his beauty — but he is more often seen seriously about doctoring, and troubled over how little he can do, aware he must not dominate his patients, he is their advisor, not their boss.

So here’s where I am, just before the Winter Solstice in 2019.

Ellen

Read Full Post »


Robert Bilott (Mark Ruffalo) after listening to Wilbur Tennant (Bill Camp) attempts to investigate the poisoned farm land, water and miserably dying animals

Dear friends and readers,

The word gratitude refers to a feeling of thankfulness and obligation to a specific person who has done something for you, with the implication causing the person significant sacrifice. Robert Bilott had no specific individual in mind, not even the seemingly mad ignorant impoverished West Virginia farmer who with another neighbor barged into Bilott’s office with cardboard boxes of papers and gruesome evidence of abnormal frightening deformities in local fish and animal life. But when Dupont reneged on a bargain to admit fault in a case-action suit and pay an enormous sum, Bilott (after the shock) went on to fight individual case after case, with bigger and bigger money damages until the company relented, and, using  formula that avoids conceding guilt, paid a huge fine, and agreed to clean up in (alas limited) designated ways. The actor Mark Ruffalo and the director wanted to thank this “dogged Cincinnati lawyer” and tell his and the story he managed to convey to the public.

According to Todd Haynes (director) and Mario Correa and Matthew Michael Carnahan (script-writers)’s movie, Dark Waters, as Robert Bilott gradually and against considerable obstacles (the company provided a room filled with boxes filled with papers for Bilott to study first, the reluctance of Bilott’s own lawyer firm, to say nothing of Dupont and other involved corporations, scientist teams, gov’t agencies, brought before the courts and then a large public the truth that Dupont knowingly for decades continued to market PFOA after they discovered it, together with a complex of other non-regulated substances, were poisoning the water supply and blood stream of people coming into contact with their products. In this case one of the products being marketed was teflon on pots, which the public seemed to be able to remember and grasp. As with the movie, All the President’s Men, we see the long hard slog that begins with tiny ambiguous but troubling evidence, the difficult gathering of hard information, the many meetings with all sorts of people in all sorts of venues, many of whom don’t want to know about this. This movie has something the previous muck-raking movie lacks: it shows the cost to Ruffalo in his private life that years takes, and it shows something beyond a single criminal syndicate (under Nixon in effect): the allowing of crucial poisoning of our environment and bodies by corporations, bought up gov’t agencies, ruthless and indifferent individuals. We also see the gaps in the law that permit unregulated substances to be marketed.

Don’t miss it. Go see it — the more people watch, the more agencies and corporations become wary of an informed pro-active public.


A scene where the farmer Wilbur Tennant (Bill Camp) explains to Bilott what he is seeing

It’s also an absorbing movie, very well done — no idiotic action-adventure, no excessive violence to lure us (apparently this lures) in. The thriller element (the genre the movie is advertised as) is small. The movie is rather a protest movie, an expose in the manner of Chernobyl, only done in a way that enables it to play to large audiences in movie-theaters. At one point Bilott gets scared because he’s told to park at the bottom of a many floored garage to go to a confrontation meeting with a group of corporate officials. His is the only car way down there. As he returns to his car remembering the angry faces he contended with, he begins to feel scared, and the film hesitates as he hesitates before turning the key in his car — we and he fear he will be blown up. In fact he was just experiencing the way the ordinary people is treated in the heavily reserved and charged-for garage spaces beneath corporate buildings nowadays.


Sarah Bilott (Anna Hathaway) comforts her husband — he is very weary — she defends him as someone who is not a failure except if you use a false definition of what is meaningful success in life

It is not a brilliant original indie film: production values are high (it’s a presentable high quality commodity product) so we get beautiful or horrible looking landscapes, city scenes for codas. The presentation of Bilott’s wife, Sarah (Anne Hathaway) is done in a heavily clichéd manner: her middle class assumptions, and behavior, the three sons, the home, her protests are out of Donna Reed. There is also too much cliché in the presentation of the wretched impoverished people of West Virginia and other places, all down-trodden and when not quietly virtuous, angry sullen (sometimes at Bilott for not producing quicker results and money while they are losing jobs). It’s forgivable — if you showed the truth of average lives (a lack of coherent pattern), people might not come or critics could chose to complain about this or that subsidiary point and the main themes of the movie be lost. When there are wins in court, the presentation of Bilott and his wife is somewhat sentimental. But real hard life is immersed in sentiment; we just don’t show it on cue. And Mark Ruffalo (known for his roles in Kenneth Lonergan films) carries most of the weight of the film. We meet various people along the way who have lost their jobs upon being whistle-blowers; people with cancer; people who have had deformed children; the deformed baby all grown up now and working in a gas station as an attendant.

The Observer gave the movie a rave review (Rex Reed). Other reviews are more qualified, in The Washington Post, Michael O’Sullivan basically praised the movie for not pretending to be what it’s not; it is a clearly informed passionate outrage machine. In Variety, though, Owen Gleiberman demonstrates that this is not your “usual” protest movie but original in a stunningly real way (the slow building court case): you do really feel like these are situations you have been involved in or know people who have been. Common Sense Media, Jeffrey Anderson breaks down the different elements into a “must see.”

I thought of Flint, Michigan (no official has been put in jail as yet, not one); a movie I saw a few years ago about  an attempt to put water under the control of corporations in a Latin American  country; cancer-poisoned places everywhere. Among sobering thoughts was the realization today since Trump and the criminal syndicate he is putting in place everywhere (his sycophants, patsies, profound reactionaries), Bilott would not even have gotten to first base. He had to begin with the EPA. He also had to have wins in courts with fair judges. The movie urges on us the necessity of removing Trump and his corporate bough; taking out evangelical-fanatic patsies from US offices; work to begin to reverse the calculated putting into power in courts with reactionaries and thugs like Kavanagh (as judges). Agencies there to help the public are run by people who mission in life is to destroy their effectiveness (appointees downsize refuse to allow employees to do the job they are supposed to.

It is scary in the sense Elena Nicolaou says (Entertainment): at its close, the inter-titles remind us that this stuff is in the blood of 99% of all of  us, and our animals too. I thought of my unknowing pussycats.

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

See this Intercept article by Sharon Lerner, the Case against DuPont: it includes a video by Tennant showing the continual contamination of the waters near his and another farm discussing how the state gave permission to DuPont to unload this poison into the state’s water streams. The article tells of other individuals who fought the company and how the company fought back, using among other things a statute of limitations. Joe Kiger, a Parkersburg elementary school gym teacher and former field coordinator for the AFL-CIO, was central to Bilott’s case and an actor playing him is in the film

Papers, fine print, using laws and courts against people are central methods of large corporations; they also pay individuals off.

Ellen

Read Full Post »


Phineas (Donal McCann) off to his election campaign in Loughton, for a 2nd time (1974 Pallisers 5:9)

Dear friends and readers,

I have come to the end of teaching the second Palliser novel, Phineas Finn, or the Irish Member, and, as with the close of my teaching of the first Palliser, Can You Forgive Her?, I find so much was said of serious, and yet in such varied areas, that it would take a full chapter in a book to begin to do them justice. So, as with my first blog on teaching the Pallisers, I’m going to single out two threads or themes. One of them links Palliser 2 back to Palliser 1 and indeed many of Trollope’s novels; the other led us to some insights into Trollope’s modernity, the feeling as you read a good many of his novels, that they are not picturesque or pastiche history, but living vital modern-sounding texts.

In Can You Forgive Her? I suggested that we find heroines who seek autonomy, liberty, a way to remain true to their seemingly innate instincts by self-negating. If you refuse to be aggressively after desires that are presented by our society as instinctive, natural, normal and as it were retreat into yourself, refusing all these you gain autonomy and self-ownership, a space to be yourself in –- or to find or create an identity for yourself in. A secret self, another authentic existence. These natural desires are social constructs, not natural for all of us; many of us just don’t want for real what we are assumed instinctively to want. This is Alice’s standpoint: she wants out of the choices on hand; so too Lady Glen, for when confronted with Burgo’s demand she elope with him now, for there will never be another chance, she does not.


Phineas as the beginner, walking through the park to reach the Pallisers’ apartment, taking a cab only for the last 2 minutes (Pallisers 4:7)

In a book about a young man building a career for himself, making a place in the world quite different from the one he was born in, this following of the innate self or desires takes another form: Bill Overton (The Unofficial Trollope) described the pattern of action as self versus society. Again and again in Phineas Finn, he decides to do something, say not follow a legal career with Mr Low, but rather go into Parliament based on one man, Barrington Erle, finding a place (a rotten borough) he thinks Phineas could win. Everyone he talks to outside the Parliamentarians and his mentor and patroness, Lady Laura Standish, tells him how wrong and self-destructive such a choice will be. We move from his father (who doesn’t mean it), to Mr and Mrs Lowe, to Bunce, to Phineas himself. Late in the novel when he decides to vote for Irish tenant rights, and thus leave his gov’t place (and salary) and then Parliament itself (as he cannot afford it), everyone but his then admired mentor, Mr Monk, tell him how wrong, self-destructive and counter-productive such a choice will be. We get two sets of chapters of people “attacking” him.


Phineas stalking Violet (Mel Martin) (Pallisers 5:9)

He is not alone. Violet Effingham has four suitors, two she is drawn to, Oswald, Lord Chiltern and Phineas, and two she is not, Lord Fawn (very foolish) and Lord Appledom (very old), and each time she draws near a choice, she is surrounded by voices who urge her against her determination, be it Chiltern, a violent idle man, or Phineas, a poor, non-ranked needy one. Lady Laura marries Lord Kennedy in spite of her father and brother’s advice, distaste; then she leaves him in spite of not only her father and brother’s reluctant approval, but the hostility of the rest of her world.

This repeating pattern is what fuels the patterns and rhythms of many of Trollope’s novels, from Mr Harding in The Warden, Josiah Crawley in Framley Parsonage and Last Chronicle, Mark Robarts and Lucy (against different people but mostly Lady Lufton) in Framley, Lily Dale against so many when she refuses Johnny Eames, and nowadays legions of readers. I could go on but I’ve said enough: it is a pattern of alienation, of resisting the pressure to socially conform. The character does not have to be making the ethical choices: Lord Chiltern resisting his father and Violet. Sometimes a character acts this way, and were we not convinced that Mary, Lady Mason did the right thing in defying and disobeying the law, forging a codicil to a will because her mean selfish elderly husband would not leave any property to the son she had by him so he could not have been educated to be a gentleman, we might say she is hardening herself in her crime.  When late in Orley Farm Lady Mason is anticipating her trial the next day Trollope raves over John Everett Millais’s depiction of her earlier in the novel:


Found in Orley Farm, Volume 1, Chapter 5, “Sir Peregrine Makes a Second Promise”

She was now left alone, and according to her daily custom would remain there till the servant told her that Mr. Lucius was waiting for her in the dining-room. In an early part of this story I have endeavoured to describe how this woman sat alone, with deep sorrow in her heart and deep thought on her mind, when she first learned what terrible things were coming on her. The idea, however, which the reader will have conceived of her as she sat there will have come to him from the skill of the artist, and not from the words of the writer. If that drawing is now near him, let him go back to it. Lady Mason was again sitting in the same room—that pleasant room, looking out through the veranda on to the sloping lawn, and in the same chair; one hand again rested open on the arm of the chair, while the other supported her face as she leaned upon her elbow; and the sorrow was still in her heart, and the deep thought in her mind. But the lines of her face were altered, and the spirit expressed by it was changed. There was less of beauty, less of charm, less of softness; but in spite of all that she had gone through there was more of strength,—more of the power to resist all that this world could do to her … As she now sat thinking of what the morrow would bring upon her,—thinking of all that the malice of that man Dockwrath had brought upon her,—she resolved that she would still struggle on with a bold front. It had been brought home to her that he, her son, the being for whom her soul had been imperilled, and all her hopes for this world destroyed,—that he must be told of his mother’s guilt and shame. Let him be told, and then let him leave her while his anguish and the feeling of his shame were hot upon him. Should she be still a free woman when this trial was over she would move herself away at once, and then let him be told. But still it would be well—well for his sake, that his mother should not be found guilty by the law. It was still worth her while to struggle. The world was very hard to her, bruising her to the very soul at every turn, allowing her no hope, offering to her no drop of cool water in her thirst. But still for him there was some future career; and that career perhaps need not be blotted by the public notice of his mother’s guilt. She would still fight against her foes,— (Orley Farm, Vol II, Chapter 63, The Evening Before the Trial)

We may seem to have gone far from Phineas: we have not. He too holds out, holds firm, stands for his version of integrity.

************************
Now for Trollope’s modernity:


Phineas and Mr Monk (Bryan Pringle) in Ireland around Christmas discuss the coming vote in Parliament for Irish tenant rights (Pallisers 5:10)

To move to the thesis I presented to the classes, which enough people found interesting to discuss: after all the reasons we’ve come up with to explain why after hundreds of pages of struggle to get into Parliament, please and make friends with colleagues, and thence into office, and do a good job, to show what an able orator he is, Phineas decides to do what others and he himself regard as self-destruction, self-engineered defeat from his adherence to his Irish constituents (he does not seem very Irish, let alone Catholic) and principles (Trollope will not allow him so much as a peep to curtail landlord’s property rights), to feeling he is Irish (I used McCourt’s book, Writing the Frontier, & Owen Dudley Edwards’ long article on Trollope as an Irish writer) and should have a seat which is not rotten, to sheer melancholy (self-berating, disillusioned appraisals of everyone around him and himself), I suggest Phineas behaves the way he does because he feels he does not belong to the upper class English world all around him; then when he comes home, he discovers he has become an alien of sorts there too. He belongs nowhere and yet can function everywhere: in London he can plan a good railway for western Canada. He and Madame Max are uprooted people, like many of us.

The book I suggested delves into the causes of modern uprootedness is Simone Weil’s 1940 existential L’enracinement (mistranslated as The Need for Roots)

She explains or gives a history of how money and the state came to replace much more natural attachments: local, and now the familial is a desperate resort. Nation replaced religion which was seen to be powerless to help you – only controlled you – for African-Americans church was the one place to turn to. She gives history of industrialization as a building of prisons (factories) with severe limits on people desperate for a means of survival – by money. Families break up and shame is used to silence people. Taxes are a totally arbitrary imposition by one of these totalitarian nation-state gov’ts – or groups of people sometime headed by a king. People learned to hate the state but then in an odd inversion worship the very thing in concrete forms (the country) that they hate in people forms (bureaucrats) because they are deprived by people who manipulate these gov’ts for their own aggrandizement.

Here is Sartre’s description of how this alienation forms:

we must move deep into our own minds and remain true to them. We are obligated to feel a reality of anguish and abandonment when we realize we cannot turn to others to create our own meaning; at the same time as irrespective of others, no matter how they might try to stop us, we must fulfill our talents. We find we are here existing. (This reminds me of Heidegger’s thrownness.) The individual exploration of the self is what matters. We are a presence to ourselves. At the same time we must be responsible for our acts. If circumstances are against your doing something, Sartre says it is still cowardly not to do it — he insists you have the potential or capacity to act so not to act is a choice. Beauvoir (The Ethics of Ambiguity) says we have this impulse to disclose our real selves, to be found out and then to act out amid others what this real self is.

Is not this Phineas in so many of his soliloquies and finally his speeches in Parliament so carefully performed?

Weil again: she says since industrialism, the growth of enormous cities, the eradication of a sense of place by our having to move with say a job and the job itself can disappear tomorrow – employer knows no obligation to you – so what happens people latch onto nationalism, this idea of an imagined community we all belong to and call home. This identity we attribute to others and then ourselves. Well Madame Max has moved with her marriages, and now that she is (rumored) to be paying a second husband to stay away, it seems that in Vienna she cannot live the respected high social life she craves. So she comes to London to find a new community, and works hard to be accepted and rise “towards the light,” with her exquisite dinner parties, her dress, her wit.

What is so modern about Trollope is characters who are at home nowhere, who have no sense of belonging and long to belong and are at home everywhere – Madame Max a chief surrogate for this kind of thing. You can’t belong. There is nowhere to belong to. People in the room may not be willing to go so far as me in this idea. You can try to erect your own home – halcyon place (I recall Camus with his absurdist resolutions in Sisyphus.


Máire Ní Ghráinne as Mary Flood Jones reading Phineas’ letter promising to return and marry her (an addition by Raven who felt Phineas’s return might otherwise not be believable) — there is much brilliant use of filmic episotolary in the Phineas matter of the Pallisers (6:11)

Lest my reader think me gone mad with modernity, I called attention to an essay by Henry Rogers (“The Art of Madame Max,” Philological Review, 33, Fall 2007) on being in love with Madame Max her at the close he argues that Marie Goesler is the most quintessentially autobiographical of all Trollope’s characters. She plays many roles where she discloses her self – and reveals a carefully crafted persona protects her: in her Trollope unites the self and society, the internal and external worlds, realizing herself and being hersel, but she has known and continues to know much pain and loneliess – Barbara Murray tries to convey this again and again – the singing for example – in Phineas Redux she is superb – when she learns of his marriage to Mary Flood Jones and her pregnancy remarkable moment – who could do it today?


Here is Marie at the Duke’s extravaganza party at the Horns just after Phineas has rejected her offer of her money, with or without marriage (Pallisers 6:11)

And the idea that Phineas is a surrogate for Trollope is so common (having been in effect voiced by Trollope himself) I need not argue it.

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

I conclude on how we ended our penultimate session (the last one was devoted to showing clips from Raven’s Pallisers): I brought into class an essay just printed in Trollopiana, by John Graves, where he argued that Phineas Finn and Phineas Redux are two separate books, among other things that PF stands very well just on its own with no loose ends. My two classes begged to differ. We took Trollope’s view that we have one novel or one story in two books. An overarching trajectory of the evolution of a specific group of characters over time links the two. One person even read aloud the final sentence of PF, and said when she had finished that, she turned the page expecting another chapter


In a brilliant wholly invented scene Phineas breaks up with his original friend, Laurence Fitzgibbon (Neil Stacey) as Fitzgibbon insults Phineas savagely as nobody, nothing, a cheat because Fitzgibbon thinks he has roots & rights as a landowner’s son and Phineas is threatening that (Pallisers 5:10)

Most people seemed very much to enjoy the novel and the older serial drama too — the final sessions in both classes were on Simon Raven’s Pallisers.  This series has stood the test of time (and no one else getting a true chance to re-adapt with full needed budget):  there I was describing filmic epistolarity, over voice, how a film is an art in its own right, and yes admitting to the losses of hidden inner life the novel as a form has on offer.

Next Up: The Eustace Diamonds

Ellen

Read Full Post »


The Upstairs set come out to greet the king and queen


The Downstairs set toast the king and queen (Downton Abbey, the film, 2019)

Friends and readers,

The old magic, the trick played on us by Julian Fellowes and his teams of people — for those susceptible to it — does not begin until at least one-third and maybe closer to half the way through. Anibundel over on NBC has argued that this cinema continuation carries on one important characteristic of the 5 year series at its best: nothing much or nothing overt happens to change anything in the visible life of these sets of people very much. I agree with her that the first season was particularly strong because more or less this formula was kept to. A crippled man arrives to become Lord Grantham’s butler (Brendan Coyle as Mr Bates), and after much stigmatizing and complaints, Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonnville) keeps him on, because “it’s just not right” to fire him. An old suitor of Mrs Hughes (Phyllis Logan) turns up and asks her to go to a fair because at long last free he wants to propose marriage, and after much heart-wrenching, she decides to stay where she is. Lady Mary, the princess of the family, eldest lovely virgin daughter (Michelle Dockery) is (arguably) raped and the cad (Theo James who blackmailed the homosexual butler, Barrow, Robert James-Collier, to sneak him in as a surprise attack) dies during the fuck! But (awkwardly, with difficulty, comically) the corpse is carried back and there is no scandal at all!

But I want to qualify the implications here. The trick of the thing is to present a character in the throes of some inner crisis that matters to him or her and dramatize how some decision no one but the character and his or her closest intimates see, affects in some central way the rest of the emotional temperature or outlook of that character, the decisions he or she make afterwards, for the rest of their lives. This trick is most effective when it’s played out with the Downstairs people who are more vulnerable to deep hurt or an ejection (getting “sacked”) from the apparent social safety of the orderly household. Add to this what you find in many serial dramas, strong emotionalism, the stance that most people behave in warm and even caring ways to one another, at least emotionally. This does not distinguish Downton Abbey from other serial dramas, but Julian Fellowes is good at making this kind of thing believable. In life most people we meet behave anywhere from indifferently or with a hard edge. An adult might be extra benign to a child. I feel this sentimentalism is central to why people watch what are called realistic (naturalistic) domestic drama movies.

As everyone knows who has paid the slightest attention to the advertisements what happens at Downton is George V (Simon Jones) and Queen Mary (Geraldine James) invite themselves for a one-night stay at Downton while they are traveling through Yorkshire and this creates an nearly traumatic emotional reaction as everyone in the household gear up to present an appearance of high excellence and welcome. As late as one-third or later the way through it becomes apparent the exclusionary snobbish tactics of the royal household decree that its staff replace any local staff. It also sets up a confrontation between the queen’s lady-companion, Lady Maud Bagshaw (Imelda Staunton) and the Dowager Duchess Violet (Maggie Smith) who are related kin but have been estranged for years; it is rumored she is determined to leave her fortune elsewhere than Lord Grantham. Gradually this visit, these two social dramas ripple outward to affect the inner lives of a number of vulnerable characters and at least momentarily affect the self-esteem and comfort of everyone else.


Imelda Staunton as Lady Maud Bagshaw (a name from Trollope)

The problem the movie has is these things take time, and when you have say anywhere from 8 to 10 episodes (plus Christmas specials) you have the requisite time; so it’s in the third episode of the first season that Mr Bates throws away the torture instrument he has put on his leg to make his disability less apparent. We have learned to feel for him for two episodes before this. Plus since Julian Fellowes has been determined to present the world order as ultimately benign, the last we saw of everyone they were apparently set for life in good and fulfilling circumstances. This was not so to begin with, nor did the shape of the series emerge as benign providential patterning until the fourth season when the series began to have problems finding crucial traumas and had to introduce new characters and put old ones through twists and turns of misery (especially Mr Bates and Anna as his wife, aka Brendon Coyle and Joanne Froggart).

So, Fellowes strains to invent inner troubles that matter. He has a couple and adds some: Thomas Barrow is still a vulnerable homosexual man; Daisy (Sophie McShea) has not agreed to set a marriage date with a footman, Andy (Michael C. Fox); Tom Bransome is still not trusted as an ex-chauffeur radical Irishman; and over the course of the couple of hours we discover Lady Maud is trying to leave her estate to her illegitimate daughter disguised as lady’s maid, Lucy Smith (Tuppence Middleton).


Anna and Mr Bates — brief scene showing her telling her idea to him and his loving her for it

What’s more: several favorite characters and a couple of new ones become powerful linchpins in securing respect and power for one another. It’s Anna Bates who seems to think up the plot that puts the royal staff out of commission (drugged, locked in rooms, hoaxed away) and recognizes the queen’s lady is a thief; Bransome saves the king’s life and falls in love with Lucy Smith; she likewise and they are last seen dancing a ballroom dance on the terrace in a lovely landscape (since she is not yet acceptable to the Upstairs people in the ballroom). Daisy leads Mrs Patmore (Leslie Nichol) for once to kindly lie to the grocer and accept an order of food she thinks they will not need.


Allen Leech as Thomas Bransome (working with Lady Mary again)

It does not all work: You would think Bransome was trusted by this time and a few others seem a stretch: Lady Edith (Laura Carmichael) is still feeling undervalued and left alone; the rivalry of the Dowager and Isobel, Lady Merton (Penelope Wilton) has become tiresome; their quips no longer amuse. Lady Mary is still unsure she doesn’t want to disburden herself of Downton. Mr Carson (Jim Carter) is still absurdly proud and wants to work as a butler; Moseley (Kevin Doyle) makes a fatuous worshipper of himself. But Fellowes does have a gift for endowing his characters with good feelings and kindliness towards one another, and those endangered in some way, yearning for some kind of companionship, security achieve this by film’s end.

I’m saying I don’t think the movie quite succeeds. Those who like it are giving it slack — extra patience like you would an old friend.

Some will say this is not what draws people to this series. It’s the super-rich glamour of the house, the grounds, the gorgeous clothes, the leisured existences, the evocative music, the nostalgic escape into a world that never was — the servants were not treated in the way this series dramatizes; it omits 9/10s of the population of England. On top of that, the whole idea this order was a non-violent one is ludicrous. I can’t deny that might be why many people watched the TV series year after year and are making the Downton matter once again a big box-office money-maker. Who does not enjoy seeing a ball? I do. I love the beautiful photographed landscapes. There is the reiterated idea that these super-rich privileged people lead troubled lives themselves — so let’s not envy Princess Mary (Kate Phillips) as she tries to have a life with some emotional satisfaction with a cold mean man. (As if this were anything like the desperate needs and anguished conditions of ordinary people everywhere.)


Princess Mary (Kate Phillips who most of the time ends up dead or otherwise pulverized — as in Davies’ War and Peace …)

To that I can only say, I am not fooled, this kind of supposed comfort (?) is not for me. The thought we are offered at the end that the building, Downton Abbey, and this way of life will last another 100 years and more does not make me happy. It’s sad to think that so many will remain without and desperate so that the money may be gathered by this privileged class to live this way. I suggest that there are many like myself — since this trick so in evidence (for at least three years of TV time) is at the core of the plot-design once again. I know I would be an utter outsider and long ago (say the 2nd season) been ejected as unfit, perhaps scapegoated as a seduced woman. I don’t belong in this series anywhere — the closest I come is to Anna as she was presented in the first couple of seasons. Even then she is such a “good” girl, so filled with respect for the order that keeps her at work long hours most of her life — this is wholly anathema to my finding something to live for in my hours of existence as I recall them.

Yet I found tears coming to my eyes when a character is once again rescued from the possible exposure and punishment — Barrow is lured into going to a homosexual club, something very new, taken in to jail by a police raid but then released on the say-so of one of the king’s footmen, himself homosexual. I wish there had been more of the inner life of Anna and Bates (my favorites) but it’s clear their lives are all content, comfortable, good — as are those of Mrs Hughes (now Elsie to Mr Carson) and Mr Carson (Charlie to her) and others. I am fond enough of them all to feel good seeing them surviving still — like Miss Baxter (Raquel Cassidy) still waiting to marry Moseley.


Moseley and Baxter — behind the scenes (promotional) hsppy moment

I am not dead or broke yet myself. The magic is the trick of involving you, getting you to believe and identify.


Thomas finds a friend and ally, the king’s footman, Richard Ellis (Max Brown)

If you can respond to these carefully studied characters presented with tact and mostly compassion, and most of all, if you watched and liked the TV series for that first and second (occurring during WW1) seasons, here it is back again, trying to repeat what it managed in the first season especially. There is something for everyone, some qualification to enable us to identify. I agree with Anibundel the sweetest story is of that Barrow at long last finding a world forming he can join, and that the charm the wanting to hold onto this world is it feels like a blessed escape.  Quiet lives. So if you want a happy ending, yes, that’s there, but if you are into quiet melancholy, it’s here too.


Lady Mary at the opening of the film, tough lady left in charge at the end

And, for those who would find some satisfaction in thinking this meretricious stuff will go away for good after this, in the last scene Violet tells Lady Mary that she has been diagnosed with a mortal illness and will be gone from from the scene before long. It is a moving moment as she turns the Abbey over to Lady Mary as her replacement. One thing I liked across the series (and think it’s what makes it so appealing to women) is that we have strong women characters through out; it’s the woman’s anguish and loss and power that is often focused most upon. And so it is in this installment.

Ellen

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »