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WARNING: Embargoed for publication until 00:00:01 on 13/09/2016 - Programme Name: Poldark - TX: n/a - Episode: episode 3 (No. n/a) - Picture Shows: Geoffrey Charles and Francis.  Geoffrey Charles, Francis (KYLE SOLLER) - (C) BBC - Photographer: Adrian Rogers
Kyle Soller as Francis Poldark returned from Bodmin, with his son, Geoffrey Charles

[Note: this blog assumes the reader has read all twelve of Graham’s novels, viewed the 1970s mini-series, and is interested in the content and art of the books and this older and the new 2-15-16 mini-series]

Ross: “Have I told you what I feel about a disobedient wife?”
Demelza: “Have I told you what I feel about a reckless husband?” (Horsfield, end of new episode 10)

Dear friends and readers,

I had been holding off on writing about the second season of Poldark while watching the first two episodes of the BBC Broadcast on a BBC iplayer, but have given up trying to cover both airings. This week PBS put off for another week their first double-hour program. I have been told that the PBS production will eliminate 8 minutes of and blend (mash is the term) together the first two 60 minute hours of the BBC productions. And since by the third episode of this season, something genuinely interesting and worthwhile is beginning to emerge, I wanted to record it. For all I know it won’t be apparent in the PBS version for quite some time.

The second season, building on the first, is developing a different emotional temperature, a different mood for the story and characters of Horsfield. In a phrase, I’d call the mood an intersection between Thomas Hardy and Mary Webb (as interpreted by their wider readership and in the Hardy and one Webb film adaptations that have been made), contemporary edginess (it’s called), and a contained version of smoldering Lawrence (seen recently at its best in Joe Wright’s films). Quite a number of blogs by now and some comments on two of mine (“disconcerting news,” the “Horsfield scripts”) have been saying that the events to come are going to crucially change the characters and meaning of the series from that of the original books as well as the 1970s films (which except for the opening and closing episodes of the first season mostly stayed with Graham), but while I can see how these changes have been prepared for from the beginning of the first season (especially in the characters of Kyle Soller as Francis and Heidi Reed as Elizabeth Chynoweth Poldark and Jack Farthing George Warleggan), thus far the hinge-points of the book have been held to.

What’s been strikingly altered is the presentation of story and characters: I don’t mean the substitution of a stage for a pictorial presentation. That goes without saying for most films since the mid-1990s (not all, Wolf Hall and surprisingly some The Hollow Crown dared to return to theatrical-like direction), but the order of the events and dialogue content (so, e.g., in Graham’s book and the 1970s films Demelza tries to win Judge Lister over by discussing high cultural music and now Eleanor Tomlinson introduces however opaquely the issue of perjury). We have seen George Warleggan made into a personally injured villain (in the book and in the 1970s he is more simply a ruthless capitalist) and presented as persistently trying to corrupt Aidan Tuner as the fiercely fair-dealing, sincere and egalitarian Poldark to become his follower; more worrying (for those who are attached to the older conception of Ross and Demelza as founding their very identities in their relationship with one another) are the jarring sudden hostilities in apparently unprepared-for or unexplained scenes in Episode 3 between Demelza and Ross. She accuses him of coldness, withdrawal, indifference to her, and he ignores her at first. I say apparently because in reading the complete scripts for the first season I discovered that many brief character-rich scenes and suggestive dialogues were cut, creating just the same effect in the film realization as we see in the second season.

WARNING: Embargoed for publication until 00:00:01 on 13/09/2016 - Programme Name: Poldark - TX: n/a - Episode: episode 3 (No. n/a) - Picture Shows: Demelza.  Demelza ((ELEANOR TOMLINSON) - (C) BBC - Photographer: Adrian Rogers
Not only has Demelza’s hair been smoothed out and made far thicker, her outfits given somber soft blues and greens, but Tomlinson is directed to look out at the world with a narrow eye when she is seen standing alone

The second and third episodes of this season were much better than the first which attempted (as was done in some of the episodes of the first season) to pile too much in, use continual rapid juxtapositions of too many story-lines at once. Here my comparing this Poldark with the precisely contemporary mini-series Outlander was useful: Gabaldon’s series is historical romance: while the films try to frame the story as a post-colonial critique of the British oppressions of the Scots, there is little exact history, and only a generalized version of crucial customs dramatized (such as the role of rents in controlling members of a clan). Graham’s books (and the 1970s films kept this up) genuinely attempts to convey specifics about the poaching and game laws, prison conditions, mining, banking, the customs of scavenging (and later smuggling, and county politics) and what Horsfield is trying to do is get some of this in. She has to struggle more than the 1970s films because she is so determined to personalize through George Warleggan, add scenes projecting a group identity to which all right-minded people will want to belong.

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Robin Ellis as a bitter Ross (the older episode 9)

I cannot deny that I continue to love the 1970s mini-series: I have been re-watching them in tandem and they stand up beautifully. For those interested, you can click on links next to the new series and read about the older comparable episodes.

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Episode 1 (or 9): for comparison, commentary on the 1975 Episode 9 and Graham’s book.

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Aidan Turner as Ross in the first episode of this second season (he is rightly made thinner by episode 3 as in Jeremy Poldark he and Demelza and their household have not enough to eat; throughout all 3 episodes he needs a shave) at a moment of intense guarded suspicion

The structuring and explicitness of the episode make it quite different from the equivalent episode in the 1970s and Graham’s book. Horsfield has re-conceived of the prologue to the trial (so to speak) as a group of parallel stories running alongside one another, each of which is ratcheted up into a row of climaxes against one another.

In the book and in the 1975 film the story moves naturally forward, with different characters taking part as the chronology (or so it feels) calls for it. In the 1970s 50 minute hour each scene is allowed to develop on its own: so it opens say with the menacing threat-determination of Tankard and his men to bribe Jud into giving evidence against Ross. We then move to Demelza’s visit to Penvennen. There is no paralleling. Nor is there this explicitness. When in this 2016 episode Demelza heads off to see Penvennen it is made explicit she is going there to try to influence the man.

Four stories are ratcheted up and paralleled and contrasted: Ross’s with Demelza, Francis’s with (as it were) the bad devil on one side tormenting him), George, and the good person, on the other, Elizabeth, equally tormenting him. Francis is slowly despairing, and we see the steps he takes as he sees what is happening, finds himself unable to do anything useful, and driven wild with the life he feels has been imposed on him, attempts to get rid of it as a burden he cannot endure. There is Dwight Enys’s preparation for his testimony, his talk with Ross, his worries at what will ensue, his riding along and then the call to take care of her dog, by the new rich young heiress character, Caroline Penvennen: Gabriella Wilde, for most of the three episodes presently every bit as hostilely as the promiscuous “slut” Keren: she is ostentatiously supercilious and disdainful:

WARNING: Embargoed for publication until 00:00:01 on 13/09/2016 - Programme Name: Poldark - TX: n/a - Episode: episode 3 (No. n/a) - Picture Shows: Caroline Penvehen.  Caroline Penvenen (GABRIELLA WILDE) - (C) BBC - Photographer: Jon Hall
The choice of red, the hats, the way she holds her body and head makes her stand out as not part of this group identity

George at the beginning and again at the end of the episode wants Ross to ask for help and to offer to be a kind of partner (none of these exchanges between Ross and George occur in Grahm’s books or the earlier mini-series); upon being refused the first time he makes up these ugly pamphlets and spreads them. (This is what I’ve seen happen in films that mean to be popular: you have to account specifically and personally for something happening. In the book and first film George’s hatred is more generalized, and he is not so focused on Ross. We see him prevent Demelza from getting into the assembly by implying she’s a prostitute based on her obvious lower class status.

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Promotional shot of Eleanor Tomlinson for season 2

I was to Bodmin jail two weeks ago and can confirm that Ross’s entry into that tunnel hall is inside Bodmin jail, but again it’s odd how artifical the direction makes the settings feels. Why must so many of the characters be on cliffs at the height of emotion – it’s not persuasive that Ross and Demelza, Francis and Elizabeth should have out their intimate conflicts against pretty blues skies and cliffs. The photography sometimes made the hour seem unreal again. I don’t say everything: George is seen inside his house, Dwight and Ross, Pascoe and Ross, and later Clymer and Ross, Elizabeth and the aunt, Francis and Verity are all face-to-face head on encounters inside. But the parallels are overdone. Francis is writing while Ross is writing, and back and forth the camera goes to Elizabeth’s face, then Demelza’s. It’s an overdone, over anxious (lest we be bored) episode.

Among other unrealities of this first episode is this unreal focus on Ross: all the characters are made to have Ross on their minds almost all the time (except Caroline, absurdly over her dog and indifferent say to the people who are to elect her fiance, Unwin Trevaunance). That Ross explicitly refuses to help himself, insults and insists, and says what he knows will put him in jail is a way of ratcheting up the action, making it more suspenseful since obviously such behavior (we think, with his lawyer, Jeffrey Clymer [William Mannering] will surely lead to him being hanged. In Graham’s book and 1970s film Robin Ellis as Ross will not lie or act without integrity but by no means does he do all he can to ruin his case. The book and 1970s’s character’s first statement is unacceptable, but he does not defend it strongly in the counterproductive manner Aidan is directed to do. Filling the hour up this way, with this back and forth movement, has a stasis effect. They are all acting it very well but it’s so artificial, like puppets on display.

The only character I was able to come close to was Francis Poldark: he is prepared for very well; each of the scenes is designed to show us his aching self-hatred and despair; the scene with Verity is not as sharp as the one between Norma Streader and Clive Francis in the 1970s simply because it is not given enough time for his bitterness and her concern for him to be voiced, but that final moment before the letter, his cocking his pistol and thinking are pitch perfect in Graham and in both series. Perhaps Horsfield overdid it by making us believe the pistol went off; in the 1970s we “merely” see Clive Francis put the gun in his mouth.

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Episode 2 or 10 (this does follow the matter of the second quarter of Jeremy Poldark up until the moment of non-conviction; for comparison, see outline and quotations from 1975 Poldark Episode 10)

WARNING: Embargoed for publication until 00:00:01 on 30/08/2016 - Programme Name: Poldark - TX: n/a - Episode: Generic (No. n/a) - Picture Shows: Verity **EMBARGOED UNTIL TUESDAY 30TH AUGUST** Verity (RUBY BENTALL) - (C) BBC - Photographer: Ellis Parrinder
Ruby Bentall as the satisfied matron of the second season (her hair has been smoothed out too) – as in the book and the 1970s films she shares a room in the Bodmin hotel with Demelza (promotional shot)

The dramaturgy of this episode is much better than the first: the action is allowed to flow forward naturally. This is an good effective episode. While there is juxtaposition, the central story of Ross’s coming trial and the swirl of events around it is kept to. I’ll follow the trajectory as it is possible to do this: We hear alluring minor music and watch a blurred flashback of Ross and Demelza happy on the beach together: this a parallel of the opening of the series where we saw Heidi Reed as a young Elizabeth on the beach with a young Ross, also soft focus. Switch to Turner’s face in the darkness with a candle by his side: he is remembering back. Now a side shot of him at the desk; slow moving, very well done. We see the corridor, hear the keys as the door is opened, Clymer comes in, the long list of people prepared to testify against Ross, including Jud (his potential testimony a “nail in the coffin”).

Camera on the streets, as yet peaceful, but we see how these wandering tough hard men with their torches could easil be turned into an actively violent mob. Demelza walks among them in the streets, determined to get into the assembly this time and talk with, persuade people who could help Ross. Now she slips in and meets with the kindley Penvenen (Caroline’s uncle is given her name in this iteration) and a superficial tactless Caroline: oh your husband is on trial, what did he do? Penvenen warns her she can only make things worse (as she is warned in the book and in the 1970s), but searching about, she spots Judge Lister, and makes for him. Caroline offers to go out with Unwin to the balcony; says she enjoys a baying mob.

Elizabeth pacing in a darkened Trenwith; reproaches Agatha for ever predicting the worst outcome; the old woman defends herself saying she is playing “snap” to entertain herself, “go to Bodmin, Elizabeth” she urges then, and Elizabeth is off to the coach.

Programme Name: Poldark - TX: n/a - Episode: episode 1 (No. n/a) - Picture Shows: Aunt Agatha.  Aunt Agatha (CAROLINE BLAKISTON) - (C) BBC - Photographer: Adrian Rogers
Caroline Blakiston as Aunt Agatha, nonetheless brooding over her win

Back in Bodmin, a crowded tavern, Jud seen morose with drink, all listening to talk of the election (as unjust, as a joke, as giving the ordinary person nothing), Luke Norris as Dwight is POV and he overhears talk about hunger, France, the revolution, ideas coming over to England, this world a power keg, Dwight speaks to Jud, surely all of us are for Ross

It is here that the group identity comes to the fore, presented complexly but as what people live in as in some soup. Thus the juxtapositions have some depth of apprehension, some larger context.

First juxtaposition from lawyer and Ross in jail to assembly. Clymer says Ross’s defense is proving difficult; and he takes out the will Ross had made. He has left all he can to Demelza. At assembly Penvenen is telling her “influence, I don’t have that sort. Tomlinson very good here: quietly, “I’m a little despairing;” as Lister is pointed out: he’s “somewhat severe.” “Does he like his port? “Resolutely sober. Ross telling the lawyer to “bequeath Wheal Grace and my other debts and liabilities; I really have left her nothing.” He is despairing too. She approaches Lister and it seems to go well. A nasty exchange of Caroline with Dwight: she is bored, not entertained; Dwight tells her he’s thankful not she’s not his business. In the elction names called are now tied in second place and Warleggan says to Trevaunance “Get up on chair and claim it: men irritated by Trevaunance begin to throw eggs and rocks. “Get me back inside. In the prison the man who is going to die for simply being aggressive at the election pushed into jail. “I’m a free man, [with] a right to speak.” He is punched in face, thrown down, jail shut, Ross watches. It seems he has no such right.

Warleggan to Penvenen: “See he’s established.” “Almost at expense of his life” inbetween Caroline’s supercilious remarks to Dwight who holds his own: “You’re mistaken madame, I neither solicit nor despise … Caroline sees people as rable. Penvenen glimpses Demelza talking to Lister, “oh my god you will hang your husband,” and now George is on the alert, goes over, interrupts her awkwardness, says who she is and judge becomes indignant; on the way out with Lister, George thinks he’s clinched it against “those who stir up disorder” (It is George who made the guy get on a chair, and he is indirectly responsible for the hanging of the man in the cell next to Ross’s). George does count his chickens before they hatch.

The great scene between Dwight and Francis: opening the door and there is Francis. Horsfield omits the plangent language and sorrow Clive Francis manifested but the scene is still effective.

Back to lawyer and Ross, are you going to die on a point of principle? There is a parallel with Francis who hates himself on a point of principle. Asks Enys the question in the book, “Are you a fatalist? or do you believe we are masters of our own destiny (again the 1970s sticks closer to Graham’s words, masters of the dance). Horsfield’s Francis: “Well the thing’s not done so for the moment you have a talkative companion instead of a silent one.” There is something artificial and arch in the 1970s version; this feels realer, truer, quieter.

Demelza accosts Warleggan: “Why do you hate him?”; and they clash over class status: “You will always be a miner’s daughter” while he is now a gentleman; she is a gentleman’s wife …

Programme Name: Poldark - TX: n/a - Episode: episode 2 (No. n/a) - Picture Shows: George Warleggan.  George Warleggan (JACK FARTHING) - (C) BBC - Photographer: Adrian Rogers
A promotional shot of Jack Farthing as the proud seething Warleggan of the second season

In the prison: lawyer to Ross: case against you is too strong, not a question of whether you’ll be found guilty but whether and what that sentence will be …perhahps you will reconsider before you sleep tonight …

Demelza now in the room with Verity: “if anything I made it worse Verity I lost my child how can I bear it if I lost Ross, too.” (She is seen in all three episodes going to the empty bed.” Camera on Ross considering in the prison. Effective juxtaposition

Elizabeth on her way in the coach, switch to Francis fixing the gun. Quicker now: Jud watched by Tankard, accosted by Prudie. Tankard reassuring Warleggan: he has augmented the crowd by people paid to share our views; George boasts he has convinced his Lordshiop without a penny changing hands

Dialogue of Ross and fellow prisoner: I wish you justice ..

Then the voice of the remorseless judge: as ringleader and instigator; for what happened that night – you will be hangd by neck until you die. Demelza, behind her Verity looking on. Ross coming out of jail. Horsfield is determined to make us disbelieve that Ross can get off so she adds Demelza’s father coming in to accuse Ross of lack of respect for law, custom, other men: “this man did think himself about the low. The whole long scene of trial very well done. so many against him, but if jury believes him. Camera on Francis, Dwight, Elizabeth … Turner does look handsome.

Prosecution: all the people lying (not in book), the paid witnesses – the audience is on Ross’s side, calling the witnesses liar, that’s a lie. One man says he saw Ross assault a customs officer, “aye sir assault’s a terrible thing sir.” Close up of all faces, POV Demelza, she goes outside cannot breath and now we learn she is pregnant when Elizabeth comes to her and senses it: “I never thanked you for nursing me … at such a cost how can you bear it .. I’m with child again.” Then Jud’s great moment: not as highly theatrical as 1970s; but in this version he says Ross didn’t help (when he did), claims Ross said “there’s women and children aboard who need saving from watery grave.” He did not say this, not in the book which is careful to keep to or skirt the truth. Now George turns bitter at Tankard.

Then Captain bray’s fair testimony – flashbacks to give concrete experience (not in previous episodes of 1st season); it was like a Dante’s inferno. Ross asks him, what did I do: “You came and offered me shelter.” Lawyer catches Bray on the issue of not knowing what Ross did afterward. We see Francis watching Ross

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Prosecutor far more explicit about RP as revolutionary, chief perpetrator – repeats strong testimony Ross gave at indictment; “I did not consider it a riot, do you approve of food to keep them alive … did you have anything to do with Sanson’s death …regrettably nothing whatsoever/.

Dwight Enys is made chief witness for defense mental breakdown; he alone speaks for him in this version. He insists on his degree, his knowledge, and on the strangeness of Ross’s actions. A strong response on the court, and judge orders people for Poldark removed.

Tankard and George talking: the mane cannot bear for Ross to have anything, even a worthless mine left to his wife. Francis and Elizabeth meet: Francis feels she came for Ross; very awkward, stressed conversation. “Ross will be gratified” [to see her]. She: “Are you?”

Lawyer urges him; “you must grovel – do so now or you will not live to see the sun rise tomorrow. He starts but he cannot go on; it’s George’s scornful face he cannot bear. He is eloquent and says values all agree with on scavanging, starving, who should get flotsam and jetsam on beach and why. Judge unmoved and informs jury if they think Ross not guilty of three counts, if he participated he is still guilty. But they go out and back quickly and it’s not guilty. In this film this seems astounding; but it the book it’s prepared for by telling us of custom (juries loathe to convict) and in the 1970s trial not so stacked against Ross, Ellis as Ross not so angry, more witnesses for him. Francis cannot accept Verity’s husband he says: people do not change. Ross, Dwight (or is it Henshawe) on the horses, the workers on the beach waiting.

Francis and Elizabeth home to Agatha, and there is a getting along suddenly, a light in Soller’s eyes, and Demelza and Ross in their house. She says this is all I want, this private life together (true to book here) and a child in the crib, but he demurs.

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Episode 3 (or 11): Book 2, opening of Jeremy Poldark (for comparison see outline and quotations from 1975 Poldark Episode 11).

WARNING: Embargoed for publication until 00:00:01 on 13/09/2016 - Programme Name: Poldark - TX: n/a - Episode: episode 3 (No. n/a) - Picture Shows: Captain McNeil.  Captain McNeil (HENRY GARRETT) - (C) BBC - Photographer: Jon Hall
Henry Garrett as Captain MacNeil — his complacent normalized self provides a coda of prosaic pro-life emotion distinct from the surrounding intensities

This is equally good as Episode 2 (10) and for the same reasons: the story is allowed to flow naturally; the actors given room and time to develop a scene; it stays yet closer to the events Graham whose book is very good, but it is here that the mood becomes drenched in a sense of the west country culture as providing meaning and purpose and community and that is what gives satisfaction.

Ross, now thin, leading horse with hay, longing look at two mines. We move into the Warleggan palatial house, inside George practicing boxing with Tankard looking on. Ross studying Wheal Grace maps –- back to unnecessary threats of Jud, Pascoe’s voice, saying loan shortly due. Now we get this inexplicable jarring outbursts: Demelza: “She’s scarcely seen him?, he “Would you have me neglect …” This is true to the book only Demelza is not angry over it. Ross: “We’ll talk soon I promise. Dwight chopping wood (has Horsfield been watching any Andrew Davies’s films lately?), Caroline passes, Demelza on the beach …

Meeting of Wheal Leisure group, what’s left of it, a woman shareholder sold to Coke, Tankard comes in as representing Coke. They know he’s a Warleggan mole. Juxtapose to Francis and Elizabeth declining invitation to Penvenen luxury county party where Warleggan will be and then (truly good feeling conveyed by Killer), Francis’s delight in son in taking him to fields. Better than chasing money and prestige and whatever else is admired. Demelza still on the beach, picking things up, MacNeil watching

The Wheal Leisure meeting ends. Henshawe they are going in direction of Trevorgie (from Wheal Grace) to see what they can find: All but Tankard and one wary man carry motion. MacNeil gains romantic entry to Demelza’s house –- he is there serving Trevaunance; brings a request for Demelza from Brodrugan about the cow, now Ross interrupts and he offers sudden jarring suspicions: Why the sudden sarcasm about Demelza liking Bodrugan? it comes from nowhere. It is prepared for in the book and is unmerited. We see
women washing at pond, the carriage with Caroline –- she is attracted to Enys as he moves about the village

Really very appealing moments of Francis and son in fields, POV Elizabeth to Agatha. Francis after having escaped death valuing life in a way that is consonant with his personality. Not asking of himself what he does not want, cannot do, does not care about.

Warleggan reading a letter; Tankard come to tell of meeting; we get another exaggerated dialogue (not credible) juxtaposed to Jud’s boasting.

Demelza angry at Ross’s suspicions: “Did you mislay manners, leaving me alone to deal with guest?” Ross says he not there for cow. She: “You give me cold shoulder and despise everything not at your high and mighty standard –- this is a jump without intermediary feeling. Perhaps it was there in the script, but not in this realization. Prudie: “What you saying to upset maid?

Demelza meets Elizabeth in wood; she is looks for Garrick, Ross hasn’t the heart for another child and she’s not told him, Elizabeth: “We’re to blame, discord not lightly set aside by Ross at least

Jud fleeing Warleggan’s men

Demelza in bed at night; Ross intently working hard at mine; back to Demelza in bed; Ross home to breakfast and then out to Truro. He comes home and she is staring at empty crib bed. He wants to talk, she looks encouraged but then it is money; he is working to find a new lead but the pressing concern is the debt. They must sell much that they have to make 400 pounds – ride to Truro, see if loan extended; the more he works better their chances, he tells her, “see what you can bear to part with and then look again.” She visits Brodrugan and cow with MacNeil looking on. Pascoe has secured his loan to be extended – 400 tomorrow – Demelza selling Emma their cow, Brodrugan gets aggressive (harassing her) and MacNeil interrupts to protect her. She is grateful.

Then we see Ross and Demelza walking, talking about what they can sell. They joke about Garrick and then we see them taking money for selling Emma, on the farm, pigs cock furniture. Caroline going to market too. Wareleggan smoldering at them. Dwight and Caroline encounters end in his curing her “hurt throat.” We see Ross and Demelza selling off their precious objects and a bitter encounter with Warleggan. They pay an amazed Pascoe: Ross: “we sold pretty much everything we own.”

Francis with child, real horse better, no more Uncle George, Uncle Ross in time will be our friend – these moments of hope and joy projected by this actor. They are part of the new emotional temperature of the series. (Not found in book or 1975 films.)

Mrs Tabb prefers Dr Enys to Dr Choake; and tells him Francis in better spirits these days; Elizabeth: “Hhe’s changed, did he intend to kill himself? Enys: “Whatever occurred, be glad of it, a broken man returned like that, and now playing with son.

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Promotional shot of Heidi Reed as Elizabeth for the second season

Jud set upon very hard. Dwight agrees to carry invitation to harvest supper to Ross and Demelza. A modest meal, Francis: “Admiring our harvest, I hope to augment it; later that night Ross and Demelza discuss invitation that Dwight brought: he will not go, George is a still friend there. Demelza: “she is not sure, but she is not in haste to go to Trenwith” either.

Prudie with apparent death of Jud, impossible idealization of Prudie – the guineas – Martin thinks it’s from the trade … Ross knew him since he was a child, useless but he taught me. This material was comic in the 1970s but it is not comic now. Just puzzling. Ross: “George has played us all – perhaps we should accept invitation and maybe some things can be mended.” He wants to “connect to Francis again.”

Happy harvest scene — Soller has sweetest of smiles – cousin tis an unexpected pleasure – all shaking hands. Harvest ritual in the fields, hurrah hurrah hurrah – wonderful dancing. (None of this in book or 1975 film.)

Warleggan to Tankard: “I ordered you to scare not murder. Idiot Unwin at party with Caroline intensely frustrated.

Francis with Ross and Dwight: Francis says he now knows George a complee utter blaggard, Dwight called away at Killwarren. Tremendously elegant luxurious meal at Penvennen. “Last night a murder” we hear MacNeil saying.

The funeral meal – so three levels of characters — Prudie’s ludicrous speech – the slab empty. Demelza outside escaping nasty mother of Elizabeth: Prudie thinks it body snatchers

Dwight’s scene pulling fishbone from Caroline’s throat; at luxury party Warleggan exerts pressure on the Wheal Leisure man who sided with Tankard and he faints.

Francis offers to go in with Ross – “hole in the ground,” he has money, few hundred, and they propose to try final attempt

Fish bone out. Francis must go to bed, Dwight comes in – thank you Cousin. Prudie the shame of it – Jud without explanation. George is exulting over his successful bullying. Jud now appears as a ghost, and tells how it was It’s there as a left-over of condescending humor to the “lower orders” (on Graham’s part first.

Elizabeth with Ross left downstairs, he looks to help her, she thanks him. Demelza walking back from Prudie will overhear. She: “The money came from George to pay for false gaming loss.” Ross: “I remember a time you were perfect – today in the fields you looked like a girl of 16 your age when I first knew you.” He is half flirting, “Cannot love overcome such obstacles. She: “I cannot imagine how” Ross says she “has brought light back into Frances eyes,” but we know that’s not the source of Francis’s gladness. She tells him you should go to bed Ross, Demelza will be thinking you’re gone astray … he looks down disappointed rueful. This is a justified extrapolation from a scene in the book not filmed before.

This too: Demelza gone to bed crying, she in bed awake when he comes in. She tells of Jud’s alive, and blurts out, “First Christmas you told me you loved me.” He: “First days of love different then.” This reminded me of Joyce’s The Dead: the story’s ending in crying and hurt. Ross picks up she’s pregnant; he says it is different a child is not a thought and if she can risk he heart again, so can he …

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Robin Ellis and Anghared Rees as Ross and Demelza making love the night before he must leave for Bodmin and the trial (1975 Poldark Episode 9)

To conclude, I’ve loved the books and still do, have taught Ross Poldark several times, Demelza twice, and Jeremy Poldark and Warleggan once. If Horsfield wants to soften the progressive politics of the books and 1970s films, eliminate the feminism, but not lose the inner life of the books which are so pro-egalitarian, decent in humanity, it seems to me to turn to a Hardyesque atmosphere is a good option. As yet there is no hint in these episodes that the series will take the crucial changes that people have been discussing elsewhere. Time (or next week on the BBC) will tell. I’ve commented enough on how much I valued the original emotional relationships and themes of the books and when they were kept to in the 1970s films.

Ellen

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Claire (Catrionia Balfe) medicates Jamie’s (Sam Heughan) back (near opening of Episode 2, directed Ronald Dahl, scripted Ronald D Moore)

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Claire remembering Geillis Duncan (Lotte Verbeeck) saying: “As I told you, there’s many things in this world we can’t explain …” (near end of Episode 3, directed Brian Kelley, scripted Anne Kenney)

We get no good
By being ungenerous, even to a [film],
And calculating profits — so much help
By so much reading. It is rather when
We gloriously forget ourselves, and plunge
Soul-forward, headlong, into a [film]’s profound,
Impassioned for its beauty and salt of truth-
Tis then we get the right good from a book.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Aurora Leigh
(1857), i, 702-9

Dear friends and readers,

The general plot-design of these two episodes is quickly told (see Episode 1):

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As the group comes up to Leogh, it looms in the way of Udolpho:

2) exploring Castle Leogh and its grounds, Claire settles in, is re-dressed, meets Laird Colum Mackenzie (Gary Lewis), dines with the clan, is led to believe she will be allowed to return to Craig Na Dunn (the stones), but finds herself appropriated as a “healer” and forbidden to leave, as no one important believes her story of herself. Slowly her relationship with Jamie builds, meeting to help his wounds, bringing food to him outside the gate; he tells of of Black Jack Randall, an English enemy (Tobias Menzies), and the doubling figure of Claire’s gentle Frank with this violent Black Jack makes Jamie an intermediary link

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As the episode opens, we are back in time, five years before 1945, where Claire is bidding adieu to Frank her husband as she refuses to accept an offer of escaping front-line nursing

3) Claire becomes involved with a woman like herself, expert in the use of medicinal compounds, foods, healing, Geillis Duncan, and witnesses a culture of harsh punishments and mortifications, defies the fanatically punitively religious priest, to save the life of a boy said to be in need of exorcism. Again her relationship with Jamie builds, now she sees him rescue Leoghaire (Nell Hudson) from punishment, free a boy nailed to a pillory by his ear, take her to the Black Kirk to reveal the poisoned herb afflicting the boy.

The second episode feels more complicated than the first, building on it: we see Claire is in danger of being seen as a witch (by her apprehension of Mrs Fitz’s (Annette Badland) probable response to her story; the blending of time frame-times, from what Frank is doing now to to try find Claire, by himself by the rocks, with the Reverend Wakefield (James Fleet), to deeper past memory and again Claire at end of episode 3 with a vision of the stones, but the more she does deeds to gain gratitude, the more she is held fast.

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I’ve been trying to account for the deep appeal of this mini-series (at least to me and the legions of readers and viewers, mostly women) beyond the sex: I am intensely drawn to the sexual relationship between the heroine, Claire, and the central beloved hero, Jamie; its configuration is the same as Suzanne Juhasz says is central to women’s romance (Reading from the Heart) and is found in the relationship of Demelza and Ross in the Poldark books. (I gather for some modern young women brought up recently or women of the later 20th century this no longer appeals.) In the films, protective, gentle, tenderly loving, a helper-brother, in Demelza’s case a father substitute, in Claire’s an oddly feminized hero. But what else?

I am trying to see how it differs from Poldark beyond the genre (women’s historical romance v men’s historical fiction). Why does it seem so coherent, the story move forward with ease, with less strained staccato switches from scene to scene, and all the scenes allowed more dialogue and development.

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Cinematography at Black Kirk provides continual mirroring effect, as if the two were reflections of themselves in one another’s mirrors

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Claire amid the stones in a memory sequence (from Episode 3)

Sing me a song of a lass that is gone
Say, could that lass be I
Merry of soul she sailed on a day
Over the sea to Skye
Billow and breeze, islands and seas, mountains of rain and sun
All that was good, all that was fair
All that was me is gone

It’s the time-traveling. a what if nature of the fiction set up in the past, a playing with time so different times blend and part, doubling of characters from the past and the future. The real material is the relationship between Frank (yielding, gentle, heterosexual) and Black Jack Randall (sadistic, bisexual), Claire and Jamie (he attracts dominant gay males) to both of these. Claire moves away from a stressful life-passage in 1945 where the marriage is not working, a double narrative echoed or repeated in Claire’s relationship to Geillis, who we will learn is also from the future. Christianity versus paganism is an important strand across DuMaurier’s works. There is no magic but the one break from realism in time transportation

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Jamie remembering his sister, Jenny Fraser (Laura Donnelly) raped by Black Randall (will occur in narrative in Episode 12, Lallybroch) (from Episode 2)

Swirling about these are the strong female types, with Claire as voice-over narrator, her memory controlling all. We’ve met Mrs Fitz, Colum’s silent wife, Letitia (Aislin McGuckin), Geillis; we’ve seen Jenny Fraser thus far. There is a succession of scapegoats (made to suffer) who Claire works to free from suffering at the risk of her life and identity: Jamie is continually offering himself up, and she continually rescuing him (as he will her in the traditional swashbuckling mode). It is a question of a transcendent identity: a drive to abandon the daily material world (so you cross the stones) to lose yourself in a Bronte love. Jamie’s alter-ego, semi-servant, brother, Murtagh Fraser (Duncan Lacroix) advises Claire that Jamie needs an experienced woman, not a girl-virgin; like a Walter Scott male companion-servant he finds his meaning is serving Jamie.

At the same time the mater is rooted in Scottish culture, literature, and myth:

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Murtagh, ever there (opening Episode 2), a companion first seen in Scott’s fiction

In both episodes there are these vast hall scenes, in the second a man sings ancient songs to pipes:

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Claire’s first entrance (within the first phase of episode 2)

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The harp-player and bard (towards the end of episode 3)

Now this one is about a man out late on a fairy hill on the eve of Samhain who hears the sound of a woman singing sad and plaintive from the very rocks of the hill.
[eerie music] [Gaelic singing continues] “I am a woman of Balnain.
“The folk have stolen me over again, ‘ “the stones seemed to say.
“I stood upon the hill, and wind did rise, and the sound of thunder rolled across the land.
” [singing in Gaelic] “I placed my hands upon the tallest stone “and traveled to a far, distant land “where I lived for a time among strangers who became lovers and friends.
” [singing in Gaelic] “But one day, I saw the moon came out “and the wind rose once more.
“so I touched the stones “and traveled back to my own land “and took up again with the man I had left behind.
” [applause] She came back through the stones? Aye, she did.
They always do.
It was a folktale, madness to take as fact, and yet half of what Gwyllyn had described had actually happened to me.

They have substituted Scotland for Cornwall: there is a loss DuMaurier is much darker ultimately and deeper, while Gabaldon more consistently self-conscious post-pastiche, playing though with similar strong female imagery

DuMaurier poem:

‘What can I cling to in life, what can I hold?’
With a cynical twist to the mind and a husk for the heart
The scapegoats of this generation go drifting past.
The children for whom the war was apparently won,
And nothing is certain, and nothing likely to last
For the child not bombed in Kensington (from DuMaurier Companion, edd Sarah Walters, p 131)

Gabaldon picturesque layering, the imagery is that of a woman’s body as as redemptive:

We struggled upward, out of the womb of the world, damp and steaming, rubber-limbed with wine and heat. I fell to my knees at the first landing, and Jamie, trying to help me, fell down next to me in an untidy heap of robes and bare legs. Giggling helplessly, drunk more with love than with wine, we made our way side by side, on hands and knees up the second flight of steps, hindering each other more than helping, jostling and caroming softly off each other in the narrow space, until we collapsed at last in each other’s arms on the second landing.
    Here an ancient oriel window opened glassless to the sky, and the light of the hunter’s moon washed us in silver. We lay clasped together, damp skins cooling in the winter air, waiting for our racing hearts to slow and breath to return to our heaving bodies.
    The moon above was a Christmas moon, so large as almost to fill the empty window. It seemed no wonder that the tides of sea and woman should be subject to the pull of that stately orb, so close and so commanding …. Outlander, the book p p 627

In technique the pace is slow, lingering, not much happens in the sense of moving the story forward. Instead we move back and forth in time as the film-makers develop the relationship between Claire and Jamie (the arc over-all) and unfold the other characters as Claire settles in and begins to practice her assumed profession and role. This too makes it differ from the new Poldark, which is too jumpy, with all too brief juxtapositions.

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British in Scotland (Black Jack Randall from the back) as imagined in this film series

It’s common knowledge that literary criticism is not a popular form — nor is real film criticism; only a small percentage of readers read it. One of the pleasures of Margaret Edson’s play, Wit (known for its presentation of a woman dying of cancer, whose excruciation of pain is not so much from dying from cancer but from the techniques, chemo, radiation and operation, used to “fight” cancer, one of the pleasures is its meditations on reading and especially making editions and essays; at one point Vivian Bearing claims the greatness of her work is that she offers ‘a thorugh examination of each [John Donne] sonnet, discussing every word in extensive detail.”

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Jamie as Scots farmer-landlord at Lallybroch (memories from Episode 2)

Where does this detail come from? Let’s admit it: out of the mind of the reader elaborating thematically (it can be political, or moral, or psychological, or sociological, lots of options since the mid-20th century) on the text? and essentially it’s made up, it’s an extension. Take a much praised older book on Austen: Stuart Tave’s Some Words of Jane Austen. It’s no longer read much or liked because the words he tells his tales of are disciplinary of women: exertion (Elinor has to practice this] in S&S, expectations (Catherine’s false ones] in Northanger Abbey. mortification (Elizabeth’s) in P&P; the properness (Fanny) of the heroine in MP. We prefer the tales of say Claudia Johnson. One difference is these tales are not structured as narrative, but as arguments, within which the writer tells of the story of how her or his mind read the book.

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Claire discovering what year it is by opening a book (Episode 2)

Criticism is not popular because most readers it seems do not tell themselves these tales. Most stay with the literal fiction and do not recognize the truth of that exegesis. They don’t see it, can’t see it, can’t go that far away from the story and characters, and can carry or elaborate a theme very briefly. Or are bored. Don’t see the point. They can read fan fiction, though and fan fiction is a form of fiction that elaborates from the text by telling a story not producing an argument. Film adaptations are further fictionalizations of a text. Further specific visualizations, aural, sensory.

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Castle and thistle (Episode 3)

The point is then which fictions about fictions seem to us to hold important truths — which seem to explicate the original fiction and which seem to us not connected enough to what we find there. What I am putting together is an attempt at adequate fictions about these films. All this from an intuition that the books and films descend from Sophia Lee’s Recess (1783, first gothic romance) at a distance, but immediately are an update of DuMaurier — so historical and regional romance inflected by time-traveling, what if fictions, playing with time so different times blend and part, doubling of characters from the past and the future.

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Same street used for 1945 and 1743 (Episodes 1 and 3)

Next time: the nature of the story-telling and Scottish post-colonialism in a film

Ellen

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The Studio, Vanessa Bell’s Charleston Farmhouse, Sussex

Dear friends and readers,

I know I told of how on one of my listservs, we are reading Tolstoy’s War and Peace as a group with each of us reading different other related works or watching films; on the other, WWta (Women Writers through the Ages @ Yahoo) we’ve started a similar project (far few people alas) around Virginia Woolf. Our central focus is a slow read through another massive volume: Hermione Lee’s Virginia Woolf, and have talked at length about the art of biography, Woolf’s own life writings and writing about biography (her Memoirs of a Novelist, her “Sketch of the Past” in Moments of Being). One of us read To the Lighthouse; we’ve discussed Gaston Bachelard’s perhaps now-dated Poetics of Space; I’ve watched the remarkably complex )(novel-like? biography-like) Carrington and am now determined to make Dora Carrington my next woman artist in that blog series.

First impression:

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From Christopher Hampton’s Carrington: this is based on an actual photo of the house (Emma Thompson who is made to look like Carrington as Jonathan Pryce looks like Strachey in the photos of him)

Strachey asked Woolf to marry him at one point; they were close. Strachey was much older than Carrington and I was thinking about the extraordinary convoluted tortured sexual and marital relationships in this wider group. Leonard and Virginia look conventional from the outside, but look in and you see her several deep lesbian relationships.

Jonathan Pryce who was such a wonderful Wolsey, is perfect for Strachey, and Emma Thompson takes on her stout boyish persona to play Carrington. I’ve only got half-way through: it’s a very long movie. What I wanted to say is that in a way it’s lacking:  Hampton wrote and directed it, and he is following Holroyd’s book and therein is the problem. Carrington is such a painful spectacle. The whole menagerie at her and Lytton’s home are wholly outside the mainstream. She loved Strachey because his homosexuality took the form of no sexual intercourse with a woman, so he was not aggressive at all. For someone who wants safety I am now puzzled (not rereading Holroyd) why she ever went to Mark Gertler (played by the then spectacularly handsome Rufus Sewell) who demanded rough sex as central to the relationship (not painful but agressive) and Sewell plays him as a man driven wild by her. The audience is allowed to see this clearly and Gertler’s attack on Lytton when it becomes obvious Carrington loves Lytton. But to keep Lytton she had to allow this reactionary hulk, Reginald Patridge (renamed Rafe by Strachey) to live with them and to keep him she had to have sex with him; in turn he’d have sex with Strachey.  This is not shown clearly in the film. Gerald Brennan (the young excellent actor Samuel West) who left for Spain and wrote two wonderful travel-memoirs of his life in Spain is brought in; but as I’ve not read Holroyd in a while I forget the bargain, but think Carrington was also required to have sex with Brennan to please someone.

Thompson says over and over this is an abject love. Hampton together with these remarkable actors conveyed something different than I’ve read before. Hitherto it was see how abject this woman was, what a mystery but it was Lytton’s kindness, gentleness and their shared love of art that made her invest her very life in his life.

This film shows him a cool egoist who uses her; he may not admit it to himself but he does. All the sex scenes after Mark are her degenerating, allowing her body to be used by man after man to get them for Strachey. That is what the film shows. She goes so far even to marry Partridge who in the film she sees as a macho male reactionary horror though fun as a man to dance with, handsome to draw. She endures his ugly jealousy and infidelities. She leads Gerald Brennan to lie in ways that violate his character — all for this Lytton. It gets to the point she wants to validate her body and gets involved with a man (Jeremy Northam turns up to do it) who just takes her cruelly for sex, getting pregnant by him she gets an abortion. Thee’s a dialogue where Lytton says why not have the baby.I think the film suggests had she, she might have had something else to live for. But she only wants his baby and he never fucks her it seems.

Pryce plays Strachey as realizing how he is using her, but being unable to resist it and enjoying her company, now and again guilty — as when he will advise her to leave off a man, or have a baby, or makes his will to leave her a pension. A very young Alex Kingston as Patridge’s partner after he tires of Carrington plus Strachey. A younger Penelope Wilton does Ottoline so well. The men in the film do seem attached to Carrington and enduring Strachey for the sake of Carrington except the stud last played by Northam. Thompson and Pryce impeccably involving. I grieved over Carrington’s death yet understood. It ends with a series of images of those of her paintings she did not destroy.

It’s a deeply searing portrait of a on the surface beautiful love but just below deeply destructive of her. We are told nothing of her family or childhood. She turns up sui generis and all film long she is without any group but this Bloomsbury one attached to Strachey and her art school. She goes off to London where she finds characters like Patridge and brings him back as a trophy or fodder for Lytton. Was she promiscuous in London somewhere. Patridge’s questioning of her in fact is understandable.

I want to read the screenplay, watch again and have now bought a book (natch) recent, Gerzina’s Carrington (who wrote on FrancesHodgson Burnett if I’m not mistaken).

As a result of the debate on the art of biography and novels (peel them off and you have an autobiography), we debated (a bit) Tim Parks’s iconoclastic theses about novel writing and reading in yet another thinking book from him, The Novel: A Survival Skill on both listservs.

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Bondarchuk’s War and Peace: Kutusov after defying everyone and ordering a retreat so as to save as many men and as much of Moscow as he can (1966)

Let me say upfront there is no woman author in Parks’s universe in this book who counts, who he discusses at length. He might mention a woman now and again. He focuses on five males and when he has any examples they are all males. He has a history of Italian literature organized by great authors. Apparently in Italy since the Renaissance there has been but one woman writer of note. Something like 25 authors, one is a woman.

I wonder what women do with themselves when I read Parks. It’s important to the man’s outlook, tells us what he reads, how he reads. So by no means is he a guru when he leaves out half the human race; women do write differently, they make art differently — from social life and from innate elements.

Parks’s idea that novels threaten us has some powerful explanatory force; this is why people talk (and perhaps) think consciously about novels so moralistically. They inveigh against characters who do not obey social norms because they don’t want to articulate why those who don’t don’t, nor admit to identification. He follows this up with the iconoclastic idea we love books which are substitutes for the presence and sense of real person they contain, stand for. This a complete refutation of the “biographical fallacy.” Kraggsby says she becomes so emotional when she has to write or feel about Woolf after a bout with a book. This helps explain that. I so agree with it.

With Parks I really feel a mind thinking, not just putting together the platitudes and nouns referring to theoretical positions which the author then aligns him or herself with. He offers this possible description of what’s meant by creativity: “the ability to produce …. The emotional tone and the play of forces in whch the narrator lives, the particular mental world in which he moves …. “ Parks doesn’t need to have Coetzee in front of him, in fact the Coetzee we meet (as Proust would say) is the partial social man, not the man who counts. The greatness of such works, the triumph “we find their work drenched with their personalities, supreme expressionof theirmanner and character and behavior, each absolutely recognizable, triumphantly unmistakable … He does cite Woolf a little way down; her understanding is just so to the point, and what she does. Paradoxically l’ecriture-femme (women’s texts) exemplify much more centrally than men’s what he begins with.

When you say that a novel threatens the reader, and that therefore we need to learn actually how to survive them (really taken into consciousness what they can show) and that the author’s identity (I’ll call it) is everywhere there in different ways, you are set on a very different road than most books on the novel. I just love how he does not repeat cant and situate himself next to it or with it — not that a great books don’t do this: Jerome de Troot’s two books on historical fiction do it, but he examines these theories often to show their fallacies, not always.

Tim Parks is consistent with his view that the great writer conveys an authentic specific self across his or her work, asks about the writer’s tension when he or she thinks of who is reading this text. Parks says the novel is “officially addressed to everyone,but in reality they are not thinking of today’s Ph D student in say Korea addressing scholarly conversations in 2016; the actual circumstances the writer writes in frames his or her perception of what is being written; relatives do often complain and are hurt, as well as friends; t often he or she is thinking of some subgroup of readers alive at the time, “the implicit reader”. He proposes we think of ourselves as overhearing the author’s address to his or her audience at the time. Park then goes over specific details in a Becket text and they come so much more alive when you nail who specific savage ironies are aimed at. Lee quotes Woolf’s life-writing a lot and Woolf assumes her readership knows what the life of the upper class at the time was; her tales of childhood assume familiarity.

Parks says it is not a retreat from the text to be interested in the author’s patterns of behavior, relationships at the time of a text writtten, but rather it can increase our engagement. He then goes on to Gregory Bateson who argues that personality differentation ,how we establish our identities to ourselves are in relation to others aroud us which often are binaries and are reactions against. he is not talking about one-on-one equivalencies but a general presence surrounded by particulars then transposed but often more transparently than we like to allow.

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Helen Mirren as Sonya in Jay Parini’s The Last Station (which is part of our Tolstoy matter)

Now to apply Parks’s thesis to The Last Station, for example, you have to know about Hoffman and his life and relationship to the film (which he does bring in in the feature to the film, also Parini, not to forget Tolstoy, Cherthov, the various actors who inhabit the roles.

It is a complex film and now I’ve got to find time to read the book. A good performance can make a character come alive: In the screenplay Hoffman worked to condense, make a coherent POV (Valentine, the most invented of the characters) and in general sort of gave more meaning to what’s in the book and made me wonder if a movie because of its form often does simplify. It’s hard to fight it as successful as Bergman did. He didn’t care if his films made money when he started out. I thought I’d mention that the train was to be much much more important: it was to open with Valentine on the train; the deleted scenes are of Tolstoy fleeing on the train, Sofya following. It now only ends with the train. Hoffman says he wanted it to be a symbol but as he proceeded he decided the characters and their relationships were what he should spend time on. More practically I have watched enough honest features to have heard directors say you have to cut and you have to choose, and many he saw this skein or thread one he could eliminate neatly — to make the movie marketable. This was to be an allusion to Anna Karenina, with Sofya as our Anna who survives. I suspect so.

Also from our Tolstoy group: I am finding A. N. Wilson’s biography on Tolstoy without bothering to argue this in effect bases his biography and assessment of Tolstoy’s novels on a perspective like Parks; Lee is more reticent but then we’ve hardly gotten Virginia born. Wilson thinks Tolstoy is addressing other Russian writers, how he conceives of the cultural and political situation in Russia, but deeply by the time of Anna Karenina moved inward and dealing with his own many layered psyche through her.

Lastly (since I’m going away for a week — to Cornwall, where Woolf spent summer holidays for years on end — and have little time) I thought I’d just briefly call attention to an excellent review essay in TLS by Francesca Wade on the rebuilding of all sorts of house space the various Bloomsbury people had in different sites and museusm: “Interior Designs, Interior Desires: examing the inside of Bloomsbury homes as a guide to their owners’ artistry and personality.”

Wade begins with Bachelard and then goes on to show how the Bloomsbury group utterly defied conventions not just in painting happy pictures of what they were doing on their walls, and but in scattering all the things they used over a day freely around the house, making rooms serve real and different functions peculiar to the people living there all at once. In the movie Carrington we see the house Strachey (Jonathan Pryce) and Carrington (Emma Thompson) live in have her paintings on the wall, and a couple of the rooms are clearly shown to be reflective of how they live. Outsiders thought the decorations were lascivious or salacious because of the unconventional sexual relationships people who came and lived there had, but not at all. Nudes were not sexy nudes — as in the film. They were gay (old use of word), defying the colors, atmosphere of the homes these people had been brought up in.

Most houses today and apartments too are set up in conventional ways with several rooms sometimes given over “to making a show.” More time and energy making the room a symbol of the expected social life and status than the comfort of people living in it. The purpose of the US family room is to have a place where people can do their own thing but even there I’ve seen status and money the criteria for decorations — how many Xs you did of this or that.

Jim and my house was and today mine alone with his presence as memory and filling the objects is not like that. There is no room for show, the rooms have — or had (he’s gone now) several functions. I have been told if I wanted to sell it and/or sell it for a high priceI would have to empty it out and make it a soulless display. So that’s what the average person wants: plus and a soulless display. No thank you I said. Either it’s sold the way it looks or not sold. So Bloomsbury space is still iconoclastic.

Ellen off for a week on holiday in Cornwall

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Charles Camoin, Cat before the Open Window — from Sixtine, one of the lights of my existence

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Hugh Grant as St Clair Bayfield when we first see him, cavalierly, knowingly, giving an inadequate rendition of one of Hamlet’s speeches before his wife comes on stage

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Meryl Streep as Florence singing ecstatically (2016, Florence Foster Jenkins, directed by Stephen Frears, scripted by Nicolas Martin)

Dear friends and readers,

Just as I began to give up hoping for a truly good absorbing film for cinemas this summer, along came three: in July Shemi Zarhin’s The Kind Words urging us to give over unreal ethnicities; in early August Taika Waititi’s Hunt for the Wilderpeople in rural impoverished worlds, and now the extraordinary Stephen Frears and Nicolas Turner’s Florence Foster Jenkins, with a little help from Hugh Grant and Meryl Streep.

At first the film seems to be about an over-dressed, naively happy, fatuously absurd Florence, a wealthy woman kept apart from most other people by her somewhat younger, carefully preserved coolly impossibly husband: since she is a philanthropist most institutions are prepared to indulge her in whatever she wants in the way of concerts, no matter how corny, creaking or badly done. St Clair has hired a voice coach and we watch him hire Cosme McMoon (Simon Helberg) a piano-player musician to play and give her voice lessons. When Florence is not around, St Clair’s face goes hard and asks brief cynical questions about what we’ve seen him smile pleasantly and coo over. We begin to suspect a pervasive underlying studied hypocrisy when at night St Clair wishes Florence a good night’s rest, and himself goes to a Greenwich village or lower Manhattan slum block where he finds his mistress a young beautiful Kathleen (Rebecca Fergusson) waiting for him. He lives another different life with this mistress: wild modern dancing, late night parties, strong drinking promiscuous sex going on around him. He is then just so sweetly affectionate to her, so controlled, hiding from her life’s unpleasant truths that it feels like a performance. Then we discover Florence cannot sing, her voice is reedy, awful, she can’t hold a tune.

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As the movie progresses we begin to see that this steely-performance of St Clair where he protects this wife of his from every adverse criticism made of her is not hollow. It cannot be as he gives over his whole being to it: he has to work very hard to prevent anyone who would laugh at or heckle her from coming to any of her performances. He does not have to do any of this to remain rich; she need not perform to be worshipped. Her singing lessons do keep the two of them busy, and her pre-occupied, seeing herself as endlessly working at something beautiful. To silence or get people to cooperate, he hand white envelopes stuffed with cash to people. Those who will not cooperate are excluded from performances and their drawing-room.

Their back story emerges as he, and then she, confide in McMoon: as a 19 year old she married a cad who had syphilus, the cad de-camped, died, and one day in an audience she spotted St Clair who she says had the kindest most generous smile she’d ever seen on a face. They abstained from sex lest he become diseased or she have a diseased child. There’s an intense pathos to the story as she tells it to Cosme whom she has visited on one of St Clair’s golf weekends (we know he has gone to the Hamptons with Kathleen). Cosme is continually on the edge of quitting lest he lose all respect as a serious musician, and when Florence comes up with the idea of playing at Carnegie Hall to thousands, balks; in response St Clair tells Cosme he must not obey the tyranny of ambition to be great, or respected as wonderful, or his art even understood — all egoistic delusions in probability: he found himself a failed stage actor when he met St Clair, and when she married him, he liberated himself from ambition to live this comfortable life.

But is it? is it comfortable? is he in a prison of performances to get his hands on her will (which she carries about her in a briefcase). The movie asks, how far is all life a performance? what are worthy goals?

If the mark of a summer movie is non-seriousness underlying the performance, Frears has never in all the films I’ve seen by him resorted to such obvious broad caricatures: the sexy blonde vulgar noisy young wife is just one. OTOH: when St Claire reads aloud to Florence Shakespeare’s cliched 116th sonnet (“Let me to the marriage of true minds admit impediments”), the joke is Shakespeare was ironic (most readers seem not to know this), making fun. Anyhow Florence falls asleep before he’s finished the first eight lines. Late in the movie he reads aloud Keat’s “Bright Star” sonnet: same response from Florence, pathetically grateful but in actuality bored so falls asleep.

Streep and Grant deliver as exquisitely perfect performances as I remember Grant doing as a young man in Remains of the Day (where Emma Thompson and Anthony Hopkins were the pitch perfect people who missed out). Grant is underrated as an actor since he made his place in Hollywood films as a fine comic actor in Four Weddings and A Funeral, Notting Hill, and Bridget Jones’s Diary, and in beloved costume dramas like Sense and Sensibility or Maurice. I first saw him and Bob Hoskins in a filmed version of Thomas Middleton’s brilliant Jacobean play, The Changeling. Grant was corrupt weakling duke who nonetheless becomes a relentless murder out of sexual jealousy; Hoskins the hired thug killer who himself lives out seething resentments. I felt Grant saw some of his own choices in his role. He left the serious stage for Hollywood and has not looked back.

Streep’s role was harder to play” as Grant melts into tenderness, opens his face up to recognize “Bunny’s” dependency on him to her, she has to seem mostly obtuse and yet capable of the finest feeling, at once ridiculous and courageous. She is our American version of the British grand-dame actresses (e.g., Lindsay Duncan, Emma Thompson).

Lovelystillofthem

Reviews have been generous, noting the sentimentality at the close: far too forgiving and benign, sliding over after pointing to the cruelty of crowds, the stupidity of audience mob-like reactions, how no one really cares what this music is. The New York Times reminds us these were a real couple in the 1940s and that Helberg stole the show with his shock, distress, and at the end sparkling identification with his two bosses. We are left in two minds about the principals: how far was she fooled? she has a wise desperate look on her worn face as she lies dying in her closing moments. Did or how far did St Clair Bayfield love her and his life as her tender protector? he seems never to hurt her which is way beyond probable if it was just the money. The credits afterward included photos of the real original people. Cosme never became a great musician; his reached his heights in venues at Carnegie hall with Florence. St Claire late in life looks utterly non-pretentious; after that last performance and her illness killed her, he never remarried.

To return to my first paragraph: there is something delightful in all three, Kind Words, Wilderpeople, Florence, and we are badly in need of delight this August.

Ellen

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OpeningOvervoice
Claire Randall (Catriona Balfe) looking into Farrell’s shop window in a highland village

vase

(Outlander 1, scripted Ronald Moore)

People disappear all the time. Young girls run away from home. Children stray from their parents and are never seen again. Housewives take the grocery money, and a taxi to the train station. Most are found eventually. Disappearances, after all, have explanations. Usually. Strange, the things you remember. Single images and feelings that stay with you down through the years. Like the moment I realized I’d never owned a vase. That I’d never lived any place long enough to justify having such a simple thing. And how at that moment, I wanted nothing so much in all the world as to have a vase of my very own. It was a Tuesday afternoon. Six months after the end of the war (taken direct from Gabaldon’s Outlander, opening.

Friends,

It’s time. Overdue. It may be my readers think I am above Outlander. I am not. I love it. I have now watched all sixteen episodes of the first season three times. I’ve read Gabaldon’s novel, I’ve read her Outlandish Companion. It connects to so much I’m deeply engaged by: it’s Daphne DuMaurier in the high romance mode, elegant, controlled wildness. Outlander is a cross between DuMaurier’s The House on the Strand where the hero travels back and forth between the mid-20th and 14th century, and her historical romances, say King’s General (set in the 17th century civil war), Frenchman’s Creek, or Jamaica Inn (smugglers as misunderstood free-trader outlaws set in the very early 19th). Claire is the many times great-grandaughter of Sophia Lee’s Elinor and Matilda, the twin daughters of Mary Queen of Scots in her The Recess. I’ve been reading about Scotland and its civil wars, diaspora (to among other places, Canada), poetry and fiction by its writers (from Anne Murray Halkett to RLS Stevenson and Margaret Oliphant and onto Margaret Atwood) for years and years.

The immediate inspiration though is the new Poldark. Outlander reflects mores of the last few years far more frankly explored, and unlike the new Poldark thus far is a woman’s mini-series, a proto-feminist series of films. I’ve learned the second season of Poldark is going to depart so radically from Graham’s books as to change a crucial thread across all twelve novels and one of my favorite characters (though like Jane Austen over Emma it seems no one but me will much like), Elizabeth Chynoweth Poldark Warleggan. So I thought I might sustain a comparison of the two similar mini-series: Poldark drawn from historical novels, Outlander from historical romance, both obeying naturalism and verisimilitude once the terms of the fiction are set up). I don’t say I won’t compare the 1970s Poldark nor the two books, Jeremy Poldark (1950) and Warleggan (1953), but I will keep in mind and bring in this contemporary comparable series. Run them on this blog in tandem.

The Outlander resembles the new (2015) Poldark in its grimness, brutal violence, grimyness, the POV from below, the peasants and outlaws, not the elegant and fringe people of the older (1975) Poldark, Oneddin Line. But this is Claire’s story, make no mistake about that. The central consciousness, the voice-over in this season in all but one episode (when it is Jamie’s [Sam Heughan] and that very unusual, as “real” men don’t do over-voice). By keeping the central consciousness a woman’s, the narrator a heroine, Gabaldon kept all the intense ambiguity about a woman’s helplessness in pre-19th century eras against males, who then in reaction to the heroine manifest unashamed or shall I say unhidden attitudes towards her sexuality (the film is written, directed and produced mostly by men): upon meeting Claire Randall (Catrionia Balfe) the film’s 18th century men, British soldiers and aristocrats, Irish thugs and clansmen alike promptly think her or ask if she is a whore because she is alone. Jonathan Wolverton Randall aka Black Jack (Tobias Menzies, also Frank, Claire’s gentle husband in the mid-20th century, a descendant of Black Jack, whom he has been researching) proceeds to try to rape her. But she is a 20th century woman, pro-active on her own and others’ behalf, not inclined to regard herself as secondary person or take punishment, self-confident, with a sense of what she is entitled to.

operatingfarshot

bloodandguts

As our story begins, Claire Randall has been a nurse in WW2 and presided over and helped in horrifying operations, and the war now over, she and her her academic archaeologist husband, Frank (set for a professorship in Oxford), meet again after a near 5 year absence. They visit Scotland for its ruins, look at neolithic sites. They are trying hard to recreate what they once had, but it’s not quite working. The whole section, the way the bed-sit room looked, reminded me of women’s films of the 1940s, Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard stuff. The two actors convey the strain the couple is trying to overcome:

room

theenigmanofarrival

Notmakingit
I thought of V. S. Naipaul’s The Enigma of Arrival

All photographed with soft brown lights too, stark dark and bleak blacks for the houses, yet in gentle light grey light. He explores genealogy, ruins of ancient fortresses, clans, primitive neolithic stone sites; she half ironically goes along.

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Sunlit
Sunlit

Frank has made friends with a local scholarly vicar, genealogist a Reverend Wakefield, as in Goldsmith’s Vicar of Wakefield, played exquisitely fine, with subtle humor and gravity by James Fleet. Our honeymooning (in effect) couple take to visiting this gentle vicar and Mrs Graham (Tracy Wilkinson), his wry housekeeper. Again I was so reminded of say Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers material before the murder occurs. The men discuss Scots and English aristocracy, Scots clans, the injustices of the 18th century, the patronage system, speculate that perhaps Jonathon Wolverton Randall could act with inpunity because his patron was the Earl of Sandringham. Claire goes off for women’s gossip and tea; Mrs Graham asks to read her palm and finds odd marks on Claire’s hand, and tells of rituals she participates in by Crag na Dunn, a circle of standing stones.

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They are allured by these woman’s midnight rituals.

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Here I was not only reminded of Dorothy in Oz, but the language in the book and series alludes to Frank L. Baum, especially later when Claire-Dorothy wants to get back to the stones as gateway to Kansas, but there is something new here: this is a tale of national identity, of seeking who one is by asking what group one belongs to, and it’s done from a post-colonial perspective, highly critical of the British. Whence the title: Claire is an outsider, a Brit, from elsewhere we know. A Scottish film company is a major producer, Scots actors, venerable (Bill Paterson as the lawyer, Ned Gowan) and new (Duncan Lacroix as the faithful Murtagh, so we are not far from Scott after all) are everywhere. Geography, landscape, blended time frames, intense interiority, mix with lessons in clans, Jacobitism, and the medicine and witchcraft of the era.

What I hope to do is apply to Outlander, several studies of DuMaurier, the gothic, women’s films and Scottish studies, and then by transference see how what is said today about films and books like Outlander relates to the new Poldark mini-series and what is being done to Graham’s Poldark books in them. So this is film, historical fiction, historical romance and delvings into time-traveling fantasies research in progress. It fits into post-colonial patterns too.

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We begin for real and earnest when we move into the time-traveling sequence. Gabaldon knows that women in the 18th century went in for botany, studying herbs and so does our Claire so while Frank is buried in papers, she goes back to the stones and touching one she melts into another realm, coming out somehow into the year 1743.

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She leaves her car

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She has to come close to the stones of Crag Na Dunn to reach the flowers and herbs she wants

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She hears something, music, looks up, and moves to touch the wondrous tall neolithic stone

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The transported moment

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Waking

1743
An empty world, different older trees, no city in the distance (this is straight from Hungry Hill)

At first Claire thinks she has stumbled onto the set of costume drama (wonderful self-reflexity here) but no the bullets are real and she finds herself having to account for herself. So a re-naming, using her birth name, Beauchamp, she has to deal with everyone looking at her as stray whore: who else wanders in the wood in just her shift. This is an extraordinary moment that can only be done by a film: having the same actor, Tobias Menzies, play the hard mean ancester, Black Jack. Claire does a double take: he is but he is not Frank

firstreencouner
So it’s a re-encounter

he
He now the 18th century educated man

she
she still the mid-20th century educated woman

The drums of sudden movement, excitement, she flees, he after and so her adventure begins. A snarling redcoat, upholder of a vicious colonialist order, and she finds herself shot at, nearly raped (this will repeat and repeat) by Randall, is taken up by one of the Scotsmen (Murtagh we later realize), rescued (or herself takes up, saved) by the Scots clansmen, and is paired with the wounded Jamie Fraser, whose arm she correctly sets (and thus saves), and soon she is riding in front of him (anticipating Turner and Tomlinson as Ross and Demelza), warning the clan from her memories of what Frank told her of ambushes, becomes one of them. She resists at first and we get the most old-fashioned of gentle abductions:

Claire: [having fled during the ambush, Jamie having gone back to retrieve her] I hope you haven’t been misusing that shoulder. You’re hurt.
Jamie: This lot isna my blood.
She: Not much of it, anyway.
He: Dougal and the others will be waiting further up the stream. We should go.
She: – I’m not going with you.
He: – Yes, you are.
She: What, are you going to cut my throat if I don’t?
He: Why not? But You don’t look that heavy. Now if you won’t walk, I shall pick you up and throw you over my shoulder. Do you want me to do that?
She: No.
He: Well, then I suppose that means your coming with me.
She – [Climbing, he Grunting] – Serves you right. Probably torn your muscles as well as bruising.
He: Well, wasna much of a choice. If I dinna move my shoulder, I’d never have moved anything else ever again. I can handle a single redcoat with one hand. Maybe even two. Not three. Besides, you can fix it for me again when we get to where we’re going.
She: That’s what you think.
He: Here’s to you, lass. For tipping us to the villains in the rocks and giving us a wee bit o’ fun! [All speak Gaelic] [Speaks Gaelic] Have a wee nip.It willna fill your belly, but will make you forget you’re hungry.

newcouple

Mutualnurturing
One blanket, one whiskey pouch

The band comes to a stone castle that she and her 20th century husband explored now become fully inhabited. I thought I was back with Frank Yerby’s The Border Lord, Book-of-the-Month club special (from the early 1950s like the Poldark series. I though of Radcliffe’s Emily coming up to Udolpho:

they lookuphesitant

Leogh

Only the voice again is wry, prosaic, slightly comical:

The rest of the journey passed uneventfully, if you consider it uneventful to ride fifteen miles on horseback through country at night, frequently without benefit of roads, in company with kilted men armed to the teeth, and sharing a horse with a wounded man. At least we were not set upon by highwaymen, we encountered no wild beasts, and it didn’t rain.

When they get inside we are not in a gloomy, grand place, but a busy courtyard where everyone is going about her or his daily business. From the next episode:

Mrs Fitzgibbon [Annette Badland]: Mwah! Ye’ll all be needing breakfast, I reckon. Plenty in the kitchen. Away in, and feed yerselves. [chuckles] Murtagh, you look and smell like a rat that’s been dragged through sheep dung.
Murtagh: Gi’ us a kiss, then.
Mrs Fitzgibbon: Oh, no! A kiss, then! [laughing] And what do we have here?
Jamie: Claire Beauchamp, Mistress Fitzgibbons. Murtagh found her, and Dougal said we must bring her along with us, so So.

MrsF
Mrs Fitzgibbon looks at Claire in ways the men do not, sees what the men do not see

Mrs F: Well Claire. Come with me. We shall find you something to eat, something to wear that’s a bit more Well, a bit more

It’s the voice-over that held me especially in this first episode, compellingly, Catrionia Balfe’s voice perfect for a DuMaurier Rebecca too. A sophisticated use of old-fashioned realism smashed together with fantasy gothic and superb cinematography, a richly colored Scotland complete, with the themed music part minor key bagpipes, make for an undercurrent of thrill. I will be concentrating on the women in the series.

As for the book, the source, this first episode is lifted directly from the novel. Many of the lines are taken from Gabaldon; it’s as if she wrote the book with a film in mind. She began in earnestness from an online experience, a Literary Forum in the Net’s earliest days. In her Outlandish Companion her language gives away hat when she started, Gabaldon had Now Voyageur, the old Bette Davis trope in mind but was also thinking of “the Age of Enlightenment,” i.e., the realities of the 18th century.

I love her illustration are soft-focus photographs or line-drawing illustrations, evoking imagination on the part of the reader: emblems, herbs, older symbolic pictures (the zodaic for example). Much richness for us to explore for quite a number of weeks to come.

inspiration
From the site of Castle Leogh in Scotland today

Ellen

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Norwegian Wood

Friends and readers,

I braved or endured a 7 hour trip (counting to and fro from my house in Alexandria, Va, on July 16th, to the Ripley Center of the Smithsonian buildings on the National Mall) to enjoy the (as I discovered) privilege of listen to Saul Lilienstein for some 6 hours and 45 minutes. A tough travel experience (it was one of these supremely super-hot days in DC with humidity making the experience of difficulty breathing) amid crowds not decently serviced (not the fault of the Metro staff who actually drive and are on the stations of the Metro). See what goes unreported: mass prayer meeting in DC July 16th. But all this seemed no trouble at all in comparison to what this unusual man was able to say, convey, teach a small group of people willing to sit and learn.

He talked of the original and continuing British sources of Beatles’s music, its then immersion in American white and black music), accompanied by videos and sound tracks that moved me deeply for themselves and taught me generally how the Beatles came to have power over vast general audience, not only of young people.

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Lilienstein’s ostensible plot-design was not chronological and throughout he used tapes, videos, UTubes made since the 1990s technological revolution to exemplify themes. But there was an ever-inching forward in time across a life-story in time, which seems to be inevitable when one tries to account for works of signally high genius.

For the first half of the day, morning before lunch (at 12:30) he covered the sources of the Beatles’ deep early appeal, what was original and yet so utterly British and traditional in their music, and how they began to break away musically and thematically.

It’s easiest to tell something of their joint career. Music comes from 1957/68 when Lennon and MacCartney first met and started to play. They brought into their pair, Harrison at age 14 late in 1958. They played everywhere in Liverpool and back and forth in Hamburg. They had trouble finding a drummer once they wanted someone for a commercial style recording, and it was 1962 when Ringo Starr joined them

the-beatles
Photo from early phase: Ringo Starr, John Lennon, George Harrison, Paul MacCartney

For the first hour he showed us how the earliest Beatles music in Liverpool and Hamburg was rooted in Irish, Scottish and music hall English aesthetic traditions and ethical-class outlooks. This hour-long part of Lilienstein's talk was the least accompanied by vocal tapes, and visual videos and at the same time the most startling. The cheerful music of acceptance of one's lot in the mainstream working class culture of later 19th and early 20th century entertainment is conveyed, but also how one belonged to this milieu captured once for all by Richard Hoggart in his famous The Uses of Literacy. Lilienstein would play a rendition of familiar early Beatles hits (before they came to the US), then an Irish/Scottish ballad or musical hall song. Lilienstein pointed out that “It was 20 years ago today/Sergeant Pepper taught the bland to play”constitutes an innovative reprieve of the deeply male upper class suave dominated music of the the later half of the 20th and into the 21st century by working class, soft shoe (American black) and effeminate plangent elements.

Lilienstein put a large image of a poster of a circus coming to a local music hall pre-WW1 and showed us how lines of the song “For the benefit of Mr Kite” are all taken from this poster. “The Long winding road” is another startlingly innovative harking back. The tune of “It was 20 years ago today” is from an earlier time utterly re-orchestrated. If we would listen to the lyrics of their songs, these tell us these truths: “I read in the news today, oh boy ..” If you begin to trace these lines, you find a genuine radical critique of history. One song about 40,000 holes takes us back to WW1 and horizontally to the number of seats in the Royal Albert Music Hall. Lilienstein played an early parody by Paul of this kind of music in a song my notes tell me ran “She was just a working class girl from the north.” I cannot over-estimate how startling and unknown to me all this was.

The second phase (another hour) was to trace the American roots of their songs. Americans had no trouble connecting with the Beatles as their songs imitated, were re-creations in a urban idiom of famous songs by Buddy Holly and his Crickets (whence the name Beatles), Little Richard, Chuck Berry. He would play an originally deeply American black song popular on black stations in the 1950s, then a semi-white rendition for a more widely-popular rendition on mainstream white radio, and then the Beatles, re-injecting black American words and rhythms. “Peggy Sue” became “P.S. I love You”. Mo-Town Smoky Robinson songs were re-injected into Beatles “This boy wants you back again.” They loved Chuck Berry, and combined his song with Blue Grass from white country music, giving it an urban edge either by imagery or quick pace. He played for us the Beatles’ rendition of “Roll Over Beethoven” and “Mr Postman.”

They had an ear to pick up the most remarkable of American songs: Barnett’s “Give me Money, that’s what I want,” adding to that their own personal intensities (Lennon screamed at a wild moment the lines about “give me money”), using darker chords. Wilbur Harrison trying to make some money re-made his “Kansas city,” rubbing out all black and Detroit references; the Beatles put these back in with lines about a “black beat” which referred to their imitation of music coming out of Detroit and Negro Spirituals. Lilienstein ended this section of his talk with “A Ticket to Ride” and “Day Tripper.”

Lilienstein’s talk was not just a matter of showing likeness and repetition of lyrics and tunes. He also showed transformation of blues structure quite early on in their music. 12 bars, each subdivided into 4, from C major into subdominant F and back to major C. They broke this up, turning to minor keys, bringing in sudden other unexpected chords (Roy Orbison’s “Pretty Woman” became “You’re gonna lose that girl”). They never tried to hide what they were doing so you can use names and titles and lines to discover affinities and transformations. An early name for Lennon, MacCartney and Harrison was “Johnny and the Moondogs,” a term which has reference to performers of blues in the US. He discussed “She’s a woman” and “Help!” — for the first time I noticed the plangent nature of the words

Then a much shorter phase was “In a rebellious generation.” While towards the end Lilienstein played some of the music the Beatles recorded specifically against the Vietnam War, his subject was their rebellion against the musical forms they had been tinkering with, imitating, urbanizing. They began genuinely to expand what was meant by the term “rock’n’roll”. Norwegian Wood (which my daughter, Izzy, recorded a version of) was among these; also “Tomorrow never Knows” where they begin to bring in the drug culture through a psychedelic sound.

They imitate the sounds of technological machines, include lots of extraneous sounds, the point was to be haphazard. The song about the LSD experience was called Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds in order not to be too much in your face.

At this point Paul MacCartney began to pull back, and we see him returning to Western modes, and in Victorian stories like “She’s leaving home,” about grief and loss with the music leaving traditional cadences in a way expressive of descending sorrow. “All you need is love” is memorable because it’s rhythms are off-kilter. By contrast, experiment for John Lennon meant embodying his troubled spirit, his angst in quick moving rhythms, modern songs whose lyrics showed a deep critique of the society they were living in as in “Revolution.”

Asked whether “Revolution” was an anti-war song, Lennon replied all their songs are anti-war.
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In the first half, the long morning, Lilienstein brought in how their career as a group developed, telling of their first successes with a British audience, the coming to the US, the first TV appearances and concerts (Shea Stadium). The second half, he moved into showing us the inward musicians: the composition process as recorded on pirated tapes of sessions where we see them move from a first version of a song (mostly brought in either by Paul or John, sometimes as a lyric and sometimes as a song without words), and how they hammered at these to develop a full sound with all four playing, altered the lyrics and often the very character or mood they began with. This reminded me of how Jane Austen’s few ms’s show she often began with something very coarse and conventional (in her case burlesque) and gradually revising, turned the passage to something with an almost diametrically opposed mood and character, though some core in the original idea is brought out memorably.

It’s not true that they didn’t know musical notation; MacCartney and Lennon both studied music in college. Lilienstein showed them bringing in a line from Hal Arlen’s “Somewhere over the rainbow” in one of their songs, and how they began to softly linger at a song’s end. George Martin had taught them much: how to use a recording studio; he brought in discipline and “cleaned” up songs, but Lilienstein maintained that someone else could have contributed what Martin did, and by the end (1966-69) he was just standing there recording expertly.

In this hour and one half about process we listened to at least 3-4 versions of each song. A first and last, and two intermediary. “Get Back” started out (possibly dismayingly) as an anti-immigrant song with Pakistani people told to “get back to where they once belonged: we heard them free-wheeling with chords sounds, and that Jo-Jo was originally aimed at “Yoko Ono” whom John had begun to bring to recording sessions

At the same time, Lilienstein began to show us the distinct differences in the type of music each of the two major creators, Lennon and MacCartney did, and the growing conflicts and clashes of outlook, how they wanted the group to develop, attitudes towards life (Paul was the more upbeat person, adjusted to realities, imagining stories of families, while John projected anger and despair, and self-doubt). They were fighting over who would dominant, over “ownership” of themselves and the group. In the Abbey Road album we have a group breaking apart: they can make joyful music while they are at one another’s throats. Songs combine the wild despair with the story element as in “She came through the bathroom window.”

Some of their best work came out of this period of raucous interaction. Lennon had become increasingly dependent on drugs; at least he used them to the point he’d come in stoned; he protested against the bowing to commercial demands; MacCartney was more controlled and began to write astonishingly beautiful ballads: “Yesterday,” “All the Lonely People,” “Eleanor Rigby.” “You think she needs you” could be by Brahms. We listened to the evolution of “Let it Be” (one of my favorites) which began with the essential familiar lines but it took a long while for the three who had not made the lyric to accept it, and develop it into a kind of hymn. In their earlier phases.

Lilienstein said single were often the two opposing points of view: one one you had Paul’s “Penny Lane” on the one side (pictorial, surreal reality, memories of happiness as a child, nostalgia for the past, hopeful)

On the other John’s “Strawberry Fields” where he doesn’t want to get out of bed, where life is hopeless and to be avoided, nothing to get “hung about,” easy to live with eyes closed, “It doesn’t matter much to me,”as in his song “Nowhere:”

Sometimes an album would end with a song by Lennon and characteristic of his depression, to be contradicted by the first song on the other side by MacCartney. Lennon’s “I am The walrus” (see below) makes no literal sense, an ode to personal doubt and lack of identity, and is followed by MacCarthney’s “Yes no stop go goodbye hello,” making fun of Lennon as posturing. They were not only increasingly disenchanted with one another, but their careers. George Harrison had up until this point followed these two as a guitarist; as they withdrew he began to fill the gap with a few remarkably great songs (“My guitar gently weeps”). He began with ABA structures, but soon we hear unusual things brought in: Spanish or flamingo music (“I me mine”). He wrote much less than these two, but a couple are among the best songs of the 20th century, like “Something:”

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I am aware I may not have conveyed the excitement, and cannot begin to get down the passing remarks Lilienstein made about the music as we went along. Remarkably the four went from “I wanna hold your hand” and “Love love me do” to “Hey, Jude” and “Here comes the sun” in 7 short years. It’s about what happened during these 7 years in the music that Lilienstein accounted for, went into deeply. He has all sorts of tapes, among the more moving was a beautiful tape of “Love is all you need” as surreal; the song not one of those I’ve favored as until now all the renditions I’ve heard were so sentimentalized.

As literary and art so musical creation comes of the author’s lives — how could it be otherwise? Lilienstein told of how individual songs were events in these four people’s lives — he did discuss Ringo Starr less, saying Starr said of himself, he had been so lucky to come along for the ride because he was a very good drummer and worked well with the other three. He told mainly of Lennon and MacCartney’s personalities.

Here Lilienstein seemed to me to be too critical of Lennon’s outlook as if it were wrong but as he talked I realized for the first time that Lennon abused his first wife and other women. Lilienstein played a song, rarely heard, by Lennon about his male jealousy where he says remorselessly he’d rather murder the woman he is with than see her with another man, and he was (I had not known this) violent, ruthless towards people, and domineering over women until he met Yoko Ono. (This is not necessarily a tribute to her moral nature;she was part of the reason for the break-up of the quartet.) I saw Lilienstein meant to register that Lennon never fulfilled his gifts; he was still finding himself when he was gunned down (as so many are in the US). I was after all glad of the condemnation however brief.

He then showed Lennon’s work was the more continually interesting and troubling. His description of “I am The Walrus” as filled with nonsense phrases, unreal words, and just sounds thrown in that Lennon heard as he was composing made the song into a kind of small Finnegan’s Wake:

Almost inevitably then MacCartney came in for the highest praise: he sustained himself, lived longer, as far as we know lived more ethically with regard to other people, kept writing and singing, and a few of his songs are among many people never tire of hearing: Lilienstein seemed to feel Hey Jude was a favorite for re-hearing for most people.

Lilienstein did not go into this but implicit in his talk was the idea the Beatles utterly transformed what rock-n-roll was thought to be, its potentials, its possibilities. At the time there were other highly original groups — who I’d say came out of the ferment of new ideas, radical, and liberating of the 60s: folk (Peter, Paul and Mary), more soft versions of rock-n-roll (Simon and Garfunckel), new kinds of country (Willie Nelson and the groups pf Austin, Texas), music coming from Nashville. So like Shakespeare in the Elizabethan theater, they came out of and were part of a movement, but they were a leading force. Their records sold tremendously, they topped all charts continually. Popular music has not been the same since. The only successful parody I know is from Love Actually: Bill Nighy’s inimitable, irreverent, mock-on-the-sexism, “Christmas is All Around Us” (it’s telling the original YouTube was pulled and there is now a much tamer one, minus the electrifyingly stupifyingly-sexualized girls and salacious gestures of Nighy).

Left out by Lilienstein except at split second moments, was the band’s sexism. They’d never have a woman singing with them one of them said. It’s a strongly masculinist point of view; the stories of young girls fleeing parents are done from the parental point of view. What the girl might have been feeling in her escape beyond a desire to “have fun,” and how she would feel years later when she was thoroughly punished by her society there are no songs about. As I listen to these I feel such sorrow over what I was as a teenager at age 16. My parents had no idea how to help me, nor did I how to help myself.

Ellen

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DoubledLifecover (Small)

Having thus become a passive instrument, the fool will be capable of any evil and at the same time incapable of seeing that it is evil — Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Friends and readers,

While Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-45) has occupied a paradoxically at once hagiographic and controversial position in studies of Hitler’s Third Reich, which suggests an audience familiar with his name, life and writing; he is not well-known to people outside Germany, the religiously inclined, pacifists, and those who’ve studied the elite German milieus who supported Hitler as a bulwark against socialism. The reasons for the peculiarity of the way he’s been heroicized and marginalized come from the unwillingness of people to confront painful realities of the past or overturn the continuing male hegemonic structuring of much human experience and stigmatizing of people who don’t conform to simplistic sexual norms. Bonhoeffer’s is one of the (when we are telling truths) ambivalent stories of those who resisted Nazism.

His life history has been kept muted and/or distorted to erase his homosexuality (an important source for aspects of his thought), especially his relationship with Eberhardt Bethge, who, as the man Bonhoeffer was ineradically in love with, built books intended to mount a difficult barrier to get past. The widely-popular (a surprise best seller of 1953) Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters & Papers from Prison, edited by Bethge from unpublished manuscripts, fits squarely into the kind of first edition Donald Reiman (The Study of Modern Manuscripts: Private, Confidential, and Public) describes as a “family book” where the editor acts as an advocate of the writer’s family’s view of this writer, the family itself (Deirdre LeFaye’s edition of Jane Austen’s letters is such a book), in Bethge’s case also to obscure his actual relationship with Bonhoeffer and his own ambitious political and personal choices during Hitler’s regime.

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A photograph of Bethge and Bonhoeffer

Bonhoeffer has not been forgotten because his extensive original writing (very ethical in bent), the rich, powerful elite group he belonged to (which survived the Hitler era), the positions he achieved in the powerful church structures, and his imprisonment and murder for conspiring against Hitler. He has been useful as a martyr, as a conservative religious hero, an ethical thinker, and a corpus of far from disinterested books and essays continue to be written about him.

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Tubingen University Library (where Bonhoeffer studied as a young man)

Diane Reynolds has studied this secondary material, and the extensive primary documents; she interviewed people who knew those who knew Bonhoeffer, visited the places he lived in, and has produced a candid, lucidly written biographical account of the man’s life and his behavior, drawing especially on his letters (the life-blood of biography). She has been preceded by Charles Marsh’s flamboyant biography, which hers is an improvement on because of her scrupulous care not to claim anything for which there is no consistent substantial evidence. Some LGBTQ people may object to her reluctance to concede the probable where the nature of the case cannot provide evidence, such as Bonhoeffer’s sexual activity:  there is evidence for more than one close male relationship and several revealing portraits of male supporters and friends, e.g., Franz Hildebrandt with whom he lived for a time. True acceptance, respect and fulfillment, not to omit safety, for LGBTQ people in society requires adult understanding and acceptance of their active sexual lives, but nothing else is elided over, and she is critical of her subject where criticism is called for. We see a root cause for his reluctant betrayal of his sister and her Jewish husband, and on the other at the same time as he remained loyal to an upper class luxurious community who had supported Hitler: he gave up while in the US an opportunity to escape Germany, the offer of a good position because he couldn’t bear to live apart from Bethge (241-45) or lose his sense of some meaning through belonging with numinous privileged people who shaped important social structures and beliefs in Germany.

Women readers will see how he was willing to support as his patroness the domineering reactionary Ruth von Kleist-Retzlow, who was ceaselessly coercive over her daughters’s lives and engineered the pretense of an affair with her granddaughter, Maria von Wedermeyer. Maria was herself unable to throw off the Nazi training in submissiveness and self-sacrifice until years later. We learn of Bertha Schultz, a brilliant scholar who could only get work as his housekeeper and personal assistant, translated for free for him, and then is dismissed (79-81). He had a friendship with Elizabeth Van Thadden who opened the genuinely anti-Nazi progressive school for girls (Maria attended), had her school taken from her, re-Nazified, and was later imprisoned and beheaded (228-29, 22, 396). He was himself deeply attachment to a number of female relatives: his grandmother, his mother, a life-long close congenial relationship with his sister, Sabine: they go on a walking tour together which may reminded readers of English poetry of William and Dorothy Wordsworth.

This is an excellent biography of a man placed in the context of his time and directed to our world today.

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Family summer vacation house in Freidrichsbrunn

Reynolds’s book’s historical significance is its irrefutability and portrait of a fallible and quietly courageous highly intelligent man who was pro-active in creating moral schools (for men), who displayed far more integrity than most, and expanded his horizons: a telling time was his sojourn in New York city where he attended a black Abyssian church and experienced a religious rejuvenation and saw “a view [of life] from the bottom looking up” (66). Just about all he did was in the face of discomfort in others (he was not a manly boy). Sometimes it’s mild (from his family) pressure; he had excellent connections and was chosen for high positions, but in these he encountered outright hostility from his own church and the Nazi state it complied with. And at the last imprisonment, interrogation, and towards the end (when his part in a failed plot to kill Hitler was discovered) vicious abuse leading up to his execution.

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A clavichord Bonhoeffer and Bethge played on together

A summary with paraphrased and quoted vignettes: Her book is a narrative of Bonhoeffer’s life.

Part One situates the reader in the Bonhoeffer family background, telling of events and people who influenced Bonhoeffer’s grandparents, parents, moves through Bonhoeffer’s siblings and their childhood during World War One and its aftermath. . A characteristic chapter is called “Life Amid the Ruins:” Reynolds shows the family continuing its privileged life against the backdrop of the growing power of the Nazis, all around them desperation, Berlin crumbling, half starved Berliners, and soldiers posted everywhere in the streets, children with rickets. Hitler ominously blaming Jews, and father and uncle saying that the best types of people were killed off, glimpsing the possibility of a sociopath coming to power. But everything they read, the music they played has nothing to do with what’s happening outside; they lived within an idyllic strain in the European culture, divorced from politics. Bonhoeffer refuses to pursue a career in music (the family’s preference), and moves to theological studies. His sister and friends all marry while he evades a proposed bride for him, a third cousin, Elizabeth Zinn. Reynolds makes an astute use of Klaus Theweleit’s Male Fantasies, where he constructs the image of maleness and femaleness the Nazis projected, one troublingly close to what may be seen today in popular US miliarist movies today. Against this all his life Bonhoeffer had to contend.

Part Two (“Seeking Ground”) while the Nazis begin to seize control (burn books publicly), become violent against Jews (he writes, “literally no one in Germany … can grasp it … major turning point in history:” 7 million unemployed 15 to 20 hungry), he travels (Barcelona, Manhattan, Forest Hills even, Cuba) seeking some meaning, work, relationships, to ground his existence on: he writes a second dissertation, is ordained. Vignettes from this section: “Dietrich [was] vehemently opposed compromise by his church,” sermonized to this effect, but did not go to his sister’s husband’s father’s funeral … here Bonhoeffer writes that Jews are “a problem; they needed to convert;” yet he “writes against persecution of Jews, one must help victims.” May 10, 1933 book burning night. Max Reinhardt fled to LA; Bonhoeffer’s “brother-in-law Rudiger Schleicher, lawyer, joins party, says keeping job helps undermine the state. Nazis imposed level of regimentation that surprised and made fear grow; 50 concentration camps by 1933 … Hans von Dohnanyi, a friend and relative by marriage [later executed] liked by Hitler so original Jewishness forgiven. German Lutheran church yields to become vitriolically anti-semitic; Catholic Youth Leagues are outlawed, Nazi or nothing. In 1933 Bonhoeffer is turned down for pastorate and in October goes to London, shaken to discover himself in radical opposition to all his friends.

Part Three is called the “Incomparable Year” (1933) and Part Four “Reconfigurations” (taking the reader up to 1938 and Bonhoeffer’s first arrest). In ’33 he met and his relationships with Bethge and Ruth von Kleist-Retzlow flowered. While the Nazis are toting machine guns and beginning their imperial conquests, he opens Finkenwalde, a “confessing” school offering an idyllic community for (male) students by the North Sea. While fighter planes are taking off, he teaches pacificism and joins the world of country landed estates. Until the concentration camps begin to open, he, his friends, associates, his sister seem to think somehow they will be insulated, and carry on their lives. Vignettes: these elite families moves to small houses in Charlottenburg (Marienbad), as good for conspiracy; musical evenings are a cover for politics, people from all walks of life, a refuge too. Karl, his brother, stays on with Nazis as psychiatrist saying he is moderating worst aspects. Bonhoeffer’s grandmother is horrified to see a cousin emigrating – having to take his chances like everyone else in this world. Ruth comes across with money for seminary in Sweden (which Bonhoeffer described as “wonderful years”). Dietrich’s prison writing includes letters to his grandmother – of how he felt for defenseless epileptics. By 1935 his sister Sabine (married to a Jew) begins to understand the terror of Nazism (they come to her door for information), but her brother “would be alive now than 30 years ago.” Bonhoeffer shows a problematic disposition to spend his sister’s money on holidays for himself.

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Finkelwalde by the sea: now a Bonhoeffer memorial

Parts Five through Seven (“Cornered”) bring us to the heart of the book (1937/8-43): Reynolds weaves the unfolding of the Nazi barbaric world inside Germany with the lives, work and reaction of Bonhoeffer and many of his friends and associates. The great value of this part of the book are these individual stories and the depiction of intimate life of the semi-protected elite, what emerged in public social life in Nazi Germany at the time, and the punitive patriotic culture of Nazism easily sliding into cruelty to the weak, vulnerable, despised, anyone who dissented. Bonhoeffer seems to have joined the “underground” resistance about 1938; some of his associates compromise, some try to ignore what was happening all around them; others looked simply to survival (insofar as one could as food shortages and bombing had begun). Vignettes: November 1937 27 Finkenwalde seminarians imprisoned; 1938 Dietrich arrested, interrogated, banned from Berlin. He has underground collective pastorates, apprentices in a remote village (with Bethge there, later doing “quite well”) … Dietrich living a nomadic life working on ms’s. Neimoller released and then swept up, disappears; Confessing church fools take an oath of allegiance that Hitler treats with [the] contempt [it deserved].

A revealing element about Bonhoeffer is he continues to write optimistically, perhaps conceiving himself as supporting the spirits of others; a close friend said it was pride that kept him from revealing his anguish, but the letters have a jarring disconnect. His theological writings “encode” (that’s the word Reynolds uses) justifications for homosexual love; his bitterness against Bethge; his misery at the harsh isolated conditions of the prison (he does use the word “horrible” once). But the letters keep his hidden life in a closet.

Reynolds shows how average Germans appear to have felt about the war at this time: we have to remember Germans supported the war, and Bonhoeffer’s activity would have been seen as that of a traitor: So more vignettes: June 17, 1940 France caves. German newsreels exulted. Olivia Manning’s Balkan Trilogy quoted. Fair haired young men: “what does it matter if we destroy the world? When it is ours, we’ll build it up again” … Germans are ecstatic at victory over France; foresee short war; Germans torpedo 600 prisoners headed for Canada; meanwhile Bonhoeffer’s sister, Sabine, now in Oxford moves with her husband to one room with 14 trunks. Bethge’s behavior reminds me of the enigmatic amoral characters in LeCarre’s novels: he decides to marry a Bonhoeffer niece, Renate, many years younger than he since he finds himself in “untenable” position. The long sections on the reality of Bonhoeffer’s relationship with Maria are important to read: we see her mother tried to protect her, regards Ruth’s tactics as a nuisance; for Bonhoeffer Maria is cover and unreal wish fulfillment dreams (of what neither he or she wanted). After Stalingrad, Bethge sends Bonhoeffer a picture of Napoleon; a letter remembering a year ago they were together when they shared a hotel room. Reynolds brings in the male couple in another surprising best seller of the era: Santayana’s The last Puritan.

Parts Eight (“Locked in”) through Ten (“Saints”) take us through Bonhoeffer’s years of imprisonment, his murder and the first build-up of hagiography. This was for me the most moving part of the biography. The conditions in which Bonhoeffer lived and eventually (he managed to make friends, his prestige and connections and his family’s money brought him food) even wrote were utterly wretched and dangerous. Reynolds maintains her cool stance towards the letters, pointing out repeatedly the undercurrents of bitterness (towards Bethge), egoism (in his approach to Maria), leaving the reader to feel uncomfortable, askance, compassion or astonishment. Just one vignette from many: Hitler carried a whip, beat his dogs and took disproportionate revenge on those within his reach after the bomb (detonated under a table) failed to kill him. Newspapers presented this as a coup of officers power-hungry … he writes suffering a way to freedom. He looked ill on his daily walk. There seems to have been opportunities for him to escape, but he withdrew with the excuse he didn’t want to endanger others: throughout his life he had what (I’d call) bad dreams of having a devout death which he yearned for, and one explanation for his persistent refusal to escape is a probably half-conscious death-wish.

One can fill out this section with some of the material Bethge published in 1953 (now available in an expanded edition): the book as constructed by Bethge presents a striking contrast to Primo Levi’s If this be Man and The Truce. Readers are not shown which letters were meant to be passed around by his relatives, which private (very few): Bonhoeffer persists in hoping, presenting himself as looking forward to release (his mother was fooled for a long time), comfortable. But there are striking breaks: for example, the narrative of Lance Corporal Berg, where suddenly Bonhoeffer reveals a gift for narrative, powerful drama: we first witness an interrogation which shows us how one need not resort openly to violence, torture, emotional bullying to subdue a prisoner. He shows how prison itself is an excruciating experience because those running it are implicitly bullying all prisoners all the time. A man with his face blown away shows up, and everyone is horrified by the ugliness of the man and they are mostly very kind to him, they feel sorry for him, they respect him for having allowed this to happen to him, but when for a moment he loses it and began to cry and complain, immediately they are hostile. Another man they deride, berate, kick, just shit on because he ‘deserted” — would not obey orders. It includes poems (e.g, Night Voices in Tegel) about his experience of the night in these prisons.

Reynolds shows how Marie distanced herself from the Bonhoeffer society, and tried to tell some truths, but her silence (as well as his sister Sabine’s) implied consent to Bethge and other interested witnesses’ stories. Her upper class strong sense of herself and understanding of how to get along in higher echelons served her well, and she somewhat recovered, even married, became a highly successful businesswomen.

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Maria von Wedermeyer

If I have some criticism, it’s that I missed a sense of deep inwardness, which might have come from more analysis and quotation of Bonhoeffer’s ethical and religious treatises. Take the “Prologue: A Reckoning made at New Year 1943, also called “After Ten Years.”

He opens up with a (Samuel) Johnsonian meditation about time. “Time is the most valuable thing that we have, because it is the most irrevocable.” He writes of people “with no ground under their feet.” Here he recognizes that obedience to others to erase the self comes from cowardice and Germans have been deluded to think they kept their liberty by service to the community. An extraordinary passage about folly: folly is far more dangerous than anger; it’s worse than evil. Again folly there is no defense. No matter what you see the fool carries on. (This reminds me of Trump supporters.) The fool is self-satisfied, it’s easy for him to become aggressive, he’s harder to cope with than a scoundrel. Folly is capable of any evil. He reminded me here of Erasmus’s profound ironic (sardonic) In Praise of Folly. The worst blaspheme is contempt for others. (Again I thought of Trump, his insistent derision of others.) Bonhoeffer insists we must regard others not in terms of what they can do or do do but in the light of what they suffer. That in social life there are laws that cannot be eradicated and are powerful than anything that may claim to dominate them. How reprehensible to sow mistrust, how dangerous, when we should strengthen confidence in the self and others. (I thought of training programs in the US gov’t today where employers are taught to suspect and turn others in.) I liked his definition of quality. To have an experience of nobility, of quality you have to renounce all place-hunting, break with the cult of stars, must look to pleasure in private life as well as have courage to enter public life. Most people only learn wisdom (at all?) from personal experience. This explain insensibility to suffering. Death has become what people live with daily. We must not romanticize it; we do still know too much about the good things in life and that helps. But prolonged insecurity, and destructiveness of prolonged anxiety dissolves attachment to life. Which leads to him asking if people individually or as a group are of any use? He insists an experience of incomparable value is to experience life from below, and if you can’t at least try to see and empathize with those from below: history from below, the outcasts, suspects, maltreated, powerless, oppressed, reviled.

I want to emphasize that Diane Reynolds’s book is an enjoyable book to read. She recreates places, times, idyllic and nightmare experience. The reader who is familiar with 19th century novels will find parallels between characters in Tolstoy and this German milieu (Ruth as kind of Prussian cross between Countess Rostov and Anna Mikhailovna). It belongs to our conversations today about how what happened in Germany between the 1920s and well after the end of WW2 parallels the increase we see today of violence, racial, ethnic, and religious hatreds and intolerance and the complicity of our present (ever self-regarding, enrichening, luxurious) establishment as found in books like Volker Ulrich’s Hitler’s Ascent, 1889-1939. Reading it ought to worry readers right now.

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Philip Seymour Hoffman in LeCarre’s A Most Wanted Man: about extraordinary rendition in the context of an exaggerated “war on terror” which has led to stark erosions of civil and social liberty — I can see Hoffman playing Bonhoeffer

Ellen

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