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Archive for the ‘20th century culture’ Category


From The English Patient: the burnt-up hero (Ralph Fiennes) reading Herodotus, the Canadian who has been tortured (William Dafoe)

A Syllabus

For a course at the Oscher LifeLong Learning Institute at George Mason University
Day: Eight Wednesday later morning into afternoons, 11:50 to 1:15 pm,
March 29 to May 17
Tallwood, 4210 Roberts Road, Fairfax, Va
Dr Ellen Moody

Description of Course

In this course we will discuss four gems of Booker Prize fiction. Some have said the prize functions as a brilliantly exploited marketplace tool aimed at a specific readership niche, just perfect for high quality film adaptations and literary criticism. The selected books are characteristically historical fiction, self-reflexive, witty and passionate, post-colonialist, — plus all have been made into films. Before the class begins, please read Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Bookshop;then in class we’ll read J. L. Carr’s A Month in the Country, Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient, and Graham Swift’s Last Orders

Required Texts (in the order we’ll read them):

Fitzgerald, Penelope. The Bookshop. 1970: rpt. 1997: Boston: Hougton Mifflin. ISBN 0395869463. Or latest edition: Introd. David Nicholls, Mariner, 2015 iSBN: 978-0544484092
Carr, J. L. A Month in the Country. Introd. Michael Holroyd. 1980; rpt. New York Review of Books, 2000. ISBN 0940322471
Ondaatje, Michael. The English Patient. New York: Vintage, 1992.
Swift, Graham. Last Orders. New York: Vintage, 1996.


From Patrick O’Connor and Simon Gray’s A Month in the Country: the protagoniss (Kenneth Branagh and Colin Firth), and stationmaster preacher (Jim Carter)

Format: The class will be a mix of informal lecture and group discussion.

March 29th: 1st week: The politics of selling good books: history of the Booker Prize; we begin with Penelope Fitzgerald

April 5th: 2nd week: Penelope Fitzgerald’s Bookshop; we begin J. L. Carr and A Month in the Country: historical fiction

April 12th: 3rd week: A Month in the Country; clips from the film and discussion

April 19th: 4th week: Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient: the post-colonial background

April 26th: 5th week: Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient; clips from the film and discussion

May 3rd: 6th week: Graham Swift and post-modernity (Waterlands); begin Last Orders

May 10th: 7th week: Last Orders: alternating streams of consciousness; clips from film and discussion

May 17th: 8th week: Return to Booker and other prizes; wide discussion for future courses in such books

From Fred Schepisi’s Last Orders (2004): Jack’s four friends (Ray Winston, David Hemminges, Bob Hoskins, Tim Courtney) on the pier, by the sea, and his wife, Amy (Helen Mirren) getting on the bus

Suggested supplementary reading & films:

Cooper, Pamela. Graham Swift’s Last Orders. NY: Continuum, 2002
English, James. “Winning the Culture Game: Prizes, Awards, and the Rules of Art,” New Literary History, 33:1 (Winter, 2002):109-135.
The English Patient. Dir. And Screenplay. Anthony Mingella. With Ralph Fiennes, Kristin Scott Thomas, Juliet Binoche ….. Miramax,1996
Gray, Simon. Old Flames and A Month in the Country: Two Screenplays. London: Faber and Faber, 1990
Kelly, Saul. The Lost Oasis: The Desert War and the Hunt for Zerzura: The True Story Behind the English Patient. Boulder, Colorado: Westview, 2002.
Last Orders. Dir and Screenplay. Fred Schepisi. With Helen Mirren, Bob Hoskins, Michael Caine … Sony, 2004.
Lee, Hermione. Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life. New York: Vintage, 2014
Minghella, Anthony. The English Patient: The Screenplay. London: Methuen, 1997.
A Month in the Country. Dir. Patrick O’Connor. Screenplay Simon Gray. With Colin Firth, Patrick Malahide, Kenneth Branagh, Natasha Richardson …. Pennies from Heaven, 1987.
Rogers, Byron. The Last Englishman: A Life of J. L. Carr. London: Aurum, 2003.
Sutherland, J. A. Fiction and the Fiction Industry. London: Athlone Press, 1978.
Todd, Richard. Consuming Fictions: The Booker Prize and Fiction in Britain Today. London: Bloomsbury, 1996.


The sea and the desert …

Ellen

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Virginia Woolf, photo by Barbara Strachey (1938)

Friends and readers,

The second part of Hermione Lee’s biography of Virginia Woolf takes us through the first years of Leonard and Virginia Woolf’s rocky adjustment, her career as a teacher, writer, publisher (with Leonard Woolf, and a lot of help from John Lehman); what was very valuable about Hogarth Press texts; Virginia’s love-affair friendships (from Vita Sackville-West to Ethel Smyth (composer, pianist); her achievements in novel art (The Voyage Out, To the Lighthouse, The Waves); and then, under the onslaught of bombs and terror at what a Nazi state were at a distance and would close-up inflict on her, Leonard, their friends, her feeling of the fragility of her calm about to erupt, she killed herself. No more imposed regimes, no more wretched distress of worrying, no imposed medical regimes which prevented her from writing, her great solace and strength it seems. What is remarkable is how much she accomplished, how much she produced, how she lived as best she could with integrity.

The Hogarth Press

Virginia and Leonard bought, learned to use, and then built a worthy business in the Hogarth Press. They did quarrel sometimes, but mostly they had the same ideals for their press, and they published a remarkable group of books (Forster, TS Eliot, also Vita Sackville-West whose novels sold well). While how this was an absorbing occupation for her to use to remain calm and convalesce when she needed to, obviously it was her way of getting into print too. Lee point out they sold a minuscule number of copies of The Voyage Out the first two years. That they published their friends is par for the course. Until I read Lee’s disapproval (she’s like some tenured person saying your article doesn’t count because it didn’t appear in these journals and so why did you publish there?), I never imagined anyone could criticize this venture. But just not acceptable. Lee says this is after all a vanity press. “Her reputation has been affected by this “in her life-time” and “after it” — says the academic biographer.

Virginia and her circle were attacked virulently by critics on many grounds: Wyndham Lewis was a bully macho male, and what he was doing was simply squashing by sneering and deriding l’ecriture-femme: you can see that in the language he choose. And then like Henry James deriding (to name three on my mind from the other listserv still going) Alcott, Woolson and Oliphant, Constance Fennimore Woolson, Wyndham is listened to — and has been influential: she is neurotic, too feminine, elitist (the pot calling the kettle black there). Virginia became upset because she recognized this hegemonic point of view could and would kill readership, and yet she finds the novel itself a deeply problematic genre which gets in her way. Stael in her one analysis of fiction as such says that the demands of the audience stop her from writing what she wants in her novel: Woolf goes more deeply; it’s the structures and stories that are demanded.

One of publications that emerged just from the existence of the press: The Hogarth Letters: I don’t know how long this book has been on one of my shelves. Introduced by Hermione Lee, it consists of its contemporary introduction by E.M. Forster and then about 11 or 12 “letters:” essays really addressed to an imagined or real interlocutor in which the writer explores some topic of concern, large and small, political and not, social, cultural. They read to me like an oasis of sanity, the “language of rational humanism, deployed on behalf of intellectual tolerance, in opposition to forms of tyranny and reaction” (to quote Lee). Some are snobbish and condescending (advocating a suburban housewife put down her knitting and teaching her to appreciate Poussin) but others have beauty, liberal thought, ideals that are fine and good. Some do sniff out an ominous haunting future not so far off. They were published between 1931 and 33 when the world order (such as it was) was breaking down. It was very much a Lehmann project to begin with and then Virginia joined in.


E. M. Forster by Dora Carrington, 1920 (he was one of Hogarth Press’s authors, the Woolf’s friend

Woolf’s objected to the novel form as such. We talk and critics write about how Woolf overturned novel conventions with the implication that she was not anti-novel in doing this, only stretching the form. Now it is difficult to define novels in any way that limits the form beyond a very long fictional story in prose. But that in itself demands a certain coherence for the story, and the definition ignores expectations even for fantasy books. In the quotations from Woolf about the novel and those Lee has discussed throughout it seems to me in effect Woolf regarded much of the novel conventions as getting in the way of saying deep worthwhile things, especially the novel’s (even in fantasy) concentration on individuals interacting with others in social situations to bring about some resolution. There are novels where the resolution or conclusion can be private and inward; there are forms of the novel which allow the breakdown of chronological coherence and probability, especially the epistolary and journal forms and what’s called magic realism. Women have broken away from probability because that often depends on what is, and what is is what’s allowed and woman want to show we can live another way, have other options. But if you look at what Woolf writes, once she tries to leave conventional novels, she’s not writing to propose other social solutions or individuals finding themselves or tragically failing to.

She prefers the essay, life-writing and prose poems.

From “The Docks of London,”in the London Scene: book of sketches. They are all at most 5-7 pages or so; since Lee tells us how Woolf’s reputation and the way we know much of her work comes from posthumous publication of the non-fiction as staggered/staged in time and packed by Leonard. I have separate thinnish books and for the first time I understand how they came to be and why they are so heterogeneous. The one that differs is The Essays of Virginia Woolf, set up relentlessly by year (not theme, or subject or perspective as the varied others), with dates, only it leaves off the mid 1920s. They seem different laid out this way instead of say The common Reader. Some of the slender volumes were overseen by Virginia or Lehmann. This is book history.
The London scene is different. It is first published in 1975, limited agreement by another press and Hogarth coming in a little later in the year, editors Angelica Garnett and Clive Bell, niece and brother-in-law. These are bright and this first one at least seemingly cheerful excursions – -the sort of thing one sees in a mazagine. I say seeming because the undercurrent is a lighter melancholy than the Waves. Time is here and all is going to rot or was once (so relics, remnants)
What strikes me as I’m reading The Waves, and remember The Voyage Out, how water (as in Shakespeare) is central to Woolf, waterways of the world, oceans, rivers, streams. While the sun controls the seeming 24 hour structure of the Waves, the imagery is watery or about stream, life as ooze. Orlando crosses time as in a reverie: Eva Figes’s greatest novella is The Seven Ages of Women.
Here we have a eye going through the river recording different phase sof English history by different classes at different times – in 8 pages the eye bypasses very different ships and boats, from Liner and streamers with crowds of ordinary people on the shore, to a dingy warehouse area (very Dickensian), to left over village, with a desolate pub (note desolation), church, a cottage or house gone to ruin, trees, bells once rung here. Then barges, rubbish and Indian, next to the Tower of London, commerce, the city, factories with chimnies. On we go to indefatigible cranes unloading and loading according to exquisitely understood plans by mazes of peple. (Le Carre’s Night Manager replaces this with these intensely dull boring containers and very few people employed. I have read the ships which carry these containers can be dangerous for passengers if not enough of them. Jenny Diski traveled on one in one of her books.
Then the beautiful things packed, the oddities, the jewels, sports of nature – she imagines all this. Now we realize if we didn’t before this is a kind dream. Then the wine-vaults –Cask after cask .Customs officers. No smuggling here: stamped out in the mid-19th century by England’s first wide police effort.
The phrase use produces beauty as a bye-product could sum up all jane Austen on the picturesque …
Then words have been invented out of all we see.I don’t understand a couple of them, nor understand why flogging is there but that sailors were once flogged to get them to do this work, flogged if they mutinied and disobeyed. (Will Trump bring flogging back; there is nothing he can do which bothers his followers or the Republicans. I am waiting for him to beat the hell out of his wife, and the tweet: “I lost it – my temper.” ) Last: all we see is the result of us, of our bodies. All the things andanimals that made these products were created and used by us – Australian sheep say
And this rocking rhythm and final peroration. L’ecriture femme with the full stamp of Virginia Woolf

But money and popularity come with telling stories, especially outward social stories – and these two things bring respect.

Monk’s House (where they chose to live) is seen by Lee as a “retreat, a monastery, a monk’s house, and, in that sense, a monastic abode reinforced by separate bedrooms … before buying Monk’s House, Woolf had purchased a small windmill turned into a house that she was afterwards able to sell at a small profit. Interestingly too, it was acceptable in 1919 to buy a house without indoor plumbing, a bath, hot water. This coincides with the practices of Americans buying summer homes in the US in this period” (Diane Reynolds). How Leonard loved to garden.

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I took detours


Just released from copyright, new editions with introductions, notes, new pictures are coming out

The Voyage Out

It appears to be focused on a young woman growing up: she is 24 but she is kept as innocent of the world as a 13 year old. She has no close friend nor many friends; belongs only with family which consists of father and aunts. Being on a ship isolates her further. I can see Woolf building up characters for other novels: we have Mr and Mrs Dalloway using their prestige, influence, connections to board the ship at Lisbon. It is very much a novel and a successful one: the social comedy is apt, it makes me smile, and creates the usual conflicts and insights of novels …. this one so comforting right now because it is redolent of a world of decency and intelligence. Our narrator knows this group of people is dependent on vast cruelty to the colonialized peoples of the world. This comes out from the narrator’s comments because this is a boat, a ship which globe-trots for the British, carries natural resources to Britain to be used in factories. The Dalloways can come on “by special arrangement” because he’s this pampered privileged MP — they too are “visiting” parts of the empire or have been.

To the Lighthouse as a sort of ghost story.

In To The Lighthouse house, your mother does not have to give up her house,. is that novel oppositions ail …. “profoundly autobiographical” and a form of therapy for VW, a way to cope with the past. Lee quotes Vanessa noting that in Mrs. Ramsey, VW “raised” the mother “from the dead.” It was, wrote Vanessa, ” a portrait of mother more like her than anything I could ever have conceived possible. … You have made one feel the extraordinary beauty of her character, which must be the most difficult thing in the world to do.” Vanessa also praised Mr. Ramsey as a clear portrait of their father. Lee shows us here the generous, giving side of Vanessa: she calls her sister’s book “a great work of art.”

Behind the Ramsey family, says Lee, is imperialism, particularly Indian imperialism, which she calls “the history of the Stephen family,” another nod to how this family profited from India. But Lee says no more.
More cryptic are the statements about Woolf’s concept for the book, which Lee quotes but doesn’t explain. What, for example, does Woolf mean by Mrs. Ramsay “feels the glow of sensation–and how they are made up of all different things–(what she has just done) and wishes for some bell to strike and say this is it. It does strike. She guards her moment.” Is this Mrs. Ramsay/Julia Stephens or Virginia Woolf? What does she mean by “fluid translucence” and “central transparency?”

On one level it’s an ode to Mrs Ramsay, to mother. The lead-in to the central section is Mr and Mrs Ramsay in bed, he reading The Antiquary to reassure himself his kind of writing and his hegemony with Scott not superseded, but the emphasis is on the death of Steenie – a very moving chapter indeed, many one of the most in Scott, and the sonnet by Shakespeare that Mrs Ramsay quotes is also haunted, as with your shadows I did play – the lover is absent, has gone, and you are left darkling and deeply at a loss. Mr Ramsay apparently doesn’t approve of his wife’s pessimism and it is true that the style Stephens wrote in (as many of his era) is this rotound graceful sure one and no one would go near saying suicide is a good option or anything truly overturning explicitly.
 
There is something overturning in To the Lighthouse —  not just the feminism about the men as tyrants and fools. There is a luxuriating in death as release at last. And we catalogue the dead (for Mr Ramsay goes too) – there’s a futility in all human beings do is one part of the feel.

The Waves

It took listening to the text read brilliantly allowed (by Frances Jeater): I became hooked into it. Lee says The Waves is six monologues but I think it’s there. They are all a projection of Woolf and in that overt feel this is a more candid novel than most for in all novels most of the characters are on some level as projection of the novelist put together by literary decorums and conventions. It may still be read as her deepest thoughts when “out of her” social mind and into her deep self – rather like Proust only puts this self into long sinuous sentences.

What then paradoxically grips me is identification. She still captures a sense of what it is to be child, adolescent and especially (thus far) have new experiences you’ve never had before. How we grow middle-aged, old, and watch others die (you wouldn’t carry on if I’m in world of semi-stranger neighbors. You were in this cocoon of subjectivity with a nuclear family (at most siblings and one or two servants beyond the father, mother, aunt say, grandmother). I have never forgotten my amazement (the right word) when I first went to kindergarten. There was a small girl my size called Maryann crying as if her heart would break. She couldn’t bear it seemed to leave her mother. I couldn’t get over that, I was so startled by this it has stayed with me all these years – well Woolf would not have been surprised. She here records intense distress on the part of the boy in boys’ school and the girls with their governess. Not going home. How unbelievable, how terrible. How different Woolfs’ home life was from mine. I was cheerful and glad to go. But I’ve cousins who came from a home like mine who tell me they cried.
But I did look askance or in this alienated way at teachers. Woolf captures how children look so coolly at these new beings in charge of them.

The impersonal narrator keeps returning to time across a day, dawn, morning, mid-morning, noon, early afternoon … At each point the natural world returns to record where we are. A larger clock situates through what they saw their stories over the years. Three die before the book closes.

Between the Acts .

With the bombing of her and Leonard’s two houses, the Woolfs are driven to live wholly in the country and Monk’s House. Now she can no longer put barriers between herself and the local people. Written at the end of her life, a time of despair over the war) her experimental historical novel, Between the Acts. The bombing had driven her and Leonard into the country and Woolf tells of a self-reflexive pageant set in three eras, put on by local people. History is conceived as fragments of historical experience recorded in books, scattered relics, local memories and graves within a continuum of time. One detail: she writes about Coleridge in a spirit where she re-engages with her ambivalence over her savage violent bullying and yet ever so civilized father. It’s 21st century like that it should be a group of people putting on a pageant. Themselves all lost, bewildered, often unhappy. Highly original self-reflexive historical novel. Orlando had been her historical romance (time-traveling lesbian classic that it is).

We also see the great troubles she is having with Pargiters trying for a combination of political milieu and family narrative tale (based on her own), rather Tolstoyan. Part of the reason VW killed herself was how she felt she would not stay sane and be a burden; she wouldn’t stay sane because she would not be able to cope — she hates (as I would) the reaction of fellow semi-Nazi citizens around her.

I have read The Years which is almost my favorite, but not this time round.

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Roger Frye, a self-portrait

Her biography of Roger Fry

Vanessa liked Woolf’s Roger Fry – Fry was her ex-lover, her artistic mentor, she was much moved and became affectionate towards Virginia for a time. Virginia gave a lecture in Brighton to 200 women, among them Elizabeth Robins, Octavia Wilberforce. Leonard said Angelica should be let to live her own life (Garnett had been Duncan’s Angelica’s father’s lover). It was pretty widely reviewed: Fry was seen as important and he was a kind of symbol of high culture. It was hypocritical of those who hit at him for his background because most of the writers of reviews in England at the same time came from that background, maybe not quite so literary or art-y. Or they personally chose not to become so.

At first silence greeted Roger Fry and then a bitter debate: some praised, EMForster said it was a defence of civilization; Herbert Read (an arch conservative, a fact Lee doesn’t mention) attacked as elitist super-sensitivity – has elitism come to be synonymous with civilized educated behavior? She responded telling of Frye’s social commitment, that her books reach a wider circle than his, and offered to debate “between air raids.”

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Kati Horna: Retreat with Wounded Soldier

The war:

One could hear the drone of the German planes flying over the channel to drop their bombs, the bombs dropping, the people killed, everything destroyed. As they lay flat on the ground they hear guns overhead

Kent harder hit than Sussex; then Hitler switches to nightly raids on London. I have read some of these moving depictions of the destruction of London – by Elizabeth Bowen in Heat of the Day remains with me – shocked, ragged, rapid, raw – people in shelters killed. Horrifying messes. Mecklenberg smashed – uninhabitable. Leonard: “well really possessions are such a nuisance, perhaps it will be a good thing to start clear again: (the joke that tries for perspective …)

Bomb drops near Vanessa and Duncan’s workshop so Virginia; there were fierce quarrels.


Vanessa Bell by Duncan Grant (during the war years)

Where she had written so much, where they had sat so many nights, given so many parties. Loss of possessions they worked so hard to get. 24 volumes of her diaries were salvaged! – but huge destruction of masses of papers and her and other houses – -and deaths. They end up moving what was left to Monks House – grimy, hopelessly jumbled heaps. They acquire a new kitten – from kitten she says “I can’t make a warm hollow for myself”

She did have an English identity, in the culture of that city, Churchill on “our majestic city” Woolf reduced to “a crushed match box”. In the country they began to know many people; watched the ways all sorts of people reacted to the bombing, killing ,and Germans. Leonard and Virginia speak horribly about disabled people but they try to help them. She had the hardest time with local gentry. Bomb explodes on river bank: beautiful looks, deeply destructive literally of countryside.

Walks, writes family memories, and black sardonic story (The Legacy): dark side of her own marriage; husband wrapped up, absorbed in his work, she regrets not having had children; and now that Hogarth Press is gone, she can’t get it published. Another story about suicide, “The Symbol”

Stuck for paper, she uses local library, cheap notebook for diary and she begins to plan for third common reader, Reading at Random, not focused on author or text but cultural. What it meant to be a writer “thwarted by our society:interruptions: conditions.” First chapter begins with “Anon.” Communal pre-audience world. Was to include Goldsmith (very much constrained by literary marketplace), Sevigne (not), Henry James. She writes two more essays: Ellen Terry, Hester Thrale Piozzi. She has to write in same room as Leonard and can’t take it. She accidentally (ha) nearly drowns.

I wonder could they get liquor? Meaning wine, beer, or alcohol, Lee doesn’t cite these as rationed. Sigh. She doesn’t think of it. One article on-line says liquor was not rationed and another it was rationed, that industrial alcohol needed for war effort; whiskey production stopped. What you might get was very expensive and you had to know the grocer, be favored. Pubs carried on (limited how many drinks you might have?). You could make alcohol but then you had to get grain.

Bitterly cold; using bikes, cut off from friends. Painfully thin, it makes you afraid to see her. The war was not being won; invasion thought imminent. She can’t write – ironically she complains of a lack of public, no printer. She goes to London to see ruined city. She writes about sexual shame and sexual abuse in her childhood to Ethel. She argues with Desmond she can speak for workers; some visits but she cannot trust the people to be endurable

She is disgusted by the conversations of women. (All tarts says Virginia: US about to have a whore as First Lady and Trump threatens to sue anyone who says so in public; the inauguration coming up: ought to be deeply shameful spectacle, but is it? An actual whore with the Rockettes in front of them.) She finished Pointz Hall as Between the Acts – surely Leonard now sees. Olivia Wilberforce visits her and she says she’s desperately depressed, Village will not permit her to do fire-watching as Leonard does. Haunted by memories of father. They go to London and lunch with John Lehman and he sees how tense she is

Another attempt at suicide called an accident on Tuesday ,the 18th, her letter dated “Tuesday” Leonard sees her coming and begins to worry yet more. But it seems to me does not recognize this as a second suicide attempt – a signal to him to help her. But he cannot let himself see what is in front of him. It’s probably too much for him. What was he enduring? A jewish man, deeply liberal, his life’s work in politics for nothing.

Lee goes on about how Virginia’s suicide not an act of fear. She is a schmuck here. Yes I agree her suicide not an act of fear – why should people worry that suicide be seen as an act of fear? If some see it so automatically, they are fools. So she overstates and says the act was rational. No it was not. And it was not deliberate in the sense that she could not throw off the depression but wanted to.

Vanessa comes and writes her a letter which is in effect bullying. She must not get sick again. It’s the letter of someone imposing herself on Woolf, yes she thanks Virginia for “saving her,” but it is a she and Leonard know better than Virginia. She needed this like a hole in her head.

She is told by Lehman he has advertised her book (The Years) and its publication cannot be reversed. So now she’s between a rock and a hard place: do not get sick but endure the publication of this book. She did visit a villager, she got letters of praise from Forster on Jacob’s room and Lehman on Between the acts. Leonard tries to tell her she needs a rest cure, tells Octavia how worried he is. Told by them rest not work the only cure. Right.

Leonard can’t be with her every minute and she drowns herself on Friday March 28th. River running fast and high, she puts a large stone in her pocket and lets herself drown.

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Aftermath:

Close friends told; by April 1 the body had not been found. The Times carried article on 3 April, begins to be reported, River Ouse dragged. Tributes begin. Leonard received over 200 letters, replied to each, to himself. Body found 18 April. Distasteful music; he came alone to her cremation; he hated the pretentious casket. He used quote from Waves; Against you I will fling myself unvanquished and unyielding, O Death!

Leonard carries on business of papers one has to cope with 753. He says he is better off coping alone. The year of 1943 as described in this book and VW’s almost understandable (now to me) suicide. Not quite: as I don’t quite get why Carrington couldn’t live on who had such friends, such worlds to belong to; so why Woolf couldn’t manage with Leonard there. What if she hadn’t had him. I get that. I did read somewhere (maybe this book) that in 1943 Mark Gertler killed himself. He was Jewish.

Leonard was rightly irritated when his choice of “Cavatina” for Virginia’s cremation was replaced by “Dance of the Blessed Spirits” from Gluck’s Orfeo. I remember how I had to be alert to every reference to Jim’s actual death: he went to his rest the video had on it at the end; I protested angrily each time. How dare they? And Leonard had no one there with him so no need to worry (for those who do) others will be offended. I am not sure one should make a wild joke about one’s death so when it was said the other day Carrie Fisher chose for her urn a pill box for Prozac I can see the mockery of pretension, and Leonard had only pretentious choices. He did make a plain tablet to put above where he buried the urn.

Some jackass wrote a letter printed by the Times excoriating anyone who kills themselves; we “all take our part nobly in this fight against the devil.” For once Leonard doesn’t heed his own advice and answers the jerk, trying to explain. Carrington better off not having anyone to take her as a symbol.


From their middle years together

For the next 28 years Leonard kept up a campaign to keep Virginia Woolf in the public eye as important, respected, he would bring out the vast amount of unpublished material (not novels you see) at carefully timed intervals. He husbanded the material, edited it (so cut sections of A Writer’s Diary), he controlled the way the texts were presented for better or worse.

From Moments of Being: Woolf repeatedly recurs to the real problems of writing a biography. In a way her real thrust totally undermines the social construction point of view (I use a different term but it was the Foucault argument we got into last fall — that far back): what she wants is to get into a biography the deep self, moments of being innate in use through what we remember. One problem here is to do this you’d have a million word first chapter. I particularly liked her worries about moments of “non-being,” left out by Lee. These are the hours we are alive that we do not remember, that if asked about we cannot account for the next day, when we are not fully there somehow or even much. For myself these occur especially at night ,and blogging is a way of overcoming “non-being,” so the next morning if I try to remember how I spent the night, there’s the blog showing that I did exist, and what I thought and how I lived my life that night. Readers might concentrate on the particular content in the two blogs not supposed to be about me, with other subjects, and even the Sylvia blog does not stress how I’m overcoming non-existence.

Diarist feel they get to exist by recording their intimate lives. With some important exception for women especially of recording sex lives (one’s homosexuality for example for a man), and maybe something they are determined to keep hidden (yet often let out — Toibin says diarists want to be “found out”), in fact they don’t worry about privacy for real except that until the Net when people can blog daily and without an editor, often diarists were much freer by deciding not to publish. This is risky as so often around you are relatives who don’t in the least sympathize with or understand you, especially those who regard writing as something that must be monitored lest it endanger their or a friend’s reputation in whatever way.

Lee says it was first in the 1960s she became an icon, a myth, a literary heroine, texts for feminists. She went on living and changing after her death.

Lee pulls away from the death itself. She is a woman who herself does not care for unpleasantness any more than true non-conformity in social life. But she has gone after Woolf like one would a ghost and re-created or found and presented her fully.

Ellen

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Virginia Woolf, a photo taken in 1939

“And the phantom was a woman, and when I came to know her better I called … her the Angel in the House … And when I came to write I encountered her with the very first words…And she made as if to guide my pen … I turned upon her and caught her by the throat. I did my best to kill her … Had I not killed her she would have killed me … She died hard … She was always creeping back when I thought I had dispatched her.”

Dear friends and readers,

A couple of months ago now I wrote a group of us on Trollope19thCStudies @Yahoo had finished a months’ long reading and discussion of Tolstoy’s War and Peace, in my case accompanied by watching four film adaptations (Bondarchuk; BBC 1972). I read several books, keep at several writing projects, teach, write papers and blogs, watch movies all at once. So along with Tolstoy (as I wrote in August since August 2016) I and a couple of friends have been reading Virginia Woolf. I’ve decided to put this on my general blog as eventually I will show that she is a modernist as central to modern literature as the over-lauded Joyce, T.S. Eliot, and any other post-modern experimental artist. I’m just now reading Graham Swift’s masterpiece, Last Orders (a Booker Prize winner, adapted into a powerful film) and think it owes much more to Woolf’s Waves than Faulkner, or both Faulkner and Swift are sons of Virginia Woolf.

I just love her writing, fiction and non-fiction, and together we read the great literary biography of her by Hermione Lee, and with a couple of others took detours into new texts, writing I’d not read before (The Waves, Memoirs of a Novelist) and re-read and felt anew the extraordinary writing of/in The Voyage Out and To the Lighthouse. Not to omit John Lehman’s important book on the Hogarth Press, Thrown to the Woolves. Memories: I had read more than 10 years ago now, and so loved The Years, her Common Readers, her life-writing in essay format, A Room of One’s Own, Three Guineas), but had still not attempted The Waves, Between the Acts, both of which I’d wanted to understand and enjoy. It was out of all this I discovered Carrington had many so many pictures, was a great letter-writer, and fell in love with her work. And just now I’m attending my first literary OLLI course as a class member (not teacher), where the topic is Virginia Woolf, and I’m now half-way through Mrs Dalloway (I last read it as an undergraduate).


From Judy Chicago’s Dinner Party: Woolf makes the cut of the 39 place settings

Out of all this what can I offer to a reader to tempt her (or him) to read Woolf if you’ve not started or read only a little of, and how to ignore or get past misrepresentation which leads to readers coming with pre-conceived hostility or else staying away (Albee’s anti-feminist title, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf has done much harm) altogether. My experience when I first turned to her is getting to know her for real helps, and Lee’s biography goes a long way towards doing just that. So I’ll write two blogs on Lee’s biography to start with, and then move on to the Woolf’s novels.

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Lee begins with a meditation on biography itself — as life-writing is what Woolf did a lot of. Her first sectionf her first chapter (pp. 1-11) is made up of comments by Woolf on the difficulty or impossibility of biography. We can see that Lee gave a lot of thought to how she was going to turn Woolf’s voluminous writing into an alive life. She then dives into essays where Woolf is trying to get at the essence of a personality, and thinking about the dead biographies, lifeless, “mausoleum books.” How the biographer has to get at the essence of the self and project it. How adhere to the truth (no hagiography). The conflict for a biographer is between fact and inner life. She was herself defensive towards Winifred Holtby who wrote the first biography of her as a single chapter in a book. Woolf saw a ludicrous gap between her own memory of an event and what others wrote or say about it. She did not want her secrets (whatever these were) given away. She starts to write Stephen Frye’s life. What a grind it is. How shall she do it: specimen days; different stages, then there’s the “complexity and intrigue” of someone’s character in life. In painting we see the irreverent. Her own work compromised by her connections that enabled her to publish it. She had a passion for the lives of the obscure, who turn out to be women.

So I took my first detour and read her Memoirs of a Novelist for the first time.

It contains five separate pieces. Two are riveting. On “The Mysterious Case of Miss V:” at first I was not sure Miss Willatt, the novelist whose memoirs her friend, Miss Linsett, has written was a fiction! But of course it is. Woolf shows that the way biographies of women novelists especially (but men too) are written you end up knowing nothing about them. She makes the point that the marmoreal obvious lies could not fool anyone and asks, so why do people write or read such books? Then slowly and with difficulty our narrator ferrets out what can be said for real of Miss Willatt. Alas, not much. That she was conventionally ugly, that her father made her life a misery until he died, that she was capable of deceiving Miss Linsett endlessly, a restless and disappointed woman who sought her happiness in her self and not others, and was never given a chance at an individual life. The Miss Willatt type of biography goes on today. What do readers think a book exists for? Why do people take the trouble to say such rot? Not to know the person’s life.

“The Journal of Mistress Joan Martyn,” is a gem, brief, of the type Diski so brilliantly writes in her Apology for a Woman Writing, a short fictionalized, semi-biography of Montaigne’s worshipping disciple, Marie de Gornay as she related to Montaigne (a presence in the book) and her servant. Deeply moving. Here she’s Miss Rosamund Merridew, age 45, who is trying to understand Joan Martyn’s journal, a series of yellow fragments of parchment. How hard it is to get any information: Miss Merridew visits an old hall (15th century one in a decaying early 20th century state). The man there seems to be a minor clergyman and who keeps on his wall “mementos of dead animals, raising paws.” The man takes out his family history and of course we know what that will be … This piece reminded me of Lampedusa’s Gattopardo: the creation of the atmosphere, the insistence on the reality of a person living in such a house, how the place is set up, where papers are, how remnants from generations of people haunt the rooms. Then we plunge into a controlled stream of consciousness which is so immediate and intense with felt life. What makes it extraordinary is the tone, rhythm of the language. It reads like some recreation of earlier language where ritual, repetition is the mode of sentences, and that in itself a sign the girl is structured in her very mind not to have any thought of her own destiny. What happens is Joan is utterly obedient to her mother, family, and is married off to an older man, and then she is dying. A brief life, of someone highly gifted, of real kindness, unable to have a genuine original thought, dying almost upon adulthood. Deeply poetic semi-comic historical fiction, presented as a biographer trying to do her task, shaped at all points by the structures and outlook of l’ecriture-femme. How can we know earlier women? quietly despairing


Horham Hall — plan of restored great hall

Chapters Two through Four are Houses, Paternal, Maternal. I remembered Bachelard’s Poetics of Space: Yes houses are so central to our memories of our pasts. (When I try to remember the past I ask myself, was it before or after or during the time we lived in such and such a place.) To the Lighthouse records Woolf’s memories of summers in St Ives, Cornwall (become the Hebrides), a proto-ghost story, haunted, different people in the house now, she has no right to be there … It was liberty. The contrast the tall narrow attached house in Kensington, Talland house, all constriction, performance, heavy furniture, curtains, the kitchen downstairs awful, dark, nothing done to ease servants having to live and to work there. As I read about Hyde Park Gate I was struck by how close and dark and hard to clean it was. Nowadays we live I wide open spaces surrounded by plastic things, light colors, easy to clean. It actually as a house seemed to me claustrophobic. I am surrounded by books but that’s all. 17 people in the house. At most where I’ve lived there were 4, all family members. Imagine being the servants in their hot tiny spaces. On p 40 Lee quotes Woolf registering how bad it must have been to work for the Carlyles: two of the most exacting nervous people of their time. Jane Carlyle did join her maid in the struggle for warmth and cleanliness – a losing battle. A lot of the things were also relics. Everyone died at all ages, and they are all surrounded by memorabilia of death. We are not told how Minny, Leslie Stephens’s first wife died: pregnancy. She probably died of eclampsia, still quite often a killer today,and her daughter’s developmental problems stemmed from the premature birth. Woolf’s memory of buying ices as this big event. How can such people when they grow up deal with calamity? Their iron self-esteem, their connections money and power they think will come through. On her disabled step- or half-sister, she talks callously

Lee is showing how entrenched in a Victorian set-up Virginia was and that when she and Leonard became part of a Bloomsbury group, many of whose members had parents who had been part of the Edwardian intelligensia elite, they were replicating the embedded coterie Victorian worlds. Virginia’s inheritance was more than 2500£ from a Quaker aunt. Julia Cameron was a relative. Lee says how natural for Woolf to have written a feminist treatise focusing on having a room of your own. How Woolf eventually organized her writing space and within that pictorial details. Yet they all live embedded together; Lee’s point is Woolf’s was a Victorian upper middle childhood. Hard to clean place, everyone assumes respectability must be kept up …

We move on to Childhood, Siblings first deaths: I’ll cut to the chase: for my part I find her preference for her brother, Thoby, very like Jane Austen’s for Frank Austen: the conventional male-brother; he may have had epileptic fits. After the parents’ death, Vanessa became the most important person in Woolf’s life until Leonard and she married. Vanessa seemed all that Virginia couldn’t be: earth mother, easy affairs (at first, they were deeply anguished eventually as Duncan Grant was more homosexual than otherwise, and she needed him more than he her). It was the obtuse dense Duckworth brothers, especially Gerald who sexually abused Virginia as a child. Lee cannot get her mind around the idea this “small” or fleeting set of transient “petting” episodes so traumatized Woolf. So she does what she can to dismiss the incest charge as overdone: her attitude is how common and fleeting this sort of physical forcing by say one cousin on another. Like Rosemary Ashton on George Eliot & Lewes, Lee tries to turn out a normalized Virginia.

The second crashing event was the early unexpected death of her mother (Virginia was 13); Stephens then used and abused (not sexually but in many other ways) the two older daughters, Stella from his first marriage, and Vanessa. Lee tries to answer how far these specific events led to the episodes of breakdown, derangement. I suggest they are part of a large picture of sexual mis-education so profound on a sensitive girl – I find the insistence on feeding her evidence of anorexia, another expression of profound sexual mis-education and repression. Woolf often uses imagery of a veil or wall in women’s minds; so does George Eliot. My view is what happens later counts a lot too, and my guess is her experiences of sexuality with women, with Leonard Woolf and what she experienced of literary and social life later reinforced rather than counter-acted what she knew as a girl.

Liaisons, Bloomsbury, the new art, sexual experimentation, Vanessa marries, then Virginia and Leonard . Her father’s death freed both she and Vanessa to live a modern life, to rent a house in Bloomsbury and mingle with as equals their brother’s friends and art worlds. Virginia escapes to intense study, writing mood pictures. She is tense and diffident with world outside her family (not too great with family either). She did voluntary teaching at Morley College. She gave it up after two years. All the difficulties of teaching real people before us. I remember Woolf writing at one point, if the individual only would or could, they could learn more by steady reading than any lecture as the lecture is perforce much less dense, less nuanced. Her relationship with a working class man remembered in Mrs Dalloway. She writes all the time, on holidays what she sees. Intensely aware of pre-history underlying civilized world.

Great plans for all to go to Greece, Vanessa refusing Clive for a second summer. VW studies away, Thoby ecstatic at what he sees – poignant material found in Jacob’s Room. In Virginia’s notes she does not want to write cliches, problem of how to get down the experience while modern Greece appalled her. A rich person’s country estate in Euboea. Dominated by doctors, medicine, VW had appendicitis, depression, stress, The hotel suddenly sick room, Vanessa has had it too; Virginia deeply involved with first woman: Violet Dickensn and she is lectured by Violet on necessity of unselfishness and self-effacement. They get home, Thoby seriously ill; turns out he has typhoid. An operation 17 Nov; he dies 20 Nov. There are astonishing letters to Dickenson where Virginia writes of Thoby’s progress all the while he is dead – for a full month. Lee takes this as understandable because Violet is ill. I don’t. It’s crazed behavior.

Each family death causes them to lose a home: after Julia, Talland House; after Leslie, Hyde Park Gate, after Thoby Gordon Square. Vanessa to marry; Clive loves her, is artistic, literary, VW must make home with Adrian. The rich and illiterate Clive family home, fox-hunting, church going, money from mines. Virginia as I see it is now alone and having to adjust: she and Adrian are not congenial, not compatible; they set up housekeeping in Fitzroy Square and she does get into more adult and frank talk with male visitors from
Rupert Brooke to Lytton Strachey (they were equivalent geniusses) – but also considerable showing off (as in Lytton Strachey’s famously uttering “semen”. I find Virginia brave for all the times she traveled alone. She learnt she would not have a good time with Vanessa and Clive.

Virginia was finding herself sexually and couldn’t find a man to be a partner with among those she met – she put it down to scared of sex – sex did mean pregnancy and Lee seems to forget that women the first time are often terrified of getting so big, think the childbirth will tear them apart. She grew up in this repressed environment and that’s why Duckworth was so harmful –he was part of it. Lee again demurs about this trauma Virginia insisted she never got over. She’s got a right not to get over it. She writes: “My terror of real life has always kept me in a nunnery.” She saw it was more than the trauma over sex, but it was that. What’s real life anyway?

Several chapters on the experience of World War One: Lee cannot sympathize with pacifism, nor the subversive outlook in so many areas of this circle of people — they had been so privileged. Lee puts Woolf’s “writing” decisively on the side of the anti-authoritarian, on the side of woman’s suffrage, and on the side of post-impression, which presumably would, to a traditionalist, make her a modernist. Lee criticizes Woolf for her lack of participation in specific issues. She was just not one to get involved; in comparison, Leonard is the true socialist, organizer, man of politics. I did not realize that Roger Frye was beyond his centrality in the art of this group Vanessa’s lover and deep friend of Virginia. No wonder she tried to write his biography.


Vanessa Bell, Leonard Woolf

A long section explaining the sources and complication of Virginia and Leonard’s relationship. Diane Reynold summed it up beautifully: “there is a grand bargain going on in this marriage, each partner trading deficits, finding attractions, a complex dance. Mental illness is swapped for Judaism: each partner brings a negative in the context of the culture. However, Leonard no longer has to return to Ceylon: with Virginia’s money and the solid social entree she provides, and what he supplements earning (does it not occur to Lee that Leonard’s compulsive overworking might have compensated not for lack of sex but for not wanting to live “on” his wife?); in any case, he can do work more attuned with his heart, such as start a press, support socialist causes. She gets the stability and social respectability of marriage. They both get companionship with an intelligent and congenial spouse. I agree with Ellen on the importance of outsider status.” Both outsiders in different ways. We find the source of the title of her profoundly anti-patriarchy, anti-war tract: three guineas was the price of an abortion (from a draft section of The Years).

But they did belong to a circle of like-minded outsiders: they were all part of a movement called modernism, which included far more than people in Bloomsbury (Americans in Paris, Joyce, Italian and French writers, women and men in music and art). In brief, experimental in form in all areas of art, radical thought, transgressive of genres, in writing using stream of consciousness which is so common now: minimal plot and action (these are not adventure stories with forward-driving outward plots), intense immediacy of another mind, interior is maximized with focus on language and ambiguity. They needed the Hogarth Press to get their stuff published. Hints on reading stream of consciousness: look for pointers; they are still there, as in “Clarissa Dalloway thought” or in parenthesis: “(for a girl of eighteen as she then was)”; or indentations, or old-fashioned third person indirect discourse where the narrator is there, however discreetly, indentations on the page showing a new mind is on the page; indications of where the speaker-mind is, “She stiffened on the kerb, waiting for Durtnall’s van to pass.” The pointers are kept to a minimum so as not to get in the way of the imagined character and the reader. You have also to care about nuances of thought, insights, passing things we see, ruminations of subjective memories, all the phenomena going on around us, as well as individual characters’ deep situations of emotion indicated by epitomizing painful and guarded thought.

I want to end this blog before it gets overlong by moving to a chapter in Lee which is disappointing but which attempts something important: Virginia’s reading, what meant a lot to her and how. I am more interested in that than her sex life, which eventually became lesbian, her relationship with Leonard, central though his disciplined and supportive presence was. Would all the chapters were like this one: Lee seemed to me to enter more into the reading process, why we love it, how we react and feel as we are reading, how we do it, how it’s integrated into our lives than I can remember reading (joke alert). And she does it through quoting Woolf describing her reading behavior, processes. I find books mean as much to me and in the way of Virginia.


Vanessa Bell, The Artist’s Daughter Reading

In my dissertation I argued central to the writing of the new immersive romance — or novels with complex characters (subjective presences) was this mood of reverie into which the writer went, out of which he or she wrote (with seeing pictures, hearing voices) communicated into the mind of the reader so he or she forgets you are on chair reading, dream you are there somehow. If someone prods you on the shoulder, the suspension of disbelief is off. Paradoxically as Lee goes on, I become aware how rare this kind of deep feeling living with others and places is probably for many people. Thus this mood of reverie I attributed to these writers is a reading mood (Bachelard probably has some passages on this). The word “reverie” is born in mid-century to mean an imaginative mood of high intensity, often connected to some erotic source. Books can arouse us sensually and sexually too.

Diane pointed out that Lee never does tell us which were Woolf’s touchstone books, she does not cite the favorites, which ones read and reread. “Lee makes the point that for Woolf books influenced her as much as relationships (of course, that cries out for her to tell us which books were lifelong friends, which fell away, which were passing infatuations etc…). We learn that reading is Woolf’s life’s pleasure and her life’s work … Woolf read widely and diversely, as many of us do, and liked to mix second rate with first rate literature, as it helped her understand the best literature and its context better. The second rate helped “fertilize” her mind for the “great.” I also appreciated that she hated that coteries with power in the publishing and literary worlds pushed second rate books, the middlebrow, as better than they are: we see that often in our times, needless to say, and we hear people rave about truly mediocre books that are the “thing.”

Part Two will be about Woolf’s relationships with women, Katharine Mansfield, Vita Sackville-West, Ethel Smyth among them, the Hogarth Press, her writing years, the making of the successful careers, and then the slide into World War Two.


I read and reread and loved Alcott’s Little Women and Good Wives at the age of 9 — it was just this edition, this cover

Ellen

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Sister Helen (Kate Lindsey) holding hands with Joseph de Rocher (Michael Maynes), Dead Man Walking

Dear friends and readers,

I’ve seen a new great opera. It’s not often I’ve felt this. For a number of years Jim and I, sometimes with Izzy, went to recent and mid-20th century operas performed at the Castleton Festival in summer here in Virginia. Jim took me to Silver Springs AFI theater where we occasionally saw an extraordinary HD transmission of a European production of a recent opera: I remember Britten’s Peter Grimes from Covent Garden. Over 45 years of marriage and living together we occasionally saw a new opera in London or Rome or Paris (maybe 5 times). I can recall a very good short opera about a puppeteer theater, Britten’s Turn of the Screw and feminist (would you believe) Lucretia, Eurotrash renditions of classics, Menotti’s appealing (to me) Amal and the Night Visitors.

Tonight at least none of them that I remember except maybe Peter Grimes astonished me the way this did. We are not spared at all, from the enactment of raw emotion: its unsparing dramatization of ferocious anger on the part of the murdered youngster’s parents, and attempt to show the brutal crime, its equally insistent dramatization of Mrs de Rocher (in this production Susan Graham) as grieving she is a failed mother and yet refusing to allow her son, Joseph (Michael Maynes) to confess he did the crime and say he hopes his death provides some relief. To the insistent pressure and nagging that he must tell the truth in order for Sister Helen (Kate Lindsey) to reach him and offer love. We are not spared the the execution scene where we can see how every effort is made to detach all individuals from doing the act: the police strap the man down, the nurse administers the compound into a feed, but the actual killing is done by a timed switch.

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This shot from the 1995 movie is re-created in this opera production

In Kate Wingfield’s brief if otherwise rave review of the Washington Opera production of Dead Man Walking (music Jake Heggie, libretto/play Terence McNally), Wingfield tells us to wipe out of our minds the 1995 movie made from [Sister] Helen’s memoir with Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn. The implication is this opera won’t compete or is so utterly different from 1990s film and books (to say nothing of podcasts, radio broadcasts, it’s bound to disappoint unless we hold off on expectations. is it? Arnold Salzman found it magnificent.

Whatever might be the high quality of these earlier iterations, this one on its own, as opera should, reaches the tragedies of our failed social compact today. For it has failed, and most people seem to have no understanding why. A culture gone utterly awry in what it tells itself in the news, publicly. Why else this desperate election of a corrupt malevolent lying clown? The setting is perfect (Allen Moyer): the prison is a realistic recall of Marat/Sade as I’ve ever seen, all black and white, bars, the prisoners on death row mad with anger, the behaviors crazed enactments of frustrations from believing in our macho male norms: American prisons are as bad as any ever were, back to medieval times. The costumes capture the working class characters in jeans, T-shirts, frizzy dyed hair for women (De Rochers), the lower middle (carefully put-together pant suits on the heavy awkwardly made-up women, cheap suits on the men). The nuns, Helen and Rose (Jacqueline Echols) are innocuous in soft blouses and thin skirts.

The story and now this opera is intended and I think it is a deeply anti-capital punishment fable. The auditorium was full and the applause strong. I admit as I left I overheard some conversation which was not encouraging — people saying they “could not sympathize” — the dress of the Kennedy Center patron is upper middle. It is also religious as it’s suggested the nun’s intense generosity of spirit, her willingness to open up comes from her religion, not ethics or rational conclusion upon the full circumstances. It’s not by chance that the hero is not black but a white man. In reality state killings are acted out upon black men far more than their percentage in the population could make believably unprejudiced. With private prisons, draconian imposed sentences, in states where the local culture is obtuse and merciless, executions carry on. So how much good this story has done thus far and can do is hard to say. It explicitly advocates compassion when it should speak more in the vein of this could be you or I who got involved with this, whose child killed or was killed, who is the “failed mother” (thus Mrs De Rocher berates herself), destroyed parent. What were these 20 year olds doing out there in that swamp that night, in that drug-filled club?

It is an opera which shows a people fixated upon death. Death is all around them. In that park that night. The two rapists had guns, clubs, weapon-filled. On the highway the nun speeds down a cop is waiting to threaten until he realizes she is a nun. In the prison. Seemingly everywhere. Police are belligerence personified. This opera slowly becomes transcendent with grief. David Friscic finds it a “dark night of the soul” and one of the people sitting by me was moved t to say in the intermission, “this is no comedy, nothing light here.”

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Susan Graham as Mrs De Rocher begging the appeals board not to kill her son

It’s what Joseph Kerman argued for in his great book Operas as Drama: it’s a sung play, whose dialogue is satisfying. Terence McNally is a great playwright. Nuance is what is respected: well this has nuance throughout: small moments of characters moving in this or that direction. In the second act Owen Hart, the father of the teenage boy who was murdered comes forward to speak to Helen and say that he is not sure the execution is going to give him satisfaction; his wife and he are now separated, and a sense that far from helping, this execution is meaningless to him. The role was to be sung by Wayne Tigges, but he was ill and a bass-baritone was flown in from some other opera house in another state!w whoever he was, he was superb in quiet realism. Graham as Mrs de Rocher remembering Joseph playing porpoise in the water as a child, his giving presents to his half-brothers. The background of poverty, a broken marriage, a dyslexic boy ignored, disciplined, given up on and getting into company of similarly thrown-away young men is suggested by her memories. The larger emblematic scenes (this would be Francesca Zambello) are effective — such as the appeals board. It opens with Helen and Rose and their children singing about love being all around us (from God) and at the end Helen remembers and re-sings the melody. But inbetween are these black and barred scenes, the men on death row, shouting, and angry. Such is the US today.

I thought the singing beautiful — the nun is the center of lovely and ritual melody, Mrs de Rocher’s music echoing hers, and the music harsh and shrill where this was called for. I am not musically knowledgeable enough to particularize further but it did seem to me the closest musical experience I’ve had to the great Death of Klinghoffer which Izzy and I went to NYC to see and hear in November of 2015. I know the Met was badly burned by these deeply reactionary anti-Palestinian groups over that one. This is a similarly deeply humane deeply liberal clairvoyant experience. It’s not choral in the way of John Adams. The US working and lower middle class, Louisiana are not places where social groups come together in any kind of felt love, but its base is the same quiet realism. Here is my review of Adams’s opera truly at the center of American operatic culture, sincerely and genuinely (uncorrupted by trash realizations that sell). Here’s Izzy’s concise take in the context of Adams’s other opera, Nixon in China, and being literally at the Met opera itself.

FILM: DEAD MAN WALKING (1995) SUSAN SARANDON AND SEAN PENN IN A SCENE FROM THE (1995) FILM  WORKING TITLE 01/05/1995 CTK32024 Film still Drama
Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn as Helen and Joseph (this scene is recreated in the production

I should not leave out that this work’s source is a woman’s memoir. On one side of me was sitting a young woman who told me she has met Sister Helen twice. Helen Prejean is now devoting all her time to ending capital punishment. She needs to turn her attention to the larger issue of a harshly punitive culture, and a continuum of de-humanizing and using pain to the point of torture (solitary confinement is merely the most egregious) as the larger context to fight against. It’s women who write such books: Elaine Scarry’s The Body in Pain, Susan Sontag’s Regarding the Pain of Others, and a book I hope to produce a useful review of here soon, Elisabeth Weber and Julie Carson’s important book of essays, Speaking about Torture. As De Rocher is led to his execution, the police and guards cry out: Dead Man Walking.

There are only two performances left in the Kennedy Center, but this is not the first production (in that Susan Graham was Sister Helene). The 1995 film (scripted by Tim Robbins from Sister Helen Prejean’s memoir) was nominated for and won several well-deserved awards. I wish the Metropolitan opera would pick it up and make it an HD opera — my only worry would be they might over-produce. I couldn’t locate any shots of the stage and a limited number of photos of the actors so have filled in with two stills from the 1995 film. So many pre-20th century operas are museum pieces and worse: they are misogynistic, imperialist, just absurd or silly. Every effort is made to somehow make them acceptable or congenial to modern opera-going audiences. Here the opera itself speaks home to us.

Ellen

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Tamara Mumford, Pilgrim, also called the Traveler

Friends and readers,

On Saturday Izzy and I saw, listened to, a strangely still opera: Kaija Saariagho’s L’Amour de Loin (Love from Afar), libretto by Amin Maalouf (see review in the New York Times by Anthony Tommasini).

There is hardly any action in the 3 hour opera-story. Jaufre Rudel, Prince of Blaye (sung and acted by Eric Owens), a troubadour now grown old, once a poet-singer accompanying the 12th century crusades, now residing in Aquitaine, ailing, in a deeply depressed state, dreams of an ideal woman with whom he can experience fulfilled love. A pilgrim or (as called in the French word Englished traveler) seems to sail/happen by and tells Jaufre the woman he has conjured up exists. Jaufre sets off to meet her.

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Meanwhile Clemence, a countess of Tripoli, in this production dressed to align her with a mermaid (fish-y scale-y dress with a sort of parting at the bottom as if for fins, braided hair) is by magic or some other force aware of or longing for, this coming love. The same pilgrim sails/happens by to tell her Jaufre is writing of her in an ethralled way. This gives her a concrete person to dream of. She is conflicted: sometimes eager, young, and sometimes wary. When Jaufre arrives, he is dying. If this illness is physical we are not told, only that he has dreaded the meeting, experienced such anguish of anxiety, he is near death.

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They meet, and while they declare their passion, he also says that he is afraid of life and also of dying. From the intensity of this conflict he enacts a kind of self-suicide. Se weeps that some external force is to blame, then that she is. At the last she decides she will retire from the world to a convent.

The stage when the lights are not on consists of seried rows of benches. When a computerized light show is on against the dark, we see wavering lines suggesting the sea along which everyone moves. The light moves from emerald green, to glooming yellow and white, to blood red, to deep blues. Everyone includes two choruses, one of men who dialogue with Jaufre, and one of women who dialogue with Clemence, who function rather like Sophocles’ or Greek choruses. The lower bodies of these figures are never seen; they seem like controlled slaves who exist for the sake of the numinous central presences. Opera is a deeply conservative form and this allegory is that here — the mood lacks the irony of Samuel Beckett’s figures caught in cans.

What is the audience to make of this? I might as well say up-front I thought the computerized technology overdone and because you can do a thing (make the stage into something near art film) doesn’t mean you should. I have recently heard music very like that of Saariaho: atonal, dissonant, each line differing form the other, many idiosycratic sounds, yet somehow peaceful, idyllic, a troubled pastoral. All three principals sang beautifully, especially fine was the Pilgrim. Until the second act, though, the lines in this opera were archetypal in content, utterly generalized. Set to Charlotte Smith’s complex poetry, the lines had thoughtful meaning to express. Similarly, Detlev Ganert’s music seemed set to a text of complicated many issue-d despair.

In the second half, though, we did get meaning, e.g., from the words Juafre spoke, the sensitive troubadour has been traumatized by life itself (so violent, so contradictory to him) and (once again) prefers death. He also yearns for compensatory beauty in return for the horrors he’s seen and done while “in the orient,” citing place names from Middle Eastern countries which played a part in the crusades or are mentioned in the chronicles written by men about their experiences in the crusades or Constantinople.

You can, and I would be inclined also to see the opera as an exploration of levels of depression and despair. The afflicted person tries to throw off by maintaining a belief in an impossible goodness, kindness, love. Jaufre suspects he is deluding himself; his dream cannot be realized. It is only real from afar. That’s why he does not want to experience this love close up. When he does see her, overcome by her beauty after all, he nonetheless is already near death. It’s too late to make a change.

Some further art context would be the Arthurian corpus. Voigt did refer to the lovers as a Tristan and Isolde at one point in her intermission talk. The depiction of the lovers was strikingly like my memories of a specific text, an 1890s fin-de-siecle French rendition of Trisan and Iseult by Joseph Bedier. Mark doesn’t have much of a role in Bedier. Bedier may be read in a beautiful English translation by Hillaire Belloc. The deeply reactionary meaning caught up in this enthrallment by sex was explicated in once famous book by Denis de Rougement: Love in the Western World, except Bedier is not into Christian apologetics: rather all in life seeks erotic ecstacy. From Celtic twilights of melancholy to the sublime transcendance of Wagner, it’s a perverse worship of self-annihilation, melting away into sensual pleasure to an extreme of self-destruction and death. For my taste there was too much squirming eroticism, or (alternatively) naive idealism of the ripe virginal maiden in all this:

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While the opera also takes its resonance from texts by Tennyson, Sara Teasdale (a poem from Guinevere) and movies like Bresson’s Lancelot, Eric Rohmer’s Parzival, perhaps Boorman’s Excalibur (a Hollywoodized version); there is a counterforce, warrior-like memories at least caught up in place names and very occasional action. The cities chosen by the pair of creators include Antioch, the old world around the Mediterranean leading to Jerusalem. Though our troubadour seems to have never fought, he and the Pilgrim are sombre with the knowledge of something intransigent, wary of something “out there” which all seek to elude. Jaufre is also the wounded fisher-king, exiled or taken along as suffering figure at wars. The male figure who carries within him the evils and wretchedness of the world, and dies of this: I thought of Amyntas as dramatized in Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzival.

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I was much moved by the second half; there was far more psychological content in the words; death seemed to me portrayed to some extent realistically: as a drawn out agonized process. Tides of grief wash over everyone. The intense rejection of anything close up by the troubadour. The huge iron contraption seemed to me perfect for some construction site, an over-the-top exhibit of angularity and abstraction and computer light show was now less in evidence. The three principles were at the bottom of the benches and and camera focused on them in various levels of close-up. It would have been too abrupt, too sudden, too somehow melodramatic to end abruptly with Jaufre’s death, so there was a lingering strongly controlled slow fade-away.

Can we place this in a more immediate and political context — in my experience operas written more recently (where I’ve seen a few at Castleton Festival in Virginia) are meant to resonate with today’s culture. An FB friend of mine, Tom Dillingham, caught

an interesting William Blake sighting’ or reference … During the intermission … Deborah Voigt interviewed the great Placido Domingo about his having taken on the role of Nabucco in Verdi’s opera of that name. Domingo commented on the complexity of the character and said that his name is also Nebuchadnezzar, and then mentioned that William Blake “the greatest of painters in England” (that’s close, anyway, to what he said) had portrayed Nebuchadnezzar as a kind of man/beast, crouching on all fours. The admiration of one great artist for another is always worth noting. Perhaps I should refrain from noting a certain evocation of a contemporary menace.

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Blake’s Nebduchadnezzar

I won’t refrain. The opera figures retreat in the face of fear, sexual engagement and reality. Ours is a hard world people with the wherewithal retreat to dreams like this from.

There is another great piece of music and lyrics that matches this one, as serious and allegorical as Saariaho and Maalouf’s and brings out the underbelly of this opera. Bob Dylan’s A Hard Rain’s a Gonna Fall

The lyrics say what needs to be listened to, not just said, and acted upon, and a much seasoned-performer like Smith’s nervousness in front of this over-, opulently dressed crowd just make so much stronger how much this song’s concrete causes needs be heeded … I’ve not been so deeply moved by a performance or song in a long time.

You choose which one you think comes closest in this dire moment, the well-behaved decorous allusive myth with its diversity of casting or the accosting of what the blue-eyed son has done.

I must not leave out that this is only the second opera mounted in the whole of the Metropolitan Opera’s history to be by a woman; it is also only the fourth to be conducted by a woman: Susanna Malkki. My great grief is the first woman who won the popular vote to be president of the US is not the president tonight who could have heard it. Instead we have a man/beast who has promised to continue the horrors pictured by Dylan. Dylan deserved the Nobel, though perhaps he should have been there to accept it, and gotten it for music (and someone else for literature), I don’t mind. Patti Smith’s singing more than made up for anything awry.

Ellen

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Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga as Mildred and Richard Loving (2016, written and directed by Jeff Nichols) — he enjoys watching cars race

Friends,

As many know, this is the story of the interracial marriage which led to a judgement by the supreme court which included the assertion that the marriage is a fundamental human right. Before this decision, states could and did outlaw marriage between people of different races. Over the course of the two hour movie I found myself deeply respectful of Mildred and Richard Loving: we see how they love one another, how they marry in DC, are arrested in the dead of night in Virginia, thrown in jail, treated with bullying disrespect and anathema by a succession of disdainful white male authorities. The story moves slowly and symbolically, rather like an outline where after an initial attempt to return home while Mildred has her baby, and re-arrest, with a dire threat of many years in prison, they live in DC (or risk imprisonment) for several years. Mildred finds the city demoralizing and streets dangerous for their children so they brave going back to a hidden place in Virginia. Terrified, hounded, she writes to Bobby Kennedy, then the Attorney General, and he suggests to an ACLU lawyer and civil rights expert that they take on their case. We follow them over several years and risky behaviors until the case reaches the supreme court where they win.

What I liked best about the film was its quietness. I feared I would be subjected to another ratcheted up melodrama, complete with thriller moments, high crisis scene and speechifying denouement. We are spared this. I did recognize that this was still another of these so-called art-films, which, as if in order to appeal broadly, be commercial, is produced with a super-solemn stance or tone, pompous and somehow (even with the poverty presented) over-produced (glorious colors, very close closeups). So I agree with Richard Brody’s New Yorker review which finds a much earlier TV movie, Mr and Mrs Loving, much more realistically human, comic at moments, entertaining, bringing out the very messy issues and petty and important bad harassment this couple experienced for years much than Jeff Nichols’ still super-dignified treatment. Yet this film is apparently more accurate and based on an intermediary documentary, The Loving Story, by Nancy Buiriski for HBO (2012).

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The actual Mildred Jeter and Richard Loving

Maybe real people aren’t comic. We hear from both sides of their families (black and white) individuals who lash out against the couple for marrying as a betrayal, a selfish indulgence (!), even a crime. There is a lovely rhythm to the presentation of years, birth of children, everyday life going on. Richard spends his existence building buildings as well as caring for his wife and family. A photographer comes to give the couple more presence in the media and he takes a photo of the couple enjoying themselves in front of the TV. (The credits include a real photo of the real couple at just such a moment.) We worry Mildred and Richard’s children are at risk from authorities, and are told that at the supreme court the argument was made that “mixed race” children are unacceptable, but I felt we could have been given more information about the issues the case rested on. Nonetheless I was much moved, especially by Ruth Negga’s performance, and here and there actors playing individuals in the family: Richard’s black brother-in-law, Virgil (Will Dalton) who is a genuine considerate friend to the couple is one that comes to mind.

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Films do not occur in a vacuum. So in this wretched moment of US politics where a white supremacist racist has been appointed by an overtly racist president as his chief strategist, where a man noted for his cruelty and draconian tactics running a police force in NYC (Giuliani) is said to be under consideration for Attorney General, where what is promised includes registration of people based on ethnic origin, rounding up and deportation in huge numbers of others, and outright mockery of #blacklivesmatter (not to omit disabled people), and doubling down on harsh prison sentences, such a presentation is not out of place. The film shows it matters who is attorney general. It showed how dependent an average person is on the supreme court to enunciate as law genuinely principled enlightened assumptions. As triumph of good came into view, I felt heartsick. You can go in the same spirit as you go on a march, sign a petition, phone your congressman. Here is the case as outlined in wikipedia: look at who were the judges. Do you think the same favorable decision would be the result today?

It’s also an absorbing quietly suspenseful (anxious) two hours. Anne Thompson in Indiefilms covering different aspects than I have calls it Oscar Worthy. The movie itself is also is a gentle depiction of a kind of marriage: the wife so careful of her working class and inarticulate husband’s feelings, his attempt to do all he can within his nature and character. Thompson says the film dramatizes how love is an inalienable right — for all the characters, children to grandparents.
Ellen

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The LA and Kennedy Center cast

Dear friends and readers,

I’m told that Ivo Van Hove’s New York City production of Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge, which rightly received rave reviews as a production, though not as a play, when it played in New York is not attracting the full house it should at the Kennedy Center. Granted, I was row H on the side (next to a friendly couple who had also bought at the last moment); but all around us were empty seats. So I write to urge everyone who has a chance to see this production (no matter if other actors, at any rate in this case all superb), if it comes near to you. It speaks to our dire situation in the US gov’t today.

It’s not that the play concerns immigrants but its core depiction of Eddie, as a rawly emotional deeply resentful sexually sick white male (Mark Strong in NYC, here Frederick Weller of Center Theater, LA repertoire group) at the center. The story is this: Eddie’s childless wife, Beatrice (Andrus Nichols, Center Theater) has invited two male relatives from a starving place in Sicily, Marco (Alex Escola, Center Theater) and Rodolpho (Dave Register, Russell Tovey did this part in NYC) to sneak illegally into the USA to do hard labor on the waterfront. Eddie is all generosity, offering bedding (a place on the floor of an extra small room), meals, but is more concerned with his niece, Catherine (Catherine Combs) who wants to take a job outside the home. He claims to want her to stick to her studies, but since these are not college, but stenography and typing alone, whose intention is to enable her to take a job, he is on weak ground. She wants to work for money badly, to be independent.

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The London production

A fierce struggle ensues in which she wins but we see with many concessions to his male pride: he is in a continual vigilant posture towards her: why is that skirt so short, why wear high heels. She is continually trying to placate him. Marco is there to get money to send home to a wife and four children, which he duly does, but Rodolpho is unattached, and he and Catherine begin to go out and fall in love. Eddie is incensed, and becomes aggressively hostile at first just to his niece and wife, sowing doubt about the man’s motives and character. He loathes that Rodolpho can sing like rock star, that he can cook, he sews, and begins to say explicitly Rodolpho is there to marry Catherine so he can become a citizen and then desert her “for the big time.” That’s why Rodolpho wants to take Catherine to Broadway, not because the movies there are fun, or plays, or lively street life. He insinuates that Rodolpho is gay, “not right” (he does not use the word pervert but we feel it in the air). He becomes ugly before Rodolpho. Beatrice moves from mild expostulation over his trying to keep Catherine a baby and without a job, to withering insinuations that Eddie is “in love with” his niece. Eddie does not appear to register this until near the end of the play when he gasps out in intense insult that Beatrice thinks he has incestuous (he does not use that word either — having a limited sexual vocabulary) longings.

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New York City

What makes for the two hours of emotional turmoil and anguish is how everyone in the play is so chary of Eddie’s feelings, so respectful of him who by the second is bitterly complaining he is not respected in his home, and making life a misery for them all. A horrible scene occurs where Eddie coming upon Rodolpho and Catherine alone in the house after they have obviously been half-naked physically assaults them both – by first hugging Catherine painfully and kissing her, and then doing the same to Rodolpho. The latter is taken as an ultimate insult; but Eddie jeers that since Rodolpho didn’t throw Eddie off successfully that proves “he is not right.” He will not hear of an engagement; he becomes livid when Catherine wants to leave; when the marriage is set, he will not come and forbids his wife to go out of the house or he will never let her in again (this harks back to before the later 19th century when husbands had a legal right to throw a wife out). We have an intense scene where she begs to be let to go to the wedding and when he will not give permission, tells Catherine after Catherine urges her to come, she will not. Not that she dare not. But she will not disrespect or hurt this man, something Catherine is continually telling him she does not want to do. Also how grateful she is to him as his niece for all the years of fatherly tender affection and care (which he did not owe her). She also half-believes his suspicions about Rodolpho.

The play is framed as a play. It’s done inside a kind of arena on both sides of which are audience members. There is an intermittent narrator-storyteller confiding male who speaks to the audience, the lawyer, Alfieri, whom Eddie comes to consult at intervals. The second form of suspense emerges when half-way through Eddie begins to think he will inform the immigration authorities in order to get the two young men sent back to Sicily. But he goes to Alfieri to consult about more than that: the point of their dialogues is Eddie continually wants Alfieri to do by law what the law refuses to condemn, or even pay any attention to. The law will not act to prevent Rodolpho from marrying Catherine. It will not act to prevent Catherine from leaving his home or make her obey him. The law will not punish Rodolpho for being “not right.” Nor Marco either — for anything but being illegal immigrants. The point these dialogues bring out is how this white male wants things as his right he has no legal right to. I leave it to my reader who will remember the election of a deeply corrupt white male for president whose major constituency was just such people as Eddie (and probably Beatrice too). The lawyer as a role functions very much like (anticipates) Robert Bolt’s The Common Man in his A Man for All Seasons (another play to read and watch this winter of our distress; Michael Gould reminded me of Corin Redgrave.)

Things are brought to an explosion when Eddie does inform the authorities and an official comes to the house to take Marco and Rodolpho to jail. Eddie has needled Marco that if he does not go home soon, he will find his wife has more children than she had when he left. A ridiculous contest over who can lift a chair with one arm from one leg has gone on where Eddie cannot do it, but Marco can. Marco then emerges viscerally as he calls Eddie a “rat” and tells him he is responsible for the starvation of his children. He leaps to murder Eddie. He is prevented and taken to jail. Alfieri plays the reasonable voice: he comes to jail to pay bail and enables Rodolpho to go out and (if he wants) marry Catherine before his hearing comes up; but he will only help Marco is Marco promises not to murder Eddie. Again he must tell Marco that the law will not help him either.

The play starts slowly and the actors say their lines so slowly I thought they were actors playing actors playing New York City 1950s parts, getting the accent right, the gestures, the time. But if this is so, it moves more rapidly and becomes smoulderingly emotional with the actors becoming the people and the pace becoming frantically emotional by the end.

The play is peculiarly significant for this terrifying political moment where we now see how easy it is for the US republic to slide into a dictatorship because at the grief-stricken final moment, the lawyer – however reluctantly, however ruefully — justifies Eddie. Alfieri says he mourns for Eddie, he feels for him, everyone was so right to care. A tableau of Beatrice holding onto Eddie like a Madonna with Christ in her lap with all the characters in intensely held characteristic postures all around her is the play’s final moment. In the language of conventional normalizing cant criticism, even including the dripping condescension of critics towards Death of a Salesman in the earliest productions, Ben Brantley intones that finally “Bridge is an imperfect work, awkward in its aspirations to timeless grandeur. After all, it is framed by the self-conscious recollections of a Brooklyn lawyer, who speaks as ponderously of inexorable fate as any Greek chorus ever did.” But not a word about what is wrong in words meaningful to viewers or readers today.

Lyn Gardner of The Guardian comes closer: “This is not just somebody else’s family tragedy. It speaks directly to us and suggests that there is an Eddie Carbone lurking in all of us, just as there is a vengeful Electra and a blind Oedipus.” Really? in women too? How is Catherine a vengeful Electra? Jordan Riefe of the LATimes gets yet closer: “While as his brother Marco, Esola is a brute at rest for most of the play until finally stirred to action. In the end he becomes Eddie’s match — the roaring embodiment of injured ego masquerading as paternal (or in Marco’s case, fraternal) protection.” There is an acknowledgement that it has not been Marco all play long causing the problem, but none that the ego is white male.

We should not be surprised at the lifting of a veil in another direction. After all, what do some people say the very central concern of Death of a Salesman is? Avoiding the insistent explicit economic message that Willie Loman is being thrown away after a lifetime of hard work, with barely enough to survive on (that social security that Paul Ryan is now exulting he will at long last privatize, hand over to Wall Street and thus destroy), people quote Linda’s pathos: “He was so wonderful with his hands,” the ne’er do well rake son, “He was a happy man with a batch of cement; Biff at least tries: “He had the wrong dreams. All, all wrong.” But again and again I’ve heard the play summed up as “Attention must be paid,” we are not paying enough respect and attention to this man.

Well we are paying attention now. He is getting back at last. what is remarkable and important about this production is the lawyer’s remarks feel so perverse.

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Mark Strong as Eddie (who also played the torturer in George Clooney’s Syriana, a political recreation of wildly savage Jacobean drama as film) at Lincoln Center fierce with dark rage, lecturing everyone else

See it. Feel it. Then think about it (see my Post-mortem). I read that what happened in a New York City theater when our present gay-hating vice-president elect provocatively came to see Hamilton found himself unsurprisingly lectured and told he is supposed to represent all the diverse peoples of the US. This is a clever distraction on the part of Trump (who does not meet with reporters now, only issues lying distorting demanding tweets) so that the top story is not how he had paid $25 million to squash the suit of the defrauded students who went to his university. He is now making money hand-over-foot in his hotels, and will probably rake in enough in the next weeks to cover that easily.

No, go see and then read this play instead. it made me and some around me tremble.

Ellen

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