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A gothic style heroine warily slides into Oscar Wilde’s parodic Canterville Ghost

I have carried on reading E. M. Forster. The classes I was to teach are cancelled because I was not up to teaching (?) online — anyway, among other things, I haven’t got a webcam or microphone in my PC and have been unable to figure out how to access and use my the (I am told) in-built webcam and microphone in my Macbook pro laptop. I’ve taken this enforced staying home as an opportunity to develop more fully the projects I was on, and read some books, watch some movies I’ve been longing to get to.

Well now as long as I don’t become ill, I can. One night I watched all of Kenneth Branagh’s 1996 Hamlet, the one where he omits not one word, including all of the slower ceremonial scenes, and it takes 4 and 1/2 hours to watch. The strong emotional affect of this production depends on sitting there continuously all that time. But before I embark on sharing just some of what I’m trying to lose myself in I thought some inspiriting writing that bears full scrutiny might be in order. What better then then Forster’s famous “What I Believe”?

A Hogarth Press penny press edition, it seems to me Forster expresses the quintessential outlook of the Bloomsbury circle at its best; he chose it as the pivotal essay in his collection of his World War Two broadcasts to the British nation, Two Cheers for Democracy. The opening section, as he says, “‘The Second Darkness,’ concentrates on the war … subjects such as Anti-Semitism, the Nazis, Liberty, the Censorship … the climate political … [with as a] conclusion … “though we cannot expect to love one another, we must learn to put up with one another. Otherwise we shall all of us perish.” The “climate” of the second section” is ethical and esthetic,” opening with “What I Believe,” and then going on for 3/4s of the on “the arts” as “an antiote against or present troubles and also as a support for our common humanity.” We move from “Anonymity” and general topics like “Not listening to music,” “Does culture matter?” to lots of specific works and authors, e.g., “our second greatest novel,’ “A whiff of D’Annunzio,” “Virginia Woolf,” “Forrest Reid” (a wonderful collector of beautiful 19th century illustrations, minor novelist), Mrs Miniver,” to finally “places” like “India again,” “Ferney,” “London is a muddle.”

So, what does he have to tell us since he “does not believe in belief”? The problem is this (the mid-20th century) is “an age of faith” (it still is in 2020), and “tolerance, good temper and sympathy are no longer enough,” they appear to be “a flower, battered beneath a military jack-boot.” So where does start, what’s the central core of what matters to him: “personal relationships” he says. He knows psychologically, there is no such thing as a firm single unchanging self, “we don’t even know what we are like (Alexander Pope said something like this in his “Characters of Man”), what we may be. But practically we can and do recognize ourselves, remember our past, can say love A, little as we may know him or her. Here it is not a matter of drawing up and sticking to a contract, but “a matter for the heart,” something more or more despised today.” You are deluding yourself, such feelings are middle class luxuries .He has been urged instead dedicate yourself to a “cause,” but he “hates the idea of a cause,” and here comes the most famous utterance of this book (wait for it)

if I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country.

Who are in the lowest rungs of hell? Brutus and Cassius who betrayed their friend. Forster says “down with the state,” which he knows “means that the State would down me.”

Which brings him to Democracy, which he says is just “less hateful than other contemporary forms of government.” “It does start from the assumption that the individual is important,” and “all types are “needed to make a civilisation.” Says he

The people I most admire are those who are sensitive and want to create something or discover something, and do not see life in terms of power, and such people get more of a chance under a democracy than anywhere else.

For democracy allows them liberty.

Democracy also allows “criticism.” What he loves about Parliament is “it is a talking shop.” It is a place where one can expose abuses, and “its chatter gets reported widely.”

There is a dilemma, though: all societies rely on Force, and while we are being “sensitive, advanced, affectionate and tolerant” (he sneaks in three more words, the first three), force comes along, knocks us on the head and can throw us in a “labor camp.” Now we get to the active crux of the matter: we must do all we can to contain, control, repress force, which appears to be violence on behalf of serving someone or some people’s appetites for prizes, or on behalf of getting the money that can buy things. Admittedly money and prizes are not brought up as words in this essay but elsewhere Forster says we must do all we can to get round money, to keep it from being an object. The aim — what he believes, how he lives — is to snatch our time, our life, what is meaningful to us in being alive, during the intervals when force is not in control. He admits that just then was “such a difficult moment to live in. Implicitly the reader (his listeners) know that violence, force, and as he says in the next paragraph “Great Men” are in control; hero-worship seeks them, and such an “unmanageable’ man “is an integral pat of the authoritarian stock-in-trade.”

At this point I thought of Virginia Woolf’s Three Guineas, also Simon Weil’s translation of the Iliad a Poem of Force, and Uprootedness her commentary on it — both profoundly anti-war, profoundly against “the money motive,” “the vanity motive” (I am remembering Woolf), against cutting people off from their roots in local groups of people, recognizing humane obligations. Other of the writers of this era, socialist (Leonard Woolf, J. B. Priestley, Orwell), French and German existentialists, the Bloomsbury group (George C Moore, Maynard Keynes). But here Forster veers into his peculiar POV: he says he believes in an “aristocracy” not of power, based on rank and influence, but an aristocracy of the sensitive, the considerate and the plucky.” They are found in all classes and everywhere, between whom “there is a secret understanding when they meet, representing the “true human tradition, the one permanent victory of our queer race over cruelty and chaos.” Thousands “perish in obscurity” (think of Eliot’s Dorothea in Middlemarch). He names no one and prefers such a type “should not be an ascetic one.” You should not thwart your body but enjoy it; still he does not “insist on this:” “This is not a major point.” Authority seeing their value tries to use them, but they “slip through the Net and are gone.” “Their temple, as one of them remarked [Keats], is the Holiness of the Heart’s Affection.” Their kingdom “the wide open world.” He think as long as such people exist, the experiment of life “cannot be dismissed as a failure.” These “decencies” it does seem (a tragedy) cannot “be translated into public affairs,” for power makes people go “crooked,” “dotty.”

I am not keen on the last paragraphs where Forster talks of finding a “saviour of the future.” We don’t need a savior; there cannot be one. But at least he does not believe such people will be in charge permanently or while in charge without breaks; will ever get to “order” our inner lives (to order which, it seems, Love is a central value).. For him, for us, for me too, living is a crucial matter of gaining time now and again to explore “the universe” and “set” a mark in it “worthily,” say in odd moments when Force seems to be looking the other way, where your works may be seen as a “trivial by-product to be scrapped as soon as the drums beat and the bombers hum.”

So this is not a hopeful or future-oriented treatise. He suggests Christians think their creed will fix the world’s mess, but he thinks Christianity’s appeal today comes from “the money behind it, rather than its spiritual appeal.” His “faith” has a small f,and is saying what he thinks while speech is comparatively free; it may not be free much longer.” He ends with his context: “liberalism is crumbling all around him.” Writing this essay has helped him not to be ashamed, but see other people are “equally insecure. It’s this time under the shadow of “the dictator-hero” he is living, but as an individual as all are, and as such all slipping away from the Net as best they can. Each of us is born, each dies, separately, so there is limit to the power of Force.

In another blog, my political one I wrote of how to recognize COVID-19, what it is, how to try to do to avoid it, offered kindly words and song, but here I have offered a philosophy of life, debating central old basic questions, how to be yourself, how to be good. Wendy Moffat thinks the center of his novels is “the search of each person for an honest connection with another human being.” What choices unlikely characters for heroes and heroines make.

So I’ve distracted myself and I hope you too, gentle readers. I had put in for a summer course, something I was going to call

The Bloomsbury Novel:

This course will examine a wide range of novels & art covered by the term Bloomsbury through three texts. We will read E.M. Forster’s Howards End, Virginia Woolf’s Jacob’s Room, and Vita Sackville-West’s All Passion Spent. None are long, one very short. Bloomsbury novels are recognizable as written by people who belonged to this amorphous early 20th century creative group, or were printed at the Hogarth Press, or belonged to Roger Fry’s artistic groups. Closer to the time if classes are not canceled for the spring, I may substitute Maurice for Howards End. This subgenre is splendidly interesting, many thoughtful highly original texts of powerful art. There are three superlative movies for Howards End & All Passion Spent, (and if the substitute is made) one for Maurice from which we will view clips.


Roger Fry, Brantome — I know it exists in color, and in black-and-white loses its radiance; nonetheless I like shades of grey, white, black in this image

They are also recognizable as having Forster’s creed in some way, as re-inventing genres (Andre Maurois’s Aspects of Biography). I may not get to teach this one because I am not sure I am fit for on-line remote access what’s called teaching — we do not know when this pandemic will lose its clutch on us.

All is uncertainty, and now we must live with uncertainty, I offer E.M. Forster’s essay to keep in mind.

Ellen

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How she looks while you are watching.

Dear friends,

I usually reserve this space for cultural events, talk or writing about books, movies, theater, operas, concerts, visual art, but I thought I’d break my self-control or habit/convention here, and offer a URL to Angela Merkel’s speech to the German people — and by extension as it was put onto the Internet with translations into other languages than German. For us living in the US (and people in the UK too), there is nothing like this from anyone with authority or power to make the words operative for us. In the US all we have has from POTUS is more lies about himself (now he knew about the pandemic before anyone else) and more attempts to hurt the American people and anyone else living on the landmass of the US (to say nothing of those he can affect outside it). I don’t know if you can reach this — I hope so — that it is translated if you do not understand German. I heard the German with an over-voice of English, so I heard her tones.

I found it terribly moving, the kind of thing so moving that (as Scott said of one of Johnson’s poems) you don’t cry: Angela Merkel speaking to the German people. I do feel bitter shame that there is probably not one person in the US who could have spoken like this and has no chance whatsoever:

https://www.dw.com/en/merkel-coronavirus-is-germanys-greatest-challenge-since-world-war-two/a-52830797

Here is a further explanation

I accompany this with a URL to the John Hopkins’ Corona Site

Thus far three of the four courses at an Oscher Institute of Lifelong Learning attached to American University that I was set to teach (one) and take (two) are cancelled or probably so; the same one (The Novels of E.M. Forster) I’ve cancelled at the OLLI at Mason. I cannot do Zoom and remote access; not simple or easy, it’s a complicated difficult process as teacher, & beyond me without a lot of training in my house, someone sitting next to me. For my style of teaching, I would not be able to transfer what I can do face-to-face, in a room where all the people are together, so all equally there, participating potentially and actually, with nothing recorded. My younger daughter who lives with me will by Tuesday be working from home (teleworking) at her job as a librarian: she is learning how and on Tuesday a laptop will be brought to her from where she works and she will link in through that.

I wrote about the pandemic from an autobiographical stance. I have been reporting (sending what I consider important information and essays and or videos (Sanders’ fireside chat) perhaps overlooked by mainstream and other media, for example when Trump and his cronies tried to buy a German company working at producing a vaccine to create a monopoly for himself (then he said it was the US) so he could grow rich and/or weaponize the virus and vaccine; or when he for weeks denied the seriousness of the pandemic situation (falsifying analogies).

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How to comfort and strength ourselves individually and within our own circles of companions? Humor, an absorbing sincere intelligent movie or movie-series, reading (of course), writing or what you do that you value as an occupation (hobby, or a vocational endeavour). So I leave you for today with an example I hope of each: a little Gilbert and Sullivan cheer:

I am the very model of effective social distancing!
I listen to the experts on the topic of resistance-ing;
I know that brunch and yoga class aren’t nearly as imperative
As doing what I can to change the nation’s viral narrative.

I’m very well acquainted, too, with living solitarily
And confident that everyone can do it temporarily:
Go take a walk, or ride a bike, or dig into an unread book;
Avoid the bars and restaurants and carry out, or learn to cook.

There’s lots of stuff to watch online while keeping safe from sinus ills
(In this case, it’s far better to enjoy your Netflix MINUS chills)!
Adopt a pet, compose a ballad, write some earnest doggerel,
And help demolish Trump before our next event inaugural.

Pandemics are alarming, but they aren’t insurmountable
If everybody pitches in to hold ourselves accountable.
In short, please do your part to practice prudent co-existence-ing,
And be the very model of effective social distancing!
Eliza Rubenstein (rated)

For fun in the unlikely event that you’ve never seen a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta? “A Modern Major General” from The Pirates of Penzance:

A modern version: Tom Lehrer on the Periodic Table:

“A Policeman’s Lot is Not a Happy One” — the patter expressed as dancing, another production of The Pirates of Penzance:

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A still from the first episode

Try Un Village Francois: a friend characterized it accurately thus: “a fictional treatment of the Nazi occupation of a village in France. It speaks to our present struggles to cope with the latest version of ethno-nationalism/fascism [here in the US]. Many many movies in this realm but this stood out for me because of its sincerity , brilliant acting, and intelligence.” It is available on Amazon Prime (if you are member) or maybe bought (from Amazon again) as 5 seasons of DVDs

We see and experience what occupation means when several groups of Nazi troops come in, take over a village: it begins with planes appear over the village dropping bombs, and then troops come in fully armed, preventing freedom of movement, immediately instituting all sorts of (often absurd unrealizable) demands o people to teach them to obey but also to take from them all their wealth, many of their places to live in, to meet others in — achieved by implacable bullying backed up by indiscriminate and spiteful killing.

From the 2nd episode of 18, the individual characters and family groups begin to emerge, the two central male protagonists are a doctor in the village and a Jewish businessman. The mayor has fled. The doctor’s wife is childless and in this episode manages to rescue a fragile infant whose mother died giving birth to it — the baby was in danger of a jealous nun insisting on putting it into an orphanage where it would die. The doctor is a magnificent ordinary man who acts decently and courageously and sensibly and helps organize the villagers but is helpless against the ruthless brutality of the Nazis who just murder indiscriminately. The Jewish businessman’s wife thinks very well of herself and is suing the school for being responsible for some hurt her child received – not dead and it is an attack in effect on the teacher. He maneuvers to gain access to a single woman who is working temporarily as a nurse, she is married, her husband away and we see them making love after he has pursued her by a bridge. We see him drawn into collaboration with the Germans, agreeing to use his wood-making business to make objects for them, in return for favorable treatment (like a pass across a bridge).

What is important is the atmosphere and to see how social and gov’t structures just collapse under a fascistic and militaristic onslaught. We who live in fear that Trump will postpone the coming election and get away with it as another step in the direction of the lives of these victimized French villagers have a parable for our times before us. We experience the hidden lives of people like ourselves. It is inspiriting to watch how these people cope.


The poster for the series: To live is to make your choices

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C.S. Lewis came to mind as I watched: from his Epilogue to An Experiment in Criticism. “…we seek an enlargement of our being. We want to be more than ourselves. …. The secondary impulse [of each person] is to go out of the self, to correct its provincialism and heal its loneliness.” … “This … is the specific value or good of literature considered as Logos [something said]; it admits us to experiences other than our own.” (139) “Those of us who have been true readers all our life seldom fully realize the enormous extension of our being which we owe to authors.” (pp 137-40). Lewis does not imagined experience need be autobiographically true on the author’s part; the good reader is not seeking to learn about the author in any direct way, but to see the world as he or she saw it ..


Thomas Cromwell (Mark Rylance), Episode 4 (Wolf Hall)

Of course he is speaking of books (but such a movie functions as books too) so (I suggest only if you’ve read the first two volumes) hunkering down with Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light.

As it opens, after the initial sense of groups of lethal Catholics at bay for Cromwell’s head, the narrative switches to Cromwell’s trying to carve out some space for the king to operate in calm and legitimately. To do that Henry VIII must be regarded as legitimate (still not a matter of course by any means), have legitimate heirs who can take over: Richmond, the illegitimate son, fatuous, mean-minded; or the disabled half-crazed Mary who yet has an integrity attached to her religion and affections; “he, Cromwell” must deal with an unstable distrustful and now openly murderous king. Threaded through all this Cromwell’s re-lived memories of the hideous executions that ended Bring Up the Body. I love the return to the characters who love Cromwell, Rafe, his wife, Helen, Cromwell’s nephew, Richard, the people in his household still alive. It is Rafe who persuades Mary Tudor to sign a document saying she will accede to the idea her mother was not married to her father, and Henry is the head of the state and a new church. A friend reading with me quipped when our computers seemed to go awry at the word “epidemic” that what we need in our state today is a Cromwell at the head, and Rafe his Man Friday

I [Cromwell-like] want to grab a quill, write something, and hand it off to Rafe. “Deliver this at once, Rafe. ‘Wait for an answer.'”

I’ve never seen a historical fiction lean so heavily on the knowledge of the reader of the ending and what happens for a couple of decades afterward. Elizabeth as a baby is constantly described as grotesque, fat, absurd ginger hair, useless to anyone but Lady Bryan who took care of Henry’s children after he rid himself of Catherine and would not let Mary stay with her and executed Anne; all the while we know that Elizabeth grew to be an able wonderful leader. The book is also profoundly anti-Catholic as profoundly against atavastic thinking and cruel tyrannies (mirroring 2020).

It’s another haunted book: Cromwell now carries with him in his mind and among his material objects his remembered wife, Liz, of course Wolsey, others; at the same time, it’s hard to get into, the erudition in effect expected of you is enormous: the people at an event know why Henry’s sister, Margaret Tudor’s daughter, Meg aka Margaret Douglas, is there to carry Jane Seymour’s train, but we cannot get the jokes unless we know, for example, that (to us a minor historical figure) Margaret Tudor married more than one man, who she went to bed with, whose child Meg is, because Margaret’s heirs (outside Meg who is probably illegitimate) are rivals to Henry (Mary Queens of Scots is her grand-daughter & Meg’s niece).

Colin Burrows (in London Review of Books, alas behind a paywall) has again understood Mantel and here the problems of his magnificent book, which is attempting to mirror our own deeply threatened uneasy time. From Burrow’s review:

These darkening memories make it seem as though the unenactable revenge plot against Henry has been driven underground and become a process of internal retribution, in which Cromwell’s own memories make him come to see himself as the brutal king that historians once believed him to be. When he is finally imprisoned in the Tower, these memories become ghosts who visit him as he waits to die … The episode of Margaret Douglas’s bethrothal also allows Mantel to play some of the elegant games with historical sources which have been one of the less obvious pleasures of this series. Thomas Howard [a new character in the series] wrote several love poems to Margaret Douglas, and she wrote some in return. These survive in the Devonshire Manuscript, a poetic miscellany gathered and curated by a group of women at the Henrican court (Mary Shelton, Mantel writes, ‘was clerk of the poetry book). Howard’s inept versification becomes a running joke.

We will need another movie series to realize the book fully — for it cries out for that, depends on our memories of the movie or stage play. I hope all the wonderful actors who were in Wolf Hall will return.

The lovely cover of the British edition and a limited 300 copies signed by Mantel (Herself!)

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So, to my gentle readers, stay in, wash your hands, try to stay well, do what you can to back leaders who will do something effective to help you with for your possible insolvency and medical bills, don’t let irrational fear drive you into hoarding any items you see in the supermarket which strike you as non-perishable — and find what pleasure and uplift and meaning in life you can during this time of social distancing (and all this will cost us individually) for the good of us all …


Us by Olga Pastuchiv, cover illustration for Fe-Lines: French Cat Poems through the Ages

Ellen

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

Dear friends,

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

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

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

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


An evening in the Pringles’ flat in Rumania ….

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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


The kitten in the TV series

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


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

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Olivia Manning (an appealing close-up)

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

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

The Cat

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

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

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

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

Ellen

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Porgy (Eric Owens) and Bess (Angel Blue)

Friends,

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

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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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


Bess and Porgy in a companionable moment

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

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

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

We wear the Mask

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

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

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

Sympathy

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

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

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

Ellen

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


Gradually appearing intertitle introducing the film

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

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

Friends and readers,

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


Mrs Rivers trying to appeal to Victoria


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


The white lawyer

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

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


Tish giving birth with her mother’s help


Bathing the baby

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

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


An iconic scene from their beginning love story

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ellen

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From August Wilson’s The Piano Lesson: this is the version I watched as a YouTube on-line

“It is all very well planning what you will do in six months, what you will do in a year, but it’s no good at all if you don’t have a plan for tomorrow.” Cromwell to his son Gregory as they leave the princess Mary in her cold room at Hatfield, Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall

Friends and readers,

At each year’s end many people look back over the year and ask themselves, how I or we did, how did this year compare to others, what do we remember as significant, as particularly happy and good (any successes) or as especially grievous, the bad failure. In public here I will mostly confine myself to books & movies; what did I read & see is the first problem. Often I think some book or movie was my favorite this year, when it was last year I read or saw it. I ask, Did any transform my attitudes to this or that; any new literary masterpieces; what lingers in my mind and what did I want to re-read and re-see.

My list is complicated because I do a lot of re-reading, re-discovery. Further, I spend a helluva lot of time watching movies, and I study them as intently as any book. Another thing I do is skip around, dip in and read here and there in books: none of that counted.  I skip all essays and articles, single short stories, even if a particular one was meaningful. I often do not finish a book and do not include those.  The list still seems hardly meaningful as it is varied (unless you start to see parallels), and it is hard for me to chose say the “top 10.” I also don’t want to go on about them individually because the blog would become insufferably long.

So, for once, like other people, here are simply lists, three of them. Sometimes I combine a few books or a series of movies as one


I also loved the Merchant-Ivory-Jhabvala film which I saw years ago, but read the book this year for the first time, finally, at last

Of books, the ones that will stay with me that I read through for the first time:

August Wilson Piano Lesson, Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, Jitney
Agier Michel, The Jungle: Calais’s camps and migrants
Naomi Mitchison The Bull Calves; Calder, Jenni The Nine Lives of Naomi Mitchison
Philips, Carol Crossing the River
Weil, Simone, Uprootedness; Simone de Beauvoir, Ethics of Ambiguity & Memoires d’une fille rangee (sans accents, only superior in the French)
Anne Boyd Rioux Meg Jo Beth Amy; Writing for Immortality
Rebecca Traistor’s All the Single Ladies; Lee Virginia Chambers-Schiller, Liberty: a Better Husband, Single Women in America, 1780 to 1840; Martha Vicinus’ Work and community for single Women, 1850-1930
Clifford D. Connor’s Colonel Despard: The Life and times of an Anglo-Irish Rebel
Peter Cameron, The City of Your Final Destination
Elaine Showalter, Inventing Herself
Virginia Woolf, Night and Day (superb, badly underrated)
Elena Ferrante, The Story of a New Name, Those who Leave and Those who Stay, The Beach at Night
Francis Power Cobbe, The Confessions of a Lost Dog
Oliphant’s The Rector’s Family, The Curate in Charge


Dazzling artistry

Of books, those that I reread for the first time in a long time so I had almost forgotten them (so I must not this year’s Trollope, masterpieces though the first three are: HKHWR, CYFH?, Phineas Finn, and Miss Mackenzie):

Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White (and the 2018 series with Jessie Buckley, scripted Fiona Seres)
Adhaf Soueif, Map of Love
Olivia Manning, The Great Fortune
Daphne DuMaurier, Jamaica Inn
Diderot, The Nun; Madame Roland’s Memoirs; Voltaire’s Letters from England
Penelope Fitzgerald, The bookshop; EL Carr, A Month in the Country — Booker Prize books
Margaret Oliphant, Autobiography and Letters as edited by Annie Walker; “The Open Door” (a short story, but pure gothic poetry)
E.M. Forster, Aspects of the Novel
Winston Graham, Cordelia, The Walking Stick, The Tumbled House


Just unforgettable series, Fortunes of War out of Manning’s 7 book series, Balkan and Levant Trilogies: Emma Thompson and Kenneth Branagh as the Pringles and Ronald Pickup as Prince Yakimov (scripted by Alan Plater)

Of movies, series and cinema and plays

Outlander, all four seasons
Poldark, the 1970s, both seasons; the New Poldark, Seasons 1-5
The Pallisers episodes 1-12
The Fortunes of War
The Durrells of Corfu (seasons 1-3); Hampstead (with Diane Keaton, Brendan Gleeson) (comfort movies)
Chernobyl
When They See Us
Chasing the Deer (another Culloden humanized, 1994)
Culloden (Watkins’s docudrama)
A Christmas Tale (Desplechin)
Metropolitan (Whit Stillman)
Wild Strawberries
The Lady’s Not For Burning, play and film (with Kenneth Branagh)
An Inspector Calls as rewritten by Aisling Walsh (& Priestley’s play)
Sheila Delaney A Taste of Honey, play and film
Dark Waters
Andrew Davies Les Miserables
Ruth Wilsons’ Mrs Wilson; Miss Pym’s Day Out (with Patricia Routledge, a YouTube)
Greta Gertwig’s Little Women
Amadeus, Wm Davenent’s Macbeth


I also listened to JR more than once


Fifty-Five Steps in court

I suppose, if this means anything, when I try to remember from 2 years, and a wee further back, here are titles books and films that leap to & linger in my mind: books, Claire Tomalin’s A Life of My Own, Virginia Woolf’s Jacob’s Room and Susan Sontag’s Volcano Lover; movies, Kedi (Cats of Istanbul), Fifty-five Steps (featuring Helena Bonham Carter) and Andrew Davies’s TV series, War and Peace.

Gentle reader, I promise you, swear I did not just throw at you all the books and movies I read and saw, but this represents a thoughtful selection, about 80% of what I read through and watched (and re-watched).


Claire at the Window as Outlander begins (with over-voice)

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

Ellen

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Dear friends and readers,

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


Skating by Moonlight — Ladybird Advent Calendar

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


The Come From Away cast as puzzled passengers ….

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

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


Deborah Winger and Anthony Hopkins as Joy and Jack

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

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

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

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Helen Dahm Swiff (1878-1986), Silent Night

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ellen

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

Dear friends and readers,

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ellen

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Inside the Culloden museum

As brevity is the soul of wit, I hope for once to please here that way. Over on my Austen reveries blog I told of my months of effort towards a paper on Culloden and the highland clearances as a crossroads of existence for so many: and that I finally focused on Naomi Mitchison’s masterpiece of a historical novel, The Bull Calves, written over 1941-47, set over two days in June, 1747, not far from Inverness, and the 1994 indie movie, Chasing the Deer, which adds a moving human story and the beauty of Scotland and another sophisticated interpretation of what was Jacobitism: well, I delivered said paper in a session on Jacobitism: Then and Now, at the recent EC/ASECS conference at Gettysburg, and have put the paper on my site at academia.edu.

Here it is: At this Crossroads of my Life: books & movies about Culloden and Its Aftermath.

Do read it, gentle reader, and if you have time or are so disposed, send comments, suggestions, thoughts for future reading and watching.


This is not a trailer advertisement, but a promotional reel made to attract funding for Chasing the Deer (first aired on Grampian TV)

Ellen

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