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Archive for the ‘Edwardian drama’ Category


Aurundia Brown as Joan (she plays the part in the Folger)

Friends,

On Sunday afternoon at the Folger, a full audience watched the four actors who this time comprised the whole of the Bedlam company players perform some 20+ (at least) characters of Shaw’s St Joan. The scenery was minimal; props just what necessity demanded; the costumes worn were of the barest type, ordinary clothes for the most part, mixed with a few garments (robes) or objects recognizable as Elizabethan. The way an actor would turn into a different characters took a minimal of indication: the actor turned round, made a different face, wore garment never worn before &c. When I came home, I took down from my two shelves of Shaw books (my husband read much of Shaw) my volume of his plays to double-check the performed text, and confirmed yes Shaw’s was this long play of many dialogues of plain ordinary language clashing, obsessively repeating the same demands, replies, memories, going over the same set of events. The major presences are three powerful men, those the maid persuades to follow her to find the French king, and fight the battles the way she said, then the men who harass and interrogate and try to control her at the scenes, and then then men who prosecuted, shamed, tortured and executed her. Plus Joan herself.


Photo found on the Net in this article

Probably the recent choice of an African-American actress for the role in several productions is a deliberate reference to the similar vulnerability of African-American ordinary people at the hands of white men in and outside of powerful institutions. The play includes speeches about the church, the state, intermediate bodies (like aristocrats); while the charges thrown at Joan once they are identified are repeatedly about her being a female dressed as a man, taking on male roles. That is what is truly unendurable. They accused her of being a whore and a witch.

In his long preface Shaw let this reader know that he had some complicated reasons for writing the play: to show that both sides of the aisle had much to say for themselves, on the nature of hallucination, on the kind of religious declarations and behavior we’ve seen as fanatic and yet normal and everyday. See wikipedia for an excellent full analysis. It would be interesting to know how much of his dialogue was taken from court records or second history books. Shaw is also concerned to have outlined Marxist thought, and reconcile it from ancient to present time. W\what they were saying about tyranny, elections, delusion, following a powerful guru (why), torture, justice, and Joan’s “voices” were utterances relevant to us today. I found myself astounded that the actors wanted the audience to be open-minded towards the desperate and then triumphant blind officials (most did not recognize their own hypocrises). So therefore the corrupt machiavels were a relief: for example, the Earl of Warwick after the defeat of the English determined to burn the maid at the stake. All this is worked into the speeches and day business. Here is a quick summary of the story line.

And yet the play was absorbing, entertaining, left the watcher with a clear idea of who was speaking, what were the arguments made against facilitating giving women more power (Joan was burned as much for putting on trousers and defying the establishment’s subordination of women) then, what were the specifics of what the Maid claimed, and what was held against her when the Stuart king was brought back. How did they accomplish all that? They were tremendously energetic. They were often comic in approach. Lots of stage business. The actors were careful to let us know who was on stage and throw hints out at where we are in a given book and speak their lines, some of it in French or medieval-sounding Latin. A group of audience members were on the stage with them (and had to submit to have their chairs moved around from act to act, scene to scene once), and they played on the stage and in the audience.


Eric Tucker and Edmund Lewis

They are a touring group (e.g., in New York City), and also do a Hamlet (4 actors doing all parts) so when the play is over at the Folger, it may travel near you. Very like the Sense and Sensibility (also directed by Eric Tucker) that was performed at the Folger last year, the Bedlam St Joan offers the sort of experience you can’t have in a movie-house (or huge theater). The Folger blurb said St Joan is the closest play to Shakespeare in the 20th century: I’m not sure of that but it is a chronicle play like his.

For myself I found it a surprise. Hitherto all the Shaw plays I’ve seen have been realistic witty, what one might call novels of manners turned into polemical plays, e.g., Mrs Warren’s Profession, The Misalliance. Pygmalion, Heartbreak House. As I say, Jim enjoyed reading Shaw’s criticism (and read some aloud to me) and we would go to a Shaw play if ever we were in a place where one was played. I had years ago when a girl seen Androcles and the Lion on TV as a film (so there’s a fable set in a historical period), and had read how or that Major Barbara and Man and Superman have these long speeches, are debates, but never seen (or looked at) these latter two. Now I’d be curious too partly because reading them (as I look at them tonight for the first time) would feel like reading a treatise when they are intended to and can be theater entertainment for an interactive audience. There’s a Blackstone audio.

As Shaw says, it is a wonder why this particular girl and incident has held the imagination of enough people for centuries: The Hollow Crown rendition of Shakespeare Saint Joan in Henry VI begins with showing her courage and illusions sympathetically and then turns to show her a crazed murderous French fanatic, witch-like, but (in the recent film) a figure of pathos too.


Early poster

Ellen

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Illustration from the original 1933 edition

It is universally admitted that the family from which the subject of this memoir claims descent is one of the greatest antiquity — Woolf’s opening sentence, much Austen allusion in this fun book.

What is not biography — is nothing at all — Stanislaw Brzozowski

Dear friends and readers,

We might regard this as an unusual foremother poet blog for Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806-61). One of the people class asked me if I would recommend this as a biography. Yes, to start with. Perhaps for Mary Russell Mitford (1787-1855) too.


From the same edition, the way photographs of Vita Sackville-West dressed in costumes of different ages are scattered throughout Orlando

This and last week I read and discussed it with a class of older adults. We had a very good time with it. We discussed it as a biography of Elizabeth Barrett Browning through the eyes of her dog (anticipating Margaret Forster’s Lady’s Maid, about how EBB’s life impinged on, used up and was seen through Wilson, her lady’s maid). Thus it’s about the life experience of a 19th century woman attempting to be a serious writer and feminist and ruled over, contained by men and imprisoning conventions. It is also her ripost to The Barretts of Wimpole Street (as Mantel’s Wolf Hall is hers to Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons).

As the viewpoint is most of the time a cocker spaniel’s and every attempt is to make see and feel the world as a dog might — smell, feel, emotions of loyalty, attachment, sheer joy in bodily exercise. Why not call it an original modern animal study, about the marginalized, beings not thought worthy commemorating — as not sufficiently representing the general experience of men. Remember too the classic Canadian animal story, Beautiful Joe, and at the same time Darwin’s The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals, and the great animal studies by women, Goodall, Galdikas, Fosse and Sy Montgomery.

Flush is also Pinka, a dog given Woolf and Leonard by Vita Sackville-West who figures so centrally in Orlando. Pinka became Leonard’s dog and was much loved.

It ought to be listed with the other original modernist biographies discussed by Andre Maurois. It fits his criteria: artful — it has exquisitely alive description all psychologized through the presence of a consciousness attributed to Flush. It is scientific, with documentable proof. Letters the life-blood of this form are its basis: EBB and Browning’s courtship correspondence as it’s come to be called. The autobiography of Miss Mitford is here. A complex presence in complex circumstances. Flush learns to discount hierarchy. He learns just around the solidity and middle class order, luxury beauty of the houses, lie dangerous slums, people waiting to prey on “innocent” men, come from say from the ballet.
Identification: the writer is reliving some secret need or desire. EBB’s illness began in Torquay (and Cornwall meant much to Woolf); she too needed to overthrow her father, both poets. Much fictionalizing: Flush’s dreams, his talk with other dogs, but also utterly convincing as he (dramatic irony) slowly lives through what we know is about to happen. Women poets, it’s been shown, identify with small animals.

And for its beauty of style, which is as lovely as Orlando.

There are five acts, from which I quote to convey something of the experience of the book.

1. Three Mile Cross: Flush’s genealogy, heritage (broadly satiric and amusing), a description of his younger years, of his attachment to Queen Anne. This includes a brilliant sketch of Miss Mitford herself, to whom Flush was much attached

[from his life with Miss Mitford] Since the Mitfords had fallen on evil days–Kerenhappock was the only servant–the chair-covers were made by Miss Mitford herself and of the cheapest material; the most important article of furniture seems to have been a large table; the most important room a large greenhouse–it is unlikely that Flush was surrounded by any of those luxuries, rainproof kennels, cement walks, a maid or boy attached to his person, that would now be accorded a dog of his rank. But he throve; he enjoyed with all the vivacity of his temperament most of the pleasures and some of the licences natural to his youth and sex. Miss Mitford, it is true, was much confined to the cottage. She had to read aloud to her father hour after hour; then to play cribbage; then, when at last he slumbered, to write and write and write at the table in the greenhouse in the attempt to pay their bills and settle their debts. But at last the longed-for moment would come. She thrust her papers aside, clapped a hat on her head, took her umbrella and set off for a walk across the fields with her dogs. Spaniels are by nature sympathetic; Flush, as his story proves, had an even excessive appreciation of human emotions. The sight of his dear mistress snuffing the fresh air at last, letting it ruffle her white hair and redden the natural freshness of her face, while the lines on her huge brow smoothed themselves out, excited him to gambols whose wildness was half sympathy with her own delight. As she strode through the long grass, so he leapt hither and thither, parting its green curtain. The cool globes of dew or rain broke in showers of iridescent spray about his nose; the earth, here hard, here soft, here hot, here cold, stung, teased and tickled the soft pads of his feet. Then what a variety of smells interwoven in subtlest combination thrilled his nostrils; strong smells of earth, sweet smells of flowers; nameless smells of leaf and bramble; sour smells as they crossed the road; pungent smells as they entered bean-fields. But suddenly down the wind came tearing a smell sharper, stronger, more lacerating than any–a smell that ripped across his brain stirring a thousand instincts, releasing a million memories–the smell of hare, the smell of fox. Off he flashed like a fish drawn in a rush through water further and further. He forgot his mistress; he forgot all humankind. He heard dark men cry “Span! Span!” He heard whips crack. He raced; he rushed. At last he stopped bewildered; the incantation faded; very slowly, wagging his tail sheepishly, he trotted back across the fields to where Miss Mitford stood shouting “Flush! Flush! Flush!” and waving her umbrella …

How distraught he was when she sold him (she couldn’t afford him) and the door slams in his face.

II: The back bedroom: this intensely limited life. Flush learns to live in close confinement. He gives up much for the love of EBB.

Why, Miss Barrett wondered, did Flush tremble suddenly, and whimper and start and listen? She could hear nothing; she could see nothing; there was nobody in the room with them. She could not guess that Folly, her sister’s little King Charles, had passed the door; or that Catiline, the Cuba bloodhound, had been given a mutton-bone by a footman in the basement. But Flush knew; he heard; he was ravaged by the alternate rages of lust and greed. Then with all her poet’s imagination Miss Barrett could not divine what Wilson’s wet umbrella meant to Flush; what memories it recalled, of forests and parrots and wild trumpeting elephants; nor did she know, when Mr. Kenyon stumbled over the bell-pull, that Flush heard dark men cursing in the mountains; the cry, “Span! Span!” rang in his ears, and it was in some muffled, ancestral rage that he bit him.

Flush was equally at a loss to account for Miss Barrett’s emotions. There she would lie hour after hour passing her hand over a white page with a black stick; and her eyes would suddenly fill with tears; but why? “Ah, my dear Mr. Horne,” she was writing. “And then came the failure in my health . . . and then the enforced exile to Torquay . . . which gave a nightmare to my life for ever, and robbed it of more than I can speak of here; do not speak of that anywhere. Do not speak of that, dear Mr. Horne.” But there was no sound in the room, no smell to make Miss Barrett cry. Then again Miss Barrett, still agitating her stick, burst out laughing. She had drawn “a very neat and characteristic portrait of Flush, humorously made rather like myself,” and she had written under it that it “only fails of being an excellent substitute for mine through being more worthy than I can be counted.” What was there to laugh at in the black smudge that she held out for Flush to look at? He could smell nothing; he could hear nothing. There was nobody in the room with them.

III: The Hooded man. The coming of Browning: Woolf imagines Flush imagining Browning. Flush is there, looking on, and participates in EBB’s erotic liberation, it will threaten the status quo, the 8th of July – we can’t know how hurt the dog was, but he is stolen, snatched, kidnapped (Tuesday 1 September), at the book’s end. Both chapters conclude with Flush distraught before human power. Browning did wear lemon-colored gloves (dandyish).

But one night early in January 1845 the postman knocked. Letters fell into the box as usual. Wilson went downstairs to fetch the letters as usual. Everything was as usual–every night the postman knocked, every night Wilson fetched the letters, every night there was a letter for Miss Barrett. But tonight the letter was not the same letter; it was a different letter. Flush saw that, even before the envelope was broken. He knew it from the way that Miss Barrett took it; turned it; looked at the vigorous, jagged writing of her name. He knew it from the indescribable tremor in her fingers, from the impetuosity with which they tore the flap open, from the absorption with which she read. He watched her read. And as she read he heard, as when we are half asleep we hear through the clamour of the street some bell ringing and know that it is addressed to us, alarmingly yet faintly, as if someone far away were trying to rouse us with the warning of fire, or burglary, or some menace against our peace and we start in alarm before we wake–so Flush, as Miss Barrett read the little blotted sheet, heard a bell rousing him from his sleep; warning him of some danger menacing his safety and bidding him sleep no more. Miss Barrett read the letter quickly; she read the letter slowly; she returned it carefully to its envelope. She too slept no more.

Again, a few nights later, there was the same letter on Wilson’s tray. Again it was read quickly, read slowly, read over and over again. Then it was put away carefully, not in the drawer with the voluminous sheets of Miss Mitford’s letters, but by itself. Now Flush paid the full price of long years of accumulated sensibility lying couched on cushions at Miss Barrett’s feet. He could read signs that nobody else could even see. He could tell by the touch of Miss Barrett’s fingers that she was waiting for one thing only–for the postman’s knock, for the letter on the tray. She would be stroking him perhaps with a light, regular movement; suddenly–there was the rap–her fingers constricted; he would be held in a vice while Wilson came upstairs. Then she took the letter and he was loosed and forgotten.

IV: Whitechapel. Now here we have the important kidnapping and the elopement: the London outside that upper middle class: Taylor the head. Flush like a hostage in a concentration camp. Filthy, bad food, no water, others dying around him. Each day added on. He fears for his life.

He lay, not daring even to whimper, hour after hour. Thirst was his worst suffering; but one sip of the thick greenish water that stood in a pail near him disgusted him; he would rather die than drink another. Yet a majestic greyhound was drinking greedily. Whenever the door was kicked open he looked up. Miss Barrett–was it Miss Barrett? Had she come at last? But it was only a hairy ruffian, who kicked them all aside and stumbled to a broken chair upon which he flung himself. Then gradually the darkness thickened. He could scarcely make out what shapes those were, on the floor, on the mattress, on the broken chairs. A stump of candle was stuck on the ledge over the fireplace. A flare burnt in the gutter outside. By its flickering, coarse light Flush could see terrible faces passing outside, leering at the window. Then in they came, until the small crowded room became so crowded that he had to shrink back and lie even closer against the wall. These horrible monsters–some were ragged, others were flaring with paint and feathers–squatted on the floor; hunched themselves over the table. They began to drink; they cursed and struck each other. Out tumbled, from the bags that were dropped on the floor, more dogs–lap dogs, setters, pointers with their collars still on them; and a giant cockatoo that flustered and dashed its way from corner to corner shrieking “Pretty Poll,” “Pretty Poll,” with an accent that would have terrified its mistress, a widow in Maida Vale. Then the women’s bags were opened, and out were tossed on to the table bracelets and rings and brooches such as Flush had seen Miss Barrett wear and Miss Henrietta. The demons pawed and clawed them; cursed and quarrelled over them. The dogs barked. The children shrieked, and the splendid cockatoo–such a bird as Flush had often seen pendant in a Wimpole Street window–shrieked “Pretty Poll! Pretty Poll!” faster and faster until a slipper was thrown at it and it flapped its great yellow-stained dove-grey wings in frenzy. Then the candle toppled over and fell. The room was dark. It grew steadily hotter and hotter; the smell, the heat, were unbearable; Flush’s nose burnt; his coat twitched. And still Miss Barrett did not come.

We see the men and Browning too want her not to pay the kidnapper and argue, it is encouraging black mail. What emerges is they don’t care about the dog, the individual life. We see the courage and pluck it took Charlotte to drive away by herself and retrieve her (by that time) beloved dog.

We are told that Flush never mastered the principles of human society – neither have I — real debate over what this phrase means – is it principle or a life and lives that matter. I’m on the side of live and banks too, and so as EBB and Wilson, the climax of he book and prelude to elopement and Flush’s unsentimental education; what he wants is clean water – but there is now another world out there Flush knows about – a third world.

How slowly the dog moves from attack to attachment towards Browning; he notices the boots set aside; Miss EBB is gone all morning and returns exhausted; then the marriage in London and escape.

V: Italy. This is a long chapter which includes Flush’s re-juvenation, and so thethe birth of Robert whom they called Pen and the return to England and back is so intensely important. -– a new life, the new physical place, the new culture, new weather. Here dogs are different but not differentiated by status and class.

Flush’s new found independence, — they are all liberated now, her sewing heralds the coming of the baby (in life EBB had something like 4 miscarriages. Flush resumes the very happy adult dog life in Italy that he had with Miss Mitford — until he encounters flees. His hair must be shaved.

Flush had lain upon human knees and heard men’s voices. His flesh was veined with human passions; he knew all grades of jealousy, anger and despair. Now in summer he was scourged by fleas. [7] With a cruel irony the sun that ripened the grapes brought also the fleas. “. . . Savonarola’s martyrdom here in Florence,” wrote Mrs. Browning, “is scarcely worse than Flush’s in the summer.” Fleas leapt to life in every corner of the Florentine houses; they skipped and hopped out of every cranny of the old stone; out of every fold of old tapestry; out of every cloak, hat and blanket. They nested in Flush’s fur. They bit their way into the thickest of his coat. He scratched and tore. His health suffered; he became morose, thin and feverish. Miss Mitford was appealed to. What remedy was there, Mrs. Browning wrote anxiously, for fleas? Miss Mitford, still sitting in her greenhouse at Three Mile Cross, still writing tragedies, put down her pen and looked up her old prescriptions–what Mayflower had taken, what Rosebud. But the fleas of Reading die at a pinch. The fleas of Florence are red and virile. To them Miss Mitford’s powders might well have been snuff. In despair Mr. and Mrs. Browning went down on their knees beside a pail of water and did their best to exorcise the pest with soap and scrubbing-brush. It was in vain. At last one day Mr. Browning, taking Flush for a walk, noticed that people pointed; he heard one man lay a finger to his nose and whisper “La rogna” (mange). As by this time “Robert is as fond of Flush as I am,” to take his walk of an afternoon with a friend and to hear him thus stigmatised was intolerable. Robert, his wife wrote, “wouldn’t bear it any longer.” Only one remedy remained, but it was a remedy that was almost as drastic as the disease itself. However democratic Flush had become and careless of the signs of rank, he still remained what Philip Sidney had called him, a gentleman by birth. He carried his pedigree on his back. His coat meant to him what a gold watch inscribed with the family arms means to an impoverished squire whose broad acres have shrunk to that single circle. It was the coat that Mr. Browning now proposed to sacrifice. He called Flush to him and, “taking a pair of scissors, clipped him all over into the likeness of a lion.”

As Robert Browning snipped, as the insignia of a cocker spaniel fell to the floor, as the travesty of quite a different animal rose round his neck, Flush felt himself emasculated, diminished, ashamed. What am I now? he thought, gazing into the glass. And the glass replied with the brutal sincerity of glasses, “You are nothing.” He was nobody. Certainly he was no longer a cocker spaniel. But as he gazed, his ears bald now, and uncurled, seemed to twitch. It was as if the potent spirits of truth and laughter were whispering in them. To be nothing–is that not, after all, the most satisfactory state in the whole world?

Note the last sentiment. We are hearing Woolf.

At book’s close there is the joke Nero jumped out of the window because he couldn’t take those angry silences between Carlyle and Jane. In later years Woolf writes of this Jane and her relationship with Geraldine (Jewsbury) brilliantly.

VI: The end: Coda: Flush’s old age – Flush rightly suspects as frauds the new spiritual mediums Elizabeth enjoys. His care for her is too concerned, too for real care. Here we pick up on how Robert Browning and EBB had their strains. Flush’s aging, tiring, and then disappearance from the record. He predeceased her. The book ends with EBB’s poem to him. Alas, over-written:

You see this dog. It was but yesterday
I mused, forgetful of his presence here,
Till thought on thought drew downward tear on tear;
When from the pillow, where wet-cheeked I lay,
A head as hairy as Faunus, thrust its way
Right sudden against my face,—two golden-clear
Large eyes astonished mine,—a drooping ear
Did flap me on either cheek, to dry the spray!
I started first, as some Arcadian
Amazed by goatly god in twilight grove:
But as my bearded vision closelier ran
My tears off, I knew Flush, and rose above
Surprise and sadness; thanking the true Pan,
Who, by low creatures, leads to heights of love.

Flush was buried beneath Casa Guidi; EBB’s remains are in the Protestant cemetery in Florence, and Browning’s in Westminster Abbey. Why is Flush’s life not set next to Maurois’s of Shelley, Scott’s of Zelide, Zweig of Mary Queen of Scots (just as deeply dreamed). Because “who is interested in a dog?” said another class member.

Woolf’s delightful annotations and notes follow: Wilson’s life caught here. Lily (fell in love with a guardsman who did not stay true to her. But marry she must so she chose a man-servant in the Browning’s house. No document about what happened to him. In later years she takes care of one of Browning’s ancient poet friends; very later as widow living with Pen. The safest thing was to be loyal. Why are there no servants’ lives in the ODNB?

So I propose to add Virginia Woolf’s brilliant tour-de-force of a modernist biography, Flush: A Biography to the canon. 1842-1858? I liken it to Anthony Trollope’s wrongly neglected When the Mastiffs went to Iceland, a political social and ethnographic study disguised a jeux d’esprit travel book.

Ellen

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Vivien Leigh as Anna Karenina (from the first half of 1948 film, at home — an unfamiliar shot)


Gretta Garbo as Anna Karenina (reminiscing in front of Kitty, a fine moment from 1935 film)

Friends and readers,

Each time one watches a great movie, like each time one reads a great book, one learns more about the film, art, and to some extent the life it reflects. In these two Anne Karenina films, the visuals tell a different story from the script: in visuals, the 1935 AK is far more romantic and highly erotic, but in the dialogue it’s the conventional point of view; the 1948 AK is from its words disquieting, disturbing, but its visuals present prosaic conventional or picturesque images.

Out of eighteen film adaptations, I watched five, attempted a sixth, and read good essays on yet three more. None of my choices were Russian. The finest, in my view is the longest, not written about anywhere, the 1977-78 BBC Anna Karenina, scripted by Donald Wilson (who wrote the 1967 BBC Forsyte Saga), featuring Nicola Paget, Eric Porter, Stuart Wilson. It should be treated like the BBC 1972 War and Peace, scripted by Jack Pullman, featuring Anthony Hopkins. I’ve written about the 2012 Joe Wright-Tom Stoppard Anna, with Keira Knightley, Jude Law, and Matthew Macfayden.

For tonight I’ll cover the first (for English speakers) two famous Anna Karenina films (1935, 1948); on another night I’ll tell about two more (1985, made for TV, with Jacqueline Brisset, Paul Scofield as Karenina, Christopher Reeve as Vronsky, 1997, directed by Bernard Rose, notably greatly acted by Sophie Marceau, Phyllida Law, Sean Bean, Alfred Molina, James Fox, Fiona Shaw and in some ways the most interesting of all the AK movies I’ve seen). A third night, I’ll describe the three I wasn’t able to reach by watching but read about; and at last, a fourth and fifth blog, the culmination, we’ll do the 1977-78 BBC Anna Karenina masterpiece.

I assume my reader knows the story; if not, go back to my blog on the novel by Tolstoy for links (as read aloud by Davina Porter).

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


The 1948 film opens on the train, cold, snowy and a terrible accident quickly ensues (Anna thinks it an omen, the pragmatic Stepan says no)

I’ll go backwards because I watched the 1948 British Anna first. I was so curious to see Leigh and Richardson. This AK was scripted by no less than Jean Anouilh and Julien Duvivier (who also directed), with a little help from Guy Morgan (whoever he is), with Vivien Leigh, Ralph Richardson as Karenin, and a very weak (unconvincing as someone who’d I’d find irresistible) Kieron Moore.

With British actors, a French company, I was naively surprised to find it resembled the 1956 US War and Peace, scripted King Vidor, featuring Henry Fonda, Audrey Hepburn, Mel Ferrer, John Mills. The same kind of sentimentality and superficiality of acting or keeping emotions decorous. I noted that the women’s voices were all this same soft oozy breathless sound Marilyn Monroe and Jackie Kennedy and Billie Holiday and so many others affected. Including the Kitty. Only the older women allowed to have real voices. I was so absorbed and bonded with Leigh in Streetcar and a couple of her other films (The Roman Spring of Mrs Stone also by Tennessee Williams) that when she was at first presented as this coy sweet thing was grating. Vronsky and his friends were all these Don Ameche matinee idol stuffed male dolls.


The first meeting is at the train (as in the book and several of the AK films)

That said, Duvivier-Anouilh’s work has merit. Richardson as Karenin is its core: hard as steel and mean (not softened as in the BBC 1977-78 Eric Porter conception). This man wanted a divorce fiercely, right away. Richardson’s conception of the character and acting reminded me of him playing Dr Slope in the 1949 chilling version of Henry James’s Washington Square by William Wyler where Olivia de Haviland is Catherine. So the rigid male controlling his women. Duvivier-Anouilh begin with Hugh Dempster as Stiva and they tried for comedy — which is what Joe Wright does and what is in Tolstoy about the marriage of Stiva and Mary Kerridge as Dolly. Telling about US culture, at the same time as Stiva is socially okay he is adulterous and it’s suggested he and Anna inherited this unfortunate disposition. They included (as the 1997 AK does not, but Wright 2012 does) the race course where Anna first reveals herself. The most effective other male is Michael Gough playing Levin’s brother. The gossipy types spoiling things with their tittle tattle is effective.


A playful Karenin when he comes to pick Anne up at the train station, home from Moscow

In 1948 the film-makers were much more anti-adultery than the 1977-78 BBC, but when in the carriage after the race track where Anna’s intense love for Vronsky was on the table, the whole movie shifts into a mode capable of accommodating bitterly realistic marriage, with a shift in the last quarter of psychologically shattering tragic death. Karenina insists on taking Anna home from the races for having disgraced herself. Leigh is abject (anticipating Nicola Paget in the 1978 BBC version) when she says she won’t ask for a divorce. Leigh also says she deserves to be punished (which no other Anna I’ve seen says). The film-makers try to make the lack of a divorce understandable in Anna’s love for her boy, concern for his welfare with a harpy-housekeeper. Leigh is seen caring for the boy but it doesn’t come off in the same emphatic way when Anna turned suicidal and will approach anywhere the BBC managed.


Richardson and Leigh in the crucial quarreling scene

The flight of the young couple to the suburbs was not successful. They didn’t plan enough (as Jim and I when we were young did not). There is no real critique of society; Levin Niall McGinnis) and Kitty (Sally Anne Howes) are downplayed as ordinary people not thinking much about these things Richardson is seen as an admirable strong man doing politics. Somber, thoughtful, and prosaic too. Originally sensible.

Vronsky’s mother is cold and cruel to Anna, openly snubbing Anna in Anna’s own home but that is put down to her character (not the influence of those around her). In this film Anna self-destructs because she lacks strength from within to live on herself. She’s blamed in effect in several scenes where Vronskry is trying to compromise and increasingly irritated, grated upon, towards the end calling Anna a monster. The quarrels get worse: It’s presented as not fair but nonetheless natural. The social types who fit in surround Anna on her mistaken trip to the opera where Vronsky himself is going (Stuart Wilson was not going in 1978) and sits in his mother’s box. The quarrels get worse: It’s presented as not fair but nonetheless natural. She visits Dolly who welcomes her and finds she is not thrown out of the family but feels her position and flees.

Anouilh’s script is fine and Dudivier’s directing good; it is also a French film with European expressionist techniques in the use of lighting and performances. Despite it’s being just one movie length, it seems to have much more time for inner psychology than 2012 (comparable in time) Wright/Stoppard. Richardson is this hollow man who wants to obey conventions, not a bad man, he just didn’t understand he wasn’t satisfying his wife.


Oblivious Stiva early in the film


Kitty the innocent maiden at the ball

The depiction of the marriage is very much a depiction of a 1948 or mid-20th century marriage. The dialogue is showing us how a couple can become incompatible — it’s not a costume drama (even though it’s produced by Alexander Korda, who may have been responsible for the unbelievable sets), or film of a classic novel but a kind of semi-women’s film only with extravagant clothes. Leigh is given new kinds of lines about her needs, dissatisfactions, and her attachment to her son made more daily and prosaic. I recognized the actresses playing Dolly and Kitty from other films at the time; Kitty is more like a novel character in her illness over Vronsky but Dolly is a woman whose husband is unfaithful living with it. Levin is marginalized and made comic in the same spirit as Stiva.


Dolly’s unhappiness early in the film


Frederick March look-alike when they first flee, he is in love but brisk, sharp, assertive

The music and picturesque settings are now a problem. The music is soppy, the sudden soft focuses, the feel is of a weepy woman’s film at times to us today. She is filmed in a corridor or at these people’s stairways with this pathetic treatment. Outside picturesque house left over from Gone with the Wind or maybe some film taking place in New Orleans. Maybe this pleased and made the 1948 audience weep.


Anna losing her grip

But then everything then falls away as Anna is left alone and we get a 10 minute sequence of her mind going to pieces haunted in the house (hears footsteps). Leigh takes over and is stunning. This sequence takes a long time. It’s a specialty of Leigh’s. She is trying to follow after Vronsky on the train, and happens on and watches an incompatible couple, gradually losing it on the ground until she steps out, in front of the train. This is done slowly as the train comes at her. the camera on her face. It’s tough and while I didn’t take the down there are very Anouilh desperate lines about life before the train smashes her. A blemish is an inter-title just before this from Tolstoy reasserting how good life is or something like this — surely stuck in by the studio.

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1935 — Anna Karenina – Greta Garbo (Anna), Frederick March (Vronsky), Basil Rathbone (Karenin), Maureen O’Sullivan (Kitty). An all-star cast. A studio product so Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer matters; the director chosen was Clarence Brown with three different writers (the script writer was not respected in earlier films).


Garbo and March

First upfront: where I’m unfair: I don’t care for little triangle mustaches all the men seem to have. Th March look-alike for Vronsky in the 1948 film had this too. To me they look absurd. The males clothes in this one make them look trussed up. I realized the film-makers were once again trying for comedy at the opening with absurd feast, but why the men should all go under the table is beyond me. I preferred the train opening in 1948 but admit the 2012 AK also begins with comedy and Stiva (as does Tolstoy). Kitty is made too innocent: she does yearn for Vronsky but she is hardly allowed near him; she is kept with Levin all the time, and Levin is marginalized, the actor a nobody, Gyles Ischam. Vronsky is thus to be seen as someone who might “pollute” a nice girl’s chastity. Like later Indian films (which eliminate Lucy Steele from Austen’s S&S as too raw material) this shows just how women were kept dolls.

I noticed something no longer with us — film-makers were willing to hire older “ugly” actresses and give them semi-comical parts. Such an actress plays Vronsky’s mother (May Robson, a character actress at the time), so we don’t take her seriously. Who would taken an ugly old woman as a serious presence? On one level, this means jobs for aging semi-fat women; on another, there can be little sympathy such as we find for example in Virginia Woolf (and films made from her books). A third: there is a kind of toleration in showing this reality, except it’s treated derisively. Such a woman type is even in Gaslight (as comic relief — now there’s a powerful film).


Gretta Garbo as Anne Karenina (from just before she meets Karernin in her way home from Moscow, after she has met Vronsky, on train)

All the acting seemed to be artificial including Garbo’s – somehow stiff, detached from their bodies, not coming from some gut area. I felt somehow the tones were off — the falling in love in this film did not convince me. Also there is no felt violence from the men. Some of this is 1935 dramaturgy but it’s hard to make the transition in this film and I have made it in others — when I was reviewing a book about pre-Hays and post-Hays code films I saw a number of 1930s films which were rooted in real emotion and a real sense of body. Was it the awareness they were doing a classic book and so naturally it cannot be quite real? or contemporary? no one believed in it — who had read it of the cast or crew, after all? On the other hand, some of the pictorial moments, the shots were striking (as in the famous one just above)


Rathbone as Karenin also reproaches Anna for her extravagant outfits …

That said, this is a still living effective film.

The crucial or climactic moment was similar to the one in the 1948: there is a fierce quarrel between Karenin and Anna on the way home from the race (where Vronsky is again thrown). Some of the language written by Behrman reappeared in the 1948 script: she is abject, she blames herself, he won’t give her a divorce, but it also takes a different direction: she blames him for caring for appearances. Rathbone is far more menacing: he looms over and accosts Anna in the bedroom: she is too open about her flirtation with Vronsky and Anna tells him she does love Vronsky. This pair argues over appearances: he cares about social appearance (he refuses to admit to jealousy) for the sake of his career; she says she cares nothing for this. It’s interesting to me that this opposition is one that is made explicit in Anouilh/Dudividier’s 1948 AK. It’s not couched that way in the 1978 BBC because in this later liberal era, they were the critiquing society full-stop.


One of Garbo’s many scenes with her boy

I was surprised by Garbo’s presentation. This shows how little I’ve seen I guess. She was not at all a vamp nor over glamorous, but framed in a downright sentimental way: she is clearly filmed as being stunningly beautiful. I had not realized how tall she is. I didn’t recognize March. I did recognize a number of the actors from other films in this company. The most convincing moments were Anna with the son (Freddie Bartholomew). I read afterwards in brief more recent commentary that the mother-wife role was the subtext given Garbo (or the role she longed for) in her films. I would not have guessed that: I thought she was a “vamp.”

It improves around this same spot: the second movie (1948) is then probably modeled as to structure on the first. Vronsky and Anna go to Venice, they are lonely and miss Russia so return, then they are ostracized, the trip to the opera is insisted on by Anna, the humiliation, with a visit to Levin and Kitty at whose house Dolly and Stiva happen to be, preceding the suicide.

But there is much difference and maybe people today could like the 1935 better. Garbo is not a distraught woman, she does not go into a tizzy of self-berating, she does not fall ill — as Anna does in the book from the childbirth. The childbirth is omitted altogether — maybe the 1935 film makers omitted it because they did not want this weakening scene. Basil Rathbone never for a moment compromises in the way Richardson and Porter do.

Garbo remains strong, her speeches show her justifying at least her outlook for sincerity and real emotional life, but then the book has to be followed so after the couple goes off to gether, we have her suddenly angrily berating Frederick March (who looks astonished) and demanding he act out love for her, declaiming doesn’t love her, and she is desperate.


Garbo as Anna in emotional pain from genuine rejection about 2/3 the way through the film


Vronsky wants out

Another change: of all the Vronskys I’ve watched thus far, March alone explode angrily very early on, says he cannot take this any longer and leaves Anna forthwith. The 1935 film has him get an invitation to rejoin his regiment for war so he has somewhere to leave to. There is no near suicide in any of them but the 1977 Stuart Wilson, but one could believe they would self-destruct, not March in this one. He is your Boghart tough man — he goes off to war purposefully after the suicide (totally unlike the book where Vronsky’s going off to fight is throwing himself away for what is senseless). US militarism glimpsed here.

So when Anna visits Dolly and Stiva this occurs after Vronsky has left her. In this 1935 movie Dolly at the visit is clearly bleak since Stiva after partly scolding Anna (yes) for her affair, is clearly going out to a mistress. (This kind of outright disdainful contempt is not seen in the 1948 or 1978 or 1985 movie.) OTOH, unlike the book and all the other movies, Dolly tells Anna she has made the right choice: we see Dolly’s children are selfish and clamoring. Not companions for Dolly. Anna was right to leave Karenin whatever Vronsky’s behavior now.


But as Dolly tells Anna that Anna is better off, we see how lost and rigid Anna has become

Then the scene at the train is very brief and we do not see her body or anything smashed. All very discreet. As I said, Garbo is not presented as transgressive or shattered. Instead this 1935 movie reverts to Frederick March Vronsky who we began with at the feast (with Stiva there too). He has this fancy painting of Anna and talks remorsefully about having left her and says he will always feel guilty.


Levin and Kitty at the ball

The weakest scenes in 1935 are the weakest in the 1948: the opening of Kitty where in 1935 she is not even allowed to dance with Vronsky is repeated; the Levin-Kitty wedding and superficial scenes of wedded content. Again, the strongest scenes are between Anna and her son. They are much longer than the 1948; the son stands up for her, mocks his father. Very good. And we have the servant (Harry Beresford) who says how good she has treated him so he will let her in (that’s in the 1978 film too).


Where we are invited to imagine she will fling herself

End of film. Taking A Streetcar Named Desire (which also lies behind the 1948 film), we might say Garbo as Anna has turned into Blanche who kills herself to escape all these men.

At the end of the 1935 film there is a list of countries where it’s said this film will not be shown, is forbidden. So the adultery was more shocking in 1935. Maybe this curious punishment of Anna (Vronsky actually leaving her, telling her he’s had it well before she kills herself) is there to satisfy the moral lesson that women who are adulterous must not have any joy.

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Brief recapitulation, despite some real strengths in the 1935 film and its surprisingly contemporary revelations and resonances, its strong heroine, over all the 1948 movie seems to work better, have a stronger thrust and shape because the 1948 film-makers felt the material was more acceptable to the audience. They could thus be truer to the book in some crucial scenes where the 1935 didn’t dare. To be noted are how many of the archetypal scenes we think we remember from the book reappear in both these films (as in the 1977-78, 1985, 1997 and 2012)


Above all the train and the cold — this is from near the end of the 1935 film


Anna contemplating the above train, listening to the sounds of the working men’s tools

As it happened yesterday I read a superb essay by Hermione Lee on Virginia Woolf: Essays on Biography: “Virginia Woolf’s nose”. Woolf saw a 1920s version of Anna Karenina and commented on it; she wrote aghast at what the film medium did: instead of interior life, the emphasis is on “teeth, pearls, velvet.” Woolf mentions scenes of sensual kissing with Vronsky, absurdly well-appointed gardens (a gardener is seen mowing one) and super-luxurious rooms.

The 1935 film had pearls, velvet, and a garden — so maybe the 1935 film was influenced by, imitated the 1920s AK that Woolf saw. Anticipating my last blog on AK at the movies, I preferred the way the 1978 BBC people did it to all the other because it’s setting and clothes were the most austere. Maybe they had a lower budget so the lack of emphasis on costumes or houses was necessity; in any event it was done somberly and I liked it better for it.

In the book says Woolf “we know Anna almost entirely from her mind.” but in the film (writes Woolf) we “lurch and lumber” through this furniture. Hermione Lee suggests (rightly) the same vulgarization went on in the film adaptation of Mrs Dalloway as The Hours which presents Woolf’s suicide as at once romantic and self-indulgent (both the worst uncomprehending choices one could make). Woolf is probably unfair; she is not used to the idiom of the visual film, and writes before they developed tools for inwardness.


A later 19th century illustration towards the close of Anna Karenina

Ellen

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Dave Jones as Daniel Blake in front of a grafitti he drew, demanding his appeal occur soon

Friends,

Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale turned into an often harrowing grim mini-series is not alone this season. Two more films and one play, all magnificent of their kind, and all appropriate to the newly transparently cruel and hypocritical (at least here in US) regime that has taken over. Three concise reviews.

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Katie (Hayley Squires) driven out of the office, later accused of stealing in similarly focused humiliating scene (in fact she did steal as the money she was given was not enough for their needs)

I, Daniel Blake might be dubbed Cathy Come Home Redux. Cathy Comes Home traced the gradual degradation and ruthless abandonment of the young woman at its center: surely no one who has seen the final scene where Cathy’s children are forcibly taken from Cathy in a bus station where she is left homeless can forget it, no matter what your response. I, Daniel Blake, directed by Ken Loach, scripted Paul Lavery, is clearly a fictional story while Cathy Come Home is still taken as a documentary by some (so real does what happens feel) and ends similarly in a final memorable blow, slowly coming on over the last part of the film.


He’s not followed the rules; what he’s done is not good, it won’t do

The story: An old man, Daniel Blake (Dav Johns) whose wife has recently died, who spent his last years caring for her, has a heart attack and is advised by his physician not to work (to retire). He applies for a pension based on his sickness. He is given such a heartless round-around in the gov’t pension offices: the Forms he must fill out, and on line (to prove he’s looking for work he must apply online); inflexible criteria; with punishments of delay or ouster (no hope of any money ever), that we must gather, they are there to make him go away, and find a job — no matter if he dies of his sickness. It would be more humane to tell him in the first place. I can see some of the scenes as a modern Bleak House where misery of “Nobody’s Fault.” Only one employee of this pension place shows any understanding of his case, the absurdity of what’s demanded. The parallel plot is of a young London woman, Katie Morgan (Hayley Squires) escaping a brutal husband with her two children; she too applies to the same place for help Ha! she is thrown out as disruptive. There are very long lines in from of the food bank. Daniel is treated abusively on the phone by a prospective employer. She and Daniel meet, become a supportive team (he makes shelves for her, shops with her, shares his food with her children) until he discovers she’s succumbed to prostitution to make ends meet, and he has his application for disability funds (what we’d call) rejected. He finally cries out against this system which demands he find a job that doesn’t exist and he should not work at. He retreats in despair to his empty flat — he has sold everything off to have some money to stretch out. At the film’s close someone has hired a lawyer for him who assures him that he will now have the pension wrongly kept from him after a hearing (which does not look easy). Katie is there with, having become emotionally dependent, wants permission to go and live with him. Daniel nervous, under considerable pressure, goes off to the bathroom ….

I leave it to the reader’s imagination what happens next, only say the event leaves Katie howling.


Daniel, Katie, her two children constituted a family

Blunt, dignified and brutally moving says The Guardian. What struck me (see World Herald) is how many scenes were familiar to me — from similar phone calls I’ve made, similar attempts to get justice from a stone (where you thought there was a human being there), lies, what friends unfortunate enough to have to go to what once was called “Welfare” (now mostly abolished) went through. It played to a crowded audience at my local arts-movie-house.

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The answer if you’re black in America, is it’s not improbable and at any time you could be called to give evidence or arrests.

The above image taken from, 13th, commissioned, directed and written by (among others) Ava Maria Vernay, has a plot-design which allows a gradual realization (then enforced by some of the interviewees) that the present mass incarceration of blacks is a re-incarnation of slavery. Before mass incarceration, the lynching system and demand for utter self-abjection and apartheid policies were a re-incarnation of slavery; before thatafter the civil war the wide-spread convict labor system (men working in chains), and of course before that slavery was open and frank. As Ava DuVerney moves us from the present, back to deep past and then forward again, she interviews a set of extraordinary and ordinary people on the situation of black people and individual cases where a great leaders was outright murdered, or put in prison, or exiled (if he escaped). The 13th admendment is said to forbid slavery but it has this clause “except when the gov’t [decides] a crime has been committed.” What a loophole. How could it be that such a horror as slavery could have been tolerated? one person asks. Well, the horror of the prison system is tolerated — and it’s not kept wholly invisible. As I’ve become convinced every single person in the US or UK (maybe Canada too), the people I talk and write with has had him or herself, or a beloved relative or close friend cancer, so every black family in the US is has lost a relative and/or friend to this (now privately owned capitalist) devouring people machine.

It’s a deeply pessimistic film for at its end several of speakers suggest that this kind of re-incarnation is almost impossible to stop — unless you were to smash the central structure and beliefs of the US. People are living in hideous punitive slave conditions in many of these hell-holes. Sometimes decades of solitary confinement. Most committed no crime when taking a drug which only harmed yourself (and you should be sent to a medical center) is the basic cause of the sentence. When the old man lays dead on the bathroom floor, someone announces explicitly he died because of decisions of the state. A seemingly anonymous world. “Nobody’s fault, I’m just doing my job say all the authority figures but one

To see this you need only go to Netflix streaming, after which you can listen to an intelligent discussion of the film by Oprah Winfrey and Vernay.

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Ian Merrill Peakes as Timon seen through mirrors

A rarely performed play, I suggest that Timon of Athens (directed by Robert Richmond, and many technical people made the set and atmosphere), the play, I say, was chosen because like I, Daniel Blake and 13th, Timon is a profoundly indignant and angry work. Shakespeare just shows this more than Vernay and Loach; I hear him again as I did in Hamlet and Lear, indirectly in Macbeth, pouring his soul out throgh these tragic figures. Like the two films, it too is appropriate to what’s happening in our world today. Barbara McKay’s critique includes a concise summary of the nature and contrast between the play’s two parts. Kristin Franco’s review emphasizes the greed, hypocrisy, total lack of loyalty, hateful core of this society in the first half and the despair of Timon alone on stage with 5 visitors (rather like a Greek classic play, or anticipating Samson Agonistes). The dramaturgy is set up as an analogy. In the first half everyone overdressed, over-talking, neon lights, ceiling light, a light use of strobe creates this pervasive madness, which after a while others do not realize is around them (because they’ve produced normalizing discourses). People run about with ipads, there is a great deal of sheer flash. Everyone pretends, everyone on the hunt for best personal advantage. The one exception is the Jacques-like characer (AYLI), Apemantus.


Grovelling
Crowd-sourcing —

There is a Kent character too: Flavius, played by a black actress.

Everyone else lives off Timon, pretends gratitude. He loses all his money, his place at court, and no one will lend him money or help him. The noise, the extragavant dancing, the extroversion of the inner heart of the play was good. Effective theater. They sneer, say he must’ve deserves it. Things he cherished (books) mean nothing as he becomes disillusioned of his imaginary images of a better state, fine people, any chance for decent humane forgiving values to prevail. I thought of Coriolanus who had given his all to his people, but could not come down from his arrogance and when he fought hard and did not get the rank he deserved, he crosses over — only to find himself brutally murdered.


Individual moments show intensely good feeling – as if the actors knowing they would not be permitted to have generous hearts or the nobility of those black heroes risking their lives

I loved the second half. Now we are on a bleak bare stage. Timon keeps calling for a tree (you’d think he’s read Waiting for Godot). Timon the ultimate deportee, in rags, lucid raging, the great actor who made the production, Ian Merrill Peakes kneels, grounds himself to the ground. Here is the famous misanthrope. He is justified in his conclusions, but the play leaves open room that he had the responsibility to go under, to fight Trump and his gang. All he accuses his ex-friends for is what we hear praised and excused each day. He insists on his excuses: this made me anticipate a hard comeuppance, and so it is. His house, the natural world now turn on him. No friends. Timonechoes Hamlet: as in response he plays half-ironic anticks in word and deed, I was reminded of Lear on the heath. Timon does feels for the “unhoused.” Also of Beckett as Timon goes into another hell-hole, soliloquizing. They reject all the glitter and vanity of opulent riches. No one from the first half of the play is forgotten, all brought back and all exposed. But they are not forgiven because they do not repent. At end Timon dies of heartbreak, exhaustion, inanition from self-starvation.

A play, a documentary and a fictional film which feels like a documentary for our time.

Ellen

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Hana (Juliette Binoche) looking around villa wistfully before moving in with her patient (The English Patient, 1996, Anthony Minghella)

Echo is the sound of the voice exciting itself in hollow places — a phrase from Christopher Smart’s poem to his cat Jeffrey which repeats across the novel. Smart was put into an insane asylum by his family, exiled, displaced, left to rot. He was kept company by his cat Jeffrey: For I will consider my cat Jeffrey is an extraordinary masterpiece of a touching poem.

Dear friends and readers,

I am increasingly remiss about writing to my wider circle of readers and friends. I will try this summer to return to more frequent blogging, especially about the books I’ve been reading.

This spring I have been having such a good time with all three of my classes of retired adult readers at two Oscher Institutes of LifeLong Learning, pouring myself into everything that leads to a good lecture and discussion as a teacher, and what’s necessary to participate as one of the “learners.”

One book that for me functions as an absorption into beauty through extraordinarily poetic rich literary prose and loving compassionate comfort from the believable relationships among the characters who are presented up close to us is Ondaatje’s The English Patient: the charred remnants of the witty, humbled Almasy, the as yet undefeated by death mothering-nurse Hana, the desperately seeking meaning, once tortured Caravaggio, the utterly self-sacrificing figures of true integrity, the bomb disposal soldiers, Kirpal Singh and his lieutenant Hardy. Turned in Minghella’s movie into a wildly unreal romance of death between a Scarlet Pimpernel kind of hero (again Count Almasy, Ralph Fiennes now heroic adventurer in the desert) and self-deprecating warm-hearted Rebecca (Katharine Clifton). One admits in the film the actors present characters so deeply well-meaning and humane, in a film of unsurpassing visual beauty (the desert becomes sheer color), soaring music, that I could never cease from watching. The DVD had a second disk whose features about the making of the movie are (put together) longer than the 2 hour film story. It was such a commercial success (as has been the book) I’m just going to assume, you, gentle reader, have read the book and seen the movie.

So what can I say that might be of interest? Well we read it in my course called the Booker Prize marketplace niche. It is a quintessential example of the best kind of literary masterpiece that wins the prize. It speaks to us in our present political and economic predicament. for the characteristics of these books, see my blog On Using a Long Spoon: the Booker Prize (scroll down).

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Count Almasy (as yet unnamed, Ralph Fiennes) listening irritatedly to Katharine Clifton’s chatter as they drive through the desert

No book occurs in a vacuum and like so many Booker prize books this one has a rich context, which nowadays includes the movie in our emotional memories.

I begin with Ondaatje, as the book, the source of our talk and the film’s script comes out of the soul of the author: multinational multicultural, family divorced. While the elite of a colonialist nation – a colony – often lose out when the imperialist government in the “center” departs, which partly accounts for why his family left Sri Lanka, and moved to Britain and then Canada, he went to the upper class elite type boys’ public school. born on 12 September 1943 in Kegalle, fifty miles west of Colombo, the capital of what was then Ceylon (sehLOHN) and is now Sri Lanka. His family owned a tea plantation, members of the Eurasian élite. Name tells you the originals are probably Dutch — the Dutch early colonized the Spice Islands (as they were called).

When he is 2, his parents divorce (his father violent, alcoholic) and his mother and he go to live in Colombo where he goes to a boys’ school modeled on upper class British schools: St Thomas Boys’ College. Many of the countries Britain colonized took some form of this and you can find versions in US prep schools. So British/English background very strong. He moved to England in 1952 (age 9) and goes to Dulwich College, an old public school with strong academic record and long literary associations. In 1962 he moved to Canada (age 19) where his older brother was living and enters another school rooted in British traditions, Bishop’s University, only it’s in Quebec which is French speaking and strongly French in culture. He’s lived in Canada ever since — with time out for visits to Sri Lanka.

As far as I can tell his novels are set either in Canada or Sri Lanka except for The English Patient. He has written a memoir; In the Skin of the Lion is a powerful historical novel (set in earlier 20th century and Canada). His novels are discussed as Canadian and compared to other Canadian novels. He calls himself an someone with a migrant’s perspective, and it’s one that is more than double

When independence comes to a colonized place, the old élite often loses out badly, not only in terms of money and property but in the sense of their identity. They don’t belong in the “old” or mother country. They are themselves then the marginalized and deprived. Which is what happened to Ondaatje’s father and his mother in a double sense (divorced too). This marginalization of the previous bosses now aging is the subject of an early Booker Prize winner: Staying On

His background is that of the commercial writer, someone who makes his living through writing, not writing and teaching in a university (which many writers do as most people can’t make enough money from writing to support themselves). He left a university post when he didn’t do a Ph.D. thesis; he’s on his second marriage. He’s also a poet; in fact his earliest successes were as a poet. There’s a Trick I’m learning to Do with a Knife is a book of poems. His education is that of the upper class élite, but his homelife one of a displaced person. He seems to have a penchant for admiring the adventurer male, for finding release and romance and meaning in the lives of those who live on the social edge and are unconventional. An early book of poems and narratives is called The Collected Works of Billy the Kid: Left Handed Poems. Billy the Kid was a psychopath, homicidal, and not really a conventional hero whatever cowboy stories might make of him.

Booker Prize books are deeply rooted in history, the past, meditate the unknowability of history at the same time as uncovering its layers through memories of the characters and in depth presentation of the story’s cultural nexus. The books to read are: Saul Kelly’s The Lost Oasis: The Desert War and the Hunt for Zerzura, Paul Carrell’s The Desert Foxes (1960, from German point of view, non-fiction), and H. O. Dovey’s Operation Condor: Intelligence and National Security (1989, an M15 Man based in War Office in Middle East).

Who was Count Laszlo or Ladislaus Ede Almasy? He was a Hungarian count from an ancient family; born in deepest Hungary; he was educated as an aristocrat and his politics were deeply reactionary. He was an anti-semitic Nazi; he sold secrets to the Germans which probably led to deaths of spies on the Allies’ side. That is one way he lived. He also spied for the Soviet Union and he spied for England. He had to have done the latter as it’s the only way to explain his escape from a prison for Nazi spies which someone helped him escape from. Almazy was the kind of person you can’t buy; they are only for rent. He was probably not a nice man. Indeed he was probably a bad man in many ways, amoral. The world of spies is still a dirty and nasty one; it is still filled with amoral types. The world is I’m afraid made up of such people and they sometimes end up running countries nowadays — if they can spout piety at people and have control of the military.

Almasy’s was a marginalized family (like Ondaatje’s). By the 1910s aristocrats were out and his family was cash poor. The way to grow rich was not to go on adventures through the desert which is what he did. The way to grow rich is become an investment banker, to go into industry, build railroads and interconnective communications, be in short bourgeois, self-controlled and dull. You do like Donald Trump – buy and bankrupt companies and sell early; Romney did that too. You don’t spend all your hours hanging out in Shepheard’s Hotel in Cairo reading poetry and getting very drunk. Almasy was your adventurer-explorer. He was also homosexual. He left a packet of intense love letters to another man. He was passionate and romantic; the homoerotic aspect of his character is hinted at in the relationship between Madox and Almasy in the book and the film.


Madox (Julian Wadham) as yet not aware his friend a possible spy, is angry over Almasy’s apparent carelessness over the maps and papers detailing plans

Elizabeth Pathy Salett, the daughter of a Hungarian diplomat posted in Egypt in the 1930s, said that the count had planned a desert museum as a front for German espionage. She lived in Washington, DC and her father, Laszlo Pathy, was Hungarian consul general in Alexandria, Egypt; she wrote an article for The Washington Post that outlined how Almasy sought revenge against her father. After the count’s museum plans were scotched in 1936 because the Egyptian king learned that the museum was planned as a cover, the count blamed her father, Mrs. Salett said.

Six years later, while in Rommel’s service, the count sneaked into Cairo for 10 days, Mrs. Salett said. On his way out the British confiscated his briefcase and found a list of the people Rommel planned to arrest when he occupied Egypt. Among the names, she said, was her father’s. For Mrs. Salett, and other Hungarians who have seen “The English Patient,” the movie portrait of Almasy is “amoral and ahistorical.” She said that by ignoring the count’s work for the Germans, Ondaatje, who won the Booker Prize for his novel, trivialized the “significance of the choices men like Almasy made.”

Almasy (as in Ondaatje’s book) cultured, well educated in among other things geology, and he become part of a group of people living in or continually visiting Africa between the 1910s and 1940s who were interested in exploring the desert. Some were archaeologists (Louis Leakey was one of these), some big-game hunters, some plantation builders. He was an important member of the Royal Geographical Society in North Africa which was international in membership; he wrote a couple of important monographs on the desert. He did heroic research and deeds. He crossed the desert alone under very extreme circumstances more than once.

There was no such person as Madox — though Almasy’s had lovers. He is fictional but there was a Geoffrey and Katharine Clifton. It’s not clear whether Geoffrey was a spy; he might have been. He was also a genuine explorer; he died young and Katharine was an adventurous woman. She died during World War Two in a plane crash. A whole group of them in Kenya found in Isak Dinesen’s Out of Africa. West with the Night a classic book by Beryl Markheim, bush pilot; like other women people have claimed she didn’t write her book. She did not die in a plane crash but lived in poverty for a while until her book was rediscovered, she gained back friends with her money and became a horse trainer. Plane crashes were not an uncommon way to die among the members of this group. The Royal Geographical Society threw up another political figure probably much more important than Almasy; he’s mentioned in the book and I think in the film (though I’m not sure): Major Ralph Bagnold. Post-modern history prefers to tell of the subaltern, the marginalized.

Bagnold is said to have helped the British take over much of the desert and succeed in beating the Nazis in the desert. Like Almasy, he had at his fingertips and in his brains solid knowledge of how to live in the desert, how to survive, how to carry on a campaign, and he headed important groups of military people in the mid 1940s. He was awarded all kinds of high medals at the end of the war. Almasy was awarded the Iron Cross for his actions by Field Marshall Rommel and died in 1951 of dysentery.

Ondaatje must’ve done enormous research both on the desert, on this Royal Geographical Society (all sorts of small details turn up which are transformed into the fiction) and into Almasy’s own life. This beyond the literary intertextuality that is continual. A certain kind of Booker Prize book is like this: Wolf Hall by Mantel is this way.

He also researched the way the way was fought in Italy, landmine bombing; there is much transformed information about World War Two, about the migrations of peoples across Italy. Italy was a melting pot people moved up and down and ravaged the place; amazing anything left except that it was not bombed from the sky in the way Germany, England and Japan were. Japan suffered by the way horrendous losses even before the two atom bombs. Much of England’s old structures on the ground were destroyed; a couple of German cities were firebombed to the point that you probably could not have killed more people had you dropped an atom bomb. Back of book, credits show he read up on experience of Canadians in World War Two. The descriptions of the defusing of the bombs is utterly accurate and as I said you could worse as background for this book than watch the 1970s mini-series, Danger UXB.

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Kip (Naveen Andrews) and Hana’s first encounter — in the ruined library which he rightly worries is landmined

The book’s deep archetype is (perhaps unexpectedly seeing the above background) home: the characters we learn to know and love rebuild themselves a new family, and a home: in the movie we do see Hana (played in the movie by the lovely Juliette Binoche) gardening a lot; several times a family is formed and it’s destroyed or can’t last under the forces of war, colonialization and the way society is structured which pulls everyone hither and yon. The book to me – you may disagree – has this deep motif of retreat which I see in A Month in the Country (the second book we did in this class on the Booker Prize) – the world of art, science, thought imagination and without stretching it one can say The bookshop (the first) stands for that with its wonderful set of books as originally set out and described by Florence Green.

The English Patient is deeply post-colonial: a protest on behalf of the marginalized subaltern person subject to the economic and political and military domination of the patriarchal imperial west. In an interview Ondaatje is quoted as having said: “There are a lot of international bastards roaming around the world today. That’s one of the books (and film’s) main stories or themes.” It is also post-modern, characterized by high scepticism towards the idea that people really believe in enlightenment moral values and act based on these, and that these values will save our civilization from horrific self-destruction.

As the novel opens we meet two exiles, Hana and Almasy (Ralph Fiennes), then a third, Caravaggio (William Dafoe), and finally a fourth, Kip or Kirpal Singh (Naveen Andrews), with sidekick, Hardy (Kevin Whateley): who’s not that much a felt presence in the book; he is made much more of in the film, but he stands for all that is decent in the normative). They are living in an abandoned house which was built in the Renaissance, the house of a great poet and learned man, Poliziano. Repeatedly the novel connects present time with the past to show how much what we experience today and do is continuous and built upon what others experienced and did in the past. While far fewer and less varied, the war scenes are as realistic, seriously felt and realized as Tolstoy’s in War and Peace.

All displaced and exiled characters; at the same time they are rooted in their original cultures and don’t forget their earliest experiences. In England we find people who are deeply rooted: Madox, Lord Suffolk, Miss Morden, Mr Harts, who form an English family for Kirpal or Kip (named so as to allude to Kipling’s Kim) and the Cliftons (Geoffrey is played by Colin Firth) who are very upper class British.

It’s a novel about attempts at healing too. They find comfort in one another, read together, listen to music, the deepest wounded take morphine and drink condensed milk. The character Cavavaggio is especially important when he decides not to murder the English patient. The villa is a kind of Eden, an escape, a primitive garden, a cul-de-sac. The people come together without technology.

The beauty of the figures in the Cave of Swimmers is repeated in the beauty of the figures on the church walls in Italy, the songs from the old fashioned record player, the piano. What does sex become in the villa? Not this violent challenge, this devouring of one another. But nurturing. I’m attracted to the character of Hana and Caravaggio and their friendship: niece and uncle. He and Hana are my favorite characters. Displaced daughter/father lovers; “You have to protect yourself from sadness. Sadness is very close to hate”; each of them in their “own spheres of memory and solitude”; “To rest was to receive all aspects of the world without judgement. A bath in the sea, a fuck with a soldier who never knew your name. Tenderness towards the unknown and anonymous, which was a tenderness to the self” (p. 49). I find Hana a beautiful character; so too the way Cavaravaggio is presented — in the novel.

In novel Almasy says he hates ownership. In film this idea is scotched because he is turned into a sexually jealous man who wants to own Katharine. But in the book it’s a significant theme. Who owns who? Does anyone? Whom do we learn from? Ondaatje has said a central relationship in the novel is that between Kip and Almasy: the colonialized and the elite European male. Kip learns to respect the man but he demurs at the books which argue for colonization and marginalizing his people. Why are they paired?

Rudyard Kipling’s Kim is an ultimate colonialist text; there’s a deliberate echo of the name Kim in the nickname Kip. I’ve never read Kipling’s famous novel, Kim, though I have read his The Man who would be kind; Jim my husband read aloud his children’s Just so stories to my older daughter – how did the elephant get its trunk, the camel its hump, Rhinoceros its skin – they all end with this loving coda to the child being spoken to. Tone at end reminds me of Randall Jarrell’s Animal Family. Kipling has a bad reputation today but it’s unfair. It has poems by Kipling, original book had glorious and interesting illustrations.

Herodotus, the book Almasy clings to, puts his photographs and letters in, was an early Greek historian; called the father of lies. He tells a very slanted history. He is known for his folk stories and mythic geography. Great chronicle with world wide scope.

It’s a novel about a world in ruin but also asserts that the world has always been in ruin. We cling to these roles because we don’t know what else to do. Cultural identities are given people. People insist English patient English. Why? Because of his culture. We see our characters make alliances based on individual affinity and congeniality of outlook and taste not biology and cultural ritual. Body as a site of resistance is very frail in the book. People smashed easily, burned up. Now you are here, now you are not. Lord Suffolk trinity; Hardy. Violence important in book: barbarity of people to another another; indifference of natural world.

Its meditation on the place of memory accounts for the rearrangement of time to be subjective. The language gorgeous: a voice of his own. Splendour of imagery everywhere, songsong lyric quality.

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Katharine Clifton (Kristen Scott Thomas) telling the story of Candaules and Gyges (voyeuristic husband turns murderous over lover) from Herodotus as the other men listen …. in the desert

It’s useful to compare a film adaptation to a novel since you have much of the same story matter. By seeing what’s omitted you can gauge both the thematic resonances the film wanted to avoid and the new ones they put in place. The same goes for looking at what’s added. On average another statistic at 37% of the original story matter remains; the rest is added. This is a case where the movie has gotten so intertwined with people’s memories of the book I have now to differentiate the movie from the book.

Minghella’s film reverses the emphasis of the book: specifically the romance story of Almasy (Ralph Fiennes) and Katharine Clifton (Kristin Scott Thomas) with adultery and the jealous rage of Geoffrey Clinton (Colin Firth) takes over the movie. If you look at the book, after the initial seeing of the airplane in flight over the desert, the shooting down by Germans, the burning of Almasy and trek through the desert, we do not return to the story of Almasy and the woman we saw in the plane until the middle of the book’s 4th section, Cairo (1930-38), of ten, and don’t get into it in earnest until the 5th called Katharine. In the film this material is continually there, moved up front, woven into the story of Hana, Almasy as charred patient, Caravaggio, and Kip in the Villa San Girolamo (presented as once the home of Poliziano, a Renaissance prince and writer), is added to, and forms an important part of the final ending when the initial scene is finally explained. In the book the explanation for the woman in the airplane (we are do not know she’s a corpse when we first see her) is finished at the end of the 9th section, “Cave of Swimmers,” (where we see the ancient drawings of swimmers inside a cave) which contains also considerable material on Madox (Julian Wadham), implicitly Almasy’s lover, whose suicide matters in the book and is hardly mentioned, much less explained in the film (from horror at the church worship of the war, from loss of Almasy’s love, from Almasy’s betrayal of the British as a German spy); after which we the 10th section, “August,” move back to life at the villa, Kip and Hana’s love affair, Kip disposing and defusing bombs at great personal risk, the atom bomb, and Kip’s strong revulsion, and coda in Sri Lanka and Canada, where Kip has returned to his home culture to become a doctor and family man, and Hana retreated from the world to an island with her aunt, while Caravaggio resumes his role as wanderer, which coda is left out of the movie altogether.

Kip’s building of an English family in Sussex with the delightful Lord Morden (who never left Sussex in his life), his secretary Miss Morden (the name alludes to death), and their loving butler, with the thermos and sandwiches — they explore the geology of Britain together — all omitted. If you do not read the book you may see Kip simply as Hana’s lover. In the book he is not only a Sikh, but also an Anglophile, risking his life endlessly to save the Allies and people of Europe. His affair with Hana is counterpointed against the affair of Katharine and Almasy with more resonances and depths, and neither the major story. He does not break away because of Hardy’s death but because of the dropping of the bombs on Japan. His people were regarded as dispensable, wiped out in minutes.

The true model for the Almasy-Katharine story is Baroness Orzcy’s The Scarlett Pimpernel crossed by DuMaurier’s Rebecca. Think The Prisoner of Zenda. A band of English gentlemen dedicated to rescuing innocent aristocratic victims of the French revolution. The hero whose name is Sir Percy Blakeney appears to be effete (subtle, sensitive, impeccable manner, has read the classics) but is in fact a determined man of action. I hope no one needs me to summarize Rebecca, a femme fatale (it’s actually a misreading of the book but that’s another blog). It is simply factually true that Rebecca was used as a code book by the Nazi spies: it was carried about by Almasy’s men into Cairo. It’s just the sort of thing that might have appealed to the real Almasy who thrilled to adventure and romance.

Hana is no longer central; Katherine is — though they are treated as a double figure. In the book Almasy tells Hana about the winds; in the film, he tells Katharine.
The inimitable Kevin Whateley as Hardy — carrying Kip’s boots to be cleaned

Nonetheless, there is much gain too. The film ends differently: the film stays true to the transnationalism of the rest of the book. By showing torture you bring it home to people. The way the film opens and closes on the plane, desert and cave of swimmes, with the desert and the incessant maps assuming the function of presences, characters. Almasy chooses to die in the film; Caravaggio is given more intensity against Almasy in the film.

Actors enrichen a work: William Dafoe is particularly good, and Fiennes through his makeup. Hana too has inner beauty. With his small role as Madox, Julian Wadham does very well. He has presence and overshadows Kip as someone in relationship to the English patient.

Let’s not be snobs: there is a splendid visual quality. From Allen Stone’s review on line (“Herodotus Goes Hollywood”):

The English Patient is stunning, filled with archetypal, exotic, and oneiric images. The film contrasts the browns of the desert with the greens of Northern Italy, the scarified face of the burned English patient with the handsome profile of the Count. Constantly finding creative camera angles and perspectives, the cinematography intrigues and fascinates from the opening scene. And it sustains that intensity for more than two and a half hours.

The English Patient begins with a close-up of a painter’s brush drawing exotic figures on a textured surface. We have no idea who the painter is or what the figures represent. Eventually we will learn that Katherine Clifton is the painter and that she is copying figures from the walls of the “cave of swimmers”–a real cave discovered by European explorers of the desert between the two world wars.

Minghella makes them into a team whose members are of diverse nationalities; he does not want to deny the possibility of love which is what the book does. At the end in the desert Almasy paints the corpse and does not weep. Hana returns to her family; so too Kip.

The film ends with a sad but hopeful image of Hana in that truck with the child beside her, clutching Herodotus.

Ellen

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Gael Garcia Bernal in an inimitably slightly-comic rendition of Oscar Peluchonneau, a police officer, behind him his crew of replicas (2015 Neruda, directed Pablo Lorraine, Script Guillermo Calderón)

Friends,

While you might have already seen this extraordinary political film, in case you’ve not (because it left your area too swiftly as it had already left the Alexandria “art” cinema), I call it to your attention. Its mixture of tones skilfully moved around is brilliant; its analysis utterly cynical of most people’s motives in public places; it explicates before our very eyes our utterly corrupt order. It’s funny and absorbing, a pursuit book. Some reviews (which retell the story): Jay Weissberg of Variety; Oleg Ivanov of Slant; from Ebert, Glenn Kenny.

On the level of plot-design, it’s a bumbling Dragnet detective comedy, with Oscar Pelouchnneau, turning out to be a “half-moron, half-idiot,” and dying in the snow, only to be compassionated and given the intense respect he always wanted by the poet, Neruda (Luis Gnecco), after whom Oscar had been in close pursuit. It’s a Jean Valjean-javier story: a senator, and poet, not to blame for any crime for thoughtfulness and fighting for reform, is pursued by a intensely self-regarding (awkward) police officer. The significance and all the people surrounding this story, though, are not light fun. Along the way we pass through concentration camps, places of great misery for prisoners of all sorts; see the powerful in the Chilean gov’t order deaths, inflict egregious absurd laws and ritual amid an ongoing immiseration. Neruda has stood up to the Nazi regime, and spoken out in the parliament against the crooks, the “disappearing,” and demanded a range of social and other real humane reforms. Now it’s time, one might feel, for a complete change of policy, one determined and with the people’s needs, wants, their social realities in mind. Apparently not. The politics here is that of Laura Poitras’s films.

The film is also a “bio-pic,” a depiction of the character and immediate circumstances of Neruda’s life at this time. The women beyond Neruda’s second wife, Delia del Carril (Mercedes Moran), either lead hard invisible lives or are hired prostitutes to be given out to males at parties. He gets angry at his wife at one point because she pressures him to hide altogether, and then return when it’s safe to pass laws; their accusations are bitter and over sexual distrust. We have a depiction of Chilean culture at the time of shooting. People make money in the most hard scrabble desperate ways. One single woman who has been trailing our poet hero breaks out in a scold about her wretched life. Remarkably though there is no idealization of Neruda. We see him sneaking out to walk the street, thus endangering himself and everyone else involved with him; he’s seen drinking and half-naked with naked fat dumpy prostitutes. His associates are not driven patriots and think to dump him.

The most unexpected moment is when a landlord he has been fleeing agrees to help him escape because he too hates the gov’t; he hates paying taxes; he wants to thwart and mock the gov’t (a Trump supporter type!). Somehow this is exhilarating. Most everyone has ordinary looks, and the costumes are carefully only slightly romantic — like something out of a cowboy film or film noir one. Neruda’s usually seen as this gentle soul. Not quite here. I was still intensely anxious lest Neruda be killed. The actor kept repeating snatches of verse with appropriate words in context, but there was no attempt to make him a lonely soul either. Looking at his life as a whole he had to have been one who socialized well or he couldn’t have survived and triumphed until the US destroyed the Allende gov’t. The word for this film is absorbing and post-modern: overturning of most pious beliefs; anti-foundational, deftly cynical and yet idealistic, for what is it made for but to show the desperate need for some other world order. Unlike most political fables made in the US, it’s not solemn, nor over-the-top melodramatic, and at its close our hero does not supply a heroic peroration, though he does read aloud in a Paris cafe many years later a prose report of this telling incident. Not that the lucky are not seen — on the boat on the Loire for example, eating, reading, drinking away as the poet holds forth.

I have yet to see a film with Bernal in it that I didn’t love (e.g., Even the Rain). It doesn’t hurt that he’s so attractive through the parody.

I began to forget how masculinist is the approach. Yet Neruda’s two wives play significant parts. The first and ex-wife (Claudia Vicuna) is expected to denounce her husband on TV and radio, and instead insists what a good man he is; the Delia, second’s loyalty he depends upon at crucial moments. There are even great chase moments; from cars, to motorcycles, down to horses (not easy for a fat man to get aboard), and then they are rushing, sinking through the snowy Andes mountains where our heroic policeman meets his end.

You can also read some of his poems at poem hunter.

WATERS of the beginning, walls of rain, clover and oats beaten down, strings now joined together in the net of a wet, dripping, savagely spun night, wild drip repeated in lamentation, diagonal fury cutting the sky. The horses gallop perfume-soaked beneath the rain, striking it, interrupting it with their red-haired branches (their manes), stone and rain; and the steam (from their bodies) like a crazy milk-like steam accompanies the water, congealed into fugitive doves. There is no light, but the cisterns of the hard climate, of the moving greenery, and their hooves link the swift earth and the flight of time in an animal odour of horses in rain. Blankets, saddles, saddle-skins bunched in dark reds on the burning sulphurous backs that beat the woodland, determining it.

Forward, forward, forward, forward, forward, forward, forward, forward, the horsemen beat down the rain, the horsemen pass beneath the bitter walnut trees, the rain twists its perpetual wheat into trembling streaks. There is light in the water, a confused lightning poured on the leaves, and with the same galloping sound comes a wingless water wounded by the ground. Wet reins, the vault of the branches, footfall after footfall, nocturnal vegetation of broken stars like frost or moonlight, horse like a cyclone, covered by arrows like a frozen spectre, full of fresh hands born in fury, thumping apple surrounded by fear and its great kingdom with its frightening banner.
[A wonderful prose translation of his “Horseman in the Rain,” from an old Penguin Book of Spanish Verse, no translator’s name cited]

Hurry out.

Ellen

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Vanessa Redgrave as Clarissa Dalloway coming down the stairs (opening of film)

Dear friends and readers,

I’ve carried on reading Virginia Woolf, and feel I am moving more deeply into what is valuable in her, and seeing what does not quite come up to high excellence: though all she writes has integrity, she can seem to nod. She mirrrors her class, her era, is not sufficiently widely read in women’s writing because they were not available to her, or to most of us, until the 1970s — and then many do not avail themselves of earlier women’s art and books. That’s what I have my Austen Reveries blog for — to call attention to great art by women whose work is not sufficiently known (as well as Austen and 18th century art).

So the last 4 weeks I’ve reread her Mrs Dalloway, To the Lighthouse & (after a long hiatus) A Room of One’s Own. I’ve watched the 1997 film adaptation of Mrs Dalloway, directed by Marleen Gorris, scripted by Eileen Atkins (who used to enact a one woman virtuoso couple of hours of Virginia Woolf for an evening’s theater); the (to me misogynist) very bad 2002 The Hours film (based on Michael Cunningham’s post-text to Mrs Dalloway, directed by Stephen Haldry, screenplay David Hare), and now the 1983 TV film (as it’s called) To the Lighthouse (screenplay Hugh Stoddart, directed by Colin Gregg). Only in Mrs Dalloway had any major roles in the making of the film been taken by women. As I watched To the Lighthouse, I found myself remembering my childhood watching the film To the Lighthouse:when I was young my family had a house on Long Island where we’d spend long weekends on a beach. Alas I don’t know that now nor will probably again — I’d be the grandmother …

I’ve been taking my first course as a student or class member at the OLLI at AU, where we are called “fearless readers” for studying Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway, To The Lighthouse, A Room of One’s Own, and essays from The Common Readers and a few other places. It’s been an enjoyable and stimulating experience (not least because the professor doing it is such a confident relaxed and serious teacher (all at once) and I’m learning how to teach better too. The central themes of her mature fiction are feminist, deeply empathetic towards what is not institutionalized, individual liberty, how we are caught up in time, history, the spaces we find ourselves in. At least in these early works.

Mrs Dalloway was not “covered” on our group reading of Woolf (as just too well-known, as already read by all of us), nor A Room of One’s Own (ditto). Despite or maybe because of the surface conventionality of Clarissa’s day, Mrs Dalloway questions the bases of that conventional life, filled with much despair, injustice loneliness, so many people as puzzled wanderers on the earth going about routines. It’s an artfully controlled counterpart to Joyce’s Ulysses a day in the life and world of Clarissa, which takes in remembered past time, deep time before that (before Clarissa was a possibility), such an array of imagery capturing life’s smallest and biggest things. Mostly upper class people: the snobbery of the characters is seen in everyone’s apologizing to a vicar’s wife, so Woolf does see that. The question of the novel is how to take Clarissa: is it as ironic as Austen’s Emma, or are we to enter truly empathetically into Clarissa’s consciousness. Probably we are to see Clarissa’s limitations and yet bond with her. The central idea uniting the story of the traumatized (permanently shattered) Septimus Smith and the self-sheltered Mrs Dalloway is that (as she thinks) you must not “force the soul.” Septimus killed himself to save his soul from the unscrupulous morally moronic Dr Bradshaw.


In the film Septimus and Rezia (Amelia Bullmore) cornered as the doctor and his “aides” demand entrance — his crime, he said he wanted to kill himself

Life is made “intolerable” for those inner lives demand, need individual liberty in their outer ones. The professor took us through a lesbian reading of Mrs D which brings us a parallel underlying structure. Sally and Clariss’s kiss is a rare depiction of lesbian orgasm (and therefore famous):

It was a sudden revelation, a tinge like a blush, which one tried to check and then, as it spread, one yielded to its expansion, and rushed to the farthest verge and there quivered and felt the world come close, swollen with some astonishing significance, some pressure of rapture, which split its thin skin and gushed and poured with an extraordinary alleviation over the cacks and sores. Then, for that moment, she had seen an illumination; a match burning in a crocus: an inner meaning almost expressed. But the close withdrew; the hard softened. It was over — in a moment.

She suggested that Georgia O’Keefe’s art is a visual equivalent. The imagery of the crocus, the inner soft vulnerable part of the flower occurs repeatedly in the novel in erotic places. Here is O’Keefe’s Autumn Trees: The Maple:

Atkins and Gorris’s Merchant-Ivory Mrs Dalloway carries itself so lightly and yet reaches down to the depths of distraught terror (Rupert Graves is superb as Septimus); the use of younger actors and switching back and forth brought out how layers of time are woven into the book’s angles of narration.


The young Clarissa and Peter — in the novel Clarissa continually remembers a love courtship many years ago

The film feels fluid, unforcedly symbolic. The iron gates are everywhere and they are what Septimus falls upon. The haunted nature of everyone’s experience through pained and joyful memory creates the tone of piece which is meditative — and comic because of the asinity of Lady Bexborough (Margaret Tysack) and Hugh Whitbread (Oliver Ford Davies). Michael Kitchener managed to convey Peter Walsh as someone who had his heart genuinely broken. Yet at the end resigned with Sally (Sarah Badel as the aging lesbian love, now respectabily Lady Rossiter):

Redgrave plays Woolf as someone who embraces life, not fragile, keeps people from intruding. Dropped is her detestation of Miss Killman in the book. Miss Killman resented far more fiercely than Austen’s Emma resents Miss Bates because Miss Killman shows up Clarissa’s privileged existence and seems to be stealing her daughter, Elizabeth; this parallel between the two books shows how closely Mrs Dalloway also “comes out of” Austen’s art (as did Woolf’s first novel, The Voyage Out).


Laura Knight, Lamorna Cove, or On the Cliffs

On Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, I now wonder how much Woolf had in mind Johnson and Boswell in the Hebrides, Skye as a refuge (from Culloden literally), shifting is the mode — mostly deeply recognizably Cornwall, St Ives, but what are we to do with the Scottish sublimity of the Antiquary (read by Mr Ramsay), the sea in which William Cowper “perishes all alone,” the dark memories of Westmorland (where Wm Bankes and Mr Ramsay once walked), the killing fields of WW1 (written about by the quietly gay poet of the piece, Mr Carmichael). The sounds of the sea, the moon, the lighthouse itself, geology back in time, replace the music, contemporary green parks and flowers and killing fields of Mrs Dalloway’s everyday life. The middle section of Time Passes is stream of consciousness detached from any recognizable character: the time of aeons for the 10 years between Mrs Ramsay’s death and the longed-for reaching of the Lighthouse. It is a work of mourning, griefstruck meditation using stretched out time in the way of Proust, while Woolf is killing Mrs Ramsay as the angel in the house preventing her from living the life of a writer. I recommend Su Reid’s memories of her many summers in Cornwall applied to To The Lighthouse (in Cornwall: The Cultural Construction of Place, ed Ella Westland).

I’ve been watching the film To the Lighthouse this evening. Again, it put me in mind of when I was young and my parents and family had a summer house on Long Island and we did have joy on the beach. And now I have no chance for such experiences,as no ties to such a family group. To the Lighthouse is nostalgic (like the Dalloway film). I didn’t cry just thought of what once was — as the screenplay, the words are astonishing. They are an amalgam of passages from other works by Woolf which suggest connections between the sea of To the Lighthouse, and the “waves” of all her other works. Rosemary Harris delivers a contemplative monologue about the nature of Woolf’s verbal creativity in effect.


An iconic moment: Rosemary Harris as Mrs Ramsay, holding James’s hand, catering to him

As to actors, there’s a very young Kenneth Branagh playing Charles Tansley, the serious student, Suzanne Bertish a wise Lily Briscoe. Each of the Ramsay children is given a moment of characterization and individualized actor. In the film Mrs Ramsay’s death come on slowly, not the sudden collapse of the book (suggesting the world drained the life out of the woman)


Rosemary Harris is the angel on the beach, in the house, Michael Gough the rough well-meaning Mr Ramsay (having Oedipal struggles with James)

I’ve gained a couple of new rich source books: A small neglected superb book for its rich assortment of suggestive black-and-white photos of Woolf and Leonard, their houses, streets, the Hogarth Press, countryside around Monk House, Cornwall, and concise intelligent readings of her novels is Monique Nathan’s Virginia Woolf, and there is now a Mrs Dalloway Reader, ed Francine Prose, filled with relevant writings on the Dalloways by Woolf herself (including her sections on the couple in Voyage Out and Between the Acts), wonderful letters, brief appreciations.

A Room of One’s Own is problematic: There is too much exaggeration for lack of knowledge of women’s literature. Woolf will say there is no writing about mothers and children until the 20th century. Not true. We now know there were many women writers around Shakespeare’s time: most of the learned lady kind, but they wrote thoughtful political treatises, poetry, translations. She also diminishes and lambasts earlier women’s achievement far too much: in the last 100 years we have found a tradition of women’s writing in all spheres of life, not all their novels were dreadful (except of course those by the in this treatise paragon Jane Austen), her demand for an “incandescendant approach to writing is unreal. Woolf is writing several decades earlier than the 1970/80s when women’s literature before the 19th century came back in print and the writing of women in the 19th multiplied dramatically. She also makes such a paragon of Austen: it’s absurd the way she attributes to Austen perfection; there is the idea that Bronte (Charlotte) had the greater genius, but Woolf never explains what she means by this. It does feel like nagging at moments too. I have an idea why it is no longer read. Three Guineas is preferable, the much more mature work.

That said, it’s startlingly a propos at the moment: it explains to you why Trump, a cunning corrupt moron was preferred to Hillary Clinton, utterly reputable, highly intelligent and capable. So much she asserts is true of most women until the 19th century, still true of women in traditional cultures today. There for men to have sex with, give babies to, and obey authorities. Stay indoors much of their lives, or kept away from larger public world for long stretches. The brother and heir comes first. Deep shame over sex inculcated. Reading A Room of One’s Own makes me so sorrowful for those women and books, whose art is still thwarted, stymied, stigmatized, and rejoice for those who have stuck it out and achieved a measure of self-fulfillment. Clarissa chose the safe kindly Richard Dalloway; many women today can choose the daring career, but the treatise demonstrates amid much push back and at crucial points lack of empathy. A Room of One’s Own does end very well: Mary Carmichael can at long last try a novel, and she does; she has around her so much pressure not to, and what we can do for her is work for her so she shall have space, money, time, self-esteem and liberty even if it means to do this in the present circumstances for most of us means working in obscurity and poverty.

I will jump to the later Woolf soon, and read Between the Acts next ….

LES INSOUMISES
(photo by Pascal Victor/ArtComArt)


A photo from a French staged play reading of Virginia Woolf’s writings

Ellen

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