Archive for the ‘French novels’ Category

Kristine Opolais who sang and played Mimi

Dear friends and readers,

As what will be remembered about the HD-opera production of Massenet’s Werther this season is the satellite transmission went silent for the crucial last 7 minutes of the play, so what will be remembered about the HD-opera production of Puccini’s La Bohème is the scheduled young star, Anita Hartig was so ill with the flu that she could not show (and HD-productions are not missed by star if they can possibly help it). Hartig phoned to say so at 7:30 am the morning of the performance so that Leonard Gelb and company, frantic to substitute a powerful singer, phoned Kristine Opolais, the effective beautiful soprano who had sung Madame Butterfly in the house (so was close-by) the preceding night to see if she might agree. As Opolais said during the interview, although after a performance she does not fall asleep for a long time and had been sleeping only since 5 am, she felt it was an offer she could not refuse. 2 and 1/2 hours of sleep.

So up she got, was driven to the Met opera-house, rehearsed a part she had not been practicing, got herself into the outfits the Hartig was to wear, these were re-sewn, and the company and she worked together and at 1 o’clock the show went on. The excitement of going to these HD-transmissions is while they are films, while the production is shaped to be a brilliantly projected and understandable movie, they are live. As I sat (alone in the sense that I had no one I knew on either side of me), and Joyce DiDonato came out as hostess in an absurdly over-tight bright royal dress (not her fault, the hosts and hostesses are dressed by the Met staff) and announced apologetically that Anita Hartig could not make it, I felt and heard the disappointment around me. Then before the opera commenced, she said there was a special announcement and out came Gelb with his story. He asked the audience to be flexible, patient, understanding at the same time as trying to assert this would be as powerful and wonderful a performance as Hartig’s had been — he hoped and trusted.

In the event it was. I have no idea what Hartig is like, but Opolais to my ears sang beautifully poignantly and her exhausted appearance, strained face, and all that went with enacting a young woman in the early and then last stages of TB were as good as one can hope for in a singer whose body was strongly healthy in order to undertake such a part and who was wearing exquisitely cut, lavishly swathed, evocatively-colored Victorian dress and shawl. I have seen La Bohème many times, sometimes unconventionally done (as several years ago now at Wolf Trap with Jim and two friends it was set in Brooklyn circa 2000), and knew this was a traditionally-designed performance, heightened into the romantic picturesque by Zeffirelli, the sets going back to 1981. Yet I wanted to go, even though when we three (for Jim was alive when we talked about going to this year’s season), both Jim and Izzy were unenthusiastic. Izzy walked with me to the movie-house but went into another auditorium to see Captain America, The Winter Soldier.

Why? because I find the music exhilarating and wanted to understand it better. Among the various lies the hostess tells the audience, the one of those most irritating is the insistence that the experience of the opera in the house, live, is superior. Nonsense, or it’s only so for those in the first few rows, and I doubt that’s so even then. The large images, the direction which has the movie-audience in mind and shows considerably sophistication over shots, angles, juxtaposition, sets, are intended to reach audiences and do as nothing on the stage in a large house with most of the audience far away can do. The sound I will maintain is as good. Another is the insistence that the people making the opera do not have the film audience in mind, or (Gelb concedes this lest he be absurd) only as an afterthought to a stage production, an enhancement. Again nonsense. For years I’ve seen movie and TV versions of operas before these HD-screenings of the last 6 years and most of the time I fell asleep on the movie just as frequently as the stage production and the movie was never more understandable than the stage even when there were sur- or subtitles. Now I never fall asleep, I don’t even nod off, and I understand what’s happening, including nuances. This would not happen were the film not being done in a new movie-audience directed way.

The newly angled attic

I know why they insist. They fear the wrath of patrons paying anywhere from a couple of thousand dollars a seat to a mere few hundred to say $100. The HD-seats here in the 2 Northern Virginia and the 2 DC movie-houses we have gone to seats are $25. They fear diminishing the mystic of the voice without microphone, of “presence” and I admit presence probably thrills many people. But there is nothing to compare really having the performance reach you powerfully, directly, with a feeling of no mediation. For the first time I realized with clarity that the story of these lovers is of them getting together because he pretends he cannot find her key, and then breaking up, because of his jealousy; her resort to a viscount because she is so ill and in need of comforts, and with this context their final scene in the attic room where she dies and he at first does not know it, was more riveting. It’s acted and sung in a far more modern way than Traviata where the dying is lengthened out improbably in order to let her sing more and permit a duet. The intellectually intriguing aspect of La Bohème is it combines a Victorian story (with the frankness of a French source) with a modern assumption of death as extinction and relationships as serial without taking this as awesomely sinful at all.

Vittorio Grigolo as Rodolpho

I was disappointed nonetheless and for what seems a strange reason. I found myself remembering Pavarotti singing Rodolpho. And thus while handsome enough and acting finely and even singing his heart out to the best of his ability (I assume), Vittorio Grigolo just didn’t come up to the thrill of Pavarotti. His voice felt reedy in comparison, it had not the timbre, the suavity, was not as stirring as memory told me. During the intermission he was asked about following in the path of Pavarotti, and said Pavarotti had been his mentor, and he knew this role was especially connected to Pavarotti, a signature role in which Pavarotti made his reputation outside Italy, but he (Grigolo) could do only what he could do. He obviously thought he was equally adequate but to me he lacked that plangency Pavarotti had. In contrast, probably because I don’t remember Mirella Freni in the same way, Kristine Opolais seems to have the requisite timbre and resonance he lacked, projected a voice of painful feeling inside beauty.

Susanna Phillips as Musetta

This is not to say I didn’t enjoy it. The famous crowd scene (150 people on stage) at the end of the second act was as effective as ever, Susanna Phillips singing Musetta and Massimo Cavaletti Marcello memorable passionate excitement and thrilling voices. Their two voices and antics against those of our central lovers in the second act snow scenes made the contrasts of vexation and petty squabbling against real hurt of a sick woman and bored and foolish man.


In the closing scene Patrick Carfizzi sang the melancholy adieu to his coat as the philosopher Schaunard with the right tone of despair, and when they got to the dying, I lost it altogether. I cried half-hysterically, responding at a personal level to some of the lines, crying over Jim’s extinction, the meaningless waste, the pain, the silence, the helplessness, an agon, perhaps disquieting those around me though they seemed a singularly phlegmatic bunch. They had not clapped when any arias came to an end; two over-dressed women on one side whose conversation consisted in talking of how much money they were spending on daughters socializing at expensive private colleges performed sighs to one another over the scenery and picturesque romance. That’s all it was to them — much of the audience seems to have bought their tickets at the last moment, came precisely because this was seen as unreal silly romance. I would agree the poverty of the principals was not very persuasive — nor was the experience presented as an escape to real gaiety.

On one of my list-servs someone had gone to La Bohème for the first time the week before (a Pittsburgh opera company) and she had asked fresh questions of it:

I found the Pittsburgh interpretation a bit flat, but have no context to know if that is “normal,” whether or not I am being too critical or what. The opera is very Victorian, with the consumptive seamstress Mimi openly described as an “angel.” I had a bit of problem with the singer portraying her being quite overweight and much as I tried to suspend disbelief, it was hard for me to accept this large woman in her death throes as consumptive. The set was very somber, done in grays and browns, and while the opera depicts both the joys of being a bohemian artist living in a garret–one’s art make one a millionaire, etc — and though the poor artists are shown rejoicing happily in Dickensian fashion over bread and wine, the opera also underscores that poverty contributes to Mimi’s death. However, I thought a brighter set might have helped counter the sadness of the opera–might literally have highlighted — some of the joys amid the poverty. This is important, I think, as I am seeing a tendency (Mad men comes to mind) to depict the bohemian, the hippie, the alternative lifestyle, as unrelentingly miserable — rats, poverty, drugs, etc., and yet we have ample testimony that, at least in the early days, the hippie movement was often also a joyful experience. I also was a bit bemused that in La Boheme we go from Mimi and Rodolfo falling love to Rodolfo wanting to end the relationship because he is too poor to care for the dying Mimi — he can’t keep her warm, etc.–leaving us to rely on narrated backstory about the entire middle, ie substance, of the relationship.

which I tried to address:

For my part I like the productions which are far less fancy … It is true that the way the story is presented is anti-hedonism and in effect a condemnation of living in poverty — see how miserable they all are. No sense that departing from the mainstream for art gives one some strong compensation. If it is presented with gaiety, the gaiety is not attached to any ideas beyond the stirring music and voices.

Most the opera is deflected over to dwelling on tuberculosis and there we have this beautiful woman dying of TB — itself a subject worth our attenion — for again it’s a fragile woman we are encouraged to dwell on as a poignant ideal. A woman I met at the ASECS conference told me her paper was on how this ideal of fragility and sickness (which Austen mocks way before she got ill) combined with TB was really presented as somehow wanted, admired — as long as it was respectable. It was respectable as long as so many people got sick and died — but apparently once it became attached to myths of prostitution and also once the medicine began to be better understood, it was no longer an ideal for readers or viewers to emulate. So Mimi would be rejected as someone not to identify with.

We don’t see the middling parts of their story (presumably going on for months) except as back story; there is no emphasis on joyful experience (escape from grinding jobs), but only how poverty contributes to Mimi’s death. This was the perspective of the Wolf Trap production set in Brooklyn. In this HD-one Rodolpho and Marcello don’t even take their writing and painting seriously: he burns his play and Marcello paints walls in taverns. True.

What emphasis I have seen done seriously is the story of the TB; TB in the era was a taboo subject, not treated at all realistically (except by daring people who then were condemned and castigated): presented fatuously in art (perversely) as an enhancer of a “fallen” woman’s beauty; when respectable women became ill it was to be hidden. Mimi is a milliner, seamstress and is assumed in Victorian myth to be susceptible to seduction so it’s fine to present her as dying of TB.


I’ve never read Henry Murger’s stories. I have never seen Leoncavallo’s so don’t know what verismo brings to the story. If one were to do the opera more seriously, one might switch the illness to cancer, now an epidemic killing and maiming thousands of people, breaking their finances. Perhaps then one would not have a full house unless one did the setting somberly – a sort of Breaking Bad in operatic masque terms.

Given the philistine atmosphere I felt myself in, I escaped (fled from my seat) while the applause at the end was (in the production) still going on and hurried out of the awful theater lobby for the last time this season. I had a cold windy walk home — not being able to use my car. I did show myself that I can be deeply engaged by opera myself — it’s not just a matter of going with Jim. In his interview with Joyce DiDonato Gelb said some truths: one, that each year the Met tries to broadcast a representative set of operas: and next year there will be brand-new productions, unusual pieces (John Adams’s The Death of Klinghoffer; Iolanta, (alas with Anna Netrebko, a guarded cold woman, stilted and stiff in my estimation), and Bartók’s Duke Bluebeard’s Castle), traditional pieces with great singers (Verdi’s Macbeth); in new productions, Lehar’s The Merry Widow with Renee Fleming, Leoncavallo’s Cavallero Rusticana and Puccini’s Pagliacci (with a great tenor singing both).

I’d like to see some of them, so too would Izzy and were it not that Netrebko is in two I’d like see, Izzy and I might manage far more of the season than we did this sad year.


Read Full Post »

Clear away the barricades/And we’re still there! (Thenadiers) …

But the tigers come at night/with their voices soft as thunder … (a lyric in one of the quieter songs) ….

There’s a pain goes on and on. Empty chairs at empty tables. Now my friends are dead and gone …

The 2012 film had last year’s Occupy movement in mind

Ensemble, Signature Theater, DC/Virginia 2008

Dear friends and readers,

Christmas day we (Jim, myself, Laura & Rob, and Izzy) went to see the musical movie version of Hugo’s Les Miserables, directed by Tom Hooper, an adaptation for commercial film of the original book by Claude-Michel Schonberg and Alain Boubil, Englished and made Dickensian by James Fenton and Wm Nicolson (lyrics Herbert Kretzmer), produced by at least 9 people, some original (Cameron Mackintosh), some film types (Eric Fellner), featuring most notably and successfully Hugh Jackman as Jean ValJean, Anne Hathaway as Fantine (Izzy said later that after a while all she had to do was she Hathaway and she began to cry):

Raped, stripped, her very teeth taken from her

Daniel Huttlestone as Gavroche (this Artful Dodger provided the most unexpected totally alive moments of the production),


Eddie Remayne as Marius and Aaron Tveit as Enjolras, the young revolutionaries on the 1832 barricades (representing the 1870 uprising which was put down with more killed than in the whole of the 1792-3 so-called Terror), Samantha Barks as Eponine were as a group stronger and more effective than the first quarter or so of the film. I suspect Hooper felt more at home with them than the wildly romantic pursued Valjean. He changed Fantine to be sexual in lieu of a gamine — for me this did make Hugo’s tale relevant for women. Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen as the Thenadiers were faultless but over-directed into exaggerated grotesquerie, and Jim felt that their lines, some of the rawest most powerful in the whole piece, were placed so as to lose the central impact they were meant to have.

Thenadiers with young Cosette

I found Tom Hooper’s production of intense interest as film, as an instance of what contemporary computer, non-naturalistic and symbolic theatrical, on location, close-up and aggressive film-making can tremendously effect. I’d like to see it again to study how the camera was daringly used to turn the vision of the novel into world-as-nightmare.

The music is as stunningly piercing as ever: I was again unbearably moved by the destruction of Fantine, the heart-break of Eponine, the nobility of Jean Valjean and the soaring revolutionary defiance of Marius and Enjolras. At first I thought Marius the actor who played Bingley in Joe Wright’s P&P (2005) and Enjolras, Elliot Cowan as Darcy in Dan Zeff’s Lost in Austen (2008), both deeply appealing types.

The film’s Eponine (Samantha Barks) dying in Marius’s arms — both elegant, white, archetypal mainstream in looks

By contrast, Jim said no one could sing (!) and they all held their notes too long, Hugh Jackman was miscast (not so) and the whole production (which he said serious reviewers all agreed with) “a mess,” but apart from Russell Crowe who tried hard but just could not get up the seethingly pro-murderous law-and-order evil of Javier I thought them all stirringly effective and recognized that we had here a typical faithful BBC production. I’ve read about 3/4s of Norman Denny’s translation of Hugo’s novel, and unlike the musical, this film adaptation seemed to go through the book phase-by-phase. I don’t say the film had the original coherence, taste, brilliance of Hooper’s Daniel Deronda for the BBC (2002) or even the poignancy of The King’s Speech (2011), but it not intended to be subtle, but rather to sock its cri de coeur of the disenfranchised and powerless to wide varied audiences, and make huge returns in money.

Jackson as Jean Valjean, the tender-hearted caring for Fantine, promising to bring up Cosette, her daughter


I know I need say no more as so many have already, since there have been so many reviews not only on this musical film (among them Miss Izzy), and the many productions, French, the original London, the Broadway one, various intermediary as well as concerts versions, but the straight dramatic films and the musical version Jim thought and still thinks the outstanding best, Eric Schaeffer’s Signature version, with Greg Stone the closest to Hugo’s conception of Jean Valjean I’ve seen:


and Felicia Curry as an inspired Eponine type:


But I think we can contribute to the ongoing conversation about Les Miserables. We have now seen or perhaps I should say heard the musical four times. Jim did once read about and attempt to sort out the original pre-production show from its first staging and I’ve also read Notre Dame de Paris (in French this time), and Hugo’s powerful anti-capital punishment novella (The Last Day of a Condemned Man (an English translation). And I watched two recent “straight” films.

Le Repas des Pauvres 1877 by Alphonse Legros 1837-1911
Alphonse LeGros, Le Repas des Pauvres (cover illustration for Hugo’s novel)

The soul in darkness sins, but the real sinner is he who causes the darkness (Denny’s translation of Hugo)


Before the musical was ever produced it was changed to include an overt providential patterning, religious emotionalism, and images of family types sticking together, with the Thenadiers as hypocritical aberrations we are expected to be amused by.


Thirty years ago, Alan Boublil and Claud-Michel Schonberg decided to write a musical adaptation of Hugo’s Les Misérables. By 1980, they had a demo tape, themselves the sole performers: voice and piano. They took it to London and got sufficient backing for John Cameron to orchestrate what they had written and to record it with actual performers. This record is commercially available: call it “the French text.” Both Cameron Macintosh and James Nederlander of New York were interested in producing it, with changes. Nederlander actually optioned it, but the option lapsed.

By some later point in time Macintosh had talked Trevor Nunn into directing it. He brought in the RSC and John Caird. Herbert Kretzmer was hired to write the English lyrics, after James Fenton’s attempt was abandoned. The Macintosh/Nunn/Caird/Kretzmer collaboration was produced, first by the RSC as part of their London season at the Barbican, then by Macintosh in the West End, in 1985. Call this “the English text.”

Three major changes mark strong differences between the French text and the English text: the English text is more religious; the English text is, if anything, conservative politically where the French was more à gauche (to the left); the English text is a much bigger show. Nunn seems to have been responsible for the religious emphasis. The French text had scarcely mentioned God: a couple of “God knows how” sort of phrases and two mentions in Jean Valjean’s final lines, closing the piece.

La lumière, au matin de justice,
puisse enfin décapiter nos vices
dans un monde où Dieu pourrait se plaire
s’il décidait un jour de redescendre sur la terre.

Cosette, aime-le
Marius, aimez-la
qui aime sa femme
sans le savoir, aime Dieu.

Nunn added the scene with the Bishop of Digne; the scene where Jean Valjean wrestles with his conscience: “Who am I”; “Stars”; “Dog eats dog”; “Bring him home” and the dreadful scene where the spirits of Fantine and Eponine flank Jean Valjean as he dies (memory claims they were even dressed in white, but memory is unreliable and sometimes exaggerates for effect).

I add that Hugo is anti-clerical; the priests who harbor Valjean are pariahs and despised by all the other church people we meet. There is no afterlife. “Les Miserables” means not just the wretchedly poor but miserable in a more general sense and includes the outcasts, underdogs, rejected of society, and radical critics and rebels (who often do very badly economically and socially). Take, Book 2: Book 2, “The outcast.” The opening sequence of the movie follows this — prison for no crime at all, cruelty in a long sentence, hounding afterward with no forgiveness or any opportunity to be a productive member of legal society.

In case anyone might think this kind of thing can’t happen, he or she need only read a newspaper or journal article about who goes to prison in the US, for what, for how long, the typical use of extreme solitude (which Atul Gawande in a persuasive article in the New Yorker argued is a form of super-expensive torture): very long prison sentences, no reprieve, for small crimes having to do with drugs. Inside may be a step up for some, but it’s very bad socially. Women’s prisons are even worse than men’s, for they are subject to sexual harassment, parted from their children ruthlessly. Meanwhile bankers steal billions, flout the law and are not even brought to trial.

But the musical takes Hugo in the direction of Thatcher’s 1980s:


Some of the depoliticizing between the French and English versions may have been unconscious, the result of removing specifically French references. In the French text, the students are carefully organizing coordinated risings:

Au Pont au Change, toutes les sections sont prêtes
Grantaire attend à la Barrière du Maine
les sculpteurs, les marbriers
tardent à se joindre à nous
mais les maçons de Montreuil
seront tous au rendez-vous

In the English text, they seem to take it on themselves to rise, because who wants to confuse the audience with the masons of Montreil. But “Empty chairs and empty tables”, added for the English text, clearly condemns the students: “Don’t ask me/What your sacrifice was for.” More, Javert, in the French text, is not really to be taken seriously. In the English text, thanks to “Stars”, he’s the second leading man.

Nunn also made Les Misérables a grandiose show. DCist in its theater preview wondered how Signature would fit it into “much smaller quarters than usually house the famous turntable-style set.” Nunn had added choruses, he added scenes, some, like “Turning”, quite unnecessary. Nunn justified “Turning” on the grounds that the women didn’t have enough to do otherwise. Of course he then used the revolving set to manage the quick scene changes. All these changes made the show worse.

I don’t mean to say that in all aspects the English text is worse than the French text. Many of Kretzmer’s lyrics are much better than those of Boublil/Schonberg. The bridge of “I dreamed a dream”, for example: “But the tigers come at night/with their voices soft as thunder.” There is nothing remotely like that in the French text. The best line in the show, from Madame Thénardier, I’m sorry, Mme. La Baronne Thenard, in “Beggars at the feast”: “Clear away the barricades and we’re still here” (perhaps the profoundest line in contemporary theater), was added. “Beggars at the feast” is the reprise of “Master of the house” which bulks up and makes rollicking — and Dickensian. Nunn had directed Nicholas Nickleby — “Devise d’un cabaretier” where Thénardier complains he is one “qu’une destinée contraîre a planté dans ce canton” and thus has become, perforce, an innkeeper)

The 2008 production had La Boheme not Dickens A Tale of Two Cities in mind

Jim had gone up to Eric Schaeffer, to say this Signature production was better than the London production we had seen years ago. “This sounded better than it was, since the London production had left me rather cold.”


Schaeffer managed, in the Signature production, to minimize these changes. He could do nothing with the religion and politics that are baked into the English text. One cannot not sing “Stars” or “Bring him home.” And Javert did take the penultimate curtain call. But he could and did de-emphasize at least some. The business with the saintly Bishop of Digne went quick. In the final scene, Fantine and Eponine sang with Jean Valjean, but they stayed on catwalks leading to the stage (and neither dressed in white).

And he made the show intimate. The MAX theater is a black box. For this production it seated around 250. It was set up as a thrust stage, with two catwalks leading to the corners of the box, screened at the back. Sliding doors in the screen allowed mass movements onto the stage (for choral entrances or the barricade). The orchestra (two winds, five brass, three keyboards, guitar, bass, two percussion) was set on a balcony behind the screen, the conductor’s image on two screens visible from the stage. The audience, then, was on three sides. No more than six rows on any one side. Every member of the audience was closer to the cast than any member of the audience would have been in a conventional proscenium theater with the orchestra in a pit between the audience and stage.

In this setting, he brought out the quiet elements of the score. There are many. Of the 28 numbers, a majority are either soliloquys or conversations. We eavesdrop, up close, on them. The actors eavesdrop with us. In “A heart full of love”, Eponine is on the catwalk, members of the audience on either side of her, as she overhears Cosette and Marius (the same location, exactly, as she will occupy in the second act finale). She is suddenly lit as she reacts. We do not know how long she has been there. She is us. And we sympathise. Schaeffer doesn’t shrink from the noisier numbers. “Master of the house” is duly rollicking. He accepts the Dickensian parallels: Cosette in Paris reminds us of no-one more than Lucy Manette.

But the heart of this production are the quiet lyric pieces: “I dreamed a dream”, “Who am I”, Fantine and Jean Valjean’s duet around her deathbed, “Stars”, “In my life”, “A heart full of love”, “On my own”, “A little fall of rain”, “Drink to me”, “Bring him home”, Javert’s suicide, and, yes, the second act finale.


To conclude,

There have been 19 (!) film adaptations, most recently a French mini-series with Gerard Depardieu as Valjean and John Malkovich as Javert, and in 1998 an English, with Liam Neeson as a noble Jean Valjean; Geoffrey Rush as Javert (hard and steely), Uma Thurman as Fantine (the raped Cecile in Les Liaisions Dangereuses), Hans Mathisen as Marius (deeply felt), Ann-Marie Duff (wry, realistic) the last two also in Davies’s adaptation of Dr Zhivago. Depardieu practically stands for France (remember Martin Guerre) and Malkovich (Valmont, Jekyll-Hyde) has had a long career playing evil types; the English cast shows the connection between Zhivago and Hugo. Five translations into English are available.

The story, characters, events are a parable for our time.

To turn it into a film musical with the whole repertoire of montage, location, psychological in-depth acting is to make it more available to everyone. On Christmas day almost every seat in the auditorium was taken. We were just in time and had to sit in the front row.

I remember that in London Patti LuPone sang Fantine, but she was far away — we were in the back of the orchestra. Anne Hathaway is right on top of us, close up, the story made utterly contemporary. When she sang the pain goes on and on I found myself remembering my own anguish. I was rooting for Enjolras all the way.


Do you hear the people sing?
Singing a song of angry men?
It is the music of a people
Who will not be slaves again!

(I wish).

Izzy is right. You need not see this version probably. Jim is right too: perhaps another would be more thrillingly sung. This was over-produced and not controlled enough. But I would say not only don’t miss it, but also read the book, go on to Notre Dame de Paris and then The Last Day in the Life of a Condemned Man. Les Miserables‘ vision is more than of the wretched of the earth; he shows how such wretchedness is made deliberately and what it feels like to be hunted down, scorned, fearful, alone. Don’t skip the supposed digressions (Waterloo for example): the history, analysis of how society is organized into exclusionary cliques, the skewed values of church and courts passionately laid out and as relevant today as ever.


Read Full Post »

It is plausible that no translation, however good it may be, can have any significance as regards the original — Walter Benjamin, “The Task of the Translator,” Illuminations

One must distrust the almost-the-same (sodium is the same as potassium, but with sodium nothing would have happened), the practically identical, the approximate, the or-even, all surrogates and all patchwork — Primo Levi, “Potassium,” The Periodic Table

Eugene Atget (1857-1927), The Petit Trianon

Dear friends and readers,

My theme: I’ve returned to an old love to do a new project: French-to-English and back again translations in the 18th century. I begin with Walter Benjamin and my own experiences, then cover Beebee’s book, Clary on the continent, Prevost’s different Clevelands, and various different telling individual cases (different Tom Joneses, Radcliffe’s translators); I end on Renato Poggioli’s “The Added Artificer” which deserves to be much better known.


I have a hard time remembering when I was not fascinated by translations. I think it began back in high school when at age 16 I read a probably poor translation into English of Victor Hugo’s Hunchback of Notre-Dame. I loved the book and wanted to know more about it, and especially I wanted to read it in French. Later on somehow reading a book in one language and then reading the same book in another gave me an experience of two weirdly interdependent books and thus worlds. When I was in college, I took French for all the years I could, extending my non-major following of it with one-credit courses: such courses met twice a week, but for one and one-half hours of sheer talk in French allowed using our books. We’d take turns using its conversations. Then in graduate school, I took a course in Italian over one summer to fulfill the language requirement (one had to pass two tests in two languages), and just loved the language, again enjoyed so much lining up a text in Italian aligned with its source or target text in English.

Anne Finch when young

During the 1980s I re-taught myself to read French and read French novels, and then for over 20 years starting the middle 1980s I taught myself to read and to translate Italian and translated Vittoria Colonna and Veronica Gambara’s poetry and then wrote an essay on Anne Finch’s translations out of the Italian though the French. Just what I had done at first for Colonna (and what I’ve done since for a poem by Elsa Morante I found in the original Italian with French text facing it).

So when over the past week I dropped one of my projects for this fall term, the paper on Paranoia and Infamy, I naturally turned to the proposal I wanted to send to Chawton, and was happy, even eager to reread some of my books on translation (Lawrence Venuti, The Translator’s Invisibility, The Scandals of Translation, Sherry Simon’s Gender in Translation). Did you know that over 90% of translations into the world are transations into English? how little translators are paid? How women’s writing begins in translation, how they express themselves through its covering medium?

I discovered my old folders filled with essays on translation, some read, some not read, and books and essays just on translation in the 18th century, the 19th and more recently.

Charlotte Smith by George Romney (1792)

My idea was Charlotte Smith’s translation of Prevost’s Manon Lescaut, or some study of intermediary texts between her later novels and Prevost and Rousseau, but to tell the truth I was not sure I could find something to extrapolate out of a tight narrow comparison. I do have Isabelle de Montolieu’s translation of one of Smith’s Solitary Wanderer’s Tale (Corisande de Beauvilliers, and all of M. Montagne’s (whoever he is) French translation of Smith’s Ethelinde, or the Recluse of the Lake, which I also own in English. And of course Montolieu’s translation of Sense and Sensibility (with her preface) and soon will have her translation of Persuasion.

So I went about to look for previous work on individual books I’d done. I’ve now remembered my careful comparative reading of the opening of Radcliffe’s Udolpho with Victorine de Chastenay’s translation of the same text into French, something of Chastenay’s life (she was imprisoned during the terror and lost family members and emerged somewhat shattered and depressed, and various essays on 18th century translations of classics (Riccoboni and Davaux’s Tom Jones, a French and a Dutch translation of Prevost’s Cleveland contrasted to the French texts) and of course Prevost’s Clarisse.

Victorine de Chastenay (translator into French of Radcliffe’s Udolpho)

And I’ve read away and reminded myself of what I once knew. So, I spent Tuesday I spent yesterday reading translation studies and then how women in particular use translation: how the earliest women writers began (felt they had license) by translating, how it works to free, a way to express what is otherwise forbidden (that’s how I see Smith’s translation of Manon Lescaut), a way of declaring love and wanting to share (Chastenay’s Udolpho).

Jean-Antoine Watteau, unnamed shepherdess

I read Mirella Agorni’s poignant, The Voice of the ‘Translatress’: From Aphra Behn to Elizabeth Carter Author, The Yearbook of English Studies, 28 (1998 Eighteenth-Century Lexis and Lexicography): 181-95, and I compared a literal translation of Ovid’s Oenone to Paris with Aphra Behn’s translation/adaptation. In her case (as is not uncommon among men as well as women) she did not have any Latin, so someone gave her an intermediary crib. Behn turned the poem into erotica — on behalf of Oenone, a nobody. Since reading Germaine Greer’s persuasive debunking of all the myths growing up around Aphra Behn, including that she was an aristocrat (born on wrong side of blanket), supported herself sheerly by her playwriting (when it seems rather she combined being men’s mistresses with playwriting and verse, including translations, and pop novellas), I can see why she’d identify with Oenone.

Behn is worth remembering and this unashamed revelling in idyllic
pastoral too. Some of her most moving verses defend her as a translatress:

I by a double right thy Bounties claim,
Both from my Sex, and in Apollo’Ns ame:
Let me with Sappha and Orinda
Oh ever sacred Nymph, adorn’d by thee;
And give my Verses Immortality.

Jane Austen died declaring her immortality in defiance against everyone spending their afternoon so trivially.

‘Oh! subjects rebellious! Oh Venta depraved
When once we are buried you think we are gone
But behold me immortal!


The Abbe Prevost (1697-1763) translated all Richardson and Frances Sheridan’s Sidney Biddulph

Speaking very generally, as the century progressed and the novel achieved more respect, translations became more ostensibly faithful. Paradoxically at the same time (especially if you are working on the literal old model that a good translation is a sort of excellent crib — rather like those who go to movies and critique a film adaptation by how “literally” like it seemed to them to the book), translations became more creative. You can see how the author expressed her or himself through the medium.

Some of the best general essays written thus far on translation are general philosophical ones. A particularly rich one is by Walter Benjamin, “The Task of the Translator”. He opens with what may seem a strange idea: “It is plausible that no translation, however good it may be, can have any significance as regards the original.” The analysis in defense of this is brilliant and rich with ideas. One train of argument suggests that any translation is about the encounter of the two languages and two cultures. I find this to be so in my experience of translation. I don’t own the words I use and must use the words of my time and culture and watch them interact with the words and cultural assumptions and whole world view of the other language — French or Italian. He says the desire to translate comes partly from a love of a certain language. Again I know this is so.

Lovelace just before the rape: Simon Brett’s late 20th century illustrations for the Folio Society edition

I reread some of Beebee’s Clarissa on the Continent, about 18th century to modern translations of Clarissa — and abridgements. I know now the Broadveiw edition provides a new edition of the 3rd edition of Clarissa, thus replacing the now out-of-print 4 volume Everyman.

Beebee’s book includes a close reading of two contemporary translations of Clarissa: Prevost and Michaelis’s. He compares these two texts to Richardson’s 1st and 3rd editions of Clarissa (which are themselves different, though both think they must Frenchify the text from the point of view of French taste and ethics). Beebee teaches us how to read translations. He has a chapter where he surveys later translations and abridgements. Particularly of interest to me was Dallas’s abridgement as Trollope wrote a critique of that; it was the book 19th century readers knew Clarissa. After Dallas when some 19th century person says she’s read Clary it’s probably Dallas’s Clary.

In last chapter of Beebee’s book he compares Sherburn’s 1970s and Burrell’s 1950s abridgements. Most of the time today Clarissa is read in an abridgement in the US. In France they read Prevost’s translation (quite different in a number of ways from Richardson); in the US when I was in college (1960s) we read Burrell’s abridgement for Modern Library; the last decade or so students read Sherburn’s abridgement for Rinehart. Margaret Doody has a long article lambasting Sherburn (by the way).

I had been really delighted to come across for the first time ever a close reading and discussion of Burrell. I was not sure of his full name. His edition had never been acknowledged or described in print as far as I knew. I had read Doody and Stuber’s exposure of Sherburn’s abridgement as a far too personal, rigid, a narrow take with interjections by Sherburn (!), but never came across any commentary on Burrell.

Lovelace attacking Clarisssa (Simon Brett again)

It was Burrell’s abridgement of Clarissa that I first read at age 18-19 and was riveted by. I had the not uncommon experience of not being able to put the book down, of being gripped to read on and on into the wee hours of the dawn. The most vivid memory I had though was of disappointment; somehow or other I had missed the rape. I still remember hunting around the text the following morning (after a little sleep) and not finding it. Later false memories began to tell me I had found it later, but now I realize that in fact I must’ve read the rape for the first time in the Everyman reprint of Richardson’s 3rd edition.

Well, guess what? Burrell omitted it! He censored out the scene. It was in the Everyman I realized that Lovelace raped Clarissa in front of the other women; there I first read the famous passage where Clary says she will be his, just give her a bit of time right here, right now.

Nonetheless, I believe that Burrell’s edition influenced me & strongly; Burrell produces a romantic (vexed word I know, but I’m trying to use it in the common sense way of overwrought individualistic emotionalism and rebellion) text. Burrell will omit much surrounding matter here and there which qualifies Clarissa’s subjective interpretations and outcries. I’ve never read Sherburn so didn’t realize he actually interjects his own interpretation and sometimes himself imitates Lovelace — falls into Lovelace’s vein. Beebee shows how both men cut the book in ways which erase some of the worst aspects of Lovelace’s character. Reading them, though, against Richardson’s books teaches us what was most deeply meant to be expressed in the original — especially after you have studied a variety of translation and adaptations.

Final duel (Brett)

I probably loved Clarissa, was more grabbed by it in Burrell’s edition than I would have been in Richardson’s whole text. Burrell omitted much of the long fourth volume, especially all the Job passages and the gruesome and to me egregiously spiteful nasty dramatizations of the deaths of wicked people. He kept Lovelace’s agon, time at the assembly ball, the lead-up to the duel. (See how vicious the Deity can get; watch out is my gut response to these Burrell thought them in bad taste.) Burrell also turned Clary into a pre-Byronic heroine and softened the presentation of Lovelace.

So I was at long last vindicated. 40 years later I learned I didn’t miss the rape after all. I had not fallen asleep over my book.


Samuel Palmer (1805-81), A Dream in the Appenines (1864)

Some of the best studies I read yesterday were about the clash between cultures, languages, created worlds through languages though having the same literal stories and denotative word content, and even syntax (at times). You do have to read more than one language to do translation studies and as the central hegemonic languages in the 18th century for new literary movements were French and English, these are the languages most studies are in. I went into Annie Cointre, Alain Lautel and Annie Rivera’s La Traduction
romanesque au XVIII siecle
, especially a long essay on Prevost’s
Cleveland — in French and English and Dutch versions. It brings home so many issues, including the way history was more valued than fiction and historians paid more, how this book applied to a naive desire to read history made easy and salacious (as in our time). This was by Ellen Ruth Moerman.

Abbe Prevost reading Manon Lescaut aloud to group of admirer (1856 painting by Joseph Caraud)

To do a translation study you must do book history. Prevost had several translators; his book came out in more than one edition and it was censored differently in different countries. The Dutch translator was quite content to translate anti-Catholic church commentary, but the Catholic French one was not. All of them stigmatize the Quakers (everyone dislikes quakers because people resent general non-conformity with the larger group). Then Prevost wanted partly to delude his British audience into thinking his book was really a history, really written first in English and had the English copy published before the French. There are two different prefaces: one published in English opens with a solemn discourse on the uses of history; the other in French is more tongue-in-cheek and he defends himself for writing a preface (what is this hypocrisy that prefaces are to be apologized for; they are needed) and insinuates if you enjoyed the Man of Quality, you’ll find him in this book again.

The 1997 BBC Tom Jones understood how important Fielding’s presence can be in the novel for the reader who wants over self-conscious wit, self-reflexive mockery

Two essays on the translations of Tom Jones, one by Kristina Taivalkoski-Shilove and another by Annie Rivara (on Riccoboni’s Amelie)
very worth while. It was fascinating to discover that the freer early translation by La Place was the Tom Jones most French readers knew and preferred; that it was a labor of love Davaux did when he translated faithfully and carefully and included all the opening narrator chapters. In the 20th century Tom Jones is reprinted in popular editions without these opening chapters. For me the book is ruined; much of the deep pleasure comes from the presence of the narrator. But apparently not for a mass readership who are said to lose “interest.” Amelia was not popular, and Riccoboni’s choice to do it came out of her deep engagement with its story of unhappiness in years of marriage.

From Christopher Cave I was delighted to learn that Andre Morellet, humane philosophe who translated Beccario’s treatise demonstrating that torture turns up no valid information translated Radcliffe’s Italian. He found in her a congenial reformist spirit, but he continually rationalized her prose. She produces a super-abundance of description which cannot depict reality so many experiences are piled into one. He choses a line of description that’s clear and readily pictured. What makes for her original depth psychologically and pictorially vanishes. It’s true you can’t make fun of her text and it’s no longer what some find tedious. I just love myself getting lost in labyrinths with endless doors and locks.

Piranesi, I Carceri (opaque)

Piranesci, I Carceri (clarified)

And I spent time with my old love, Renato Poggioli’s “The Added Artificer” (in a marvelous anthology put together by Reuben Brower, On Translation). Like Venuti, he shows that a translation is another text, and one that is creative in a different way. The translator (like an illustrator) can transcend the first text by transposing another personality into the key of his or her own. You strive after self-expression by looking into a pool of art. Instead of a translation being pouring new wine into an old or previously extant bottle, the translator is taking older wine and making a new bottle with it. The translator is herself a living vessel saturated with a sparkling spirit and recreates the container someone with whom he or she has an affinity has given a previous embodiment to. A good translation may be read for itself, without comparing it to the original work.

Eugene Atget, Grand Trianon, Pavillion de Musique (1923-24)


Read Full Post »

Hugh Goldwyn Rivere (1869-1956), The Garden of Eden (1901)

Dear friends and readers,

Stirred this past spring by Rodrigo Garcia’s film adaptation of George Moore’s novella, Albert Nobbs (featuring Glenn Close and Janet McTeer), when a friend on Trollope19thCStudies proposed we revive the group readings and discussions we used to have on that list-serv, I said let’s do George Moore’s Esther Waters and then Albert Nobbs. Id long wanted to read Esther Waters, as one of those reputably great and powerful Victorian/Edwardian novels I had (somewhat unaccountably) never been assigned in any classroom, never even owned, nor tried to read. I wanted to do the full novel first as I usually like longer novels better, it had such a good reputation, and both together, might make a really satisfying new experience.

Well two of us have read Esther Waters together and when I come back from a brief time again in next week (we go to Vermont for 7 days), we mean to go on to Albert Nobbs. Esther Waters is a compelling novel, richly written, persuasive, humanely moving; its plot design is unexpected (it takes turns one does not expect as life often does), characters complex, and its social message humane. It has been somewhat misrepresented. It is usually talked of as a novel which exposes the “baby-farm” trade in later 19th century England as if this were the core, central, dominating and most shocking thing in the book. It’s there and important, but it’s not dominating, just one of several devastating experiences Esther has when she become pregnant, has a child out of wedlock, is fired, ejected from her parents’ house, and must work long hours in service even to survive so is forced to put the child out to nurse. She does not realize until a few weeks later that this recommended place means to let the child die. When she does, she snatches her darling back, and at great sacrifice to herself, holds onto him, keeps him in good health by paying someone to take good care of him while she again works in another house.

Emilio Longoni (1855-1932), Reflections of a Starving Man (1894)

It’s also said to be naturalistic, a book in the tradition of Zola’s L L’Assommoir, Frank Norris’s Octopus, Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, Stephen Crane’s Maggie of the Streets, Dreiser’s Sister Carrie. Thomas Hardy’s novels represent the most read British version of this school nowadays, with John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath the best known recent American masterpiece. Naturalistic novels by women include Mary Webb’s Precious Bane and Gone to Earth. These novelists all present life for real and expose the lies and hypocrisies used to support systems of privilege and power. Unlike Dickens say, they show real sex, much more graphic brutality as a system, real war (e.g., Crane’s Red Badge of Courage) is a literary Naturalist text), real criminality, and most of all the wretched real working lives of poor people ground down by their jobs and lack of opportunities. Certainly Moore shows us the last, and rejects religious fundamentalism and repression, but he really does not adhere to a belief in determinism to the extent that human life is entirely shaped by environmental and social forces. Human will does come into play. Moore also has sequences where his characters enjoy themselves, act out some of their dreams, know romance and he marginalizes the more abysmal miseries. Esther stoically survives even if she has periods of real hunger. The emphasis on Esther’s strong will and highly individual character is not typical of naturalistic novels. The thing is Esther (and William’s) choices are so limited and her strength goes only so far. So the critique of society’ structures and norms is all the stronger (I feel).

I found myself strongly identifying with the character and becoming personally involved. It reaches out to us today. And I’ve written my blog to show this.


Robert Walker Macbeth (1848-1910), Rainy Day (book illustration)

To cover with the first third to half of the novel or so (Chapters 1-27), each turn of the plot is not conventional altogether so you are ever worried what will happen next. I worried because I really cared for the heroine.

One early central sequence is a realistic depiction of an upper class household, Woodview, with a number of servants (a real un-blown-up Downton Abbey) The Barfields have a much more typical rich establishment. Not so very many servants, one women for cook and housekeeper for example. It’s here Esther is half-coerced into having sex with, William Latch, a stableman she is in love with and gets pregnant. There is much on betting on the races: it reminded me of how Thomas More thought dice so stupid and mindless and boring, but what if everyone does it and many bet lots of money, then (unless you are like me who does not until today know how US football is played) you have to pay attention.

There is a strong demonstration of class mobility. Mrs Barfield is religious in the way of Esther, and tries to teach her to read. They are companions. The Barfields, the people Esther works for were working class not that long ago, and they could and do fall again due to the husband’s gambling habits.

We are kept at a distance; Esther has individuality and courage. She’s not abject. On the rolling in the hay, we are not to see her as having sex with these young men, for when William does make his advance, you see she wanted marriage first. She does give in, but it was half-coerced, she was half-drunk and she refuses him the next time. She manages very well in the family group despite an abusive father (about whom she can do nothing to protect her mother). We see the importance of women’s relationships throughout the novel: Fanny Hill takes this parodically (see how the prostitute and madam collude is Cleland); here we will see a generous employee, a supportive landlady can make a big difference. William is a convincing rat — unlike Hardy’s Alec D’Urberville who practically twirls his mustache.

From London: A Pilgrimage, text by Blanchard Jerrold, pictures by Gustave Dore

We are to admire Esther for her stubbornness; it’s part of what makes her survive. She is tempted say to leave the baby with the baby-farmer, but her tenacity and self-respect gives her the courage to wrench it away and leave. She might have been more tactful with William, but I feel we are to assume she was just about raped, really coerced and is angry with him. She also is naive socially and doesn’t even think of manipulating him at this point. By the time she is with Miss Rice (the novelist-lady who hires her as a kind of paid-companion aide) she does so think. It takes time to learn.

We are indeed to feel William could not have felt much when he turns round and marries money.

The book is daring and not daring. The depiction of a near rape for example — it’s the sort of thing Hardy presents in Tess but more frankly. So when Esther later in the book is walking outside one day she meets up with Margaret Gale, another ex-servant of the Barfields. Margaret has become a streetwalker or prostitute; this is presented discreetly because Moore is not horrified and shows Margaret to live a hard life but she is surviving and in some ways better off than the servants who works from dawn to dusk for almost no money at all. Margaret has breathing time and makes a bit more money.

George John Pinwell (1842-75), At the Pawnshop (1867, The Quiver)

We see how miserably men treat their wives — how power corrupts. Much beating of women, casual and deliberate too. This is the era when the first courts decided a woman has the right to leave a man who beat her.
How deep and supportive is Esther’s relationship with her mother who husband regularly systematically beats her, keeps her pregnant, who eats the best food in the house because he controls his salary. How people of the lower classes are torn apart by the economic system, forced to move far away from one another and spend long hours of soul killing work. Body destroying too.

On hospitals, I don’t know when the pernicious practice started to stopped, but as early as the 1840s in Gaskell’s Mary Barton no worker (apparently powerless to effect this just by being sick) person apparently can get into a hospital without an employer writing a letter asking the hospital to take him or her in. By Esther Waters, this has been codified into tickets. It’s pernicious because if you displease the person who has the power to write such letters or tickets, you can’t get medical help. Obviously that can be and was used against strikers or anyone the person thought not respectable or simply didn’t like. No one talks of this much and I wish I knew more, especially when in the UK it was stopped. Perhaps WW1? sometimes wars have some unintended good effects. You’d have had so many near death, how could you stop to “vet” them by asking for letters from empowered types.

I’d like to stress the emotional honesty of the opening sequence. Nothing overdone, nothing forced. I had an experience this weekend of watching a group of relatives casually mistreat a paid home companion — nothing anyone would object to except they didn’t give her the respect of an equal human being and are planning to drop her as soon as they can with no warning. I admit I did nothing at all except (perhaps hypocritically I don’t know) salving my conscience by at least asking after her relatives, home, concerns. I know “home-aides” are still excluded from various forms of social legislation in the US intended to help domestic paid workers.

When Esther snatches back her child and after a period at the workhouse (which we don’t see — an important difference from purely naturalistic novels), Esther begins to prosper; she is hired by Miss Rice partly because Mrs Lewis gives her some slack: she is allowed to live there without paying the rent until she can. Then again a relationship forms. Fred Parsons, a evangelical type asks her to marry him, and she likes his family and they are prepared to accept her, child and all.


John Everett Millais (1829-96), “Robert Lyon and Hilary”

The marriage between Esther and Fred never occurs. In the middle to near the end of the book (corresponding to the second volume, Chapters 28-33/34), the book takes an unexpected turn. Esther is driven by her passions (erotic) which her mind cannot fully control. When she unexpectedly meets William, she shows herself drawn to him, unable to say no. We are to feel she finds William irresistibly sexually attractive, and she is really just not allured by Fred. The point made early about how Fred is small, meager and does not turn her on (so to speak) is part of this. We are supposed to find Fred’s particular brand of evangelical Christianity overdone. It did help him to accept Esther though as well as his mother. The portrait is complex.

I was much moved by the chapter in which Esther tells Fred she must marry William, or to put it more narrowly at the moment of the chapter, she must go live with him and hope that he will get his divorce, marry her and be a good father to his and her child as well as husband to her. The book is famous for its depiction of baby-farms, but I think this chapter is as important — the asserted thoughts and feelings behind her decision are probably still inculcated in women today. We know from the novel’s text and this scene itself that she is also intensely attracted to William physically as she is not to Fred, and that she is ambitious to be a tavern-owner and finds the prospect somehow glamorous.

To again bring in identification, again I parted company from Esther. I would not have left that baby with that baby-farmer and certainly would have gone back, taken it away and taken my chances. So I would certainly have married Fred. Esther fears the boy, Jackie, will hold her decision against her and stop loving for for giving him a different father than his bio-dad (as we would call Wm today).

I also think perhaps — now referring to Moore’s being daring and yet not daring — Moore lacked the nerve to marry Esther off to someone else when the child’s father was around. It’s an ancient idea that fathers have even primary rights over their children. We are perhaps supposed to feel that she feels tied to William emotionally and physically because she’s had his child, i.e., it is “natural” for her to prefer the father of the child. How quickly Mrs Lewis accepts William as the boy’s father notice.

William is not good husband material at all. He’s proven that thoroughly. He’s a gambler, and as presented for all she knows, he’d hit her. No I might have stayed stay away and married Fred all the quicker, hoping that if William presented himself as the father after Fred married me, that Fred would understand. He has understood about the child out of wedlock. In fact here Esther seems to me to make a serious mistake — not to be blamed as we are all creatures of unknown emotional forces within us, and one is sexual attraction. She was in love with William originally and she only began to love Fred after Fred was so good to her.

Austen would say esteem and gratitude are much better grounds for marriage than sexual attraction and shows this in her books. I agree.

One of the weaknesses of the book is we don’t see enough of Jackie and he is not characterized individually. Since so many of Esther’s decisions, indeed her life story hinges on her having gotten pregnant and having given birth to a living child and then decision to bring him up with love and care, to have him hardly there at all and then there just archetypally weakens the book considerably. We lose sight of how much part Jackie is playing in Esther’s decisions. Her anger at the child preferring the father’s goodies, her breaking the new toy might seem so selfish and again the old angry resentful Esther emerging (but then again why not? why should she not be angry? it’s from such anger revolutions emerge) without sufficient justification. But she is justified. She has given all to that child. The child becomes frightened as he knows he cannot depend on this fleeting father and is willing immediately to give up toys, suits, if he has his mother’s promise to be there always.

He would have accepted Fred. I thought Fred eloquent and clearly that he sees through that Esther does not love him and that is partly sexual and that she is ambitious.

Now what could have happened is Wm does not get his divorce, does not marry Esther, she has another child and Wm is a lousy husband. Instead we fast forward to a year later and are told it all went well. And William is presented as kind, sexually satisfying and doing well in his public house for Esther and Jackie, until he is threatened with fines and closure because he also brings customers by running a betting shop on the second floor. Fred comes to warn them about this — and also lecture them.

Maybe after all I would not have married Fred. I did myself marry someone I thought might give me an enjoyable life. I didn’t want someone who was (as I had seen all my life growing up in a working class lower middle home) who would be afraid to spend the money he made, would sock it away and not spend it — as to to accumulate something towards what? safety? paying for your old age in yet another compromised situation of half-misery and loneliness. And I have enjoyed what the money would buy that we had had and keep to the courage (with him there) of living today and telling myself when the morrow comes (if it does) then I’ll act if I must however I see it out of my own character. Yes Fred’s a banal killjoy

Still I might not have gone to live with William either. By marginalizing the great dangers — that Wm would not be able to get a divorce, that she might have gotten pregnant, that he might have left her in a far worse situation, Moore dodges this. In life one can’t or I might not have. After all Esther had a good situation living with Miss Rice and she need not have done anything. She could have offered say to go away for a couple of weekends and let someone take photos and do the trial but not had sex with Wm (as it seems they don’t use contraceptives) until marriage.

Another unreality is that Esther has not gotten pregnant again. That makes their lives so much easier. Moore ought at least to account for this by suggesting she now can’t or it’s difficult for whatever reason. And again by Chapter 41 Jackie is still kept at a distance; it’s as if she doesn’t have a child.

Apparently Moore is not interested in that kind of trajectory of tragedy, women as victims. He has shown us abused women but really it’s part of what he wants to show is working class life. Early in the novel he did say Wm and Esther were a good pair, would work, and could have made it and we begin to see them make it now as in one paragraph we are told that Wm got his divorce easily and he and Esther married and a year has passed. Really so easy? Moore is not a naturalist writer as naturalists would have gone for this story of Esther probably defeated at one of these turning points.

“Urban Smoke,” an illustration from Margaret Drabble’s A Writer’s Britain, the later 19th century

We move back to chapters about racing and betting taking over the working people’s lives (to be fair, as well as drink for solace) — as with Trollope, one has endure these chapters because Moore himself went to the races, bet, and liked to discuss horses. Also racing was common, horses were ubiquitous until the car emerged and I suppose it’s partly natural that they should have become a “toy” for pleasures as well as a “instrument” for hard work. The poor horse was an abused creature and still is or can be.

The 24 hour a day presence of a child in your life often changes it utterly, if you’re it’s mother, and especially if you have no financial or emotional support to enable you to fulfill yourself too. And that’s not what Moore admits to. Perhaps because he’s a man and hasn’t experienced it himself.

Some things to emphasize: here and there I see naturalism influencing the book. The description of the whole experience and raced of Derby day, beginning: “This was the last race,” especially where the landscape is described at length and the narrator sees this from the perspective of “William struggled with the crowd …” It’s very Hardyesque.

Also the beautiful effective description in the book of both the town and countryside: all have their beauties: “a Cockneyh pilgrimage … ” Lovely and yet so real because of the perspective.

Here and there too sex between Wm and Esther is done justice to.


Millais, A Chill October (1852)

The last third and conclusion of the book (Chapters 34 to the end).

Sarah’s story. As in Radcliffe’s Mysteries of Udolpho where at the close suddenly we switch to another minor heroine and have an intense even more frank replay of Emily’s ordeals, so i Sarah near the end of the book we have a harrowing replay of Esther’s. Thrown out of her house, she takes up with Bill. As he has done before, Moore only alludes to the core of the story: we see her a year later thrown out by Bill and are only told of how he forced to be a prostitute to support him. Then how she is so easily saved by Esther. In naturalistic books by Zola, Upton Sinclair, Dreiser and other top naturalists, Sarah would have perished – as she would in real life probably. But Moore does tell the story, and he emphasizes how erotically enthralled she is by Bill — conveys it. This one gripped me.

Meanwhile Esther and William are threatened by his ill health (he seems to have TB), the animus and needs of their neighbors to stop them being a betting center, and the aftermath of Fred’s visit to warn them. Then I was much moved by the persuasive, creditable — utterly believable account of William’s descent into a fatal illness of TB and gambling as a wild addiction while his house is attacked for being a betting place, he is fined and forced to close. I see now that Sarah’s story serves as a catalyst for the house’s exposure.

Because William and Esther testify on Sarah’s behalf, they call attention to themselves and their house, and the police raid them. The judge is as harsh towards them as he is towards Sarah.

I was strongly angered as I am meant to be by the judge’s hypocrisy: Moore’s point is that there are two sets of laws, one for the rich and the other for the poor. The rich can gamble and do what they want and the poor are despised and hunted down for the same behavior, half abetted by other of their own poor people because what is really wanted is that the poor work work work very hard and remain “respectable” and not bother the luxurious life of the rich whom the poor serve. Someone like Fred Parsons is actually serving the rich when he insists that (justifiably) that gambling, drinking and what other pleasures are available be strictly controlled to keep the poor minimally comfortable.

The book here fits into the naturalistic type of novel — these all strongly critiqued the capitalist system, from the above angle as well as that of the natural world people can’t fight. People do have sexual desires, they have children out of wedlock, they get sick. The way Wm gets sick, the money it costs, the way the hospital works, that he cannot get to “Egypt” is the result of his poverty. He caught his first bad cold and TB by going to race-tracks as a bookie and then switched to keeping this in the house as his health would no longer take the punishment of the courses. I did underline one example of imagery typical of the naturalistic novel: “She [Esther] grew frightened as the cattle do in the fields when the sky darkens and the storm draws near” (chapter 41, p 318)

The way William’s final death scenes first in the hospital and then moved into his own house are handled is touching. We see how far we are from the 19th century pious novel as there is no religious imagery or ideas here.

I kept thinking that Esther might turn to Fred in the end as she shares his ideas, but it is more fitting (I feel) for this work of art to end where it began. She has to support herself, has nothing, has her son. She is too old to do the job as a laundress so must “go out to service,” cannot live on her own supporting the boy at school. He will now have to go to work too.

I liked the ending and it felt fitting but I would say that at many of the turns of the story I felt Moore was inventing as he went along. There was no first outline.

So we see her by chance (and also fairy tale) return to Woodview, the house she worked in earlier with Mrs Barfield again as her congenial employer. She fulfills an older version of her position as this woman’s friend-Servant.

Elin Danielson Gambogi (1861-1919), The Sisters (1891)

It is not unrealistic to present the mistress and maid as friends. Many were, and there was not always a large distance between them. We see that in Roger Scatcherd’s wife in Trollope’s Dr Thorne who spends her time with her housekeeper

I am feeling I am ending where I begun but this book reminds me I am not. I am very different from the person I set out as and have had some measure of success with my husband so we need not live as other people’s servants with no time or place of our own or life to create of our own.

Tyler, my friend’s response:

Yes, it is a stoic ending. Quite sad. It’s as if all Esther’s life ends up being worth is that she had a son, and he could be killed in war as you say. It is not tragic like other naturalism novels – I’m most familiar with Zola’s, which tend to be depressing and disastrous in their endings, but it is still sad. It does come full circle, and in the friendship between Esther and the mistress, seems to suggest perhaps that time is the great leveler. In just a few generations, the Barfields rose up the social ladder and now they have fallen back down some and Esther has gone up some and they are almost equal, and simply time and the beat goes on and perhaps all is vanity in the end. It will be interesting to read another book by Moore now to see the similarities and contrasts.

It is a stoic ending, but it is also a kind of full circle. I was much moved by the last moment as Esther looks at her soldier son, and we are reminded how he could lose his life at any moment. He took that job as soldier partly to make money. We see the three of them standing against a fall landscape, the tone of the book sad, sombre autumnal.

I very much look forward to reading Albert Nobbs. As a piquant note: Janet McTeer starred in the film adaptation of Mary Webb’s naturalistic early 20th century Precious Bane, so she starred in the film adaptation of George Moore’s Albert Nobbs.


Read Full Post »

courtesan. n. a prostitute, especially one with wealthy or upper class clients (Oxford Concise Dictionary). n. a woman of the town [courtisane. Fr.] Shakespeare (Johnson’s Dictionary)

Also: from traviare. v. to be lost, wandering, travail, travel, astray (Concise Cambridge Italian Dictionary)

Nightmare parody as dreamt, seen, experienced by Alfredo

Dear friends and readers,

I’ve been writing altogether too frequently about prostitutes lately: from trafficking to The Rise of the English Actress, from arguments about how or whether to help prostitutes to suspect individuals and another night in the life of Roman Polanski, it seems hard to leave the topic.

And now Willy Dekker’s La Traviata at the Met directed with HD camera transmission in mind, featuring Natalie Dessay and Matthew Polenzani (to whom much of the power of the experience is owed), is undoubtedly the most memorable, striking, & contemporary production of an opera I’ve seen since Claus Guth’s Don Giovanni at Salzburg. To speak metaphorically, it seemed at first the La Traviata characters has gotten lost in some minimalist Samuel Beckett play: instead of a tree, we had a clock, instead of a dirt road, a highly uncomfortable couch, instead of a horizon, a bending wall with a overlooking roof.

Dessay in her white slip by the clock, her rich flowered robe fallen and forgotten

But then as I saw this crowd of greedy men grabbing at our heroine, assailing her, tossing her about on stone couches, making her their puppet, I was reminded of Jane Campion’s take on Henry James’s Portrait of a Lady. Isabel Archer was destroyed by this hard devouring and (paradoxically) scornful adulation too.

Dessay thrust above the horde, arms thrusting champagne bottles outward

What is it with Salzburg — as that’s where the Dekker & Guth premiered — what electric current from a core of contemporary brilliance is running through this place? The production has been making the rounds of opera houses since 2005, and everyone apparently “knows” the script is based on partly autobiographical novel by Dumas, La Dame aux Camelias, which has been filmed and retold many times, and this version provides the capable singer with an opportunity to deliver the most moving of performances (see, e.g., The NYTimes and Minnesota Radio).

I just loved the set. Very demanding. You are just out there singing with no distractions beyond what is meaningful.

And I was swept away by Verdi’s music. It rocks, you sway within from it. Exhilarating, mysterious (as a song in this one tells us), thrilling. The music of this part of his oeuvre makes your body move, it’s irresistible the rhythms and harmonies. Two others just the same: Rigoletto. La Forza del Destino.

So what can I add beyond what I’ve already said: If the purpose was to make an unsentimental Traviata, to wrest this cliche from false tears, Dekker and Company managed it by hitting truer emotions. Bold and simple through and through: black-on-white for everyone but Dessay against an often royal blue background:

The nerve was to bring out the underlying realities of the original Dumas by transgressive parody. The traditional ballet became a muscular man naked to the waist, putting on Dessay’s red dress, and cavorting about the stage with all the men, making gross sexual gestures (see above). Where Alfredo once left the stage, now he was there to be teased, bullied, mocked, banged about:

— or was this a nightmare? The last act was just inspired. I was near or in tears, holding them back, stunned with emotion (though often not for the specific situation in front of me but rather the emotions themselves which I’ve felt in other situations). Our heroine was no longer emoting from a bed but walking about dazed, now grief-stricken, mad with depresson, then lit with sudden crazed hope (which hope alerted even the dim Alfredo that she was not going to last), all activity, trying this, demanding that (to go to church, to go out, to be forgiven, with plans for the future), letter in hand:

Polenzani as Alfredo sang exquisitely beautifully and his acting almost as good as Robert Alagna (Don Jose in the Met HD Carmen). He was more subtle than Dessay:

And his voice was stronger and more moving: his arias were like prayers to joy. Jim said that technically Dessay wasn’t up to it: her voice rasped at the end, the middle register was lacking. Well, if so, it made her singing all the more effective at the close, her destruction more believable.

For me the only failure was Dmitri Hvorostovsky as the father; I felt he was stiff, wooden, not acting at all. Jim suggested that he was impassive because he was directed to do that by Willy: he was supposed to be the relentless male, refusing to engage in what was in front of him.

Well, I’ve read the story and the father is supposed to be intensely emotional too — he wants to go to bed with her (maybe he does). But do see the comments below where people felt otherwise and liked Dmitri’s singing and stance, and I agree that making this male a stone figure reinforces the idea of a sweeping dismissal of this woman as a human being who counts. No all that counts is the “pure” daughter for whose advantageous marriage (monetarily, for prestige) Violetta is to be cast away. (Castaway was a Victorian term for prostitute).

A fine production to end a season which included a similarly (humane, sensitive) transformed Faustus (Marina Poplavskaya has played Violetta in other stagings of this production).

Deborah Voight was again our “hostess” (replete with commercials I have to admit) and told the movie-house audience that we could go over to facebook and offer our views or go to Twitter #metfaves & register our favorites for this year. I looked at my blogs & discovered after all I’ve written separate blogs on the HD operas from the Met only 13 times over 3 years (plus 1). It seems more because I write about HD operas from Europe which we’ve seen in movie-houses in DC, and operas we’ve seen at Glimmerglass & Castleton (see operas). So I can’t remember (separate out) what I saw so very accurately even this year but this is what I tweeted (with the 129 characters enlarged a bit for coherence): Luca Pisaroni as Caliban & Leporello. Marina Poplavskaya as Marguerite and Dessayas Violetta and Renee Fleming as Rodelina. Favorite productions: Traviata, Faustus, Enchanted Island, Don Giovanni. Then I came back and added another: Joyce Didonato as Sycorax, Danielle de Niese as Ariel. As will be seen after all I’m not gone on the Wagners, nor those with Nebtrebko. I too (like many people today) find myself drawn to baritones & deeper-voiced males than the tenors and yet except for Simon Keelyside I don’t remember their names. I did like Andreas Scholl, but I had to look up his name and remember him basically as the man who sang Rodelina as the countertenor who partnered my favorite diva Renee Fleming.

I did feel I had participated in a long opera season, including a development of habits (bringing my New York Style Cream Soda, my books), recognitions as when the same people sitting in the same areas of the auditorium over the year. Very satisfying.

We’ve picked out 9 of the 12 for next year that we must see. At $20 a seat, a ten minute drive at most away, it can’t be beat.


Read Full Post »

Temple of the Muses, Scotland, dedicated to James Thomson, author of The Seasons

Dear friends and readers,

My third and last blog report on our East Central Region meeting on the theme of liberty in the long 18th century at Penn State: late Saturday afternoon and early Sunday morning. This last afternoon I heard a book history type session on Thomson’s The Seasons, listened to a lecture on “the black Mozart,” Joseph Bologne, and on Sunday morning, heard an analysis of a novel by Edgeworth from the point of view of an anti-Jacobin, pro-Jacobin axis, while Jim heard an iconoclastic paper where the speaker argued against the attribution to Aphra Behn of Love-letters between a Noble-man and his Sister, and all her posthumous novels. And I thought of a topic for next year: Infamy, infamy, everyone has it in for me: paranoia in the novels of Sophie Cottin — I may not do that.

Except for the talk on Joseph Bologne (see African heritage site), again the theme of liberty came out most frequently from the point of view of people trying to curtail the liberties of others, this time by arguing against the concept in its new 18th century radical pursuit phase or appropriating someone else’s work to make money.

A legendary scene in the (folk) life of Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-George: he is imagined duelling with the Chevalier d’Eon, said to have spent 49 years as a man and 33 as a woman

See the first report and the second.


After a third session on professional women, and trip to Penn state library, I had come back to Nittany Inn to hear 3 papers on the editions of James Thomson’s Seasons: this was a book history session. Sandro Jung discussed the Scottish editions of the poem after the opriginal copyright lapsed: we saw the increasingly naturalistic readings of Thomson’s text; Kate Parker looked at the sexual and erotic relationships in the poem; and Kwinten Van De Wall showed us competing paratexts. All three focused on the differences between the different texts’ illustrations, discussed marketing, copyright issues. The session was refreshing because of the turning away from interpretive readings of the editions’ prefaces to pay attention to how marketing the text for different sets of readers was reflected in the physical characteristics of these books. The papers covered the English editions of Thomson and then 3 Scots editions (1178, 1792, 1793); Sandro’s three publications where much more detail was included were listed in the handouts (see comment). Afterward we did talk a little about interpretation of the poem and also Thomson’s life: although not super-rich, Thomson lived very comfortably on the fees he got from the publishers.

The traditional image-portrait of the Chevalier de Saint-George

We then had a special lecture by Charles H. Pettaway, a Professor of Music, on Joseph Bologne, Le Chevalier St-George (circa 1745-1799), sometimes called “the black Mozart.” My report here differs from my usual ones in that I’m not summarizing or retelling what Prof. Pettaway literally told us, but rather saying very briefly from what he said what I generally understood to be what we today know about Joseph Bologne (the same story more or less also re-stated in wikipedia). There are large problems distinguishing the actual events of this man’s life, much less understanding his character, and probably music, because so much legend has grown up around him, some of it dramatized in a recent biopic. Prof Pettaway’s story was of a man born a mulatto slave in Guadaloupe to a black slave mother and white French aristocratic father, who was eventually brought to Paris where he was educated according to European cultural and aristocratic norms. It’s said this man became an excellent swordsman, an equestrian, manifested musical genius: he played the violin, rose briefly as a musician and composer, and wrote and left music in the middle European tradition (Mozartian). You might say such a person would seek liberty because his position necessitated this. Born to a complete lack of freedom or status which can enable people to have some liberty, he had to assert the concept through himself in order to achieve anything. After the revolution, because he had been associated with aristocrats, and was yet black, he found himself without patrons and died in obscure circumstances. One very pretty piece of music attributed to Bologne was played on the piano by Prof Pettaway. He also showed scenes of music playing from the DVD of the biopic.

It does seem that up to now we cannot reach whatever this man was. Prof Pettaway cited no sources, no memoirs by Bologne (such as we have by Equiano). He could have died in despair, but if so, we do not know this.

It was this, the last evening of the conference that I went to dinner with a friend after a long friendly (exhilarating) reception for everyone between 6 and 7. I got back to the hotel around 11 and went to bed because the next day we were to get up early to listen to one paper each and then leave for home.


Maria Edgeworth (1768-1849), from E. A. Duyckinck’s Portrait Gallery

That morning after an half-hour’s conversational time over coffee (my friend, Erliss and I caught up on the year), the last sessions began. I went with her to hear Janne Gillespie’s analysis of Maria Edgeworth’s epistolary Leonora as a book exploring the French philosophe’s threat to institutional monarchy as Edgeworth saw it. Overtly the novel projects a distrust of sensibility, especially as seen in French novels (Stael’s Delphine) which Edgeworth parodies; at the same time Edgeworth alludes to anti-Jacobin authors (e.g, Hannah More, Elizabeth Hamilton) as exemplary. The book, though, is chock-a-block with allusions to French philosophes and French ideas and fascination with liberated love and radical ideals. At times the paper seemed to me more about anti-Jacobin novels and French ideas than Edgeworth’s novel, but there was a working out of the plot-design. The Lady Olivia who exhibits the bad behavior these ideals supposedly foster becomes the lover of Leonora, which provides the real interest of the book. She has misunderstood what these ideals were about, and Leonora who at the close of the book is contemptuous of Olivia and very English, is herself an amoral woman.

Aphra Behn (1640-89)

Jim went to a different session and he heard what was to him the most iconoclastic and stimulating paper of the conference, and this brief report is based on his notes and memory. Leah Orr, a student of Robert Hume, followed his footsteps: in a previous conference Prof. Hume had argued that except for Robinson Crusoe, we lack any authority for attributing to Defoe the novels we traditionally say are his, that Defoe never acknowledged these texts in his lifetime, unscrupulous publishers printed them, and we ought therefore at least to be uncertain about the attributions, or talk about Defoe’s works in a different way than we do.

Ms Orr went further: she argued against the attribution to Behn of all the novels published posthumously by Briscoe and the Love-Letters between a Nobleman and his Sister, published anonymously during her life and never acknowledged by her. Briscoe’s publications are wholly unreliable (he publishes works under the names of dead people). Why did Briscoe attribute these posthumous works to Behn? 1) Behn had written and stockpiled these, intending to publish them for money; 2) she had not finished them and they needed editing so she gave them to Charles Gilden (who I know was in the habit of publishing texts he got hold of apparently unscrupulously (Gilden is untrustworthy); or 3) Thomas Browne, a contemporary, is the link between Behn and Briscoe.

Love Letters between a Nobleman and his Sister (1684)

As to the famed Love-Letters (sometimes honored as the first or among the first novels in English), they show a radical switch in technique: after the hectic lurid epistolary opening, the text becomes a dog-trot narrative. They were republished several times during Behn’s life and they exposed people she would not have wanted to see exposed (Monmouth, Charles II’s son). The attribution goes back to Langbaum in 1691 who does not say why he attributes the novel to Behn. Janet Todd relies wholly on the signature “AB” at the close of the dedication, but many works in ECCO show “AB” as a signature to paratexts. The work is wholly unlike anything else that Behn ever wrote: all her five published novels during her lifetime are signed with her name and are concise semi-tongue-in-cheek narratives; three are consistent gems, Oroonoko (highly original and autobiographical, in effect an anti-slavery tract); The Nun and The Fair Jilt (both powerful romances). Ms. Orr questioned Todd’s use of subjective (read feminist) criteria.

Listening to this, I know that finally we do fall back on subjective criteria. Ms Orr uses her sense that these texts are unlike Behn’s others. I’ve also seen the term “subjective” used as a kind of underhanded or unacknowledged allusion to feminism which implies a tenacious agenda distorts whatever reading is at hand. Nonetheless, it’s refreshing to remember how texts really appeared in the long 18th century, what our attributions are often so slenderly founded on, and book history analysis provides healthy scepticism, often finally cynical (nothing wrong with that) which appeals. I really should do a foremother poet blog for Behn.

We talked about this last paper as we settled our bill, put our cases in the car and drove away. It was a beautiful November morning and had been a splendid conference for both of us. I enjoyed being in the play on Thursday night and Jim had read some poetry aloud; we enjoyed the dinners, lunches, receptions and treat of good conversation; we had seen a new town and library, met with old friends and acquaintances. We had gone to the business breakfast for the first time because Jim is the webmaster and offered a short report. (I recommend Nittany Lion’s breakfasts, especially the exquistiely well-cooked rich French toast.)

We hope to come again next year to EC/ASECS. The general topic is to be scandal or infamy. It’s a topic that lends itself particularly to scholars of the scandal-ridden world of the French ancien regime, with its internecine backstabbing. At first blush in English novels I can think of when young women lose their reputations (has a baby out of wedlock especially) they vanish from the narrative, but a little consideration of the papers I heard this time reminds me that if one goes outside this narrow didactic imagined purview, one finds these women don’t go away after all. Far from it.

This year’s topic of liberty was so fruitful because it’s such a fundamental impulse and developing new norms across the whole era.


Read Full Post »

Renee (Josiane Balasko) and Paloma (Garance Le Guillermic) hug tightly (The Hedgehog)

Dear friends and readers,

Izzy and I continue our unplanned French Indian summer: sparkling, moving films. Just now French films seem the finest, most intelligent, unexpectedly telling movies in our neck of the world’s woods.

We began with Sarah’s Key (Elle s’appelait Sarah — more accurately Her name was Sarah), based on the eloquent subjectiveized woman’s novel by Tatiana de Rosnay, with the movie by directed and written by Gilles Paquet-Brenner, and featuring Kristin Scott Thomas:

Kirstin Scott Thomas as Sarah grown into a mature woman journalist, Julia Ja

This is a story of retrieved memory of the French complicity in the Nazi attempt to exterminate all Jewish people. The film is remarkably realistic in its rendering of the failed flight of the family, the way barbarism is inflicted, a daily mix of bullying, lies, terrors and hope (against no hope) and the first sequences at the concentration camp and the little girl’s escape; it falls off into incoherence and some inexplicable contradictory and improbable romancing (such as the heroine who stands for ulimate loyalty leaves her husband, has no trouble getting a top-paying job in NYC) towards the end. One needs to have read the book to grasp there is consistency and depth of treatment her. I did like the film enough to buy the book at the West End Cinema which had it on sale and hope to read it soon.

Last week it was The Names of Love (Les Gens des Noms — more accurately The People with Names that Count). Izzy reviewed it in her blog. What I’d like to add is underneath this one is the paradigm of the unconventional wacky woman, Baya (Sara Forestier) converts/transforms strait-laced man, Arthur (Jacques Gamblin) into giving himself up to life’s passions generously.

It is another of the countless films where the actress is much much younger than the actor but we are asked to believe they are the same age: here she urges fanciful wallpaper for their flat

Our heroine saving the lives of crabs: she does not eat, but throws them back in the water (she finds the hero’s vaunted environmentalism wanting):

Baya says she is a political whore: goes to bed with men to convert them to socialism, which provide occasions for sex scenes; the good feeling and quick pace of the film enables the audience to slide over the improbabilities. It did defy the new cold-heartedness and conformist securities. Leftism as a lark, fun. As Izzy suggests, a more serious intractable theme was its pro-immigrant France as a melting pot point-of-view, one not shared by its president and those who voted him in.

And the film we saw in the later afternoon today, The Hedgehog (Le Herisson, in the original book, L’elegance du herisson). Its startlingly ending, so moving that it took me a minute or so to take it in (and then I began to cry helplessly) prompted this blog. I wanted to urge readers to go see this film.

It’s more thoroughly heroine’s text, the story modelled on the wicked girls’ book type found in the Eloisa books, with a woman director and script writer,

Mona Achache

woman producer, Anne-Dominique Toussaint, based on a highly intellectual, wittily allusive woman’s novel by Muriel Barbery:


where Barbery plays upon and alludes to Isaiah Berlin’s famous conceit of two opposing philosophic stances, that of the Hedgehog (who knows one thing very well and follows a single doctrine) and that of the fox (who twists and turns as occasions demands, moves from one view to another). Barbery imitates or feminizes the apartment house conceit of Life: A User’s Manual (La Vie mode d’emploi) by Georges Perec (he who wrote a novel in French without an “e”). Barbary’s apartment house has six luxurious apartments and each family set teaches and entertains us relevantly.

Achache tightens the book by focusing on just on its two narrators: the aging, poor, heavy, unschooled (if not uneducated) janitor, Renee (Josiane Balasko) who reads in secret hard and great books (including Anna Karenina whose opening lines resonate through the movie) in a locked-away library:


and the 12 year old Paloma, obsessive film-maker, who keeps talking about how she’s going to kill herself (and we feel just might); she is a troubled lonely child.

We read the book together on WWTTA, and I knew I had not done justice to it because I was too tired at night to read it properly (see review by Philip French). I’d like to stress here how in the film the girl’s and woman’s story grow together until the Paloma’s alienation from her environment leads her to turn to the middle aged woman’s isolation as a low class poor person. The not-so-hidden injuries of class in the woman and how she endures this stoically enable the child to identify and bond with the janitor’s unconcealed humanity. To everyone else Renee is invisible; not to Paloma who spends much time drawing a beautiful pen-and-ink picture of Renee reading in her hidden library. The child’s mother and father are either gone from the home, or distanced through drugs, rituals. Very touching is the romance that grows up between Kakuro Ozu (Togo Igawa) an elderly Japanese man on the 6th floor (he comes later into the novel), and Renee, where the two people slowly begin to know one another,

When he kisses her hand outside the door, it’s sheer illuminated grace

They are beginning to become friends, trust. There is a painful moment where she refuses to go to dinner with him lest she end up hurt and then yields. He sends her gifts of a lovely dress, shawl and beautiful pumps. Towards the end of the film we see they are giving one another’s lives precious moments of happiness.

I don’t want to give the ending away. It has an ironic parallel in a real life incident that similarly ended comically tragically. Suffice to say the movie works up the audience’s anxiety: first over what the girl does to a poor goldfish (feed it a large sleeping pill) and flush it down the toilet, to what we fear she’ll do to herself and perhaps Renee’s big lazy tomcat. The cat is a central presence in the film, ever there, ever keeping Renee company. There’s a small miracle that occurs over these domestic animals. Izzy thought that everyone in the building seemed to have one or two cats; alas, I can’t find any stills of them on the Net.

If you are seeking a moment where you see people reach out with honest emotional integrity and support for one another, the last two films do this, and The Hedgehog with life’s fleeting poignancy. It is a user’s manual. Maybe one of the lessons of the film The Hedgehog is we must not hide away from one another too thoroughly.

Perhaps too Achache’s film is better than Barbey’s (overloaded) book in that having carved away the other stories and giving up on the dense literary allusion, the seeker experiences the core of the book with full emotional intensity. The pace of the film is important, the feelings grow in you, are developed naturally: it’s like watching grass grow sometimes, and you don’t realize how engaged you are in this diurnal reality until the boom is lowered. I came away longing to re-read Barbery’s book (this time carefully through).


Read Full Post »

Older Posts »


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 260 other followers