Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for the ‘general’ Category


Small still from 1977 Poldark, Episode 8: Hugh Armitage and Demelza Poldark becoming lovers in the marginalized rural landscape by the sea of Cornwall

Friends,

I noticed tonight many hits on my blogs and essays on the Poldark novels, especially those which provided the equivalent episodes of the older 1970s Poldark to the one aired tonight on BBC: from the conclusion of The Four Swans (1977 Episode 8) and the opening of The Angry Tide (1977 Episode 9). So I’ve provided a couple of stills from this material for the opening of this blog


Elizabeth telling Warleggan she will leave him if he does not stop his insane possessive spying on her, and imposing a crazed anxiety and coldness which is ruining her life (1977 Poldark Episode 8)

I regret to say I have no summary or stills from the start of the fourth season. As someone who lives outside the UK, I cannot as yet access the show nor the BBC iplayer: a friend is working on that to see if we can use VPN; another friend is recording the show for me in Ireland and will send the DVDs as he can — it will not be immediately.

But I thought I would return to Winston Graham tonight. I have over these several weeks since April (when I at long last gave over trying to write an academic style paper on Samuel Johnson and Virginia Woolf as “modernist” biographers) read carefully one short story and some six of Graham’s early novels, all belonging to the the popular novel formulaic kind of suspense, mystery, thriller, detective, murder type I wrote about last week, this six first written before the breakthrough (as I’ll call it) of Ross Poldark (1945). In two cases I have only a later revision, and in one both the early novel and later revision:

The House with Stained Glass Windows (Graham’s first published novel), 1934: a barely readable juvenilia: it’s as if someone took the silly Clue game and made a novel out of it, but it has recognizable elements of typical Graham amalgams, especially a sort of mentally disabled neurotic man (very over done in this first attempt)

“The Medici Earring,” 1935, a short story, reprinted 1965 and 1971: All three versions differ; I discover tonight that I have the 1935 version (which appeared in an issue of the Windsor Magazine for that year). I read the last, the 1971 version (which appears in The Japanese Girl, a collection of short stories). I dislike the tone of the 1971 version, that of a mild sarcastic male, the sort of thing popular in smart-alecky detective stories. Especially offensive is the attitude voiced towards the girl in the story: she is delectable. While it could be this is ironic (on the part of the implied author too) since surely we are not to like this man as he stole the earring and has lied to everyone. However, in other of these suspense stories and many many of them by men especially women are treated as objects available for sex. Here the implied author is quite hidden — I assume we are not to like this awful man but I’m not sure the point is moral exposure.

The Dangerous Pawn, 1937: effective in its own right, at moments in the conversations it reminded me of Norman Douglas’s South Wind, better than the 12th Poldark, Bella, evocative descriptions of Scilly Islands, with probably revealing autobiographical elements. Four opening chapters take place in India (with flashbacks to the UK) and Singapore, and Graham critiques the Raj from the point of view of a white subaltern. The hero is in class (like Paul Scott’s Merrick in his Raj Quartet) and when he takes the hit or blame for the neglect of a major dam, he is ejected; he goes to Singapore to try to obtain a similar subaltern British position, but is instead lured to become a wealthy man’s private secretary and sub-manager of a corporation in London. Eventually the novel and its hero finds a true core in Cornwall and the islands just off it — a complicated plot. Many of the elements found in the Poldark novels are in this book in a different amalgam. A secondary hero anticipates the character of Valentine Warleggan fascinatingly because of the same name and personality resemblances, and he is not a character twisted into self-hatred like the Valentine of the Poldark books. Part of the reason it is superior is it is not structured as a murder mystery.

The Giant’s Chair, 1938, unfortunately completely re-hauled into a much poorer Woman in the Mirror, 1975: streamlined modernized, it loses all the charms of the first gothic-like 1930s style, heavily descriptive and mythic haunted Wales book, also heavy with indirect autobiography. I recognize disturbing caricatures of Graham’s own mother and his self as in an older strong woman and a disabled son. I found myself involved with the characters, even liking a couple of them. The older version has as back story a poignant romantic love vignette. The later book has some remarkable lines, it’s more coherent and pointed, but much of the atmosphere of the first, all the beauty of the love story is gone and at the end we are confronted with a sordid melodramatic murder. It is remarkable to me (and significant) that Graham later in life cannot tell what is good in his writing and what is bad. I assume he was embarrassed by the earlier book and/or seduced into imitating what is the going style (so he intuits) that sells.

Night Journey, my copy printed in 1975, a somewhat revised 1966 version of an earlier 1941 book of the same title: it put me in mind of Graham Greene and LeCarre school because the book is an attempt to reveal the amorality of global spying during WW2; I’ve not read the earlier where there might be more specific autobiographical parallels in the characters. In this one the protagonist is pressured into facilitating the killing of someone without any trial, just on supposition. (So it anticipates what is openly done in the US drone killings today). The love interest is completely meretricious (phony). At the opening there is brief entry of a character who seemed to me to anticipate how Ross Poldark might appear to others. Bleak, pessimistic, self-contained.


Ross pressured by Bassett into seeking out to arrest and try (and eventually hang) someone as a scapegoat because he participated in some food riots (1977 Poldark Episode 9)

Merciless Ladies, 1979, a somewhat revised version of an earlier 1944 book: with an interesting pretense that the narrator is considering a biography of the hero, who is kept at a distance, intelligent details about schools of art in the era, court-trial scenes, like Dangerous Pawn it seems hardly a mystery type until near the end when it falls off badly into a scene where the narrator kills one of the two vicious women (the “merciless ladies” of the unfortunate coy title, not atypical of the era), presented as justifiable. It is a rare book of this kind to sympathize with those who participated in the strike of 1926, to criticize fascism, to be anti-war. There is a thrust towards solitude as a way to recover and sustain integrity and strength. Among the more apparently virtuous characters there is a a distaste for the publicity, for public self-selling. I have not read the first version and more may perhaps be learned about the author’s motives or aims or dissatisfaction with the first by comparing the two.

The Forgotten Story, 1945, like Dangerous Pawn, effective in its own right, it combines a realization of Cornwall in 1898 in an anxiety-producing story, with a young boy narrator, and an ominous dense woman who poisons people who get in her way. It contains one of Graham’s numerous semi-rape or at least some kind of sexual assault scenes between a husband and wife where the husband is presented as justified; in this one he apologizes and the depiction of the heroine is done to show us how little opportunity for self-realization, power, independence, liberty a young woman of middling status had in this early era (and perhaps in the 1940s too), which allows the novel’s sexual subplot between the husband and wife to be read against the grain. I became very anxious for two of the characters, really cared what happened to them. Atmosphere and evocation of Cornwall, the sea, the world of ships very good. I wrote a full account of this novel some years ago. I didn’t realize then the extent to which this book conforms to mystery and Cornish subgenres combined.


Drake now a blacksmith and Geoffrey Charles talking (1977 Poldark Episode 7)

These are not all Graham’s early pre-Poldark novels. The 1931 Black Beard (a title which reveals its stance, one might wish ironically but I doubt it) is lost or destroyed; 1935 Into the Fog, The Riddle of John Rowe; 1936 Without Motive; 1939 Keys of Chance; 1942 My Turn Next. None of these are available in the Library of Congress, which is the major research library available to me without traveling. There are two early or pre-Poldark plays, the first not available to me without traveling: 1936 Seven Suspected, the 1938 Forsaking All Others is lost (or destroyed). But I have managed to obtain a copy of Strangers Meeting, 1939, which is said to be a novelization of Forsaking All Others; Strangers Meeting is set in Cornwall. I have now  read it and it is a good book of the type. (I’ll write of it separately).  A last sort of pre-Poldark is No Exit (1940) begun after Graham had started Ross Poldark.  There is a copy of No  Exit in the Library of Congress near me. Graham’s works for print and private papers are located in the complicated situation of different libraries: one is in Cornwall, another Reading; research may be done in the British Library in London. The scripts for the early Poldark series and probably the new ones are in the BBC archives library.

There are three streams of popular material which make up the matter of Graham’s writing: this suspense genre; regional Cornish stories and writing; and historical novels and romance. I make a separate category for stories set in Cornwall as it does seem to me that the Cornish setting leads to a certain kind of text: I’ve seen this happen in other authors who lived or just visited Cornwall; it is true of Anthony Trollope’s remarkably good 19th century story, “Malachi’s Cove,” adapted into an effective BBC movie.

He did write screenplays, and very much interested himself, played an active role where he could in the film adaptations of his books — of which I have counted 9 (if you count all the the 1970s serial dramas as one film adaptation and all serial dramas since 2015 as another). So in 1945 he wrote a script for a film, Take My Life, with Valerie Taylor (this exists in a 1947 DVD), which he rewrote as a novel: I have both a copy of the DVD and a copy of the novel, which I have read but a while back and must reread. Take My Life as a project occurs around the time of Ross Poldark and Demelza.

I’m writing this blog in the same spirit I wrote many of my blogs on film adaptations of Austen, on Woolf and Johnson and other topics over the years — to see where I am and work out a few thoughts in brief blog-essay, which I hope is coherent enough for the reader to gain some knowledge too. Graham does convey throughout characters who involved themselves in businesses and gov’t and he writes about this kind of experience, as well as different areas in the world knowledgeably. So he traveled. There is an assumption of understanding of social life — though he presents it as dysfunctional. The earlier books show himself and his mother; he presents the Demelza type from early on. The more intriguing or less moral female characters (who are not vicious) are yet to come (Elizabeth Chynoweth say or the amoral heroine of Angell, Pearl and Little God, 1970).

I now realize how much of the suspense material is taken over into the Poldarks and how the concerns in the suspense material exist across the Poldark matter. There are to me deeply disquieting misogynisic patterns across the whole oeuvre: a woman is repeatedly killed or assaulted or raped by a man and the act is justified; his famous Marnie belongs to this (1963), and lent itself to a Hitchcock voyeuristic mean-minded nightmare; Graham’s later favorite novel (he said), After the Act (1965) is about the intense regret of a man who has murdered his older wife.  The cheap nature of this book, its thinness and cover sicken me: 1978 The Tumbled House.  I feel ill looking at the packaging of the later Cameo (1988, a thorough reworking of the 1942 My Turn Next), mercifully it’s shortTitles turn me off:  Merciless Ladies (mentioned above); 1998 The Ugly Sister.  Those who write in this genre do not have me and my woman’s taste or feminism in mind. Across all the fiction I will say that Graham’s texts come most alive  and the best of his psychological writing comes out when he is writing of Cornwall and marginalized rural places nearby.

I don’t want this blog to go on for too long so shall stop listing with notes at this point; after 1945 when the Poldark novels start, during the twenty year hiatus between the fourth of the first quartet (Warleggan, 1953) and the first of second trilogy (The Black Moon, 1973), and during the writing of the later quartet and final coda to the Poldarks (Nos 8-12, Stranger from the Sea through Bella), he composed a number of short stories, numerous suspense novels, three more historical novels other than the Poldarks, travel or descriptive regional writing, one of which is partly a memoir and an autobiography, to say nothing of scattered journalism. I have read some of this material but not with notes and care so will make my way through these slowly as well as what of the non-Poldark films once again.


Old photo of St Ives as harbor and art colony

From my reading thus far I am becoming persuaded that the approach I must take is through the genres and Cornwall. I wanted to write a biography but that will take travel to libraries so must not count on it as a central nexus and I have learned Graham’s son is far from eager. So despite a real distaste for some of this material — like Anthony Trollope I just can’t get myself to care what happened at 2:15 on Monday at the stile nor do I read to discover what happens next — I’ll have to get to know the typical characteristics of it, and pick out what I can like of it. I have made a list of such novels to go through. Previous old favorites of mine of the mystery-murder type were Umberto Eco’s Il Nome della Rosa and (believe it or not) Antonia Fraser’s Quiet as a Nun. For spy stories I’ve read a number of LeCarre, also Graham Greene. I know from teaching, film watching and novels which mix realism with the mystery genre, as well as a few masters that it lends itself to serious social criticism, and since Hammett socially aware books. I have loved Daphne DuMaurier and films set in Cornwall so hope to enjoy exploring that vein. I have no list for more romance fiction or Cornish stories as yet. Historical fiction and romance happily I’ve read a good deal of and love. I have no working title any more (it was Winston Graham, Cornwall and the Poldark matter) as I have seen I shall have to change my perspective to include this suspense material yet write sympathetically.

Ellen

Read Full Post »


Tilda Swinton as Eve (The Only Lovers Left Alive, 2013)


Thornton burning down (a 2006 Sandy Welch Jane Eyre, with Ruth Wilson as Jane)

Friends and readers,

Much to my surprise, or I might say re-awakening to the Brontes, when over the last ten weeks I reread Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, then Anne Bronte’s The Tenant of Wilfell Hall, and finally Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, I found (honestly) I preferred Jane Eyre to the other two. I found I had forgotten and begun to underestimate the originality, radical visions, the (also) sober and somber experiences of these books. They are all gothics (as is the recent quintessential The Only Lovers Left Alive, which I used as the blog gravatar), with the characteristics of female gothic (see my blog after reading Anne Williams’s The Art of Darkness), which brings to the fore the real subjection of women in society then and now.


A too flattering picture of Charlotte by George Richmond

I had forgotten what a masterpiece for sentences startlingly filled with vivid images after vivid images, original thought, sheer passion, alive with an individually convincing presence is Jane Eyre. Never a dull moment as to story. Burning with indignation at large and mean injustices. The unforgettable opening scenes at Gateshead and Lowood.  Later on, the gypsy scene with Rochester. Who ever wrote a better proposal scene, or witty teasing courting scenes. The theme of refusing to allow one’s innate self to be violated or a demand for acknowledgement of having done a wrong (when there has been none) or downright cruel self-berating is no where better. And how about this to add to your touchstones, Matthew Arnold?

I can live alone, if self-respect and circumstances require me so to do. I need not sell my soul to buy bliss. I have an inward treasure, born with me, which can keep me alive if all extraneous delights should be withheld; or offered only at a price I cannot afford to pay (Chapter 19)


Gemma Jones as Mrs Fairfax, Samantha Morton as Jane Eyre


George C Scott as Rochester, Susannah York Jane

Jane Eyre is about the centrality of childhood, the need a girl has for women friends, for a mother; the power of men. I never forget the scene of Jane waking in the morning, her beloved Helen, dead next to her. All the women must win a man. About psychic disturbance: is Bertha a projection of Jane’s intense anger. Jane re-tells her story over and over, each time more in control but obsessive. Rochester is a man of conscience and he does love Jane (and is so emasculated, dependent, even losing a hand) so we rejoice in the ending for her. We hope she does know peace. the Novel has presented a lesson similar to that of Mansfield Park: the validity of endurance of suffering. Jane has won through.

Her heroine does not enjoy teaching: and we can find in her A Teacher’s Monologue her dissatisfaction with what was available to her from life:

Tis not the air I wished to play,
The strain I wished to sing;
My wilful spirit slipped away
And struck another string.
I neither wanted smile nor tear,
Bright joy nor bitter woe,
But just a song that sweet and clear,
Though haply sad, might flow.

A quiet song, to solace me
When sleep refused to come;
A strain to chase despondency
When sorrowful for home.
In vain I try; I cannot sing;
All feels so cold and dead;
No wild distress, no gushing spring
Of tears in anguish shed;

But all the impatient gloom of one
Who waits a distant day,
When, some great task of suffering done,
Repose shall toil repay.
For youth departs, and pleasure flies,
And life consumes away,
And youth’s rejoicing ardour dies
Beneath this drear delay;

And Patience, weary with her yoke,
Is yielding to despair,
And Health’s elastic spring is broke
Beneath the strain of care.
Life will be gone ere I have lived;
Where now is Life’s first prime?
I’ve worked and studied, longed and grieved,
Through all that rosy time.

I re-journeyed through some of the many Jane Eyre movies, and FWIW, among the very best is the 1972 film noir (that’s the genre the genre “classic film adaptation” cum mini-series has been blended into), Jane Eyre, directed by Delbert Mann, starring George C. Scott as Rochester as moving Rochester, a woman who has learned to value humane morality with Susannah York as Jane. Cherry-picking Samantha Morton is the finest sensitive portrayal of Jane, and the 1997 Jane Eyre, directed by Robert Young (starring Ciarhan Hinds as Rochester) captures a modern understanding of Bronte’s Jane Eyre. She craves quiet, and achieves this through self-controlled endurance. And I recommend the latest Jane Eyre, 2011, Mia Wasikowsa as Jane flees Rochester at near the opening of film, and St John Rivers is re-conceived as human.

A woman’s take with the emphasis on Jane’s escape from Rochester and hardships to near starvation, and a domesticity not found elsewhere is in Sandy Welch’s Jane Eyre. Ironically this is not true to the spirit of Jane Eyre until near the end. Jane is restless, she wants challenge, to rise in the world, excitement. This is probably the most feminist passage in all the Bronte’s writing:

It is in vain to say human beings ought to be satisfied with tranquility: they must have action; and they will make it if they cannot find it. Millions are condemned to a stiller doom than mine, and millions are in silent revolt against their lot. Nobody knows how many rebellions besides political rebellions ferment in the masses of life which people earth. Women are supposed to be very calm generally: but women feel just as men feel; they need exercise for their faculties, and a field for their efforts, as much as their brothers do; they suffer from too rigid a restraint, too absolute a stagnation, precisely as men would suffer; and it is narrow-minded in their more privileged fellow-creatures to say that they ought to confine themselves to making puddings and knitting stockings, to playing on the piano and embroidering bags (Chapter 12)


Ruth Wilson as Jane in flight from Rochester who wants to re-make her as she finds St John Rivers wants to

This reading of Jane Eyre was a culmination of my summer read of the powerful biography of Charlotte by Claire Harman. I learned about a manuscript I didn’t know existed before: a two chapter beginning of a novel called Emma: from wikipedia: “an apparently wealthy young girl, Matilda Fitzgibbon, at an expensive private school. It transpires that her identity is fake, and that her school fees will not be paid. The child is unable to answer any questions as to her true identity.”


Tara Fitzgerald as Helen Graham


Toby Stephens as Markham reading Helen’s diaries

I had learned a few years ago when I watched Sandy Welch’s great film of Tenant of Wildfell Hall, and again this summer when I reviewed Nick Holland’s In Search of Anne Bronte, what a compelling transgressive truly feminist book The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is. As I listened (from a cover-to-cover reading aloud of the novel) to David Case as Gilbert Markham reading aloud Markham’s two parts of the novel, I fell in love with the character. Anne Bronte wants to sweep away those norms for masculinity which encourage self- and society destructive behavior; women must be educated by experience and then they will not marry the worst of men.


Anne Bronte by Charlotte

I should mention I didn’t take upon myself to study these three books just like this, but was following an 8 week course called “The Best of the Brontes” given by a Dr Linda Freeman at the OLLI at AU. She offered an informed perspective on religion in this novel as the core for Helen Graham’s strong self-esteem, feminist stances, and behavior to Arthur Huntingdon, who if he would reform, could transform himself; Helen’s firm belief in her own value enables her to defy Huntington, tell him she wants to leave him with her child, flee him with the child (however illegally) and support herself by her art. For the first I realized there is an attempted rape scene (recalling Richardson’s Clarissa): Huntington gives Helen over to his pals and the one who has pretended to be on Helen’s side overhearing her telling Huntington she wants to leave, offers to elope with her and when she refuses, becomes livid with anger and tries to force her sexually; she pulls out a palate knife (from no-where it seems).

I read an eye-opening essay on the novel’s subjective writerly structure: it’s two sets of letters written by Markham to a friend 20 years after the novel’s main events are over; sandwiched between is Helen’s day-by-day epistolary like journal. Stewart proposes that this brings home how little orality was prized in Victorian fiction; that what we are given is an extra-territorial autobiography/biography and all readers understood this. The Victorian novel enabled them to work out what was happening in their own lives by presenting as impersonal (a manuscript), and long ago what was personal and immediate. I liked Gilbert Markham, and can see how he and Helen could flourish together: how he cares for her boy.

I love Anne Bronte for her longing for her home and love of it in this poem:

Consolation

Though bleak these woods and damp the ground
With fallen leaves so thickly strewn,
And cold the wind that wanders round
With wild and melancholy moan,
There is a friendly roof I know
Might shield me from the wintry blast;
There is a fire whose ruddy glow
Will cheer me for my wanderings past.

And so, though still where’er I roam
Cold stranger glances meet my eye,
Though when my spirit sinks in woe
Unheeded swells the unbidden sigh,

Though solitude endured too long
Bids youthful joys too soon decay,
Makes mirth a stranger to my tongue
And overclouds my noon of day,

When kindly thoughts that would have way
Flow back discouraged to my breast
I know there is, though far away
A home where heart and soul may rest.

Warm hands are there that clasped in mine
The warmer heart will not belie,
While mirth and truth and friendship shine
In smiling lip and earnest eye.

The ice that gathers round my heart
May there be thawed; and sweetly then
The joys of youth that now depart
Will come to cheer my soul again.

Though far I roam, this thought shall be
My hope, my comfort everywhere;
While such a home remains to me
My heart shall never know despair.


Kay Adshead as Cathy Earnshaw


Ken Hutchison as Heathcliff (Peter Hammond and David Snodin 1977-78 BBC Wuthering Heights)

I found I had forgotten Wuthering Heights too: crude as it sometimes is, like Jane Eyre, there is a remarkably complicated vocabulary, deeply expressive of actual human passions, poetic in its apprehension of the natural world all around the characters; like Tenant, the structure of two tellers in the present presenting two levels of story, and these from the distant, medium distant past and then in the last part immediate presents, makes for layers of anger and suffering and degradation out of the perpetual violence, at times gratuitous against helpless creatures. Now Heathcliff is the outcast victim, brought up to be without resources to support himself as a gentleman. “I am Heathcliff” can be taken as more than an enthralled love utterance.  The famous utterances about the person who revels in wildness and the one who loves calm, peace.  There are complicated love issues (do you want boundaries between you and another?), a will, Heathcliff the sadist towards Isabella Linton presented as wanting to be hurt (this is troubling). Only Hareton isn’t twisted beyond redemption by relentless scorn and the young Cathy is left to find peace with him. Almost everyone dies. There is an anti-colonialist theme in that Heathcliff might be the illegitimate son of Mr Earnshaw by an enslaved black woman (this angle recurs in Jane Eyre as Bertha Mason came from Jamaica).


Said to be Emily Bronte by her brother Branwell

Here I wanted to call attention to a great film adaptation that seems to have been forgotten because it lacks celebrity stars: the 1977-78 BBC Wuthering Heights, directed by Peter Hammond no less, with marvelous script writer, David Snodin, 5 episodes, the closest film to WH I’ve ever watched, capture the eerie vision at the core of the book, not only a desperate violence at the heart of nature, a ceaseless urge to cruelty, especially when the person has been treated unjustly, viciously, but at the same time a deep suffering and plangent grief that this is so. This feels visionary because it is presented in the book and in this film that in the landscape itself this pattern is set. There is also (no getting away from it) a belief in an omnipresent supernatural afterlife just out of our reach, but manifesting itself in the same pattern of cruelty and grief.

I’m not alone in thinking this: in Valerie Hazette’s Journey through time and Culture: Wuthering Heights: TV and Film, a book which covers all aspects of films (from technology to culture) on this one film singles out this 1977-78 film for 7 pages. What helps make the film important is it also dramatizes the whole book including fully the second half and the relationship of Isabella Linton with Heathcliffe.

Although about an inadequate film, the first, the 1939 famously with Oliver and Oberon (too romantic and only about half the book), George Bluestone’s essay in his Novels into Films is the only place I’ve seen this core aspect of Emily Bronte’s book frankly approached. (I need to read far more of the secondary criticism since the 1990s de-construction movement), where he quotes a line from an essay Emily Bronte wrote at M.Heger’s Pensionat de Demoiselles, in Brussels, in an essay she called “The Butterfly:” Nature is an inexplicable puzzle, life exists on a principle of destruction, every creature must be the relentless instrument of death to others, or himself cease to live.” Is not that an astonishing frightening thing to think or say.

Here is one of Emily’s imagined poems:

Cold in the earth—and the deep snow piled above thee,
Far, far removed, cold in the dreary grave!
Have I forgot, my only Love, to love thee,
Severed at last by Time’s all-severing wave?

Now, when alone, do my thoughts no longer hover
Over the mountains, on that northern shore,
Resting their wings where heath and fern-leaves cover
Thy noble heart forever, ever more?

Cold in the earth—and fifteen wild Decembers,
From those brown hills, have melted into spring:
Faithful, indeed, is the spirit that remembers
After such years of change and suffering!

Sweet Love of youth, forgive, if I forget thee,
While the world’s tide is bearing me along;
Other desires and other hopes beset me,
Hopes which obscure, but cannot do thee wrong!

No later light has lightened up my heaven,
No second morn has ever shone for me;
All my life’s bliss from thy dear life was given,
All my life’s bliss is in the grave with thee.

But, when the days of golden dreams had perished,
And even Despair was powerless to destroy,
Then did I learn how existence could be cherished,
Strengthened, and fed without the aid of joy.

Then did I check the tears of useless passion—
Weaned my young soul from yearning after thine;
Sternly denied its burning wish to hasten
Down to that tomb already more than mine.

And, even yet, I dare not let it languish,
Dare not indulge in memory’s rapturous pain;
Once drinking deep of that divinest anguish,
How could I seek the empty world again?

I’ve written a foremother poet blog for both Anne and Charlotte where you can read more of their poetry. I thought it very telling that both Charlotte and Anne’s heroines are painters.

There is so much more to be said. The books are obviously so different from Austen’s who is often coupled with them in discussions of earlier women writers. Anne Bronte’s Agnes Grey while quiet, prosaic, realistic, is wholly unlike Austen in tone: she is caustic, bitter, severely critical of her employers and when she escapes relieved to find quiet romance. Barbara Tepa Lupack in her collection, Nineteenth-Century Women at the Movies: Adapting Classic Women’s Fiction to Film, includes two excellent essays on the from adapted from Jane Eyre (by Kate Ellis and E.Ann Kaplan) and Wuthering Heights (by Lin Haire-Sargeant) respectively. Linda Freeman suggested we add Jane Campion’s The Piano to our Bronte movies.  (Tara Fitzgerald is heroine in Tenant; the closely similar Holly Hunter the heroine of Piano.)

I disagreed with Linda about Elizabeth Gaskell’s biography and Patrick Bronte: see my review of Lucasta Miller’s hatchet job. She presented a far too positive and normative or normalizing picture of Patrick Bronte. She did rely a great deal on the magisterial book by Juliet Barker. There was little said about Branwell Bronte: that he turns up as Hindley in Wuthering Heights, lies behind some of the scenes of Arthur Huntingdon’s alcoholism and death scene in The Tenant. The biography by Daphne DuMaurier which brings out his gifts as a poet and thwarted painter was cited. I was relieved that he was not berated and made into an easy central punching bag as in the recent wretched movie, To Walk Invisible. There is currently at the Bronte parsonage an attempt to treat Branwell with respect and do justice to his life.


A self-portrait by Branwell, c 1840

Thus I record how I managed to keep my mind absorbed and myself active, enduring in relative calm and peace in my house and going out to be with people outside over these books for some 8 weeks. And you see me doing this in imagination — holding on — tonight

Ellen

Read Full Post »


John Millais, “Christmas Story-Telling,” “Christmas Supplement,” London News, 20 December 1862

In his Autobiography Trollope put himself firmly on record as resisting not just the commercialization of Christmas, but the way a cultural conformity of imposition leads people to pretend to Christmas feeling, resulting in meretricious art: he uses memorably negative images and metaphors to capture his “distaste” over the hypocrisy and artifice of being paid to produce a story filled with “cheer” and other manufactured “good feelings” because the “market” called for it. Since he makes a point over and over that he was never ashamed of writing for money, I assume he didn’t like being hired to pretend to feel what he did not feel, and especially with regard to Christmas where he thought some genuine worthy feelings were being corrupted (hollowed out, destroyed by exploitation):

“While I was writing The Way We Live Now, I was called upon by the proprietors of the Graphic for a Christmas story. I feel, with regard to literature, somewhat as I suppose an uphosterer and undertaker feels when he is called upon to supply a funeral. He has to supply it, however distasteful it may be. It is his business, and he will starve if he neglect it. So have I felt that, when anything in the shape of a novel was required, I was bound to produce it. Nothing can be more distasteful to me than to have to give a relish of Christmas to what I write. I feel the humbug implied by the nature of the order. A Christmas story, in the proper sense, should be the ebullition of some mind anxious to instill others with a desire for Christmas religious thought or Christmas festivities, — , better yet, with Christmas charity. Such was the case with Dickens when he wrote his two first Christmas stories. But since that the things written annually — all of which have been fixed to Christmas like children’s toys to a Christmas tree, have no real savour of Christmas about them. I had done two or three before. Alas! at this very moment I have one to write [said by Julian Thompson to have been Christmas at Thompson Hall], which I have promised to supply within three weeks of this time,– the picture-makers always required a long interval, — as to which I have in vain been cudgelling my brain for the last month. I can’t send away the order to another shop, but I do not know how I shall ever get the coffin made.”

Since he felt thus strongly, I have thus far not written any blog on his Christmas stories, individually or as a group. But time wears the spirit down, we compromise and the reality is quite a number of the stories are superb. One can even find (as with Dickens, or Oliphant or other Victorian authors who wrote a number of Christmas stories) a recurring set of themes, and motifs whether the story takes place in the fierce (fiery) heat of Australia (Harry Heathcote), centers on Christmas or just takes place at that time of year regularly or at a climax (“Catherine Carmichael,” “Two Generals”, “The Telegraph Girl”). He was deeply sceptical (not a mystic element in this man’s mind) and you will not find any ghosts or miracles, no revenants seeking revenge or to awaken the better nature of the person visited,no places haunted by some invisible past. He tends strongly not to focus on Christmas itself (the holiday or even its customs, with Mistlebough an exception) but let the time of year or the setting, the expectations built up around the holiday provide the emotional temperature. Then you find stories exploring the nature of charity, forgiveness, reconciliation, compromise, how the holiday functions as a memory device (it marks time), and brings out what is most characteristic in the nature of dominant characters. He wants his story to be a genuinely felt experience too.

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

John Everett Millais, “Christmas at Noningsby” (Orley Farm)

Trollope wrote ten of them in longer and shorter stories, and four comparative chapters inside a remarkable novel, Orley Farm: I picked these out as stories taking place around Christmas time, where Christmas an experience or time-maker figures in the story), and in Orley Farm anthropologically considered. I’ve written (together with others conversational style) analyses, commentaries, summaries of these (linked in).

4 chapters in Orley Farm (Christmas in Harley Street, at Noningsby. at Groby Park, in Great St Helens (Chapters 21-24) (written 1860)
The Widow’s Mite (written 1862)
“The Mistletoe Bough” (written 1861)
“The Widow’s Mite” (written 1862),
Two Generals (written 1863)
Harry Heathcote of Gangoil (written 1863)
“Christmas Day at Kirby Cottage” (written 1870)
“Christmas at Thompson Hall” (written 1876)
“The Telegraph Girl” (written 1877),
“Catherine Carmichael; or Three Years Running” (written 1878)
“Not If I Know It” (1882)

My favorite once was “Christmas at Thompson Hall,” because I saw it as a story of comic anguish, not about the reunion home but the experience of intense pressure when obstacles get in the way of getting there, especially if you have lost status in some ways vis-a-vis against the other members of your family over the years. Mary Brown’s husband has lived a supine drone-like existence, they have no children, and they have rarely returned until now when she feels she must because her sister is marrying. We see how her husband has used a supposed weakness of constitution to control her and in this case almost thwarts her getting there in time. She takes this punishment of her out on the staff and also him, but is herself humiliated. Alas, it’s not the husband who ends up over-medicated – which would provide some poetic justice. (But then life doesn’t). In a way were her dithering trips around a vast freezing cold palace of a French hotel not done empathetically, many would not be amused. The story is edgy.

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

But recently I found myself much preferring, enjoying once again, “The Widow’s Mite” for the full sociological and economic context, the character types, and especially Trollope’s revision of the familiar parable. The deeper lesson I glean is that it does not matter if the giver has to give up something, the way to measure how much good you do is how much you gave to the person in need and how much it helped them practically, not you morally (because that is too hard and ambiguous). I concede I may be reading against the grain here.


Newchurch in Pendle, Winter — Lancashire — K. Melling

A summary, in Judy Geater’s words,

“shamelessly pinched from John Sutherland’s introduction to the Oxford World’s Classics Early Short Stories. Sutherland explains that the publisher of evangelical magazine “Good Words”, Alexander Strahan, wrote to Trollope asking for a short Christmas/ New Year tale for the January 1863 edition of the magazine, passing on a suggestion from Scottish minister Norman Macleod that the title should be “Out of Work” and that it should deal with the unemployment in northern textile mills caused by the cotton famine as a result of the American Civil War. Trollope agreed but politely objected to the title. ” ‘Out of Work’ would be a very nice name for a story – But it would be needfull with such a name that the chief character should be an operative. I do not think I could manage this. But the line of the story shall be of the same nature – if possible.”

Sutherland writes: “‘The Widow’s Mite,’… was one of Trollope’s strongest efforts to date. He had visited the United States for six months over 1861-2 and his mind was full of the country and its turbulent condition. The story is narrated in Trollope’s increasingly relaxed comic mode, but the mood is hotly topical – angry, almost… the story, while maintaining its easy tone of social comedy, probes the sorest of middle-class sore points – is it ‘charity’ if you don’t feel the donation as loss? ‘How many of us,’ Trollope asks, ‘when we give, give from our own backs, and from out of our own mouths?’ Walk through the streets of London or New York and it is still a topical question.”

We learn about the Lancashire cotton famine, the cost to the workers of supporting the anti-slavery states. Jenny Uglow in her biography of Elizabeth Gaskell writes:

The mills had no American cotton, but the masters were reluctant to change their machinery to suit Indian supplies if there was hope of the Civil War ending. Elizabeth set up ‘Sewing-schools’ to provide part-time work and corresponded eagerly with Florence Nightingale, hoping that some of the laid-off mill-women might train as nurses… ‘The poor old women’ were her special concern: ‘at present they have only the workhouse allowance; barely enough for the cheapest, poorest food – only just enough to keep life in. They have worked hard all their working years – poor old friendless women, and now crave and sicken after a “taste of bacon” or something different to the perpetual oat-meal.’By late summer the Plymouth Grove household had to check themselves from talking about the distress, ‘which was literally haunting us in our sleep, as well as being the first thoughts on waking and the last at night’. Gaskell’s words, in a letter, but this is very much the feeling you get in Trollope’s story, too, where the family are increasingly feeling guilty about every little luxury while others have nothing.


Pissaro, Chestnut Trees at Louveciennes, Winter (1870)

Judy Geater wrote of the story:

“The story is written with a wonderfully light touch, but still gets its powerful message across, probably as effectively as any preacher. At the start, most readers will be likely to laugh at the argument between Charley and Bob, where Bob tries to prove that if everybody gave up their Christmas dinner the savings would be “two millions and a half” – and Charley brings him down to earth by pointing out that the grocer and butcher would be ruined. However, if as readers we continue to scoff at Nora as she decides to make her own personal sacrifice by doing without wedding finery, I think the laughter soon dies on our lips as we realise that there is indeed a real point in her giving up her two mites.

My idea (Ellen here) is it is the feeling that people ought to have a decent dinner on such a day, some warmth, something to feel hopeful about that gives rise to the action of the story. What shall this middle class family do, if anything, to help the Lancashire cottonworkers of the area? Is it in good taste for the family to have an expensive wedding and the bride a luxurious dress when all around them others starve. Trollope seems to think this talk is phony, the characters don’t really mean it — or he has one of his characters (the American alas) assert that.

As the story opens we are told the American civil war has led to the Lancashire cotton workers losing their jobs and as it has gone on for some time they are now beginning literally to go without food, without warmth, without clothes, and some are nearly starving. They have been laid off as there is no cotton to work upon, but as Trollope develops the story there seems to be little resentment against the war against by the people it’s hurting. (It has been suggested they identified with the slaves.) The heroine, Nora, wants to help her uncle, the Reverend Mr Granger, gather money to feed the workers, but she feels she wants to feel she’s done something. It’s not enough to give out of her superfluity; she wants to give up something she will miss. It may seem odd that she finds this difficult to do — but she is middle class, gentry, genteel — and by the end of the story, has not pulled it off, quite. She is about to be married and the question arises, how much money should they spend in this situation. Will they look bad? to themselves, it seems.


An illustration for a 19th century wedding dress

This ‘problem’ is one that seems to speak to some middle class people as important. To those who starve or are homeless, such a question is egocentric: the concern suggests that the middle class is more interested in its own feelings than in giving to those who are in need. Still this is the way the story is often read; when I assigned it to my classes, one girl gave a long talk about how when she was young, someone forced her to give up an expensive doll she liked to a cousin. She was told that wasn’t charity at all as she didn’t even need it. I’m afraid this little girl wasn’t impressed.

The story is done in Trollope’s usual multi-perspective narrative: we look at the characters as products of their class and type and nationality. Their attitudes reflect their situation in life and what cultural group they grew up in. Nora’s cousin, Bob, suggests all the people in England, Scotland, and Ireland should simply not eat a Christmas dinner, take all the money saved, and hand that out. He is only momentarily non-plussed when he is told the problem is the Irish don’t have a Christmas meal to give away: “They never have any in Ireland, Bob.”

Charley, Nora’s other cousin, takes her to task for not spending money on finery, for in her efforts to help the cottonworkers she will leave those who make clothes without work: “Charley condemned [Nora] altogether, pointing out that it was bad policy to feed the cotton spinners at the expense of the milliners.” He is the one who feels the others are pretending to themselves they feel this regret.

The characters argue explicitly over how the wealthy in their community should go about giving to the poor: should they give charity or does this ruin the independent spirit of the workers? In the situation at hand this is an absurdity. It is said by the Newt Gingrich of the piece, Frederick Frew, Nora’s bethrothed and an American, who we are told “trusts to syllogisms which are often false, instead of to the experience of his life and daily workings of his mind.” Trollope tells us explicitly and through the use of heavy irony that our American Fred is wrong when he scorns charity givers as degrading the poor, that his analogy of “how dogs let other dogs starve and therefore we but follow nature if we do likewise to other people” is wrong, and that his idea “the widow would have done better to have invested her small capital in some useful trade,” is a hilarious bit of anachronistic and here obtuse American capitalism. Trollope was not a Tory in his own time; he ran on the Liberal ticket. Alas, this kind of thinking is running rampant in the US again today — at least among the powerful in Fox and other corporate news media.

Back to the story. How does Nora solve her problem? (Note it’s her problem; the angle is taken focuses on Nora and not the starving people.) Well, what she tries to do is to give the money she was going to use to make herself expensive finery to wear on her wedding day to her uncle for the use of the cotton-mill workers. She is about to be married and decides she will have a plain wedding, and she refuses to allow her American (and Unionist) husband-to-be to pay for the finery which he could do. I would liken Nora to the person with one pair of very fancy boots walking in the snow who sees someone with nothing on his feet. She gives up her boots up so she can feel the snow, although she has a small pair of ordinary shoes in her bag and is close to home where there’s another pair of boots waiting for her.

What Nora discovers is she doesn’t miss her very fancy boots at all, and — and this is what is interesting about the story — she doesn’t get the uplift she had longed for. She thought it would make her feel good to walk through the snow shoeless ( to keep up my metaphor) or with inadequate shoes, but it somehow doesn’t. This is the subtlest level of the story. Trollope suggests such a feeling is fleeting at best because luxurious goods are not what make us happy.

There’s an anti-materialism at the heart of this story and perhaps this is what makes it an idealistic or Christmas story — and it’s why I like it. This anti-materialism is figured forth for us in the closing scene of the wedding — Nora does have a very plain one. Nora finds that she didn’t need the finery. More: its absence is not only unimportant but actually adds to the beauty of the moment. The narrator underlines this moral lest we not pick it up:

“For myself [Trollope speaking as narrator within the story] I think they all looked more comfortable on that cold winter morning without the finery which would have been customary than they could have done without it. It had seemed to them all beforehand that a marriage without veils and wreaths, without white gloves nd new gay dresses, would be but a triste affair; but the idea passed away altogether when the occasion came. [The immediate family heads for church with the bridegroom with them, but said bridegroom], Frederick F Frew had met with a rebuff in the hall of the Parsonage, in being forbidden to take his own bride under his own arm; but when the time for action came, he bore no malice, but went through the work manfully. On the whole, it was a pleasant wedding, homely, affectionate, full of much loving greeeting… this, at any rate, was certain, that the wedding clothes were not missed. When they all went down to their breakfast in the Parsonage dining-room, that little matter had come to be clean forgotten.”

We might read the story as against turning something privately meaningful into an occasional for conspicuous consumption. (Gentle reader, can you tell how I dislike large expensive weddings? — I know of relationships which broke up over the wedding; others where years later the people are still paying for it as well as a divorce.)

In this moment Nora does feel the uplift she longed for. Her uplift is in her actual preference for the simple and for plain emotion, not in having deprived herself of some luxury. Nonetheless, we are left with some decent thought about the parable which Trollope also consciously emphasizes. Through the parable, he asks, Why was it necessary for Nora to “feel” deprived in order to feel her charity was charity? It seems to me that Trollope’s text shows us this parable projects a very selfish kind of charity, one which is egoistic: Nora’s feelings about her charity giving were were more important than the results of the charitable act: feeding hungry people, providing them with warmth and clothes.


A woman fallen on hard times bringing her baby home in a snow-filled landscape

Ellen

Read Full Post »


Lucy reading Sarah’s letter telling of the coming of Mr Turner (Staying On, 1980)

“We should write to Cooks,” suggests Lucy, “and ask them to put us on the tourist itinerary. After the Taj Mahal . . . the Smalleys of Pankot” (she is not without a sense of humor)

Dear friends and readers,

I’ve been posting so much less because I’ve been reading books and essays as parts of projects directed by aimed-at (from accepted proposals) papers, essays, talks, and teaching, not to omit a face-to-face book club (my first),listserv discussion groups (now I’m down to two at most) and a book project (Winston Graham, Cornwall and the Poldark novels was its working title but my perspective has changed). However, I don’t want to give up blogging because I love this kind of communication: natural easy English, liberty. responses far more numerous and quicker than anything one gets from a printed piece because blogs readily reach people.

For the “Booker Prize Marketplace Niche” course I’m teaching the first novel has been the 1979 winner, Paul Scott’s Staying On, and I became deeply engaged by the book’s central presence, Lucy Little Smalley (yes the names in the Scott’s fiction are partly allegorical), in a re-watch the 1983 Granada mini-series, The Jewel in The Crown (how I wish I had time to reread the four books); as important was the class members’ careful reading of the novel and genuinely unbiased (disinterested is the better word for what I mean) debate and conversation in class.

Scott wrote that he had been much influenced by Anthony Trollope and certainly the political outlook of his books which shows how our most fundamental experiences are shaped by social, ethnic, racial class, position in a colonialist state is reminiscent of Trollope’s all encompassing political vision. I’ve written about the Raj Quartet, the books and mini-series as among the great achievements in fiction of the 20th century.

What is distinctive about Staying On? It’s colonialism told from the angle of the displaced lower status white European, a mood piece about two people living on an economic disaster precipice as the man’s pension is tiny and he is dying, and they are outsiders in the newly re-formed capitalist, colonialism, multi-racial Indian societies. Lucy our heroine maintains herself in sanity by holding on to her dignity and composure in the midst of her husband’s continual inflicting on himself brooding over petty and large raw humiliations. Scott has always been deeply sympathetic to the feelings of the aging elderly people. A large question is that of identity: who are you in this global world? we see the outside of Tusker (a name redolent of elephants) an irascible man alienated and disillusioned after a lifetime of service (as he saw it) to India. One of the things that’s remarkable about the book is how slowly it moves.


Lucy bringing the box with papers and putting it in front of Tusker to deal with for her

A minor Colonel in the Raj. Tusker would not return to live in Engaland. They represent the last “withered survivors,” and now 25 years later they are living on a reduced income. Why didn’t he want to go back –- he said they could live better in India. Why else? He had served for a couple of years as an advisor to the Indian new army from which he retired; then about 12 years a commercial job (box wallah) with a firm in Bombay where they went once to London in 1950. It turns out he was wrong; they would have been better off returning to where they originally belonged. He is irritated perpetually, acid, falling physically apart; Lucy sees this and is frightened and has been trying to get him to tell her what she will have. He has been avoiding this, guilty, aware he has mistreated, not appreciated her all their lives.

His one friend is Mr Bhoolabjoy, Francis, Frank, who wants to enable him to stay in the quarters. Frank’s enormously fat wife, Lila, is driven by spite and greed to want to kick her Anglican tenants out after selling the building they are in. She is ambitious, ruthless, the new commerce is probably going to destroy her. Grotesque comedy comes from her size against her husband’s: he is ever serving her, waking up inside her enormous body. There is some stereotypical misogyny in the portrait of the wife. Mean, cold, exploitative, Lila bullies her husband, idle – as the book opens she had ordered Frank to write a letter to Tusker telling them in effect to get out because they have no legal lease. This demand and his failure to comply in the way she wants provides the thinnest skein of story line moving ahead – by near the end of the book he has written an unsatisfactory one, trying to be kind and when he finally does what she wants and gets to Tusker, he has this massive heart and we are back where we began, Lucy at the hairdresser with Suzy (having her blue rinse), people having to do something about her husband, now a corpse in the garden.

What is Bhoolabhoy like? Non-ambitious, has mistresses and does as little as he can get away with. Lila is gross, unscrupulous, could come out of Dickens who has many hateful domineering women. Francis and Tusker live for their money evenings together, where they drink, talk, dine, play cards. How does he treat Lucy? Not well. Not ambitious either of them.


Bhoolabhoy and Tusker

His wife, Lucy, is the book. Her parallel is much less evident as her primary relationship is with Tusker: it’s Susy, the hairdresser, Eurasian, living precariously on sexual earnings (from Francis, from Father Sebastian, see below) too. Susy Williams, I wish we knew more of her. Eurasian, born Chapel so an English dissenter, she does Lucy’s hair, she gets money from Frank by having sex with him – he doesn’t lack for appetite.

Sarah Layton has written to say that a man named Turner (associate of Saraha’s professor husband) is coming to interview her and in her loneliness – she says she and Tusker never communicate — she rehearses in her mind what she will tell him. And her tragic history (Chapter 10, pp 132-141) of thwarted talent. She begins by saying she was happy in Mudpore, a prince’s state and then remembers back to when she typed letters: made fun of by Mr Coyne, one of the bosses, as left over “Virgin of the Vicarage” (p 133). Her job in Litigation in England had been fun, she had been courted by Mr Coyne. She lived at the Y and Miss Martha Price took her under her wing, got her a flat – Miss Price we begin to realize is lesbian, loves Lucy – and is very hurt when Lucy falls in love with Tusker Smalley — as she loved her as an intense friend . Basically Lucy gives up everything she has built for herself for this man.


In the garden by their lodging next to Smith’s

She is fringe gentry (she is mocked in the UK when she takes a steno job which lowers her status), whose condition is parallel to that of subaltern women in her employ. The novel is told through the subjective soliloquies of Lucy (the prevalent presence), her Indian servant Ibrahim (who understands her and values his domestic position, the Indian landlady’s husband, Francis Boulabhoy, caricatured as subject to his ruthless wife’s erotic and cutthroat appetites, but like Lucy, having a dignity and moral position of his own. Tusker is there, but much less because his dark angers would change the whole tone of the book, which is ironic comedic plangent. It’s structured cyclically (as is his Raj Quartet), beginning with the sudden death from a massive heart attack of Tusker, and then arranged as flashback of memories and present experiences acutely realized.

The book is intertextual: Lucy had joined a dramatic society and despite her non-aggression had a chance at a part, which probably means she could act – The Housemaster – a play from 1936, Ian Hay, an all male school is destroyed when a woman and three daughters related to them disturb the peace. Very English. She did something similar in Rawalpindi.. She could have had a part in The Letteras Leslie Crosbie, a play by Somerset Maughan where Bette Davis played the part (she kills a man who rejected her and is acquitted) in a film by William Wyler. and Tusker discouraged her. A third play is called The Wind and the Rain – it was a popular ballad at the time. Very minor English plays of this era which were popular. Like you might go to a community theater today. Deeply uneasy comedies.

How much a dress meant to her; always low, looked down on but she learned rules of club and game and acted these out, and her reward at the end is to be left isolated. She’s cut off from her country of origin, her culture. I don’t think she is made fun of – she maintains composure and dignity until the last page when she loses it – her dignity hides her sorrows and is the source of her strength – that she goes through the forms. When he dies suddenly despite all the obstacles Tusker among others creates she is planning a dinner party. Gallant lady — for Susy, Francis and Father Sebastian, a black Anglican priest who has taken over the church, Father Sebastian; only Francis wanted to come.


Ibrahim yawning

Second most frequent POV is Ibrahim, though it might be Bhoolbhoy has more interior monologue. Who is Ibrahim? He is the central servant of the house and they are continually firing him. Mrs Bhoolbhoy is refusing to take care of the grass, to fix anything and Ibrahim hires Joseph (another remarkable presence, so glad to have any job, so servile apparently) to do this demeaning work. He is one level of Indian and Mr Bhoolbhoy another. He maintains a comic impartiality. He helps his memsahib whenever possible. He does the shopping, cooking, keeps them all going. Note the quiet ironies:

Ibrahim regretted the passing of the days of the raj which he remembered as days when the servants were treated as members of the family, entitled to their good humours and bad humours, their sulks, their outbursts of temper, their right to show who was really boss, and their right to their discreetly appropriate perks, the feathers they had to provide for the nest when the nest they presently inhab- ited was abandoned by homeward-bound employers. Ibrahim had been brought up in such a nest. He still possessed the chits his father had been given by Colonel Moxon-Greife and a photograph of Colonel and Mrs. Moxon-Greife with garlands round their necks, Going Home, in 1947. He had also inherited and preserved the two letters which Colonel Moxon- Greife had written to his father from England. Finally he had inherited the silence that greeted his father’s two letters to Colonel Moxon-Greife inquiring about the possi- bilities of work in England …

We have three people trying to make sense of their worlds, who they are, and they can’t – Lucy, Mr Bhoolabjoy and Ibrahim. Smaller characters: Father Sebastian, a black man, Anglo-Catholic and now in charge of the church. Reverend Stephen Ambedkar – administering to people’s spiritual needs takes generous swigs of wine.

Scott objected strenuously to the usual comparison, that ensues early in discussions of Scott’s fiction: with E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India. That too includes rape but it is kept to the margins and the book told from a male point of view, while in Staying On Scott keeps up female subjectivity as his major medium. Forster’s people are gentry who visit; they are tourists, part of an imperialist overlay of job and place-seekers, or on holiday. Scott’s characters are embedded in the central work of the society, administrative, church, political, economic, social capital is what they depend on. A habitas if you will. He saw the work of the colonial administration as the expression of their ideology; when the ideology failed, was exposed for the hypocrisy it was, so they were crushed. In his books we see Indians, Hindu and Muslim crushed by the imperialists. Staying On differs because the petty powerful local Indian people have taken over as they often did in local instances, and Hindus, Muslims, and any whites that get in anyone’s way of profit destroyed. A strong idealism underwrites the books. Racial and ethnic and religious persecution are motifs that emerge early in other books. People in close units all dependent on one another. Feed off and prey on another but also sustain one another.


Moment of frenzied behavior by Tusker over papers

A little on Scott’s life (the lamp):

Paul Scott. Born 1920 and died 1978. So not long lived. Given how frequently and fully he wrote about India and also other places abroad in the British commonwealth (Africa once) you might think he grew outside the UK borders. Not so. He grew up in London and as he said many times his use of India and the history of colonialism and exploitation seemed to him a metaphor which could reach out and cover far more than the class, gender, money, and by extension school, status, rank system he grew up in. You at once expanded your vision. At one level Lucy Smalley is still the “old” vicar’s daughter from 19th century novels displaced, the marginalized subaltern governess married off to a fringe gentry person.

It’s important to know he was a closet homosexual: he lived an outwardly heterosexual life because in his time you still were punished in all sorts of direct ways. You could call him bisexual – hermaphodite. What’s really remarkable is how heroines are central to all his books – they are the subject narrators, he writes a kind of l’ecriture-femme like Henry James. He was much influenced by Trollope who as far as we know was straight heterosexual but Trollope too leans heavily on women’s points of view. Raj Quartet: opens with rape and the girl who is raped is our first central voice, then Edwina Crane, a missionary never married, spinster, attacked on the road, burnt herself to death in a suttee when the man she worked all her life dies in this incident; the nun-nurse, Sister Ludmilla, the companion who becomes an outcast, Barbie Bachelor, and the traditional deeply humane “virtuous” in the modern ways heroine Sarah Layton (Geraldine James) – all women have sex, Sarah is driven by her family to have an abortion.

Schooling he went to Winchmore Hill Collegiate School in London, a good school but left at 16 to become an accountant. His family were commercial artists, interacting with the lower echelons of London Bohemianism in its entrepreneurial artistry. They wanted him to have the safe remunerative career. He married in 1941, Nancy Avery, herself a novelist, short story writer, they had two daughters, he lived quietly with them and groups of friends.

World War two was transformative. He was sent to India in 1943; there for three years the first time as an officer cadet in World War II. As an air supply officer he traveled widely throughout India, Burma, and Malaya, moving easily in the varied society of civilians and military, of British and Indians. After returning to England from India in 1946, heworked his way slowly up to become part of a literary commercial world. He used his accountancy degree to join a small publishing firm, Falcon and Grey Walls Press, as company secretary. In 1950 he became a director in a firm of literary agents, Pearn, Pollinger and Higham (later David Higham Associates). He had written poetry and drama during and after the war, but now he turned to fiction and produced five novels between 1952 and 1960, when he gave up his work as a literary agent to devote himself to writing the longer and more substantial novels that he had been wanting to attempt for some time.

In 1964 he returned for the first time to India, financed by his publishers, and there found inspiration for The Raj Quartet and Staying On. The British Council enabled Scott to make further visits. In 1976 and 1977 he was a visiting lecturer at the University of Tulsa, Oklahoma. He died of cancer in London in 1978, shortly after receiving the Booker Prize — but the first film was in the offing. He knew Staying On was to be filmed, but never saw the film, and he could not have foreseen Christopher Mornahan’s Raj Quarter which he would have loved.


Lucy enlisting Ibrahim

The seeds of Staying On at the end of his ilfe: in 1972 Scott returned to India and saw the world as it was evolving in the provinces; stories about left-over sahibs being published. Scott’s friend Mollie Hamilton showed him a letter by her mother, Lady Kaye, a widow, lonely harassed pitifully vulnerable; he was influenced by the stories by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala (e.g., A Backward Glance). (Years later Jumpha Lahri tells of Indian versions of such women.) Another friend, Maisie Goodbody’s husband died suddenly while on the toilet in a hotel. Goodbody would tell Scott of how they had to haggle at the bazaar and every week were harassed and would think they coudn’t get through another week and yet would. This couple living in decaying hotel – opposite people, Goodbody the elegant wit, and his wife, ill natured, raw, sarcastic. There was a Eurasian woman like Susy, manufactured cameras trying to make money.

He finished the book in 1976 and a friend in the theater saw potential for a film with Ralph Richardson as Tusker and Celia Johnson as Lucy. Tusker contains strong elements of Scott. It was a bleak and bitter time in Scott’s marriage. In brief, his wife had not been able to work at her career the way she could have. He had become alcoholic with incessant work and self-repression. He did love her but not sexually. She started proceedings for divorce when he got his position at Tulsa, she would not communicate with him. He asked her to stay and she refuses. The daughters conflicted. He wrote a letter like Tusker’s closing one to Lucy, revealing his understanding of his failure, only Tusker is kind, loving while Scott’s is harsh, raw, unforgiving how he didn’t get to go to university, how he pours himself into writing – very egoistical, felt himself in this letter a sense of waste and failure.

A little on Scott’s earlier writing:

The Alien Sky is an earlier slender novel also set in India, which deals with a theme that becomes the issue of Staying One: tragic alienation that comes to a man who has dedicated his life to India and Indians and is now rejected at Independence, his former proteges unwilling to shake his hand. The character of Tom Gower is skillfully drawn and encapsulates the moral dilemma of the colonial who genuinely feels that his work, now discredited, has been worthwhile. The second major character in The Alien Sky is an American, Joe MacKendrick, who is traveling in search of his brother’s past. The pattern of memories juxtaposed with present experiences that echo the past and the figure of the solitary traveler who seeks to piece together a story became familiar modes of presentation in Scott’s later work. The Corrida at San Feliu is about himself as a writer, how he writes novels.


Daphne Manners (played by Susan Woolridge (Scott said he began the novel with the image of a girl fleeing violence …)

The Raj Quartet itself:

Raj Quartet is a story that begins with a rape, and folds out in layers of responses and development of the original cast of characters involved directly and indirectly. Alas it reminds me of our own culture only make the Indian young men blamed for the rape into Black young men in Central Park; beaten up, sent to jail for years and never properly publicly vindicated. These crimes are skillfully linked to the political turbulence of the “Quit India” riots of 1942, and the response to the civil unrest forms the major part of the novel, with the reactions of civil and military forces, of Indian judges and English memsahibs, of petty criminals and Indian princesses all woven together to give the novel its rich texture and alluring moral complexities. Not only do different characters reveal different views of the same incident but they present them through a variety of literary forms. The reader must evaluate letters, memoirs, formal reports, a journal, a legal deposition, and omniscient flashbacks, all dealing with basically the same events seen from different points of view. As Scott adds layer upon layer of detail to the plot, it becomes clear that making any kind of moral judgment of the events or the people involved in them is going to be hard. Trollope’s first novel is about a young Catholic Irish man accused of murdering an English officer and he ends up hanged because the people running the state make him a scapegoat for revolutionary Catholic Irish groups. The Macdermots of Ballycloran.

Daphne Manners is willing to go out with Hari Kumar but when they are attacked she shows her racism by refusing to tell the truth: the two were having sex in the Bigighar Gardens; and by getting him to promise not to tell, and not standing with him she condemns him to helpless silence. The characters we see cannot escape being racist. Sarah Layton, the traditional and decent heroine who is a major voice in the second novel involves herself with an Indian Muslim man but she marries a white professor. She accedes to pressure and has an abortion when she gets pregnant by someone else. Scott does not present us with unreal victims and innocents. Barbie Bachelor, Mabel Layton’s companion, turned out as soon as the kind high officer’s wife dies, is one of the untouchables of English society – hers is the chief voice of the third book. The last book deals with the partition and brings in world historical characters.


Hari Kumar (Art Malik), the hero of the Raj Quartet, kept off stage most of the time — Scott invested a lot of himself in this deeply betrayed character

Put another way, Staying On, set in 1972, satirizes the new India of sophisticated, wealthy businessmen and politicians, corrupt property dealers, and fashionable hairdressers, as Scott depicts the now elderly and fragile Tusker and Lucy, who first appeared in The Day of the Scorpion as rather dull but useful appendages to the military station in Pankot, still making their home there after the other British have gone home. The profusion of characters found in The Raj Quartet has been distilled to these two figures. Tusker’s death at the opening of the novel leaves the remainder of the narrative–with most of the emphasis on Lucy’s thoughts … a miniature Raj Quartet in low key. We look at character’s memories through flashbacks, very delicate approaches to corruption and emotional pain.

I culled the above this from various books I read, the brilliant literary biography by Hilary Spurling (which I read years ago), Paul Scott: A Life of the Author of the Raj Quartet. Jaqueline Bannerjee’s Paul Scott (a slender concise perceptive study), K. Bhaskara Rao, Paul Scott, a Twayne product filled with clear information and background. Two very good articles: Chotiner, Isaac. “Revisiting the Raj,The New York Times Book Review. September 10, 2017,p. 13; Weinbaum, Francine. “Staying on after the Raj,” Journal of South Asian Literature, 17:1 (1982):225-29.


India photographed in the movie (POV Lucy in a car)

As to the movie, Staying on is a gem of a TV film featuring Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard who were so brilliant and compelling in Brief Encounter. The acting throughout is pitch perfect, but perhaps Saeed Jaffrey stands out. Written by Julien Mitchell, directed by Silvio Narizzano, it is more comic, less poignant until near the end. The film does not begin with Tusker’s death, but with a scene of Tusker’s drunken humiliation in his decline. In general it moves forward in chronological time, using only occasional present time flashbacks; Celia Johnson speaks aloud a number of the soliloquies Lucy thinks of herself as speaking to Mr Turner. It is accompanied by alluring Indian music, filled with shots of India. Her final words in the book and film:

but now, until the end, I shall be alone, whatever I am doing, here as I feared, amid the alien corn, waking, sleeping, alone for ever and ever and I cannot bear it but mustn’t cry and must get over it but don’t for a moment see how, with my eyes shut, Tusker, I hold out my hand, and beg you, Tusker, beg, beg you to take it and take me with you. How can you not, Tusker? Oh, Tusker, Tusker, Tusker, how can you make me stay here by myself when you yourself go home?

I wish I had taken down what the various people in my class said about the book and film. Subtle and fine readings. I’ll content myself with the one woman who said at first she couldn’t understand why this book would receive such an award, but after immersing herself, she understood.


Lucy busy about the house

Ellen

Read Full Post »


Boguslaw Linda as Wladyslaw Strzeminski (Afterimage directed by Andrzej Wajda, 2016).

Friends and readers,

The almost systematic erasure by Trump of whatever the Obamas and their gov’t did legislatively and through executive order, most of it tending to provide better lives for the peoples of the countries involved (one must except the wars and use of drones to kill without trial people “suspected” of “terrorism”) has been noticed. Down to removing a school lunch program set up by Michelle Obama. Hatred of black people and deep resentment that a black man’s gov’t (which included two black attorney generals, one a woman) should shape the US future lies behind this as much as hard-line ruthless capitalism. I remembered this as I watched Andrzej Wajda’s Afterimage, a movie whose central story shows Polish gov’t agents, police, and officials of the Communist party systematically erasing the work, all means of living, the right to food of a then famous avant-garde artist, Wladyslaw Strzeminski. Strzeminski is refusing to make and teach art which under the banner of “socialist realism” is made up of cliched, stilted propaganda images celebrating the military might and ultimately (it is hoped) socially beneficial policies of the Communist party. This erasure and larger undoing of an art school, museums, any cafes and ejection of any students or other faculty who objected was chilling: it is the act of a state which is a dictator. Or (as we see in the undemocratic rump that now rules the US and its corrupt lying leader) aspires to be.

“Powidoki” 2015 rez. Andrzej Wajda
Fot. Anna Wloch
http://www.annawloch.com
anna@annawloch.com
Na zdj od lewej : Zosia Wichlacz, Adrian Zareba, Mateusz Rusin, Irena Melcer, Boguslaw Linda

— opening of film, with his students

Our film club at the Cinemart Theater in Fairfax, Virginia: once a month for 5 months, beginning in May, a retired film critic who wrote for the Washington Post (among other papers), Gary Arnold screens an unusual and fine film. A much respected film and theater director, Andrezej Wajda (he made over 40 films, considered one of the world’s renowned film-makers) has ended his career (he just died, at age 90) by telling the inexorable slowly devastating story of the destruction of a great artist, Wladyslaw Strzeminski between 1951 and ’52, when the Soviet Union consolidated its hold on nearby Communist states under pressure from the hostile fiercely anti-communist US and other allies (NATO): one means was imposition on everyone of single uniform thoughts (education) in all areas of life. I am not sure all people were so regimented, but someone as visible and prominent as Strezeminski was important: his case is rather like Sir Thomas More. He is ripe to be made a symbolic example of. If anyone protests openly, they are arrested, beaten up, transported to camps deep in eastern Russia. You can view a summary of Strzeminski’s artistic aims and movements he belong to and images of his art

The painful process is covered step-by-step: first the school authorities are replaced by hand-picked loyal agents; then the professor is denied a classroom; then his students are told his courses are cancelled; his rooms are given over to someone else. He is told if he will preach the Communist art norms, show his students to paint that way, himself paint that way, he will be reinstated. He refuses. We see the hired thugs come and rip up paintings in a exhibit, destroy the students’ art in the building. He gets a commission to decorate a club and his work is ripped up and the cafe destroyed — though in this case the image was realistic enough, of black people exploited in Africa by corporate bosses over a chain. No matter, Strezeminski is not obedient. The gov’t agent turns up and offers him his place back, his students, his daughter, an “existence” if he will cooperate. Streminski can get himself to reply only “I don’t know.” It won’t do. His identity papers are confiscated; then his ration card is taken away. One of his students gets him a menial job where it’s said the employers will not recognize him, but the agents catch up and he is fired. He cannot get food, money, heat for his rooms. Still he holds out to protect his legacy: pictures put in a basement of an art museum, his typescript smuggled out of Poland. We see him stumbling along in the streets until he falls, is taken to hospital, found to have TB in a late stage. He gets a job working on mannequins in a department store window, but sick, weak, confused, he cannot handle these creepy dolls, fall down among them, and dies.

“Powidoki” 2015 
rez : Andrzej Wajda
zdjecia : Pawel Edelman
fotosy: Anna Wloch 
www.annawloch.com
anna@annawloch.com

— his daughter

The story is is made subtle and nuanced by the on-going relationship of Strzeminski with his daughter, various of his students (especially one young woman who is in love with him and attempts to come and live with him), some of his friends (a poet, colleagues at the institute) which evolve into estrangement — or they are whisked away by arrests or threats — or his advice to him. His daughter, Hania (Sofia Wichlacz), who is at first visiting him from her mother, his wife’s apartment. The mother dies (estranged apparently, an artist herself) and the girl attempts to live with her father, but she is gradually alienated from him as she naturally adheres more and more to her school. So she leaves to live in a “girls’ home,” where she is treated as an impoverished orphan. He says he knows his actions will lead to her having a hard life. We glimpse these individual fates as events on the side. It’s filmed partly in black-and-white so it feels as if it were made 40 years ago; in fact like some somber classic of the 1940s. Perhaps the film is too relentless, allows for no one under this new regime to be having a good time. But its message is all the more effective, and make no mistake as it is also about what is happening across the world today as dictatorships spread and humanistic ideals and goals are swept aside, impoverished, punished. As they are in Poland today. It’s also cinematographically beautiful: the austerity of the shots, numbers of them feeling like artists’ photos, or pictures (Hania seen from the side of a window is like a Vermeer), its gritty realism precludes its being felt as didactic.


Wajda filming in 1974

A review by Glenn Kenny in the New York Times: an angry, vivid, passionate film. Piers Handling of Tiff includes some effective clips.

Strzeminskis’s Theory of Vision is not on-line, and very few of his pictures made available to the public. Here are three:


Lodz — The film takes place in Lodz where in a ghetto there was a systematic starvation and enslavement of Jews during the war; a hard-to read book about this slow-motion humiliation and extermination by the Nazi was edited by (among others) Robert Lapides.


Cubism

Arnold (as he often does) retold the artist’s life briefly and then went on to talk about Wajda’s parentage, career, and why he identifies with Streminski. Both were products of poorer people, both lived through the traumatic years of World War Two, Wajda’s father was one of the Polish calvary officers slaughtered by part of the Russian military so as to destroy its most effective middle class members, thus enabling the USSR to dominate Poland in the 1950s with ease. Wajda himself was harassed and never given a lot of money by the state for his films or theater, but unlike other artists (Polanski) did not move to France, the UK or Hollywood. He more or less stayed the course as Polish public figure doing important art for his country. The screenplay by Andrzej Mularczyk (Arnold said) is old-fashioned, long dialogue, literary in its feel, with allusions to history, other art. Arnold did not bring up the parallels with today in the US or elsewhere but he had them in mind while he talked of peers of this director (I couldn’t catch the names, except for Ingmar Bergman).

I don’t know if the film will achieve much commercial distribution. It is not playing anywhere in the DC area just now, and the list of places where it’s been screened are all art festivals (a recent one in Munich). But I daresay it might turn up on Netflix, or as a DVD to buy. Until very recently Strzeminski’s art was relatively neglected. Decades after his death, the work left was exhibited in the school he worked at and founded. There has been an exhibit and a book of essays. You can view all the many awards the film-maker received on wikipedia.

“Powidoki” 2015 rez. Andrzej Wajda
Fot. Anna Wloch
http://www.annawloch.com
anna@annawloch.com
Na zdj: Boguslaw Linda /Strzeminski/

— the great actor, another Vermeer like shot

Ellen

Read Full Post »


Mark Quartley as Ariel to Simone Russell Beale’s Prospero

Ye elves of hills, brooks, standing lakes and groves,
And ye that on the sands with printless foot
Do chase the ebbing Neptune and do fly him
When he comes back; you demi-puppets that
By moonshine do the green sour ringlets make,
Whereof the ewe not bites, and you whose pastime
Is to make midnight mushrooms, that rejoice
To hear the solemn curfew; by whose aid,
Weak masters though ye be, I have bedimm’d
The noontide sun, call’d forth the mutinous winds,
And ‘twixt the green sea and the azured vault
Set roaring war: to the dread rattling thunder
Have I given fire and rifted Jove’s stout oak
With his own bolt; the strong-based promontory
Have I made shake and by the spurs pluck’d up
The pine and cedar: graves at my command
Have waked their sleepers, oped, and let ’em forth
By my so potent art.
From towards the end of the play, Prospero

Dear friends,

However inadequately, I can’t resist writing about the current production of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, which I was lucky enough to be able to see on an HD screen at the Folger Shakespeare library last night. It’s astonishing. The producer is Gregory Doran, and Simone Russell Beale, Prospero. Paul Taylor is right to praise highly the play as experienced. Beale is brilliant, but it’s not the best performance of a character by him I’ve ever seen: he was utterly Falstaff in the Hollow Crown series, the best I’ve ever seen. What is remarkable is the production, direction, acting, the way the lines are spoken: what’s called “live motion capture” adds significantly to the experience or enhance some of the effects — at least it does not distract. The set places us inside a ship’s hold as if that’s the universe, with a floor of sand and water all about. The costumes, and body outfits for Ariel are what we expect but Caliban is something new: Joe Dixon is in a disturbing to look at body suit which makes us feel he’s living trussed up in chains around his chest, and the pain and awkwardness has swollen his stomach. His hindquarters (so to speak) are on display and one worries about possible torture. Trinculo is dressed as a Clarabelle clown, complete with horn on his side: Simon Tinder acts like a circus refugee from Waiting for Godot) Prospero, Miranda, Ferdinand, all the upper class characters are in the usual outfits but that works in context as effective. Michael Davies on the Stratford site writes of all this.

What’s astonishing about this production? I’m a lover of Shakespeare — I’ve read all the plays and poetry, and some of the plays I used to read over and over. When I was just a graduate student, I planned to write my dissertation on Cymbeline — so I especially love the late four romances. I have rarely in life found a production boring or unwatchable — only once in my memory of going to so many (there were years where I went to Shakespeare plays as often as I could in NYC) did I leave at the intermission. I say this to preface that The Tempest is still for me by this time often “sort of expected:” jokes I’ve heard before, a non-plot, so I sit and wait for the poetry and deep feeling moments.

Not this time. Everyone in this play were part of a tremendous sustained effort to make the play entertaining every single minute that passed, and it almost was. Not quite: I did think the masque somewhat overdone: the problem of the masque watched by Ferdinand and Miranda is often one not conquered in productions: I’ve seen puppets; I’ve seen attempts at comedy (undercutting), this production perhaps erred in the direction of too joyous (a wee bit forced). But otherwise the effect is from not just that every line and every pause seems to have been thought through to make it meaningful in a new or interesting way, but the ways in which the stage business was perpetually brilliant, inventive, humanizing. The way they moved their bodies, their use of accents (Tony Jayawardena as as West Indies Stephano, the butler), their gestures, and the tones of complicated complex emotion projected. Joe Dixon was a poignant Caliban. He was given time and space to speak slowly a number of Caliban’s famous speeches with an intense half-grieving gravitas, as when he tells Trinculo and Stephano about the noises they continually hear:

Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises,
Sounds and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not.
Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
Will hum about mine ears, and sometime voices
That, if I then had waked after long sleep,
Will make me sleep again: and then, in dreaming,
The clouds methought would open and show riches
Ready to drop upon me that, when I waked,
I cried to dream again.

I was riveted by a sense of intense alert attention paid. The effect is lightened by having Trinculo dressed as a silly clown and Stephano a dim-witted ship’s butler. Jim used to tell me of the creakings we’d hear from our attic, of the sounds when we first moved in (we probably had a rat in the house, at first there were insects, a woodpecker too), that I should not be afraid ,”the isle is full of strange noises …” and we are here together to talk. At the close of the play Caliban retires to Prospero’s cell to be in solitude.


The attempted rape of Miranda is the current subject here …

Taylor thinks it “a dream of David Hockney landscapes.” I thought of the strong originality of Mary Shelley’s hallucinatory Frankenstein. It’s as if Doran and all the designers were determined to match the gorgeously suggestive language Shakespeare uses of his own gifts. They were groups of fantastical dream creatures, each more unearthly and yet part of this spiritual island world than the one before. Some marvelous dancing — from overtly weird faery

to folk and pattern dances in which Miranda (Jennifer Rainsford reminds me of Julie Christie when young) and Ferdinand (Daniel Easton, perfect for the gentlemanly role) participate.

There was therefore much beyond and contextualizing Beale’s deeply effective voice and tone tragic and grave when he broke his staff, said his dreams were now ended, and every thought would end in the grave that evoked in my such a deep-seated sense of healing. Yes healing, if just for the moment of this presence communicating to me — a member of this audience — deep melancholy forgiveness — we do not forget what these men who cast him and his daughter ashore still are — with a desire to give over and die.

But this rough magic
I here abjure, and, when I have required
Some heavenly music, which even now I do,
To work mine end upon their senses that
This airy charm is for, I’ll break my staff,
Bury it certain fathoms in the earth,
And deeper than did ever plummet sound
I’ll drown my book.

I just loved when he said after Miranda was married to Ferdinand, he would at long last tell what his life had been and then “And thence retire me to my Milan, where/Every third thought shall be my grave.” Someone has said to me that there is no pattern for someone who has lived the life I did with Jim to heal my grief. What I can find are presences in the world of thought, feeling, books, acting on films, stages, through music where I find peace because someone has understood. There is no norm for grieving, there is only tiredness, and it was a moment of joy I felt for Prospero because he forgave even if he saw the people were still not to be trusted. Only in the oblivion of the art of forgetting (that’s Samuel Johnson’s phrase) can any peace be found.

No need to miss it if you’ve an HDs screening theater which takes material from Stratford-upon-Avon (often ones which also broadcast HD screenings from the National Theater in London). The interval feature included next coming summer into fall when four Roman plays have been chosen as HD productions, each dealing with some relevant aspect of our political world today: in this order: Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra, Titus Andronicus, Coriolanus.

Ellen

Read Full Post »

dead-man-walking-katelindseymichaelmayers
Sister Helen (Kate Lindsey) holding hands with Joseph de Rocher (Michael Maynes), Dead Man Walking

Dear friends and readers,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

dead-man-walkinggraham
Susan Graham as Mrs De Rocher begging the appeals board not to kill her son

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

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

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

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

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

Ellen

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »