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Archive for the ‘literary scholarly work’ Category


George (Jack Farthing) and Elizabeth (Heida Reed) overhear Sam and his “flock” singing (Episode 3)


Demelza (Eleanor Tomlinson) looking down thoughtfully, worried — her care, her concern, all her activities show her to be the conscience of this episode

It would take too long to analyse the creative stirrings and conflicts which decided my change of course … it may have been my absence away from Cornwall at that time, which was one of the factors conducive to the return to the Poldarks — Graham in Poldark’s Cornwall

Friends and readers,

I regret to say I was not able to watch Episode 4 for even a second time of this third year of Poldark films, and I can’t come near Episode 5. I’ve a DVD copy of episode 3 and uncertain memories of the new episode 4. If the BBC would allow non-UK residents to pay the license pay (in effect support the network), I would be delighted to; but I am given no opportunity as a US computer, to support these channels. A quick summary of the central trajectory of Black Moon as it evolves from its hard opening on George and Elizabeth waiting for the birth of Valentine: Ross still cannot get himself to join a corrupt Parliamentary outpost of a gov’t. Ross and Demelza are invited and go to two different powerful political establishments; we see her holding her own. I also wanted to see if the new Horsfield team reached Ross’s rescue of Enys (and as a bye-product, Hugh Armitage) from the French prison, the return home to Caroline and Demelza, and a new let-down after Ross does not take two different offers of roles in powerful organizations (local Justice of the Peace which had been Francis’s and MP under Bassett’s auspices). The Black Moon is the first Poldark novels not to end on a reconciliation of Ross and Demelza; here it’s Aunt Agatha cursing George because he forbids her a birthday party, and sowing seeds of doubt about Valentine’s parentage, and Elizabeth’s perhaps not early parturition.

What cannot be too often stressed is 20 years went by between the first four Poldark novels (Ross Poldark, Demelza, Jeremy Poldark, Warleggan) and the second three (The Black Moon, The Four Swans, The Angry Tide). Much life and change has gone by for Graham; he is now not an outsider trying to break into literary society; he’s at some of its centers in London. In this novel Graham is struggling to get back into his material, to bring his characters back to life after 20 years of life’s experiences for him. A good deal of The Black Moon is taken up by politicking with society — reflecting Graham’s own life in the literary world in the between time. No longer is this a story of two people who don’t fit in, their turning to one another and away from their Cornish societies. It’s not a private story at all; as a historical fiction, it is about the intertwining of public and private life.


Demelza, Zacky Martin (Tristan Sturrock) and Sam Carne (Mark Frost) disappointed because George is now refusing to honor Francis’s promise

Demelza’s words bring out how the thriving of a community is the central ideal/norm of this new mini-series


The church Francis (Kyle Soller) promised them

Grief this structure is being allowed to corrode and vanish ….

The weakness felt in both mini-series adaptation is the film-makers want to keep Ross and Demelza at the center as they are the most sought-after popular characters (so they feel) while in Black Moon the Warleggan group are frame. They also don’t want complicated scenes of politicking; both series seek to simplify what happened and give us but one politicking salon. What to substitute? Alexander Baron’s scripts show how in 1977 the expedient was to bring forward the small scale invasion of Ross and his mining-friends into France, Ross coming near senseless execution, and do these swiftly with intense suspense, action, excitement. Both mini-series show how and why methodism is seen as a radical threat to property-owners and the powerfully-connected. They both keep Drake’s mischievous plantings of frogs to torment Warleggan.

But they both marginalize the core of the three books: that Ross gradually learns he cannot be free, and must take responsibility. Instead in both George’s paranoia is played up so he begins to believe that all that occurs on his property which he can’t control (and comes out of the methodists, and Drake’s affair with Morwenna) is set up against him has been engineered by Ross. By Ross’s having refused the position, he leaves his fellow Cornishmen and women at the mercy (but George has none and no sense of justice) of a cold ruthless corrupt tyrant. Horsfield has added scenes showing George to be an utterly corrupt MP and Justice of the Peace: knowing the son of a powerful man has been arraigned for brutal rape, George makes ground for himself by accusing the girl of perjury; we see him transport starving people who killed one bird. Horsfield also brings out much more strongly and early that Elizabeth is horrified by George’s behavior, put off by her own child (by Ross) and cold to the baby; and to live with herself in this condition, resorts to laudanum (Godey’s Lady’s Drops were very popular in the later 18th and early 19th century — what pain-killers were there?).


Shots of several swans together threaded through signal that material from The Four Swans is in this episode — there are now five, including Verity

She has added Verity to the mix (who is marginalized in this later trilogy so that Caroline becomes Demelza’s close friend): in the new Poldark Verity provides a contrast to Elizabeth in her genuine fulfillment and love of her child; she provides a reinforcement of Demelza and Caroline’s fears that neither Ross or Enys will ever come back when for a time Verity is led to believe Captain Ramey’s boat was shipwrecked (this latter wholly made up by Horsfield). Demelza provides contrast to Verity and Elizabeth too: she is developing into her own woman, making decisions about the property and people while Ross is gone.


Ross (Aidan Turner) and Tregirls (Sean Gilder) at Callais

I thought as a whole Horsfield’s additions were justified; the way she presents George and Elizabeth so starkly is theatrically effective, and she does keep and match the sublime and touching scenes of Drake and Mowenna falling in love at the seashore and delving caves while Geoffrey Charles bonds strongly with Drake. Here they are as they meet, intensely happy over the coming few hours together:


Geoffrey Charles (Harry Marcus) — the most forward


Drake (Harry Richardson) — catching up,a little gingerly


Morwenna (Elise Chappell) — not far behind, and self-contained, remaining “proper”

I also thought very effective the way Horsfield and the actor developed Sam’s character and his slowly creating a congregation for himself, and then when George will not honor Francis’s promise to give Nanfan and other dissenters a place for worship, finding through his sister on Ross’s land another building. On the other hand, Horsfield too much buries the central thread of these three books: Ross’s bringing himself to act centrally in his world through office. But she does have him brooding about not going and makes a big fuss about how evil George is, so this thread may become major by episode 5. (For the comparable Episode 3 from the 1970s, click here).

When I’ve gotten more material, namely on DVDs episodes 4-5 at least, I’ll write a longer blog taking the art of the two mini-series into account. I am pursuing my book project and have read a series of non-Poldark novels and seen two superb non-Poldark films (Hitchcock’s Marnie, and The Walking Stick). I expect to write a blog on these books as a group (The Little Walls, The Walking Stick, Marnie, The Tumbled House; Greek Fire) and how Graham’s work seems to lend itself to development in film. I’ve two to go: After the Act, and Angel, Pearl and Little God (almost made into a movie starring Marlon Brando), and then I’ll try a few short stories.

While there are stretches which show the same man wrote the suspense stories as the Poldarks: the use of a loner who gradually emerges as part of the central group (this is a LeCarre motif too so perhaps part of the suspense novel’s tropes); both Poldark and non-Poldark books have the action-adventure risks of theft, of disobeying central laws and getting away with it (or not). Nonetheless, Graham’s travel books and articles on Cornwall general and autobiographical, writing about his writing, need to be treated separately — as also his sheer life-writing. The genre he was writing shaped everything he wrote so they can almost seem works from a different man. (One way he differs from DuMaurier beyond the masculinis perspective is she remained in this historical-romance in Cornwall genre.) Perhaps I should call these not non-Poldark books but non-Cornwall ones (though some of these suspense stories are set in Cornwall). Cornwall is key.


A Cornwall estuary

Ellen

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Halse (Robin Ellis) and Ross (Aidan Turner) discuss the death of Ray Penvenen (John Nettles, a man of integrity, conviction, but also rank, thus standing and considerable wealth in land) (3 Poldark 2)

“Many years ago I wrote four novels about the Poldark family and eighteenth century Cornwall. After finishing them, the modern world [and suspense novels intervened]. Eventually the idea of writing another book about them came to be something not really open to serious consideration. But sometimes the totally unexpected occurs,and one day, for no discoverable reason, it became necessary for me to see what happened to those people after Christmas night, 1793 … to return to an old mood was as much of a challenge as creating a new one. The Black Moon is the result” — Winston Graham, Author’s Note prefacing The Black Moon)

There are three sets of dates: One for the time the novels were written by Graham (the first four 1945-53, the second three 1973-77), one for the time they are said to be occurring (1783-1793, 1794-99 respectively) and now two sets of dates for the film adaptations which mirror the 40 years apart eras they are filmed in (first series, 1975-78, 2015-2017).

“That part of his character [Ross’s] which made him so critical of authority also worked against himself. The same faculty which questioned the rightness of the law and the lawmakers was sharp to keep his own actions under a similar scrutiny … ” (Graham’s The Black Moon, towards the end of the book)

Friends and readers,

How unexpectedly fitting. I begin my series of comparative blogs on the new and older Poldark films a day after Graham’s 109th birthday. On his blog, Robin Ellis (once Ross Poldark) announced June 30, was Graham’s birthday: he had been born June 30, 1908, Victoria Park, Manchester, where his one historical novel not set in Cornwall, Cordelia, written 1949, takes place.


Winston Graham, 1945, around the time he wrote The Forgotten Story and Ross Poldark (thanks to Jim Dring)

Ellis has not been permitted by history, his fan base, and his later career to dismiss his role as Ross, even if he wanted to, which if he ever did (and he must’ve) he has long given up.


Robin Ellis, recent promotional shot, Truro

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


Aiden Turner as Ross first seen in the new series


Robin Ellis as Ross, coming home to Demelza (and Jud) from the wars in wars, early scene in older series

These blogs are based on the mini-series as now aired on BBC. This first is on the first two episodes, adapted from The Black Moon and imitating some of the previous mini-series (especially the way the Morwenna-Drake love scenes on the beach are done). I compare them to the older series, for which I provide summaries and evaluations in the commentary and both to the fifth Poldark book, The Black Moon.

I begin with the second episode of the third season of the new Poldark (2017), Ellis is again in the new series, and a pivotal moment. Now he is Rev Mr. Halse (Robin Ellis) in the scenes from The Black Moon (5th Poldark book, 1794-95). Ellis as Halse is given role in the book given to Ralph Allen Daniel (a real local landowner, magistrate at the time), an offer in The Black Moon to become Justice of the Peace (in this latest mini-series episode an MP, a very different role, not local). Ross, wrongly he realizes (ever so slowly), partly because the profoundly vindictive, punitive, reactionary capitalist George Warleggan (Jack Farthing) takes the powerful position (including tax and fee rates, punishment, legal procedures).

We can measure the distance of the first four Poldark books (written 1945-53, Ross Poldark, Demelza, Jeremy Poldark, Warleggan) from this trilogy written 20 years later, (1973-77, The Black Moon, The Four Swans, The Angry Tide), upon which the third and two seasons at least next must be based. In the second Poldark series, Graham chooses to realize truly historical characters (not just invented ones), linchpin capitalists and great landowners, Tory (Lord Falmouth, from mother’s side a Boscawen) or Whig (Sir Francis Basset, later Lord Dunstanville). Not fantasy figures at all. And in both episodes Ross is deeply conflicted over what he has done in the past, and what he should do for the future, and at the close seems to have decided retreat into his nuclear family and friends is the best right option. He will discover that he is wrong here.


Ross and Demelza (after credits and wild scene of Ross stopping Elizabeth from going over a cliff) reflecting on their way of life: she wants to know if he is avoiding thinking about something


He will not let her see inside him, and tells her, she, on the other hand, thinks too much (he means aloud)

The pace of the Poldark world novels has calmed down in the second realization. Graham says in Poldark’s Cornwall, it was “like breaking into a sound barrier.” It’s a lot slower, far more attention to the particulars of politics in the 1790s in Cornwall, London and France. And that is part of the difficulty both mini-series had to deal with. They somehow have to get some of this new matter in. One can see this in the new realization which is far more consciously political. Yes the newer Poldark mini-series is again much more melodramatic than the older, without comedy, literally closer to the books, using cinematographic techniques, montage, interwoven juxtaposition and parallels a lot more than the older series. And a strong depiction of a community, a way of life. But both fill in matter, the 2017 even more so. For example in the newer series, added to Elizabeth giving birth, and all the mortal dangers that brings, Debbie Horsfield has dramatized the death of Ray Penvenen


Caroline Penvenen Enys (Gabriella Wilde) grieving over her dead uncle (from sugar sickness, i.e., diabetes)

and the death of Demelza, Drake and Sam Carne’s father — both referred to at the opening of The Black Moon, but not made into parallel episodes.

Much less is doing in The Black Moon than had been happening in the previous four novels. So Horsfield and before her the great Alexander Baron (the scriptwriter for the first four episodes of the 1977 Poldark, he was a fine novelist and wrote many BBC screenplays for powerful mini-series in the 1770s, especially for Dickens and the 1983 Jane Eyre) invent, they fill in, they don’t get to Elizabeth’s childbed with Valentine until Episode 2, which scene opens The Black Moon. Horsfield also has her characters commenting on the action, reflecting on their behavior and choices, with a (to me) odd didactic effect. Baron’s older series had to deal with the problem that the dramatization of Warleggan had so departed from the book that Trenwith was supposed burnt down and Ross gone for a couple of years fighting in France (they have to bring Ross back, invent a new house, explain who Aunt Agatha is), but there is a skilfull sophistication of dialogue, very novel-like, more subtly suggestive so Agatha in the older series (Eileen Way) really needles George (Ralph Bates) slowly, spitefully, something the new Agatha (Caroline Blakiston) with her relationship with Elizabeth (Heida Reed) is only said to be doing.

I’m not going to recap this year, but leave my readers to read one of the many that turn up on TV blogs (more probably in the autumn, when PBS broadcasts a probably much re-arranged and somewhat abridged version of the third season), even if they are snarky and trivializing or downright mocking (see one, and two). Rather I’ll evaluate selectively in terms of the previous series, attending to how both connect back to the books. In comments I’ll detail the plot-design and events of the 1977 series (click for Episode 1 of the 1977; and click for Episode 2, much more briefly) since they were not recapped originally and are of great interest.

I hope to stir the reader to return to the older series and also read the books. Here are my two blogs on Graham’s Black Moon: Re-entry, Land, politics, love and coerced marriage, religion and revolution; Violence the basis of this order.

My first response is as all previous encounters: I think how this not as good as last year (in this third season the dressers of Ross are back to allowing him to have utterly unkempt hair), and neither as effective, uncompromisingly like the books in spirit, as the 1970s films. Yet — as in previous encounters I admit Horsfield is following the general story and at moments more literally true, elaborating seriously on what is in the books. The 1970s equivalent did not show Elizabeth trying to get rid of the child or bring on parturition, and crudely or melodramatically as Horsfield had the actors clash (Turner as Ross just happens to be on a cliff where Elizabeth seems to be trying to throw herself over); these are incidents George half-glimpses in the book whose significance he fails to understand. It is made pointedly clear in episode 1 that Ross and Demelza (Elinor Tomlinson) believe Elizabeth’s second baby’s father is Ross. Ross cannot resist hanging around Trenwith; after the baby is born, we see him running frantically on the beach to calm himself, bending over in twisted ways frustrated that he can do nothing for this son; Demelza justifies her returning to see her father die despite his abuse of her because there is a special bond between father and child which must not be ignored. Horsfield is developing cores of the books:

I’ve read that Horsfield and Co are not eager to go on to Books 7-12; if so, they are making an implicit fuss about the possible fathering of Valentine by Ross to little purpose. She has added in episode 2 that Elizabeth does not like her new baby, will not hug or soothe him (Verity notices how cold she is): this is not true of Elizabeth in the books: she may favor Geoffrey Charles, but she loves both her sons and shows concern, solicitude, tenderness towards both (far more than she ever did towards Francis her first husband, or George now). Ross’s indifference towards his son, leaving Valentine to endure the mistreatment of George, the stepfather reaches a tragic and twisted climax in Bella (Book 12). It is all over the new series’ nuances, from Ross’s concern, to his guilt, to Demelza’s warning, in the pointed talk about who the new baby resemble, George’s overdone pride in his “heir.” Graham’s Black Moon is quiet about this until near the end when driven by Warleggan’s cruelty to her, Aunt Agatha suddenly rouses his suspicions in a way never to be undone. The 1977 film only hints at this in Prudie’s suspicions that this eighth month baby is a ninth money one (Episode 2) and Aunt Agatha’s final revenge when George forbids her party and she details what a eighth month baby should be missing (which Valentine is not missing).


first shot of intensely sincere Sam, by his father’s bedside

Sam’s (Tom York) religiosity brought out far more. Both were much more melodramatic than the previous series and sometimes look like travel ads, and there is not quite the need for Turner to charge across the landscape regularly. These lead to implicit silliness, but much is good. The Morwenna-Drake (Harry Richardson and Ellise Chapppel replace Kevin McNally and Jane Wymark, whom Richardson and Chappell resembles) scenes are very well done and touchingly done at length. Horsfield brings out how radical politically the two brothers are — somewhat unconsciously


Morwenna and Geoffrey Charles — on the beach, by the seashore


The sweet Drake will lead them into mysterious caves

What she has done that is interesting and new in an original way is reverse events we are shown. The emphasis in the book is on the Warleggan household — partly Graham was feeling his way back after a 20 year hiatus. We begin and end there in The Black Moon. Alexander Baron filled in far more of the Nampara household, but he did not try to rearrange so consciously, and kept Ralph Bates and Jill Townsend to the fore in the story. Horsfield makes a strong effort to show that Elizabeth is learning to dislike George very much (she does not in the earlier series as she is with George in his reactionary hierarchical attitudes, equally resentful of the Carne brothers, though reasonable and judicious). Horsfield is characterizing the era culturally, giving us a sense of what farm life and mining again (the second episode opens on the mine as so much of the first two seasons did) was like.


Verity and Elizabeth


Agatha saying goodbye to Verity — Verity brings out the best in everyone

We have Verity (Ruby Bentall replaced Norma Streader) added (she begins to become a minor character in the second three novels and disappears altogether in the later ones) and her baby, and when it’s thought that Dwight has either drowned or been killed, Verity is led to believe her husband’s merchant ship was lost in a storm. This is another attempt to reinforce by inventing parallels, in this case (I felt successful) because of the power of the actress’s presence (and our memories of Richard Harringtno as Captain Blamey from the previous series). I liked this quiet prosaicism and thought it was carried out mostly by Eleanor Tomlinson in her role as Demelza. I find regrettable Horsfield seems to feel she must characterize the revolution as senselessly violent, and give strong anti-liberal thought talk to Ross and the new Sir Francis Bassett (John Hopkins) at Bassett’s political salon.

There is strong acting, especially among the older actors: John Nettles’s death as Ray Penvenen is to be regretted as he was such a force on the screen; Ellis is again pitch perfect as Halse (he has a real feel for the era). John Hollingforth as Captain Henshawe, Richard Pope as Pascoe. Among the younger actors, Luke Norris (replacing Richard Morant) as Dwight Enys is utterly believable when called to help Elizabeth give birth, married to hard Caroline (politically at any rate), and in closing brief shots seen aboard ship, using overvoice to pen his letters to Caroline, captured, escaping, and then doing what he can to relieve the suffering of the other victim-prisoners in the French prison.


Luke Norris as Enys at the moment of capture

The new series is luxuriating in the number of episodes (10, 60 minutes each) they have been given for 2 and 1/2 books (The Black Moon and The Four Swans will be covered this third season), while the older one was held to a strict four episodes of 45 minutes, with one extra for each of the three novels (they covered all three in 13 episodes). This might account for the more meditative and reflective quality, with more invention of back stories not in the book in the new series, but it is surprising how much the older series included, and they did not drop characters as is now done here.

Since Phil Harris as Jud was not used as comic or subversive foil the way Paul Curran had been, now dropped with little explanation, he is not missed as much as he would be. We’ve never had the moderating Nicholas Warleggan of the book (and older series, presented as a man who is diplomatic and prefers to be honest), only the cutthroat sneering [uncle] Cary (Pip Torrens). There is still little comedy.

The Warleggan (Jack Farthing) of this first two hours is over-the-top in his egoism, drive to ape “his betters” and chip on his shoulder; he is in effect a fool, ruining his own marriage by his coldness; by contrast the Warleggan of the older series (Ralph Bates) was motivated by a passion for Elizabeth, and more inward genuine complicated feelings. The new series again wants more nudity among the males so we are “treated” scenes of Sam and Drake swimming in the nude — without much motivation.

But interestingly (to me) in both mini-series Ross is taking something of a back seat, is in his soul in retreat as he is so conflicted over what he has done in the past and what his future should be. That is why he rejects Bassett and the Rev Halse’s offer. I just wish (as have others) that Horsfield didn’t feel it necessary for Turner to charge across the landscape on his horse, or make him use frantic gestures to signal inner frustration. Graham’s idea seems to have been to keep Ross as private a man as he, Graham, was.


Final scene (episode 1), she melancholy, he withdrawn apart

Ellen

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Friends and readers,

Our second Trollope novel for spring and early summer was another novella, the very late Dr Wortle’s School. Not quite as little read as The Golden Lion of Granpere, it is written more in Trollope’s familiar vein: we have an intrusive self-reflexive ironic narrator, and despite the single-story plot-design, a variety of tones, from earnest seriousness about damaging hypocrisy with respect to failed marriages and hidden partnerships. Trollope would not use the term for living together despite knowing the other person is not your legal spouse — the case of Mrs and Mr Peacocke. And from satire over how castes operate (church and school), to the experience of painful exposure of someone’s life and mistakes (to destroy that someone) in newspapers, through letters and mean insinuating gossip, in this case Dr Wortle and his school. The experience of Dr Wortle vis-a-vis the press is strongly reminiscent of The Warden, the very first of Trollope’s 13 novellas (novels “under 300 pages he called them), only Dr Wortle is an aggressive man determined to have the last word, stubborn, not to be fooled by cant, eager to convince, to vindicate himself. In this he resembles Dr Thorne.

The central issue or “dilemma” of this book is a couple takes up a position as usher and wife (where she will fulfill certain comparable functions, like eating with the students) who are in fact not married. The American Mrs (Ella) Peacock while living “out west” married a Mr Ferdinand Lefroy and in a brief time discovered he was violent, abusive to her, continually drinking, gambling, a cheat, cold and indifferent; much to her relief he deserted and then (she was told by his brother, Robert Lefroy) died. This around the time she meets a decent honorable and deeply compatible (congenial) Englishman, Mr (or the Rev. Henry) Peacocke, who is deeply supportive; they marry thinking Ferdinand Lefroy is dead, and then one day he shows himself to them. Horrified, Mr Peacocke is nonetheless deeply attached (as is she) and they flee to England and the obscure job at an English boys’ preparatory school. They are both uncomfortable (she much to my irritation refuses invitations to social events, thus enacting the idea she’s polluted) and think to tell the headmaster the truth, when they are forestalled by the arrival of Robert Lefroy as a blackmailer who when his demand for large sums is refused, proceeds to elaborate the story as hostilely as he can to Dr Wortle. Wortle (who has the same clear perception – I’m slightly ironic — as Dr Thorne), sees the man is a liar. Wortle is capable of irony: “Of course,” said he [Mr. Wortle], “if the lad turns out a scapegrace, as is like enough, it will be because Mrs. Peacocke had two husbands.” And then, not ironic: “It is often a question to me whether the religion of the world is not more odious than its want of religion.” Peacocke then confides the whole story to Wortle, and touched, admiring the man, Wortle just about agrees to keep them on — no matter what.

It would be a more complex work if the couple were not so virtuous and Dr Wortle so ethical at the same time willing to buck the public, risk his living; in reality people aren’t this good (more or less consistently) and why they divorce and how they go about separating at least is not straight forward. There is also no acknowledgement in the book how miserable these preparatory schools often were. Think of Dickens’s satire in Nicholas Nickleby, Bronte’s exposure of the sufferings of young women and girls sent to boarding schools by genteel (fringe often) people. One cannot but remember Orwell’s Such such were the joys (an usher’s wife also “does” the tea) and Trollope’s own wretchedness at school. The story of the boy who almost drowned does not give us the boy’s testimony, and so readily exculpates the school (a mere accident, and he is saved). We’re told how happy they are in language that casts an irony on “parents who love to think that their boys should be happy at school” (Chapter 2). Trollope is caustic over parents who want to think to be told or given the impression their boys are happy at school. Maybe he also sees how impossible that is for many boys, but in his Autobiography Trollope said it was good for boys to get into debt and trouble as it taught them lessons. The boy who was unhappy is presented as spoilt. The ammunition is aimed at his mother, Mrs (Juliana) Stantiloup who is presented as a horror.

In the introductory essay to the Oxford World’s Classics paperback, Halperin points out what a complex subject this is for a book of this length. This story of an illegal pair of lovers is set in a school, so is also about living in a community. According to Halperin, this is a rare book for Trollope where he sides with the unconventional (which means more than sex, you can be unconventional in all sorts of ways, Josiah Crawley is), for the alienated (in some way) individual against the social group. I don’t agree that this is rare: Bill Overton’s The Unofficial Trollope has made a strong persuasive case that Trollope’s books are about the struggle of the self to find some modus vivendi or space to exist in an often stiflingly conventional and obtuse social group. Nowadays this is talked about in general deconstructionist thematic and political terms, that Trollope (for example) undermines primogeniture in Sir Harry Hotspur of Humblethwaite, but this older way of seeing the crux at the heart of Trollope’s fiction in terms of social psychology and individual values is truer to the text. Halperin suggests the pervasive theme across Trollope’s works is the hypocrisies of religious. He is as interested in the risk to Mrs Peacocke she will be accused of bigamy as he is in revealing how ugly gossip can insidiously destroy someone. It’s rare novel for Trollope to be so explicit, but then this is explicitness and the examination of taboos is central to most of his broad-art novellas.


Elizabeth Armstrong Forbes (1859-1912): “School is out!” — a depiction of a school for boys — and girls

The novel is proto-feminist. One of Trollope’s narrator’s lines about Mrs Peacocke recalls the violence Lady Carbury experienced before her husband died (TWWLN): “That fate had betaken her which so often falls upon a woman who trusts herself and her life to a man.” This tone of empathy for women found across Trollope’s writing. For example, Trollope’s mid-career The Belton Estate has a Mrs Askerton who was married to brutal man, left him, and lived with the present Mr Askerston for three years before her first husband died. Mrs Askerton is much more ambiguous figure than Mrs Peacocke, her thoughts are hidden from us and suggestively subversive at moments– like Lady Carbury. But, like Mrs Peacocke, Mrs Askerton treats herself as a pariah, a forever polluted thing (the word “purity” as applied to women’s sexuality ought to be expunged from our vocabulary) and has hardly any social life because of what happened to her in the past. Today so many scholar critics want to claim Trollope for feminism; but I have thought that is not so, or it’s a super-qualified feminism when he’s not for the revision of the child custody act, seems against women going out to work for a living, traveling alone and so on. The double standard is very strong: Mrs Peacocke is blamed, and had Mr deserted and she ended up on the streets or a menially-paid occupation, the problem would have been solved! Dr Wortle’s response:

Dr. Wortle, when he read and re-read the article, and when the jokes which were made upon it reached his ears, as they were sure to do, was nearly maddened by what he called the heartless iniquity of the world

The book passes the Bechtel test: there are chapters on women, between women, where the concern is their lives. For example, three chapters with long dialogues between Mrs Wortle and Mrs Peacock: how moving are Mrs Peacock’s frank words: her distress, her love for this husband, the truth of her marriage, what a misery the first and her life then had been, and how much this well behaved intelligent kindly English man transformed her life. We could say this is an argument for allowing divorce on grounds of incompatibility. But the novel – through Mrs Peacocke moves rather to the idea that when in effect Mr P asked her to marry him, she couldn’t refuse — even if she had her doubts which she preferred not to state. Listening and identifying, Mrs Wortle at this point expresses a similar love for Mr Wortle. She also tells Mrs Peacocke “No body has condemned you here.” In fact Mrs Wortle at first did.


R. F. Delderfield (1912-72) — the atmosphere of Delderfield’s novels are the closest thing in films to Dr Wortle’s School when the feeling about the school is paramount

The chapters proceed through clashing intense dialogues whose effect is to examine all the beliefs and norms surrounding marriage’s sexual aspects, sexual possession, how society impinges on marriage, enforces and how social control through hierarchies of authorities and news operates. (The use of these bare dramatic scenes anticipates Henry James.) There is curiously little about children — it’s convenient Mrs Peacock has never had a child – neither Mrs Hurdle or Mrs Smith (another highly transgressive woman who lives with men outside marriage), two equally compromised women — nor does Mrs Askerton have any children come to that. Trollope avoids this important part of marriage and what makes breakups so destructive. Then we expand out to see Dr Wortle warring with respected high males in the community, the Bishop, a fellow cleric, Mr Puddicombe, people Mrs Stantiloup’s letters have managed to make nervous (and begin to remove their sons from Dr Wortle’s school. Trollope’s usual wisdom supports Dr Wortle’s perplexity — should he close the school? It appears he can do without the money. In fact to close the school is to close his life: he has poured his life into his work and his salary, and Trollope says truly anyone who denies that their career and their salary meant little (people do that and say their family means more or something else idealistic) is hypocritical. Wortle does not to close the school and he cannot get himself to.


From Andrew Davies’s Peculiar Practice (it’s about a medical unit within a school):Jock McCannon as the retiring handmaster (Andrew Davies has also produced meaningful film adaptations about school life)

Wonderful portraits of types in the hierarchies and coteries who we have met in the world abound: this seems to me Chaucerian:

The bishop was a goodly man, comely in his person, and possessed of manners which had made him popular in the world. He was one of those who had done the best he could with his talent, not wrapping it up in a napkin, but getting from it the best interest which the world’s market could afford. But not on that account was he other than a good man. To do the best he could for himself and his family,—and also to do his duty,—was the line of conduct which he pursued. There are some who reverse this order, but he was not one of them. He had become a scholar in his youth, not from love of scholarship, but as a means to success. The Church had become his profession, and he had worked hard at his calling. He had taught himself to be courteous and urbane, because he had been clever enough to see that courtesy and urbanity are agreeable to men in high places. As a bishop he never spared himself the work which a bishop ought to do. He answered letters, he studied the characters of the clergymen under him, he was just with his patronage, he endeavoured to be efficacious with his charges, he confirmed children in cold weather as well as in warm, he occasionally preached sermons, and he was beautiful and decorous in his gait of manner, as it behoves a clergyman of the Church of England to be. He liked to be master; but even to be master he would not encounter the abominable nuisance of a quarrel. When first coming to the diocese he had had some little difficulty with our Doctor; but the Bishop had abstained from violent assertion, and they had, on the whole, been friends. There was, however, on the Bishop’s part, something of a feeling that the Doctor was the bigger man; and it was probable that, without active malignity, he would take advantage of any chance which might lower the Doctor a little, and bring him more within episcopal power. In some degree he begrudged the Doctor his manliness.

Of Mr Puddicombe, Nancy (one of the members of our listserv) wrote:

Mr. Puddicombe is of a different order. When Dr. Wortle consults him on the subject of the newspaper article, Puddicombe carefully sorts out what is true and what is implied, to Dr. Wortle’s considerable discomfort. In Chapter V of Volume II, Correspondence with the Palace, we enjoy the letters exchanged by Dr. Wortle and the Bishop regarding the Bishop’s actions. Two days after he sends the letter to the Bishop. Dr. Wortle invites Puddicombe’s judgment. He waits because, “Mr. Puddicombe would no doubt have advised him not to send it, and then he would have been almost compelled to submit to such advice.” Although Puddicombe recognizes both the truth of the letter and the case for not sending it, he understands why it was sent: “Had I been in your case I should have thought it unnecessary. But you are self-demonstrative, and cannot control your feelings.”

Puddicombe’s analysis is pertinent: “Of course he [the Bishop] made a mistake. But don’t you think that the world goes easier when mistakes are forgiven.” And, very realistically, “I value peace and quiet too greatly to quarrel with my bishop, — unless, indeed, he should attempt to impose upon my conscience.”

Many of the objections to Wortle’s actions do not impress me because they depend on silly conventions or personal animus. This is different. Puddicombe sees clearly that Wortle’s sensitivity has caused him to lose all sense of proportion. That is, of course, the point of Wortle’s character. He is generous and honest and also somewhat self-righteous, and this gives him the strength to defend the Peacockes of this world.

As is so common in Trollope, letters play a key role in a number of the chapters and one chapter is given over almost entirely to “correspondence.” It’s partly told, not all epistolary narrative so the narrator can inject comments, show us the characters reading the letter are looking over the shoulders of the writer. I wrote a long paper once on Trollope’s uses of epistolarity. In this novel epistolarity is funny and anguished. The section where Dr Wortle becomes so exasperated and indignant and vexed over the newspaper stories and the Bishop’s collusion with them (as a source) did remind me of Mr Harding — only the last thing Mr Harding would do would be to write to the newspapers and be so pro-active. He’s have closed the school, quit his job — indeed he wouldn’t be running a school in the first place. At the end of the section when Wortle has not had a decent reply from anyone — meaning no one has taken his bait, for the bishop is too suave and controlled to respond personally but at first has an underling send a reply that is a refusal to reply on the grounds of Wortle’s discourteous tone — is when Dr Wortle discusses shutting down his school altogether. They are now down to 20 students and a lord who lives far away has written to say his two sons will not be returning. Then the bishop does reply one final time and Wortle calls it ‘beastly.” The bishop simply refuses to acknowledge any part in the newspaper and, from on high, a condemnation of Wortle as behaving in a way unsuitable to his office. Letters permit this kind of thing as face-to-face communications do not. What drives Wortle to exasperation is the assertion he is doing this (and visiting Mrs Peacocke while Mr is off to the US to find proof that Ferdinand Lefroy died since they saw him) because he finds Mrs Peacocke so attractive. She is, and he is drawn to her. The chapters delineating Wortle’s visits to Mrs Peacocke is title; “‘Amo in the cool of the evening.”

The book is drawing to a close when Mr Peacocke pays Robert Lefroy to travel with him to the US and find the needed documentation. The dramatic scenes between Lefroy and Peacocke caught me: Mr Lefroy is remarkably sordid and hard. Lefroy wants more money, and relentlessly goes after it: he invents a transparent lie: there were two Ferdy Lefroys. The reality of people is (we see this in the way the Trump followers react to the news do see) would dismiss anything they don’t want to hear and agree with what they do, however improbable. We have been given enough to see that the context for Wortle and Peacock is such that such a lie (two Ferdys) won’t go over. Wortle sees Lefroy as a liar upon seeing him (not only Dr Thorne comes to mind but the Vicar of Bullhampton, Frank Fenton, the father in Is He Popenjoy?, Henry Lovelace, Dean of Brotherton). Dr Wortle is just so much thinner as his book is so slender. Robert Lefroy after uttering this lie to Peacocke threatens to come back to England; they are alone in a hotel room and he takes out a loaded gun. Again given our modern cultural moment, and how rare it is in any British novel for anyone to pull out a loaded gun, I’m wondering how deep this custom of murdering people goes in this violent culture. Peacock has one too (we learn later it wasn’t loaded — which is cheating) but then two more men come in. At first one might be afraid they are Lefroy people and will murder Peacock but turns out they are law enforcement — come with guns.

Then we turn to Wortle who receiving the news that Ferdinand Lefroy has been dead for a while, sits down and writes an indignant self-justifying letter to the Bishop. He can’t resist it and it’s a good letter. Meanwhile Mrs Peacock is all abjection, how much she loves her lord and she will hurry to London — with Mrs Wortle turning into a happy doormat to Dr Wortle too (except in the case of her daughter’s marriage). We are given the letter but then comes Mr Puddicombe who advises Dr Wortle to write nothing. Silence is best and will contribute to bringing an end to what has happened. No closure but no more remarks. And Wortle does think the better of it, he and Puddicombe too go to London to countenance the Peacocks’ quiet re-wedding.


Frank Middlemass as Algy Herries, headmaster, hiring David Powlett as the shell-shocked John Dutting (another Delderfield book, movingly and comically adapted by Andrew Davies as a 16 episode mini-series, To Serve Them All My Days)

There is then a bad falling off. Trollope produces a weak fairy tale romance] as filler. Lord Carstairs who so admired Mr Peacocke, has fallen in love with the Wortle’s daughter, Mary. Lord Bracey, Carstair’s father is all humanity, impossbily idealistically reasonably easy about what Mary’s dowry could be as he has just tons of money himself. Perhaps Trollope in his old age felt a need for some counter thrust to the sordid. He couldn’t do without “normalcy” (a revealing comment about how Trollope’s viewed his everyday experience is that he uses this word of Mary and Carstairs years later — they had two “normal” children). It is weak stuff with no conflict, only happy anxieties as Mary worries she will not see Carstairs for 3 years, but then, accepted by Wortle, he turns up and before you know they are walking in a wood. Carstairs claims to have come to honor Peacock and we see in a dialogue he is just exemplary in every way. The Peacockes did nothing wrong, says Carstairs, but but we are not to forget Puddicombe once again who said it was wrong to continue to live together and give the impression they were married, wrong of Mr Peacocke to take the position. Fundamentally, Trollope doesn’t care about the story; he is going through a routine; for example, as narrator he says of Mary’s visit on Christmas to her coming in-laws: “of course she stayed at Christmas, or went back to Bowicke for a week.” Which is it? does it matter?

Trollope has not ruined his book — there is much to think about in its central chapters. I’ve heard Stuart Curran (editor of romantic texts, essayist) argue for many novels to see the real meaning ignore that last chapter. Look to see where characters are, which ones presented, in the penultimate chapter. It won’t really do here since the newspaper satire is central to the story too and at the close is brought back as well as the Peacockes settling in again. The truth to be conceded is Trollope did infinitely better in The Warden, Nina, Sir Harry Hotspur, An Eye for an Eye (a poetic masterpiece) and is fascinating in his Orwell-Swift fantasy, Fixed Period. There is too much broad humor now and again. Some readers were reminded of Wodehouse’s tone; others were reminded of Barbara Pym (who can do quiet anguish too, a Booker Prize winner let’s not forget for her Autumn Quartet). I thought of the Delderfield books and films (see above).

But there is just not enough depth of the type Mr Harding conveys; the strongest emotions are found in love and gratitude utterances of the Peacockes to one another, only these are scenes told of later in time. There is falling off here. A late novella. 1881. It anticipates later fiction but not seriously enough quite — I’m thinking of Hardy’s Mayor of Casterbridge 1885, Margaret Oliphant’s Ladies Lindores (an interrogration of marriage in effect) 1884.

Ellen

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Florence Lacey, Kaleidoscope (A review)

Friends and readers,

Probably a coincidence which I’m noticing because I’m aging, but aging was and is the topic of the two plays and films I’ve gone to or been watching this week: this past Thursday, Matt Connor and Stephen Gregory Smith’s moving musical (a world premiere at Creative Cauldron, an Arlington night-club, place for musical and other events), Kaleidoscope, about an aging successful (Broadway?) singer now degenerating because of Alzheimer’s. Florence Lacey, the central singer-actress, had a long distinguished enough career on Broadway and now works in the DC area: it began strong with her singing effectively in a musical, and takes us through the early stages of a journey into loss of her memory, mind, abilities. An especially moving number came from the character’s memory of her mother: Mother Stayed Home Alone. The audience had a lot of older people and I saw tears on faces. A friend was ushering; that’s how I heard about the production.


A rehearsal photo of Foucheux as Lear, Magee as Gloucester, Sara Barker Edgar

Tonight, Saturday, I’ve just come back from Gunston Center, a local American pair of theaters set in a local junior high, where I saw a bare and simple and all the more powerful acting out of Shakespeare’s King Lear. The acting company now call themselves Avant Barde, another Arlington group, who have a long history (30 years), going back to theaters around DC, then a theater in a garage on Clarke Street, then briefly in an arts building where an arts center is slowly filling the place, coming to life now and again. they once called themselves the Washington Shakespeare Company (WSC). I was sitting next to another older woman who became friendly and we shared memories, reminiscences of the WSC over the years.

I assume I need say nothing about the story and characters. This is another quiet (non-spectacular) winner: sheer acting, appropriate costumes and a minimal set (using lighting and music effectively). The great local older actor, Rick Foucheux was Lear, Christopher Henley was there as the fool and one of the kings suing for Cordelia’s hand. I was struck by what a gentle soul he is. Dylan Morrison Myers (Edmund) and Sara Barker (Edgar) could have memorable careers ahead of them. Some of the most effective black actors from this winter’s The Gospel at Colonnus, provided ensemble interchanges of characters. Myers grinned at me, we exchanged eye contact when I stood up to clap. They all worked very hard. I was very touched by the older actress, Cam Magee (she’s been in 19 Avant Bard productions now) played Gloucester (now Duchess); the change of gender fit very well in this production. Alas, the auditorium was less than half full. You had to want to listen to Shakespeare’s words and this time (I don’t know how many times I’ve seen Lear) I felt comforted towards the end by Gloucester’s occasional stoic lines:

This world I do renounce, and in your sights
Shake patiently my great affliction off:
If I could bear it longer and not fall
To quarrel with your great opposeless wills,
My snuff and loathed part of nature should
Burn itself out

And over the past week and one half, I’ve watched the five episodes of the first season of the deeply effective, rich, nuanced, beautifully acted, costumed, written, BBC mini-series, Cranford Chronicles (scripted Heidi Thomas, directed by Simon Curtis, adapted from Elizabeth Gaskell’s marvelous book of short stories of the same novel, little known but superb novella, My Lady Ludlow, and thrown in to have a love romance interest swirling about a young man, Gaskell’s long short story, Mr Harrison’s Confession), illustrated by my favorite Posy Simmons (yes I have The Cranford Companion). Although there are several story lines, and two are about young men beginning life, with some hope of success, pride, self-esteem (Alex Etel as Harry Gregson has to break through Lady Ludlow’s prejudice against an agricultural poacher’s son learning to read; Simon Woods as Dr Harrison establishing himself in the community, gaining his love, succeeding in medicine), much of the production is about aging single women. Not that I do not bond with Philip Glenister as Lady Ludlow’s wise well-meaning, powerless steward and Emma Fielding as Lady Ludlow’s milliner, Miss Galindo (the couch-ridden narrator of Lady Ludlow, another disabled person). Thomas is aware of how central disability is to Gaskell as she had Lady Ludlow declare she is supporting a mute person by keeping her household very large (justifying expenditure to her steward). Cranford Chronicles is not only woman-centered but aging-centered. Matty (Judi Dench) and the poetic soul, Mr Holbrook (Michael Gambon) begin to become a couple too late: he dies before they can marry.


A favorite moment: Gambon as Holbrook, Dench as Matty, Lisa Dillon as Mary Smith (our narrator in the text)

All three gain their focal strength from their depiction of aging in society. I fancy though that the choice of all three to concentrate on crises de-emphasizes but cannot omit what is hardest about being old, looking at time past, with limited choices forward. Judy Dench is particularly effective capturing that in her still contemplative face she sits in her parlor after her sister, Deborah (Eileen Atkins)’s death. In all the works several characters die. A story about aging is a story about the irretrievable. Thomas has softened this by bringing all the characters who left back to the knit community at journey’s (mini-series) end.

I’ve written about this mini-series elsewhere and more than once (Return to Cranford). I began re-watching it because I’ve had another proposal for a paper accepted, giving me a summer project: this one for a volume on Animals in Victorian Literature: my contribution will be “On the interdependence of people and animals in Elizabeth Gaskell”

Several still unusual and dominant concerns across Gaskell’s fiction come together when we study her fiction from the point of view of her depiction of the interdependence of people and animals. Scholars have written about disability in a few of Gaskell’s fictions, but not its pervasive presence (part of her awareness of our continual risk of death), from blindness to illness, from birth conditions and a baby’s needs and aging, to specific variations of need or limitation, to a condition of mind or body brought about by economic and social causes. Similarly, readers have noticed her exquisite humor when it comes to how people treat beloved animals or (conversely), her appalled horror at Emily Bronte’s wildly brutal reaction to her dog having dirtied a clean counterpane on a bed, but not her characteristic awareness of the presence of animals, of startling abuse and (conversely), and their valued place in human (often single women’s) economy. Nor has it been brought out how the two are present together because Gaskell views our culture from her woman’s experience. Martha Stoddard Holmes has suggested an intransigent discomfort with investigating human dependency is one reason for the silence; another might be trepidation at re-stigmatizing Gaskell’s fiction as “feminine.” I propose to write an analysis of Cranford, Cousin Phillis, and Gaskell’s lesser known fiction and characters to show that this triangular interest is central to Gaskell’s achievement and important in understanding why 19th century texts seem to speak so crucially to us today.

There are some exquisitely funny incidents involving animals in Cranford: the cow whose life is saved by covering her in flannel, the cat who swallows a piece of lace and has gently to be made to barf it up. I had tried to find something beyond fox-hunting in Trollope (as “horses” was taken by someone else) but could not find he ever took an interest in animals for their own sakes; on the contrary, shows an indifference bordering on utter dismissal (he makes jokes of breeding foxes), except an occasional deeply felt metaphoric use (then he is creating pity for or criticizing a character). He is also not interested in disability.


Claudie Blakeley as the strong servant girl, Martha, and her loving “follower,” Jem Hearne (Andrew Buchan)

So I will continue my love affair with Gaskell and read yet more of her fiction and in a new way; I’ve listened to all of Graham’s Black Moon read aloud in my car and am near the end of The Four Swans. I delight in Claude Berry’s extraordinarily sensitive effective Portrait of Cornwall and can hardly wait for the BBC to begin the third season of Poldark.

Today was a hard day for me to live through: more or less solitary, not yet up to, unable able to travel alone (go on a Road Scholar tour which is what I shall have to steel myself to learn to do if I want to see any more of the world), bereft of the very basis of my security, and my “enabler” (Jim), I ought to have avoided the happy pictures on face-book, but could not, so much do I need to be in contact with friends. Gentle reader, I remember the woman at the window across the way from Mrs Dalloway’s party, glimpsed by her at the end of her novel.

Ellen

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The fens, marshlands of East Anglia (from Waterland 1992)

Children [are those] to whom, throughout history, stories have been told, chiefly but not always at bedtime, in order to quell restless thoughts; whose need of stories is matched only by the need adults have of children to tell stories to, of receptacles for their stock of fairy-tales, of listening ears on which to unload, bequeath those most unbelievable yet haunting of fairy-tales, their own lives … quoted from Waterland by George Landow in an essay on the novel (Studies in the Literary Imagination, 23:2 [Fall 1990]:197-211)

Friends and readers,

One of my kind Net-friends, someone who writes to me and whom I write back to a lot, we read together, share thoughts, asked me tonight if I could recommend some gentle, gentle movie and how hard they are to come by. I did have one, I watched it over the past two nights, as well as much of the voice-over commentary and a feature on the music: Waterland, directed by Stephen Gyllenhall, scripted by Peter Prince, based on a profound and inexhaustible novel by Graham Swift: Waterland. Yes, another Booker Prize book, this one merely short-listed. I listened to Christian Rodska read it aloud on an MP3 in my car on and off for a few weeks. So you can say it’s provided much imaginative and spiritual and intellectual sustenance for me. I gave the course I did this season on these books, because they are themselves inexhaustible, so many and still coming, and yet there is a core similarity among most of them, one that answers to needs in my lonely soul.

My excuse was I was teaching my beloved Last Orders — and I re-watched that deeply resonant film too, and showed some of it to the class, wrote about it again in the form of notes for a lecture. What can I say about it? Shall I begin with what what reached my soul last night: Jeremy Irons’s voice as Tom Crick, a history teacher, telling his students stories, opening up to them his vulnerability, that aching gentle elegant voice, tall thin and tortured was the way his body was once made fun of (he’s the narrator-center of the truly great mini-series, Brideshead Revisited), but in this film becoming deeply genial whenever an opportunity opens, listening to others and accepting what they say (sometimes tough, often lies, but occasionally out of their inmost soul a need), and then coming back with a response that elicits from most a reasoned reply


In the classroom

I can’t say it’s a hopeful over-story, for he is being fired, forced out because who wants to know history? what use is what is called history, asks one arrogant student in a love-revenge relationship with him, Price in the book, played by a very young Ethan Hawke. How dare he tell personal private stories (about his adolescent sex life, married life, treatment by the principle of teachers) instead of what’s in the curriculum?


A dream vision where suddenly (as happens a lot) Crick’s story turns into “reality” and we are in a dream vision back in an earlier time so here Crick is showing Price the bedroom his mother died in, where he grew up afterward

Swift was accused of plagiarizing Faulkner in his Last Orders, and readers persist in this pairing (plus Thomas Hardy and Dickens) to explain literary sources for Waterland. Swift doesn’t deny them, but he cites as often Virginia Woolf, her Waves, her To the Lighthouse: her landscape is the same East Anglian marshlands where she finally did away with herself, the center of the second book a meditation on time equivalent in magnificent stasis and meditative richness as the whole of Waterland. For Swift water, the sea, is a central image for life and for the unanswerability of death, the silence when people disappear (as my Jim has forever), and so too Virginia Woolf, from The Voyage Out, to her slighter sketches along the Thames.

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The windmill — where important events in all three stories take place ….

“Real solemn history, I cannot be interested in…The quarrels of popes and kings, with wars or pestilences, in every page; the men all so good for nothing, and hardly any women at all.” — Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey, Chapter 14

The book and film ask the question what is history? in the book as narrator Swift asks, why is this set of events put in history books and not that? Why do we learn about who was murdered at the guillotine and not who was building a system of locks in the marshlands, who was draining the lands in France or East Anglia? Which after all had the most lasting useful effect? And anyway (not mentioned explicitly by Swift, but it’s assumed we know) numbers of the French landowners and relatives guillotined were killed because they enclosed the lands their peasants had farmed, overcharged to drive them away, in order to drain it and make huge sums from large agriculture. In England the story of Crick’s great-grandparents, the Atkinsons who reclaimed the land bit by bit. In Waterland there is as much about drainage and how to make good beer from hops (a subject at least alluded to in Last Orders) and how to beat the competition out to be a successful business and distributor as there is in Moby Dick about whales. Some might find this tiresome, but Rodska manages to put it across.

The story of the film and book are the same — this is a film which means to convey the book as nearly as a sellable commodity in filmic art can. It needs unraveling and only gradually unfolds (as in Last Orders). Del Ivan Janik (“History and the ‘Here and Now’: The Novels of Graham Swift.” Twentieth Century Literature, 35:1 [Spring 1989]: 74-88) provides a good retelling:

The novel’s structure is rambling and recursive, intermixing episodes from three major elements. The first of these elements is a history of the Fenland and of the prominent entrepreneurial Atkinson family and the obscure, plodding Crick family, from the seventeenth century to the marriage of the narrator’s parents after World War I. The second consists of events of the 1940s: Mary Metcalf’s adolescent sexual experimentation with Tom, Crick and his “potato-head” half brother Dick (who in his demented father/grandfather’s eyes is the “Saviour of the World”), Dick’s murder of Freddie Parr, Mary’s abortion, Tom’s revelation of Dick’s incestuous conception and Dick’s consequent suicide by drowning, Tom’s return from the war and his marriage to Mary. The final element involves events of 1980, the narrative present: Mary’s religious visions, her kidnapping of a baby (whom she calls a “child of God”) from a supermarket, her committal to a mental institution, and Tom’s loss of his position as a history teacher. The structure is not chaotic, for each of these three major elements, as it comes to the forefront of the narrative, is treated more or less chronologically; but as a whole the novel conforms to Tom’s characterization of history: “It goes in two directions at once. It goes backwards as it goes forwards. It loops. It takes detours” because “there are no compasses for journeying in time.”

Mary Metcalf is played by two different actresses, Lena Headley as the young Mary who is aggressively sexual with four boys, and becomes pregnant by Tom (Grant Warnock, the young Tom), and is driven to obtain an abortion which seems to have deprived her of the ability ever after to have children. (As with Last Orders, you cannot avoid two different sets of actors to play the characters at widely disparate decades of their lives). I much preferred Sinead Cusack in her role as the older Mary, she had the same mesmerizing presence as Irons, told her delusions, held on to them for dear life with the same persistent gentleness.


The older Mary and Tom standing together after their nightly walk (for decades, like Jim and I in NYC at the top of Manhattan and then here in Old Town Alexandria) looking over Pittsburgh (a senseless substitute for England, probably done on the theory you need something American to attract an American audience)

We never see Mary put into an institution nor the institution. the last scene of the movie has the older Tom, now retired and with no company, wandering in marshes with a dream of Mary seeking a baby in front of him. The book ends with Tom’s memories of his mentally retarded (the term used in the 1930s and even the 1980s) older brother, Dick (played almost unrecognizably by David Morrissey), in a boat sailing down the river with Tom, and his father (played in the movie by the ever memorabley Peter Postlethwaite). The three together, the family left. A comforting image but underneath is violence: mocked and jeered at, Dick falls in love with Mary (who does wrongly go after him sexually) and when the arrogant rapist-criminal type, Freddie Parr, claims he is Mary’s lover, Dick murders him through a clever ruse of accidental drowning. Dick thinks the baby he, Dick, should have sired, was sired by Parr. Perhaps good riddance? Tom admits he fears his brother. Dick is never thought of as a cause of Parr’s death, and we can see his mostly isolated life is punishment enough for him.

Swift repeatedly has autistic characters in his novels: disability is often at the core of Booker Price books and films (as for example, The Sense of an Ending, when we discover the child our aging hero (played in that film by Jim Broadbent) sired by another aggressive femme fatale type (I don’t claim feminism for Swift) turned out to be a gently autistic baby. Broadbent has spent decades alone because his wife (Harriet Walter) and others know that (in a moment of jealous spite) he cursed the young woman without knowing that the curse could be seen to have come true.


The class trip — made funny by the flags and stacking of the students


The country house they arrive at

I like hard stories — for me comfort and strength emerge when the matter put before me is believably life and the characters somehow or other cope, survive, that is my sort of contented ending. I think Last Orders is a directly comforting book — the way the characters remain friends as they betray, prey on, love and help and support one another; while Waterland is not even if it has its comforting scenes. What Waterland offers is indirect strength by putting before us how history doesn’t stop and taking us through the different lives and eras, including the day-long talks to the students as Tom takes them to old country houses (in England, how this happens from Pittsburgh is explained as dream visions by him which alternate with the students in a comic bus on a tour), to villages, to pubs, to someone’s house for dinner, to remembered rooms, a windmill, into trains and out, to the classroom, to the auditorium where the principle hypocritically congratulates Tom on his wonderful career now (forceably) coming to an end, to a supermarket where a frantic mother is so relieved when Tom and Mary return her baby.


The train when young

In real life Cusack and Irons married and have been married for many years: here they are at a recent demonstration on behalf of laboring people, the National Health, against war and imperalism:

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Graham’s novel’s real vindication of life, and the film’s is in the telling of these stories. We harken, we listen, we feel things are made some sense of, we express ourselves, we come into contact with deeply imagined and thus known and understood presences.

Children [are those] to whom, throughout history, stories have been told, chiefly but not always at bedtime, in order to quell restless thoughts; whose need of stories is matched only by the need adults have of children to tell stories to, of receptacles for their stock of fairy-tales, of listening ears on which to unload, bequeath those most unbelievable yet haunting of fairy-tales, their own lives (from the book).

The importance of stories seen from the perspective another Booker Prize book: when I was lecturing, discussing with a class at the OLLI at Mason The English Patient, we talked of Kipling, an important influence (intertextual source) for that novel and book. I have never read Kipling’s Kim, nor most of his colonialist stories, only seen a film adaptation of The Man who would be King. But Jim enjoyed Kipling (scroll down to read a Kiplingesque poem written for Jim when he retired), once read a story by Kipling aloud to me to comfort me when I came home from the Library of Congress crying. I thought a rare novel by Charlotte Smith I had located and put on my shelf (inside a rotunda for those with reading desks) had been stolen. I remember feeling better by the end. I told the class of how Jim read aloud several of Kipling’s Just So stories to Laura and I in front of a fire in this house (he had made) and paraphrased the loving endings Kipling as narrator voices to the child as his “best beloved.” To my surprise about 3/4s of the class knew these stories, had read them as children. I never — until when Laura was 6 or 7 he read them aloud to her and me.

Today was not such an easy day. It was Mother’s Day but for Izzy and I it was a usual Sunday: we shopped in the morning for food, and in the afternoon went to a movie together: a remarkable one I’ll blog about later this week: A Quiet Passion about Emily Dickenson. We had good talk about the movie and poet afterward. Laura, my older daughter, wished me a happy mother’s day by sending me a photo of her cat attempting to lick the person on the other side of the photo

Thao, who lives in Canada, and I used to call my third daughter, an ex-student who visited me shortly after Jim died, sent me a card and loving words.

I am reading two wonderful books, Oliphant’s Kirsteen, and Claude Berry’s county book, Portrait of Cornwall, which I will also tell of separately. But it takes strength to hold together when I know others are out enjoying themselves in clubs, dinners, traveling. A 70+ year old widow’s life. I watered my flowers tonight. I have my two cats near by — one squatting on my lap, the other playing with a string. Tomorrow I will resume going to the gym for a class in strengthening exercise which attracts some 50+ people around my age. It’s cheering for me.

I have yet to pick my movie for tonight. I am trying to do without sleeping pills now, to rid myself of all drugs. So I need to be sure to get one the right amount of time and tone.

My Iranian friend who has translated Woolf into Farsi and runs a small magazine sent me this poem by email too today:

After You’ve Gone

After you’ve gone, the rhododendrons
of Anacortes remain fully in bloom,
the islands are still deep green
in their blue-green sea, and the gulls
wheel and turn in breezes that never die,

but I am alone like the shell
of a bombed cathedral, a precious ruin.
— Sam Hamill

Ellen

My day’s journey has been pleasanter in every respect than I expected. I have been very little crowded and by no means unhappy. –Jane Austen, Letters (24 Oct 1798)

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Closing moments of the play

Friends,

It’s more than possible if you live near a theater or movie-house taking in the HD films sent to the US from several different theaters in London (the Old Vic, the National Theater, the Barbican) and elsewhere (Stratford-upon-Avon), you’ll see this Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler as directed by Ivo Van Hove, setting sand lighting Jan Versweyveld, advertised. Suddenly this old play, a semi-museum piece becomes astonishingly good and fresh. As I left I felt that even the best TV mini-series (the on-going Handmaid’s Tale makes a good contrast because both are feminist) can’t be as pander free as this. This is subtler and more riveting for that, for me especially over the precious manuscript and hope for recreation.

Not that the players were not made to strain to some extent for shock value — Dr Brack (Rafe Spall, the powerful actor-son of Timothy) has a soda can which spits blood and after Hedda (Ruth Wilson. remarkably feelingful face and body) has driven Luvborg (Chukwudi Iwuji) from the room with a pistol to kill himself, Brack keeps pouring it on Hedda, here, there, everywhere eon her body, slip, across her face. It seems we are inured and to hit us strongly all public art must compete against spectacles. With this proviso, I felt I understood the play for the first time; it really reached me as it had not done before. Of central importance is the colloquial translation by Patrick Marber — with precise enough words too. It was as if I’d taken in the speeches for the first time viscerally. I wish I could read the script and then re-see the play (also compare it with older translations).


Hedda and Tesman

It was acted in a wide space that looked like a loft; what was so striking was the acting out of the lines physically and with gestures. The simple stark images; so a fire in a grate in the middle of the room before Hedda burns Lovburg’s manuscript.

A piano. One couch which Tesman (Kyle Soller, extraordinary presence in Poldark and made a minor role in Hollow Crown, major, unforgettable) and Hedda sit on, is also a bed. Hedda (Ruth Wilson, a brilliant actress, strong and feelingful) had a slip on and at first a robe — like Maggie in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.


Hedda listening to Mrs Elvsted

Mrs Elvsted played by Sinead Matthews (also remarkable), in a tight knitted garment and very high heels. A story of how she took the husband of the woman she was working for as governess (a reverse of Waterford paradigm), the wife died, and then when she found herself saddled with him and his children she fled with a passing tutor, Luvborg and has found an occupation in life by living by his side and catering to him, especially his writing project. Lovborg, an actor with less British credentials but spotted by the national theater. (Iwuji “trained in Wisconsin said the moderator more than once in a kind of inverse snobbery — one has to endure a hype but brief preface). All in stark simple outfits: ordinary trousers (black, jeans) and shirts. Only Brack had something which made him feel more like an authority figure, Tesman an intellectual.


Hedda and Brack

They conveyed how Hedda became an evil force through never giving her any outlet; how twisted and manic she was, how Brack bullies and terrifies her and she kills herself partly because at the end she is in his power, while Tesman finds a new lease on life by taking fragments and notes Lovburg’s mistress has in her deep bag, enough to recreate the book with, Hedda will be left to the intense presence of Brack. It is deeply feminist even though the two key female roles are women with less than admirable traits, and are not beaten or attacked directly. There is a silent maid in black, sitting gazing, watching, sometimes smoking, ready to hand with things needed (Eva Magyar) referred to as an aunt, and a very tall housekeeper (Kate Duchene) with choral-like utterances who in another production would be taking care of the children.

On Trollope19thCStudies, we read these classic 19th century novels and most of them show couples who are basically living very conventionally — occasionally illegitimacy is seen, off stage a mistress. What’s striking about all Ibsen’s 19th century plays is he shows this is a false veneer of how individuals actually lived. In the version of the Richardson Pamela story by him the servant was driven away and her baby taken from her long before the play began. A Doll’s House is the opposite of what Dickens wants us to accept as a good contented ending of Our Mutual Friend. It is a very 19th century work too — that’s what might be forgotten as people watch and then they go back to their older novels and not connect.

A couple of good reviews: Lyttelton from The Guardian; Dominic Cavendish says it’s one of the great productions of the year; Alan Franks of LondonTheater1.com: a crew of people seeking personal fulfillment with no compromises turn self-destructive and destroy what they can of one another because they do not reign in their anarchic sexuality and emotional cravings.

There are many quieter scenes; here is one:

Ellen

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

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

Dear friends and readers,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ellen

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