Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for the ‘literary scholarly work’ Category

imageofwandpmaudemandelkertranslation

Dear friends and readers,

Not quite the familiar kind of title. I’d been reading Tolstoy’s War and Peace as translated by Louise and Aylmer Maud, revised, edited by Amy Mandelker, with Elisabeth Guertik’s superb La Guerre at la Paix just beneath for comparison since July;

elisabethguertik

and began to listen to David Case reading an unabridged text by Constance Garnett last May.

casereadingwp
Frederick Davidson (David Case) reading aloud Constance Garnet’s translation unabridged

constance-garnett
An appealing small photo of Garnett

I finished book and mini-series about a week before Christmas. So 9 months. Translated texts by four women. Mini-series by men.

But if you count that I began to watch (and fell in love with) Jack Pulman’s 20 part 1972 BBC War and Peace (Anthony Hopkins as Pierre), last January and have gone through it at least 3 times; and then went on to watch Bondarchuk’s Russian 1966 War and Peace (it’s 5 disks lasting something like 9 hours, Bondarchuk himself is Pierre; and I’ve gone through the whole thing nearly twice); Andrew Davies’s 6 part 2016 BBC War and Peace (Paul Dano, Pierre; watching at least twice, the last time weeping throughout the whole of the sixth episode) with one time for the Vidor 1955 War and Peace (once, Henry Fonda, Pierre, John Mills as Platon, Audrey Hepburn Natasha) — this experience might count for two years perpetual engagement.

fondahepburnpierrenatasha1955
Fonda as Pierre and Hepburn as Natasha

I probably proposed to the listserv at Trollope19thCStudies @ Yahoo to read Tolstoy together because I so loved the Pulman mini-series and wanted to understand it much better, see what depths it was drawing on, attempting faithfully to dramatize. Now I’d like to know so much more about Sophia as it was she was who copied out Tolstoy’s endless drafts and she who put together a final version of the book different from the one Tolstoy first published and the one translated and read today (except for those like Christian who read all the drafts). We have agreed that sometime next summer the group of us (whoever is there) will read and discuss Anna Karenina together.

You could say I immersed myself as I also read over the 9 months about 2/3s of A.N. Wilson’s biography, two old fashioned interpretive books (F. R. Christian and Rimvydas Silbajoris, close readers and real source students of the 1960s and 70s types), three of the chapters of John Bayley’s Tolstoy and the Novel, about one half of Alexandra Popoff’s book on the man who may be said to have preyed on Tolstoy in the last part of his life, his “false” disciple, Vladmir Chertkov, watched The Last Station and read Michael Hoffman’s shooting script (though not the book by Jay Parini), and now am one third into Alexandra Popoff’s life of Sophia Tolstoy.

helenmirrenchristopherplummer
A superb shooting script gives a reading on the very old Tolstoy and his wife: Christopher Plummer as Tolstoy, Helen Mirren as Sophia

I posted about all this too (to a small Yahoo listserv called Trollope19thCStudies), at least twice a week, sometimes more.

Has Tolstoy changed my life? or view of the world? No. Did the texts and films out of his book affect my existence? Well if you look at time taken yes. I agree it’s one of the world’s great novels, though Tolstoy would not like to hear it called a novel, and its reach is even severely limited by Tolstoy’s aristocratic and masculinist outlook. It absorbed me; often the text felt packed vivid with life, provided such compelling reading — the exception is after a while his repetitive chapters on what real history is, how events in history come about, how to write about these, and attacks on historians for great writing as if history were the result of a handful of powerful individual’s choices at any given time. But because Tolstoy is alert to genre and other books, this book speaks to what is in others, and contextualizes these others with itself.

Probably for me what this book most taught me was about other books because of its conscious relationship to them, especially historical fiction, the more typical 19th century realistic novels. Since reading his book I’ve become aware how much his double-structure, of one half richly individual stories, and the other larger political (war is politics by other means) contexts, taught other historical novelists since him. They imitate him, from say (to cite two recent books I’ve read in the past) Adhaf Soueif’s In the Eye of the Sun (individual Egyptian and British characters contextualized with the larger Arab-Israel conflicts since 1948) to Virginia Woolf’s The Years.

If this seems dry, it isn’t to me for whom books have meant so much.

consuminghistory
A significant book — it includes historical films and adaptations

I read books as deeply reflective of the author and his or her life so that the book may be read as a disguised family history gives it another sort of meaning as a site of memory.

sofia
I hope to read this when we get to Anna Karenina

It’s easiest to fall back on the characters to grasp the book’s meaning in itself. Most of the characters are so convincing in terms of 19th century novels (the women less so than the men’ Tolstoy said early on he was imitating the English novel); what was happening in the “war” part of the novel and its politics so relevant. When I thought I would be bored say after a week’s hiatus (sometimes more), I’d fall back into the text and find myself engaged all over again. I felt that the characters could carry on almost without Tolstoy, and he ended where he did because one must end somewhere. 1317 pages (the Maud text) is enough. But this is absurd: the characters are given life by him, reflect and are shaped by his inner life, and the story comes to an end because what he wanted to say about them, where bring them to, has been accomplished. Silbajoris is particularly lucid on why the worlds of perceptions in War and Peace feel possessed by some real person (Chapter 5).

hopkinsaspierremoscowurning1972
Hopkins as Pierre in the Moscow burning episode

Since the male characters are those given most depth and reality, the females kept much more to stereotypes that males (Tolstoy specifically) see and understand, to enjoy War and Peace you must enter into a male-centered approach. At first this feels less gender- and class-driven (most of those we travel any time with are a tiny highly privileged group within larger Russia) because of the way Tolstoy shapes their conflicts as innate and generic to any private self. I bonded strongly with the central male character, Pierre Bezhukhov: the book is his journey from early adulthood as he gradually and with much emotional pain, and many divagations, decisions which hurt him, adjusts to living in and alongside his society in a way worthy of him, yet never gives scope to what his high intelligence and noble nature could do, were he given real room. I loved him for his kindness to others too.

2016wpballjamesnortonlilyjames
James Norton as Andrei dancing with Lily James as Natasha at her first ball (2016 W&P)

By contrast, the more secondary, normative, and higher ranking male, Andrei Bolkonsky, behaved in alienating ways, but I grieved for his self-deprivation and early death, brought on by his efforts to please conventional powerful authority figures whose corruption, blindness and narrow egoism he never fully comprehends. Nikolai Rostov, not quite tertiary, incapable of any self-examination or criticism of his society chance, yet so well-meaning, ends doing well from luck (though Tolstoy discounts chance repeatedly and his tenacious instinct for self-preservation.

denisovwooingnatasha2016
Thomas Arnold as Denisov entranced with Natasha at a home party (the same 2016 W&P)

A whole continuum of male characters contextualizes them, from their peers in years, the evil-committing pair, smart, effective and spiteful (he enjoys inflicting violence) Dolokhov and his mate (until he is killed) the utterly selfish, grasping, male animal Anatole Kuragin (apparently his rake-gambler type was in an original draft intended to be the central character) to the good-natured characters, the slightly obtuse (all the more survivable), Denisov (who I loved), the selfless conscientious yielder-soldier Tushin (who saves lives risking his own), and the half-mad uneducated pesant Platon Karataev (who his society throws away with his blessing). Then there are the older corrupted, the hollow-courtier of a man, Prince Vasily, the deeply humane (paradoxically) wise in experience general Kutusov. I could go on to add so many who come alive for one scene, one moment, one or a set of chapters, giving us this or that experience of life through their story-event.

kutusovretreatingfrommoscow1972
Frank Middlemass as General Kutusov (1972 BBC W&P)

For the men a group of issues emerges from the “le monde” chapters. The same public versus private, ethical (which has to do with doing right to others and to one’s gifts) versus amoral behavior (anti-social, inhumane). These feed into profoundly anti-killing, anti-war paradigms as senseless in the “war” chapters. Tolstoy’s answers are not satisfactory (sometimes perverse because of his religiosity), but he asks the candid questions without cant for his era and these questions and some of his answers are transferable. He says repeatedly that a war takes the willingness of thousands of men to spend huge amounts of time killing one another. The commanders care about their place in the organization first and their theories about how to plan for war show few consider its realities. People do not respond sensibly to crises, rarely acknowledge a coming disaster before it’s upon them.

bondarchuk1812
Bondarchuk’s War and Peace: Part 3: 1812

With the women he does not ask the crucial questions but he shows them suffering from powerlessness, so circumscribed and hemmed in, and with an added strong sexual standard (they are judged according to their sexual chastity and obedience to norms of marriage), lack of agency (under the thumb of a parent or authority figure): the saving element is their relationships with one another are detailed so believably and movingly, that what lies outside this seems almost unimportant.

madmess
Morag Hood as Natasha trying to explain to draw sympathy from Sonya (Joanna David) why she finds Anatole’s offer to flee so irresistible (1972 W&P, “Madness” episode)

joannadavidzlifedeath
Sonya bitter at what has been demanded of her, tells Natasha (against the countess’ orders not to) that Andrei lies very sick in the convoy (1972 W&P, “Life and Death”)

The central women characters are the ingenue heroine, Natasha Rostov, said to be modeled in part by Tolstoy’s (mis-)perception of his wife (who wrote an autobiographical story under this name, which she burned). Bondarchuk believed in the existence of this type and took her story and made it the center of the second part of his family so it becomes a sentimental heroine’s text within a heroic yet damning story of war. There’s the family dependent, semi-servant, Sonya (whose last name we never learn) and Marya, the cruelly abused sister (by her father) of Andrei. Most important throughout is the Countess Rostov who (like Pierre’s cousin, Katische) whatever it has taken from her, whatever she may have to demand of others, stands tenaciously and resolutely for obeying hegemonic hierarchical norms so as to stay wealthy — while her husband, the hopelessly non-competitive lazy amiable Count Rostov cannot hold onto even a wagon during a siege.

maryaprince
Angela Downs as Marya crushed by her father’s jeering cruelty over a proposal of marriage for her money — Anatole cannot even be faithful or interested in her for two days (1972 W&P, “Two Proposals”)

Equally central to the story (though not gone into psychologically very much) are Pierre’s (to Tolstoy and in the book), vicious and corrupt wife, Helene Kuragin; the semi-mistress (or sexually used) dependent of the Bolkonskys and companion-maid to Marya, Mlle Bourienne, and the female equivalents of Prince Vassily, Anna Pavlovna Scherer, the hollow saloniere, the parrot of what it is socially acceptable to say and do, with whom the novel begins, and the mother of the trained-to-be heartless Boris Durbetskoy (ever rising in rank and wealth), Anna Mikhilaovna, sycophant extraordinaire.

I found the readings of Natasha found in Pulman and Davies of great help in coming to terms with Tolstoy’s central anticipatory Freudian account of the “enthrallment” of Natasha to the sadistic Anatole: after her engagement to Andrei, she is in considerable distress from how Andrei’s family has rejected, mortified her, her self-esteem badly wounded by Andrei’s leaving her, the very sheltered nature of her life a risk. About four of us felt similarly that we were not given anywhere near the insight into Sonya’s feelings her plight as lover (physcial too) of Nikolai and pillow-like confidante of Natasha when she is harassed into allowing herself to lose chance of personal fulfillment because she lacks sufficient money to make up for the Rostovs’ coming bankruptcy. Helene is a monster in the novel because she’s sexually promiscuous, has no understanding of what integrity or virtues might mean, in Tolstoy’s ms incestuous with her brother; as with Dolokhov Davies tries to humanize her as wanting pleasure, adulation, and independence at any price (many human beings are cool towards one another, use one another).

I particularly admired how Tolstoy could move from such large perspectives, vast battles made sense of so that they are de-mystified, seiges, how human beings behave so barbarically in mobs, and as particular individuals (the mayor of Moscow scapegoating a miserably abused once idealistic middle class young man so that he is torn to bits after weeks of mental and physical torture and abuse in the czar’s prisons) to paying attention and bringing to life the smallest details in a scene (Platon’s dog howling at his death but then trotting after someone else), the most seemingly unimportant creatures (down to insects), and how beautiful with acutely felt life he could make a landscape. This is compensation: the joy some human beings feel at a hunt (competition in killing, the thrill of this some feel) and how sometimes he seemed to break taboos over what one can show about human beings even today. The death scenes are startling: from the fights over who gets what once the agonized or nearly unconscious presence vanishes, to the process of death itself going on all that while.

annamikhailovnaholdingontothewill
Rebecca Front as Anna Mikhailovna holding fiercely onto the will; Fenella Woolgar as Katische, Pierre’s cousin, has tried to steal in order to destroy it, Stephen Rea as Count Vassily looking on (2016 War and Peace)

Ellen

Read Full Post »

secondshepherds
Mak (Ryan Sellers) and Gill (Tonya Beckman)

Mak (to his wife and the 3 visiting shepherds looking for their lost sheep: Ye have run in the mire, and are wet yet;
I shall make you a fire, if ye will sit.
A nurse would I hire [to groaning wife]. Think ye on yet?
Well quit is my hire — my dream, this is it —
A season.
I have bairns, if ye knew,
Well more than enew;
But we must drink as we brew,
And that is but reason …

Gentle readers,

You still have three days or evenings to get there. Are you down in the dumps and obeying the social conventions to appear all gaiety and cheer? If you can’t catch the theater (live too far away?), not to despair, from photos I gather this production has been done elsewhere so it can move again. Of course I can’t guarantee this inventive staging and lovely music of The Second Shepherd’s Play, as directed by Mary Hall Surface and Robert Eisenstein (music director) now playing at the Folger in DC will do it. Indeed, the reviewer for the DC Theater scene seemed strangely half-apologetic (“though this will not appeal to all tastes” — what, pray tell, does?), so clearly the “magic” he so praised is rare, and the high spirited “originality” another reviewer attributed to the experience (also worrying about the depiction of women as well as something overdone in sentiment), may come across as tepid to our 21st century aggressively explosive film and art experienced taste, but I felt what was so good about it was its quiet human feeling.

Second Shepherd's Play
Shepherds, sheep and musicians

What the anonymous cycle play has been known for since it has been revived from the Townley manuscript of 15th century plays (in which it is found) is how it mixes the ordinary vexed feelings of put-upon serfs (giving full play to their complaints about their lives), farcical comedy and (at the close) with sublime religious feeling. David Siegel provides the story-outline turn for turn. In the program notes I counted 23 songs and dances.

shepherdsmanuscript
From an illuminated (with pictures) manuscript

To be all scholarly the author is known or recognized as “the Wakefield master” — who lived in Wakefield (to which I used to go taking at least 4 buses from Leeds in the later 1960s). He wrote the First Shepherd’s Play, and four other “pageants” (this one is sometimes called a pageant because of the ending in a creche scene): The Murder of Abel, Noah and His Sons (probably a comedy), Herod the Great and The Buffeting, as adapted by the great poet-translator, Tony Harrison as one of the Yorkshire Mystery plays, a powerful play where we watch a group of Roman soldiers prosaically nail said Jesus Christ to a huge cross and hoist it up. You can read The Second Shepherd’s Play as well as other plays by this Wakefield Master in an old Everyman paperback edited by A.C. Crawley (Everyman and Medieval Miracle Plays, Dutton, 1959).

I’ve seen it twice. I remembered a film of the Monty Python group doing this story of a hungry shepherd and his wife stealing a sheep and hilariously trying to pass it off as a newborn baby in the wife’s cradle: Dudley Moore was in it and he somehow made the idea he was “biding” in the fields peacefully deliciously absurd. Upon reading the program notes, Izzy told me she and I had seen it before: 2007, and with Jim, but when they’d done, she said it was very different from that earlier version, and this one “much better.” For a start it was longer, something over two hours with intermission.

shepherd226-overthemountain
Over the mountain to home Mak goes

What was different was the intermingling of song and dance and puppetry. The one large puppet was the sheep, and he (or she) was done with sticks and reminded me of the way a cat will respond to its beloved staff-friends. Its head was all nudge. At different junctures, for example, after Mak ferrets away the sheep while the three trusting shepherds lie asleep, there is a quick set up of a temporary arch and two puppets representing Mak and the sheep are seen traversing hills and valleys to get back to Gill at home spinning. When the shepherds discover that the baby in the cradle is a sheep and elect to toss Mak in a blanket, a large blanket is suddenly there with a puppet tossed up and down. The three shepherds, Coll, the most articulate (Louis E Davis), Daw (Megan Graves, she was a young Juliet in a Romeo and Juliet play I saw at the Folger a few years ago), and Gib (Matthew R. Wilson) are turned into puppets traversing the snow. This is the kind of thing done in the recent Sense and Sensibility: really taking advantage of the live performance aspect of play-making. There is a rolling machine turned and turned to make high winds of a tempest, and the actors twirl ribbons across the stage to make a storm. You could not do this in a film.

I like Renaissance music very much, and as at previous concerts for the last few years, there were guest artists: particularly felicitious is Brian Kay on the lute, performing love music in a melancholy moving way. Daniel Meyers plays various instruments but I remember best what looked like a Renaissance flute; and of course Eisenstein. The ending in the coming of the angel to tell Mary she is carry the “god-head” — a dea ex machina from the balcony sung by an opera soprano (Emily Noel, who sang two other individual songs)

noel

and the music from the mass (“Gloria in excelsis deo”) was prepared for at the opening of Act II. The play was held off while we had a small concert of very touching music both appropriate to the season and on peculiarly Renaissance instruments (I can’t name them). For me that was the highest moment of the play. Songs familiar (Greensleeves, the Coventry Carol, rounds like Blowe thy horne, hunter) are threaded in along with less familiar and unfamiliar pieces. The titles of the whole lot are reprinted in the program notes.

The underlying feel — desperately needed for more than 2 hours is a group of people who are trying for a peaceful life where they “turn all to good.” (As I say, there’s a 1970s film somewhere of Monty Python finding this very funny — lucky them.)

Third shepherd to Mak & Gill: For this trespass
We will neither ban ne flite,
Fight nor chide ….

As luck would have it, this week I got my bi-annual copy of the Sidney Journal (34:2 2016) and will wonders never cease (?). Two new sonnets by Philip Sidney have been found (!). To me they sound like him. I like these lines in the first (yes plucked out of context, and re-contextualized):

In humble sorte contented yet am I,
Though in dispaire I dye without regard

I also got my yearly Christmas card from Arthur F. Kinney, a great Renaissance scholar who sends Christmas cards each year to each and every person who contributed an essay to English Literary Renaissance (he must have quite a mailing list by this time — I published but one paper, on a sonnet sequence by Anne Cecil in the early 1990s), and this year he chose to reprint and slightly modernize passages from Milton’s “On the morning of Christ’s Nativity,” and I quote these

No War, or Battles sound
Was Heard the World around,
The idle Spear and Shield were high up hung,
The hooked Chariot stood,
Unstain’d with hostile blood,
The Trumpet spake not to the armed throng …

These lines could be slotted into this play.

The experience brought back memories of when I was an undergraduate just beginning to major in English and read The Second Shepherd’s Play in an Norton Anthology (as well as the great 15th century tragedy, Everyman) and thought how all this is abolished for English majors and certainly for everyone else in most American colleges. I remembered watching the National Theater production of the Yorkshire Mysteries one Christmas for a couple of marvelous hours with Izzy and Laura (then 7 and 14); we would replay it on a video cassette we had taped it onto, and even made two to have a back-up. How joyous and funny the whole thing was. Both cassettes now unplayable.

Somewhere in me too I have never gotten over Christmas at Dingley Dell (Dickens’s Pickwick Papers Christmas) – when I was young my father read aloud to me — so yearn for some re-enactment in that direction. It is, since Jim’s death, not quite out of the question as Izzy and I try for one another. The best way for me is low expectations and minimal joining in (as what is available to a person like me is — or perhaps you too gentle reader). I decorated as far as I could; I send out cards; Izzy and I are going to three events. I was thinking this morning appreciate the use of music reaching out (as in the Folger Consort group) and stay with that, don’t seek anything more.

Jim was something of a musician (read music, would play scores of opera for piano on our piano spinet) and used to say the Folger Consort group was too determinedly scholarly and authentic, and the pre-Renaissance stuff was done dully. Then it was just four aging white men. Two of these people are gone, and now the group hires all sorts of people and are truly creative in their approach, and regularly dare to move well into the 17th century.

jacobruisdaelwinterlandscape-large
Jacob Van Ruisdael (1629-82), Winter Landscape

Ellen

Read Full Post »

amour-de-loinpilgrim
Tamara Mumford, Pilgrim, also called the Traveler

Friends and readers,

On Saturday Izzy and I saw, listened to, a strangely still opera: Kaija Saariagho’s L’Amour de Loin (Love from Afar), libretto by Amin Maalouf (see review in the New York Times by Anthony Tommasini).

There is hardly any action in the 3 hour opera-story. Jaufre Rudel, Prince of Blaye (sung and acted by Eric Owens), a troubadour now grown old, once a poet-singer accompanying the 12th century crusades, now residing in Aquitaine, ailing, in a deeply depressed state, dreams of an ideal woman with whom he can experience fulfilled love. A pilgrim or (as called in the French word Englished traveler) seems to sail/happen by and tells Jaufre the woman he has conjured up exists. Jaufre sets off to meet her.

troubadourpilgrim

Meanwhile Clemence, a countess of Tripoli, in this production dressed to align her with a mermaid (fish-y scale-y dress with a sort of parting at the bottom as if for fins, braided hair) is by magic or some other force aware of or longing for, this coming love. The same pilgrim sails/happens by to tell her Jaufre is writing of her in an ethralled way. This gives her a concrete person to dream of. She is conflicted: sometimes eager, young, and sometimes wary. When Jaufre arrives, he is dying. If this illness is physical we are not told, only that he has dreaded the meeting, experienced such anguish of anxiety, he is near death.

heconfesses

They meet, and while they declare their passion, he also says that he is afraid of life and also of dying. From the intensity of this conflict he enacts a kind of self-suicide. Se weeps that some external force is to blame, then that she is. At the last she decides she will retire from the world to a convent.

The stage when the lights are not on consists of seried rows of benches. When a computerized light show is on against the dark, we see wavering lines suggesting the sea along which everyone moves. The light moves from emerald green, to glooming yellow and white, to blood red, to deep blues. Everyone includes two choruses, one of men who dialogue with Jaufre, and one of women who dialogue with Clemence, who function rather like Sophocles’ or Greek choruses. The lower bodies of these figures are never seen; they seem like controlled slaves who exist for the sake of the numinous central presences. Opera is a deeply conservative form and this allegory is that here — the mood lacks the irony of Samuel Beckett’s figures caught in cans.

What is the audience to make of this? I might as well say up-front I thought the computerized technology overdone and because you can do a thing (make the stage into something near art film) doesn’t mean you should. I have recently heard music very like that of Saariaho: atonal, dissonant, each line differing form the other, many idiosycratic sounds, yet somehow peaceful, idyllic, a troubled pastoral. All three principals sang beautifully, especially fine was the Pilgrim. Until the second act, though, the lines in this opera were archetypal in content, utterly generalized. Set to Charlotte Smith’s complex poetry, the lines had thoughtful meaning to express. Similarly, Detlev Ganert’s music seemed set to a text of complicated many issue-d despair.

In the second half, though, we did get meaning, e.g., from the words Juafre spoke, the sensitive troubadour has been traumatized by life itself (so violent, so contradictory to him) and (once again) prefers death. He also yearns for compensatory beauty in return for the horrors he’s seen and done while “in the orient,” citing place names from Middle Eastern countries which played a part in the crusades or are mentioned in the chronicles written by men about their experiences in the crusades or Constantinople.

You can, and I would be inclined also to see the opera as an exploration of levels of depression and despair. The afflicted person tries to throw off by maintaining a belief in an impossible goodness, kindness, love. Jaufre suspects he is deluding himself; his dream cannot be realized. It is only real from afar. That’s why he does not want to experience this love close up. When he does see her, overcome by her beauty after all, he nonetheless is already near death. It’s too late to make a change.

Some further art context would be the Arthurian corpus. Voigt did refer to the lovers as a Tristan and Isolde at one point in her intermission talk. The depiction of the lovers was strikingly like my memories of a specific text, an 1890s fin-de-siecle French rendition of Trisan and Iseult by Joseph Bedier. Mark doesn’t have much of a role in Bedier. Bedier may be read in a beautiful English translation by Hillaire Belloc. The deeply reactionary meaning caught up in this enthrallment by sex was explicated in once famous book by Denis de Rougement: Love in the Western World, except Bedier is not into Christian apologetics: rather all in life seeks erotic ecstacy. From Celtic twilights of melancholy to the sublime transcendance of Wagner, it’s a perverse worship of self-annihilation, melting away into sensual pleasure to an extreme of self-destruction and death. For my taste there was too much squirming eroticism, or (alternatively) naive idealism of the ripe virginal maiden in all this:

l-amour-de-loin-susanna-phillipsclemence

While the opera also takes its resonance from texts by Tennyson, Sara Teasdale (a poem from Guinevere) and movies like Bresson’s Lancelot, Eric Rohmer’s Parzival, perhaps Boorman’s Excalibur (a Hollywoodized version); there is a counterforce, warrior-like memories at least caught up in place names and very occasional action. The cities chosen by the pair of creators include Antioch, the old world around the Mediterranean leading to Jerusalem. Though our troubadour seems to have never fought, he and the Pilgrim are sombre with the knowledge of something intransigent, wary of something “out there” which all seek to elude. Jaufre is also the wounded fisher-king, exiled or taken along as suffering figure at wars. The male figure who carries within him the evils and wretchedness of the world, and dies of this: I thought of Amyntas as dramatized in Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzival.

rarephysicalmoment

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

I was much moved by the second half; there was far more psychological content in the words; death seemed to me portrayed to some extent realistically: as a drawn out agonized process. Tides of grief wash over everyone. The intense rejection of anything close up by the troubadour. The huge iron contraption seemed to me perfect for some construction site, an over-the-top exhibit of angularity and abstraction and computer light show was now less in evidence. The three principles were at the bottom of the benches and and camera focused on them in various levels of close-up. It would have been too abrupt, too sudden, too somehow melodramatic to end abruptly with Jaufre’s death, so there was a lingering strongly controlled slow fade-away.

Can we place this in a more immediate and political context — in my experience operas written more recently (where I’ve seen a few at Castleton Festival in Virginia) are meant to resonate with today’s culture. An FB friend of mine, Tom Dillingham, caught

an interesting William Blake sighting’ or reference … During the intermission … Deborah Voigt interviewed the great Placido Domingo about his having taken on the role of Nabucco in Verdi’s opera of that name. Domingo commented on the complexity of the character and said that his name is also Nebuchadnezzar, and then mentioned that William Blake “the greatest of painters in England” (that’s close, anyway, to what he said) had portrayed Nebuchadnezzar as a kind of man/beast, crouching on all fours. The admiration of one great artist for another is always worth noting. Perhaps I should refrain from noting a certain evocation of a contemporary menace.

blakenabucconebduchadnazzar
Blake’s Nebduchadnezzar

I won’t refrain. The opera figures retreat in the face of fear, sexual engagement and reality. Ours is a hard world people with the wherewithal retreat to dreams like this from.

There is another great piece of music and lyrics that matches this one, as serious and allegorical as Saariaho and Maalouf’s and brings out the underbelly of this opera. Bob Dylan’s A Hard Rain’s a Gonna Fall

The lyrics say what needs to be listened to, not just said, and acted upon, and a much seasoned-performer like Smith’s nervousness in front of this over-, opulently dressed crowd just make so much stronger how much this song’s concrete causes needs be heeded … I’ve not been so deeply moved by a performance or song in a long time.

You choose which one you think comes closest in this dire moment, the well-behaved decorous allusive myth with its diversity of casting or the accosting of what the blue-eyed son has done.

I must not leave out that this is only the second opera mounted in the whole of the Metropolitan Opera’s history to be by a woman; it is also only the fourth to be conducted by a woman: Susanna Malkki. My great grief is the first woman who won the popular vote to be president of the US is not the president tonight who could have heard it. Instead we have a man/beast who has promised to continue the horrors pictured by Dylan. Dylan deserved the Nobel, though perhaps he should have been there to accept it, and gotten it for music (and someone else for literature), I don’t mind. Patti Smith’s singing more than made up for anything awry.

Ellen

Read Full Post »

ianandjamietalking
Iane (Steve Cree) and Jamie (Sam Heugan) talking of memories shared after dinner (“Lallybroch,” (Episode 12, scripted Anne Kenney)

Claire: You missed the whirlwind.
Jamie: The what?
Claire: The servants. They tore through here like dervishes. I’d barely turned my back, and they’d cleared away all of Jenny and Ian’s things.
Jamie: It’s almost exactly how I remember it. My father always had a book over there open at the page he was reading.
Claire: Hmm.
Jamie: And he used to put his boots here.
Claire: Hmm.
Jamie: And he used to keep his Keep his Ah His blade.
Claire: Oh, it’s beautiful. It’s Viking, I think.
Jamie: Aye.
Claire: Five-lobed pommel. Tenth century. I told you, I was raised by an archeologist. I recognize the patterns on the hilt. It’s a fine example.
Jamie: I’d hardly tiptoe in here as a boy, so sacred was the Laird’s room. But I’d slip in when he was out at the fields just to hold it for a few moments. Dream of the day it would be mine.
Claire: It is yours now, Jamie.
Jamie: Ours.
Claire: Ours.
Jamie: And my father, he built this place, ye ken. His blood and sweat are in this stone. This land. And now his bones are as well. They buried him out in the graveyard next to my mother and my brother, Willie (“Lallybroch,” 12)

clairehelpingjennytogivebirth
Claire (Caitriona Balfe) helping Jenny (Laura Donnelly) to give birth to a breech baby (“The Watch,” Episode 13, scripted Tony Graphia)

Jenny: I’m bursting.
Claire: I’d no idea it flowed liked that.
Jenny: Aye, the bairn’s sucking starts the milk. Then all the child need do is swallow. Ah! Feels much better. I cannot leave wee Maggie too long. It’s a nuisance. Everything to do with bairns is a nuisance, almost …
— on the road seeking Jamie (“The Search,” Episode 14)

Dear friends and readers,

What’s most striking about this pair of episodes, is how strongly it differs from Gabaldon’s Outlander. In Gabaldon’s book we have an idyllic interlude of home-coming, which might seem to project what a happy life Jamie and Claire could lead if they were not subject Scottish peoples in post-colonial British police state; in the mini-series as written by Kenney and Grapia, the lesson is one can’t go home again. The first hour is continual tension, misunderstanding, misapprehension, followed by a brief reconciliation and living together, to be followed by another set of recriminatory scenes; not much time goes by before the local protection racket, the watch comes, and the fear is they will turn Jamie in for the ransom. When they do not, there is the problem of trying to free Jamie of the charge, and the choice of the English traitor-spy turns out to be the wrongest of turns. Jamie is re-taken into custody to be sent to Black Jack Randall. To say Jamie and Claire are forced to realize he cannot remain at home in safety is not to reach the horror of what’s in store for him.

The male actors in Tara Bennett’s The Making of Outlander, refer how they understand the series to male soap opera series set in contemporary places and times: when I shut the door on Claire, it’s like Michael shutting the door on Diane Keaton in The Godfather says Graham McTavish as Dougal MacKenzie; the writers and directors sometimes say the same sort of thing: Toni Graphia says she had in mind The Sopanos as they wrote, directed and acted The Watch. Gabaldon had none of this in mind in her book but rather a loving recreation of a past world through reference to historical artefacts and ways of life, which is then wrecked by the intrusion of marauding bands of men in conflict.

approachinglallybroch
Jamie (Sam Heughan, in front of the horse) and Claire (Caitriona Balfe, by its side), approaching Lallybroch (12)

After Claire has told Jamie the truth about who she is, where she comes from, and she has made what she feels is a permanent (irretrievable) choice not to try to escape through Craig Na Dun to the mid-20th century, Frank, and a relatively much individually safer life, but make a life for herself in the 18th, with Jamie and his home, Lally Broch, in the book there is a several chapter lingering integration into Lallybroch for the Laird and his wife. Yes an initial high conflict because Jamie still believes his sister, Jenny (Laura Donnelly) was raped, impregnated, gave birth to Black Jack Randall’s (Tobias Menzies) child, lived with an English officer after that, and has to be disabused of this nightmare. The child is her sweetheart, the disabled Ian’s (Steve Cree), and she is married to him, expecting another. But the clash and painful memories over, a beautiful comforting sequence of family life, farming, collecting rents, settling wrong-doing (which includes, as in the film, an abusive father whose son becomes part of the Fraser household) is as lingering as the euphoric halcyon moments of the few days after Claire and Jamie’s wedding (I refer to the fishing together sequence in the book), ensues.

Claire’s helping Jenny give birth is part of that even though it is sandwiched in between the life-threatening visit of the “protection” blackmailing Watch, which ends in both book and film disaster: Horrocks, the traitor to the English, while himself blackmailing Jamie for money not to deliver him to the English, sets up an ambush for the Watch: MacQuarrie who we have learned has sterling qualities is hanged, and Jamie taken into custody and returned to the sadistic Black Jack.

So in the book we have a 21st century take on family life, as first named in Thomas Wolfe’s novel (at the time a favorite among teenage boys, equivalent say to Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye), young man growing up; in the movie the crudity of macho male popular TV, pastiche NYC Italian style. A great deal of both episodes is taken up by male confrontations. Episode 12 ends and 13 begins with MacQuarrie’s gun shoved in Jamie’s face, Claire’s POV from above stairs:

taranmacquarriethewatch
Taran MacQuarrie (Douglas Henshall), chief of the Watch, in characteristic pose (13)

Not only all the permutations of different gangs of males one-upping one another (Frasers versus the English in flashbacks, Frasers versus the Watch, Horrocks versus Jamie), but Jamie’s memories of Black Jack invading his house, near raping his sister, and Jamie himself almost captured by an English watch just passing by where the officer observes the mill is not working and comes over to help, the Watch going out and ambushed.

MacQuarrie (riding alongside Jamie): “Pale death visits with impartial footthe cottages of the poor and the castles of the rich”. These were made for Mary Stuart Real barrel of laughs, that one. You know, I don’t mind death as long as it comes under an open sky.
Jamie: Myself as well.”

The scripts have less of the above kind of poetry. Only in the scenes of Jamie and Claire upstairs in the room given up to him, in the scenes of eating, and most of all conversations between Jenny and Claire is the quality of the book’s chapters at this near end of the book brought out. In the book we are to experience the regret of loss when Jamie and Claire finally see they must flee to France for his safety as well as hers; the coming Culloden is then full tragedy. In the mini-series neither the original home or Jamie’s place in clan MacKenzie (at Castle Leoch) proven haven and refuge.

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

closeup
Close-up of Jamie during one of the repeated flogging sequences and memories

Some thoughts: first looking back on the character of Jamie. Suzanne Jushasz in her Reading from the Heart, says essential, crucial to women’s romance is the mother figure disguised as a man, the protector who cares above all for and about you; from Rhett Butler (Gone with the Wind) to Mr Knightley (Emma). Gabaldon has undermined yet hit that squarely with Jamie. There is a pattern across the first season which is much more emphatic in the book which we see brought to final crisis in the recapture of Jamie: the subaltern hero is intensely punished. In the first episode (“Sassenach”) when Claire is transported to the 18th century and takes care of Jamie’s shoulder, is put on his horse, and the two ride to Castle Leogh, what is omitted from the film is his intense tenderness towards her right away. In the book Gabaldon insists on how he quietly is enduring great pain; he is immensely physically strong but self-sacrificing and the book’s corresponding chapter ends with him wrapping her tenderly in a blanket in the room in Castle Leogh, telling her she need never feel scared with she is with him, and she dissolves in tears.

Gabaldon has at the same time pulled the sadistic aggressive violent man (half-crazed serial killers) into the 18th century in the person of Black Jack, John Wolverton (wolf) Randall out of the 20th century gentle frank. The novel and this mini-series can be seen as deeply anti-homosexual — there is a tradition starting in mid-20th century when the films finally presented gay men they were sadistic twisted power- and control hungry people. Tim Piggott-Smith as the British officer in India in The Jewel in the Crown. What Frank does to Jamie is what Tim Piggot-Smith played and did to the Indian hero of that mini-series and the whole book series. Jamie is given a position where he can be protective (as the Indian hero could not); — he is also a Lord, aristocratic in the subordinate culture; Claire understands quickly in episode 1 that he matters because the men will not leave him and want him better. No one cares about the Indian hero of Jewel in the Crown, that’s why the initial raped white heroine is thrown away.

But she goes beyond this. In the wedding sequence and first love-making the book emphasizes Jamie’s virginity in ways the film does not dare. Much is made of his younger age, her experience: it is he who blushes, who feels grateful she has been generous (she praises his performance), his history is told by him in such a way as to emphasize the danger of the non-heir against other men if he’s perceived as a popular rival. It’s obvious that the last two episodes which come out of this disastrous or idyllic return home sequence are horrifyingly abusive of Jamie Fraser: he is tortured into submitting to anal sex, his spirit to resist broken by breaking his hand, flogging. I had realized his back shows horrific treatment too, but now bringing the mini-series together with the book I realize this a pattern: the ritual humiliation of the heroine (occurs much more weakly and not as centrally) is nothing to this. I’m told in Games of Thrones, men are abused, humiliated and killed off; in Agents of Shield these central subaltern central heroes go through enormous emotional turmoil. Gender roles are transitioning.

firstshotofian
The first camera shot of Ian

I had noticed this pattern in Tudor dramas on film (Wolf Hall, The Other Boleyn Girl, The Hollow Crown, Henry 8 and Elizabeth I films): the men took the place hitherto reserved for the heroine, and took it that the Henry 8 story appeal was the ability to show masculinity of a very different sort than the modern controlled invulnerable (unattacked mostly) hero, but maybe not. In Outlander this fits the (mild or undeveloped very much) post-colonial perspective, an unintended consequence inheritance from Walter Scott is carried into gender transformations. I could suggest the use of a disabled man, also insisted upon, photographed to stress his crippling, with Colum Mackenzie also suffering from a debiltating disease is part of this, but I suspect these two characters are part of the modern trend to include disabled people in stories.

jennygivingclairebracelets
Jenny gives Claire some ancient bracelets

I’ve not done justice at all to the female friendships in this series: Claire and Mrs Fitzgibbons (Annette Badlands), Geillis Duncan (Lotte Verbeeck), and now Jenny Fraser (Laura Donnelly). Outlander passes the Bechtel test with ease: women have conversations and about many things beyond men. Perhaps not predominantly but enough. Claire saves Mrs Fitzgibbons’s god-child; she and Geillis share information about herbs and healing (and eventually that they are both time-travelers) and now Claire with Jenny learns about the household, discusses past history and helps her give birth.. In this scene she is using their friendship to focus on an authentic feeling archeaological object.

Let’s recall that Gabaldon has her heroine, Claire, brought up by an archeaologist, Uncle Lamb: it’s not improbable her parents might have been killed, but to be adopted by a wandering anthropologically minded bachelor around ancient sites is the sort of content-rich particular that calls attention to itself — when Claire is not reminding us. Jerome de Troot (Consuming Historical Fiction) writes of the modern ubiquity of historical fiction and film, and tells us respect for the genre has gone way up since writers became post-modern and post-colonial. The precious historical remains, be it a previous manuscript or book, or object or remains are remnants of an unknowable past that have survived. Reality is not as unknowable as we fear. The modern ethic take on it, removing all false idealism or sentimentality, can sustain us while we come into contact with something that feels authentic or is made to feel so.

outlandish
A drawing of the houses around and Lallybroch

Today people are likely to allude to previous extant older texts, to use real pictures from the past (remember Tracey Chevalier’s Girl with the Pearl Earring). Gabaldon’s choice of the highlands, her use of a few of the hundreds of castles found in Scotland, of neolithic stones, and all sorts of 18th century artefacts tie us back to the imagined and real history. The time-traveling fantasy enables you to give the dead a life again, a living presence and show the life of the past compared to and interwoven with the present. At least I think Gabaldon had this conscious idea. The way she insists on the wounds, the scars, the breakage and recovery of parts of Jamie’s body is indicative. In Wallace’s Digging the Dirt (studies in archeaology) she shows how when we find corpse and skeletons of earlier eras, they show harsh violence inflicted on the bodies of these people, lots of fragile parts hurt too . Not in The Making of Outlander but in her own Outlandish Companion are found countless drawings, illustrations and sometimes photos of archeaological remains, ritual objects, ruins and the flora and fauna of Scotland there for generations past. All her many uses of archeaology and cultural anthropology are romancing ways of crossing the unknowability of the past

outlandisheascape
Seascape with ancient rocks

Ellen

Read Full Post »

csmith1782
Charlotte Smith (1749-1807) by George Romney (1792)

Sonnet 69 from Elegiac Sonnets

Written at the same place [where refugees land], on seeing a seaman return who had been imprisoned at Rochfort

Clouds, gold and purple, o’er the westering ray
Threw a bright veil, and catching lights between,
Fell on the glancing sail, that we had seen
With soft, but adverse winds, throughout the day
Contending vainly: as the vessel nears,
Encreasing numbers hail it from the shore;
La! on the deck a pallid form appears,
Half wondering to behold himself once more
Approach his home. — And now he can discern
His cottage thatch amid surrounding trees;
Yet, trembling, dreads lest sorrow or disease
Await him there, embittering his return:
But all he loves are safe; with heart elate,
Tho’ poor and plunder’d, he absolves his fate!

Dear friends and readers,

Although I’ve been putting my blogs on historical fiction set in the 18th century, both in film and in novels on this blog (e.g., Poldark and Outlander), and have now and again put teaching 18th century texts (Fielding’s Tom Jones) and enjoyment in reading and viewing arts and music and books of the era, I’ve kept scholarship in the area in my Austen reveries blog. Hence I’ve not posted much at all about Charlotte Smith, a consuming interest (in her life) and love (for her poetry and some of her novels) in my life now for many years (see More First Encounters).

Charlotte Smith was a great and profound poet in the later 18th century, the mother of romanticism (with Wordsworth a father, and Radcliffe, mothering the Gothic), and an absorbing original novelist. I attended the second conference devoted just to her at Chawton House Library in Hampshire this past October, gave a paper on her as a post-colonial writer, and after a five-year effort published the first affordable paperback scholarly edition of her second novel, Ethelinde, or The Recluse of the Lake.

9781943910540-Perfect.indd

The purpose of this blog is to encourage anyone interested to buy it at Valancourt Press, which will take you to Amazon, and its occasion is a wonderfully thorough and insightful blog by the novelist, literary critic and publisher, Tyler Tichelaar:

Charlotte Smith’s Ethelinde: A Missing link between Romanticism and the Gothic, to which I append my comment and then some:

I didn’t sufficiently emphasize in my introduction the book as a romantic novel, though I did talk about the poetic landscape and how (from contemporary reviews and a contemporary almost immediate French translation), it seems what most struck people. We have to remember that Ann Radcliffe’s The Romance of the Forest was first published in 1790, the same year as Ethelinde, and The Mysteries of Udolpho came four years later. So this novel was a revelation. In the sequence where Ethelinde goes to her father’s tomb, she anticipates and imitates the haunted gothic of Victorian fiction. I probably didn’t think of the romantic connections because it’s a rare novel by Smith where she does not include any of her poems. Maybe because she thought she’d created poetry in words enough with the landscapes. I agree with Robert the book does not feel very Burney-like, Smith is so corrosively angry in her satire on awful characters. But I feel certain all these women read one another. I also forget Smith’s novels became part of the Jacobin novelists of the 1790s too (Rogert Bage’s Hermsprong, Thomas Holcroft, Godwin’s Caleb Williams, Wollstonecraft’s Maria; or The Wrongs of Woman) and Walter Scott wrote a long beautiful perceptive appreciation.

Valancourt has brought the book out as a hardback. I conclude it’s selling well — for a book of this sort. The publisher & editor has indicated to me he’s not really interested in going on to publish another by Smith: his business seems to have begun by concentrating on publishing rarer older gothic and Victorian novels (out of copyright) but in the last few year more contemporary and gay novels have been added to the list. If he should change his mind, I think I’ll ask for a payment this time 🙂

Several Smith novels are available as Broadview Press editions, e.g. Celestina; Kentucky Press, e.g. The Young Philosopher. A couple others are available in good facsimile reprints but no notes and no introduction, no bibliography (e.g., The Banished Man, about war-torn Europe and France from an emigre’s perspective). Montalbert is in one of these reprints of ECO texts where there are four tiny pages per page, but you can buy it cheaply. Even The Romance of Real Life is available in an OCR facsimile.

Marchmont is now the only novel by Smith not available in an affordable edition. It was Marchmont I and the publisher spoke as an alternative to Ethelinde when we first discussed the project, and I probably chose Ethelinde because it’s historically more important (see above — it was a revelation), and I’d read part of Ethelinde. And yet Marchmont is a powerful book — it has this extraordinarily frank depiction of a debtor’s prison (anticipates Dickens) and makes use of a terrible siege in France, Toulon, and so calls attention to the reality that the “terror” of and many of the early directorate’s actions were a reaction against invasion from other capitalist-royalist national leaderships with their armies and the complicated politics within France. Trollope’s La Vendee is about the counter-revolutionaries in the countryside.

Fragment Descriptive of the Miseries of War

To a wild mountain, whose bare summit hides
Its broken eminence in clouds; whose steeps
Are dark with woods; where the receding rocks
Are worn with torrents of dissolving snow;
A Wretched woman, pale and breathless, flies,
And, gazing round her, listens to the sound
Of hostile footsteps:–No! they die away–
Nor noise remains, but of the cataract,
Or surly breeze of night, that mutters low
Among the thickets, where she trembling seeks
A temporary shelter–clasping close
To her quick-throbbing heart her sleeping child . . . (1797)
from Smith’s The Emigrants

Smith deserves to given her rightful place in the literature of the era and be read for pleasure by more modern readers than the usual academic specialists at long last. I’m so glad Valancourt made an appealing compact edition.

Ellen

Read Full Post »

digginguppiers-medium
Kenneth Branagh and Colin Firth — as characters digging the deep past up in the form of a coffin of a Muslim who once painted a mural on a 14th century church wall (A Month in the Country)

Dear friends and readers,

While the fall term has hardly begun, today was time to put in a proposal for next spring for the OLLI (Oscher Institute of Life-Long Learning) at George Mason. I enjoy enormously Booker Prize books, winners, short-listed, nominated. I love most of the film adaptations, which also win prizes.

englishpatientbdcap1_original
Ralph Fiennes and Juliette Binoche as the English patient and wandering nurse (screenplay Anthony Minghella)

At the same time I am aware only a certain kind of book wins: you’ll find no John LeCarre’s there. And it’s not just books which can be fitted into formula genres that are excluded, non self-reflexive historical fictions are out. Nor is it that mawkish uplift, and the kind of woman’s novel that garners an Orange prize; anything profoundly reactionary. So casting about for some kind of framework whereby term after term I could slot in books and explore books of our time as well as the publishing industry, I came up with this:

The Booker Prize: a marketplace niche & selling tool?

In this course we will discuss 4 gems of Booker Prize fiction. Some have said the prize functions as a brilliantly exploited marketplace tool aimed at a specific readership niche, just perfect for high quality film adaptations and literary criticism. The books are characteristically historical fiction, self-reflexive, witty and passionate, post-colonialist, and the three of the texts I’ve chosen have been made into great films. I ask that before class begins everyone have read J. L. Carr’s A Month in the Country; in class we’ll read Rose Tremain’s Restoration, Ondaatje’s The English Patient, and Graham Swift’s Last Orders.

I originally had Paul Scott’s Staying On in lieu of Restoration, but it is such a painful story of retired people now vulnerable to subalterns and the readers I read with are older retired people, so I worried. I ruled out Carol Shields’s Unless on similar grounds: perhaps they had a grown child who succumbed to such a syndrome. None of the Raj Quartet has won — the prize usually eschews sequel kind of books. A course just on Paul Scott is possible.

staying-on-trevor-howard-celia-johnson
Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard in Staying On carry over the typologies of Brief Encounter

[NB: later on I discussed it with other people in classes and with the organizers and I may well substitute Staying On for The English Patient (after all an exotice romance) and Unless for Restoration (not commonly known history though the topic of mental illness during and after a war is central). They are shorter, easier reads and that they come home to people might make for a much richer class.]

I loved Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Bookshop, but perhaps that makes the list insularly English. We can discuss it in claas; it is so slender — a characteristic of some Booker Prize books (they gave a prize to a long short story by V.S. Naipaul once). Byatt’s Possession (very precious), Atwood’s Alias Grace (complicated structure and POV too), and Mantel’s Wolf Hall were all too long to do other books with; Adhalf Soueif’s Map of Love long and too Eygptian: I can see doing that with her In the Eye of the Sun, but hesitate before a heavily Jewish population. I like the idea of pairing Alias Grace with the real woman behind the novel: Susannah Moodie and her Roughing It in the Bush. And in future terms I can see myself doing Ishiguru’s Remains of the Day — how I wept over that film with Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson at the close, just missed out on what would have made their lives good, just.

menincar
The four frenemies carrying Jack’s ashes (in a box) to the jetty in “style” — a fancy car

bythesea
Reconciliation by the sea (Last Orders) — my students loved the film

None of my choices are darkly despairing. There are fascinating films for all four. I hardly remember Tremain’s book except liking it intensely (and have never seen the film).

As a side-note: I noticed something typically about women’s books who win the prize: typically women winning the Booker either write very long complicated books — with a George Eliot impressiveness — and if I chose one I’d hardly have time for another. One or even two swallows do not a summer make for my thesis about Booker prize books. Or they write odd and/or very slender ones. It’s “as if” they have to strike an impression more than the men.

charitywakefieldmaryboleyn
Charity Wakefield as Mary Boleyn (one of a continuum of heroines in Wolf Hall)

This is a new venture like my 19th Century Women of Letters which I hope to develop over a few terms — well within my taste, each time expanding my knowledge this or that way without asking too much, leaving time for scholarly reviews, essays, papers.

These books, indeed this sub-species, will be great fun to write blogs about here too.

Ellen

Read Full Post »

marriotmeditative
This image is not the image on the cover of Poldark: The complete Scripts, series 1 (which is awful), but the cover does feature Aidan Turner in just this sort of mood and in need of a shave

Dear Friends and readers,

While I was away in Cornwall, I had a number of wonderful finds in bookshops, especially Fowey where I found Poldark: The Complete Scripts, Series 1 by Debbie Horsfield; in the parlance of film studies, these are screenplays, not just actual records of what was said and acted, but scenes intended to be acted that were cut or never made it into filming, many stage directions, brief commentaries in brackets on the characters as they speak the proposed dialogue, and descriptions of the scenery to be filmed, the mise-en-scene of a set, and larger action as envisaged by Horsfield. I also found Claude Berry’s excellent county book, A Portrait of Cornwall, updated in 191 (a Robert Hale book) and a superb book of essays on Daphne DuMaurier: The DuMaurier Companion, ed Sarah Waters. I’ll be (I hope) writing about the last two in the near future; for now. Here I will comparing the screenplays with the original historical fictions by Graham and (briefly) the older 1970s mini-series.

Horsfield’s scripts for the first season of Poldark (that is all eight hour-long episodes) have been a revelation. The script called for better shows than we got. Really. Horsfield has lots of commentary and description that is psychologically suggestive. I had accused the scripts of being crude, and been puzzled why the lines were so short, or blunt when her other work has sophisticated dialogue. Well the lines are not short; what happened was that when the dialogue was filmed, the speed at which it was done, gives the effect of abruptness, and the way the scenes are enacted often precludes resonance. This was a choice by the two male directors, Edward Balzagette and William McGregor.

What’s more: there are numerous small and larger cut scenes, and some of them contain subtlety and slow development for Heidi Reed as Elizabeth. As I read the scripts, from the outset, Horsfield had in mind to change the interpretation of Elizabeth as found in Graham’s books and as found in the 1970s series: lines and descriptions suggest she is yearning to “be with” Ross as it’s called; for talk, for a coming together of their spirits, for sex. What’s left are silent short takes of the actress at the window, looking out, none leaving enough time to understand what the meaning of the shot is. Without wanting to attack an actor, it seems to me in the love scenes of the first series, Turner lacks the subtlety he needs; it’s as if others of them were directed to be more blunt and simplistic than the script called for. I want to re-watch the first season against the scripts before quoting any specific scenes (and I would prefer not to allow these blogs to become as overlong as they did last year).

I’m particularly impressed with how each episode has its own arch and emphatic themes. I’ve seen this in other BBC drama books, but this one is remarkably tightly-knit. It is clear that she wants the character of Ross to be central to each episode, even if he does not have a linchpin or dominating POV; this is not true of Graham’s second book (Demelza) and his perspective is the wider one of the world of Cornwall so he has rich complicated characters in main and subplots. The major presence after Ross is Demelza, with Francis (like Elizabeth) being given suggestive lines. Kyle Soller was up to the role and he alone (it seems to me) was allowed the time and space to realize the lines of the four principals. I was confirmed in the side-lining of Keren who is given marginal space. OTOH, there is lyrical beauty to her introduction while she is playing Helen (“that bright particular star” of All’s Well that Ends Well).

Having read the scripts, it seems to me that the flaws and problems I outlined as did others in this new Poldark, the first series, were not due to the script but the realization. Extrapolating from this, I’ll give the new season the benefit of the doubt and assume the same might hold true. There will soon be published a book of the second series (just now available only in kindle editions), with Demelza’s face on the cover. I’ve pre-ordered it. The cover still is not as aggressively “in your face” as the cover for the first series: Eleanor Tomlinson looks weary and grief-striken, near tears

poldarkcompletescriptsseries2

We know that she will be having to deal with a full-blown love affair between Ross and Elizabeth, enough to make any wife as deeply invested in her husband as this ex-kitchen and working class girl is.

The volume is introduced by Karen Thrussell who says she is a lover of Graham’s novels and tells us that Horsfield did not know the novels at all before she was hired. This is her first time for costume drama. That was deliberate: they wanted someone whose expertise was proved in popular mini-series that get high ratings. An online article by “the historical advisor,” Hannah Grieg, to Horsfield and the film-makeers (crew, costumer, production, actors) released by the BBC tells you these are well researched novels, embedded in history; they are. Grieg says she “stripped the books down” for Horsfield. Greig claims she became deeply immersed and marvels at the accuracy of the presentation of mining and banking business at the time (and central to the stories, as well as the prison system, the injustice of the laws against poaching). I suspect that most of the time the historian’s roles are exaggerated in these series, and they are rather consulted when the writer fears she is making some egregious error. Perhaps in this case Horsfield needed help? At any rate it would be superficial and the scripts don’t feel superficial; the scenes about mining seem to me to have taken what could be taken from Graham’s books.

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

I’ve said that this year I don’t want perpetually to be comparing the older series with the newer one as I’ve done that before, and after a while the finding that the older one is the subtler, with far more novelistic scripts, and closer to the original Post World War Two and 1970s subversive and feminist conceptions of the books is simply repetitive. I’ve written, delivered at a conference and published an essay on this now: Poldark Rebooted: 40 Years On. Instead my idea is to compare this historical fiction series with one very like it, Outlander from Diana Gabaldon’s historical romance time-traveling tales (as the older 1970s Poldarks were remarkably parallel and like to The Onedin Line).

Outlander 2014 Caitriona Balfe as Claire Randall and Tobias Menzies as Frank Randall in Starz’s Outlander
Caitriona Balfe as Claire Randall and Tobias Menzies as Frank Randall (1943)

claireandjamie
Claire Randall beginning her relationship with Sam Heughan as her protector-chivalric Jamie (1743)

I’ve said how much I am drawn to both series, and argued that both are if not fully feminist, proto-feminist, that Graham’s fiction has been said by others to be “instinctively feminist” and he is on record saying that he was concerned to show the “raw deal” women have been handed across history. The films from Gabaldon’s first book made the POV of the series Claire Beauchamp Randall Fraser just as surely as the new films from Graham’s books made Aidan Turner as Ross. I’ve called the Outlander series film-feminism because of the use of Claire’s perspective and memories as over-voice; she is the linch-pin mind of the series, her memories take us back and forth in time.

rapesceneross
This is Robin Ellis’s face as Ross Poldark as he begins to mount the roof to where Elizabeth is lying in a rage that ends in a rape (1975-76 Poldark, from Warleggan)

But there is a real problem with this pleasant outlook and I don’t want to ignore this and misrepresent the books and films. The new series has wiped out Ross’s rape of Elizabeth in Warleggan. Among the arguments for insisting it is a rape (which I’ve made in my analyses of the books) is that marital rape and rape itself outside marriage is common across Graham’s oeuvre. In Graham’s The Forgotten Story (set in Cornwall in 1898), the young husband rapes his wife after he thinks she has been having an affair with a sailor and she becomes unconscious after a traumatically violent incident in her uncle’s tavern. In Marni, the “cure” for the mentally troubled young heroine in Hitchcock’s movie is aggressive rape; this comes from the book where the husband rapes his wife in a passionate moment of despair. In the plot-summaries I’ve read of other of his mysteries, and spy thriller, I found rape repeatedly. As those who know The Four Swans remember, we have a sadistic Vicar Whitworth forced on Mowenna Chynoweth as her husband; she finds him distasteful morally and aesthetically and to get back at her and because he enjoys it, he inflicts sadistic sex on her; among other things, twisting her feet and ankles so repeatedly that when she finally escapes him and years go by, she is still hobbling.

I would like to interpret all this as Graham exposing the reality that coerced marriage is a form of rape: the parents and family insist this female give her body to a specific male in order for the family to aggrandize itself with money or rank. I’d like to see all these incidents as him exposing how men think they are the solution when they have been the problem (Marni – the heroine’s mother is a deeply distraught women as a result of having sold herself as a prostitute to make ends meet), but it is clear they can also be read as voyeurism. Indeed that’s the way Hitchcock films them. The men are not always punished; the rape is slid over. In the case of Ross, there is finally a deep punishment but it takes years and wreaks damage on Elizabeth (death) and destroys the character and life of their son, Valentine. The Vicar is simply murdered by the husband of Morwenna’s salacious and promiscuous sister, Rowella. Which brings in the question of how Graham offers only limited sympathy to women who he has invented as promiscuous (Keren who marries and destroys Mark is damned by suggestions she was after more men than Dwight Enys)

walkingstickseashore4
The Walking Stick (one of the great films made from a non-Poldark novel, where the hero is a crook and the heroine disabled)

In the case of Winston Graham, a woman friend,journalist and film critic whose views I respect, Judy Geater, could not bear the marital rapes in the Poldark series: she agreed that the thrust was actually feminist, but felt Graham was offering this up as enjoyment; that he was (as other male writers are) obsessed with the fear that a woman will be false (one finds this in LeCarre’s Smiley books); she also did not enter into Demelza’s attitudes towards Ross which for me were a paradigm of something of what I knew with Jim, and what Claire Beauchamp gradually begins to evince towards Jamie Fraser. So both this popular historical fiction series is problematic for serious women readers. Horsfield change from a raped and angry woman, to a woman who chooses to have sex with a longed-for man may be seen as getting rid of the problematic nature of the books. Not altogether as she deepens the hostility to aggressive, sexualized women (Keren and now I think Caroline Penvennen from what I’ve seen the second episode of the first season).

There is something equally troubling in Outlander which far from moderating (as the 1970s writers did) or erasing (as Horsfield has done), Gabaldon’s group of writers make emphatic. In Chapter 22, called The Reckoning, and in the parallel episode, Jamie beats Claire to teach her a lesson in obedience. The idea is she was captured by Black Jack Randall because she didn’t take seriously enough that her own danger also endangered her husband and all the men who were loyal to him. Diane Reynolds, a friend of mine, also once a journalist, and now author (see my review of her The Doubled life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer), put it this way:

“Black Jack’s sadistic (what I remember) beating of Jamie with a cat o’ nine tails was horrified and it did shock me, but it also fit a familiar paradigm: it is what we expect the evil character to do to the hero. But Jamie IS the hero, and it being acceptable that he beat his wife (and that her humiliation was key to her acceptance) did bother me. He is also sexually aroused by the experience, and that seemed realistic to me (I had read about concentration guards who would beat prisoners until they (the guards) ejaculated) but I wondered: couldn’t Jamie, if such a good guy, have pretended to beat Claire and had her scream (to satisfy his friends’ need for her abjection) while he hit a table or whatever? Well, any way, a minor point. I don’t mean it to be a huge thing, just an example of a reactionary strain in Gabaldon–and it is what it is. It does make a difference if one comes to a book first or a filmed version– easier to engage the filmed version if it doesn’t irritate preconceived ideas. I probably like the second Poldark better than you for not seeing the first, and the Davies WP for not having seen another version.

reckoningclaireshockedfrightened
Claire shocked and frightened when told by Jamie he is going to beat her in the hearing of his “mates”

This turns the time-traveling tale into a metaphor for a fraternity where the female dreamer is helpless against an all-male universe and must submit lest she end up gang-raped ….

Diane’s comments acknowledge that Horsfield’s version in fact is feminist because like Claire in most of the scenes of Outlander freely gives of herself to Jamie and we are invited to revel with them in their wedded sexual compatibility (so to speak). I had pointed out that the concluding two episodes of the film series and chapters in the book where we witness Jamie raped and then his character broken, him humiliated with nothing sparred us of the buggery were far more transgressive and could be seen as voyeuristic. I think the series is on a high-tier to permit the film-makers to do this (it wouldn’t do for BBC Sunday prime time). But as I read the chapters I have to admit the next (omitted in the film) is one of Jamie justifying corporal punishment. He tells stories of how his father beat him and how this was good for him, and by the end of the conversation Claire seems almost grateful for having been made aware she was reckless. This is somewhat countered by her pulling a knife on him just as they are about to have sex once again, and him kneeling before her to swear he will never beat her again, but i fact that he beat her is insisted on. It was not just mild hitting. She cannot sit comfortably, cannot ride a horse for more than say 20 minutes at a time. The book is not written in 1743 but 1991.

Beyond that the doubling of the Claire’s mild, gentle Frank, her 20th century husband, with the cruelly sadistic homosexual Black Jack Randall is deeply anti-homosexual (it takes us back to the characterizations of homosexuality in The Jewel in the Crown and the 1970s Upstairs Downstairs), this blending of the two suggests beneath Frank lurks Black Jack, and the subtext is titillating. There are also the many rape attempts on Claire, on Jamie’s sister, Jenny, and way Geillis Duncan, near the end of the series revealed as another woman from the future (1968), manipulates and kills her husband, Arthur, to enable her to marry the brutal and treacherous Douglas Mackenzie (brother to the Laird, so next in line to rule the clan). Some of the women of Outlander do not conform to the older paradigm of submissive romance heroine as outlined by Miriam Burstein in her essay on Anne Boleyn as a character type (The fictional afterlife of Anne Boleyn: how to do things with the Queen, 1901-2006.” Clio 37.1 [2007] and Jerome de Groot (Consuming History) in his chapter on Philippa Gregory’s The Other Boleyn Girl (on the 2003 film too). We see her in Andrew Davies’s alignment of Lise, Prince Andrey’s doomed pregnant-child wife with Jane Seymour in Wolf Hall through having them played by the same actress, Kate Phillips. But Claire learns to and Demelza and Verity never stop.

Yet Poldark and Outlander are perceived as contemporary women’s fare, are widely popular, make a lot of money and will thus be repeated and sold as long as there is audience for them.

poldarks-cornwall
The new Poldark’s Cornwall — which is quite different from Graham’s 1983 books (for a start all but one picture has been changed)

Why argue over this? why bring out matters of taste and outlook? It matters because there is things in work of art, be it book or film, that makes it worthy of praise as well as criticism. We pay these works a compliment by taking them seriously and in our emotional life they function seriously. When I go on to write about the first and second episodes of the second season of the new Poldark and carry on with the first season of Outlander I am discussing real properties in these works of art however intangible. Realism at whatever level the work allows is important: how do people really behave towards one another and how do we relate to this? Nowadays the canon (however unacknowledged are Outlander and Poldark) patently does not just express the preferences of an elite class. We argue about these things because we assume judgements are true and matter. There’s value here and there’s danger.

the-making-of-outlander

I’ve been working out some thoughts about the relationship of the new Poldark scripts to the actual programs, and then thinking about the problematic nature of how rape and violence towards women is presented in Poldark and Outlander, taken to be woman’s fare.

Ellen

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »