Archive for the ‘men’s memoirs’ Category

Antigone grieving over her brother’s body lying there in the sun, all exposed (Juliette Binoche, translator Anne Carson, director Ivo van Hove)

As the fourth soldier of the group endures what is done to his body by an exploding buried bomb, and fifth, a buddy administers morphine, the two begin to realize they are in minefield (Tom Williams and Paul Katis’s Kilo Two Bravo, the US title)

Dear friends and readers,

I had just been thinking to myself how egregiously pandering are most movies in theaters just now and (paradoxically) grateful for the development of HD broadcasts which could potentially make great plays done well available in my area, when this weekend I found myself caught up in two extraordinary productions. Both take up ultimate issues of life and death in terms the ceaseless war and impoverishment, immiseration inflicted on a huge percentage of people across the globe since the 1950s (Back to before WW2; Tactics, etc.).

Ivo van Hove, the director has shaped Anne Carson’s deeply meditative translation to produce an unusual trajectory for Antigone. I have seen the play in two different versions. One long ago on the stage, and a number of times as a film, part of three play series made by the BBC called the Theban plays (Paul Roche, the translator, Juliet Stevenson, Antigone). In these a traditional dramatization was presented. The first 3/4s of the play are done as highly dramatic clashes, characters talking using strongly rhetorical gestures and tones, all reaching a crisis, until the threatened death of Kreon’s son, Haiman, persuades Kreon he must compromise — but it is too late. The last quarter was done as a form of deep mourning, lyrical ritual grief played out as each character is found dead until we reach the body of Kreon’s wife, Eurdike. The emphasis was political: the right of a citizen to protest an unjust amoral law (using an inward knowledge of God’s ethics as criteria) versus the right of a leader to demand obedience on behalf of stability, order (or because he says so for everyone’s safety and his desire for power).

It was not done that way here. As I’ve seen before the stage-director used movie techniques: across a screen in the back we saw Antigone crossing a desert to where her sister, Ismene was waiting (as in Sophocles’s text whoever the translator) but then instead of this strong outward set of demands, anguished refusals, debates, the whole tone and the words chosen made the play into something inward, psychologically motivated: at first it’s just Antigone and Ismene who are grief-struck but as the play progresses and decisions are made, individual character after character is shattered by memories, by what happens when another character acts out of fear, horror, grief, love for self or another.

A scene from Antigone by Sophokles, directed by Ivo van Hove with Juliette Binoche, in a new translation by Anne Carson, at the BAM Harvey Theater on September 24, 2015. Actors: Juliette Binoche-Antigone Obi Abili_Black man Kirsty Bushell_Ismene_young women in skirt Samuel Edward-Cook_Haimon- Young bald man Finbar Lynch_Teiresias_Small thin wiry Patrick O'Kane_Kreon_bald man in suit Kathryn Pogson_Eurydike_older woman Nathaniel Jackson_dead body Credit: Stephanie Berger
Guard (Obi Abili) terrified he will be tortured reports to Kreon (Patrick O’Kane) that Antigone has buried her brother, Polyneices

The chorus’s lines were broken up and they spoke of their helplessness, they pleaded with Kreon to follow compromise, to give in, to forget, not to desecrate bodies, sweep across blood ties. They cannot accept what is happening and side with Antigone, even if it means forgiving, forgetting traitorous acts. They debate what is patriotism (in effect). Kreon’s way is utterly destructive. An interesting aspect of the direction is how often Kreon seems affectionate to Antigone (I’d never seen that before)

Kreon trying to appeal to Antigone’s ties to him (Patrick O’Kane was dressed as a modern dictator, bald, in a suit and tie)

Tiresias’s speech then reinforces this turn from a debate over how a state should be run: the cause is in Kreon. As Kreon folds and cracks, I had the distinct impression the director’s idea was Sophocles long ago was giving the Greek people a rare treat to see their tyrant brought low. It was as if someone would write a play today where we could all enjoy George W. Bush writhing on the ground. The point seemed to be to make this all=powerful politician a broken man.

Antigone’s appeals to Ismene (Kristy Bushell) and explanations to Haimon Samuel Edward-Cook) emerge as some kind of whistleblower who is surrounded by informers (Ismene) or people who will give in to whatever is the latest turning of the populace:


but Haimon is better than this. He tells his father despite his father’s incensed rage that the people are against him before fleeing before his father’s edict to join Antigone in her walled up grave.


Of course she is mad too. She will not let Ismene get any credit for dying. She makes the argument that a brother means more than a husband or father because you cannot get another.

Katharine Pogson who played Eurydice (and chorus) stood out for the power of her utterances. All the actors but Binoche and O’Kane doubled as choral voices.

A choral moment: there was above the players a moon or a sun on and off

Obviously the play was done in such a way as to speak home to us today, 2015. It was often very quiet: Antigone’s line: “I’m a strange new king of ‘inbetween thing, aren’t I?/Not at home with the dead or the living” seems to be about the plight of many people today hit hard by war or disease (cancer?) or just not sure what life is or about. The actors spoke their lines against a quiet backdrop of changing scenes evocative of the modern world, mostly in deserts, but by the end in a great metropolis at night. When the play ended each of the characters was back at a desk or structure, typing, looking at a computer, intent on some task. There was little overt movement throughout except at moments of high climax. And then they shouted. They were positioned in parallel ways.

Anne Carson is a great poet, a great translator — I’ve read her poems to her brother (who died alone and far from her) which she did as a kind of play upon Catullus’s love poems.

Through foreign seas and over foreign lands,
Brother, to your sad graveside I have come
To lay the gifts of death with my own hands
And speak, too late, some last words to your dumb,
Unanswering dust. Poor brother, who was torn
Brutally from me by ill fortune, take
All I can give you now-these few forlorn
Offerings made for ancient custom’s sake
And wet with a brother’s tears. There’ll be no other
Meeting; and so hail and farewell, my brother.

Atque in perpetuum, frater, ave atque vale is so famous. Literally it means “And forever, brother, farewell forever.” So Carson could be also writing about her relationship with her brother.

I admit I noticed this was a Barbican play. I was not so envious of those who saw Bernard Cumberbatch as Hamlet there these past weeks. London productions do occasionally come to the Kennedy Center. I was aware that a couple of people nearby fell asleep; one of them I spoke to briefly; he was puzzled by the whole play, didn’t know anything about these characters to start with. The program notes provided full explanations but he had not read them.


It’s even harder to do justice to Kajaki: as this site shows, there will be a tendency to present the film as an action-adventure war movie, heroism everywhere, sacrifice, apocalyptic violence. It’s anything but that sort of thing. The thing to take notice of is the producer/distributor who was at the Cinema Art theater with Gary Arnold this past Sunday where I saw the film, with its US title, Kilo Two Bravo (the code name of the unit used in electronic communication), knows very well that he has not made a stupid glorification of war or death.


The film opens with a British soldier swimming in the sea; he is shot at and frantically begins to swim for shore; he makes it, and jumps onto the sand to find himself confronted by two young Afghan boys and an older man; they have powerful rifles but it was not they who shot at him. His ferocity of anger at them shows how terrified he was — rightly — to lose his life. He begins to walk back to his unit and two men like him with even bigger weapons than the Afghans had join him. They are all part of a unit of British soldiers establishing itself on a mountain top in Afghanistan. They walk off and he tries to hitch a ride, but is laughed at by other soldiers from other units riding past him.


When he reaches where his group is settled, we watch the different men adjusting to life there; settling their places, taking on their jobs, receiving mail, and get to know them. A couple are more intelligent or educated and reading books; most of them have these sex-magazines; they curse a lot, kid a lot, eat and drink. There are officers who can be distinguished only because they tell the others what to do. There is medic (a doctor) who is given respect. They survey the landscape, and see Afghan people driving by; watch one set of Afghan people extort money from another, women and children are seen. The next day they are to go on some kind of mission. One problem the film has is the dialects of the Brits are so thick that I for one couldn’t get all the details of what exactly was being said, but since no one was especially subtley articulate this didn’t matter much. Still subtitles would help as they were bitter and ironic references to leaders like Blair, to lies told they now are aware of, to their own lives intimately.

So the next day they walk down to wherever they are going and what happens is in a flat circle area one of them steps on a bomb. It explodes and it is deeply terrifying as the computerized cameras, sound and other equipment make you feel the shock and instead of just showing the person at a distance we see him writhing and his body deeply maimed — it’s horrible and distressing. Then someone else steps on a bomb, same result.

They begin to realize they have inadvertently stepped into a minefield left by the Soviets perhaps in 1980s, perhaps in 1950. The men do not desert one another: they follow a protocol for saving one another’s lives. They walk on the same line others have walked to try to avoid bombs, they use techniques of looking at the sand. Several gather around each man – by how there are four lying in profound pain. A couple of people have morphine, the medic is sent for, and the drama ensues. Insofar as this can be done in real time it is. In huddled groups they try to help one another, but before the episode is over, about half the group is lying out there half-destroyed, bleeding, screaming, moaning and then turning quiet as the others try to help.


They sent word through their electronic equipment and people from other units begin to show up – they do not walk in that area where the men are. American accents are heard, Australian. A heliocopter gunship comes within ten minutes but frantically the medic forbids it to land. We feel its power by the strong noise, the sand moving over everything. It has no equipment but itself and if it lands it can blow itself and them up. They must have an evacuation helicopter. Some of the men who are not hurt clearly would like to leave but dare not; they are angry at the medic for insisting on the evacuation vehicle. In the film time this takes over 40 minutes, representative of about 3 hours. We see them talk and realities of their lives emerge. For some their bodies begin to rot before our eyes; they begin to sink. They need more morphine and run out. They are running out of water. are variously desperate, brave, self-harrowed, pitying, mocking. The script is brilliant, deeply involving. We see little domestic dramas. There is humor as they joke, a kind of parody of making the best of things which continually breaks down.

It reminded me of Danger UXB which I’ve now watched twice through. In the 1970s this 13 part mini-series (written by the best writers of BBC dramas at the time, the best directors doing them) follows the adventures and lives of a bomb disposal unit in World War Two: it is as profoundly an anti-war film as I’ve ever seen. The way tension is built up is in each episode at least one bomb is disposed of and it’s done in as real time as they dare. The tension and fear and difficulty of the task are enacted and sometimes the man is killed. Unlike this new film, when death occurs, the camera moves away and we only see the explosion from far, and then we only see the body under a blanket with only the face shown, and sometimes it’s been cleaned up (supposed) by the time we see it. They didn’t dare or couldn’t for TV programs for the BBC show the realities of what we mean when we say someone’s body and mind is wounded.


In Danger UXB the soldiers are clearing out bombs inside the UK, so we see no overt war. In Kilo Two Bravo what we are being shown is how war is conducted in the year 2015. The opening scenes, what they see by their binoculars as they watch for the 2 hours (they could be killed by a sudden assault) tell us war in Afghanistan is not open battles. It is competition through technology in slow motion but when the action happens you are as hideously or partly wounded and killed as you were in open battle.

6th July 2007 Kajaki, Helmand Province, Afghanistan A Chinook helicopter brings much needs supplies of food, spares and mail to the soldiers at a remote base in Kajaki, Helmand province, Afghanistan on the 6th of July 2007.
Above is a photo of a real helicopter arriving in Kajaki, Helmand Province, Afghanistank, bringing food, spares of all sorts and mail to the soldiers at a remote base (6 July 2007)

Finally the evacuation helicopter arrives and with it two specially equipped trucks with long range platforms they are stick out over the ground. All of this clearly built with mines and bombs in mind. One at a time a powerful man on a chain is let down from the helicopter and either brings an iron long basket into which the other soldiers put the wounded man, or he himself somehow puts his arms about the man and hugs him tight and the chain is pulled up again. This is done for each of the wounded. For those who are still whole they are helped to make it into the trucks. Everyone flies or drives away; no one is left behind. The medic is seen in a kind of catatonic prayer body posture for a moment when all are gone; then he is seen in the helicopter too. He was obeyed throughout and his self-control saved them all — insofar as he could.


I noticed as I watched that some of the audience began to leave; when the film was over, I’d say half the audience left. I don’t know what that meant: did they not want to hear any talk about this movie; they had sat through it. They were mostly older people so I don’t think boredom was the problem. Don’t go to it if you are expecting fast action (see this Hollywood reporter). I was a rare person in my section to scream and writhe (I couldn’t control it) each time someone stepped on a bomb and it exploded. It came home to me that violence should be distressing; there is something morally deeply wrong when violence is not distressing. I had a hard time staying about 3/4s of the way as I began to worry whether the evacuation ship would make it, or if they’d be shot to death or what. Apparently this is a well-known incident in the UK so UK watchers might know that the group was rescued.

I said “insofar as he could.” As the plane took off and the film was coming to an end, you got a five minute or so series of inter-titles telling you what happened to each man. Most of them lived — not all, two died. The photos of the real people the actors played were displayedAlas, there was an emphasis on how they returned to fighting (!) for those who did, but if you counted, many did not return; some we were told went to work for charitable organizations. We were not told if any began to work against these wars. This reminded me of the ending of Danger UXB where our hero who is badly wounded comes back to duty at this same bomb disposal unit and we are to cheer over this. He now feels useful — though for most of the hour he has been talking of the waste of the men who died, of the uselessness of all the destruction in Britain he has seen, all the terror. That is not forgotten nor in this film is the central hour and 3 minutes.

The whole unit (or cast) of Danger UXB: within the film they all pose for a group of local people to take a photograph of them as “heroes”

I admit that in the discussion time afterward when I instanced Danger UXB as a precursor, I was pleased when Gary Arnold replied that Danger UXB was one of his favorite films. He said he agreed with all I said of it. Do we ever get over liking to have the “authority” figure praise us?


Anthony Ashe after a bomb has exploded and someone has been killed (Danger UXB)

Speaking for myself since Vietnam I have regarded helicopters as fearful machines which can drop napalm bombs and destroy people from the air with the people helpless to defend themselves or strike back in any way. Groups of these machines flying over the Pentagon or anywhere else are ominous. I know that the way they can land makes them hospitals or supermarkets coming to anywhere in the world where they will not be shot down. The helicopter gunship is the first helicopter to arrive and we can see it’s a weapon with guns to protect and kill any “enemy.”

This is an important film because it shows the person watching what this war is like for the people fighting and the people near them. Of course these men volunteered, and if they had not volunteered to fight (which means they are trained to kill and do kill) for whatever delusion, they would not be in danger. Maybe they fell for the thrill of adventure and war. Let’s not forget that. They are not innocents. I taught for many years in senior colleges and over half my students by the end of my time there had been in the military, many had also volunteered because they said that was the best or only job they could find. Or the military offered to school and train them. The US gov’t will not put money into much else — so we see soldiers used in first aid crises. The soldiers in this movie were not shown to know much about this war they were fighting

To see Kilo Two Bravo as an expose of the horrors of using bombs would be absurdly narrow (one way Danger UXB has been marketed). To talk about it as about sacrifices turns it into a kind of senseless religious propaganda, a modern Kreon play. I did find one apposite review in the Guardian.

Kilo Two Bravo is a film that may be said to show why the UK should not go to war — for no reason that helps anyone but arms manufacturers and the powerful and wealthy. It is a semi-documentary intended to make people see, experience, realize, think, and perhaps like Antigone draw back and say no, we are not going to do this or do it to others, or allow these things to be done to us.

I did love Binoche as the nurse in The English Patient


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Pete Seeger on stage 1960

Dear Friends and readers,

I just watched a 90 minute American Masters program about the life and singing of Pete Seeger, an extraordinary hero. If only more people were as brave and good as he was, what a better world this would be. I put this link here in the hope others will watch it too:


One of Seeger’s choices to pay attention to: he refused to do a commercial selling cigarettes with the Weavers. The other three were willing in order to be paid the big sum. He saw correctly this was agreeing to sell cancer, and would change the meaning of their folk group ever after. A small but important gesture. However, not powerful beyond himself since so many would sell themselves. The program is well worth watching for understanding the success of the political hounding of this man and how what could have been a progresive politically galvanizing change in the US through folk music was thwarted: Seeger was centrally responsible for the folk revival in the 1960s, but it could in the 50s (when he was part of the Weavers) and more recently been a force for political change but has not. We see the role the FBI has played in the US since the 1940s.

For more songs, testimony, and life history of Seeger see my blog Pete Seeger has died.


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The important thing is not to take it [whatever happens] as a punishment

I do like to be beside the seaside

Vince (Ray Winston), Lenny (David Hemmings), Ray (Bob Hoskins), Vic (Tim Courtney) — Jack’s son & his friends about to throw Jack’s ashes into the sea

Amy (Helen Mirren), Jack’s wife saying goodbye permanently to June (Laura Morelli), Jack’s daughter

Dear friends and readers,

Last Orders in Graham Swift’s magnificent and moving book, and in Fred Schepisi’s film of the same name refers to closing time in pubs: just before 11 when it used to be time to close, everyone drinking placed his or her last orders; it also refers to Jack Dodds’s last orders before he died: he asks that his ashes be scattered on Margate Pier where he and Amy, his wife, spent their delayed honeymoon, nearly 50 years ago.

Jim’s last orders were to cremate him, buy an urn which looked like the urn in the HD Met opera, Giulio Cesare, engraved with a witty turn on Rupert Brooke:

If I should die, think only this of me
   That there’s some corner of a foreign mantelpiece
That is for a while England.

Beyond that nothing indicated, only (implied) do as little as possible. I probably did not follow that last (implied) instruction, but then in Swift’s novel & Schepisi’s film, Amy does not herself go to Margate, but rather spends one more day visiting her and Jack’s severely retarded daughter, June, for nearly 50 years an inmate of a mental asylum (of a large type that doesn’t exist any more).

As the day begins, three men waiting for Vince to arrive with fancy car, look at Jack’s ashes

First startling flashback: Jack (Michael Caine) feels larger than life, drinking

I got through the last two nights and days and this morning by rereading Swift’s novel (which I’ve assigned to classes several times), watching the film twice (once with Schepisi’s voiced commentary) and reading in a favorite book of poems for Jim: John Betjemann’s Summoned by Bells. Both texts and movies evoke & picture worlds, milieus in England that Jim growing up participated in. And Last Orders is the story of a post-funeral rite: Jack’s four friends take a journey, drive across southern England, from London, into towns, to a war memorial, a farm (Wick’s) where Jack’s parents as young half-broke adults met and made love in, where June was conceived (so a couple of night’s love-making determined their lives as the two married), Canterbury (the cathedral), onto Margate by the sea. During the journey through (in the film) flashbacks and (in the book) intertwined subjective meditations, they each travel in memory to different stages in their shared pasts.


Inside the car

On the bus

It’s a quest into the self for each of them. A return. In the book it is towards the end that we learn it was to Margate Jack and Amy went for their honeymoon, a honeymoon taken after they married (a forced marriage) and the birth of a severely mentally retarded daughter. In the book they fail to rejuvenate their marriage; the film wants us to believe that Jack’s love for Amy and hers for him made for a solid relationship; in the book we see that though they continued to live side-by-side for 50 years, both were dissatisfied; both felt trapped. Nonetheless, Jack wanted to go back; he dreamt of returning (though it’s probable he knows he didn’t have the money), but he wants to make up to Amy what he had not in him at the time to do: to be some substitute for all she ever wanted out of life. Not having gone back in life, he asks that he be brought there in death. She refuses to accompany the men. He has not compensated her for all she has given up to comfort his hurt male ego: one way a man is said to be manly, the effective man, is to have successful children. Jack wanted more: he wanted a son Amy adopts while he is away at war, Vince, to follow him in his butcher business as he did his father though he would’ve liked to try to become a doctor. Three of the men would have preferred a career other than the one they ended up with: Lenny wanted to be a star boxer, and Ray a jockey.

Young Jack (J.J.Feilds) and Amy (Kelly Reilly) with very young Vince and Sally at the seaside

Ray and Amy reading Jack’s last orders — the Thames a continual presence in their bench scenes

Thematically it’s a return to the sea. Margate is haunted by memories in the minds of the characters, though the sea is unchanging and seems not to notice the human beings or time that passes through it; human beings can’t leave a mark on it; life comes from it and Jack returns to it. People came from it
as life did; they return to it to enjoy themselves. I do like to be beside the seaside, by the beautiful sea. Is man a noble animal? He has aspirations and we see in these aging men their disappointed aspirations.

Amy also takes a trip: a long bus trip to the asylum where weekly she goes to see (never recognized) by their daughter, June. One summer 25 years ago Ray and she went there and then for the rest of the summer they traveled about in a camper: the most fulfilling heterosexual love she has known is with Ray. It’s her words about him being a lovely man that we remember at the book’s close: “Oh Ray, you’re a lovely man, you’re a lucky man, you’re a little ray of sunshine, you’re a little ray of hope.” He is the providential figure of the book, winning great sums at races when people need it, personally unambitious. Ray thinks Jack knew (p. 284). We see in Michael Caine’s eyes in the hospital whenever the camper mentioned that he did know and he expects (ambiguously it’s hinted) Ray and Amy will now become a pair. And his sole concern is to make sure the £20,000 he owes on the shop is paid so Amy will be free of harassment and solvent. But I noticed this time how scared Amy is now on the bus; you wouldn’t think Jack no longer being alive in the world would affect her safety and security, but she feels this blank as fear. (That’s how I feel w/o Jim; it is my strongest emotion, the source of anxiety attacks.)

In the film it seems certain Ray and Amy will now travel to Australia; she’s no longer land-locked, but in the book we never know for certain. The weekly trip is partly spite, partly to get back at Jack for not wanting her. She presents it as a love gesture, a gesture of deep longing as the mentally retarded individual can’t even recognize Amy as her mother (or refuses to). Over the course of the novel Amy adopts three other children in compensation: Vince, whose family is destroyed by a bomb from a plane, who becomes their son; Sally (Lenny and Joan’s daughter) who they have to exclude from Vince’s aggressive sexuality aimed at Sally; and then Mandy, who seeks to run away from abusive parents but ends up in a new home quickly, and whom Vince marries. But Amy never does give up that weekly bus-ride — until this day of Jack’s death. She will not return again; it’s time to make a new life for herself. I find that true to life.

I noticed that in the movie flashbacks move chronologically; in book they are placed so as to give us the most emotional impact at the right moment.

Old Jack and Ray where Jack is showing Ray his debts and Amy’s photo once again

Young Jack and Ray (Anatol Yousef), where Jack is ever slightly taunting Ray

It’s a book written from a strongly masculinist point of view, more interested for example in Ray’s betrayal of Jack (who half-teased Ray cruelly about Ray’s lack of height and physical prowess) than Amy’s in this deeply happy love affair. In book and film it’s left ambiguous whether Jack knew, but it seems he did and never tried to gain any revenge. Ray manages to have these trysts by the use of a small camper he takes Amy to June with. Their times together are described as “traveling about.” Amy thinks how the bus ride is the high point of her week. “It’s where she belongs,” what she enjoys most. We see her riding on the top of a double decker looking about her. High up. I know I love a train ride for similar reasons

Camper at races, Ray and Amy making love inside

As opposed to the men of the book, the women never get a chance to wander away from their community; they are enclosed in relationships dominated by men or reaching toward men. At the close of the book Ray tells Amy he has won the money necessary to pay off a mortgage to (presumably the usual brutal debt collectors), and asks her if she’d like to go with him “down under.” “Well Ray, Australia is very far away, but I always did like traveling about.”

Most of the pub scenes do not include the women: here we see the younger actors

Women characters are important though they are seen through the perspective of men and their lives are controlled by men. A kind of archetypal femininity going on: seduction, wife, the one in the home who makes it; who is bound by it. Mandy tries to escape and ends up with a new father and mother; she doesn’t get very far — she is a good wife to Vince; both live close to parents and see each other daily. Vince may not become a butcher, but he remains close to his father, needing him and needed.

Women’s journey is landlocked; domesticity as tedious, as historyless. They are seen as inward. They lack a story of their own; but the men’s stories are pre-determined by their cultural norms of masculinity which tie them up in knots. Men cannot dismiss the unreal and illegitimate norms that they (Lenny as prize fighter and now peddler) has allowed to blight and control his real inner emotions. His earlier youthful sardonic realism is now bitter and angry as he lashes out at Lenny for having impregnanted Sally, Lenny’s daughter, and deserted her. She now makes money selling herself, her present husband a convict. But it was Lenny who insisted she have an abortion rather than shame him. Your gender determines your kind of freedom or lack of it and this book shows us unfree women. Thejourney and ceremony are a male enterprise in the film; the males go off to war. But they are bound by state and money and class they are born in.

Old Jack, dying, asking Vince to find £1000 for him

Younger Vince telling his father, Jack, you must go work for supermarket, and then giving Jack a few quid to tide him over

It’s also about parents and children: we have generational conflicts. Vince keeps his father at a distance, wants his self-interest to reign above all. We do see the emotional isolation of these people while they all yearn to connect. Mutual disloyalty binds them to one another. Like life.

They are entrapped in frailty and biology, in nature’s processes, in society where they are thrown. It’s also an excess of affection and intimacy which betrays people. You give too much; you burden the other person, and you want too much back. Fantasies of idealism lie behind slogans of family values.

Coming into present time Margate

The book is also an elegy to an England that no longer exists, several Englands (like Summoned by Bells), the film a trip through history. Pub, restaurant, meadow, great cathedral which goes back in time, but most centrally a natural place again: working class holiday in Margate. Simple language
resonates out to deeper truths contained in simple statements. “It was the luck of a summer night (p 268) why you are saddled with one person and not another.” Comical wry as well as gallows humor: Jack is now “a Jack in the box;” he’s carried around in a plastic bag one can carry a jar of coffee in. England’s continual raining: “Atrocious weather” (says Amy, p 276) “Not far to go now Jack” Says Vince craddling the box with the ashes in it as they near Margate (in November).

Walking up to the cathedral

Places: Canterbury Cathedral, an historically specific site and spiritual place, a threshold into old religion; Margate a seedy holiday resort and out of season too, yet place of oceanic timelessness, of dreams and departures. Along the way, the pub they met at all their lives, Bermondsey; the pub they eat at, the war memorial with all the names of who died; and they remember being torpedoed Wick’s farm (the wick of a candle) where the agricultural techniques go back centuries. Places become meaningful to us as they embody our memories and the history we share with others. The hospital and race-course. The phone where Amy hears of Jack’s death from heart strain. Lots of deaths are told over a phone today. The present is dwindled. I like the lack of condescension; I like his choice of working people. A vision of a modern industrialized country as average people.


In cathedral others tour and Ray remembers

the day he propositioned Amy by telling her he’d retired & can now come with her to visit June

The book reminds me of Faulkner in that chapters are named after characters, and in each character’s chapters we are in that character’s consciousness traveling through the past. Schepisi says one of the difficulties of the film was to make it appear a narrative. It jumps around in time zones. In life thogh when someone tells a story, they don’t tell it straightforwardly. You go back in time; then relate that to another past, going back and forth by association. Since the book is written in London working class dialect, this can make for hard reading. In a film you must let the period shown tell itself – not cut to furniture or prams or signs; must keep drive of emotional drama; absolute accurate detail will give the time away so the viewer does not get lost.

Jack Dodds — he’s dead when the story opens. Jack was a powerful intense presence in these people’s lives. In a sense he’s really not dead at all. In the film they alternate Michael Caine alive with scenes of the box of ashes. What is striking about the box of ashes as we look at it? We think that’s what we’ll be someday. Get used to it. In the book he remains a central figure in their minds.

Ray Johnson. It’s arguable he’s the chief character is Ray Johnson. He gets the most chapters. He is the most perceptive and articulate. His words are sheer poetry. He is tempted not to give Amy the £20,000 we watch Jack engineer for her: by asking Vince for £1000 and then asking Ray to bet on it extravagantly. Jack dies at a moment of intense happiness when on TV he watches the chosen horse win. at times. Ray does replace Jack by the end; Ray enabled Vince to open his car business; and it seems that Ray was a central supporting character in Jack’s life and Jack in Ray’s. Ray will take Jack’s place; Jack knows this. He is the single organizing consciousness; he gets the most profound lines. We are told he is intelligent; he has it “up here;” he does not come from people who would send him to university. However, he is no more of a worldly success than the others and he retires as soon as he can — reminding me of Jim. Vince wants to make big money, have fancy cars, go on fancy vacations. If you don’t, you’re nothing. Swift’s story critiques this idea as cruel and unreal demands. People can’t get much farther than they start out. Truth is we are thrown. Ray the odd fairy godfather of a book where the world is supposedly ruled by “blind chance.”

His daughter, Susie, leaves him; he gets the money for her to go to Australia with the young man she has fallen in love with. In that one moment he is a sterling human being in kindness, insight, offers her a life she wants. But as a result his wife leaves him too (!). She can’t bear to lose the daughter. We don’t own and can’t control our children to follow us in life is an important lesson of the novel. When young, he’s scared of sex, small, chubby, unprepossessing. Swift explodes false notions of males. He is in a way the strongest of the four males — emotionally. He carries weight of Vince when Jack can’t; Vince goes to live with Ray. Uncle Ray. He’s a brother to Jack too. Carol, Ray’s wife, leaves him too because the camper is the last straw — her idea of travel is far more elegant, glamorous; she would love to travel far (like Amy she wants something not in her husband),

Winston as Vince deeply moved remembering and scattering ashes of father into English farm

Vince Dodds (originally Pritchett). Given the most complicated personality. In conflict with the father yet loves him intensely. Hurt because adopted, hurt over June as his real sister. Wants to compete and come out high. He vomited in the meat van; did not like being poor or working class. He never for a moment considers that what hurts him most are values he need not believe in and in fact doesn’t really live by. He’s his parents’ son; he marries the girl they brought home to him; he lives near by. He shops for his wife. Indeed he’s got the tenderest of hearts. He has consciously taken on and believes in vicious values as in his exploitation of Lenny’s daughter’s vulnerability, he beat her too (Sally).

In the novel he’s not a nice person. A bully, a manipulator, not too honest. He desert Sally pregnant. He allows his daughter, Kath, to sell herself to a wealthy comer. He betrays his daughter, Kath just as Jack betrayed his, June — according to Amy. Lenny also betrayed Sally though in paying for her abortion (with money Ray again won at the races) though Lenny meant well. It is important to understand the terrible stigma of a child out of wedlock in the 1940s; her life would have been ruined. It was ruined anyway, but not really Lenny’s fault. Vince didn’t try to help Kath. Yet makes money for others, & must take care of them; & has a tender heart and strong passions and at moments means well. Ray Winston is wonderful in the part.

Vince is also very domestic. He is a house-husband to Mandy who in a sense was his sister. The ultimate rebel never left his father’s aegis; stayed close; is there all the time. That’s another reason he’s a success in a way. But maybe this value is a good one. Swift leaves you to think and decide. Why should men be ashamed of having feelings? This is awful to jeer at. Modern too: he moves way from the earth, from flesh, to machines. He wants to move fast in a powerful automobile.

Ironically Mandy seems luckiest in some ways. We don’t see much of her and don’t know how she feels about Vince or her daughter, Kath. Later in the book Amy thinking about the world as intense competition and failure, says to herself maybe June was better off where she was. She does not mean that fully.

Emphasis in film on four men and their view of world — here in a pub having lunch

Victor Tucker, an undertaker who took over his father’s business too. Learnt to accept his role during WW2. He tucks people away. We are asked to see him as the most content. He’s the priest of the book. He’s come to terms with himself. I find his portrayal the least satisfying of the novel. He
ought to be more conflicted. However, a brilliant actor, Tom Courtney, got the part. Courtney decided to emphasize Vic as conciliator and one who says “you can’t judge other people.” We do like that value. He did the first funeral; he brings the jar. We are seeing a much better funeral than usual. No false ceremony; no huge amounts of money. Here we find real grief and an attempt to confront real conflicts among the men. Vic is Unobtrusive, the mediator; he knows to keep secrets. Victor also suggests Victory. His beautiful descriptions of Canterbury cathedrale bring out history and rootedness.

Lenny held back from trying to fight with Vince

Lenny Tate. A disappointed man; in the book we see he will die next. Not in good health. Exboxer he now peddles fruit and vegetables. He doesn’t want to use the word death. Says the uncomfortable thing, the truth. He is bitter, resentful. He can’t help but punch out. And he points to things: Why is Amy not here? Amy ought to come. He calls Vince Big Boy to needle him. High point of drama in the movie is when Lenny attacks Vince at Wick Farm while Vince is scattering ashes where his parents first met and also told him he was adopted.

What’s Amy like? Her voice really first emerges in the second half of the novel. A beauty, a siren (Kelly Reilly is beautiful) when young attracts Jack, Lenny, Ray, but herself entrapped by her body and nature. Mandy is her replacement for Vince. Both Amy and Mandy make love in the camper (so too Sally). We see in the film and hear about in the book how Vince is comforting Amy now that Jack is dead. Some of the finest moments are hers fully remembering. She does like retreat. The world a hard harsh place, p 239. But retreat costs and were it not for the fairy tale winnings she’d have vicious thugs at her door demanding £20,000.

Narrators: Ray, Amy, Vince, Lenny, Vic, Mandy, Jack. We don’t hear from Joan, Pam, Carol, Sally or Kath. We hear Mandy only once (pp 153ff), and near the book’s close, Jack (p. 285). In the film Ray and Amy do the remembering outside the hospital a week before Jack dies, and the men in the car do the remembering as they move through the day.


Young Jack telling very young Vince he’s adopted and about June

Young Amy looking on and wishing Jack wouldn’t

I have read that much in the book reflects Swift’s own life. Fred Schepisi said that the actors he hired all connected back to this working lower middle class background in England as did he in Australia. Jack a version of his father and Amy of his mother.

I read the book and watched the movie to extend my enactment of a funeral and cremation. So as not to feel so alone. Graham’s point of view on life is one I agree with. And its Englishness brought me close to my husband no longer alive, more gone than Jack in the fiction since so few got to know him, and only I have tried to extend his consciousness into the world.

The last still of the movie

Where has Jack gone? What is death? What do we mean by it? Swift explores the body and how people feel in their bodies. When the body dies, the person dies. But the person was not just his or her body. Jim is still here in my memory and in all the things in the house he helped acquire and enjoyed. He is not yet cremated and I don’t know how I shall really feel about having Jim-in-an-urn in this house on the mantelpiece. I want to scatter the ashes — preferably in England if I can get back — he need be “only for a while” on that mantelpiece: I shall interpret that line that way. I’m not a character in an ancient drama. I’m with Amy in Last Orders who was chary of accompanying her husband as ashes to Margate.


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Marquis of Steyne (Gerard Murphy) the one strong man in the film who sees through Becky (Natasha Little) as a liar, thief but wants her intensely (1998 BBC/A&E Vanity Fair, scripted Andrew Davies, directed Marc Munden)

The Marquis of Steyne (Gabriel Byrne) propositions Becky (Reese Witherspoon), played for comedy (2004 Focus Vanity Fair, directed Mira Nair, scripted Julian Fellowes)

the Dobbin figure, though apparently clumsy, yet dances in a very amusing and natural manner: the Little Boys’ Dance has been liked by some and please to remark the richly-dressed figure of the Wicked Nobleman, on which no expense has been spared — the Manager

Dear friends and readers,

I recently re-watched Andrew Davies’s magnificent film adaptation of Wm Thackeray’s Vanity Fair and felt I had walked into a terrain shared by Anthony Trollope & Thackeray too. In Davies’s depiction of the male characters in Vanity Fair he makes visible what drew Trollope to Thackeray and where Trollope’s texts resemble Thackeray’s. So much criticism and ordinary reader commentary concentrates on Becky Sharp and Amelia Sedley This criticism marginalizes a large group of characters by Thackeray given equal importance: Dobbin, George Osborne and his father; Joseph Sedley and his and Amelia’s father; Rawdon and Rawdon’s son (made more important in all the movies), the Marquis of Steyne; the older and younger Pitt Crawleys, not to omit Becky’s memories of her drawing master alcoholic father (and how no one else forgets such a man was her father).

I began to realize how in his Thackeray, Trollope’s perspective on Thackeray derived from how Trollope was consciously looking at Thackeray from the point of view of his success as a novelist and more generally as a man: Trollope had in mind criteria of masculinity and what makes a man admired. Trollope measured Thackeray from the point of view of the man’s career and unlucky marriage. In the sections in Thackeray on Thackeray’s novels Trollope shows a fascination with Thackeray’s strong women (Rachel and Beatrice as well) and ethical men. Thackeray’s is a strongly gendered fiction as is Trollope’s and Davies strongly gendered films.

Strong women, weak men — a development of this kind of contrast is central to Davies’s films, Thackeray’s VF and Henry Esmond, and some of Trollope’s novels, but especially He Knew He Was Right, one of the two Trollope novels that Davies has chosen to do, and the choice is highly unusual because of the explicitness of the theme of the partly despised because anguished male. I’d been reading Trollope steadily once again for months now, criticism, writing papers & proposals, and watching Davies’s movies. A couple of months ago I returned to Thackeray through Trollope’s literary life of him, and feel that it was Trollope’s life of Thackeray enables me to see a shared territory between the three of them in a nervous exploration of real men’s lives and psyches against what is expected of them.

The blog is about how one can see the convergence of Thackeray and Trollope’s points of view in the way Davies adapts them. As I’ve gone over these themes in other blogs on Trollope, I’ll concentrate on Vanity Fair here, one where the exploration of masculinity’s ordeals and losses is insufficiently emphasized, especially given how prevalent it is in the book & films.


First shots & male: POV child Becky looking at her sick, impoverished dying drawing master father (1998 BBC/A&E Vanity Fair, scripted Davies)

So, memory too a bitter desire for revenge may be part of Becky’s motives in Davies’s film, brought out as partial explanation for her coldness; but its source for Davies is her relationship with her father which Davies’s film begins with. This father is referred to many times in the film adaptation as that which in her background makes her unacceptable: Thackeray did make her a daughter of a drawing master and everyone refers to it at some poit. Who was her grandfather? In the film Becky’s memory is this picture. She’s getting back.

The young men are tied to and dependent on the women in this book and film:

George Osborne (Tom Ward) about to collapse into Amelia (Emmy’s) arms the night before Waterloo (Davies’s VF)

Lady Jane (Sylvestre le Touzel tells young Pitt she’ll leave him if he allows Rebecca to be part of their lives again (Davies’ VF)

Older men are part of the continuum. An unexpectedly powerful thread in the story-line of Davies’s film is a contrast between the anguished failure of Amelia’s father and the seething loneliness and self-hatred of George Osborne’s father in his scenes first with his son, then bullying his daughter, and then trying to reach his grandson (hopelessly) through drink:

Grief striken Mr Osborne (Tim Woodward) with his grandson (Davies’ VF)

The depiction of Mr Osborne is extensive: his grief for his son George and his mis-bringing up his grandson — he is but a child and cannot drink with his grandfather the way the son did.

Thackeray gave Davies’s the trajectory of the abject Dobbin finally at the close realizing he’d wasted his life in worship of a small foolish woman too late:

Philip Glenister brilliant in the part (Davies’ VF)

Where Thackeray neglected a potentially tragic male, Davies built the character up: Davies gives us Rawdon and Becky’s courtship, Rawdon’s becoming subject to Becky, sharing, giving his all, trusting her naively (while not naive in any other area of his life), then gradually awakening to her coldness (to his boy) and unconcern for him. Rawdon cries. His becomes the moving story of the movie:
Rawdon (Nathaniel Parker) looking at her, saying I gave you all (Davies’ VF)

In a sense he dies of the loss (escape is his solution, but Coventry is a death sentence) giving the boy to Lady Jane who not having a child of her own, ironically the boy Rawdon becomes the owner of the estate

The accent is on heterosexual males except perhaps Joseph Sedley who modern critics tend to turn into the book’s closet (or unaware) homosexual, his debonair plumpness and lack of military prowess and woman companion inviting this.

The awkward Joseph (Jeremy Swift), the films first shot (Davies’ VF)

Some critics go so far as to suggest it’s not Dobbin or George Osborne Thackeray has put part of himself in, but Joseph Sedley with his love of gourmet eating too. At any rate, the sexual angle in Davies’s Vanity Fair brings home the vulnerability of males to female sexuality; the males whatever their orientation are presented as enthralled and subject to women again and again, even where it’s not admitted or maybe especially.

Characters degraded, debased, become, however sordid and ugly, poignant in their vulnerability to loneliness: thus the aging Pitt (David Bradley) whose children by his 2nd wife Becky first becomes governess to and is a harsh semi-grotesque character is pitiable when we last see him and he’s lost Becky:

Old man (David Bradley) lonely at desk (Davies’s VF)

Nair and Fellowes pick up the depiction of comic lechers in Thackeray as shattered pitiable. Davies gives Steyne insight into Becky’s lies, thievery, ridiculous veneration of ribbons and the highest-ranking people.

In my paper Trollope’s “Comfort Romances for Men” I argued Trollope was developing an unconventional portrait of manliness out of identification and concern; last week I came across similar approaches to a continuum of males in Trollope: from Gordon Ray and Peter Shillingsburg to Joseph Litvak (Strange Gourmets); I’ve been aware for a long time how Davies’s key identifications are with the non-macho transgressive males, the inept and inadequate, the Oedipal struggle, gay men. This is not the first time Davies has made me aware of an underlying stratem in work no one ever wrote about before.

I know that Davies changes the story. For his exploration of masculinity I’d call it (the term would be manliness in Victorian times), the story of Rawdon and Becky’s relationship is much extended and show more centrally — to the point that when Rawdon is rowed away to Coventry (and we know death), the series seemed to suddenly collapse for a moment or so; we had reached its natural ending. Davies though picks up strong with the reappearance of Dobbin and bringing Emmy centrally onto the stage, and again he has changed the story as it’s not until very late in the book that Emmy realizes the piano was from Dobbin. The way Davies at first shows them as clearly a pair after Dobbin returns from India, with Emmy appearing to fall in love with Dobbin is not in Thackeray

Dobbin (Glenister) given more dignity by having Emmy (Frances Grey) in love with him and her boy look up to him in Pumpernickel (Davies’ VF)

so that in the film adaptation Dobbin gets two powerful scenes of her betrayal while (if I’m remembering right) there is but one in the book, and Dobbin’s disillusion is omitted except that the words used in his second betrayal are about how she is not worth his devotion much more emphatically. The men’s bullying their wives is given full play — the way men treated women in the 1820s. Admittedly this is not in Trollope except late in his career (it’s in The Way We Live Now but early books has women liable to bully men) — that’s a real part of Thackeray’s and Davies’s feminism.

Steyne terrorizing his otherwise snobbish aristocratic wife by implicitly threatening to tear her ear with her earring (Davies’ VF)

Gambling and cheating (in all its aspects) are elements in the build up of perverted men, destroyed men (by the system they live in). Gentlemen must not work and when disinherited are simply without funds to carry on because they must inherit money as gentlemen or are businessmen, but they must not fail as Mr Sedley (David Ross) did:

His mind shattered, he clings to rolls of paper

This would have been George Osborne’s case had he lived. The woman are oddly not destroyed and remain strong psychologically — that is very much Davies, I am not sure about Thackeray not having read him enough but do remember how strong Beatrice was in Henry Esmond and something I read by Sutherland suggests the strong woman who is amoral and yet a heroine is what struck Thackeray’s contemporaries.

Gambling is bisexual in the sense that Rawdon acts with Becky until she goes too far and betrays him — and that life’s a gamble in the book.

First shot of Becky and Rawdon married — she’s counting up his winnings (Davies’ VF)

Davies shows how Rawdon allows himself to be corrupted and is cheating for Becky for years; but Becky has been stealing since she first left Miss Pinkerton’s and the stash of jewels found by Rawdon are many years in the making. This is re-emphasized in the coach when Lady Jane recognizes Becky’s super expensive shawl as a shawl that was in Queen’s Crawley years ago and has (she now realizes) gone missing. Becky does gamble to live by the end.

I have meant this blog to be about a convergence of themes in Trollope, Thackeray and Davies, so some areas I’ve not looked into as yet: for example Thackeray’s distaste for snobbery that Davies shares but Trollope defends. Seen in the light of depiction of problems of masculinities, its false materialistic values, “snobbery” destroys people — ethically too. Thackeray shows us how sentimental folk turn away from financially ruined snobs especially.

Davies’s Melmotte’s (David Suchet) downfall: he wanted to be an English gentleman: part 2 of film opens with dumb show of him having himself painted with a gun, dog, and backdrop of country house and curtain (2001 TWWLN, scripted Davies, directed Diarmuid Lawrence

Another is the characters’ urge to find a high status as a gentleman and the demands this elite image makes. Robin Gilmour’s 1981 book, *The Idea of the Gentleman in the Victorian Novel*, contains a long chapter on Thackeray’s gentlemen, focusing on the shift from dandyism and military glory to domesticity. It’s the kind of book summaries don’t help with as the insights are intricate to the argument and come fast and many over each page. The best review I could find was by Alexander Welsh, half of whose review is on Mark Girouard’s Idea of Chivalry.

The nervous edgy violence of Jonathan Rhys Meyers captures this aspect of Osborne best (Nair’s VF)

Simon Raven’s book about the death of the ideal and type of gentlemen in the UK is relevant because Raven wrote the first The Way We Live Now script (1969), which I suspect Davies’s based his adaptation on — but I cannot get to see as I cannot travel to London this summer.

Emily (Laura Fraser) and Louis (Oliver Dimsdale) fail to cope with the arch rake, Colonel Osborne (Bill Nighy) who knows just how to insinuate himself (2004 HKHWR, scripted Davies, directed Tom Vaughn)

I’ll close on parallel concerns with masculinity between Thackeray’s and Trollope’s books: He Knew He Was Right dwells on internal psychological intangible states as brought out in psycho-social dynamics, all shaped by sexuality, social norms and fears (especially male anxieties, ego needs), and money and power; The Way We Live Now an analysis of the larger forces of society as we see them enacted by individuals, not just prophetic of today, but enacting the same patterns we see today albeit different costumes.

Trollope’s attitudes emerge as closely similar through his paradigms and voice-presence. Davies of course saw this in his choice of the two and the ways he handled them, though his TWWLN reminds me of modern mini-series like the 1991-5 House of Cards, the modernity of his and Hooper’s Daniel Deronda and subversion of costume drama’s pieties in Davies’ Moll Flanders; HKHWR takes on some cheer and strong women from Plater’s Barchester Chronicles. Davies though specifically has his younger males, like Paul Montague, repudiates the model of the “mature” man marrying the girl (she forced into it) as tyrannical, egotistic, appetitive disgusting (so much for Plantagenet Palliser ….)

Davies in his one original novel, Getting Hurt, gives us a man as uncertain, anxious and shattered as Louis Trevelyan. And as lonely as Dobbin. Our aloneness another theme angled similarly in Trollope, Thackeray and Davies.

Ah! Vanitas Vanitatem! Which of us is happy in this world? Which of us has his desire? or, having it, is satisfied? — Come, children, let us shut up the box and the puppets for our play is played out — the Manager


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Thackeray’s drawing of the jester-narrator of Vanity Fair

Dear friends and readers,

Over the last several weeks a few of us on Trollope19thCStudies read Trollope’s An Autobiography and, as a coda, his Thackeray. Trollope had spent the time of writing An Autobiography thinking about the relationship of his life to his fiction, and he carries on with a similar perspective in Thackeray. As his Thackeray is not much discussed, I thought an account of its parts might be welcome. It is much much better than those who have read it have acknowledged.

In The Cambridge Companion to Trollope, ed CDever and LNiles, Victoria Glendinning has an essay on Trollope as autobiographer & biographer and, unusually, deals with Trollope’s Thackeray and Life of Cicero. As she does in parts of her biography of Trollope, she says while Trollope clearly revered Thackeray Trollope’s tone is of a friend watching a good friend play tennis and “agonizing as he sees him knocking the ball into the tent.” It is true as she says though that Trollope is exasperated by Thackeray’s lack of work ethic, view of society, destestation of “snobbishness” (I’d call this in Thackeray hatred of what Thackeray sees as worship of rank and hierarchy), Thackeray’s “abnormally bad” characters (that’s Trollope’s view).

For those unfamiliar with Thackeray’s writing who are daunted by too many pages, you cannot do better than A Shabby Genteel Story and Other Tales, as edited and beautifully introduced by D. J. Taylor in the Everyman edition. A Shabby Genteel Story is a sort of Vanity Fair in little; Thackeray’s “Going to a Hanging” is included; as Hugo’s Last Day in the life of a Condemned Man presents the cruelties of the rituals & realities of state murder from the condemned person’s point of view so Thackeray exposes the crowd enjoying it. There’s “On Being Found Out,” good notes.

Wm Makepeace Thackeray (1811-63)

The Introduction: Trollope begins by telling us he is hampered by a lack of papers and knowledge of Thackeray’s intimate life, so has determined to write a literary study, consisting of a brief general sketch of Thackeray’s life and character, and individual discussions of Thackeray’s writing. He makes use of whatever he has, including Thackeray’s friends’ memories. What Trollope creates is the picture of a successful literary career. Trollope was unusual for his time in presenting his own life as an author as a life of a career professional, and now repeats this perspective for Thackeray. This is how he puts his aim:

it certainly is not my purpose now to write what may be called a life of Thackeray. In this preliminary chapter I will give such incidents and anecdotes of his life as will tell the reader perhaps all about him that a reader is entitled to ask: how he became an author, and will say how first he struggled, and then how he worked and prospered, and became a household word in English literature; — in this way, he passed through that course of mingled failure and success which, though the literary aspirant may suffer, is probably better both for the writer and for the writings than unclouded early glory. The suffering no doubt is acute, and a touch of melancholy, perhaps of indignation, may be given to words which have been written while the heart has been too full of its own wrongs; but this is better than the continued note of triumph which is still heard in the final voices of the spoilt child of literature, even when they are losing their music. Then I will tell hew Thackeray died, early indeed, but still having done a good life’s work. Something of his manner, something of his appearance I can say, something perhaps of his condition of mind because for some few years he was known to me. But of the continual intercourse of himself with the world, and of himself with his own works, I can tell little, because no record of his life has been made public.

So we learn of Thackeray’s birth in India, his father’s early death and his schooling in England. Thackeray did not lose his fortune sheerly by gambling, dissolute life or incompetence; he invested in a magazine, a very difficult way to make money. We see Thackeray slowly through journalism achieve reputation and financial success. He does not write hagiography, but his evaluation of Thackeray is conditioned by memories of his own arduous struggle. So although Trollope speaks of Thackeray with the highest respect, he harps on Thackeray’s lack of diligence and procrastination=someone who will do it badly. At one point he says had Thackeray gotten a gov’t job he tried for (using influence and for the money) he’d not have had what it takes to get up early in the morning — the portrait is of himself. Trollope does bring in Thackeray’s suffering helped cause the procrastination. Trollope does not specify that Thackeray found urination very painful, probably the result of venereal disease, for which there was no cure and no painkiller but opium. Nor that this disease probably caused Thackeray’s early death.

Trollope’s way of describing Thackeray’s early career rings with truth: how hard it was to break in, how a connection led him to Fraser’s, how his style and genius was recognized. He says again how easy it is to begin being a writer, but to make a career how one must go step-by-step. Thackeray’s way was through journalism. I was impressed by the candour which states that Thackeray fulflled his potential utterly three times really: Vanity Fair, Henry Esmond, Barry Lyndon and in some of the character portraits beyond these books (Colonel Newcombe and literary life in Pendennis). There is a striking comparison of Thackeray with Dickens: Thackeray distrusted his talents and Dickens thought well of his; Trollope feels that the public liked Dickens immediately was not a sign his work was greater at all, and that Trollope’s sympathies are with Thackeray.

Trollope says that Thackeray’s great flaw is a kind of holding back, a refusal to say fully what’s on his mind, a failure to present his vision fully. I suggest some of Thackeray’s holding back is that he was afraid to offend by telling the truth so wrote gentle satire when it was in him to write satire more in Swift and Johnson’s veins. That is the implication of Barry Lyndon which is more like Fielding’s Jonathan Wild in outlook than Tom Jones.

Trollope also critiques Thackeray as an artist: his drawings highlight and visualize the spirit and tone of his books superbly well, but Thackeray can’t draw (with verisimilitude is what Trollope means).

So there is much here on Thackeray as such, irrespective of Trollope. All biographies are after all a picture of the subject through the writer’s mind. Trollope is much troubled by Thackeray’s cynicism and tries to argue he was not a cynic based on his kind heart and generosity to friends and family. To assert that the latter precludes the former is to misunderstand cynicism. Because you generally see the world in bleak hard and realistic terms does not mean you don’t love people; indeed a cynic might be more inclined to help his family (as we see Thackeray desperate to do for his daughters – that’s why he did the lectures which were distasteful to him, very) because the word is such a hard (mean too) place. The false formula comes from a negative view of cynicism. It reminds me of how people — often of religious turns — think atheists are not moral. They are. I’ve found that if a person is religious is not guarantee he or she will be decent or moral; their religion is function of their character not the other way round so many religious people use their religion to justify cruel and inhumane behavior.

Thackeray in Punchblog
A Punch cartoon by Thackeray

Chapter 2: Fraser’s Magazine and Punch. Trollope’s as good as G. H. Lewes in pinpointing what is the central urge of his author’s texts as well as central techniques and use of just the right passage to convey these things. As Trollope says of Lewes’s limited audience, since few people themselves can see these things, this kind of writing often is not appreciated. Again Trollope is also judging Thackeray by his own conscious morality.

Since Trollope clearly enjoys Thackeray enormously and certainly understands his meaning, it may be suspected that without being able to admit it, Trollope sees the validity of Thackeray’s vision. Only Trollope won’t write it. He simply will not write a Catherine as the subject matter is so “deeply unpleasant.” He simply will not present the full amorality of society’s structuring, whether in the ancien regime with an aristocratic pattern the one lauded or after it with the bourgeous one. Trollope doesn’t approve of telling partly because he sees by telling you make what is — this cruel amorality — appealing, even if at end the hero ends up in a bad way (punished). Trollope sees the meanness of human kind as the real target of Thackeray’s snobs, but he says isn’t Thackeray “hard on people?” and they are having sparks of good nature and enjoyment while they behave in these phony ways. Trollope’s right that snobbery is hypocrisy and if you are genuinely wanting to show your luxuries, that’s not wanting to show them as a evidence of your status so as to definition yes the word snob won’t do, but it’s something else Thackeray is fueled by, and Trollope may be right that to make money Thackeray over-worked this vein, but the key here is Trollope doesn’t mind “the humbug” of people as much as Thackeray; he is not against snobbery, finds hierarchy and a climb up and satisfaction in that valid.

For myself everytime Trollope quoted Thackeray and I heard Thackeray’s words I agreed with Thackeray, e.g. “The Broker of the exchanges who bull[ies] … ” (p. 73) When Thackeray says ironically “it does my ‘art good” (p. 78) it is a kind Swiftian vision presented as utter good nature and makes me think of Goldsmith’s Vicar of Wakefield. In each case Trollope analyses Thackeray’s texts to bring out their qualities. The opening with the satire on other novelists Trollope has picked passages which send up the very pith of what novelists had begun to claim was their genius: I’ve “fathomed the mysterious depths of the human mind’ (Trollope society edition, p 64). I love how Trollope marveled at how Thackeray was able to keep up the ironic stance of Barry Lyndon throughout (see paragraph beginning, “The marvel of the book … “, (pp. 72-73)

I rather enjoyed Trollope’s quotations. In the era presenting misspellings was seen as hilarious. There is a class-bias here, but I felt that Thackeray’s misspellings created satires of their own, on the concepts hypocritically supported, some were salacious puns. Stil this kind of thing is easily overdone — most modern readers seem not to have much tolerance for it.

There was only one place where I thought Trollope didn’t get it. The poem he quotes at length about a girl leaving home who almost kills herself. Trollope presents this as simply a ludicrous form of joking about a foolish girl (pp. 68-69). And perhaps consciously Thackeray presented it in this light — it’s quoted without its contextualizing story. But reading it myself straight it seems to me to have real feeling for this girl who wanted to escape and really wanted to kill herself but after all didn’t have he nerve and so went home to unsympathetic and dense people whose response was to “punish” her by depriving her of tea for a fortnight.

Thackeray’s character sketch of Becky Sharp — with dolls

Chapter 3: Vanity Fair. The chapter is much less wide-ranging and has fewer surprises than the previous. There is also not as much about Thackeray’s style in this chapter, but then he’d talked about that in the others. While it seems at first that Trollope has his doubts about Vanity Fair’s moral tendency and thus its value, by the end of the chapter, he has come round to say that the novel gives us a rich journey through the world where we learn something on each page; we see much of its evils and follies but are not allured (says Mr Trollope). First he follows Becky and is ironic himself over her continual successes: Trollope does not believe a Becky would have these successes and thus aims a quiet shaft at the book. He will have it that Becky did love at least a little her very stupid captain. Trollope cannot stand her at some level: over and over again we hear how false Becky is. His own Lizzy Eustace is a loser and not presented at all with any tenderness or identification. (He comes much closer to Thackeray’s Becky with Arabella Trefoil in The American Senator.

Trollope thus also half-disbelieves any man could be so besotted with Becky so Rawdon has got to be stupid. Trollope stands up for Amelia — even then most readers were frank enough to complain about the exemplary heroine – here Trollope does not seem to see that Thackeray is very ambivalent about
Amelia’s kind of goodness and he only quotes how Amelia gets her strong tree to twine herself about; he does not quote Dobbin’s disillusion with Amelia by book’s end and the sense that she’s a parasite on him. (That disillusion may be part of what fuels the ending of Gone with the Wind when Rhett finally gets Scarlett and looks at her and is not keen: “Frankly, my dear … “) But the world around them he cannot deny.

Dobbin (Philip Glenister) home from Waterloo, having left George Osborne dead on the field (1998 Vanity Fair, scripted Davies)

Trollope made me remember Andrew Davies very great 6 hour VF and want to re-see it. I feel that Trollope’s way of seeing Thackeray’s book is closely like that of Davies only Davies is not bothered by Becky’s amorality the way Trollope is. Davies’s idea of Pitt is just such another as Trollope’s Pitt and the actor who played it — David Bradley — perfect. Here Davies’ comic vein succeeds masterfully.

Illustration for Pendennis by Thackeray
Thackeray: a sketch in Pendennis (colorized)

Chapter 4: Pendennis and The Newcombes. I really liked Chapter 4 better than Chapter 3 because I felt Trollope went into the heart of Thackeray more. There are a number of striking insights into the “condition” of Thackeray’s mind that arise from each of his accounts of the books he examines. Trollope does not go in chronological order in order to show us how The Newcomes comes out of Penndennis: like Trollope Thackeray has recurring characters in recurring partly imagined partly real landscapes across books, e.g., Pen is editor of Newcomes; Costigan a mean man (in every sense of the word) recurs. Trollope’s comment is Thackeray’s novels are all like “a slice from the biographical memoirs of a family” (p. 115)

A particularly good general insight: “A sardonic melancholy was the characteristic most common to him, — which, however, was relieved by an always present capacity for instant frolic” (p. 119) The passages Trollope chose to quote were to me like Arnold’s choice of touchstones. For example, on p 118 of the Trollope Society edition, beginning, “What’s the use of it all …” Where Trollope goes off: he’s displeased that Thackeray doesn’t follow conventions (!) and provide happy endings for admirable heroes and heroines. He, Trollope, often does not do this; I wish Trollope did it even less than he does. We have to remember it’s Trollope who thinks a character like Miss Quigley is an ass; Thackeray may not. (p. 117)

For my part I didn’t like Pendennis because I felt despite the satire Thackeray thought altogether too well of Pendennis as s an important type of male. Trollope is right that he’s selfish, worldly, false, padded, caring altogether for things mean and poor in himself. Nor did I like Dickens’s Pip nor Austen’s Emma. To me these characters are dream selves of authors who forgive them because of their social status.

Thackeray’s first illustration for Esmond: the boy: ‘Le pauvre enfant, il n’a que nous’
Chapter 5: Henry Esmond and The Virginians. Henry Esmond appears to be Trollope’s favorite novel, and he thinks it Thackeray’s finest masterpiece. Why? The psychological complexity, the genuine historical content (serious) and the distinctive true (not falsely sentimental) depiction of Esmond’s mother and Beatrice appeal. Trollope admires how Thackeray managed to invent a language that seemed later 17th century and was not pastiche, not false — though on the other hand, Trollope adds that Thackeray never “dropped” this tone and kind of style altogether later. He does use it in the sequel, The Virginians. (In another place Trollope said it was the problem of inventing a language redolent of 1790s French that defeated him in part in La Vendee.)

Trollope prefers HE to VF because of what he takes to be the lack of cynicism in Esmond: its gravity of tone. Trollope keeps emphasizing also that this is a planned book and that is most unlike most of Thackeray’s. (He, Trollope, planned his books and it’s rare — Framley Parsonage is one place — he began to publish a book before he finished it even if after FP he wrote his books as if they were all going to be published in instalment chunks – that was a way of shaping his narrative. Trollope does — as he does most of the time everywhere – avoid discussing the deep sexuality of Thackeray’s Esmond which has the central male loving his mother and marrying her.

I should mention how much I liked Henry Esmond. We’ve read and discussed it twice (!) on Trollope19thCStudies and if anyone cares to you can find weekly postings on it there. Judy Geater put many of the original illustrations into an album. While it’s heavily indebted to Scott (17th century Scotland is part of it), it’s not about politics but private experience, inward. Andrew Sanders has a good chapter on this novel in his Victorian Historical Novel, 1840-1880.

Thackeray’s image of Beatrice come to womanhood

For the concluding three chapters (6 & 7, 8, and the conclusion), see comments.


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Colm Toibin when much younger

Dear friends and readers,

Last night we went to a local bookstore which regularly hosts talks and classes about books (as well as a weekly storybook hour for children and tours too), Politics and Prose. We’d never been there before, and to the area only once, when last July we were invited to come to a fourth of July barbecue (what a treat for us). A member of the Irish embassy asked all those who came to read James Joyce’s Ulysses on Bloom Day. We heard about this because Jim got an email from the Irish embassy which now has his name.

A large old-fashioned bookstore, two floors (!), where books are actually set up by their categories and within that the author’s name (like a library, like Borders once was). A couple tables upfront with latest sellers, and in the back audiobooks on CD. You can wander about and come upon treasures just like this. I saw Alice Kessler-Harris’s A Difficult Woman (a biography of Lillian Hellman) on display, but had decided for Toibin’s Love in a Dark Time: And Other Explorations of Gay Lives and Literature, a book of somewhat rewritten essay-review meditations published elsewhere (the LRB, the NYRB and other places). If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you know how much I like his essays, and how I’ve loved those of his novels I’ve read thus far. It turns out I’ve read 4 of 7 (In praise of Colm Toibin: Un-put-downable).

Last night he was there to promote his latest novel (apparently the 7th), The Testament of Mary. Yes the central character is the Virgin Mary (does she have a last name like the rest of us?). It’s a really a novella, a short one at that, and from what he wrote a retrospective meditation by Mary some 20 years after the brutal crucifixion of her son. She is now living in safety, relative peace, left to herself by all and two visitors show up, one Lazarus. Yes he takes liberties — good historical fiction often does. The core idea is the irretrievableness of what happened and how she cannot forget and if she could change it, do it differently somehow, how she longs to. It’s memories poured out. As a subjective narrative by a women it harks back to his great The South. He seems to have a predilection for writing heroine’s texts (Brooklyn, Henry James in The Master is a kind of male heroine).

What a large crowd. It did not overwhelm the store, but it was much larger than we’d expected of such an intellectual sensitive author. There were not enough chairs for all.

He began by telling us of his trips to Venice and two paintings of the Virgin he had stood before repeated: a Tintoretto, perhaps The Presentation of Jesus at the Temple, and a Titian, The Assumption. What he seems to have liked especially about the latter was her red robe and how she soared above reality. He is himself getting older.

Recent photo — he does look like this, only he is a small man, somewhat bent, light brownish-white skin, light brown hair

Today I see that the Tintoretto has Mary in a red robe too, and the picture’s content against the reason for its festival, takes us across her life.

They were the inspiration for the book. He did not tell us why he wrote it, only that he would like it to be taken seriously and he didn’t mean it as a mock. He didn’t think the church would bother notice it — he said this in answer to one question afterwards. He does read very well, and his voice was how I’d imagined it, Irish lilt but not too heavy. I stayed awake and listening for much of it, though when his register came too low I couldn’t hear it all. We were in the back, having arrived only ten minutes before the “reading” started.

It was obvious he’d done this many times. He was smooth, and seemed such a sweet man. These sorts of things are part of what makes an author successful. The book launch. He’s learned how to do it. Among questions asked were does he have a routine, a place he always writes, what does he write with. He said he writes anywhere and with any thing (mostly a pen) and no he’s not a routine type. He does sometimes have to write a book quickly or whatever quickly lest he forget it; get it down, and then he comes back to work at it. He is not a man who has written a lot of very long books, say like Dickens, Trollope, Margaret Oliphant, Wm Dean Howells, and they all had fixed routines and places they wrote. He has made his career through socializing too and his oeuvre (in pages) most actually be preponderantly non-fiction.

I wanted to reply to something he had said before starting his readings. He said that other “classic” fiction novels, 19th century, were no help “here.” He comically alluded to Lady Catherine de Bourgh, Dickens’s Miss Havisham, they could not help him. Nor Henry James. Perhaps Mrs Touchett (Ralph’s mother, isolated, alone, an “odd” woman.) While he was reading I thought of Daniel Deronda’s mother, Eliot’s older heroine who returns 25 years after giving her son up to another so she could have an operatic career, a life of her own. Now bitter, not remorseful, but regretful because after all she ended up marrying and having children anyway. The dreams she had had not been realized and how here was this son reproaching her.
But the mike was too far away.

I didn’t try to buy anything directly afterwards. The line became very long. Instead we walked three stores down to the Comet, a pizza place with ambience. A large screen played over and over the poignant short Italian film, The Red Balloon. No sound just the images before you. The walls gray. The tables ping-pong, the seats benches. Soft lights. We had two pizzas, small, a white (all cheese, garlicky nothing else) and a red (just tomato sauce topping, more spicy, reminding me in its heavy dough and yummy surface of pizza in NYC in the 1950s, so-called Napoles-like). A carafe of chianti. The place was moderately full.

We talked. We realized this was probably the first book reading we’ve ever gone to as such. Play readings by a group, lectures, maybe a book reading within a performance of other things, but not alone. Jim said we never went to the Folger poetry readings because they cost. This was for free. Also the people were less known and there was obviously time for too much talk. So too much egoism would be on display he felt. I remembered going to listen to Empson read his poem in the Graduate Center in the 1970s. How he read little and talked much of his poetry. But the talk was splendid, really insightful (as Toibin’s was not quite, though not deliberately misleading as say Andrew Davies on his films), and how John Hollander got up to ask questions, all admiring and how Empson (spiteful in this but perhaps made uncomfortable) cut him down, half-mocked him. Also a lecture by Margaret Mead at the Museum of Natural History. All I can recall is how intelligent and humane she was and ever after have reacted to all dismissals of her work, denigrations of her with a memory of this seeing her and knowing they are unfair to her.

We decided we would try some more at this place. Then to support the bookstore, we went back. That’s when I bought Love in a Dark Time. All the Testaments to Mary were gone. To tell the truth, I was not sure I wanted it, as I felt it would be wrapped up in Catholicism as some level, and I’m an atheist. I was sure it’d be feminist in intent. If Toibin had said he found out or invented a last name for her, and told us of it, I might’ve. They had only had his most recent novels: (Blackwater Lightship two copies, one still left, and mostly Brooklyn and The Master, latest and best known. I have them all plus The South and Homage to Barcelona (not there). But there was suddenly one copy as if from deep in a basement (the girl at the counter said it was “a backlist” book), this book of essays. So I snatched it. His essay on Wilde’s exposure of his homosexuality as “found out,” as a person wanting to be “found out” has influenced my thinking ever since.

We got home by 10ish, not too long to write one final blog on Jane Austen’s letters. I’m not going to give them up, but maybe go yet slower and do it by myself. The prompting from Austen-l helps, and the sense (however deluded) of reaching people, but the flak, the continual cliched readings and occasional either preposterous or theoretical agendas don’t help me at all. I waste time and make no friends refuting them.

Earlier that day I had talked on WWWTTA about Temple Grandin’s film about how animals form bonds, friendships, and people’s perception of them, and the trajectory the film belonged to. Really worth while and gotten into other debates on the growing dissemination of how it’s okay for women to subjugate themselves to sadism, even light fun … ), but I’ll add these as brief comments here later today.

We wished we could have more such nights. People are only gradually becoming aware of what a delightful city DC is slowly turning into. The neighborhood around there is small houses, apartments further off, and some shopping blocks. It’s marred by a large street which traffic streams through daily and that obscures the quiet ambience of the play otherwise. I’ve vowed to myself to read Love in a Dark Time, Homage to Barcelona, and (connected to Toibin and the project on book illustrations to Trollope which I’ve just finished — a blog this weekend), Amy Tucker’s The Illustration of the Master.

Reprinted by Tucker, it was chosen by James as a frontispiece for A Portrait of Lady, and could serve as frontispiece for Toibin’s The Master.


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Simon Keenleyside as Prospero

Dear friends and readers,

Lest it be thought I’ve gone over-the-top in my praise of so many of these Met Operas transmitted by HB, my reaction to the first act of Ades’s and Oakes’s Tempest was it’s so still, and “there’s nothing doing.” I didn’t like the (to me) screetch-y high notes of Ariel, nor the lack of long melodic arias. The costumes were trying too hard. Keenleyside with his skin tattoos, feathers on his head, was still not US Indian-like; Ariel in pink fluff with ludicrously heavy-make-up – all green eyes; the lovers far too well-fed and smooth, he like something out of When Knighthood was in Flower, she like some fairy tale maiden in the Blue Fairy Book. Robert LePage’s re-building of aspects of La Scala on stage could have made for a disconnect, it added nothing.

What took time to emerge was the focus on an ethical-psychological relationship between Caliban and Prospero: when Prospero loses Ariel, he’s left without consolatory dreams. Ares really gave us an adaptation, serious interpretation of Shakespeare’s play (Enchanted Island was more Dryden/Davenant).

Audrey Luna as Ariel

The play-story does not depart from any of the hinge points of Shakespeare’s; Meredith Oakes’s script brought over to operatic music Shakespeare’s austere visionary core with its intimations of dream aspiration and realities of brute animal creatures and vicious envious evil (Caliban and the Milanese apart from Ferdinand). The young lovers were appropriately innocent for their short beautiful songs and their and all the music was like Debussy (Pelleas et Melisande) — ever there quietly beautiful. After a while the set also turn of the century, with its conceit the people are in an opera house grew tiresome. Yes there was a computer island, soft sea, and we began to see the slow emergence of Prospero’s character as regretful, remorseful, bitter yet in act willing to forgive began. That’s part of the play’s naturalistic miracles.

The last part or act was so moving to me. Keenleyside showed how well he can act: I identified with him as the older person having to give over, to let go, and I liked the presentation of Caliban as an aspect of the solitary Prospero. None of the really powerful lines were omitted, and Prospero’s response to Miranda’s “O brave new world,” was plangently disillusioned.

Alan Oates as Caliban

I’d like to see it again so I could enter into Act 1 from the perspective of what is to come.

As to the interviews, Deborah Voight can carry these off. To some extent she asks real questions about singing technique. You could see in Ades’s eyes a moment’s oh I wish I didn’t have to do this hype but he managed and gave eloquent interviews where he spoke more simply and directly about writing and putting on the opera and his relationships with the singers. He said that he saw himself as their support.

Some reviews: this review particularly insightful and with good photos and stills. See New York Times review. Another review.


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