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Archive for the ‘novels of sensibility’ Category


Del (Brian Dennehy) and Cody (Lucas Jaye) companionable silence on Del’s front porch (Driveways, 2019, Andrew Ahn)


Dr Daniel Larcher (Robin Renucci) on trial (A French Village, Season 6)

Dear friends and readers,

It’s not that I’m not reading a number of books (if you are wondering why no postings on individual good books for some weeks now), but that I am reading so many I have a hard time getting to the end of any particular one. A more positive reason for another blog on on-line movies is I worry one will disappear from the on-line theaters and I want to put together the rest of my thoughts on the other before re-watching all seven seasons once again.


Kathy (Hong Chau), mother of Cody (Driveways)

Driveways is a suggestive title: the inference of the use of driveways for human encounters in the story is that the US has become a place where opportunities for entering the general community are so rare, space for public interaction so distrustful and therefore fraught, that driveways become a major artery to the uncompanioned heart. The US as shown in this film fosters aloneness through a lack of social structures. You have constantly to be on the move, or it doesn’t matter where you live as you connect through the ubiquitous Internet (for which however you must have electricity). For old people a bare bingo place with rigid rules; for the young a noisy neon-lit darkened areas. Junk food everywhere, what people eat not quite recognizable as food. OTOH, many of the driveways are double and it could be suggested that all these driveways keep people apart as they have little way of meeting one another as they jump in and out of their cars.

We’re given a touching, intelligent, quiet – not improbable pair of stories. Yes this favored sentimental trope of the boy (rarely if ever a girl) at the center finds a kindly father-brother figures, but unlike many such stories, all the circumstances surrounding their relationship do not flinch from realities. Among the non-flinching is at the end the old man is going to live in a unit far away because it is actually the best thing for him to maintain independence and get some care from someone who can be relied on – his daughter, said to be a judge. It’s too far for Cody and his mother, Kathy, to even visit Del. The theme of the movie is not friendship or kindness; it’s that in their situation friendship and kindness is a kind of band-aid that helps pass the time fleetingly but cannot keep people together. Although the story is set in New York State we are never told the name of the town;. I thought that was to suggest this is Everywhere bourgeois America. It’s the situation all are in that’s the core of the story’s narrative.


Driving together — she offers to drive Del to where he needs to go

A single mother – in a flashback we see how she met the father – in a shooting gallery, a bar – he phones her once and it’s clear she wants nothing to do with him nor does he know much about her. And displaced son. Remarkably controlled and effective performances from Hong Chau as Kathy and Lucas Jaye as her 8 year old son. Across the way an aging not well man, widower, who is dependent on others to drive him places, Del, the rightly much respected admired Brian Dennehy – still remembered for his conception and realization of Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman, also in Long Day’s Journey into Night & other such plays. I never saw them but read he played the role of Willy as hard, brash, real mean on the surface — and also originally successful. The two reviews I read (Ebert.com and NY Times) said he made long career by being the authority figure male. So he is here, but now in tender vein, sensitive mode.

Kathy is cleaning out her dead sister’s house which she must do before the real estate person will sell it for her. A big deal is made over how much stuff the sister had – why not? She lived her life and expressed herself through what she gathered — I have a lot of stuff, a nest of comforts all around me — but it does seem as if life literally overwhelmed her. Her cat died and she never noticed. Kathy brings the unfortunate animal out in a plastic black garbage bag but Cody, determined to provide some dignity for the creature, is helped by Del to bury it. Kathy’s job not one to make for connections or rootedness. She writes up medical reports sent her. She need not be anywhere near anybody – it’s also tenuous too probably.

So no one to have a birthday party with – mother and son rescued by the old man in the bingo place and what Tennessee Williams called the Kindness of Strangers. The old man’s happiest memories bound up with his experiences of the Korean war, friends he made there. That says a lot about the US too.

Both reviews complained the film was understated. Well, what a relief. The problem with Fisherman’s Friends was it was forced, forced situations, hyped up exhilaration. You’re at risk of not being pulled in, said another critic.  Right. The film didn’t have ratcheted up melodramatic high points, but its moments of understanding and quiet respect shine out. Del’s long eloquent speech at closure about his regret over opportunities lost, his life too hurried over is then its high point – and the lows, quiet depths, like in the flashback where we see Kathy walk away from said probable father with a lie, are given space and feel.

For me the worst was the humor I was supposed to feel at the transparent ignorance of the nearby white neighbor, Linda (Christine Ebersole). A nosy-body and unconscious racist. I wasn’t amused but I suppose there’s something farcical in how she mistakes fireworks set off by her own bullying son for a terrorist attack. She does make the boy apologize – we can say that for the character.


The library provides rare community space for people to be together.

It’s probably not a film that transcends in any way — except maybe Dennehy’s final eloquence. The movie had so many intriguing differently arranged shots: in the car, suddenly from on high, odd angles. It’s artful.   The producer’s name that comes first is James Schamus. He has had a long career of fine and often low budget movies: with Ang Lee (Taiwanese) a long while back Eat Drink Man Woman, Sense and Sensibility, The Ice Storm, Ride like the Devil. The writers Hannah Bros and Paul Thurteen say in the feature they were reflecting incidents in their own lives. The message: the devastation of the US economy and social life as a result of unmodified disaster capitalism has turned lives into bleak minimal encounters uplifted by rare spirits with kindness and needed friendship meeting now and again.

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Hortense Larcher (Audrey Fleurot) humiliated by chopping off her hair for having had an affair with a Nazi male (this was done to women in France in 1945)

I’ve now written twice about A French Village, probably more times in passing, but in more detailed way just twice, about the opening two seasons (years, 12-13 episodes each in the DVD arrangement) and then seasons three to four (Scroll down). I’ve been so moved and taught so much by seasons 5-7 I want for a third time to convey something of this experience you should not miss.

Season 5: It opens with an ironic title: Paris is liberated. What happens is what when once it is apparent the hideous people in charge during a war are losing, will lose, and may end up killed, all hell breaks loose and no one is safe. People begin killing individualistically. War is a time when killing is allowed, even encouraged, worse gloried in. So these Nazis go about now carrying on last minute spiteful killing (as it were). We see one sadist bully a young officer into shooting to death two children. The collaborators are busy trying more openly to get the Resistance people to help them. People are fleeing who can and are amoral; suddenly many care nothing for relationship or the place. It’s not an original insight but it is courageous and good and salutary of this group of film-makers to show us this happening. This is so rare. It is deeply anti-war.


Marie Germaine

In episode 3 another major character is killed — hung — I saw it coming, or worried about the character, Marie Germaine (Nade Dieu). What is again brilliant is with how much depth she was seen, how unsentimental the depiction — maybe that’s why the stories feel so exemplary. Now I see that Marie was too alone, too solitary and too determined. Raymond Schwartz her first lover (and the chief male star of the series as far as the French TV audience is concerned, Thierry Godard) long ago estranged sort of, but now back with Marie, driven to be in the Resistance – his wife attached herself to a chief collaborator who became the new mayor, but in the dangerous mayhem now ensuing executed as an “example.” So don’t be a collaborator if your idea is to save yourself. We witness a horrifically cruel spiteful scene; just before they leave the Nazis hang 5 men in front of the villagers, many of whom are related. Marie is beginning to, Raymond suddenly declares, take too many risks, and as with real people I’m now seeing that she was too determined, frantic almost to blow up the bridge. (In these war movies one side or other is ever trying to blow up a bridge — this happens in War and Peace.) She risks her life for this symbol under fire to reach a connective wire and Raymond pulls her back. She then flees because she says she must contact someone else. She should have stayed with her companions.

She is unexpectedly captured, and about to be shot, but events turn, and turn again and what happens is she lands under guard with the occasionally remorseful but also brutal Jean Marchetti (Nicolas Gob) in charge. He has been guilty before and he has begun to start negotiations, lets people go, but she needles him, curses and calls him coward and drives him to drive his men to hang her. How sudden the whole moment is. How senseless. She had lost perspective. Raymond worried for her, Anselme says how she combines discretion with courage. She forgot her discretion.

I thought about how at the end of a 17th century memoir I’ve read by a Scotswoman on the king’s side who cannot understand how it could be that a minority of people could murder the king. I’ve finally got the answer: all it takes is land in the custody of someone who is lethal with his own rage with a gun and a group of people who will obey him.

I began to feel for people I thought I couldn’t -l Heinrich Muller (Richard Sammet) the Sadistic Nazi officer flees with Hortense and they are behaving like Tristan and Isolde — just about — or Jamie and Claire Fraser (Outlander)

I never fully imagined what the scenes must be in war zones just as one side declares victory and the other defeat — from somewhere else, as it must be a particular places or places that such things are declared. I should say some characters manage to keep some minimum of morality intact. Interestingly beyond Dr Larcher (we expect this but he is more honest now as to why he collaborated) and the hero of the parade Antoine (Martin Loizillon). There is an attempt of the cooler heads to try to return to decent behavior but we see how horrible the need for revenge, for an assertion of some pride turns people into horrible actors. Larcher asks if they can kill all the collaborators? All the militia? On principle, no, but they will kill who they have at the moment …. I became so nervous for the characters I want them to live. Jules Beriot (Francois Loriquet) kills his first person, Kurt, the German man his wife, Lucienne (Marie Kremer) now openly prefers to him; Beriot smothers the half burnt sufferer to death. At the ball he had been the same merry cheerful man we met in the second season. Old relationships and new re-assert themselves; at the same time, people turning on one another. Larcher had sound real plan for town and Beriot would have been the mayor, but they are not allowed; they are not perceived as powerful enough. Antoine, now the police chief, arrests Marchetti (neat ironical reversal), Rita (Marchetti’s Jewish love, Axelle Maricq) gone missing


Now Suzanne, Antoine and Anselme (guerilla fighter, farmer-peasant, Bernard Blancan) elevated briefly as judges in trial meant to justify executing the French who acted as militia for the Nazis

Season 6: This is for me continually educational. In this light the experience is superior to most books — this is rare for a film. Season 5 we see how many relationships fall apart, how few people seem to have learned any humanity or understanding of what justice is after years of living under vindictive injustice. They are meting out to others who were often not responsible or on lower rungs what was meted out to them. Now the war is definitely finished, people back to civilian life so traits that had been valued by people in war no longer are no longer — so Antoine is no longer valued as he is working class, even especially as he is a man of integrity. The old hierarchical relationships spring up again. Marie Germain herself left a thug of a son, Raoul, who kills indiscriminately to avenge her (so he claims); she was surrounded by unthinking uneducated people. It’s a matter of chance who is punished, who not. Unexpected bad results: Gustave (Maxim Driesen), Marcel Larcher’s beloved son, Daniel’s beloved nephew, growing up, is in danger of becoming a criminal as he has taken up with angry young men who are genuinely bad people. Our favorites even behave badly under the pressure of other behaving unfairly: Beriot now all ambition, cold and mean to Lucienne (weary of failing to make her love him). A rare spirit of consistent humanitarianism and usefulness and reason is Dr Larcher.


Beriot in effect tries to rise above his station as principal or teacher — but finds he cannot

Larcher makes another moving speech about truth but it doesn’t help; he is not executed but “merely” dishonored. It is noteworthy that Marchetti, as we first see him is an ambitious man looking to be promoted and in class below the Larchers. His willingness to be brutal, to kill and his leadership qualities (like Antoine) leads him to be put at the head of the Villeneuve police for the Vichy gov’t. Servier who is executed for making up a list of 20 and cutting it down to 10 — was a nobody, a child who followed others — and he had married up, an arranged marriage.


The phony ceremony

The sixth season shows a remarkable innovation: We are used to flashbacks where people remember the dead. The innovation is these memories are scenes we were not privy to in the earlier parts of the movie mostly: no, thes were memories we didn’t know the character had. So it meant the actors are called back to act again, but now as haunting and haunted figures, memories evoked by the new lies everyone is determined to tell – about who was a resister, who not. Antoine sees Claude, his friend who he was forced to desert to save himself and others, walking about the phony ceremony which excludes communists (to thank the Resisters). We see how immediately all communists are excluded even if it means completely distorting who the Resisters were — there is a refusal to commemorate them. No Marcher Larcher street because he was a communist.


Jeannine threatening Raymond

They even all go back to the kinds of people they were only writ large, desperate. Lucienne takes to emotionally torturing a priest who we see emotionally twists her. Strong anti-catholicism there. Last seen poor Raymond Schwartz is frantically shagging his wife, Jeannine away. He has in him a good deal to be better as we see from what he has to say — “do you realize so many died” to his amoral imbecile egregiously snobbish wife (Jeanine’s father is never seen; it’s his power and money that sustain her — Emmanuelle Bach) — but he seem unable to rid of him of the connection because he wants to be the Big Businessman. One of the four resisters Antoine had to desert is forever maimed mentally — in an asylum — a sweet man. Hortense goes out to buy herself many hats and is last seen trying them all on. We do learn (flashback that informs us of something hew) she was a miserably abused child.

The Americans are angry it seems since one of theirs was murdered by Gustave who enters the adult world this way. I’ve seen a number of movies and read plays where one of a group of rebels insists that one of the members kill himself to prove himself. So deep does bullying and the ability to withstand or obey it go deep into human grouping. Who would be part of a group then. There are no features but my guess is anonymous letters such as we see here were common after the war — people destroying others out of seething destructive emotions.


Raymond receiving an anonymous poisoned letter

The film does justice done to how women are still treated. Genevieve (sister to the man who was coerced into murdering children (he could have been shot had he not done it) and was then brutally mocked and hanged — Genevieve is raped while Antoine is gone. At first Antoine distrusts her! — did she want it? they go to the police station and there is Alain Loriot (Olivier Soler) still in charge; he treats her like a suspect; only Antoine’s insistence (the male) makes Loriot file a complaint. Later when the trial comes on it appears a black man was blamed, and he did not rape her. She is offered 30,000 francs to drop the case and she does, thus enabling Antoine to escape Jeannine’s bullying of Raymond and the strike. He and Genevieve will live out their lives in peace as farmers with a family of children.


Marcher Larcher (Fabrizio Rongione) and Gustave as a child brought back as memories

The last 7th season: shorter than the others. It goes back and forth in time: sometimes we are in 1946-46, then in 1975, and last in 2001. But somehow coherence is kept and we know where we are, and thus the stories are condensed but given full depth. Several of our characters are now living hard lives –- fast forward they are very old and state still refusing to care for them; from being exploited driven at sawmill, to striking. 1975 Beriot and Lucienne hate one another and she pours poison into his wine; Larcher and Hortense don’t get along but it is not a matter of hatred; she is ill, he is so hurt; Tequiero, grown up (the baby they stole and then adopted) is an oddly estranged man – he too will not forgive Larcher. The story of the Larchers is still a mainstay: what happens is Hortense has a nervous breakdown and has angry delusions, is spiteful and Larcher is finally driven to put her in an asylum where she is badly treated; when he pulls her out he discovers that his business has been destroyed by the verdict; few will come to him for doctoring and so they move to Paris; as the episode begins they have returned to exhibit her art (Larcher ever kind) and he meets once again Gustave grown old. Leonor has left him. Tequiero never left the village.

Jeannine the hateful fascist-type still; Raymond trying to reach yet another woman … sometimes they’ve aged the actor and sometimes they seem to have hired another who looks very like the younger man (hard to tell). The two Jewish people (one Rita, who loved Marchetti after all and is with him when he dies from the poison she brings him so he will not have to face a firing squad) Rita and the Jewish man who survived so luckily are murdered in the earliest phases of Jewish occupation of Israel. Many return to mild or strong corruption – some yield immediately others hold out or try to – hold out include Raymond, Suzanne, Edmond (a communist leader), Loriot, Larcher is ignorant of Hortense’s misery when he puts her in asylum for a month – horrible treatment, pulverizing her to get her to obey society – repeatedly motif is that a letter or info does not get to Larcher. When he does realize only a life where he had authority teaches him how to threaten in the effective way and extract her.


Lucienne and Beriot are the same actors aged enormously; Francoise their daughter (actually Kurt’s) now takes care of them at intervals; she pushes his wheelchair

The technique of using as flashbacks things that occurred in the past that we didn’t see is brilliant. I wondered why no one else does this. We catch up with old stories. The actors come on again. And they use tiny things to reassure. We think finally some husband is about to kill Raymond in 1975 but then in the last moments of the series, a note arrives from Raymond (it’s not 2001) apologizing for not coming to Hortense’s funeral so we know he survived and we do not need to see him. We know who and what he is and he will not have changed. Antoine, another hero who rescues Anselme from becoming the town drunk — last seen in a govt’ office trying to get money to help Genevieve, who now has Alzheimers. No one will help him because he hasn’t got the documentation. He has a heart attack and we last see him in a hospital. We continually witness later in life lives are not rounded out happily as they are just about all the time in fast forwards.


Larcher and Hortense are the same actors made much older

In the 7th season we have several encounters with the communists or non-communist resisters and they say over and over, did we do this to have this tin-pot second rate general in charge? Who is de Gaulle? where was he for the four years? And we see the French state not changed at all — I mentioned Antoine can’t get help for his aging wife. Most telling is those who were police in the Vichy era and didn’t like it (DeKevern) turn to be police in the de Gaulle era and their behavior every bit as amoral, maybe more so, more ruthless, less compunction. DeKevern is a much worse man without Judith (who died so long ago now) by his side. In reaction to the strike, they send in riot police. Raymond Schwartz tries to fix a compromise but his wife sabotages it and the communists and resisters want the strike to build themselves up. Suzanne then does emerge as an intelligent heroine (you see her as the one woman on councils) and arranges a negotiation. But Edmond, the leader, lies and — since he as the man is phoned — the police come. Had this been the US, I’m sure there’d have been a massacre. But individuals, Raymond especially active and listened to, manages to cool things done, assert in place they have an agreement — Anselme is killed because like Marie he has lost all perspective. The Nazi officer,  Muller, is last seen working for the CIA again torturing people. But someone, a woman gets lose, and I think manages to shot him dead in the face.

In the back and forth we see how Hortense has driven Larcher beyond coping with her. She puts the boy into a closet, locks him in, and he knows could ruin the story of Santa for him (how guilty that made me feel — but also that others have done this). So he puts her in an asylum; he thinks she spitefully lied to tell him Sarah had died; the Jewish maid whom he says is the only person who ever loved him. But he learns the story was in fact true.


The parade (end of 4th season) in memory becomes a cherished moment of their existences, a high point of courage and identity

I was deeply moved by the final close: at the end the our central true hero, Dr Larcher dies — he is very old. It’s supposed to be 2001. His adopted son, Tequiero and Gustave, now men in their thirties attempt to solace him and say they will visit and he is to come to them now Hortense has died. They leave and we see him puttering about, but he has a bad memory, and then a heart attack, writhes, falls to the ground. His brother comes to him in a vision and tells him something he did as a child was noble. He has been a noble spirit throughout — human with failings, trying his best, sometimes very blind — someone says of him in this last hour he could enter into other people’s cases — the thing is in the series we see how few people can. He walks off at last with Marcel. A vision.

One real reservation; no heroine in the series comes near either Larcher or Beriot (most of the time) or Antoine.  The values we are most to value throughout intelligence, self-control, steadiness, calm, altruism, a real distrust for violence, individual integrity.  Among the women, Marie Germaine comes closest, but she dies too young and she is too thoughtless, impulsive, she (we are made to feel), should have stayed by the side of Raymond towards the end where she would have been safe. That says it all. The good women are the ones who want to be and are faithful wives. In the end Lucienne is — she tried but we discover failed to poison Beriot. And her last words are: I was there – at the parade. The parade is the great memory of everyone’s lives.


Marchetti trying to help Suzanne Richard (Constance Dolle) as communist resister

Suzanne comes near but her activity as a communist is not sympathized with. After all, as a whole, the series does justice to the communists — I had not realized how many of the resistance people were communist and the series shows how communists were sidelined, repressed — done in.  But Suzanne will not only murder in hot rages, just throws off her husband, has several lovers, she eggs others on to kill in revenge. Those women who are very active are criticized as promiscuous or mean.  So the series is I’d say, if not misogynist or anti-feminist, definitely masculinist in its outlook. All sorts of things revealed, among them many women at the end of the occupation were shattered — some ended up in awful asylums, treated horribly, shocked and starved to death. Never take anyone to an asylum (like almost never call a cop) say I.


One of several trailers — this for the 6th season into 7th

I shall start watching from the beginning tomorrow night. It’s like a huge complex novel.

Now I have the companion book too – In French from French Amazon, a hardback cost less than the paperback – I didn’t see an ebook. It’s a beautiful book, sewn, on art paper, glorious pictures. Lots of information about the occupation — and explanations for the stories I didn’t understand, what many characters and events stood for. I got a used copy — hardbacks come cheaper than paperbacks once the books is used. Names of everyone, and in most cases the name of the actor/actress. The moving spirits, the historians, film-makers, diplomats, script writers, all named: centrally the film was shaped by Jean-Pierre Aczema, a historian. I hope, gentle reader, you have learned something from all three postings on this remarkable French TV series.


The companion book for the series

Ellen

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The cover for the first edition of the Last Chronicle of Barset


Lindsay Duncan as The Rector’s Wife (BBC, 1994)

Dear friends and readers,

A few weeks ago now I wrote a blog-essay on The Last Chronicle of Barset after a group of us on Trollope&Peers finished reading the book together.  I followed that up with reading Joanna Trollope’s The Rector’s Wife and writing a blog-essay on the book as a post-text to Trollope’s novel. I had been during this time joining in on a reading and discussion of Trollope’s Framley Parsonage (the 4th novel of the Barset series) with a group of Trollope readers on-line on zoom sessions sponsored by the London Trollope Society. They decided they would like to read The Last Chronicle next, and the Chairman of the Society was gracious enough to ask me to give a talk about the book as a prelude, preface, or food for thought just before we began. (I mean to re-read it with them. They start again this coming Monday and will be reading this very long book across the summer (the schedule).

I decided to write a talk that combined my two blogs with a perspective that emphasized the modernity of Trollope’s masterpiece and called it The Modernity of the Last Chronicle of Barset (click and you can read it on academia edu.  Errata: there is no way I can edit the text of the paper on this site except by taking down so here say: paragraph 8 should read Chapter 4, not Chapter 5, and late in the paper Major Grantley is “just under 30.”)

The thesis of the talk is that this masterpiece of Trollope speaks as directly and relevantly to us today as either of his more (recently featured) signature books (The Way We Live Now and He Knew He was Right). That it’s a piercing account of the way inequality works in the character of Rev Mr Crawley, and a dramatization of a young women traumatized by her experiences of sexual life. I bring in The Rector’s Wife as Joanna Trollope’s atttempt to give Mary Crawley what she is denied by Trollope: a fulfilling independent life of her own. I also cover Major Grantly & Grace as not quite past their sell-by date and end on the beautiful patterning and wonderfully accurate comic and moving accounts of other characters.

I write this blog to share the video recording of me delivering this paper on-line yesterday at the introductory session to The Last Chronicle of Barset. If you want to go to the Trollope Society site and view it there, click and scroll down:

The Last Chronicle of Barset

One of Crawley’s many cogent utterances in defense of his behavior: is featured there, one many people of those in a position to do something to stop illegal cruelty seem to lack the courage to act upon: “Opposition to usurped authority is an imperative duty”

You can also go directly to the YouTube site:

Gentle reader, if you have been curious over the years you have been reading this blog to see what I look like, how I sound and my workroom, here I am.

Ellen

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“Dogged as does it” — Giles Hoggett advising Josiah Crawley (Last Chronicle of Barset, Ch 61, F.A. Fraser)

‘I believe, as I am sitting here,’ said Lord Lufton, ‘that he has told the truth, and that he does not know any more than I do from whence the cheque came.’
‘I am quite sure he does not,’ said Dr Thorne ….
‘I don’t see it,’ said Lord Lufton, ‘I might have a lot of paper money by me, and not know from Adam where I got it.’
‘But you would have to show where you got it, my lord, when inquiry was made,’ said Mr Fothergill…
‘Nothing on earth should induce me to find him guilty were I on a jury.’ [Lufton]
‘But you have committed him.’ [Mark]
… I simply did that which Walker told us we must do … ‘ (“Mr Crawley is taken to Silverbridge,” “Dinner at Framley,” Last Chronicle of Barset, Chs 8 & 10)

“If you take a young tree and split it, it still lives, perhaps. But it isn’t a tree. It is only a fragment’
‘Then be my fragment.’
‘So I will, if it can serve you to give standing ground to such a fragment in some corner of your garden. But I will not have myself planted out in the middle, for people to look at. What there is left would die soon’ (“The Shattered Tree,” Last Chronicle, Ch 77)

Friends and readers,

There is just no doubt in my mind that had the Rev Josiah Crawley’s story unfolded today, he would have become infected with the coronavirus, & perhaps died, compromised as his health was after years of arduous hard work on scarcely any food, of intense stress from grief, loss, and humiliation because his pay as perpetual curate was egregiously derisory, the nature of his work to go perpetually among the poorest to help them with the plainest tasks, to teach them, the poorest who of course would have been dying in large numbers. We all remember how his wife, Mrs Crawley, almost died in Framley Parsonage, having gotten sick with “typhus fever” (as it was called) from her contact through her husband with the Hogglestock people.

I maintain in this blog that Josiah Crawley is more of a hero for our time than Hugo’s man for Trollope’s theme is how inequality works: Like Jean Valjean, Crawley is accused of the smallest of crimes, he cannot remember where he got a £20 note, which seems to have been used to pay down a debt for desperately needed groceries; but unlike Hugo’s hero, the point our author makes is not that Crawley was driven to steal — neither our author or anyone in the book can believe Crawley could ever mean to do something said to be morally wrong; it’s rather that the pressure of living under such deprived conditions as he must daily endure has made him unable to pay attention to the most embittering of details of open charity. In the book’s first chapter we are shown how Crawley is regarded with distaste and distrust by the males trusted to be magistrates and sit on juries.


Crawley before the magistrates (Last Chronicle, Ch 8, G. H. Thomas)

Eyeless in Gaza, at the mill with slaves (from Milton’s Samson Agonistes, Rev Crawley’s frequent reading)

By the time of the grand jury trial it has been suggested there is no pity due this man: why did he take this position, when he knew the salary by itself would not provide enough money for him to live as a clergyman with a family, someone asks. The community feeling is it’s somehow his fault his family starves, live in embarrassingly worn-out clothes — his personality is to blame; otherwise, it’s implied he’d have been promoted.  Chapter 5 depicts the acute poverty of the Crawleys. Not one person challenges the establishment which has made such a position for a learned gentleman to work in. No one but Grace seems to pay attention to or value her father’s learning, and she is after all forced and it does her no economic or social good once it’s discovered her father is disgraced.

We do learn that any scene involving money is traumatic for Josiah Crawley and that’s why he was a vulnerable scapegoat for those who might actually stole the check as a convenient cover for their own crimes.  Mrs Proudie exploits the sort of loophole that often exists in power shared by various people where it’s not clear that the Bishop has the authority to stop Crawley from preaching because he has not been found guilty. We watch Crawley stand up to this treatment and express the agony of his soul in a letter to the Bishop:

I am in a terrible straight. Trouble, and sorrow, and danger are upon me and mine. It may well be, as your lordship says, that the bitter waters of the present hour may pass over my head and destroy me. I thank your lordship for telling me whither I am to look for assistance … But the deeper my troubles, the greater my sorrow, the more pressing my danger, the stronger is my need that I should carry myself these days with that outward respect of self which will teach those around me to know that, let who will condemn me, I have not condemned myself’ (“The Bishop’s Angel,” Last Chronicle, Ch 13)

In this same book Trollope provides another set of characters in London, who are much richer, & get away with very crooked dealings — as stockbrokers with other people’s thousands of pounds; but no one arrests them. Crawley’s intense pride and sense of his own good character make him unable to cope with the scorn and indifference to him, he behaves re-actively, masochistically, and when he refuses to give up his position and salary on the grounds there has been no conviction, Mrs Proudie, the ecclesiastical wife roars he ought to be prison. What is this but a mirror of the “advanced” economies of quite a number of nations in 2020?


The formidable Mrs Proudie about to intrude herself into her husband’s ecclesiastical business (modeled on one of Thomas’s vignettes for Last Chronicle; from the BBC 1983 Barchester Chronicles, played by Geraldine McEwan)

Crawley does stand up brilliantly up for himself when not intimidated by a court of law as when he tells Mrs Proudie: “Opposition to usurped authority is an imperative duty” (“The Bishop of Barchester is Crushed,” Chapter 18), and he does follow his wife’s suggestion to go to London to get advice from her cousin, Mr Toogood (“Where did it come from?”, Chapter 19).

The solution to the book’s mystery (“Where did he get it?”) at book’s end is capable of being seen as having a peculiar anti-feminist and feminist twist. The origin of all the Crawley’s misery is (as is alas not uncommon with Crawley) partly unconsciously self-inflicted. A woman, Mrs Arabin, has inherited a legacy from her first husband (John Bold, way back in Barchester Towers) and she has the power to transfer bills she gets as rent on her property to other people; being a woman she either does not know the particulars of bill transmission or she is careless about it. Thus do we learn women should not be entrusted. She simply slipped the bill into a folder of bills her husband was intent on giving Mr Crawley as charity. (To be fair, how was she to know this bill had come to the tenant from his brother who had gotten it from a crook who saw it fall from the hands of an aristocratic lord’s man of business, snatched it up, and put it forward as rent.)

Now for the feminist twist: hitherto the Arabins had been slipping these sums of money and other gifts into the silent willing hands of Mrs Crawley, but the husband, indignant and irate that his wife should take it upon herself to accept such moneys and not tell him, demanded that people no longer give Mrs Crawley anything but rather make the offers to him. Now had it been Mrs Crawley whose mind is clearer, she would have been able to account for who gave her these bills in this folder. So his taking over the will of his wife, demanding her abject obedience backfired. I am not sure Trollope meant us to see or himself saw this whirligig of time taking its revenges on Crawley as a merciless bully over his wife. Perhaps Joanna Trollope, though, saw how unfairly Mrs Crawley was treated by him and could not bear her abject life (see my blog on The Rector’s Wife as a post-text to LCB).

We began a reading of this book as a group on Trollope & His Contemporaries (@groups.io) with the thought it had perhaps become dated because it is no longer the famous signature book Trollope readers go to first or are recommended to read as his masterpiece. It undoubtedly manifests some obsolete attitudes. We did discuss these and I digress from my central comparison of the parallel between Crawley and Lily Dale to show how they fit into the book.

There is a spectrum in this novel of social-psychological behavior and motives in the characters represented by the old-fashioned world of Barsetshire as we have come to experience it for 6 books, and the modern one of London as depicted here and in, say, the world of Sowerby in Framley Parsonage. The two ends are represented by the saintly Mr Harding, on the one hand; and the unchaste morally imbecilic women and greedy male money-lenders in London, on the other.

Mr Harding is the only person in the novel simply to guess how naturally and probably Mr Crawley happened to have the note: he was given it by Mrs Arabin, whom the novelist artificially keeps away from Barsetshire and her husband too by travels into Europe. He writes Eleanor to ask, thus himself initiating a bearable ending for Mr Crawley. He compounds this deus ex machina role by dying and asking the Archdeacon to give his sufficiently remunerated position to Crawley. The Archdeacon still has to be pressured into it as Crawley is not the type the establishment will respect & will not kowtow to the Archdeacon. Through Mr Harding Trollope also makes fun of the complicated explanatory plots of how things occur in a Wilkie Collins detection novel. We agreed on the list that Mrs Proudie has to be killed off or she would have prevented Mr Crawley from taking a decently paying position by persuading the Archdeacon (not hard to do) that Mr Crawley is surely unfit.

Trollope both jeers at and disdains the London women, showing no understanding or empathy for how a woman can come to sell sex and her body in the commercial hierarchical world of London. They must be sub-human in their stupidity and animal-like in their tastes. His problem is to link them in (perhaps the Broughton-Dalrymple plot is material he had worked up on its own) through John Eames and he cannot in this respectable novel show Eames is coming to Madalina Desmoulins to go to bed with her. He does show that Eames enjoys triumphing over her when she accuses him of using her. He just (almost inexplicably) cannot keep away unless threatened by marriage. (John Eames is supposed to be a kindly generous man, but not here at all.)

Trollope’s nasty misogyny reaches its height by having Conrad Dalrymple, a male artist (friend to Eames) paint the corrupt nasty wealthy woman’s daughter as Jael in the Jael-Sisera story of the Bible (see Judges 4-5, the Book of Judith). Jael kills Sisera by driving a nail into his head, a woman’s revenge story of the type Artemisia Gentileschi painted. Women painted this kind of thing from time to time, not men. In Trollope’s novel such paintings of stories are not women releasing anger but merely glamorous titillating sexy silliness. This conclusion or contempt for such paintings is represented by having Dalryple tear his painting, showing how little he thinks of it.


One of G. H. Thomas’s vignettes in the concluding London chapters of the book

The height of cruel bullying and punitive values in the novel is, however, shown in  Mrs Proudie’s behavior to her husband, to Crawley and a height of self-inflicted punishment (Dalrymple could have asked a large sum for his picture) is matched by the persuasive brilliance of the depiction of the complete collapse of her hold on her unfortunate husband and her subsequent death.  What has she to live for if she cannot inflict her power through pain on her husband and through him on other people? (she is the Trump of the book insofar as there is one). And the distastefulness and egregious stigmatizing of the London women is matched by the depiction of crooked real business dealings among the London males, and the collapse of Dobbs-Broughton’s business and his suicide.

Here too we have simulacrums of the modern world but mostly wholly out of spirit with what readers of contemporary novels and watchers of contemporary movie series accept as readable and watchable entertainment — not altogether unfortunately: you can find this kind of material on Fox TV and recent violent sexed-up movies in the form of mystery thrillers and fascistic fantasy action-adventure movies.

There is also a somewhat obsolete story in the romance of Major Grantley and Grace Crawley.  He insists on marrying her because he loves and values her, even though his parents are horrified at the thought of having as a daughter-in-law and wife to their son, the daughter of the impoverished and now accused Rev Mr Crawley.  I’d say it’s not wholly obsolete as today many a wealthy parent will move heaven-and-earth to prevent an adult child from marrying down, which in our world means to people of less money and less prestige.  But there is (out-of-date?) cloying element in the story as Grace is ever so grateful to Grantley and herself regards herself as beneath him and his parents. The material also includes a debate over the the obligation of an fully adult upper class male in the book (Major Grantly, a widower with an adolescent daughter), to marry only with his parents’ full approval of his chosen bride.

Further twist, the Archdeacon is as Major Grantly’s father, had persuaded his son to give up a good income in the military in order to live the life of a gentleman of leisure near his parents. Now he is wholly dependent on that father and the father is (an act of betrayal, of going back on his word) going to take the son’s income (an allowance) back if the Major marries the accused much despised impoverished non-networking curate’s daughter. He is put up to this by the malicious Griselda Grantley, now rewarded with one of the highest ranks for women in the book (Marchioness of Hartletop). Trollope empathizes with the Grantly’s parents’ idea they have the right to ask of their son he not lower their status in the world by his life choices.

I  think Trollope meant us to see at least how dangerous it is to give up one’s monetary independence based on a promise. What happens, however at moments cringeworthy the romance  (especially the scene between the Archdeacon just about salivating over the docile Grace) is at least capable of a humane turn of interpretation. Trollope enables us to see that Grace need not be punished all her life for the way the community regards her father; nor Grantly’s possible experience of joy taken from him because his longing for a gentleman’s life tempted him to give his father such power over him. Grantly fils can in modern terms choose an authentic existence; Grace can live with someone who will appreciate her talents. They can go to live more modestly on the continent. Of course our deus ex machina (see above) prevents this less than prosperous future.


“She read the beginning, ‘Dearest Grace'” — we see to the left, Grace Crawley intently reading a love letter from the Major; on the right, Lily Dale more relaxed posture, from the back, reading her newly arrived letter, with Mrs Dale with the newspaper in hand, a middle class breakfast scene (Last Chronicle, Ch 36, G. H. Thomas)

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

For a few days — for a week or two, when the blow first struck here, she had been knocked down, and the friends who were nearest to her had thought she would never again stand erect upon her feet. But she had been very strong, stout at heart, of a fixed purpose, and capable of resistance against oppression. Even her mother had been astonished, and sometimes almost dismayed by her strength of will … (“Down at Allington,” Last Chronicle, Ch 16)


Lily and Grace Crawley sewing together, early in the book, becoming friends (a vignette by GH Thomas)

The book’s second traumatized character, Lily is (I gather from group discussions) often attacked for refusing to marry. I cannot say Trollope is wholly on Lily’s side. The Last Chronicle in part rehashes a story told in The Small House of Allington where Lily Dale is stunned and her deepest private feelings violated; she also experiences a Crawley-like public humiliation.  After not only engaging herself to Adolphus Crosbie, but making it plain to all she has given him her heart and soul (and perhaps body too), made herself abjectly his, Lily is, within less than a week of the engagement, cast aside by Crosbie for a cold rich titled woman. A young man, Johnny Eames, has loved her as a boy and offers himself in marriage, but apart from her never having been attracted to Eames sexually, she is emotionally shattered in ways analogous to a raped girl. In LCB, Crosbie, now a widower, of small but adequate means (his wife’s family having fleeced him), I suppose similar to Major Grantley, thinks to offer himself again to Lily.

The problem is Lily still loves the man who betrayed her. Lily’s idea that what is most painful is Crosbie’s notion he is making it up to her. In other words, he considers she cannot do with him. He is doing her a favor. And we are made to see that given his shallow nature, were she to marry him, he would soon act on the idea she needs him far more than he does her. He would let her know it, he would not appreciate her since she did not value herself enough. Her mother hates him & writes the cold distance rejection (Ch 23). It is very nervy of him to offer himself again to her. Again there is a parallel with Crawley: Lily’s pride is as strong as Crawley’s (and Major Grantly’s) and she could not bear a life of isolation with Crosbie, who is not accepted by any of her friends. In all Trollope’s novels, pride is central to people’s mental health itself so badly are we all in need of self-esteem.

In the later parts of LCB, in London and Allington (Chs 45,52, 76), we trace Lily’s coming to choose an independent unmarried life. She only goes totally to pieces when she is directly confronted by Crosbie in front of all the others but inwardly she craves peace and calm in order to be able to live with herself with any kind of psychological security.  It’s not Eames’s strategy to confront her with the demand she must marry to have a legitimate life, but he does send women friends to make this point!  Lily’s deepest impulse now is self-protection; she will not open up to sexual and social hurt, not  any one (man or women) the opportunity to control and humiliate her again. She knows that Eames has been “toying” again with another woman, but her refusal is predicated on her shattered state.

I suggest Lily Dale at the end of LCB is the closest Trollope ever comes to depicting for us a girl who has been raped or sexually abused badly – and in public.  She does say point blank to Emily Dunstable she thinks the better choice for all (it’s implied) is not to marry. Trollope’s narrator insists Lily loves Eames, and that she was near saying yes until knowledge of Eames’s affair (in our period it would be sex) with another nasty women determined her to say no; the sense is MD’s letter informing Lily of the affair made Lily angry over being likened to this base person, made her distrust and regard Johnny Eames as shallow for being able to become involved with her. But Lily does escape the charge of snobbery, self-estrangement and thinking too much about what’s to come from having thought too much about the past. And I maintain that we need not equate narrator with Trollope (as implied author).


Lily Dale and Johnny Eames, a last walk (Last Chronicle, G. H. Thomas)

Driven by Eames and then Mrs Arabin, Lily says 1) she “will not have myself planted out in the middle, for people to look at:” she feels Eames wants her as a trophy, symbol, his pride is what is driving him to want to show people after all she did prefer him; and 2) she is a shattered tree and once you axe the tree its fibers are never the same. It could be Johnny will be kind, generous, loyal, but that does not mean she is not maimed and will be able to respond to him. She cannot be what he wants.

When I have said I was maimed as a teenager by sexual encounters and abuse I experienced, I have gotten back the comment you should not be, & there is something wrong with you.  This is what Mrs Thorne aka Miss Dunstable implies to Lily when Mrs Thorne asserts Lily should be able to get over it. Sometimes it’s implied in ordinary life that the admirable person just emerges the stronger. In a conversation I once had with my father, he presented as an explanatory image a piece of wood, originally strong and fine, but then someone took a big axe and struck hard and the wood was never the same again, immeasurably shaky, un-sturdy. To switch from these metaphors to people, my father was telling me sometimes such a person needs to take care of him or herself in a different way from others. Keeping yourself intact from here on in is going to take work. Modern readers could sympathize more were Lily to go traveling, write for the newspapers, have a vocation, but Trollope is profoundly against regarding women as having value individually, they must be wives & want to be mothers to be seen as useful & respectable & whole. So he will not permit Lily to travel or have a vocation or even get a job.

I have omitted much that is enjoyable and beautifully done in the book. The slow gradual pace, as the pairs and trios of chapters unfold, reach emotional climaxes consonant with the action, occasionally parts of the London stories (especially brilliant, persuasive bitterness between characters over corrupt money dealings),  a host of minor characters well-observed, the pragmatic philosophy of that wonderful sleuth, Mr Toogood, and his goodness. Wonderfully realized believable types: Dr Temple, man of business as clergyman; Mark Robartes now grown older; Miss Dunstable is a disappointment but still herself.  I agree with Stephen Wall, Mr Harding’s visits to his cello are among the most moving passages Trollope ever wrote:

But he would … gaze upon the thing he loved, and he would pass his fingers among the broad strings, and ever and anon he would produce from one of them, a low, melancholy almost unearthly sound. And then he would pause, never daring to produce two such notes in succession — one close upon the other. They were the ghosts of the melodys of days long past. He imagined that his visits were unsuspected .. but the voice of the violoncello had been recognised by the servants, and by his daughter, and when that low wail was heard through the house — like the last dying note of a dirge — they would all know that Mr Harding was visiting his old friend’ (“Near the Close,” Last Chronicle, Ch 49)

To analyse Crawley & Lily & a number of these others (even the waiter at the tavern in Barchester) could take a small book in itself. We did feel maybe there was too much reiteration, so that what had been done with such freshness and subtlety was here reduced a bit — the romance from The Small House, and the thick ethnographic landscape of the Framley Parsonage world, though not Lady Lufton who again springs to complex life. A rare strong good and now at any rate a guardedly independent and forceful woman.


Lady Lufton meeting and besting the Duke of Omnium (Framley Parsonage, John Everett Millais)

The Last Chronicle of Barset is one of Trollope’s masterpieces in the novel way.

Ellen

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Cover illustration: an image of a painting by Felice Casorati, a favorite painter of Natalia’s (whom her father presented as a not-so-comic tyrant then naturally abhors)

Of one of the Nazi functionaries Levi meets in Periodic Table, he writes: “, “è nostro dovere giudicarlo, non perdonarlo” [it is our duty to judge him, not forgive him].

Prison Box: Inventory (Rome, February 1944)

copy War and Peace
cyrillic type
(fading, spine bent)

cashmere scarf,
arm length
(dirty, white, torn)

photographs of a girl,
two boys
and a woman (frayed at the edges)

pencil stubs
(carbon
tips spent)

lined spiral notebook
(nine pages left,
yellowed, blank)

pair of wire-rimmed glasses
(left lens shattered,
nose support gone)

— from Peg Boyers’ Hard Bread, a poetic autobiography for Natalia, this poem the imagined box of things she could have gotten after her husband, Leone, had been tortured to death

“See, see where Christ’s blood streams in the firmament!” — Faustus, in Christopher Marlowe’s play

Gentle readers and friends,

Perhaps not altogether by chance, I’ve been reading a series of Northern Italian and Jewish writers tragically directly relevant to what is happening in the US and elsewhere today — slowly before our very eyes, keeping at this point millions of people quarantined at home with no testing for said virus, or humane exit plan (except death for millions). This in a course I’m taking with Judith Plotz at the OLLI at AU (as after all she picked the books and authors); most of them written between the mid-1930s and not long after WW2; you see the assigned books above. I’ve not been content with these, but added to them Ginzburg’s The Little Virtues (with her rightly much admired “Winter in Abruzzi”), a book of essays on her and Peg Boyer’s extraordinarily good recreation of her autobiography; I went back to Primo Levi’s If this be man and The Truce (which I read in Italian in the early 1990s), about If not now, when?, and Carlo Levi’s Fear of Freedom, in William Weaver’s Open City (an account of his relationship with post-war writers in Rome (these three and Ignazione Silone, Alberto Moravio, Elsa Morante).

I cannot recommend them too strongly —

The longer texts assigned were all ultimately forms of life-writing. In The Periodic Table Primo Levi retells his life through a series of ironic essay-stories which take their immediate inspiration from 21 different chemical elements, each of which allows him to tell of aspects of his life more or less chronologically, as boy and man in Northern Italy, before, during and after WW2, often seen from the aspect of him practicing his profession as a chemical engineer (this helped save him from death in the extermination camps). We meet his family, friends (Sandro and Rita who help him resist fascist culture), people he loved, whimsical utopian dreams, and (in one case) now exposes for committing without ever with understanding or acknowledging the evil enacted. We are led to see how central to our lives is chemistry. Personal stories filled with life’s troubles, philosophical reflections, whimsical irrational doings, often intertwined with his sense of an imposed alienation and stigmatizing as a Jew lead to our seeing a collective experience of humiliation and oppression lightly presented. Unusual and elusive accounts of life in a laboratory or chemist’s shop often ending in a characteristic sobering gesture. I liked especially the individual scenes, with their unexpected turns. This is a kind book by a kind man who has endured much.


Primo Levi at the New York Public Library

Natalia Ginzburg’s Family Sayings (another translation of the book’s title) feels de-centered: she hardly ever gives us her or her family’s thoughts hidden from the collective outward life; the anecdotes are mostly about others, with her as the quietly presiding POV. Yet the book is about her life, starting with the time she has consecutive memories at age 5 to near the end of her life when she visited England with her second husband, and now somehow freed of her immediate Italian world can spill out what happened the intimate events and calamities inflicted on her family and close friends and associates as well as their relationships, achievements, losses. Family sayings are repeated phrases, words, sentences that the family uses as collective comic glue for themselves. And we can track them (as they add and subtract people) from one place to another as they move around Italy, or are forced to move, hide, become imprisoned, escape (her brother swam across a part of the Mediterranean in winter to reach unoccupied France). Part of the reason for her reticence is this is a memoir, all the people are real, and the events really happened, so she must protect them and herself. I suggest frustration at this led Boyers to write the feelings and thoughts we do surmise (we are given enough to extrapolate) in poems that give Natalia’s repressed reactions and only partly expressed critiques and celebrations full play. I loved her plain matter-of-fact style: simple sentences expect us to provide in-depth understanding as when she says of Jewish and other displaced now vulnerable peoples they are “without a country.” While the surface is prosaic, quietly telling about all sorts of interesting people (many involved in politics and literature), the underlying pattern is tragic. Boyers calls her style and tone “astringent yet passionate.” The refrain: I never saw him again (of her husband); they never saw one another again. Like Virginia Woolf in Jacob’s Room, she produces a portrait of humanity as seen through the lens of a personal rich Italian secular-Jewish culture — during a time of aggressive fascism.


Natalia Ginzburg

One of the unexpected pleasures of Boyers’ poems is that in elaborating, imagining Ginzburg’s relationships to a number of Italian writers mentioned and central to her book (e.g., Pavese), we get close to these.


Peg Boyers reading her poetry

Christ Stopped at Eboli is more than a poetic masterpiece; it is a political argument and ethnographic study. It covers the year he spent in internal exile — a peculiarly Italian form of imprisonment descending from the Roman period, where a person is cut off, exiled from his or her community, isolated in a remote spot and watched to keep him or her from any kind of political activity, news of the world he or she understands. (A number of the Jewish and socialist/communist literati in Italy were treated this way: Ginzburg’s memoir includes a couple of years in Abruzzi.) Carlo Levi may be said to have thoroughly internalized his exterior culture — he acts as physician (he was trained to be a doctor), paints (his vocation), writes, joins in tangentially — which culture during his sojourn expands to sympathize with these strange and victimized (for centuries) people he finds himself among, whom since the Northerners know little of them, he is determined to bring before the world of his readers (the book was written in 1946 after Mussolini fell from power). I think his conclusion that these people live in a timeless realm they cannot be plucked from wrong: they have been given no opportunity, no good choices (like the working class whites of the US), exploited by every group that has taken power over them, and the result has been seething just repressed destructive violence. (The lesson for our era is more direct in Carlo Levi’s book’s conclusions than the above books.) He compels our attention by the riveted and insightful nature of the chronological settling in and living alongside story he tells. His sister visits him at one point, and we see this world from her experienced sophisticated compassionate eyes.


Carlo Levi

Late in life both Carlo Levi and Natalia Ginzburg became directly politically involved, both as independents in the parliament with ties to the socialist parties. They wrote journalism, she worked for Einaudi all her life. Both seem to have been known by other much respected writers and artists — from Croce to Pavese and Elsa Morante. It is a small and elite world these people belong to, but one with a pro-social democracy tradition – now under threat too.

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


Movie poster

I’ve now begun the fourth author for this term, Giorgio Bassani whose Garden of the Finzi-Continis (I have the Isabel Quigly translation) has some wider fame because there was a popular movie adapted from the book. I began this autobiographical novel after reading an apparently famous meditation: “A Memorial Tablet in the Via Mazzini.” He differs from the other three by his name (no Levi), because he comes from Ferrara (the others Turin and Rome), and because his tale is of fascists. This epitomizes one of Bassani’s central themes: the moral problem of assimilation. A man whose has suffered unspeakably from the camps and seen so many friends worked to death, outright killed (probably raped — this is only very recently recorded as on Marta Hiller’s A Woman in Berlin) sees his name as having died on a memorial plaque on a wall where there was once a synagogue. He wants to inform all that he is still living, but they are willing (good of them) to acknowledge the mistake and seemingly welcome him back, seemingly sorry for all that has happened, in fact they want him to be silent about what happened, to enable their own forgetting of the roles they played in betraying neighbors, often enough taking their furniture, their things, their property, their positions. It seems to be his moral duty to assimilate in the way demanded in order that the society can return to functioning. But is it? What happens is the one survivor refuses to pretend nothing happened, refuses to forget, demands his house and furniture back. And we see that the others (outright fascists and those who supported the fascists) want to return to the status quo that favored them after the war as well as before. They want to carry on wearing fascist costumes, acting like fascists (the partisans with their machine guns are behaving like fascists).

The Garden of the Finzi-Continis seems to be about how uUnlike the Levis in Turn), Bassani’s family in Ferrara, surrounded by fascists and sometimes fascists themselves, were not aware that they could and would be destroyed — they thought their insulated wealth protected them. This naivete is found in Olivia Manning’s depiction of a wealthy Jewish family in Bucharest in her Balkan Trilogy: with what ease the father is imprisoned, personally crushed, his property taken from his family whose best option is flight (if they can manage it).


Giorgio Bassani

The relevance here works a little differently. With the increased monopolization of all trade by a few giant corporations, the film has become one of these unaffordable super-expensive DVDS, no longer on Prime Video on Amazon (gradually such films are being removed) and available only as a blu-ray, merely now very high-priced. A 4 part film of Christ Stopped at Eboli is available only in Italian (as who would get a profit from this, so why provide translations) and at astronomical prices.

While I have my own long-time favorites in Italian poetry from the Renaissance and again the later 19th century to our own time, I’ve been introduced to new poets I hadn’t read or known about. Bassani’s style in his novel seems to be long sinewy sentences moving back and forth in time, drenched with an edgy-raw sort of nostalgia, but here is a poem by him where the emphasis falls on the here and now. The problem is what do you do when fascistic groups have taken over the land you live in and are working to do all they can to impoverish (so as to enrichen themselves) and terrify you into submission. (I cannot reprint the stanzaic form, which you can see here.)

The Racial Laws

The magnolia smack in the middle
of our Ferrara house’s garden is the very
same that reappears in almost every
book of mine

We planted it in’39
ceremoniously
just a few months after
the Racial Laws were brought to bear
it was a solemn-comical affair all of us
fairly lighthearted God permitting despite
being encumbered with the dull historical appendix
Judaism

Walled-in by four walls forewarned
Soon enough it grew
black luminous wide-rimmed
pointing decisively up towards the imminent
sky
full day
and night with grey
sparrows dusky blackbirds
unflaggingly scanned from below by pregnant
cats and by my
mother—
she too confined defenceless behind
the windowsill forever brimming
with her crumbs

Straight as a sword from its base to its tip
twenty-some years on
it overtops the neighboring roofs
beholding every bit of the city and the infinite
green space that circles it
but now somehow stumped I can guess
how it feels unsure
of a stretch up there in the heights a narrow space
in the sun
like someone at a loss
after a long journey
as to which road to take or
what to do
Giorgio Bassani, tr. James McKendrick


Felice Casorati — untitled

Ellen

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The entire narrative of this country argues against the truth of who you are … The destroyers will rarely be held accountable. Mostly they will be given pensions — Between the World

During, before and after the [Civil] War he had seen Negroes so stunned, or hungry, or tired, or bereft it was a wonder they recalled or said anything … Locked and chained down … unusual (even for a girl who had lived all her life in a house peopled by the living activity of the dead … Desperately thirsty for black blood, without which [the Klan] could not live, the dragon swam the Ohio at will — Beloved.

Friends and readers.

One definition of chattel slavery, what differentiates it from all other forms of enslavement is that the enslaved person has no future and effectively no family (he or she can be sold at will at any time) and that he or she is answerable with his or her body. Coates demonstrates in his Between the World and Me that up until the year of writing his book, and conceivably for years beyond, black people are now and will continue to be answerable with their bodies — unless US society undergoes a massive inner transformation. African-American people cannot go out in the street, cannot in fact stay home, cannot travel anywhere without enduring an ever present danger — losing one’s life, being beat up, arrested, put in prison, harassed, or raped. Coates wants to revel in what the world offers to human beings that are alive: deep pleasure in one’s body, for one’s soul, but between him and the world is the white person’s Dream of invulnerable power and unassailable child-like pleasures, which come down to a series of unreal and/or unreal and happy images of themselves in life eating ice cream, barbecue, wine-tasting, holding just so parties in a room-y house, a Dream from which non-white people are excluded. His argument can be said to explicate in general terms what happens in James Baldwin’s If Beale Street Could Talk.


From the film adaptation of Beloved — Oprah Winfrey as Sethe

Toni Morrison’s Beloved might be said to offer the past history behind the reality Coates describes and demonstrates to be true. We are led to live first within the bodies and minds of African-Americans (they are African-American by this time) in the years just after the Civil War, what life was like for them when they could no longer be driven to work or to submit to another person every hour of their existence, and then through memories, dreams and their present behavior, assumptions, thoughts, lack of self-esteem, security, literacy for the most part what life had been like during enslavement. For the heroine, Sethe, life had been since age 14 perpetual rape and pregnancy amid perpetual degrading debasement and fear. She has had many children, and is unable to account for what happened to most of them; she was told one of the males enslaved by the Garners in Sweet Home (the family of owners and their plantation name), one man, Halle, was to be regarded as her husband, and it appears at least three were his. He has vanished, and the only other family tie she has had to hold onto was his mother, Baby Suggs (the names of these people are painfully undignified, left-overs of how they were named when enslaved), who died some years ago; two of Sethe’s last sons ran away when still children, and she has left only Denver, named after a white indentured servant, Amy Denver, who stopped her from dying of despair and exhaustion and terror and helped her give birth to this girl. In the first chapters Paul D, the novel’s hero (in effect) also enslaved by these Garners (all the men were named Paul with just an initial to differentiate them) comes back to the place he knows and she takes him in as a lover-companion as this is all she has known, and both are in desperate need of affection and stability. The POV of the book moves between omniscient Sethe, Paul, & Denver. The two females dominate and their relationship makes the book feel like a mother-daughter novel at times

There is a fourth main character. Unlike The Bluest Eye, which is strongly grounded in the here and now, and strictly realistic, adhering to ordinary probability, Beloved reaches out to the vatic and symbolic, and uses the realm of historical romance, to layer the book with fantasies from Christian gothic (there is such a genre — see Tyler Tichelaar’s Gothic Wanderer). “124” is a stigmatized house no one wants to come near because a ghost lives there, this weird presence is revenant of a two year child whose throat Sethe slit rather than allow the child to be sold away from her and subject to all that she has known as an enslaved woman. The weirdness and deep un-home-like feel comes from the form this ghost takes: not a 2 year old or even a baby, but a grown woman whose bone structure is as soft as an octopus, whose expressions are those of a neonate, who quite literally creeps about in an uncannily frightful because however apparently vulnerable stubborn way.

I found I could hardly put down Coates’s book; like Baldwin’s essays, his prose is so eloquent, his sentences fall into memorable quotations capturing deep truths. The style is plainer than Baldwin but eloquent in its pure searching self-honesty. By contrast, I had to give up on Beloved, and gave up near the end — after skipping to the last pages to satisfy myself that there was not some horrific last cruel act to match those remembered and lived through by both Sethe and Paul D, when they were separate and still enslaved. I wanted badly to ascertain that the ghost left because her presence was felt as horrible, and inhibiting but alas, not quite. Paul D, unable to take Denver’s discomfort with him, Sethe’s inability to speak openly about how she wants to trust him if he will stay, vanishes like those before him. Denver reaches out to some black women in the community and they exorcise this ghost. (Another book I found so dreadful, leaving me on the edge of my chair in a state of anxiety, with the horrific violence to the fore, Bessie Head’s Question of Power, has this kind of voodoo in it.) Now a white man shows up who means to offer Denver a job; it’s he who had offered 124 to Baby Suggs when her son, Halle, bought her freedom; Sethe thinks he is another man come to rape and claim another of her children, Denver, and takes an ice pick to him. She fails to kill anyone (it seems) and while she is left in a trance, and Denver goes off to the job, Beloved finally disappears and Paul D returns. But it is too late for any sanity: Sethe cannot take in Paul’s attempt to tell her not that ghost, but she herself must be the basis of her existence.

The two books complement one another because Morrison offers electrifyingly dramatized and embodied instances of what Baldwin argues are in principle and for selfish asocial considerations are the daily cruel and unpredictable practices and behaviors of people who consider themselves white towards African-Americans in the near past and today. They are also so part of American literature by European-Americans or whites. Beloved confirms my sense of the deep religiosity of American literature, and by extension American culture — if you want to belong as an American of any kind, you must have a religion, go to some church. There is no other on-going cultural institution that binds people (like in the UK the pub). American history is far more drenched by the emotions and beliefs of the groups who came to the Western hemisphere to get what they called religious freedom (which turned into individual tyrannies most of the time) than any Enlightenment ideas or thoughts. The Enlightenment ideas shape the constitution (but only insofar as private property values, hierarchies and originally patriarchy allow). Beloved resembles Lincoln at the Bardo, also about a ghost made up of guilt and retribution (Bardo was among the first choices for an American book for the Booker.) Neither book looks to class structure, socialist thought, but ground their sense of the world in individuals amid families or friends. We cut through manners to lay bare passions, which are near the surface. All very un-English, un-European.

There are also strong contrasts between these books. Coates moves by logic, reason, argument, while presenting his memories and life history to his son as burning incidents vivid in his brain making him what he is to today. He wants to protect by explaining and actuate his son to be stronger, more immune to the pain and danger and humiliation he must know. Morrison uses the device of stream of consciousness. Although the book is divided into chapters, there are no numbers, no chapter headings and within sections, the mind of the character moves freely from past to deep past to present. Sudden phrases break through and it’s not clear (at least to this reader) how what’s said relates to the rest of a section. The structure is cyclical; yes, it’s a woman’s book. It’s much harder to pluck epitomizing passages or utterances. I admit I enjoyed her preface as much as anything in the book, for there she writes straight-forward prose about how she came to leave her job and try to write novels, who the historical Margaret Garner was and her first vision of the ghost.


Howard University — wintertime, snow, the research center can be seen

I first became aware of Coates as a columnist for the Atlantic, and then I read his Reparations, where he demonstrates that the reason African-Americans have not as a group of people accumulated wealth in family or as individuals is that the structures and laws of white society prevented this. They were refused places in universities, in professions, deliberately targeted for fleecing over mortgages; refused a fair deal, paid painfully little. Put into prison at the slightest opportunity. This imprisonment stopped sometime in the 1960s but resumed in the 1990s with a real vengeance: now you would not be put away for a few years, but for life. When any community became rich, it was targeted by whites; one group of upper class African-Americans in Oklahoma actually massacred. Violent strikes up north after World War One by whites demanded of bosses they give no jobs to blacks. It’s a factual essay, documented history.

His non-fiction, partly life-writing partly essay book is about the inner life of African-American people, where they are robbed of security, where they are made to be more violent to their children in order to teach them to kowtow to whites. He is opening up before us the mind-set of a young black man brought up in American culture. At times he so reminded me of Baldwin whose terrain is the same; I was especially reminded of the sense of alienation and deep hurt of Baldwin’s “Stranger in the Village,” where he is a black man and somes to live in Switzerland in a snowy area where white people have never seen a “negro.” I used to assign the essay to students. Most famous in the book is the incident where his friend, Prince, living a good life, having gone to college, with all hopes before him, is simply gunned down by a policeman because the policeman felt like it. No charge even is ever brought. The book ends with Coates’ visit to Prince’s mother. Less famous is the incident where his son is pushed aside by a white woman and he for a moment loses it and is indignant and endangers the boy, himself, is threatened with arrest. There is a rage in this book about how white people lie about the history of the US and simply refuse to acknowledge the “mass rape” out of which the workers of the early US came, his “ancestors [who] were carried off and divided up into policies and stocks” (p 69). There is solace: there is Howard University, a Mecca for African-Americans and people of color to be free, diverse, proud; it provides more than an employment support mechanism, it builds self-esteem and a sense that they are a people, a community, not alone.

Beloved provides no such hope or place. I did watch the excellent American Masters program on Morrison, The Pieces that I am, where she allowed herself to be interviewed. You can rent it as a DVD from Netflix. It is just so good: informative, moving, absorbing. It’s available on Netflix as a DVD to rent

Much of it consists of a long interview later in life (after she wont the Nobel) interspersed with narratives, other interviews, film clips. It takes you through her life as a woman, black person/woman; through her career from early years of doing well in school to going to Howard, teaching in a traditional black university, and then landing that job at Random house as an editor. It was there she was able to became what she did — a writer of American masterpieces. I also goes over her novels and major works (not always categorizable as a novel) and you come away understanding their content. It also includes her relationships with her readers, including people in prison (so many black men put in prison); these are illuminating. Her dream life, what pictures matter to her.

I think I was most interested by her account of how American history is usually viewed, either without blacks or lower class whites or the vulnerable, and when these groups are included, without women. So the story of enslavement is the story of an enslaved man, usually how he tries to break free and either succeeds or fails. The women’s stories are much more devastating: for the first time I considered the common photograph of black woman standing by cabins or in rows with babies in their arms — they are being sexually used/abused and worked to death too

I did not know that the book by her most rejected by the white establishment has been The Bluest Eye. It is her first and it is the one that has been most consistently singled out for banning. That is interesting – -it is very raw and hits hard at realities rarely depicted from a deeply compassionate standpoint — well written, beautifully written.

Very important along the way the people who helped her in Random House and in black literary and political movements – they are there interviewed. Also her interviews with interviewers on TV.

It tells her life-story interpersed with going over each of her books and how the book emerged from her consciousness. She too went to Howard; she became part of a publishing house and brought out many black authors. I felt very enthused about her Black Book, a history of black people in photographs. Much interest in the visual is true of the two novels I’ve read thus far.

Gary Goldstein of the LA times has it right. A.O. Scott of the Times is fair to the documentary (and the piece has less flashing ads than most nowadays). Literature, the hopes and true dreams it can offer she says in an essay are central to young people’s futures; it was so for her.

I end on a reading from his recent novel, The Water Dancer, and an interview of Coates under the auspices of Politics and Prose at the Lincoln theater (I assume) in DC:

These two books are important right now, today, in this pandemic, where, for example, in both Chicago and all of Louisiana, 70% of those who have died from the coronavirus are African-Americans, when in Chicago African-Americans comprise 30% of the whole population, and in Louisiana 32%. This virus, to quote the Washington Post this morning, is killing African-Americans at an alarming rate. It is a respiratory disease: many African-Americans are poor; they have no health care now that Obamacare has been gutted (can’t afford it); they suffer from diseases you get from stress; take drugs of various sorts to cope. I can see why the turn to historical fiction in Coates and Morrison: the past explains the present. How can one find words adequate to this? I’ll be back later with an attempt through a poem.

Ellen

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How she looks while you are watching.

Dear friends,

I usually reserve this space for cultural events, talk or writing about books, movies, theater, operas, concerts, visual art, but I thought I’d break my self-control or habit/convention here, and offer a URL to Angela Merkel’s speech to the German people — and by extension as it was put onto the Internet with translations into other languages than German. For us living in the US (and people in the UK too), there is nothing like this from anyone with authority or power to make the words operative for us. In the US all we have has from POTUS is more lies about himself (now he knew about the pandemic before anyone else) and more attempts to hurt the American people and anyone else living on the landmass of the US (to say nothing of those he can affect outside it). I don’t know if you can reach this — I hope so — that it is translated if you do not understand German. I heard the German with an over-voice of English, so I heard her tones.

I found it terribly moving, the kind of thing so moving that (as Scott said of one of Johnson’s poems) you don’t cry: Angela Merkel speaking to the German people. I do feel bitter shame that there is probably not one person in the US who could have spoken like this and has no chance whatsoever:

https://www.dw.com/en/merkel-coronavirus-is-germanys-greatest-challenge-since-world-war-two/a-52830797

Here is a further explanation

I accompany this with a URL to the John Hopkins’ Corona Site

Thus far three of the four courses at an Oscher Institute of Lifelong Learning attached to American University that I was set to teach (one) and take (two) are cancelled or probably so; the same one (The Novels of E.M. Forster) I’ve cancelled at the OLLI at Mason. I cannot do Zoom and remote access; not simple or easy, it’s a complicated difficult process as teacher, & beyond me without a lot of training in my house, someone sitting next to me. For my style of teaching, I would not be able to transfer what I can do face-to-face, in a room where all the people are together, so all equally there, participating potentially and actually, with nothing recorded. My younger daughter who lives with me will by Tuesday be working from home (teleworking) at her job as a librarian: she is learning how and on Tuesday a laptop will be brought to her from where she works and she will link in through that.

I wrote about the pandemic from an autobiographical stance. I have been reporting (sending what I consider important information and essays and or videos (Sanders’ fireside chat) perhaps overlooked by mainstream and other media, for example when Trump and his cronies tried to buy a German company working at producing a vaccine to create a monopoly for himself (then he said it was the US) so he could grow rich and/or weaponize the virus and vaccine; or when he for weeks denied the seriousness of the pandemic situation (falsifying analogies).

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How to comfort and strength ourselves individually and within our own circles of companions? Humor, an absorbing sincere intelligent movie or movie-series, reading (of course), writing or what you do that you value as an occupation (hobby, or a vocational endeavour). So I leave you for today with an example I hope of each: a little Gilbert and Sullivan cheer:

I am the very model of effective social distancing!
I listen to the experts on the topic of resistance-ing;
I know that brunch and yoga class aren’t nearly as imperative
As doing what I can to change the nation’s viral narrative.

I’m very well acquainted, too, with living solitarily
And confident that everyone can do it temporarily:
Go take a walk, or ride a bike, or dig into an unread book;
Avoid the bars and restaurants and carry out, or learn to cook.

There’s lots of stuff to watch online while keeping safe from sinus ills
(In this case, it’s far better to enjoy your Netflix MINUS chills)!
Adopt a pet, compose a ballad, write some earnest doggerel,
And help demolish Trump before our next event inaugural.

Pandemics are alarming, but they aren’t insurmountable
If everybody pitches in to hold ourselves accountable.
In short, please do your part to practice prudent co-existence-ing,
And be the very model of effective social distancing!
Eliza Rubenstein (rated)

For fun in the unlikely event that you’ve never seen a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta? “A Modern Major General” from The Pirates of Penzance:

A modern version: Tom Lehrer on the Periodic Table:

“A Policeman’s Lot is Not a Happy One” — the patter expressed as dancing, another production of The Pirates of Penzance:

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A still from the first episode

Try Un Village Francois: a friend characterized it accurately thus: “a fictional treatment of the Nazi occupation of a village in France. It speaks to our present struggles to cope with the latest version of ethno-nationalism/fascism [here in the US]. Many many movies in this realm but this stood out for me because of its sincerity , brilliant acting, and intelligence.” It is available on Amazon Prime (if you are member) or maybe bought (from Amazon again) as 5 seasons of DVDs

We see and experience what occupation means when several groups of Nazi troops come in, take over a village: it begins with planes appear over the village dropping bombs, and then troops come in fully armed, preventing freedom of movement, immediately instituting all sorts of (often absurd unrealizable) demands o people to teach them to obey but also to take from them all their wealth, many of their places to live in, to meet others in — achieved by implacable bullying backed up by indiscriminate and spiteful killing.

From the 2nd episode of 18, the individual characters and family groups begin to emerge, the two central male protagonists are a doctor in the village and a Jewish businessman. The mayor has fled. The doctor’s wife is childless and in this episode manages to rescue a fragile infant whose mother died giving birth to it — the baby was in danger of a jealous nun insisting on putting it into an orphanage where it would die. The doctor is a magnificent ordinary man who acts decently and courageously and sensibly and helps organize the villagers but is helpless against the ruthless brutality of the Nazis who just murder indiscriminately. The Jewish businessman’s wife thinks very well of herself and is suing the school for being responsible for some hurt her child received – not dead and it is an attack in effect on the teacher. He maneuvers to gain access to a single woman who is working temporarily as a nurse, she is married, her husband away and we see them making love after he has pursued her by a bridge. We see him drawn into collaboration with the Germans, agreeing to use his wood-making business to make objects for them, in return for favorable treatment (like a pass across a bridge).

What is important is the atmosphere and to see how social and gov’t structures just collapse under a fascistic and militaristic onslaught. We who live in fear that Trump will postpone the coming election and get away with it as another step in the direction of the lives of these victimized French villagers have a parable for our times before us. We experience the hidden lives of people like ourselves. It is inspiriting to watch how these people cope.


The poster for the series: To live is to make your choices

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C.S. Lewis came to mind as I watched: from his Epilogue to An Experiment in Criticism. “…we seek an enlargement of our being. We want to be more than ourselves. …. The secondary impulse [of each person] is to go out of the self, to correct its provincialism and heal its loneliness.” … “This … is the specific value or good of literature considered as Logos [something said]; it admits us to experiences other than our own.” (139) “Those of us who have been true readers all our life seldom fully realize the enormous extension of our being which we owe to authors.” (pp 137-40). Lewis does not imagined experience need be autobiographically true on the author’s part; the good reader is not seeking to learn about the author in any direct way, but to see the world as he or she saw it ..


Thomas Cromwell (Mark Rylance), Episode 4 (Wolf Hall)

Of course he is speaking of books (but such a movie functions as books too) so (I suggest only if you’ve read the first two volumes) hunkering down with Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light.

As it opens, after the initial sense of groups of lethal Catholics at bay for Cromwell’s head, the narrative switches to Cromwell’s trying to carve out some space for the king to operate in calm and legitimately. To do that Henry VIII must be regarded as legitimate (still not a matter of course by any means), have legitimate heirs who can take over: Richmond, the illegitimate son, fatuous, mean-minded; or the disabled half-crazed Mary who yet has an integrity attached to her religion and affections; “he, Cromwell” must deal with an unstable distrustful and now openly murderous king. Threaded through all this Cromwell’s re-lived memories of the hideous executions that ended Bring Up the Body. I love the return to the characters who love Cromwell, Rafe, his wife, Helen, Cromwell’s nephew, Richard, the people in his household still alive. It is Rafe who persuades Mary Tudor to sign a document saying she will accede to the idea her mother was not married to her father, and Henry is the head of the state and a new church. A friend reading with me quipped when our computers seemed to go awry at the word “epidemic” that what we need in our state today is a Cromwell at the head, and Rafe his Man Friday

I [Cromwell-like] want to grab a quill, write something, and hand it off to Rafe. “Deliver this at once, Rafe. ‘Wait for an answer.'”

I’ve never seen a historical fiction lean so heavily on the knowledge of the reader of the ending and what happens for a couple of decades afterward. Elizabeth as a baby is constantly described as grotesque, fat, absurd ginger hair, useless to anyone but Lady Bryan who took care of Henry’s children after he rid himself of Catherine and would not let Mary stay with her and executed Anne; all the while we know that Elizabeth grew to be an able wonderful leader. The book is also profoundly anti-Catholic as profoundly against atavastic thinking and cruel tyrannies (mirroring 2020).

It’s another haunted book: Cromwell now carries with him in his mind and among his material objects his remembered wife, Liz, of course Wolsey, others; at the same time, it’s hard to get into, the erudition in effect expected of you is enormous: the people at an event know why Henry’s sister, Margaret Tudor’s daughter, Meg aka Margaret Douglas, is there to carry Jane Seymour’s train, but we cannot get the jokes unless we know, for example, that (to us a minor historical figure) Margaret Tudor married more than one man, who she went to bed with, whose child Meg is, because Margaret’s heirs (outside Meg who is probably illegitimate) are rivals to Henry (Mary Queens of Scots is her grand-daughter & Meg’s niece).

Colin Burrows (in London Review of Books, alas behind a paywall) has again understood Mantel and here the problems of his magnificent book, which is attempting to mirror our own deeply threatened uneasy time. From Burrow’s review:

These darkening memories make it seem as though the unenactable revenge plot against Henry has been driven underground and become a process of internal retribution, in which Cromwell’s own memories make him come to see himself as the brutal king that historians once believed him to be. When he is finally imprisoned in the Tower, these memories become ghosts who visit him as he waits to die … The episode of Margaret Douglas’s bethrothal also allows Mantel to play some of the elegant games with historical sources which have been one of the less obvious pleasures of this series. Thomas Howard [a new character in the series] wrote several love poems to Margaret Douglas, and she wrote some in return. These survive in the Devonshire Manuscript, a poetic miscellany gathered and curated by a group of women at the Henrican court (Mary Shelton, Mantel writes, ‘was clerk of the poetry book). Howard’s inept versification becomes a running joke.

We will need another movie series to realize the book fully — for it cries out for that, depends on our memories of the movie or stage play. I hope all the wonderful actors who were in Wolf Hall will return.

The lovely cover of the British edition and a limited 300 copies signed by Mantel (Herself!)

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So, to my gentle readers, stay in, wash your hands, try to stay well, do what you can to back leaders who will do something effective to help you with for your possible insolvency and medical bills, don’t let irrational fear drive you into hoarding any items you see in the supermarket which strike you as non-perishable — and find what pleasure and uplift and meaning in life you can during this time of social distancing (and all this will cost us individually) for the good of us all …


Us by Olga Pastuchiv, cover illustration for Fe-Lines: French Cat Poems through the Ages

Ellen

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James Wilby as Maurice in an early phase of the film — “Come on [out],” he shouts


Hugh Grant as Clive in the last scene, closing the window shutters on the world (1987 Merchant-Ivory Maurice)

James Ivory: The problem of living honestly with one’s emotions will be with us, I guess, as long as people make films, write plays, or write novels.

Forster: The pack were turning on Helen to deny her human rights, and it seemed to Margaret that all the Schlegels were threatened with her. Were they normal? What a question to ask? (the impassioned Margaret defending Helen at the end of Howards End)

Dear friends and readers,

This week I have been just immersing myself in E.M. Forster, rereading his brilliant and useful Aspects of the Novel, finishing the astonishing Room with a View, and about one-quarter the way through once again the inexhaustible Howards End, listening in my car to Sam Castor reading A Passage to India read aloud by Sam Dastor. Also one-third the way through Nicola Beauman’s Morgan and finding P.N Furbank’s magisterial biography a great help. She must be mad, my reader is thinking. No no. I’m reading and watching other books & movies too, and have even done other stuff, but this is what has most mattered this week. It’s all partly with a view to teaching Forster starting in less than two weeks, to two classes and I don’t want to let anyone down. I agree with Beauman this far: that Forster wrote at least four of the greatest novels in the English language. One of these four that has not got its due is Maurice.

As everyone who has read with attention the slightest about Forster or his books knows, Forster wrote Maurice in 1913-14, but did not allow it to be published until after his death in 1971. Why? it is an open exploration of homosexuality as experienced in a rabidly homophobic society, perhaps the first one in modern times not to keep the themes and insights to a hidden subtext. Maurice is a beautiful story, partly about the growing up into adulthood and then fulfillment of Maurice Hall, his discovery of his homosexuality, his suffering over how he is led to repress his nature, the slow realization in him of how perverse, destructive, unjust, cruel this is, and a final breaking out into joy (the book has a happy, indeed ecstatic ending) when he throws off the bonds of self-castigation, punishment and finds deep companionable and physical fulfillment with a man he loves. There are two parallel main stories intertwined with Maurice’s:

Clive Durham, Maurice’s equal in status, but seemingly much more intelligent, intellectual and who early on in the book seems aware he is homosexual and to be inviting Maurice to become a friend and sexual partner, but about 2/3s or less the way through turns on himself as well as Maurice, and with strong repression, marries an upper class wealthy conventional young woman, Anne, doing everything he can to live a controlled chaste heterosexual life.


Rupert Graves as Scudder upon first seeing Maurice

Alec Scudder, a servant, gardener, gamekeeper, stable man in Maurice’s employ, who also is aware of his homosexuality (he seems actually to be bisexual) and who awakens Maurice once again, but who seems to be about to live a false life also in order to find employment with his family abroad, but is convinced by Maurice to take the risks they will together (Maurice has some money) to live together in quiet retreat ….

The novel shares a number of central themes with A Room with a View and Howards End. As Claude Summers put this in his fine close reading study of all Forster’s novels, this is the necessity (if we are to know health itself) of following our innermost nature in choosing a mate and an occupation for life; one may have to make some compromises, but they must not be the erasure of humanistic values, which comes from our finest selves and sexual natures, which all his books endorse when these are aligned with humaneness, an appreciation of the beautiful in the arts, complete respect for other people & so on. I know in reading Maurice I bonded deeply with him and many of the experiences he has I recognized myself as having had — one does not need to have the same sexual orientation to experience loneliness, injustice, ostracizing, nervous self-doubt and a host of other experiences Maurice goes through — as do numbers of Forster’s characters in his other novels. Forster is like this: his generalization stance picks up all human beings so when (for example) Aziz is treated with immense bigotry, his subjective terror, anxiety, and eventually bitterness could be that of a black person in the United States — or any white supremacist society.

It is course not just these themes and insights but the way they are plotted, given life through the characters, points of view, rich settings, and eloquent language that makes for these books as masterpiece, with (I think) Maurice the most fully articulated and resolved.

Lest anyone think I am exaggerating or that Forster was far too careful, for he stopped writing novels altogether about ten years after Maurice, presumably (and this has been demonstrably argued) because he found it so frustrating not be be able to present the world as he saw it and experienced it — as an LBGTQ man (as we might nowadays label him) – just look at the reactions to his book in 1971. He was not imprisoned, tortured or hung, but the reception of the books by critics was mostly hostility, denigration, or dismissal. Cynthia Oznick (“disingenuous, infantile”), Steiner (“narrow, embittered”) were typical. Much has changed since then, but still Maurice is less valued than A Passage to India when both are equally profound protest literature.

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A group of us, varying from five to six and down to two each week wrote to TrollopeandHisContemporaries@groups.io about the book as we read it together over four weeks, emphasizing now this theme or that character, or this or that passage, or some of the differences with the movie. I can record only a little of all this in a blog.

Part One. The first five chapters comprise a coming-of-age story, with the homosexuality of the book presented openly to us. We see Maurice as a boy in an early stage of resistance as an early seeking of himself and self-definition. The headmasters, bullying teachers, seeming half-crazed doctor-psychiatrists throughout this book, they are sent up or abhorrent. One can only flee them. Towards the ending of the part (Chapters 8-11)

I tended to “blame” Clive for turning himself (willing it) into a heterosexual male by living a strictly heterosexual life, rigidly exerting self-control, but the turning point came when after a long relationship building, and a home-coming where Maurice, having in his strong emotional responsiveness begins physically to respond to Clive’s physical overtures, prompting Clive’s daring intuitive “I love you.” It’s Maurice’a raw rough shocked horrified response that drives Clive into a reactive retreat — we will see from the outside at least — forever.

I so felt for both of them. I felt for Maurice when he stood outside before leaving for home and missed his opportunity — the kind of thing that remains so unseen and is so crucial for our lives. Then when Maurice makes the mistake of courting Miss Olcott (a play upon Alcott?) and she is so turned off; no matter what he does, it’s wrong. I’m not homosexual but this sort of thing happens to me too often: I don’t know what I did wrong, worse, I don’t know what the other person is expecting but see I am not doing it (this in job’s interviews). Here’s it’s meant a physical repulsion but Maurice also misreads signals; he does this for the rest of the novel.

Then the three short hopeless but continued attempts on the part of Maurice who the shock of Clive’s statement, rejection and this time home has at last awakened. As Clive will now be forever shut off from a physical life fulfillment, so Maurice is at long last open to it and recognizes how he has been living lies. This is the meaning of the chapter which begins “After this crisis, Maurice became a man.” I omit the religious backdrop, some of which is meant to be satiric.

For Part Two:

I find in these chapters powerful comprehensible beauty — Clive and Maurice managed a real relationship, which seems to be all the more fulfilling idealistically because (I think this is clear) it does not include full physical sex. Forster makes it clear that soul meets soul, and they speak with utter sincerity insofar as they understand themselves and one another. There are remarks about Maurice regretting this like “he was too young to detect the triviality of contact for contact’s sake” – the perfect day is the one spent outdoors in the landscape together. They have the “first taste of honesty” with one another; or because there is no acceptable set of conventions, they are not overawed by poetic traditions and all the more in contact with real eternal emotions.

At the same time we see no one but them is openly sympathetic, and many either don’t see they are lovers (in effect) or pretend not to see; worse, when pushed, or prodded, everyone is hostile. So Maurice is sent down — had he been a girl the headmaster Cornwallis would not have been adamant. Maurice’s family does not appreciate the way he tyrannizes; Clive’s family have no sympathy with Clive’s intellectuality or anything individual about him. He should not go up for a fourth year because that is not of use to the functions and roles he must play as a country squire. It does seem the mother thinks that Maurice knows which girl Clive is involved in instead of seeing the lover is Clive himself.

None of them appear to need a degree for money: Maurice goes into the family business; Clive is to take over the property and all that means.

So many good insights into our hidden lives: Like “books meant so much to” Clive “He forgot they were a bewilderment to others.” For me I can’t understand anyone who cannot or does not read regularly; I can understand because I’ve seen too often people to whom a book’s meaning and function in any deep sense is a bewilderment. Supposedly this is Maurice. Also that Maurice when he tries to make up does not realize that Clive is now in another place, that three months of experience have now been prompted by his remark so that Clive is changed.

Forster values Clive highly: calls him “a well tempered soul” and says “dignity and richness” are “poured into” Clive’s soul, that “there was nothing humble about Clive.’ Forster admires this too — I am remembering his ambivalence towards Bast. When we meet Alec Scudder we find he is not humble in himself either; it’s just an act put on — like heterosexuality is.

Part Three was very moving, and I felt that the intense deprivation Maurice feels, his desire to kill himself, suggests that there was a physical as well as emotional relationship between Maurice and Clive otherwise this really physical revulsion against himself would not have enough basis. He is just so lonely not to have a full partner physically as well as emotionally.

It creates sympathy for Maurice and to my mind makes sense that he (paradoxically) is beginning to become a better person. Suffering does not do that to all people, but it does to Maurice, he softens, he begins to feel for others and is more flexible. He also at the same time is inwardly bitter as he sees he will not be understood by anyone he meets (unless of course it’s another gay man who opens up to him but he dare not). He is so frustrated and angry he wishes he had shouted out they were homosexual when Clive first told him. He’d then have “smashed down the lies.” He feels lies are imprisoning him.

But another awakening: a young male relative from school arouses Maurice’s intense desire for sexual congress. What’ s interesting is the boy wordlessly understands and would have said yes, or okay, but Maurice fears maybe not. Maybe the boy would have responded the way he did to Clive in the first place. So Maurice locks himself in — this the second time he locks himself in a room to control himself.

I’m skipping a lot, like Maurice’s grandfather’s death, his tyrannical relationship with the women in his family, Clive’s travels

How far is Alec a stereotype: in this third part I’d say we don’t get to see enough of him. He is kept in the shadows; we hear his conversation only after we have been told he was the gamekeeper who went out with Maurice and Archie on the imbecilic cruel tasks of murdering rabbits and birds. I love Forster for bringing out how all they did (including arguing over whose fault it was they didn’t kill more animals) was senseless as well as a waste of time and some other creature’s life. Only gradually are we aware that the gamekeeper is hanging about, and our first knowledge of him as an individual is as a truculent lower class person. His class resentment is real, believable and continues to the end of the novel. He wants more than 5 bob, but then he cringes — he has been taught he is inferior and kept from gaining good English and polished manners. He is there as corduroys that Maurice feels press at him out in the landscape. Towards the end of chapter 37, memories pile up, Maurice feels some sort of electric current and at the close suddenly Alec is there in the bedroom, saying “Sir, I know …. I know ….” We are told he is said to be cleverer than the kind of gamekeeper they used to have. Throughout the book there are males who hover in the background and seem to know Maurice is gay or they are, try to make contact and either do, disastrously, or don’t. Alec has had courage or nerve and determination none of the others had.

The last or fourth part. I thought about how difficult it is for Alec and Maurice to get together and really see the other accepts them — how in the next chapters they stumble and almost miss one another forever — well I think that can happen if the other person doesn’t sudden speak out and break through the social barriers set up. There’s more than that to fear here — like blackmail; Maurice could also hurt Alec by getting him blackballed from any position ever after.

I also was so afraid when Maurice went once more to Clive: fearful Clive would “intervene” and try to stop them — out if unacknowledged jealousy?

Also I wanted to say that in my own experience you can defy the world – I had a number of people tell me not to marry Jim and express shock at what I was doing. He made no money, had no prospects of any just then. There was no one at our marriage but his parents who didn’t approve. We didn’t have to hide our love or relationship but it didn’t do us any good — it was more like what Graham describes in his first Poldark novel when Ross defies the world and marries his kitchen maid.

Forster had the example of Edward Carpenter and his partner Merrill who were living together very quietly — neither had a big money-making job at all — you do have to give up some things and not regret this and keep to not regretting it. In the 3rd season of the Durrells when Corfu is being taken over by a fascist regime, Sven the open homosexual is put in jail for a while; this being a Utopian kind of series, our friends the Durrells manage to free him — but part of his liberty like Carpenter’s is he lives a s self-dependent farmer away from others.

You ‘just’ have to be willing to pay the price of your decision — we are not told that Maurice and Alec have thought it out – yes that’s so. And Forster pulls down the curtain on the happiness. To me the happy ending that works is the one where the curtain is pulled down at a happy moment that is possible or probable but you know that time marching on other consequences will have to be dealt with or that it could have ended in another way. And that’s this one.

I particularly admired and was glad to see how Forster shows the religious cleric works for evil: Maurice (we are told) had thought clerics naive, but he sees that Borenius has ferreted out the possibility that Maurice and Alec are perhaps lovers — and certainly that Alec was somewhere having sex, and Borenius’s attempt to lasso both Alec and Maurice in. Here Forster has put his finger on a central source for homophobia: the institutional church and the kinds of people that are found there very often use the power to destroy lives they don’t like — that they have no control over. The narrator has said (third person indirect) “there is no secret of humanity which, from a wrong angle, orthodoxy has not viewed.” And religion more acute in people as a perceptive tool will go after this secret. Maurice “feared and hated Mr Borenius; he wanted to kill him.” (Not that all clerics are bad people in Forster, e.g., Mr Beebe in Room with a View.)

But Maurice believes he and Alex can escape. One of things I dislike in the movie now (having read the book) is not enough credit is given Alec. Alec is the real hero of the book — he breaks through first. Maybe Forster thinks he could do it because he’s not educated out of his realities or controlled by class, but the novel is acute enough to suggest Alec had the character to do it.

Maurice is the most openly deeply felt of all of Forster’s novels — with our vulnerable hearts and bodies really laid before us.

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Mark Tandy as Risley — we see him arrested, and tried in the film (the character is almost meant to evoke Lytton Strachey)

The Merchant-Ivory Maurice is a mostly highly faithful heritage-style rendition of the book. It grated on me in a couple of ways. It has it more concrete or clear that Alec was willing to blackmail Maurice — it showed class bias in this. The movie also has many concessions to propriety as well as middle class heterosexual audiences. They are not willing to let Clive off so easily as does Forster. They have Anne Phoebe Nichols) looking oddly at Clive: she suspects something is awry.

What did I like? the splendid performances, the beauty of the settings and (I admit it) the actors. I thought it conveyed their vulnerability. The unapologetic love scenes were done with as much frankness and the same good taste one sees in the other M-I films – and recently (I think) Outlander. Here the material is treated with intelligence and a poignancy deeply felt. It’s a haunted film — haunted by loss of what need not have been lost.

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Denholm Elliot as Mr Emerson in A Room with a View (the part is played by Timothy Spall in t’other Room with a View)

To conclude, we did agree that what held Maurice, the book, back and also the movie (it is paid less attention to than others of this team though it won many awards and was filmed in spectacularly beautiful & iconic places) is their particular sexual subject matter. Alec and Maurice opt to be alive, to live for real, not to follow the hollow commands of social conformities. As before them do Lucy Honeychurch and George Emerson (Room with a View); and after them, Helen Schlegel. Helen is not broken on the wheels of the world, like, say, Leonard Bast (Howards End) or twisted like Aziz (A Passage to India). Our three pairs and Helen get away with compromising less than Margaret Schlegel has decided to put up with (for the sake of more money and owning Howards End) and than Fielding and Mrs Moore have (across their lives in Passage to India). But they are (with the exception of Leonard Bast and from the early Where Angels Fear to Tread poor Lilia and her baby who die) winners all. I have omitted the intricate connections between these major presences and the many minor people who are there in their full humanity, shaped by and assimilated into the environment of the books, adding all sorts of complexities and nuances this brief blog can only indicate, sometimes allowed the most eloquent statement in the book (Mr Emerson in Room with a View). As the occasional imbecilic (funny or not), they are compassionated; as for the obtuse and cruel, narrow and rigid, corrupt, their punishment is to be them.

Ellen

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E.M Forster by Dora Carrington (1920)

A Syllabus

Online at: https://ellenandjim.wordpress.com/2020/02/16/a-spring-syllabus-the-novels-of-e-m-forster-at-olli-at-au/

For a course at the Oscher LifeLong Learning Institute at American University
Day: Monday afternoons, 1:45 to 3:15 pm,
Mar 2 to May 4
4801 Massachusetts Avenue, Washington, D.C. 20016
Dr Ellen Moody

Description of Course

In this course we will read Forster’s best-known fiction, A Room with a View, Howards End, and A Passage to India. We’ll discuss what makes them such distinctive literary masterpieces capable of delivering such pleasure while delineating the realities, tragedies, comedy, and consolations of human life. We’ll place them in the context of his life, other works, Bloomsbury connections and era. We’ll also see clips from some of the brilliant films made from them. I ask that before class begins everyone read his short explanatory Aspects of the Novel.


Above young Lucy Honeychurch (Helena Bonham Carter) and Miss Charlotte Bartlett (Maggie Smith), 1987; older Lucy (Elaine Cassidy) coming into Florence, 2007 — Room with a View

Required Texts (these are recommended editions; there are other good ones you could buy, i.e, with notes and annotations):

EM Forster, Aspects of the Novel, ed. Frank Kermode. Penguin ISBN 978-0-141-44169-6
EM Forster, A Room with a View, ed. Wendy Moffat. Penguin ISBN 978-0-14-18329-9
EM Forster, Howards End, ed David Lodge. Penguin 978-0-14-118213-1
EM Forster, A Passage to India, ed PN Furbank. Everyman ISBN 978-1-85715-029-2


Above Leonard Bast (Samuel West) in a reverie sequence, 1992; Margaret Schegel (Haylet Atwell) at breakfast, 2018 — Howards End

Format: The class will be a mix of informal lecture and group discussion. Please read for the first session, as much of Aspects of the Novel as you can.

Mar 2: 1st week: Intro, syllabus, Forster’s life and work; the Bloomsbury group (one of his groups of friends); his aesthetic point of view. We’ll cover Aspects of the Novel, Intro, and Chapters 1-5

Mar 9: 2nd: Aspects of the Novel, Chapters 6-10. The first two novels. We begin A Room with a View: Part One

Mar 16: 3rd: A Room with a View: Part Two. We’ll see clips from the Merchant-Ivory-Jhabvala Room with a View (1985) and Andrew Davies’s Room with a View (2007)

Mar 23: 4th A Room with a View, transitional; we begin Howards End: Chapters 1-14

Mar 30: 5th: Howards End: Chapters 15-26

Apr 6: 6th: Howards End: Chapters 27-43: We’ll see clips from Merchant-Ivory-Jhabvala Howards’ End (1992); Lonergan’s 4 part Howards’ End

Apr 13: 7th: Forster’s Maurice; we begin A Passage to India, Chapters 1-11 (Part One)

Apr 20: 8th A Passage to India, Chapters 12-28 (Part Two)

Apr 27: 9th: A Passage to India, Chapters 29-37 (Parts Two into Three). We’ll see clips from David Lean’s A Passage to India (1984)

May 4: The other 46 years: travel writing, biography, essays, short stories.


Adela Quested (Judy Davis), Dr Aziz (Victor Banerjee) and Mrs Moore (Peggy Ashcroft), 1985 — A Passage to India

Recommended biography, essays & by Forster:

Beauman, Nicola. Morgan: A Biography of E.M. Forster. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1993.
Colman, John. E. M. Forster: The Personal Voice. London: Routledge, Kegan and Paul, 1975.
Forster, E. M. Abinger Harvest. London: Penguin, 1967.
Forster, E. M. Maurice, ed. David Leavitt. NY: Penguin, 2005.
Furbank, P.N. E.M. Forster: A Life. London: Harvest, 1997.
Moffat, Wendy. A Great Unrecorded History: A New Life of E.M. Forster. NY: Picador, 2010.
Shahane, V.A., ed. Focus on Forster’s Passage to India: Indian essays in criticism. India: Orient Longman, 1989.
Summers, Claude J. E.M. Forster. NY: Ungar, 1983. Excellent essays on the novels
Trilling, Lionel. E.M. Forster. NY: New Directions, 1965. Liberal imagination, humanistic perspective.


House (Peppard Cottage) used as Howards End in 1992 movie

Films:

Howards End. Dir. Hettie Macdonald. Screenplay: Kenneth Lonergan. Producer: HBO. Perf. Hayley Atwell, Matthew Macfayden, Joseph Quinn, Philippa Coulthard, Alex Lawther, Rosalind Eleazar. 2018.
A Passage to India. Dir. Screenplay. David Lean. Perf. Peggy Ashcroft, Judy Davis, James Fox, Alec Guinness, Nigel Havers, Victor Banerjee, Roshan Seth. Columbia, 1985
A Room with a View; Howards End. Dir. James Ivory. Screenplay Ruth Prawer Jhabvala. Producer: Ismail Merchant. Perf: Denholm Elliot, Maggie Smith, Helena Bonham Carter, Cecil Day-Lewis; Simon Callow (Room with a View); Anthony Hopkins, Emma Thompson, Helena Bonham Carter, Samuel West, James Wilby (Howards End). 1985; 1992.
A Room with a View. Dir. Nicolas Renton. Screenplay. Andrew Davies. Producer: ITV. Perf. Elaine Cassidy, Timothy and Rafe Spall, Timothy West, Sophie Thompson, Mark Williams, Sinead Cusack. 2007.

Alex Lawther as the appealing impish, but marginalized Tibby in Howards End (2018) — the character reappears more fully developed, older, articulate in Cecil Vyse (played by Daniel Day Lewis) in A Room with a View

Four blogs:

Moody, Ellen. E.M. Foster’s Maurice, with a few words on the Merchant-Ivory movie adaptation. A blog-essay. https://ellenandjim.wordpress.com/2020/02/21/e-m-forsters-maurice-perhaps-the-finest-of-the-novels-with-a-few-words-on-the-merchant-ivory-movie-adaptation/ At Ellen and Jim have a blog, two. February 21, 2020.
————. E. M. Forster’s Howards End and A Room with a View. A Blog-essay. https://ellenandjim.wordpress.com/2018/11/29/e-m-forsters-howards-end-and-a-room-with-a-view/ At Ellen and Jim have a blog, two. November 29, 2018
———
———–. E.M. Foster’s A Room with a View, partly a rewrite of Northanger Abbey. A Blog-essay. https://misssylviadrake.livejournal.com/43931.html At Under the Sign of Sylvia. Live Journal. March 30, 2011. Also https://reveriesunderthesignofausten.wordpress.com/2011/03/30/e-m-forsters-a-room-with-a-view-partly-a-rewrite-of-austens-northanger-abbey/ At Reveries Under the Sign of Austen, Two. Transferred.
Tichelaar, Tyler. A Working-Class Lover. Class and Homsexuality in E.M. Forster’s Maurice. https://thegothicwanderer.wordpress.com/2018/09/20/a-working-class-lover-class-and-homosexuality-in-e-m-forsters-maurice/ At The Gothic Wanderer. September 20, 2018.

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Opening moments of Fortunes of War (1987 BBC 7 part series)

Dear friends,

Tonight I had intended to write a blog-essay on the first two novels of Manning’s superb six volume cycle of novels, Balkan Trilogy followed by Levantine Trilogy set across World War Two (1939-44) and its equally fine film adaptation by Plater and Jones, Fortunes of War, famously starring Emma Thompson and Kenneth Branagh. But I find to my slight amazement, I’ve already written a blog on precisely this material, where I had also finished The Great Fortune, and reached the end of the second novel, The Spoilt City and vowed to go on to the third, Friends and Heroes, and then the second trilogy — and never did. (I have begun Friends and Heroes.) As when I first began reading these novels for two sessions of a five session course at Politics and Prose (bookstore in Northwest Washington DC), and discovered my mind was a complete blank over them (I forgot I had made my files of notes), so I had completely forgotten this blog.

I know why. I read the novels during the first half of the summer when Jim was dying but I thought he might live and then had the shock of realizing the doctors had filled us (or me) with false hope and allowed, nay encouraged him to take a dreadful operation (an esophagectomy) on the supposition it could help stop the spread of the cancer. It did no such thing, and when the cancer metatasized into his liver, his inability to eat anything without having it slosh back with acid and sour tastes of the worst sort made the last two and one half months of his existence a yet worse hell than even it was.

2013 was a long time ago now. Seven years have gone by in my life, and I’ve changed a lot and had many new experiences (yet not changed at all and remain the same person unable to do very different things — mostly because I don’t want to). I remember reading somewhere the body replaces itself every seven years. More to the point for Manning’s books and TV series, the political world has shifted dramatically so that my perspective at the time — one where I compared the art of the books to the art of Jane Austen — emerges as obtusely unimportant, showing how this influence led to the making of a more delicate nuanced art, but missing or de-emphasizing why one reads these books and what made them important in shifting political world of 1970s as a reflection of the world of the calamitous 1940s. I grant my old blog this much: I retell the basis story and outline the themes of two of the books and the movie. But in 2013 we still had Barack Obama as president, and however troubling was the state of the world and retrograde many of the attitudes in public that dominated over social, sexual, economic, political life inside the US and the cultures worlds like it, all that is nothing to what this US gov’t, the public world of our society, and all sorts of norms have become or been contested into since Trump took office in January 2016.

Suddenly Manning’s depiction of how the average person will experience the step-by-step closing in of a military dictatorship, disintegration of many aspects of society (from closing of schools, to wiping out of all sorts of accustomed freedoms — like movement, to new forms of imprisonment, destruction of social services, many protections), ruthless killing in say the streets and just over the hill of the skies in another country (where “anything goes”) is starkly relevant. This first part or the first three novels are basically a woman’s view of war, what she gets to see (a lot) and how she copes with it. The second three take us to Egypt and into the desert war where the characters who dominate (or become Harriet’s friends) are men fighting in battle and coming back shell-shocked; we witness war itself, the blowing up of people, of trucks, of towns directly. Gentle reader, I cannot rewrite the blog nor do I want to transfer it so I leave it to you to read the details of its summary up to the third of six books and about the TV film series.


An evening in the Pringles’ flat in Rumania ….

To that I want to bring out this time the brilliance of making Yakimov as third central character through the first trilogy. Because he is so perceptive, alienated and amoral, yet calm because he expects nothing else, his reflection as a mirror of say the fearful and hurryingly hidden passengers on the trains, the seeming and real luxury of the hotel lobbies become electrifyingly frightening in an uneasy tragi-comedy. I want to do more justice to Harriet as our moral commentator: she registers far more than I was giving her credit for. Guy is not a joke, but a genuine idealist and sociable man whose idealism as socialist-communism, and lack of personal ambition, his philosophy wholly inadequate. That’s important.


Ronald Pickup as Yakimov — oddly we grow very fond of him, our Pandor, despite his betrayal of his friends — he is suddenly senselessly killed

There is also Manning’s uncanny ability to create the atmosphere of war for civilians just outside a war zone (the book is autobiographical). We feel the cold and we feel the hunger as Guy and Harriet are helping others in a kitchen for a job and themselves not fed. The not knowing what is happening while you watch the bombs go off. While you watch one group of people take power and another be imprisoned, tortured, disappeared. Then how do most of us experience war in a war zone? as unnerving terror, as flight, as death and disappearance of people all around us, how the dreadful to see and experience becomes the normal. We can’t imagine it until we’ve lived it and only those who try to get it down in imagination can help us — so I must now read the Levantine Trilogy.


The Danger of Tree was a considerable literary success (she was disappointed not to win the Booker); the other two are The Battle Lost and Won, and the posthumous The Sum of Things

Now I refer my reader to Manning’s Extraordinary Cats, and conclude this brief survey of Manning’s masterpiece by returning to that first blog once again where my then close and now old friend, Judy Geater spoke of how the film adaptation lacked the deeper sense of the books about hunger, about clothes turning into rags, about desperate living conditions.

I did feel the whole theme of hunger and poverty which dominates large sections of the books is underplayed in the series, and in the books everybody is also increasingly ragged – Yakimov’s grand fur coat is falling to bits. Of course it would be difficult to show all this fully, as you can’t starve your actors, but the desperate beggars in the streets are a constant presence in The Balkan Trilogy and almost never seen in the series.

She saw the two cats as not only creatures to whom the love-starved Harriet can attach her but also doubles, doppelgangers for Harriet herself

In the novels Harriet also starts to look after a second cat later, which is half-starved, at a time when the characters are all desperately hungry – this cat didn’t feature in the series. While reading the books I felt as if both of the cats were possibly doubles for Harriet, playing out what is going on in her mind, as her thoughts become increasingly “fierce” and desperate and then later she is starving for both food and love and with nowhere she can call home, like the second stray cat.


The kitten in the TV series

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Last time I had a chapter from Thomas Staley’s Twentieth Century Women Novelists to recommend and summarize (see last quarter of the blog), a review of Deirdre David’s biography by Margaret Drabble to convey and one essay by Mary Salmon about Manning’s deep feeling of not belonging to cite. Now I can add David’s biography itself, and say I find it to be far better than is acknowledged — insightful, beautifully written, giving full depth to Manning’s life, taking the reader along that life and moving back and forth between time past when a novel takes place and time present when she’s writing it. Manning spent her life writing so the effect is to go from book to book, sometimes the book providing the past and sometimes its context another parallel present time. Her Anglo-Irish background and time in Palestine are done justice to. I also found a book-length literary reading and study: Carmen Oliver’s A Literary Reading of Olivia Manning’s World War II Trilogies. I found it as a pdf (which has now vanished, but if any readers are interested, contact me and I’ll send it to you by attachment). Finally a new pattern interests people: the refuges, the hard lives Harriet and Guy live — half-starving as refuges are discussed by Eva Patten, Imperial Refugee: Olivia Manning’s Fictions of War, reviewed by Heather Ingman, in the Irish University Review (43:1, 2013).


I am just now reading two further books about women at war: DuMaurier’s King’s General where the heroine is hopelessly disabled (her legs paralyzed, twisted) and for a time lives in a war zone; Sontag’s Volcano Lover where the core deeper characters are the women attached to William Hamilton, our collector, and for a stretch we experience the terrors and insane cruelties wreaked on the Jacobin revolt in Naples.

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Olivia Manning (an appealing close-up)

Olivia Manning had one close woman friend, Stevie Smith, also someone who didn’t fit in, didn’t belong, was at heart a spinster type (no matter if she had affairs too), and could also become close to cats, as seen in Smith’s Cats in Color. My two close companions nowadays are my beloved cats too. So as I began with myself I end on similar use of the cat, unsentimental and metaphorically to that found in Smith and Manning’s The Balkan Trilogy.

The first is by a post WW1 and 2 German poet, Marie Luise Kaschnitz (1901-74): Die Katze

The Cat

The cat that someone found sat in a construction site and screamed.
The first night and the second and the third night.
The first time, passing by, not thinking of anything,
He carried the scream in his ears, heard it waking from a deep sleep.
The second time he bent down over the snow-covered ditch,
Trying in vain to coax out the shadow prowling around there.
The third time he jumped down, fetched the animal,
Called it cat, because no other name occurred to him.
And the cat stayed with him seven days.
Her fur stood on end, refused to be smoothed.
When he came home at night, she leapt on his chest, boxed his ears.
The nerve in her left eye twitched constantly.
She leapt up onto the curtains in the hall, dug in with her claws,
Swung back and forth, so the iron rings rattled.
She ate up all the flowers he brought home.
She knocked vases off the table, tore up the petals.
She didn’t sleep at night, sat at the foot of his bed
Looking up at him with burning eyes.
After a week the curtains were torn to shreds,
His kitchen was strewn with garbage. He did nothing anymore,
Didn’t read, didn’t play the piano,
The nerve of his left eye twitched constantly.
He had made her a ball out of silver paper,
Which she had scorned for a long time. On the seventh day
She lay in wait, shot out,
Chased the silver ball. On the seventh day
She leapt up onto his lap, let herself by petted, and purred.
Then he felt like a person with great power.
He rocked her, brushed her, tied a ribbon around her neck.
But in the night she escaped, three floors down,
And ran, not far, just to the place where he
Had found her. Where the willows’ shadows
Moved in the moonlight. Back in the same place
She flew from rock to rock in her rough coat
And screamed.

(from The Defiant Muse: German Feminist Poems from the Middle Ages to Now, ed. trans. Susan Cocalis)

The second a paragraphy by Hilary Mantel, her final devastating critique of life in Saudi Arabia is in her last paragraph of Eight Months on Ghazza Street: how relieved she is not to have to see the state of their cats, like ours, an emblem of us:

The street cats swarmed over the wall, looking for shelter, and dragged themselves before the glass. She watched them: scared cats, starving, alive with vermin, their faces battered, their broken limbs, set crooked, their fur eaten away. She felt she could no longer live with doing nothing for these cats. Slow tears leaked out of her eyes.

Ellen

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Dear friends and readers,

Last night meaning to read a Christmas story by Anthony Trollope, I was deterred by Amazon. Amazon strikes again. On my stoop I found one of their harassed employees had left C.W. Lewis’s A Grief Observed, and, finding the book irresistible, read it through instead of Trollope. And naturally a blog came …


Skating by Moonlight — Ladybird Advent Calendar

Someone — a Latin poet — had defined eternity as no more than this: to hold and possess the whole fullness of life in one moment, here and now, past and present and to come — last chapter of Ross Poldark, where we have just experienced a sequence of Christmas scenes

In a (to Trollopians) a notorious screed against most matter produced for Christmas, Anthony Trollope defined what he thought a work for Christmas should contain:

Nothing can be more distasteful to me than to have to give a relish of Christmas to what I write. I feel the humbug implied by the nature of the order. A Christmas story, in the proper sense, should be the ebullition of some mind anxious to instill others with a desire for Christmas religious thought or Christmas festivities, — , better yet, with Christmas charity” (from An Autobiography)

Should it be that? Trollope’s own “The Widow’s Mite” is the story by him that comes closest to this but not all the others are quite that.  “Christmas at Thompson Hall” the one he produced after writing his frustrated thoughts is a story of comic anguish and strong stress in a woman trying to reach her relatives once a year from abroad on Christmas day.

What I discover is typical is a story usually set around Christmas, but it need not be (not all Trollope’s are, as for example, “Catherine Carmichael,” The Telegraph Girl,” and “Two Generals”), a story where characters are in need of kindness and show kindness, characters who forgive, reconcile or accept themselves with one another or something, but also make sudden philosophic comments appropriate to the story, who reach for some meaning.

I have a few recent Christmas movies and stories as examples, and C.W. Lewis’s A Grief Observed, a meditation on the story behind one of them, for a coda.


The last pair of lovers, the lucky Mary (Michelle Dockery) and Matthew (Dan Steevens) clutching one another wildly in front of enormous house …. (Downton Abbey, 2011)

I’ll begin with the TV “Christmas special” (two hours) I watched tonight:  appropriate to Christmas eve, thought I, a “feature” or coda which ended the second season of Downton Abbey, itself set during World War One and mostly about World War One (much softened). The sequences of events, the stories, what the characters are doing are all shaped by their occurring from a few days before December 25th, until what seems to be Twelfth Night, or January 6th, at any rate some time after the 1st when we’ve just had a “servants ball.”

Has what we have just experienced been Christmasy — well, yes, as the characters have put up and decorated a tree, had two servants’s special lunches and dinners, a Christmas eve party complete with charades, went shooting, exchanged presents. But have the individual stories been imbued “with a desire for … Christmas charity.” Not altogether but there has been much forgiveness of others and the self, some growth in self-acceptance and acceptance of one’s circumstances without blaming someone else, there’s been some real selfless love enacted, and just scenes of feeling good, partly by the characters all making sacrifices (however small) to enable another character to feel better about themselves, and have a good time. There’s been regret at having done a bad deed (but the deliberately lost dog was found), and we’ve even had ghostly doing with a ouija or spirit board.

My favorite line in the two hours is Mrs Hughes’s answer to Daisy’s “Don’t you believe in spirits, then?”: “I don’t believe they play board games.”


Audrey (Carolyn Farina) at Patrick’s Cathedral with her mother (1990 Metropolitan)

Two nights ago I saw a similar effort. The way Whit Stillman appropriated Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park is to set an analogous set of characters and action in Manhattan Christmas week (starting a few days before Christmas and ending just after New Year’s Eve) in the 1990s. Metropolitan is to me a deeply appealing movie because it’s one of the few appropriations which use words from Austen (more from Emma than Mansfield Park) and mirrors some of her central ethical questionings.

We see a group of upper class twenty-year olds from very wealthy families accept among them a young man with far fewer funds (he lives on the West side, not East, takes buses and walks instead of hailing cabs); they discuss what is a good person, reject sexual harassment (and rape), worry the question of success for upper class people like themselves who have too high expectations and have never had to endure boredom, hardship or work hard as yet. The Fanny character (Audrey) rejects Lionel Trilling’s reading of Mansfield Park as egocentric, narrow-minded and domineering. (He does not like Fanny Price and says no one can; well, Audrey loves Fanny.)  The characters squabble, insult, and even fight one another (to the point of toy pistols), but the stories show our favored characters ending up tolerating, understanding, controlling themselves more out of respect for others, getting a wider perspective.

I admit I respond most deeply to the filming of typical NYC scenes during Christmas week at Rockefeller Center, on TV (the burning Yule log on Channel 11), shopping, lonely crowded streets and people going to rituals. Each time I watch I cry when Audrey and her mother sing carols in St Patrick’s cathedral.


Abel (Jean-Paul Roussillon) reads Goethe to Elizabeth on Christmas Day eve (towards the end of A Christmas Tale)

Last year it became my favorite Christmas movie and still is — why I began with Arnaud Desplechin’s A Christmas Tale. A family strained for many years by an estrangement between the middle living child, Henri, who facing bankruptcy, took advantage of the father and made him liable for his debts. The family would have lost their beloved ancient spacious house and their cloth dying business gone under, but the oldest girl, Elizabeth, is a money-making playwright and paid off the debt with the proviso Henri must be excluded from the family from now on. But Junon, the mother (played by Catherine Deneuve) has leukemia, is probably dying, so all now must pull together, including a younger son, Ivan, and Sylvia, his wife. It is explicitly a story of attempted reconciliations of all sorts.

What I love about this movie is what I like so about the Downton Abbey piece and Metropolitan, only here this central characteristic is so much stronger, more in play: just about all the characters are so complex in the way of characters in a novel, and (like Rohmer and Bergmann’s movies) you can watch and re-watch and each time learn more about all the characters. A viewer probably tends to focus on Elizabeth who is so bitter and who has a good relationship with Abel, her highly intelligent reading father, but not with Paul, her son who we’d call autistic and whom she wants to put in an asylum; her husband, Claude, has little patience with the boy. Also on Henri who dislikes his mother since she dislikes him, his grief over his dead wife, and restless Jewish girlfriend. It is Henri who helps bring Paul back to himself by paying attention to Paul: Henri identifies with the boy

This time (my fourth through) I noticed Junon, the mother, had self-consciously married a man who was ugly, not of high status, because Abel is kind and competent, a protector, loyal, and that he has enabled her to spend her life keeping at a distance from everyone. Also that Simon, the best friend of Ivan, Junon and Abel’s youngest son, and Sylvia, Simon’s wife’s has been leading a depressive life, until (in this week) he and Sylvia become lovers and Abel takes him into the factory. It seems that he was a rival for Sylvia long ago and she chose (probably not wisely she sees now) Ivan. This time I noticed it is Abel who takes both Simon and Paul into the family home they all find so precious, a kind of sanctuary inside a hard industrial city. Abel is seen quietly cleaning up, always there, the mainstay those who need to, lean on. In other words, the parents as complex people began to emerge in my mind.


The Come From Away cast as puzzled passengers ….

I’ve two more, neither occur around Christmas. Briefly this past Saturday afternoon, Izzy, Laura and I saw at the Kennedy Center the extraordinary (in the depths of feeling it occasionally reached) for an group concept, Canadian musical; and astonishing (in sudden individual moments, separate soliloquies, character sketches), Come from Away. It is the upbeat story of how a large group of American planes were landed in Newfoundland, Canada, because the area had a large unused airport, and how the people living in the towns all about welcomed the people on the planes, took care of them.

It’s a story we are much in need of since the spread of hatred and fear these past few years by Trump and his regime, and others like itaround the world. I’ll content myself with a review in the New York Times. Ben Brantley explains this show and its context better than I could.


Deborah Winger and Anthony Hopkins as Joy and Jack

More at length: last week with a friend I watched Richard Attenborough’s Shadowlands, the story of the slow coming together of C.S.Lewis in his later year as a Don, with Joy Gresham, an American woman with whom he had been corresponding for years. If Christmas is mentioned, that’s because the movie covers a number of years. It does show characters behaving with singular charity and forbearance towards one another. It’s Christmasy, though, because it seeks to put the events of the story, especially a painful death of Joy Gresham (played by Deborah Winger), a relatively young woman, from bone cancer; a framework that makes it meaningful at the same time as the central character, “Jack” Lewis (played by Anthony Hopkins) cries out in anguish over the senselessness, cruel suffering and loss such a death entails. It is shaped by Christian apologetics, so to speak, especially on the existence of pain (as found in Lewis’s own writing). In the film we see Jack giving sermons on this topic.

Shadowlands was a hit the year it came out, gained many prizes. C.S. Lewis is nowadays known widely for his children’s fantasy series, Narnia Chronicles, whose stories may be allegorized as about the life and figure of Christ. I knew Lewis’s work from my 20s in graduate school as a brilliant literary critic (The Allegory of Love springs to mind), but Jim when I met him knew and was still under the spell of Lewis’s religious apologetic polemics ( which years later Jim found abhorrent): The Screwtape Letters, Mere Christianity, and Surprized by Joy, the story of his supposed conversion from atheism to Anglicanism. Maybe this is why the movie was dared and accepted.

The problem is, for some, maybe many, Lewis’s arguments can be seen as ultimately sadistic, a romancing of pain and suffering. The movie is hagiographic, follows an idealizing biography of the Gresham-Lewis relationship (with the same title): by contrast, another by Abigail Santamara tells of how Gresham pursued Lewis consciously, was very ambitious, and how Lewis was at first reluctant, married her yes to provide her with the right to live in London, and gradually fell in love. It’s a popular-oriented film so we get this reductive idea Lewis was simply cold, inhibited, in retreat, not daring risks like the figure in The Roman de la Rose (which he lectures on), and Joy brought him out of this. She is presented probably as she was — slightly obnoxious, rude in her bluntness. But the romance is very well done, the script intelligent, tasteful — the history of Joy’s cancer; the diagnosis, first radiation treatments, the remission, the return and then the decline into death is done realistically (to some extent) and made moving. We watch Lewis by Joy’s side throughout; he is there for her as she goes out — as I was when Jim died. The movie does not stop at her death but carries on, showing Lewis at first in a rage, then slowly calming down, and towards the end still with his brother and now Joy’s boy, his son growing up, if not accepting what happened, able to deal sanely with this unexpected past.

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Helen Dahm Swiff (1878-1986), Silent Night

I’ll end on the book I was prompted to buy after seeing Shadowlands. It arrived today, just in time for Christmas Eve: Lewis’s A Grief Observed, yet another memoir of someone dealing with extreme grief over the loss for him or her of a beloved person, and the death and suffering that person knew. All four of these movies record deaths: in Downton Abbey, it’s the hero’s fiancee, then her father, the scullery maid and cook’s husband, son of a farmer who has lost all his children. A Christmas Tale begins with the death of the first boy of Abel and Junon, age 6; he is never forgotten during the film. In Metropolitan we are told of the death of some of the characters’ parents, the divorce of others, and one of the intelligent young men discusses what he says is everyone’s need to believe in God, and what he regards as the probably that there is a God. How else carry on? These kinds of inference I think come from over-reaching: you can see life as good and enjoy much even if it has no meaning beyond the experience of life itself. Come From Away shows awareness that thousands have just been killed in an engineered disaster.

As I began to read, I found myself remembering immediately what a wonderfully alive writer Lewis is, how eloquent, how daring his use of language. And how brilliant he is, and how persuasive he can be — partly because he tells enough truth, is so perceptive about whatever experiences he is getting down. He spoke home to me, and ranged widely. He kept several notebooks from which this slender book came. Towards the end he talks of the “arrogance in us to call frankness, fairness, and chivalry ‘masculine’ when we see them in a woman; it is arrogance in them to describe a man’s sensitiveness or tact or tenderness as ‘feminine.’ “Poor warped fragments of humanity.”

The first chapter is his own strong anger, and fear. Lewis finds grief feels like fear — yes, I felt profound terror when I first truly had the thought I would have to be alone in the world without Jim. He talks of how “it is hard to have patience with people who say, ‘There is no death’ or ‘Death doesn’t matter.’ In this first state he is an embarrassment to others; he cannot endure to listen to them. It resonated with me when Lewis says he cannot remember Joy’s face (he’s seen too many versions), hear her voice, imagine what she would say or do in this or that situation. She is now an absence. I like how he says Joy remained the other, a self apart, and when she would be with him, he would see how he had distorted her in his mind.

In the second chapter he draws himself up and realizes he has been thinking only of himself: what of her, of the pain she knew, of her loss, what happened as she experienced it. Then the cant: she is in God’s hands. Right. Will fatal disease be diagnosed in his body too? “What does it matter how this grief of mine evolves or what I do with it? what does it matter how I remember her or whether I remember her at all? None of these alternatives will either ease or aggravate her past anguish.”

The third and fourth chapter are much harder to capture. Unlike Julian Barnes’s masterly grief memoir in Levels of Life, Lewis does not move as an argument because in a way there is none: he sees the senselessness and cruelty of what has happened and then refuses to infer there is no God, and so moves in circles around the torturous draining traumatic and gradually therapeutic experiences he is enduring. He questions himself a lot. “If I had really cared, as I thought I did, about the sorrows of the world, I should not have bee so overwhelmed when my own sorrow came.” He explores what love is. We all experience “love cut short; like a dance stopped in mid-career … bereavement is a universal and integral part of our experience of love.” Then what grief: “something new to be chronicled every day. Grief is like a long valley, a winding valley where any bend may reveal a totally new landscape.”

There is much more: on God, on human consciousness, on misunderstanding less, on mystic experiences, and how he and Joy their intimacy could only reach so far. He ends with a quotation from Dante where Joy is likened (if I am not mistaken) to either Beatrice or some eternal presence and “Poi si torno all’eterna fontana.”

I hope all who read this manage a contented cheerful Winter Solstice.

Ellen

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