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Archive for the ‘Poetry’ Category


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.

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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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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.

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


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.

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


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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Porgy (Eric Owens) and Bess (Angel Blue)

Friends,

I have little to add to Anthony Tommasini’s finely discriminated strong praise of the new Metropolitan Opera production of Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess as realized by a group of effective nuanced performances — the nuance, subtlety, and self-reflexive comic distance, which the actor-singers brought to the parts did a lot to de-emphasize and re-shape most of the white perspective on black people. I invite my reader to click and read Tommasini on the individual singers and specific events within the opera on stage.

To me it was a splendid appropriately pitched production. I sat there mesmerized.  The songs were beautifully sung by each and all the performers, the play acted believably, the dancing, singing and then individual behavior of the large black chorus on stage made the action into a modern masque that figured the pleasure and repeatedly last minute, unexpected (yet perpetually expected) tragedies of the people in the streets and on the docks, in the apartments and in the symbolic community buildings, and its Esser-like structures. The opera reminds me of the couple of mid-20th century American operas I’ve seen, e.g., Aaron Copeland’s A Tender Land: it is an ensemble meditative lyrical piece. There are dramatic scenes and a story line, but the emphasis is the group, individuals stand for types within a group, acting out necessary roles.

I thought Owens as Porgy outstanding and Angel Blue as Bess perfect in each phase of her role — the acting was in general pitch perfect from caricature to deeply felt. Everyone else is supportive or contrasting (the two bully males who Bess succumbs to).  I was drawn by the strong women characters, amused by the comic males (Sporting Life was done tongue-in-cheek), aware of the stories and losses of individuals. Archetypes were used and strongly emphatic performances.


Sporting Life (Frederick Ballentine) and Bess (Angel Blue)

There was a continual use of comic exaggeration to distance us and make us think about what we are seeing and as entertainment:


Maria (Denyce Graves) and upside-down the bully Crown (Alfred Walker)

The applause at the end was thunderous, and without meaning to take away anything from what literally happened on stage, as John Berger averred long ago, nothing occurs in a vacuum and I felt that everyone watching and acting was aware we as a group are living in a larger society now driven by bigotry, a renewal of race prejudice and open vile violent punitive behavior not seen openly in several decades. To do this opera and in this lavish way is to create a meaningful counter-punch against all Trump and his Republican party and their ignorant voters can do and assert belief in. The production is selling out and more performances than originally intended are now scheduled.


One of many ensemble scenes — there is much dancing, some ritual-like

The opera has a complicated often thwarted history because it has had to make its way in a racist society. The talk here shows how the opera is being seen as rooted in its context; its past and the surrounding society then and now embedded in the present production which has a message of hope, at least endurance and survival in a better future. Now we attend to the use of African music, the songs of African-Americans intermixed with the Broadway music and song rhythms and how this is worked into mid-century operatic traditions, both sentimental and stereotypical. And it is still daring to have a home-y kindly aging disabled man for a hero, a heroine who is raped in one scene (when Crown drags her off from the picnic) but in others succumbs to temptation, who sees the better way and cannot leave off her addiction.


Bess and Porgy in a companionable moment

Just a taste of the memorable poignant sensual Summertime as sung by Clara to her baby, a lullaby (the soprano Golda Schultz):

For this production the Met has mounted a show of black performers at the Met since its inception: it’s made up of pictures and the memorabilia of all black singers, and dancers too who were in operas on stage. It’s called Black Voices at the Met, though some of the people commemorated are there for costuming, sets, choreography. It seems also to remember those excluded: Paul Robson is there

I end on two poems by Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872-1906)

We wear the Mask

We wear the mask that grins and lies,
It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,—
This debt we pay to human guile;
With torn and bleeding hearts we smile,
And mouth with myriad subtleties.

Why should the world be over-wise,
In counting all our tears and sighs?
Nay, let them only see us, while
We wear the mask.

We smile, but, O great Christ, our cries
To thee from tortured souls arise.
We sing, but oh the clay is vile
Beneath our feet, and long the mile;
But let the world dream otherwise,
We wear the mask!

Sympathy

I know what the caged bird feels, alas!
When the sun is bright on the upland slopes;
When the wind stirs soft through the springing grass,
And the river flows like a stream of glass;
When the first bird sings and the first bud opes,
And the faint perfume from its chalice steals—
I know what the caged bird feels!

I know why the caged bird beats his wing
Till its blood is red on the cruel bars;
For he must fly back to his perch and cling
When he fain would be on the bough a-swing;
And a pain still throbs in the old, old scars
And they pulse again with a keener sting—
I know why he beats his wing!

I know why the caged bird sings, ah me,
When his wing is bruised and his bosom sore,—
When he beats his bars and he would be free;
It is not a carol of joy or glee,
But a prayer that he sends from his heart’s deep core,
But a plea, that upward to Heaven he flings—
I know why the caged bird sings!

Ellen

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Marcus Stone, “Trevelyan at Casalunga”

Dear friends and readers,

Though it’s been some time since I taught Trollope’s He Knew He Was Right, and I have published a chapter of my book (Trollope on the ‘Net) on this novel, and know there is a sizable body of subtle interesting essays on the book — on the subjects of love, sex, marriage, custody of children, gender power, male abuse of women, male sexual possessiveness and anxiety — since writing on Trollope’s Can You Forgive Her? after teaching it, I’ve been wanting similarly to focus on one aspect of this enormous and complex book, which we discussed in my class. This because I feel this perspective has the power to make the book function on the side of compassion in today’s world, and it was taken up by my class with real interest as reconciling together many of its disparate elements.

We can look upon He Knew He Was Right as a modern semi-medical study of anxiety and depression. I found the idea most fully worked out by C. S. Wiesenthal in “The Body Melancholy: Trollope’s He Knew He Was Right, which appeared in the Dickens Studies Annual for the year 1992. In the case of Louis Trevelyan Trollope goes beyond his other studies of male who cross the line of sanity into insanity through obsession by a fixed idea, usually sexual jealousy, to present, examine and then trace the “psychopathology of melancholy.” He has gone beyond the traditional figure of melancholy (think of Durer’s famous icon) — super thinness, sleeplessness, profuse perspiration, paleness, hollow eyes, a bent back, his eyes not working right, all are slowly developed in Trevelyan.


Oliver Dimsdale brilliant as Louis Trevelyan, here he watches Emily leaving River Cottage (2004 He Knew He Was Right, scripted Andrew Davies)

In the last session of the class we examined Louis’s descent into profound illness and finally death as a gradual piling on of mental and then physical symptoms which destroy his ability to judge rationally and see what is in front of him. This leads to his inability to be around others, to adjust to them, so that he isolates himself in a nervous irritability. Most centrally he and Emily are just not compatible; what amuses her (social life, flirting) is anathema to him (he prefers to write papers in his study). He cannot bear the solutions presented to him as what he must do to alleviate the situation — take his wife away or come out of his study. He cannot present his case, adjust his conversation to theirs, and ends up intensely alienated from everyone. We were watching him break down step-by-step, with his hiring of Bozzle just one of the stages on his journey to a loss of the identity he had. Bozzle’s jokes are not just edgy, they have a sinister feel. The actor playing the part in Davies’s film adaptation had an expression on his face of self-deprecating irony, a wild laughter at himself,a kind of cunning in his eyes. He is alienated from himself and half-watches himself acting and talking in self-destructive ways, but he cannot help himself to stop. He writes letters from time to time which he thinks are offers of compromise when they are insults, threats, and come out of paranoia. Continual nervous distress and paranoia exhaust him to the point he becomes weak with inanition. He cannot dress himself conformably, is not used to sitting down to do anything with others. Bozzle sums this process up as Mr T “is no longer becoming quite himself under his troubles,” and wants to rid himself of this client. Louis crossed a kind of Rubicon when he paid Bozzle to kidnap his son. In his dialogue with Lady Rowley when the Rowleys come to England she discerns a mentally sick man.


Geraldine James as Lady Rowley, startled by what she is seeing

Seen from this angle, we could read the novel as a defense of Trevelyan: in his Autobiography Trollope said he wanted to create sympathy for Louis, and saw that he had failed. When I say the novel then becomes out about how Trevelyan came to act so badly, I would agree that this perspective is inadequate because it omits too much: Louis’s desire to control Emily, his insulting her for being knowing in bed (“harlot” is the word he uses); his overreaction to the petty rake, Osborne. Madness was in Trollope’s era thought to manifest itself in delusions, and he is delusional about what is going on between Emily and Osborne: flirting yes, adultery no. Emily’s refusal to assuage his anxiety at the price of her social liberty, life and self-respect are understandable, and the novel is probably more convincingly seen as genuinely feminist, genuinely about insoluble conflicts in temperament in marriage, the problems of using hypocritical cant. But Trollope also blame Emily for not yielding, refusing to compromise or reassure Louis — look how by contrast Dorothy and Aunt Stanbury give in and win out because they self-negate. She drives the man (the way Desdesmona does) when he visits by her recurring to the terms of the original quarrel and demanding he make a sign of admitting some wrong done; Trevelyan in frustration, and out of spite too, angry at his inability to make the Outhouses behave the way he wants — seeks some weapon he can use to compel the others to declare Emily sexually unfaithful, a bad wife, a mother risking her children. The weapon is his kidnapping of his own child. Now all will have to deal with him since the law is on his side over this child. We are now canvassing the larger important feminist themes and humane outlook at the core of this Trollope novel.


Uncle (Mr Crump) and Camilla


She cannot


Kindly collapse

Singling out Louis’s symptoms and trajectory —- helps us appreciate the depth of insight in Trollope. You can go round him to look at the other characters, and their coping with their bleakness: like Dorothy Stanbury who will say she is nothing to others, has nothing to offer, or Nora Rowley who wants more useful tasks and power than her gender allows; Priscilla Stanbury’s deeply generous letters showing her sane perspective against her life of poverty because she will not marry (is probably lesbian). The comic analogue to Trevelyan is the madness of Camilla French and her carving knife. She caves in easily when met with common sense backed by kindness. It’s funny in the film when Claudie Blakeley as Camilla breaks down and cries and hands the knife over to her uncle. But I suggest at the core of this is Trollope exorcizing his own demons: I agree with those (the Stebbinses are not alone in this) who suggest he spent long periods depressed (he says as much of his youth in London) and he is pouring his own experience into this character.

What I liked about ending the class discussion on the novel this way, and making this perspective one of the central ones is that the feminist position can become a series of beratings, blaming of Louis, anathematizing him. How does that help?

Ellen

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by Dora Carrington, oil on canvas, 1920

E. M. Forster by Dora Carrington, oil on canvas, 1920

“But in public who shall express the unseen adequately? It is private life that holds out the mirror to infinity; personal intercourse, and that alone, that ever hints at a personality beyond out daily vision.”

Dear friends and readers,

I doubt I can convey what a good time we had for the last two or three months on TrollopeandHisContemporaries@groups.io reading and talking/writing together on Forster, his Howards End, and the two movies made from it (1993 Merchant-Ivory-Jhabvala with Anthony Hopkins, Emma Thompson, Helena Bonham Carter, Samuel West &c&c; 2018 BBC Lonergan-Hettie Macdonald with Matthew Macfayden, Hayley Atwell, Joseph Quinn, Philippa Coulthard &c&c), a couple of biographies, especially Nicola Beauman, and then (irresistibly it felt) A Room with a View (again two movies, 1985 Merchant-Ivory-Jhabvala (Maggie Smith, Denholm Elliot, again Carter, Daniel Day-Lewis) and a superlative 2007 ITV Andrew Davies (Elaine Cassidy, Timothy and Rafe Spall, Sophie Thompson, Mark Williams&c&c), not to omit talk of Bloomsbury, fluid sexuality, Virginia Woolf as a topic in her own right, the new art and so on and so forth. We were turned into a Forster listserv. We have torn ourselves away at last to turn to Trollope’s The Way We Live Now for December through early February, but we plan a Forster summer in a few months. We’ve got four more novels, and who knows how many movies and great actors ….

He wrote fascinating novels, wonderful novels, smart, complicated funny and very sad. So what can I say about what we said about Howards End that can fit into a blog? a novel filled with ghosts and silences: “I didn’t do wrong, did I?” Mrs Wilcox is said to have asked her husband


Vanessa Redgrave as the first Mrs Wilcox (M-I-J 1993 film)

“Houses have their own ways of dying, falling as variously as the generations of men, some with a tragic roar, some quietly, but to an after-life in the city of ghosts, while from others—and thus was the death of Wickham Place—the spirit slips before the body perishes. It had decayed in the spring, disintegrating the girls more than they knew, and causing either to accost unfamiliar regions. By September it was a corpse, void of emotion, and scarcely hallowed by the memories of thirty years of happiness — from Howards End


Samuel West in a dream sequence of longing as Leonard Bast (M-I-J 1993 film)

In general a number of people said they found themselves reading this book very differently from the way they had say 30 years ago, and they were noticing elements in Margaret’s marriage to Henry Wilcox and Helen’s full attitude towards Leonard Bast they never noticed before: how condescending both woman can be to Bast; how Margaret marries to have monetary security, on materialistic considerations she ignores her incompatibility with Henry Wilcox who cannot change to the extent she imagines.


Anthony Hopkins as the unreasoning instinctively closed Henry Wilcox (the successful businessman) when Margaret angers him (M-I-J 1993 film)

The Wilcoxes in their turn say they would do anything for their mother, but the one request she makes, that she leave her own house, Howards End to Margaret is looked at as preposterous. All the characters are trapped in unsatisfactory human relationships, if the causes of the dissatisfaction differs for each. This is a novel about the cruelties of class. How Margaret is shocked at Helen not sleeping in her own house, but with (we know) Leonard Bast. She tricks Helen into coming to Howards End. She is presented as having been a mother to her siblings in the 2018 film but not in the book


Hayley Atwell as Margaret (2018 film)

All over the world men and women are worrying because they cannot develop as they are supposed to develop. Here and there they have the matter out, and it comforts them. Don’t fret yourself, Helen. Develop what you have; love your child. I do not love children. I am thankful to have none. I can play with their beauty and charm, but that is all—nothing real, not one scrap of what there ought to be — Margaret to Helen at the close of the book — though she is kind to her aunt

A couple of us defended the perhaps ex-milliner Jackie; she is treated in the novel as ontologically inferior, erased, forgotten.


Rosalind Eleazar as Jacky Bast (2018 film)

How often Forster comes out directly as narrator, how conversations among the characters are multi-dimensional. He projected his love of the English countryside vividly — as when Bast goes on that passionate roaming reverie though an old wood. He read Ruskin and Ruskin’s love of art and proto-socialism are forces in the novel. There is a magic faery tale element about the house. Miss Avery by unpacking the Schlegels things, especially the books, makes the house alive; it was suggested that Helen is a Pre-Raphaelite figure as she sits in its porch waiting to be let in by Margaret. She is deeply human, sensual and comfortable in her skin


Philippa Coulthard as Helen (2018 film)

Margaret is deeply gratified to have Helen with her again, but I note how she tricks Helen into coming into Howards End, and then moves from distrust and alienation and a new almost automatic rejection of Helen to the old bonded feelings and agreement. What enables this is not common grounds in attitudes but common ground in the furniture and books; set up in this house they are enough to bring back the past and begin a re-bonding. I wonder if this is not a wish fulfillment and this intense love of early places and the past (which I’m now reading about in Beauman’s biography) is not a strong delusion or illusion fantasy: “all the time their salvation was lying around them — the past sanctifying the present, the present, with wild heart-throb …. the inner life had paid”


Alex Lawther as the appealing impish, but marginalized Tibby — the character reappears more fully developed, older, articulate in Cecil Vyse in A Room with a View (Lonergan 2018)

We talked of Forster’s homosexuality and why he stopped writing novels so early in life: he was frustrated by having to present heterosexual life and leave so much he valued outside his text, to respect in the text what he felt alienated from. Tyler Tichelaar had written a perceptive blog-essay on this aspect of Forster’s art and life as seen in Maurice. I wrote about Sean O’Connor’s book Straight Acting where he described his and other playwright’s dilemmas as gay men pressured into misrepresenting themselves and what they longed to dramatize in life; I watched the recent film adaptation of Terence Rattigan’s Deep Blue Sea by Terence Davies: wrecked and wrecking heterosexual relationships represent a gay man’s take on heterosexual marriage and compromise; he pitiable but at the same time vengeful older lover.


Peppard Cottage used for Howards End in M-I-J 1993 (here it is not photographed in prettying up light) – the house in the novel is Rooksnest which Forster and his mother lived in for many years

Death is an important reality in the novel and outside a reason to live, become your own identity as you make your choices. We talked of how moving home, from one place to another, is akin to the experience of death (though for some it’s liberty at last from stifling hierarchies and militant naturalisms. Judith Cheney quoted Robert Louis Stevenson:

The coach is at the door at last;
The eager children, mounting fast
And kissing hands, in chorus sing:
Good-bye, good-bye, to everything!

To house and garden, field and lawn,
The meadow-gates we swang upon,
To pump and stable, tree and swing,
Good-bye, good-bye, to everything!

And fare you well for evermore,
O ladder at the hayloft door,
O hayloft where the cobwebs cling,
Good-bye, good-bye, to everything!

Crack goes the whip, and off we go;
The trees and houses smaller grow;
Last, round the woody turn we sing:
Good-bye, good-bye, to everything!

We don’t know that if Henry Wilcox should predecease Margaret the Wilcoxes will not go to court to get Howards End back.


The room with the view in the Merchant-Ivory-Jhavala film (1985)

We read the earlier book, A Room with a View second. it is shorter and at first it seems simpler — there is no larger critique of colonialism, no debates over socialism, the removals of people from capitalism, but it isn’t simpler. What it lacks in breadth, it makes up for in intensity.

Lucy was suffering from the most grievous wrong which this world has yet discovered: diplomatic advantage had been taken of her sincerity, of her craving for sympathy and love. Such a wrong is not easily forgotten. Never again did she expose herself without due consideration and precaution against rebuff. And such a wrong may react disastrously upon the soul


Helena Bonham Carter as Lucy setting out on her adventure among the art and churches of Florence (M-I-J 1985)

I loved the ancient classical myth in the book too, the use of Italian art, the pastoral, all mixed with the everyday in Pensione Bertolini. We are invited to revel: Lucy is called a Work of Art, and Forster is generalizing out from this incident to make large statements about art, sexuality, and all the ritual events of daily lives. It’s false to say our conflict is passion versus duty; it’s real feeling versus the pretended and hypocritical. Lucy almost misses out on marrying George where her joy is presented as potentially so fulfilling. By contrast to convention, Cecil repeats Tibby’s statement about the work ethic more forcefully: “I know I ought to be getting money out of people, or devoting myself to things I don’t care a straw about, but somehow I’ve not been able to begin.” Diane Reynolds quoted “Lucy’s vehement outburst of hatred towards Mr. Eager’s cold snobbery and ascetism. I found it quite satisfying—and true: We perhaps should hate people who destroy other people by spreading lies:”


The bathing scene (from the 1985 film)

“Now, a clergyman that I do hate,” said she wanting to say something sympathetic, “a clergyman that does have fences, and the most dreadful ones, is Mr. Eager, the English chaplain at Florence. He was truly insincere—not merely the manner unfortunate. He was a snob, and so conceited, and he did say such unkind things.”
“What sort of things?”
“There was an old man at the Bertolini whom he said had murdered his wife.”
“Perhaps he had.”
“No!”
“Why ‘no’?”
“He was such a nice old man, I’m sure.”
Cecil laughed at her feminine inconsequence.
“Well, I did try to sift the thing. Mr. Eager would never come to the point. He prefers it vague—said the old man had ‘practically’ murdered his wife—had murdered her in the sight of God.”
“Hush, dear!” said Mrs. Honeychurch absently.
“But isn’t it intolerable that a person whom we’re told to imitate should go round spreading slander? It was, I believe, chiefly owing to him that the old man was dropped. People pretended he was vulgar, but he certainly wasn’t that.”

Beauman, Charles Summer and all I read suggested that Forster matured, found such pleasure, liberty, love when he traveled — Italy, Greece, Alexandria, and India, all meant so much, and this book records these feelings. I show but one still of these English in the countryside:


That’s Maggie Smith, Judi Dench as Miss Lavish (makes phony art) and Lucy (1985 M-I-J film)

Mr Emerson and Mr Beebe, but especially Mr Emerson are the two benign knowing genius locii of the book. Mr Emerson (I found Timothy Spall pitch perfect) speaks eloquently of the “holiness of direct desire” and Mr Beebe quietly for whatever is your sexuality — he encourages Lucy to play, everyone to bathe, tries to help Cecil recognize himself. He does not blame Mrs Honeychurch for her dim appreciation of nothing beyond the obvious comforts of living. There is much lightness, pleasant humor. Tyler wrote: “I love how the bathing scene comes about – Freddie just inviting George to bath – the awkwardness of the invitation and the joviality of just spontaneously going to bath, and the joy of the Sacred Lake being large enough to bathe in, only to have it return to normal size soon after. I did not really think there was anything very gay in the bathing scene, even though the film sort of suggests it. They are just being boys and being playful, acting like teenage boys, although it does seem odd they are wrestling and playing ball naked outside the pond. It’s a very strange way to get to know your new neighbors.”


A scene of Charlotte successfully repressing Lucy and persuading her to go home to escape George (1985 M-I-J film)

There is death and it is swift and sudden in this book: the man knifed in the piazza. Davies’s film frames the story with George’s death in WW1 by having Lucy return 20 years later, most of the film a flashback, ending with her going on a picnic with Gino, who had been ostracized and stigmatized on the trip into the countryside by Mr Eager. We are told Mr Emerson died. In much of the book Charlotte Bartlett plays the part of “a corrosive, selfish, and dull personality ” who spoils life for others, represses others with shame, a loving kiss is an insult; but at its close she is presented as alone, poorer, having trouble with her plumbing (no bathing for her) and forgiven: Forster wants us to think she facilitated Lucy and George finally getting together. It’s not quite believable but the 1985 M-I-J movie ends with Maggie Smith as Charlotte reading a letter of the young couple in love and the movie’s last scene of love-making is a flashback from this letter. The book and movies are charitable: as acted by Daniel Day-Lewis, Vyse conveys how much small experiences in art do mean much to him; the character is deeply sensitive and he is hurt by Lucy’s lying but gentlemanly, chivalrous in response. The book is about an awakening.


Elaine Cassidy as Lucy after listening to Mr Emerson’s description of George (2007 Davies film)

I discovered many parallels with Austen (she was his mentor in novels) but also much other influence beyond art. Edward Carpenter, idealistic, socialist gay man (Edward Carpenter: A Life of Liberty and Love by Sheila Rowbotham), Forster’s mother & aunts, his milieu, and that of different circles of artists; as the years went on when he taught, and later years of broadcasting in the BBC. He did not shut down because he stopped writing fiction, and beyond the novels there were numerous unpublished short stories, and published essays and travel writing and biography. Jim liked Forster’s correspondence with the Greek gay poet, Cavafy.

What Beauman does in Morgan is what write up Forster’s deep past and what’s to come from Morgan’s point of view when he grew much older and perhaps after he had written all his novels from the beginning to the end of her book. That’s the curious perspective taken on the incidents of his life and his art examined in more or less chronological order: each incident is retold from how Forster would see it when he became an artist or was a practicing writer.

So for example, in talking of Rooksnest into which Forster and mother moved when he was just 2, she says the way his mother set it up was “to make a statement about how life should be lived” and then connects this to Mrs Wilcox’s love of Howards End. Beauman is soon describing the real place using Forster’s words many years after, e.g. about the hall, “he tells us about “a kitchen when the house was a farm and sad to say had once had an open fireplace with a great chimney but before we came the landlord, Colonel Wilkinson, closed it up put a wretched little grate instead and made the chimney corner into a cupboard.” Says Beauman: “The reader does not visualize the cupboard; instead one gets an image of a difficult landlord.” Then she goes on to give an example of this kind of thinking and feeling in a character’s mind in Forster’s fiction. And so it is built up memory by memory.


Sophie Thompson as Charlotte, pitch perfect) probably modelled on one of Forster’s aunts or his mother (2007 Davies film)

We plan to do it again with two or three of the following four novels: each person can choose which ones he or she would like to read: The Longest Journey, Where Angels Fear to Tread, A Passage to India (which I was listening to read aloud in my car by Sam Daster and I am now persuaded is one of the finest shorter novels in the English language) and/or Maurice. And if I live, I’ll teach a course in both OLLIs on the novels of Forster two springs from the one coming (2020).

Ellen

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Famous Photo of Beatrix Potter at Hill Top House


Me in the same porch at Hill Top House

Dear friends,

Another day of remarkable site-seeing and experiences to report, this time with many more photos sent me by one of our Canterbury pilgrims. This day was another partly devoted to places Wordsworth lived in, was schooled, visited, made a garden, and partly devoted to Beatrix Potter. We visited castles and ruins. Everything was nearby everything else, including her house where we were staying, the (much enlarged), Lindeth Howe Country Hotel near Bowness, Lake Windermere:


Lindeth Howe Hotel, seen from the side


Bowness, Windermere, 6 in the morning

We started out early in the morning (after breakfast) by driving to and going into the fantasy-built Wray Castle, never a fortress, but made by a man imagining one: sort of something drawn from his movie-going, and impressive in thickness of stones, size and nowadays cared for by the National Trust, gardens, and places for tourists to picnic and play summer games:

A short ride and we were at Potter’s house and her lovely garden, a real place: here she did much of her artistic children’s books, and her serious botany drawings, and landscapes. One could see it was a summer home, open, surrounded by nature.


As you are going in


Potter’s odd piano

I had read much of Linda Lane’s book, went to a lecture by her on Potter, wrote a foremother poet blog for her, and of course seen the excellent biopic, Miss Potter with Renee Zellweger. The guides in the rooms (as in Dove Cottage) told us as much as they could, quickly. I felt it was a comfortable house.


Potter’s front room

There was a landscape by her on one wall, her children’s books, and I instance these found on the Internet as like what I saw:

“The place is changed now, and many familiar faces are gone, but the greatest change is myself. I was a child then, I had no idea what the world would be like. I wished to trust myself on the waters and the sea. Everything was romantic in my imagination. The woods were peopled by the mysterious good folk. The Lords and Ladies of the last century walked with me along the overgrown paths, and picked the old fashioned flowers among the box and rose hedges of the garden — Beatrix Potter


New Sidmouth

“Thank God I have the seeing eye, that is to say, as I lie in bed I can walk step by step on the fells and rough land seeing every stone and flower and patch of bog and cotton pass where my old legs will never take me again — Beatrix Potter


Sidmouth beach, with memories of herself drawing

Not far from Hill Top is the town of Hawkshead where Wordsworth went to a famous once-respected boys’ school, where he lived with Ann Tyson, and which is today a place tourists come to hear a lecture about education in this building, and to the town for summer holidays, and shopping. Outside the school is a church (part of it converted):

There were two floors, one for the lower boys, and the other the boys about to go to college, two rooms for tutors. Here the huge one room downstairs from one angle:

A quick resume of an entertaining lecture: the school lasted from the later 16th to later 19th century; it went from 6 am to 5 pm, 6 days a week, with a 2 hour lunch in the center of the day. Compulsory church on Sunday; the 99-100 boys on 6 different levels recited in different parts of the room; during lunch they drank beer, participated in ritual terrorizing, torturing and murder of birds (cock-fighting). Birch was used, 10 and 12 strokes depending on the infraction; it was a noisy, busy, smokey place, with tallow candles it stunk (they went outside the building to relieve themselves). Originally funded by Edwin Sandys, there was a strong low church bias, and it was attached to St John’s Cambridge. We were shown the lists of headmasters (some remarkable scholars of their eras). It was finally closed for good in 1909. It was clear to me from what the lecturer was saying that there would have been no room for sensitivities; they were educating gentlemen trained in and by violence as well as social conformities and expectations of the upper class. As I left I spoke briefly to the lecturer and told him of my husband at a public school and how he was caned at his public school 5 times and in his forties still had welts on his hands. I was impressed positively by the lecturer suddenly dropping the comic wry stance and looking grave at the realities of such places

Following Peter, the group then walked about Hawkshead, saw Ann Tyson’s cottage, and then we all drove to Grassmere (in 2 mini-buses) for lunch and some brief walking about.


There were beautiful baskets of hanging flowers in both towns

I did not take many photos of walking about, Grasmere or Hawkshead, but today have some photos from my friend from yesterday afternoon at Keswick where we stopped for lunch the day before and wandered about town, and place them here:


Keswick restaurant


The Keswick church where I saw drawings and photos from the time mining was central to the village


The Slate museum we also saw yesterday which has replaced the mining trade once vital to the area

It was a very different world when mining and such schools and churches were central to the economic structure of the towns. Now it’s the town landscapes and lakes: tourism, agriculture and sheep (I’ll have photos of sheep next time):

Our next stop was the Armitt Museum, associated with Beatrix Potter because she donated much money and many of her books; it is now maintained as a research and reference library and museum for exhibits for local paintings (watercolors): that day there was much on (as in the other places women were emphasized) Anne Clough, Harriet Martineau, early suffragettes and an exhibit of watercolors by Kurt Schwitters (1847-1948) and William Heelis (1870-1940). They had a book (some well-chosen books to be bought) and tourist shop.

Graham Kilmer’s lecture was on the history of the library and cultures of the surrounding town in the 19th century and until today:

The history begins with the Armitt sisters who were learned women (Louisa a historian, polymath, musicologist). It was at first a circulating library. Wordsworth belonged; it attracted antiquarians, county families; Ruskin was a significant influence (he lived not far off), a superstar for his writing, art and art criticism and social and political activism on behalf of working people. Claudian glasses were not forgotten, and the picturesque part of the aesthetic. The library has sets of old volumes (e.g., Gentleman’s Magazine). Mr Kilmer took off the shelves a book on volcanic greenstone, what has been found from pre-history (weapons, pots, symbolic objects); another about a Roman fort’s excavation. He told the story of Ruskin’s conflict with Whistler as indicative of the culture. Photography became an important part of the collection starting in 1865 (a fundamental change), he said 17,000 unnamed plates. In 1997 it was re-organized into a reference library, with 2 part time librarians and a dozen volunteers. The library’s focus is the lakes, their geology, geography, history, local writers.


Rydal Mount house seen from the gardens

The piece de resistance of the day came nextL: we drove to Rydal Mount, which Wordsworth rented by 1809, and where he, Dorothy, Mary and their children and the friends lived and worked for the rest of their lives. The live-in caretaker, a curator, and now expert in Wordsworth took us round the beautiful gardens telling of the stages the garden went through. Wordsworth and his gardener (there was a photo of the man) aimed for a variety of perspectives, to have space to see the lake below, and that day the sun as streaming in. There is a mound, a greenhouse, a walk in the shrubberies.

In the house he told us of Wordsworth’s later life as reflected in the house, and that he felt the life lived in this house has been neglected in biographies. Rydal Mount was lived in for far far more time, where Wordsworth wrote original first drafts but also revised and revised.

We were permitted to go round the main rooms of the house where the Wordsworths lived: we saw beautifully kept dining room, library, drawing rooms, Wordsworth and Mary’s bedroom, Dora’s bedroom. Much of the furniture is suggestively left so you can imagine (if you think to) what the people were doing here and there; often reading, writing, meditating on memory. There was a very somber room at the top of the stairs where we saw a bed for a very sick person and all sorts of 19th century medical paraphernalia: this was to remember that in her last years Dorothy suffered from senile dementia and was taken care of (waited on hand and foot) by the Wordsworths and servants in that room. The top of the house or attic.


The meadows around Hawkshead close to where Wordsworth was located

We had dinner there as a group and one of us got up and read Wordsworth’s famous daffodil poem (“I wandered lonely as a cloud”). At the end of the two weeks some of the people said this evening was finest we had. For myself I don’t find this famous lyric what I value Wordsworth for, but rather his other early narratives about broken soldiers, people ejected from their houses, beggars; some of the sonnets; his meditative poetry, the visionary sequences in “Tintern Abbey,” the Prelude, and some of his later sterner verse.

I once wrote a paper on these ekphrastic stanzas, written after his brother John’s death in 1805, probably while Wordsworth lived in Rydal Mount brought to their present state:


George Beaumont (1753-1827), Peele Castle in a Storm

Elegiac Stanzas Suggested by a Picture of Peele Castle in a Storm, Painted by Sir George Beaumont

I was thy neighbour once, thou rugged Pile!
Four summer weeks I dwelt in sight of thee:
I saw thee every day; and all the while
Thy Form was sleeping on a glassy sea.

So pure the sky, so quiet was the air!
So like, so very like, was day to day!
Whene’er I looked, thy Image still was there;
It trembled, but it never passed away.

How perfect was the calm! it seemed no sleep;
No mood, which season takes away, or brings:
I could have fancied that the mighty Deep
Was even the gentlest of all gentle things.

Ah! then , if mine had been the Painter’s hand,
To express what then I saw; and add the gleam,
The light that never was, on sea or land,
The consecration, and the Poet’s dream;

I would have planted thee, thou hoary Pile
Amid a world how different from this!
Beside a sea that could not cease to smile;
On tranquil land, beneath a sky of bliss.

Thou shouldst have seemed a treasure-house divine
Of peaceful years; a chronicle of heaven;—
Of all the sunbeams that did ever shine
The very sweetest had to thee been given.

A Picture had it been of lasting ease,
Elysian quiet, without toil or strife;
No motion but the moving tide, a breeze,
Or merely silent Nature’s breathing life.

Such, in the fond illusion of my heart,
Such Picture would I at that time have made:
And seen the soul of truth in every part,
A steadfast peace that might not be betrayed.

So once it would have been,—’tis so no more;
I have submitted to a new control:
A power is gone, which nothing can restore;
A deep distress hath humanised my Soul.

Not for a moment could I now behold
A smiling sea, and be what I have been:
The feeling of my loss will ne’er be old;
This, which I know, I speak with mind serene.

Then, Beaumont, Friend! who would have been the Friend,
If he had lived, of Him whom I deplore,
This work of thine I blame not, but commend;
This sea in anger, and that dismal shore.

O ’tis a passionate Work!—yet wise and well,
Well chosen is the spirit that is here;
That Hulk which labours in the deadly swell,
This rueful sky, this pageantry of fear!

And this huge Castle, standing here sublime,
I love to see the look with which it braves,
Cased in the unfeeling armour of old time,
The lightning, the fierce wind, the trampling waves.

Farewell, farewell the heart that lives alone,
Housed in a dream, at distance from the Kind!
Such happiness, wherever it be known,
Is to be pitied; for ’tis surely blind.

But welcome fortitude, and patient cheer,
And frequent sights of what is to be borne!
Such sights, or worse, as are before me here.—
Not without hope we suffer and we mourn.

One should perhaps remember that none of this needs to be there; all of it takes people rescuing it, maintaining and preserving it. Not just money but organizations of people who understand what they are doing and why and are funded and backed up by laws and customs. So just about every place we were taken to as our goal was either a National Trust site or partly supported by them and other like local foundations. We were seeing history, or the remnant of what once was plucked out of its context and made a tourist experience. We were in places on the margins, places “left behind” the modern cities most of us (the customers of Road Scholar) live in, places with cultural status. One should think about why these places have this status, how they relate to the vast “bottom” part of our deeply unequal society, and are part of a fantasy life, pieces of a “shared imaginary repertoire of the dominant culture” (Rob Shields, Places on the Margin).


Shop either in Grasmere or Hawkshead and not far from the parking lot — to catch tourists


Another on the bus route — the sign in glittering gold and blue says Peter Rabbit and Friends and the window is filled with glowing figurines of the small animals in the tales

Ellen

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John Malkovich as the Le Baron du Charlus and Vincent Perez as Morel (Time Regained,1999)

Friends and readers,

For the last day I thought I would tell of Jim’s books, his favorites and those (insofar as I can tell) that influenced him as a boy, had an impact on his memory and outlook and that he kept reading.

As a boy, Kenneth Graham’s The Wind in the Willows (above all, as he’d quote from it,” there’s nothing better than messing about in boats,” or words to this effect; one summer afternoon in London we went to Alan Bennett’s play from it). Surtee’s Jorrocks Jaunts and Jollities (I have a 19th century copy with illustrations), P.G. Wodehouse (yes, he was amused when a teenage boy and called the set we have gay male books). He’d graduated to Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by his 5th or 6th form– I bought him a beautiful 5 volume set as my first present to him shortly after we married.

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As a man: he loved poetry Empson, Graves, Larkin, Auden, e.e. cummings; Basil Bunting (he’d quote snatches of poems from these writers), Cavafy, Anthony Hecht, Clive James. Individual authors he never tired of and had a lot of their books, Bernard Shaw, the plays and theater criticism, Oscar Wilde, all of Proust (he had gotten up to the fifth book, starting in French but switching to English; his favorite movie was Time Regained), Anthony Powell (how much he would have enjoyed Perry Anderson’s long review in praise of Powell in the latest LRB, comparing him to Proust), and some 18th century favorites like Samuel Johnson.


Bernard Shaw

Very fat tomes of history early medieval, archeaology books (JHawkes), philosophical books on war. He would insist he didn’t like the novel that much and preferred novels of the French school, books like the one where there is no “e” (The Void; I remember him reading Life: A User’s Manual, from “l’OULIPO” writers.


Signature Theater production of Sondheim’s A Little Night Music (Sondheim was Jim’s favorite composer of musicals — I bought him the 2 songbooks 2 Christmases in a row, Finishing the Hat, Look I made Hat)

Favorite movies: by Eric Rohmer and Bergman


In the early 1970s Jim and I went to the Thalia to see Bergman’s Magic Flute — I cried for joy and pain – he loved opera too

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A thrush in the syringa sings

Hunger ruffles my wings, fear,
lust, familiar things

Death thrusts hard. My sons
by hawk’s beak, by stones,
trusting weak wings
by cat and weasel, die.

Thunder smothers the sky.
From a shaken bush I
list familiar things
fear, hunger, lust.

O gay thrush! — Bunting (who said he would not travel outside Manhattan until he had thoroughly done Central Park and after decades he was no where near … , a favored poem from a book I bought for Jim for another Christmas )

Ellen remembering on his behalf

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Puck in Motte’s filmic MND — presiding over wood, beach, mountain, his fingers seen typing away on his computer throughout ….

Friends,

I saw the Zellner Brothers’ pernicious film, Damsel, about two weeks ago now in my film club, and had debated ever since if I should write about it. I hoped it would go away, not be shown anywhere or hardly at all, not make any profit so the brothers would go out of business. No such thing. Today while watching Won’t You be My Neighbor?, I saw Damsel advertised as coming to a chain of theaters in my area. It is a film filled with acts of senseless violence, most of the characters exhibit a mindless obduracy, despise any openly vulnerable, tender, sensitive, and want to kill wantonly the one character who seeks friendship and love; one might offer the idea the Zellner brothers meant to parody the norms of the Trump regime and his non-super wealthy voting base, but the incongruities are inconsistent. If a Native American sounds like a Mel Brooks character upending the nonsense (he asks, “What is wrong with you people?”), he also steals everything he can from those he encounters and sneaks off in the night. The heroine is last seen rowing away into a misty lake with a miniature pony, determined to live on herself, in scornful need of no one. Most of the bulk of humanity are presented as moronic peasants who are first seen hanging a useless chubby man in a barrel (classical allusion to preferring begging to being a corrupt lord)


Mark Pattison at the ready (does not need anyone but himself, his gun, and the helpless animal)

One of the central male characters, Samuel (Mark Pattison) is someone out of the scenarios of our mass massacres by white men. Samuel is a white actor and he insists Parson Henry (David Zellner, one of the two people who made this film) a preacher come with him to marry him to Penelope (Mia Wasikowska) a girl whom he says has been kidnapped. He is ferocious with his gun. When they finally find her, and Anton (Gabe Casdorph) a young man is seen leaving the hut they live in, this young man shoots him dead. Then we see a gun come out of the door of the house and begin to shoot. It is Penelope. She comes out and immediately it is evident she loathes Samuel, a stalker — for that is what he is. She was in love Anton, whom he has murdered. She tries to and succeeds in murdering Samuel while he is pissing in an outhouse. She then under point of gun, puts material for a bomb around Parson Henry’s neck and at gun point forces him to walk ahead of her. She blows up buildings. She is insane, the young man stalking her was insane — as the young white man who murdered those nine black people in a church was insane. The preacher is laughed at by the film since he does not want to murder anyone and is constantly being threatened with death. Everyone carries a loaded gun in this film.

Other characters: the other Rufus who seems related to Anton (David Zellner) shows off that he is ignorant, ill-dressed, and violent. The movie opens with another nameless preacher and another anonymous young white man waiting for a coach that never comes. Public transportation is non-existent in this desert. Finally the preacher walks off leaving the passive young man waiting.

But it’s not a parody of today’s America because it is immersed in and endorses the violent characters intensely. Not a moment of kindness except by Preacher Nathan and he is sneered at because he needs people: “that’s your problem, ” says Penelope. In the end Nathan returns to the village idiots and stays with them. They drink whiskey and spend their time drunk — they have none or don’t drink water they tell Samuel.


Mia Wasikowska as Penelope (at Cinema art theater)

I had thought going to Won’t You Be My Neighbor? would simply be a trip into Laura, Izzy and my shared experiences together in front of a TV, nostalgic, possibly sentimental, making tear up, but it was a serious deconstruction of the profoundly humane and socially good ideas actuating Fred Rogers to make 4 decades of children’s programs that reached out to them candidly.  Mr Roger’s Neighborhood experienced through children’s art (like puppets) children’s apprehension of the world and built their self-esteem, consoled, uplifted, solaced and taught them about the realities they find themselves in.  By tracing Rogers’ career from his leaving the religious ministry to replace the slapstick, obtuse ridiculing, and ceaseless violence in one form or other with his programming really taking kids into account, the viewer travels through how we moved from a seemingly optimistic era and pro-social behavior (enacted, put into law, supported), to the present time, represented in Rogers’ fairy tale land by the arrogance, indifference, and willfull disregard to human needs. The King puppet wants to be a dictator. I remember Daniel as a surrogate for Rogers; the grief of Henrietta Pussycat making Laura grieve too. Rogers’ neighborly world connects the mirrors in the fairyland and good words well understood. Nothing to hide, nothing ventured nothing gained.

Would you believe groups of Trump bigots rant about Rogers as a socialist, and hold up placards saying they hate him. Rogers had on his show a long-time black TV actor, Susan and her husband, our black exemplary parents, Maria the touching young Puerto Rican girl who grew old with the part. A group of these people who loathe him came to his funeral with signs saying how he was a “faggot,” and how they hate him. Trump types have long accused him of wanting children to feel they are entitled to things without working for them. They say all children should be taught they must earn respect. Love does not seem to come into this. He is called gay because to them he is unmanly. Rogers does say how he dislikes TV, especially popular children’s TV, which is frenetic, filled with clowns, and pours thick messes over children, shows cartoon characters in intensely violent acts. I remember the first time Laura saw the Road Runner; she was terrified the character had died when he fell off a roof. We didn’t have TV for the first five years of Laura’s life as out TV had died and we didn’t buy a new one for a few years. American cartoons are the first place Americans are inured to cruel violence. Rogers went into TV to replace such pernicious fodder.


Charity Wakefield a wonderful Peter Quince to Fran Kranz as Bottom (see just below also)

The two films seemed to be so worlds apart, yet covering all possibilities of landscapes, houses people, until I saw Casey Wilder Mott’s fantastical film world, an adaptation of Shakespeare’s text of Midsummer Night’s Dream. Damsel left out imagination, beauty, and Mr Rogers was so concerned to reach children that his imaginative world of puppets is not dreamy but an analogue of our real world. Shakespeare takes us to a world elsewhere. Mott rearranged scenes, cut and rearranged film sequences and the actors were taught (as the BBC ones were for Hollow Crown) to speak Shakespeare trippingly off the tongue, to transform their anguish and comedy for more accurate, elegant language that nonetheless is spoken as naturalistic in TV films of Shakespeare like the recent Lear or The Hollow Crown. The worlds of the play were replicated in a couple of high-powered movie executives (Theseus, a recognizable serious actor, and Hippolyta, long willowy black model), 25 year old white children of super-rich parents (the lovers), hard-working clueless actors, the last two falling into a magical holiday time. Oberon is an older black actor, Titania an Asian actress. Among new patterns: this turns out to be written by Puck wonderfully acted by Avon Jogia as sprite.

Go see Damsel if you enjoy cruelty, jeering at vulnerability, but if not, don’t support this travesty of toxic masculinity. Trump’s world, his impulses heroized or mocked (depending on how you see this). Alas not a museum piece but a “western.” Don’t give them any more money: the Koch Brothers and their ilk is supplying enough; the new Supreme Court is determined to give intolerance power because that’s free speech. Your right to liberty gives you the right to exclude, reject in the public sphere now.


Fred Rogers answering a little girl’s answer (the same as above)

Open up to what people truly are with Fred Rogers. Watch Rogers’ face go to stone and his eyes show pained rage when he consider the mockery of his show on Saturday Night Live where they invented a plot where an actor looking like him is put into a wrestling match with one of his characters to reveal how he is in fact a hypocrite and turns to nasty spiteful violence when he is losing. He is remembering how he was bullied as a boy. You’ll learn about the history of the show (they did make the mistake of trying to film the challenger and caught it exploding), Rogers’ attempt at a show for adults (it didn’t work, too hard-hearted by our thirties we might say).

Achieve forgetfulness of the world of Trump and 30% we are told of Americans supporting him in Wilder’s choice of eloquent passages from Shakespeare turned into text messages, the voice of Puck, the quarrels of the lovers. The wood, the beach. The play within the play finds the actress and actors dressed like the stars from Star Trek (Thisbe looks like Princess Leia, while Pyramus looks like Hans Solo).


Shakespeare’s lovers on the beach

Summer movies are implicitly jeux d’esprit. Not this year. A fat man with a remarkably stupid smile or stupid stubborn pig expression, incapable of making sense for a spoken or speech paragraph (he can only tweet) is becoming a disguised dictator, opening detention camps and prisons around the US, putting children in their squalid conditions (and is not impeached for anything he does which undermines the constitution), and who will he come for next, and do what to the detainees? Mr Rogers didn’t succeed it seems — a cartoon show of him is all that is left on PBS. Are the Zellners right about humanity in their depiction of everyman’s village in their western?


Scofield in the trumped-up trial (A Man for all Seasons, Robert Bolt)

“Our natural business lies in escaping said Bolt’s Sir Thomas More in A Man for All Seasons in 1960; shall we all escape to the wood? One problem with that is the characters achieve comfort by making fugitive visits to the obscenely rich palladium mansion of Theseus.

Ellen

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Brian Friel’s Translations at the Studio Theater (14th Street)

Friends and readers,

Since returning from Milan, and my health improving, I’ve been to the theater twice, and the concert hall at Kennedy Center, and the experiences have shown me whatever the rotten, seepingly poisonous and willfully destructive behavior of those in the rooms and corridors of a few staggeringly powerful individuals here in DC, the local culture has not lost its moral compass.

Brian Friel’s Translations on Saturday afternoon, the house full. This is not the first play by Friel I’ve seen: Jim took us twice while in London — I remember Dancing at Lughnasa. I saw in NYC on my own The Faith Healer (about hypocrisy in the Catholic religion). I’ve a volume of plays by him and have read in it.


Language played upon, classical figures become Irish, a contrast of Irish and gaelic too

The first half was a deeply lyrical and quietly hopeful scene in a hedge school in 19th century Ireland: a son long gone returns, now a surveyor and translator for the British, who are opening National Schools in Ireland. These are English Protestant schools where Irish language and culture will not be taught. This act was slow moving and thoughtful, meditative. All about differences of language, culture — as someone interested in language and how it influences thought and culture I found this absorbing, but also we see the impoverishment of these Irish and how desperate their circumstances. It starts slowly and requires thoughtful watching. Each of the Irish characters is carefully delineated, sometimes comically, sometimes with considerable plangency. British officers barge (they don’t ask permission) in, interrupting the studies at the hedge school. Their behavior is, though, gentlemanly, decent. They seem to be trying to accommodate Irish ways. One who wants to assimilate, to learn the Irish language and Irish history, falls in love with one of the Irish girls (not similarly high-minded).

Second half is, by deliberate contrast, devastating, stunning with shock. The officer who had fallen in love and been truly open to Irish culture eloped with the girl, but has since disappeared, probably murdered in the tryst itself. The British response — of the officers we have just seen — is counter-productively, senselessly harsh — if it were a case of seeking justice or equity. One of the officers who had pretended such friendliness, such interest in Irish schools the day before (in the play), says if the man is not found alive after one day searching, the British destroy all the Irish crops of the people in the area. If he is if not found on the next day, the British army will kill all the animals (more than livestock) owned by Irish; on the the third, they will burn down their houses and evict them. So the pretense is over. We watch the characters crack under this regime.

It doesn’t take much to see the British as the US today, devastating countries or helping others to devastate countries, helping the present Israel gov’t to destroy the Palestinian people. In the 1980s Arthur Miller wrote that the retreat from realistic politics in plays was a cowardly retreat and inveighed against the fantasy-farce type play prevalent in the 1990s. American theater has come back from that, but the one place where exposure is found is on TV satire where the genre and time precludes the depth of a play like Friel’s.

The audience was clearly deeply affected by the wanton cruelty inflicted on our characters.


Adrian Edmonson as Malvolio (Christopher Luscombe’s production)

The Folger continues its periodic HD screenings, and this Monday night they screened a recent RSC production of Twelfth Night. As one review has it, the play as done here lacks the nuanced intertwining of melancholy and not only raucous laughter and gaiety, but downright bitterness (in one version I saw which took Sir Toby Belch’s words and position seriously), which argues a lack of thorough-going thought about the words and social-pragmatic relationships in the story. Shakespeare never neglects that.

But it brought to bear a post-colonial point of view, that together with bringing out the latent homoeroticism between Sebastian and Antonio, his sea-captain beloved friend, between Olivia and Viola (Olivia seems very reluctant to give Viola up even after she has been married to Sebastian), provided a relevant reading for the play. Viola, Sebastian, and Feste are all Indian characters: dressed in Indian garb and played by Indian actors. Malvolio is made self-consciously the ambitious white Victorian caste-climber. Much has been made of the later 19th century costumes, and certainly we are intended to remember Wilde as we watch Malvolio sneer at Maria, appear so cold, but I think the allusion is clearly to the Raj empire. Edmonson’s Gilbert-and-Sullivan patter song, fun in itself, is part of this skein. The caste system, the practical and cruel jokes dissolve these hierarchies, with a good deal of help from wine, song, and sex. Perhaps the Merchant-Ivory point of view is also mocked.

The imprisoning of Malvolio into a tiny dark dungeon, his humiliation and bad treatment, his lack of recourse were intended to allude to obduracy of the US prison system with its solitary confinement. I would not want to lean too heavily here (torture is probably not alluded to), but the whole way this part of the denouement is built up suggests the contemporary perspective. It’s not the old wild comedy of born great, achieve greatness, greatness thrust upon ’em that is at the center of this. I was much moved by Edmonson when he is finally brought out of the darkness to tell Olivia what he has suffered. Equally important is the high elegance and projection of true rapture in the “willow song” conveyed by Dinita Gohill. As in a recent production of The Merchant of Venice, the non-Christian has full humanity and depth. It was also strongly feminist in the way both Maria and Fabian (turned into a young woman) are master-minds of the revenge-trick by the servants.

It cost me $15 as a senior Folger Shakespeare member.

I chose for my one night ($25 for a good seat) out of at least a week’s worth of concerts brought together under the umbrella term, Festival of American Orchestras, a program which eschewed the usual (and sometimes to me too often repeated fare of) suspects: Beethoven, Handel, Brahms, Mozart, Bach. The Albany symphony appeared to be doing beautifully melodic and varied “picture” music by composers I’d not heard of but where what’s pictured or is the story attracted me. As an old New Yorker, I love a bridge, and the last full piece was by Michael Torke where three phases were music evoking Manhattan bridges I’ve drove on so many times.

When I arrived, the audience looked odd or different: far more of the young parent and children group in he audience than usual, many hispanic and black people. It was also not sold out. The mystery was explained when I realize the first half of the second part of the concert centered on a chorus from three DC schools, where children read aloud edifying verse about the building of “The Mighty Erie Canal.” The audience was made up of many people personally attached to some one child in this chorus. The singing was not great, but Dorothy Chang wrote the songs (“The Worker’s Song) suggesting hardship overcome, just, to have this communication, transportation system. Compare how llmost nothing for the common social good is sought by the US gov’t today. Then there were two soloists, both women in the first and last half. Joyce Chang is a great pianist; and she made the piano into a flowing river. Despite (to my eyes) the incongruous mermaid-like silvery dress Carol Jantsch fitted herself into, she is a fine musician on the tuba; she too was mirroring a river’s presence.

It was pleasant on the terrace to see the different groups of people. Very pretty in the sunset over the Potomac too. I was reading Antonia Hayes’s little book, A Universe of One’s Own, (a small present from a friend here on the Internet) as a kind of prelude to Katie Brigg’s This Little Art (on the practice of literary translation). Hayes says from her experience if you learn a language very young even if you forget it, the underlying grid stays with you, the language’s rhythms, forms, intonation. She talks about two areas of the brain where “mother tongues” where are found the first language we learn fully and later learned efforts in school or elsewhere. Hayes argues for a criss-cross, a blending, and talks of how what language we chose to make our primary tongue is so often chosen to gain a new identity, a new culture (You won’t find any of this in any of the review blurbs. Her mother did not want to be a Philippines person and deliberately forget her Tagalong and resisted teaching it to her daughter. Hayes appears to have a learning disabled boy and argues that teaching him two languages at once, French and English as he grew up in France, has unlocked his language barriers. The teacher in France wanted her to stop teaching the boy English, to stop talking it, and Hayes resisted. On the Kennedy Terrace the people were speaking English; in the concert hall, only some were using Spanish.

Hayes goes well beyond the usual way of discussing how we acquire language — as Jhumpa Lahiri tries to in her In Other Words — written by her in Italian with a facing English translation by Ann Goldstein (which I’ve also been reading). The theme of a character, in this case female Indian living in the UK turning herself into a French woman through study, art, and language is central to Lahiri’s prize-winning novel, Namesake (also filmed brilliantly and movingly). Lahiri (in In other words) is convinced you can’t have the same thoughts in different languages and she wants to have the thoughts and feelings she experiences in Italian. Language as identity, as finding oneself.

I know I feel this irrational sense that in Italian and/or French there is something I can experience that is sustaining for me not available at all in English. Thus my joy in translating recently say Elsa Morante’s poetry to her cats printed in her original Italian with facing French translations.


Gwen John drawing

Sometimes I wonder why anyone bothers reprint review blurbs since they consist of in effect noises of praise …. or denigration …). I looked up reviews of both Hayes and Lahiri’s books and you would not know what’ve I’ve suggested is their content at all.

But I am rambling on.

So, to bed.
Ellen

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