Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for the ‘political novels/films’ Category


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


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

Dear friends and readers,

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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


Marie Germaine

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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


The phony ceremony

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


Jeannine threatening Raymond

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

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


Raymond receiving an anonymous poisoned letter

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


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

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

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


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

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


Larcher and Hortense are the same actors made much older

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

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


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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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


The companion book for the series

Ellen

Read Full Post »


John Lewis as Congressman not long ago

Good Trouble: its value is it shows the courage, bravery and real intelligence of John Lewis and brings together through flashback and forward what a horrific struggle and sacrifice it was to get the vote finally for African-Americans, with the Civil Rights Voting Act of 1965, and at the same time how this right, almost upon the gutting of the bill, was immediately challenged, threatened, eroded and the suppression of black and other poor people’s votes has led directly to the election of the Geogian governor and Trump. The footage shows Lewis as a young man, his hard life. It also centers on Lewis as a man enacting non-violence. I did not know how closely he aligned himself with non-violence as a technique for advancing reform – together of course with demonstrations and protests (just now the Trump administration is accusing another group of people of felonies with sentences of 40 years who were protesting something).


Ella Fitzgerald singing her heart out & below a famous rendition of Mack the Knife where she forgot the words half-way through but who cares?

Then Lin-Manuel Miranda as Alexander Hamilton

I watched Hamilton for the first time as a film on the computer with Izzy (who bought the subscription for the year). It is not a flawless musical (see below) but it transcends its problems, and was a good show to watch on July 4th. Its intentional humanity and the cast of all but one people of color was salutary tonight: here they are, the descendants of the people the powerful named white men and their tamed white women enslaved, exploited, worked to death. After 3 years of Trump opening up before all of us the horrible entrenched racism, violence, and profoundly brutal cruel anti-social autocratic and bigoted religious currents in the people who live in the United States, the cast itself makes an important statement — about a figure hitherto sidelined, the part white, part black genius Alexander Hamilton. And musically and for its wit it’s very interesting

Friends and readers,

Tonight it is no safer (perhaps less safe) to socialize with others than it was two months ago when I wrote my first blog on WFH movie-watching, or 4 and 1/2 months ago when Izzy first started to work from home through her computer, or when we first understood that all were at risk from serious disease to death from COVID19 (Pandemic). Tonight again I have three online films, which differ from the first three because all of them directly relate to the ripping open before us, partly due to the calamities of this pandemic (unemployment, further immiseration and impoverishment), the virulent racism that is at the heart of the way US society has maintained and increased inequality over the last four decades. For the calculated origins watch Heist

For the uses of racism, I recommend listening to or reading the transcripts from interviews by Amy Goodman with Keenaga-Yamahtta Taylor, Cornel West & Bakari Sellers This blog is about the movies, and these issues as they emerge from the movies.

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

The best of the three and the one I urge you to see if you’ve not already, Good Trouble.

The film makes central to his story John Lewis’s alignment with non-violence: to understand why he was not assassinated (he was also a secondary character at the time, did not attract the same attention because he was small, young, not a rhetorician), why he won out for one of the few black seats in Georgia at the time over Julian Bond (and thus appeals to white voters) you need to know this. To see and listen to Lewis talk about non-violence tells you about the courage and risks this man took to try to obtain the vote for African-American people. Violence in the US is now a way of expression; punishment is what US society resorts to first, and brutal police who act with impunity its instrument. In the cases of mental illness, drug addiction, all sorts of social problems, the police are called, imprisonment the option. Lewis stands for reasoning, and for improving the lives of all through negotiation, talk, understanding.

The film’s second crucial topic is the vote: we learn of the long hard struggle, of the final signing by Johnson, and then how it did need to be renewed (and was so by George W Bush) — but how it was immediately undermined and is now badly eroded since the Supreme Court gutted it. We see white politicians take office who illegimately win because the votes are suppressed (not enough polling booths, back to demanding documents, to intimidation, throwing votes out). If it has a flaw, it does not sufficiently show what was gained by the vote — or what those voted in by a majority of the people are for. For example, we do see the beginnings of school desegregation but not what having a congressman or woman representing African-American and poorer white people could try to do: instead of entrenched localism, funding of schools through small local areas so the schools in a wealthy area are very good, and the schools in a poor, inadequate, there could and would be attempts through the tax system to equalize funding across a state. Redlining policies which deprive black entrepreneurs of needed loans to start businesses are mentioned. But we don’t hear enough about discrimination in employment.

But it does convey Lewis’s character: his young years in Georgia as a sharecropper’s son, his early studious ways, his joining with Martin Luther King, the beatings he took, and then after the Civil Rights Bill, his first elections and how central he had become in his district. At the close there is a 15 minute recent interview with Oprah Winfrey. Don’t miss this one.

Where you can see it


President Obama presents 2010 Presidential Medal of Freedom to Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., East Room, White House. Proud moment

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


Ella Fitzgerald, 1940.

As with Good Trouble, Just One of Those Things covers Fitzgerald’s early life: born in Virginia, in her early years she was an outstanding student (like Lewis), with a talent for and love of dancing; her earliest experiences are shown to be harsh — when her mother died and she was left with a stepfather, she became disturbed in behavior (not mentioned in the film, perhaps her stepfather abused her), was moved to Harlem, and ended in an orphanage and (her nadir) a New York state reformatory. She managed to come out not that damaged, and supported herself by singing in the streets (reminding me of Piaf). The famous moment is when she went on stage at the Apollo theater and instead of dancing, she sang. She was not long after introduced to Chick Webb, bandleader and drummer and she became the singer for their troop. The film then traces her success from the years in Harlem (Harlem Renaissance clubs until 1935), through hard struggles to get on stage (helped by Sinatra and Monroe). Her body shape was held against her; she was not white looking


Photo by Carl Van Vechten

We see her with her son, the house she bought; that there was a estrangement. Norman Ganz was a benevolent mentor. She does seem a lonely woman, perhaps sad, but working hard and ceaselessly. Then her later years, a guest on TV variety shows; live performances in Europe. The film does skim over her relationship with other African-Americans during the Civil Rights era; we move quickly to her growing older, frailer as she develops diabetes. The narrator is Sophie Okonedo, and the people speaking are contemporary singers who see themselves as singing in her tradition. One wishes the film had been made 20 years ago so we would have more of her contemporaries (a review).

My real complaint or objection is we don’t experience her singing enough. So, here is another YouTube, a fifty minute show in Berlin, 1968:

Basically Ella Fitzgerald made her way most of the time on her own, and stayed among African-American people where African-American music was wanted and welcome — went to US cities where they had clubs and singers like Louie Armstrong (New Orleans, Detroit). The film (like the one on John Lewis) was too discreet — both films were unwilling to offend the very audience that used to exclude these people (and to tell the truth, let’s say in schools and neighborhoods still does). So you had to pay attention to pick up hints about how much greater was her acceptance abroad and again how brave she was in maintaining her independence.

Where you can see it

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


Of Hamilton let me begin by saying I wanted to like it better and probably my reaction was the result of not seeing it live plus having too high expectations. That I was aware I was watching a movie shows in my regret there are no subtitles.

Miranda’s Hamilton is traditional great man history — though with the important salutary reality that instead of white men playing these roles, people of color today are playing them, the many great-grandchildren of the enslaved women and men owned by these people. British white friends have told me that this switch in races lacks some of the resonance that is felt in the US and so the play wasn’t quite as ecstatically received. It is in fact the usual patriotic history about the colonies, which attributes to the hero’s success, his individual ambition, intelligence, drive, luck, a phenomenal rise in rank. I didn’t like the militarism. Yes in effect duels are criticized, but not by anyone in the play. Hamilton had a son who died this way too. And we watch him grieve, but not learn a lesson. We are not shown that the reason men did this is if someone refused he was for the rest of his life scapegoated, ridiculed, was himself at risk from continual badgering if not more challenges.


Phillipa Soo as Eliza

It was certainly not feminist: the women are all adore the great man, want to bear his child. His wife is presented as spending the rest of her life making him into a saint. Maybe she did. I admit I thought the mockery of Jefferson overdone. Washington was treated with super-respect, and yet he enslaved people. I remember a letter by him where he is inviting another “gentleman” to his house, and tells him of a slave girl the man can have in his bed. Maybe I am overdoing it here, but where are the native Americans?

While I found parts inspired and compelling, giving a new angle, a new twist, I had been led to expect something quite above or different from the kind of show that makes for a Broadway musical hit. It is somewhat different: the hip-hop music, the brilliant rhyming verse, and the reverse of racial/ethnic groups. But stomping kinds of music? I found nothing particularly beautiful, tender; the poignancy came from the acting and at times story. What makes it inspired is the fervor of identification with Hamilton that Miranda conveys.

Miranda read Chernow’s book and took it seriously. He adapted into a musical arguments from treatises, material that is difficult to make a musical out of. Hamilton’s life was spent — a lot of it — was spent writing. There was an attempt at explaining some of the complicated issues. Miranda too offered a strongly pro-immigrant theme, that immigration is the way the US was made, but we should remember the characters on stage were were many of them the bourgeois and rich from the UK. Like many another top-down history, this one tells the tale from the perspective of those in power (men) and the rich (the Schuylers). In a sense its visceral impact lies in substituting the usual white stars for people in the story in power for people of color where refreshingly one could not tell quite who was what ethnicity — and that delights and fools us. It is a musical and as such I was impressed by how tragically it ended and how ironic and satiric it often was. Most musicals are utopian.

To be fair, here is what The Guardian reviewer, Sarah Churchwell, had to say:

Hamilton is the kind of transformative theatrical experience that has only happened a few times in the history of American musicals. It joins the likes of Show Boat, Oklahoma! and West Side Story as game changers, innovative productions that forever redefined what came after them. Unlike most of its predecessors, however, Hamilton was created by one man, Lin‑Manuel Miranda, who wrote the music, lyrics, and book about the musical (only Stephen Sondheim can claim as much, and none of his shows were such blockbusters). Hamilton fuses American history with current politics, using a soundtrack of American popular music and one of the most inventive librettos ever written. The result is that nearly every song in the show works as a complex historical concert, layering musical pasts with the musical present, just as the historical past mingles with the political present …

Miranda had already created a successful musical (In the Heights) when he impulsively decided to read Ron Chernow’s prize-winning biography Alexander Hamilton on holiday (Miranda’s whim has made Chernow, who reportedly gets 1% of Hamilton’s profit, a very wealthy man). Hamilton represents something of an anomaly in American history, a founding father who never transferred from official histories into popular mythology. There are many reasons for this, not least that Hamilton’s positions were incompatible with many of our myths – he was avowedly elitist, for example, and supported the idea of a president for life – while his expansion of the federal government prompted the Whiskey Rebellion of 1794, which he brutally suppressed. Neither of these facts makes it into Miranda’s musical, which is the story of a “young, scrappy and hungry” immigrant from the West Indies who became the quintessential American success story through a combination of brains, hard work and audacity. Miranda creates a myth for Hamilton by celebrating him as a symbol of immigrant inclusiveness, egalitarianism and meritocracy: historically it’s a stretch, but theatrically it’s genius.

Eventually Hamilton became a hero of the American revolution, George Washington’s right-hand man, the nation’s first secretary of the treasury, the co-author (with James Madison) of The Federalist Papers, and the primary proponent for federal government over state government. He argued for a national bank, created the national reserve as well as the national debt, and laid the foundations for the US’s economic success. His dramatic life came to a melodramatic end when he was killed in a duel by the sitting vice president, Aaron Burr. And yet, despite all these achievements and dramas, Hamilton has been marginalised by most popular accounts of American history. Washington, Jefferson, John Adams have been the subject of countless books, films, miniseries and even their own popular musical, 1776. But 1776, which tells the story of the battle over writing the Declaration of Independence, does not even mention Hamilton …

Yes he has been left out because he was mulatto, and Miranda identified. As Hilary Mantel has changed the way historians understand and write about Thomas Cromwell (Wolf Hall), so since this musical Hamilton is quoted, described, become part of US central revolutionary and constitutional history once again.

Again from The Guardian: Hamilton … explor[es] mainstream history through the music of subcultures. Lines about racism from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific (“you’ve got to be carefully taught”) rub shoulders with Busta Rhymes; Sondheim’s experiments in perspective from Pacific Overtures meet Snoop Dogg. There is a running gag about Adams, in which Miranda riffs on 1776; its opening number is the resounding “Sit Down, John!” in which the Continental Congress tells him to shut up. Miranda is doing the same, telling Adams and the Anglocentric American history he embodies to step aside. He sidelines Adams, waiting until the second act to mention him, and then has Hamilton sing, “Sit down, John, you fat motherfucker!” Less explicit (in every sense) is Miranda’s decision to give Hamilton a signature refrain – “I will never be satisfied” — that echoes Adams’s line from 1776, “I have always been dissatisfied, I know that.”

Miranda’s lyrics are dizzying: he rhymes Socrates with mediocrities, before linking manumission, abolition and ammunition. Gilbert and Sullivan are not only sampled, they are schooled; Miranda gleefully told a journalist he felt he’d improved the rhyme in Gilbert’s famous patter, which becomes George Washington’s rap: “Now I’m the model of a modern major general / The venerated Virginian veteran whose men are all / Lining up, to put me up on a pedestal.” Puns abound with the exuberant energy of a word-drunk writer: “Local merchants deny us equipment, assistance / They only take British money, so sing a song of sixpence.”


Daveed Diggs — in one of many exhilarating moments

More reviews: the New York Times, fact-checking, and problems with the movie, e.g., we lose the POV of Burke, and it feels complacent: Alissa Wilkinson of Vox

I’m sure I’d like it better if I read books on Alexander Hamilton and then watched and re-watched to pick up the subtleties, nuances of the dialogue and genuine arguments on behalf of this or that measure, which are brought into the play script. I’m probably just now so exacerbated, irritated, jaundiced (from the present regime) that I want other ways of remembering history beyond great men and who did what violence to whom. What has made me so welcoming to the documentaries on Lewis and Fitzgerald has made me have a hard time accepting another male-centered musical with a central train of violence and heterosexual sex, Hamilton.

Alas, perhaps perversely I remembered Eileen Power’s Medieval People and Medieval Women.


The Magdalene Reading by Van der Weyden, 1445 (from the cover)

Ellen

Read Full Post »


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


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

Dear friends and readers,

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

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

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

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

The Last Chronicle of Barset

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

You can also go directly to the YouTube site:

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

Ellen

Read Full Post »


Mecklenburgh Square (in the Bloomsbury area), by Margaret Joliffe (1935)

For a 6 week summer course at the Oscher LifeLong Learning Institute at George Mason University
Day: Wednesday mid-day, 11:45 am to 1:15 pm,
June 24 to July 29
Zoom, Virtual Classroom
Institutional location: 4210 Roberts Road, Fairfax, Va 22032
Dr Ellen Moody

Online at:

Description of course:

This course will examine novels & art included in the term Bloomsbury through the fiction of four of the novel writers: we’ll read E.M. Forster’s Maurice; J. R. Ackerley’s My Dog Tulip; Virginia Woolf’s short fictions taken from two books: The Complete Short Fiction (which includes Memoirs of a Novelist) and The Death of the Moth and other essays; and Vita Sackville-West’s All Passion Spent. Bloomsbury books (non-fiction, biography, essays, poetry) are written by people who belonged to an amorphous early to mid 20th century creative group, associated with a specific area in London, who were friends and associates, or whose works were printed at the Hogarth Press. The group lasted a long time, going through several phases, and left a rich legacy in books and people writing in alignment with the original goals and aesthetics, political and economic and social ideas. Thie works produced by this group are splendidly interesting, different, quirkly, at an angle from the mainstream, critiquingit, and remain strongly influential until today, are in various genres, often subversive and original texts. You don’t forget them. There are good movies to watch for Maurice, My Dog Ackerley, & All Passion Spent. I ask everyone before class to read E.M. Forster’s “What I Believe.”


Dora Carrington (1893-1932), The Mill at Tidmarsh (her most famous picture)

Required texts (in the order we will read them):

E. M. Forster, “What I Believe,” Online at http://spichtinger.net/otexts/believe.html or https://www.bl.uk/collection-items/what-i-believe-by-e-m-forster (if you want to buy, it’s reprinted in Two Cheers for Democracy. Harcourt, Brace, 1951; rpt. many times)
E.M. Forster, Maurice, ed., P. N. Furbank, introd., notes by David Leavitt. Penguin 1971; rpt 2003. ISBN 978-0=141-44113-9.
J.R. Ackerley, My Dog Tulip, introd. Elizabeth Marshall Thomas. New York Review of Books classic, 1999. ISBN 978-1-59017-414-2
Virginia Woolf, The Complete Shorter Fiction, ed., introd. Susan Dick. Harvest book, 1989. ISBN 978-0-15-621250-2 (this contains the whole of Memoirs of a Novelist).
————–, The Death of the Moth and Other Essays. I will send the whole book by attachment. It used to available at an Australian University of Adelaide site and is still on an Australian Gutenberg site:  http://gutenberg.net.au/ebooks12/1203811h.html. It exists in book form: The Death of the Moth and Other Essays. Harcourt, Brace, 1970 ISBN 0-15-625234-1
Vita Sackville-West. All Passion Spent, introd. Joanna Lumley. Virago 1982; rpt 2011. ISBN 978-0-86068-358-2.

Format: lecture and discussions

June 24th: Defining Bloomsbury philosophy, ethic, describing the aesthetic. “What I believe.” We will begin Forster’s Maurice
July 1st: Forster and his posthumous novel, Maurice.
July 8th: Pro-animal literature & Ackerley’s My Dog Tulip. Read also for this day Woolf’s “Gypsy, the Mongrel” (in Complete Fiction) and “Sporting Party.”
July 15th: For this week read Woolf and her “Mysterious Case of Miss V,” “The Journal of Mistress Joan Martyn,” “Memoirs of a Novelist,” “The Widow and the Parrot” (all in The Complete Fiction); then “Art of Biograpahy and “Professions for Women” (from Death of a Moth). I’ll tell of Andre Maurois’s Aspects of Biography.
July 22nd: Experimental fiction & feminist poetry: Woolf’s “The Death of the Moth,” “Twelfth Night at the Old Vic,” “Street Haunting,” “Thoughts on Peace During an Air Raid” (from The Death of the Moth), then Woolf’s “Kew Gardens,” “The String Quartet,” Mrs Dalloway in Bond Street,” “Nurse Lugton’s Curtain,” “Uncle Vanya,” “The Shooting Party,”  from Appendix C, “The Dog,” “Ghosts,” and “English Youth” (in Complete Fiction). I will send by attachment poetry by Elizabeth Bishop, Adrienne Rich, & Sackville-West.
July 29th: Vita Sackville-West, her life, scholarly editions & biographies, poetry and All Passion Spent.


James Wilby as the ebullient sincere young Maurice


Hugh Grant as the hardened self-depriving older Clive

Recommended: 5 movies

All Passion Spent. Directed by Martin Friend. Screenplay Peter Buckman. Perf. Wendy Hiller, Maurice Denham, Harry Andrews, Eileen Way, Phyllis Calvert. 3 part (hour each) series. BBC, Masterpiece Theater, 1986. On YouTube. Delicate gentle comic poignant masterpiece of a TV series.

Carrington. Directed by John McGrath. Screenplay Christopher Hampton. Perf. Jonathan Pryce, Emma Thomson, Rufus Dewell, Samuel West, Penelope Wilton. Le Studio Canal, 1995. It’s literally accurate in some ways, but it panders to myths about the Bloomsbury people. Grim, with a caricature of Strachey.
Maurice. Dir.James Ivory. Screenplay Kit Hesketh-Harvey Perf. James Wilby, Hugh Grant, Rupert Graves, Phoebe Nicholls, Simon Callow, Ben Kingsley, Judy Parfitt, Denholm Elliot. Merchant-Ivory, 1987. Available as Prime Video on Amazon. Fine mostly faithful movie.
My Dog Tulip. Animated artistic Film written, drawn, edited by Paul and Sandra Fierlinger. Voices Christopher Plummer and Lynn Redgrave. Produced by Howard Kaminsky. Axiom, New Yorker film, 1999. It is available as a Vimeo if you keep searching for it. A masterpiece of tenderness, comedy, strongly pro-animal rights.

https://vimeo.com/264796405

To the Lighthouse. Dir Colin Gregg. Script Hugh Stoddard. Perf. Rosemary Harris, Michael Gough, Suzanne Bertish, Kenneth Branagh, Lyndsey Baxter, Pippa Guard. BBC, 1983. Online at YouTube. Brilliant combination of Woolf’s novel of the same name, aspects of her family life, and filmic versions of her novel techniques.

Other online texts: by Woolf
Granite and Rainbow (contains “The new Biography”)
To the Lighthouse

Available as complete, unabridged audiobooks:

E. M. Forster, Maurice, read by Peter Firth for Audiobooks. MP3. 978-1531874155
J. R. Ackerley, My Dog Tulip, read by Ralph Cosham for Audiobooks. MP3. 978-1441786401
Vita Sackville-West, All Passion Spent, read by Wendy Hiller, for Cover-to-Cover. Audio CDs. 978-1445801582 (hard to find, out of print, but just inimitable beautiful poignant funny)


Recent edition

General Studies, life-writing, other Bloomsbury and connected people:

Beard, Mary. The Invention of Jane Harrison. Cambridge: Harvard, 2000.
Brennan, Gerald. The Face of Spain. Farrar, Strauss, 1956.
Cavafy, C. P. Poems, ed, trans. Avi Sharon. NY: Penguin, 2008.
DeSalvo, Louise. Virginia Woolf: The Impact of Childhood Sexual Abuse on her life and work. NY: Ballantine Books, 1989.
Edel, Leon. Bloomsbury: A House of Lions. Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1979.                 Gerzina, Gretchen. Carrington: A Life. NY: Norton, 1989.                                           Johnstone, J. K. The Bloomsbury Group: E.M. Forster, Virginia Woolf, Lytton Strachey. Noonday Press, 1954
Moffatt, Wendy. A Great Unrecorded History: A New Life of E.M. Forster. NY: Farrar, Strauss, & Giroux, 2010.
Power, Eileen. Medieval People. 1924: NY: Harper Perennial, 1963
Raitt, Suzanne. Vita and Virginia: The Work and Friendship of V. Sackville-West and Virginia Woolf. Oxford, 1993.
Shone, Richard, ed. The Art of Bloomsbury: Roger Fry, Vanessa Bell, Duncan Grant. Tate Gallery, Princeton UP, 1999.
Summers, Claude J. E.M. Forster. NY: Ungar, 1983.
Rosenbaum. S. P. ed. The Bloomsbury Group: A collection of Memoirs & Commentaries. All sort of essays by many Bloomsbury people. Rev. Toronto Press, 1995.
Rosner, Victoria, ed. The Cambridge Companion to the Bloomsbury Group.  NY: Cambridge UP, 2014. Covers ground by typologies, themes, perspectives.
Sackville-West, Vita, ed. Mary Ann Caws. Selected Writings of Vita Sackville-West. NY: Palgrave, 2002.
Spalding, Frances. Roger Fry: Art and Life. LA: Univ of California Press, 1980.                         Stansky, Peter. On or About December 1910: Early Bloomsbury & Its Intimate World. Harvard, 1997.
Wade, Francesca. Square Haunting: Five women, freedom and London between the wars. Faber & Faber, 2020.

A few of my blogs:

Thinking about biography: Andre Maurois’s Aspects of Biography
Upon first reading Virginia Woolf’s
Death of a Moth”

Virginia Woolf’s Flush as canonical modernist biography


Bridge over the Allier c.1933 Roger Fry (1866-1934)

Read Full Post »


Un Village Francais; — first episode as Germans take over


My Brilliant Friend aka L’amica geniale, Elena (Lenu) Greco (Margherita Mazzucco) and Lila, Raffaelle (LiL) Cerullo — principal heroines


Antony (Ralph Fiennes) and Cleopatra (Sophie Okonedo) — National Theater

Friends and readers,

During this earliest phase of living with pandemics (WFH for those who can), a new but probably temporary genre (as popular blogging goes) has emerged among those paid to do it: the column telling readers what good movies series, recent and long ago, are available for viewing on-line; sometimes for free (YouTube, PBS portals, National Theater from London), sometimes part of a subscription (Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, Acorn, BritBox). I do not pretend to compete. The accent is on new or very recent programming (I have not seen or read about even one Game of Thrones episodes) when older, mystery thriller, British costume drama, “classic” serials (though I am kept up, this will not be about Inspector Morse & progeny); cable channel star products aligned with fashionable seeming politically serious series (say The Plot Against America, West Wing). I am a novice at learning what precisely is among the cornucopia. I just learned of a YouTube presence of Joanna Trollope’s The Rector’s Wife, with a young Lindsay Duncan — who knew? I’m not trying for little known, and, at a minimum, such blogs will recommend six to eight titles.

But I am offering advice in the same spirit, slightly altered — and much fuller. What you should not miss, on offer because of the pandemic and reflecting our hard era.  Not one made in the USofA, two cannot be watched without subtitles; and the third, Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra comes with subtitles. Maybe I should have called this Subtitled Movies.

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


The exemplary hero and heroine — doing their best, meaning well enough — the mayor, Dr Larcher and the workman’s wife, Marie Lorrain

I’m only half-way through the seven seasons of Un Village Francais. I am hooked. What can I say that will be adequate (and not go on for too long). The first episode of the first season begins with three children killed as the Nazis fly a plane over shooting everywhere everyone in sight, accompanied by implacable bullying of the citizenry by men in trucks armed. We are introduced to three or four family groups plus others, several professional offices, see the Germans. The ongoing story justifies to some extent collaboration. It does more than explain how this happened, but leads us to sympathize with those who succumb, and even actively do the Germans’ bidding in return for favors not just personal but for the village as a whole. There is some unfair treatment of the communists (as senselessly killing): The communists were the backbone of the resistance: they were often the backbone of many of the parties against fascism – -in Spain, the Republicans, in China, around the world. Each was more or less locally run.

One way to sneer at the resistance has been to deny it existed in France — Caroline Moorehead is among those to demonstrate not so in either Italy or France. In two of her books, she demonstrates they were careful, cautious, respectful of one another’s lives – or they could hardly have survived though thousands were murdered. Importantly these many hours of believable sincerely imagined tough lives, wih their intermittent pleasures, griefs, warns us what fascists are and if they ever gain complete control in the US what we are to expect. 90,000 deaths and still counting, a collapsed economy with a stubborn refusal to help 85% of Americans for real is just a start; a laying on of the groundwork as the rule of law is savaged and the many agencies of the gov’t run by corrupt sycophants, made to rot from within. We see this in quiet enforced business practices that have the effect of starving and stealing all resources from the French to send to German privileged. Get rid of the weak, exploit and enslave those somewhat stronger, kill imprison the uncooperative.

So much of the power of fascists stems from those of decent beliefs for the real good of a public believing the people you are dealing with will operate decently, from at least roughly the same moral norms. It was extraordinarily creepy and awful —- I felt it in my body —as the mayor and police chief, etc, think they can turn the French thief over to the French authorities, and he will be treated justly, then are betrayed. There is nothing to do as the villager, who deserved a slap on the wrist, is turned over to the Nazis for what we know will be a horrible fate -— again and again, you feel the vulnerability of his body and the bodies of the men who unwittingly allowed this to happen, how they turn away, can’t watch, feel so utterly helpless and bad. Torture in front of us by burning people with cigarettes during interrogations as a first step.

Step-by-step is the process. (As we in the US are experiencing under Trump and his vicious Republican regime.) You understand, too, why the mill owner, simply seeing the immediate great benefits, makes the creepy deal with the Nazi commander to supply the wood planks to him. You know it will end badly, but you also realize that the French collaborator is not evil, just doing what seems to make sense at the time. Women now have to be careful who they have sex with — you are then identified as of that party. Interesting how the people fool themselves. Each person thinks individually oh I’ll just do this or that and I’ll survive. Schwartz switches to concrete when a new German commander has a new crony he wants to do deals for wood with. Contracts are worthless where law and justice don’t exist. The Jewish man thinks he will be alive when the war is done, and that he can take what’s left of his business back then so he does a deal too.


Schwartz

Mr Schwartz is a fascinating one: he is driven to murder a man who was trying to blackmail him into betraying the Jewish man who was lending him the money to transform his business and his wife — he is central, his well-meaning capable educated authority has led to him being a collaborator. His brother is now being pressured to move up from resisting by handing out pamphlets to killing in reciprocation, except the Nazi will kill as many hostages as they feel like for every murder the French commit. Lucienne, the schoolteacher now pregnant by the Nazi officer. Marie, a peasant’s wife who evolves into independence because she is gifted with strong intelligence, Henri De Kervern is the bearded policeman who becomes involved in the resistance.

For the most part there are no black and white villains or heroes/heroines in this drama. Everyone has to deal with complicated choices. Which I think is true to life. No one can say what they would or would not do given extreme circumstances. What I really also like about the series is how the characters evolve in ways you would not expect. We are in the middle of series three and could not have foreseen many of the developments. One of my favorite characters has been Gustave, the young son of the communist Marcel Larcher (brother to the mayor).


Schoolteacher, Lucienne

One of the many stories of private life: Lucienne is now pregnant by the German (Nazi of course) soldier. At first he has given her the cold shoulder. Despite her religiosity (and we see her praying repeatedly by the bed) and going to a priest to confess her sin (fornication apparently). Each man has a reason beyond himself why this is unacceptable. Priest: we will just about excommunicate you. You are a pariah if you do this. Lucienne leaves the church, having determined for own sake (and probably that of any baby caught up in this horror) to get an abortion.

What’s remarkable is again it’s the men who stop her. Reluctantly, but determinedly Marie visits Lucienne to see why she’s upset, suspecting all the while Lucienne is pregnant. Marie has self-aborted but takes her to a Jewish midwife, and they are in the midst of their operation, just about to start and De Kervern stops them. He says it’s against the law, he’ll get in trouble and he’s about to throw Hortense out. So they stop. Lucienne goes home and tries to self-abort and ends up bleeding profusely in the school; Mr Bedier (in love with her) rushes her to Dr Larcher who saves her life but refuses her an abortion. It’s not safe; just think of how much joy and meaning a baby wil give you. &c&c. Anyway he won’t. Then he bothers Mr Bedier who he thinks the father to care for her. Bedier is willing — this gives him power and purchase over her, but he is also a good man. The Nazi soldier comes back with all these offers of later loyalty. He is in love with her and wants her to have his baby. They are thwarted by the spiteful Mrs Schwartz who loathes Lucienne for not choosing her cake in a yearly cake-baking money-raising contest.

The story brings out how the women would all help but the men have the power and all stop her. The girl herself casts aside her religion (another force controlling her) and would risk her life to abort this burden and trouble – she will be despised by many for having a child out of wedlock, it will be despised. Not everything that happens in this series is the result of this particular war …

For commentary (analysis, evaluation on Seasons 3-4 click here).

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

Across Lila’s kitchen table

My Brilliant Friend is one of these mis-named series from a cycle of books where the title of the first book becomes the title of the whole series. My Brilliant Friend is the title of the first volume and was the source of the first film adaptation series; the 4 novels are called The Neapolitan Quartet (they are mostly set in Naples); this season, the second, ought more accurately to be called The Story of a New Name as it is an adaptation of the 2nd novel, with this name. Lara Zuram in the Rolling Stone offers one of the best general assessments and interpretations of this second season I’ve come across. unfortunately this is not many: in Italian, Italian in feel, culture, places, on HBO, as one of the best TV films this year, and as a deeply woman-centered exploration, the 8 episodes are not getting the attention they deserve.

Here first is my review-essay of the second and third (Those Who Leave and Those who Stay) books. It is Lenu who by the end of the second series is being enabled literally to leave Naples: by going to college in Pisa, she has met and is about to marry an upper class young man who is himself becoming a professor, and through his mother found a publisher for her autobiographical novel (based on a story Lila wrote in their shared childhood), and by the third novel is living out her life among the intelligensia of Northern Italy, in Turin and Rome to be exact. Lila is said never to have left Naples and its environs (Ischia) ever.

Now to the second season for the second book:  From the fourth episode: The Kiss


A viscerally felt experience of the beach at Ischia with Pinu (married to Lila’s brother, Lila is married to Pinu’s brother)

I’ve not seen or felt anything like this in a long time. It’s not just that all the actors and actresses project real feelings fully that we can enter into, but the whole ambience of the situations. Thes= prologues often focus on characters other than Lenu or Lila so in this way that part of the novels is brought into play. Or we see an incidents or strings of incidents that are to the side of the main plot-narrative. Only by having many more episodes than the company was willing to fund can you bring in these “minor” characters. They are often suggestively complex about characters falling to pieces by the system.

After said prologue, we first see them on Ischia as they trudge down the beach. In an other film it would be all surface, glamor, here we feel how tiresome beaches also are, how heavy the umbrella, how weary the walk, hot the sun, and a sense of sticky sand. I put it down to not magazin-ing everything. The house is like a house I would stay in, the curtains thin, the stone steps hard, the doors ugly and off-center, painted in such a way that the shades are not perfect. All the surroundings are like this — a boat is not super expensive, perfect in way but messy, slosh slosh.

Their dialogues are what people might say: not elevated into top wit or reflection, but such wit and reflection as comes out is from offhand, slightly spiteful distrustful talk, the way people do ever one-upping one another — a real sense of contingent interaction

The fights every one has, the ambiguity of positions only once in a while made explicit: Lenu who is treated as a servant and yet is the educated person there with books with her. The mother says I’ll be blamed. When a quarrel happens, the debris and then how sordid
things can be — yet the beauty of the air, light. When they swim, they swim as awkwardly as I do — I mean the girls, as feeble in the sea and yet moving along. What the film does is give us in a way what book can’t — the viscera through sound, music, real presences — the series fulfills the book.

Yet OTOH, it has to simplify so the central story line stays with Lenu/Lila in conflict, Lila and her husband’s inadequate (I’ll call it and for both) relationship, and the entry of Nino into this mix. Lila begins an affair with Nino when he chooses her over Lenu (who is profoundly hurt and turns to Nino’s father and allows him to have sex with her one night on the beach) Another parallel is Pinu’s relationship with Lila’s brother, Rino — it’s too based on sex for her taste and now she’s found someone who she likes better and treats her as a person more, Bruno, and she wants to escape the conflict but also Nino. Almost she’d rather have neither man, but she is not permitted that choice of no man.

In the book other more minor characters are also developed: especially Pasquale Peluso. That he’s a communist bricklayer matters. The book and series wants to present Italy as it’s felt through the class system with all its nuances. Pasquale has no chance whatsover of getting to the beach. He gets his books from the library or cheaply made ones, and rag newspapers. So this stream-lined season (only 8 episodes) would or could be so much richer

From the sixth: Rage

One of many moments where it’s apparent Stefano has beat up Lila in his rage


Enzo picking Lila up to take her home (to Stefano) when Nino has abandoned her

Lila has been in a repressed rage since she was a young child and thrown out of a window by her father, and not allowed to go on to school beyond the most basic primary learning. The rage comes out again and again, mostly in the form of what’s called bad behavior. She is often mean to people, says things that hurt others very much, spiteful, mocking.

The episode opens with Lenu doing spectacularly well with another of these public questionings in front of all her classmates and all the teachers, told she should go on to university, demurring but urged by the teachers, and then when she tells her parents and her mother goes into a rage and forbids it (she is getting above them, where will she get the money from), defying them, going by train, arriving at this pretty looking city and off to take the exams, which if she does well she will be supported. She then says the hardest thing to tell now is what happened to Lila during this time.

We see fleetingly Lila give Lenu a box of notebooks; these are Lila’s life story, and then we see Lenu walking by a canal with them — in the book you are told what she does — and thus are prepared for why Lenu when she is in her sixties writes these 4 books after (the opening scene of the whole series), Lila in her mid-sixties disappears.

In this episode — for the rest of it — we see Lila in probably the first year or so of the marriage to Stefano defies the deeply entrenched norm of these people and leaves her husband for Nino. They live in a slum in a broken down apartment; only very briefly and from afar do we see their 23 days of joy. That’s all they have because suddenly without much preparation, Nino turns on her, and begins to complain ever bitterly about her lack of middle class manners, nuance, that she does break out and say what she thinks, she is an embarrassment to him. He packs and leaves.

Meanwhile upon her leaving — in a scene where Stefano is stunned, astonished, finally tells her how he loves her and has done all he can give her everything. She begins her telling him by saying she will no longer go to the shoe store, the grocery, hates staying home, hates him. He does not believe she will leave and goes to work and when he comes back she is gone. He weeps, and goes to the family, they are horrified and accuse one another of knowing where she is. They decide she has gone to stay with Lenu because they can’t bear any of the alternatives. What happens is the gangster type threatens Antonio, home from conscription and emotionally destroyed when Antonio asks for a job, then threatens him to go find Lila but not tell anyone. This mode of threatening is Mafia stuff – just what we see nightly on TV in the killing criminal Trump.

Antonio promises, but wandering near where Lenu has gone can’t find Lila; he goes to a neighborhood spectacle and tells Pasquale, who loves Lila and he and Enzo say she must be found. They do find her after Nino has left her. She is writing on a typewriter. After some
talk Enzo persuades her she must return to her husband, she is starving in this dump.

She does return, and there is Stefano all rejoicing. She tells him she is pregnant, and he is delighted until she says it is not his Now this is cruel: not only is there no need to tell him but she was pregnant before going off with Nino, and in the book it’s obvious she flees because the pregnancy is a final nail on the coffin. How can she now ever escape.

I’ve heard that phrase many a time from my father — a nail on the coffin that kept me here … What’s missing is the inwardness for you are through Lenu as narrative in the subjective consciousness of Lila at last.

From the seventh: Ghosts


Lenu studying


Lenu’s mother while caring for Lenu

We fast forward to Lenu being integrated into the university (Pisa, Normale superieure); she is the girlfriend of a wealthy young man who tries to buck the exam system where we are shown “orals” are a form of bullying or humiliation (if you don’t produce the right answers). We have seen Lenu go through this 3 times. The young man refuses; says what we are leaning is divorced of all social, economic, political context, he is excoriated, mocked, dismissed from college. She realizes when she goes off with him and he tells her he must leave now (deprived of all income) that she has not integrated socially into the college. She has spent her time in the library studying — so now he’s gone she is alone — not part of some group

She grows ill and very touching her mother shows up and takes care of you. The rough hard selfish seeming woman loves her daughter. Lenu slowly gets better. We get flashback where Lenu and Lila are together after the birth of Rino and where Stefano has asserted himself to the point he control her body and her movements. She fears her notebooks will be found and destroyed. She gives them to Lenu but Lenu sees them as Lila’s way to dominate and control her and make her choices seem inferior, lousy. There is truth to this: Lila has acted as a kind of DuMaurier’s Rebecca to Lenu with Lenu the submissive second Mrs DeWinter.

Lenu has to get rid of them — and she stunningly throws them into the river. These are all that Lila has created that’s worth while. They are better than anything Lenu can write since Lenu has been educated out of telling such direct truths.

OF course we are to infer that these four novels are Lenu’s way of retelling her friend’s story which she did read.

While reading Lila’s story is dramatized: from her first refusal to come out of the apartment and let all these people use her, to her giving birth, to her trying to educate her boy to be something quite different from a fascist male. At first Stefano is submissive and loves her but slowly he becomes enraged. He has a relationship that satisfies him with Ada (I think she might be Paaquale’s sister) and Lila knows that Ada represents a direct threat to her, for she needs the set up she has to bring her boy up. She comes out to mingle and of course finds there is no good choice for her. She won’t go live with Solaro — just another fascist relationship based on sex and money.

It is time to go and she gives Lenu a letter to give to Enzo — in the book we are expected to understand this is Enzo who promised to care for her absolutely. But Enzo is not someone who has either a degree or business from his family.

We return to Lenu and see her mother leaving. The film of her walking away to the train and finding her way with difficulty was so touching to me. I know I may not be able to do online teaching because I may find they are lying and will not give me the support and direction they pretend. Getting on a train if you have never done it is hard.

When I finished I found myself wishing Ferrrante could have won the Mann Booker or some such prestigious prize or that her oeuvre would be given a Nobel – never happen because the focus is on women, women’s lives and the aesthetic l’ecriture-femme.

I’ve joined a tiny group of 4 to read or discuss these books together but do not know if it will come off – it’s online. Without benefit of a listserv

The last for the season, the 8th The Blue Fairy Book: This was a powerful episode. A wonderful finale to the book which ends just as the movie shows.


Lila as dressed for hard work in freezing environment of meat-packing factory


Lenu uncomfortably listening to disdainful criticism of her book at her book launching

An unexpected direct parallel to today — when Lila pays the price of freeing herself from her violent husband and the comfortable way of life he can provide her and her child, she cannot do this alone, not in this dangerous patriarchal society. So she accepts Enzo’s offer but that means helping support herself and she descends rapidly. We find her where? in a meat-packing factory, yes. The movie version does not begin to describe the filth, noise (screams of killed animals), the blood, the disgusting techniques for making sausages, the cold the people must endure, how they are cut, their skins bruised, the word hard and long.

So while the US meat packing workers are probably more comfortable because of improvements in technology, my guess is the rest — low pay, low status, long hard hours, coercion as a way of dealing with workers – is all there. Nowadays on top of that you can catch a lethal virus, but don’t expect unemployment insurance if you don’t come in. There are very high numbers of people sickening and then proportionately dying.

Ferrante is no fascist and last night’s concluding episode showed us how Lenu was being led to stay in the longer rungs of the upper class — be a teacher in a high school because you haven’t got the accent or the generations of family to justify putting you in a university level academic job. The way she nearly reaches that is to marry in. She has recognized this is also her path to getting her novel published. Piero Airota introduces her to his family and she is found acceptable, so he produces a ring. They will have to wait two years for him to get the position he needs to support them as upper middle people — there is no worry in his voice he won’t get that position, and as the next novel opens he has it.

We see Lenu come home and how she has been educated out of belonging and yet still belongs because at a gut level she understand. The scenes with her family and her mother seen now as a denizen of this pitch perfect. Their pride in her too.

The story of Lila’s replacement by Ada is told by Ada in the book as it is here. We see in both that Stefano’s way of coping is still to beat up a woman, and his deepest impulses conformity. Had Ada not gotten pregnant, not had the nerve to come to Lila, and Very Important, Lila accepted her, let her into the apartment and start just living there, it is possible she would not have been able to take her place as Stefano’s new woman. She does have to work long hours in the grocery store, and then a new baby to care for and also obey this man. A look in her eyes shows she knows the price of the ticket.

One of the beauties of the book is how the working class women can band together and recognize one another. So too the middle class but the middle class does not recognize those beneath them. We see that in the teachers’ behavior, women even more than men.

One interesting aspect of the price of refusing to conform to the role of wife in Lila is we see that in Enzo there is no violence, no forced sex so at night. She likes him for that. I feel we are to feel both our heroines capable of liking sex, but the way it’s practiced (so to speak) makes it a chore or betrayal after a while. Lila has some liberty to study, albeit supposedly with Enzo and for him — though as to talent for mathematics we will discover in the next book that Enzo doesn’t have much. She does remain grateful to him.

I was very touched by the closing scene. How both girls say let us not be lost to one another — because they could be. I knew that Lila would burn that child’s book — we have had in the series all the scenes between Lila and Signora Oliviera to know how Lila knows now how little er talent mattered once she did not go on to the conventional trajectory of schooling.

The concluding scene where the novel is published and Lenu is unable to commandeer the room or present a presence that is intimidating so the male reviewer gets up and condescends. Pietro had told Lenu to “remove the racy bits” and this guy makes fun of the presentations of the scenes of sex. They are so necessary to the women’s stories (see above). But suddenly our ambiguous hero stands up and defends Lenu. There he is, Nino, also part of this upper middle class, and he’s read Lenu’s book

I left out the touching flashbacks, especially of the two girls as very small, reading Little Women. Lila curled up in Lenu’s arms, the thinner one, dressed in a cheap sack dress. There are others and they correspond to moments of flashback in the book


As children, Lila in Lenu’s arms, reading Little Women

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

Antony and Cleopatra at the National Theater

I recommend watching as strongly as one can — there may be as good productions as this one but probably since A&C is not that often done, it’s unlikely to get to see one better.


A playful moment

What impressed me is how the the actors (Ralph Fiennes, Sophie Okonedo, Tim McMullan, Tunji Kasim) and director (Simon Godwin) did not flinch from Shakespeare’s un-idealized Antony and Cleopatra. He is an older man, old, declining, spends a lot of his time drunk and befuddled, lascivious and lazy; she is a continually grating sort of mate, continually teasing, asking for validation, giving Antony a sort of hard time as a version of fun. Samuel Johnson endlessly claims Shakespeare’s real strength is the true characters. That’s one of the strengths of production. They had the uncomfortable comedy and the ridiculous.

When Antony is at that party roaring drunk with his fellows, we see (first time I’ve seen this), which the language allows, homosexual sex as part of Antony’s make-up and tastes. He’s false at times – he knows very well he won’t stay with Octavia. He takes the easy way out. She acts senselessly too — badgering her messenger. He also is too self-glorified. His strength is as a soldier, on land, but no he will fight at sea – and then lose. He is jealous of Octavius as this young effective man. Similarly the actor who played Enorbarbus is not done heroically (the way I once saw Patrick Stewart do it) but as a flawed human being whose flaws fit Antony’s but sees (as Antony does not) Antony’s self-destructiveness; when he hates himself for deserting it’s all the more effective.

But they have another side, and they do love one another, like their Egyptian life together; and as the play went on gained in stature based on being what they are, true to it, non-politicians, warm passionate, as opposed to the prig Caesar who is part of a long line of politicians in Shakespeare, starting with Bolingbroke in R2, Claudius in Hamlet. Antony owes a lot to Richard II, the development of this figure of a non-politicians, not a wheeler-dealer, a Hamlet, can’t be bothered to fit in, like the young Hal; also to Henry VI – aspects of these characters. It’s a very hard part to play. Cleopatra has no progenitor that I can see in Shakespeare except maybe some of the women in the history plays — those who love, those who are politicians; she played Margaret of Anjou, Henry VI’s wife in Hollow Crown. A flaw (it must be admitted) is the actor playing Octavius is too sweet, too young, not hard, mean, dense determined for power in the way of Shakespeare’s politicians.

Until they begin to fail and then as actors they can soar – – I was very moved by the ending. See how they both botched it and yet were just the embodiments of what love can be – sometimes so stupid — why did she flee and he flee after her during the sea fights? As he died in her arms, I remembered Jim dying in mine.


I also saw Frankenstein last week with Jonny Lee Miller as a powerful Frankenstein and Bernard Cumberbatch an astonishing creature; next week at the National Theater is Streetcar Named Desire; and if you want an alternative, or more traditional Shakespeare, the Globe is also on YouTube, for free for now (I spoke of Twelfth Night with Mark Rylance, Stephen Fry and others on a Sylvia II blog,scroll down)

So there you have it — how to wile away your hours in the evening (after work from home is done) with deep pleasure and growth in understanding and life

Ellen

Read Full Post »


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

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

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

Friends and readers,

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Ellen

Read Full Post »


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

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

Prison Box: Inventory (Rome, February 1944)

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

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

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

pencil stubs
(carbon
tips spent)

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

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

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

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

Gentle readers and friends,

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

I cannot recommend them too strongly —

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


Primo Levi at the New York Public Library

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


Natalia Ginzburg

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


Peg Boyers reading her poetry

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


Carlo Levi

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

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


Movie poster

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

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


Giorgio Bassani

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

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

The Racial Laws

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

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

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

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


Felice Casorati — untitled

Ellen

Read Full Post »

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

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

Friends and readers.

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


From the film adaptation of Beloved — Oprah Winfrey as Sethe

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ellen

Read Full Post »


A gothic style heroine warily slides into Oscar Wilde’s parodic Canterville Ghost

I have carried on reading E. M. Forster. The classes I was to teach are cancelled because I was not up to teaching (?) online — anyway, among other things, I haven’t got a webcam or microphone in my PC and have been unable to figure out how to access and use my the (I am told) in-built webcam and microphone in my Macbook pro laptop. I’ve taken this enforced staying home as an opportunity to develop more fully the projects I was on, and read some books, watch some movies I’ve been longing to get to.

Well now as long as I don’t become ill, I can. One night I watched all of Kenneth Branagh’s 1996 Hamlet, the one where he omits not one word, including all of the slower ceremonial scenes, and it takes 4 and 1/2 hours to watch. The strong emotional affect of this production depends on sitting there continuously all that time. But before I embark on sharing just some of what I’m trying to lose myself in I thought some inspiriting writing that bears full scrutiny might be in order. What better then then Forster’s famous “What I Believe”?

A Hogarth Press penny press edition, it seems to me Forster expresses the quintessential outlook of the Bloomsbury circle at its best; he chose it as the pivotal essay in his collection of his World War Two broadcasts to the British nation, Two Cheers for Democracy. The opening section, as he says, “‘The Second Darkness,’ concentrates on the war … subjects such as Anti-Semitism, the Nazis, Liberty, the Censorship … the climate political … [with as a] conclusion … “though we cannot expect to love one another, we must learn to put up with one another. Otherwise we shall all of us perish.” The “climate” of the second section” is ethical and esthetic,” opening with “What I Believe,” and then going on for 3/4s of the on “the arts” as “an antiote against or present troubles and also as a support for our common humanity.” We move from “Anonymity” and general topics like “Not listening to music,” “Does culture matter?” to lots of specific works and authors, e.g., “our second greatest novel,’ “A whiff of D’Annunzio,” “Virginia Woolf,” “Forrest Reid” (a wonderful collector of beautiful 19th century illustrations, minor novelist), Mrs Miniver,” to finally “places” like “India again,” “Ferney,” “London is a muddle.”

So, what does he have to tell us since he “does not believe in belief”? The problem is this (the mid-20th century) is “an age of faith” (it still is in 2020), and “tolerance, good temper and sympathy are no longer enough,” they appear to be “a flower, battered beneath a military jack-boot.” So where does start, what’s the central core of what matters to him: “personal relationships” he says. He knows psychologically, there is no such thing as a firm single unchanging self, “we don’t even know what we are like (Alexander Pope said something like this in his “Characters of Man”), what we may be. But practically we can and do recognize ourselves, remember our past, can say love A, little as we may know him or her. Here it is not a matter of drawing up and sticking to a contract, but “a matter for the heart,” something more or more despised today.” You are deluding yourself, such feelings are middle class luxuries .He has been urged instead dedicate yourself to a “cause,” but he “hates the idea of a cause,” and here comes the most famous utterance of this book (wait for it)

if I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country.

Who are in the lowest rungs of hell? Brutus and Cassius who betrayed their friend. Forster says “down with the state,” which he knows “means that the State would down me.”

Which brings him to Democracy, which he says is just “less hateful than other contemporary forms of government.” “It does start from the assumption that the individual is important,” and “all types are “needed to make a civilisation.” Says he

The people I most admire are those who are sensitive and want to create something or discover something, and do not see life in terms of power, and such people get more of a chance under a democracy than anywhere else.

For democracy allows them liberty.

Democracy also allows “criticism.” What he loves about Parliament is “it is a talking shop.” It is a place where one can expose abuses, and “its chatter gets reported widely.”

There is a dilemma, though: all societies rely on Force, and while we are being “sensitive, advanced, affectionate and tolerant” (he sneaks in three more words, the first three), force comes along, knocks us on the head and can throw us in a “labor camp.” Now we get to the active crux of the matter: we must do all we can to contain, control, repress force, which appears to be violence on behalf of serving someone or some people’s appetites for prizes, or on behalf of getting the money that can buy things. Admittedly money and prizes are not brought up as words in this essay but elsewhere Forster says we must do all we can to get round money, to keep it from being an object. The aim — what he believes, how he lives — is to snatch our time, our life, what is meaningful to us in being alive, during the intervals when force is not in control. He admits that just then was “such a difficult moment to live in. Implicitly the reader (his listeners) know that violence, force, and as he says in the next paragraph “Great Men” are in control; hero-worship seeks them, and such an “unmanageable’ man “is an integral pat of the authoritarian stock-in-trade.”

At this point I thought of Virginia Woolf’s Three Guineas, also Simon Weil’s translation of the Iliad a Poem of Force, and Uprootedness her commentary on it — both profoundly anti-war, profoundly against “the money motive,” “the vanity motive” (I am remembering Woolf), against cutting people off from their roots in local groups of people, recognizing humane obligations. Other of the writers of this era, socialist (Leonard Woolf, J. B. Priestley, Orwell), French and German existentialists, the Bloomsbury group (George C Moore, Maynard Keynes). But here Forster veers into his peculiar POV: he says he believes in an “aristocracy” not of power, based on rank and influence, but an aristocracy of the sensitive, the considerate and the plucky.” They are found in all classes and everywhere, between whom “there is a secret understanding when they meet, representing the “true human tradition, the one permanent victory of our queer race over cruelty and chaos.” Thousands “perish in obscurity” (think of Eliot’s Dorothea in Middlemarch). He names no one and prefers such a type “should not be an ascetic one.” You should not thwart your body but enjoy it; still he does not “insist on this:” “This is not a major point.” Authority seeing their value tries to use them, but they “slip through the Net and are gone.” “Their temple, as one of them remarked [Keats], is the Holiness of the Heart’s Affection.” Their kingdom “the wide open world.” He think as long as such people exist, the experiment of life “cannot be dismissed as a failure.” These “decencies” it does seem (a tragedy) cannot “be translated into public affairs,” for power makes people go “crooked,” “dotty.”

I am not keen on the last paragraphs where Forster talks of finding a “saviour of the future.” We don’t need a savior; there cannot be one. But at least he does not believe such people will be in charge permanently or while in charge without breaks; will ever get to “order” our inner lives (to order which, it seems, Love is a central value).. For him, for us, for me too, living is a crucial matter of gaining time now and again to explore “the universe” and “set” a mark in it “worthily,” say in odd moments when Force seems to be looking the other way, where your works may be seen as a “trivial by-product to be scrapped as soon as the drums beat and the bombers hum.”

So this is not a hopeful or future-oriented treatise. He suggests Christians think their creed will fix the world’s mess, but he thinks Christianity’s appeal today comes from “the money behind it, rather than its spiritual appeal.” His “faith” has a small f,and is saying what he thinks while speech is comparatively free; it may not be free much longer.” He ends with his context: “liberalism is crumbling all around him.” Writing this essay has helped him not to be ashamed, but see other people are “equally insecure. It’s this time under the shadow of “the dictator-hero” he is living, but as an individual as all are, and as such all slipping away from the Net as best they can. Each of us is born, each dies, separately, so there is limit to the power of Force.

In another blog, my political one I wrote of how to recognize COVID-19, what it is, how to try to do to avoid it, offered kindly words and song, but here I have offered a philosophy of life, debating central old basic questions, how to be yourself, how to be good. Wendy Moffat thinks the center of his novels is “the search of each person for an honest connection with another human being.” What choices unlikely characters for heroes and heroines make.

So I’ve distracted myself and I hope you too, gentle readers. I had put in for a summer course, something I was going to call

The Bloomsbury Novel:

This course will examine a wide range of novels & art covered by the term Bloomsbury through three texts. We will read E.M. Forster’s Howards End, Virginia Woolf’s Jacob’s Room, and Vita Sackville-West’s All Passion Spent. None are long, one very short. Bloomsbury novels are recognizable as written by people who belonged to this amorphous early 20th century creative group, or were printed at the Hogarth Press, or belonged to Roger Fry’s artistic groups. Closer to the time if classes are not canceled for the spring, I may substitute Maurice for Howards End. This subgenre is splendidly interesting, many thoughtful highly original texts of powerful art. There are three superlative movies for Howards End & All Passion Spent, (and if the substitute is made) one for Maurice from which we will view clips.


Roger Fry, Brantome — I know it exists in color, and in black-and-white loses its radiance; nonetheless I like shades of grey, white, black in this image

They are also recognizable as having Forster’s creed in some way, as re-inventing genres (Andre Maurois’s Aspects of Biography). I may not get to teach this one because I am not sure I am fit for on-line remote access what’s called teaching — we do not know when this pandemic will lose its clutch on us.

All is uncertainty, and now we must live with uncertainty, I offer E.M. Forster’s essay to keep in mind.

Ellen

Read Full Post »


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).

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

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:

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


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

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

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!)

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

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

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »