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Archive for the ‘political novels/films’ Category


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.

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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 …

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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

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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

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

Lock him up!! cries Mrs Proudie about Mr Crawley (well, words to this effect) (Last Chronicle, Ch 18)

‘I think that a girl who is going to be married has the best of it.’
‘And I think a girl who isn’t going to be married has the best of it’
Emily Dunstable v Lily Dale (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 from her nursing care of these 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 on 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)

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. It’s his fault his family starves, live in embarrassingly worn-out clothes. Chapter 5 depicts the acute poverty of the Crawleys. Not one person challenges the establishment which has made such a position for a gentleman to work in. We discover any scene involving money is traumatic for Josiah Crawley and so he was vulnerable to those who might actually stole the check as a convenient cover for their own crimes. In this same book Trollope provides a set of characters who are much richer, & get away 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 reactively, 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)

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 …. ), and simply slipped the bill into a folder of bills her husband was intent on giving Mr Crawley as charity. (To be fair, she was not 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 (for Crawley is a merciless bully over his wife) POV.

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’s 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 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 suffciently remunerated position to Crawley. The Archdeacon still have to be pressured into it as Crawley is not the type the establishment will respect. Through Mr Harding Trollope also makes fun of the complicated explanatory plots of how things occur in a Wilkie Collins detection novel. We agreed 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 at some level. At least he cannot keep away unless threatened by marriage.

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 a story is merely glamorous titillating sexy silliness. This is represented by having Dalryple tear his work, showing how little he thinks of it.


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

In both cases — the height of cruel bullying and punitive values in Mrs Proudie is matched by the persuasive brilliance of the depiction of the complete collapse of her hold on her unfortunate and her subsequent death (what has she to live for if she cannot inflict her power through pain on other people — She is the Trump of the book insofar as there is one); the distastefulness and egregious stigmatizing of the London women matched by the depiction of real business dealings, 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 mystery thrillers and fascistic fantasy action-adventure movies.

There is also a somewhat obsolete (not wholly 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) perhaps cloying story in the novel brought into the more usual Trollope norms and materials we can find understandable from a perspective of individual liberty and humanity (I’ll call this secular humanism). The story of Major Grantly’s love and wooing of Grace Crawley; their engagement and marriage.  The theme covers 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, Josiah’s daughter, the lovely and highly educated (ever so genteel submissive) Grace.

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.

But I  think Trollope also 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.


“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, 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)

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

The book’s second traumatized character, Lily (pictured above, somehow appropriately from the back) 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 (plus experiencing like Crawley public humiliation) when 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, is within less than a week of the engagement cast aside for a 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. Crosbie, now a widower, of small but adequate means (his wife’s family having fleeced him) thinks to offer himself again.

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 and Lily’s pride is as strong as Crawley’s (and Major Grantly’s). Pride is important to people so they can have self-esteem.

In the later parts of the book, in London and Allington (Chs 45,52, 76), we trace Lily’s coming to choose an independent unmarried life. Except when she is directly confronted (it’s not Eames’s strategy to confront her with the demand she must marry to have a legitimate life), she will not admit her deepest impulse after her hurt is never to give any one (man or women) the opportunity to control and humiliate her again. She does say point blank to Emily Dunstable she thinks the better choice for all (it’s implied) is not to marry. Trollope 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.


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

Driven by Eames and then Mrs Arabin, she 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, I have gotten back the comment you should not be, something wrong with you, with sometimes the idea this person emerged stronger My father had an image he used of a piece of wood, strong fine piece of wood but then someone took a big axed and struck hard and the wood was never the same again, immeasurably shaky, un-sturdy, and to switch metaphors to people, the person needs to take care of him or herself in a different way. Keep herself intact. Modern readers could sympathize more were Lily to go traveling, write for the newspapers, have a vocation, but Trollope (profoundly against regarding women as having value individually, they must be wives & want to be mothers in his fiction to be seen as whole useful respectable) will not permit that.

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


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

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

Ellen

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

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

Prison Box: Inventory (Rome, February 1944)

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

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

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

pencil stubs
(carbon
tips spent)

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

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

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

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

Gentle readers and friends,

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

I cannot recommend them too strongly —

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


Primo Levi at the New York Public Library

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


Natalia Ginzburg

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


Peg Boyers reading her poetry

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


Carlo Levi

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

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


Movie poster

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

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


Giorgio Bassani

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

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

The Racial Laws

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

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

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

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


Felice Casorati — untitled

Ellen

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

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

Friends and readers.

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


From the film adaptation of Beloved — Oprah Winfrey as Sethe

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ellen

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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

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How she looks while you are watching.

Dear friends,

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

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

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

Here is a further explanation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A modern version: Tom Lehrer on the Periodic Table:

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

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A still from the first episode

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Ellen

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


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

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

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

Dear friends and readers,

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

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

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


Rupert Graves as Scudder upon first seeing Maurice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For Part Two:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ellen

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E.M Forster by Dora Carrington (1920)

A Syllabus

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

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

Description of Course

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Recommended biography, essays & by Forster:

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


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

Films:

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

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

Four blogs:

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

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

Dear friends,

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

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

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

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


An evening in the Pringles’ flat in Rumania ….

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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


The kitten in the TV series

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


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

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Olivia Manning (an appealing close-up)

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

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

The Cat

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

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

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

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

Ellen

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Porgy (Eric Owens) and Bess (Angel Blue)

Friends,

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

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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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


Bess and Porgy in a companionable moment

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

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

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

We wear the Mask

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

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

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

Sympathy

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

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

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

Ellen

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