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Archive for the ‘politics’ 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 …

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

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

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

Prison Box: Inventory (Rome, February 1944)

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

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

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

pencil stubs
(carbon
tips spent)

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

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

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

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

Gentle readers and friends,

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

I cannot recommend them too strongly —

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


Primo Levi at the New York Public Library

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


Natalia Ginzburg

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


Peg Boyers reading her poetry

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


Carlo Levi

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

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Movie poster

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

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


Giorgio Bassani

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

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

The Racial Laws

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

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

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

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


Felice Casorati — untitled

Ellen

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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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Fonny (James Stephen) and Tish (Kiki Layne) as we first see them walking together


Gradually appearing intertitle introducing the film

I wanted to write something for Martin Luther King day on the web itself. So I read most of Baldwin’s If Beale Street could Talk, and then rewrote a blog written about If Beale Street could talk mostly just as a movie and from commentary about the book: I was startled to find what a tender tone is suffused throughout the book because of the inner spirit of the narrator, Tish (Clementine is a give-away of sorts, a symbolic name). It is a sort of romance! But also a book much like The Bluest Eye (a Coming of Age for girls book), except (one could say) Bluest Eye is l’ecriture-femme, Beale Street from a more masculine point of view. My theme is the tragic waste of US American racism for all, the pity of it, the terror too.

Yesterday was Martin Luther King Day: here in Virginia finally some mild gun control legislation has been passed by a democratic house and governor, and the result has been a threatened violent riot in Charlottesville, Va., organized by white supremacist groups with credible evidence they mean to cause havoc and use their guns; they are misrepresenting the legislation which does not at all infringe on the right of legitimate gun ownership. This demonstration and its misrepresentation of the passed gun control law has been endorsed by Trump. Governor Northam called in the FBI to investigate and three people were arrested. The day chosen was naturally this one, our National Holiday for remembering Martin Luther King, who might have been the best president we ever had — if he had lived. Murdered at 37 (before 40 like Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and other black male leaders), MLK was responsible for a movement which culminated in the 1964 Civil Rights act, today partly gutted by the Supreme Court. The demonstration was not violent but was immense as was the state police presence; OTOH, something a sizable majority of Virginians support gun control, and the democrats won on the issue. It is hopeful that no violence occurred because it may be that if Trump loses the next election, riots on his behalf to keep him in the presidency will be prevented.

Friends and readers,

If Beale Street could talk, book and film, tell the same terrible tale we learn about in When They See Us. A system of incarceration whose structure and rules give African-Americans no hearing, only injustice and the felt hostility of blind chance & dependence on other vulnerable frightened people.

I began with the film, which I’ve wanted to watch for quite some time:  we are thrust into the story of two lovers walking down a paved alley in a park, and they vow love to one another, and determine they will tell their families, who, it seems, may not approve. Cut to Tish’s voice saying “I hope that nobody has ever had to look at anybody they love…through glass:” we now see her sitting in a prison visiting room on one side of a glass waiting for Fonny to be brought out to sit on the other side. They cannot touch one another, they cannot hear unless they pick up the phones attached to each side of the booth they share. We are puzzled for a long time: why is he in prison. He seems utterly upstanding, he makes little money as a sculptor, but he is the son of church-going people, not an alcoholic, not drinking, trying to get together money to bribe someone willing to rent to them. Much of the film is interwoven flashbacks and we see in one: someone finally offers them a concrete garage space that is described as a loft (so the man can charge more). Most of the time no one will rent to them.

Gradually the story unfolds bit-by-bit: flashbacks interwoven and a narrator’s voice to connect is the mode: so throughout with increasing poignancy we see their ecstatic first days and nights of love.  But then after he is jailed, she finds she is pregnant, then (something she dreads) she has to tell her family and then his without him, because he is in prison (still unexplained): her family accepts the baby and coming marriage:

His mother does not, nor his sisters who speak in ugly spiteful ways using church dogma as a cover.

More time goes by in the ongoing forward time narrative as Tish gets a job selling perfume (one she is told she should be grateful for as she is black), and then one night in a flashback while they are walking in the street we see how from out of nowhere Fonny was accused of raping a Puerto Rican woman, Victoria Rogers (Emily Rios), he never met and was nowhere near. They are told she singled Fonny out in a police-formed row of men; and are gradually led to a white lawyer (Finn Whittrock), well-meaning, who tells them the woman has fled to Puerto Rico. Fonny is beginning to become angry, frantic, violent, resentful, half-crazy in the bare cell room.

Then finally, either as flashback, just before or after, we see a brief encounter between Fonny and a sly angry-looking, resentful white police officer whose name we learn is Bell (Ed Skrein) grows livid when after he accuses Fonny of stealing, the store owner vindicates Fonny. Fonny himself is proud, often hot-tempered and has to be controlled by Tish. Bell warns Fonny he will get back. Early on Tish remarks what happened was the result of Fonny’s strong pride. Yes and it took just one resentful white man.


The police officer, seen only once, his sneer hardly has time to register

And all came clear to me. This white officer incensed at Fonny has lied, pressured the woman into accusing him, probably helped her to flee. There is no way Fonny can clear himself of this crime unless the Puerto Rican woman comes back to refute her testimony.

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The movie seemed to me and now I know is a deeply felt adaptation of a novel by Baldwin, both of which (book and movie) dramatize as the on-going story the need African-American people have of one another. Again we see the two family groups early on, and Fonny’s mother and sisters are incensed, cruel and corrosive in what they say. After Fonny is imprisoned, the two fathers getting together to steal little-by-little to get up the money for Sharon Rivers, Trish’s mother (Regina King) to go to Puerto Rico to speak to the woman.

Mrs Rivers is so brave, ever changing her clothes, her wig, wanting to look presentable, right somehow, so intense, worried, tight, hopeful still, goes and at first is rebuffed by the woman’s older male relative, but eventually he yields (perhaps a bribe) but then Victoria becomes hysterical and refuses to go back to withdraw her testimony. She asks Mrs Rogers if she has ever been raped. This is the desolate climax of the film.


Mrs Rivers trying to appeal to Victoria


But Victoria is herself walled in by her own anger, resentment hopeless impoverishment

When it’s clear they can’t count on any evidence in their favor except there is no evidence but the identification by a woman who won’t come to the court, at first the lawyer holds out, but we see the case is going nowhere, there is no trial set.  Tish gives birth to her baby; fast forward and Tish tells us that he plea bargained and it’s clear they are waiting for the years of prison to go by as they meet regularly in a freer prison room for visitors. His son is a small child and they try to act as a family during the time they have together. Eat, play a board game, tell each other how the week has been. This is how the  film ends; the family in a visiting room in a prison, with the wife’s salary and will power holding them together.

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I now got hold of and read the book, before rewriting the original blog — as well as returning to David Leeming’s commentary and quotation of Baldwin in his James Baldwin: A Biography, and Joyce Carol Oates’s review for the New York Times of the book and film before writing this blog.

Crucially, no one in the feature that came with the film never anywhere said that Fonny was framed; that he will spend years of his life behind bars helplessly. Not one person said it was the spite of a single police officer. I wanted to read the book to make sure (since in the film this is never made explicit) this a parable about how vulnerable black people are at any moment to be plunged into non-life, death in prison. Why keep silent? This is supposed to be Beale Street talking at last, telling. What is startling is how tender the tone of the novel when it comes to Fonny; the book is also a loving deeply sad romance, mourning how Fonny never had a chance.

It’s an instance of what we experience in When They See Us: it is the same story writ little from the point of view of the woman who loved the man. In the US if you are black and someone somewhere with some authority who is white can destroy you.

Baldwin emphasizes the story is a parable about “the black man’s bondage … everywhere; and “the emotional imprisonment of whites.” I again admit I didn’t see that much, only that the lawyer was as helpless as his client finally. In David Leeming’s biography, Baldwin says he also meant to show how isolated black are at the same time that they recognize they must be involved with one another, recognize their need of one another, share and bond experience in a way of imprisoned (if often invisible) life. The context is a “battle for integrity” in a world where the struggle to survive makes them have painfully to give integrity up — or compromise reality.

Joyce Carol Oates, like the people in the feature to the DVD, seems to want to make this an affirmative story about the endurance of African-American people helping one another Oates says it is a “traditional celebration of love:” and it is all she says, including a portrait of the white lawyer as sympathetic and doing his weak best.


Regina King as Sharon and Colman Domingo as Tish’s parents


The white lawyer

Her review doubts the wisdom of using Tish as a narrator (voice-over) retrospectively — there seems to me her doubt of this young girl having gravitas enough doubt about a woman’s gravity and seriousness, and a black woman. I admit Oates goes over and makes plain the horror at the center of this disaster, but did she have to say “so patiently,” of course the police officer is a villain (who has killed a 12 year old black boy some time ago), and to de-emphasize this seems racist to me.

Now I see that the film, through an integrated back-and-forth series of flashbacks tells the story of both Fonny and Tish since they were children bathing together, the stages of their earliest life in black-and-white photos. I thought of the third-century Greek romance, Daphnis and Chloe, the later 18th century Rouseauistic Paul and Virginia. We see his friendship with a man who gives evidence him (coerced); moments of Fonny doing sculpture, Tish selling things, coping with customers, the two of them begging a meal when they have no money, fixing their apartment, but I suggest a thread through the love affair is Tish’s mother’s support of them, of her; Tish’s sister gets the lawyer but Tish’s mother helps her to give birth and bathe the baby first. And especially Tish coping from pregnancy to still waiting.


Tish giving birth with her mother’s help


Bathing the baby

The film rightly was nominated for many awards; it should have won more. At least Regina King won for Best Supporting Actress.

It’s a beautiful book and wish I had known about it before; I had placed a version of this on my Reveries under the Sign of Austen blog because the narrated voice and point of view is that if the young woman and her mother. It has many scenes of intimate domestic life: the kinds of furniture black people can afford; Fonny and Tish doing all sorts of things in their lives: he with friends, she in the subway. The book is a heroine’s text. A poignant romance where courage is holding out (like Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Bookshop). It is a woman’s film using the characteristics of women’s art to powerful effect.


An iconic scene from their beginning love story

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But today I know it belongs on my general blog and I have moved it here, and widened my purview in a coda where I offer my first response to Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, which I began reading for the first time yesterday.

What a masterpiece of a first book. I recommend it and her Beloved on this day. The Bluest Eye is quiet, unassuming, the story of an American black family from the point of view of one of the younger daughter/sisters, Claudia. It brings home to me what a tragedy it is that working class white and black people in the US do not realize how much we have in common. As I read although my family did not have quite these hideous experiences (the house is burnt down – something white people did regularly and got away with until the last part of the 20th century) many of the desolating exclusionary experiences her family members know we knew. The attitudes of mind remind me of what we knew. So much in common and denied because of the use of “middle class” which skews whom one identifies with and enables people to ignore their real circumstances, what are their real expectations/hopes. Howard Zinn in his History of the People of the US shows that from the very beginning of the US state, the upper classes have been concerned to keep better off and poor whites from identifying with Native and African-Americans.

The story of the girl being given a white doll and destroying it bit by bit reminded me of Maggie Tulliver in Eliot’s Mill on the Floss. How Maggie hated that doll too and took it up to the attic to abuse it. I didn’t hate my dolls but an ugly story occurred around one, after which I destroyed it and had no more dolls but one Ginny (age 11) and tired of her soon with her fancy wardrobe &c The title comes from a little girl in the book, Pecola, who Claudia’s mother is kind enough to take in (her family has been smashed) and who tells her new friends, Claudia and her sister, Frieda, she longs for a blue eye, though all her features are African. Claudia is out of sympathy with this, thus producing an alienated perspective within an implicitly alienated earnest one.

The book has several of the classic incidents of a mature young girl’s novel, for example, when Pecola menstruates for the first time, is very frightened and how she is treated. By the way none of these occur in Little Women (another is sexual harassment, the closest Alcott gets to this is Meg Goes to Vanity Fair when Meg allows her hostess to sexualize her dress.) My last image for this blog is Emily Watson playing Maggie Tulliver in a 1997 BBC Mill on the Floss; she has been the best Marmee thus far too (in the 2017/8 BBC 3 part Little Women). When I got to the end of the book I was so angry, I threw it across the room and then through it out. The book ended with her forgiveness of a brother who had destroyed her life, her senseless death trying to rescue him.

We are reading these two novels by Morrison now on WomenWriters@groups.io; the last two months we read Simone de Beauvoir’s Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter: she mentions only three girls’ books but two are Little Women and Mill on the Floss — she identified with Jo and Maggie. Well Claudia and Pecola and Clementine (Tish) are three more such heroines in the same vein ….

For Martin Luther King day a great powerful African-American literature and its close parallels with great powerful European-American literature by women — novels of girls growing up and the choices inflicted on them …

Ellen

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The Upstairs set come out to greet the king and queen


The Downstairs set toast the king and queen (Downton Abbey, the film, 2019)

Friends and readers,

The old magic, the trick played on us by Julian Fellowes and his teams of people — for those susceptible to it — does not begin until at least one-third and maybe closer to half the way through. Anibundel over on NBC has argued that this cinema continuation carries on one important characteristic of the 5 year series at its best: nothing much or nothing overt happens to change anything in the visible life of these sets of people very much. I agree with her that the first season was particularly strong because more or less this formula was kept to. A crippled man arrives to become Lord Grantham’s butler (Brendan Coyle as Mr Bates), and after much stigmatizing and complaints, Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonnville) keeps him on, because “it’s just not right” to fire him. An old suitor of Mrs Hughes (Phyllis Logan) turns up and asks her to go to a fair because at long last free he wants to propose marriage, and after much heart-wrenching, she decides to stay where she is. Lady Mary, the princess of the family, eldest lovely virgin daughter (Michelle Dockery) is (arguably) raped and the cad (Theo James who blackmailed the homosexual butler, Barrow, Robert James-Collier, to sneak him in as a surprise attack) dies during the fuck! But (awkwardly, with difficulty, comically) the corpse is carried back and there is no scandal at all!

But I want to qualify the implications here. The trick of the thing is to present a character in the throes of some inner crisis that matters to him or her and dramatize how some decision no one but the character and his or her closest intimates see, affects in some central way the rest of the emotional temperature or outlook of that character, the decisions he or she make afterwards, for the rest of their lives. This trick is most effective when it’s played out with the Downstairs people who are more vulnerable to deep hurt or an ejection (getting “sacked”) from the apparent social safety of the orderly household. Add to this what you find in many serial dramas, strong emotionalism, the stance that most people behave in warm and even caring ways to one another, at least emotionally. This does not distinguish Downton Abbey from other serial dramas, but Julian Fellowes is good at making this kind of thing believable. In life most people we meet behave anywhere from indifferently or with a hard edge. An adult might be extra benign to a child. I feel this sentimentalism is central to why people watch what are called realistic (naturalistic) domestic drama movies.

As everyone knows who has paid the slightest attention to the advertisements what happens at Downton is George V (Simon Jones) and Queen Mary (Geraldine James) invite themselves for a one-night stay at Downton while they are traveling through Yorkshire and this creates an nearly traumatic emotional reaction as everyone in the household gear up to present an appearance of high excellence and welcome. As late as one-third or later the way through it becomes apparent the exclusionary snobbish tactics of the royal household decree that its staff replace any local staff. It also sets up a confrontation between the queen’s lady-companion, Lady Maud Bagshaw (Imelda Staunton) and the Dowager Duchess Violet (Maggie Smith) who are related kin but have been estranged for years; it is rumored she is determined to leave her fortune elsewhere than Lord Grantham. Gradually this visit, these two social dramas ripple outward to affect the inner lives of a number of vulnerable characters and at least momentarily affect the self-esteem and comfort of everyone else.


Imelda Staunton as Lady Maud Bagshaw (a name from Trollope)

The problem the movie has is these things take time, and when you have say anywhere from 8 to 10 episodes (plus Christmas specials) you have the requisite time; so it’s in the third episode of the first season that Mr Bates throws away the torture instrument he has put on his leg to make his disability less apparent. We have learned to feel for him for two episodes before this. Plus since Julian Fellowes has been determined to present the world order as ultimately benign, the last we saw of everyone they were apparently set for life in good and fulfilling circumstances. This was not so to begin with, nor did the shape of the series emerge as benign providential patterning until the fourth season when the series began to have problems finding crucial traumas and had to introduce new characters and put old ones through twists and turns of misery (especially Mr Bates and Anna as his wife, aka Brendon Coyle and Joanne Froggart).

So, Fellowes strains to invent inner troubles that matter. He has a couple and adds some: Thomas Barrow is still a vulnerable homosexual man; Daisy (Sophie McShea) has not agreed to set a marriage date with a footman, Andy (Michael C. Fox); Tom Bransome is still not trusted as an ex-chauffeur radical Irishman; and over the course of the couple of hours we discover Lady Maud is trying to leave her estate to her illegitimate daughter disguised as lady’s maid, Lucy Smith (Tuppence Middleton).


Anna and Mr Bates — brief scene showing her telling her idea to him and his loving her for it

What’s more: several favorite characters and a couple of new ones become powerful linchpins in securing respect and power for one another. It’s Anna Bates who seems to think up the plot that puts the royal staff out of commission (drugged, locked in rooms, hoaxed away) and recognizes the queen’s lady is a thief; Bransome saves the king’s life and falls in love with Lucy Smith; she likewise and they are last seen dancing a ballroom dance on the terrace in a lovely landscape (since she is not yet acceptable to the Upstairs people in the ballroom). Daisy leads Mrs Patmore (Leslie Nichol) for once to kindly lie to the grocer and accept an order of food she thinks they will not need.


Allen Leech as Thomas Bransome (working with Lady Mary again)

It does not all work: You would think Bransome was trusted by this time and a few others seem a stretch: Lady Edith (Laura Carmichael) is still feeling undervalued and left alone; the rivalry of the Dowager and Isobel, Lady Merton (Penelope Wilton) has become tiresome; their quips no longer amuse. Lady Mary is still unsure she doesn’t want to disburden herself of Downton. Mr Carson (Jim Carter) is still absurdly proud and wants to work as a butler; Moseley (Kevin Doyle) makes a fatuous worshipper of himself. But Fellowes does have a gift for endowing his characters with good feelings and kindliness towards one another, and those endangered in some way, yearning for some kind of companionship, security achieve this by film’s end.

I’m saying I don’t think the movie quite succeeds. Those who like it are giving it slack — extra patience like you would an old friend.

Some will say this is not what draws people to this series. It’s the super-rich glamour of the house, the grounds, the gorgeous clothes, the leisured existences, the evocative music, the nostalgic escape into a world that never was — the servants were not treated in the way this series dramatizes; it omits 9/10s of the population of England. On top of that, the whole idea this order was a non-violent one is ludicrous. I can’t deny that might be why many people watched the TV series year after year and are making the Downton matter once again a big box-office money-maker. Who does not enjoy seeing a ball? I do. I love the beautiful photographed landscapes. There is the reiterated idea that these super-rich privileged people lead troubled lives themselves — so let’s not envy Princess Mary (Kate Phillips) as she tries to have a life with some emotional satisfaction with a cold mean man. (As if this were anything like the desperate needs and anguished conditions of ordinary people everywhere.)


Princess Mary (Kate Phillips who most of the time ends up dead or otherwise pulverized — as in Davies’ War and Peace …)

To that I can only say, I am not fooled, this kind of supposed comfort (?) is not for me. The thought we are offered at the end that the building, Downton Abbey, and this way of life will last another 100 years and more does not make me happy. It’s sad to think that so many will remain without and desperate so that the money may be gathered by this privileged class to live this way. I suggest that there are many like myself — since this trick so in evidence (for at least three years of TV time) is at the core of the plot-design once again. I know I would be an utter outsider and long ago (say the 2nd season) been ejected as unfit, perhaps scapegoated as a seduced woman. I don’t belong in this series anywhere — the closest I come is to Anna as she was presented in the first couple of seasons. Even then she is such a “good” girl, so filled with respect for the order that keeps her at work long hours most of her life — this is wholly anathema to my finding something to live for in my hours of existence as I recall them.

Yet I found tears coming to my eyes when a character is once again rescued from the possible exposure and punishment — Barrow is lured into going to a homosexual club, something very new, taken in to jail by a police raid but then released on the say-so of one of the king’s footmen, himself homosexual. I wish there had been more of the inner life of Anna and Bates (my favorites) but it’s clear their lives are all content, comfortable, good — as are those of Mrs Hughes (now Elsie to Mr Carson) and Mr Carson (Charlie to her) and others. I am fond enough of them all to feel good seeing them surviving still — like Miss Baxter (Raquel Cassidy) still waiting to marry Moseley.


Moseley and Baxter — behind the scenes (promotional) hsppy moment

I am not dead or broke yet myself. The magic is the trick of involving you, getting you to believe and identify.


Thomas finds a friend and ally, the king’s footman, Richard Ellis (Max Brown)

If you can respond to these carefully studied characters presented with tact and mostly compassion, and most of all, if you watched and liked the TV series for that first and second (occurring during WW1) seasons, here it is back again, trying to repeat what it managed in the first season especially. There is something for everyone, some qualification to enable us to identify. I agree with Anibundel the sweetest story is of that Barrow at long last finding a world forming he can join, and that the charm the wanting to hold onto this world is it feels like a blessed escape.  Quiet lives. So if you want a happy ending, yes, that’s there, but if you are into quiet melancholy, it’s here too.


Lady Mary at the opening of the film, tough lady left in charge at the end

And, for those who would find some satisfaction in thinking this meretricious stuff will go away for good after this, in the last scene Violet tells Lady Mary that she has been diagnosed with a mortal illness and will be gone from from the scene before long. It is a moving moment as she turns the Abbey over to Lady Mary as her replacement. One thing I liked across the series (and think it’s what makes it so appealing to women) is that we have strong women characters through out; it’s the woman’s anguish and loss and power that is often focused most upon. And so it is in this installment.

Ellen

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Phineas Finn (Donal McCann) being introduced to the important politicians in Parliament with Lady Laura Standish (Anna Massey) by his side (Pallisers 3:6)


Phineas and Mrs Bunce (Brenda Cowling) looking over his clothes in his battered suitcase to make sure he is presentable

A Syllabus

Online at: https://ellenandjim.wordpress.com/2019/09/10/a-fall-syllabus-for-reading-anthony-trollopes-phineas-finn-or-palliser-2-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,
Sept 23 to Nov 25
4801 Massachusetts Avenue, Washington, D.C. 20016
Dr Ellen Moody


John Everett Millais, “‘I wish to regard you as a dear friend, — both of my own and of my husband””, Phineas and Lady Laura Kennedy (original illustration for Phineas Finn)


Phineas making friends with the top politicians at Loughlinter, including Mr Monk (Bryan Pringle) and Plantagenet Palliser (Philip Latham) and Lady Laura in the background (Pallisers 4:7)

Description of Course

We continue our journey through Trollope’s 6 Palliser novels over several terms. The 2nd Palliser differs from the 1st in making central stories from how politics works from inside Parliamentary circles to outside in society central. Phineas Finn dramatizes fights over crucial transformations in law & electorate politics that occurred in the mid-19th century UK, and dramatizes how a young man can make his way rising in a career as a politician through his associates, the rotten borough system, and taking the party positions. Also how he can fall. It is also about the frustration of a woman who wanted a career through marriage, Lady Laura Kennedy. The book also belongs to Trollope’s Anglo-Irish fiction since it adds to the Pallisers‘ recurring characters, & English landscapes, Ireland as a place, Irish characters & issues. Trollope also examines sexual and marital conflicts with extraordinary psychological portraiture in socially complex situations. There is no need to have read CYFH?

Required Text:

Anthony Trollope, Phineas Finn, ed., introd., notes Simon Dentith New York: Oxford UP, 2011.
There are two (!) relatively inexpensive MP3s of Phineas Finn, one read aloud wonderfully well by Simon Vance (aka Robert Whitfield, Blackstone); and the other read even more brilliantly by Timothy West (Audiobooks). I’m listening to West and it would be fine if people wanted to listen to Vance or West (who is my favorite reader of Trollope).

Format: The class will be a mix of informal lecture and group discussion.

Sept 23: 1st week: Introduction: Trollope’s life and career; male and female careers. Read for coming week, PF, Chapters 1-9

Sept 30: 2nd: Phineas Finn. Read for next week PF, Chapter 10-18. The situation of an Irishman, Victorian Ireland; the political situation in the 1860 generally.

Oct 7: 3rd: Phineas Finn. Read for next week, PF, Chapters 19-27. Lady Laura’s plight. Abigail Mann, “Love in the time of Liberalism: Phineas Finn, Divided Affections and Liberal Citizenship,” Victorians: A Journal of Culture and Literature, 127 (2015): 90-104

Oct 14: 4th: Phineas Finn. Read for next week, PF, Chapters 28-36. Ramona L. Denton “‘That cage’ of Feminity: Trollope’s Lady Laura,” South Atlantic, 45 (1980):1-10. Henry N. Rogers, “‘I know why you have come:’ The art of Madame Max,” Philological Review, 33 (Fall 2007):37-50

Oct 21: 5th: Phineas Finn. Read for next week, PF, Chapters 37-45. In class first set of clips from the Pallisers.

Oct 28: 6th: Phineas Finn. Read for next week, PF, Chapters 46-54.  Read over the next two weeks Owen Dudley Edwards, “Anthony Trollope, the Irish Writer” Nineteenth Century Fiction 38:1 (1983):1-42.

Nov 4: 7th: Phineas Finn. Read for next week, PF, Chapters 55-63.  Concluding intrigues: Pallisers emerge again. Ireland.

Nov 11: 8th: Phineas Finn. Read for next week, PF, Chapters 64-72.  John Graves, “Phineas Finn and Phineas Redux: One Novel or Two,”  Trollopiana, Fall 2019: 12-23.

Nov 18: 9th: Phineas Finn. Read for next week, PF, Chapters 73-76.  Seeing whole cycle of novels; anticipating Eustace Diamonds

Nov 25: 10th:  Second set of clips from Pallisers. La commedia e finita?


Phineas aggressively courting Violet Effingham (Mel Martin) at Loughlinter (Pallisers 5:9)


Phineas duelling with Lord Chiltern (John Hallam) over Violet on the sands of Blankenberg (Pallisers 5:10)

Suggested supplementary reading & film for Trollope and Phineas Finn

Edwards, Owen Dudley. “Anthony Trollope, the Irish Writer,” Nineteenth Century Fiction, 38 (1983):1-42.
Glendinning, Victoria. Anthony Trollope. NY: Knopf, 1993. Lively and filled to the brim with a sense of Trollope’s life.
Godfrey, Emelyne. Masculinity, Crime and Self-Defence in Victorian Literature. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013.
Halperin, John. Trollope & Politics: A study of the Pallisers and Others. University of So. California, 1977. Informative invigorating study.
MacDonald, Susan Peck. Anthony Trollope. Boston: Twayne, 1987. Excellent concise study of the man and his novels.
McCourt, John. Writing the Frontier: Anthony Trollope between Britain and Ireland. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2015.
Mill, John Stuart.  The Subjection of Women. Broadview Press, 2000. Online at: https://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/m/mill/john_stuart/m645s/
Nardin, Jane. He Knew She Was Right: The Independent woman in the Novels of Anthony Trollope. Carbondale: So. Illinois UP, 1989. Balanced, and insightful.
Pallisers. Dir. Hugh David, Ronald Wilson. Screenplay by Simon Raven. Perf: Susan Hampshire, Philip Latham, Donal McCann, Barbara Murray, Anna Massey and Donald Pickering (among others). BBC, 1974, DVD. Available in a newly digitalized version.

The interlocking stories and characters of the Phineas Finn begins at the close of Can You Forgive Her?. In Simon Raven’s TV adaptation, the story of Lady Glencora and Plantagenet Palliser, and Madame Max and The Duke of Omnium are made prominent throughout; Lord Fawn is brought out more too. In Trollope’s book, the Pallisers are kept in the background and Madame Max and the Duke only emerge at the end of Phineas Finn; the emphasis is the story of Phineas and Lady Laura Kennedy. A very much abbreviated version of the Palliser series is on YouTube. Not recommended because too much is cut.

Pateman, Carole. The Sexual Contract. Stanford University Press, 1988.
Scharnhorst, Gary. Kate Field: The Many Lives of a Nineteenth Century American Journalist. Syracuse University Press, 2008. My blog: https://reveriesunderthesignofausten.wordpress.com/2010/02/22/kate-field-a-great-important-american-woman-journalist-and-anthony-trollopes-love/
Skilton, David. Anthony Trollope and his Contemporaries. London: Macmillan, 1996.
Snow, C. P. Trollope: An Illustrated Biography. NY: New Amsterdam, 1975. A pleasure to read.
Terry, R. C. Anthony Trollope: The Artist in Hiding. New Jersey: Rowman and Littlefield, 1977. About how artful the novels are.
Wall, Stephen. Trollope: Living with Characters. NY: Holt, 1988.
Trollope, Anthony. An Autobiography, edd. Michael Sadleir and Frederick Page, introd and notes PD Edwards. NY: Oxford paperback, 1980. Found online at University of Adelaide.


Street protests on behalf of the secret ballot (Pallisers 4:8)


Mr Quintus Slide (Clifford Rose), the newspaper man who becomes Phineas’s enemy (Pallisers 5:10)

Three good general books on the era:

A.N. Wilson, The Victorians. Entertaining, a bit dense, lots of little biographies.
Susie Steinbach, Understanding The Victorians: Culture and Society in 19th century Britain. She may look less entertaining but she writes clearly and reads easily — and about larger issues from an angle that enables the reader to see the larger political struggles in terms of the daily lives, experiences, and attitudes of ordinary Victorians, and thus manages to get at the important difficult terrain of inward mentalities and the actual experience of particular milieus in the Victorian era.
Simon Heffner’s High Minds: The Victorians and the Birth of Modern Britain. He is a conservative paternalist Tory writer for the Spectator, Telegraph, New Statesman, sometimes the Guardian and his book, fat as it is, gives real insight into what is commonly thought of as politics. A lot about parliament and progressive legislation and how these laws came about. A section on the Great Exhibition.


Lawrence’s sister, Miss Aspasia Fitzgibbon (Rosalind Knight) pays Phineas’s debts to Mr Clarkson (Sidney Bromley) (Pallisers 5:9)


Phineas and Mary Flood Jones (Maire Ni Ghrainne) in Ireland again (Pallisers 6:11)

Ellen

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Cap Blanc Nez, looking down — the areas of the cliffs takes about 20 minutes by boat


The book

“I am at home everywhere, and nowhere. I am never a stranger and I never quite belong.” — George Simenon

“As a woman I have no country. As a woman I want no country. As a woman, my country is the whole world.” — Virginia Woolf

Friends and readers,

I’m back from a trip I and my two daughters, took to the shores and town of Calais, France. We had a good time in the bnb, on the beach, relaxing and exploring the immediate environment around the ancient and now modern town of Calais (deep harbor, channel port on the Atlantic), and for others traveling as far as Paris and London, and then rather closer, Dunkirk, Lille, and the two cliffs across the way from Dover. I wrote about the trip on my Under the Sign of Sylvia II autobiographical blog.


The French coast line of cliffs seen from a distance

We also read, and, among other books, Michel Agier and his team’s important The Jungle: Calais’s Camps & Migrants. There is nothing like comparison and contrast to teach us, and the history of what happened in Calais, from 1997 or so, when the British closed its borders to all but a thin trickle of migrants, until October 2016, when all the townships and encampments which had gradually developed along the northern coast of France were evacuated, and all their structures destroyed, will teach us how such a situation comes about, and what are the results of humanitarian intervention, the results of brutal obduracy and intrusion (it seems the police engage in this continually, and no one including Agier is empowered to stop them) Anyone concerned over what has been happened at the US Mexican-southwest border, wanting to understand how the situation there has come about, and what can be done in humanitarian ways (as opposed to the depraved cruelty of the US ICE agency), and what are the mixed reactions of local populations, when their organizations are not ceaselessly destroyed, the people put in prison (for say, leaving migrants plastic large jars of water).


Children being moved

The framework to keep in mind is that most borders are inventions of local gov’ts seeking to control the mobility, kinds of inhabitants, and social and economic realities of the populations under their control. Once a territory is delimited, and the conditions on the ground are such that cause displacement (war, famine, epidemic disease, poverty), large numbers of people seek to cross the borders or move about globally to protect and build prosperous (or at any rate safe) lives. Special recognized spaces (or hidden or somehow marginalized ones) spring up; exceptions from definitions of belonging (as citizenship) are used by authorities controlling law and military; and exclusions from the normal customs of life by the local population are used to frighten and drive away the immigrants. A transformation, usually urbanization, and politicization goes on within the migrant communities once they begin to thrive. As a whole, given different groups living in close proximity, they might fight or cooperate with one another in a common world, or they struggle for space, movement, rights from the authorities who might and often do treat them with violence or unjustly — though not always.

In northern France (and elsewhere or other than the US), the existence of many organizations charity, philanthropic, humanitarian, doctors, lawyers, set up precisely to help refuges, enabled cultural worlds to emerge, while at the same time xenophobic, genuinely uncomfortable and anxious local people (about businesses, schools, money, property) might be ratcheted up to become angry and want to rid themselves of the burden, and work suddenly to demolish, deport, inflict suffering on the migrants and do all they can to prevent them moving further or assimilating.


One of the emigrant camps seen from a distance

This is a larger generalized picture which in Northern France was particularized by the local culture and the cultures from which the fleeing people were come: middle eastern mostly, Syria, Afghanistan, the Kurds, peoples from the horn of Africa; and the cultures of the people who tried to help or drive them away. Agier, Yasmine Bouagga Mael Galisson, Cyrille Hanappe, Matilde Pette, and Philippe Wannesson all show a crisis and change of attitude is occurring which makes for sudden mobility, and then, depending on conditions, useful behavior that make for solidarities, accommodate world-wide movements, or criminal, violent, and desperately exploitative behavior. It seems the latter was rare; such fights as occurred were nationalistic, ethnic, religious in origin. A logic of harassment and dissuasion went on continually, and the refuges were willing to put up with bad conditions because they wanted to be allowed in, to find aslyum; they did not want to be abruptly returned from where they had fled. As border are externalized, the immigrants pile up, crowd into smaller spaces, live as blocks of people. It seems the preponderance of the migrants were men; there was one encampment which was mostly women and children (Norrent-Fontes). In places where women predominated, few were seen outside the tents or houses as a regular thing. In all places the divisions of space within the houses resembled the divisions of space in the houses from the places these people had grown up and lived in.

The contrast with the American situation is once the borders were closed, no philanthropy or even knowledge of who these migrants are was allowed, not dissuasion but cruelty, humiliation in detention, and forced deportation were the weapons used against these people. If you try to help them, you can be put in prison or shot. No social organizations have been allowed in to see the people.


Room used for religious worship, a church

The first part of the book tells of how the situations were initiated (wars, closing of borders), and specific organizations, countries, NGOs and agencies involved — as well as volunteers. Always there are volunteers. The second part tells of how the migrants spread from Sangatte to Calais, and how the term jungle(s) emerged. Maps of their places and detailed descriptions of the living conditions, and places that were built are here, as in restaurants, schools, hospitals, family and ethnic enclaves. There were “no man’s lands,” and some people lived outside the commonality. Part 3 is sociological, part 4 anthropological. What was heartening was the variety of political expression, types of action, emergence of sub-communities. Spokespeople are identified, and they mobilized themselves or were mobilized by the outside organizations and volunteers. Attempts were continually made to stop disease spreading (showers provided, food, trade in clothing).

Through it all, though, there is push-back, and right-wing larger political and economic groups, always with the police on their side (apparently ever using violence) are succeeding in destroying now this encampment, now that. At the borders everything is being done to stop the continual efforts of individuals and groups to cross illegally and legally. Chapter 5 tells of the destruction, and dispersal of the people, and how some tried to return. Again as opposed to the US behavior, gov’ts with histories of socialism and liberal democracy attempted to move people in groups to where they could assimilate, and gov’ts which represented conservative and right-wing groups, deported, imprisoned (prisons take a variety of forms) but also dispersed people. People were dumped on roads and into places with no help; when all crowded together, there was serious dysfunction.


Push-back

The authors deny that nothing is left. Memories of what happened are everywhere if not openly discussed in anything like explicit or truly neutral terms. The world is turning global because of the modes of transportation available, supranational and yet the old nationalisms are what are used to define and shape and control what is going on. If you become stateless, you are highly vulnerable. All over the world today we find camps, encampments, refugees.

The lessons for the refugee, according to Agier, is that it is possible (maybe not in the ferocious US southern border, and countries run by violent dictators, which use fascist techniques of putting huge numbers of people in isolated places, or simply massacre everyone they can) to inhabit sites. You must appropriate singly and collectively and that produces an informal and egalitarian (in its way) community. They must try to practice coexistence, and collaboration (Local networks), and form solidarities across countries as well as work with the organizations who come to help. A common world which politicizes itself (holding up posters, shouting slogans, demanding human rights) and reaches out to lawyers and the govt’s they find themselves living next to or among. Interlocutors are needed. The emergence of a common world, commonalty, a sort of commons with the different groups policing themselves (according to a “good code”) is ever precarious, with a conflict of meanings in different situations playing out.


Night-time

Some of the particulars are fascinating. Access to space and privacy is at a premium. A housing market with huts for sale spring up. Access to places could be restricted by an entrance fee. There was lots of waiting time — these were jobless people who had to line up for food, documents, shower tickets. Children were put into schools, there was entertainment in the form of team sports; British theater groups came over. Religion is show to give form and structure to daily lives. The activity of trying to cross the borders and move on also gave a rhythm to daily life. It was an unstable society of shifting identities, there were rapes, assaults, murders, destitution, and prostitution by men as well as women of themselves for food, money, shelter. But at the height of the numbers and active volunteer organizations and NGOS, pervasive attempts were made to help children and minors and other vulnerable people, to set them aside, and provide more individual attention and help.


Potted flowers for a garden

Last month I read Simone Weil’s The Need for Roots where her second section on Roots and Nationhood is about a key political issue today: how geographical boundaries when reinforced by national gov’ts become people’s identity and an excuse to exclude and despise people outside those boundaries as different and inferior. She explains or gives a history of how money and the state came to replace much more natural attachments: local, and now the familial is a desperate resort. Nation replaced religion which was seen to be powerless to help you – only controlled you – for African-Americans it was the one place to turn to. She gives history of industrialization as a building of prisons (factories) with severe limits on people desperate for a means of survival – by money. Families break up and shame is used to silence people. Taxes are a totally arbitrary imposition by one of these totalitarian nation-state gov’ts – or groups of people sometime headed by a king. People learned to hate the state but then in an odd inversion worship the very thing in concrete forms (the country) that they hate in people forms (bureaucrats) because they are deprived by people who manipulate these gov’ts for sinister ends … See my previous blog on the exhibit about global displacement over the centuries in the Phillips Collection: The Warmth of the Sun.


Shopping market

Down with fences! In Peter Linebaugh’s book, Red Round Globe Hot Burning, on Colonel Edward Despard, he writes an introduction showing a global resistance to enclosures has been going on for centuries: across land, sea, against prisons. We have ever needed to fight the repressive apparatuses of the ruling class of whatever age. We need to embrace common right and share the world together. The amount of people Trump has managed to block up if dispersed could be easily fitted into US society; had he not illegally stopped people from obtaining asylum, had he allowed the slow movement of peoples north for jobs; they would be no harm done and much good.

They told me that I had five senses to inclose me up,
And they inclos’d my infinite brain into a narrow circle,
And sunk my heart into an Abyss, a red round globe hot burning
Till all from life I was obliterated and erased.
— Wm Blake


A group of volunteers

Ellen

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Actor in British soldier costume, from Vertigo Sea


Griselda San Martin, The Wall

Friends and readers,

From my house in Alexandria (just outside Old Town) it takes an hour and one half to get to the Phillips Collection in Northwest Washington (a block away from Dupont Circle). My little mildly difficult trek (there is no Metro train stop at King Street, my “natural station” so either I take two buses and walk or a cab — guess which I chose?) was a comfortable secure instant compared to the journeys I witnessed records in all sorts of forms of many different emigrations, migrations by bodies of people and individuals from one part of the earth to another. Do not miss The Warmth of Other Suns — it will make you think of any journeys towards a new identity you have taken yourself. Here are two of mine:

On September 6, 1969 I traveled back to the UK from NYC to join Jim after I had gone home a month before, thinking I might never see him again. I came by car, plane, train, traveling from 9 one evening to 6 the following evening. I had telegrammed him once, we had spoken on the phone once (calling long distance was not easy to Leeds); we had forgotten to make a plan how or where to meet.  And yet there he was, at that train station, on the platform, waiting for me. He had in hand a document signed by his parents giving us permission to marry before October 3rd, for that was his 21st birthday. We set the bans the next day and were married a month later, October 6, 1969, at Leeds Registry Office at 1:30 in the afternoon. It took 5 minutes. I had a VISA whose validity was fast vanishing because it was a student Visa only good to the end of that September. So I was an illegal immigrant for more than a week. I became legal by the simple expedient (at the time) of marrying him; several weeks after the ceremony I had to go to the Leeds Police Station to be finger-printed, passport in hand, and was given temporary papers to stay and to work; and a couple of months after that, I got a document saying “all restrictions were lifted” and I was a British subject. I wonder what would happen to me today? I am white (in case you didn’t know), a native-born American citizen, was at the time nearly 23, with my divorce papers in hand (I had been divorced April 1967 in Spanish at a Juarez, Mexico court). Come to think of it both of us needed documents to do what we wanted to do.

A year and one half later I made the same trip in the other direction, with Jim this time, & after he had secured a green card & full permission to live as a resident in the USA. I had worked as a secretary, personal assistant for John Waddington (game and toy and package manufacturing company). For this green card, we needed more documents, and had taken at least two trips from Leeds to London, coped with much mail & document filling out; & my father had written a six-page document outlining his assets to assure the US gov’t Jim would not be a ward on the state. We had several suitcases, one vacuum cleaner, and the trip took two days: train from Leeds on day one, train to London airport, plane, car to my parents’ apartment on day two. I had thought I would stay in England, become English, but Jim could make 9 times as much in NYC, and the cost of living was nowhere near 9 times as much, and I had a place in a graduate school in NYC to do a Ph.D. in English literature. My parents had rented a one-room apartment for us, with a bed in the wall (not far from them). But we did not stay, and moved to Manhattan soon after. Chelsea.


People viewing De L’Aute Cote —

I was much moved by the exhibit – kept going back and forth between parts.  It was not as painful as the permanent history exhibit at the African-American exhibit where towards the end I began to cry (while I was in the tragic Emmet Till memorial), but I felt just indescribably upset as I went. I watched movies (two longish ones, several short), looked at paintings, drawings, sculptures of all sorts, installations, photographs (many many photographs), sculptures of all sorts, drawings using different media from oil or watercolor paintings (also there), documents too. The museum says 75 artists are represented; there is an emphasis on the most recent groups of victimized migrants on the US-Mexican border. The long film, by Chantal Ackerman (among many others), De l’autre cote (From the other side) is filmed all along the US-Mexican border, night-time, day time, rural and city. The conceit is she is interviewing the other side:

a elderly couple (in their 70s) whose son and grandson were killed in Las Vegas and were obviously very poor, still crying; a Mexican fourteen year old who had “crossed” more than once, one time trafficked, who said he wants to cross again to join his parents in New York in order to make more money and build a big house. Another girl said she wanted to cross to eat more, eat better. At the end of the film we hear the voice of a hispanic young man who has migrated legally and is now seeking his mother, a summary of his non-findings and her wanderings through jobs, places, rooms. The wall is filmed with the people on the both sides — it is made of different materials in different places. We also hear from a sheriff (appalled at the deliberate crisis and huge crowds created by Trump’s policies), two people who live on a farm, deeply anti-immigrant, a white man who owns a cafe near the border, watch a heavily armed ICE person or guard with flashlight seeking people on dark meadow — the other side.

It is not just about recent immigration, refuges, but goes back and forth in time. I found “myself” early on: a half a wall of photos of immigrants arriving in 1905-10 at Ellis Island. All four of my grandparents from Eastern Europe came in that way


Refectory

There were artefacts from the Trail of Tears: the horrific 1830 expulsion of Native Americans from their lands, forced to walk hundreds of miles to barren places to start life again.


Trail of Tears

Dorothy Lange and other WFA photographs on the migrants and farm-workers of the US in the 1930s, underpaid in order to force them to keep moving to find more work; African-Americans trekking from the south to the north for decades (Jacob Lawrence’s art); Vietnamese escaping in boats; people from Africa and the Middle East walking, attempting a dangerous crossing of the Mediterranean; also photos of The Jungle (denigratingly called), a huge immigrant camp that sprung up in Calais.


Delano – Florida migrants on their way to pick potatoes


Jacob Lawrence migration series


Full size statue of Middle Eastern woman


Liu Xiaodong, Refuges

The second long film, Vertigo Sea by John Akomfrah (and many others), took you back to eternal time: three screens often filled with the rushing sea, ocean, walls of ice (and expeditions). You were taught how strong, indifferent and dangerous is this medium for travel. Two of the screens at any time were showing fish and animals in large flocks, some surviving, some just living, others in bad shape; or individuals gunned down (I felt so for a polar bear with a man relentlessly pursuing him), dead and trussed up; one huge whale people were crawling around knifing, stripping. The third screen usually had people: Africans transported in terrible conditions,

thrown over board, stories told by narrators of a baby thrown overboard for irritating a sailor, from famous novels (Moby Dick), diaries, poems. Often one person (actor or actress dressed in upper class 18th to 20th century garb) standing out or sitting looking at the sea. Furniture thrown helter-skelter near the sea.

The exhibit fills up one of the two Phillips buildings. The overall impression is of a desperate struggle for survival (one floor is filled with abandoned clothing), a long ordeal of endurance and loss, much rightly to fear, where for the most part the attitudes of those inside the land mass the migrant is declared a foreigner to, where he or she or they have no relative, or friend, or prepared place or job to turn to, and no legal right to be there, ranged from indifference to hostility. You see early in the 20th century officials behaving with minimal decency, but this seems rare. Short films tell of this or that person’s acute misery in say a hotel that is like a prison, grief. Poverty, war as a cause of the flight, fleeing for safety, was most common. Much social and neo-realism, where we see stalwart families holding up, individuals looking out at us proudly or with thoughtful eyes, some famous 19th century engravings (one by Honore Daumier, The Uprising).

Admittedly the exhibit might be accused of being one-sided. In the US there have been periods where those seeking asylum have not been treated cruelly; individuals and families have gone with more belongings, documents and thrive: they quote Richard Wright: I was leaving the South to fling myself into the unknown … I was taking a part of the South to transplant in alien soil, to see if it could grow differently, if it could drink of new and cool rains, bend in strange winds, respond to the warmth of other suns, and perhaps, to bloom (1945)

But the emphasis rightly is intended urgently to bring home to the attendee the new level of depravity the US present gov’t is inflicting on the vulnerable, and include a history of ruthless enslavement and settler colonial destruction against a tragic song of the earth and sea’s rhythms and animals and people displacement and death. You are prompted to re-think and see this general phenomenon in constructive — and generous — ways. Also historical, rational: a nation-state is an invention, it’s a group of people governing a place, often tyrannically; how has it come to be a religion so that borders become sancro-sanct and everyone outside is an “other?”  Alexander Betts and Paul Collier’s Refuge: Rethinking Refuge Policy in a Changing World is one of several books that are left on a table in a room at the end of the exhibit where you can “reflect” on what you’ve seen.

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

I was led to go because I’m just now reading towards a paper I’m going to give at a coming 18th century conference on Culloden and the highland clearances (as this Scottish diaspora and ethnic “cleansing” is called). A few words on my reading and watching (movies matter) thus far and then I’ll have done:

In general, Culloden literature (as I call it) resembles other literatures emerging from other diasporas. Most of the fiction tells an upbeat story (!): the community somehow moves as a group, or ends up sticking together through re-constitution and individuals finding their way back to “their friends.” The person who suffers badly is the person who falls out, does not obey all the norms & fit into the praised culture the others practice. It becomes hard to find a story of an individual at the crossroads of an existence where the ending and shape of the whole narrative is traumatic. This holds true for Hogg’s Perils of Women (often jocular –eeek!) and the truly tragic story (often a woman ostracized for pregnancy, and gang-rape), the calamity is an interlude got over; Naomi Mitchison’s Bull Calves, even Alistair MacLeod’s contemplative melancholy-lyric No Great Mischief.

You must go to the more thoughtful, less popular memoir, the raw found diary or journal, and good serious non-fiction. The outstanding best book I’ve ever read in emigration, refuges, diaporas is Christopher Hodson, The Acadian Diaspora: An Eighteenth Century History.

Hodson demonstrates that for individuals and family groups with only small or no property, no connections they can call on to enable them to overcome local exclusionary customs, and no military to support them, the ability to control their circumstances and future is extremely limited. He shows that “ordinary people’s safeguards” are long-standing and recognized commercial and familial relationships and also known and understood local economic environments that cannot be misrepresented to them.

Communities don’t survive almost intact; they don’t reconstitute themselves as a mirror image of what was — as we watch the Outlander characters do in North Caroline in Drums of Autumn — I grant she more includes more intermittent tales of desperate tragedies, calamities, cruelty than many such books; tellingly, most of these associated with enslaved people and low status gang-raped women. But what she’s not having is your identity changes and so does everyone else’s under the impress of need and a different world geographically and socially.


Jamie (Sam Heughan) and Claire (Caitriona Balfe) in front of their tent – they will soon with Ian’s (John Bell) help build a magnificent log cabin (Outlander, Season 4)

For Culloden and the highland clearances, the recent best is T.M. Devine’s The Scottish Clearances: it’s been praised as showing that John Peeble’s powerful detailed Culloden and indignant Highland Clearances are wrong, unbalanced, far too hysterical, too tragic; in fact Devine ends up telling a similar story, only nuanced and occurring over generations and with many more bad and mixed actors. And I must say, if a literary masterpiece (especially endurable you are not reading but listening to it read aloud by the brilliant David Rintoul (who knew he is Scots?), Walter Scott’s Waverley is as distorted & misleading a book as you can find.

A friend is sending me a copy of Chasing the Deer (1994, much influenced by Peter Watkins’s masterpiece docudrama, Culloden (1965), and said to be a credible depiction of Culloden, with Brian Blessed and Iain Cuthbertson in lead roles.

As these films are mostly all men — male experience –, I’ll end on one of a beautiful cycle of poems on an emigrant’s life experience in Canada, Margaret Atwood’s re-creation of Susannah Moodie’s Roughing It in the Bush in her brilliant poetic The Journals of Susanna Moodie.

First Neighbours

The people I live among, unforgivingly
previous to me, grudging
the way I breathe their
property, the air
speaking a twisted dialect to my differently
shaped ears

thought I tried to adapt

(he girl in a red tattered
petticoat, who jeers at me for my burnt bread

Go back where you came from

I tightened my lips; knew that England
was now unreachable, had sunk down into the sea
without ever teaching me about washtubs)

got used to being
a minor invalid, expected to make
inept remarks,
futile and spastic gestures

(asked the Indian
about the squat thing on a stick
drying by the fire: Is that a toad?
Annoyed, he said No no,
deer liver, very good)

Finally I grew a chapped tarpaulin
skin; I negotiated the drizzle
of strange meaning, set it
down to just the latitude
something to be endured
but not surprised by.

Inaccurate. The forest can still trick me:
one afternoon while I was drawing
birds, a malignant face
flickered over my shoulder;
the branches quivered

Resolve: to be both tentative and hard to startle
(though clumsiness and
fright are inevitable)

in this area where my damaged
knowing of the language means
prediction is forever impossible


The front poster for the exhibit dwells on that little girl

Ellen

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Poster for Chernobyl (2019, scripted Craig Mazin, directed Johan Renck)


Lyudmilla Ignatenko (Jessie Buckley) looking through the plastic (her baby still died of radiation) at her husband dying howling and wretched with pain

For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled — Richard Feynman, Appendix F on the causes of the Challenger disaster

The truth doesn’t care about our needs or wants.
It doesn’t care about our governments, our ideologies, our religions.
It will lie in wait for all time
And this, at last, is the gift of Chernobyl.
Where I once would fear the cost of truth, now I only ask: What is the cost of lies?
— over-voice of Valery Legasov

Friends,

Chernobyl is not a summer movie — it is a riveting melodrama whose political implications should be frighteningly relevant in political worlds shaped by man (Trump) whose modus vivendi is by lying, small, big, outrageous, cruel, bigoted and dangerous lies. The history we choose to tell each year is the one that we intuits matters that year (not that nuclear power plants as potentially catastrophic places are limited in time or space) Anibundel reads the movie succinctly through the perspective Marzin sets up: the cost of lying was then and will be again limitless suffering and the sacrifice of lives and worlds of thousands of people. I write to add another, from Richard Feynman about how NASA operated and produced the Challenger disaster, and also uttered in the concluding eloquent voice-over of film’s learned scientist, Valery Legasov (played painfully effectively by Jared Harris): there are limits to how far you can manipulate the natural world and coerce frightened powerless people to serve the interests of ambitious men whose pride and position in an organization for them take precedence over everything else.


Jared Harris makes the movie, he just carries it

This dual lesson is dramatized in five episodes as carefully laid out as HBO’s previous political film this year: Ava DuVernay’s When They See Us. Most people recognize that HBO movies have had distinguishing features for some time (contemporary subjects or treatment, box-office brilliant actors, quality production); they have recently added a new one: the hard-hitting demonstration. Both movies are well-proportioned wholes, clearly set out, complete and (to quote George Eliot) “natty” as nuts on a stem. It may seem peculiar to use aesthetic language about episodes which drain us with the horror of what they are presenting, but the film’s effect is so strong because they are so effectively plotted.


The explosion

The first episode throws us in medias res (though we only realize this when we come to the end of the last episode), the high crisis of an exploded nuclear plant core, catapulting into the air, everywhere in the peopled environment burning lethal poisons. We experience the explosion from the point of view of those it first impacted: the people driven to set it off and the people all around the reactor, among whom we see the immediate chief culprits, a boss of the unit, Anatoly Dyatlov (Paul Ritter), who was told to get the test done that night “or else”, and his boss, Viktor Bryukhanov (Con O’Neil), manager of the Chernobyl plant; the first responder firemen and their families, where we follow the heart-breaking story of Vasily Ignatenko (Adam Nagaitis) and his wife. Our central protagonist is among those called out of bed, Legasov (Jared Harris) by a high ranking officer in the communist party, also in charge of the department of energy (and perhaps other related things) in the Soviet gov’t, Boris Shcherbina (played by Stellan Skarsgård)


“Boris moves from hostility and antagonism towards Legasov to an effective working relationship, both emerging as decent men

Each episode focuses on one or more incidents which are terrifying to watch, where the film-makers pull out all their techniques so that we shall feel the visceral pain, hardness of task, sheer physical stuff people were required to cope to the death with. In this first men are uselessly exposed to acute radiation as they try to hose the nuclear bomb down (as if it were a fire), make visual inspections, go into the area to try to prevent various components coming together to cause a meltdown (this was hopeless as it was happening). And each episode dramatizes different groups trying to cover up some aspect of what happened, no matter whose or how many deaths this causes, and each time the group is thwarted because they cannot stop the natural processes going on and find it politically and humanely impossible to let death spread everywhere. We see how small and vulnerable we are singly and in large groups too


Inside just one of the terrified engineers, Leonid Toptunov (Robert Emms)

By the second episode people in nearby countries are registering spikes in radiation, which are reported in newspapers and so cannot be dismissed. Slowly the various officials are driven to take what has happened seriously; they would like to deny and refute all the Legasov and a woman scientist, a single character who stands for the many scientists who became involved, Ulana Khomyuk (Emily Watson) have to tell them. What she understands immediately and travels to tell the leaders of this disaster is the lava-like mess of molten fuel threatening to melt down into the earth would render the ground water of Ukraine’s 50 million inhabitants toxic for life.


Here she has realized the air has been contaminated

They aksi learn unless they follow what these two have to say, they are confronted with immediate death — they must not fly heliocopters over the core even if that’s convenient; they have to get rid of the radioactive graphite (not deny its there) and boron and sand is what must be poured on the fire.

We see meetings of high officials, including someone playing Gorbachev, and evacuation begins. Another motif which was seen in the first episode emerges explicitly: this is a society where people volunteer to help one another, where the idea that we are socially connected as groups and to help ourselves, we must contribute all our energies and talents (without seeking an individual big reward) seems to shape people’s behavior. We see three of the engineers go on a lethal mission to drain water (basically turn by hand valves) to prevent a meltdown (it happens in part anyway). In the third episode the miners called up to excavate the area below the central reactor — in terrific heat, subject to radiation (only 100 of 400 lived past 40) — Liam Nelson their captain


They eventually work naked because that is the best way to endure the heat, the clothes they are given to protect them are useless

The moment of highest admiration in the five hours is for these working class men, doing hard and dangerous work — the officials (“bureaucrats”) have to confront the necessity of truth here, for lie, prevaricate, evade and the captain will take his men back to their usual mining. The hospital is now overwhelmed; we see individual vignettes

and we follow Lyudmilla as she frantically tries to reach her husband, follows him to Moscow and will not be stopped from seeing and comforting him until she can no longer reach emotionally, much less physically. A moment of strong poignancy (the film works by contrasts) is that where we see her standing with a group of women watching a line of lead coffins (in which what was left of their husband’s bodies) are placed into a deep hole and boron and sand poured over them.

The instructions given a group of men who have to behave as close as they can to quick-moving robots:

Because of the nature of the working area, you will each have no more than 90 seconds to solve this problem.
Listen carefully to each of my instructions, and do exactly as you have been told.
This is for your own safety and the safety of your comrades.
You will enter Reactor Building Three, climb the stairs but do not immediately proceed to the roof.
When you get to the top, wait inside, behind the entrance to the roof and catch your breath.
You will need it for what comes next.
This is the working area.
We must clear the graphite.
Some of it is in blocks, weighing approximately 40 to 50 kilograms.
They all must be thrown over the edge here.
Watch your comrades moving fast from this opening, then turning to the left, and entering the workspace here.
Take care not to stumble.
There’s a hole in the roof.
Take care not to fall.
You will need to move quickly, and you will need to move carefully.
Do you understand your mission as I have described it? Yes, Comrade General.
These are the most important 90 seconds of your lives.
Commit your task to memory, then do your job.
It’s time to go.
After 90 seconds, I will ring a bell.

It seems (from comments and other reviews) that perhaps the hardest episode is in the fourth: we watch an older man teaching a younger one to gun down and kill all the pet animals left behind in an evacuated city. The POV is that of the boy. I had to turn away as a dog came leaping forward, only to realize something was wrong and be shot. The boy moves from inability to kill, to inability to shoot more than once in order to be sure and (so his mentor tells him) “prevent the animal from suffering,” to killing and shooting grimly. We see the animals hiding, one aging cat looking puzzled, and a group of puppies around a mother. We are glad not to have to watch when the older man ushers out the boy and so it’s (only?) the repeated shots and sudden cries that tell us what is happening. Read and see the story as told by Svetlana Alexievich (actual camera pictures of the animals).

But the strongest episode is the concluding one, where we realize that in fact what happened can be explained. First the point is being made that so often we are told things are complicated, complex and cannot be unraveled and they can. Structurally (or as a movie), the effect is something like a mystery, only in this movie almost everyone we see does not want the explanation.


I found the explanation fascinating — it may be that this scene cannot have taken place quite in the coherent full blown way it did ….

The episode cannot wholly rely on testimony in the courtroom: it’s framed by a brief conversation where we experience how Bryukhanov bullied Dyatlov, how he was himself allured by the prospect of replacing Fomin (Adrian Rawlins) if he could pull off this hard feat (test the safety of the plant is the irony). Then bravely and against protests, Legasov patiently explains how reactors work and how this disaster happened (partly no one in the room truly understood what they were dealing with) and insists there is a serious flaw in the way 16 nuclear reactors are designed, and the reason they has not been fixed, is it would cost a great deal of money to redesign the reactors. For this by the end of the episode Legasov has been mortally threatened but let to live (as it would look bad after his testimony) so “merely” lost his job, salary, place in the world, the ability to communicate with others.

The film opened with him recording on a tape this story, putting the tapes in a bucket, hiding the bucket and then hanging himself; it closes with his over-voice and then (just as DuVernay does at the end of When They See Us), photos of the real people played by these marvelous actors. Once again this is very effective.


Valery Legasov at a Vienna conference

We have seen that Lyudmilla lost her baby and are just told she had multiple strokes and was herself told she would never have children — because she exposed herself to stay near her husband. In fact she is one of those who survive and today lives in Kiev with her son. Most of the characters we see died of cancer.

It’s important not to see this as story about communism or a particular culture at all, and to say that the inferences apply to more than larger political issues. The same sort of cover-up was attempted over the Challenger and it was only Richard Feynman’s Appendix F which told the truth. As everyone knows who read Feynman’s report and his story of the Challenger, the reason the Challenger went up in January when the weather was too cold and the o-rings could not dilate was due to several decisions which ignored nature: among these, one, they built the thing top down and they knew they had a design failure: the o-rings were not originally designed to fill a gap when the glue hardens. Nonetheless, they persisted in relying on this. And two, they knew that they needed the weather to be warm or above a certain temperature. Nonetheless, they went through with a January launch on a very cold morning because that was the day the State of the Union address is given, and Reagan wanted a publicity stunt: that he would give the state of the union address the evening after this launch.

In the flashback scenes in the final episode (interspersed and juxtaposed with Legasov’s lesson to judges and jury) the engineers (Akimov, Toptunov and others) in the room knew enough to know this was terrifically dangerous and they were breaking all protocol — they had to be bullied and threatened to get them to do it, and when they saw the core explode (and in effect the reactor turn into a nuclear bomb), were driven to lie and not tell what had happened. How: by the threat of loss of job, or loss of promotion, or their place in the organization. This is how all bullies (including Trump who backs this up by suing you, and then paying you to stay silent) frighten people. We are so susceptible to these sorts of threats. Now Dyatlov was immediately responsible but the situation that led to that was the same as the one at NASA: a refusal to spend money, a refusal to fix a design flaw, and not educating and giving authority to people involved. The human dimension of this film drills down to everyday life.

You can read the scripts online

Each episode tough & riveting to watch, each had remarkable heroism, and remarkable unspeakable pain. The story itself (as Arendt suggested about the nature of evil) at core is the banal one of the behavior of human beings trying to get promoted, protect a job; the refusal of a gov’t to spend money for public safety. And most people lie or they fall silent. If they can find a group to belong to, they might speak out as a member of that group.

Ellen

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After long grueling hours of separate interrogation, the boys are put together & meet for the first time

Friends and readers,

Ava DuVernay has made another movie you must not miss — her others are Selma and 13th. Many people will know about the case of the brutal assault and rape of Trisha Meili (called “the Central Park Jogger”) where four African-American and one Latino boy were accused (“the Central Park 5” was the designation), but not necessarily that the accusation was not just wrong but utterly unfounded (not a shred of evidence linking any of these boys to this woman except that all were in some place in Central Park that night), nor that the confessions which were used as the evidence were coerced (by hounding, harassment, hours of isolated interrogation, threats, lies about what “cooperation” meant or would bring). We see how the prosecutor, Elizabeth Lederer, and DA, Linda Fairfax saw that there is no evidence and Lederer at least is bothered, but goes ahead to do all she can to convict the boys, Michael Sheenan, the head of the operation to wrench confessions, and they acquire a Judge Galligan, known for harsh sentences at Riker’s Island.

The five spent from 6 to 14 years in prison, Corey Wiser, a bit older, was tried as an adult, and put into tough adult prisons. It also seems not well known that in 2002 they were exonerated when Matias Reyes, the real criminal came forward (a man with convicted of rape, with an assault record very like that of the man who raped Meili) and said he did it alone, and the DNA found on her body was discovered to match Reyes’.


Coercion

That’s the outline of the familiar story. The way it’s told in four parts is a display or demonstration of how egregiously unfair is the operation of all the parts of the “justice” system: the first part shows us quickly how early in the evening all five young men were spending their time, how they all somewhat differently came into Central park that night, the jogger coming from her building into the park, and then clips from news shows about the assault and rape; the next 3/4s of an hour make us undergo the same grilling the five young men do: see the members of their families also coerced and threatened, or uselessly angry (not knowing what to do), the confessions imposed on them, and the ultimate result, their incarceration as the plans for the trial are formed.

We see they are innocent; they had no idea there was such a girl in the park; the stumbling nature of what they confessed (they are urged to agree to the story the detectives tell them to through hints), and the final scene in the room brought together where they decide confessions or no, they are going to insist on the truth: they are innocent. It is emotionally wrenching to sit through this — the young male actors cry and are hurt, puzzled, beat up. So too their parents & siblings indignant without knowing what to do to protect themselves.

The second part is the trial, we see how it’s conducted; the hysterical social campaign in the newspapers which play the part of a lynch mob, which results in the social death of these young men. Not their very closest but further off relatives begin to believe they did it; we see the furor in the streets, and Donald Trump’s famous ad demanding the state murder them, saying how he hates them and wants no psychoanalysis, no attempt to explain. We get a glimpse of his repeat he believes them guilty in 2016 and his sneers at the court case which finally was allowed to go forward (Bloomberg blocked it) where NYC paid them 41 million dollars in damages.

They cannot and do not get a fair trial. The felt atmosphere makes whatever the attorneys say or do feel so useless as when one attorney points out there is no evidence linking the boys to the jogger at all. The prosecuter does not come across that strongly, but the tapes have an effect on the jury. The guilty verdict, the boys and parents’ hysteria. And then scenes of the earliest experience of juvenile prison in four of the boys, where we are told that they hear Corey is “in solitary” but know no more of him. It is a grilling episode.

A secondary story told in both parts is that of the family life of each of the boys — we see different relationships, with some parents (two fathers) in desperate straits for money, one has a criminal record the police start to threaten him with. In part one some of the parents do tell the boys “to cooperate;” others demand the child be left alone; a great moment is when one mother says to Fairfax “Shame on You!” Corey’s mother seems not willing, unable for some reason to come visit her son. The latino boy, Raymond, seems to have only his father.


There is no place for Raymond and his girlfriend to find privacy once he is let out of jail

The third part fast forwards to the time (different) when the four boys treated as juveniles are released. A different set of actors are now playing the central boys. We see how the cards are utterly stacked against them. They have to tell anyone who hired them they are felons accused of sex crime; they have to be in their house every night by 7; they have to report to a police station every 90 days for the rest of their lives. One has a chain on his ankle. Worse they come back to groups of people not ready to have them or downright unwelcoming. Raymond’s father has remarried and the new wife is deeply antagonistic to him; he is given no room of his own. She calls Raymond a rapist. They cannot be hired for gov’t jobs, for various professional jobs. Strain as they try to make friends, have a girlfriend. Raymond taking an apartment of his own with his girlfriend, is fired, and ends up drug-dealing to support himself. He is caught.

The point is no help is given them to build their lives and hard obstacles put in the way.


Corey disobeying rules to hold his mother’s hands; there is no one for him to tell of the abuse and bodily harm inflicted on him

The fourth part is the most painful. I can hardly bear to tell it. We see Corey Wise put in Riker’s Island. Immediately he is surrounded by scary thugs, which include the guards. One guard asks Corey, if Corey has something for him, and when Corey seems not to understand, has five prisoners beat Corey up. Corey tries to appeal to a nurse who is afraid to help him as a guard is watching. He begs for solitary confinement as a place he can be safe in. I had not realized this might be one reason for the increase in solitary confinement in prisons: to escape the mob violence. We see terrifying scenes of humiliation. We see and hear the noise, the lack of decent food, something to do. Little vignettes: we hear parents saying “for a 10 minute phone call $23.” No medical help worth the name. She does omit probable sex abuse — we are left to remember and to imagine.

Each time Corey meets with his parole board he gets nowhere as the thing demanded of him first is to confess to his crime and say he is remorseful. He is moved to Attica, and now his mother says she cannot come there as it is too far for her to come regularly. Corey is pulled out of solitary confinement one day to be told his brother is dead. He is told that he is told this for his sake. Clearly that’s not so. No one offers a word of consolation. In a flashback from his mind it emerges the girl I thought one of his girlfriends was his brother, a transvestite who dressed as a girl; Corey remembers his mother loathing her, throwing her out. He becomes hysterical: no one cares for him. Robert, his guard, grabs hold of him and hugs him hard to help him exert self-control. This is probably the first hug he’s had in years.

One gleam of light: Robert, the guard in charge of his cell now begins to be kind, offers him magazines, and better food (the guard says he has a son back home), gets him a job cleaning floors. So he can leave solitary confinement (where he appears suffer badly from the heat as no air conditioning comes through his vent until this guard somehow gets it “fixed”). But Corey wants to be transferred in the hope he will be near his mother. So he loses the guard-friend and ends up in a worse place. He is immediately picked on because he is known as the Central Park Rapist: it’s an excuse. Beaten very badly by other inmates.  Laughed at by another guard. And so it goes on and on. A couple of vignettes at the end show his conditions are improving as he learns how to cope and simply keeps surviving and ages so is seen as less of a susceptible victim to bullies.

So DuVernay has put it all before us – this is the system, it’s still in operation, see what it has done. QED. I have not described her powerful use of film techniques because it would produce too long a blog.

The last ten minutes cover quickly the confession of Reyes, the refusal at first of Fairfax and Sheenan to believe it — he is trying for attention; okay there was a sixth. But a new lawyer and Morganthau (who had appeared briefly as protesting the trial because of a lack of evidence) and people we don’t see manage to bring the evidence out and in the last five minutes we see the five men told they are exonerated. For each it’s a different experience as has the whole thing been.

Raymond now in prison is seen looking so joyful with his things walking to the door, and his father comes for him and they hug. Corey as usual treated with no deference or consideration; he is living in a better place again, and no longer in solitary (learnt to hold his own), the guard Robert has somehow helped him again, and he brought out of the prison yard and to an office and given a phone and hears his mother’s voice telling him he is going to be freed. Fast forward to the other three told on their jobs or at home, and then all five standing together on a stage, holding hands.


The young actors


The real individual men as they are in 2019

The coda is moving. An inter-title tells us about the court cases and litigation and their monetary compensation. And then we hear where each of them is in life now. At first we see the younger actor, then the older, and then (very moving this) the real man. All but one has left New York City and all are thriving to some extent, married, with children, one in business, another writing and teaching, one opened a business to help people wrongly accused of crime. Seeing the real men, their real faces brought tears to my eyes.

You should watch it because to do so will be part of Netflix’s rating system and perhaps more movies like this can be made. Any Goodman has devoted a full hour to this movie: she shows clips and interviews DuVernay. I went to find reviews; Roger Ebert’s site has a review which does justice to the film and gives fuller details than I do. It speaks of flaws: I see none. Lucy Mangan of The Guardian is better, she speaks of heart-wrenching (dare I suggest that there is racism in the Ebert site and not here); Sophie Gilbert of the Atlantic: three of the men now live in Georgia.

It is important to know that Linda Fairfax has shown no remorse, and in fact continues to maintain these young men did the crime! and has publicly protested the film, saying it is inaccurate. It is not; the public records are available. She should be tried and put in prison for what she did to these young men.


Felicty Huffman plays the part


Linda Fairstein — she makes money writing crime books; I read the publisher has pulled them off shelves; that some honorary degree she got is now lamented over


Vera Farmiga as Elizabeth Lederer who also maintains she did the right thing but has enough decency to not call attention to herself

For my part being frank here I’ll say at the time I didn’t understand Trisha Meili, the young woman, had run out into the park after dark. I thought that there was understood to be curfew not to go into the park after dark. Of course you can’t fence in the park. But this series does show that late at night groups of people did go in. I may be criticized for this but one of my gut reactions is I don’t understand why Meili went out at that time of night to run by herself. Did she think she was immune to dangers? did not her expensive building have a gym? Was her sense of privilege so strong? She did not understand how we are all at risk and some situations very risky? she should have thought of other people and understood she should find some other mode of exercise.

I am simply puzzled that a young woman like this would go out running late at night in the park. Why did she not realize how dangerous this would be. I cannot see myself courting danger this way, taking this kind of chance. When I was young, there are a couple of instances where I took a crazy chance, but (without telling these) these were not risky to my body. The park is enormous and has many dark people-less spots. I’d like to say a curfew was understood except the movie showed that lots of people went to or were in the park late at night. It might be that I thought there was a curfew because I think there ought to be one: when there are events in the park (like a concert, or Shakespeare play) one must walk back but my sense was of being in a crowd walking on lit lanes and cops around.

Meili has since made money on her book, permitted herself to become something a celebrity (“I am the Central Park Jogger”); there is something wrong with a book about this incident given the sentimental gush subtitle “A story of hope and possibility”


Middle class costume, jewelry, make-up — has she learnt anything?

Trisha Meili is not to blame — the blame falls squarely on the man who did the crime and the cops and the DA and prosecutor. They simply picked out five black young men and proceeded to nail them for the crime. They did not try genuinely to look for the insane woman-hater who did this. They did not follow the clues they had: the semen nor the evidence she had been dragged on the ground by one person. The same police officer and judge were judging Reyes during the same period. Meili was unlucky and so have thousands of other young women been throughout history. They did nothing to protect any girl from another such assault.

We today still refuse to protect girls — think of how the Republicans on the Senate believed Christina Ford and yet put Kavanaugh on the supreme court, an exposed hypocritical thug who for years enjoyed himself and his masculinity by leading fraternity boys to humiliate and rape girls at parties. The concern was to punish these black young men “as a warning,” not to discover who raped and nearly murdered Meili.

To sum up: the movie shows that the lynching mentality of the first half of the century was operative in NYC in 1989 – that the privileged girl was white is central. Indeed Trump is still sneering at DiBlasio for allowing the litigation for compensation to come to court. To me that the center of the push to make these young boys/men confess is a woman just brings home how women can be as reactionary and racist as any man — and reminds us that the person who signed that Alabama bill criminalizing pregnancy was a woman.

The prosecutor who framed them is part of and respected in US society today — and she is objecting mightily to the portrayal of what she did with the help of all her colleagues in the system. Her way of objecting shows she is guilty of having framed these young man and her justification is to assert all she did was legal and they were guilty. She seems to think it was her job to frame them. This was and still is legal — so too plea-bargaining which the boys refused once they were put together.

I repeat she calls what DuVeray presents as lies at the same time as she justifies (she justifies) how those boys (now men) were treated and just about says (despite how the movie shows a complete lack of evidence) they are guilty – were it not for those DNA tests, they’d be in prison still. She implies the DNA tests she leapt on when she found the sock and semen are inconclusive. Doubtless she would not believe in climate change were it in her interest not to believe. Fairfax now has show-off photos taken of herself smiling in a red suit in front of the supreme court put on her site. Indeed, shame on her!


Ava DuVernay

In DuVernay’s interview with Goodman, DuVernay says as she is speaking someone in the US some African-American person is being wrongly treated in an early phase of the criminal justice system; that the whole of the way and where and how people are incarcerated is profoundly wrong, and that she herself believes it will take a long time to fix, against many objections (not least the private companies running prisons) and may not be righted in her lifetime any more.

Ellen

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