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Archive for the ‘romance’ Category

[Blog in Progess!!, come back for the 2nd and last 3rd tomorrow night]


Claire grieving over her stillborn child, POV Mother superior (Caitrionia Balfe, Frances de la Tour, Episode 7, Faith)

Dear friends and readers,

It’s been eight months since I last blogged on Outlander; thirteen months since I first blogged on the first episode: Sassenach: Radcliffe Redivida.

In the first season or first year I was at first enthralled, then deterred (bored when Claire began to be much less the focus of the story); and then, suddenly returning to become deeply engaged by the mini-series to the point I blogged twelve times; and in the last compared the book (which I listened to as read aloud beautifully by Davina Porter). For this second season or year I’m posting but once for all because I haven’t found the time to blog as often, but I found the same pattern in my reaction: at first riveted, then deterred (this time grated upon by the pruriency of the sequences in France); and then, returning I don’t know quite why, found the last section in Paris and the whole of the close in Scotland resonating deeply and irresistibly in my psyche.


Jamie and Murtagh confronting so many deaths of comrades after pyrrhic victory at Prestonpans (Sam Heughan, Duncan Lacroix, Episode 10, Prestonpans)

In the first season I account for the deep appeal of series by its the dream-archetypes and their relationship to other romances (I was reviewing Martha Bowden’s Descendants of Waverley at the time), by its increasingly emotional use romance tropes (the series moves from Border Lord stuff to a spirit or encompassing tone like that of the best Arthurian romance); and then I compare the mini-series to the source book, Outlander, to show how a centrally woman’s book has been altered to make a male the central agon victim, and the book’s loving portrayal of Scottish home life replaced by thrilling and traumatized and gypsy adventure. This time again I’ll compare book, the second one, Dragonfly in Amber, to the mini-series, and then my concentration for this single blog will be how once either real history, or women’s real traumatic experiences are dramatized, the mini-series grips us once again.

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Claire waking 200 years later to find them “all gone” (Episode 1, Through a Glass Darkly)

The framing is much changed from the book. The framing of Dragonfly in Amber which begins in Scotland 20 years after Brianna was born, with the Reverend Wakefield’s adopted son, Roger Mackenzie, having returned to Inverness to clear out his father’s papers with an idea never to return is altered, softened and switched to become part of the first and second episodes of the third season (The Battle Joined and Surrender). Instead Claire is seen bewildered and grieving after she has passed through the stones without herself experiencing Culloden itself. The great power of this episode and each one which juxtaposes the present in the 20th century, whether Scotland or Boston, to which Claire and Frank (Tobias Menzies) move, is that the past, Scotland in the 18th century becomes a metaphor for death. Everyone so vivid and shivering with flesh-y life is dust, dead, once Claire crosses over, and her longing to go back, is a longing to beat death. The action in Scotland gradually turns into maddened gothic (the behavior of the French aristocratic king), neurotic fantasy (the behavior of Bonnie Prince Charlie so brilliantly caught by the performance of Andrew Gower), or deep loss (the death of the first child of Claire and Jamie, the whole hospital scene in the first half), and finally barbaric and tragic death. It’s this insight made the core of the second mini-series by Roger Moore (producer, developer, often screenplay writer and director that has turned Diana Gabaldon’s romancing into a serious experience in and through modern film.

I’ll concentrate on the electrifying moments of the first 8 episodes, give the gist of the last 5.

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Episode 4 again emphasizes Demelza’s self-reliance: she is shown to give birth with just Prudie’s help (Eleanor Tomlinson, Beatie Edney) — this is one of Horsfield’s additions


Episode 5 ends in moving funeral for Captain Henshawe (John Hollingworth — another actor who will be missed), with again the emphasis on the group, the community, here upholding E.M. Forster’s value of friendship before any abstraction (“country” aka nationalism)

Friends in Poldark,

I thought the series went onto a new level of power in Episode 5 especially it had not quite done this season thus far. All the new additions of motive and feeling (scenes, dialogues not in the book) and all the changes (having Caroline and Dwight married before he goes on board ship, making George a magistrate and inventing all sorts of scenes where he is egregiously unjust to the starving, homeless, jobless whose plight he and his kind are largely responsible for) come together to give an undertow of intense emotionalism in the story of the rescue of Dwight. In the book, Black Moon and in the 1977-78 mini-series, while we have the romance of Morwenna and Drake seen against the backdrop of the Rev Whitworth and his aristocratic mother selling themselves to marry him off to a connection of George and the new capitalism, the intense antagonism of George and Aunt Agatha, the actual adventure is done at length with no interruptions – and it is well done, carefully showing just how dangerous it is to each individual, no step left out, in ways that leave no room for sentimental emotion. In the book an 1975 movie it’s Joe Nanfan who is murdered and he is not as important an individual presence as Captain Henshawe, so there are no deeply moving grieving scenes, no funeral at episodes’s end. There is no doubt – testing this on my own response that this particular new Poldark episode is far more inwardly felt than the previous comparable one. We do feel intense camaraderie: Ross is like (to given this a very contemporary spin) the small boat owner played by Mark Rylance in the movie Dunkirk: the deeply loyal person who will not throw his friend under a bus, will risk his life, lose lives that mean much to him.


If you can see him in the dark, Dwight (Luke Norris) in the dungeon prison, intensely startled to see “Ross!”


One of Turner’s great moments as Ross in this episode: “My friend” (they have come for him)

In the new Poldark the adventure story is continually interrupted, that is we move back and forth between it and George and Elizabeth’s failed attempts to ingratiate themselves into the aristocracy of Cornwall. We are ever switching back to see George and Elizabeth’s ball to which the important people do not come and then to a ball which George and Elizabeth were first not invited to. In the book and in the 1977-78 film Caroline is still somewhat estranged from Dwight and knows nothing of what’s happening to him, is not involved in politics at all; in this new Poldark she is politicking first to find out if Dwight is alive, and then simply because she feels she must and she takes Demelza to the second ball with her.


Before the second ball, Elizabeth (Heida Reed) knows the necklace is overdone, too gaudy, showing insecurity


George (Jack Farthing) seething with resentment: “Extravagant?”

We see George sneering at Ross while we watch him risk all, and when Lord Falmouth turns from George in disgust after we have watched Dwight in prison with Armitage (Falmouth’s nephew by his side), George looks mean and contemptible. In the book and 1977-78 versions we hardly see Dwight until Ross rescues him; but in this new one a skein of scenes shows Dwight working hard to save people who are then taken out and shot for fun; Dwight active all the time whether crying or ironic, starving yes, but basically coherent. When in the book and 1970s Ross finds Dwight he is half-mad, very sick, very weak, trying desperately to save people but not managing it, and unaware of Armitage’s presence. The book and 1970s version are more probable; the new one more romantic and heroic and emotionally wrenching.


One of Dwight and Morwenna’s many love scenes by the sea (Elisse Chappell, Harry Richardson)


Horsfield’s Whitworth (Christian Brassington) is not the menacing, class-climbing sadistic hypocrite of the book or 1970s: but a slightly comic figure who looks down on George

She has reversed events and strengthened the sexual and religious and economic politics (see Irish Times for what this Poldark series has to say about “late stage capitalism”):

If you look at the changes that Horsfield made, they are all in the direction of showing that the judiciary run by Warleggan, a vicious man who fires people from a company and destroys the company if it’s not making big enough profits for him and shows Ross and Henshawe powerless unless Ross agrees to become an instrument either of Falmouth or Bassett, people transported, hung, put in prison to starve to death or die of disease – are all in this direction. The theme is in Graham and the 1970s, but it is taken much further in 2017. What is this but a reflection of the present reactionary Tory and fascist US rumps running the two gov’ts.

In the older Poldark George discovers Drake’s relationship with Geoffrey Charles and love affair with Morwenna before the final rescue, so Ross makes his effective threat that George will face an intensely raging rebellion if he does not free Dwight first; in the new one this will occur in the 6th episode and after to the forced marriage of Morwenna to Whitworth (in the newer one Morwenna is blackmailed into marrying Whitworth in return for Drake’s freedom, which is wholly unlike the book; in the book she is terrified and morally beaten into this;the older Poldark thus seriously questions the morality of obedience to authority). The older Poldark makes much more of Valentine’s rickets because the older Poldark shows Elizabeth as a loving mother to Valentine – and not someone succumbing to drugs to enable her to cope with life with an intensely malignant fierce George as she is in the new Poldark. Both show Sam intensely worried for his brother, but the first has a kind sweet Sam and the second hostile to love from religious bigotry. The newer Poldark makes it much clearer that the English state is funding a French emigre invasion which Ross hitches onto because Horsfield wants to make a political point that the emigres only make the aristocrats hated further; in the 1970s Baron made the lead aristocrat a very sympathetic comrade and shows us his murder by the French revolutionaries. It’s not clear what his politics are. Aunt Agatha is made more needling but much more pathetic in the older series (Eileen May is intensely memorable in the role); the new Agatha (Caroline Blakiston) is smarter, harder, stronger in the new series – I enjoy the use of the tarot pack as a symbol.


Aunt Agatha telling Morwenna she cannot marry Drake Carne and she endangers him ….

If you allow for a film-maker’s right to make an effective film for her time (and Graham in a letter on Hitchcock’s Marnie, was very open to this), then Horsfield’s version is as valid as Graham’s and Alexander Baron’s (he wrote the first 8 episodes of the second season of the 1970s Poldarks, basically covered The Black Moon and half of The Four Swans). They are just different. How to account for the differences in the art It’s not political vision for book, and both versions are exposing the cruelties of capitalism, the irrationalities of hierarchy, the cruelty and coerced sex of forced marriage for money and rank. Horsfield is decidedly more against the French revolution (presented as insanely violent) but she is also far more explicit about the causes for this: the starving and injustice, the helplessness of those with no office, no power. I think Horsfield’s film has the two sets of episodes going at the same time in order to make her work more full of incident as the mode today is many shorts scenes of high intensity. You are not allowed to concentrate on single story. There is loss and it is the same loss found in the first and second season.

I praised Horsfield’s scripts last year after I got the two books and was able to sit down and read them. They read well, but somehow when acted and directed, they do not come across with any of the complexity and facility of the older scripts which feel like very effective dramatized novels. Last night I rewatched Episode 5 (the rescue of Dwight and death of Henshawe with added scenes of failed politicking for George) and then the incomparable Episode 4: even in the Morwenna/Drake story, there is nothing comparable in the new one to Drake’s accosting of Morwenna in the church, and demanding why she is giving in, and her explanation, defense and grief. My feeling is the new directors just don’t give the actors time and space and some of them are not as good. I feel that the newer actors are less subtle but this may just be the result of the demand they project large emotions quickly and then move on.


Caroline (Gabriella Wilde)’s reunion with Dwight: she is witty: Do I detect Scorbutus?


Dwight as ever holding back, more earnest and serious ….

I want again to say as I did last season that the new actors and scenes have entered my dream life once again and compete with the actors from the older series. I am anxious to reread the books and long to go to Cornwall once again.

I have put specific comments on the equivalent episodes in the older series in the comments (4 and 5).

Last on a TV channel one may find a screening of the 1995 single time (2 hour) film adaptation of Book 8 of the Poldarks, Stranger from the Sea.

This earlier version was a flop, partly because the fierce pro-Ellis-Rees fan club adamantly dissed it and got people not to watch, and partly because it was a 2 hour non mini-series which dropped the interesting larger theme, anti-imperialist and anti-colonialist in the novel. The novel includes in its purview a dramatization of the peninsular war and the American corporations which were big funders refused to include it — they wanted pure romance. It is actually an interesting film (Mel Martin and John Bowe deliver creditable performances as and older Ross and an older Demelza) if you are willing to allow the larger political and social themes of the Poldark novels to be eliminated …

Ellen

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George (Jack Farthing) and Elizabeth (Heida Reed) overhear Sam and his “flock” singing (Episode 3)


Demelza (Eleanor Tomlinson) looking down thoughtfully, worried — her care, her concern, all her activities show her to be the conscience of this episode

It would take too long to analyse the creative stirrings and conflicts which decided my change of course … it may have been my absence away from Cornwall at that time, which was one of the factors conducive to the return to the Poldarks — Graham in Poldark’s Cornwall

Friends and readers,

I regret to say I was not able to watch Episode 4 for even a second time of this third year of Poldark films, and I can’t come near Episode 5. I’ve a DVD copy of episode 3 and uncertain memories of the new episode 4. If the BBC would allow non-UK residents to pay the license pay (in effect support the network), I would be delighted to; but I am given no opportunity as a US computer, to support these channels. A quick summary of the central trajectory of Black Moon as it evolves from its hard opening on George and Elizabeth waiting for the birth of Valentine: Ross still cannot get himself to join a corrupt Parliamentary outpost of a gov’t. Ross and Demelza are invited and go to two different powerful political establishments; we see her holding her own. I also wanted to see if the new Horsfield team reached Ross’s rescue of Enys (and as a bye-product, Hugh Armitage) from the French prison, the return home to Caroline and Demelza, and a new let-down after Ross does not take two different offers of roles in powerful organizations (local Justice of the Peace which had been Francis’s and MP under Bassett’s auspices). The Black Moon is the first Poldark novels not to end on a reconciliation of Ross and Demelza; here it’s Aunt Agatha cursing George because he forbids her a birthday party, and sowing seeds of doubt about Valentine’s parentage, and Elizabeth’s perhaps not early parturition.

What cannot be too often stressed is 20 years went by between the first four Poldark novels (Ross Poldark, Demelza, Jeremy Poldark, Warleggan) and the second three (The Black Moon, The Four Swans, The Angry Tide). Much life and change has gone by for Graham; he is now not an outsider trying to break into literary society; he’s at some of its centers in London. In this novel Graham is struggling to get back into his material, to bring his characters back to life after 20 years of life’s experiences for him. A good deal of The Black Moon is taken up by politicking with society — reflecting Graham’s own life in the literary world in the between time. No longer is this a story of two people who don’t fit in, their turning to one another and away from their Cornish societies. It’s not a private story at all; as a historical fiction, it is about the intertwining of public and private life.


Demelza, Zacky Martin (Tristan Sturrock) and Sam Carne (Mark Frost) disappointed because George is now refusing to honor Francis’s promise

Demelza’s words bring out how the thriving of a community is the central ideal/norm of this new mini-series


The church Francis (Kyle Soller) promised them

Grief this structure is being allowed to corrode and vanish ….

The weakness felt in both mini-series adaptation is the film-makers want to keep Ross and Demelza at the center as they are the most sought-after popular characters (so they feel) while in Black Moon the Warleggan group are frame. They also don’t want complicated scenes of politicking; both series seek to simplify what happened and give us but one politicking salon. What to substitute? Alexander Baron’s scripts show how in 1977 the expedient was to bring forward the small scale invasion of Ross and his mining-friends into France, Ross coming near senseless execution, and do these swiftly with intense suspense, action, excitement. Both mini-series show how and why methodism is seen as a radical threat to property-owners and the powerfully-connected. They both keep Drake’s mischievous plantings of frogs to torment Warleggan.

But they both marginalize the core of the three books: that Ross gradually learns he cannot be free, and must take responsibility. Instead in both George’s paranoia is played up so he begins to believe that all that occurs on his property which he can’t control (and comes out of the methodists, and Drake’s affair with Morwenna) is set up against him has been engineered by Ross. By Ross’s having refused the position, he leaves his fellow Cornishmen and women at the mercy (but George has none and no sense of justice) of a cold ruthless corrupt tyrant. Horsfield has added scenes showing George to be an utterly corrupt MP and Justice of the Peace: knowing the son of a powerful man has been arraigned for brutal rape, George makes ground for himself by accusing the girl of perjury; we see him transport starving people who killed one bird. Horsfield also brings out much more strongly and early that Elizabeth is horrified by George’s behavior, put off by her own child (by Ross) and cold to the baby; and to live with herself in this condition, resorts to laudanum (Godey’s Lady’s Drops were very popular in the later 18th and early 19th century — what pain-killers were there?).


Shots of several swans together threaded through signal that material from The Four Swans is in this episode — there are now five, including Verity

She has added Verity to the mix (who is marginalized in this later trilogy so that Caroline becomes Demelza’s close friend): in the new Poldark Verity provides a contrast to Elizabeth in her genuine fulfillment and love of her child; she provides a reinforcement of Demelza and Caroline’s fears that neither Ross or Enys will ever come back when for a time Verity is led to believe Captain Ramey’s boat was shipwrecked (this latter wholly made up by Horsfield). Demelza provides contrast to Verity and Elizabeth too: she is developing into her own woman, making decisions about the property and people while Ross is gone.


Ross (Aidan Turner) and Tregirls (Sean Gilder) at Callais

I thought as a whole Horsfield’s additions were justified; the way she presents George and Elizabeth so starkly is theatrically effective, and she does keep and match the sublime and touching scenes of Drake and Mowenna falling in love at the seashore and delving caves while Geoffrey Charles bonds strongly with Drake. Here they are as they meet, intensely happy over the coming few hours together:


Geoffrey Charles (Harry Marcus) — the most forward


Drake (Harry Richardson) — catching up,a little gingerly


Morwenna (Elise Chappell) — not far behind, and self-contained, remaining “proper”

I also thought very effective the way Horsfield and the actor developed Sam’s character and his slowly creating a congregation for himself, and then when George will not honor Francis’s promise to give Nanfan and other dissenters a place for worship, finding through his sister on Ross’s land another building. On the other hand, Horsfield too much buries the central thread of these three books: Ross’s bringing himself to act centrally in his world through office. But she does have him brooding about not going and makes a big fuss about how evil George is, so this thread may become major by episode 5. (For the comparable Episode 3 from the 1970s, click here).

When I’ve gotten more material, namely on DVDs episodes 4-5 at least, I’ll write a longer blog taking the art of the two mini-series into account. I am pursuing my book project and have read a series of non-Poldark novels and seen two superb non-Poldark films (Hitchcock’s Marnie, and The Walking Stick). I expect to write a blog on these books as a group (The Little Walls, The Walking Stick, Marnie, The Tumbled House; Greek Fire) and how Graham’s work seems to lend itself to development in film. I’ve two to go: After the Act, and Angel, Pearl and Little God (almost made into a movie starring Marlon Brando), and then I’ll try a few short stories.

While there are stretches which show the same man wrote the suspense stories as the Poldarks: the use of a loner who gradually emerges as part of the central group (this is a LeCarre motif too so perhaps part of the suspense novel’s tropes); both Poldark and non-Poldark books have the action-adventure risks of theft, of disobeying central laws and getting away with it (or not). Nonetheless, Graham’s travel books and articles on Cornwall general and autobiographical, writing about his writing, need to be treated separately — as also his sheer life-writing. The genre he was writing shaped everything he wrote so they can almost seem works from a different man. (One way he differs from DuMaurier beyond the masculinis perspective is she remained in this historical-romance in Cornwall genre.) Perhaps I should call these not non-Poldark books but non-Cornwall ones (though some of these suspense stories are set in Cornwall). Cornwall is key.


A Cornwall estuary

Ellen

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Dave Jones as Daniel Blake in front of a grafitti he drew, demanding his appeal occur soon

Friends,

Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale turned into an often harrowing grim mini-series is not alone this season. Two more films and one play, all magnificent of their kind, and all appropriate to the newly transparently cruel and hypocritical (at least here in US) regime that has taken over. Three concise reviews.

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Katie (Hayley Squires) driven out of the office, later accused of stealing in similarly focused humiliating scene (in fact she did steal as the money she was given was not enough for their needs)

I, Daniel Blake might be dubbed Cathy Come Home Redux. Cathy Comes Home traced the gradual degradation and ruthless abandonment of the young woman at its center: surely no one who has seen the final scene where Cathy’s children are forcibly taken from Cathy in a bus station where she is left homeless can forget it, no matter what your response. I, Daniel Blake, directed by Ken Loach, scripted Paul Lavery, is clearly a fictional story while Cathy Come Home is still taken as a documentary by some (so real does what happens feel) and ends similarly in a final memorable blow, slowly coming on over the last part of the film.


He’s not followed the rules; what he’s done is not good, it won’t do

The story: An old man, Daniel Blake (Dav Johns) whose wife has recently died, who spent his last years caring for her, has a heart attack and is advised by his physician not to work (to retire). He applies for a pension based on his sickness. He is given such a heartless round-around in the gov’t pension offices: the Forms he must fill out, and on line (to prove he’s looking for work he must apply online); inflexible criteria; with punishments of delay or ouster (no hope of any money ever), that we must gather, they are there to make him go away, and find a job — no matter if he dies of his sickness. It would be more humane to tell him in the first place. I can see some of the scenes as a modern Bleak House where misery of “Nobody’s Fault.” Only one employee of this pension place shows any understanding of his case, the absurdity of what’s demanded. The parallel plot is of a young London woman, Katie Morgan (Hayley Squires) escaping a brutal husband with her two children; she too applies to the same place for help Ha! she is thrown out as disruptive. There are very long lines in from of the food bank. Daniel is treated abusively on the phone by a prospective employer. She and Daniel meet, become a supportive team (he makes shelves for her, shops with her, shares his food with her children) until he discovers she’s succumbed to prostitution to make ends meet, and he has his application for disability funds (what we’d call) rejected. He finally cries out against this system which demands he find a job that doesn’t exist and he should not work at. He retreats in despair to his empty flat — he has sold everything off to have some money to stretch out. At the film’s close someone has hired a lawyer for him who assures him that he will now have the pension wrongly kept from him after a hearing (which does not look easy). Katie is there with, having become emotionally dependent, wants permission to go and live with him. Daniel nervous, under considerable pressure, goes off to the bathroom ….

I leave it to the reader’s imagination what happens next, only say the event leaves Katie howling.


Daniel, Katie, her two children constituted a family

Blunt, dignified and brutally moving says The Guardian. What struck me (see World Herald) is how many scenes were familiar to me — from similar phone calls I’ve made, similar attempts to get justice from a stone (where you thought there was a human being there), lies, what friends unfortunate enough to have to go to what once was called “Welfare” (now mostly abolished) went through. It played to a crowded audience at my local arts-movie-house.

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The answer if you’re black in America, is it’s not improbable and at any time you could be called to give evidence or arrests.

The above image taken from, 13th, commissioned, directed and written by (among others) Ava Maria Vernay, has a plot-design which allows a gradual realization (then enforced by some of the interviewees) that the present mass incarceration of blacks is a re-incarnation of slavery. Before mass incarceration, the lynching system and demand for utter self-abjection and apartheid policies were a re-incarnation of slavery; before thatafter the civil war the wide-spread convict labor system (men working in chains), and of course before that slavery was open and frank. As Ava DuVerney moves us from the present, back to deep past and then forward again, she interviews a set of extraordinary and ordinary people on the situation of black people and individual cases where a great leaders was outright murdered, or put in prison, or exiled (if he escaped). The 13th admendment is said to forbid slavery but it has this clause “except when the gov’t [decides] a crime has been committed.” What a loophole. How could it be that such a horror as slavery could have been tolerated? one person asks. Well, the horror of the prison system is tolerated — and it’s not kept wholly invisible. As I’ve become convinced every single person in the US or UK (maybe Canada too), the people I talk and write with has had him or herself, or a beloved relative or close friend cancer, so every black family in the US is has lost a relative and/or friend to this (now privately owned capitalist) devouring people machine.

It’s a deeply pessimistic film for at its end several of speakers suggest that this kind of re-incarnation is almost impossible to stop — unless you were to smash the central structure and beliefs of the US. People are living in hideous punitive slave conditions in many of these hell-holes. Sometimes decades of solitary confinement. Most committed no crime when taking a drug which only harmed yourself (and you should be sent to a medical center) is the basic cause of the sentence. When the old man lays dead on the bathroom floor, someone announces explicitly he died because of decisions of the state. A seemingly anonymous world. “Nobody’s fault, I’m just doing my job say all the authority figures but one

To see this you need only go to Netflix streaming, after which you can listen to an intelligent discussion of the film by Oprah Winfrey and Vernay.

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Ian Merrill Peakes as Timon seen through mirrors

A rarely performed play, I suggest that Timon of Athens (directed by Robert Richmond, and many technical people made the set and atmosphere), the play, I say, was chosen because like I, Daniel Blake and 13th, Timon is a profoundly indignant and angry work. Shakespeare just shows this more than Vernay and Loach; I hear him again as I did in Hamlet and Lear, indirectly in Macbeth, pouring his soul out throgh these tragic figures. Like the two films, it too is appropriate to what’s happening in our world today. Barbara McKay’s critique includes a concise summary of the nature and contrast between the play’s two parts. Kristin Franco’s review emphasizes the greed, hypocrisy, total lack of loyalty, hateful core of this society in the first half and the despair of Timon alone on stage with 5 visitors (rather like a Greek classic play, or anticipating Samson Agonistes). The dramaturgy is set up as an analogy. In the first half everyone overdressed, over-talking, neon lights, ceiling light, a light use of strobe creates this pervasive madness, which after a while others do not realize is around them (because they’ve produced normalizing discourses). People run about with ipads, there is a great deal of sheer flash. Everyone pretends, everyone on the hunt for best personal advantage. The one exception is the Jacques-like characer (AYLI), Apemantus.


Grovelling
Crowd-sourcing —

There is a Kent character too: Flavius, played by a black actress.

Everyone else lives off Timon, pretends gratitude. He loses all his money, his place at court, and no one will lend him money or help him. The noise, the extragavant dancing, the extroversion of the inner heart of the play was good. Effective theater. They sneer, say he must’ve deserves it. Things he cherished (books) mean nothing as he becomes disillusioned of his imaginary images of a better state, fine people, any chance for decent humane forgiving values to prevail. I thought of Coriolanus who had given his all to his people, but could not come down from his arrogance and when he fought hard and did not get the rank he deserved, he crosses over — only to find himself brutally murdered.


Individual moments show intensely good feeling – as if the actors knowing they would not be permitted to have generous hearts or the nobility of those black heroes risking their lives

I loved the second half. Now we are on a bleak bare stage. Timon keeps calling for a tree (you’d think he’s read Waiting for Godot). Timon the ultimate deportee, in rags, lucid raging, the great actor who made the production, Ian Merrill Peakes kneels, grounds himself to the ground. Here is the famous misanthrope. He is justified in his conclusions, but the play leaves open room that he had the responsibility to go under, to fight Trump and his gang. All he accuses his ex-friends for is what we hear praised and excused each day. He insists on his excuses: this made me anticipate a hard comeuppance, and so it is. His house, the natural world now turn on him. No friends. Timonechoes Hamlet: as in response he plays half-ironic anticks in word and deed, I was reminded of Lear on the heath. Timon does feels for the “unhoused.” Also of Beckett as Timon goes into another hell-hole, soliloquizing. They reject all the glitter and vanity of opulent riches. No one from the first half of the play is forgotten, all brought back and all exposed. But they are not forgiven because they do not repent. At end Timon dies of heartbreak, exhaustion, inanition from self-starvation.

A play, a documentary and a fictional film which feels like a documentary for our time.

Ellen

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The fens, marshlands of East Anglia (from Waterland 1992)

Children [are those] to whom, throughout history, stories have been told, chiefly but not always at bedtime, in order to quell restless thoughts; whose need of stories is matched only by the need adults have of children to tell stories to, of receptacles for their stock of fairy-tales, of listening ears on which to unload, bequeath those most unbelievable yet haunting of fairy-tales, their own lives … quoted from Waterland by George Landow in an essay on the novel (Studies in the Literary Imagination, 23:2 [Fall 1990]:197-211)

Friends and readers,

One of my kind Net-friends, someone who writes to me and whom I write back to a lot, we read together, share thoughts, asked me tonight if I could recommend some gentle, gentle movie and how hard they are to come by. I did have one, I watched it over the past two nights, as well as much of the voice-over commentary and a feature on the music: Waterland, directed by Stephen Gyllenhall, scripted by Peter Prince, based on a profound and inexhaustible novel by Graham Swift: Waterland. Yes, another Booker Prize book, this one merely short-listed. I listened to Christian Rodska read it aloud on an MP3 in my car on and off for a few weeks. So you can say it’s provided much imaginative and spiritual and intellectual sustenance for me. I gave the course I did this season on these books, because they are themselves inexhaustible, so many and still coming, and yet there is a core similarity among most of them, one that answers to needs in my lonely soul.

My excuse was I was teaching my beloved Last Orders — and I re-watched that deeply resonant film too, and showed some of it to the class, wrote about it again in the form of notes for a lecture. What can I say about it? Shall I begin with what what reached my soul last night: Jeremy Irons’s voice as Tom Crick, a history teacher, telling his students stories, opening up to them his vulnerability, that aching gentle elegant voice, tall thin and tortured was the way his body was once made fun of (he’s the narrator-center of the truly great mini-series, Brideshead Revisited), but in this film becoming deeply genial whenever an opportunity opens, listening to others and accepting what they say (sometimes tough, often lies, but occasionally out of their inmost soul a need), and then coming back with a response that elicits from most a reasoned reply


In the classroom

I can’t say it’s a hopeful over-story, for he is being fired, forced out because who wants to know history? what use is what is called history, asks one arrogant student in a love-revenge relationship with him, Price in the book, played by a very young Ethan Hawke. How dare he tell personal private stories (about his adolescent sex life, married life, treatment by the principle of teachers) instead of what’s in the curriculum?


A dream vision where suddenly (as happens a lot) Crick’s story turns into “reality” and we are in a dream vision back in an earlier time so here Crick is showing Price the bedroom his mother died in, where he grew up afterward

Swift was accused of plagiarizing Faulkner in his Last Orders, and readers persist in this pairing (plus Thomas Hardy and Dickens) to explain literary sources for Waterland. Swift doesn’t deny them, but he cites as often Virginia Woolf, her Waves, her To the Lighthouse: her landscape is the same East Anglian marshlands where she finally did away with herself, the center of the second book a meditation on time equivalent in magnificent stasis and meditative richness as the whole of Waterland. For Swift water, the sea, is a central image for life and for the unanswerability of death, the silence when people disappear (as my Jim has forever), and so too Virginia Woolf, from The Voyage Out, to her slighter sketches along the Thames.

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The windmill — where important events in all three stories take place ….

“Real solemn history, I cannot be interested in…The quarrels of popes and kings, with wars or pestilences, in every page; the men all so good for nothing, and hardly any women at all.” — Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey, Chapter 14

The book and film ask the question what is history? in the book as narrator Swift asks, why is this set of events put in history books and not that? Why do we learn about who was murdered at the guillotine and not who was building a system of locks in the marshlands, who was draining the lands in France or East Anglia? Which after all had the most lasting useful effect? And anyway (not mentioned explicitly by Swift, but it’s assumed we know) numbers of the French landowners and relatives guillotined were killed because they enclosed the lands their peasants had farmed, overcharged to drive them away, in order to drain it and make huge sums from large agriculture. In England the story of Crick’s great-grandparents, the Atkinsons who reclaimed the land bit by bit. In Waterland there is as much about drainage and how to make good beer from hops (a subject at least alluded to in Last Orders) and how to beat the competition out to be a successful business and distributor as there is in Moby Dick about whales. Some might find this tiresome, but Rodska manages to put it across.

The story of the film and book are the same — this is a film which means to convey the book as nearly as a sellable commodity in filmic art can. It needs unraveling and only gradually unfolds (as in Last Orders). Del Ivan Janik (“History and the ‘Here and Now’: The Novels of Graham Swift.” Twentieth Century Literature, 35:1 [Spring 1989]: 74-88) provides a good retelling:

The novel’s structure is rambling and recursive, intermixing episodes from three major elements. The first of these elements is a history of the Fenland and of the prominent entrepreneurial Atkinson family and the obscure, plodding Crick family, from the seventeenth century to the marriage of the narrator’s parents after World War I. The second consists of events of the 1940s: Mary Metcalf’s adolescent sexual experimentation with Tom, Crick and his “potato-head” half brother Dick (who in his demented father/grandfather’s eyes is the “Saviour of the World”), Dick’s murder of Freddie Parr, Mary’s abortion, Tom’s revelation of Dick’s incestuous conception and Dick’s consequent suicide by drowning, Tom’s return from the war and his marriage to Mary. The final element involves events of 1980, the narrative present: Mary’s religious visions, her kidnapping of a baby (whom she calls a “child of God”) from a supermarket, her committal to a mental institution, and Tom’s loss of his position as a history teacher. The structure is not chaotic, for each of these three major elements, as it comes to the forefront of the narrative, is treated more or less chronologically; but as a whole the novel conforms to Tom’s characterization of history: “It goes in two directions at once. It goes backwards as it goes forwards. It loops. It takes detours” because “there are no compasses for journeying in time.”

Mary Metcalf is played by two different actresses, Lena Headley as the young Mary who is aggressively sexual with four boys, and becomes pregnant by Tom (Grant Warnock, the young Tom), and is driven to obtain an abortion which seems to have deprived her of the ability ever after to have children. (As with Last Orders, you cannot avoid two different sets of actors to play the characters at widely disparate decades of their lives). I much preferred Sinead Cusack in her role as the older Mary, she had the same mesmerizing presence as Irons, told her delusions, held on to them for dear life with the same persistent gentleness.


The older Mary and Tom standing together after their nightly walk (for decades, like Jim and I in NYC at the top of Manhattan and then here in Old Town Alexandria) looking over Pittsburgh (a senseless substitute for England, probably done on the theory you need something American to attract an American audience)

We never see Mary put into an institution nor the institution. the last scene of the movie has the older Tom, now retired and with no company, wandering in marshes with a dream of Mary seeking a baby in front of him. The book ends with Tom’s memories of his mentally retarded (the term used in the 1930s and even the 1980s) older brother, Dick (played almost unrecognizably by David Morrissey), in a boat sailing down the river with Tom, and his father (played in the movie by the ever memorabley Peter Postlethwaite). The three together, the family left. A comforting image but underneath is violence: mocked and jeered at, Dick falls in love with Mary (who does wrongly go after him sexually) and when the arrogant rapist-criminal type, Freddie Parr, claims he is Mary’s lover, Dick murders him through a clever ruse of accidental drowning. Dick thinks the baby he, Dick, should have sired, was sired by Parr. Perhaps good riddance? Tom admits he fears his brother. Dick is never thought of as a cause of Parr’s death, and we can see his mostly isolated life is punishment enough for him.

Swift repeatedly has autistic characters in his novels: disability is often at the core of Booker Price books and films (as for example, The Sense of an Ending, when we discover the child our aging hero (played in that film by Jim Broadbent) sired by another aggressive femme fatale type (I don’t claim feminism for Swift) turned out to be a gently autistic baby. Broadbent has spent decades alone because his wife (Harriet Walter) and others know that (in a moment of jealous spite) he cursed the young woman without knowing that the curse could be seen to have come true.


The class trip — made funny by the flags and stacking of the students


The country house they arrive at

I like hard stories — for me comfort and strength emerge when the matter put before me is believably life and the characters somehow or other cope, survive, that is my sort of contented ending. I think Last Orders is a directly comforting book — the way the characters remain friends as they betray, prey on, love and help and support one another; while Waterland is not even if it has its comforting scenes. What Waterland offers is indirect strength by putting before us how history doesn’t stop and taking us through the different lives and eras, including the day-long talks to the students as Tom takes them to old country houses (in England, how this happens from Pittsburgh is explained as dream visions by him which alternate with the students in a comic bus on a tour), to villages, to pubs, to someone’s house for dinner, to remembered rooms, a windmill, into trains and out, to the classroom, to the auditorium where the principle hypocritically congratulates Tom on his wonderful career now (forceably) coming to an end, to a supermarket where a frantic mother is so relieved when Tom and Mary return her baby.


The train when young

In real life Cusack and Irons married and have been married for many years: here they are at a recent demonstration on behalf of laboring people, the National Health, against war and imperalism:

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Graham’s novel’s real vindication of life, and the film’s is in the telling of these stories. We harken, we listen, we feel things are made some sense of, we express ourselves, we come into contact with deeply imagined and thus known and understood presences.

Children [are those] to whom, throughout history, stories have been told, chiefly but not always at bedtime, in order to quell restless thoughts; whose need of stories is matched only by the need adults have of children to tell stories to, of receptacles for their stock of fairy-tales, of listening ears on which to unload, bequeath those most unbelievable yet haunting of fairy-tales, their own lives (from the book).

The importance of stories seen from the perspective another Booker Prize book: when I was lecturing, discussing with a class at the OLLI at Mason The English Patient, we talked of Kipling, an important influence (intertextual source) for that novel and book. I have never read Kipling’s Kim, nor most of his colonialist stories, only seen a film adaptation of The Man who would be King. But Jim enjoyed Kipling (scroll down to read a Kiplingesque poem written for Jim when he retired), once read a story by Kipling aloud to me to comfort me when I came home from the Library of Congress crying. I thought a rare novel by Charlotte Smith I had located and put on my shelf (inside a rotunda for those with reading desks) had been stolen. I remember feeling better by the end. I told the class of how Jim read aloud several of Kipling’s Just So stories to Laura and I in front of a fire in this house (he had made) and paraphrased the loving endings Kipling as narrator voices to the child as his “best beloved.” To my surprise about 3/4s of the class knew these stories, had read them as children. I never — until when Laura was 6 or 7 he read them aloud to her and me.

Today was not such an easy day. It was Mother’s Day but for Izzy and I it was a usual Sunday: we shopped in the morning for food, and in the afternoon went to a movie together: a remarkable one I’ll blog about later this week: A Quiet Passion about Emily Dickenson. We had good talk about the movie and poet afterward. Laura, my older daughter, wished me a happy mother’s day by sending me a photo of her cat attempting to lick the person on the other side of the photo

Thao, who lives in Canada, and I used to call my third daughter, an ex-student who visited me shortly after Jim died, sent me a card and loving words.

I am reading two wonderful books, Oliphant’s Kirsteen, and Claude Berry’s county book, Portrait of Cornwall, which I will also tell of separately. But it takes strength to hold together when I know others are out enjoying themselves in clubs, dinners, traveling. A 70+ year old widow’s life. I watered my flowers tonight. I have my two cats near by — one squatting on my lap, the other playing with a string. Tomorrow I will resume going to the gym for a class in strengthening exercise which attracts some 50+ people around my age. It’s cheering for me.

I have yet to pick my movie for tonight. I am trying to do without sleeping pills now, to rid myself of all drugs. So I need to be sure to get one the right amount of time and tone.

My Iranian friend who has translated Woolf into Farsi and runs a small magazine sent me this poem by email too today:

After You’ve Gone

After you’ve gone, the rhododendrons
of Anacortes remain fully in bloom,
the islands are still deep green
in their blue-green sea, and the gulls
wheel and turn in breezes that never die,

but I am alone like the shell
of a bombed cathedral, a precious ruin.
— Sam Hamill

Ellen

My day’s journey has been pleasanter in every respect than I expected. I have been very little crowded and by no means unhappy. –Jane Austen, Letters (24 Oct 1798)

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Hana (Juliette Binoche) looking around villa wistfully before moving in with her patient (The English Patient, 1996, Anthony Minghella)

Echo is the sound of the voice exciting itself in hollow places — a phrase from Christopher Smart’s poem to his cat Jeffrey which repeats across the novel. Smart was put into an insane asylum by his family, exiled, displaced, left to rot. He was kept company by his cat Jeffrey: For I will consider my cat Jeffrey is an extraordinary masterpiece of a touching poem.

Dear friends and readers,

I am increasingly remiss about writing to my wider circle of readers and friends. I will try this summer to return to more frequent blogging, especially about the books I’ve been reading.

This spring I have been having such a good time with all three of my classes of retired adult readers at two Oscher Institutes of LifeLong Learning, pouring myself into everything that leads to a good lecture and discussion as a teacher, and what’s necessary to participate as one of the “learners.”

One book that for me functions as an absorption into beauty through extraordinarily poetic rich literary prose and loving compassionate comfort from the believable relationships among the characters who are presented up close to us is Ondaatje’s The English Patient: the charred remnants of the witty, humbled Almasy, the as yet undefeated by death mothering-nurse Hana, the desperately seeking meaning, once tortured Caravaggio, the utterly self-sacrificing figures of true integrity, the bomb disposal soldiers, Kirpal Singh and his lieutenant Hardy. Turned in Minghella’s movie into a wildly unreal romance of death between a Scarlet Pimpernel kind of hero (again Count Almasy, Ralph Fiennes now heroic adventurer in the desert) and self-deprecating warm-hearted Rebecca (Katharine Clifton). One admits in the film the actors present characters so deeply well-meaning and humane, in a film of unsurpassing visual beauty (the desert becomes sheer color), soaring music, that I could never cease from watching. The DVD had a second disk whose features about the making of the movie are (put together) longer than the 2 hour film story. It was such a commercial success (as has been the book) I’m just going to assume, you, gentle reader, have read the book and seen the movie.

So what can I say that might be of interest? Well we read it in my course called the Booker Prize marketplace niche. It is a quintessential example of the best kind of literary masterpiece that wins the prize. It speaks to us in our present political and economic predicament. for the characteristics of these books, see my blog On Using a Long Spoon: the Booker Prize (scroll down).

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Count Almasy (as yet unnamed, Ralph Fiennes) listening irritatedly to Katharine Clifton’s chatter as they drive through the desert

No book occurs in a vacuum and like so many Booker prize books this one has a rich context, which nowadays includes the movie in our emotional memories.

I begin with Ondaatje, as the book, the source of our talk and the film’s script comes out of the soul of the author: multinational multicultural, family divorced. While the elite of a colonialist nation – a colony – often lose out when the imperialist government in the “center” departs, which partly accounts for why his family left Sri Lanka, and moved to Britain and then Canada, he went to the upper class elite type boys’ public school. born on 12 September 1943 in Kegalle, fifty miles west of Colombo, the capital of what was then Ceylon (sehLOHN) and is now Sri Lanka. His family owned a tea plantation, members of the Eurasian élite. Name tells you the originals are probably Dutch — the Dutch early colonized the Spice Islands (as they were called).

When he is 2, his parents divorce (his father violent, alcoholic) and his mother and he go to live in Colombo where he goes to a boys’ school modeled on upper class British schools: St Thomas Boys’ College. Many of the countries Britain colonized took some form of this and you can find versions in US prep schools. So British/English background very strong. He moved to England in 1952 (age 9) and goes to Dulwich College, an old public school with strong academic record and long literary associations. In 1962 he moved to Canada (age 19) where his older brother was living and enters another school rooted in British traditions, Bishop’s University, only it’s in Quebec which is French speaking and strongly French in culture. He’s lived in Canada ever since — with time out for visits to Sri Lanka.

As far as I can tell his novels are set either in Canada or Sri Lanka except for The English Patient. He has written a memoir; In the Skin of the Lion is a powerful historical novel (set in earlier 20th century and Canada). His novels are discussed as Canadian and compared to other Canadian novels. He calls himself an someone with a migrant’s perspective, and it’s one that is more than double

When independence comes to a colonized place, the old élite often loses out badly, not only in terms of money and property but in the sense of their identity. They don’t belong in the “old” or mother country. They are themselves then the marginalized and deprived. Which is what happened to Ondaatje’s father and his mother in a double sense (divorced too). This marginalization of the previous bosses now aging is the subject of an early Booker Prize winner: Staying On

His background is that of the commercial writer, someone who makes his living through writing, not writing and teaching in a university (which many writers do as most people can’t make enough money from writing to support themselves). He left a university post when he didn’t do a Ph.D. thesis; he’s on his second marriage. He’s also a poet; in fact his earliest successes were as a poet. There’s a Trick I’m learning to Do with a Knife is a book of poems. His education is that of the upper class élite, but his homelife one of a displaced person. He seems to have a penchant for admiring the adventurer male, for finding release and romance and meaning in the lives of those who live on the social edge and are unconventional. An early book of poems and narratives is called The Collected Works of Billy the Kid: Left Handed Poems. Billy the Kid was a psychopath, homicidal, and not really a conventional hero whatever cowboy stories might make of him.

Booker Prize books are deeply rooted in history, the past, meditate the unknowability of history at the same time as uncovering its layers through memories of the characters and in depth presentation of the story’s cultural nexus. The books to read are: Saul Kelly’s The Lost Oasis: The Desert War and the Hunt for Zerzura, Paul Carrell’s The Desert Foxes (1960, from German point of view, non-fiction), and H. O. Dovey’s Operation Condor: Intelligence and National Security (1989, an M15 Man based in War Office in Middle East).

Who was Count Laszlo or Ladislaus Ede Almasy? He was a Hungarian count from an ancient family; born in deepest Hungary; he was educated as an aristocrat and his politics were deeply reactionary. He was an anti-semitic Nazi; he sold secrets to the Germans which probably led to deaths of spies on the Allies’ side. That is one way he lived. He also spied for the Soviet Union and he spied for England. He had to have done the latter as it’s the only way to explain his escape from a prison for Nazi spies which someone helped him escape from. Almazy was the kind of person you can’t buy; they are only for rent. He was probably not a nice man. Indeed he was probably a bad man in many ways, amoral. The world of spies is still a dirty and nasty one; it is still filled with amoral types. The world is I’m afraid made up of such people and they sometimes end up running countries nowadays — if they can spout piety at people and have control of the military.

Almasy’s was a marginalized family (like Ondaatje’s). By the 1910s aristocrats were out and his family was cash poor. The way to grow rich was not to go on adventures through the desert which is what he did. The way to grow rich is become an investment banker, to go into industry, build railroads and interconnective communications, be in short bourgeois, self-controlled and dull. You do like Donald Trump – buy and bankrupt companies and sell early; Romney did that too. You don’t spend all your hours hanging out in Shepheard’s Hotel in Cairo reading poetry and getting very drunk. Almasy was your adventurer-explorer. He was also homosexual. He left a packet of intense love letters to another man. He was passionate and romantic; the homoerotic aspect of his character is hinted at in the relationship between Madox and Almasy in the book and the film.


Madox (Julian Wadham) as yet not aware his friend a possible spy, is angry over Almasy’s apparent carelessness over the maps and papers detailing plans

Elizabeth Pathy Salett, the daughter of a Hungarian diplomat posted in Egypt in the 1930s, said that the count had planned a desert museum as a front for German espionage. She lived in Washington, DC and her father, Laszlo Pathy, was Hungarian consul general in Alexandria, Egypt; she wrote an article for The Washington Post that outlined how Almasy sought revenge against her father. After the count’s museum plans were scotched in 1936 because the Egyptian king learned that the museum was planned as a cover, the count blamed her father, Mrs. Salett said.

Six years later, while in Rommel’s service, the count sneaked into Cairo for 10 days, Mrs. Salett said. On his way out the British confiscated his briefcase and found a list of the people Rommel planned to arrest when he occupied Egypt. Among the names, she said, was her father’s. For Mrs. Salett, and other Hungarians who have seen “The English Patient,” the movie portrait of Almasy is “amoral and ahistorical.” She said that by ignoring the count’s work for the Germans, Ondaatje, who won the Booker Prize for his novel, trivialized the “significance of the choices men like Almasy made.”

Almasy (as in Ondaatje’s book) cultured, well educated in among other things geology, and he become part of a group of people living in or continually visiting Africa between the 1910s and 1940s who were interested in exploring the desert. Some were archaeologists (Louis Leakey was one of these), some big-game hunters, some plantation builders. He was an important member of the Royal Geographical Society in North Africa which was international in membership; he wrote a couple of important monographs on the desert. He did heroic research and deeds. He crossed the desert alone under very extreme circumstances more than once.

There was no such person as Madox — though Almasy’s had lovers. He is fictional but there was a Geoffrey and Katharine Clifton. It’s not clear whether Geoffrey was a spy; he might have been. He was also a genuine explorer; he died young and Katharine was an adventurous woman. She died during World War Two in a plane crash. A whole group of them in Kenya found in Isak Dinesen’s Out of Africa. West with the Night a classic book by Beryl Markheim, bush pilot; like other women people have claimed she didn’t write her book. She did not die in a plane crash but lived in poverty for a while until her book was rediscovered, she gained back friends with her money and became a horse trainer. Plane crashes were not an uncommon way to die among the members of this group. The Royal Geographical Society threw up another political figure probably much more important than Almasy; he’s mentioned in the book and I think in the film (though I’m not sure): Major Ralph Bagnold. Post-modern history prefers to tell of the subaltern, the marginalized.

Bagnold is said to have helped the British take over much of the desert and succeed in beating the Nazis in the desert. Like Almasy, he had at his fingertips and in his brains solid knowledge of how to live in the desert, how to survive, how to carry on a campaign, and he headed important groups of military people in the mid 1940s. He was awarded all kinds of high medals at the end of the war. Almasy was awarded the Iron Cross for his actions by Field Marshall Rommel and died in 1951 of dysentery.

Ondaatje must’ve done enormous research both on the desert, on this Royal Geographical Society (all sorts of small details turn up which are transformed into the fiction) and into Almasy’s own life. This beyond the literary intertextuality that is continual. A certain kind of Booker Prize book is like this: Wolf Hall by Mantel is this way.

He also researched the way the way was fought in Italy, landmine bombing; there is much transformed information about World War Two, about the migrations of peoples across Italy. Italy was a melting pot people moved up and down and ravaged the place; amazing anything left except that it was not bombed from the sky in the way Germany, England and Japan were. Japan suffered by the way horrendous losses even before the two atom bombs. Much of England’s old structures on the ground were destroyed; a couple of German cities were firebombed to the point that you probably could not have killed more people had you dropped an atom bomb. Back of book, credits show he read up on experience of Canadians in World War Two. The descriptions of the defusing of the bombs is utterly accurate and as I said you could worse as background for this book than watch the 1970s mini-series, Danger UXB.

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Kip (Naveen Andrews) and Hana’s first encounter — in the ruined library which he rightly worries is landmined

The book’s deep archetype is (perhaps unexpectedly seeing the above background) home: the characters we learn to know and love rebuild themselves a new family, and a home: in the movie we do see Hana (played in the movie by the lovely Juliette Binoche) gardening a lot; several times a family is formed and it’s destroyed or can’t last under the forces of war, colonialization and the way society is structured which pulls everyone hither and yon. The book to me – you may disagree – has this deep motif of retreat which I see in A Month in the Country (the second book we did in this class on the Booker Prize) – the world of art, science, thought imagination and without stretching it one can say The bookshop (the first) stands for that with its wonderful set of books as originally set out and described by Florence Green.

The English Patient is deeply post-colonial: a protest on behalf of the marginalized subaltern person subject to the economic and political and military domination of the patriarchal imperial west. In an interview Ondaatje is quoted as having said: “There are a lot of international bastards roaming around the world today. That’s one of the books (and film’s) main stories or themes.” It is also post-modern, characterized by high scepticism towards the idea that people really believe in enlightenment moral values and act based on these, and that these values will save our civilization from horrific self-destruction.

As the novel opens we meet two exiles, Hana and Almasy (Ralph Fiennes), then a third, Caravaggio (William Dafoe), and finally a fourth, Kip or Kirpal Singh (Naveen Andrews), with sidekick, Hardy (Kevin Whateley): who’s not that much a felt presence in the book; he is made much more of in the film, but he stands for all that is decent in the normative). They are living in an abandoned house which was built in the Renaissance, the house of a great poet and learned man, Poliziano. Repeatedly the novel connects present time with the past to show how much what we experience today and do is continuous and built upon what others experienced and did in the past. While far fewer and less varied, the war scenes are as realistic, seriously felt and realized as Tolstoy’s in War and Peace.

All displaced and exiled characters; at the same time they are rooted in their original cultures and don’t forget their earliest experiences. In England we find people who are deeply rooted: Madox, Lord Suffolk, Miss Morden, Mr Harts, who form an English family for Kirpal or Kip (named so as to allude to Kipling’s Kim) and the Cliftons (Geoffrey is played by Colin Firth) who are very upper class British.

It’s a novel about attempts at healing too. They find comfort in one another, read together, listen to music, the deepest wounded take morphine and drink condensed milk. The character Cavavaggio is especially important when he decides not to murder the English patient. The villa is a kind of Eden, an escape, a primitive garden, a cul-de-sac. The people come together without technology.

The beauty of the figures in the Cave of Swimmers is repeated in the beauty of the figures on the church walls in Italy, the songs from the old fashioned record player, the piano. What does sex become in the villa? Not this violent challenge, this devouring of one another. But nurturing. I’m attracted to the character of Hana and Caravaggio and their friendship: niece and uncle. He and Hana are my favorite characters. Displaced daughter/father lovers; “You have to protect yourself from sadness. Sadness is very close to hate”; each of them in their “own spheres of memory and solitude”; “To rest was to receive all aspects of the world without judgement. A bath in the sea, a fuck with a soldier who never knew your name. Tenderness towards the unknown and anonymous, which was a tenderness to the self” (p. 49). I find Hana a beautiful character; so too the way Cavaravaggio is presented — in the novel.

In novel Almasy says he hates ownership. In film this idea is scotched because he is turned into a sexually jealous man who wants to own Katharine. But in the book it’s a significant theme. Who owns who? Does anyone? Whom do we learn from? Ondaatje has said a central relationship in the novel is that between Kip and Almasy: the colonialized and the elite European male. Kip learns to respect the man but he demurs at the books which argue for colonization and marginalizing his people. Why are they paired?

Rudyard Kipling’s Kim is an ultimate colonialist text; there’s a deliberate echo of the name Kim in the nickname Kip. I’ve never read Kipling’s famous novel, Kim, though I have read his The Man who would be kind; Jim my husband read aloud his children’s Just so stories to my older daughter – how did the elephant get its trunk, the camel its hump, Rhinoceros its skin – they all end with this loving coda to the child being spoken to. Tone at end reminds me of Randall Jarrell’s Animal Family. Kipling has a bad reputation today but it’s unfair. It has poems by Kipling, original book had glorious and interesting illustrations.

Herodotus, the book Almasy clings to, puts his photographs and letters in, was an early Greek historian; called the father of lies. He tells a very slanted history. He is known for his folk stories and mythic geography. Great chronicle with world wide scope.

It’s a novel about a world in ruin but also asserts that the world has always been in ruin. We cling to these roles because we don’t know what else to do. Cultural identities are given people. People insist English patient English. Why? Because of his culture. We see our characters make alliances based on individual affinity and congeniality of outlook and taste not biology and cultural ritual. Body as a site of resistance is very frail in the book. People smashed easily, burned up. Now you are here, now you are not. Lord Suffolk trinity; Hardy. Violence important in book: barbarity of people to another another; indifference of natural world.

Its meditation on the place of memory accounts for the rearrangement of time to be subjective. The language gorgeous: a voice of his own. Splendour of imagery everywhere, songsong lyric quality.

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Katharine Clifton (Kristen Scott Thomas) telling the story of Candaules and Gyges (voyeuristic husband turns murderous over lover) from Herodotus as the other men listen …. in the desert

It’s useful to compare a film adaptation to a novel since you have much of the same story matter. By seeing what’s omitted you can gauge both the thematic resonances the film wanted to avoid and the new ones they put in place. The same goes for looking at what’s added. On average another statistic at 37% of the original story matter remains; the rest is added. This is a case where the movie has gotten so intertwined with people’s memories of the book I have now to differentiate the movie from the book.

Minghella’s film reverses the emphasis of the book: specifically the romance story of Almasy (Ralph Fiennes) and Katharine Clifton (Kristin Scott Thomas) with adultery and the jealous rage of Geoffrey Clinton (Colin Firth) takes over the movie. If you look at the book, after the initial seeing of the airplane in flight over the desert, the shooting down by Germans, the burning of Almasy and trek through the desert, we do not return to the story of Almasy and the woman we saw in the plane until the middle of the book’s 4th section, Cairo (1930-38), of ten, and don’t get into it in earnest until the 5th called Katharine. In the film this material is continually there, moved up front, woven into the story of Hana, Almasy as charred patient, Caravaggio, and Kip in the Villa San Girolamo (presented as once the home of Poliziano, a Renaissance prince and writer), is added to, and forms an important part of the final ending when the initial scene is finally explained. In the book the explanation for the woman in the airplane (we are do not know she’s a corpse when we first see her) is finished at the end of the 9th section, “Cave of Swimmers,” (where we see the ancient drawings of swimmers inside a cave) which contains also considerable material on Madox (Julian Wadham), implicitly Almasy’s lover, whose suicide matters in the book and is hardly mentioned, much less explained in the film (from horror at the church worship of the war, from loss of Almasy’s love, from Almasy’s betrayal of the British as a German spy); after which we the 10th section, “August,” move back to life at the villa, Kip and Hana’s love affair, Kip disposing and defusing bombs at great personal risk, the atom bomb, and Kip’s strong revulsion, and coda in Sri Lanka and Canada, where Kip has returned to his home culture to become a doctor and family man, and Hana retreated from the world to an island with her aunt, while Caravaggio resumes his role as wanderer, which coda is left out of the movie altogether.

Kip’s building of an English family in Sussex with the delightful Lord Morden (who never left Sussex in his life), his secretary Miss Morden (the name alludes to death), and their loving butler, with the thermos and sandwiches — they explore the geology of Britain together — all omitted. If you do not read the book you may see Kip simply as Hana’s lover. In the book he is not only a Sikh, but also an Anglophile, risking his life endlessly to save the Allies and people of Europe. His affair with Hana is counterpointed against the affair of Katharine and Almasy with more resonances and depths, and neither the major story. He does not break away because of Hardy’s death but because of the dropping of the bombs on Japan. His people were regarded as dispensable, wiped out in minutes.

The true model for the Almasy-Katharine story is Baroness Orzcy’s The Scarlett Pimpernel crossed by DuMaurier’s Rebecca. Think The Prisoner of Zenda. A band of English gentlemen dedicated to rescuing innocent aristocratic victims of the French revolution. The hero whose name is Sir Percy Blakeney appears to be effete (subtle, sensitive, impeccable manner, has read the classics) but is in fact a determined man of action. I hope no one needs me to summarize Rebecca, a femme fatale (it’s actually a misreading of the book but that’s another blog). It is simply factually true that Rebecca was used as a code book by the Nazi spies: it was carried about by Almasy’s men into Cairo. It’s just the sort of thing that might have appealed to the real Almasy who thrilled to adventure and romance.

Hana is no longer central; Katherine is — though they are treated as a double figure. In the book Almasy tells Hana about the winds; in the film, he tells Katharine.
The inimitable Kevin Whateley as Hardy — carrying Kip’s boots to be cleaned

Nonetheless, there is much gain too. The film ends differently: the film stays true to the transnationalism of the rest of the book. By showing torture you bring it home to people. The way the film opens and closes on the plane, desert and cave of swimmes, with the desert and the incessant maps assuming the function of presences, characters. Almasy chooses to die in the film; Caravaggio is given more intensity against Almasy in the film.

Actors enrichen a work: William Dafoe is particularly good, and Fiennes through his makeup. Hana too has inner beauty. With his small role as Madox, Julian Wadham does very well. He has presence and overshadows Kip as someone in relationship to the English patient.

Let’s not be snobs: there is a splendid visual quality. From Allen Stone’s review on line (“Herodotus Goes Hollywood”):

The English Patient is stunning, filled with archetypal, exotic, and oneiric images. The film contrasts the browns of the desert with the greens of Northern Italy, the scarified face of the burned English patient with the handsome profile of the Count. Constantly finding creative camera angles and perspectives, the cinematography intrigues and fascinates from the opening scene. And it sustains that intensity for more than two and a half hours.

The English Patient begins with a close-up of a painter’s brush drawing exotic figures on a textured surface. We have no idea who the painter is or what the figures represent. Eventually we will learn that Katherine Clifton is the painter and that she is copying figures from the walls of the “cave of swimmers”–a real cave discovered by European explorers of the desert between the two world wars.

Minghella makes them into a team whose members are of diverse nationalities; he does not want to deny the possibility of love which is what the book does. At the end in the desert Almasy paints the corpse and does not weep. Hana returns to her family; so too Kip.

The film ends with a sad but hopeful image of Hana in that truck with the child beside her, clutching Herodotus.

Ellen

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An Arthur Rackham illustration of Undine

Friends,

How all things come together (with or for me). I’ve embarked on teaching Booker Prize novels: a marketplace niche for good books? I include two historical fictions: J.L. Carr’s A Month in the Country and Michael Ondaatje’s English Patient. And today my proposal for teaching a course I’m calling Romancing 18th century historical fiction (scroll down for syllabus) this summer at the same place has now been accepted: the books, Daphne DuMaurier’s King’s General and Susan Sontag’s Volcano Lover. The reality for me is both courses and my interest in the Winston Graham Poldark world, Outlander, seem to swirl around the same compelling immersion: historical fiction.

Is this genre just so much pastiche? I hope not because I wrote a good review of Martha Bowden’s fine book on the subject, and it’s been published in a fine periodical I’m proud to appear in, The Intelligencer (NS, Vol 31:1 [March 2017]:42-45). In order to give my essay more circulation, to tell the contents of this book, I’ve placed the essay on academia.edu.

Ellen

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