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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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From The English Patient: the burnt-up hero (Ralph Fiennes) reading Herodotus, the Canadian who has been tortured (William Dafoe)

A Syllabus

For a course at the Oscher LifeLong Learning Institute at George Mason University
Day: Eight Wednesday later morning into afternoons, 11:50 to 1:15 pm,
March 29 to May 17
Tallwood, 4210 Roberts Road, Fairfax, Va
Dr Ellen Moody

Description of Course

In this course we will discuss four gems of Booker Prize fiction. Some have said the prize functions as a brilliantly exploited marketplace tool aimed at a specific readership niche, just perfect for high quality film adaptations and literary criticism. The selected books are characteristically historical fiction, self-reflexive, witty and passionate, post-colonialist, — plus all have been made into films. Before the class begins, please read Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Bookshop;then in class we’ll read J. L. Carr’s A Month in the Country, Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient, and Graham Swift’s Last Orders

Required Texts (in the order we’ll read them):

Fitzgerald, Penelope. The Bookshop. 1970: rpt. 1997: Boston: Hougton Mifflin. ISBN 0395869463. Or latest edition: Introd. David Nicholls, Mariner, 2015 iSBN: 978-0544484092
Carr, J. L. A Month in the Country. Introd. Michael Holroyd. 1980; rpt. New York Review of Books, 2000. ISBN 0940322471
Ondaatje, Michael. The English Patient. New York: Vintage, 1992.
Swift, Graham. Last Orders. New York: Vintage, 1996.


From Patrick O’Connor and Simon Gray’s A Month in the Country: the protagoniss (Kenneth Branagh and Colin Firth), and stationmaster preacher (Jim Carter)

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

March 29th: 1st week: The politics of selling good books: history of the Booker Prize; we begin with Penelope Fitzgerald

April 5th: 2nd week: Penelope Fitzgerald’s Bookshop; we begin J. L. Carr and A Month in the Country: historical fiction

April 12th: 3rd week: A Month in the Country; clips from the film and discussion

April 19th: 4th week: A Month in the Country; Michael Ondaatje and context for The English Patient

April 26th: 5th week: Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient; clips from the film and discussion

May 3rd: 6th week: The English Partient; begin Graham Swift and post-modernity (Waterlands); Orders

May 10th: 7th week: Last Orders: alternating streams of consciousness; clips from film and discussion

May 17th: 8th week: Finish Last Orders; Return to Booker and other prizes; wide discussion for future courses reading books like these

From Fred Schepisi’s Last Orders (2004): Jack’s four friends (Ray Winston, David Hemminges, Bob Hoskins, Tim Courtney) on the pier, by the sea, and his wife, Amy (Helen Mirren) getting on the bus

Suggested supplementary reading & films:

Cooper, Pamela. Graham Swift’s Last Orders. NY: Continuum, 2002
English, James. “Winning the Culture Game: Prizes, Awards, and the Rules of Art,” New Literary History, 33:1 (Winter, 2002):109-135.
The English Patient. Dir. And Screenplay. Anthony Mingella. With Ralph Fiennes, Kristin Scott Thomas, Juliet Binoche ….. Miramax,1996
Gray, Simon. Old Flames and A Month in the Country: Two Screenplays. London: Faber and Faber, 1990
Huggan, Graham. “Prizing ‘otherness:’ A short history of the Booker,” Studies in the Novel, 29:3 (1997):412-33.
Kelly, Saul. The Lost Oasis: The Desert War and the Hunt for Zerzura: The True Story Behind the English Patient. Boulder, Colorado: Westview, 2002.
Last Orders. Dir and Screenplay. Fred Schepisi. With Helen Mirren, Bob Hoskins, Michael Caine … Sony, 2004.
Lee, Hermione. Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life. New York: Vintage, 2014
Minghella, Anthony. The English Patient: The Screenplay. London: Methuen, 1997.
A Month in the Country. Dir. Patrick O’Connor. Screenplay Simon Gray. With Colin Firth, Patrick Malahide, Kenneth Branagh, Natasha Richardson …. Pennies from Heaven, 1987.
Moseley, Merritt. “Britain’s Booker Prize,” The Sewanee Review, 101:4 (1993):613-22.
Norris, Sharon. “The Booker Prize: A Bourdieusian Perspective,” Journal for Cultural Research, 10:2 (2006):139-58.
Rogers, Byron. The Last Englishman: A Life of J. L. Carr. London: Aurum, 2003.
Showalter, Elaine. “Coming to Blows over the Booker,” Chronicle of Higher Education, 48 (June 2002):42
Strongman, Luke. The Booker Prize and the Legacy of Empire. Netherlands: Rodopi, 2002.
Sutherland, J. A. Fiction and the Fiction Industry. London: Athlone Press, 1978.
Todd, Richard. Consuming Fictions: The Booker Prize and Fiction in Britain Today. London: Bloomsbury, 1996.


The sea and the desert …

Ellen

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John O’Connor (1830-1889), Pentonville — looking west (1884)

A Syllabus

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Household Words

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The Cornhill with an illustration of Framley Parsonage by John Everett Millais as frontispiece

For a Study Group at the Oscher LifeLong Learning Institute at American University
Literature and Language 641: Pivotal City and County Victorian Novels & Victorian Gothic
Day: Ten Monday early afternoons, 11:45 am to 1:15 pm
4801 Spring Valley Building, near American University main campus, Northwest, Washington DC
Dates: Classes start March 6th; last class May 8th, 2017.
Dr Ellen Moody

Description of Course

We’ll read 3 best-sellers: Gaskell’s North and South (1855), Trollope’s Framley Parsonage (1860), and Dickens’s “The Signalman” (1866) plus Margaret Oliphant’s ghost story, “The Library Window” (1896). Gaskell’s “Tale of Manchester Life,” published in Dickens’s highly politicized and socially concerned Household Words, is a radical graphic tale of the life of factory workers, based on a strike and time of near starvation and unmitigated depression, and by a woman. Trollope’s 4th Barsetshire concoction, commissioned by Thackeray at The Cornhill for its first series of issues made The Cornhill, which may be called the New Yorker of its day, enormously popular; Framley Parsonage was intensely as Downton Abbey: Gaskell said of it she wished he would go on writing it forever; she did not see why he should ever stop. FP, seen today also as a complacent pro-establishment book, is a Thackerayan ironic pleasure, wider ranging in its perspectives than is usually noted. Dickens’s short story, unrivaled as a psychological study over a response to machinery from an old world and gothic perspective was the Christmas tale his periodical, All the Year Round, is autobiographical, and was in 1976 adapted into a gem of a BBC film by Andrew Davies. Oliphant’s “Library Window” was serialized in Blackwood’s and is a self-reflexive account of authorship. We’ll explore how these fictions intersect with one another, mirror their shared era, and connect to our own.

Required Texts in the order we’ll read them:

Elizabeth Gaskell, North and South, ed, intro. Patricia Holman. 2003: rpt of Penguin 1995 ed. ISBN: 9780140434248
Anthony Trollope, Framley Parsonage, ed. David Skilton and Peter Miles. Penguin 1986. ISBN 0140432132
Charles Dickens, “The Signalman,” found in The Complete Ghost Stories of Charles Dickens, ed. Peter Hanning. New York: Franklin Watts, 1983. Contains A Christmas Carol and several other gems, plus has original illustrations with stories. It is online in at least 3 places: http://onlinebooks.library.upenn.edu/webbin/gutbook/lookup?num=1289
http://commapress.co.uk/resources/online-short-stories/the-signalman-charles-dickens
Margaret Oliphant’s “Library Window,” https://archive.org/details/Four_Stories_of_the_Seen_and_Unseen. Or from Blackwood’s the first publication: https://archive.org/stream/blackwoodsmagazi159edinuoft#page/n5/mode/2up

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John Constable (1776-1837), Stoke-by-Nayland (1835/6)

Format: Study group meetings will be a mix of informal lecture and group discussion (essays mentioned will be sent by attachment or are on-line).

Mar 6th: In class: Introduction to course: the era, genres; shared themes. Introducing Gaskell: life & work; conflicts with her publisher Dickens

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Medium range shot of Thornton’s cotton factory

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Anna Maxwell Martin as Bessy Higgins (both from Sandy Welch’s North and South, BBC 2004)

Mar 13th: In class: Gaskell’s North and South, Chapters 1-17 (“Haste to the Wedding” through “What is a Strike?”
Mar 20th: In class: North and South, Chs 18-34 (“Like and Dislikes” through “False and True”. Beyond the novel, read for next time: Rosemarie Bodenheimer, North and South: A Permanent State of Change,” Nineteenth-Century Fiction, 34:3 (1979):281-301
Mar 27th: North and South, Chs 35-end (“Expiation” through “Pack Cloudes Away”); . Beyond the novel, for next time Michael D. Lewis, “Mutiny in the Public Sphere Debating Naval Power in Parliament, the Press, and Gaskell’s North and South, Victorian Review, 36:1 (2010):89-113.
Apr 3rd: We begin with clips from the BBC 2004 North and South (scripted by Sandy Welch) and discuss the film adaptation. Then Introducing Trollope: life & works; the Barsetshire series and The Cornhill; read for next time: Trollope’s Framley Parsonage, Chapters 1-15 (or Instalments 1-5, “Omnes Omnia bona dicere” to “Lady Luftons Ambassador.”

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Michael Sadleir’s Barsetshire drawn by a sketch made by Trollope

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The Geroulds’ map of just Framley Parsonage

Apr 10th: Trollope’s Framley Parsonage, Instalments 1-5 (Chapters 1-15: “Omnes omnia bona dicere” to “Lady Lufton’s Ambassador”). For next time read Framley Parsonage, Instalments 6-11 (Chapters 16-33, “Mrs Podgens’ Baby” through “Consolation”); Andrew Maunderley, “Monitoring the Middle-Classes”: Intertextuality and Ideology in Trollope’s “Framley Parsonage and the Cornhill Magazine,” Victorian Periodicals Review (33:1, Cornhill Magazine II, Spring, 2000):44-64.
Apr 17th: Framley Parsonage, Instalments 6-11 (Chapters 16-33, “Mrs Podgens’ Baby” through “Consolation”). Read for next time Instalments 12-16 (Chapters 34-48, “Lady Lufton is taken by Suprise” to “How they all Married, had Two Children and Lived Happily Ever after.” Read also for next time, Stacey Margolis, Trollope for Americanists,” The Journal of Nineteenth-Century, 1:1 (2013):219-228; Mary Hamer, “Trollope’s First Serial Fiction,” The Review of English Studies, New Series, 26:102 (1975):154-170.
Apr 24th: Framley Parsonage, Instalments 12-16 (Chapters 34-48, “Lady Lufton is taken by Suprise” to “How they all Married, had Two Children and Lived Happily Ever after.” Full context for Trollope. Read for next time Dickens’s “The Signalman.” Read also Jill Matus, “Memory and Railway Disaster; The Dickensian Connection,” Victorian Studies 43:3 (Spring 2001):413-36

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William Parrott (1813-69) The Great Eastern Under Construction at Millwall on the Isle of Dogs (1857)

May 1st: Introducing Dickens, Victorian gothic, the Christmas story; his life & work. For next time, watch YouTube of Signalman online (if you can); read for next time: Norris Pope, Dickens’s “The Signalman and Information Problems in the Railway Age,” Technology and Culture, 42:3 (July 2001):436-461′ Tamar Heller, “Women’s Reading and Writing in Margaret Oliphant’s ‘The Library Window=’,” Victorian Literature and Culture, 25:1 (1997):23-37
May 8th: Final discussion of all four texts, the mid-Victorian era, our authors.

Suggested supplementary (outside) reading (the assigned essays will be sent by attachment) and good sources:

Gerould, Winnifred and James. A Guide to Trollope: An Index of the characters and places and digests of the plots of all Trollope’s novels. Princeton UP, 1948.
Halperin, John. Trollope and Politics: A Study of the Pallisers and others. NY: Macmillan, 1977.
Hughes, Linda and Michael Lund. Victorian Publishing and Mrs Gaskell’s Work. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1999.
Kaplan, Fred. Dickens: A Biography. New York: Wm Morrow, 1988.
Nayder, Lillian. The Other Dickens: A life of Catherine Dickens. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 2011.
Overton, Bill. The Unofficial Trollope. NJ: Barnes & Noble, 1982.
Sadleir, Michael. Trollope: a commentary. 1961: rpt London: Constable, 1927.
Snow, C. P. Trollope: An Illustrated Biography. New York: New Amsterdam, 1975.
Steinbach, Susie L. Understanding the Victorians: Culture and Society in 19th Century Britain. London: Routledge, 2012.
Stoneman, Patsy. Elizabeth Gaskell. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1987. Very good short life and works.
Uglow, Jenny. Elizabeth Gaskell: A Habit of Stories. New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1993. The best.
Williams, Merryn. Margaret Oliphant: A Critical Biography. London: St Martin’s Press, 1986.

Films:

The Signalman. Dir. Lawrence Gordeon Clark. Screenplay Andrew Davies. Producer: Rosemary Hill. Featuring Denholm Elliot and Bernard Lloyd. BBC, 1976.

Barchester Chronicles. A 7-part BBC mini-series, 1983. Dr. Gilles. Scripted Alan Plater. Featuring Donald Pleasance, Nigel Hawthorne, Alan Rickman, Eleanor Mawe, Barbara Flynn, Susan Hampshire, Geraldine McEwan, Clive Swift
Dr Thorne. A 3 part IVT mini-series, 2016. Dr Niall McCormick. Scripted Julian Fellowes. Featuring Tom Hollander, Ian McShame, Stephani Martini, Phoebe Nicholls, Richard McCabe, Rebecca Front.
North and South. Dir. Brian Perceval. Screenplay: Sandy Welch. Producer: Kate Bartlett. Featuring Richard Armitage, Daniela Denby-Ashe, Brendan Coyle, Anna Maxwell Martin, Sinead Cusack, Tim Piggott-Smith, Pauline Quirk, Lesley Manville. BBC, 2004.

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Beyond “The Signalman,” Dickens published much of his own fiction there: you see the 1st Instalment of A Tale of Two Cities

Ellen Moody

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The young Sonya and Natasha as we first see them on Natasha and her mother’s name day, Sonya revealing to Natasha how much she loves Nikolai (Episode 1)

Dear friends and readers,

I just loved this mini-series, with Anthony Hopkins as Pierre Bezukhov (quietly marvelous); Morag Hood as Natasha Rostova and Joanna David as Sonya Alexandrovna (cousins, both perfect in the roles almost as envisaged by Tolstoy, only Pulman writes for Sonya far more depths of pain and rebellion within); my favorite actress from the 1970s BBCs series, Angela Downs as Marya Bolkonskaya, Alan Dobie slowly melting into a thoughtful conflicted Andrei Bolkonsky, her brother, and perhaps best of all, Frank Middlemas as an unforgettable scene-stealing General Kutusov against the steely-iron egoist Napoleon performed by David Swift. I could go on to name more (Sylvester Morand is a more sensitive Nikolai, brother to Natasha, but perfect as the conventional man, with Gary Watson superbly just your moral effective soldier, Denisov, understandably in love with Natasha). And must not omit the other central controlling creative presence, John Davies as director. There is still such snobbery about TV films that the recent anthology Tolstoy on Screen never discusses it.

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Pierre, young, nervous, puzzled as his father (not legally. and whom he hardly knows but has been all powerful and is enormously rich) lies dying in a nearby room (Episode 1)

It was after my first watch-through of this that I proposed on Trollope19thCStudies that we read Tolstoy’s War and Peace together. Of Tolstoy’s text as translated by the Mauds, and revised by Mandelkera realized: What is so entrancing is how carefully subtly done are all the scenes, how Tolstoy’s philosophical and political thought is gotten into the film by inventing further scenes that frame what’s in the book; how each hour is a unit in its own, with its own mood and juxtapositions fitted so perfectly.

My experience was at first it is hard to get into the story as Pulman is moving naturalistically and not attempting to rivet our attention at all costs. Very like his quietly opening magnificent I, Claudius, this War and Peace series grows on you (like Tolstoy’s book). After a while, you realize you are so involved with the characters and stories and themes. As with my blog on the first two War and Peace movies (going in chronological order of making), the 1955 King Vidor and 1966 Bondarchuk W&Ps, I won’t go over the book’s story line and characters but leave the reader to find a summary or read my first blog on Tolstoy’s novel — or (as I hope) the reader has, or is about to, read Tolstoy’s masterpiece. I find the wikipedia page contains minimal cast lists and awards, and no break-down of episodes, no commentary, and there has as yet been not one essay in a published film journal (on-line or off), I’ll proceed episode by episode, 20 in all.

Episodes 1: Name-Day; and 2: Sounds of War

Uncannily (for I doubt Pulman read Tolstoy and his wife’s manuscripts as described by R.F. Christian in his book on the ms’s and sources of Tolstoy’s W&P), uncannily, Pulman reverses the scenes the novel opens with in the way they appeared in an early draft of the book.

The first episode in early drafts of W&P allow us to meet our central Rostov family: the fond weak naive count (Rupert Davies), uxorious over his calculatingly worldly wife, the Countess (Faith Brooke pitch perfect in this part); enjoying themselves by the spectacle now that they won it, all the while they are (clearly) overspending and being sluiced by everyone around them. In this the same limpet-clinger, Anna Mikhailovna (Anne Blake) greedy for money for her slowly emerging worldly son, Boris (Neil Stacy, aptly the same type in The Pallisers, Laurence Fitzgibbon, Phineas’s fair-weather friend). Episode 2 brings us to the first passages of Tolstoy’s novel, “What do you think of this man, Napoleon,” the fake patina of concern, the cant feeling of Anna Scherer (Barbara Young) in talk with the novel’s strongest site of mindless corruption for money and rank, Prince Vassily.

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Anna Scherer and Prince Vassily – the first moments of the novel realized (Episode 2)

Pierre comes in and his candor, intense interest in and sympathy for the “revolution” and Napoleon immediately makes him a pariah, laughing stock, but his equally sincere (if far more polished or cagey) friend, Andrei is there, and we see how bored this intelligent man is with his wife, but also how rough and hard to her. Pierre is as yet flotsam and jetsam and after promising not to go to the debauchery party of the novel’s slimy amoral drone aristocratic male semi-rake, Anatole Kuragin (Colin Baker, fitting son for Vassily), Pierre goes and thrusts himself into the drunken feats and cruelty to a bear and police officer that ensue. And then the (for me the first time) the astonishing frank depiction of the fight between Vassily and Princess Katische (cousin to Pierre, stands to inherit a lot if he doesn’t) on the one hand to grasp the money, and Anna Mikhailovna on behalf of Pierre who she hopes will reward her well, over the dying man’s papers & will. The unscrupulous Anna is in fact responsible for Pierre becoming a rich man, a fact that empowers several sets of characters in the book. A fitting contrast to Andrei’s austere, old-fashioned patriarchal home, the rasping tyrannical father, old Prince Bolkonsky (Anthony Jacobs) making life miserable by enforcing geometry on his self-effacing deeply generous puritan of a daughter, Marya.

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From the first scene of Andrei and his sister, Marya, they capture the implicit depths of bonding and communication of this pair (Episode 2)

Andrei unburdening himself of his wife by setting off for the “heroism” and honor of war duty. Andrei will be disillusioned slowly. The different worlds of the upper classes, gender faultlines, feeding off war of “le monde” that form the novel.

And then our first battle: Episode 3: Skirmish at Schongraben

This is a remarkable hour. The BBC people had to film real people, crowds of them in formations, real animals, gotten real canons and shot out from them. They tried for historical accuracy with weaponry and uniforms. They burn down a real bridge they had built. The scenes of masses of men must be there. I wondered what park they were using :). They were not able to project and show the carnage Tolstoy’s language can do so efficiently but it enough was done to be suggestive. The whole hour was given over to these hard war scenes, and an anti-war bias of the film has begun. Frank Middlemass particularly believable, effective — as when they learn of a massacre of the whole army of General Mack, and Andrei appalled to see how little seriously many people take this.

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POV Kutusov hurrying out of his room to Mack to register his sense of the horror the man has known, from the back Andrei

It helps clarify the novel for someone reading this part of it. David Swift starts up the character of Napoleon quietly; Tolstoy begins with the man as nasty, as numinously strong in his manipulative letters, cunning and bold: Swift and Pulman’s Napoleon only gradually shows himself centrally egoistic. But note how we are now in a historical film. And at the close Nikolai’s first experience of battle: his shock at the real danger, at people actually wanting to kill him (though he had wanted to kill them and hadn’t thought about it); when they blow up the bridge it seems to him a game (not so to Denisov)

Episode 4: A letter and two proposals; 5: Austerlitz; 6: Reunions

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Now the spillages begin as well as clear structuring: as the scene opens the Count is weeping over a letter; it’s from Nikolai telling of how he was wounded, the family’s characteristic half-comical over-responses and mode of re-assuring themselves. The unvarnished sincere emotionalism is then contrasted to the worldly cunning which despoils lives: Vassily maneuvers Pierre into marrying his daughter, Helene (Fiona Gaunt, a thankless role), shown to be utterly hollow, embarrassingly sexy, and after wealth of a man she hardly knows and despises, but Pierre unable to extract himself (not for the last time).

The pain to come of this contrasts to the pain experienced when the plain Marya finds herself courted for the first time by Vassily for his son, Anatole.

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She cannot but welcome the possible escape

But the complex old man maneuvers the situation to leave Marya distraught over Anatole’s hypocrisy, and chasing of the French companion-semi-mistress, Mlle Bourienne. The old prince is saving Marya a lifetime of grief, but she is so hemmed in by him she can meet no one naturally. Contrasting close-ups of Pierre desperately pressured and allured and Marya in bed brooding

caughtbecauseattracted (Episode 4)

And again a full episode of war: Austerlitz pivotal in the book, for at its close Andrei seems to have been killed, and the Russians permanently defeated. Long war scenes which show incompetence, scores of people dying for nothing (the book shows this), Napoleon emerges multi-sided, powerful man with an attempt to explain (he’s not at all like the characters seeking true friends, he’d laugh), a man strongly controlled on battlefields and seeming enigmatic political performances.

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Nikolai maturing (Episode 5)

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One of many moments in the battle landscape (Episode 5)

By the end of Episode 5 all the characters are dispersed and then in 6, Reunion, they are brought back to where they started: grief as Andrei’s death is understood from uncertain letters; Nikolai’s home-coming to love; Pierre’s to cool indifference; Helene now having an affair with Dolokov (Donald Burton), a bright cunning amoral rakish and sadistic side-kick of Anatole’s; the death of the princess in childbirth just as Andrei does return. What’s plotted is a cyclical repetitive structuring, a return to the same character in the same situation but older, there’s been intervening experience

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Far shots, odd angles, landscapes each make a different statement: this is a courtyard modeled on typical Russian country mansions of the early 19th century (Episode 5)

I am impressed by how: how brilliantly and convincingly Pulman conveys Tolstoy’s depiction of nervous distress in a nuanced way so as to show it in public situations. The explorations of the miseries of these arranged marriages by showing someone marrying badly and how he’s engineered into it: Pierre with Helene. Pierre has a rich good nature and is thus taken advantage of by Vassily who forestalls his holding off by just pretending that Pierre has asked for Ellen’s hand. Yet Vassily does not succeed with Prince Bolkonsky: Vassily having garnered Pierre’s fortune into his family, makes a move on Maria, the homely Bolkonsky daughter, and ironically the ill-natured man are much better able to fend off this than the semi-trusting instinctive one: Anatole is precisely wrong for Maria who is fooled by him: he would have had an affair with the French governess before he left the mansion. Ironically we see how the foolishly aptly-worldly Andre’s wife, the little Princess does just fine with the hypocritical shits like Anatole and Vassily. Yet she’s become poor in health; she needs society, Andrei as her husband with brains, or her pregnancy will destroy her. Anthony Hopkins’s performance: young then and calibrated just right, with no embarrassment. People individually; in “le monde,” in war.

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Walking and Talking (Episode 7)

Episodes 7: New Beginnings; 8: A Beautiful Tale

The first ironically titled; the second (unusual for any book or film) uses a surge of idealism and hope first to undermine Andrei’s bitterness and losses. Andrei is pulled by Pierre’s visits from his retirement and meditatiom, meets and is “recalled to life” (a Dickensian phrase for a man come out of prison) by the intensity of Natasha’s youthful hopefulness and joy in all the sensuality and thoughts, plans of existence found in Natasha at a ball.

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Andrei asking Natasha to dance (Episode 8)

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The sun on his eyes (Episode 8)

Pulman, together with stunning performances by the actors, did justice to Tolstoy’s book. After Austerlitz, after a dual, a death from pregnancy, disease, we see a turn to meaninglessness as the good characters cannot get others to act seriously, usefully, lives not realized, gifts thrown away, the absurd lack of thought and also how the man given big honors knows this (Frank Middlemas as Kutusov got that across at this table). Pierre is driven by needling and insults from Doloknov at the same dinner party to duel with him as his wife’s lover and shoots to kill — an act of naivete (I bond with this aspect of Pierre.) Luckily Doloknov does not die as he in his apparent last breath tries to kill in turn, and then grieves over how his mother will miss him.

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Dolohkov, Nikolai, Denisov Laughing at Pierr, his POV (Episode 7)

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Pierre fleeing the scene of the duel (Episode 7)

Then we have the scene of Pierre shouting hysterically at his awful wife (the portrait in Tolstoy is misogynistic and Pulman keeps to it) to get out. He can’t stand the sight of her. She says oh yes, she can hardly wait, but he is going to pay.
 
Very moving were too long dialogues you’d never see today. The first Pierre on his way to his estate, in retreat from the corrupt society, meets with a Mason and they talk deeply about life’s meaning: whether one should believe in God or an afterlife and what if you don’t. He becomes a Mason. Pullman shows the ceremonies to be absurd (modeled on some performance of Mozart’s Magic Flute either Pulman or Davies saw. 
 
He visits Andrei and now we have another more enlightenment type discourse where Andrea is the atheistic view and more or less wins as probable and Andrei proposes another way to get through life – -you don’t need to believe in this overarching pattern at all. It seems more or less you muddle through. Don’t even try to do good – -which is what Pierre has been trying on his estate. We do get views of the peasants where are deeply class-ridden but the film means seriously
 
A wholly invented scene for Napoleon in council conveys Tolstoy’s views on history (how it works), philosophy (what is the meaning of life even) in ways relevant to politics today. It’s a relief for em to re-watch this film over and over.

Episode 9: Leave of Absence

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Natasha dancing to a folk violin played by her uncle

The title is utterly inadequate: this hour includes the beautiful renditon of the Rostovs’ Christmas embedded inside the family pathologies and tensions and misunderstandings of the Bolkonskys (the old prince’s biting cruelty to Andrey, the countess’s hysterical tirades at Nikolai, his at the stewards) and the desolation of Pierre as with over-voice he tells us of his life with whores/flunkies in his wife’s salon (the Masons have not helped). To me nothing comes near this rendition of War and Peace. From the point of view of moving the story forward, or about the character’s coming fates, the film “wasted” the whole hour. This was a splendid full scale elaboration of a Christmas interlude at the Rostovs in the country just after we are told their finances are in a wretched state – we’ve seen how Nikolai gambled away a huge sum in the previous episode. All the characters are in character: the dinner, the dancing, the hunt with another family; it was atmospheric, the idea Talleyrand’s about how sweet such lives were before the tumbrils began to roar through Paris. it is a high point in the novel too.

Episode 10: Madness

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Natasha trying to explain her vulnerability to such a seduction/attack.

In this episode as Pulman presents this supposedly nadir of Natasha’s young life, she succumbs to her nervous distress at having to wait for a year for a man to return to her and then decide if he wants her, the disdain of his family, and falls for anyone who says he values her. I know outwardly this kind of incident — the young girl eloping with a cad or looking at him so idiotically happens; in the book Tolstoy finds less explanation for it than Pullman in this BBC movie. Davies (BBC, 2015, Lily James as Natasha) has the Freudian erotic enthrallment paradigm in mind more (for Tolstoy that seems to be the whole matter). Sonya saves her and Pierre comforts her. Probably because I now know of the opera playing on Broadway with the title, Pierre, Natasha and the Great Comet of 1812, for the first time I took note of Pierre’s pointing to it as an omen. I didn’t note it much when I listened or read either. Especially the 2007 mini-series made for TV of W&P focuses precisely on this particular incident: that film turns the book into a soap opera heroine-centered Victorian melodrama (idiot girl fooled by vicious young man ends up punished but is comforted by good young man). Pulman’s shows how the same literal material can make a viewer/reader soar as these beautifully natured characters begin to recognize a life’s companion.

Since the characters have been given so much time to develop, the awakening relationship because of this incident between Pierre and Natasya is believable and touching. Beatrice Lehmann is superb as the aunt who rescues Natasha from eloping with the shit Kuragin male, Antoine (married to someone else) on Sonya’s say-so then castigates Natasha for “disgusting” (read sexual) behavior. Unlike Tolstoy’s or Davies, Pulman’s Andrei is hurt but also relieved — he was about to make another mistake, marry another girl far too young for him. Pierre is the site of consolation in the book and this mini-series. No one comes near him in moral understanding. Though he hasn’t got the strength of character to withstand the society around him when he confronts evil, and he certainly hasn’t the power to change much, he is getting better at it. The episode ends with him comforting Natasha

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It is not hard when experiencing this mini-series or reading the book to understand that this core is not the whole even to a limited extent what shapes the experience (which is the mistake of both the Vidor 1955 and the 2007 mini-series). The moment would not have the larger meaning it does without our exploration of the larger corrupt society, the worlds of Russia, the family lives, how so many types find different meaning and loss in their interactions, and how politics by military violence, the top pest males (Alexander I played by the quiet David Douglas is as selfish and uncomprehending of anything beyond himself as Napoleon in the film), and their imitators at all levels impinges on everything. In this scenario, Helene, Anna Mikhailovna, Anna Scherer, Countess Rostov, Katische are the female servants of this order. Those major characters resisting are Pierre, Natasha, Sonya, those upholding but with decent values Nikolai, Denisov, Count Rostov (though he’s been sluiced)

As Borodino is the pivotal moment for “the war” and larger history parts of the book, so Natasha’s enthrallment out of weakness, shame and her near-abduction incident is the pivotal climax for the “le monde” part of the novel. Pulman imitates this structure.

Tomorrow the second 10 episodes.

Ellen

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Tamara Mumford, Pilgrim, also called the Traveler

Friends and readers,

On Saturday Izzy and I saw, listened to, a strangely still opera: Kaija Saariagho’s L’Amour de Loin (Love from Afar), libretto by Amin Maalouf (see review in the New York Times by Anthony Tommasini).

There is hardly any action in the 3 hour opera-story. Jaufre Rudel, Prince of Blaye (sung and acted by Eric Owens), a troubadour now grown old, once a poet-singer accompanying the 12th century crusades, now residing in Aquitaine, ailing, in a deeply depressed state, dreams of an ideal woman with whom he can experience fulfilled love. A pilgrim or (as called in the French word Englished traveler) seems to sail/happen by and tells Jaufre the woman he has conjured up exists. Jaufre sets off to meet her.

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Meanwhile Clemence, a countess of Tripoli, in this production dressed to align her with a mermaid (fish-y scale-y dress with a sort of parting at the bottom as if for fins, braided hair) is by magic or some other force aware of or longing for, this coming love. The same pilgrim sails/happens by to tell her Jaufre is writing of her in an ethralled way. This gives her a concrete person to dream of. She is conflicted: sometimes eager, young, and sometimes wary. When Jaufre arrives, he is dying. If this illness is physical we are not told, only that he has dreaded the meeting, experienced such anguish of anxiety, he is near death.

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They meet, and while they declare their passion, he also says that he is afraid of life and also of dying. From the intensity of this conflict he enacts a kind of self-suicide. Se weeps that some external force is to blame, then that she is. At the last she decides she will retire from the world to a convent.

The stage when the lights are not on consists of seried rows of benches. When a computerized light show is on against the dark, we see wavering lines suggesting the sea along which everyone moves. The light moves from emerald green, to glooming yellow and white, to blood red, to deep blues. Everyone includes two choruses, one of men who dialogue with Jaufre, and one of women who dialogue with Clemence, who function rather like Sophocles’ or Greek choruses. The lower bodies of these figures are never seen; they seem like controlled slaves who exist for the sake of the numinous central presences. Opera is a deeply conservative form and this allegory is that here — the mood lacks the irony of Samuel Beckett’s figures caught in cans.

What is the audience to make of this? I might as well say up-front I thought the computerized technology overdone and because you can do a thing (make the stage into something near art film) doesn’t mean you should. I have recently heard music very like that of Saariaho: atonal, dissonant, each line differing form the other, many idiosycratic sounds, yet somehow peaceful, idyllic, a troubled pastoral. All three principals sang beautifully, especially fine was the Pilgrim. Until the second act, though, the lines in this opera were archetypal in content, utterly generalized. Set to Charlotte Smith’s complex poetry, the lines had thoughtful meaning to express. Similarly, Detlev Ganert’s music seemed set to a text of complicated many issue-d despair.

In the second half, though, we did get meaning, e.g., from the words Juafre spoke, the sensitive troubadour has been traumatized by life itself (so violent, so contradictory to him) and (once again) prefers death. He also yearns for compensatory beauty in return for the horrors he’s seen and done while “in the orient,” citing place names from Middle Eastern countries which played a part in the crusades or are mentioned in the chronicles written by men about their experiences in the crusades or Constantinople.

You can, and I would be inclined also to see the opera as an exploration of levels of depression and despair. The afflicted person tries to throw off by maintaining a belief in an impossible goodness, kindness, love. Jaufre suspects he is deluding himself; his dream cannot be realized. It is only real from afar. That’s why he does not want to experience this love close up. When he does see her, overcome by her beauty after all, he nonetheless is already near death. It’s too late to make a change.

Some further art context would be the Arthurian corpus. Voigt did refer to the lovers as a Tristan and Isolde at one point in her intermission talk. The depiction of the lovers was strikingly like my memories of a specific text, an 1890s fin-de-siecle French rendition of Trisan and Iseult by Joseph Bedier. Mark doesn’t have much of a role in Bedier. Bedier may be read in a beautiful English translation by Hillaire Belloc. The deeply reactionary meaning caught up in this enthrallment by sex was explicated in once famous book by Denis de Rougement: Love in the Western World, except Bedier is not into Christian apologetics: rather all in life seeks erotic ecstacy. From Celtic twilights of melancholy to the sublime transcendance of Wagner, it’s a perverse worship of self-annihilation, melting away into sensual pleasure to an extreme of self-destruction and death. For my taste there was too much squirming eroticism, or (alternatively) naive idealism of the ripe virginal maiden in all this:

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While the opera also takes its resonance from texts by Tennyson, Sara Teasdale (a poem from Guinevere) and movies like Bresson’s Lancelot, Eric Rohmer’s Parzival, perhaps Boorman’s Excalibur (a Hollywoodized version); there is a counterforce, warrior-like memories at least caught up in place names and very occasional action. The cities chosen by the pair of creators include Antioch, the old world around the Mediterranean leading to Jerusalem. Though our troubadour seems to have never fought, he and the Pilgrim are sombre with the knowledge of something intransigent, wary of something “out there” which all seek to elude. Jaufre is also the wounded fisher-king, exiled or taken along as suffering figure at wars. The male figure who carries within him the evils and wretchedness of the world, and dies of this: I thought of Amyntas as dramatized in Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzival.

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I was much moved by the second half; there was far more psychological content in the words; death seemed to me portrayed to some extent realistically: as a drawn out agonized process. Tides of grief wash over everyone. The intense rejection of anything close up by the troubadour. The huge iron contraption seemed to me perfect for some construction site, an over-the-top exhibit of angularity and abstraction and computer light show was now less in evidence. The three principles were at the bottom of the benches and and camera focused on them in various levels of close-up. It would have been too abrupt, too sudden, too somehow melodramatic to end abruptly with Jaufre’s death, so there was a lingering strongly controlled slow fade-away.

Can we place this in a more immediate and political context — in my experience operas written more recently (where I’ve seen a few at Castleton Festival in Virginia) are meant to resonate with today’s culture. An FB friend of mine, Tom Dillingham, caught

an interesting William Blake sighting’ or reference … During the intermission … Deborah Voigt interviewed the great Placido Domingo about his having taken on the role of Nabucco in Verdi’s opera of that name. Domingo commented on the complexity of the character and said that his name is also Nebuchadnezzar, and then mentioned that William Blake “the greatest of painters in England” (that’s close, anyway, to what he said) had portrayed Nebuchadnezzar as a kind of man/beast, crouching on all fours. The admiration of one great artist for another is always worth noting. Perhaps I should refrain from noting a certain evocation of a contemporary menace.

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Blake’s Nebduchadnezzar

I won’t refrain. The opera figures retreat in the face of fear, sexual engagement and reality. Ours is a hard world people with the wherewithal retreat to dreams like this from.

There is another great piece of music and lyrics that matches this one, as serious and allegorical as Saariaho and Maalouf’s and brings out the underbelly of this opera. Bob Dylan’s A Hard Rain’s a Gonna Fall

The lyrics say what needs to be listened to, not just said, and acted upon, and a much seasoned-performer like Smith’s nervousness in front of this over-, opulently dressed crowd just make so much stronger how much this song’s concrete causes needs be heeded … I’ve not been so deeply moved by a performance or song in a long time.

You choose which one you think comes closest in this dire moment, the well-behaved decorous allusive myth with its diversity of casting or the accosting of what the blue-eyed son has done.

I must not leave out that this is only the second opera mounted in the whole of the Metropolitan Opera’s history to be by a woman; it is also only the fourth to be conducted by a woman: Susanna Malkki. My great grief is the first woman who won the popular vote to be president of the US is not the president tonight who could have heard it. Instead we have a man/beast who has promised to continue the horrors pictured by Dylan. Dylan deserved the Nobel, though perhaps he should have been there to accept it, and gotten it for music (and someone else for literature), I don’t mind. Patti Smith’s singing more than made up for anything awry.

Ellen

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