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Archive for the ‘social criticism’ Category

Friends,

I have written about Scott’s Staying On, the whole of the Raj Quartet, books and films, after reading through the books myself, teaching Staying On, listening to the texts from audiocassettes and watching the mini-series. So am skipping my usual telling of story, description of character or setting and incident.

I’m moved once more to write in a different briefer way about Paul Scott’s fiction, this time his Jewel in the Crown (the first novel of the Raj Quartet) because on TrollopeandHisContemporaries@groups.io, a group of about 8 of us read it over 10 weeks slowly, posting about its issues carefully and in detail. I felt I learned so much from the book and from the postings of the others — about India, its previous history before the 20th century, the Raj in the 1940s, what has happened since (the novel is presented from a retrospective standpoint of 1970s). People involved included Diane Reynolds, Tyler Tichelaar, Nancy Gluck, Andrea Schwedler, Rory O’Farrell, myself. As to the book itself, it’s in the political analysis of the deepest rooted nuances of psychologically rooted social identities that transcends particulars that the book stands out. In this Scott is a grandson of Anthony Trollope (whom Scott much admired).

It feels so important tonight to write that Scott successfully dramatizes and persuades this reader of the major crucial truth of his idea that the means to power that one person has over another through their race (in India from the time of the Raj on, the white race has over non-whites) is more important than any other. More important than being a member of an upper class or caste, than religious differences, than your gender, and certainly more important than money. Money comes you to because you are white (are employed in a good position); you go the finest school because of your race and after that caste. Gender limits how you can spend your life’s hours, but the women’s hierarchy replicates the general one and is more important than their subordinate gender when they deal with men.

Yes he shows us a complex nexus of circumstance, individual psychology, elements shaping the characters lives from where they live, what job and/or education they have, age, biological and marital relationships with specific individuals. But what emerges from this again and again is that “race power” explains why people and movements in the novel fail to make any lasting progress towards a better, happier life for all, prevents the mingling of people such that they (we) could experience one another, get to know one another and identify.

It seems so important tonight as the US president imposes an imprisoning of enfants and children of hispanic people in horrendous conditions, because their parents were attempting to emigrate to the United States; arrests and shackles the adults in farcical versions of trials and arrests them, putting them into prisons too regardless of whether legally they have a right to ask for asylum. No reporter or elected official or anyone outside the hired military force is allowed into these places to film or question to report on how these people are being treated. Only clips of films, bits and pieces moments and a few testimonies of people who quit working for these prison companies, or reporters, or of someone not jailed who fled back to a place where he is now in danger of being killed.


Daphne (Susan Woolridge) and Hari (Art Malik)

The book and its three sequels are known as the story of a gang-rape of an English girl (Daphne Manners) which, together with an assault on an English teacher (Edwina Crane), and murder of her Indian colleague (Mr Chadhuri), and the arrest, torture, and long imprisonment of the girl’s Indian lover (Hari Kumar) and five Indian young men, his friends scapegoated by a virulently hateful (because of low status) colonialist police officer, Merrick (a closet or repressed homosexual). (Some parts of this outline resemble Trollope’s first novel set in 19th Ireland, The Macdermots of Ballycloran). To be sure we chose the book partly to re-read this tale of the repercussions and history of all the individuals involved. I’ve loved the novel because it has most female narrators talking from a subjective intelligent stance. Like other quartets (e.g., Durrell’s Alexandrian), the structural idea is to go over the same set of events again and again from different points of view.

One of our members, Nancy Gluck, described the first half of the novel this way (it has 7 parts):

In Part 1 (Miss Crane, the missionary teacher), an unnamed narrator tells us of a landscape and a rape to come and the history of Miss Crane. We are given many of Miss Crane’s thoughts, but it is all indirect discourse. We know what she feels and thinks, but she does not address the reader directly. The narrator tells us all. We do know that he (presumably he) speaks to us from a later time because he refers obliquely to events which happened later.

Part 2 (The MacGregor House) is structured differently. We begin with the narrator, this time describing a house and a girl singing. Although we do not know it at first, he speaks to us from a later time. The girl we eventually learn is Daphne’s daughter, so she must be singing 15-20 years after the events described in Part 1. Only a few pages in, we are addressed directly by Lili Chatterjee (the upper class Indian aunt of Daphne, with whom Daphne has been living) reminiscing about the earlier events. The narration swings back and forth between the narrator’s descriptions and Lili’s words and then concludes with the text of two letters form Daphne to her Aunt Ethel in 1942. So, we hear three voices: the narrator, Lili, Daphne.


Lily Chatterjee (Zohra Sehgal)

It is only in Part 3 (Sister Ludmilla, the self-appointed woman of charity) that we have some hint of who this narrator may be Again we begin with the narrator’s description, but then Sister Ludmilla speaks to him/us directly to describe both the present time (circa 1962) and the events of 1942. “You understand…? Yes you understand.” And “Your voice is that of a man to whom the word Bibighar is not an end in itself or descriptive of a case that can be opened as at such and such an hour and closed on such and such a day.” I cannot find the passage now, but at some point Sister Ludmilla says that the you she addresses has returned to India after some years and is staying with Lili.

In Part 4 (An Evening at the Club), the presence of the narrator is clearer. His observations and reactions are at the center of the story and the time is the present. We also hear the voice of lawyer Srinivasan, speaking to the narrator and pointing out what is different from 20 years ago, as well as what is the same – old ideas is slightly new clothing. There may seems little point to this. After all, we want to hear the story of what happened to Daphne. Yet how can we understand that story unless we understand that it resulted from all that came before and that all that came before and after to led us to this evening at the club. As Sister Ludmilla observed, not a case that can be opened and closed neatly on such and such a day.

I think that the narrator is Scott himself. He spent the war years in India and then went back in 1964, seeking material for a novel set in that country. In the four related novels he draws on his memories of the war years, we well as the observations he made on his return trip. A novel can only select a segment of time but Scott is doing his best to show the continuity of events

Part 5 gives us the hero-victime’s story, Hari Kumar through the eyes of his father, and then the eyes of his Indian relatives, and then himself. Part 6 is the most impersonal: we see the events of the central week of the novel through the point of view of a dense deeply narrowly prejudiced English military man, Colonel Reed, and then a perceptive humane but still pro-English establishment English gov’t official, Mr White. Here is the trial and by indirection a depiction of the Merrick, in effect novel’s cruel villain, who himself plants the evidence against Hari, because he seethes with jealous rage over Daphne’s preference for Hari and Hari’s originally privileged upper class english and middle class Indian background. Part 8 is all revelation: Daphne’s journal-letter to her English aunt, Lady Ethel Manners.

We asked, Is this a novel about the rape of Daphne Manners? Though Scott introduces the book that way, it’s obviously about much more. Miss Crane we are told died by suttee – she was widowed by the man she wouldn’t listen to and honored him that way — crazed behavior. But how central is the rape itself? Not as central as Hari’s loss of status and the good existence he might have had had his father lived and carried on providing the wherewithal to live with whites as they live.


Hari

Probably we probed the book deepest when we got the 7th part written as Daphne Manners’ diary.

Here is Diane Reynolds’s posting:

I agree with Ellen’s reading of the situation in the final section. I did find myself both appreciating Daphne’s impulse to appreciate Hari for who he is, and her ability actually, to some extent, to see him. But I did find myself also irritated with what Ellen calls her childish characteristics. Yes on that. Daphne is finally, for all her good intentions, blind like Miss Crane. She can see Hari to some extent but she can’t get to the point of seeing such aspects of him—really—as his poverty or his Indianness, which is thrust upon him. She does and doesn’t know these elements are there. She is able to live in fantasyland.

Two aspects of this section bother me. First, the Hari Daphne loves is the cultured, educated, upper class Briton he is inside. She is able to see through his dark skin and Indian clothes. But what this says is not that she wants an Indian man, but that she wants a British man of her class. It’s as racist to not see the Indian in Hari as it is not to see the Brit. Second, I find it disturbing, not just in this section, but going back to the bookend parallel of Miss Crane, that women seem to be implicitly blamed for the suffering brought to Indian men who get involved with them: in Miss Crane’s case, the Indian man who is killed because he obeys her commands and Hari, who is tortured. If they do cause these problems because they are sheltered from the realities of Indian life is this their fault? Who built this system? Is it incumbent on every English woman in India to buck the system and educate herself in a way that is roundly discouraged and made difficult, if not almost impossible? Everyone is not going to be sister Ludmilla. I think this is a great novel in the way it exposes a granular reality, but I do sense an uncomfortable undercurrent that says that women cause trouble for men when they get out of their “place:” Scott seems to be asking, why are these women allowed so much power when they don’t know how to use it?

And place leads me to Ellen’s interesting comments that the lovers had no place to go and so were forced into a dangerous space, which led to Daphne’s rape. Usually it is males who are willing to enter these spaces—in this case its a women. I just read a book in which the man talks about how, in his college days, he would repeatedly take his sleeping bag and sleep under trees and the stars in just such a space—outside the boundaries where the campus police patrolled the campus. I immediately thought, no woman would do that. He thought of it as a charming story of his free spirited younger self escaping the stifling partying of his dorm room: he not for an instant saw the privilege in that he could he do it. So the point of how much women or in our society blacks or India Indians are controlled by space is pertinent and not one we have much discussed. It is all over Scott—he makes a point of it. It’s part of his journalistic endeavor of constantly repeating information about how spaces connect and showing how the Indians are constrained to live in certain spaces and denied access to British spaces. His point is that you can’t understand the Indian pov unless you understand how they exist in the space of Raj—most British are oblivious to it—they just don’t get it, so they can’t understand the Indians. Miss Crane’s mistake is being oblivious to space—she simply doesn’t understand the danger of entering the “wrong” space because as a British she innately assumes all spaces are her spaces—and they are—but not so with her Indian companions.

While I believe there is a subtle strain of misogyny threading through the novel—Scott can’t quite get himself to like a character like Daphne; he suspects female privilege—I appreciate his sensitivity to the danger of spaces and the constraints put on less powerful group through the dynamics of space—this probably does come out of his being gay. This, of course, connects back to the #MeToo movement and the way women continually have it impressed on their bodies when they have crossed into male spaces. The trauma of Daphne’s gang rape seems to me glossed over too.

This swings the discussion in a new direction: it’s not a novel where Daphne, the heroine or the other heroines are in the center but rather a system where the female is again marginalized and women are blamed when they have not built the system, the male capitalists and males in the marketplace have.

I couldn’t address the larger issue; that takes a book, but I picked up on this:

In the main story, Hari displaces Daphne. She dies but her death is also biological – the baby was breech birth, but her life need not have been ruined; she could have returned to England to bring her daughter by Hari up. It is his life which is ruined – and how and why are the riveting themes of the book (race): he is its true tragic figure because his is the noblest soul. Scott finally does not care as much about the rape or Daphne or Parvati (who is nicely provided for) as this young man. I was struck by how Hari’s white school friend Colin Lindsey’s letter (Colin turned from Hari) is one of the last things Daphne talks about — Hari saved her photo and that letter. I believe that Lindsey applied for a transfer because he saw Hari, and (like Daphne) separated himself from Hari.

This comes out so clearly in Daphne’s diary: this is mostly about the trial, the aftermath of the rape and how she fought and failed to protect Hari. That she betrayed him out of her own racism when she refused to stand with him and admit to all she had gone to the Bibighar to meet Hari, made love and while they were in this space outside society’s protection, they were attacked. She now claims still it would have made the results worse had she told the truth because no one would believe her story that she willingly made love with Hari; they would have seen this as a cover-up. But we see and she sees that the outcome would have been better for him: there would have been no opportunity for Merrick to torture Hari to admit he was at the Bibighar since this crucial admission would be made openly with Daphne by Hari’s side. She did not have the courage to face up to what she had chosen.

For Hari is the untouchable, belonging nowhere. Only his aunt, Shalini, who also belongs nowhere as an impoverished uneducated widow, makes a place for Hari to live and she doesn’t control that space as it is dependent on her brother-in-law giving her an allowance (tiny).

While Daphne doesn’t mean to portray a picture of Hari as a noble soul with deep understanding of what’s going on around him, she does. I am especially impressed by how he sees that Sister Ludmillla is not mad and it is only after following Hari’s point of view and getting to know her that Daphne begins to see Sister Ludmilla is a rare truly decent person. Others see this: Anna Klaus for example. In a sense Daphne’s diary shows us how she was not worthy of Hari — she is not as perceptive as he or a number of those around her.

In line with this I was surprised to realize _she liked Merrick_. She says so; she says she felt for him. She makes a triangle where she is in the middle with Merrick on one side and Hari on the other. That makes them equivalent. Merrick is the kind of person who is not rescuable: he is like some maddened dog — true the society made him this way, but it is unlikely you are going to break through his savagery. She is very like a child. Merrick did some very bad things to Hari. That does fit how an upper class sheltered girl might respond to the idea that Merrick hurt Hari. She has been so sheltered she cannot imagine it.

We see how the pair of lovers could find no place to be alone – how society did do that to them. Nowadays one might have a place of their own to live — but Hari is poor and so is Daphne personally and both need others to live. So they ended up in the Bibighar a place outside the network of safety. Alan Bennett has discussed the world that exists outside the network of safety. That’s the place where police don’t have to protect you and anyone can attack. Bennett says gay people know about this space. We in the US know black people are in it when they are in the streets and are not even safe from police murdering them in their homes or yards.

So another interpretation: is what happened, this gang-rape which ignited a riot was the result of two lovers of different race wanting to be together and being given no safe space to do this in. In the south when say such a thing might happen between a couple the upper class whites tried to punish them by lynching any available black person or the male if he was black. These Brits do this too in arresting Hari and torturing him. After all years later Mr Poulson never tells Hari that he and everyone knows Hari told the truth about how he was tortured and when Hari is freed, he is never told why in any specifics. (I get this from the serial drama but know it’s in the later books). We must remember it’s not just Merrick who tortured Hari; people obey him, others refuse to look, others protect Merrick sufficiently he stays employed.

And Hari’s mistake was not that he loved Daphne. She alone respected him from among the whites. He was English and she alone was a girl then he could have companionship with. It’s natural to want respect, companionship, love, so natural you risk your life. What he hadn’t realized was a ticking bomb is that she is such a child. The two weeks estrangement that Sister Ludmilla recognizes comes when Daphne discovers that Hari was arrested by Merrick and didn’t tell Daphne about it. Why is Daphne angry at Hari for this? because has Hari told her then she would have recognized what a shit Merrick is. This is deeply unfair. She is blaming him for her own stupidity in liking Merrick and thus endangering Hari by keeping Hari in Merrick’s eye.

Thus when the two weeks was gone both lovers were desperate for one another and met at the Bibighar. Then discovered she acted her usual child-like act of not wanting to face the truth of what had happened and with Hari and thus deserted him, and destroyed his life. She never had the strength of character to openly marry Hari. We see in her diary part of her impulse was simply to rebel to disrupt. She got a kick out of that. It’s a dangerous thing to get a kick out of especially for non-whites.

Her testimony is fascinating:

In the films you cannot see her thinking: this is largely made up of her trying to keep her lie straight and trying to make sure that anything she says in her lie will not show she is lying and cannot be used against Hari. This is the first time I’ve ever been let into someone’s thinking as they try to cope with a hostile lawyer that I can recall. I never thought about how women feel when they are on trial in front of a jury and the issue is rape.

It’s awful: she is frightened continually of what Poulson’s her interrogators response will be. I think for the first time she (and Scott) make a good case that had she told the truth, it would have been held against Hari and he would have been put in prison anyway. It may be this is all in her mind, but the man’s questions as she thinks about them are attempts to get her to admit she went to the Bibighar to meet someone, i.e., Hari. The thing is they as whites do not accept Hari’s right to have a relationship with Daphne, and they do not accept her right to agree to it.

Like in the US when it was against the law for white and black people to marry one another. In the film of the Love’s case, they are harangued and harassed and beaten up individually and as a couple when they try to be together and just go out together.

She still said no to him out of a deep racism, she still didn’t truly identify and pity him, but maybe she was correct to say that had they stood together, it would have gone just as badly. Her heart did not melt at his crying, had it she would have stayed with him. What would have been the case though is they would have been together, and having declared openly she made love with this man (in effect), she might have been able to keep in touch through friends and comforted him — and if she lived through the childbirth, they could have left India for the UK together.

She knows immediately that Merrick planted the bicycle – and Lily Chatterjee knows this is truth as she says it. There she is not in court so she can speak out. she cannot speak out in court. Another insight: courts are places where one cannot speak except according to a script which will be judged not according to humane principles or truth, but how it works in the adversarial system.

She finally admits she worked out of superiority.

But even if Daphne is less than admirable in all this, why should she be? why should we ask of her anything more than the others are. She was gang-raped and cruelly and that because of the whole race and power issue of the raj. The Raj raped her because she wouldn’t obey its restrictive bigoted norms. And it broke him because he was lured to it by his own isolation and desperation, which was caused by all the people who supported the Raj, which seems to be just about everyone the two young people have to depend upon — from Hari’s cruel uncle to Lily.

Scott’s thrust has a way of making us criticize both Miss Crane and Daphne. After all why should anyone want to live the life Sister Ludmilla does: she’s a saint out of desperation herself.

Scott himself was a closet homosexual – at the core of the book is also another much less developed (except by Hari i his section in Part 5) true friendship not permitted: Hari and Colin from their school days. First put an end to when Hari’s father kills himself. Colin’s father could have moved to help Hari stay in England. He decides not to, because he decides not to trust Hari — based on his reaction to Hari’s skin color (again Part 5). Skin color. True love not permitted: Hari and Daphne. Nor true friendship: Hari and Colin.

We end with women narrators, women mopping things up: Lady Ethel Manners and how Sister Ludmilla’s place is now a decent house for helping people. Also women coming to the truth: Connie White comes to Daphne to lay before her the truth — and so other white women know it, and other non-white. This dialogue is by the way included in the film.

The idea of women coming to the truth men’s methods don’t is in Trollope’s Phineas Finn. It is Madame Max’s examination of Emilius’ landlady with no police about that gets the truth about the coat, the key, the locked room (&C&c), which were the circumstantial evidence convicting Finn of a murder he didn’t do. Who would tell a policeman anything? — said one of the novelist, a black man, writing recently in the UK says Andrew Marr interviews in his BBC documents. Of course Agatha Christie and her group think all good people would tell police all they can – that’s naive even in 1930. Trollope and Scott know better. I certainly wouldn’t. Are courts places for telling the truth? They are spaces carved out by men.

It is finally a novel by a man and male literature and discourse is crucially different from female. Diane Reynolds:

Ellen, it is true that Hari also suffers. I would not say a hundredfold if we are talking about him being beaten: Daphne too suffers from pain and humiliation, which is where Scott is arguably graphic but not graphic enough in his depiction of the rape. Throughout this passage I feel torn: I agree you, Ellen, that it is good that Scott doesn’t cut away—but does he also nevertheless make it chaste? He both shows it and glosses over it. I feel torn—as I said, Hari is in greater danger than Daphne—but let’s not forget that she’s been brutally gang raped and she dies from child birth. Scott makes it clear that the child is Hari’s, but did the injuries she sustained from repeated rape impact her ability to deliver a child, leading to—wasn’t it a C section birth? And as I noted, in the moments following the gang rape (not later—let’s not jump over the rape itself in our sympathy for Hari), it seems to me the focus should be on Daphne. So I continue to have ambivalence about Scott’s attitudes to women. I love the novel—I think it is brilliant in its granularity—but I am uneasy about Scott’s feelings about women and his allegiance to women. Is Daphne a prop developed to shine a light on Hari’s fate? I don’t, for instance, have a sense of what Daphne looks like, other than she is somewhat large and not particularly attractive. Scott does say at the beginning that this is a story about rape—but fundamentally, it’s not—it’s a story about the effect of rape on an Englishman who has black skin …

[A little later in response to another]

I agree that we look away from the reality of rape/violence and turn into something chaste, which is Vitanza’s point in a new book about sexual violence called Chaste Rape (though Vitanza would reject the idea of making a “point” as a verbal assault)—and as Ellen says, here Scott doesn’t cut the text before the rape but shows Daphne’s vulnerability and helplessness as she is raped. Nevertheless, I did feel that Scott understated the rape: Daphne has just been gang raped, and yet she is worried about Hari first and foremost. But what about her? Why is it all about the man? Of course, it’s because Daphne realizes, if imperfectly, that Hari is much more vulnerable than she is, could be blamed for this and could suffer a terrible fate. I struggle with feeling appreciation for her putting him ahead of herself and a sense that this is unrealistic because she herself has just been gang raped. How far does the nurturing mother breast go? At this moment, her gang rape is more important than whether Hari feels shamed for not being able to protect her or even what might happen to him. Something terrible has happened to her.

The mistake is that she is making decisions to protect another person when she is not in a frame of mind to make good decisions at that moment. She has just been through a physically brutalizing and psychologically traumatic experience. The focus should be on her and caring for her. Hard is trying to do this, to his credit—but is Scott? Or is the gang rape, to Scott, really all about Hari?

Also, I sympathize and feel for Daphne’s awareness of the danger Hari is in and her desire to protect him, but wonder how much is this a desire to reassert her own sense of control in a universe gone mad or, genuine love for Hair, in another interpretation, how much it is Scott’s male fantasy? It is possible that she hasn’t really absorbed what has happened to it or, more likely, wants to deflect from her own pain and vulnerability by caring for someone else. When she can’t bear him crying is it that she can’t bear what has happened to herself and is projecting this onto him? I do give her behavior, whatever motivates it, leeway because of what she has just been through. Consistently, and perhaps this is a product of her trauma, she comes across as using rationality to shield herself from emotion.

[She quoted the long crucial section of the novel and then wrote]

Or, maybe it is completely realistic in patriarchy that a woman who has just been gang raped is comforting the man who is crying because he couldn’t protect her.

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


Sister Ludmilla (Matyelok Gibbs) and Mr. Souza (Om Puri)

I don’t want to go on for too long so will end on why for me Sister Ludmilla is still the character I love best in this first book. Hari is too (rightly) angry. Sister Ludmilla is more than a little insane. She has had the most unfortunate “destabilized” (I put this in quotes because it’s such a fashionable word) background of all the characters: her mother whom it seems was something a courtesan or someone’s mistress and prostitute and descended to abysmal street level impoverishment. (In archetype she is Esmeralda from Hugo’s Hunchback of Notre Dame whose mad mother lives in a street hovel and begs.) Safety was modesty, so to avoid men, Ludmilla dons frightening sister’s garb. She ran a free hospital where she took in dying and mortally sick people she found on the streets. She has a small allowance sent her one a month (probably the mother’s lover). She speaks from a retrospective of years after (1970s) the incidents of the novel took place (1940s). She is now blind, her sanctuary had been “normalized” into an orphanage and other charitable institution by the state — with a fourth building. Her bed in the room that was Mr de Souza’s.

Her discourse is expressive with remarkable nuance, knitting private life to public, sexual impulse (gay as well as hetero), class, status intimate moments of our lives to how the whites (Merrick, and before him the Scotsman MacGregor and his son) perceive and act out their power. She allegorizes the novel’s space by places (as does Trollope): the two places, the MacGregor House, where Indian and British have come together and everyone acts according to a veneer of social code, and the Bibighar Gardens, outside of the safety net, the only place Daphne and Kumar can meet to be together truly. As she talked on (presumably to Scott himself) I kept seeing analogies in my experience for each of the characters she mentions, and social, sexual and powerful relationships that emerge.

Several elements here draw me irresistibly: one, this is pure l’ecriture femme in its movements, how Sister Ludmilla perceives reality as nuances (it could be Virginia Woolf). A second: her insanity makes her see the meaningless of the world so well, its cold indifference as a stance, and the deeply emotional needs of the people she encounters, their considered persona as a result of their lives. I suspect when I read it in the 1980s to me it was a profound relief to find another presence which saw the world the way I was seeing it and even through I recognize all the structures today, to me they are veneer however seeming sturdy and keeping us from one another’s throats. I love how she sees the strength and defiance of Mr de Souza. Now today, three she finds meaning in life by doing for free what a small group of people value and want as long as it’s for free, and will even allow her space to do it. That’s me at these OLLIs.


Barbie gone mad (Peggy Ashcroft) at the end — as has Miss Crane

I could go on and on about these different characters: I loved Miss Crane too. In The Day of the Scorpion, Barbie Bachelor, the impoverished companion of another upper class wealthy powerful man’s wife: she is the central presence and narrator of the third volume of the Raj, The Towers of Silence.

Two strongly recommended books: for the history of the era, Nancy Gluck urged Alex von Tunzelmann’s Indian Summer: The Secret History of the End of Empire. One of our members taught a course on India, and I’m about half-way through this vivid brilliant expose. tyler said that he felt an analogous volume and one he thought much better artistically is Tayeb Saleh’s Season of Migration to the North. The author was from Sudan and it’s an Arabic novel – it was named the best Arab novel of the 20th century and published in 1969. A companion piece to Jewel in the Crown.

Ellen

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Brian Friel’s Translations at the Studio Theater (14th Street)

Friends and readers,

Since returning from Milan, and my health improving, I’ve been to the theater twice, and the concert hall at Kennedy Center, and the experiences have shown me whatever the rotten, seepingly poisonous and willfully destructive behavior of those in the rooms and corridors of a few staggeringly powerful individuals here in DC, the local culture has not lost its moral compass.

Brian Friel’s Translations on Saturday afternoon, the house full. This is not the first play by Friel I’ve seen: Jim took us twice while in London — I remember Dancing at Lughnasa. I saw in NYC on my own The Faith Healer (about hypocrisy in the Catholic religion). I’ve a volume of plays by him and have read in it.


Language played upon, classical figures become Irish, a contrast of Irish and gaelic too

The first half was a deeply lyrical and quietly hopeful scene in a hedge school in 19th century Ireland: a son long gone returns, now a surveyor and translator for the British, who are opening National Schools in Ireland. These are English Protestant schools where Irish language and culture will not be taught. This act was slow moving and thoughtful, meditative. All about differences of language, culture — as someone interested in language and how it influences thought and culture I found this absorbing, but also we see the impoverishment of these Irish and how desperate their circumstances. It starts slowly and requires thoughtful watching. Each of the Irish characters is carefully delineated, sometimes comically, sometimes with considerable plangency. British officers barge (they don’t ask permission) in, interrupting the studies at the hedge school. Their behavior is, though, gentlemanly, decent. They seem to be trying to accommodate Irish ways. One who wants to assimilate, to learn the Irish language and Irish history, falls in love with one of the Irish girls (not similarly high-minded).

Second half is, by deliberate contrast, devastating, stunning with shock. The officer who had fallen in love and been truly open to Irish culture eloped with the girl, but has since disappeared, probably murdered in the tryst itself. The British response — of the officers we have just seen — is counter-productively, senselessly harsh — if it were a case of seeking justice or equity. One of the officers who had pretended such friendliness, such interest in Irish schools the day before (in the play), says if the man is not found alive after one day searching, the British destroy all the Irish crops of the people in the area. If he is if not found on the next day, the British army will kill all the animals (more than livestock) owned by Irish; on the the third, they will burn down their houses and evict them. So the pretense is over. We watch the characters crack under this regime.

It doesn’t take much to see the British as the US today, devastating countries or helping others to devastate countries, helping the present Israel gov’t to destroy the Palestinian people. In the 1980s Arthur Miller wrote that the retreat from realistic politics in plays was a cowardly retreat and inveighed against the fantasy-farce type play prevalent in the 1990s. American theater has come back from that, but the one place where exposure is found is on TV satire where the genre and time precludes the depth of a play like Friel’s.

The audience was clearly deeply affected by the wanton cruelty inflicted on our characters.


Adrian Edmonson as Malvolio (Christopher Luscombe’s production)

The Folger continues its periodic HD screenings, and this Monday night they screened a recent RSC production of Twelfth Night. As one review has it, the play as done here lacks the nuanced intertwining of melancholy and not only raucous laughter and gaiety, but downright bitterness (in one version I saw which took Sir Toby Belch’s words and position seriously), which argues a lack of thorough-going thought about the words and social-pragmatic relationships in the story. Shakespeare never neglects that.

But it brought to bear a post-colonial point of view, that together with bringing out the latent homoeroticism between Sebastian and Antonio, his sea-captain beloved friend, between Olivia and Viola (Olivia seems very reluctant to give Viola up even after she has been married to Sebastian), provided a relevant reading for the play. Viola, Sebastian, and Feste are all Indian characters: dressed in Indian garb and played by Indian actors. Malvolio is made self-consciously the ambitious white Victorian caste-climber. Much has been made of the later 19th century costumes, and certainly we are intended to remember Wilde as we watch Malvolio sneer at Maria, appear so cold, but I think the allusion is clearly to the Raj empire. Edmonson’s Gilbert-and-Sullivan patter song, fun in itself, is part of this skein. The caste system, the practical and cruel jokes dissolve these hierarchies, with a good deal of help from wine, song, and sex. Perhaps the Merchant-Ivory point of view is also mocked.

The imprisoning of Malvolio into a tiny dark dungeon, his humiliation and bad treatment, his lack of recourse were intended to allude to obduracy of the US prison system with its solitary confinement. I would not want to lean too heavily here (torture is probably not alluded to), but the whole way this part of the denouement is built up suggests the contemporary perspective. It’s not the old wild comedy of born great, achieve greatness, greatness thrust upon ’em that is at the center of this. I was much moved by Edmonson when he is finally brought out of the darkness to tell Olivia what he has suffered. Equally important is the high elegance and projection of true rapture in the “willow song” conveyed by Dinita Gohill. As in a recent production of The Merchant of Venice, the non-Christian has full humanity and depth. It was also strongly feminist in the way both Maria and Fabian (turned into a young woman) are master-minds of the revenge-trick by the servants.

It cost me $15 as a senior Folger Shakespeare member.

I chose for my one night ($25 for a good seat) out of at least a week’s worth of concerts brought together under the umbrella term, Festival of American Orchestras, a program which eschewed the usual (and sometimes to me too often repeated fare of) suspects: Beethoven, Handel, Brahms, Mozart, Bach. The Albany symphony appeared to be doing beautifully melodic and varied “picture” music by composers I’d not heard of but where what’s pictured or is the story attracted me. As an old New Yorker, I love a bridge, and the last full piece was by Michael Torke where three phases were music evoking Manhattan bridges I’ve drove on so many times.

When I arrived, the audience looked odd or different: far more of the young parent and children group in he audience than usual, many hispanic and black people. It was also not sold out. The mystery was explained when I realize the first half of the second part of the concert centered on a chorus from three DC schools, where children read aloud edifying verse about the building of “The Mighty Erie Canal.” The audience was made up of many people personally attached to some one child in this chorus. The singing was not great, but Dorothy Chang wrote the songs (“The Worker’s Song) suggesting hardship overcome, just, to have this communication, transportation system. Compare how llmost nothing for the common social good is sought by the US gov’t today. Then there were two soloists, both women in the first and last half. Joyce Chang is a great pianist; and she made the piano into a flowing river. Despite (to my eyes) the incongruous mermaid-like silvery dress Carol Jantsch fitted herself into, she is a fine musician on the tuba; she too was mirroring a river’s presence.

It was pleasant on the terrace to see the different groups of people. Very pretty in the sunset over the Potomac too. I was reading Antonia Hayes’s little book, A Universe of One’s Own, (a small present from a friend here on the Internet) as a kind of prelude to Katie Brigg’s This Little Art (on the practice of literary translation). Hayes says from her experience if you learn a language very young even if you forget it, the underlying grid stays with you, the language’s rhythms, forms, intonation. She talks about two areas of the brain where “mother tongues” where are found the first language we learn fully and later learned efforts in school or elsewhere. Hayes argues for a criss-cross, a blending, and talks of how what language we chose to make our primary tongue is so often chosen to gain a new identity, a new culture (You won’t find any of this in any of the review blurbs. Her mother did not want to be a Philippines person and deliberately forget her Tagalong and resisted teaching it to her daughter. Hayes appears to have a learning disabled boy and argues that teaching him two languages at once, French and English as he grew up in France, has unlocked his language barriers. The teacher in France wanted her to stop teaching the boy English, to stop talking it, and Hayes resisted. On the Kennedy Terrace the people were speaking English; in the concert hall, only some were using Spanish.

Hayes goes well beyond the usual way of discussing how we acquire language — as Jhumpa Lahiri tries to in her In Other Words — written by her in Italian with a facing English translation by Ann Goldstein (which I’ve also been reading). The theme of a character, in this case female Indian living in the UK turning herself into a French woman through study, art, and language is central to Lahiri’s prize-winning novel, Namesake (also filmed brilliantly and movingly). Lahiri (in In other words) is convinced you can’t have the same thoughts in different languages and she wants to have the thoughts and feelings she experiences in Italian. Language as identity, as finding oneself.

I know I feel this irrational sense that in Italian and/or French there is something I can experience that is sustaining for me not available at all in English. Thus my joy in translating recently say Elsa Morante’s poetry to her cats printed in her original Italian with facing French translations.


Gwen John drawing

Sometimes I wonder why anyone bothers reprint review blurbs since they consist of in effect noises of praise …. or denigration …). I looked up reviews of both Hayes and Lahiri’s books and you would not know what’ve I’ve suggested is their content at all.

But I am rambling on.

So, to bed.
Ellen

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Gentle reader,

I am sure you are aware there is such a thing as an Internet Style. If you know this, I am even surer you have gone beyond the kind of academic or plain-talking, writing style I fancy I practice here (rather than the mandarin demanded by peer-edited journals) and your meditative, autobiographical and magazine blogger (not to omit fan fictioners). I imagine many readers revel in (get a great kick out of) or endure (as need dictates) that “in-group of savvy, sardonic media consumers” known as recap and commentary content-providers. Over the last couple of evenings, I’ve come across essays in traditional publications (from MLA publications to the venerable TLS and brilliant coterie left-leaning LRB) seeking to imitate and and define the style and outlook of today’s popular Internet Writing.

Tom Rachman’s “Like. Whatever” is the most fun (TLS, January 19, 2018). Reviewing Emmy J. Favella’s A World without Whom: The essential guide to language in the BuzzFeed age, and Harold Evans’s Do I make Myself Clear: Why writing well matters, Rachman is. Just. Hilarious. Not behind a pay wall. Embracing this new way of writing does not mean writing incorrectly or sloppily; the point is to be entertaining and avoid (Heaven Forbid) the pedantic. First abolish Whom. No semi-colons allowed. Talk your words, and stay cool, unfazed. Figure out how to write sarcastically without offending the reader. When to use the asterick. When “in” abbreviations (jk, Imfao). Rachman quotes Favilla deliciously: she declares the emoji “the most evolved form of punctuation we have at our disposal.”

I mean, what a time to be alive, seriously.

Evans is your gentleman from the Times, growling, irascible, the man with the impressive resume. Edited thousands of writers, the “complex thought processes” of such as Kissinger (mass murderers who consider themselves realistic, respectable, need complexity). Evans remembers typewriters and when “there was no meandering in cyberspace.” Evans does think the public is I mean seriously in trouble, confused. Someone is for health care but against the policy providing it. Induced bewilderment comes from the scuttling of credibility as a criteria altogether. Buzzfeed apparently has exposed important frauds amidst its attention-getting games.

Rachman does catch Favilla easily enough writing gibberish, gobbledygok. Citing Orwell’s irreplaceable “Politics and the English Language,” Rachman tells us Orwell was warning us against manipulative language, which Internet style is a new form of. What’s wrong with “It is what it is” or “whatever?”:  cynicism and passivity oozed together. Rachman says we must not hum loudly until the opposition has left the room. The better fairer writer will seem to take into account the other side of whatever it is. And there are still writers writing in the way Evans once did, especially for the better TV programming and films. Much of this writing is about TV and for fan communities lured by franchise-worlds of evolving film characters and story events.

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


Susan Herbert’s Dietrich: Cool cat

What I liked about Christine Photinos in her “After Cliffs: The new Literature Study Guide and the Rhetoric of the Recap,” in Modern Language Studies: Beatrice, 47:2 (Winter 2018):64-73 (probably not available online or behind a wall of some sort) is Photinos explains the attitude of mind behind the Recap style and genre, the posturing wry or snark-filled blog. What these writers are doing is creating the experience of being a member of an “in-community.” The point of all the many allusions left unexplained to the latest meme, slang, fashionable shows and characters or actors is to pull the reader into a shared discourse where he or she will feel in a crowd where everyone knows everyone else, or assumes such easy contact.

To characterize that community’s discourse, Photinos close-reads their tones, terms, conventions, and she finds at core the idea that valuing the material at hand, taking seriously whatever judgements are going on, is dismissed. The stance of arch mockery implies indifference to what is being peddled; summing up what is presented as obviously and all the time a cliche and nothing more turns serious thought or protest into something futile and childish (“take that”), or non-existent, a pretense.

A very few examples out of many cited by Photinos: Silas Marner is basically dismissed in the phrase “Time for a Montage!” For War and Peace, we read “Prince Bolkonsky has him sitting with the family as some kind of lesson about all people being equal. Or something”. “Ma Joad throws a hissy fit” sums up a chapter in Grapes of Wrath. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof summary: “[We] discover Big Daddy has been sick, however, and that he and his wife, who is known as Big Mamma (we’re not making this up), have been … ” It’s a trivializing: “Get ready for some excitement: next, Thoreau describes how he planted and cultivated his bean-field. Wow” (Walden). Lots of “in” terms from film and media art (“cut,” “pan,” “close-up”) are part of a shorthand that performs a chiding of anyone for sensitive emotion. We are not supposed to lose control, never ask for or feel sympathy. “Blanche starts rambling maniacally” (Streetcar); “Chill out, Jimmy” (Lord Jim). Lots of reassuring hedge language (“kind of”). Much of this is dressed-up cliffnotes in burlesque.

We need to attend to this insulation of the reader from vulnerability.

Photinos says this is also a an assumed male-male discourse (references to “bro” abound) presented as gender free. The recap discourages commitment to the material, any sustained inquiry into the ideologies at play that “critical reading would call into question.” So there is a pretense of evaluation. Not all recaps or commentaries are like this but enough are. She includes a list of other articles on the new writing. I recommend the whole of this issue of Modern Language Notes. Beautiful illustrations of Dante and other Beatrices, and good poems scattered across the issue.

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

Jennifer Howard brings up the important issue of pay: the gig economy underlying much of this content production “doesn’t pay the rent.”: Again for TLS, this time March 23, 2018, is a review of a book about online culture and practices: Houman Barkat, Robert Barry and David Warner, edd. The Digital Critic: Literary Culture Online (see many articles by her). Howard begins 15 years ago when she wrote for Book World, a stand-alone pull-out review section of the Washington Post,and admits that many of the litbloggers who replaced her kind have morphed into “familiar bylines with publishing deals to match their strong opinion.” In the early years of writing on the Net, an appealing worthy writer could become “known to people of power and influence” who opened doors for him, so he could skip jumping off from an MFA and slogging through different underling jobs.

But there is now “an spirally galaxy;” the old hierarchies have replicated themselves on the Net but a “snappy Twitter feed, a good pitch and some connections” can help a writer to progress to the head of the line. One problem is the demand for perpetual content: how can you provide seven good posts a day or even week? Superabundance accompanied by “quick takes” preclude genuine critical thinking. When Howard turns to writing as “pay-by-exposure,” (the payment you get is the exposure your writing attracts, she writes about writers without a steady income. Not all causes paid in the days of sheer newspapers, and still don’t. You will have to work your way up through lesser genres to the editing desktop.

Howard ends on an essay from Digital Connection where Will Self laments the loss of solitude, isolation, loneliness, and the time to compose “long-form” fiction and essays. People online are surrounded by endless input/output, making it “hard to have the quality time alone with writing as writing.” Howard’s last remarks remind me of what I used to say to students as writing teacher: “we write alone but to pursue a career as a writer you become a social animal.”

Writing I would say is a social act. So there is a deep contradiction between what goes into the act of writing and how it has to function in the worlds of others. I like her hope that “perhaps counter-intuitively, the ties enabled (by online interaction), social media, web-based publication have a reach or tenacity that match or exceed what came before.” You are after all easily in more contact.

One online writer, Esposito writes that “so many of my primary literary relationships occur primarily by screens,” and the contacts in his case have been “durable.” Still, there is the qualification,that “who pays and who reads remain open questions” (I think) much more for someone online than someone off.

I hope I have not bored you, gentle reader.


Cat circa 1904-8 by Gwen John (1876-1939) Purchased 1940 by the Tate

Ellen

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Louis (Oliver Dimsdale) and Emily (Laura Fraser) in later confrontation (2004 BBC/WBGH, scripted Andrew Davies)

A Syllabus

For a course at the Oscher LifeLong Learning Institute at George Mason University
Day: Seven Wednesday mornings, 9:40 to 11:05 pm,
April 11 to May 23
Tallwood, 4210 Roberts Road, Fairfax, Va
Dr Ellen Moody

https://ellenandjim.wordpress.com/2018/03/08/a-spring-syllabus-sexual-and-marital-conflicts-in-anthony-trollope/

Description of Course

In this course we will read one of Trollope’s most powerful long novels, He Knew He Was Right, a candid and contemporary analysis of sex and marriage, as well as of custody and women’s rights. The novel includes seven couples, with themes that explore sexual anxiety, possession, business transactions, and insanity. It contains tragedy, farce, comedy, and romance, and has been brilliantly adapted in a BBC miniseries scripted by Andrew Davies. We’ll also read Trollope’s short story “Journey to Panama,” about a woman sailing to marry a man she doesn’t know, a common practice in the era, and the relationship she forms on board with a single male tourist traveler.

Required Texts:

Anthony Trollope, He Knew He Was Right, ed. Frank Kermode. New York: Penguin Books, 1994.
—————-, “Journey to Panama,” online at Adelaide University. Also available in Anthony Trollope, Early Short Stories, ed. John Sutherlan. NY: Oxford UP, 1994 (this is the best edition); or Anthony Trollope: The Complete Shorter Fiction, ed. Julian Thompson NY: Carroll & Graf, 1992 (this is the complete and best buy); or Anthony Trollope, Lotta Schmidt and other Stories. Facsimile of original edition online at Adelaide.


Arabella French (Fenella Woolgar) and Rev Gibson (David Tennant), one of the many scenes based on original illustrations (2004 HKHWR)

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

April 11th: 1st week: Introduction: Trollope’s life and career; the state of the law and customs surrounding marriage, child custody, sexual relationships in the mid-19th century. Colonialist marriages abroad. Read ahead for this week, HKHWR, Chapters 1-15

April 18th: 2nd week: read for this week, HKHWR, Chapters 16-31

April 25th: 3rd week: HKHWR, Chapters 32-48: clips from Andrew Davies’s film adaptation

May 2nd: 4th week: HKHWR, Chapters 49-65: clips from Andrew Davies’s film adaptation

May 9th: 5th week: HKHWR, Chapters 66-81: clips from Andrew Davies’s film adaptation

May 16th: 6th week: HKHWR, Chapters 82-97: clips from Andrew Davies’s film adaptation

May 23rd: 7th week: HKWR, Chapters 98-99, “Journey to Panama” Modernity of novel?


A romantic 19th century illustration of emigration

Suggested supplementary reading & film:

Glendinning, Victoria. Anthony Trollope. NY: Knopf, 1993.
Herbert, Christopher. He Knew He Was Right, and the Duplicities of Victorian Marriage,” Texas Studies in Language and Literature, 25 (1981):449-69.
He Knew He Was Right. Dir. Tom Vaughn. Script: Andrew Davies. Featuring: Oliver Dimsdale, Laura Fraser, Bill Nighy, Stephen Campbell Moore, Christina Cole, Ron Cook, Anna Massey. BBC Wales/WBGH, 2004. 4 Part Adaptation
Jones, Wendy. “Feminism, fiction and contract theory: Trollope’s He Knew He Was Right,” Criticism 36 (2004):41ff.
Kohn, Denise. “‘The Journey to Panama’: One of Trollope’s Best ‘Tarts’ – or, Why You Should Read ‘The Journey to Panama’ to Develop Your Taste for Trollope,” Studies in Short Fiction, 30:1 (Winter 1993):15-22
Nardin, Jane. He Knew She Was Right: The Independent woman in the Novels of Anthony Trollope. Carbondale: So. Illinois UP, 1989.
Moody, Ellen. “Epistolary & Masculinity in Andrew Davies’ Trollope Adaptations,” Upstairs and Downstairs: British Costume Drama from The Forsyte Saga to Downton Abbey, edd. James Leggott & Julie Anne Taddeo. London: Rowman & Littlefield, 2015.
Pateman, Carole. The Sexual Contract. Standford University Press, 1988.
Snow, C. P. Trollope: An Illustrated Biography. NY: New Amsterdam, 1975.
Sturridge, Lisa. Bleak House: Marital Violence in Victorian Fiction. Athens: Ohio UP, 2005.
Wagner, Tamara, ed. Victorian Settler Narratives. London: Pickering & Chatto, 2014.
Wingert, Lee. Battered, Bruised and Abused Women: Domestic Violence in 19th century Fiction. Ph.D. Thesis, Iowa State University. On-line pdf


Emily and Col Osborne (Bill Nighy) as imagined? by Louis (2004 HKHWR)

Ellen

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The first modern biographer, Lytton Strachey and his subject, Queen Victoria when young

Friends,

I’ve been thinking about biography all my life; that’s because I’ve been reading biography all my life. To prove to you how odd I am the first books meant for older readers (meaning post-childhood) I remember taking out of the adult library on Sutphin Boulevard (in the southeast Bronx), at the time (in my child’s memory) a huge irregular building with many back-stairways; I say my first introduction to adult reading (which I chose, not forced on me) were two fat tomes, bound in brown, of two Renaissance queens, Margaret de Navarre and her aunt, Jeanne d’Albret. Why I chose those or how I found them I’ve no clue. Since my teen years I’ve been aware that I have a favorite kind: literary biography. I’m convinced that as with ghost stories, certain kinds of gothics (female), and epistolary novels, women write the finest versions of this genre, though men who can write an equivalent of l’ecriture-femme can produce gems too. I even love biographies of biographers: like Caroline Moorehead on Iris Origo (of Val d’Orcia, An Italian War Diary, 1943-44).

The last few months I’ve been especially alert to the form as I have not given up my new life’s goal to write a literary biography of Winston Graham (of the Poldark matter and Cornwall) and turned an offer to include a paper by me on the subject of Johnson and Woolf as paired modernists into a study of their biographical art.

And two weeks ago I chanced upon the equivalent of E.M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel: Andre Maurois’s Aspects of Biography. Maurois makes an attempt to understand his chosen genre’s prevalent characteristics in the modern kind too. Modern biography, he says, is a conscious work of partly imaginative (that is to say, fictional) art, a courageous search for truth in which the biographer realizes highly complex personalities; the most fruiful subjects are of people who have struggled, endured failure, but achieved something. I’m going to look at biography from the different aspects Maurois identified.

First, biography as a work of art: its concern for truth requires documents, but to express a personality requires art. How to do this?

You must choose an angle on the life: he calls this your true subject, and you find the hidden unity of that life through this angle of vision. Johnson may have said the most obscure seemingly reactive, passive life may teach us something important but the truth is you need something to present beyond daily non-events, and it’s best to have an individual who plays some part, no matter how seemingly varied, on some aspects of the world’s stage in a more or less unified performance. Doing the same kinds of things over and over for the same deeply held motives. At the same time all moral preoccupation in the work of art kills the work of art, so the angle should not be moralistic.

Surprisingly perhaps, he finds the chronological method avoids dryness. All of us are artifically made (not just women); that day a great novelist was not born, a baby was. We are not unchangeable. Yet as we change slowly, most of the time imperceptibly, a good biography traces the spiritual and emotional development of someone as history impinges on him or her. You must make us see and feel the person physically. Boswell’s strength is his ceaseless gusto for every particular and entertaining simple style, but while he (I think) presents a distorted emphasis, he has understood enough authentically of his enormous cache of detail, with person who was fecund, varied, interesting so reading the book, we feel the more of this the better. The diary of the brilliant mind, a sketch in words of the person by a close perceptive friend or family member, is invaluable here. Boswell has Johnson’s letters and he (in effect) kept a diary for Johnson every time he met him and was able to find others who had written down or remembered what Johnson said too. There is this obstacle: how much truth do people write in diaries? how representative is what you write down of your life? How much do they understand of themselves. In Johnson’s case he lacked a secular non-judgemental framework. In many other cases, is the product of a writer posing to himself or anticipated others.

Biography considered as a science.

The thoughtful among the public often regard the chief character of a novel as a mirror of the author (no matter how disordered) — especially in non-formulaic fiction. So there is evidence the biographer can use. Also lyric poetry and psychologically revealing plays. A group of characters surrounding and commenting on this center provide a considerable expository base. Of more demonstrable equal value are memoirs of contemporaries who knew the subject — even if the writer is dim (as Margaret Oliphant said of Jane Austen’s nephew in his invaluable Memoir of My Aunt Jane). Letters are the lifeblood of a biography from this standpoint but there people are performing too. No person is understandable apart from her historical time. You must study the era, the geography and way of life where the subject lived, its history. So biography becomes the story of an evolution of a soul against a background of history, with help from contemporaries who knew him or her. That’s as close to objectivity as you’re going to get (thinks Maurois)

Biography as a mean of expression. The biographer chooses a subject which gives her the opportunity to express what is in her very keenly. Beneath the objective surface there should lie that vivid emotion, which gives a book an intensity a burning passion.

Biography will not come alive if you write it coldly or distantly. The biographer is seeking an opportunity for displaying some aspect of him or herself. This is all indirect: by quite an indirect means and through the medium of characters very far removed in circumstances from the biographer, the biographer attains to self-expression. Yet in novels and fictionalized (skeptic, modern) biography, the writers’ characters do not have to have been real or lived as people, just very believable in context. We should ask, whatever the indirect means, what were the secret springs in the biographer which are at the bottom of this desire to write someone’s biography? For Maurois writing of Shelley it was a deliverance for himself to write the life of Shelley. (For me what compels me are an attitude of mind I identify with in the first half of Graham’s Memoir, find acted out in a core group of characters in Graham’s first seven Poldark books, and the escape from my contemporary world is an intense relief.) In sum, biography is an expression of character when the author has chosen his subject in order to respond to a secret need in his own nature. Then it’s autobiography disguised as biography.

The appealing tone (Maurois suggests) derives from how the biographer regards his or her hero or heroine as greater than him or herself — or more important for some reason. Johnson finds it of riveting importance to show that the supremely gifted person can end up having done nothing most people would admire or value and in tragic misery when dying. Woolf is looking at a man as an artist of great integrity, who will not compromise his art, and was (she thinks) crucially influential anyway. The modern biographer recognizes he or she can never uncover the whole of their character’s innermost springs confront the mysteries of real people; Maurois thinks the biographer finds his or her way through a one alive persov by dwelling on one aspect of that person and sometimes fleeting, a limited and yet suggestive expansive aspect. Guilt at running the risk of spoiling the reputation, the considered presence of how the person is remembered, worry at offending and attack doesn’t stop the biographer from writing the life up as accuately as allowed in print. I don’t know quite what Maurois meant when he wrote something to the effect the biographer thinks he can refashion a thought then in the image of our own today.


Anthony Trollope, artful albumen print photo by Julia Margaret Cameron (1864)

He turns to autobiography as a sub-species of life-writing. Do you know the truth about yourself; your invisible center? Several causes make autobiography to some extent false and inaccurate. In a nutshell, we forget.

It’s here he first quotes Anthony Trollope’s utterance as a key: Trollope doubts truthtful autobiography is possible. Who would tell the meannesses he or she had done or thought. Trollope tells us he remembers so much from his boyhood — what produced that violent impression has the power to continue to make us tremble, himself to burn with passionate humiliation. He controls that seismic power. It’s a truism if we live through war we remember more as children. We don’t forget the shock at what we have seen.

To make up for blank space before say ages 7 to 9, most autobiographies of childhood are to some extent fabrications because what we have to fill in is what we remember and that is partly from what our parents told us. The confused feelings and associations of such our first crucial years are lost in obscurity and the unremembered past — yet here is this complex individual (Trollope) emerging around this shock. Johnson (and others) urge people to preserve written testimony before what happened is lost –- a fairly detailed record alone can bring ourselves before us, and the diary is its basis. Trollope relies on these memories burning into his mind still.

What else do we forget? The subject forgets her dreams, yet much of our hours are spent in forms of dreams. The biographer and autobiographer omit or forget in order to make a work of art – so much of life has to left out. “The cult of the hero is as old as mankind,” but we must struggle against it (says Maurois). At any rate we (helplessly sometimes) censor the disagreeable too. People feel a deep sense of shame at petty and other humiliations they have endured (Trollope is able to tell of these), at their bodies, very few can tell truth about sexual life: immediately too one response from many readers may be unacknowledged voyeurism. How painful to think that what you are writing is fodder for someone’s silent ridicule or disdain.

We also rationalize after the fact and finds reasons for what often occurred by chance. Maurois feels (and like Mrs Proudie, I agree with him), that there is no system to life, no pattern for real, no meaning, and we act out of private personal needs and to other people nearest us. The order we experience is from our need to sleep, to eat, to defecate; the institutions society says we must go to; our need to earn a living or share one from someone somehow. We also want to protect those around us. The underlying design here too must be the development of mind, that is your pattern, and that Trollope succeeds in: a portrait of how this novelist came to be and the nature of his novelistic art, a book which is a diptych.

Maurois may have seem to have left out much but he is speaking of modern biography:


A modern biography …


EBB’s life from the point of view of her dog, of her maid, Elizabeth Wilson (said to be Margaret Forster’s finest book, except I’d say for her biographies of the females in her working class family.)

Maurois does not talk of early biography (the way Forster does not talk of the earliest pre-novels before the later 17th century in Europe), not before Johnson and Boswell by which time biography had become in individual instances a portrait of an individual life, and then through these two men’s books (and the fiction of the era) consciously texts aimed at developing the sympathetic imagination of the reader who then can enter in (Rambler 60 and Idler 84),

Maurois mentions but does not regard as “true biography,” commemorative, pious, family, the zealous many volume documentary, which at its best aimed only at a consciously semi-censored “truth to life,” and is found in Gaskell, Oliphant, Froude’s Carlyle where (according to Virginia Woolf in Flush) a dog is said to have jumped out of a window or off the roof in response to the killing nature of the Carlyles’ marriage.

Maurois is contemporary with Woolf’s essay on modern or “The New Biography,” where she says what the new biography does is convey personality deeply, and she includes the semi-fictional sketches of Some People by Harold Nicholson as modern biographies. Later she changed her mind in “The Art of the Biography,” and conceded the foundation of biography must be fact, evidence and its means verisimilitude. And her last biography is her Roger Fry:

Facts are the problem, she says. By the time she gets to the end of either essay she’s made a case that the central use of facts can limit the biography. The existence of documents (facts) for Queen Victoria can make writing her biography so much more satisfying and near to great art. But how powerful and intense Strachey’s Elizabeth and Essex, that Strachey got in the “stranger bodies’ of the Elizabethans through strange (unconventional sexuality) imagining.

And at the close Maurois admits the genre has so many limitations and obstacles one might say it is impossible to pull off except you admit it’s fiction ,,,,

Ellen

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Albert Finney as Churchill (Jim Broadbent as Desmond Morton, The Gathering Storm)


Michael Gambon as Churchill (Churchill’s Secret)

Friends,

Another rather shorter blog where I depart from our usual fare, this time in content. Since this summer, without intending this (in a “fit of absence of mind”), I’ve been watching and reading about a sub-genre of movie I hadn’t realized existed: films centering on Winston Churchill as a piquantly fascinating and admirable older hero. In one he seems hardly to figure, Dunkirk; in another, he is sideshow for a season, The Crown (superb performance by John Lithgow — I hope to blog soon on this extraordinarily well-done serial drama); in a third, he is sort of warped Trump twin, The Darkest Hour (very worrying film). Then after reading Geoffrey Wheatcoft’s superb essay in the NYRB, “A Star is Born” (January 18, 2018), the most touching and insightful of biographical sketches, Rosemary Dinnage’s “Holding the Baby: Clementine Churchill” (under “Partners and Muses” in Alone! Alone! Lives of Some Outsider Women), and Joan Hardwick’s Clementine Churchill: The Private Life of a Public Figure, I consciously set out to watch two against type: 2001 The Gathering Storm, and 2016 Churchill’s Secret.


A statue on the Chartwell grounds

This is a departure because I avoid books and movies about supposedly great men, often, as Thomas More had it, the pests of humanity. I dislike and find such films dangerous most of the time (exceptions include anti-war films Danger USB, Piece of Cake, Kilo Two Bravo). I slipped into this for the reason I want to talk about two against type: we find ourselves in a culture and unacknowledged coup lurching towards war. The cult has been and continues to be heavily American, a profoundly militarist state where violence is close to the surface, and macho male norms prevail. What can attract them? What’s worth noticing is the Churchill films (until The Darkest Hour) have been anti-fascist because Churchill’s intelligence, words, behaviors help undermine the hero fantasy, and he is not himself an action-adventure icon. The list of actors playing the various parts in these films show something worth while glimpsed in the legend: Richard Burton, Robert Hardy, Robert Shaw; even the self-deprecating ever self-conscious Bob Hoskins (in World War Two: When Lions Roared, in split screens, with Michael Caine as Stalin, John Lithgow as Churchill, with much war documentary footage).

Gathering Storm and Churchill’s Secret place Clementine equally at the center


Vanessa Redgrave as Clementine who Churchill calls Mrs Pussycat and she Churchill Mr Pug (Gathering Storm)


Lindsay Duncan as Clementine, with Romola Garadi as Nurse Millie (the myth has come to include a young woman working for Churchill whose life he changes)

These two against type also feature Clementine as central, a role when written with insight offers remarkable moments for a great actress: in The Crown, when Harriet Walter as Clementine burns Graham Sutherland’s portrait of her husband because Sutherland captured his aging and dense characteristics and she cares about how she remembers him, it’s one of the finest intense sequences of the first season.

After reading Sir Almroth Wright’s able and weighty exposition of women as he knows them the question seems no longer to be ‘Should women have the vote?’ but ‘Ought women not to be abolished altogether?’… We learn from him that in their youth they are unbalanced, that from time to time they suffer from unreasonableness and hypersensitivity … and … later on in life they are subject to grave and long-continued mental disorders, and if not quite insane, many of them have to be shut up … May we not look to Sir Almroth Wright to crown his many achievements by delivering mankind from the parasitic, demented and immortal species which has infested the world for so long … Clementine Churchill, a letter to The Times, published 1912)

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Chartwell in both films played an important role.

In both we are being let into the life of the house and watch the characters wander about the grounds. In Gathering Storm, Churchill is fixing his pond, draining it, saving ducks; in Churchill’s Secret, it is a ambiguous haven for all.

I was much moved by The Gathering Storm. I felt as a widow what I’ve lost was enacted by Redgrave and Finney’s relationship: deep companionship and support. It gave over some 2/3s perhaps to private daily life whose values are not militaristic, not aggressive (anything but), nurturing, home-making. The movie has Churchill show Clementine on behalf of what he is acting: what preserving — good quiet lives lived in liberty. The center was the same as Spielberg’s The Post: a defense of whistle-blowers.

The film’s other hero, Linus Roache as Ralph Wigam is a Deep Throat, a Daniel Ellsberg, is supplying documents and evidence to Winston so he can have ballast in his speeches that they must prepare for and fight the insanely tyrannical socio-pathic Hitler. Wigam and his wife love dearly their disabled child, a Downs Syndrome son, caring for him tenderly. The emphasis was also on how Wigam was not supported by his colleagues (as is Ellsberg in The Post). In a Laura Poitras film the hero is a victim, and in The Gathering Storm Wigam’s colleagues, e.g., Hugh Bonneville as Pettifer. threaten Wigam by saying they will place him where he and his wife cannot attend properly to their child’s needs. Wigam cracks under the pressure of doing what he has been trained not to do.

Ronnie Barker returns as an the argumentative faithful comic Butler. Vulnerability is to the fore, mutual tolerance, comradeship.

The original title for Churchill’s Secret was KBO (said to be Churchill’s motto: Keep Buggering On). Here we have a man who with the help of a working class nurse who would never have voted for him, brings himself back from near death; the courage to be is at the film’s center. He’s weak, sick, and yet aware of others. No pious family, bickering bitter snarky adult children (especially good are Tara Fitzgerald and the inimitable Matthew Macfayden as egregious snob Randolph and desperate Diana. Rachel Stirling as the daughter deprived of a man because her father despised him), yet everyone gathers together to watch a film and walk in the garden.

In Churchill’s Secret, there was a disturbing intrusion of our contemporary insanities: the way Garai was introduced. A hard-working nurse, she is commanded by silent men to “come” with no explanation, then threatened if she spills some vital secret she will regret it forever. This is appalling — it seems to be presented as part of life. Garai is about to go to Australia to live a life as a man’s wife when she really would prefer to stay in London because her job is more satisfying. She does not long to spend her life as this man’s wife. And watching Clementine crying and the family’s lack of identity outside this man gives her courage to say no. She seems to lose her labor identification and allow her father’s earnest reading to be made fun of (just a bit, as Churchill reads the same poet).

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A photograph of Winston and Clemmie walking together when young

What is valued in these two films are relationships between people, reasonableness, strength as staying true to an inner self, kindness and real equity. No misogyny, no ritual humiliation for anyone. Touching individualizations. In Dunkirk it’s a sheer will to survive that governs the evacuation whose hero is Mark Rylance.

When you come to the quiet end of these two films, you might think as I did: how unfathomable and crazy can we be in the US to have large numbers of people supporting a manic malevolent man who promotes violence, anti-social behavior at every turn, says carelessly he’ll kill 12 million, and no one acts seriously consistently to remove him.


This is Churchill’s portrait of himself from 1920

Izzy tells me she has read Churchill’s war correspondence and it is very worth reading. The Literary Churchill: Author, Reader, Actor by Jonathan Rose is valuable. That last word is significant: he made himself into a theatrical figure in public, a possible clue to the cult. Like Martin Luther King he was a master rhetorician, but since he was not philosophically deep, we have to look elsewhere to understand. A recent book by Barry Gough extends our sense of Churchill as head of the Navy together with John Arbuthnot Fisher in World War I.

In Joan Hardwick we see the aristocratic culture of the later 19th and early 20th century: Clementine was the child by a man who was not her mother’s legal husband; the same man fathered her older sister. Her twin brothers had a different father. She was sent away to and pulled out of schools on whims, for lack of money. Maybe she clung to Winston because he was rock-like, a kind of Tolstoy’s Levin & Karenin with cigar and liquor.


As Sir Winston and Lady Churchill much older; Harriet Walter as Clementine burning the false portrait

Ellen

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A photograph from a New York City production

Friends,

This is my second blog honoring or remembering what Martin Luther King told us. I went to see The Humans last week at the Kennedy Center, and I saw The Gabriels last early January at the Kennedy Center. Both brought over from NYC, with somewhat changed casts. These two plays expose what has happened to the middle class in the US since the values and norms King stood for, the kinds of laws and social and racial and economic programs he would have passed have not been passed or have been rescinded, and what there was of social progress is now being further corroded –the realistic stories of Stephen Karam’s The Humans and Richard Nelson’s The Gabriels (see my review) are true to US life and measure the deterioration and impoverishment inflicted on the US population at large by its wealthy masters (corporations, individual very wealthy people and their obedient politicians).

The Humans and The Gabriels hold up mirrors to the destruction of the lower and middle middle class white family that has been let to happen in the past quarter of a century; The Humans shows the process at our later stage, the results of the Trump regime’s past year re-enforcement and acceleration. The Humans is a sort of speeded-up imitation of The Gabriels, shorter, one play with no intermission rather than three plays over three nights. The Humans are on the edge of bankruptcy and a need for welfare that no longer exists, for supplemental benefits and unemployment insurance; they have not fallen off as yet, but only two have jobs. The Gabriels are in better shape, all but the aging mother have jobs, no matter how menial, or an income, widow’s pension; they can afford to keep an tangential extra relative, a single woman (a stray type familiar to most older women in our society); the first wife of the widow’s husband (she the daughter of the one older couple) rents the widow’s attic. This single woman is very nervous waiting for a male date to show up; he never does. The Gabriels have lost the larger family home but still own the cottage we find them in. The Humans will soon all be in small apartments; the Gabriels (it’s the family name) come from such summer people made permanent and people once the servants of the super-rich. The Gabriels are probably better off because of this previous history of stability.


The set of The Humans

Taking Karam’s family, the Blakes, to be a sort of continuation of Nelson’s Gabriels, we might say the situation has become much more desperate, though both sets of people are grim as they face a bleak, opportunity-less future. In The Humans, there is a young heterosexual couple living together (not married) in an apartment which has been put together from the first floor of a broken down pair of rooms, one turned into a kitchen (not meant to be) and a make-shift iron stairwell down to a basement room. The couple invite the young woman’s family there for Thanksgiving dinner. The young woman is one of two daughters; the other comes too, and it emerges she’s a lesbian whose partner has left her and whom she phones at least once (perhaps more than that as she keep running out of sight, upstairs, into the bathroom). She has been abandoned and hurt emotionally and since she was economically partly dependent on her partner, she has had to move back with her parents very temporarily.

Kasam’s Blake parents are near retirement age (the central couple was just this age group in The Gabriels) and the Blakes bring an older woman who is the mother of the husband and demented, but they can’t afford to put her in a assisted living where she’d be treated terribly anyway. Probably die. She has a violent fit at one point and he has to subdue her. Nelson’s Gabriels also includes an Aged female P, but there is money to put her in better assisted living though not truly decent and at a very high cost which is stretching her son and his wife’ resources. In the case of The Gabriels, the family house has been lost, because the older woman fell for a deceptive scheme which seemed to promise her endless money and that she would never lose the house; she become a life-tenant in it, but the fine print allowed the new owner to throw her out. And he has. It was a bank-engineered scam she grabbed at because she couldn’t make her house payments. In neither case does the society help at all. In the US society allows such egregious theft to happen with impunity.


Yet another production where you can see how a situation comedy can be emerging

I felt that The Humans is not as good a play, though it got some very high praise in some reviews. At moments it edged towards situation comedy, obvious eliciting of laughter at mainstream predicaments. The use of cell phones signaled this. The laughter might have been the audience: I found myself not in the Theater Lab (where Izzy and I saw Twisted Dickens two weeks ago was as well as me The Gabriels last January), but the big Eisenhower theater, and while not every seat was taken, many were, and I was in the 2nd balcony. (I sometimes can’t tell where I’ve bought a seat — I don’t focus my mind on practicalities.)

So you had an audience who wanted to laugh comfortably; somehow the average person sniffs out mediocrity and then reinforces it by inane reactions. The Gabriels did take more effort to understand (there is much more there); you really should go all three times, though like Ayckbourn’s Norman Conquests decades ago, you don’t have to see them in the correct order.

The subtitle of The Gabriels is Election Year during the Life of One Family. Interwoven were comments about the election where Clinton was running against Trump. That meant naturally they debated some of the issues; and that included health care for older people, and (surprisingly) foreign policy because so much of their high tax bill went to pay for wars. Why are there no young men in the Gabriel set? because one man has left his wife for a younger woman and to avoid the pressures of a bigger family to answer to; others connected to the family have died or been destroyed by drugs. In The Humans outside politics is never brought up nor is there an attempt at explanation as to why most of the characters they talk of and all of them are women but two.

Hungry
Public Theatre
LuEster
HUNGRY
Written and Directed by Richard Nelson
Featuring Meg Gibson, Lynn Hawley, Roberta Maxwell, Maryann Plunkett, Jay O. Sanders, and Amy Warren
Sets & Costumes Susan Hilferty
Lighting Jennifer Tipton


The humor of the Gabriels results from the character’s deep talk to one another, not superficial guffaws

The art of The Humans needs improvement too. The desperation of the individuals in The Humans and each of their stories is not brought out slowly over many hours (as in Nelson’s 3 plays worth of time) but suddenly in the second half of the second act the calamities were admitted to and piled on towards the end — a series of sudden revelations, that felt like distress upon distress. The Blake father has lost his long-time job just before he was eligible for his pension; the excuse was a one-time affair with a fellow teacher. I should say this is nothing new: my father’s mother in the 1980s was 2 years away from retirement from many years as a cleaning and forced out so deprived of her pension; my uncle (my mother’s sister’s husband) had to endure 10 years of deliberate very hard work than he’d had before to hold on to actually get that pension; he just managed it. So these retired parents are selling their house in Pennsylvania, which they bought because it was inexpensive but now they can get less for it than they paid. The Blake daughter making the Thanksgiving has no job. They are living in a slum like street, in an apartment somehow to the back of a store. The mother works (glad to get out of the house).


The Gabriels’ table, dishes

You might say we can measure the distance the middle class has declined since last year in furniture, dishes, and appliances. The characters in The Humans sit on plastic and metal folding tables; their meal is half-ass stuff, much of it fast food, not cooked much as their stove is minimal. Their dishes are plastic cups and they use rubber as central places to put the food out on. The Gabriels had a leftover lovely round wooden table and ate decent food decently cooked in a good stove on set of real dishes. The Humans are dependent on cab services to go all the way to Pennsylvania from NYC. The Gabriels have two cars — their immediate area is one without much public transportation — as is true of much of the US.

The Humans can be cheated some more at the close because instead of a small car, which they ordered, a van comes. The Gabriels live in an ex-summer middle class community; now the people who used to come are fewer, and the super-rich taking all back. Outside the young Blake couple’s apartment they see a cement area, called an “interior courtyard.” The Blakes have bars on the windows.

It should be said that what The Humans had was much more open anguish. The Gabriels are still committed to decorum, and The Gabriels had sub-theme: the suffering of widows, of women left single alone. If The Humans meant to defend an older man accused of sexual transgression, it never did; the father-older husband told his story, apologized profusedly to all in the room (his wife is not there) and that’s all there was to that. What was hurting or mattered was he now had no pension. His wife does keep nagging her daughter to marry her partner but nowhere it is said she should do this to be marginally economically safer. It was apparently just this parroted-prejudice.

My older daughter tweeted the other day all her friends are worse off this year than last; some have lost their jobs. She did not say she is worse off because I gather she is making as much money literally as she did one year ago (but not two years before that where she made twice a much), but she has no pension, no health care except through ACA and is paid by the hour week-by-week in the supposed secure job she works at.

It is now commonplace in the US for people working full time to have no pension, no health, and no paid vacation leave. Fewer people going to college. Who can have a dream of joyful fulfillment now? Least of all those about to be deported to nowhere at all after building a world for themselves and families for decades.

No film I’ve seen in theaters comes near the truthfulness of The Humans or the subtlety of The Gabriels. Real family life in the US today. I ordered the stage plays of The Gabriels the night I came home from The Humans. Nelson’s play seems to be the kind of fertile pool of art that other plays can build upon — the way Tennesse Williams and Arthur Miller’s plays at mid-century were.

Ellen

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