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The author’s real name is Carolyn Heilbrun, the detective Kate Fansler


Jane Tennison (Helen Mirren) of Prime Suspect fame

Friends and readers,

An interim blog: this is me thinking out a few semi-conclusions I’ve come to after a couple of months of reading books about women detectives (history, literary criticism, culture, feminist) and reading and rereading a few such books by men and women. As I’ve written on my Sylvia I blog, I seem to be going through something of a transition after living in this world without Jim for some 9 plus years. Part of this is I am liking books I used to not be able to read, and able to accept optimism and at least sympathize with (understand in a new way from an outward transactional POV) some conventional transactional pro-social-ambition perspectives.

To get to the point here, I find that I can’t resist reading and watching new kinds of material in the detective, mystery-thriller, spy genre kind, which I’ve come back to seeing as closely allied to the gothic. Not that I altogether rejected books with women detectives at the center: my first Internet pseudonym was Sylvia Drake, a minor character in Dorothy Sayer’s Gaudy night, and my gravatar for my political blog is a small picture of Harriet Walter as Harriet Vane looking thoughtful.


From Strong Poison: she is supposed the murderer and this is in prison, she is talking to Lord Peter Wimsey (Edward Petherbridge)

The reading came out of my preparing for my coming The Heroine’s Journey course this winter. As you can see, if you go over the look, there is no example among my four slender book choices of a female detective novel. That’s because I couldn’t think of one slender enough for such a short course until I came upon Amanda Cross’s (aka Carolyn Heilbrun’s) Death in a Tenured Position. Most recent and older female detective novels are average size, say 350 pages (Gaudy Night is about this size) because often many combine a “novel of manners” (or domestic romance) with the detective formula. But I found it to be a central category because since surfacing in novels in the 1860s, the type has multiplied in appearances until say today there may be several TV shows featuring a female detective available all at once.

Although I’ve found dictionary-type books with lists and essays on women writers and their detective novels (Great Women Mystery Writers, ed Kathleen Gregory Klein, truly excellent; By a Woman’s Hand by Jean Swanson and Dean James, 200 short entries which have the merit of naming the author as well as the detective and offering enough information to give the reader a gist of what type of mystery fiction this is), it has been very hard to find any essay-like books treating just the category of female detective fiction by women writers. The nature of the material (influences, who’s writing what, movies as a group-creation) has led to many male writers putting female detectives at the center of their series, and many female writers putting male detectives, and these mixed gender creations (so to speak) are often superb in all sorts of ways.

One of my felicitous reading and watching experiences this past year was Anthony Horowitz’s Magpie Murders (both book and film), which features a private detective, Atticus Pund (spelt without accents) in a 1950s novel as part of an investigation into a parallel murder today by the old trope amateur sleuth, Sue Ryland in (presumably) 2021 — for its witticism, self-reflexive uses of the core fantasies, styles and yes multi-gender empathies.


Sue Rylands (Leslie Manville) is also intended to appeal to older unmarried career women (the spinster trope transformed & modernized at last)

But as there is a real, findable, and demonstable fault-line and difference between male and female writing, and films made by mostly men or mostly women, and visual art, and music too, and one of my aims as a teacher and writer is to keep women’s literature alive and make it more respected; I’ve been after just the books by women albeit in a multi-gender context. I’ve also tried to stick to films where the central author originally (or continuously) is a woman, and evidence shows women directing, producing, doing set design. The qualification here is all of these are shaped by the kind of detection mystery genre the book/film is written in. I’ve followed Andrew Marr centrally here; Julian Symons’s Bloody Murders is also indispensable.

I’ve come to a few tentative conclusions.

I agree in part with Kathleen Klein’s brilliant analysis (The Woman Detective: Gender and Genre) of the depiction of female detectives mostly in books, but equally by men and women that often these may easily be read and are in fact intended (when conscious) as anti-feminist (meaning the movement for independence and equality) portrayals from a male (in some eras on TV lascivious) POV.

This POV is on display in right now in the incessant arguments and brutal put-downs of Miss Eliza Scarlet (the ever patient Kate Phillips has played many an wholly abject woman, from Jane Seymour in the recent Wolf Hall, to Tolstoy’s hero Andrei’s long-suffering wife, the 2016 serial by Andrew Davies) by “The Duke” Inspector Wellington (the pugnacious, overtly insulting professional police detective played by Stuart Martin, doubtless chosen for his resemblance to the matinee idol type, Richard Armitage) who reiterates constantly a woman cannot be both a real or natural or happy woman and a detective; who needs strong men around her to protect her. Injury was added to insult in the most recent episode (Season 3, Episode 2) where a story was concocted whereby a mean and bullying ex-friend, Amanda Acaster, who repeatedly humiliated and nowadays derides her, is also used to criticize adversely Eliza’s character: Eliza is supposed now to have felt for Amanda trying to have a career using the same manipulative amoral tactics she did when the two were young. She is not charged though her measures were what encouraged a gang of thieves to use her restaurant as a front.  But look she surpasses Eliza in the Victoria sponge cake line. The costuming of the program shows some knowledge of the illustrations for such stories in the 1870s/90s, the music is very good, and lines are witty (though usually at Eliza’s expense) and I’d call the presentation stylish. I have spent this much time on it as it’s contemporary and its perniciousness extends to endorsing bullying and mocking non-macho males (Andrew Gower as a homosexual man controlled by his mother).

In many of these detective stories especially the hard-boiled type, and since the 1990s, the woman simply takes on male characteristics, and when she doesn’t and displays genuine female psychology, set of values, life experiences, and is as competent as the males and not just by intuition, by the end of a given book or series, we are to see she has not lived a fulfilled life, which must include marriage and motherhood. This is how Prime Suspect finally ends. In medias res, the female detective of whatever type is often allowed genuine common women’s lives characteristics and we see themes and archetypes familiar in women’s literature, e.g., recent film instance of the mother-daughter rivalry paradigm in Annika where the older heroine is divorced and lives with her teenage older daughter. There is now a line of disguised lesbian socially-conscious fiction, e.g., Val McDermid, seen in film recently featuring Karen Pirie played by Lauren Lyle, of Outlander provenance, dressed in unemphatically non-binary ways

But I don’t agree wholly with Klein (or others who write from her vantage). At the same time, the way out is not to trivialize and pretend to treat as playful amusement “the lady investigator” and her now many daughters, grand-daughters and great-grand-daughters, all the while lightly coming to the same conclusion as Klein, with some face-saving and genuinely rescuing qualifications. This is the vein taken by Patricia Craig and Mary Cadogan in their The Lady Investigates: Women Detectives and Spies in Fiction: a very informative as well as insightful book; it covers amateur and private detectives as well as the spy genre, which Klein does not. Nor is it to ignore this aspect of the genre altogether: Lucy Worsley in her Art of Murder manages this, at the same time as she (curiously) denies that the mass audience for this kind of thing understands it as fantasy (that most murders are not solved, and when solved not by brilliant ratiocinative nor super-scientific techniques, but rather information from people involved) but out of a thirst for violence and fascination with death (this does ally it to the gothic).

What we need to remember is the history of the genre: it first emerges in the later 19th century when women could get jobs and income on their own, go to college as woman (usually women’s colleges). The whole larger genre of detective fiction develops its characteristics when you first have men hired in visible numbers and a real police force. So there were male models for male detectives but no female models for female detectives. This changes (Miss Scarlet and the Duke is quite a startling throw-back) post-World War II when women held on to their array of male jobs and began to be hired, however slowly, and to be promoted to managerial positions in institutions, including the police (Lynda LaPlante modelled Jane Tennison on an actual woman detective).

I suggest that the woman detective was an popular substitute for the “new woman” so distinguished by feminist literary scholars of the 1890s (which never achieved much popularity or was not lasting); she becomes liberated and a real woman as women in our western societies begin at any rate to achieve the right and education for financial and some real sexual independence. We see this in Horowitz’s Sue Rylands and I hope to show other women detectives from the post World War II era.

So as a follow-on from this framework, I hope from time to time to write blogs here when the writer is a male and the portrait less than really feminocentric; on detective fiction found in both books and films; and on Reveries under the Sign of Austen (when the writer is female and the work genuinely l’ecriture-femme, which includes for me a genuinely anti-violence, anti-war and pro-woman political POV, which by the way I do think Prime Suspect was and is: Gray Cavender and Nancy C Jurik’s Justice Provocateur: Jane Tennison and Policing in Prime Suspect. The victims in these shows are often women tortured by male violence, young children, including boys destroyed and warped by male pedasty, immigrants, mostly women working menial jobs desperately, and yes prostitutes too, and women who murder (including one semi-accidental infanticide) too.

First up for Austen Reveries will be Amanda Cross’s Death in a Tenured Position and, for this blog, the older masterpiece, Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time (Inspector Alan Grant investigates the character of Richard III)


Of course Josephine Tey was a pseudonym; the author’s real name was Elizabeth Mackintosh, and the photo is of Jennifer Morag Henderson who wrote an excellent biography

Ellen

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The baker (Jake Lowenthal) and his wife (Erin Weaver)

This musical needs no recommendation, but perhaps this particular production as a seasonal favorite does

Gentle readers and kind friends,

The world may be about to burst into flames or drowned seven fathoms deep, people killed senselessly and maliciously or for profit everywhere we look (recently especially the world’s cup with millions watching anyway), a mad-dog version of an older political party about to take over the US House of Representatives, with the aim of doing nothing but destroy, but this year Washington DC can boast of several emotionally fulfilling productions — which (I think) do this by returning to faery tale and fantasy. The usual Folger production is at the Roundhouse in Maryland (and it has been too far for me or I would have seen it more than once), a wonderful Tempest, Wicked at the Kennedy Center, still sparkling, I’d say utterly iconic (the witch looks like Margaret Hamilton), and this past week, I enjoyed the National Theater fantasy caricature of MAAN.

What I liked about this Into the Woods — I’ve seen a number, including a year after Jim died, the Disney adaptation (see the blog for discussion of Sondheim’s motives and ideas about the faery tales) –,  is its clarity. What a wonder.  It is not over- nor under-produced. You were allowed to pay attention to the outlines of the interwoven stories, the characters’ lines, and their simple or archetypal emotions. I don’t know how they managed such a fresh feel, but they did it


At turning points in the plot-design, the whole cast gets together around the storyteller to hear where we are and project togetherness

Perhaps, as may be gathered from Peter Marks’s review (Washington Post), it was just that you were able to grasp the common human emotion driving this fantasy character in his or her ordinary predicament (she cannot get pregnant, the young boy will not be able to make a living, the little girl as a woman is impeded by a predatory male wolf), several of them desperate.


Cinderella in her Russian peasant outfit — the outfits seemed to me redolent of Russian peasants in archetypal movies (especially that of the Baker)

The Cinderella core paradigm of envy among women feels the least humanly convincing, the most exaggerated: the stepmother and three sisters resonated least for me, were most artificial because they were all made so ugly. Curious, the incidents that today hit home: the prince, when his princess has disappeared, aggressively seducing and lying to the baker’s wife, and the witch as the mother who in her need for her daughter’s love rationalizes she’s protecting her, when she’s preventing her from living. I this time admit the witch’s lines to Rapunzel “Stay with me:” “Don’t you know what’s out there in the world? … Stay at home … Who out there could love you more than I? …

Stay with me
The world is dark and wild
Stay a child while you can be a child …

did not resonate as much. I feel the original witch-look (Nova Y. Payton) was too much a caricature, and her black-sequined glamor gown made her not sufficiently a mother, more too much of a “black mamma” sexual object. There is such a thing as over-modernization because our favored cultural images and gestures are so very artificial, relentlessly competitive, and heartless. So there the simplifying didn’t work; the witch role was over-the-top, done somewhat crudely


Alex de Bard as Little Red Riding Hood shrugging off two mothers

I call the ambiance clarity, for this is the first time I realized how many of the characters actually die. Hitherto I thought of this as a story where we are shocked by the unexpected sudden unprepared death of the baker’s wife, but in fact (taking faery as fact), Little Red Riding Hood’s mother and grandmother die, Jack’s mother dies, the storyteller at one point is no longer with us, and I never felt assured the blinding of several characters was reversed. I had taken it the first half ends happily, so we are left to wonder what can keep us to a second half?


The spiky paratextual theme song (“Into the Woods” we go) is essential for keeping the impetus thrust forward going

I wondered what more was there to say? It is really common for Sondheim’s musicals to fall off in the second half (especially clear in Sunday in the Park with George). That was the feel as we re-began . But soon we began to see a lot could happen — that’s why we need all this wishing: the statements “I wish”  begins the production and one more ends it.

Disaster strikes in the form of a never-seen female monster-giantess. Feel free to allegorize? We watch our left-standing characters re-group again and again — after some squabbling. I remembered the death of the Baker’s wife since it was emphasized in the Disney film (and the other deaths skipped or slid over somehow), but that this was the incident in the film which provoked the lyrics that I began to keen over once again: here it was Red Riding Hood who suddenly missed her grandmother

Sometimes people leave you
Halfway through the wood
Others may deceive you.
You decide what’s good.
You decide alone.
But no one is alone …

Jim has left us (me and Izzy) halfway through the wood. I just moved stiffly further back in my chair as I tried to dissociate myself from the audience, theater, all about me, lobby outside. Once again I was not quite recovered when four of the characters and baby were left bonded into a new family, and then, one by one, the disappeared characters returned  onto the stage, and became part of a singing your soul out ensemble.

Don’t miss it. Magical fairytale, It’s a Wonderful Life without the miracle. Dogged as does it.


Cast towards the end singing their hearts out

I need to tell you how I managed to go. I had a win last week when I went to the Phillips with the same friend who accompanied me to this musical and then in Shirlington to dinner out in a quiet restaurant with delicious Thai food. So I am no longer immured at night even if public transportation has once again been cut — as long as there is not yet another cab or bus to take once I arrive near my destination. Very nervously I obtained the address of the restaurant from a waiter, clicked away on Lyft, went outside when it said 1 minute to go and found the car (by license plate) and man (by name, Khalid).  It is against the backdrop of what’s happening across the world, a reactionary deprivation of the majority, more and more isolation from many causes (though we have had a pushback this election cycle) that these musicals (that do not refer to the Christian myth) can best be understood.

Ellen

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Early illustration of Uncle Tom ministered to by Cassy (from Uncle Tom’s Cabin, 1851-52)

I assigned Uncle Tom’s Cabin 3 times in the early 1990s when I was teaching a class called American literary Masterpieces. It was part of a unit I called The Civil War, and my other two books were a set of Lincoln’s speeches and The Autobiography of Frederick Douglas. I had read Uncle Tom’s Cabin between the ages of 11 and 12; it was on the shelves of one of the bookcases in our house. I found then (1992-93) it was not uncommon to find most Black good students (readers) and a few white students had read it.

Dear friends and readers,

Though Uncle Tom’s Cabin is by a woman, and fundamentally a work of genius that is at the same time a quintessentially American middle class white woman’s novel, based on the 18th century captivity and slave narratives that emerged from the first 2 centuries (17th, 18th) of ruthless colonialism aiming to grow super-rich by extraction of the natural resources and taking over the land of gun-less cultures, I am nevertheless going to place my brief essay-talk on it here (rather than Reveries under the Sign of Austen, Two), because the still wide-ranging kinds of people it rivetingly engages transcends its author and immediate context. Its subaltern-extermination-slave or imprisoned-bondage labor story make it a universal post-colonial text too (see comments).

I am taking a course at OLLI at AU called “The Coming of the Civil War,” which I cannot praise too highly, for the teacher’s (a retired pro-labor lawyer who clerked for Thurgood Marshall) basing the course on original political documents, and the way he makes us understand quite how complicated were the laws passed, the customs protected, the reasons for the fierce polarization and violent behaviors, and hatreds, economic and political interests. I’ve learned about invasions by people who supported secession into Mexico, Latin and South America to extend slavery and renew kidnapping of African people to enslave thousands more. He knows so much and yet one book he has not been able to get himself to read is one of the central texts igniting it. I must suppose (from what I saw in the class too) that to many people Uncle Tom’s Cabin comes framed with the way many women’s books are regarded: as somehow inferior, this one as sentimental gush. So of course one needs to explain its extraordinary sale and central role. He seemed to think it was unique in some way. I learned too that quite a number of the mostly white 60+ year olds in both OLLIs have never read the book. It has not been on US high school curricula perhaps ever and especially not since the mid-20th century when it came to be reviled by leading black critics, who nonetheless had themselves read it as children.

So I wrote a short talk, and invite my readers to read it because Uncle Tom’s Cabin is a sina qua non text for understanding the literature and culture of the American 19th century and much of the twentieth until say the later 20th century period of progress for black Americans, jump started with the Civil Rights act of 1965. One might hope that if we were a post-racial society the book could be seen historically important rather than directly relevant, but we cannot — tragic: since the 1990s a massive incarceration of black men in the US began again — so UTC it can today be regarded as living witness and testimony. I will let my short essay speak for itself as about the book’s content, aesthetics, value, genres, and critical history; a second blog will contextualize it with Harriet Beecher Stowe’s life and the immediate political fights over enslavement in the early 1850s.


Eliza leaping ice floes

Uncle Tom’s Cabin is a powerful literary masterpiece, about the horrors of enslavement. It was an astoundingly wide best-seller (borne out by statistics), internationally acclaimed, prompting a ceaseless production of anti-Tom works, and parodic imitations on stage. Scholars seem to think, however, that the anecdote of Lincoln saying to Harriet Beecher Stowe, So this is the little lady who started this big war, is apocryphal. It is very pat: Lincoln being this very tall man and Stowe this very short woman. In the 20th century, her novel aroused terrific ire still, especially among Black readers (most notably James Baldwin’s loathing in his famous “Everybody’s Protest Novel”) and was dropped from college curricula mid-century. Its sentimentality was called an embarrassment; nevertheless, Edmund Wilson included it in Patriotic Gore for its “eruptive force,” “the irresistible vitality of its characters,” “the critical mind which on complex situations” sustains “a firm grip,” and its structure which “clearly controls and coordinates” the subplots.

So why did it hit an emotional nerve? Harriet Beecher Stowe writes vivid powerful prose; she writes very direct dialogue we can believe in, and characters whose motivations and emotions we recognize as real, its prose and action are rhythmic and scenes and descriptions effective & immersing. Stowe doesn’t mince words. She presents the issues she want us to understand directly and urgently reasons with us as her scenes make her points dramatically. She is a sharp ironist. Her major argument is you cannot make people into property; people are not things. Not all the scenes are of horrific punishment (Simon Legree enters the novel rather late), and many seem ordinarily probable, with the cause of the slave-traders and owners behavior making money, or a profit.

Here is just the opening section of George and Eliza Harris’s story, early on, an owner hates George Harris for being intelligent and hates how he is inventing machines and gaining respect when hired out, so brings him back, grinds him down with menial work, whips, debases him. We see George inwardly “The flashing eye, the gloomy troubled brow were part of a natural language that could not be repressed – indubitable signs, which showed too plainly that the man could not become a thing.” A little later, same passage, from the enslaver (“owner”): “It’s a free country, sir, the man’s mine, and I do with him what I please, – that’s it” (Chapter 2, 24-25). George soliloquizes: “I’m a man as much as he is, I’m a better man than he is, I know more about business than he does; I’m a better manager than he is, I can read better than he can; I can write a better hand – and I’ve learned it myself, and no thanks to him, – I’ve learned it in spite of him, and now what right has he to make a dray-horse of me?” (3, 27).

Our materials for this week’s class focused on the Fugitive Slave Act. Major scenes throughout the novel feature characters trying to escape and we see the immense difficulties and obstacles, the laws and actors empowered to help the determined owners to get their property back. Eliza jumping ice floes is just the most sensational but also (as Hedrick shows) Biblical in its intensity and use of allusion: “‘she’s clar ‘cross Jordan. As a body may say, in the land o’Canaan'”. Eliza crosses that river, her child in her arms. We are led to identity and ask ourselves, what if you were never safe, could never hold onto your children or parents? what if you had obtained, become a freed person and found yourself at risk of being kidnapped and re-enslaved? You cannot count on the next moment to plan anything. You may be sold anytime. And twice a set of characters are sold when “good” “owners” need money or go bankrupt.

No less important are chapters and whole sections of eloquent polemics against slavery, both out of principle and the lives such practices inflict on the enslaved and a society based on such practices.

Yes, there are cringeworthy comical scenes where Stowe condescends and shows racism in her descriptions of black people; yes the death of little Eva, and Uncle Tom and little Eva’s relationship is as drenched in sentiment as Joe the street sweeper’s death in Bleak House and Sergeant George and Esther Summerson’s sweet pity, but this is Dickensian stuff still popular today. There is condescension and romanticizing. But we do hear the voices of these people hitherto in white people’s books silenced — Stowe invents idiolects which are intended to mirror black people’s speech. Yes, in the ending the two races are separated, with one group going at first to Canada, and eventually two to Africa. But their fate is treated with respect and interest. Topsy is a black child, girl, who becomes Ophelia St Clair’s special property; Miss St Clair is a northern spinster who comes south to help her brother Augustine (sharp, humane man) because his wife is useless (not that much of a caricature). Miss Ophelia does beat Topsy trying to make her moral: the phrase used, “brought up by hand,” comes from Dickens’s Great Expectations. Miss O is anti-slavery and yet is complicit, but when household breaks up, she takes Topsy with her, and last seen, Topsy is freed, and both women living together. They have become a mother and daughter or aunt and niece pair.

What actuated Stowe? She was horrified by what she saw in the slave society of Ohio; she came from idealistic transcendental sensitive people, was surrounded all her life by Quakers, evangelicals who were abolitionists. She herself saw and understood and wrote against the economic slave system as spreading poverty and misery for most, but she was also a woman, was fired up by her lack of rights, well-educated, her situation with her husband left her supporting him, and she found herself too often pregnant. She finally got separate rooms. Crucially important too was a conversion experience in 1843, a culmination of several years of immersion in religious sect behavior all around her: we do not today sufficiently emphasize what a religious culture the US had (in different varieties) and how the understanding of desperate was filtered through religious ideas (see Joan Hedrick, pp 143-160). Her brother, George, killed himself during this time. Harriet had dreams where she identified with a bleeding enslaved person being whipped. Then around the time of the writing of the book her beloved young son, Charles had just died. The death of this son is poured into this book; and she is particularly careful to show women as effective and important influencers to get the men around them to help enslaved people escape.

Elaine Showalter in A Jury of Her Peers (a history of American women writers from Anne Bradstreet to Annie Proulx), argues Stowe is a major 19th century career writer; Joan Hedrick, Stowe’s biographer, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, a quintessentially women’s text (growing out of parlor literature and women’s periodical writing). Of course Stowe is also very religious, with this book following the usual providential patterns: being Stowe these are graphic. Gilbert and Gubar (The Madwoman in the Attic) share this common view among those who’ve read 19th century American women novelists (see Writing [for Vocation] and Immortality by Anne Boyd Rioux). The attic prison becomes a refuge. Stowe’s style recalls Louisa May Alcott – think of Little Women; also Sarah Orne Jewett. Early on when Stowe wrote her first book, a didactic geography adolescent school children, it sold very well. Stowe is an equivalent of Elizabeth Gaskell (Mary Barton for example) in social conscience; she corresponded with George Eliot who wrote reviews of Stowe’s work praising it highly.

In the 1990s when I taught it to undergraduates, the book was written about as combining the very popular slave or captivity narratives of the 18th and 19th century centuries. Stowe took a black form and made it white and middle class. Stowe drew especially from the slave narratives of Josiah Henson and Henry Bibb. One of the many ironic chapter headings is “Property Gets into an Improper State of Mind,” whose point is the will to be free is compelling and ceaseless and immediate active (or at any time) among enslaved people. It’s revealing to read Uncle Tom’s Cabin in the context of the several other slave narratives too that Henry Gates has published over the years.


A Dover edition

Also in the context of books where the attribution is difficult. With, for example, Lydia Maria Child’s books, with which the 1861 Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, was once placed. In The Incidents, once attributed to Lydia Maria Child, we experience a closely similar terrain to that of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Child was an American abolitionist, activist, writing stories strongly for women’s rights. In 1971 Jean Flagan Yellin, a feminist scholar discovered in the archives of Quaker life and letters at the University of Rochester documentary proof that Harriet Jacobs wrote the narrative. It’s based on Jacobs’ life, and she went to Child to help her put it together and publish it. We should call Child Jacob’s editor and mentor.

Fast forward to 2022, today. People remark on how uncannily Uncle Tom’s Cabin anticipates Toni Morrison’s Beloved. The last sequence where Cassy, Legree’s much abused concubine (who also bullies him) hides in the attic with a young Black girl, Emmeline, whom Legree had bought intending to use her sexually is gothic, ghostly, haunting. The sequence anticipates the ghost of a murdered baby in Beloved, and two of the many incidents told more briefly also repeat parts of Margaret Garner’s history. There is in UTC another enslaved woman who kills her child rather than allow her to become the sexual toy of whoever can buy her, later this woman’s son seeing he is about to be re-captured drowns himself. Garner’s story is sometimes told as if it was somehow unusual to experience such abuse. Not at all: read the last two chapters of Fanny Kemble’s memoir, Journal of a Residence on a Georgian Plantation, 1838-39: you will be horrified at what the women endured as matter of course (made to work from dawn to dusk in heavily pregnant stages, and immediately after birth driven back to the rice fields again was just ordinary non-sexual life)

The sticking point is Uncle Tom: what do we do about this noble man who refuses to escape, who is all goodness to the Shelbys and then St Claires who sell him. It’s not enough to say he’s a Christ figure because for some of us that doesn’t work. I’d like to emphasize that a much of his behavior and passivity is simply idealistically ethical when he is treated with respect (much of he book) and, when not, we see him holding out against snitching and against demands he be cruel to others, become complicit in abominable practices; paradoxically Uncle Tom’s not even for rent. When he’s whipped to death, he is refusing to tell where Cassy and Emmeline are hidden. He’s admirable: his story is a bondage narrative, where usually a woman is at the center, yoked to a freedom narrative, where usually a male escaping is the center. Stowe’s reversed them, putting a male in female story (captivity narratives often have females at the center) and a female and child, Eliza and Henry in the usual male escape story (this is Hedrick’s idea). I find Uncle Tom endurable and can admire him at the end. He receives a decent burial and moving honors by Eliza and George’s son, Henry.

Stowe did write another novel of enslavement in 1856, now in print, Dred, A Tale of the Great Dismal Swamp. The hero is a violent vengeful escaped enslaved man, a sort of Spartacus. In conception I’d liken Dred to David Walker’s 1829’s Appeal to the Colored People of the World, where Walker, a black Bostonian publisher of among the earlier periodicals by and for black people, analyzed the horrors of colonialism as at the core of this new world, and called for immediate abolition of slavery and threatened (urged) black people to rebel. Like many a black male who threatens the white hegemony David Walker died young, in his thirties as did Malcolm X, MLK, and Medgar Evers. Alas, it is said to be poor novel, rushed, the characters insufficiently imagined. It is, however, of interest equally as a “sharp response to the male or patriarchal culture of Andover” (where Stowe was at the time), and contains strong criticism of hypocritical clergymen (Hedrick 258-62).


1875 photograph of Harriet Beecher Stowe

To sum up, why did Stowe’s book become so famous and why was it distributed so widely. It’s a powerful work of literary genius. You will laugh but I liken the spread of her book to the influence of Shakespeare’s plays on his fellows — enormous. Like Shakespeare, Stowe was writing in the same genre and idiom as fellow novelists and pamphleteers.  Her book’s literary power soared because of what she was actuated by and her abilities to combine several popular genres and come up with something that for a while felt new. It helped that one thread of the novel dramatizes the human results (often ironic and so patently unjust) of the fugitive slave act, an understandably electrifying issue at the time (even though out of 4 million enslaved people it’s estimated only 30-100,000 escaped) but it is just as much a novel about the bondage and horrific conditions under which chattel slaves are coerced into surviving. Remember the old Roman saying, What father when he is a slave?, well a bit modified for Stowe, What father or mother or husband or wife or children or even friends when you are a chattel slave?

When I’ve finished reading Hedrick and a few other essays, I’ll write an accompanying blog-narrative of Stowe’s life and other fiction writing. In the meantime here is Lincoln’s moving eloquent argument against ending the Missouri compromise of 1850, whose purpose was to stop the spread of slave societies; let no one think that this man did not loathe slavery:  he is continually precisely on point for every philosophic and humanitarian argument against it — and by extension, racism, human hierarchies. Stowe does not cover all this ground of objections because her stories do not go that far (stories must be ambiguous if they are at all real). Lincoln’s argument is just beautiful at the end because it is a refutation of what’s happening in the US today — his speech is still utterly relevant.

Ellen

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Nearly the last shot of the show: Sam (Honeysuckle Weeks) and Foyle (Michael Kitchen) beginning to say goodbye, to end their professional relationship

Dear friends and readers,

It has come time for me to write my last blog for now on this magnificent series (see the lst 2 seasons; Seasons 3 & 4; and Seasons 5 & 6). In real time this wonderful project of summarizing, understanding and evaluating episodes has lasted five months. I would feel very sad were I not sure I shall re-watch the whole once again soon, and all the features too.

As I began 7:1 “High Castle,” I felt that the classic or central formula for Foyle, that he is the good man, the constant in an often bad world was no longer the paradigm; he was being forced to compromise too much. I put it down to the change in genre. Series 1-6 was (I’m following Andrew Marr’s brilliant distinguishing) the detective story where it was a pattern of finding out what happened criminally usually by a detached sleuth (here we had three, for beyond Sam and Foyle, Sergeant Paul Milner (Anthony Howell). While there was a use of M15 and M16 and some spy elements in 1-6, they were secondary, not centrally structurally; in Series 7-8 Foyle has been commandeered into working for the spy agencies himself, yes as a police officer, but taking on behaviors and assumptions that belong to the spy genre.


Hilda Piece (Ellie Haddington) becomes a central character; she often lies, is devious (personally ambitious), protects hideous people

Thus the episodes for 7 & 8 are the result of initiations and complicities with harmful evil (even) conduct) on the justification that ends justifies means — just what Foyle had been rejecting for 6 different sets of adventures. To put it simply, Foyle is asked to do something where he is lied to about what he is finding things out for — it is just so deceitful or dishonorable. They do not avoid nationalism, the way the first six seasons miraculously often managed to; there is knee-jerk anti-communism now and again. But these are, as it were, minor excresences, because Foyle is either able to remained uninvolved or himself undermine just those parts of the assignments that are so pernicious (and are, for example, in much of LeCarr anathema endured). Time and again Foyle also either refuses to enact harmful deeds or exposes them. Further, the stories themselves of these last two series are further or wider ranging in political and philosophical matter than were the first four seasons, touching on more troubling issues, with the programs sometimes giving a more truthful or accurate explanation for political events and history (for example, the founding of Israel).

I also realized I had not mentioned (though I was aware of this, how could one not be) that one paradigm at the center of all the seasons was that of the evolving father-daughter relationship between Sam and Foyle! Here they are when they first meet: how much younger Honeysuckle Weeks looks in Season 1:


Foyle confounded when confronted by Sam who has been told she is to work for Mr Foyle


Sam irresistibly round-faced (signifying youth), fresh, buoyant, all hope when they first meet — she can hardly wait to fulfill her job; she is the spot of sunshine in the series, all heart …

Anthony Horowitz keeps repeating that part of the steadying foundation for the series are conventional or classic values: and what we have is a girl with a boy’s name, dressing boyishly, seeking approval from a male authority figure, learning from him, imitating him. Foyle is to her someone stable, reasonable, offering her place where she can act in the world (as opposed to her vicar father who wanted her to come home and stay there). Foyle is her ally; provides her with important work, a role model, who, together with Milner (someone crippled by the war whom Foyle rescues too, but not as a parent, rather almost a rival), makes her part of a team. She intuits constructive feedback and over the course of the first 6 seasons she is learning, often on her own initiative, and, with her woman’s intuition and ethic of caring, she helps him solve cases and provide compassion and care for those they meet. An interesting difference in these last two seasons, is how Weeks is dressed differently: far more mannish; how much older and leaner she is made to look. She is now married to Adam Wainright who does not try to dominate and keep her to himself, allows her space and time. She transfers the skills she became so expert at with Foyle to help Adam in his career.


Above Sam has made friends with both the young women who becomes a victim, and a young woman who we find is complicit with thief — she is shepherding them to a dance for fun (6:2, “Killing Time”)

This is a man’s program — so female friendships develop between Sam and another young woman her age she can identify with now and again but are not central to the development of the character. That is much more often found in women’s writing and films. Further most of the time the girls are seen in relationship to the men they are with. Not always. But the first two seasons had many young men finding themselves, good and flawed, as sub-stories; this was still true of seasons 3 & 4. The girl’s and women’s stories are only glimpsed, to the side until Seasons 5 & 6 when the themes of home-coming, of women’s war work, and aftermath come to the fore. Throughout Horowitz is remarkably free of misogyny — maybe the influence of his wife, Jill Green, whom he says he worked closely with, and was the producer or one of the producers throughout. And while Foyle has an important relationship with his son, Andrew (Julian Ovenden), it is not developed in the intimate thorough way it is with Sam — and we feel saddened for him when it’s clear she is moving out of his life to become a mother, wife, and partner to Adam, Labor MP. They have been at the core of all the series.


Here they are mid-career (5:2, “Broken Souls”)

As in the case of Seasons 5 & 6, I won’t put the summaries in chronological order as the immediate moment no longer matters so much; it’s the general era of the new “cold” war Horowitz is dramatizing, critiquing, exposing. I know I am short-changing Sam’s relationship with Adam (now played by Daniel Weyman) this way as their courtship, young love, earliest marriage and now facing the world as a family is evolved over time. So too Foyle with other new recurring characters, for example, Arthur Valentine (Tim McMullan) who Foyle at first regards with suspicion as an amoral man who obeys orders regardless, but learns is to be trusted; like Hilda Pierce, Valentine means well, and unlike her, does not lie or seem complicit with the worst people (he has a lower rank), and importantly, we learn, is a homosexual whom Foyle treats with respect and loyalty.


Valentine confiding in Foyle (8:3, “Elise”)

One of the deeper pleasures of these series is the recurring character; some stay the same, but the major ones evolve, and are ambiguous. Foyle’s last near love (he experiences a few across the series), Elizabeth Addis (Hermione Guilford) first appears (we discover) in season 8 as a member of the M15 there to watch and report back on Foyle; he thinks they are developing a relationship for real; she changes and wants to be friends, perhaps lovers. The last moment of the series leaves ambiguous whether after Foyle discovers how she was using him, he could find it in himself to trust her again and have some company in life …

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Season 7, Episode 1, “The Eternity Ring:”

So I returned to Foyle’s War tonight, and found this episode & season very different in mood, feel and the kind of people Foyle gets involved with from the six previous: Dated August 1946.


The group of scientists waiting to see the denotating of the test atomic bomb

It opens night-time, 2 sets of trucks, New Mexico, July 16th, 1946, with a group of scientists, among them, Dr Michael Fraser (ands in for John Von Neuman – Stephen Boxer) and Dr Max Hoffman (Klaus Fuchs who was involved with the Soviets – Ken Bones) watching from a remarkably close shed the detonating of the first atomic bomb
We then have another opening scene, again the dead of night, a Mr Gorin (Dylan Charles) taking secret documents from some huge building, there is another man spying on him. He may be doing that for Fraser, or maybe the pro-Soviet Chambers.

A darker focus on Foyle’s face (Michael Kitchen is 3 years older and looks it). We see him getting off a plane, he has been to the US for a year and is coming home; he meets an ordinary ex-flyer, Frank Shaw (Joe Duttine), coming home for the first time in 6 years. He was a POW in Japan, had malaria, is dreading coming home to Ruthie (Jennifer Hennessey) and his son, now 16 and home-coming is rocky. They were bombed out of Hastings, His son works as a bartender to all hours, and his wife works She does not want to give up her job. Later in the episode when he turns up to be rehired as a police man he is sneered at and dismissed as useless.

Foyle has to leave Shaw because he is immediately (in effect) arrested and taken to a National Security secret service place and intensely pressured into becoming a policeman investigating “an eternity ring” of (dire tones) communists. References are made to the suicide of Howard Paige, the whole ambience is one of hostility and coercion, a fat faced sneering Arthur Valentine (Tim McMullan) and team seemingly headed by Hilda Pierce (Ellie Haddington) where they move to a chief, William Chambers (Nicholas Jones). He is blackmailed into joining them at MI5 by a photo of Sam apparently giving secret papers to a soviet agent outside the Victorian theater.

After several insidious twists and turns it emerges that the Eternity Ring is a complete fiction, the photo was a fake, putting Sam photographed outside the theater where she had been seeing Henry V with a man superimposed. Miss Pierce suspected Chambers was a mole and she was tricking him into revealing himself; he escapes to Russia, and she gets his job. Along the way they bully, lie, destroy people. He is told there is a new war, with the Soviets, the name Stalin is used as a talisman for evil that need not be explained. Sam to them is guilty by association; she married a politician, and she and Adam lived at Sevenoaks where there were communists – for 3 months. Just the sort of association that led to blacklisting in the US

Foyle is drawn into the same unscrupulous behavior investigating people. He seeks out Sam without telling her what he suspects; she happens to be working for Dr Fraser and his wife, Helen (Kate Duchene), sick (actually unknown to her dying of cancer from exposure to radiation), where he is invited to dinner. She’s one of the rare characters in this episode (like Sam, or Foyle) who shows genuine capacity for being cordial to others and wanting to help them – because she’s a woman? Doesn’t have to take things so seriously? Ouch. Foyle also meets Hoffman.


Sam and Adam in one of their happy — spontanenous feel — moments at home …

He goes to lunch with Sam and discovers she is not happy even if now happily married to Adam Wainright (semi-warm moments there when they succeed in this or that; we see they are struggling to get food through rationing, living in a poorer area). Wainright played by different actor (Daniel Weyman replaces Max Brown – they look alike): 3 real years have gone by. We are told she is herself a pro-Churchill person (“we ought to give him a chance” now the war is over?) but since Adam was invited to join labor, she has to support them (the National Health and other things aimed at are brought up with tones of disbelief); she does not seem to mind since Adam genuinely wants to do good. She and he need the money she makes, but the next thing that happens is she is fired. Why? She is accused of being in cahoots with Foyle who Fraser now thinks has come to spy on him. This is not done out of principle we learn by the end of the episode.

Sam is indignant and seeks out Foyle and very different from their earlier relationship she demands to know how he could have targeted her this way. He tells of the photo or shows it to her and she says that never happened. She calms down and two agree to investigate together as they used to. This is the first semi-warm moment in the episode apart from the Shaws first encounter together. Their investigation leads them to one of the places these anonymous spies we see were holing out, a room contaminated with radiation out of a thermos (It’s suggested). This is a room where a Fraser operative has been. Both she and Foyle are captured by a swat team and treated as criminals themselves. When it’s finally seen they are not, they have to be de-contaminated making her late for an appt with a labor committee Adam is trying to persuade to let him run for office in a hitherto Tory area.

The interview goes badly because Adam’s wife is not there. Again the whole attitude of mind has nothing to do with ideology – men running for office need wives by their side. Glenvil Harris is apparently Adam’s mentor? (Jeremy Swift). Sam comes late, dressed oddly but paradoxically makes a good impression because she is truthteller – this is one of several moments in the episode, unusual, where the episode of unconvincing. It is a parallel of Foyle having to get past the suspicions of him by those he is supposedly working for. Another place is when Foyle suggests to Fraser he tell MI5 what he’s been up to and Fraser basically agrees he should with the implication he will. Of course he won’t—they’d laugh at his idea of a brotherhood of scientists and feeling that the Russians are not bad people, just have some bad political leaders.
Shaw is getting into bad fights with his wife; his son insults him for having been away for so long; the wife’s mother tells him this is not his home (it was hers) and to get out Shaw follows the young man to a “gentleman’s club” we had earlier seen Valentine sneak into. It turns out this is a club for gay men and Shaw becomes incensed and beats Valentine up as Valentine comes out and sneers at him. Shaw of course hates homosexuals automatically. He thinks his son is doing a unworthy job in every way. He is taken into custody and we see Ruthie show up and forgive him by hugging him and taking him back to where they are living. Another semi-warm moment.

We see Hoffman suspected; we see him pass information to someone, but only at the end of the episode does Foyle accuse Fraser (apparently) rightly of sharing information with the Soviets (or “others”) He says he is doing this to prevent an atomic war holocaust, so the playing field is leveled for all combatants. We see Fraser and Hoffman go into the Arnwell Atomic Research center where Fraser takes a specimen of U233 – and only later realize this is what they were doing. This is an episode which takes at least 3 watchings.

The fundamental problem with this episode and the whole season and next is Foyle is presented as disliking these spies and their operation but is drawn into joining them. At the end of the episode when we see him at long last heading back to Hastings, Hilda comes by and lures, pressures him into her limousine, and tries to persuade him to work for MI5 (and her). He caves in too quickly: she promises to do what she can for Frank, it appears Sam can be hired as his driver again (so replication of the companion relationship, two people, older man, daughter-like girl, working together). But if he is out of sympathy with much of their thinking, how can he join? He is reminded by Hilda he wanted to join the Security group early in the war, and asked if he is really going to spend his life fishing and nothing else.
It appears this is the only place he can go to now – the world has changed not for the better. So what was he war for? And look at the weapon for the next war …
Spy stories are quite different from mysteries: they are nationalistic, about loyalty and betrayal not just to whom the people work for but to one another so amoral. It is much harder for Foyle to be our secure moral compass in this world – he is said to have hounded Paige to his death – he denies it the verb. There’s a 4 minute introduction to these two new seasons by Anthony Horowitz: he apparently feels the older world mystery is not suited to serious presentations of issues in our world today – only spy stories will do. Foyle’s 1st season was done in 2000; it’s now 2013.

Series 8: Episode 1: “High castle”


Foyle entering Monowitz Slave Labor Camp

Series 8 tells a story which allows the extrapolation out to the hideous capitalist enterprise I.G. Farben, investigation of whom necessitates Foyle’s visit to the slave labor camp of Monowitz. What Foyle unravels is the collusion of the UK and US govts who permitted “businessmen” who of course (I write this ironically) care more about profits to be made by selling gas and now other radioactive products to Nazi Germany which enabled them to fuel their planes and carry bombs that killed millions of people. There is a veil connecting these Nazis and US businessmen to the present Soviet Union in order to satisfy the propaganda still so alive in 2010, but it’s just a distraction to please the US backers.

We see Michael Kitchen filmed in what’s left of these fantastically cruel ugly places. The horrific conditions these slave Jews lived in are made emphatic by talk.
The episode opens with petty thieves/thugs trying to steal the 2000 pounds of whiskey said to be aboard a ship and one of them discovering this fuel is so much poison that he dies of it. This whiskey is bottled as High Castle.
The big businessmen exhibit not the least remorse. Horowitz in the feature that goes with this acknowledges a complaint by US viewers that the US guys seem mostly to be bad guys – in fact Horowitz’s target is capitalism and arms manufacturers, which to be sure where heavily US men.
The Nurembourg trials are going on and we learn that beyond the very top people, the Nazi s who profited so much from the war got off with light sentences. The UK M15 care only about information they can get from these moral horrors. Two of them are killed but our sympathies are kept from arousing for them in their utterly selfish hard mean dense personalities.

Its context Is also the forced coercion of women back to no jobs after the WW2 when men came home and asked for their jobs back. Adam is now a labor MP asked by one of his constituents to help her keep her job. She has been offered a job on a production line for half the pay; the returning man is profoundly physically maimed. Her union is run by men; all the MPs are men. They say it’s women’s job now to have babies. Sam is herself pregnant but not ready to spend all her time at home in the nursery Adam is preparing for her. How awful are jobs as companions to and readers for those who despise you.

Across this episode we meet a number of women who are tyrannized over by men or utterly dependent on them: from the wife of the US murderer running Global American Oil (Standard), to the wife of the scholar who went to Germany to bring back a bribe of diamonds to pay for her medical care in the US for a cancer. Sam is treated in the rudest way by this American’s Nazi-sympathizing old man. At the close when Sam has been rescued by Valentine (Tim McMullan as this closet homosexual is gradually shown to be a decent man) she apologizes to Adam for not caring enough for the potential baby; she said she had no right to endanger herself. She does uncover vital information which enables Foyle to stop these businessmen from continuing their practices to dealing with the Saudi Arabians and Soviet Union, not to omit the Shah of Iran (it supports this man to buy and sell oil with him for armaments). Adam apologizes back because he was trying to help a young woman whom he found he could do nothing for (the very unions are all male) and himself pressuring Sam to stay ‘home.” What’s important beyond the characters and story we care so much about (Sam) is we see this larger deeply exploitation of and bullying/threat of women context.

A terrifying Soviet spy named Leskov does a great deal of the killing. He is never caught.

Foyle’s son has now vanished – that is a loss. I can see we are expected to realize he Is attracted to and himself an attraction for a lone older women, Elizabeth Addis, who works in university and for MI5 (as a casual plant they can call upon) – the smidgen of loyalty felt to a good person seems to me not to go far enough.
I hope I left nothing out that mattered. This season I am driven not to tell the particulars of each story but their larger meaning against the backdrop of the dregs of WW2 and the “cold war. Jokes by a new regular at the Nuremberg trials to Foyle how he is still bothering himself with bodies in libraries stabbed in the back. At least three of these German ex-officials in Hitler’s Germany are murdered in the way of Agatha Christie deaths.

Series 8: Episode 2: “Trespass”


Sam with the desperately poor father and his seriously sick son

I found Trespass remarkable in its candor over the way Israel was being created in 1946/7 – analysing the events in such a way as we can see the origins of the situation today. Some of the matter takes us right back to the 2nd episode of the 1st season about Nazism in British society and among British politicians. Trespass opens with the bombing of the King David Hotel In 1946 by the Jewish terrorist Stern gang (with others). Foyle’s woman friend from the previous episode, Prof Addis, is supervising a class where Daniel Woolf a student is explaining the Balfour proposal was not intended to create a Jewish state but perpetuate British control of that area in the middle east which was a key to reach India, to do trade over oil, to use the Suez canal. What happens during the course of the 90 minutes is we slowly (very slowly) discover the British foreign secretary is playing a double game, and himself sending off bombs to ships to stop Jews from crossing to Palestine; and using MI5 as a clever disguise. A conference is to be held for Arabs and Jews to try to come to a solution, and both the local gov’t and MP (Adam Wainright) to prevent this conference from exploding in violence, which has been precipitated by one of these fascist groups (still around, still anti-semitic after all these years of hideous war & slave labor and extermination camps), which we are shown attract people who are poor and so tired and disappointed after the war is over as their lives are not improved at all. The labor gov’t is still working on producing the National health, and housing and still rationing food.

One set of characters is there to show us how desperate life was: a man with a boy who is very ill cannot get him any care because he lacks the money to pay for a doctor or hospital help; he is tempted to join the Nazi group that night and leaves his son with a kindly aging Polish couple. They are blown up by this Nazi group’s march and his son rescued from death by police. Sam secures for him a doctor’s help with his son.

The most interesting sub-story is that of the young woman who calls herself Lea Fischer and comes to stay with a Jewish family on the excuse she is going to go to a college course. In fact she has come because her father, Jewish, was killed when British brutal soldiers burst on their home in Palestine. She is part of a terrorist group who want to blow up the National Conference because they see it as not favoring Jews. She spends a day with this couple’s son, he grows to trust her and he thinks they are in love; what she does is sneak in a bomb to his equipment as a sound engineer for the conference. He is almost blown to bits – only prevented by Foyle and Sam and M15 discovering this aim at the last moment. She is play by a wonderful actress I recognized from Indian Summers – there too a understandably angry victim who in IS does not take revenge but sacrifices herself and ends up in jail for 9 years. One actress and another actor I recognized as having parts in Outlander! In similar roles archetypally speaking.


Amber Rose Revah as “Lee Fischer”

Again Sam and Adam are not having enough time together. At the very end of the episode we discover that Dr Addis did not find a room for Foyle to enable him to escape the far from friendly spying on him his colleagues and the disguised ruthless people do but for herself to keep an eye on him for the sake of thse colleagues. Again Hilda Pierce is the person who behaves in this distinctly untrustworthy manner. Hilda Pierce’s amorality washes over Dr Addis as Foyle realizes Addis’s friendship for him is part of the spy racket. She is feeling bad about this but she does not stop.

This one is so complicated – what is shown us are the origins of the realities of our colonialist and war-ridden world today. Several of the actors who are in MI5 who we started with and distrusted rightly are now turning into understandable men of compromised integrity.

To read about Season 7, Episodes 2, “The Cage,” and 3, “Sunflowers,” and Series 8, Episodes 3, “Elise.” All in comments.


Sam must leave this career and cross over to her husband …

Ellen

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The translator, like the original poet, is a Narcissa, who chooses to contemplate [reality, herself] not in the spring of nature, but in the pool of art — Renato Poggioli, On Translation

Dear friends and readers,

Last night I heard a conversation (sort of) between Jhumpa Lahiri and Nicoletta Pereddu on Lahiri’s latest book — so it was about translation. It came from a building once a synagogue, now a community center for the arts, via zoom, under the auspices of Politics and Prose bookstore. Despite my being irresistibly drawn to her, I didn’t expect much since the last talk I heard her give was so evasive and stilted (so it seems to me because I find the compelling nature of her texts for me inexplicable). She is a very guarded presence in her books too, more than ever in her new identity as an writer in Italian, writing in the tradition of intensely subjective women’s novellas and mostly concise memoirs.

This latest book, according to John Self of The Guardian, is another with holes in it: like Dove Mi Trovo and In Altre Parole she does not explain why she threw off English, her previous post-colonial and diasporic content, moved to Italy, became (as far as she can) Italian. They reminded me of Joan Didion in her Blue Nights: why write about something if you’ve no intention of writing about it (her daughter’s death from alcoholism, a condition she partly picked from Joan as mother and the father, both of whom drank heavily).

I’m writing this blog because I was very pleasantly surprised. She attempted to be candid, and when offered questions whose assumptions were unexamined reactionary-isms, she went to the trouble to undermine them and produce a humane reason for writing and reading good books. She was tactful and kind: it was a marvelous talk.

She said that for her translation is an origin story, an art that brings the writer back to her origins. The point of origin for her was once and still is Bengali/American. The book is a collection of essays of what she was thinking about translation while translating and writing originally in Italian. She feels you engage most deeply with an author when you translate him or her. She has been drawn by what Italo Calvino wrote of translation, Gramschi, and Ovid (strangely I thought to myself in this context — these are ceaseless stories of rape). Translators are transforming texts, says she. Echo and Narcissus provide central metaphors Narcissus is the first self, self-centered, and Eco the stronger re-producer. She quoted Borges on the idea that it’s the original that’s unfaithful to the translation — he’s giving translation priority and treating it as an original imaginative work.


Daffodils are narcissus flowers — from my very own garden on the front lawn

By moving onto Italian, it seemed she was re-alienating herself because in writing in Italian she is said to be using someone else’s language, as people claim ownership of a language if they grow up speaking it. Only if it’s your mother tongue (note the metaphor) are you free and deep with it automatically. So by doing this she made her identity an open question. In the case of the language she chose (for love of it, she says in In Altre Parole, from sound to world view), the reality is Italian is so diverse. Even now there are many dialects beyond the Tuscan, which has become standard Italian. In any case she never felt she owned English (or Bengali) — these are questions that belong to discourses in nationalism (imagined delusions in part I’d add).

She was naturally asked the question about whether she had the right to translate another language with one that was not her own. Of course the person had fallen into the trap Lahiri said she denied or was avoiding. She answered that by saying, when you ask the question, Who has the right, you are flying in the face of all she believes as a writer, reader, teacher. A text (when incandescent? — that’s Woolf’s term) transcends such categories; they are irrelevant, we are all human beings together, it seems.


A recent photo

Here I would have liked to challenge her: she insisted that when she translates a man, say Domenico Starnone whose Ties (Englished version) she has translated, it does not matter that she is a woman. Implied here is there is no gender fault-line in texts. This argument is why I am putting this talk on this blog rather than my Austen Reveries one. She is wrong, and having myself read her translation of Ties, I know she’s turned it into a feelingful woman’s book despite the story being one about a man who easily drops one wife and picks up another. (His book is in dialogue with his wife, Elena Ferrante’s, or a kind of refutation of them.) By making this claim, she escapes the accusation (at the time) that when in her first book she made the center of it a traditional older woman and then a young man, she avoided delving into herself at the time, for in The Namesake we now see she was Moushumi whose identity in the end is French through the language she studied, and country and culture she went to live in. Self is probably correct to say her latest book shows curious self-blindnesses. I have bought it (from ebay) and await it eagerly.

Then as a translator, she said, face with your text you are translating: you are always just arriving, upon arrival. I thought of Naipaul’s Enigma of Arrival, a beautiful book about his time spent near Stonehenge in a cottage, deeply burying himself in the English world he wants to be part of. So the act of translating is an enactment of the diasporic condition after all. For her in the act of two languages coming together in her head, there is an intensely compelling experience, a crucible. She re-enacting the intensely passionate stories of her Bengali-American career by acting out language in a different way. It emerged that she has also been studying Latin, and she is not just reading Ovid’s Metamorphoses, but translating the text — presumably into Italian! What she finds, even in two tongues so close in linguistic forms, is the text resists her, it resists her modern substitution. Getting inside a new language challenges your/her reality. She cannot learn to talk it as she has Italian, for there is no world where people are talking Latin any more.

There was a modesty and humility in some of her comments and tone. She said each translation is an attempt and so an original text can be re-attempted, and it is is as ages pass — the mystery of how an original text remains itself but when you are translating it, somehow you need to put it in contemporary target language or it’s pastiche. This line of thought of course would seem to move in direct opposition to Borges’s claim. Still translation remains transformation and what happens is the previous text (the original) disappears, or at best, lies behind the translated text and only someone who knows the original language can see the previous peeping out as it strains against the translated language.


I’m reading Christa Wolf’s No Place on Earth in the Italian version/translation for the sake of Anita Raja’s (Elena Ferrante) postscript …

But Borges was there again in her idea that translations erode the idea of authorship, especially when they are masterpieces in their own right or occasionally better than the original text — I saw that in the Italian translation I read of Goncharov’s Oblonsky. To this day I don’t know the name of that Italian translator but dolce vita values of Italian itself made the Russian book lyrical. She offered the idea that the translator is liberating the original text from its first author. (For myself I think some literary critics do that for primary imaginative texts and great movies for great books.) She came out with this idea in response to someone who in her question has talked about how a translator must “honor” the original author (reminding me of the demand people sometimes make of movies that they be “faithful” to the original source book).

Lahiri’s idea is that there are a range of ways of translating — of course there are. This brings us back to Dryden with his distinguishing the metaphrase (very close, nearly word for word, the danger here is the translator can fall into translationese), the paraphrase (free enough to write in the target language in a creative way appropriate to the genius of that language) and the imitation (or freer adaptation we might say, the appropriations of modern transposed into other times movies and 18th century satires called Imitations). The writer-translator is paying attention to the original text for the sake of the readers who want to reach that original insofar as it’s possible. The translator has to allow the text to read the reader or the reader to find in the text what he or she can read.

She did talk in abstract ways and showed that she has led a privileged life — there was an austerity and idealism about her approach which suggested someone who has not had to bend to the commercial world or the limits of understanding in undergraduates, or average readers. But I suppose that was refreshing in itself — the professor questioning her produced these roundabout self-grandiose commentaries filled with flattery of her. I thought it admirable that Lahiri could pick out of Pereddu’s gobbledyguk a clear point or points and questions. Pereddu’s hair (so I’m catty) was a vast mop of overdone curls obscuring her face; her clothes ever-so-elegant. The present style for tenured women faculty who want to look young is sexy-fashionableness. So here was a European version.

At one point Lahiri compared the translator’s encounter with a new or other language to an encounter with a landscape: as you learn the language through translating into it, and deeply study, become your text through translating faithfully. I liked that idea very much you see. I translated 600 of Vittoria Colonna’s sonnets and poems into English, 90 of Veronica Gambara’s (see my essay from many years ago), some twenty years of my life in study — using French as an intermediary sometimes.


A reimagined land- and seascape of the island Procida, Italy

I’ll never actually meet this woman (Lahiri) nor would she offer me the respect I’d like, but I have myself followed a similar path (even to ending in the same language) to create an identity of sorts for myself.

Ellen

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Jim Broadbent as Kempton Bunton — in one of his more anxious moments as he tries to decide what he can get away with for the good of mankind (The Duke, 2020)

Dear friends,

A few weeks ago my daughter, a freelance reviewer for (among others) WETA and NBC, who keeps up with things (in order to make her fees) told me one of my favorite young actresses, Charlotte Spencer (known to me thus far from seeing Sanditon 1 & 2 where she plays Esther Denham inimitably despite it’s being a ridiculous role), was to be in a movie (or had been in a movie) with the great older actor, Hugh Bonneville (another actor with super powers who ends up in the easy drivel role of Lord Grantham in Downton Abbey). I said I’d look out for it, but this information slipped my mind until I saw Charlotte Spencer in The Duke as the hard, mean working class young woman, pregnant and unmarried, living with a young man trying to escape a subpoena to be a witness against a friend, which friend has found a temporary sanctuary in the house of the Buntons.


Charlotte Spencer as Pammy reading a Yorkshire newspaper with her perpetual sense of superiority

He has been let in by his friend, Jackie Bunton (Fionn Whitehead), the son of the house, pictured here in a typically good-natured, but unusually anxiety-free mood with his girlfriend, Irene (Aimee Kelly),

It wasn’t Hugh Bonneville, after all, I thought, it was the yet more wonderful (good at comedy) Jim Broadbent whom I’ve never seen in a bad movie. Spenser’s presence clinched it for me: I had lucked into a supreme talent-loaded movie in the old tradition of Yorkshire TV. Yorkshire TV was once a continual TV program making outfit in Northern England producing gems like the Biederbecke Tapes (I know, I know, you’ve never heard of it). The opening credits listed as producer Yorkshire Screen.  These films were known for the rich humor, off-the-cuff, off-beat ironic wit, combined with a genuine labor-left POV. And that is just what this was, a late revival of a type long gone.

It’s my knowledge that the mood of the film, which is part of what delighted me (and the person I was with) into sudden not easy to explain laughter, that has enabled me to understand the clueless reviews, which are anything from lukewarm to slightly puzzled or dismissive (“typical British”). At first I thought the disdain and also the sentimental language in which it was discussed as a “tall tale” was the result of the reactionary stupidity (what these characters are not super-rich) of contemporary mainstream US life, but then I realized the poor way it’s been advertised (what could the title mean?), as in “come for this one actor,” so that I had no idea what it was about is due to most US reviewers knowing nothing either of earlier peculiar formula Yorkshire TV. The title might mislead you into thinking this another upper-class macho male worshipping product. Mark Kermode who knows a lot about film got it right in the Guardian: a true-tale of an art-stealing pensioner

The basis for the film is a real person, Kempton Bunton, an aging pensioner, who is trying to get together money for his campaign against old-age pensioners having to pay a license fee to the BBC for having a TV. Roger Michell has long produced interesting films using this kind of material (this was his last film), especially with Hanif Kureishi (My Beautiful Laundrette). He also wrote the script for one of the best Austen adaptations, the 1996 BBC Persuasion.  Broadbent recently played a similar role in Le Week-end. The fun or comedy comes from a broad but kindly and sympathetic caricature of working class life and Bunton’s own self-regarding inadequate methods against entrenched systems. He and his son sit in chairs under an umbrella in the pouring rain in front of a bank with a sign demanding “No BBC licenses for OAPs.” Needing the money, he gets a job in a bread factor and notices the boss singles out for abuse a Pakistani man working there, and speaks out on the young man’s behalf; he is abruptly fired.


The incident happens over lunch where the white men are playing cards with the Pakistani man (not listed in the wikipedia credits!)

His long-suffering law-abiding wife, Dorothy, played by Helen Mirren as a combination of exasperation, bored weariness (she cleans for the living that supports them), and, along with a tender love for him, genuine fear they’ll get into trouble (he has been in prison briefly once before) lends the film an astringency (the way Barbara Flynn did her man in Beiderbecke) that the reviewers overlook. Dorothy (by the way) does not approve of Pammy because she is pregnant outside marriage, and she tries to keep the couple out of the house. But she failed against Kempton’s sense of obligation to all mankind. Besides which, the young man is his son’s friend and is on the moral side, loyalty to friends and all that (alas E. M. Forster is not quoted)


The married pair talking — of course Dorothy knits — while Mirren keeps her face flat, grim most of the time, here you can see in her held yet flexible face her incipient rising distress

The storyline: we think that Bunton has stolen a famous Goya painting of the Duke of Wellington (whence the film’s title), and, together with his son, has hidden it in a wardrobe upstairs, while he proceeds to demand a ransom from the British authorities. It’s spied out (somewhat ironically) by Pammy, who is not impressed by anyone not solely motivated by self-interest. She wants to sell the Goya for a big sum and offers to split the ill-gotten gains with Kempton, her threats precipitating him into returning the painting.

He is (naturally) easily caught, put into prison and then tried for theft, and for being a public nuisance. It was when I saw Matthew Goode was playing his lawyer — Goode often plays effective kindly upper class people — I realized there would be a deus ex machina and Bunton would not be seriously punished.

It’s a kindly fable, for we are to believe Bunton won a light sentence because the jury was moved by his goodness.


Kempton is putting flowers on his daughter’s grave with son Jackie in the background

There is a secondary plot. We slowly discover years ago the couple had a daughter who died in a bicycle accident for which Bunton blames himself as he bought the bicycle. He is writing a play in the Chekhov mode, The Girl on the Bicycle. He is self-educated, reads Orwell we see, says Shakespeare is overrated because he has all these kings and dukes in his stories. Dorothy also disapproves of his having written the play, and worse yet, sent it out to be published.  They should keep their grief private. She herself refuses to discuss their loss. This play is one of several things he sends to others (newspapers, the BBC, the museum), hinting at his identity as the man who took the painting — he wants to be found out. He wants attention to be paid to his campaign and to him. Experts in these places pronounce him an amateur, third-rate based on his handwriting. The most touching moments in the movie (and there are many) concern this girl’s death. Both parents visit her grave. As a sign of reconciliation at the end of the film, Dorothy takes the photograph of Marion out of her husband’s drawer (where he keeps it to look at), has it framed and puts it on a wall in their house.

Along the way I recognized other wonderful actors I’ve often seen in secondary and occasionally primary roles on BBC and less hyped but excellent dramas. Anna Maxwell Martin is there as Dorothy’s benign boss, married to a Yorkshire politician; she comes to court and loudly roots for Kempton, as she sits alongside the Pakistani man (grateful to Kempton he shows up) — she was the heroine in Andrew Davies’s film adaptation of Winifred Holtby’s South Riding, my favorite Elizabeth Bennet in Death Comes to Pemberley; and taught me to love Esther Summerson in Andrew Davies’ Bleak House.  James Wilby is the judge (he was Maurice in the Merchant-Ivory film of the same name). Richard McCabe is the Home Secretary (he is just such a fine actor, most recently I’ve watched him in Foyle’s War). John Hefferman as prosecuting barrister (a typical role for him). I couldn’t catch who they all were.

There are reviews which praise the film as funny and warm-hearted (populist used positively), or very British, charming, but few take it at all seriously. Yet in the tradition of Yorkshire TV, it is both semi-oddball (no one surely would act this half-mad way) and socially critical.

Don’t miss it if you are longing for some reassurance there is still decency among people today, or recognition of what counts in life and how singularly unjust, obtuse and self-regardingly punitive most gov’ts are more and more without any mitigation. The Buntons have a hard time making ends meet and this gov’t does nothing about that. Think of the price rises in the UK and US over the past year and how nothing fundamental is done to control these. The humor and situations in this comedy reach there.

Dancing in the kitchen (there is a similar scene in Last Orders where Michael Caine is husband to Helen Mirren as long-suffering but genuinely angry wife)

At the end of the film the son confesses to an authority figure we’ve seen before, apparently the head of the National Gallery (played by Andrew Havill), that he, Kempton’s son actually did the stealing of the painting. He is told (after a while) he will not be prosecuted and then sternly warned not to tell anyone or he will regret it. Like the Pakistani man but unlike his father, Jackie is all submissive gratitude. This film is not typical or very British: it’s typical or very old-style Yorkshire TV.

Ellen

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Michael Kitchen, The French Drop (aired 2004)

Evils that befall the world are not nearly so often caused by bad men as they are by good men who are silent when an opinion must be voiced —

Dear Friends and readers,

Our second of a proposed 4 blogs on Foyle’s War: two years have passed since the first season was aired, and 10 months in the series or war chronology since the series began (May 1940). Eight episodes have gone by and with our ninth (February 1941), a new tone sets in, darker, more tired, and Foyle becomes more involved with a Secret Intelligence Agency whose ways of dealing with war are potentially deadly for all involved, and Hilda Pierce (Ellie Haddington) not only returns for the second time, she has a large role in the stories.


Hilda Pierce and James Wintringham (Samuel West) conferring, spy-like, apart …

This first disk of the third set (or season) has a half-hour film on how they worked hard to show us a spitfire shot to the ground, a man pulled out while on fire, and as he is dragged away, the plane explode. It took several stunt men, strongly controlled fire but there, somehow the plane is not blown up. We learn how few spitfires are left and also how proud the people are to be working with them as the left-overs of how Britain managed to keep Hitler from invading. The Companion book by Rod Green (described in my previous blog) has much information on other particulars of this episode. Horowitz tells of how his scripts are really done justice to, partly because the director is his wife. We watch two different scenes, one of Foyle and his son, the other of Sam and the son bidding adieu – done a couple of times. This material also comes from later episodes in the third set, Enemy Fire set in a hospital where they are caring for badly burnt and later when Andrew has become PTSD and also exhausted and wants to stop the spitfire business because he knows he will lose his life and does get to leave. My sense in watching this is that the third season reached a real height in the series because everyone working together for a valued set of stories.

A comparison of the first two with these second two seasons shows the stories growing darker, more pessimistic, mostly because the ways of winning the war are making the people behave in atrocious (increasingly amoral and immoral) ways. Actors on behalf of the military (with some exceptions) especially are losing their sense of what values they are fighting for. The stories show the first signs of shifting from detective to spy stories (which often show a slide into nationalism, superfluous violence, and fascism).

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Season 3, Episode 1: The French Drop, February 1941. Each time we begin with a strong dramatic incident: here it is a young man, seemingly French, dropped into enemy territory (Germany) so as to spy, blown up immediately. Usual paratext of intriguing music and turning away face.

Again Foyle is trying to be transferred from policing (absurd to be catching murderers) and goes to Sir Giles Messenger (Ronald Pickup) for help. It seems it may be possible; as Sam drives him away, she protests she and Milner need him. Messenger angry at Col James Wintringham (Samuel West) about this loss of life Winringham’s agency sustaining – the implication is the agency is incompetence – and wants to take from Wintringham’s unit the (mysterious) war work sent him at Hill House, where he and a special executive operations woman, Hilda Pierce (Ellie Haddington who first appeared in War Games), have a team. Meanwhile in a bookshop their son, William Messenger seems to have blown himself up. Boy’s mother grief-stricken. Chasing down this son’s background, they find he was estranged from Sir Giles, living seedy lodgings with a caricature of a landlady who supplies a suicide note and watch –- he died because of a thwarted love affair (ah yes). They meet the girl – all melancholy – story she tells is inconsistent, Milner discovers. Trail leads them back to Hill House where nearby Sam’s uncle, Aubrey Stewart, a vicar lives and works. Foyle not only gains entry into the Hill House, but Wintringham invites him to stay: Wintringham seems to be showing off. Sam lives nearby, maybe with uncle.

Paul Milner (Anthony Howell), becoming more desperate having to deal with cynical black market crooks, tells Samantha (Sam) Stewart (Honeysuckle Weekes) he is thinking of transferring

and now Sam supplies the lighter, more affecionate-heart hopeful notes by way of her relationship with a local vicar, her uncle Aubrey Stewart (Timothy Carlton Cumberbatch)

Foyle uncovers absurd and ridiculous sabotage training, as well as attitudes countenancing murder, teaching them how to endure (and perform) torture. Interesting group of men (Raymond Coulthard among them), one an ex-criminal Foyle had put in prison we see trying to sniper shoot Foyle. Colorful characters everywhere, intelligent witty dialogue. It emerges the vicar has seen an unnamed bald man who is connected to bombing murder; Sam spots this bald man and follows him, and finds he and other go to a phone booth where phone not working. Eventually she discovers it’s a place to leave notes which uncover the truth of the bombing. Another young man died recently and was buried (air raid?). Bombing going on, including glimpses of delayed action bombs, people with gas masks.

Foyle discovers that the landlady is Wintringham’s secretary; the whole story of Messenger made up: he was homosexual (in the closet). It was he who was dumped in Germany and died (with which the program began). The body found in the bombing was the recently dead young man’s corpse replanted there –- no corpse in the tomb. There’s a moleat Hill House telling Giles Messenger about what’s happening: he pretends to be French. Foyle re-arrests the sniper-happy ex-criminal (after he has tried to kill both Foyle and Sam by ruining the wheel of her car). Foyle could tell Sir Giles the truth about his son –- he might be more proud of him, but Hilda Pierce convinces Foyle not to tell so that these operations he himself disapproves of morally can go on as they aide the war effort. He loses his chance at joining naval security because Messenger takes out frustration on him.

I’ve unraveled the experience of the plot – it’s more interesting in the criss-cross way things emerge. There is a depiction of the culture of this more rural area and these young men.


In the hospital staff put on funny skits where they make fun of themselves

Episode 2: Enemy Fire, February 1941. This is a wonderful episode. Much that happens is sad and several threads (characters’ ultimate fates) remain very much unresolved, but all that just made it richer because we also saw how many of the characters meant so well and are good and doing good insofar as they can. It’s an uplifting episode — as if we needed this at this point.

The story is centered on a hospital for burnt people, severely wounded that way, and as it begins we see a very fancy castle-like structure, Digby Manor, is requisitioned and the Sir Michael (Michael Wood) who owns the castle, has been put into a cottage (big building really) on his own estate. We see him adjusting with difficulty and his housekeeper, Mrs Roecastle (Alexandra Moen). All this is based on real strides made in medicine at the time which were experimentally and humanely used in such hospitals. Bill Paterson plays the dedicated original doctor-surgeon Patrick Jamieson. We see saved men wretchedly deformed.


Andrew Foyle’s (Julian Ovenden)’s very great upset as he finds he was nearly severely burnt because of a man’s seeming carelessness

A wife-beating thug, Gordon Drake, works at the airfield nearby and is lazy and doesn’t do all the safety measures you must to keep the man in the spitfires alive enough to keep the Germans on the other side of the channel. We see Andrew Foyle berate him and his great anger because he is in danger — could be badly burnt. Drake visits a young wife who is bored with her surgeon husband, Dr Wren (whom we learn saved Paul Milner); the wife attracted to this lout. It’s apparent she is not the only woman –- this kind of thing has more than a tinge of misogyny. We are back to the pattern of the first series: vile men (at the heart of fascism and evil) and good men with such potential being hurt. A strange man tells Wren about these visits; his name is Preston and he also tells Foyle and Milner.

The hospital is being sabotaged – it’s thought by Sir Michael at a distance – perhaps paying Drake, perhaps the housekeeper.

What happens is Andrew is not given the next mission(his superior officer sees that he is exhausted) and Andrew’s friend, Greville Woods, goes, and (has been built up for) the spitfire blows up and he is almost burnt to death because Drake again did not make sure the glass to open the cockpit worked –- Drake also probably make the plane go on fire, meaning to burn Andrew to death. Greville taken to the hospital (after the spectacular stunt we are told about on one of the features) and his girlfriend needs to be shamed into seeing him and staying with him. He turns out not to be blinded.

Entertainments are put on and a couple of nights later one is done – music hall stuff which is thematically relevant and piquant – we and Foyle see Wren sneak out for a few moments.

Next we learn Drake is dead; his wife relieved but she did not do it. Wren blamed even though his wife and Milner think he couldn’t murder someone. Turns out Wren did hit Drake’s head hard but it was Preston who came by and drowned the man in a nearby street fountain. Preston turns out to be Mrs Drake’s brother, Pip, trying to protect her.

Foyle has also figured out who did the sabotage: the housekeeper; he gets her to confess by accusing Sir Michael – who then tells Foyle how bitterly he feels about himself since when he was exhausted (like Andrew) he shot himself in the leg. His batman, Drake’s father saw, in later years told his son and now Gordon Drake was blackmailing Sir Michael, demanding hush money.

It’s an episode about mental disability as well as physical. Mental for which the men are not blamed and yet the episode maintains Sir Michael has been a hollow man. The parallel here is Foyle’s son who cannot any longer bear risking his life in a spitfire and watching others die

The real ending is penultimate and then the last; Andrew has fled to Sam’s house, and Sam is hiding him there over night; when the commanding officer comes to tell Foyle his son is in danger of deserting, Sam (offstage) confesses to Foyle where Andrew is. Foyle retrieves Andrew, takes him to a pub and Andrew resolves to return. There are other scenes between them – over chess for example.

Closing touching adieus between Andrew and his father and then Andrew and Sam. Quietly acted. Beautifully. We see the spitfire with Andrew in it flying off. The commanding officer transferred him. There is deep feeling over this spitfire for it was such planes with men giving up their lives that helped prevent Hitler invading England.

Episode 3: They fought in the fields, April 1941. I had to watch this twice and the second time very slowly, and now I don’t know why I found it so hard to understand. There are two parallel stories going on, and they are intertwined. In the one Germans are coming over-head in airplanes bombing people. This way of conducting war is primary today (witness Ukraine). Soldiers murdering civilians, destroying their worlds. The episode as usual begins with a sort of “hook:” a man lands and dies. As we go through this story we discover that nearby is a place for interrogating spies, they are taken there, and it’s run by a Major Cornwall (James Wilby) who resents any interference and will not cooperate with Foyle — whom Cornwall insults

Nearby there is a farm or farms on which are working Land Army girls, Rose Henshall and Joan Dillon — very dirty hard work for little pay, but important for Britain to feed itself. There another death occurs, a murder of what seemed to me an old man, the farmer, Hugh Jackson. Of course it’s called suicide but soon it’s clear it’s a murder (this is another repeated motif in the series). The episode reminded me of the previous (Enemy Fire) where it’s the human interest of the story and situation (there bad burns, a hospital opened to deal with these) that holds us, not so much about corrupt people making money off the war.


The girls very hard at work — we do see they get ample food

I found it somewhat problematic. It opens with land-girls understandably resentful of the more middle class Foyle, Milner and Sam — I am supposed to believe they and the farmer’s son, Tom (Joe Armstrong) are won over by the goodness of Sam and generosity of Foyle. Lifelong marginalization (especially one of the girls committed some crime) doesn’t go away like that. How the farmer very old now became the lover of the other girl who is now pregnant didn’t persuade me and I was even less persuaded by how happy she is at the end to live on that farm with the farmer’s son and his bride (the other girl).

In the background is Hugh Jackson’s wife who was tired of Jackson and tried to run off — but he murdered her first and put her in a grave he drinks liquor over every night. Jackson was killed because he saw some of the shenanigan’s the Germans were up to as they tried to kill their own pilots who were imprisoned and could tell about German radar.

The murdered wife has her parallel in Barbara Hicks, a woman there to investigate wood (?), who is also bitter when Foyle first met her — she hates men because of bad experience but is also supposed won over by Foyle’s goodness. It’s too quick again, but there are some touching scenes where they refer delicately to their different pasts — and Foyle’s loss of his wife (one of the episodes begins with his annual visit to her grave).


They are so courteous to one another ….

Suddenly too Major Cornwall is sorry; he had meant well, it seems, his interrogation techniques do not include torture but also don’t protect his prisoners from one another. The Germans as a culture or group are represented as not paying fair essentially. So some unusual hostile nationalism, not surprising were we to regard these characters as in 1941 February. Well done, good performances, but it does not hold together because of this desire for an upbeat ending and rewards for the land-girls as well romance for Foyle.

Episode 4: A War of Nerves, June 1941. This one does not strain for anything — no need — it goes into the terrible increased and ever more complicated ways of bombing, the use of delayed bombs especially. And it returns to central characters cheating and making money off the war. June 1941 — the Blitz eased, but the delayed bombing tactic has spread; at the end of the episode we hear that Germany has invaded Russia and that (a coming slaughter we know) is cause to feel hope as the English gov’t is now allied with Russia. At the same time other places are starting to fall like Crete. The comment (hope) it’ll be over by next Christmas by Sam is made ironic by Foyle


Peter Capaldi unfairly treated

Two threads: one interesting, a kind of back-handed defense of communism, socialism, workers — Foyle is told he must investigate Raymond Carter (Peter Capaldi), a communist and socialist leader, find out things about him so the gov’t can arrest him. Foyle quickly finds nothing and does nothing. By the end of the hour we discover Foyle’s superior, Commissioner Rose (Colin Redgrave) ordering this is not only deeply anti-labor but angry because his daughter is planning to marry the the man — he can’t stand the idea.

The stronger thorough content is about a pair of men running a factory where they embezzle gov’t money by pretending their work force is much bigger than it is. They treat their workers badly and we see an attempt at (an illegal it’s pointed out) strike. Into this come the squad of bomb disposers, with the truth emphasized how little trained such people were, how dangerous and nerve-wracking the task. One of them “loses” it in a bar and starts a fight with his gun; he turns out to be moral, in fact balks at keeping the huge amount of money they find stashed near where a delayed bomb landed. His girlfriend is a welder in a factory whom Sam befriends. And we have another more thuggish crook and his wife who is also a welder.

The best parts are this attention to what life was like during the war …. and Foyle as moral center with Sam as the good heart center ….

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To read about Season 4, Episodes 1-4, see comments, Episode 1, Invasion, April 1942; Episode 2, Bad Blood, August 1942; Episode 3, Bleak Midwinter, December 1942; and Episode 4, Casualties of War, March 1943.


A passing moment from The Bleak Midwinter

Of great interest in all these disks, starting with the 2nd through the fourth are the various features telling the literal ways the film-makers made the episodes, about the costumes, the attitudes of mind of the people acting, the historical background. There is also much written information to click on.

Ellen

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Michael Kitchen as Christopher Foyle

Friends and readers,

I began watching Foyle’s War around my birthday this past November by renting DVDs from Netflix. I had been told how “wonderful” it is time and again, and stubbornly had resisted — why I don’t quite know. I did not realize how these are in structures and basic tropes formulaic (including comic helper-maid, and endings where the villains often just confess when confronted by the truth) murder mystery stories. Good thing for I might never have tried them. Well, it took only the first three episodes to persuade me here was a series that transcended this popular genre, not just superbly well done, but having a complicated moral center in them individually and as a group that offered insights and warnings into the politics of our own time, especially the growth of fascism and uncontrolled capitalism. I loved the character of Foyle, what a relief as he held onto his moral compass (as good as E.M. Forster in What I Believe); this group of traits in the hero has often been cited as the programs’ highest important achievement. The core beauty. I became so fond of Sam and respectful of Milner. I could see they could solace me in my lonely evenings (the way other of my favorite British serials seen over and over).

So I had to have the whole series, be able to watch more than one episode at a time, be able to see features about how it was made, and bought the 8 season set, complete (I was promised) with features and a pamphlets. When the tall box came, and I re-began, I also began to see that I needed these features and more to understand what I was seeing: the pamphlet that came with the 8 sets (=seasons) was a help, all the various wikipedia articles I could click on, and Rod Green’s The Real History Behind Foyle’s War. What this box is is a vast film-novel of moral stories conveying the extraordinary true history of World War Two as it was experienced in Britain.

More than reading and watching, to try to grasp each episode I needed to write notes on them one at a time to appreciate all that was interwoven in. There are often four stories or threads in an episode, not counting the development of the personalities and conveying of the history of our three very sympathetic protagonists: you see Michael Kitchen as Detective Chief Inspector Foyle above in an unusually softly smiling moment:  I just love the way he swings his body and his head and then asks, “Why is that?”  Just below is Honeysuckle Weeks, Foyle’s improbable driver, as she appears appealingly as a young women (not much older than 20 to start with, if that old) in the earliest seasons — why Foyle never learned to drive we are not told:

Her heart shows her the morally right thing to do and to feel. A bit further down, Anthony Howell as Paul Milner, Foyle’s Deputy Sergeant, this photo giving us a glimpse below the usually guarded stern face to see a kindly wholesome sensitive man who cannot fathom himself killing anyone.

With each of them, less is more as a style of acting.

I’ve been wondering to myself what I can add to all that has already been said without going on too long — for what I am best at is explanatory details with moralizing inferences as framework. It can be fun to be reminded of what we so enjoyed, to, as it were, relive what’s in our memories, but in the case of complicated mystery stories, with never an empty moment, it would be easy to fall into too much of a good thing. Better just to watch the TV episodes? Well, there are some ideas or patterns that one might miss, strikingly repeated stances that hold the hours together as we watch the behavior of our three protagonists interact against ever-worsening counter war techniques and protect or aid the human behavior that makes life worth living. The question is repeatedly asked: what are we fighting this war for if we consent to behave as badly as our fascist hate-filled or ruthless enemies are doing. Again and again Foyle, together with Sam and Paul as his two team-members, resist the amoral and the immoral – it is, though, he alone who articulates the actuating ideas behind the decisions and actions we see the three make. We learn about their “private” lives too. Throughout the first through fourth seasons in most of the episodes Foyle dominates almost every scene, he seems to make things happen, knit them together. This is not true across the later seasons.

This blog presents you with few notes for the 1st season and 2nd season (looking at patterns especially), and then building on what we find, I’ll write another similar blog for the 3rd and 4th. The episodes move month by month until we get to season five where we fast forward a whole year. So we get a feeling for the different phases of the war, the different emotional temperature of everyone involved.

But first an overview: at season 5, the series changes. It is said that the series was suddenly cancelled after Season 5 because Simon Shaps felt like it (that’s about as much reason for this as one is given), “causing” Anthony Horowitz to discard a series of scripts going in the same pace for Season 6. This makes no sense, and feels like hurt angry spite: I imagine Shaps complaining about some aspect of the series: maybe it’s anti-capitalist stance? (Businessmen are generally very badly behaved in this series.) So I will write separately about Season 5 and 6, which are also cut back to 3 episodes each.

Then because it was so liked, so respected, it was given yet another two series, again with only 3 episodes (it might have been the expense) — but now our characters are in a different, and actually (it turns out) deadlier era when it comes to police and gov’t spy agency behavior (the problems themselves infected by knee-jerk anti-communism and an implicit nationalism it eschewed until Season 7). That is, we shift from the subgenre type of mystery which Andrew Marr describes as sleuths, to the subgenre, spy stories. And so I will again write a separate blog for these last two (where we lose Milner).

I will try to avoid concrete retellings of stories as these are amply covered in wikipedia. And not name all the superb actors across the years as they too are usually named, unless something or someone seems to me so outstanding

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Season 1: Episode 1: The German Woman, May 1940. In this episode we are watching the formation of the team: Foyle cannot convince his superiors to let him switch from domestic policing to being a member of the war effort, and partly to keep him comfortable, he is given a driver, Sam Stewart; a young man he knew previously has been very badly wounded, lost his leg, Paul Milner, and Foyle manipulates Milner out of an angry depression and despair about having but one leg by showing how he can make his talents useful. We meet Foyle’s son, Andrew (to my ears a very British name), see their close relationship and Foyle fish.


Julian Overdone as Andrew fishing with his face: look carefully and you’ll see a look of impatience on the young man’s face

Julian Overdone is a recurring important character, but not as central to the story structures of solving the mystery (sometimes he is part of the problem that led to the murder). He is growing up, with a little help from his Dad. We learn of Foyle’s wife’s death from lovely watercolor landscapes on his wall. Kitchen dominated the 100 minutes in ways he stops doing by the 6th season and I found the episode more satisfying because of this: his firm strong morality. The murderer (a sexual cad, predator after women’s money) is despicable, especially, but at least one of the victims (the rich German woman whose fortune the murderer was seeking) and their families are humanly flawed too. The episode is against knee-jerk hatred of Germans as Germans. A scholarly German man is thrown in prison with his wife; she dies of a heart attack before Foyle can put an eend to this injustice. An innocent girl is bombed to death, and then her reputation made to suffer until Foyle discovers and exposes what happened. Here the murderer himself asserts that his important war work makes it absurd to accuse, jail and then possibly execute him. This first iteration of this idea is as unconvincing to Foyle as it will be in the 8th year, 27th episode. Here he is in charge and has the power to make his accusation stick.

Not only how young is Sam but how uneager Foyle for having her around and begins teaching her not to pick up cant; how much he is responsible for bringing Paul Milner back to effective useful life … The episode is notable for having performances by Robert Hardy, Edward Fox, James McAvoy

Episode 2: The White Feather, May 1940 still. A pattern: In most of the episodes of these four seasons, after the initial setting forth and some interludes to feed us information Foyle does not see, he is brought forward. In these first four, Foyle shows himself very emotionally engaged even if the evidence is limited to bodily gestures, facial expressions, and the very occasional outburst of stern moral truth. At one point thinking of his son, he puts his head down.

The White Feather combines the reality of nazism and fascism, juxtaposing a particularly foul kind of anti-semitism in the UK, with Dunkirk. So the whole emotional temperature of that happening as felt on the coast where small boats are setting off to rescue people is felt. There is a trio of concerned fathers: the weak man with the domineering nasty (and willing to terrify others to her will) upper class anti-semitic wife and his (in effect) neglected and angry son (a young Tobias Menzies – stealing the scenes he’s in); the old fashioned working class fisherman and his son who is involved with a young girl, an ex-servant in the anti-semitic hotel, who finds himself arrested.


Tobias Menzies as Stanley Ellis

Another pattern: in both episodes is once Foyle knows for sure the person arrested for the crime didn’t do something that resulted in serious injury or death to someone else, or didn’t have malign motives, was bullied, tricked, deluded, he frees that person. That’s important. He is a cop and I find myself thinking were this a Black man (and I believe there is a episode about race prejudice), Foyle would not be casually putting such a person away for life.

The ending at Dunkirk, and arresting the lead Nazi (Charles Dance knows how to do evil): you are made to feel why this war is worth it. Both have beautiful photography of this semi-rural part of England.

Episode 3: A Lesson in Murder. June 1940. An total snob, cruel upper class judge at the center. He coolly murders, blows to bits an 11 year old evacuee whom his daughter (not understanding quite the amount of evil her father could do) volunteered to take in a evacuee. The poor boy has terrible time all the while desperately missed by his father. Foyle’s long time friend, an Italian man (Alan Corduner), a good person, dies at the end because when Italy declares war on England, because a mob comes and set fire to, blows up his restaurant. His son, very like the young man who became involved with the servant in The White Feather, is being pressured by a bad young man, a semi-crook type — whom Sam is rude to. A scene of coffin making (a hidden factory) has its effect.


The Italian man’s restaurant set on fire because the mob has heard Italy has entered the war: he dies upstairs (this is the episode’s penultimate scene)

There is a theme of good young men thrown away or hurt badly in these episodes. This includes Foyle’s son (flying spitfires); the twisted young man that Menzies plays (capable of being so much better). James McAvoy played the role in episode 1: he was engaged to the young girl whom the murderer smeared to cover his tracks. This is part of the fathers and sons, for a familiar actor (John Shrapnel, played Creon, Achilles) is a high class man who bribed the ugly murderer to give his son a conscientious objector status. The episode opens with another young man, genuinely ant-war, being denied status and then in prison mocked, beat up, humiliated, hanging himself. David Tennant is his best friend, who turns up to be with the wife and is suspected of murdering the ugly judge. His wife did it — she was right to she says. Of course Paul Milner is such another, with a wife who has no loyalty towards him, is in fact turned off because he has lost his leg; thus he was tempted by the fascist Charles Dance; at the end of The White Feather, Foyle scolds him intensely for disloyalty — and stupidity.

Episode 4: Eagle Day, August to September 1940. Eagle Day is about sexual harassment of women. It’s not called that but the story at the center is of a Miss Lucy Smith who throws herself under a train because an intelligence agency boss (a bully, amoral, horrible man) seduces, impregnates and then rejects her. Unknown to him, Foyle’s son is assigned to the place and once her friend tells him ever so little the boss and his accomplice are determined to get rid of Andrew – this is slightly improbable but it enables Horowitz to show how easy it was/is to get up a case against an innocent man who say once was part of the communist party, how easy to stash incriminating papers in his locker and under “secrecy” orders of war (deeply anti-democrat) ruin his life – put him in prison.

Instead of now where the girl would have to sue, we see parents who want to protect the daughter’s virginity. No sign of her having any right to an independent life or sexual liberation, but they are indignant or worried. This leads to Lucy’s father murdering two men –- and as with the ugly bully in A Lesson in Murder, the murderer shows no regret and says he did the right thing. Sam’s father come to fetch her home is the ultimate embodiment of such an attitude. He decides she’s safe and doing useful work not that she has the right to an independent life. Another pattern: the first and third episode show young women badly bullied by their fathers — having no agency — my feeling is this is criticized as the result of individuals; the pattern itself accepted, no subtext against it. Sam’s father turns up because he and her mother have become convinced she should return to their village. Being in Hastings was too dangerous and what was she really contributing to the war effort anyway? Despite her being a grown woman, because she wasn’t married, her parents assumed they could still control her life and she felt she had abide by their decision. Her only chance was if Foyle would intercede for her. So it takes a man’s help for her to live the life she has chosen.

Woven in is a story of theft from a museum where the thief (Anton Lesser playing this role) uses the export of art objects to places where they will be hidden to fetch some off for himself. Paul Milner is important in discovering this as is Sam’s father who before he became a vicar studied art.

The opening sequence of this episode shows a woman coming home from work a little later than usual to find her house bombed, her husband nowhere to be seen:


Woman whose house has been bombed — there are countless such tiny episodes which are usually linked to the central threads but also there to show how people experiencing this war

Why August 1940? a month later the bombs begin to drop on civilians. This is presented a sort of sardonic comedy where Foyle’s son tries to save him and his father from these by hiding in a bunch of bundles which turn out to have highly inflammable stuff in them. Young Foyle is a young man who is daredevil in a plane but not too good at protecting himself. This last one ends up with all four in the car Sam has driven up with Milner just in time to fetch the two Foyles away to safety.

To read about Season 2, Episodes 1-4, see comments: Episode 1, Fifty Ships: September 1940; Episode 2: Among the few: September 1940; Episode 3, War Games: October 1940; Episode 4, The Funk Hole: October 1940.


From The Funk Hole, Caroline Harker as Jane Hardiman protecting a beloved dog, whom Phoebe Nicholls as Amanda Reese, novelist, disdains: a tiny thread referring to how many thousands of pets were killed by their owners at the beginning of the war; Mrs Hardiman’s crime is to buy adequate dog food on the black market

To read about Seasons 3-4, see companion blog to this (perhaps next week because another syllabus blog must come inbetween).

Ellen

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Rosa Parks, with Martin Luther King in the background


James Baldwin (see I am not your Negro)

“Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.” — George Orwell

“Why of all the multitudinous groups of people in this country do you have to single out Negroes and give them this separate treatment?” — Thurgood Marshall, arguing in Brown vs the Board of Education.

Dear friends and readers,

For the past couple of years, beginning around the time the pandemic quarantine began (March 2020) I’ve been taking courses in Black history at the two colleges for retired people where I also teach: OLLI at AU and OLLI at Mason.  These included: “The History of Reconstruction;” “Racism in America Civil to Post World Wars,” “Teaching Black history in Virginia;” “Black History;” “The Life and Poetry of Gwendolyn Brooks,” August Wilson’s American Century Cycle. I’ve made an effort to watch Black films, .g. Spike Lee’s Malcolm X and Do the Right Thing); King Richard (very recently), on Richard Williams and his two tennis-champion daughters, Venus and Serena).

I’ve gone to museum exhibits, The Warmth of Other Suns (adapted from Isabel Wilkerson’s book), made a real effort to teach Black authors (Caryl Philips and Toni Morrison) and Black History myself.

I discovered a history of cruel devastation inflicted on people of color whose ancestry was in Africa, not only during enslavement, but for over a hundred years thereafter, with 1965 an important gain but not enough to offset hundreds of years of money and labor exploitation, imprisonment, humiliation, periodic massacres as part of a reign of terror (lynching just one aspect of this), to say nothing of their renewal in the 1990s with the movement to mass incarcerate Black men and the continued casual killing of Black people by police in the streets.

I had when a teacher of undergraduates regularly taught James Baldwin, once tried Richard Wright’s Native Son and once Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn (very painful experiences), as well as Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun.

Lincoln’s birthday. In NYC when I was growing up, we got the day off in school and other places and lots of ceremonies remembered him. Heather Cox Richardson (2/12) shows the logic that Lincoln used to show how dangerous and pernicious the right to and legal practice of enslaving others is. I know from my own reading one term where I taught a course for American University called American Literary Masterpieces that Lincoln’s speeches all show a man repeatedly arguing for the equality of man (alas he does not mention women) and against enslavement of people. It’s unmistakable – whatever historians say about the delay of the Emancipation Proclamation. I felt I could not teach a course in American literature of the 19th century without some real grasp of who Lincoln was. It was that class where I read with students Frederick Douglas’s autobiography, told of slave narratives and we read Uncle Tom’s Cabin (as one of the units).

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So from this long complicated history of egregious injustice, from all these heart-rending and uplifting stories (because Black nonetheless have made astonishing advances in the few years of liberal outlook (say 1960 to 1980s in custom, in law 1965 until the present Supreme court began to gut all the civil rights legislation that had been passed since the 1960s), what can I offer to add to public memory.

One sobering pattern: repeatedly throughout Black history in the US when a great and good Black man rises to prominence and begins to do wide-spread good he is murdered in his later 30s (true of Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, David Walker; see also demonstrations/protests; my blogs on LiveJournal under racism in America). John Lewis almost was.

One heartening one:


Henry Ossawa Tanner — The Banjo Lesson

The history of the initiation and growth of Black education in the US, the slow creation of colleges so that what one saw briefly in reconstruction for a very few people slowly slowly grows to have a network and buildings and libraries and places of order and safety of which today Howard University is a kind of crown jewel. – though recently they too have wiped out, gotten rid of their classic department – no more Latin and Greek study. It is through hard study, her education, going to Howard University (itself infected by class and racism), as teacher at a historically black college, and then editor in a publishing company.

Students who are freshman are sometimes so puzzled as to why learning this text is going to lead somewhere – why memorizing this or that formula matters – experience teaches them if they have not had parents who were able to. Also Civil Rights (1866 Gates mentions) acts which while ignored or undermined were put on the books and when we come to obey the law matter.

Focus on Oberlin College, founded in 1833 as a communitarian settlement, admitted more Black students than all other American colleges combined before 1865. It was coeducational and early in its history had financial troubles under pressure white males only but they held out. One private preparatory school for Black children supplied 1/3rd of the Black student body. They had some extraordinary individuals even in the early years; a weakening between 1880 and 1948 when Black and white students made to eat separately and segregated housing. Again and again in the history by Gates you see Oberlin active for good for enabling Black people to become professional, to be trained, to later seek places for some power. Oberlin is now the base for the Toni Morrison society

In the perspective I’m outlining the importance of Affirmative action can be seen.

After emancipation, 1865 Freedman’s Bureau, Freedman’s Aid societies, Northern missionary groups establish schools. The most enduring ones have been Fisk University, 1865, Morehouse College and Howard University 1867, Hampton University 1868. Since I have to go fast I fast forward to the important conflict between those I’ll call appeasers, Booker T Washington and not just aspirationalists but aware that being taught to be more than skilled people in trade jobs was crucial for Black people to build a society– among these an important voice. W.E.Dubois, famous for Souls of Black Folks. Which I have read. He sounds like a hard Emerson. What shall be in the curriculum intensely important. One needs Black physicians for a start. Black people conflicted themselves over their goals and how to go about it early on. As Malcolm X and MLK did. By 1890s should you include Black people and achievements in international expositions. Black journalism promoted by liberal whites (previously abolitionists)

In popular history a great deal is made of the star – star athlete, singers, musicians, fighting in these wars too. There are so many in different walks of life I’ll confine myself to one: Sadie Tanner Mosell Alexander, 1898-1989; she earned a Ph.D in economy at the University of Pa, dissertation was Standard of Living Among one Hundred Negro Migrant families in Philadelphia. She went to law school, serves in National Urban League, ACLU, hired by Truman for committees, for Kennedy and for Carter. History of wonderful paintings – early Henry Osssawa Tanner The Banjo Lesson.

The central importance of the church for African-American people – and its leaders. Rev William Barber comes to mind

Two individuals lost from memory, whom you may not have heard of.


1875-1950

Carter G. Woodson, 1926, a historian, determined to write The Negro in History. He was one of the moving people behind the successful creation of the NAACP. From his achievements:

In January 1916, Woodson began publication of the scholarly Journal of Negro History. It has never missed an issue, despite the Great Depression, loss of support from foundations, and two World Wars. In 2002, it was renamed the Journal of African American History and continues to be published by the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH). Woodson published The Education of the Negro Prior to 1861. His other books followed: A Century of Negro Migration (1918) and The History of the Negro Church (1927). His work The Negro in Our History has been reprinted in numerous editions and was revised by Charles H. Wesley after Woodson’s death in 1950. Woodson described the purpose of the ASNLH as the “scientific study” of the “neglected aspects of Negro life and history” by training a new generation of Black people in historical research and methodology. Believing that history belonged to everybody, not just the historians, Woodson sought to engage Black civic leaders, high school teachers, clergymen, women’s groups and fraternal associations in his project to improve the understanding of African-American history.

He served as Academic Dean of the West Virginia Collegiate Institute, now West Virginia State University, from 1920 to 1922.[26] By 1922, Woodson’s experience of academic politics and intrigue had left him so disenchanted with university life that he vowed never to work in academia again. He continued to write publish and lecture nationwide. He studied many aspects of African-American history. For instance, in 1924, he published the first survey of free Black slaveowners in the United States in 1830.

And David Walker (1796-1830) — one of those murdered in his later 30s. His centrally important was was An Appeal to the Colored Citizens of the World. Read his life and work in wikipedia; here is a central section of An Appeal:


Freedom’s Journal, first newspaper owned and operated by Black people in the US

In his Appeal Walker implored the black community to take action against slavery and discrimination. “What gives unity to Walker’s polemic,” historian Paul Goodman has argued, “is the argument for racial equality and the active part to be taken by black people in achieving it.” Literary scholar Chris Apap has echoed these sentiments. The Appeal, Apap has asserted, rejected the notion that the black community should do nothing more than pray for its liberation. Apap has drawn particular attention to a passage of the Appeal in which Walker encourages blacks to “[n]ever make an attempt to gain freedom or natural right, from under our cruel oppressors and murderers, until you see your ways clear; when that hour arrives and you move, be not afraid or dismayed.” Apap has interpreted Walker’s words as a play on the Biblical injunction to “be not afraid or dismayed.” As he points out, “‘be not afraid or dismayed’ is a direct quote from 2 Chronicles 20.15, where the Israelites are told to ‘be not afraid or dismayed’ because God would fight the battle for them and save them from their enemies without their having to lift a finger.”[33] In the Bible, all the Israelites are expected to do is pray, but Walker asserts that the black community must “move.” Apap insists that in prompting his readers to “move”, Walker rejected the notion that the blacks should “sit idly by and wait for God to fight their battles — they must (and implicit in Walker’s language is the assumption that they will) take action and move to claim what is rightfully and morally theirs.”

[W]e colored people of these United States are the most degraded, wretched, and abject set of beings that ever lived since the world began, and I pray God, that none like us ever may live until time shall be no more. They tell us of the Israelites in Egypt, the Helots in Sparta, and of the Roman slaves …whose sufferings under those ancient and heathen nations, were, in comparison with ours, under this enlightened and Christian nation, no more than a cypher. Or in other words, those heathen nations of antiquity had but little more among them than the name and form of slavery; while wretchedness and endless miseries were reserved, apparently in a phial, to be poured out upon our fathers, ourselves, and our children by Christian Americans.


The Frontispiece

— Walker’s Appeal, page 1 (lightly edited)
Walker’s Appeal argued that blacks had to assume responsibility for themselves if they wanted to overcome oppression. According to historian Peter Hinks, Walker believed that the “key to the uplift of the race was a zealous commitment to the tenets of individual moral improvement: education, temperance, protestant religious practice, regular work habits, and self-regulation.”

Of course I hope you don’t need to be taught about A Philip Randolph (he succeeded in unionizing the Pullman Porters, organized the March on Washington) and Ida Wells (What didn’t this courageous woman do — she openly exposed and fought against lynching).


A Philip Randolph — one of my father’s heroes


A strong book — so too Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns, about a group of Black people who migrated from the south to the north and the hardships and fierce discrimination that ceaselessly they encountered

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Just now around the US there is going on an apparently successful attempt to stop people of color, poor people, aging people from voting, with gerrymandering especially aimed “with surgical precision” as one judge wrote, to prevent Black people from achieving Black representation in all forms of government, especially when the representative is a person of color (non-white, of any type). Numerous states, among them Virginia (where I live) the teaching of Black history is outlawed; a hotline is set up for any parent anywhere to report on any teacher said to teach anything divisive; any thing that can be labelled “Critical Race Theory.” The teaching of Black history as part of US history has only begun in the last few years (I certainly learned almost nothing) is to be stopped. Why? Not because what has been taught is false, or because it might make some white child uncomfortable. The point is, as Orwell suggested, to control the future by erasing the past, and in this case perpetuate a male white Protestant supremacy.

All should know that a law was passed in 1672 in Virginia that “any person [who was] a slave who resisted a white person could be [casually] killed. Absolutely legal in the colony of Virginia. The only qualification was that the colony could compensate the owner for the loss of his property (when this would seem appropriate it’s not clear from the wording of the law). Why? to see the continuity with today.

So I want to write in opposition and thought I’d write this one time for specifically for Black History Month.  My problem is I know so little and have over the course of my life done so little politically — except vote and write blogs and teach. It is only in the last 20 years I’ve begun to learn and to teach Black history and think, read and write about colonialism.

Gwendolyn Brooks’s was the first African-American to win the Nobel Prize for literature. So where better to end for now.  I don’t know if “To Prisoners,” is her best poem (see my foremother poet blog) but you can (if you know how to do this) download an exquisitely moving video where you hear four wrongfully convicted Black ex-convicts who are now poets or ordinary citizens reading this poem aloud so beautifully and movingly. They tell you how they interpret its words. The interviewer is Anna Deavere Smith, playwright and activist. Here she also interviews John McCain who recites a poem aloud that he wrote and memorized and shared with a prison mate next door to him. The doing of this helped him stay alive:


Opening image: a prison hall

https://www.pbslearningmedia.org/resource/pia18.ela.brooksprisoners/brooks-to-prisoners/

To Prisoners

I call for you cultivation of strength in the dark.
Dark gardening
in the vertigo cold.
in the hot paralysis.
Under the wolves and coyotes of particular silences.
Where it is dry.
Where it is dry.
I call for you
cultivation of victory Over
long blows that you want to give and blows you are going to get.
Over
what wants to crumble you down, to sicken
you. I call for you
cultivation of strength to heal and enhance
in the non-cheering dark,
in the many many mornings-after;
in the chalk and choke.

Ray Charles is very old in this video (imagine what he went through) and to my mind there is something ironic and heart-breaking to watch and hear him sing his own lyrics to this poignant tune:

Ellen

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I don’t always make a blog from the books we read but I felt I ought to in the this case. It would be remiss not to — especially
since it is loaded with divisive concepts …

Friends and fellow readers,

It was in October of this past year, that a group of us on TrollopeandHisContemporaries@grous.io began to read the whole of Hugo’s massive novel as translated, introduced and massively annotated by Christine Donougher. We’ve just finished this week. During this time at least one person also read Graham Robb’s massive biography of Hugo, I returned to Bellos’s Novel of the Century, Victor Brombert’s Hugo and the Visionary Novel, and, with a couple of other people, re-watched Andrew Davie’s magnificent film adaptation, as well as the film version of the world-famous musical.

Myself I had seen Eric Schaeffer’s stage version twice (once in London), and concert presentation years before, and for good measure this time re-watched twice Simon Schama’s The Romantics and Us, whose second hour is mostly given over to Hugo as finally, or at the time of the writing of this book, radical revolutionary in his thought.


Mass protest scene from 2012 film

Given how the matter of all this material speaks so home to us today, I can’t see myself not making a blog about it, though I sincerely doubt I have anything new to add to all that has been said and written – and drawn and sung and danced too. One can say with the usual semi-pompous language, the book is an extraordinary prose narrative — a combination of history, political and philosophical thought, fantastic visions, with novel framework and larger than life presences we can call characters to carry us through. And the French is visceral poetry. Full of contradictions, not to omit much muddle.

But this does not put into language that what is so crucial is how it captures the misery, thwarted aspirations, and fleeting joy in grief of millions of desperately poor, imprisoned, ravaged people, most often seen today in the form of endlessly punished refugees. Jean Valjean is Leonard Peltier, Fantine is exploited, derided, and raped woman hidden in plain sight who when she fights back becomes an outcast Christina Casey Ford (she who accused Kavanaugh and ridiculed ended outcast) without funds or friends. Mabeuf our adjunct lecturer scholar. The vast disquisitions about Waterloo, and morphing of gov’ts rarely even addressing a country’s needs, and when it tries, quickly reversed by those who cannot bear to lose a stitch of power or authority. Each type, the good priest, the barbaric cop, the base criminal and his wife, the orphan child, selfless nun, street prostitute — they stand before us.

It seems to me important to say — and maybe another reason I write this blog — that you cannot rely on any of the movies (there have been several, and I’ve tried a couple beyond Davies’) or the musical or (worse yet) the recent popular film of the musical (2012, directed by Tom Hooper), to convey the spirit or meaning of the book to you. Everything is done that can be by way of setting and choices of scenes to turn Hugo’s book into a seeming Catholic religious parable where God’s mysteries are beautiful in his churches and good people there (a reductive travesty). The movies are apolitical, with personal love the key to people’s happiness.  Nothing could be further from the feel and mood of Hugo’s book despite so often the good people being a church functionary.

Of course in the film musical you are worked up to revolutionary-like fervor and cumulatively end crying at the deaths of these good well-meaning people. And there is tragic catharsis: I found myself beginning to cry at Marius’s song too: the words “There’s a grief that can’t be spoken/There’s a pain that goes on and on” felt directly a propos. Empty chairs: that’s a phrase found in an old Civil War song (union side). And the book’s true heroine, Fantine (according to my way of thinking but not the book where Hugo chose a shallow conventional hero and mindless version of the heroine) is taking its true hero off with her to where (like Lear) he will no longer be wracked on this world’s fiery wheel of searing loneliness, and find rest. In Hugo’s book the emphasis is not personal and its significance more like what is found in a Camus novel like La Peste.


Lily Collins as Fantine after the mountebank has done with her, gathering material for dolls


Hair also needed for wigs – and teeth?

I here single out Davies’ film for making modern secular humane sense, with attention to the pathos of several of the characters (reinventing or changing some, like Courfeyreau). Davies’ script shows how despicable are others (Fantine’s seducer, the thug Madame Thenardier, however brutalized by her husband), and terrifying (Ron Cook as the mountebank who scissirs off Fantine’s hair and yanks out her teeth to leave her looking memorably ghastly). He tightens up the story, makes some realistic turns for the story, makes far more sense of Javert as a character (homoerotic, and thus obsessed with Jean Valjean), as well as filling out and making consistent the other characters in ways that bring out the egalitarian strains in the book. The only film adaptation of a classic that comes up to the presentation of the relentless killing of ordinary people practiced by the militia of the state that we see in the Paris streets in Davies’s Les Miserables here is Davies’ own Dr Zhivago.

I don’t feel that Davies quite captures the sinister and chaotic reality of a senseless unjust society and downright evil in law and deepest thought patterns (punish, isolate) of Hugo’s book: in Davies’ Dr Zhivago he has the totalitarian state as run by seething madmen whom ordinary people are terrified by. Dr Zhivago differs from most of  Davies’ work where there is a Trollopian or Dickensian (Victorian?) comic-realistic vision of the world.  Hugo’s world is tragic and exaggerated so in feel with the beautiful French fantastic.  Both project in their different mediums, Hugo with his story, Davies with the considerable apparatus of film adaptations today, the prisons, trials, hierarchical social gatherings, servitudes, what good and powerless people have to contend with. Both are short of the kind of thing we must turn to Primo Levi to find presented consistently (in If this be Man).  Nonetheless because of Davies’ skill in characterization (dialogue, instructions for gestures, collaboration with Tom Hooper, the director), when you finish Davies’ film you will have understood the underlying politics and source of some of the passions of Hugo’s work better.


Hugh Jackman’s lonely face as the dying scene begins


An unusual moment for Madame Thenardier: Helena Bonham Carter bringing out a flatness Olivia Coleman never attempts (and is not in Hugo either)

As for the musical: as presented (no matter where, stage or film), the book script and songs assume we know the story. Hardly anything is explained. It’s arguable nothing need be explicated clearly, except I appreciated what the composers and lyric writers were doing now: it was one long symphony or piece of music which had interruptions for a little dialogue but basically one long song I’ll call it; it changes mood and character voice but it seemed to me consistently a expressionist reaction to Les Miserables basic concept: here are the wretched of the earth, mixed in with cruel senseless authority figures and rules which have nothing to do with these wretched people. At any rate do not help them but seek to control and to punish. Sometimes a voice of kindness is singing, sometimes profound loneliness. The driving rhythms are a build up of rage, passion kept caged and finally reaching some height as the people climb the barricades.

The out-of-whack piece, brought back more than once, “Master of the House,” is a subversive and mindless mocking contrast, with one of the lines referring to Voltaire — as music and song it seemed to say the Voltairian Candide vision might be seethingly hilarious, a release but no use at all to suffering people.  Costumes and settings are imitative of Marat/Sade (that wild grotesque burlesque protest piece of so long ago), intermixed with Dickensian tropes so Gavroche in the film musical is an adorable Artful Dodger cut down.


Reece Yates (2012 Davies’ film) escapes both the cuteness of the Hollywoodized Artful Dodger and Hugo’s own (to me) unfortunate way of not taking the boy quite seriously

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It is so much easier to write about a movie or stage musical than one of the grand novels of the 19th century. To say I loved the long supposed digression (but the book is more digression than it is story) on language and slang won’t do.


Donald Sumpter as Mabeuf (still prosperous, in front of the church with his volumes, 2018 film)

But in order not to go on for too long, we shall have to limit ourselves tonight for exemplary detail to the ending of Hugo’s Part 4, Book 8, Chapter 7, where Mabeuf, once a lowly functionary in a church, is living in a hovel, and due to conditions out of his control, finds he can no longer pay the ridiculous rent for such a place with what he once did.  He is driven to sell his precious collection of books. He refuses to take a gift of money left for him (he would not steal a loaf of break presumably) and takes it to a bank. The last place that needs it. The cry of anguish from his heart matches the cry of Marius’s mean ancien regime grandfather when he cannot threaten Marius into loyalty, much less love in just the previous chapter. At core there is stark grief in the old man’s unwillingness to open up to his grandson or inability, and in the destitute idealist.

This does happen. Charlotte Smith in the early 19th century had to sell all her books to keep herself and family afloat. It was a terrible bitter experience for her – she didn’t quite sell them all, but those which fetched a good sum. Ever after she couldn’t write the same books. I’ve a male friend who lost his tenure, and came to DC and tried to live and get a job and couldn’t and was finally driven to sell his books in order to pay up his rent, move back home (horrible place – deep south, utter Trump country) — but then he was okay for he had a small job there and place to live with his family , a family which the high-minded Marius would have rejected and, as he does in the book (improbably) make his way (to use a very Trollopian phrase).

Looking at the book from a distance, it is very controlled. The story is minimal but it has enough twists and turns and new archetypal characters to take us through several related climaxes while moving along a trajectory of imprisonment, desperation.  I refer to JVJ’s encounter with M. Bienvenu, the priest at the opening of the book whose transformative goodness to him finds a parallel in Jean Valjean’s transformative forgiveness or lack of vengeance to Javert.   Then luck and cleverness enable JVJ to build a business and take care of a whole community, Montfermeil. He is elected Mayor despite not wanting to call attention to himself. While the slender plot-design unravels – Javert finds him after he has rescued Cosette and secured a hovel room for them both.  Like the Zorro he is, he escapes with her (using a rope pulling her up a wall he climbed up himself)  into a convent, and finding a grateful friend, stays for 18 years. And so it goes. He and Cosette leave so she can enter the world, have a chance to see it, and the spite of an old woman once again precludes their quiet retired but unconventional life. Now and again we stop for long meditations, disquisitions on war, society, language, the right type of wedding …


Dominic West as Jean Valjean reading with the little Cosette before they are forced to flee and end up in the convent

Our Jean Valjean is all heroes. Today I have been reading Christa Wolf’s Cassandra, where the one good man in the whole of Troy and among the Greeks is Aeneas, with whom Cassandra falls in love. She plays a part like Dido’s, and he must desert her out of a sense of duty (pius Aeneas), to care for his people. Well this reminds me of Jean Valjean’s behavior towards the people of Montfermeil as mayor: he thinks about them when he is about to give himself up because he can’t face allowing another person to be taken for him and put in jail. Like Foyle (in the justly respected World War II British ITV mystery series), JVJ decides that the greater general hoped-for good (that when such a good mayor leaves, all the prosperity might fall apart) does not substitute for doing a clearly concrete moral act: you must not use someone else. So he gives himself in and must escape again before he can rescue Cosette, and Fantine dies without having seen her child, in Hugo’s book believing herself forever damned.

I think that Hugo does want us to remember Aeneas carrying his father on his back during the siege of Troy and saving his life when JVJ carries Marius on his back through a sewer, almost drowns with him in filthy quicksand. But when Jean Valjean pulls himself and Marius up and comes to the locked door, who is there? Thenardier asking for money. A sardonic joke subtextually.

True heroism is caring, strength to do the truly moral thing, though the world’s consequences show how you cannot escape hurting someone. Amid all Hugo’s investment in heroic maleness, Les Miserables is as anti-war as it is anti- the capitalist spirit. Thenardier let us recall in the book ends a slave-trader in the US.

Ellen

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