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Archive for the ‘womens' films’ Category


Cherry Blossoms (Elmar Wepper as Rudi Angermeier, and Aya Irizuki [de] as Yu)

“What I love most about this book, as about all of Downie’s nonfiction works about France, is the way the reader is brought intimately into the adventure of his discoveries as he performs his intrepid research. We are spared, of course, the many hours of reading in dusty libraries he has done for us. But when he sets out into the Paris of today in search of its ghosts of yesteryear, he takes us along with him. We are there with him as he interviews the archivist at the Victor Hugo Museum, and the director of the Arsenal Library–a gathering place for such Romantic age luminaries as Dumas, Liszt, de Musset, Delacroix, Balzac, and Gautier—a place which, Downie tells us, “hasn’t changed much since the 1820s.” We are there with him as he sneaks up back stairways and into private courtyards in his furtive attempts to connect with Romantic heroes of the past, to look out the same windows they looked out of, gaze upon the same courtyards they would have seen. We are there with him in those rare moments when he is able to commune with those spirits of the past” (Janet Hulstrand)

The impermanence of life is at the core of Cherry Blossoms, an exquisite German film directed by Doris Dorrie (How to Cook Your Life). A wonderful sequence in the story takes place during the cherry blossom season at the beginning of spring in Japan. Hanami is celebrated for about ten days as families, friends, and visitors gather under trees while their pink and white flowers are in full bloom. The cherry blossom is seen as a symbol of beauty, awakening, and the transience of life … (Frederick and Mary Ann Brussat)

Dear friends and readers,

Summer is slowly turning into autumn, and I’ve written only once of this year’s summer reading and movies: David Nicholls’s Us, book & film, probably because I’ve only read and seen one I’d so characterize, and now as the days begin to shorten more quickly, I feel I’ve been remiss, partly because my spirits have been again rejuvenated by a movie and a book.


The audio book

First, the book, which will require my speaking first of David Downie as I encountered him in his earlier Paris to the Pyrenees last spring, and providing contexts with other books, and French movies. I took a course at Politics and Prose (the DC bookstore) called A Literary Tour of France, it was somewhat disappointing as the teacher refused to discuss any serious topics (!), and seemed to live in dread of offending people in the classroom, but she did offer two books, with real merit, the equivalent of Steve Coogan and Bill Brydon’s first and second Trip movies, the one where they drive around Derbyshire, into the Lake District ending at Bolton Abbey before returning to London, and the second a journey through Italy, from Rome past Pompeii to Naples.


Somewhere in the West Riding — an idyllic dream vision of what I remember of the rare walks Jim and I took out into the Yorkshire moors

Travel books encompass books about people making a home usually in what is to me a “foreign” country; they can be the encyclopedia type Trollope favored in Australia and New Zealand, the let’s analyze this country, his North America, or his jolly When the Mastiffs Went to Iceland (the nearest he got to popular travel books). I think the genre is invented in the 18th century where the idea of truly telling the truth of what you are seeing, of cultures being different, of trying to discover history this way began with Johnson and Bowell’s twin tours; a second variant is Susannah Moodie’s 30 Years in the Bush, a classic first Canadian book, about how she settled into the countryside to become Canadian.

Jeffrey Greene’s French Spirits: A House, A Village, and A Love Affair in Burgundy, was assigned first, and begins well, but David Downie’s Paris to the Pyrenees sustains the type. Greene’s French Spirits is similarly replete with intelligent insight into places, objects, people. He and his partner are marrying and decide to buy and renovate as a place to live an ancient church: they have plenty of money, live upper class educated lives (whose values Greene never questions, the source of the money never told): Greene is trying to capture his sense of what life against history is, French culture in history, and uses these “odd people” in the countryside to bring this out. Greene’s book is light and half-way through falls off when he goes into these chapters (to me tasteless) on his wedding but it is picturesque and evocative of middle France. He and his wife renovated a presbytery to make it into a home: the history of the building and the real problems of trying to renovate such a structure are absorbing, teach one about buildings.

Downie’s Paris to the Pyrenees is a sort of sceptic’s pilgrimage across that part France and down to the Pyrenees. He’s more somber in spirit, and the character he comes across made less eccentric at the same time more locally embodied. He has rejected much that Greene is content to accept: the materialism, hierarchies, fashion-laden admiration for what reeks of rank, monetary success. Downie is exploring his own mind (quietly, not that openly), his past, and the past of the countryside he and his wife are walking through. One needs courage and a partner to do what they are doing — — just walking following an old route and not sure whether they will find an inn in a given place, or the kind of food and drink they might require. They are doing their journey in an entirely non-commercial way.

Gradually his book turns into a more political polemic attached to French history (eons back) and the recent political events (1871 and the French occupation in WW2, Algeria, modern emergence of fascism). An emerging theme is how much is left across the French countryside of WW2. We saw that in Calais and Brittany. Downie describes so much left of the Resistance (and Nazis’ atrocities) and so criss–crosses for me A French Village (and Come What May). It’s a pilgrimage, in which the French landscape seems to contain almost no one, they have to find taverns and even once stay in someone’s home, take chances, depend on themselves and other people. It put me in mind of Anne Radcliffe’s gothics at their spiritual landscape best. Colleen’s Paris (a blog reviewer) captures the book very well, telling you the details of the story too. Downie’s book is more genuinely worked out than Greene’s.

Both are a long distance from VS Naipaul’s masterpiece, The Enigma of Arrival (Salmon Rushdie finds it too sad), but they move in this direction of deep meditation in a landscape about the history of the place through what’s physically left there and what we can know (and in Naipaul’s case) dream deeply and re-create to make of himself (to the person) embedded in this foreign landscape — through his memories too. For Naipaul it’s the landscape around Stonehenge, as a strong antidote to the culture he was born in and has rejected. Karen Langley in her Kaggsy’s Ramblings writes of a lighter gay variant, Hugo Charteris’s Marching with April (introduced beautifully by Frederic Raphael), the writer and his family determine to leave London and takes root in an ancient place, the Highlands (out of his background) and attempt to build a new life: this time the Highlands. It will come after Downie’s Paris Paris, is lower on onw my night-table’a pile.

To be honest, I’m only half-way through Paris, Paris but I’m just loving it. One problem with many travel books is they fail to convey a deep sense of what it feels like to be in the place — Downie has this ability. Each area of Paris the reader is taken to, is fitted into a larger coherent picture of the city, and then itself explored visually, physically, and mentally. The photographs are beautifully done (black-and-white) and epitomize a mood, the kinds of history that occurred in the place and/or what is there now, the people he sees. I’ve been to Paris three times now, once long ago for 6 weeks on my own in a cold winter, and twice with Jim and Izzy, 2 weeks around Christmas time and the New Year (2000), and the following summer. I am learning more, getting a better feel of the place than I’ve ever done and think if I could go back how much more I’d benefit. Each chapter is a little Eleanor Clarke, Rome and a Villa. Each one forms a walking tour; you are exploring with him. A shorter review by Kirkus. Janet Hulstrand says rightly there is so much here of history, literature, art, that it’s almost impossible to capture in a couple of paragraphs, but I believe she comes near and regales us with the details evocatively.

Downie himself, talking in France, about the book. He begins slowly, and has trouble getting into contact with the audience but as he goes on he’s extraordinary: the romanticism of Paris is the result of its negativity, that it make each visitor invisible, and conveys amid its austere life suffering, time past, darker passions contained.

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Hannelore Elsner as Nadja Uhi, with either one of the film’s younger actresses or perhaps the director? or costume maker?

I had confided in a friend how much I was again missing Jim this summer, and my friend recommended to me a 2008 German film, Cherry Blossoms, about an older man whose wife dies suddenly. I looked up the reviews and found most reviews to be vitriolically hostile or indifferent. For the record, I watched The Toyko Story and found it to be frozen, creepy, too long, too still, absurdly over-rated. The only parallels are the angry children and the deaths.

Cherry Blossoms opens with Nadja, the wife (a wonderful German actress, Hannelore Elsner) listening to doctor’s tell her that Rudi, her husband has not got long to live. She cries silently; they tell her to take him on a trip and she says he hates adventures. He follows the same narrow routine everyday of his life, including the sandwich she makes him for lunch. It would seem despite her staying home, being there for him all the time as he forges forth in the world, he stays within her sphere.

So no surprise when he follows her advice as she proposes a trip to visit their grown children in Berlin or some other German city (they live in a country town or suburb) and to the beach by a hotel. We see how much they do love one another, are dependent on one another, also glimpse the hostility to them of their grown children who slowly it’s revealed find their presence even so briefly an encumbrance, annoyance. Her favorite son lives far away in Tokyo — later we learn he moved there, that far to escape the domination of her quiet presence.

Quiet mood on a boardwalk; they move to the beach, by the shore, and suddenly she dies.

The film is half an hour in. The rest is Rudi’s very hard adjustment, then a chosen trip to Tokyo to see the son who fled them. At first he is bewildered and this son also hostile; they adjust to one another; he gets lost early on, but soon he is finding his way. Tokyo seemed to me as inhumane as I’ve thought it. The son says everyone works weekends, long days, all the time. They live in small boxes in high look-alike buildings, where everything looks the same. Their talk reveals that indeed the wife had always had this inexplicable desire to visit Japan, had wanted to be a Japanese stylized dancer. We have seen photos of her when young so dancing.

He has brought with him his wife’s clothes, at first he puts them on the bed beside him to sleep (what he started at home) but then he puts them on under his coat. He sees and then introduces himself to a street performer, Yu, an 18 year old girl who turns out to be homeless. She does a dance where she appears to get into contact with the dead; she says she is with her mother this way. She wears white make-up on her face — as the aborigine did in Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith as a sign he was willing to die, to let the whites murder him rather than flee them some more. He and she bond, form a friendship, she says she is an orphan and he suddenly cuts loose from this son (who has said he moved to Tokyo to get away from his mother who he loved so much but was overwhelming).

He takes the girl to Mount Fuji which his wife dreamed of going to. She dreamed of being a dancer, of going to Japan. He feels very badly that he stood in her way. We do see how middle class people in Japan take holidays: in a vast hotel-like structure where they live semi-communally — all eat in the same vast room. He and Yu are failing to see the Mount as each day it is so cloudy; and one morning he gets up very early and sees the mount: a vision. He hurries back, dresses in a Japanese dancing costume for a man that he has brought, and returns to the shore. As he dances, we see a hand reach his, and his wife is there, visible, similarly dressed. They dance intensely together. The camera moves away to Yu, just waking up. She discovers Rudi is gone, a couple of hours go by and he does not return. Now she too goes to the shore and finds him dead, laying by the shore. There follows a Japanese style funeral with his son and Yu presiding over his ashes in an urn, and then another funeral in Germany. The film ends quietly with the camera returning to the girl who has returned to the park to dance for money and to reach her mother. There is a dedication at the movie’s close, apparently by Dorrie remembering someone who perhaps died.

I use the phrase very moving so often, so let me say very very touching. Here is a review by Frederick and MaryAnn Brussat which begins to do the film justice. It’s beautifully tastefully filmed, written, the music just perfect, everything, tactful, controlled. I found it uplifting.

I do have one (many) regrets from my marriage: I never went to the shore or the beach with Jim enough. I knew how he burnt, and I’d get bored. Now I wish I had gone every summer with him — we’d go when we went to England to the Chitterings beach, once we went to Brighton. This summer I didn’t get to the shore at all. It is a three hour drive from my house to reach a public beach.

So these are the summer books and movies I have experienced this season of 2021; Nicolls at mid-summer and these at journey’s end.

Ellen

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Ada (Tara Fitzgerald, the Alice Roland of film story) and Flora (Anna Paquin, the Asia of the film story) — from Jane Campion’s 1993 The Piano, a very free appropriation of Mander’s 1920 novel)

Dear friends and readers,

I do not remember what year it was when I first came across Jane Mander’s traditional novel of the trials and ordeals of colonialism for the European colonizers, credited as one of the first true New Zealand novels (a product of this new culture), The Story of a New Zealand River. I found it in the Second Story bookstore in Alexandria, one of two such used book stores: one in DC (Georgetown); and this one in Alexandria, which took up a whole block, all sides and was two floors high. Long gone now such attics of “used” literature where I could rummage in past ages through their left-over books. I might have been attracted by the cover.

I recall being wholly absorbed by it, and recognizing it (not Emily Bronte, as was suggested by some film critics) as a central story source for a movie that made quite a splash with its teasing erotic content. Campion’s English heroine, a mute, coerced into marriage, with a white timber man in New Zealand, is persuaded to go through a slow strip-tease by his assistant, a white man gone native — she removes an item of clothing and in return gets to “own” a small part of her piano until she owns the whole thing), Jane Campion’s The Piano. My reaction to the movie this summer has been very different.

This summer when I decided to try to teach a course in colonialist writings, it leapt to mind as the one book I must do. As I told the people in the zoom space with me, this, together with her Allen Adair, are as worthy to be taught as regularly as the over-rated Heart of Darkness by Conrad and a couple of other favorites by men as classic colonialist books. Chinua Achebe (Things Fall Apart) is on record more than once inveighing against the deep racism of Conrad’s book. Mander at least meant not to be, and you can learn a lot more about colonialism from her for real than you can from Conrad’s mystic pompous vague ominousness. I am writing this blog in the same spirit as I taught the book: I would like more people to know about it and its contexts.

Its plot-design tells two stories. On the level of primary action, it tells of an epic romantic journey through time, experience, a river and hard adventures (including giving birth many times in a cabin in the rural woods of Nothern New Zealand in the 1870s through 80s) by Alice Roland. She is a woman whose stiff-necked estrangement from others (later understandable), narrow-minded class-based puritanism, the same suspicious authoritarianism towards others that in the book she allows to spoil her life, is in the book changed to assimilation, a broader minded toleration and understanding, an acceptance of her own and others’ sexual love life. The context for this is the difficulty of living with Tom Roland, a white timber man with whom she has little sympathy, himself creating a successful timber business from the ground up (literally) in the wilderness. When we meet her, she has married him to escape her lot as a widow with three children living in Australia (with a piano in tow — she had tried to make a living as a music teacher). She had hoped comradeship. Instead she falls in love with David Bruce, his gentlemanly assistant (also a physician), who does not go native, but becomes her friend and support of her and whole white community. The three, man, wife, friend, are at the center of all that happens. The inner core of this Campion took for her stark but (contradictorily) pessimistic movie; the outer is about people coping with the situations of colonial life and winning, just.

On the level of structure and character relationships, it is the story of a mother and daughter. The first two of the four books dramatize Asia’s growing up, struggling with and loving her mother. The third and fourth books occur ten and then fourteen years later where Asia, now grown up, turns round to teach this same mother as she achieves independence and a far more free fulfilling life than her mother is capable of. It’s a bifurcated tale. Asia is a kind of Jo March modernized — I am morally convinced the novel Mander was most influenced by was Little Women. Asia falls in love with a man married but unable to divorce, and her mother has to accept Asia’s going to live with him as the source of her happiness and life’s strength. This structure and these themes mark The Story of a New Zealand River as very much a woman’s novel. Many of the inward recognitions both women go through are the kind of thing one finds in subjective novels by women which have nothing to do with where they are particularly.

To parse the bifurcation:

Book 1 sets our scene and the themes and character paradigms that will be developed. The arrival. Alice, Asia, two small children and piano ferried deep into bush on the river by David Bruce; Asia falls overboard and Bruce saves her life. Alice’s first impulse to snub Bruce (he not being dressed as the gentlemen). She finds herself very afraid, very alone, has to give birth – this marks the woman’s birth and it’s David Bruce who is there in intimate moments. Her antagonism, her aversion turns to dependency on her part and his pity for her to love, which is acknowledged at the end of Book I. Tom takes a mistress (on the side, in town). She makes friends with a Mrs Brayton, a cultivated and wise woman who helps her learn to live in a rough environment; she clashes with her daughter at each stage in which the daughter asserts a separate and questioning identity. She learns everything she needs she must make herself. One of the things our characters are doing is “clearing the bush” and making a new society mostly in imitation of what they knew in England only shaped by the different climate, flora, fauna, kinds of foods available and grown.

Book 2 includes a gale-level storm, a flood which threaten and almost destroys Tom’s hard-built business site; David Bruce’s drinking bouts (he is a depressive). Tom Roland thinking he is facing ruin, takes poison, and is saved by David and Alice’s united efforts – tremendous inward scene between Alice and Bruce as they are tempted to let him die. Bruce becomes an uncle-father to Asia. Alice’s deep self-repression, guilty, rigidity over sex, and wanting to own her children, her Victorianism, the attitude so reprehended by Bloomsbury is also reprehended by Mander but through a Victorian fiction.

The problem throughout all this is our heroine, Alice Roland, is persistently in the wrong. She needs the putative hero, David Bruce, continually to teach her better values, among these to be nicer to her husband. It seems it’s her fault the husband treats her badly; her fault he goes into these drinking bouts (as does David himself but she cannot be blamed for that). She is told she is intolerant when he visits his mistress. And she is to consider how much of the whole encampment (all the people working for him, their families) is riding on his strength of character; it’s due to his physical and moral stamina that the timber mill is succeeding and creating wealth for him and her and money for all. Ironically what makes the book unpalatable to some readers today, scandalized her New Zealand readership until the 1930s because what Alice is being taught and Asia lives out are modern attitudes towards sex, class, parent-child relationships, work.

Books 3 & 4 (more briefly): 10 years later, Asia 18 and insists on independent life for herself, a terrible wrench for Alice. At first Alice cannot accept this modern way of life for her daughter. Bruce and Mrs Brayton enable Asia to leave, to become a sort of concert pianist going round New Zealand, but Alice again pregnant and now ill (endures yet another stillbirth), Asia returns home for a few months to nurse her. Then 2 and 1/2 years later, we find Asia now living at home (not explained) and she falls in love with Allen Ross. This part of the novel contains the most extensive descriptions of the realities of colonial life, the people who come as failures elsewhere and fail again; the landscape. Here we find the only mentions of the Maoris in the book (very traditional to leave the indigenous peoples out).

The novel’s non-modern techniques: back stories emerge. Alice had Asia as illegitimate child and punished herself all her life by his marriage; Mrs Brayton had rejected daughter who married someone Mrs B didn’t approve of, w/o help daughter died. Bruce himself did not save a man whose wife he loved and blames himself as a passive murderer (this reminded me of George Eliot, and Bruce seemed to me a Daniel Deronda).

Roland finally catches Bruce and Alice in compromising position and it emerges he thought they were lovers all these years –- especially after Bruce told him to leave Alice alone, for these pregnancies were killing her. A sub-textual argument of the book is on behalf of contraception (for which it was attacked). Does she want a divorce? No! but our noble lovers are saved when Tom dies in an accident nobly trying to save others. At novel’s end Asia and Ross have gone to live in Sidney where they hope to do good in politics. Alice and Bruce leave for Auckland to marry and find contentment as older adults together.

The book brings you into its world deeply; it is rich in description of New Zealand at the time. The characters are convincing (if contrived because of the romantic lesson-learning structuring). I find it to be melancholy: life is little to be enjoyed and much to be endured (there are various utterances which are variations on Samuel Johnson, mostly when Alice is thinking of what is to come. What is most striking to me is how the daughter is presented as more reasonable, more able to function in modern society, more daring than the mother, and they get into hard conflicts over opposed values — including directly sexual (against her daughter’s deep pleasures with Ross) as well as about a daughter’s independence.

I’ve seen this in a number of women’s books. I cite 18th century books: Elizabeth Inchbald’s A Simple Story, with two volumes each about the different heroine; Charlotte Smith’s Young Philosopher — at the time I thought of so many others where the mother-daughter paradigm was presented in just this way. In the 19th century there’s Gaskell’s work, Margaret Oliphant has several — Oliphant had her most important relationship with her mother. Oliphant’s greatest grief was the loss of a 9 year old daughter. This dual view enables a dual perspective in such books: here in Mander early colonial experience and then 20 years later where so many changes as the white settlers succeed have been made. Marianne Hirsh’s insightful and important book (still) The Mother-Daughter Plot begins with the idea that for many women, they read as mothers (this is Gaskell) or daughters (say Austen and Bronte and Alcott). Mander begins with the mother as central and crosses over to the daughter (as do Inchbald and Smith).

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Jane Mander, 1923, one of her emigration documents

She was born in 1877, so close in age to Virginia Woolf. Mander grew up in New Zealand, part of its middle class. There is a good literary biography by Dorothy Tucker. Like Asia in the novel, she had little official schooling. Mander’s father was a member of the early New Zealand parliament, a pioneer, sawmill owner, who purchased a newspaper, The Northern Advocate where Jane first wrote as a journalist. There was little audience or opportunity for a modern novelist; so first she went to Sydney and in 1912 traveled thousands of miles to New York City, to go to Columbia University. She joined the suffrage movement. She was politically active as feminist and socialist labor all her life.

It was in New York City she wrote The New Zealand River. 1923 she moves to London and gets involved with familiar names of literature today (and some less familiar) from Bloomsbury to writers of the 1920s; then she works for Harrison Press in Paris. She is fluent in French. She wrote three other novels. She had a very lively life and enjoyed it but there were bad pressures. There are parallels with Katherine Mansfield, also from the upper class of New Zealand, but much much wealthier (whom Mander still resembles in startling ways and who was one of the first reviewers of Mander’s first book). Mander might have been bisexual too — there is no record of heterosexual romance.

She seems to have missed New Zealand, and her parents in were in bad health too, so in 1932 she returned home and stayed. A long trip. She became friendly with New Zealand writer whose work is more widely known than hers: Ngaio Marsh – whose great passion was theater direction though she also wrote the detective stories for which her name is more widely known.

Having been attacked by the local community for this and subsequent books, and for not living conventionally (she never married), Mander grew depressed yet stayed on. She was part of the local higher literary culture of her country – but just could not get her act together for another novel or long work. She wrote reviews; people suggested she return to London, that she write autobiographically. She would not. She produced magazine pieces — very fresh vivid accounts you could call regional writing. Her mother had died and her father became very ill. That she lived with her father in her later years reminds me of Louisa May Alcott who lived with Bronson Alcott and died with in a few months of his death.

She lived through WW2 – and New Zealand, like Australia, was very involved. New Zealand was an independent commonwealth country by 1947. The present enlightened fine PM, Jacinda Ardern, a social democratic progressive, is no surprise; women had the vote in New Zealand in 1893; unions protected, and with an outlook like that of the British labor party after war & Australia’s progressive party, New Zealand throve.

In this first novel one can see many autobiographical connections. It’s in the 1870s when our story begins – there are a few references now and again to situate the narrative. Mander was born in 1877, so from her grand-parents and what she knew of her great-grandparents she remembers an earlier world. Jane Mander lived in the very area she brings her characters to when she was around the age of Asia -– three years before she was 12. This is period of childhood where deepest memories are etched and she continually in her imagination (according to Tucker) returns to this landscape in all her novel writing. Here Asia is she, a bridge into this novel.

Part of the reason for the book’s impact was its authenticity – it is described in books about New Zealand literature as among the first genuine culturally New Zealand books written – like Nathanial Hawthorne in the US, Emerson, Alcott – they don’t sound British any more. The places named all existed and the description of the timber industry is said to be accurate. There was never a mill at Pukekaroro or township but there was one in Puhipuhi near Kaiwaka (Maori names) a town, access in the 1970s when Dorothy Turner wrote her book on Mander was still through waterways. You can trace where the owner of the timber company (Roland) lived; there was a real wealthy Englishwoman living there, Mrs Clayton – and she had a house like Mrs Brayton’s and doubtless a fine book collection. Its specific setting is an obscure smaller arm in Kaipara Harbour, which Mander sailed into and out of herself (like Asia).

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There is an audiobook, LibriVox, so unabridged and for free

The Story of a New Zealand River is a woman’s novel as well as good and important colonialist writing — as some of the classics of colonialist writing, where the man has won a Nobel prize are arguably misogynist and racist: this is true of some of V. S. Naipaul’s novels: A Bend in the River has the hero beating up his female partner and there is no real criticism of this. Action-adventure stories characterize a good deal of Kipling (who is painfully racist and prejudice against non-white cultures). I just loved how Mander showed the way women were part of the colonialist project, central to it, and what they endured, their friendships, networks, deeper relationships with female relatives.

Mander does neglect the Maoris: they are seen only from afar when the reality is in this period a series of wars had been concluded, but feeling between the indigenous people and the interlopers was hostile, with outbreaks of violence on all sides. I discussed in the class and encouraged everyone to see The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, to be sure about an aborigine man in Australia, but a rare movie for depicting the horrifying treatment of indigenous people. Mander’s brother marred a Maori woman.

I’ll end on the use of the piano in The Story of a New Zealand River. It’s not a chance move by Campion to focus so on this symbol of middle class, settled, white upper class life, gentility. In “The Piano as Symbolic Capital in New Zealand Fiction, 1860-1940,” Journal of New Zealand Literature (JNZL) 28 (2010):34-60, Kristine Moffat shows the depiction of the piano in most novels and movies in the later 19th and most of the first half of the 20th century is as particularly a woman’s instrument, an instrument through which women can express deeper and unconventional longings, as her symbolic capital, her status, distorts the history of the piano.  It’s partly false. Evidence shows that the piano was played by men and it functioned not just in the home where there was no radio. Historical records shows that pubs, music halls, clubs, brothels, working men as part of music making groups – it is a versatile percussive instrument (a harp on its side) – means of entertainment; in the first decades of the 20th century Maori people took to having pianos, military camps, concerts.

Towards the end of Moffat’s essay, she focuses on Mander’s novels; in New Zealand River, for Alice the piano is also a symbol of “home,” which is of course England. In one of Alice’s first visits to Mrs Brayton she is drawn irresistibly to this Broadview Grand and starts playing Beethoven’s sonatas with deep feeling and is embarrassed to have let go so – how much had been repressed – the journey is so difficult. She had tried to make a living teaching music; when Asia grows up we are told that she succeeds as a concert pianist in an orchestra that travels around Australia and New Zealand, to places of entertainment. I was not that surprised to read about that Katherine Mansfield’s short stories (Mander’s first reviewer as I said) fit into this paradigm.

Ellen

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Hellman photographed next to her probably beloved typewriter


Jane Fonda in similar posture, as Julia (in the movie of the same name) typing her plays — calling to Hammett — an enjoyable moving film

Friends and readers,

It was in December 2013 that I wrote a blog here on Hellman’s four part memoir: An Unfinished Woman, Pentimento (with Julia), Scoundrel Time and Maybe. My husband Jim had died two months earlier, and somehow I found this brave, stalwart, candid self-portrait of a genuinely strong woman, and its plain style strength of mind, integrity of behavior, with portraits of non-conformists (misfits, so-called), her own identification with these, was an appealing consolation. I was so foolish as to find in her portrait of Dashiell Hammett, my Jim, and in their life-long relationship a mirror of mine with Jim.

At the time I vowed to read the plays. Easier said than done. My inexpensive edition (1979 last reprint) has no notes, no annotations, and I found the psychological complexity of the characters and quite what they were doing on stage did not come across: I needed a narrator. I bought the biography by Alice Kessler-Harris, but tired of it as I have again as it is shaped by knee-jerk anti-communism when it comes to dealing with Lillian’s politics and political activity: K-H is perpetually apologizing for Hellman, and not conveying her beliefs. This time though I am teaching Hellman as a woman political writer of the 20th century, and the spur of standing (or sitting) in front of others (zoom on my computer) has pushed me into doing more work than that astute blog I wrote.


From Watch on the Rhine, where unusual for all plays, the dialogue is specifically anti-fascist, with fascism exposed — the noble Paul Lukas is risking his life to fight Hitler, with Bette Davis as the achingly loyal wife to a husband not appreciated


The Little Foxes Davis is the woman in the family who is far more a capitalist exploiter than her bumbling brothers or (to her) weak ill (from living with her) husband

So I read through three of her plays, The Children’s Hour (1934), The Watch on the Rhine (1943), The Autumn Garden (1951), and watched four via DVD or YouTube videor, The Little Foxes (1941), Watch on the Rhine (1943, this script mostly by Dashiell Hammett), Another Part of the Forest (1948) The Children’s Hour (1961) — and the superb film adaptation of the inset story of her memoir, Pentimento, Julia (1977). Each of these films is either adapted (which means real changes), or revised to some extent, but they all thoroughly reflect her spirit, are what she wanted on the stage or screen. I read some startling criticism of these, much of it hostile, but some perceptive about her concerns. I also read in a book called Conversations with Lillian Hellman, edited by Jackson R. Bryer. The plays held my interest intensely despite creakiness of sets, obsolete attitudes: they are driven by intense passions working themselves out unexpectedly but compulsively.

Then I went back to a intelligent unbiased true analysis of the McCarthy era, setting it in the long history of the US against any kind of socialism in thought or political action by many powerful groups of people: David Caute’s The Great Fear and skim-read that. It is apparent that today Hellman is being erased and forgotten partly as a woman but more because she once was a communist, remained strongly committed to socialism — and offended the Partisan Review and other centrist democratic types who were for the capitalist establishment where they were themselves thriving. They wanted mild reforms no more; they colluded and could not bear that she should show up their lukewarm wishy-washyness; their chummy careerisms. I know from the Conversations she is not the kind of writer who analyses herself so it would not be easy for her to defend herself. Politics she can talk penetratingly; but is careful to say nothing about individuals in conversation and most of the time in her writing. So she is a partly unconscious writer, letting herself go, reticent about autobiographical elements too raw for to confront. I can believe she appreciated Hammett’s help as an empathetic editor.

You can watch the whole of Another part of the Forest unabridged on YouTube for free: I hope it stays linked in here:

So — if you’ve watched the film, or now go back to it, see if you agree with some of my general usual critic-like conclusions. Hellman was a powerful insightful writer who has much to tell us about American culture, human beings, gender relationships, with her characters driven by intense desires for power, love, respect and money (the two go together in her universe), sexual desire, beautiful things; they are often fiercely aggressive, or self-protective against the expected aggressions of others; they do yearn for love; they can have strong ideals and stick to them and work hard to defeat what they see as evil beliefs and ways. They may be dressed anachronistically to us, be surrounded by absurd settings, over-emote in the sentimental way expected in the the 1940s and still in popular movies and theater. Hellman is not a writer for small subtle coteries. She gets them quickly into emotional imbroglios which we (or I) watch or read with fascination — sometimes appalled. Another Part of the Forest woke me up to the continual racism of 1940s movies — it was such another as Gone With the Wind with its recreation of this Southern world still mourning the defeat of the confederacy. Black people are only there as servants, sometimes good strong people (especially older woman) but also presented as childlike, doing only menial tasks. Maybe all the more they are not at all obsolete because they teach us about attitudes held towards Black people as late as the 1940s, though for some of the films you’d have to cut scenes, and for others you could color-blind cast and get an even stronger play.

I’d like to devote the rest of this blog just to The Children’s Hour, as it reveals some of Hellman’s more hidden values & feelings not usually discussed.

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Shirley MacLaine as Mabel Dobie and Audrey Hepburn as Karan Wright (1961 Children’s Hour, directed by Wm Wyler)

Half-way through reading the play:

I’m often struck by what people don’t talk about in literary (or other art) works. I’ve read half-way through Hellman’s now semi-famous The Children’s Hour, and while I would acknowledge the (in the play) the centrality of “ugly,” unacceptable, “unnatural” (a word used hedged with horror) desires of one female teacher for another (Martha for Karen and probably vice-versa), what’s really striking is until near the end of the second act is everything else — the motivations and behavior of a group of girls in a school ruled over by unmarried women. The school lying bully, Mary Tilford is the a girl who finds it conduces to increase her power over other girls (threats, intimidation, physical hurting, demands they become her obedient instruments) by saying and do anything, the more outrageous the better as long as she backs it up, doubles down on it, and her presence in the school brings out the worst in all around her. One man, single, Dr Joseph Cardin is the only male in the play half way through — it’s all women, very unusual — only unlike Cukor’s The Women, there is no soft affection for these characters at all. Then the lesbianism is never named; it seems to me at this point Lillian Hellman shows deep hostility to all girls’ schools, and sees females as likely to torment one another emotionally; the school itself is disciplining the girls to be obedient and gives them no reason why they should memorize what they are memorizing.

I thought of Martha Vicinus’s book on how independence was gained for the first time by numbers of women in later Victorian period, and how important it was for a girl to be allowed to go away to a school. And yes how appalled I was at her detailing and approval (it seemed) to how some girls took power over other girls through sexual relationships (not always consummated in any way) as this would form networks and mentors later on. Vicinus said such relationships were feared by parents perhaps more than a relationship with a boy, even if not sexual. Nowhere in Vicinus is the reality of mean emotions that such groups form on — this is what Hellman is after and the intimidation structures at the heart of schooling.

Curious that this is Hellman’s first original full length play — she denies writing as a woman in a way but she always is doing this. She does say she never makes a man the center of her works, it is always the female who is her important character. The real powerhouse of this play is Mary Tilford’s rich grandmother (a lot of prestige) who told that the two teachers are “unnatural” in their desires immediately phones the others parents who immediately withdraw their daughters. The girl Mary Tilford is getting back at Karen who tried to divide the nasty clique that had grown up by re-assigning bedrooms. Last thing I recognize aspects of Hellman in this worst character: like Mary, Hellman ran away, had this tight relationship with a powerful maternal grandmother, was a determined strong character ….

Upon finishing the play:

It is outdated because of the persistent even horror invested in the idea that Martha and Karen are sexually entangled and perhaps even had some physical intimacy. The implicit inference to the play is how horrible that two lives — actually 4 if you include beyond Martha and Karen, the suitor Joe, and the cousin to Martha, Mrs Mortar (what a name). In the third act there has been a trial for libel, and we come into the room where once there was a school seeing three desolated people. I was reminded of the close of Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome. The school has been destroyed; Karen and Martha appear to have lost a libel case against Mrs Tilford, who did the phoning to all the parents to tell them they must whisk their daughters away. Tellingly all these women but the super-wealthy Mrs Tilford fear homelessness — so did I until sometime after Jim died and I still did when Trump used to talk of terminating social security and more gov’t jobs (that’s what Izzy has). Until this generation of women who are brought up to work outside the home for remuneration and demand a living wage, have a career, this was a common fear.

However, they are not giving up. Plans are afoot for Joe and Karen to marry and go with Martha to Vienna, but as the act evolves, these fall to pieces as each of the three suspects the other of lying (or telling the truth about lesbian feelings and even acts as the case may be). After protesting undying loyalty to Karen, Joe seems readily persuaded to leave Karen for ever. Mrs Mortar comes in: the nerve, she never showed up at the trial and would have been a help. She is shameless and has nowhere else to go and Karen and Martha are apparently not prepared to throw her on the streets. This happens before Martha confesses to Karen she really loves her horrifies Karen who nonetheless lets slip that she, Karen, may also have sexual desire for Karen. Martha leaves the stage, overwrought. Soon after we hear a shot — Martha has killed herself off stage. I thought of Jocasta hanging herself. Mrs Tilford arrives to apologize, to explain how she has learned that Mary was lying and had bullied another girl, Rosalie into backing her up. There is a hint Mrs Tilford still suspects that Karen and Martha are susceptible to such a dreadful love — nonetheless, they had not behaved that way, and she offers money to Karen who relents to say maybe she’ll take it — she now has nowhere to go. What’s striking though is how lesbianism is never once defended. It is telling somehow that this is Hellman’s first play, the first matter she chose to imagine and bring it before the public. A bad dream out of Vicinus’s book. I mentioned Mary, the thug lying child who spread the rumor, has aspects of Lillian Hellman as a child running away, her aggression too.

I’ll mention a role for a Black woman, Agatha, Mrs Tilford’s cook/maid/housekeeper. Very circumspect, acting on behalf of her employer while trying not to hurt anyone — very moral as all the Black characters are in all Hellman’s plays and prose. The play’s list of characters does not call for a black woman but it seems to me the character as envisaged is how Black people are seen Hellman’s texts.


The male is there central to the exposure of the girl’s lies

The 1961 movie

So now I’ve watched the 1961 movie adaptation with Audrey Hepburn, Shirley MacLaine and James Garner — directed by William Wyler, if I’m not mistaken with Hellman working on the script too. Unlike the 1934 movie, which ludicrously eliminated the central element of lesbianism, this one presents it as fully as Hellman apparently dared to in the year she wrote it 1934.

What I wanted to record is my amazement that as late as the 1960s the topic of lesbianism is treated with a sense of appalled horror — in the written play and now this movie, the word is never used. The characters speak of sexual love between women as just something deeply perverse and horrific. Reading about the play, it’s one of her first produced and that is fascinating because at the same time she claimed she wrote “as an exercise.” That is, she was not engaged with the topic; she further absolved herself (so to speak) by saying the story was suggested the Dashiell Hammett who came across it as something that happened in real life and told it to her.

In Kessler-Harris’s book she talks of how the original girl in the story was part of a minority group treated very badly by the majority, and thus had good reason to do what she did to disrupt the school.  The girl herself had been treated with disdainful discrimination. Hellman eliminated all that (what a shame) but wanted to claim her real interest was this girl. It is true reading the play she is exposing the pettiness and cruelty of girls to one another, but I did not realize that Hellman’s changes in the girl’s ethnicity and motives and insisting on this clash between “good and evil” works to ignore in discourse what most of the powerful ending of the play is — the two women admitting to sexual feeling. In fact only one does and she kills herself — in both the play and movie. The girl’s bullying and lies are made much of when they are exposed, and Martha kills herself off stage never to be seen again. I recalled how E.M. Forster said that he could have published Maurice far earlier had he been willing to have punitive ending for his pair of young men. What was not acceptable was the happy ending — and now I know in classrooms the “problem” here for Maurice is readers can dismiss it as unrealistic. But here Karen is erased altogether

In the written play as far as I can tell it is all crushing misery for poor Karen, though she seems likely to take the money the grandmother of the mean girl offers her as compensation. In the movie there is an attempt to present Karen (Hepburn) as rising above all that happened, as somehow escaping this conformist society whose children she was schooling to be conformist. We see her walking proudly away from Karen’s funeral as if she is washing her hands and body of all this foulness. It might be too that with James Garner watching her from the sidelines the movie watcher would say, ha, see they’ll marry. I remember someone interpreting Winston Graham’s Cordelia so as to have the transgressive heroine marrying one of the male family members at the end. No sense that if this is so, it negates the whole novel.

The 1961 movie is still powerful. Since Hellman would not discuss the lesbianism as important and said it was an exercise, and that Dash gave her the story there is no easily getting beyond the barrier she builds to stop questions — unless you are a Hellman scholar and know where to look. It’s not a pleasant movie and to the modern viewer — me — off putting because of the awed sense of taboo everywhere. As late as 1961 you could present middle class people are over-dressed and living in super-elegant houses as if it were 1931.

There have been more recent play productions; as radio plays: in 1971, the play was produced for the radio by the BBC in its Saturday Night Theatre series starring Jill Bennett and Prunella Scales; in 1994, the play was again produced for the radio by the BBC in its Monday Play series, starring Clare Holman, Buffy Davis, Miriam Margolyes and Margaret Robertson.

The critics:


A beautiful still of Julia and Lillian talking — I am aware that the story of their relationship is highly fictionalized, and take it to be autofiction

I worried I was being a bit hard on Hellman for suggesting she was wiping away lesbianism, showing far more hostility than ambivalence towards women’s sexuality — well last night I read three articles on this play — not a bit of it. One critic, Mary Titus (Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature) argued Hellman was murdering lesbianism, that she was exorcising out what she feared she’d be accused of for separating herself from her first husband and living independently. She linked The Children Hour to the story of Julia where it’s apparent a deep loving relationship emerged from Hellman’s and Julia’s childhood — one could call its continuance homoerotic love. Hellman would not have wanted the relationship to be seen that way.

Julia is the story of two women in love with one another, especially Julia (Vanessa Redgrave) and Julia is destroyed — like Marttha. There is a scene in the movie where one of Lillian’s old friends, a male (possibly representing Dorothy Parker’s husband who annoyed Hellman), accuses her and Julia of having lesbian feelings from childhood; she gets up and smashes him across the face and walks out.

Benjamin Kahan (Criticism) takes a different tack and suggested Hellman’s open stance as semi-promiscuous, acting like an aggressive man when it came to initiating relationships, was also a guarded performance against being accused of being a prig, a dike, a man-hater. In the 1930s audiences would regard all girls’ schools as possibly luring a girl into relationships which would get in the way of the important marriage. I do not think this play an insincere disguise — Judith Butler’s idea that behavior is one long performance has a lot to answer for. Hellman punishes the one open lesbian hard.

In a third essay, this one reviewing the history of films meant for a wider public daring to deal with issues of homosexuality and lesbianism, Chon Noriega (Cinema Journal) found that lesbianism was less accepted than male homosexuality, at the same time it was seen (in the play and film from the point of view of aimed-at watcher-response) as showing the dangers of putting girls together in all women environments. I felt there was hostility in Hellman’s original play to the whole idea of an all girl school taught all by women. I would here agree with Vicinus how unfortunate this reaction is — for it was in such schools and environments women were given the first chance they had to train and hope for professional lives outside marriage.

I do know that nowadays with all the talk of Hellman as a great playwright it is very hard to get copies of her plays. Hardly any of her screenplays are in print — only the one she is said to have written with Hammett. And there is such emphasis on how he wrote with her, corrected her stuff. Her prose memoirs are what’s wanted. My edition of her plays is old and has no notes. The one summer Jim and I and Izzy rented a house in Vermont and each evening took a drive to see a great play we saw a production of Autumn Garden. Jim thought it the best play we saw all summer. Unfortunately neither of us remembers much as we were sitting way in the back and it was a long drive.


1977: Lily (Jane Fonda) and Dash (Jason Robards)

Ellen

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Hana (Andrea Riseborough) examining a temple (Luxor, 2020, directed scripted Zeina Durra, 2020)


Oliver Sacks His Own Life (biopic, 2019, Ric Burns directed, using Sacks’ book of the same title)


Basil Brown (Ralph Fiennes) and Edith Pretty (Carey Mulligan) in sunlit landscape contemplating excavation (Dig, 2021, directed Simon Stone, scripted Moira Buffini from John Preston’s book)

Dear friends and readers,

I’ve been very fortunate in the last week or two because (without doing this deliberately) I’ve seen three excellent recent movies (actually four, see Even the Rain, 2011, in comments), all of which are thoughtful, quietly passionate, with genuinely interesting content, landscapes, story — all providing a true uplift. I write this blog to tell those of my readers seeking some respite from anxiety (COVID morphing into more deadly or infectious variants, not enough vaccines, the economic future. people hurting economically, and trying to self-isolate) you need only go to your computer and it’s a couple of clicks and a nominal sum away.

I don’t want to overdo this as I think of what most popular movies are, but I begin to wonder if there has been an effort recently — given the continued misery (see above) — to produce films where characters persist in hoping amid nearby or coming carnage (middle eastern wars, WW1) or the neglect of the agonizingly mentally disabled) or their own inner demons and distress. It really is a coincidence that just now on PBS, an excellent re-make of the movingly comic All Creatures Great and Small, has been airing, coming over your cable from PBS for the last five weeks. But maybe not that the era the film-makers are drawn to is just before or after WW1


James Herriot (Nicholas Ralph) treating Strawberry, the cow (ITV, 2020, now on PBS)

I watched Luxor and Oliver Sacks His Owe Life as assignments in a weekly movie-class, where we watch movies online at Cinema Art Theater (supporting our local art movie-house). We are in our second week of four, all current movies. Luxor and Sacks are $12 each for 3-4 days of potential watching.

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What a relief is Luxor.


Hana with the newly re-found Sultan (Karim Saleh) at the hotel bar

It’s such a quiet movie, people hardly speak. The sexual acts that occur — several times, Hana, once with a stranger she met at a bar, Hana more than once with Sultan) are off-screen! There is no overt violence in front of us. Hana has returned to Luxor where she spent a joyous time with Sultan (throes of first love) 20 years ago. She is suffering from PTSD after years of surgery, practicing medicine the worst war and refugee places you can imagine — the Syrian border is mentioned. Unexpectedly she finds Sultan is now living there; he too returned, to do archaeology for the Eygptian gov’t (to please nationalists, for tourism). The story is we watch her slowly seem to get better, to come out of herself. Towards the end after she dances at a bar and comes back to her room in the hotel with Sultan, she bursts into hysterical shattered crying. To find tranquillity you have to allow the passions some release.

Like Celine Siamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire, it’s oddly devoid of dialogue — some people in life do talk a lot … but not this pair of lovers. As you go through her experience with you, you (or I) find therapy yourself.  At one point Hana visits a fortune-teller with the hotel owner.  It is also at core a romance, with two people who once knew each other, coming together again (like Linklater’s Sunrise, Sunset trilogy) with beautiful photography of this city left off the beaten track of commercialism, power, and today not even getting heavy tourism. It’s an Indie , the director is a woman who has made other movies of a similar type it seems. Roxana Hadadi writes a fine favorable detailed review on Ebert. It gains its denser power by the significance of the temples, the history of lives lived in squalor and hardship, the profound irrationality of people caught in their statues

The small diurnal transient lives considered against this backdrop, which lives are nonetheless precious and everything to those living them — this perception embodied is replicated in The Dig of Sutton Hoo below.

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Self- or group-reflexive still – during the course of the movie we met the living people now making the film and friends to the dying Sacks, as well as those no longer living (through older photos and Sacks narrating

His Own Life is the title of Sacks’s last book.  At last, out as a gay man, he owns his life.  And now he tells it. I’m a reader and teacher of Sacks’s books and essays as was Jim (our library of Sacks’s books) and I’ve taught several them (Hearing Voices, A Leg to Stand on, Migraines) and xeroxes of chapters and essays from others and periodicals (The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, An Anthropologist on Mars, the New York Review of Books), and I thought I knew a lot. This film taught me I knew very little about the man’s full life (Jewish boyhood with physicians for parents, 3 other brothers), his character, how he grew up in England, how his mother rejected his homosexuality with abhorrence and then silence about it.


Oliver Sacks as a child.

What a sexy young man he was — when he left England, after having gone to the best private schools and then Oxford, for San Francisco & then Greenwich Village, NYC


Oliver Sacks, 1961.

His colleagues at first sidelined his work or fired him (when he accused their punitive methods of cruelty), his going on drugs, a slow and agonizing flowering when he got a job in a Bronx clinic where he was able through insight, drugs, compassion to bring catatonic people back to life. His literary success and then social through giving talks in prestigious places, his success as a doctor finally brought the psychiatric world round enough to appear to accept him.

I did not know he was homosexual and had to hide this most of the time. I was startled to see how heavy he was at one time. To watch him risking his life in crazed motorcycle riding. He is presented as living a more or less chaste life until his last years when he fell in love and his last partner, Bill Hayes, is in the film. The film narrator attempts to explain his methods, and his clinical work is done justice to as well. Among the witnesses is Jonathan Miller who describes Sacks at Oxford. Owen Gleiberman has written an intelligent review of the film, conveying the deeply humane nature of the man that also shines out in the film.

The film omits a few things about his career itself:  he was a wonderful storyteller  — a writer.  And central to is professional success without the support of academia was to have had the abilities of a novelist (in effect). His chapter stories are little novels where he has himself through his writing understood his patient or alter ego better by talking/writing to the reader.  To be sure, all these are based on years of clinical work (which work is not respected by the highest academics who prefer the theories that arise from abstract thought and research).

Very important: his real thrust was low tech (see especially Migraines). He contextualized and understood phenomena in history, e.g., the deaf in Hearing Voices where they were idiots for centuries and suddenly were people like you and me after the 3 Enlightenment philosophers invented sign languages.   The last thing he resorted to was a operation (see Migraines especially), and drugs were only applied after long talks and getting to know and understand a patient.  This is not appreciated by the medical establishment, supported as they are by the pharmaceutical industry & astronomical prices for surgeries.

As Oliver Sacks’s homosexuality made him for a long time an outsider in society, so his deeply humane methods, and his choice of approaches which are not prestigious (or as well paid) .  Sacks’s storytelling,  abilities as a brilliant writer as much as a clinician, neurologist and psychologist made him the hero and explorer and man we should be grateful to.

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Dig is a pastoral movie with much sun over the peaceful green fields of southern England

The Dig. I loved almost every minute of it, and although I realize the novel from which it is adapted, departs from historical accuracy, invents personalities and characters, I’ve a hunch it’s the sort novel I will find comfort and strength from (I have bought a copy from bookfinder.com). I gather the movie is getting a big audience; the subject is one long known, one which does attract a popular audience when set up in a museum to be a spectacle of gold: the Sutton Hoo burial grounds, the ship, its treasures, the Anglo-Saxon history.


Rory Lomax (Johnny Flynn) in the sun — many of the characters in Dig and Luxor are photographed in the sun


With Peggy Piggot (Lily James) by a left-over wall — your conventional romance trope

As with Luxor, and (on TV) All Things Great and Small, the photography is beautiful. One does not wonder why so many Anglophilic novels are set in the southeast. The acting very good: Ralph Fiennes, as Basil Brown, the “amateur” archaeologist, superb excavator, hams it up a bit with his accent, but when he is gone from the screen is when the film begins to fade and lose strength of emotional will and understanding.  He, together with the owner of the property, Carey Mulligan, as Edith Pretty, who catches the note and behavior of the upper class woman with her sense of privilege, have found the buried ship and its treasure together. She defends him only slowly from the ambitious academics, but it’s she who saves his life when the excavation collapses over him; she tries to invite him to dinner but he evades what might have been a very painful experience for both; nonetheless, they form a strong bond in the film. At one point he leaves the site because he is treated so rudely, condescendingly by those with degrees, but he is persuaded back by his wife, May (Monica Dolan) on the grounds that has he been doing this all these years for these people’s praise? At its end, she says she will be sure he will be recognized. Intertitles in the final credits tell us the Sutton Hoo material first arrived in the British Museum 7 years after Edith’s death; and then it took a long time for Basil Brown to be properly credited, but he and Edith are both central names on the exhibit today.

Our two central actors are ably supported by Johnny Flynn, as Rory Lomax, who I first saw as Viola in the all male Twelfth Night, and does have this charisma-charm; & Lily James, as Mrs Margaret (Peggy) Piggott, who falls in love with him (James has been superb as Juliet in Shakespeare’s play, Cinderella, & Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice & Zombies). Rory Lomax is Edith Pretty’s brother who is going off to WW1 as a RAF and we and he and everyone knows the danger and death rate high.  Peggy Piggot is the wife of the one of educated by degree team who is also homosexual and has married her in a cover up ,and continually rejects her body and companionship. Like Brown, she is not professional, has no degree, but knows a great deal, and she comes upon a jewel first (fiction can do this).

One of the film’s pleasures is its staunch egalitarianism. Again, the seeming ordinary man is our hero, and he is almost pushed off his site; but his wife persuades him to accept the snobbery and sidelining by the official professionals who at first treat him like a servant whose services they must endure but control. But after all he is not ordinary; the caste system erases people not born with money and rank, irrespective of their deeper talents.

Fiennes was believable as the older man whose partly orphaned son is attracted to him — they look at the stars through Brown’s telescope together. When Mulligan presented the reality of a personality of a upper class woman of the era, now widowed, she shows a hard edge, and assumes of course that her servants should serve her hand and foot. The love story of Rory and Peggy is conventional, but I did not find it detracted — it done from the DH Lawrence point of view, which roots the attraction of the two people to their deep time alone at night in the natural world all around them (a tent, behind a garden wall).


It rains; the women with the famous archaeologist from the British Museum (Ken Stott)

It themes includes death — Mrs Pretty visits her husband in his grave; she is discovered to have rheumatic heart disease and physically deteriorates during the film. Her young son is desolated when he sees this, and cannot save her — as he tells Mr Brown. Then we get this wonderfully delivered speech by Fiennes-Brown about failure: how we fail all the time, have to accept it, and just try to fail better. He got near Robert Louis Stevenson’s axiom. The boy clings with admiration to Mr Brown.

Et in Arcadio Ego; death is in The Dig shaped by the film’s consciousness of long time, and that each individual is part of some long range cycle seen in the buried ship. We are in an ancient cemetery. Planes going over (RAF) soon to be replaced by the brutal Germans with their bombs. All this is in Luxor too: war and carnage, the irrational temples. Sacks is dying and has been deprived of deeper companionship of a lover most of his life. The dialogue is realistic, well done. For detailed full reviews see Sheila O’Malley on Ebert. Also The Guardian, Mark Kermode, better than usual because he’s reviewing a better film.


Fiennes’ presence helps make The Dig


Riseborough pitch perfect in silent grief


Playing piano, being filmed in His Own Life; his papers just below — there are no online photos of his patients (Jim used to feel that there was a voyeuristic element in his books)

Ellen

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Probably the happiest moment realized in the history of Charles Windsor’s relationship with Diana Spenser as envisaged The Crown, fourth season — a rural area of Australia where apart from all others Charles (Josh O’Connor) and Diana (Emma Corrin) live for a time with their baby son, William


Charles and Diana, the actors and the real pair of people, keeping up the pretense

Friends and readers,

Season 4 differs from the three previous seasons because of the close at times step-by-step attention it pays to a single central story: the meeting, courtship (such as it was), wedding, then almost immediately deteriorating and finally (with a few events now and again bringing the couple together) utterly failed marriage of Charles, heir to the throne of the UK and whatever commonwealth countries still recognize and respect the office & man, to Diana Spenser, the younger daughter of an aristocratic family, the Spensers, whose Anglo lineage goes back to the early modern period (16th century).

Seasons 1 & 2 certainly told the story of Elizabeth, heir and then Queen of Great Britain (Claire Foy) as she both takes on her role of queen and tries to live the life of a loving wife, mother, and individual, vis-a-vis her husband, Philip, Duke of Edinburgh (Matt Smith), a Greek prince, who has his problems adjusting to what’s demanded of him, what he must sacrifice (career, last name, private home, Clarence House, and also a private life of larger dimensions);

— but also with her sister, Margaret’s (Vanessa Kirby) and Margaret’s need for a strong protective kindly father figure of a husband she can love, Peter Townsend (Ben Miles) whom she is forbidden to have, and the rake cad-substitute, Tony Armstrong (Matthew Goode), whom Margaret ends up with. Already I have had to bring in a two couple five-way story, yet have omitted the centrality of Churchill (John Lithgow), and his wife, secretary, and political life for its own sake, and later in the second season, Elizabeth’s yearning for another more genial companion, Porchey (Joseph Kloska) and real empathy with her young son, Charles, who takes as a father substitute, Mountbatten (the gentle Greg Wise) because Philip will only domineer over his boy, demand a narrow version of manliness while he spends his life from sports to apparent sexual philandering.

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The real royal couple and the actors

The third and fourth season present Elizabeth (Olivia Coleman) and Philip (Tobias Menzies) as a married pair who have accepted one another’s personalities and resigned themselves to the roles they must play in life as Queen and Queen’s supportive husband. He is still having troubles resigning himself (see Episode 7, “Moonstruck”). She learns to unbend a bit more, to be open to labor points of view, and another PM, Wilson, but the most interesting female of the season is Margaret (Episode 10, “Cri de Coeur”), who now likes her choice of sister to the queen, but not all its consquences.

What is concentrated on is the world around them, and in this fourth that means Elizabeth’s relationship with her Prime Minister, here Mrs Thatcher (brilliantly portrayed by Gillian Anderson to the point I forget I was watching an actress and thought there was Mrs Thatcher in front of me):


Margaret Thatcher (Gillian Anderson) and Elizabeth I in one of their periodic meetings


A close up of Gillian Anderson as Margaret Thatcher

We learn what Thatcher inflicts on the British world in the poignant Episode 5 (“Fagan”), about Michael Fagan, an unemployed lone man who entered the palace to talk to the Queen,


Tom Brooke as Michael Fagan and Fagan himself

Elizabeth and Philip’s (Tobias Menzies)’s relationship with their now grown children is context. Philip’s favorite is Anne, whom he pushes and encourages, Elizabeth’s is the egregiously spoilt Andrew (Tom Byrne), who arrives for lunch by heliocopter as if this were nothing unusual or expensive). Charles is no one’s favorite, or he was of Mountbatten, bringing down on Charles (as we learn) his father Philip’s resentment. These relationships are told as parallels, and kept controlled, intermittent. Margaret’s story (Helena Bonham Carter) is reduced to one episode (7, “The Hereditary Principle”) and brief outbursts of memorable truth-telling (rather like the fool in King Lear). She is the only character given truly separate space beyond Philip and Elizabeth, Charles and Diana. Thatcher is always seen as surrounded by people, either her family, or the male politicians she leads and bosses around (including making food for them which they do not look like they are keen to eat). The cast is shrunk, the minor characters very minor most of the time, used as further parallels (Thatcher’s grown children and favoring of her spoilt son over her loyal daughter), or as context to understand Elizabeth and Philip’s lack of sympathy or even real interest in Charles and Diana’s relationship. The courtiers now have little power over Elizabeth; and in 48:1 (Episode 8) she sacrifices a loyal secretary, Michael Shea (Nicholas Farrell pitch perfect as ever) when she needs a cover-up.


Michael Shea (Nicholas Farrell) — the real Shea was not forced out at all but he did become a popular writer of “insider” mystery thriller

Their view of Charles’ and Diana’s marriage the same as Anne’s (Erin Doherty): just get on with it, as we did and do. Ben Daniels as the faithless hard Snowdon is now there as an obsession and obstacle to Margaret’s peace of mind, getting no more screen time than Dazzle Jennings (Tom Burke) who existed, perhaps as a caring if limited friend to Margaret


Dazzle (Derek) Jennings (Tom Burke) and Margaret (Helena Bonham Carter)

Even the snow “Avalanche” that could have killed Charles (Episode 9), that did kill his close friend (and I still remember a photo of the real Charles weeping helplessly, copiously on a snow mountain that day), even this is just part of an episode, whose riveting content is again another phase of Charles and Diana’s marriage. The world of the fourth season, including Thatcher and the shown-to-be absurd war, a war for show (like the royals’ lives) over the Falkland islands, might be considered background for the season’s focus on Charles and Diana. One can compare the real time-line of the real couple to this fictional reduced one.

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Charles and Camilla Parker-Bowles (Emerald Fennell) presented as naturally and deeply congenial

This emphasis, and intertwining of truth and fictionalizing makes how you see the season’s depiction and perspective on the couple the determining factor in how you judge the season. The story and characters fit the overall theme of all four seasons, the price of this crown, but the interest here is not generic. It’s said that “the palace” and defenders of the Royal Family are angry at this depiction, feel it is unfair to Charles and them. They are understandably right. While the film is highly fictionalized, the producers and film-makers are conveniently forgetting how they are doing all they can to make us respond to it as a historical film.

So I can understand the palace’s discomfort since the first time I watched the series while at first I thought there was an attempt to be even-handed (Charles was emotionally blackmailed, coerced into a marriage with a girl much younger than he whose character was inimical to his own), but by the tenth episode (“War”) I was convinced we were meant to see Diana as a victim of a group of people who offered her no aid to cope, no advice, basically ignored her, so she never had a real chance to thrive: all they taught were gestures of submission.


Charles shouting at Diana after she has sung for him and needs praise and validation; his coldness to her


Diana did dance before Charles in a sexual dress to “Uptown Girl” — and meant to please plus yes show herself off, because she enjoyed doing that

In the case of Charles, after an initial attempt to teach Diana to be like him, he turns to cling to Camilla Parker-Bowles, buys a house near hers, phones her every day, is with her and their friends most evenings. He is intensely jealous of how crowds respond to Diana, and care little for him. This is part of why he responds with castigation to Diana’s genuinuely well-meant overtures. She can have no idea he finds spectacle shameful — which he does and I would probably; but he hardly cares for his and her two children whom she appears to love and care for and about, and in the last two episodes will not answer any of her phone calls. Diana only shouts at Charles once he has castigated her.

Elizabeth is cold to her need for affection, berates both of them separately. Her grandmother is obtuse, humiliating her on her first entry to the family by teaching her who and how she must bow to each. Diana is driven (I thought) into promiscuity, the arms of a cad. But the way Margaret talks about her is the degrading unsympathetic misogynist type talk of the 1950s, i.e., she’s a tramp. I felt a great deal of the blame falls on Elizabeth as a frigid individual (misogyny there again – the cold mother). Olivia Coleman is directed to evince a complete inability to respond to Diana’s real need for emotional support. Elizabeth now clearly favors at least two of her children over Charles (Anne and Andrew). Edward (Angus Imrie) is presented as so nasty because sent to a nasty public school it is understandably hard for Elizabeth to warm to him. Elizabeth is shown to have no sympathy with Charles’s love for literature, gardening, anything intangible having to do with imagination and the arts; she berates Diana for playing to the crowd — something she like Charles finds personally distasteful and is jealous of too.

The contrast is Margaret Thatcher’s shameless preference for her spoilt son, Mark (Freddie Fox), who goes missing carelessly and Thatcher’s lack of appreciation for her loving her loyal daughter, Carol (Rebecca Humphries). Thatcher tells Elizabeth she’d never have a woman in her cabinet, they are such emotional creatures.

To me Diana seemed in outer role to resemble the way women are used in powerful families when they are a servant, seduced, impregnated — they are made to disappear and leave their children behind them. That was Diana Spenser’s fate.


Diana lies when she first meets Charles, pretends to try to be escaping him, when she is deliberately encountering, intriguing, seducing him, playing innocent


The second time she is dressed in fetching overalls

But by watching three times now — so I’m into careful watching — I’ve discovered what is implied is that Diana did throw herself in front of Charles at least twice. She dressed herself very attractively and non-threateningly in the first episode (“Gold Stick”), like a pixie and drew Charles’s attention. On another public occasion, she presents herself before him once more, dressed fetchingly and absolutely worshipping him in her face and gestures. She is after him, after a position. Once he sees her, is attracted, takes her out, and then (poor calf) mentions her to his family (without foreseeing they immediately will approve of her for the wife they wanted for him and for children in the family), he is in effect trapped. When Thatcher leaves Balmoral (Episode 2), Diana passes “the Balmoral test” effortlessly — as Mrs Thatcher fails utterly (also effortlessly). Thatcher is no aristocrat. She cannot spend whole evenings playing silly games. By contrast, Diana falls right into charades, brings the right shoes for muck, wears nondescript colors. Philip finds her perfect because she falls into hunting the stag so well. Just before and after Charles goes off on trips (as if escaping what his family wants); Diana does manage to tell him she knows he need not go, but of course she will wait. She does speak up: she tells him after she went out to lunch with Camilla, she understood Camilla was his mistress and knows he has given Camilla an intimate gift just before her and Charles’s wedding — yet she does marry him. She did know what she was intervening on.


The aging Mountbatten (Charles Dance) off to seize and kill lobsters in Ireland while Charles fishes in Iceland, and the rest of the family hunt in Scotland — oh to have such estates ….

Charles is also pushed into this by the death of Mountbatten (Charles Dance), who also loves blood sports, has no sense that an animal has any quality of life; and whose last letter to Charles pushes Charles to marry to carry on a high status line — it was his duty as he Mountbatten had spent his life dutifully. Mountbatten has died as a result of a bomb thrown at him by the IRA. Charles had just rebelled, flung himself away from Mountbatten, accusing his uncle of being part of the group who pushed Camilla into marrying Parker-Bowles. Parker-Bowles carries on having affairs. Mountbatten dismisses this charge as in Mountbatten’s eyes it’s not a charge. When he encouraged Charles to be with Camilla, he thought it would be understood by Charles you are not to fall in love where it’s not appropriate. Charles had not. He does try to bring in his interests (literature architecture &c), but unfortunately not dramatized (I suspect the film-makers thought the average audience member would not sympathize with these aesthetic and poetic impulses. We are told there was no response from her and (with her pregnancies and their social routines), no time for him to figure out why. What I’m trying to say is he never accepted the marriage as she did, to start with — for reasons that have nothing to do with love or understanding — it was a quiet career choice for her. What she didn’t foresee is how alone she’d feel when (what he didn’t foresee) he couldn’t bear to be around her.

I felt the wounded moaning stag killed was a stand in for Charles (Episode 2, “The Balmoral Test”). It was his father who actually liked & accepted her after “examining” her manners, taking her off to watch the killing of a stag. I do loathe these scenes where these characters just slaughter birds, animals, deer. In his childhood it was his father who rejected him, and Mountbatten who was kind, something we learn in this season that enraged Philip: he lost his father figure, Mountbatten and his power over his son. Tobias Menzies communicates this in a power sudden speech to Charles. His mother sees Diana as a convenience whom she wishes would take up none of her time. Like Anne, she is indifferent to this fairy tale beauty. But Charles never had a chance either; once Diana spoke and said she wanted the marriage to work (with no reasons given) in a meeting Elizabeth and Philip arrange presumably to be hear about the marriage from both of them, Charles is told there is nothing more to be said. All he has planned to say in defense of his desire for a life for himself he could have some pleasure in, for a separation and divorce dismissed. The only thing that will free him is if she becomes scandalously sexually unfaithful. So he hires detectives to watch her. And after a while she calls her captain-lover back.

What no one is interested in is her bulimia.  My real objection to the way the story is presented is the inadequacy of the way bulimia is treated. As someone who was anorexic for five years, and knows that anorexia is like alcoholism, not only do you never truly recover, it is interwoven with your whole life and comes from complex and varied causes, I find ludicrous and empty the treatment of Diana’s eating disorder. To be bulimic allows the anorexic woman (trying to be fashionably frail, thin, ethereal) to eat and thus be with other people. So when they are alone, develop a series of techniques to make themselves vomit out the food before it becomes digested. This way they can keep themselves thin, one of the manifestations of this disturbed state of mind. The apologies at the opening of the episodes where we see Diana hovering over a toilet and throwing up have ridiculously over-wrought warnings. You hardly see anything. The behavior is seen as something apart from everything else. No one tries to stop her. We are told nothing about her family life. Had the film-makers truly wanted to understand and create sympathy for this girl and then women they should have read some books and woven their findings into the story. Girls who are anorexic (as Hilary Mantel once wrote) want out: family pressure to have a career, to be admired, to marry; and the predatory demands of heterosexual sex and self-sacrificing pregnancy are too much. One area Diana apparently did shine in was motherhood. Everyone in the family treats what she does over the toilet as unspeakable. No one talks to her. Such attitudes help no one and I just know they did not help Diana.

So yes the story is treated as another instance of the price of this numinous rank, endless wealth, endless deference we see the other characters paying. But it is self-consciously intensely developed because the film-makers know that the audience is paying intense attention. Martyrdom is part of Diana’s cult (the people’s princess), she did die horribly, Charles did remarry Camilla after a decent interval.

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I’d say all the episodes of this season have power, beauty, nuance and intensity of relationships, and it’s in the enjoyment of the many small humane quietly brilliant moments that our deepest pleasure lies, so to keep all these blogs from from being overlong (as I’ve promised) I will treat at length only, not perversely, the one dedicated to Margaret, Episode 7 (“The Hereditary Principle”).


The real Margaret Windsor grown older juxtaposed to Helena Bonham Carter in this season

It was typical of all four seasons in that nothing major or physical happened. It opens with someone named Dazzle (nickname), a companion-lover coming to tell her he is joining the priesthood (see still above of Tom Burke in the role). We are shown how her husband lives apart from her and takes mistresses as he pleases. So again she is left alone, and again she asks Elizabeth for something to do; instead Margaret is removed from the circle of those called upon to substitute for Elizabeth. Elizabeth is apologetic, but this is a slap in the face. I remember in an earlier season Elizabeth being resentful of how Margaret stole the show (like Charles is being presented in this season about Diana). Sometime the series is at its best when all is implicit and one episode refers back to many long ago. Charles visits her and they commiserate.

Then Margaret is at these apparently frequent lunches with her female relatives (Anne, Queen Mother, Queen) and coughs up blood. Switch to her having a dangerous operation after which she is told to stop incessant smoking, drinking and to lose weight. She goes to a psychiatrist (Gemma Jones) although her background teaches her to do this shows weakness and it’s useless. The character can do very little to help the recalcitrant Margaret. But somehow in their talk — Margaret confesses to periods of frantic anger, madness, depression — she learns of four cousins kept in mental asylums – we have been seeing these pathetic inmates of an asylum juxtaposed with the regular story for the hour and didn’t know who they were.


Apparently (but these are actresses) the queen mother’s nieces and queen’s cousins, Katherine and Nerissa

Turns out these are cousins of the Windsors who were not been given any chance to try to have a normal life. Dazzle accompanies her on her visit to these people; she is appalled and he accepting as in “It is what it is” — that awful axiom. The world is what it is.

Margaret is horrified because she identifies. Both Elizabeth and the Queen Mother say oh their diagnosis is imbecility, idiocy — and they would have threatened the throne to let them stay about. As ever Elizabeth avoids the talk, and it is the Queen Mother (Marion Bailey) who takes it on. She is (as we have seen for four seasons) someone who is utterly conventional — even if she loved her husband, her hatred of Edward VIII came from her detestation of his bohemianism as did the grandmother’s (Eileen Atkins).

A second place and set of people are juxtaposed to Margaret: those we saw at the end of Season 3 (Episode 10, “Cri de Coeur”, scroll down to summary and commentary), Anne, Lady Glenconnor, her amoral lady-in-waiting, her husband, and all the hangers-on at Mystique Island. After the demoralizing visit with Dazzle, and a final conversation with him, where he now suggests she do like him — retreat from this world, give it up, we see her there once again dressed flamboyantly, half-drunk, singing rowdy songs, drinking and yes smoking. She looks like and is having a wonderful time. It’s empty of the depth of love she once wanted, and instead of which Tony could only give the parties and then eruptions of antagonism and sex. wn up with a husband. The last scene of the episode shows her sitting quietly by the pool in the morning. This is her sad life now — but one she half-chose.


Margaret’s public self — dressed up to go downstairs


Her private self walking about her island at night

I thought the hour moving. You need just to minus the fact these royal characters are all the types who never worry about whether they have a check coming to them for work they did this month.

We then see real photos of two of these people in the asylum grown older. They died only recently. Poor women — sacrificed for this family. The same was done to Leslie Stephen’s oldest daughter by Thackerays’ daughter — put in an asylum for life because she wouldn’t cooperate. Was difficult, stupid it was said. Didn’t respond to discipline.


Carter as Elinor who is freed and gets to live a life on her own for a while …

Helena Bonham Carter has made part of her charity and career work trying to help people who are disabled. In a wonderful film, 55 Steps, based on a real life story, Carter played someone with lower IQ who managed to get a lawyer to free her from an asylum. I wondered if she was somewhat responsible for this choice of topic. Carter said in a feature she works to help mentally disabled people because of something in her background — she is herself related to the Windsors.

If only there were more episodes like this one in the four seasons (e.g., Episode 5 “Fagan” in season 3).

Ellen

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Claire (Caitriona Balfe) and Jamie (San Heughan) bidding adieu just before battle of Alamance (Episode 7, “Ballad of Roger Mac”)

Friends and readers,

We covered The Fiery Cross and Season 5 in the context of the books and seasons thus far as a miracle of dramatic stillness and intensity; then Episodes 1-5 as a series of “her-stories,” using voice-over, remembrance, juxtaposition brilliantly. Episode 6-11 continue the emphasis on women’s issues, being a kind of culmination of discussions and dramatic events in previous seasons, with Claire now taking Marsali on as her apprentice and true daughter, while under the pseudonym of Dr Rowling she publishes advice on contraception and other women’s matters. This is interspersed with Jamie and Roger moving from antagonism, semi-alienation to an increasingly close friendship and alliance, and lastly wry ironic mutual interdependence. The father-son theme is reinforced by the return of Ian (John Bell), Jamie’s nephew-son, as Roger’s voice is silenced after he came near death from hanging, and Jamie repeats this feat of coming near death and then escaping, after he is bitten by a venomous snake. An outlook from previous seasons (especially over Culloden) re-asserts itself: Jamie has evolved to the point of a fierce anti-war stance (insofar as he is able), so that when Murtagh is senselessly slaughtered (and the grief of Jamie is terrible) Jamie at long last lashes out at the hypocrisy of the British establishment in fomenting these conflicts so as to tax and control the less powerful.


Marsali (Lauren Lyle) and Fergus (Cesar Domboy) seen working alongside Roger and Claire rescuing the hay (Episode 6, “Better to Marry than to Burn”)


One of many scenes between Claire and Brianna doing all sorts of daily things together, here they take an opportunity to walk along the sea (Episode 10, “Mercy ….”)

There are two weaker episodes, 6, “Better to Marry than to Burn,” where the patterned manners of the characters as they attend Jocasta’s (Maria Doyle Kennedy) marriage, produces a stiffness and artificiality reminiscent of some of the scenes at the French court and in Parisian elite society in Season 2 (Dragonfly in Amber). A sense of forced construction is also found in the clumsy machinations it takes for Jamie and Claire to set a meeting with Bonnet (Ed Speelers) as smuggler. This feeling is more prominent in Episode 10, “Mercy May Follow Me,” where underlying clichés when Bonnet kidnaps Brianna and threatens her and she pleads with him come out in a stage-y (corney) way.   Then the ease with which Jamie, Claire, Roger, and now Ian with them, find and beat up Bonnet in the midst of selling Brianna to a trader re-enforces this feeling of a superfluous almost filler episode.

Episode 6 is almost retrieved by Roger rescuing the crop of Frazer’s Ridge when locusts descend by remembering how smoke can drive them away (so he enlists all the people living there, and becomes a hero in ways that come natural to his character and knowledge). And Episode 10 transcends its clichés when at its close we see Bonnet being executed by slow motion drowning, hastened only slightly by Brianna becoming a sharp-shooter and shooting him with a long-range rifle in the head. Each of the young women in this series when raped, beaten, abused carries a rage in her that each satisfies when opportunity for revenge is offered (e.g., Mary Hawkins stabbed her assaulter through the chest, Season 2).

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The rest is marvelous.

Time is marked and measured in different ways, the colors of our lives were changing, the vibrant greens of summer faded beneath the ever-varied canvas of the sky, and blue violet shades of indigo dye, replaced by the russet tones of autumn, brown hues of harvest …

An over-voice time-passing sequence, Episode 11, “Journeycake”)

All Outlander combines a form of heroine’s journey that can be regarded as a counterpart to Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey (see Patti McCarthy, “The Heroine’s Journey, Claire Beauchamp reclaims the feminine,” in Frankel’s Adoring Outlander collection; also Maureen Murdock, Heroine’s Journey). The call to adventure for the male here becomes a call which is also an awakening (think of Claire looking at the vase on her honeymoon, of her dissatisfaction with Frank and his with her). Then she crosses the threshold (the stones), and experiences deep changes within her over many trials, which in Claire’s case include meeting with a protective alluring animus, confronting false males, bonding with other women and becoming a mother. Books 3 (Voyager), 4 (Drums of Autumn) and 5 (Fiery Cross), move from a return, to ordeals to more thresholds, to making a home (yes all this effort to come back to make a nest), and becoming a powerful woman from having learned who she is and developed a path for herself.

A more specific vein of this journey is seen across the series (see Nicole M. DuPlessis, “Men, Women, and Birth Control in the Early Outlander books,” in Frankel’s Outlander’s Sassenachs): the first four books too deal with specifically the themes of birth, mothering, breast-feeding, abortion, rape: e.g., Claire helps Jenny in a breech delivery; Claire almost dies in childbirth; she develops a deep relationship with Mother Hildegarde (Frances de la Tour), Geillis’s witch-like (Lotte Verbeek) qualities includes her handing out of abortifacients, herbs, and herbs to induce early labor; Geneva’s (Hannah James) pregnancy by Jamie at Helwater; Claire’s offer to help Brianna abort the fetus once she realizes Bonnet’s rape of her may have led to her pregnancy (and Jamie’s objections). The Fiery Cross, taken as a whole, from the early episodes on wife abuse (a Bluebeard punished), tyranny over a daughter (Brownsville), an adoption of a baby) seems to intensify these with Claire now seeking to educate young women to prevent pregnancy, married women they do not have to accept physical abuse, Roger’s agreement to help stop Brianna from getting pregnant again. Perhaps the book moves so slowly because Gabaldon has taken on the function and content of unusually frank magazine articles.


Roger hung, lower part of his body seen (9, “Ballad of Roger Mac”)


Brianne realizing

Supremely moving, exciting, riveting were the episodes, 7, “The Ballad of Roger Mac,” and 8, “Famous Last Words,” returning us to the anti-war stance in the midst of terrible violence we saw in the Culloden sequence at the close of Season 2 (Episodes 9-12, especially 9, “Prestonpans”) and opening of Season 3 (Episodes 1-3, half each of “The Battle Joined,” “Surrender”): Roger is literally hung at the close of 7, just pulled down in time, and revived by Claire, he is unable to speak for most of 8, “Famous Last Words,” driven and haunted by memories (the directors were inspired when they decided to show the trauma through old-fashioned black-and-white reels)

There was a battle of Alamance between the Virginia Militia, mostly white upper and middle class British people born in the UK and lower class farmers (“regulators”) fighting excessive taxation (they had no representation) and the militia won — they murdered many of the regulators, gave no quarter — just the kind of thing Howard Zinn describes in The People’s History of the US, and happened at Culloden. We see Jamie and then a Protestant priest trying to persuade Governor Tryon against the battle; there was an offer of compromise, but he feels this will help his career to be seen to have crushed an uprising (if he can). I just loved how Jamie horrified and deeply grieved by the murder and death of Murtagh who dies trying to reassure Jamie (it’s just unbearable as he screams over his father-brother-friend “help me” [someone] and brings Murtagh back to Claire) cries out against what is written in history books and what happens for real

Will it be written in history, sir — that ye killed and maimed and paid no heed to the destruction ye left? That ye brought cannon to bear on your own citizens, armed with no more than knives and clubs? Nae, it will say that ye put down rebellion and preserved order, that ye punished wickedness and did justice in the King’s name. (then) But we both ken what happened here. There is the law and there is what is done. What you’ve done is kindle a war — for the sake of your own glory. [Tryon’s jaw clenches and his men move toward Jamie — protective of the Governor. No one speaks this way to Tryon. But Tryon waves them down.] GOVERNOR TRYON: Colonel Fraser. I had no personal stake in this, no need to glorify my exploits, as you put it. JAMIE: None but the governorship of New York. GOVERNOR TRYON: I told you I would not leave North Carolina in a state of disorder and rebellion. I have done what I have done as a matter of duty. And because you have done your duty, as promised, I’m going to overlook your insolence. JAMIE: Aye. My debt is paid and I’m finished with my obligation — to you — and to the Crown. You may have yer coat back, sir. Jamie wrests off the red coat Tryon made him wear, now stained with Murtagh’s blood, and lets it drop into the mud … (written by Toni Graphia).

Roger ends up so badly by chance; the same governor carelessly gives an order to have three men hanged. Roger had tried to reach Murtagh to tell him that Brianna remembered the battle would go terribly for the regulators Of course it’s too late to stop anyone. On his way back to Jamie’s camp, Roger encounters Morag Mackenzie he met in a ship coming over, whom he had saved from being drowned, together with her baby. Who is a relative of his clan. They hug and what happens but her thug of a husband (played by Douglas McTavish brought back as this different fierce character) fiercely acts out male jealousy, twists his wife’s arm, beats Roger up — with other thugs. Roger is just not a violent man. He goes missing and is not found until the last scenes when the family group comes upon him apparently dead from hanging. We had now and again seen him singing across the series. He’s a gentle soul – a professor is what Jamie has begun to call this son-in-law. Roger is no match for this world of senseless bullying male violence. He is thrown on a pile and taken up to be hanged. We see what the Governor’s (and Trump’s) much vaunted law and order really is.

Episode 8 brings home Ian with Rollo (his beloved companion dog) from the Mohawks, and it is Ian who goes with the stricken Roger to measure and survey a gift of land the governor has offered in compensation for his error. The return of Ian, his melancholy but joy upon coming home, Jamie’s attempt to understand, Claire’s reciprocal nurturing all form the mood of Roger’s slow recovery. The episode is punctuated by the black-and-white memories until near the end. It begins with a flashback to the 20th century where Roger had been teasing a class over what would one want to say when you are on your deathbed.


Jamie on the stretcher, Roger pulling him back to the Ridge (9, “Monsters and Heroes”)

Episode 9, “Monsters and heroes,” is the culmination of Jamie and Roger’s finding a modus vivendi for living together in understanding, respect and friendship. The monster is the venomous snake who bites Jamie’s leg and makes it swell, risking gangrene; the heroes Jamie, Roger, and Ian who all have to cope with this seriously limb-, if not life-threatening condition (Jamie comes near to having one leg amputated). At least 2/3s of the episode traces the close relationship and knowledge the two men for the first time gain of one another. Roger gets lost, he cannot kill anything much (he confesses he does not like to kill anything), but he understands infection and lances and sucks out the poison insofar as he can. He makes a miserable kind of stretcher and proceeds to try to drag Jamie home. Jamie is the one who misbehaves — terrified he will die, frightened for the three 20th century people dependent on him, he begs Roger to kill Bonnet for him, to promise this and promise that; he refuses to have the leg amputated if necessary, bringing down on him Ian’s wrath for the way he, Jamie, seems suddenly to regard disabilities — remember Ian’s father, Fergus’s loss of his hand (I thought of Hugh Munro).

There are almost no distractions of other episodes:  we hear of Jenny and Ian back in Scotland, a scene between Lizzie Wemyss (Caitlin O’Ryan) and Isiash Morton (Jon Tarcy) was put into deleted scenes; Marsali gives birth on her own with just a little help from Fergus. Thus we have long uninterrupted scenes of characters talking, interacting, Claire at Jamie’s bedside, her intense presence stirring in him a will not to die; her invented penicillin does not work because her needles and instruments were destroyed and she can administer it only as a drink, not into Jamie’s veins. The episode gives the woman an important role again; Claire is doctor, but Roger remembered to cut the snake’s head and top of body off, and when back in their cabin, Brianne remembers you can draw from it the venom which can act (it seems) as an anti-venom and herself invents a syringe. In the manner of almost all the episodes of the season, this one is self-contained, resolved almost fully by the end with Roger taking mild revenge by teasing remarks as he sits next to Jamie’s bed.


The stones into which Brianna, Roger, and Jemmy tied together disappear, presumably poof, and Ian left to stare

Episode 11, “Journeycake” is the fearful penultimate hour. It opens with an over-voice and montage, and time passing, and the family of four adults returning back from town to come upon a house burnt to the ground, all its inhabitants murdered or burnt to death, one shivering in pain near death. All four remember the obituary Brianna brought back to the 18th century of her parents being killed just this way. Lord John (David Berry) who has been given too little to do, is returning it seems for good to England, to take care of young William’s interests again. He will take Ulysses (Colin MacFarlane) with him. He gives Jamie another miniature of the boy and this gives Jamie a chance to tell Brianna she has a half-brother. It is discovered that little Jemmy can time-travel, Ian demands and finally is told the truth about Claire, and it is he who drives the three to the stones and watches them disappear into them near the end of the episode. The sorrow here is that Jamie’s deepest bonds are with these three people, including Claire and they are all safer in the 20th century. At its close, Jamie and the Fraser Ridge men have been tricked into leaving the house area, and the Browns who have several males who have reason to resent Jamie and hate Claire (particularly the one whose daughter she has protected, whose wife she has helped against his violence), who come and abduct Claire, murder one of the people in Claire’s surgery and leave Marsali for dead.

Next blog: the astonishingly powerful conclusion, Episode 12, “Never My Love”

Ellen

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Claire (Caitriona Balfe) in Boston Catholic Church, circa summer 1968


One of the many voice-over shots combining Claire’s images from different times in the series, different episodes & places, with accent on a character just choosing a new destiny

How many times have I put my hopes, my fears, my secret longings into the hands of a Being I can’t see, can’t hear, can’t even feel. And how many times have my prayers been answered (followed by a shot of Claire in 1772 having created penicillin from molds …)

Friends and readers,

Episode 5, “Perpetual Adoration,” seemed to me to epitomize in its most extreme form the kinds of experiences this season at its best offers: thoughtful retrospective framing or talk/feelings and characters’ memories deeply part of each sequence of scenes. In this episode Claire became an over-voice in a series in interspersed scenes mostly in a church in Boston 1968 (which, interestingly, are not to be found in the script on Instagram) contrasting with what’s happening in 1772 North Carolina; this over-voice was hitherto used most often in Season 1, but only once when (daringly) it’s Jamie (Sam Heughan) who does the over-voice is the theme the same: him meditating from an indeterminate present on the choices he has just made in the past, or deep past, or imagined future, like to marry, then stay with Claire (S1, Episode 9, “The Reckoning”) viz., “I’ve always known I’ve lived a life different from other men./When I was a lad, I saw no path before me …”

These scenes are not in The Fiery Cross either. They point us to the fantastical interwoven (images of the spider and web are in some of these monologues) movements in time and space in the five seasons thus far, and by extension all five books and to its core center, the motivation actuating many of Jamie and Claire’s decisions: their devoted love for one another. They are religious, making time a function of living in a space and time which are God:

Time is a lot of things that people say God is. There is the pre-existing and having no end. There is the notion of being all powerful because nothing can stand against time, and everything is taken care of, all pain encompassed, all hardship erased, all loss subsumed. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. Remember man, thou art dust, and unto dust thou shalt return. And if time is anything akin to God, I suppose that memory must be a devil …


Another montage, this time with Jamie …

The idea combining the juxtapositions of events in 1968 Boston and in 1772 North Carolina in Episode 5 is quietly self-reflexively witty: a man named Graham Menzies, a Scotsman, whom she was to enact surgery on, told her of his unceasingly love for his wife, such that he keeps up a perpetual (daily) prayer time in church with her in his imagination. Menzies dies unexpected of an adverse reaction to penicillin, and she so moved by the experience, that she takes a leave of absence and persuades Brianna (Sophie Skelton) to come with her to London to where her first husband, Frank, had wanted to bring his daughter. (The wit is that the actor playing Frank is called Tobias Menzies; the character and last name do occur in Voyager: he is a patient Claire helps die of cancer.) Frank is now dead too; when in London she learns of the death of Rev Wakefield (James Fleet) and goes to the funeral in Inverness Roger (Richard Rankin) has created. This starts a relationship between herself, Briana and Roger, which will inform her that Jamie did not die at Culloden, and lead her to dare to go back through the stones.


Over-voice, montage includes Claire jumping out of the coach in the third season, into Edinburgh and walking to where Jamie has become a printer …

There is an echo of Claire’s voice-over in a scene with Joe Abernathy in a cafeteria where he comes to comfort her, and admits it was he who left a torrid historical romance on a coffee table for her to read (which she now has with her, The Perpetual Pirate …); she says to him: it’s “as if everything is pointing you towards something but you can’t quite put your finger on what it is … ” The last actual voice-over of the hour occurs in 1872 when Jamie comes back to her, he hopes having put an end to the military action he was pressured into against the Regulators (led by Murtagh Fitzgibbons [Duncan Lacroix]). Jamie has brought home a kitten (Adso) he found just outside the house he set on fire after he strangled to death Lieutenant Knox. Knox had just found out he and Murtagh were close kin and was determined to expose Jamie and start the hunt for Murtagh again. This kind of cold-blooded sudden remorseless action is unlike Jamie, and recurs in the last episode of the season when Claire is gang-raped — both instances involve someone Jamie loves intensely, A bonded with intensely.

God is merciful, God is eternal. Someday I will stand before God and I will receive an answer to all my questions, and I do have many questions. But I won’t ask about the nature of time. I’ve lived it


Having the voice-over with Adso (looks just like Jamie’s mother’s kitten with same name) brings out the optimism of Gabaldon’s outlook: she had been driven to stay alive by eating earthworms, insects, what vermin she could find, and now she will have milk, fish, and Claire’s chair

What kinds of incidents are these? We continue the story of Claire re-inventing pencillin, with Marsali (Lauren Lyle) as her apprentice; they together remove the tonsils of the two twins she and Jamie have freed from a brutal master; and they do not sicken but become better. Roger has returned from Brownsville where he as captain was recruiting men for the armed conflict against the Regulators, and we see him and Brianna making love, adjusting to their unexpected circumstances but beginning to think of alternatives. Roger finds the jewel that Bonnet gave Brianna and discovers that she saw, talked to, told Bonnet that Jemmy is Bonnet’s son; a fierce quarrel ensues. After Roger spends a night out in the wood, and and talks with Claire where the theme of time is again emphasized (he must not be “careless with [the] time” he has with Brianna), he returns home to her (their log cabin) and the two are reconciled. The hunt for Murtagh comes to a close when the governor decides to pardon the Regulators (this did happen) and then the curiously sudden chilling murder of Knox by Jamie (as described above) occurs. I believe we are to notice that Jamie burns the list of prisoners at Ardsmuir which Knox had got hold of and remember how such papers so precious to 20th century researchers function very differently to those who exist[ed] in the past. As I said in my previous blog, these episodes are quiet, self-contained with all the emphasis on inner lives, relationships, that work as a social fables.

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A quick synopsis:


Far shot of wedding: we can see in the audience all our favorite regular characters (but Murtagh)

Again in the previous blog I told of Episode 1, Roger and Brianna’s wedding, with three sets of lovers, much joyful celebration, a ritual ceremony of the men of Fraser’s Ridge, now including Jamie, pledging loyalty, all framed by the necessity of Murtagh’s having to leave to remain safe from the Governor’s militia.


Claire at work with women around her

Episode 2: “Between Two Fires” refers to how Jamie is being driven to pretend to seek out Murtagh and destroy the regulators in a battle. This is interspersed with quiet scenes where Claire despairs of her ability to help people because they will give to their very sick relative a treatment which kills him or her. With Roger’s help, she snatches one corpse (they bury something else heavy in a coffin) in order to do an autopsy; then hides and study the corpse — what a no, no for this era. It’s nerve-wracking to watch. She observes Marsali good at sewing, cutting up a lamb, bright as a reader and enlists her as an apprentice physician. In the episode Roger having a hard time adjusting to the macho demands of him in this lifestyle. This is intended to contrast to the concluding scene in a tavern of crude wrestling between women, gambling, and finally fierce dueling in which Stephen Bonnet (Ed Speleers) appears, cruelly and inhumanely taking advantage of a man who had given in, blinding and cutting his hamstrings.


Just after Roger has sung to the baby, Brianna listening, he carries off the wash …

Episode 3: “Free Will” An outstanding hour. Just before the middle of The Fiery Cross, Jamie and Claire come upon a scary house, dark, desolate, there to retrieve the indentured papers of two young men the master of this house had beat severely (whom Claire has cured of tonsillitis). Inside a wretched woman, Fanny, who says her husband is dead — the Beardsleys. He is not but near death; he used to beat and emotionally torture her; he has killed 4 wives before her. She now tortures him. Claire tries to care for him medically hasn’t the modern resources. Fanny gives birth to a child whose features and skin-color show her father was an enslaved African. The next morning the woman has fled, leaving the papers under the baby. Claire goes out to the clearing; Jamie ask the man if he wants treatment, to be left there, or to die. He is in horrific condition and chooses death. Camera switches outside to Claire waiting with the baby. A shot is heard. This delving into trauma has some sweet relief: we see Marsali doing well as an apprentice doctor. Brianna and Roger scenes where he urges on her returning to the 20th century. There are harder scenes too: of recruiting, a mother sends her sons off because the dangerous life offers opportunities and better food. The writer here, Luke Schelhas, brings out the obvious feminist perspective subtly (one not in the novel).


Marsali learning from and discussing procedures with Claire

Episode 4: “The Company We Keep.” I loved the moral of this one, spoken in voice-over by Claire.

Adultery. Betrayal. Dishonor. Excuses could be made, of course. I know I made my own when I was separated from Frank by a power I didn’t understand [slow motion called for so we see the young couple fleeing together on a horse where other horses, goats, and people chasing these get in the way of the fiercely angry male Browns stopping them] And yet whereve you are, you make choices — foolish ones, or ones that save yourself and someone else. All you can hope for is that the good will outweigh the harm that may come of it …

Jamie and Claire arrived at Brownsville where Roger and Fergus are supposed with a band of men recruiting. The Brownsville men savage, uneducated, hav shot at and demanded Roger turn over to them, Morton, a young men from Fraser’s Ridge; Morton has impregnated a Brownsville daughter intended for marriage to an older rich man. It emerges Morton is also already married but the marriage was made two years ago, didn’t work out. Jamie furious with Roger for having acceded to imprisoning Morton (as captain Roger is to protect his men first and now others have departed). Another young woman has given birth to a baby who has died. Back at Fraser’s Ridge Brianna has evidence that Bonnet has been sneaking around; she and Marsali converse, become friends, with Brianna realizing that Marsali has a fund of common sense courage and witty ways of expressing this. A convoluted set of scenes at Brownsville by the end of which Claire has given the baby to the young woman (though in a long walking-together scene Jamie has offered to keep the baby so he and Claire can bring up a child together — she wisely says this will not work the way he thinks), and Roger (remembering how he followed Bree to this century), and Claire and Jamie enable the young couple to go off to make their destiny together. As Claire’s over-voice is heard I thought of how 52 years ago now I returned to England, for a few weeks an illegal immigrant, married him with so little money, against the advice of all, and what a good life we had for nearly half a century. The writer here is Barbara Stephansky.


The young woman who has endured the death of a newborn, taking over the baby Fanny left behind ….

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Ross (Aidan Turner) and Demelza (Eleanor Tomlinson) in the 2nd season bonding over the mine (scripted Debbie Horsfield, 2015)

I’ve now got three books on Outlander, two collections of academic essays, a masters thesis, and an academic style journal essay — on both the books and film series. All find much to interest, explore, and admire, especially in the areas of sexuality and romance as a genre. To date the only two essays I know of on the Poldark books have been written by me and presented at two conferences; otherwise all that exists are about five or six (excellent) essays on the film adaptations with the books of interest only as shedding light on the films, and except for me none of these credits the books or films with any originality or having brought anything unique to the TV channel/company they were made on behalf of or for. I don’t think that’s the fault of Winston Graham or either film series. While Graham’s Poldark books (especially the first seven) have never fallen out of print or become unavailable, and there are scholarly essays (two) on his contemporary fiction, the numbers of sales are nothing to Gabaldon. The series failed to stir enough interest or respect to demand a filming of all twelve books. The last season basically substituted a different story for Graham’s projected intertext between Books Seven and Eight.


Lord John Grey (David Berry) in love with Jamie, and Jamie reciprocates at least in chess games and conversation ….

Something in Gabalodon’s books and films are answering to needs and desires of today’s audience. The masters thesis, by Mary Heath, “Villains and Heroes: An Analysis of Outlander‘s Portrayal of Sexual Violence” begins by offering statistics to show that the program is credited with increasing the ratings of Starz substantially, and especially increasing the women watching the channel. This is not the place to lay out or even suggest what can be adduced. I hope if I can get myself to before I die (and once I stop teaching) to write a book on these two sets of historical fiction romances. For now, all four publications have chapters or essays analysing to her credit Gabaldon and now Roger Moore’s (he is what is today called the “showrunner” or has been until the 5th season the linchpin central presence of each season’s development, content, art) their presentation of the homoerotic and homosexuality in the Outlander matter. We have women’s friendships, and mother and daughter pairs, but no discernible lesbianism thus far.

I find in the fifth season something else to compel me: these stories in the books and films in the previous seasons no matter how masculinized (with males at the center of many episodes of the fourth through fifth season, transposition of what was domestic romance to action-adventure) represented another brilliant turn in the history of women’s historical romance speaking to women who are not embarrassed to listen, who have not been trained to despise this genre. I submit that the retreat of Roger Moore from active supervision and involvement with the show, Toni Graphia, Matthew Roberts, and a few other repeating names have gone further and even with a book as flawed as The Fiery Cross made beautifully artful episodes that are both feminine in feel, feminist in thrust, and counterhegemonic. I hope to show that in Episodes 6 through 11, we have anti-war sequences (to be fair, Episode 10, Prestonpans in Season 2 was strongly anti-war) and if not a repudiation of violence as a solution to life’s conflicts, a strong sense violence only makes matters worse, and (as with the Poldarks) what is wanted is community.


Claire and Jamie (Season 5, Episode 8, “Famous Last Words”) — in this season they are the older couple deeply in love still

I conclude with a summary of Eleanor Ty’s essay in Adoring Outlander, ed. Valerie Estelle Frankel, explaining “The appeal of Outlander: Melodrama, Gender, and Nostalgia.” A strong competent heroine, intelligent, passionate performing amazing feats of healing and nurturing, and a cadre of other similar heroines (I remember Mother Hildegarde [Frances de la Tour] in Season Two (Dragonfly in Amber). Melodrama: heart-wrenching scenes of emotional conflict and physical punishment: Jamie as Christ flogged by the Roman soldiers (Black Jack Randall in the first two seasons). We mourn for our couple’s losses of 20 years; what might have been (in 3rd season, siding with the powerless); our hero and heroine are both orphans. The Renaissance man as hero.

There is nothing Jamie cannot do when it’s sheerly a matter of his traits: reads and talks several languages, cultured, accomplished, loyal, skill with animals, born leader, released from prison he becomes a publisher. And she brings out how he is a virgin at first and yet complete warrior – remarking on surprisingly easily the book and film (episode: The wedding) carries this off. Then his devotion to, care of Claire, she is safe with him, knows how to comfort and make love (tasteful yet graphic enough)

Romance, Spirituality and Transgression: an elevation of earthy desires to a realm of sublime and spiritual. Here is where the fantasy element comes in. Sexuality is presented from a low perspective (earthly) and high poetry. You let the soul and body judge what is right — we move beyond reason, prudence, social conventions (in Season 5, the young couple they rescue from the Browns).


Claire revisiting Culloden in the third season (from Voyager, now 1968)

Nostalgia and elegy: Frank and Claire visit Culloden at the opening of the first season. Nowadays tourist put flowers by the Fraser stone. Starz pays enough to capture pastoral beauty of Scotland, highlights magic mystery (at its best not post-card like – though there are drops down – not enough spent in 4th season). A collective memory is put before us what, we are invited to assimilate a historical experience we did not live. The use of rituals among males bond them together — repetitive words, ceremonies (weddings) It’s said that the program did not air before the Scottish referendum lest it influence too many towards devolution …

Ellen

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Claire (Caitriona Balfe) in her surgery (Episode 2)


Murtagh (Duncan Lacroix) listening to Jamie say they must part for a while and Murtagh join the regulators … (Episode 1)

Dear readers and friends,

This is the first of (I hope) four blogs intended to explain why and demonstrate how Season 5 of Outlander is a quiet miracle. I would like to suggest it is the best of all five seasons, except it’s so dependent on the previous four (parts of them so brilliant), and functions as a kind of coda or transition to a coming sixth — presumably, A Breath of Snow and Ashes, and the American revolution. For this first, I write a structural comparison of book to other books and this 5th film series. The next two will be Episodes 1-5, then 6-11 of the5th  series, and a last on the extraordinary twelfth.


From “Never My Love” — Jamie (Sam Heughan) hugging Claire in her escape dream in the 20th century, with the cloak he originally put round her in the 1st episode of the 1st season (the song echoes throughout the dream part of the episode)

The Fiery Cross is a long tedious book, with little story: Gabaldon’s first two books, Outlander and Dragonfly in Amber, are propelled by two forces, the story momentum of the Scottish catastrophe at Culloden, and the falling into intense love of the principals, Claire and Jamie, with their attempt to stop it. It defeats them and a pregnant Claire must flee to the 20th century. For the third, Voyager, Gabaldon stretched out the aftermath of Culloden (20 years worth): the long time of Claire in Boston, with Jamie slowly rehabilitated into a printer-smuggler, the sleuthing for Claire to discover Jamie alive, her getting back, the uneasy new adjustment, and re-settling her.

Now what? it seems to me, sometime during the composition of Voyager, then announced in the prologue, and got going about about a quarter in, our narrator-author moves into the voyage across the Atlantic (hence the title and powerful theme of voyaging).  She brings from Ardsmuir, our secondary homosexual hero, Lord John Grey, to bring them all together, to North Carolina where a group or groups of Scots highlanders did settle, at the opening of a fourth book, Drums of Autumn. (The idea may have been gotten in part from Gabaldon’s extensive reading — see her bibliographies in her Outlandish Companions).  Now what? She invents a new villain, the gay psychopath Bonnet, has Brianna coming to warn the couple of a coming death (with the ghost of Frank cheering her on), Roger following her, a traumatic adjustment for them, throws in some Native Americans, Ian’s coerced but willing assimilation to the Mohawks, and yet a third time traveler (a young man also turned into Native American); the second was Geillis Duncan, the fanatic 20th century Jacobite). But we have come to stasis.


Roger and Brianna falling into one another’s arms — he is seen riding up on his horse form afar, she runs out to him ….

The story (such as it is) of Gabaldon’s The Fiery Cross does not begin until well after Brianna and Roger’s wedding, which does not occur until near mid-point of the book. For the first half of the book one is put off, with delay after delay (over religion), anecdotal incident after anecdotal incident, conversation after conversation (between Claire and Brianna over breast-feeding! preventing another pregnancy). In the film series, the first hour (“The Fiery Cross”) is given over to a celebratory wedding between Brianna (Sophia Skelton) and Roger (Richard Rankin) and clan ritual where nothing goes wrong (very daring I think); then these anecdotes, so frustrating in the book becomes well-chosen brilliantly and slowly quietly developed episodes (some originally long, some short) to form the central matter and pivots of each hour, each self-contained. For example, Claire and Jamie come upon a Bluebeard situation where a very old man has abused and destroyed four wives and the fifth is now destroying him (Episode 3, “Free Will”). Or a young girl and boy have fallen in love, and secretly made love, become engaged, she is pregnant, and her father enraged (Episode 4, “The Company We Keep”).

What is astonishing and perfect is how quietly and slowly each sub-story is intelligently developed and woven in to the mood of the hole season, which is the quietude of Jamie and Claire’s certain fundamental love holding all together. It is tremendously daring to spend a full opening hour on an utterly predictable wedding, with our main entertainment being the bliss of three sets of lovers making love towards the end (beyond Claire/Jamie, Brianna/Richard, we have Jocasta (Maria Doyle Kennedy) and Murtagh, the camera switching from one to another lovingly. But this pace is the pace of the whole series, this kind of modulating psychologically slow subtle tone, the way the tones of the episodes work. Yes interwoven are other events, Claire re-invents pencillin, is teaching Marsali to become a doctor, a tonsillectomy; there is Jocasta’s wedding, Ulysses’s (Colin McFarlane) protection of her and flight, but basically one or at most two actions to an episode, each drawn out and developed lovingly


The next morning: Jocasta and Murtagh discussing what’s to come …

For a clothesline (as it were), a rope to hang everything on, the film-makers took Murtagh, Jamie’s beloved god-father, brother-friend, dead since Culloden (in Dragonfly in Amber in the books), kept alive or brought back (Drums of Autumn) and made him the linchpin or chief actuator of a plot design where takes us from his leaving after the wedding to the second episode through the fifth into sixth as now and again we glimpse Murtagh leading farm and working people, Americanized regulators in their struggle against the outrageous taxes and other injustices inflicted on them (they feel) from the the upper class British type establishment, whom Jamie is at the same time coerced into heading or at least aiding. This seems to come to an end at Episode 5 (“Perpetual Adoration”) when Jamie, suddenly and surprisingly strangles the officer, Knox, with whom he is playing chess (a cold-blooded calculated act complete with disguising the body, not like Jamie usually but repeated at the end of the series when he tells Fergus and Roger to execute the gang of men who beat, raped, humiliated Claire) in an effort to end the search for Murtagh since the Governor seems to have said except for Murtagh the war with the regulators is over.


It is when Jamie comes home after this murder, that he finds and brings home the kitten-looking Adso — a softening note

So now what? time out for another wedding, this time Jocasta’s at River Run to Duncan Innes, with the problem of locusts back at Frazer’s Ridge occupying our two young couples (Marsali [Lauren Lyle] and Fergus [Romann Berrux] are very much part of the season), and a reminder that Stephen Bonnet (Ed Speleers) and his criminal smuggling friends are about (Episode 6, “Better to marry than to burn”). It emerges after all the war is not over, and we get a long arch with a difficult battle for all, where Roger (not meant for a warrior) comes near death unable to prevent himself from being mistakenly hanged (Episode 7, “The Ballad of Roger Mac”) to a spill-over of trauma and his slow recovery with young Ian’s return from the Mohawk (Episode 8, “Famous Last Words”).

Back to anecdote when Jamie’s leg comes near amputation from a snake bite (9, “Monsters and Heroes”). As we move through the series, each character is given due weight: from Lizzie, Brianna’s loyal maid, to the two young men Claire and Jamie manumit. Also the evil characters: the violent abusive male Browns. The story of Stephen Bonnet, his character, criminal side-kicks, kidnapping of Brianna (complete with Bonnet’s apparent merciless execution from drowning & Brianna shooting him in the head), the brief indication of a prostitute’s story, do not take the second half of the series (as it does the second part of the book) but rather just another in the series of self-contained anecdotes (Episode 10, “Mercy Shall Follow You”). Lastly two more: Roger and Brianna with their baby son, Jemmy, think to return to the 20th century as safer (11, “Journeycake”) and Claire is gang-raped, a horrifying sequence, prelude to a coming violent internecine set of wars (12, “Never My Love”).

Since Ulysses was driven to murder Forbes, the lawyer, attempting to smother Jocasta (for her money) he must hide out — we learn he was manumitted a long while ago, has been Jocasta’s lover (she has had several) and will go with Lord John Grey as his servant back to England; Jamie brings him Pamela to read

What’s the miracle? that this material set out this way does hold us. Why? the film-makers expect that we are and they themselves all become, write, act, rootedly invested in these characters. Unlike the second season of the series, where much effort was made to lure us to re-bond once again (the French sequence, Claire’s time at the hospital with Mother Hildegarde) the third and fourth less so, this fifth one just assumes we know who everyone is, though for the first time they use a long flashback (Boston, 1968, showing why Claire took Brianna to England to see where her father had grown up, and to Inverness, to show her Rev Wakefield’s house — unknown to her Roger’s step-father has died and they come upon a funeral). When we glimpse Marsali and Claire becoming mother and daughter, doctor and apprentice, friends, we are supposed on our own to remember Marsali hated Claire when they first met (as the woman who took her mother’s husband). They rely throughout on this investment of already built admiration and acceptance.

There is a risk here: sometimes the dialogues between the characters is too ideal; there is not enough conflict between the principals except perhaps Jamie and Roger, and there it’s that the two men are slowly learning to know, accept and like one another for what they are. That’s a central true plot-pattern for this series: it’s no happenstance that it opens with Jamie shaving Roger for the wedding because the shaving implements of the 18th century take some getting-used-to. The paratextual music has changed again to a slow haunting version of the Skye-boat tune in minor key.


The season was filmed in Scotland

Next up: Outlander Season 5, Episodes 1-5

Ellen (to be cont’d)

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Mecklenburgh Square (in the Bloomsbury area), by Margaret Joliffe (1935)

For a 6 week summer course at the Oscher LifeLong Learning Institute at George Mason University
Day: Wednesday mid-day, 11:45 am to 1:15 pm,
June 24 to July 29
Zoom, Virtual Classroom
Institutional location: 4210 Roberts Road, Fairfax, Va 22032
Dr Ellen Moody

Online at:

Description of course:

This course will examine novels & art included in the term Bloomsbury through the fiction of four of the novel writers: we’ll read E.M. Forster’s Maurice; J. R. Ackerley’s My Dog Tulip; Virginia Woolf’s short fictions taken from two books: The Complete Short Fiction (which includes Memoirs of a Novelist) and The Death of the Moth and other essays; and Vita Sackville-West’s All Passion Spent. Bloomsbury books (non-fiction, biography, essays, poetry) are written by people who belonged to an amorphous early to mid 20th century creative group, associated with a specific area in London, who were friends and associates, or whose works were printed at the Hogarth Press. The group lasted a long time, going through several phases, and left a rich legacy in books and people writing in alignment with the original goals and aesthetics, political and economic and social ideas. Thie works produced by this group are splendidly interesting, different, quirkly, at an angle from the mainstream, critiquingit, and remain strongly influential until today, are in various genres, often subversive and original texts. You don’t forget them. There are good movies to watch for Maurice, My Dog Ackerley, & All Passion Spent. I ask everyone before class to read E.M. Forster’s “What I Believe.”


Dora Carrington (1893-1932), The Mill at Tidmarsh (her most famous picture)

Required texts (in the order we will read them):

E. M. Forster, “What I Believe,” Online at http://spichtinger.net/otexts/believe.html or https://www.bl.uk/collection-items/what-i-believe-by-e-m-forster (if you want to buy, it’s reprinted in Two Cheers for Democracy. Harcourt, Brace, 1951; rpt. many times)
E.M. Forster, Maurice, ed., P. N. Furbank, introd., notes by David Leavitt. Penguin 1971; rpt 2003. ISBN 978-0=141-44113-9.
J.R. Ackerley, My Dog Tulip, introd. Elizabeth Marshall Thomas. New York Review of Books classic, 1999. ISBN 978-1-59017-414-2
Virginia Woolf, The Complete Shorter Fiction, ed., introd. Susan Dick. Harvest book, 1989. ISBN 978-0-15-621250-2 (this contains the whole of Memoirs of a Novelist).
————–, The Death of the Moth and Other Essays. I will send the whole book by attachment. It used to available at an Australian University of Adelaide site and is still on an Australian Gutenberg site:  http://gutenberg.net.au/ebooks12/1203811h.html. It exists in book form: The Death of the Moth and Other Essays. Harcourt, Brace, 1970 ISBN 0-15-625234-1
Vita Sackville-West. All Passion Spent, introd. Joanna Lumley. Virago 1982; rpt 2011. ISBN 978-0-86068-358-2.

Format: lecture and discussions

June 24th: Defining Bloomsbury philosophy, ethic, describing the aesthetic. “What I believe.” We will begin Forster’s Maurice
July 1st: Forster and his posthumous novel, Maurice.
July 8th: Pro-animal literature & Ackerley’s My Dog Tulip. Read also for this day Woolf’s “Gypsy, the Mongrel” (in Complete Fiction) and “Sporting Party.”
July 15th: For this week read Woolf and her “Mysterious Case of Miss V,” “The Journal of Mistress Joan Martyn,” “Memoirs of a Novelist,” “The Widow and the Parrot” (all in The Complete Fiction); then “Art of Biograpahy and “Professions for Women” (from Death of a Moth). I’ll tell of Andre Maurois’s Aspects of Biography.
July 22nd: Experimental fiction & feminist poetry: Woolf’s “The Death of the Moth,” “Twelfth Night at the Old Vic,” “Street Haunting,” “Thoughts on Peace During an Air Raid” (from The Death of the Moth), then Woolf’s “Kew Gardens,” “The String Quartet,” Mrs Dalloway in Bond Street,” “Nurse Lugton’s Curtain,” “Uncle Vanya,” “The Shooting Party,”  from Appendix C, “The Dog,” “Ghosts,” and “English Youth” (in Complete Fiction). I will send by attachment poetry by Elizabeth Bishop, Adrienne Rich, & Sackville-West.
July 29th: Vita Sackville-West, her life, scholarly editions & biographies, poetry and All Passion Spent.


James Wilby as the ebullient sincere young Maurice


Hugh Grant as the hardened self-depriving older Clive

Recommended: 5 movies

All Passion Spent. Directed by Martin Friend. Screenplay Peter Buckman. Perf. Wendy Hiller, Maurice Denham, Harry Andrews, Eileen Way, Phyllis Calvert. 3 part (hour each) series. BBC, Masterpiece Theater, 1986. On YouTube. Delicate gentle comic poignant masterpiece of a TV series.

Carrington. Directed by John McGrath. Screenplay Christopher Hampton. Perf. Jonathan Pryce, Emma Thomson, Rufus Dewell, Samuel West, Penelope Wilton. Le Studio Canal, 1995. It’s literally accurate in some ways, but it panders to myths about the Bloomsbury people. Grim, with a caricature of Strachey.
Maurice. Dir.James Ivory. Screenplay Kit Hesketh-Harvey Perf. James Wilby, Hugh Grant, Rupert Graves, Phoebe Nicholls, Simon Callow, Ben Kingsley, Judy Parfitt, Denholm Elliot. Merchant-Ivory, 1987. Available as Prime Video on Amazon. Fine mostly faithful movie.
My Dog Tulip. Animated artistic Film written, drawn, edited by Paul and Sandra Fierlinger. Voices Christopher Plummer and Lynn Redgrave. Produced by Howard Kaminsky. Axiom, New Yorker film, 1999. It is available as a Vimeo if you keep searching for it. A masterpiece of tenderness, comedy, strongly pro-animal rights.

https://vimeo.com/264796405

To the Lighthouse. Dir Colin Gregg. Script Hugh Stoddard. Perf. Rosemary Harris, Michael Gough, Suzanne Bertish, Kenneth Branagh, Lyndsey Baxter, Pippa Guard. BBC, 1983. Online at YouTube. Brilliant combination of Woolf’s novel of the same name, aspects of her family life, and filmic versions of her novel techniques.

Other online texts: by Woolf
Granite and Rainbow (contains “The new Biography”)
To the Lighthouse

Available as complete, unabridged audiobooks:

E. M. Forster, Maurice, read by Peter Firth for Audiobooks. MP3. 978-1531874155
J. R. Ackerley, My Dog Tulip, read by Ralph Cosham for Audiobooks. MP3. 978-1441786401
Vita Sackville-West, All Passion Spent, read by Wendy Hiller, for Cover-to-Cover. Audio CDs. 978-1445801582 (hard to find, out of print, but just inimitable beautiful poignant funny)


Recent edition

General Studies, life-writing, other Bloomsbury and connected people:

Beard, Mary. The Invention of Jane Harrison. Cambridge: Harvard, 2000.
Brennan, Gerald. The Face of Spain. Farrar, Strauss, 1956.
Cavafy, C. P. Poems, ed, trans. Avi Sharon. NY: Penguin, 2008.
DeSalvo, Louise. Virginia Woolf: The Impact of Childhood Sexual Abuse on her life and work. NY: Ballantine Books, 1989.
Edel, Leon. Bloomsbury: A House of Lions. Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1979.                 Gerzina, Gretchen. Carrington: A Life. NY: Norton, 1989.                                           Johnstone, J. K. The Bloomsbury Group: E.M. Forster, Virginia Woolf, Lytton Strachey. Noonday Press, 1954
Moffatt, Wendy. A Great Unrecorded History: A New Life of E.M. Forster. NY: Farrar, Strauss, & Giroux, 2010.
Power, Eileen. Medieval People. 1924: NY: Harper Perennial, 1963
Raitt, Suzanne. Vita and Virginia: The Work and Friendship of V. Sackville-West and Virginia Woolf. Oxford, 1993.
Shone, Richard, ed. The Art of Bloomsbury: Roger Fry, Vanessa Bell, Duncan Grant. Tate Gallery, Princeton UP, 1999.
Summers, Claude J. E.M. Forster. NY: Ungar, 1983.
Rosenbaum. S. P. ed. The Bloomsbury Group: A collection of Memoirs & Commentaries. All sort of essays by many Bloomsbury people. Rev. Toronto Press, 1995.
Rosner, Victoria, ed. The Cambridge Companion to the Bloomsbury Group.  NY: Cambridge UP, 2014. Covers ground by typologies, themes, perspectives.
Sackville-West, Vita, ed. Mary Ann Caws. Selected Writings of Vita Sackville-West. NY: Palgrave, 2002.
Spalding, Frances. Roger Fry: Art and Life. LA: Univ of California Press, 1980.                         Stansky, Peter. On or About December 1910: Early Bloomsbury & Its Intimate World. Harvard, 1997.
Wade, Francesca. Square Haunting: Five women, freedom and London between the wars. Faber & Faber, 2020.

A few of my blogs:

Thinking about biography: Andre Maurois’s Aspects of Biography
Upon first reading Virginia Woolf’s
Death of a Moth”

Virginia Woolf’s Flush as canonical modernist biography


Bridge over the Allier c.1933 Roger Fry (1866-1934)

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

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

Prison Box: Inventory (Rome, February 1944)

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

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

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

pencil stubs
(carbon
tips spent)

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

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

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

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

Gentle readers and friends,

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

I cannot recommend them too strongly —

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


Primo Levi at the New York Public Library

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


Natalia Ginzburg

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


Peg Boyers reading her poetry

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


Carlo Levi

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

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


Movie poster

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

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


Giorgio Bassani

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

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

The Racial Laws

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

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

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

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


Felice Casorati — untitled

Ellen

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