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Archive for the ‘women's memoirs’ Category


Sarah Hendrickx


Laura James

Once upon a time, a form of brief entry writing emerged and developed, which were called weblogs. These recorded what the writer had experienced on line that day. Gradually the form was shortened to blog, and the original meaning lost as the blogs began to fulfill so many other functions, take so many forms. Throughout though, one central reality remained: at some level they are all talking about on-line life, or making it; they are all irreducibly semi-autobiographical at core, shaped by the originating writer.

A touching movie made by Icelandic women about ordinary autistic girls and women (available on vimeo)

A significant, moving and even important (so rare is this topic broached even) movie about autistic women; it’s by an Icelandic woman, and the people participating are all Icelandic. You do have to pay to see it as a Vimeo; I did do it, joined by typing in my email and then making a password; you pay per video and this one is $8.99 – -I will watch it again and blog on it.

It opens with the problem that most research on autistic people has been on men (continues to be) and the argument for this is most autistic people are men — will this is self-fulfilling; again society just doesn’t care about women. In many societies until the 20th century women were kept out of social circulation.

So it’s a woman who is gathering autistic women together, organizing and trying to fight for funds for help, for recognition — the film lets them tell their stories and you can see how autism affects women. Some of the results of society’s response to this disability (basically social inabilities of various sorts as seen from the ordinary person’s outlook): unemployment, or never being promoted, for women often she does not marry. Loneliness. But there are some women who are successful in the marketplace (so to speak). Not liking travel. The film includes women on the lower end of the spectrum as it’s called. The film brings across how various are the traits but how there is this center, core. Many remain un-diagnosed: this is true of older people in general, but it is apparently still true of girls; their parents don’t make the considerable effort it takes to get someone to diagnose a child as autistic.

It does omit two areas which are explosive: a direct discussion of what sex life is life for an autistic women and what it is like to be an autistic mother. The central topic of bullying is brought up but it is not shown or no one talks of how this affects sex life for girls; very directly; elsewhere I have read autistic women experience far more violence and abuse. The whole area of sexual experience is just about omitted.

Friends and readers,

I continue our journey of life on-line as the pandemic carries on sickening, maiming and killing thousands of people. I passed the six month mark of “sheltering in place,” i.e., I’ve hardly been anywhere but to shop for necessities, hardly had anyone to visit but technicians. My last three or so blogs were all about what you can view or experience here on-line, interspersed by talk of books I’ve been reading with others, sharing here. Well here’s another, this time on Aspergers or autism (the words are not quite interchangeable). Among the many zooms I’ve joined on-line, I’ve joined Aspergers groups — to be candid, I have long been in a FB group for autistic women.  Above is a movie a new Aspergers friend online has recommended to me, and a leader of a group found the vimeo for.

This blog also continue my new goal of keeping these blogs shorter than I once did — so I supply professional shorter reviews instead of writing my own more detailed ones.

Earlier this summer (tempus fugit) I told on my autobiographical blog (Sylvia II) of two fine sources — on this complex very individualized disability: Tony Attwood’s Guide to Aspergers Syndrome and Hannah Gadsby, comedian extraordinaire who also highlights and absurdities and cruelties inflicted on LBGTQ people in society.

Last night I watched one of the videos of Sarah Hendricksx. (Is there any arcane new meaning to putting an “x” at the end of a word.) Very good — actually thorough. She is really a lecturer who softens and makes her material more appealing by her jokes. The jokes are funny (to me) but the reality is she is presenting material about the nature of aspects of my life, traits, existence which are painful to consider so I begin to feel distressed watching her. Yet the humor is salutary and there is much to be learned — especially for a woman. As in so much in our society, when Aspergers is studied, we are told about men as if they are universal, but the condition is different for women. She comes near to suggesting that there is a real gender fault-line in the condition of Aspergers for women and men here too. Hendricksx is better on this than Hannah Gadsby who is really a comedienne mainly and keeps her themes indirect — also about far more than autism. Hendricksx is also more detailed, more literal and thus more helpful

And her well-worth while book:

The difference that being female makes to the diagnosis, life and experiences of a person with an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) has largely gone unresearched and unreported until recently. In this book Sarah Hendrickx has collected both academic research and personal stories about girls and women on the autism spectrum to present a picture of their feelings, thoughts and experiences at each stage of their lives.

Outlining how autism presents differently and can hide itself in females and what the likely impact will be for them throughout their lifespan, the book looks at how females with ASD experience diagnosis, childhood, education, adolescence, friendships, sexuality, employment, pregnancy and parenting, and aging. It will provide invaluable guidance for the professionals who support these girls and women and it will offer women with autism a guiding light in interpreting and understanding their own life experiences through the experiences of others.

This book adds to our knowledge by providing an insightful, sensitive analysis of the pattern of behaviours in females from childhood through to old age… This book endorses my clinical experiences in working with females in the autism spectrum and validates the importance of diagnosis at any time in a person’s life. Therefore I would highly recommend this book for all professionals involved in diagnosis and supporting girls and women in the autism spectrum. — from the foreword by Dr Judith Gould, Consultant Clinical Psychologist and Director of The Lorna Wing Centre for Autism

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I started Laura James’s Odd girl Out this morning.

James is very lucky because she is married to someone who helps support her — actually probably does support her with her income like mine was — I made making ends meet easily and provided money for holidays and books. (As she says, the statistic usually cited is 87% of Aspergers/autistic people have no job or go from job to job and some large percentage do not marry.) She also has two children and is in publishing. Me too on the children! And I have published. I was married for 44 years, now a widow, and I have two fully adult daughters.
James seems to me to exaggerate some of her sensitivities — perhaps for effect, but maybe she does feel all she says. I know she’s right about the horror of the way all people but those forking out literally thousands per ride allow themselves to be treated on planes. She brings in far more than the approach which begins with scientific categories and criteria can. I find I recognize a lot and suggest to other women that here you will find you are not alone.

Very readable – – simply lucid prose. It’s a also a story of the tensions in a marriage and a British middle class woman’s life today. Here is a professional promotional review: British journalist reflects on living with autism.

From childhood, James knew that she behaved and thought differently from other youngsters. Hyperfocused and sensitive to external stimuli, she tried to fit in by copying the behavior of neurotypical girls her age. She also “create[d] imaginary worlds in my head” that suited her need for predictability, logic, space, and calm. Yet James would be in her mid-40s before a psychiatrist officially diagnosed her with autism. Until then, she “genuinely believed most of my problems stemmed from the fact that I was adopted as an infant.” Told from the point of view of a mature adult looking back on and piecing together fragments of her earlier life, the introspective book intersperses the narrative of her present life as a married career woman and mother with reflections and stories about key moments from her past life. Success came only after overcoming great personal difficulties. Lacking in self-confidence, unable to secure a place in college, and fighting to “pass” for normal, James began adulthood with a disastrous marriage. Instead of making her feel complete, that union—coupled with early motherhood—left her feeling terrified and confused. Doctors misdiagnosed James and gave her medication that caused addiction and forced her into rehab. Her second, happy marriage was not without issues rooted in James’ need for constant communication. Motherhood also brought its own challenges, including coping with an inability to deal with her children’s negative emotions. At the same time, autism also contributed to the author’s success in journalism. Her profession gave James structure and the leeway to ask “any question that pop[ped] into my head and…[not be] seen as impolite.” Witty and illuminating, James’ book offers an intimate look into the mind and heart of an autistic woman who learns to understand her difference not as brokenness but as the thing that makes her unique.

A candid and unexpectedly moving memoir of identity and psychological upheaval.

I worry about the book’s final truthfulness though because the blurb at the back “assures” me that at the end she has some kind of apotheosis (too strong a word) in the book, and learns to live with herself much better. Oh right. Twice I was told when someone offered to publish a life story by me (I didn’t even pitch this, they came to one of my blogs) that I must make the story upbeat, must say how I’m a success now. I think such lies make people feel worse, and are much less help than telling the truth.

As I go on with these groups, I will come back here to add titles, explain what’s in books, recommend videos. Now that we are paying attention to girls at last, does not mean we omit the male experience, including those who advocate successfully for themselves and others: Ari Ne’eman Another YouTube of him indirectly addressing the problem of having to deal with a new administration (and president) deeply hostile to helping anyone not rich or powerful, much less disabled people:

Ellen

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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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Un Village Francais; — first episode as Germans take over


My Brilliant Friend aka L’amica geniale, Elena (Lenu) Greco (Margherita Mazzucco) and Lila, Raffaelle (LiL) Cerullo — principal heroines


Antony (Ralph Fiennes) and Cleopatra (Sophie Okonedo) — National Theater

Friends and readers,

During this earliest phase of living with pandemics (WFH for those who can), a new but probably temporary genre (as popular blogging goes) has emerged among those paid to do it: the column telling readers what good movies series, recent and long ago, are available for viewing on-line; sometimes for free (YouTube, PBS portals, National Theater from London), sometimes part of a subscription (Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, Acorn, BritBox). I do not pretend to compete. The accent is on new or very recent programming (I have not seen or read about even one Game of Thrones episodes) when older, mystery thriller, British costume drama, “classic” serials (though I am kept up, this will not be about Inspector Morse & progeny); cable channel star products aligned with fashionable seeming politically serious series (say The Plot Against America, West Wing). I am a novice at learning what precisely is among the cornucopia. I just learned of a YouTube presence of Joanna Trollope’s The Rector’s Wife, with a young Lindsay Duncan — who knew? I’m not trying for little known, and, at a minimum, such blogs will recommend six to eight titles.

But I am offering advice in the same spirit, slightly altered — and much fuller. What you should not miss, on offer because of the pandemic and reflecting our hard era.  Not one made in the USofA, two cannot be watched without subtitles; and the third, Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra comes with subtitles. Maybe I should have called this Subtitled Movies.

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The exemplary hero and heroine — doing their best, meaning well enough — the mayor, Dr Larcher and the workman’s wife, Marie Lorrain

I’m only half-way through the seven seasons of Un Village Francais. I am hooked. What can I say that will be adequate (and not go on for too long). The first episode of the first season begins with three children killed as the Nazis fly a plane over shooting everywhere everyone in sight, accompanied by implacable bullying of the citizenry by men in trucks armed. We are introduced to three or four family groups plus others, several professional offices, see the Germans. The ongoing story justifies to some extent collaboration. It does more than explain how this happened, but leads us to sympathize with those who succumb, and even actively do the Germans’ bidding in return for favors not just personal but for the village as a whole. There is some unfair treatment of the communists (as senselessly killing): The communists were the backbone of the resistance: they were often the backbone of many of the parties against fascism – -in Spain, the Republicans, in China, around the world. Each was more or less locally run.

One way to sneer at the resistance has been to deny it existed in France — Caroline Moorehead is among those to demonstrate not so in either Italy or France. In two of her books, she demonstrates they were careful, cautious, respectful of one another’s lives – or they could hardly have survived though thousands were murdered. Importantly these many hours of believable sincerely imagined tough lives, wih their intermittent pleasures, griefs, warns us what fascists are and if they ever gain complete control in the US what we are to expect. 90,000 deaths and still counting, a collapsed economy with a stubborn refusal to help 85% of Americans for real is just a start; a laying on of the groundwork as the rule of law is savaged and the many agencies of the gov’t run by corrupt sycophants, made to rot from within. We see this in quiet enforced business practices that have the effect of starving and stealing all resources from the French to send to German privileged. Get rid of the weak, exploit and enslave those somewhat stronger, kill imprison the uncooperative.

So much of the power of fascists stems from those of decent beliefs for the real good of a public believing the people you are dealing with will operate decently, from at least roughly the same moral norms. It was extraordinarily creepy and awful —- I felt it in my body —as the mayor and police chief, etc, think they can turn the French thief over to the French authorities, and he will be treated justly, then are betrayed. There is nothing to do as the villager, who deserved a slap on the wrist, is turned over to the Nazis for what we know will be a horrible fate -— again and again, you feel the vulnerability of his body and the bodies of the men who unwittingly allowed this to happen, how they turn away, can’t watch, feel so utterly helpless and bad. Torture in front of us by burning people with cigarettes during interrogations as a first step.

Step-by-step is the process. (As we in the US are experiencing under Trump and his vicious Republican regime.) You understand, too, why the mill owner, simply seeing the immediate great benefits, makes the creepy deal with the Nazi commander to supply the wood planks to him. You know it will end badly, but you also realize that the French collaborator is not evil, just doing what seems to make sense at the time. Women now have to be careful who they have sex with — you are then identified as of that party. Interesting how the people fool themselves. Each person thinks individually oh I’ll just do this or that and I’ll survive. Schwartz switches to concrete when a new German commander has a new crony he wants to do deals for wood with. Contracts are worthless where law and justice don’t exist. The Jewish man thinks he will be alive when the war is done, and that he can take what’s left of his business back then so he does a deal too.


Schwartz

Mr Schwartz is a fascinating one: he is driven to murder a man who was trying to blackmail him into betraying the Jewish man who was lending him the money to transform his business and his wife — he is central, his well-meaning capable educated authority has led to him being a collaborator. His brother is now being pressured to move up from resisting by handing out pamphlets to killing in reciprocation, except the Nazi will kill as many hostages as they feel like for every murder the French commit. Lucienne, the schoolteacher now pregnant by the Nazi officer. Marie, a peasant’s wife who evolves into independence because she is gifted with strong intelligence, Henri De Kervern is the bearded policeman who becomes involved in the resistance.

For the most part there are no black and white villains or heroes/heroines in this drama. Everyone has to deal with complicated choices. Which I think is true to life. No one can say what they would or would not do given extreme circumstances. What I really also like about the series is how the characters evolve in ways you would not expect. We are in the middle of series three and could not have foreseen many of the developments. One of my favorite characters has been Gustave, the young son of the communist Marcel Larcher (brother to the mayor).


Schoolteacher, Lucienne

One of the many stories of private life: Lucienne is now pregnant by the German (Nazi of course) soldier. At first he has given her the cold shoulder. Despite her religiosity (and we see her praying repeatedly by the bed) and going to a priest to confess her sin (fornication apparently). Each man has a reason beyond himself why this is unacceptable. Priest: we will just about excommunicate you. You are a pariah if you do this. Lucienne leaves the church, having determined for own sake (and probably that of any baby caught up in this horror) to get an abortion.

What’s remarkable is again it’s the men who stop her. Reluctantly, but determinedly Marie visits Lucienne to see why she’s upset, suspecting all the while Lucienne is pregnant. Marie has self-aborted but takes her to a Jewish midwife, and they are in the midst of their operation, just about to start and De Kervern stops them. He says it’s against the law, he’ll get in trouble and he’s about to throw Hortense out. So they stop. Lucienne goes home and tries to self-abort and ends up bleeding profusely in the school; Mr Bedier (in love with her) rushes her to Dr Larcher who saves her life but refuses her an abortion. It’s not safe; just think of how much joy and meaning a baby wil give you. &c&c. Anyway he won’t. Then he bothers Mr Bedier who he thinks the father to care for her. Bedier is willing — this gives him power and purchase over her, but he is also a good man. The Nazi soldier comes back with all these offers of later loyalty. He is in love with her and wants her to have his baby. They are thwarted by the spiteful Mrs Schwartz who loathes Lucienne for not choosing her cake in a yearly cake-baking money-raising contest.

The story brings out how the women would all help but the men have the power and all stop her. The girl herself casts aside her religion (another force controlling her) and would risk her life to abort this burden and trouble – she will be despised by many for having a child out of wedlock, it will be despised. Not everything that happens in this series is the result of this particular war …

For commentary (analysis, evaluation on Seasons 3-4 click here).

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Across Lila’s kitchen table

My Brilliant Friend is one of these mis-named series from a cycle of books where the title of the first book becomes the title of the whole series. My Brilliant Friend is the title of the first volume and was the source of the first film adaptation series; the 4 novels are called The Neapolitan Quartet (they are mostly set in Naples); this season, the second, ought more accurately to be called The Story of a New Name as it is an adaptation of the 2nd novel, with this name. Lara Zuram in the Rolling Stone offers one of the best general assessments and interpretations of this second season I’ve come across. unfortunately this is not many: in Italian, Italian in feel, culture, places, on HBO, as one of the best TV films this year, and as a deeply woman-centered exploration, the 8 episodes are not getting the attention they deserve.

Here first is my review-essay of the second and third (Those Who Leave and Those who Stay) books. It is Lenu who by the end of the second series is being enabled literally to leave Naples: by going to college in Pisa, she has met and is about to marry an upper class young man who is himself becoming a professor, and through his mother found a publisher for her autobiographical novel (based on a story Lila wrote in their shared childhood), and by the third novel is living out her life among the intelligensia of Northern Italy, in Turin and Rome to be exact. Lila is said never to have left Naples and its environs (Ischia) ever.

Now to the second season for the second book:  From the fourth episode: The Kiss


A viscerally felt experience of the beach at Ischia with Pinu (married to Lila’s brother, Lila is married to Pinu’s brother)

I’ve not seen or felt anything like this in a long time. It’s not just that all the actors and actresses project real feelings fully that we can enter into, but the whole ambience of the situations. Thes= prologues often focus on characters other than Lenu or Lila so in this way that part of the novels is brought into play. Or we see an incidents or strings of incidents that are to the side of the main plot-narrative. Only by having many more episodes than the company was willing to fund can you bring in these “minor” characters. They are often suggestively complex about characters falling to pieces by the system.

After said prologue, we first see them on Ischia as they trudge down the beach. In an other film it would be all surface, glamor, here we feel how tiresome beaches also are, how heavy the umbrella, how weary the walk, hot the sun, and a sense of sticky sand. I put it down to not magazin-ing everything. The house is like a house I would stay in, the curtains thin, the stone steps hard, the doors ugly and off-center, painted in such a way that the shades are not perfect. All the surroundings are like this — a boat is not super expensive, perfect in way but messy, slosh slosh.

Their dialogues are what people might say: not elevated into top wit or reflection, but such wit and reflection as comes out is from offhand, slightly spiteful distrustful talk, the way people do ever one-upping one another — a real sense of contingent interaction

The fights every one has, the ambiguity of positions only once in a while made explicit: Lenu who is treated as a servant and yet is the educated person there with books with her. The mother says I’ll be blamed. When a quarrel happens, the debris and then how sordid
things can be — yet the beauty of the air, light. When they swim, they swim as awkwardly as I do — I mean the girls, as feeble in the sea and yet moving along. What the film does is give us in a way what book can’t — the viscera through sound, music, real presences — the series fulfills the book.

Yet OTOH, it has to simplify so the central story line stays with Lenu/Lila in conflict, Lila and her husband’s inadequate (I’ll call it and for both) relationship, and the entry of Nino into this mix. Lila begins an affair with Nino when he chooses her over Lenu (who is profoundly hurt and turns to Nino’s father and allows him to have sex with her one night on the beach) Another parallel is Pinu’s relationship with Lila’s brother, Rino — it’s too based on sex for her taste and now she’s found someone who she likes better and treats her as a person more, Bruno, and she wants to escape the conflict but also Nino. Almost she’d rather have neither man, but she is not permitted that choice of no man.

In the book other more minor characters are also developed: especially Pasquale Peluso. That he’s a communist bricklayer matters. The book and series wants to present Italy as it’s felt through the class system with all its nuances. Pasquale has no chance whatsover of getting to the beach. He gets his books from the library or cheaply made ones, and rag newspapers. So this stream-lined season (only 8 episodes) would or could be so much richer

From the sixth: Rage

One of many moments where it’s apparent Stefano has beat up Lila in his rage


Enzo picking Lila up to take her home (to Stefano) when Nino has abandoned her

Lila has been in a repressed rage since she was a young child and thrown out of a window by her father, and not allowed to go on to school beyond the most basic primary learning. The rage comes out again and again, mostly in the form of what’s called bad behavior. She is often mean to people, says things that hurt others very much, spiteful, mocking.

The episode opens with Lenu doing spectacularly well with another of these public questionings in front of all her classmates and all the teachers, told she should go on to university, demurring but urged by the teachers, and then when she tells her parents and her mother goes into a rage and forbids it (she is getting above them, where will she get the money from), defying them, going by train, arriving at this pretty looking city and off to take the exams, which if she does well she will be supported. She then says the hardest thing to tell now is what happened to Lila during this time.

We see fleetingly Lila give Lenu a box of notebooks; these are Lila’s life story, and then we see Lenu walking by a canal with them — in the book you are told what she does — and thus are prepared for why Lenu when she is in her sixties writes these 4 books after (the opening scene of the whole series), Lila in her mid-sixties disappears.

In this episode — for the rest of it — we see Lila in probably the first year or so of the marriage to Stefano defies the deeply entrenched norm of these people and leaves her husband for Nino. They live in a slum in a broken down apartment; only very briefly and from afar do we see their 23 days of joy. That’s all they have because suddenly without much preparation, Nino turns on her, and begins to complain ever bitterly about her lack of middle class manners, nuance, that she does break out and say what she thinks, she is an embarrassment to him. He packs and leaves.

Meanwhile upon her leaving — in a scene where Stefano is stunned, astonished, finally tells her how he loves her and has done all he can give her everything. She begins her telling him by saying she will no longer go to the shoe store, the grocery, hates staying home, hates him. He does not believe she will leave and goes to work and when he comes back she is gone. He weeps, and goes to the family, they are horrified and accuse one another of knowing where she is. They decide she has gone to stay with Lenu because they can’t bear any of the alternatives. What happens is the gangster type threatens Antonio, home from conscription and emotionally destroyed when Antonio asks for a job, then threatens him to go find Lila but not tell anyone. This mode of threatening is Mafia stuff – just what we see nightly on TV in the killing criminal Trump.

Antonio promises, but wandering near where Lenu has gone can’t find Lila; he goes to a neighborhood spectacle and tells Pasquale, who loves Lila and he and Enzo say she must be found. They do find her after Nino has left her. She is writing on a typewriter. After some
talk Enzo persuades her she must return to her husband, she is starving in this dump.

She does return, and there is Stefano all rejoicing. She tells him she is pregnant, and he is delighted until she says it is not his Now this is cruel: not only is there no need to tell him but she was pregnant before going off with Nino, and in the book it’s obvious she flees because the pregnancy is a final nail on the coffin. How can she now ever escape.

I’ve heard that phrase many a time from my father — a nail on the coffin that kept me here … What’s missing is the inwardness for you are through Lenu as narrative in the subjective consciousness of Lila at last.

From the seventh: Ghosts


Lenu studying


Lenu’s mother while caring for Lenu

We fast forward to Lenu being integrated into the university (Pisa, Normale superieure); she is the girlfriend of a wealthy young man who tries to buck the exam system where we are shown “orals” are a form of bullying or humiliation (if you don’t produce the right answers). We have seen Lenu go through this 3 times. The young man refuses; says what we are leaning is divorced of all social, economic, political context, he is excoriated, mocked, dismissed from college. She realizes when she goes off with him and he tells her he must leave now (deprived of all income) that she has not integrated socially into the college. She has spent her time in the library studying — so now he’s gone she is alone — not part of some group

She grows ill and very touching her mother shows up and takes care of you. The rough hard selfish seeming woman loves her daughter. Lenu slowly gets better. We get flashback where Lenu and Lila are together after the birth of Rino and where Stefano has asserted himself to the point he control her body and her movements. She fears her notebooks will be found and destroyed. She gives them to Lenu but Lenu sees them as Lila’s way to dominate and control her and make her choices seem inferior, lousy. There is truth to this: Lila has acted as a kind of DuMaurier’s Rebecca to Lenu with Lenu the submissive second Mrs DeWinter.

Lenu has to get rid of them — and she stunningly throws them into the river. These are all that Lila has created that’s worth while. They are better than anything Lenu can write since Lenu has been educated out of telling such direct truths.

OF course we are to infer that these four novels are Lenu’s way of retelling her friend’s story which she did read.

While reading Lila’s story is dramatized: from her first refusal to come out of the apartment and let all these people use her, to her giving birth, to her trying to educate her boy to be something quite different from a fascist male. At first Stefano is submissive and loves her but slowly he becomes enraged. He has a relationship that satisfies him with Ada (I think she might be Paaquale’s sister) and Lila knows that Ada represents a direct threat to her, for she needs the set up she has to bring her boy up. She comes out to mingle and of course finds there is no good choice for her. She won’t go live with Solaro — just another fascist relationship based on sex and money.

It is time to go and she gives Lenu a letter to give to Enzo — in the book we are expected to understand this is Enzo who promised to care for her absolutely. But Enzo is not someone who has either a degree or business from his family.

We return to Lenu and see her mother leaving. The film of her walking away to the train and finding her way with difficulty was so touching to me. I know I may not be able to do online teaching because I may find they are lying and will not give me the support and direction they pretend. Getting on a train if you have never done it is hard.

When I finished I found myself wishing Ferrrante could have won the Mann Booker or some such prestigious prize or that her oeuvre would be given a Nobel – never happen because the focus is on women, women’s lives and the aesthetic l’ecriture-femme.

I’ve joined a tiny group of 4 to read or discuss these books together but do not know if it will come off – it’s online. Without benefit of a listserv

The last for the season, the 8th The Blue Fairy Book: This was a powerful episode. A wonderful finale to the book which ends just as the movie shows.


Lila as dressed for hard work in freezing environment of meat-packing factory


Lenu uncomfortably listening to disdainful criticism of her book at her book launching

An unexpected direct parallel to today — when Lila pays the price of freeing herself from her violent husband and the comfortable way of life he can provide her and her child, she cannot do this alone, not in this dangerous patriarchal society. So she accepts Enzo’s offer but that means helping support herself and she descends rapidly. We find her where? in a meat-packing factory, yes. The movie version does not begin to describe the filth, noise (screams of killed animals), the blood, the disgusting techniques for making sausages, the cold the people must endure, how they are cut, their skins bruised, the word hard and long.

So while the US meat packing workers are probably more comfortable because of improvements in technology, my guess is the rest — low pay, low status, long hard hours, coercion as a way of dealing with workers – is all there. Nowadays on top of that you can catch a lethal virus, but don’t expect unemployment insurance if you don’t come in. There are very high numbers of people sickening and then proportionately dying.

Ferrante is no fascist and last night’s concluding episode showed us how Lenu was being led to stay in the longer rungs of the upper class — be a teacher in a high school because you haven’t got the accent or the generations of family to justify putting you in a university level academic job. The way she nearly reaches that is to marry in. She has recognized this is also her path to getting her novel published. Piero Airota introduces her to his family and she is found acceptable, so he produces a ring. They will have to wait two years for him to get the position he needs to support them as upper middle people — there is no worry in his voice he won’t get that position, and as the next novel opens he has it.

We see Lenu come home and how she has been educated out of belonging and yet still belongs because at a gut level she understand. The scenes with her family and her mother seen now as a denizen of this pitch perfect. Their pride in her too.

The story of Lila’s replacement by Ada is told by Ada in the book as it is here. We see in both that Stefano’s way of coping is still to beat up a woman, and his deepest impulses conformity. Had Ada not gotten pregnant, not had the nerve to come to Lila, and Very Important, Lila accepted her, let her into the apartment and start just living there, it is possible she would not have been able to take her place as Stefano’s new woman. She does have to work long hours in the grocery store, and then a new baby to care for and also obey this man. A look in her eyes shows she knows the price of the ticket.

One of the beauties of the book is how the working class women can band together and recognize one another. So too the middle class but the middle class does not recognize those beneath them. We see that in the teachers’ behavior, women even more than men.

One interesting aspect of the price of refusing to conform to the role of wife in Lila is we see that in Enzo there is no violence, no forced sex so at night. She likes him for that. I feel we are to feel both our heroines capable of liking sex, but the way it’s practiced (so to speak) makes it a chore or betrayal after a while. Lila has some liberty to study, albeit supposedly with Enzo and for him — though as to talent for mathematics we will discover in the next book that Enzo doesn’t have much. She does remain grateful to him.

I was very touched by the closing scene. How both girls say let us not be lost to one another — because they could be. I knew that Lila would burn that child’s book — we have had in the series all the scenes between Lila and Signora Oliviera to know how Lila knows now how little er talent mattered once she did not go on to the conventional trajectory of schooling.

The concluding scene where the novel is published and Lenu is unable to commandeer the room or present a presence that is intimidating so the male reviewer gets up and condescends. Pietro had told Lenu to “remove the racy bits” and this guy makes fun of the presentations of the scenes of sex. They are so necessary to the women’s stories (see above). But suddenly our ambiguous hero stands up and defends Lenu. There he is, Nino, also part of this upper middle class, and he’s read Lenu’s book

I left out the touching flashbacks, especially of the two girls as very small, reading Little Women. Lila curled up in Lenu’s arms, the thinner one, dressed in a cheap sack dress. There are others and they correspond to moments of flashback in the book


As children, Lila in Lenu’s arms, reading Little Women

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

Antony and Cleopatra at the National Theater

I recommend watching as strongly as one can — there may be as good productions as this one but probably since A&C is not that often done, it’s unlikely to get to see one better.


A playful moment

What impressed me is how the the actors (Ralph Fiennes, Sophie Okonedo, Tim McMullan, Tunji Kasim) and director (Simon Godwin) did not flinch from Shakespeare’s un-idealized Antony and Cleopatra. He is an older man, old, declining, spends a lot of his time drunk and befuddled, lascivious and lazy; she is a continually grating sort of mate, continually teasing, asking for validation, giving Antony a sort of hard time as a version of fun. Samuel Johnson endlessly claims Shakespeare’s real strength is the true characters. That’s one of the strengths of production. They had the uncomfortable comedy and the ridiculous.

When Antony is at that party roaring drunk with his fellows, we see (first time I’ve seen this), which the language allows, homosexual sex as part of Antony’s make-up and tastes. He’s false at times – he knows very well he won’t stay with Octavia. He takes the easy way out. She acts senselessly too — badgering her messenger. He also is too self-glorified. His strength is as a soldier, on land, but no he will fight at sea – and then lose. He is jealous of Octavius as this young effective man. Similarly the actor who played Enorbarbus is not done heroically (the way I once saw Patrick Stewart do it) but as a flawed human being whose flaws fit Antony’s but sees (as Antony does not) Antony’s self-destructiveness; when he hates himself for deserting it’s all the more effective.

But they have another side, and they do love one another, like their Egyptian life together; and as the play went on gained in stature based on being what they are, true to it, non-politicians, warm passionate, as opposed to the prig Caesar who is part of a long line of politicians in Shakespeare, starting with Bolingbroke in R2, Claudius in Hamlet. Antony owes a lot to Richard II, the development of this figure of a non-politicians, not a wheeler-dealer, a Hamlet, can’t be bothered to fit in, like the young Hal; also to Henry VI – aspects of these characters. It’s a very hard part to play. Cleopatra has no progenitor that I can see in Shakespeare except maybe some of the women in the history plays — those who love, those who are politicians; she played Margaret of Anjou, Henry VI’s wife in Hollow Crown. A flaw (it must be admitted) is the actor playing Octavius is too sweet, too young, not hard, mean, dense determined for power in the way of Shakespeare’s politicians.

Until they begin to fail and then as actors they can soar – – I was very moved by the ending. See how they both botched it and yet were just the embodiments of what love can be – sometimes so stupid — why did she flee and he flee after her during the sea fights? As he died in her arms, I remembered Jim dying in mine.


I also saw Frankenstein last week with Jonny Lee Miller as a powerful Frankenstein and Bernard Cumberbatch an astonishing creature; next week at the National Theater is Streetcar Named Desire; and if you want an alternative, or more traditional Shakespeare, the Globe is also on YouTube, for free for now (I spoke of Twelfth Night with Mark Rylance, Stephen Fry and others on a Sylvia II blog,scroll down)

So there you have it — how to wile away your hours in the evening (after work from home is done) with deep pleasure and growth in understanding and life

Ellen

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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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Dorothea Lange (1895-1965)

Friends,

The OLLI at Mason winter term has started, and I’ve had two remarkable classes in two days. For tonight I can offer to you, a two hour plus movie on the art and life of Dorothea Lange, made by PBS, with funds from the National Endowment for the Humanities, part of the American Masters series. All of these I ever saw were of uniform excellence at the same time as differing considerably from one another: each program took its shape from the artist it was about, and the creative film art-biography a shaping spirit in response made. Do take the time:

[A bit of a warning: the full-size screen movie can be seen only on PBS websites that carry; below is this movie, only for reasons I don’t understand the picture takes up only about a quarter of the left hand bottom side of the screen. The voice is intact, the photos shown, the narrative, but on the right side and just above the “movie” space you have to endure a black background with flickering stars]

I could for once leave this at that and for once have a genuinely brief blog (on my part) but I would like to tempt your appetite lest you have said to yourself I’ll come back later, and of course never do. After a prelude where she speaks of her core ideas on how to extract life from all around her into a camera shot, and we are shown her famous iconic picture, “Migrant Mother,”

One could say this picture is the Mona Lisa of American art: in the movie you learn who this woman was, her circumstances and how she felt about the photos taken of her later in life. Neither she nor Lange ever made the money from these they would have had they been controlled by a contemporary studio.


She posed many women and children, some with the children on the mother’s lap, some with their heads and bodies wrapped around the mother

You will move on to a narrative that combines her life story with the stages of her developing art, and at each point where she created some soaring set of hundreds of negatives and then photos, you are told the circumstances of how she came to make this set of pictures (who funded by, when, what the circumstances of the people). Many are shown you with intelligent insightful commentary on the narrator’s part.

Her life story begins with her childhood, how she wanted to become a photographer, how she was trained as a photographer at Columbia University by Clarence H White, how she moved to San Francisco, and there made her way to a job in a shop developing photos people brought to it. She managed while there and photographing San Francisco herself to met crucially innovative photographers running studios, exhibiting one another’s work, and sustained relationships. The film concentrates on her two husbands, both encouraged her: the first a noted western painter, Maynard Dixon, with whom she had two children; and 10 years later, after her marriage became strained and she fell in love with Paul Taylor, a professor of economics at Berkeley, deeply socialist, who had himself been married, so was now divorced. At one point she was caring for two of her own children, and three step-children; at times, she put them in foster homes to give herself time to practice her art. There is much emphasis on the ambiguous and difficult but brave relationship of her and Dixon, and then the long loving companion with Taylor.


This might be a still from the movie Grapes of Wrath

She began photographing the elite in fashionable ways for money, but when the depression emerged, turned her camera to the real people of the US suffering from the devastation of this catastrophe. We see them in monumental individuality and invulnerable moments, standing there, their struggle t survive. What they value enough to take cross country. And their despair too.

She was enabled by FDR’s agencies: Farm Security, Resettlement. The Oakies were among her subjects, and her pictures are reflected in John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath. A second set of photos are of a large community destroyed by a project to build a dam: this was seen as progress, and it did deliver water across a vast region and gradually improved the lives of those living around the dam, but it drowned, displaced worlds of people.


Pea Harvest, 1937

She also photographs immigrant workers in the fields of California, the hard work and small pay, the dismal housing, how they wrenched improvement for themselves and a better life for the children from such jobs; she does not neglect, average people and the land and natural world of the US. Another third set of photos are of the Japanese Internment Camps, where she had to fight censorship to show the individuals in these prisons.


A family awaiting a bus

These were impounded by the US gov’t and not shown for years. One of her themes is the effect of ripping whole families from their homes, their things, their very identity. You will see other smaller projects: she photographs how poorer people coped with the criminal justice system, courts. Her husband was a social activist and later in life she was taking photos by his side as he went about doing research, working with the UN to improve people’s lives around the earth where they could.


A group of women at a meeting

Her vision was partly the result of her experience as girl, wife, mother and her ability to identify with those who had no voice, including the environment, plants and animals. Her father had abandoned the family when she was very young; she and her siblings went to live with a grandmother; she also contracted polio at twelve: it left her with a weak leg and a limp. I found one of the most moving pictures one of a terrified horse, fleeing the opening thunderous waters of a dam.


Terrified Horse: Lake Berryessa

This is framed by a second story: the 1964 exhibition of her art at the Museum of Modern Art: after the opening prelude, you see her very old (and by this time sick with esophageal cancer) planning with the director and curator of the museum a magnificent exhibition. We keep coming back to this to hear her talk of her pictures, what this set or that mean to her, the beauty of a negative and so on. The movie ends with her death just before the exhibit was opened.

What’s left from the exhibit; the wikipedia article includes a list of good books, and the notes are filled with contemporary article and essays about Dorothea. There are more modern “theoretic” ones like The Politics of Seeing (a John Berger-type pictorial essay).


Dorothea around the time of the exhibit

It is particularly important as a film today where the impoverished, black people, and immigrants such people are being demonized, deprived of the agencies set up for the last 60 years to help them live good lives and protect them from exploitation; they are being put into prison, separated from their children. Budgets are being imposed on us all to make the super-rich in this country even richer and the rest of us (90%) lose much that enables us to live decent lives without debt and with opportunity to fulfill our talents and enjoy ourselves — the National Endowment for the Humanities has been smashed. Four women who left water for some protesting Native Americans were arrested the other day, put on trial. Federal workers expected to work without pay, as the judiciary is now controlled by reactionary judges (what about the 13th amendment). Heads of unions of federal workers try to demonstrate and they are arrested — a powerful group of ruthless reactionaries are intent on destroying the US gov’t as still constituted (though it had taken many hits for some 40 years) when Obama left office

I have over the years done a blog pictorial essays on the lives and art of women artists:  Dorothea Lange was one of the greatest artists of the 20th century. The film itself reminded me of the work of Frederick Wiseman for its social critiques and visual forms of analysis. The film is by her step-daughter, Dyanna Taylor and you see her children now grown speaking of her.


This of Florence Owens Thompson is iconic

The other three women photographers are Annie Lebovitz, Sally Mann, and Vivian Maier (three further films too).  My second remarkable class is on American poetry, and I hope to share some of what I learn and take away on Walt Whitman and Elizabeth Bishop on this blog too.

Ellen

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Isobel looking up

Over the great windy waters, and over the clear-crested summits,
Unto the sun and the sky, and unto the perfecter earth,
Come, let us go,—to a land wherein gods of the old time wandered,
Where every breath even now changes to ether divine.
Come, let us go; though withal a voice whisper, ‘The world that we live in,
Whithersoever we turn, still is the same narrow crib;
‘Tis but to prove limitation, and measure a cord, that we travel;
Let who would ‘scape and be free go to his chamber and think;
‘Tis but to change idle fancies for memories wilfully falser;
‘Tis but to go and have been.’—Come, little bark! let us go.
— Arthur Hugh Clough, Amours de Voyage, Canto I

Dear friends and readers,

Last September I wrote three travel journals about a 10 day trip I took to the Scottish Highlands, Inverness to be precise, and approach to the Hebrides. In the same spirit I have written three travel journals on Milan and not-so-very-far environs near Zurich, Switzerland, and one about the recent World Ice-Skating Championship in Milan: in later March I went with my daughters, Izzy and Laura, so that Izzy could participate in the Ice-Skating event live, and while we were in Milan, Laura and I mostly, but Izzy with us some explore what we could of this city and a little north of Italy.

I did not place these Milan Journals here because unlike the Scottish journals, they combined life-writing (about us) with our time in Italy. My Scottish blogs included some extraordinary lectures and reading I had done about Scottish history, geography, archeaology, the battle of Culloden, not to omit bird and animal watching.


A cared-for cat in a cemetery we happened upon

This time I wrote about friends, our particular interests (fabrics, fashion, Renaissiance poetry and art, books), our time in an antiques market, and passing sights.


My Milanese friend, Luca, and I

On the other hand, Laura took far many more photos of where we went and what we saw and experienced than I did last September (of which I show on this space only a few — the others you must click for). I thought the wider audience that comes to this blog might find some of our adventures of real interest.

Here I also mingle poetry with pictures.

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The outside of a cathedral we explored in Germany

Arduous Tourists: An Ancient Thriving City & four countries in one weekend


The Black Forest, Germany, from the car


Michelangelo’s Pieta in the Castle Sforza

Doing Milan (the cathedral and the castle, mostly)

https://austenreveries.wordpress.com/2018/04/13/doing-milan-1/


Interior


A small park in our neighborhood: Roman ruins

Milan Diaries (we go all over Milan, to La Scala and the antiques fair)


In front of a contemporary museum

From Anthony Hecht’s Proust on Skates:

He glides with a gaining confidence, inscribes
Tentative passages, thinks again, backtracks,
Comes to the minute point,
Then wheels about in widening sweeps and lobes,
Larger Palmer cursives and smooth entrelacs,
Preoccupied, intent

On a subtle, long-drawn style and pliant script
Incised with twin steel blades and qualified
Perfectly to express,
With arms flung wide or gloved hands firmly gripped
Behind his back, attentively, clear-eyed,
A glancing happiness.

It will not last, that happiness; nothing lasts;
But will reduce in time to the clear brew
Of simmering memory

World Championship Ice-Skating and I, Tonya

Isobel enjoyed most of or time away, but the skating especially


In Laura’s hat, which matched Izzy’s jacket

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This series of verses come from a poem by Robert Southey “Recollections of a Day’s Journey in Spain,” not Italy, but it is delightful reading in which he captures the lifting of the spirit, the numinous moments one can feel in traveling through a land that delights the eye and mind:

The morning mist,
Well I remember, hovered o’er the heath,
When with the earliest dawn of day we left
The solitary Venta. Soon the sun
Rose in his glory; scattered by the breeze,
The thin fog rolled away, and now emerged
We saw where Oropesa’s castled hill
Towered dark, and dimly seen; and now we passed
Torvalva’s quiet huts, and on our way
Paused frequently, looked back, and gazed around,
Then journeyed on, yet turned and gazed again,
So lovely was the scene. That ducal pile
Of the Toledos now with all its towers
Shone in the sunlight. Half-way up the hill,
Embowered in olives, like the abode of Peace,
Lay Lagartina; and the cool, fresh gale,
Bending the young corn on the gradual slope,
Played o’er its varying verdure. I beheld
A convent near, and could almost have thought
The dwellers there must needs be holy men;
For, as they looked around them, all they saw
Was good.
But, when the purple eve came on,
How did the lovely landscape fill my heart!
Trees, scattered among peering rocks, adorned
The near ascent; the vale was overspread
With ilex in its wintry foliage gay,
Old cork-trees through their soft and swelling bark
Bursting, and glaucous olives, underneath …

This view from my bedroom window each day seemed to me a palimpsest of time:

Ellen

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Tilda Swinton as Eve (The Only Lovers Left Alive, 2013)


Thornton burning down (a 2006 Sandy Welch Jane Eyre, with Ruth Wilson as Jane)

Friends and readers,

Much to my surprise, or I might say re-awakening to the Brontes, when over the last ten weeks I reread Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, then Anne Bronte’s The Tenant of Wilfell Hall, and finally Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, I found (honestly) I preferred Jane Eyre to the other two. I found I had forgotten and begun to underestimate the originality, radical visions, the (also) sober and somber experiences of these books. They are all gothics (as is the recent quintessential The Only Lovers Left Alive, which I used as the blog gravatar), with the characteristics of female gothic (see my blog after reading Anne Williams’s The Art of Darkness), which brings to the fore the real subjection of women in society then and now.


A too flattering picture of Charlotte by George Richmond

I had forgotten what a masterpiece for sentences startlingly filled with vivid images after vivid images, original thought, sheer passion, alive with an individually convincing presence is Jane Eyre. Never a dull moment as to story. Burning with indignation at large and mean injustices. The unforgettable opening scenes at Gateshead and Lowood.  Later on, the gypsy scene with Rochester. Who ever wrote a better proposal scene, or witty teasing courting scenes. The theme of refusing to allow one’s innate self to be violated or a demand for acknowledgement of having done a wrong (when there has been none) or downright cruel self-berating is no where better. And how about this to add to your touchstones, Matthew Arnold?

I can live alone, if self-respect and circumstances require me so to do. I need not sell my soul to buy bliss. I have an inward treasure, born with me, which can keep me alive if all extraneous delights should be withheld; or offered only at a price I cannot afford to pay (Chapter 19)


Gemma Jones as Mrs Fairfax, Samantha Morton as Jane Eyre


George C Scott as Rochester, Susannah York Jane

Jane Eyre is about the centrality of childhood, the need a girl has for women friends, for a mother; the power of men. I never forget the scene of Jane waking in the morning, her beloved Helen, dead next to her. All the women must win a man. About psychic disturbance: is Bertha a projection of Jane’s intense anger. Jane re-tells her story over and over, each time more in control but obsessive. Rochester is a man of conscience and he does love Jane (and is so emasculated, dependent, even losing a hand) so we rejoice in the ending for her. We hope she does know peace. the Novel has presented a lesson similar to that of Mansfield Park: the validity of endurance of suffering. Jane has won through.

Her heroine does not enjoy teaching: and we can find in her A Teacher’s Monologue her dissatisfaction with what was available to her from life:

Tis not the air I wished to play,
The strain I wished to sing;
My wilful spirit slipped away
And struck another string.
I neither wanted smile nor tear,
Bright joy nor bitter woe,
But just a song that sweet and clear,
Though haply sad, might flow.

A quiet song, to solace me
When sleep refused to come;
A strain to chase despondency
When sorrowful for home.
In vain I try; I cannot sing;
All feels so cold and dead;
No wild distress, no gushing spring
Of tears in anguish shed;

But all the impatient gloom of one
Who waits a distant day,
When, some great task of suffering done,
Repose shall toil repay.
For youth departs, and pleasure flies,
And life consumes away,
And youth’s rejoicing ardour dies
Beneath this drear delay;

And Patience, weary with her yoke,
Is yielding to despair,
And Health’s elastic spring is broke
Beneath the strain of care.
Life will be gone ere I have lived;
Where now is Life’s first prime?
I’ve worked and studied, longed and grieved,
Through all that rosy time.

I re-journeyed through some of the many Jane Eyre movies, and FWIW, among the very best is the 1972 film noir (that’s the genre the genre “classic film adaptation” cum mini-series has been blended into), Jane Eyre, directed by Delbert Mann, starring George C. Scott as Rochester as moving Rochester, a woman who has learned to value humane morality with Susannah York as Jane. Cherry-picking Samantha Morton is the finest sensitive portrayal of Jane, and the 1997 Jane Eyre, directed by Robert Young (starring Ciarhan Hinds as Rochester) captures a modern understanding of Bronte’s Jane Eyre. She craves quiet, and achieves this through self-controlled endurance. And I recommend the latest Jane Eyre, 2011, Mia Wasikowsa as Jane flees Rochester at near the opening of film, and St John Rivers is re-conceived as human.

A woman’s take with the emphasis on Jane’s escape from Rochester and hardships to near starvation, and a domesticity not found elsewhere is in Sandy Welch’s Jane Eyre. Ironically this is not true to the spirit of Jane Eyre until near the end. Jane is restless, she wants challenge, to rise in the world, excitement. This is probably the most feminist passage in all the Bronte’s writing:

It is in vain to say human beings ought to be satisfied with tranquility: they must have action; and they will make it if they cannot find it. Millions are condemned to a stiller doom than mine, and millions are in silent revolt against their lot. Nobody knows how many rebellions besides political rebellions ferment in the masses of life which people earth. Women are supposed to be very calm generally: but women feel just as men feel; they need exercise for their faculties, and a field for their efforts, as much as their brothers do; they suffer from too rigid a restraint, too absolute a stagnation, precisely as men would suffer; and it is narrow-minded in their more privileged fellow-creatures to say that they ought to confine themselves to making puddings and knitting stockings, to playing on the piano and embroidering bags (Chapter 12)


Ruth Wilson as Jane in flight from Rochester who wants to re-make her as she finds St John Rivers wants to

This reading of Jane Eyre was a culmination of my summer read of the powerful biography of Charlotte by Claire Harman. I learned about a manuscript I didn’t know existed before: a two chapter beginning of a novel called Emma: from wikipedia: “an apparently wealthy young girl, Matilda Fitzgibbon, at an expensive private school. It transpires that her identity is fake, and that her school fees will not be paid. The child is unable to answer any questions as to her true identity.”


Tara Fitzgerald as Helen Graham


Toby Stephens as Markham reading Helen’s diaries

I had learned a few years ago when I watched Sandy Welch’s great film of Tenant of Wildfell Hall, and again this summer when I reviewed Nick Holland’s In Search of Anne Bronte, what a compelling transgressive truly feminist book The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is. As I listened (from a cover-to-cover reading aloud of the novel) to David Case as Gilbert Markham reading aloud Markham’s two parts of the novel, I fell in love with the character. Anne Bronte wants to sweep away those norms for masculinity which encourage self- and society destructive behavior; women must be educated by experience and then they will not marry the worst of men.


Anne Bronte by Charlotte

I should mention I didn’t take upon myself to study these three books just like this, but was following an 8 week course called “The Best of the Brontes” given by a Dr Linda Freeman at the OLLI at AU. She offered an informed perspective on religion in this novel as the core for Helen Graham’s strong self-esteem, feminist stances, and behavior to Arthur Huntingdon, who if he would reform, could transform himself; Helen’s firm belief in her own value enables her to defy Huntington, tell him she wants to leave him with her child, flee him with the child (however illegally) and support herself by her art. For the first I realized there is an attempted rape scene (recalling Richardson’s Clarissa): Huntington gives Helen over to his pals and the one who has pretended to be on Helen’s side overhearing her telling Huntington she wants to leave, offers to elope with her and when she refuses, becomes livid with anger and tries to force her sexually; she pulls out a palate knife (from no-where it seems).

I read an eye-opening essay on the novel’s subjective writerly structure: it’s two sets of letters written by Markham to a friend 20 years after the novel’s main events are over; sandwiched between is Helen’s day-by-day epistolary like journal. Stewart proposes that this brings home how little orality was prized in Victorian fiction; that what we are given is an extra-territorial autobiography/biography and all readers understood this. The Victorian novel enabled them to work out what was happening in their own lives by presenting as impersonal (a manuscript), and long ago what was personal and immediate. I liked Gilbert Markham, and can see how he and Helen could flourish together: how he cares for her boy.

I love Anne Bronte for her longing for her home and love of it in this poem:

Consolation

Though bleak these woods and damp the ground
With fallen leaves so thickly strewn,
And cold the wind that wanders round
With wild and melancholy moan,
There is a friendly roof I know
Might shield me from the wintry blast;
There is a fire whose ruddy glow
Will cheer me for my wanderings past.

And so, though still where’er I roam
Cold stranger glances meet my eye,
Though when my spirit sinks in woe
Unheeded swells the unbidden sigh,

Though solitude endured too long
Bids youthful joys too soon decay,
Makes mirth a stranger to my tongue
And overclouds my noon of day,

When kindly thoughts that would have way
Flow back discouraged to my breast
I know there is, though far away
A home where heart and soul may rest.

Warm hands are there that clasped in mine
The warmer heart will not belie,
While mirth and truth and friendship shine
In smiling lip and earnest eye.

The ice that gathers round my heart
May there be thawed; and sweetly then
The joys of youth that now depart
Will come to cheer my soul again.

Though far I roam, this thought shall be
My hope, my comfort everywhere;
While such a home remains to me
My heart shall never know despair.


Kay Adshead as Cathy Earnshaw


Ken Hutchison as Heathcliff (Peter Hammond and David Snodin 1977-78 BBC Wuthering Heights)

I found I had forgotten Wuthering Heights too: crude as it sometimes is, like Jane Eyre, there is a remarkably complicated vocabulary, deeply expressive of actual human passions, poetic in its apprehension of the natural world all around the characters; like Tenant, the structure of two tellers in the present presenting two levels of story, and these from the distant, medium distant past and then in the last part immediate presents, makes for layers of anger and suffering and degradation out of the perpetual violence, at times gratuitous against helpless creatures. Now Heathcliff is the outcast victim, brought up to be without resources to support himself as a gentleman. “I am Heathcliff” can be taken as more than an enthralled love utterance.  The famous utterances about the person who revels in wildness and the one who loves calm, peace.  There are complicated love issues (do you want boundaries between you and another?), a will, Heathcliff the sadist towards Isabella Linton presented as wanting to be hurt (this is troubling). Only Hareton isn’t twisted beyond redemption by relentless scorn and the young Cathy is left to find peace with him. Almost everyone dies. There is an anti-colonialist theme in that Heathcliff might be the illegitimate son of Mr Earnshaw by an enslaved black woman (this angle recurs in Jane Eyre as Bertha Mason came from Jamaica).


Said to be Emily Bronte by her brother Branwell

Here I wanted to call attention to a great film adaptation that seems to have been forgotten because it lacks celebrity stars: the 1977-78 BBC Wuthering Heights, directed by Peter Hammond no less, with marvelous script writer, David Snodin, 5 episodes, the closest film to WH I’ve ever watched, capture the eerie vision at the core of the book, not only a desperate violence at the heart of nature, a ceaseless urge to cruelty, especially when the person has been treated unjustly, viciously, but at the same time a deep suffering and plangent grief that this is so. This feels visionary because it is presented in the book and in this film that in the landscape itself this pattern is set. There is also (no getting away from it) a belief in an omnipresent supernatural afterlife just out of our reach, but manifesting itself in the same pattern of cruelty and grief.

I’m not alone in thinking this: in Valerie Hazette’s Journey through time and Culture: Wuthering Heights: TV and Film, a book which covers all aspects of films (from technology to culture) on this one film singles out this 1977-78 film for 7 pages. What helps make the film important is it also dramatizes the whole book including fully the second half and the relationship of Isabella Linton with Heathcliffe.

Although about an inadequate film, the first, the 1939 famously with Oliver and Oberon (too romantic and only about half the book), George Bluestone’s essay in his Novels into Films is the only place I’ve seen this core aspect of Emily Bronte’s book frankly approached. (I need to read far more of the secondary criticism since the 1990s de-construction movement), where he quotes a line from an essay Emily Bronte wrote at M.Heger’s Pensionat de Demoiselles, in Brussels, in an essay she called “The Butterfly:” Nature is an inexplicable puzzle, life exists on a principle of destruction, every creature must be the relentless instrument of death to others, or himself cease to live.” Is not that an astonishing frightening thing to think or say.

Here is one of Emily’s imagined poems:

Cold in the earth—and the deep snow piled above thee,
Far, far removed, cold in the dreary grave!
Have I forgot, my only Love, to love thee,
Severed at last by Time’s all-severing wave?

Now, when alone, do my thoughts no longer hover
Over the mountains, on that northern shore,
Resting their wings where heath and fern-leaves cover
Thy noble heart forever, ever more?

Cold in the earth—and fifteen wild Decembers,
From those brown hills, have melted into spring:
Faithful, indeed, is the spirit that remembers
After such years of change and suffering!

Sweet Love of youth, forgive, if I forget thee,
While the world’s tide is bearing me along;
Other desires and other hopes beset me,
Hopes which obscure, but cannot do thee wrong!

No later light has lightened up my heaven,
No second morn has ever shone for me;
All my life’s bliss from thy dear life was given,
All my life’s bliss is in the grave with thee.

But, when the days of golden dreams had perished,
And even Despair was powerless to destroy,
Then did I learn how existence could be cherished,
Strengthened, and fed without the aid of joy.

Then did I check the tears of useless passion—
Weaned my young soul from yearning after thine;
Sternly denied its burning wish to hasten
Down to that tomb already more than mine.

And, even yet, I dare not let it languish,
Dare not indulge in memory’s rapturous pain;
Once drinking deep of that divinest anguish,
How could I seek the empty world again?

I’ve written a foremother poet blog for both Anne and Charlotte where you can read more of their poetry. I thought it very telling that both Charlotte and Anne’s heroines are painters.

There is so much more to be said. The books are obviously so different from Austen’s who is often coupled with them in discussions of earlier women writers. Anne Bronte’s Agnes Grey while quiet, prosaic, realistic, is wholly unlike Austen in tone: she is caustic, bitter, severely critical of her employers and when she escapes relieved to find quiet romance. Barbara Tepa Lupack in her collection, Nineteenth-Century Women at the Movies: Adapting Classic Women’s Fiction to Film, includes two excellent essays on the from adapted from Jane Eyre (by Kate Ellis and E.Ann Kaplan) and Wuthering Heights (by Lin Haire-Sargeant) respectively. Linda Freeman suggested we add Jane Campion’s The Piano to our Bronte movies.  (Tara Fitzgerald is heroine in Tenant; the closely similar Holly Hunter the heroine of Piano.)

I disagreed with Linda about Elizabeth Gaskell’s biography and Patrick Bronte: see my review of Lucasta Miller’s hatchet job. She presented a far too positive and normative or normalizing picture of Patrick Bronte. She did rely a great deal on the magisterial book by Juliet Barker. There was little said about Branwell Bronte: that he turns up as Hindley in Wuthering Heights, lies behind some of the scenes of Arthur Huntingdon’s alcoholism and death scene in The Tenant. The biography by Daphne DuMaurier which brings out his gifts as a poet and thwarted painter was cited. I was relieved that he was not berated and made into an easy central punching bag as in the recent wretched movie, To Walk Invisible. There is currently at the Bronte parsonage an attempt to treat Branwell with respect and do justice to his life.


A self-portrait by Branwell, c 1840

Thus I record how I managed to keep my mind absorbed and myself active, enduring in relative calm and peace in my house and going out to be with people outside over these books for some 8 weeks. And you see me doing this in imagination — holding on — tonight

Ellen

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Virginia Woolf, a photo taken in 1939

“And the phantom was a woman, and when I came to know her better I called … her the Angel in the House … And when I came to write I encountered her with the very first words…And she made as if to guide my pen … I turned upon her and caught her by the throat. I did my best to kill her … Had I not killed her she would have killed me … She died hard … She was always creeping back when I thought I had dispatched her.”

Dear friends and readers,

A couple of months ago now I wrote a group of us on Trollope19thCStudies @Yahoo had finished a months’ long reading and discussion of Tolstoy’s War and Peace, in my case accompanied by watching four film adaptations (Bondarchuk; BBC 1972). I read several books, keep at several writing projects, teach, write papers and blogs, watch movies all at once. So along with Tolstoy (as I wrote in August since August 2016) I and a couple of friends have been reading Virginia Woolf. I’ve decided to put this on my general blog as eventually I will show that she is a modernist as central to modern literature as the over-lauded Joyce, T.S. Eliot, and any other post-modern experimental artist. I’m just now reading Graham Swift’s masterpiece, Last Orders (a Booker Prize winner, adapted into a powerful film) and think it owes much more to Woolf’s Waves than Faulkner, or both Faulkner and Swift are sons of Virginia Woolf.

I just love her writing, fiction and non-fiction, and together we read the great literary biography of her by Hermione Lee, and with a couple of others took detours into new texts, writing I’d not read before (The Waves, Memoirs of a Novelist) and re-read and felt anew the extraordinary writing of/in The Voyage Out and To the Lighthouse. Not to omit John Lehman’s important book on the Hogarth Press, Thrown to the Woolves. Memories: I had read more than 10 years ago now, and so loved The Years, her Common Readers, her life-writing in essay format, A Room of One’s Own, Three Guineas), but had still not attempted The Waves, Between the Acts, both of which I’d wanted to understand and enjoy. It was out of all this I discovered Carrington had many so many pictures, was a great letter-writer, and fell in love with her work. And just now I’m attending my first literary OLLI course as a class member (not teacher), where the topic is Virginia Woolf, and I’m now half-way through Mrs Dalloway (I last read it as an undergraduate).


From Judy Chicago’s Dinner Party: Woolf makes the cut of the 39 place settings

Out of all this what can I offer to a reader to tempt her (or him) to read Woolf if you’ve not started or read only a little of, and how to ignore or get past misrepresentation which leads to readers coming with pre-conceived hostility or else staying away (Albee’s anti-feminist title, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf has done much harm) altogether. My experience when I first turned to her is getting to know her for real helps, and Lee’s biography goes a long way towards doing just that. So I’ll write two blogs on Lee’s biography to start with, and then move on to the Woolf’s novels.

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Lee begins with a meditation on biography itself — as life-writing is what Woolf did a lot of. Her first sectionf her first chapter (pp. 1-11) is made up of comments by Woolf on the difficulty or impossibility of biography. We can see that Lee gave a lot of thought to how she was going to turn Woolf’s voluminous writing into an alive life. She then dives into essays where Woolf is trying to get at the essence of a personality, and thinking about the dead biographies, lifeless, “mausoleum books.” How the biographer has to get at the essence of the self and project it. How adhere to the truth (no hagiography). The conflict for a biographer is between fact and inner life. She was herself defensive towards Winifred Holtby who wrote the first biography of her as a single chapter in a book. Woolf saw a ludicrous gap between her own memory of an event and what others wrote or say about it. She did not want her secrets (whatever these were) given away. She starts to write Stephen Frye’s life. What a grind it is. How shall she do it: specimen days; different stages, then there’s the “complexity and intrigue” of someone’s character in life. In painting we see the irreverent. Her own work compromised by her connections that enabled her to publish it. She had a passion for the lives of the obscure, who turn out to be women.

So I took my first detour and read her Memoirs of a Novelist for the first time.

It contains five separate pieces. Two are riveting. On “The Mysterious Case of Miss V:” at first I was not sure Miss Willatt, the novelist whose memoirs her friend, Miss Linsett, has written was a fiction! But of course it is. Woolf shows that the way biographies of women novelists especially (but men too) are written you end up knowing nothing about them. She makes the point that the marmoreal obvious lies could not fool anyone and asks, so why do people write or read such books? Then slowly and with difficulty our narrator ferrets out what can be said for real of Miss Willatt. Alas, not much. That she was conventionally ugly, that her father made her life a misery until he died, that she was capable of deceiving Miss Linsett endlessly, a restless and disappointed woman who sought her happiness in her self and not others, and was never given a chance at an individual life. The Miss Willatt type of biography goes on today. What do readers think a book exists for? Why do people take the trouble to say such rot? Not to know the person’s life.

“The Journal of Mistress Joan Martyn,” is a gem, brief, of the type Diski so brilliantly writes in her Apology for a Woman Writing, a short fictionalized, semi-biography of Montaigne’s worshipping disciple, Marie de Gornay as she related to Montaigne (a presence in the book) and her servant. Deeply moving. Here she’s Miss Rosamund Merridew, age 45, who is trying to understand Joan Martyn’s journal, a series of yellow fragments of parchment. How hard it is to get any information: Miss Merridew visits an old hall (15th century one in a decaying early 20th century state). The man there seems to be a minor clergyman and who keeps on his wall “mementos of dead animals, raising paws.” The man takes out his family history and of course we know what that will be … This piece reminded me of Lampedusa’s Gattopardo: the creation of the atmosphere, the insistence on the reality of a person living in such a house, how the place is set up, where papers are, how remnants from generations of people haunt the rooms. Then we plunge into a controlled stream of consciousness which is so immediate and intense with felt life. What makes it extraordinary is the tone, rhythm of the language. It reads like some recreation of earlier language where ritual, repetition is the mode of sentences, and that in itself a sign the girl is structured in her very mind not to have any thought of her own destiny. What happens is Joan is utterly obedient to her mother, family, and is married off to an older man, and then she is dying. A brief life, of someone highly gifted, of real kindness, unable to have a genuine original thought, dying almost upon adulthood. Deeply poetic semi-comic historical fiction, presented as a biographer trying to do her task, shaped at all points by the structures and outlook of l’ecriture-femme. How can we know earlier women? quietly despairing


Horham Hall — plan of restored great hall

Chapters Two through Four are Houses, Paternal, Maternal. I remembered Bachelard’s Poetics of Space: Yes houses are so central to our memories of our pasts. (When I try to remember the past I ask myself, was it before or after or during the time we lived in such and such a place.) To the Lighthouse records Woolf’s memories of summers in St Ives, Cornwall (become the Hebrides), a proto-ghost story, haunted, different people in the house now, she has no right to be there … It was liberty. The contrast the tall narrow attached house in Kensington, Talland house, all constriction, performance, heavy furniture, curtains, the kitchen downstairs awful, dark, nothing done to ease servants having to live and to work there. As I read about Hyde Park Gate I was struck by how close and dark and hard to clean it was. Nowadays we live I wide open spaces surrounded by plastic things, light colors, easy to clean. It actually as a house seemed to me claustrophobic. I am surrounded by books but that’s all. 17 people in the house. At most where I’ve lived there were 4, all family members. Imagine being the servants in their hot tiny spaces. On p 40 Lee quotes Woolf registering how bad it must have been to work for the Carlyles: two of the most exacting nervous people of their time. Jane Carlyle did join her maid in the struggle for warmth and cleanliness – a losing battle. A lot of the things were also relics. Everyone died at all ages, and they are all surrounded by memorabilia of death. We are not told how Minny, Leslie Stephens’s first wife died: pregnancy. She probably died of eclampsia, still quite often a killer today,and her daughter’s developmental problems stemmed from the premature birth. Woolf’s memory of buying ices as this big event. How can such people when they grow up deal with calamity? Their iron self-esteem, their connections money and power they think will come through. On her disabled step- or half-sister, she talks callously

Lee is showing how entrenched in a Victorian set-up Virginia was and that when she and Leonard became part of a Bloomsbury group, many of whose members had parents who had been part of the Edwardian intelligensia elite, they were replicating the embedded coterie Victorian worlds. Virginia’s inheritance was more than 2500£ from a Quaker aunt. Julia Cameron was a relative. Lee says how natural for Woolf to have written a feminist treatise focusing on having a room of your own. How Woolf eventually organized her writing space and within that pictorial details. Yet they all live embedded together; Lee’s point is Woolf’s was a Victorian upper middle childhood. Hard to clean place, everyone assumes respectability must be kept up …

We move on to Childhood, Siblings first deaths: I’ll cut to the chase: for my part I find her preference for her brother, Thoby, very like Jane Austen’s for Frank Austen: the conventional male-brother; he may have had epileptic fits. After the parents’ death, Vanessa became the most important person in Woolf’s life until Leonard and she married. Vanessa seemed all that Virginia couldn’t be: earth mother, easy affairs (at first, they were deeply anguished eventually as Duncan Grant was more homosexual than otherwise, and she needed him more than he her). It was the obtuse dense Duckworth brothers, especially Gerald who sexually abused Virginia as a child. Lee cannot get her mind around the idea this “small” or fleeting set of transient “petting” episodes so traumatized Woolf. So she does what she can to dismiss the incest charge as overdone: her attitude is how common and fleeting this sort of physical forcing by say one cousin on another. Like Rosemary Ashton on George Eliot & Lewes, Lee tries to turn out a normalized Virginia.

The second crashing event was the early unexpected death of her mother (Virginia was 13); Stephens then used and abused (not sexually but in many other ways) the two older daughters, Stella from his first marriage, and Vanessa. Lee tries to answer how far these specific events led to the episodes of breakdown, derangement. I suggest they are part of a large picture of sexual mis-education so profound on a sensitive girl – I find the insistence on feeding her evidence of anorexia, another expression of profound sexual mis-education and repression. Woolf often uses imagery of a veil or wall in women’s minds; so does George Eliot. My view is what happens later counts a lot too, and my guess is her experiences of sexuality with women, with Leonard Woolf and what she experienced of literary and social life later reinforced rather than counter-acted what she knew as a girl.

Liaisons, Bloomsbury, the new art, sexual experimentation, Vanessa marries, then Virginia and Leonard . Her father’s death freed both she and Vanessa to live a modern life, to rent a house in Bloomsbury and mingle with as equals their brother’s friends and art worlds. Virginia escapes to intense study, writing mood pictures. She is tense and diffident with world outside her family (not too great with family either). She did voluntary teaching at Morley College. She gave it up after two years. All the difficulties of teaching real people before us. I remember Woolf writing at one point, if the individual only would or could, they could learn more by steady reading than any lecture as the lecture is perforce much less dense, less nuanced. Her relationship with a working class man remembered in Mrs Dalloway. She writes all the time, on holidays what she sees. Intensely aware of pre-history underlying civilized world.

Great plans for all to go to Greece, Vanessa refusing Clive for a second summer. VW studies away, Thoby ecstatic at what he sees – poignant material found in Jacob’s Room. In Virginia’s notes she does not want to write cliches, problem of how to get down the experience while modern Greece appalled her. A rich person’s country estate in Euboea. Dominated by doctors, medicine, VW had appendicitis, depression, stress, The hotel suddenly sick room, Vanessa has had it too; Virginia deeply involved with first woman: Violet Dickensn and she is lectured by Violet on necessity of unselfishness and self-effacement. They get home, Thoby seriously ill; turns out he has typhoid. An operation 17 Nov; he dies 20 Nov. There are astonishing letters to Dickenson where Virginia writes of Thoby’s progress all the while he is dead – for a full month. Lee takes this as understandable because Violet is ill. I don’t. It’s crazed behavior.

Each family death causes them to lose a home: after Julia, Talland House; after Leslie, Hyde Park Gate, after Thoby Gordon Square. Vanessa to marry; Clive loves her, is artistic, literary, VW must make home with Adrian. The rich and illiterate Clive family home, fox-hunting, church going, money from mines. Virginia as I see it is now alone and having to adjust: she and Adrian are not congenial, not compatible; they set up housekeeping in Fitzroy Square and she does get into more adult and frank talk with male visitors from
Rupert Brooke to Lytton Strachey (they were equivalent geniusses) – but also considerable showing off (as in Lytton Strachey’s famously uttering “semen”. I find Virginia brave for all the times she traveled alone. She learnt she would not have a good time with Vanessa and Clive.

Virginia was finding herself sexually and couldn’t find a man to be a partner with among those she met – she put it down to scared of sex – sex did mean pregnancy and Lee seems to forget that women the first time are often terrified of getting so big, think the childbirth will tear them apart. She grew up in this repressed environment and that’s why Duckworth was so harmful –he was part of it. Lee again demurs about this trauma Virginia insisted she never got over. She’s got a right not to get over it. She writes: “My terror of real life has always kept me in a nunnery.” She saw it was more than the trauma over sex, but it was that. What’s real life anyway?

Several chapters on the experience of World War One: Lee cannot sympathize with pacifism, nor the subversive outlook in so many areas of this circle of people — they had been so privileged. Lee puts Woolf’s “writing” decisively on the side of the anti-authoritarian, on the side of woman’s suffrage, and on the side of post-impression, which presumably would, to a traditionalist, make her a modernist. Lee criticizes Woolf for her lack of participation in specific issues. She was just not one to get involved; in comparison, Leonard is the true socialist, organizer, man of politics. I did not realize that Roger Frye was beyond his centrality in the art of this group Vanessa’s lover and deep friend of Virginia. No wonder she tried to write his biography.


Vanessa Bell, Leonard Woolf

A long section explaining the sources and complication of Virginia and Leonard’s relationship. Diane Reynold summed it up beautifully: “there is a grand bargain going on in this marriage, each partner trading deficits, finding attractions, a complex dance. Mental illness is swapped for Judaism: each partner brings a negative in the context of the culture. However, Leonard no longer has to return to Ceylon: with Virginia’s money and the solid social entree she provides, and what he supplements earning (does it not occur to Lee that Leonard’s compulsive overworking might have compensated not for lack of sex but for not wanting to live “on” his wife?); in any case, he can do work more attuned with his heart, such as start a press, support socialist causes. She gets the stability and social respectability of marriage. They both get companionship with an intelligent and congenial spouse. I agree with Ellen on the importance of outsider status.” Both outsiders in different ways. We find the source of the title of her profoundly anti-patriarchy, anti-war tract: three guineas was the price of an abortion (from a draft section of The Years).

But they did belong to a circle of like-minded outsiders: they were all part of a movement called modernism, which included far more than people in Bloomsbury (Americans in Paris, Joyce, Italian and French writers, women and men in music and art). In brief, experimental in form in all areas of art, radical thought, transgressive of genres, in writing using stream of consciousness which is so common now: minimal plot and action (these are not adventure stories with forward-driving outward plots), intense immediacy of another mind, interior is maximized with focus on language and ambiguity. They needed the Hogarth Press to get their stuff published. Hints on reading stream of consciousness: look for pointers; they are still there, as in “Clarissa Dalloway thought” or in parenthesis: “(for a girl of eighteen as she then was)”; or indentations, or old-fashioned third person indirect discourse where the narrator is there, however discreetly, indentations on the page showing a new mind is on the page; indications of where the speaker-mind is, “She stiffened on the kerb, waiting for Durtnall’s van to pass.” The pointers are kept to a minimum so as not to get in the way of the imagined character and the reader. You have also to care about nuances of thought, insights, passing things we see, ruminations of subjective memories, all the phenomena going on around us, as well as individual characters’ deep situations of emotion indicated by epitomizing painful and guarded thought.

I want to end this blog before it gets overlong by moving to a chapter in Lee which is disappointing but which attempts something important: Virginia’s reading, what meant a lot to her and how. I am more interested in that than her sex life, which eventually became lesbian, her relationship with Leonard, central though his disciplined and supportive presence was. Would all the chapters were like this one: Lee seemed to me to enter more into the reading process, why we love it, how we react and feel as we are reading, how we do it, how it’s integrated into our lives than I can remember reading (joke alert). And she does it through quoting Woolf describing her reading behavior, processes. I find books mean as much to me and in the way of Virginia.


Vanessa Bell, The Artist’s Daughter Reading

In my dissertation I argued central to the writing of the new immersive romance — or novels with complex characters (subjective presences) was this mood of reverie into which the writer went, out of which he or she wrote (with seeing pictures, hearing voices) communicated into the mind of the reader so he or she forgets you are on chair reading, dream you are there somehow. If someone prods you on the shoulder, the suspension of disbelief is off. Paradoxically as Lee goes on, I become aware how rare this kind of deep feeling living with others and places is probably for many people. Thus this mood of reverie I attributed to these writers is a reading mood (Bachelard probably has some passages on this). The word “reverie” is born in mid-century to mean an imaginative mood of high intensity, often connected to some erotic source. Books can arouse us sensually and sexually too.

Diane pointed out that Lee never does tell us which were Woolf’s touchstone books, she does not cite the favorites, which ones read and reread. “Lee makes the point that for Woolf books influenced her as much as relationships (of course, that cries out for her to tell us which books were lifelong friends, which fell away, which were passing infatuations etc…). We learn that reading is Woolf’s life’s pleasure and her life’s work … Woolf read widely and diversely, as many of us do, and liked to mix second rate with first rate literature, as it helped her understand the best literature and its context better. The second rate helped “fertilize” her mind for the “great.” I also appreciated that she hated that coteries with power in the publishing and literary worlds pushed second rate books, the middlebrow, as better than they are: we see that often in our times, needless to say, and we hear people rave about truly mediocre books that are the “thing.”

Part Two will be about Woolf’s relationships with women, Katharine Mansfield, Vita Sackville-West, Ethel Smyth among them, the Hogarth Press, her writing years, the making of the successful careers, and then the slide into World War Two.


I read and reread and loved Alcott’s Little Women and Good Wives at the age of 9 — it was just this edition, this cover

Ellen

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The Studio, Vanessa Bell’s Charleston Farmhouse, Sussex

Dear friends and readers,

I know I told of how on one of my listservs, we are reading Tolstoy’s War and Peace as a group with each of us reading different other related works or watching films; on the other, WWta (Women Writers through the Ages @ Yahoo) we’ve started a similar project (far few people alas) around Virginia Woolf. Our central focus is a slow read through another massive volume: Hermione Lee’s Virginia Woolf, and have talked at length about the art of biography, Woolf’s own life writings and writing about biography (her Memoirs of a Novelist, her “Sketch of the Past” in Moments of Being). One of us read To the Lighthouse; we’ve discussed Gaston Bachelard’s perhaps now-dated Poetics of Space; I’ve watched the remarkably complex )(novel-like? biography-like) Carrington and am now determined to make Dora Carrington my next woman artist in that blog series.

First impression:

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From Christopher Hampton’s Carrington: this is based on an actual photo of the house (Emma Thompson who is made to look like Carrington as Jonathan Pryce looks like Strachey in the photos of him)

Strachey asked Woolf to marry him at one point; they were close. Strachey was much older than Carrington and I was thinking about the extraordinary convoluted tortured sexual and marital relationships in this wider group. Leonard and Virginia look conventional from the outside, but look in and you see her several deep lesbian relationships.

Jonathan Pryce who was such a wonderful Wolsey, is perfect for Strachey, and Emma Thompson takes on her stout boyish persona to play Carrington. I’ve only got half-way through: it’s a very long movie. What I wanted to say is that in a way it’s lacking:  Hampton wrote and directed it, and he is following Holroyd’s book and therein is the problem. Carrington is such a painful spectacle. The whole menagerie at her and Lytton’s home are wholly outside the mainstream. She loved Strachey because his homosexuality took the form of no sexual intercourse with a woman, so he was not aggressive at all. For someone who wants safety I am now puzzled (not rereading Holroyd) why she ever went to Mark Gertler (played by the then spectacularly handsome Rufus Sewell) who demanded rough sex as central to the relationship (not painful but agressive) and Sewell plays him as a man driven wild by her. The audience is allowed to see this clearly and Gertler’s attack on Lytton when it becomes obvious Carrington loves Lytton. But to keep Lytton she had to allow this reactionary hulk, Reginald Patridge (renamed Rafe by Strachey) to live with them and to keep him she had to have sex with him; in turn he’d have sex with Strachey.  This is not shown clearly in the film. Gerald Brennan (the young excellent actor Samuel West) who left for Spain and wrote two wonderful travel-memoirs of his life in Spain is brought in; but as I’ve not read Holroyd in a while I forget the bargain, but think Carrington was also required to have sex with Brennan to please someone.

Thompson says over and over this is an abject love. Hampton together with these remarkable actors conveyed something different than I’ve read before. Hitherto it was see how abject this woman was, what a mystery but it was Lytton’s kindness, gentleness and their shared love of art that made her invest her very life in his life.

This film shows him a cool egoist who uses her; he may not admit it to himself but he does. All the sex scenes after Mark are her degenerating, allowing her body to be used by man after man to get them for Strachey. That is what the film shows. She goes so far even to marry Partridge who in the film she sees as a macho male reactionary horror though fun as a man to dance with, handsome to draw. She endures his ugly jealousy and infidelities. She leads Gerald Brennan to lie in ways that violate his character — all for this Lytton. It gets to the point she wants to validate her body and gets involved with a man (Jeremy Northam turns up to do it) who just takes her cruelly for sex, getting pregnant by him she gets an abortion. Thee’s a dialogue where Lytton says why not have the baby.I think the film suggests had she, she might have had something else to live for. But she only wants his baby and he never fucks her it seems.

Pryce plays Strachey as realizing how he is using her, but being unable to resist it and enjoying her company, now and again guilty — as when he will advise her to leave off a man, or have a baby, or makes his will to leave her a pension. A very young Alex Kingston as Patridge’s partner after he tires of Carrington plus Strachey. A younger Penelope Wilton does Ottoline so well. The men in the film do seem attached to Carrington and enduring Strachey for the sake of Carrington except the stud last played by Northam. Thompson and Pryce impeccably involving. I grieved over Carrington’s death yet understood. It ends with a series of images of those of her paintings she did not destroy.

It’s a deeply searing portrait of a on the surface beautiful love but just below deeply destructive of her. We are told nothing of her family or childhood. She turns up sui generis and all film long she is without any group but this Bloomsbury one attached to Strachey and her art school. She goes off to London where she finds characters like Patridge and brings him back as a trophy or fodder for Lytton. Was she promiscuous in London somewhere. Patridge’s questioning of her in fact is understandable.

I want to read the screenplay, watch again and have now bought a book (natch) recent, Gerzina’s Carrington (who wrote on FrancesHodgson Burnett if I’m not mistaken).

As a result of the debate on the art of biography and novels (peel them off and you have an autobiography), we debated (a bit) Tim Parks’s iconoclastic theses about novel writing and reading in yet another thinking book from him, The Novel: A Survival Skill on both listservs.

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Bondarchuk’s War and Peace: Kutusov after defying everyone and ordering a retreat so as to save as many men and as much of Moscow as he can (1966)

Let me say upfront there is no woman author in Parks’s universe in this book who counts, who he discusses at length. He might mention a woman now and again. He focuses on five males and when he has any examples they are all males. He has a history of Italian literature organized by great authors. Apparently in Italy since the Renaissance there has been but one woman writer of note. Something like 25 authors, one is a woman.

I wonder what women do with themselves when I read Parks. It’s important to the man’s outlook, tells us what he reads, how he reads. So by no means is he a guru when he leaves out half the human race; women do write differently, they make art differently — from social life and from innate elements.

Parks’s idea that novels threaten us has some powerful explanatory force; this is why people talk (and perhaps) think consciously about novels so moralistically. They inveigh against characters who do not obey social norms because they don’t want to articulate why those who don’t don’t, nor admit to identification. He follows this up with the iconoclastic idea we love books which are substitutes for the presence and sense of real person they contain, stand for. This a complete refutation of the “biographical fallacy.” Kraggsby says she becomes so emotional when she has to write or feel about Woolf after a bout with a book. This helps explain that. I so agree with it.

With Parks I really feel a mind thinking, not just putting together the platitudes and nouns referring to theoretical positions which the author then aligns him or herself with. He offers this possible description of what’s meant by creativity: “the ability to produce …. The emotional tone and the play of forces in whch the narrator lives, the particular mental world in which he moves …. “ Parks doesn’t need to have Coetzee in front of him, in fact the Coetzee we meet (as Proust would say) is the partial social man, not the man who counts. The greatness of such works, the triumph “we find their work drenched with their personalities, supreme expressionof theirmanner and character and behavior, each absolutely recognizable, triumphantly unmistakable … He does cite Woolf a little way down; her understanding is just so to the point, and what she does. Paradoxically l’ecriture-femme (women’s texts) exemplify much more centrally than men’s what he begins with.

When you say that a novel threatens the reader, and that therefore we need to learn actually how to survive them (really taken into consciousness what they can show) and that the author’s identity (I’ll call it) is everywhere there in different ways, you are set on a very different road than most books on the novel. I just love how he does not repeat cant and situate himself next to it or with it — not that a great books don’t do this: Jerome de Troot’s two books on historical fiction do it, but he examines these theories often to show their fallacies, not always.

Tim Parks is consistent with his view that the great writer conveys an authentic specific self across his or her work, asks about the writer’s tension when he or she thinks of who is reading this text. Parks says the novel is “officially addressed to everyone,but in reality they are not thinking of today’s Ph D student in say Korea addressing scholarly conversations in 2016; the actual circumstances the writer writes in frames his or her perception of what is being written; relatives do often complain and are hurt, as well as friends; t often he or she is thinking of some subgroup of readers alive at the time, “the implicit reader”. He proposes we think of ourselves as overhearing the author’s address to his or her audience at the time. Park then goes over specific details in a Becket text and they come so much more alive when you nail who specific savage ironies are aimed at. Lee quotes Woolf’s life-writing a lot and Woolf assumes her readership knows what the life of the upper class at the time was; her tales of childhood assume familiarity.

Parks says it is not a retreat from the text to be interested in the author’s patterns of behavior, relationships at the time of a text writtten, but rather it can increase our engagement. He then goes on to Gregory Bateson who argues that personality differentation ,how we establish our identities to ourselves are in relation to others aroud us which often are binaries and are reactions against. he is not talking about one-on-one equivalencies but a general presence surrounded by particulars then transposed but often more transparently than we like to allow.

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Helen Mirren as Sonya in Jay Parini’s The Last Station (which is part of our Tolstoy matter)

Now to apply Parks’s thesis to The Last Station, for example, you have to know about Hoffman and his life and relationship to the film (which he does bring in in the feature to the film, also Parini, not to forget Tolstoy, Cherthov, the various actors who inhabit the roles.

It is a complex film and now I’ve got to find time to read the book. A good performance can make a character come alive: In the screenplay Hoffman worked to condense, make a coherent POV (Valentine, the most invented of the characters) and in general sort of gave more meaning to what’s in the book and made me wonder if a movie because of its form often does simplify. It’s hard to fight it as successful as Bergman did. He didn’t care if his films made money when he started out. I thought I’d mention that the train was to be much much more important: it was to open with Valentine on the train; the deleted scenes are of Tolstoy fleeing on the train, Sofya following. It now only ends with the train. Hoffman says he wanted it to be a symbol but as he proceeded he decided the characters and their relationships were what he should spend time on. More practically I have watched enough honest features to have heard directors say you have to cut and you have to choose, and many he saw this skein or thread one he could eliminate neatly — to make the movie marketable. This was to be an allusion to Anna Karenina, with Sofya as our Anna who survives. I suspect so.

Also from our Tolstoy group: I am finding A. N. Wilson’s biography on Tolstoy without bothering to argue this in effect bases his biography and assessment of Tolstoy’s novels on a perspective like Parks; Lee is more reticent but then we’ve hardly gotten Virginia born. Wilson thinks Tolstoy is addressing other Russian writers, how he conceives of the cultural and political situation in Russia, but deeply by the time of Anna Karenina moved inward and dealing with his own many layered psyche through her.

Lastly (since I’m going away for a week — to Cornwall, where Woolf spent summer holidays for years on end — and have little time) I thought I’d just briefly call attention to an excellent review essay in TLS by Francesca Wade on the rebuilding of all sorts of house space the various Bloomsbury people had in different sites and museusm: “Interior Designs, Interior Desires: examing the inside of Bloomsbury homes as a guide to their owners’ artistry and personality.”

Wade begins with Bachelard and then goes on to show how the Bloomsbury group utterly defied conventions not just in painting happy pictures of what they were doing on their walls, and but in scattering all the things they used over a day freely around the house, making rooms serve real and different functions peculiar to the people living there all at once. In the movie Carrington we see the house Strachey (Jonathan Pryce) and Carrington (Emma Thompson) live in have her paintings on the wall, and a couple of the rooms are clearly shown to be reflective of how they live. Outsiders thought the decorations were lascivious or salacious because of the unconventional sexual relationships people who came and lived there had, but not at all. Nudes were not sexy nudes — as in the film. They were gay (old use of word), defying the colors, atmosphere of the homes these people had been brought up in.

Most houses today and apartments too are set up in conventional ways with several rooms sometimes given over “to making a show.” More time and energy making the room a symbol of the expected social life and status than the comfort of people living in it. The purpose of the US family room is to have a place where people can do their own thing but even there I’ve seen status and money the criteria for decorations — how many Xs you did of this or that.

Jim and my house was and today mine alone with his presence as memory and filling the objects is not like that. There is no room for show, the rooms have — or had (he’s gone now) several functions. I have been told if I wanted to sell it and/or sell it for a high priceI would have to empty it out and make it a soulless display. So that’s what the average person wants: plus and a soulless display. No thank you I said. Either it’s sold the way it looks or not sold. So Bloomsbury space is still iconoclastic.

Ellen off for a week on holiday in Cornwall

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Charles Camoin, Cat before the Open Window — from Sixtine, one of the lights of my existence

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Maggie Smith as Miss Shepherd guarding her side as she allows herself to be taken to hospital

Friends and readers,

There is a great distance between the reviews of this film, the stills you see on the Internet, and the film itself. The film is a wrenching story on several levels set in a weak film; the reviews mostly overpraise saying very little but giving an impression of arch light comedy which we are told is nonetheless weighty but not why.

The story or source are scattered entries in Bennett’s life-writing diary covering 15 years in which Alan Bennett gradually allowed himself to become Margaret or Mary Shepherd’s care-giver, first seeking to get her as street nuisance into his empty driveway and into safety, not protesting when she used his house for whatever she needed (including for a chair to rest), then helping her daily, for example shopping

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to the point where finally the social workers come to him and one complains that she “senses hostility” in him (I laughed wildly at this utterance both times she spoke in this ever-so-patient manner) by way of complaining about his “attitude” or Miss Shepherd’s non-cooperation which include delusions about the Virgin Mary that must be accommodated. This is one-half of the overt central plot-design of an hour and 45 minute film.

The other half, or set of events interwoven are about Bennett’s own mother who we are first shown as in good health, but old and feeling justifiably neglected as he hardly ever comes to visit; she then gradually declines to the point he puts her in a retirement community, then assisted living, and finally into a bed where she seems comatose. He is represented as two Alex Jennings, him as a man living his daily life, and him as a writer observing and writing about himself.

To understand these juxtapositions and doublings you must know about Alan Bennett the real man. Sometime during his boyfriend his mother was put in an asylum because he and his father could not cope with her breakdowns and eventual insanity; his father was deeply depressed over this, and (as I recall) is presented as wanting to kill himself; they were lower middle class and had not much money to improve his mother’s care. Father and son felt destroyed by their decision and yet they could not keep her. In the film Miss Shepherd lives in fear someone will put her in an asylum. What Bennett has done is displace his real mother into softened fictionalized version of her as older mother next to Miss Shepherd to suggest to the viewer (and the writer says this) that he took care of Miss Shepherd to compensate for his lack of care when he was much younger for his real mother.

The backstory of who Miss Shepherd was when young and how she got this way, which is important in the film too, is kept to the margins because the story is about Bennett and this fifteen year experience even though he says near the close forming a first sort of climax that he put together her life over the 15 years and learned that her private life was in some ways more dramatic, theatrical, unusual than his.

The film opens with a concert done as an old film where we see a young woman playing a piano as part of an elegant orchestra. Little incidents, visits, information about a sister and brother-in-law combine to unfold a life of aspiration, gifts for music recognized, early achievement, which was mysteriously brought to an end when she entered a convent as a poor religious Catholic girl. The nuns disciplined her cruelly, would slam the piano cover on her hand when they caught her playing, dressed her poorly. We are never sure how she escaped them but it was too late for a career or marriage.

A woman alone with no career or husband or money does not do well. So we are left to imagine a Cathy Come Home story where there was no home, but a crook of some sort she now has to pay to stay away. I became uncontrollably distressed when a single flashback showed us that the opening of the film was her driving from a crime scene where she had run into a young man on a bike and killed him. Thus her hiding out and fear of police. We see her from time to time praying intensely in improbable places. At the shock of the crash and the spattering of blood, broken glass, I cried out and twisted in my seat such that the friend I was with worried for a moment.

It was not until then that I realized I found Smith’s performance as a homeless friendless ancient tenacious woman who makes a home for herself and the accumulated relics, remnants, junk and trash of her existence in a van pitch perfect enough to distress me deeply somewhere in myself. I went home needing a glass of wine immediately. She was by turns frightened (of a police car when we first see her) so driving at a frantic rate; ridiculous and dignified; stalwartly actually taking herself on a vacation to the beach at Broadstairs and drinking lights drinks as she looks out at the water and sky; and pitifully stinking, weak, in need of a toilet, utterly vulnerable (to an ex-crony played by Jim Broadbent who harasses her periodically, shaking her van, demanding money); and most memorably, indomitable because she held on tight to her pride:

Maggie Smith finds every laugh and every tear in The Lady in the Van. </e

As I tell this it becomes stronger than it feels in the film. The most melodramatic moment occurs when a nun slams down the piano and another scolds her, and we see her fleeing through empty rooms in a convent. The rest is snippets of talk, a fleeting image her, a comment there. Admirably there is nothing over-melodramatic, no juiced-up climaxes, but inevitably (as in life) in the main story repetition as the two participants never budge from their initial positions, she not owing him anything and he not taking responsibility for her. Real and something many of us may experience from some angle in some form, material presented in this displaced way does not make for a riveting naturalistic film experience.

A friend suggested to me Bennett was too close to his material this time. We are not allowed to see or experience what is going on inside Bennett — the way we do his protagonists in Talking Heads. I know his most successful works are ironic comedy with surrogates for himself that are not recognizable. There is an allusion to these six monologue plays because in the film he is during one year of the fifteen seen playing the one closest to himself in a nearby theater. We glimpse male friends and associates now and again (Dominic Cooper plays one), and passing remarks that he hides his life from others, but we must know he is homosexual to understand this too. The present time story is punctuated by incidents where we see his neighbors reacting to Miss Shepherd, or him, or both of them. The neighbors are played by highly respected actors and actresses who seem to be friends and associated with Bennett from other plays or films, for example, Frances de la Tour as Vaugh Williams’s widow

maggie-smith-outside-van-smallwithFrancesdelaTour

On the Internet where I found these oddly discordant reviews, Smith is most often pictured in stills with Alex Jennings as Bennett, looking comic, arch, as if she’s having a just this great fun time pushed by Bennett in a wheelchair

wheelchair

but more true to the continuous quiet temperature of the film are the few of her encounters with neighbors, made up of ever so kind and tolerant but essentially indifferent people who provide no help:

DeboradhFindley
Deborah Findley and Roger Allam as a married couple off to the opera.

The best reviews here and there remark on undercurrents of the film: it is a strange poignant duet of prickly unhappiness and wry humor. Most seem to overpraise except if you read carefully. The Telegraph seems to feel it stands for the best Englishness (and is just hilarious) Ebert’s column says it’s for anyone who adores Maggie Smith. A number of the more popular type (on Rotten Tomatoes) attempt critiques, it’s a Disney-like homelessness, or dull, one person talks earnestly, meaning well, taking psychological language seriously (“a misunderstood woman suffering from PTSD”), others like NPR typically take it lightly.

But it isn’t light. Look at her! Notice the fierce look in her eyes. She’s holding on to life with great difficulty. Look at how she has to dress to keep herself minimally comfortable and self-respecting. I’ve seen lots of “crazy ladies” in NYC like her. Some men too.

Smithwithwaterbottle

At the end before Miss Shepherd is taken away to hospital because she has become so very sick, the social workers feel they must take her in to do “blood work.” She looks much better when washed, dressed in a clean starched dress, her hair brushed and put into a ponytail. She eats quietly at a table. She does not die there but returns to the van. Bennett permits himself several untrue sentimental moments (one of the Alexes tells us this) and the night before she dies, she holds out her hand to him, he takes it and they squeeze. The next morning she is found dead. There is a funeral, a burial, a historical plaque like those of famous authors to show the Lady in the Van lived here 1974-1989.

But that doesn’t end it. We get one of these extraordinary post-life scenes where Miss Shepherd suddenly appears and tells Bennett she has met the young man she killed and we see them walking off together. And then we see her in an absurd translation taken into heaven with a God in sky — like the Virgin Mary she has mentioned many times in the film. It didn’t work for me as satire. But much of Bennett’s work is about religious belief and how religion is perverted, misused (I hope my reader has seen Bed Among Lentils) — and in Miss Shepherd’s life it was that.

Lovetopainthervan
In the film Miss Shepherd gets a new van more than once and paints it yellow-orange; Bennett as writer using a voice-over tells us Miss Shepherd was happiest when absorbed painting her latest van

Ellen

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