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Archive for the ‘women's poetry’ Category


Lucy reading Sarah’s letter telling of the coming of Mr Turner (Staying On, 1980)

“We should write to Cooks,” suggests Lucy, “and ask them to put us on the tourist itinerary. After the Taj Mahal . . . the Smalleys of Pankot” (she is not without a sense of humor)

Dear friends and readers,

I’ve been posting so much less because I’ve been reading books and essays as parts of projects directed by aimed-at (from accepted proposals) papers, essays, talks, and teaching, not to omit a face-to-face book club (my first),listserv discussion groups (now I’m down to two at most) and a book project (Winston Graham, Cornwall and the Poldark novels was its working title but my perspective has changed). However, I don’t want to give up blogging because I love this kind of communication: natural easy English, liberty. responses far more numerous and quicker than anything one gets from a printed piece because blogs readily reach people.

For the “Booker Prize Marketplace Niche” course I’m teaching the first novel has been the 1979 winner, Paul Scott’s Staying On, and I became deeply engaged by the book’s central presence, Lucy Little Smalley (yes the names in the Scott’s fiction are partly allegorical), in a re-watch the 1983 Granada mini-series, The Jewel in The Crown (how I wish I had time to reread the four books); as important was the class members’ careful reading of the novel and genuinely unbiased (disinterested is the better word for what I mean) debate and conversation in class.

Scott wrote that he had been much influenced by Anthony Trollope and certainly the political outlook of his books which shows how our most fundamental experiences are shaped by social, ethnic, racial class, position in a colonialist state is reminiscent of Trollope’s all encompassing political vision. I’ve written about the Raj Quartet, the books and mini-series as among the great achievements in fiction of the 20th century.

What is distinctive about Staying On? It’s colonialism told from the angle of the displaced lower status white European, a mood piece about two people living on an economic disaster precipice as the man’s pension is tiny and he is dying, and they are outsiders in the newly re-formed capitalist, colonialism, multi-racial Indian societies. Lucy our heroine maintains herself in sanity by holding on to her dignity and composure in the midst of her husband’s continual inflicting on himself brooding over petty and large raw humiliations. Scott has always been deeply sympathetic to the feelings of the aging elderly people. A large question is that of identity: who are you in this global world? we see the outside of Tusker (a name redolent of elephants) an irascible man alienated and disillusioned after a lifetime of service (as he saw it) to India. One of the things that’s remarkable about the book is how slowly it moves.


Lucy bringing the box with papers and putting it in front of Tusker to deal with for her

A minor Colonel in the Raj. Tusker would not return to live in Engaland. They represent the last “withered survivors,” and now 25 years later they are living on a reduced income. Why didn’t he want to go back –- he said they could live better in India. Why else? He had served for a couple of years as an advisor to the Indian new army from which he retired; then about 12 years a commercial job (box wallah) with a firm in Bombay where they went once to London in 1950. It turns out he was wrong; they would have been better off returning to where they originally belonged. He is irritated perpetually, acid, falling physically apart; Lucy sees this and is frightened and has been trying to get him to tell her what she will have. He has been avoiding this, guilty, aware he has mistreated, not appreciated her all their lives.

His one friend is Mr Bhoolabjoy, Francis, Frank, who wants to enable him to stay in the quarters. Frank’s enormously fat wife, Lila, is driven by spite and greed to want to kick her Anglican tenants out after selling the building they are in. She is ambitious, ruthless, the new commerce is probably going to destroy her. Grotesque comedy comes from her size against her husband’s: he is ever serving her, waking up inside her enormous body. There is some stereotypical misogyny in the portrait of the wife. Mean, cold, exploitative, Lila bullies her husband, idle – as the book opens she had ordered Frank to write a letter to Tusker telling them in effect to get out because they have no legal lease. This demand and his failure to comply in the way she wants provides the thinnest skein of story line moving ahead – by near the end of the book he has written an unsatisfactory one, trying to be kind and when he finally does what she wants and gets to Tusker, he has this massive heart and we are back where we began, Lucy at the hairdresser with Suzy (having her blue rinse), people having to do something about her husband, now a corpse in the garden.

What is Bhoolabhoy like? Non-ambitious, has mistresses and does as little as he can get away with. Lila is gross, unscrupulous, could come out of Dickens who has many hateful domineering women. Francis and Tusker live for their money evenings together, where they drink, talk, dine, play cards. How does he treat Lucy? Not well. Not ambitious either of them.


Bhoolabhoy and Tusker

His wife, Lucy, is the book. Her parallel is much less evident as her primary relationship is with Tusker: it’s Susy, the hairdresser, Eurasian, living precariously on sexual earnings (from Francis, from Father Sebastian, see below) too. Susy Williams, I wish we knew more of her. Eurasian, born Chapel so an English dissenter, she does Lucy’s hair, she gets money from Frank by having sex with him – he doesn’t lack for appetite.

Sarah Layton has written to say that a man named Turner (associate of Saraha’s professor husband) is coming to interview her and in her loneliness – she says she and Tusker never communicate — she rehearses in her mind what she will tell him. And her tragic history (Chapter 10, pp 132-141) of thwarted talent. She begins by saying she was happy in Mudpore, a prince’s state and then remembers back to when she typed letters: made fun of by Mr Coyne, one of the bosses, as left over “Virgin of the Vicarage” (p 133). Her job in Litigation in England had been fun, she had been courted by Mr Coyne. She lived at the Y and Miss Martha Price took her under her wing, got her a flat – Miss Price we begin to realize is lesbian, loves Lucy – and is very hurt when Lucy falls in love with Tusker Smalley — as she loved her as an intense friend . Basically Lucy gives up everything she has built for herself for this man.


In the garden by their lodging next to Smith’s

She is fringe gentry (she is mocked in the UK when she takes a steno job which lowers her status), whose condition is parallel to that of subaltern women in her employ. The novel is told through the subjective soliloquies of Lucy (the prevalent presence), her Indian servant Ibrahim (who understands her and values his domestic position, the Indian landlady’s husband, Francis Boulabhoy, caricatured as subject to his ruthless wife’s erotic and cutthroat appetites, but like Lucy, having a dignity and moral position of his own. Tusker is there, but much less because his dark angers would change the whole tone of the book, which is ironic comedic plangent. It’s structured cyclically (as is his Raj Quartet), beginning with the sudden death from a massive heart attack of Tusker, and then arranged as flashback of memories and present experiences acutely realized.

The book is intertextual: Lucy had joined a dramatic society and despite her non-aggression had a chance at a part, which probably means she could act – The Housemaster – a play from 1936, Ian Hay, an all male school is destroyed when a woman and three daughters related to them disturb the peace. Very English. She did something similar in Rawalpindi.. She could have had a part in The Letteras Leslie Crosbie, a play by Somerset Maughan where Bette Davis played the part (she kills a man who rejected her and is acquitted) in a film by William Wyler. and Tusker discouraged her. A third play is called The Wind and the Rain – it was a popular ballad at the time. Very minor English plays of this era which were popular. Like you might go to a community theater today. Deeply uneasy comedies.

How much a dress meant to her; always low, looked down on but she learned rules of club and game and acted these out, and her reward at the end is to be left isolated. She’s cut off from her country of origin, her culture. I don’t think she is made fun of – she maintains composure and dignity until the last page when she loses it – her dignity hides her sorrows and is the source of her strength – that she goes through the forms. When he dies suddenly despite all the obstacles Tusker among others creates she is planning a dinner party. Gallant lady — for Susy, Francis and Father Sebastian, a black Anglican priest who has taken over the church, Father Sebastian; only Francis wanted to come.


Ibrahim yawning

Second most frequent POV is Ibrahim, though it might be Bhoolbhoy has more interior monologue. Who is Ibrahim? He is the central servant of the house and they are continually firing him. Mrs Bhoolbhoy is refusing to take care of the grass, to fix anything and Ibrahim hires Joseph (another remarkable presence, so glad to have any job, so servile apparently) to do this demeaning work. He is one level of Indian and Mr Bhoolbhoy another. He maintains a comic impartiality. He helps his memsahib whenever possible. He does the shopping, cooking, keeps them all going. Note the quiet ironies:

Ibrahim regretted the passing of the days of the raj which he remembered as days when the servants were treated as members of the family, entitled to their good humours and bad humours, their sulks, their outbursts of temper, their right to show who was really boss, and their right to their discreetly appropriate perks, the feathers they had to provide for the nest when the nest they presently inhab- ited was abandoned by homeward-bound employers. Ibrahim had been brought up in such a nest. He still possessed the chits his father had been given by Colonel Moxon-Greife and a photograph of Colonel and Mrs. Moxon-Greife with garlands round their necks, Going Home, in 1947. He had also inherited and preserved the two letters which Colonel Moxon- Greife had written to his father from England. Finally he had inherited the silence that greeted his father’s two letters to Colonel Moxon-Greife inquiring about the possi- bilities of work in England …

We have three people trying to make sense of their worlds, who they are, and they can’t – Lucy, Mr Bhoolabjoy and Ibrahim. Smaller characters: Father Sebastian, a black man, Anglo-Catholic and now in charge of the church. Reverend Stephen Ambedkar – administering to people’s spiritual needs takes generous swigs of wine.

Scott objected strenuously to the usual comparison, that ensues early in discussions of Scott’s fiction: with E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India. That too includes rape but it is kept to the margins and the book told from a male point of view, while in Staying On Scott keeps up female subjectivity as his major medium. Forster’s people are gentry who visit; they are tourists, part of an imperialist overlay of job and place-seekers, or on holiday. Scott’s characters are embedded in the central work of the society, administrative, church, political, economic, social capital is what they depend on. A habitas if you will. He saw the work of the colonial administration as the expression of their ideology; when the ideology failed, was exposed for the hypocrisy it was, so they were crushed. In his books we see Indians, Hindu and Muslim crushed by the imperialists. Staying On differs because the petty powerful local Indian people have taken over as they often did in local instances, and Hindus, Muslims, and any whites that get in anyone’s way of profit destroyed. A strong idealism underwrites the books. Racial and ethnic and religious persecution are motifs that emerge early in other books. People in close units all dependent on one another. Feed off and prey on another but also sustain one another.


Moment of frenzied behavior by Tusker over papers

A little on Scott’s life (the lamp):

Paul Scott. Born 1920 and died 1978. So not long lived. Given how frequently and fully he wrote about India and also other places abroad in the British commonwealth (Africa once) you might think he grew outside the UK borders. Not so. He grew up in London and as he said many times his use of India and the history of colonialism and exploitation seemed to him a metaphor which could reach out and cover far more than the class, gender, money, and by extension school, status, rank system he grew up in. You at once expanded your vision. At one level Lucy Smalley is still the “old” vicar’s daughter from 19th century novels displaced, the marginalized subaltern governess married off to a fringe gentry person.

It’s important to know he was a closet homosexual: he lived an outwardly heterosexual life because in his time you still were punished in all sorts of direct ways. You could call him bisexual – hermaphodite. What’s really remarkable is how heroines are central to all his books – they are the subject narrators, he writes a kind of l’ecriture-femme like Henry James. He was much influenced by Trollope who as far as we know was straight heterosexual but Trollope too leans heavily on women’s points of view. Raj Quartet: opens with rape and the girl who is raped is our first central voice, then Edwina Crane, a missionary never married, spinster, attacked on the road, burnt herself to death in a suttee when the man she worked all her life dies in this incident; the nun-nurse, Sister Ludmilla, the companion who becomes an outcast, Barbie Bachelor, and the traditional deeply humane “virtuous” in the modern ways heroine Sarah Layton (Geraldine James) – all women have sex, Sarah is driven by her family to have an abortion.

Schooling he went to Winchmore Hill Collegiate School in London, a good school but left at 16 to become an accountant. His family were commercial artists, interacting with the lower echelons of London Bohemianism in its entrepreneurial artistry. They wanted him to have the safe remunerative career. He married in 1941, Nancy Avery, herself a novelist, short story writer, they had two daughters, he lived quietly with them and groups of friends.

World War two was transformative. He was sent to India in 1943; there for three years the first time as an officer cadet in World War II. As an air supply officer he traveled widely throughout India, Burma, and Malaya, moving easily in the varied society of civilians and military, of British and Indians. After returning to England from India in 1946, heworked his way slowly up to become part of a literary commercial world. He used his accountancy degree to join a small publishing firm, Falcon and Grey Walls Press, as company secretary. In 1950 he became a director in a firm of literary agents, Pearn, Pollinger and Higham (later David Higham Associates). He had written poetry and drama during and after the war, but now he turned to fiction and produced five novels between 1952 and 1960, when he gave up his work as a literary agent to devote himself to writing the longer and more substantial novels that he had been wanting to attempt for some time.

In 1964 he returned for the first time to India, financed by his publishers, and there found inspiration for The Raj Quartet and Staying On. The British Council enabled Scott to make further visits. In 1976 and 1977 he was a visiting lecturer at the University of Tulsa, Oklahoma. He died of cancer in London in 1978, shortly after receiving the Booker Prize — but the first film was in the offing. He knew Staying On was to be filmed, but never saw the film, and he could not have foreseen Christopher Mornahan’s Raj Quarter which he would have loved.


Lucy enlisting Ibrahim

The seeds of Staying On at the end of his ilfe: in 1972 Scott returned to India and saw the world as it was evolving in the provinces; stories about left-over sahibs being published. Scott’s friend Mollie Hamilton showed him a letter by her mother, Lady Kaye, a widow, lonely harassed pitifully vulnerable; he was influenced by the stories by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala (e.g., A Backward Glance). (Years later Jumpha Lahri tells of Indian versions of such women.) Another friend, Maisie Goodbody’s husband died suddenly while on the toilet in a hotel. Goodbody would tell Scott of how they had to haggle at the bazaar and every week were harassed and would think they coudn’t get through another week and yet would. This couple living in decaying hotel – opposite people, Goodbody the elegant wit, and his wife, ill natured, raw, sarcastic. There was a Eurasian woman like Susy, manufactured cameras trying to make money.

He finished the book in 1976 and a friend in the theater saw potential for a film with Ralph Richardson as Tusker and Celia Johnson as Lucy. Tusker contains strong elements of Scott. It was a bleak and bitter time in Scott’s marriage. In brief, his wife had not been able to work at her career the way she could have. He had become alcoholic with incessant work and self-repression. He did love her but not sexually. She started proceedings for divorce when he got his position at Tulsa, she would not communicate with him. He asked her to stay and she refuses. The daughters conflicted. He wrote a letter like Tusker’s closing one to Lucy, revealing his understanding of his failure, only Tusker is kind, loving while Scott’s is harsh, raw, unforgiving how he didn’t get to go to university, how he pours himself into writing – very egoistical, felt himself in this letter a sense of waste and failure.

A little on Scott’s earlier writing:

The Alien Sky is an earlier slender novel also set in India, which deals with a theme that becomes the issue of Staying One: tragic alienation that comes to a man who has dedicated his life to India and Indians and is now rejected at Independence, his former proteges unwilling to shake his hand. The character of Tom Gower is skillfully drawn and encapsulates the moral dilemma of the colonial who genuinely feels that his work, now discredited, has been worthwhile. The second major character in The Alien Sky is an American, Joe MacKendrick, who is traveling in search of his brother’s past. The pattern of memories juxtaposed with present experiences that echo the past and the figure of the solitary traveler who seeks to piece together a story became familiar modes of presentation in Scott’s later work. The Corrida at San Feliu is about himself as a writer, how he writes novels.


Daphne Manners (played by Susan Woolridge (Scott said he began the novel with the image of a girl fleeing violence …)

The Raj Quartet itself:

Raj Quartet is a story that begins with a rape, and folds out in layers of responses and development of the original cast of characters involved directly and indirectly. Alas it reminds me of our own culture only make the Indian young men blamed for the rape into Black young men in Central Park; beaten up, sent to jail for years and never properly publicly vindicated. These crimes are skillfully linked to the political turbulence of the “Quit India” riots of 1942, and the response to the civil unrest forms the major part of the novel, with the reactions of civil and military forces, of Indian judges and English memsahibs, of petty criminals and Indian princesses all woven together to give the novel its rich texture and alluring moral complexities. Not only do different characters reveal different views of the same incident but they present them through a variety of literary forms. The reader must evaluate letters, memoirs, formal reports, a journal, a legal deposition, and omniscient flashbacks, all dealing with basically the same events seen from different points of view. As Scott adds layer upon layer of detail to the plot, it becomes clear that making any kind of moral judgment of the events or the people involved in them is going to be hard. Trollope’s first novel is about a young Catholic Irish man accused of murdering an English officer and he ends up hanged because the people running the state make him a scapegoat for revolutionary Catholic Irish groups. The Macdermots of Ballycloran.

Daphne Manners is willing to go out with Hari Kumar but when they are attacked she shows her racism by refusing to tell the truth: the two were having sex in the Bigighar Gardens; and by getting him to promise not to tell, and not standing with him she condemns him to helpless silence. The characters we see cannot escape being racist. Sarah Layton, the traditional and decent heroine who is a major voice in the second novel involves herself with an Indian Muslim man but she marries a white professor. She accedes to pressure and has an abortion when she gets pregnant by someone else. Scott does not present us with unreal victims and innocents. Barbie Bachelor, Mabel Layton’s companion, turned out as soon as the kind high officer’s wife dies, is one of the untouchables of English society – hers is the chief voice of the third book. The last book deals with the partition and brings in world historical characters.


Hari Kumar (Art Malik), the hero of the Raj Quartet, kept off stage most of the time — Scott invested a lot of himself in this deeply betrayed character

Put another way, Staying On, set in 1972, satirizes the new India of sophisticated, wealthy businessmen and politicians, corrupt property dealers, and fashionable hairdressers, as Scott depicts the now elderly and fragile Tusker and Lucy, who first appeared in The Day of the Scorpion as rather dull but useful appendages to the military station in Pankot, still making their home there after the other British have gone home. The profusion of characters found in The Raj Quartet has been distilled to these two figures. Tusker’s death at the opening of the novel leaves the remainder of the narrative–with most of the emphasis on Lucy’s thoughts … a miniature Raj Quartet in low key. We look at character’s memories through flashbacks, very delicate approaches to corruption and emotional pain.

I culled the above this from various books I read, the brilliant literary biography by Hilary Spurling (which I read years ago), Paul Scott: A Life of the Author of the Raj Quartet. Jaqueline Bannerjee’s Paul Scott (a slender concise perceptive study), K. Bhaskara Rao, Paul Scott, a Twayne product filled with clear information and background. Two very good articles: Chotiner, Isaac. “Revisiting the Raj,The New York Times Book Review. September 10, 2017,p. 13; Weinbaum, Francine. “Staying on after the Raj,” Journal of South Asian Literature, 17:1 (1982):225-29.


India photographed in the movie (POV Lucy in a car)

As to the movie, Staying on is a gem of a TV film featuring Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard who were so brilliant and compelling in Brief Encounter. The acting throughout is pitch perfect, but perhaps Saeed Jaffrey stands out. Written by Julien Mitchell, directed by Silvio Narizzano, it is more comic, less poignant until near the end. The film does not begin with Tusker’s death, but with a scene of Tusker’s drunken humiliation in his decline. In general it moves forward in chronological time, using only occasional present time flashbacks; Celia Johnson speaks aloud a number of the soliloquies Lucy thinks of herself as speaking to Mr Turner. It is accompanied by alluring Indian music, filled with shots of India. Her final words in the book and film:

but now, until the end, I shall be alone, whatever I am doing, here as I feared, amid the alien corn, waking, sleeping, alone for ever and ever and I cannot bear it but mustn’t cry and must get over it but don’t for a moment see how, with my eyes shut, Tusker, I hold out my hand, and beg you, Tusker, beg, beg you to take it and take me with you. How can you not, Tusker? Oh, Tusker, Tusker, Tusker, how can you make me stay here by myself when you yourself go home?

I wish I had taken down what the various people in my class said about the book and film. Subtle and fine readings. I’ll content myself with the one woman who said at first she couldn’t understand why this book would receive such an award, but after immersing herself, she understood.


Lucy busy about the house

Ellen

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George Bain, for his Book of Kells, Plate 14, and a mural: Highland games

Friends and readers,

One last briefer blog on my Road Scholar Tour in the Highlands area just around Aigas House. I’ve arranged my memories (from notes on a stenographer’s pad) thematically, and so we have left scenic drives and walks. Non-human animals, ruins, a small museum, lunch in an apparently well-known pub liked by tourists (and it was the one place I was at where the food was pompous and absurd, and I could find very little edible so the less said the better). On Thursday night there was the splendid treat of Celtic folk music by three musicians who appear also to live at Aigas House, which prompts me to end on the house itself.


Western Coast, Isle of Skye … much that we saw looked like this from the bus ….

Thursday was the long drive day – to the Western coast and back; part of Friday we drove around the Black Isle, a peninsula. We used observation equipment to see birds (all sorts), bottlenose dolphins (sunning themselves on stones in the sea), deer — and everywhere sheep (including black face, rams) and goats. We sat by a lovely beach in a quiet cove. Some brave souls were actually trying to get into the water. There was what was farmed, what was grazed, where there are attempts to bring back the original plants, trees, and landscape. Attempts have been made to have a railroad going through some of this but there is just not enough traffic.

On the West Coast tour, we got as far as across the way to the Isle of Skye whose “song” serves as one of the thematic tunes for the opening paratexts of Outlander. I discover that I can no longer transfer YouTube music and videos to another site so you will have to be satisfied with these (said to be) original lyrics;

Speed bonnie boat like a bird on the wing
Onward the sailors cry.
Carry the lad that’s born to be king
Over the sea to Skye

Loud the wind howls
loud the waves roar

Thunderclaps rend the air
Baffled our foes
stand by the shore
Follow they will not dare

Speed bonnie boat like a bird on the wing
Onward the sailors cry.
Carry the lad that’s born to be king
Over the sea to Skye

One of the most interesting drives was around a bay which served as a military installation during World War 2 — one can still see the re-fueling installations, places for submarines and planes to land. We stopped off at an exquisite museum, very small, a perfect place: Groam House Museum or Taigh-Tasgaidh Taigh Ghroam). Downstairs was relics of Pictish art, complete with stories of savage rites around some of it; upstairs the work of a local artist, George Bain (1881-1968), who is said to be recognized as an artist of “national significance.” He worked during World War One and there were drawings and paintings of the local area in that time, of his time in Bulgaria, and later work in a children’s art center; he is important for having studied, understood and and re-created central Celtic patterns and designs. Here is a picture by him of an ordinary day for someone driving through the area:

Bain, George; Highland Picnic; Groam House Museum; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/highland-picnic-166734

Two ruins of note: an 18th century Priory in Beauly, in much better shape (destroyed by wars rather than time) 12th century Fortrose Abbey, Erchelss Motte (a museum of archaeological sites). The guide had much to tell about one of the Beauly Priory early abbots who amassed a great fortune for himself (not easy in the 15th century), robbed his nephew of what was due him, and left the first endowment for the present University of Edinburgh. Frontose Abbey, a later 17th century building was in much better shape; it was one fought over in the Civil War, Cromwell had meant to destroy it and didn’t but I find I did not take any photos. I did not get to Ercheless Motte: it was one of those places where a choice of place was given and I chose a walk by a lake (loch).


Beauly inside — we were shown where the prior is said to have made very comfortable quarters for himself; I kept asking about some stones dedicated to mid-20th century people but the guide would not answer (not in his remit?)

Blair Castle is notable because of its continuous existence as working place and political linhpin where a family connected to the most powerful in the UK lived, or some which was used by some institution got-up for the moment (it was a hospital during the two world wars) from before the time of Robert Bruce until today. The family members appear to have had no interest in art (mostly sportsmen and women having babies and social lives), but the family included Lord George Murray (he was deeply against fighting that day at Culloden) and a couple of other highly controversial (and sometimes executed) people; the place was burnt down more than once; it contains relics of its Balmorality period, of the empire the younger sons traveled to. The place is nowadays painted white (which seemed to me ludicrous somehow, it made the building unreal, like a piece of cake). This entrance hall shows typical sets of guns, fireplaces, mahogany.

I saw intelligent faces on the people, sportsmen and women alike, a interesting nursery recreated. A fascinating recreation of a ship during Nelson’s time — by one family member. In the shop, there was a slender biography on sale of a female member of the family who spent her life embrodering exquisitely; more interesting (but no biography) plaques and photos in the house showed a woman who was among the first women MPs and a fervent supporter of the labor party. Like Longleate, the place is today supported by the tourists (there are summer gardens with sculptures in them), by having on places for picnics, racing and shows of horses, working and tenant farms. There is a generosity of social spirit: local people come to walk with their dogs. The usual sheep and cows in the fields.


Not the band lodged at Aigas House, but instruments they are using are what was used, and they sat close together

Thursday night after dinner was great fun. We as a group were invited to get up and speak, sing a song, tell a story. I was the only one of the 16 to stand and read aloud some lines of poetry I thought in the spirit of place. I quoted some of it as the epitaph to my first blog. There are many beautiful pastoral passages in John Lister-Kaye’s books: “All deep thought leads to the spirit” is his; give the natural world a chance. Rachel Carson: “There is something infinitely healing in the repeated refrains of nature — the assurance that dawn comes after the night and spring after the winter.” “Reserves of strength” in the beauty of the earth and living things. A couple of the guides stood up and talked of how they felt about their work. The musicians then said they’d bring the “tone down a bit” and gave us some rollicking and melancholy songs. Bag-pipes much used. I remember tonight some of the most enjoyable passages from Johnson and Boswell’s twin tours are evenings of dance, song, and drink.

I haven’t got a text from that night to share so hope this poem by a 19th century Scottish woman poet will do: if it’s not jolly, it’s not as desperately sad as so many of the Gaelic songs’ lyrics originally were. It comes out of that tradition as a Scottish woman’s poem:

Who hath not treasured something of the past
The lost, the buried, or the far awav
Twined with those heart affections , which outlast
All save their memories? these outlive decay:
A broken relic of our childhood’s play,
A faded flower that long ago was fair
Mute token of a love that died untold.
Or silken curl, or lock of silv’ry hair,
The brows that bore them long since in the mould.
Though these may call up griefs that else had slept,
Their twilight sadness o’er the soul to bring.
Not every tear in bitterness is wept.
While they revive the drooping flowers that spring
Within the heart, and round its ruined altars cling.
— Isabella Craig-Knox (1831-1903)

I come back to the house. The next day I was told one of the musicians was blind (I hadn’t noticed) and he and the woman among them lived on the estate, she in the Lister-Kaye gatehouse lodge with her autistic son. The son was said to come to the great or central house frequently to talk to people. Perhaps the most remarkable thing was this place, Aigas house and its surrounding lands. It upstairs and behind the scenes. Its show spots.


Dining room (aka Baronial Hall where most of us ate — also in the nearby small library)

It was like living in a version of Downton Abbey vastly updated and kept up for quite different reasons, but the connections were clear: one can see the Granthams becoming tour masters to keep their estate and income flowing in. All the people stay in cottages around the estate; the “staff” who come and go (including bus drivers and all sorts of people like tour-bus drivers) stay in the house in the turrets and other tucked-away places. I didn’t walk around the estate half-enough: it was cold and at night dark. I was told the remains of the iron-age fort were a few rocks.

It was easier to cuddle into bed, rest and relax in the bedroom in the cottage I was in with Winston Graham’s Poldark novel, The Angry Tide. My roommate had a copy of Outlander, which some evenings she read too, probably much more appropriate. I’ve listened to this fist of the novels read aloud very well by Davina Porter, and have now finished watching the second season of Outlander, the mini-series, and will probably listen to Dragonfly in Amber read aloud by Porter too.

What I mean to end on is the familiar comfortable intelligently done hospitality of Sir John and Lady Lucy Lister-Kaye was crucial. When we left on another big bus, she and he (Sir John had both hands up and was waving away) and all the staff on hand at that moment came to the door, lined up and waved us goodbye. Just like in Downton Abbey.


Photograph in the house

Ellen

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Vanessa Redgrave as Clarissa Dalloway coming down the stairs (opening of film)

Dear friends and readers,

I’ve carried on reading Virginia Woolf, and feel I am moving more deeply into what is valuable in her, and seeing what does not quite come up to high excellence: though all she writes has integrity, she can seem to nod. She mirrrors her class, her era, is not sufficiently widely read in women’s writing because they were not available to her, or to most of us, until the 1970s — and then many do not avail themselves of earlier women’s art and books. That’s what I have my Austen Reveries blog for — to call attention to great art by women whose work is not sufficiently known (as well as Austen and 18th century art).

So the last 4 weeks I’ve reread her Mrs Dalloway, To the Lighthouse & (after a long hiatus) A Room of One’s Own. I’ve watched the 1997 film adaptation of Mrs Dalloway, directed by Marleen Gorris, scripted by Eileen Atkins (who used to enact a one woman virtuoso couple of hours of Virginia Woolf for an evening’s theater); the (to me misogynist) very bad 2002 The Hours film (based on Michael Cunningham’s post-text to Mrs Dalloway, directed by Stephen Haldry, screenplay David Hare), and now the 1983 TV film (as it’s called) To the Lighthouse (screenplay Hugh Stoddart, directed by Colin Gregg). Only in Mrs Dalloway had any major roles in the making of the film been taken by women. As I watched To the Lighthouse, I found myself remembering my childhood watching the film To the Lighthouse:when I was young my family had a house on Long Island where we’d spend long weekends on a beach. Alas I don’t know that now nor will probably again — I’d be the grandmother …

I’ve been taking my first course as a student or class member at the OLLI at AU, where we are called “fearless readers” for studying Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway, To The Lighthouse, A Room of One’s Own, and essays from The Common Readers and a few other places. It’s been an enjoyable and stimulating experience (not least because the professor doing it is such a confident relaxed and serious teacher (all at once) and I’m learning how to teach better too. The central themes of her mature fiction are feminist, deeply empathetic towards what is not institutionalized, individual liberty, how we are caught up in time, history, the spaces we find ourselves in. At least in these early works.

Mrs Dalloway was not “covered” on our group reading of Woolf (as just too well-known, as already read by all of us), nor A Room of One’s Own (ditto). Despite or maybe because of the surface conventionality of Clarissa’s day, Mrs Dalloway questions the bases of that conventional life, filled with much despair, injustice loneliness, so many people as puzzled wanderers on the earth going about routines. It’s an artfully controlled counterpart to Joyce’s Ulysses a day in the life and world of Clarissa, which takes in remembered past time, deep time before that (before Clarissa was a possibility), such an array of imagery capturing life’s smallest and biggest things. Mostly upper class people: the snobbery of the characters is seen in everyone’s apologizing to a vicar’s wife, so Woolf does see that. The question of the novel is how to take Clarissa: is it as ironic as Austen’s Emma, or are we to enter truly empathetically into Clarissa’s consciousness. Probably we are to see Clarissa’s limitations and yet bond with her. The central idea uniting the story of the traumatized (permanently shattered) Septimus Smith and the self-sheltered Mrs Dalloway is that (as she thinks) you must not “force the soul.” Septimus killed himself to save his soul from the unscrupulous morally moronic Dr Bradshaw.


In the film Septimus and Rezia (Amelia Bullmore) cornered as the doctor and his “aides” demand entrance — his crime, he said he wanted to kill himself

Life is made “intolerable” for those inner lives demand, need individual liberty in their outer ones. The professor took us through a lesbian reading of Mrs D which brings us a parallel underlying structure. Sally and Clariss’s kiss is a rare depiction of lesbian orgasm (and therefore famous):

It was a sudden revelation, a tinge like a blush, which one tried to check and then, as it spread, one yielded to its expansion, and rushed to the farthest verge and there quivered and felt the world come close, swollen with some astonishing significance, some pressure of rapture, which split its thin skin and gushed and poured with an extraordinary alleviation over the cacks and sores. Then, for that moment, she had seen an illumination; a match burning in a crocus: an inner meaning almost expressed. But the close withdrew; the hard softened. It was over — in a moment.

She suggested that Georgia O’Keefe’s art is a visual equivalent. The imagery of the crocus, the inner soft vulnerable part of the flower occurs repeatedly in the novel in erotic places. Here is O’Keefe’s Autumn Trees: The Maple:

Atkins and Gorris’s Merchant-Ivory Mrs Dalloway carries itself so lightly and yet reaches down to the depths of distraught terror (Rupert Graves is superb as Septimus); the use of younger actors and switching back and forth brought out how layers of time are woven into the book’s angles of narration.


The young Clarissa and Peter — in the novel Clarissa continually remembers a love courtship many years ago

The film feels fluid, unforcedly symbolic. The iron gates are everywhere and they are what Septimus falls upon. The haunted nature of everyone’s experience through pained and joyful memory creates the tone of piece which is meditative — and comic because of the asinity of Lady Bexborough (Margaret Tysack) and Hugh Whitbread (Oliver Ford Davies). Michael Kitchener managed to convey Peter Walsh as someone who had his heart genuinely broken. Yet at the end resigned with Sally (Sarah Badel as the aging lesbian love, now respectabily Lady Rossiter):

Redgrave plays Woolf as someone who embraces life, not fragile, keeps people from intruding. Dropped is her detestation of Miss Killman in the book. Miss Killman resented far more fiercely than Austen’s Emma resents Miss Bates because Miss Killman shows up Clarissa’s privileged existence and seems to be stealing her daughter, Elizabeth; this parallel between the two books shows how closely Mrs Dalloway also “comes out of” Austen’s art (as did Woolf’s first novel, The Voyage Out).


Laura Knight, Lamorna Cove, or On the Cliffs

On Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, I now wonder how much Woolf had in mind Johnson and Boswell in the Hebrides, Skye as a refuge (from Culloden literally), shifting is the mode — mostly deeply recognizably Cornwall, St Ives, but what are we to do with the Scottish sublimity of the Antiquary (read by Mr Ramsay), the sea in which William Cowper “perishes all alone,” the dark memories of Westmorland (where Wm Bankes and Mr Ramsay once walked), the killing fields of WW1 (written about by the quietly gay poet of the piece, Mr Carmichael). The sounds of the sea, the moon, the lighthouse itself, geology back in time, replace the music, contemporary green parks and flowers and killing fields of Mrs Dalloway’s everyday life. The middle section of Time Passes is stream of consciousness detached from any recognizable character: the time of aeons for the 10 years between Mrs Ramsay’s death and the longed-for reaching of the Lighthouse. It is a work of mourning, griefstruck meditation using stretched out time in the way of Proust, while Woolf is killing Mrs Ramsay as the angel in the house preventing her from living the life of a writer. I recommend Su Reid’s memories of her many summers in Cornwall applied to To The Lighthouse (in Cornwall: The Cultural Construction of Place, ed Ella Westland).

I’ve been watching the film To the Lighthouse this evening. Again, it put me in mind of when I was young and my parents and family had a summer house on Long Island and we did have joy on the beach. And now I have no chance for such experiences,as no ties to such a family group. To the Lighthouse is nostalgic (like the Dalloway film). I didn’t cry just thought of what once was — as the screenplay, the words are astonishing. They are an amalgam of passages from other works by Woolf which suggest connections between the sea of To the Lighthouse, and the “waves” of all her other works. Rosemary Harris delivers a contemplative monologue about the nature of Woolf’s verbal creativity in effect.


An iconic moment: Rosemary Harris as Mrs Ramsay, holding James’s hand, catering to him

As to actors, there’s a very young Kenneth Branagh playing Charles Tansley, the serious student, Suzanne Bertish a wise Lily Briscoe. Each of the Ramsay children is given a moment of characterization and individualized actor. In the film Mrs Ramsay’s death come on slowly, not the sudden collapse of the book (suggesting the world drained the life out of the woman)


Rosemary Harris is the angel on the beach, in the house, Michael Gough the rough well-meaning Mr Ramsay (having Oedipal struggles with James)

I’ve gained a couple of new rich source books: A small neglected superb book for its rich assortment of suggestive black-and-white photos of Woolf and Leonard, their houses, streets, the Hogarth Press, countryside around Monk House, Cornwall, and concise intelligent readings of her novels is Monique Nathan’s Virginia Woolf, and there is now a Mrs Dalloway Reader, ed Francine Prose, filled with relevant writings on the Dalloways by Woolf herself (including her sections on the couple in Voyage Out and Between the Acts), wonderful letters, brief appreciations.

A Room of One’s Own is problematic: There is too much exaggeration for lack of knowledge of women’s literature. Woolf will say there is no writing about mothers and children until the 20th century. Not true. We now know there were many women writers around Shakespeare’s time: most of the learned lady kind, but they wrote thoughtful political treatises, poetry, translations. She also diminishes and lambasts earlier women’s achievement far too much: in the last 100 years we have found a tradition of women’s writing in all spheres of life, not all their novels were dreadful (except of course those by the in this treatise paragon Jane Austen), her demand for an “incandescendant approach to writing is unreal. Woolf is writing several decades earlier than the 1970/80s when women’s literature before the 19th century came back in print and the writing of women in the 19th multiplied dramatically. She also makes such a paragon of Austen: it’s absurd the way she attributes to Austen perfection; there is the idea that Bronte (Charlotte) had the greater genius, but Woolf never explains what she means by this. It does feel like nagging at moments too. I have an idea why it is no longer read. Three Guineas is preferable, the much more mature work.

That said, it’s startlingly a propos at the moment: it explains to you why Trump, a cunning corrupt moron was preferred to Hillary Clinton, utterly reputable, highly intelligent and capable. So much she asserts is true of most women until the 19th century, still true of women in traditional cultures today. There for men to have sex with, give babies to, and obey authorities. Stay indoors much of their lives, or kept away from larger public world for long stretches. The brother and heir comes first. Deep shame over sex inculcated. Reading A Room of One’s Own makes me so sorrowful for those women and books, whose art is still thwarted, stymied, stigmatized, and rejoice for those who have stuck it out and achieved a measure of self-fulfillment. Clarissa chose the safe kindly Richard Dalloway; many women today can choose the daring career, but the treatise demonstrates amid much push back and at crucial points lack of empathy. A Room of One’s Own does end very well: Mary Carmichael can at long last try a novel, and she does; she has around her so much pressure not to, and what we can do for her is work for her so she shall have space, money, time, self-esteem and liberty even if it means to do this in the present circumstances for most of us means working in obscurity and poverty.

I will jump to the later Woolf soon, and read Between the Acts next ….

LES INSOUMISES
(photo by Pascal Victor/ArtComArt)


A photo from a French staged play reading of Virginia Woolf’s writings

Ellen

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csmith1782
Charlotte Smith (1749-1807) by George Romney (1792)

Sonnet 69 from Elegiac Sonnets

Written at the same place [where refugees land], on seeing a seaman return who had been imprisoned at Rochfort

Clouds, gold and purple, o’er the westering ray
Threw a bright veil, and catching lights between,
Fell on the glancing sail, that we had seen
With soft, but adverse winds, throughout the day
Contending vainly: as the vessel nears,
Encreasing numbers hail it from the shore;
La! on the deck a pallid form appears,
Half wondering to behold himself once more
Approach his home. — And now he can discern
His cottage thatch amid surrounding trees;
Yet, trembling, dreads lest sorrow or disease
Await him there, embittering his return:
But all he loves are safe; with heart elate,
Tho’ poor and plunder’d, he absolves his fate!

Dear friends and readers,

Although I’ve been putting my blogs on historical fiction set in the 18th century, both in film and in novels on this blog (e.g., Poldark and Outlander), and have now and again put teaching 18th century texts (Fielding’s Tom Jones) and enjoyment in reading and viewing arts and music and books of the era, I’ve kept scholarship in the area in my Austen reveries blog. Hence I’ve not posted much at all about Charlotte Smith, a consuming interest (in her life) and love (for her poetry and some of her novels) in my life now for many years (see More First Encounters).

Charlotte Smith was a great and profound poet in the later 18th century, the mother of romanticism (with Wordsworth a father, and Radcliffe, mothering the Gothic), and an absorbing original novelist. I attended the second conference devoted just to her at Chawton House Library in Hampshire this past October, gave a paper on her as a post-colonial writer, and after a five-year effort published the first affordable paperback scholarly edition of her second novel, Ethelinde, or The Recluse of the Lake.

9781943910540-Perfect.indd

The purpose of this blog is to encourage anyone interested to buy it at Valancourt Press, which will take you to Amazon, and its occasion is a wonderfully thorough and insightful blog by the novelist, literary critic and publisher, Tyler Tichelaar:

Charlotte Smith’s Ethelinde: A Missing link between Romanticism and the Gothic, to which I append my comment and then some:

I didn’t sufficiently emphasize in my introduction the book as a romantic novel, though I did talk about the poetic landscape and how (from contemporary reviews and a contemporary almost immediate French translation), it seems what most struck people. We have to remember that Ann Radcliffe’s The Romance of the Forest was first published in 1790, the same year as Ethelinde, and The Mysteries of Udolpho came four years later. So this novel was a revelation. In the sequence where Ethelinde goes to her father’s tomb, she anticipates and imitates the haunted gothic of Victorian fiction. I probably didn’t think of the romantic connections because it’s a rare novel by Smith where she does not include any of her poems. Maybe because she thought she’d created poetry in words enough with the landscapes. I agree with Robert the book does not feel very Burney-like, Smith is so corrosively angry in her satire on awful characters. But I feel certain all these women read one another. I also forget Smith’s novels became part of the Jacobin novelists of the 1790s too (Rogert Bage’s Hermsprong, Thomas Holcroft, Godwin’s Caleb Williams, Wollstonecraft’s Maria; or The Wrongs of Woman) and Walter Scott wrote a long beautiful perceptive appreciation.

Valancourt has brought the book out as a hardback. I conclude it’s selling well — for a book of this sort. The publisher & editor has indicated to me he’s not really interested in going on to publish another by Smith: his business seems to have begun by concentrating on publishing rarer older gothic and Victorian novels (out of copyright) but in the last few year more contemporary and gay novels have been added to the list. If he should change his mind, I think I’ll ask for a payment this time 🙂

Several Smith novels are available as Broadview Press editions, e.g. Celestina; Kentucky Press, e.g. The Young Philosopher. A couple others are available in good facsimile reprints but no notes and no introduction, no bibliography (e.g., The Banished Man, about war-torn Europe and France from an emigre’s perspective). Montalbert is in one of these reprints of ECO texts where there are four tiny pages per page, but you can buy it cheaply. Even The Romance of Real Life is available in an OCR facsimile.

Marchmont is now the only novel by Smith not available in an affordable edition. It was Marchmont I and the publisher spoke as an alternative to Ethelinde when we first discussed the project, and I probably chose Ethelinde because it’s historically more important (see above — it was a revelation), and I’d read part of Ethelinde. And yet Marchmont is a powerful book — it has this extraordinarily frank depiction of a debtor’s prison (anticipates Dickens) and makes use of a terrible siege in France, Toulon, and so calls attention to the reality that the “terror” of and many of the early directorate’s actions were a reaction against invasion from other capitalist-royalist national leaderships with their armies and the complicated politics within France. Trollope’s La Vendee is about the counter-revolutionaries in the countryside.

Fragment Descriptive of the Miseries of War

To a wild mountain, whose bare summit hides
Its broken eminence in clouds; whose steeps
Are dark with woods; where the receding rocks
Are worn with torrents of dissolving snow;
A Wretched woman, pale and breathless, flies,
And, gazing round her, listens to the sound
Of hostile footsteps:–No! they die away–
Nor noise remains, but of the cataract,
Or surly breeze of night, that mutters low
Among the thickets, where she trembling seeks
A temporary shelter–clasping close
To her quick-throbbing heart her sleeping child . . . (1797)
from Smith’s The Emigrants

Smith deserves to given her rightful place in the literature of the era and be read for pleasure by more modern readers than the usual academic specialists at long last. I’m so glad Valancourt made an appealing compact edition.

Ellen

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corotlandscape
Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot (1796-1875), Memories of the Villa d’Avray, 1872

When in some River, overhung with Green,
The waving Moon and trembling leaves are seen — Anne Finch (1661-1720), A Nocturnal Reverie

In the clear azure Glean the Flocks are seen,
and floating Forest paint the Waves with Green — Alexander Pope (1689-1744), Windsor Forest

Dear friends and readers,

A sudden anthology. Read and look at what takes your fancy.

Tonight I read a difficult paper on Samuel Johnson’s poetry: the author’s central perspective was there are meanings within meanings, as no character remains the same once adapted and translated and filmed, so there are links everywhere, infinite regress into intertextualities. I was led to remember how deeply great learned poetry can make one feel if you follow it within, ever circling, remembering, each time unearthing yet another couple of lines suggestively remembered in the “top” or surface line. Translation provides this pleasure from a single passage. And each new variation adds another perspective, image, thought, feeling, oasis or terror. Good poetry from all eras works this way (good poetry is learned, knowing what came before, projecting what is to come); what differentiates the classical variety is the austerity of the surface and use of formal verse, be it through rhyme and regularly prosody, stanzas, or imitations of Milton, strong blank verse (what a funny name for it).

Halloween might be considered one of those seasonal ritual holidays where a change of seasons, this time from long days of light to long nights of darkness, is signaled. I went looking for allusive poems that might capture such a transition. I am reluctant to try my readers’ patience so quote only a selection from one longer but otherwise brief lyrics: Leopardi might have made the point much better but he (like Radcliffe) is at his best at length, but I do end on his and two other poet’s shorter poems to a thrush, a line from Jane Austen, a still from a film adaptation of Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones:

This from Anne Radcliffe (1764-1823) Song of the Evening Hour:

Last of the Hours, that track the fading Day,
I move along the realms of twilight air,
And hear, remote, the choral song decay
Of sister-nymphs, who dance around my car.

Then, as I follow through the azure void,
His partial splendour from my straining eye
Sinks in the depths of space; my only guide
His faint ray dawning on the farthest sky …

When fades along the west the Sun’s last beam
As, weary, to the nether world he goes,
And mountain-summits catch the purple gleam,
And slumb’ring ocean faint and fainter glows …

Where’er I move, a tranquil pleasure reigns;
O’er all the scene the dusky tints I send,
That forests wild and mountains, stretching plains
And peopled towns, in soft confusion blend.

Wide o’er the world I waft the fresh’ning wind,
Low breathing through the woods and twilight vale,
In whispers soft, that woo the pensive mind
Of him who loves my lonely steps to hail …

The wood-nymphs hail my airs and temper’d shade,
With ditties soft and lightly sportive dance,
On river margin of some bow’ry glade,
And strew their fresh buds as my steps advance.—

But swift I pass, and distant regions trace,
For moon-beams silver all the eastern cloud,
And Day’s last crimson vestige fades apace;
Down the steep west I fly from Midnight’s shroud.”

— From her Mysteries of Udolpho, 1794

While at a small conference of fellow 18th century scholars, I heard a paper I mean to discuss elsewhere where (among others things) it was suggested that Radcliffe found peace in darkness, here we find her in that transition time, absorbed in twilight, a lover of autumn.

moonlightskating-1
George Bellows (1882-1925), Moonlight Skating (Central Park?)

This is the whole of Samuel Johnson (1709-84) “Translation of Roy’s Verses on Skaters”: for winter:

1
O’er Ice the rapid Skaiter flies,
    With Sport above and Death below;
Where Mischief lurks in gay Disguise,
    Thus lightly touch and quickly go.

2
O’er crackling ice, o’er gulphs profond,
    With nimble glide the skaiters play;
O’er treacherous pleasure’s flow’ry ground
    Thus lightly skim, and haste away.

— from The Complete Poems, e. J.d. Fleeman (this was copied out by Hester Thrale alongside the French original, 1782)

And two translations from a poet-translator, Allen Mandelbaum (1926-2011), I was privileged to have had a teacher in graduate school

tinablau_kanal_in_holland-medium
Tina Blau (1845-1916, an Austrian artist), A Canal in Holland

For spring from Giuseppe Ungaretti (1888-1970), Selected Poems, translator Mandelbaum:

Quiete

L’uva è maturea, il campo arato,
Si stacca il monte dalla nuvole.
Sui polversosi specchi dell’estate
Caduta è l’ombra.

Tra ledita incerte
Il loro lume è chiaro.
E lontano.
Colle rondini fugge
L’ultimo strazio

From which I love: Quiet

The mountain leaves the clouds.

The shadow falls upon the dusty
Mirrors of summer.
Between uncertain fingers
Their glistening is bright
And distant.

With the swallows flees
The final agony.

The briefest from A Selected Writings of Salvatore Quasimodo (1901-68)who won the Nobel Prize in 1959, though who remembers?), translator Mandelbaum

Untitled

Ognuno sta solo sul cuor della terra
trafitto da unraggio di sole:
ed è subito sera.

Each alone on the heart of the earth,
impaled upon a ray of sun:
and suddenly it’s evening.

paul_sanduwindsornightterrace-large
Paul Sandby (1731-1809), Windsor Terrace, Evening

I know I have not situated and re-situated. Another name for this is intertextuality, which the reader can perform, not the poet.

From Giacomo Leopardi (1798-1837), The Solitary Thrush, the translator, Eamon Grennan:

Perched on top of that old tower,
You sing as long as daylight lasts,
The sweet sound of you winding
Round and round the valley.
Spring shimmers
In the air, comes with a green rush
Through the open fields, is a sight
To soften any heart. You can hear
Sheep bleating, bellowing cattle,
While the other birds swoop and wheel
Cheerily round the wide blue sky,
Having the time of their lives together.
Like an outsider, lost in thought,
You are looking on at it all:
Neither companions nor wild flights
Fire your heart; games like these
Mean nothing to you. You sing,
And in singing spend the best
Part of your life and the passing year.

Ah, how these habits of mine
Are just like yours! Whatever the reason …
This day already dwindling into dusk
Is a feast in these parts. You can hear
The bells ring round a clear sky
And a far-off thunder of guns …
I walk out all by myself,
Putting off pleasure, postponing play:
And gazing about at the radiant air
I’m struck by how the sinking sun
After a day as perfect as this one
Melts among the distant hills,
And seems to say
That blessed youth itself is fading.

Solitary little singer, when you
Reach the evening of those days
Which the stars have numbered for you,
You’ll not grieve, surely,
For the life you’ve led, since even
The slightest twist of your will
Is nature’s way …

I should have known that when Helen Maria Williams (1759=1827, Wordsworth loved her poetry) writes of a thrush, she speaks of how the foolish bird fled from her to its death: for the past month while my kitchen was renovated, I worried sick lest my cats flee the house to their death. They could not begin to make it as feral cats: I put them in a pets’ boarding house and they spent the week in the cage, would not come out, finally were provided with an inner box, all padded, where they cling to one another’s arms: it gives a whole ‘nother turn to Henry Fielding (1707-54) story of how Blifil let Sophia’s bird free to spite her and Tom (out of malice) and Tom fell in the water trying to recapture it. Fielding diverts out attention from the bird who is not seen again: Elegy on a Young Thrush, which escaped from the writer’s hand, and falling down the area of a house, could not be found.

Mistaken Bird, ah whither hast thou stray’d?
    My friendly grasp why eager to elude?
This hand was on thy pinion lightly laid,
    And fear’d to hurt thee by a touch too rude.

Is there no foresight in a Thrush’s breast,
    That thou down yonder gulph from me wouldst go?
That gloomy area lurking cats infest,
    And there the dog may rove, alike thy foe.

I would with lavish crumbs my bird have fed,
    And brought a crystal cup to wet thy bill;
I would have made of down and moss thy bed,
     Soft, though not fashion’d with a Thrush’s skill.

Soon as thy strengthen’d wing could mount the sky,
    My willing hand had set my captive free;
Ah, not for her who loves the Muse, to buy
    A selfish pleasure, bought with pain to thee!

The vital air, and liberty, and light
    Had all been thine; and love, and rapt’rous song,
And sweet parental joys, in rapid flight,
    Had led the circle of thy life along.

Securely to my window hadst thou flown,
    And ever thy accustom’d morsel found;
Nor should thy trusting breast the wants have known
    Which other Thrushes knew when winter frown’d.

Fram’d with the wisdom nature lent to thee,
    Thy house of straw had brav’d the tempest’s rage,
And thou through many a Spring hadst liv’d to see
    The utmost limit of a Thrush’s age.

Ill-fated bird!—and does the Thrush’s race,
    Like Man’s, mistake the path that leads to bliss?
Or, when his eye that tranquil path can trace,
    The good he well discerns through folly miss?

— Helen Maria Williams, Poems on various subjects (1823)]

And finally one of Jim’s favorite poets and poems: Basil Bunting (1900-85);

A thrush in the syringa sings.

‘Hunger ruffles my wings, fear,
lust, familiar things.

Death thrusts hard. My sons
by hawk’s beak, by stones,
trusting weak wings
by cat and weasel, die.

Thunder smothers the sky.
From a shaken bush I
list familiar things,
fear, hunger, lust.’

O gay thrush.

Jane Austen (1775-1817) said she planted a syringa for the sake of a line of poetry by William Cowper (1731-1800)

Complete Poems, 1964

fromtomjones
In this scene from the 1997 Tom Jones (scripted Simon Burke, directed Metin Huseyin) we may take it that Tom has failed to rescue the bird and fallen from a tree into the water while Mrs Bridget Allworthy (Tessa Peake Jones, who was once Mary Bennett [1979 P&P scripted Fay Weldon], unknown to be his biological mother) and Mr Allworthy (unknown to be his uncle, Benjamin Whitlow, previously Mr Bennet [1995 P&P, scripted Andrew Davies]) look down worriedly

Ellen

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To know what you prefer, instead of humbly saying Amen to what the world tells you you ought to prefer, is to have kept your soul alive — Robert Louis Stevenson.

Inverness
Claire Randall (Catrionia Balfe) arriving at Inverness (Outlander 2015, 1st episode, opening)

Rhyme of a Journey from London to Edinburgh (1914)

Farewell to one city
a dawning of light
and hail to another
at fall of the night

On in the North steams
triumphant the train
ceaselessly grinding
a rhythmic refrain

Meadows fly past and
a luminous sheet
of wind-rippled water,
a grimy back street.

Stark rows of houses
break up the pale sky,
a jangle of coal-trucks,
a station passed by.

Cast the old thoughts that
troubled your mind
to drown in that river
left gleaming behind,

new ones come stirring
with live young wings
from rhythmical power
and swift-running things.

There’s a cathedral
in mist: as a dream
it has vanished, and slowly
we slacken and steam
into that station
whose girders of might
curve upwards, transfigured
in columns of light.

No stopping! No staying!
mad demons of speed
have boarded the engine
are hissing their greed.

Sudden lurch forward
and once more away
and see, we are racing
the dying of day!

A bridge we are crossing
with thunderous swerve;
left and right flashes
a river’s gold curve;

Glittering windows
rise tier upon tier
held steeped in the sunset
what city is here?

To twilight, to darkness
and night has begun
The miles of our journey
ae nearly outrun

Waken, wan travellers,
Look! very high
there stands the great castle
along the dark sky …
— Dorothy Seward Walton (When Evening Comes in the City, 1934)

Dear friends and readers,

A couple of nights ago I went to an enjoyable, informative and perceptive (what more could you want?) lecture at the Smithsonian museum on Robert Louis Stevenson’s life and writing by Stephen Arata, the professor editing the complete works of RLS (39 volumes and still going): towards the end telling us of Stevenson in the South Sea Islands and how gradually he began to write deeply sympathetically to the native cultures, in effect from a post-colonial critical standpoint, Prof Arata said Stevenson wrote that the Scots people were peculiarly well-situated to write from a global perspective. That might seem contradictory, given their half an island is mostly rock, not arable for farming, their intellectual “world” city small (half of it very old), but if you think about their relationship to England as a nearby colony, the massacre at Culloden and the enforced diaspora, and how they set forth to become colonialists themselves as well as subaltern people, it makes sense. More to the point: they write this way.

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John Singer Sergeant (1856-1925), Robert Louis Stevenson (1887)

There is no coming back … on the impetuous stream of life. And we must all set our pocket-watches by the clock of fate. There is a headlong, forthright tide, that bears away man with his fancies like a straw, and runs fast in time and space — Robert Louis Stevenson.

Last summer I was working on a paper on Trollope from a post-colonialist standpoint; that meant reading about and works written in, and films from Australia as context; for Charlotte Smith this summer I am on the same wave length of a perspective, but the focus texts are two of her novels partly in Scotland, Ethelinde; or the Recluse of the Lake (early novel, global in reach) and The Young Philosopher (last long fiction, ends in America), and whose affinities with Scottish women poets and novelists I wrote about this past fall, I’ve turned to Scotland. This a perfect excuse for immersion (wallowing is the more apt term) in the first season of Outlander (I’m one of those cut off from the present second season until it comes out on DVD), whose motifs and characters are uncannily like those of the second volume of Smith’s Young Philosopher (Englishwoman elopes to Highlands with Scottish laird, abducted, threatened with rape, saved in the nick of time &c&c), but that’s late at night.

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Daylight hours, I’ve read Margaret Oliphant’s the Ladies Lindores and her Autobiography, Scottish women’s poetry, and Margaret Atwood’s poetical sequence, the Journals of Susannah Moodie, Elizabeth Bohls’s Romantic Literature and Post-colonial studies (no less than two chapters on Scotland), some wonderful essays on Scottish women novelists in Lyndsay Luncan, Carla Sassi (&c&c&)’s Re-visioning Scotland, on Nan Shepherd, Christian Isobel Johnstone (nearly contemporary with Jane Austen, would you believe, on war and nationalism), all of which I heartily recommend. I moved into male Scottish writers’ texts too: I’ve just finished what might be the first English novel set partly in India, Scott’s The Surgeon’s Daughter (one of 3 novellas called Canongate Chronicles), and am now thinking of adding to my love of Stevenson’s essays, short stories, and travel books (Travels on a Donkey, The Amateur Emigrant), some of his South Sea Islands writing. I am most interested in the intersection of feminist insights with a post-colonial perspective on structuring of the characters’ experience otherwise. I’ll write about Stevenson and Atwood in a separate blogs dedicated to them alone.

THE PLANTERS
From Atwood’s Journals of Susannah Moodie (an book which is itself literally a work of art)

Free fall
is falling but at least it’s
free. I don’t even know
whether I jumped or was pushed,
but it hardly matters now
I’m up here. No wings
or net but for an instant
anyway there’s a great
view: the sea,
a line of surf, brown cliffs
tufted with scrub, your upturned
face a white zero.
I wish I knew
whether you’ll catch or watch.
— From Atwood, “Small Poems for the Winter Solstice,” True Stories (1981)

Tonight I thought I’d confine myself to sharing a little bit of Oliphant, Scott, a third poem (from An Anthology of Scottish Women Poets, ed Catherine Kerrigan) and a few remarks from the essays I’ve read, not to omit suggestive stills and words from Outlander.

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Edward_Lear,_Civita_Castellana_(1844)
Edward Lear, Civita Castellan (1844) — in her extraordinarily genuine account of her life as a writer, supporting her own and brother’s children, with her three boys and beloved Margaret (at age 9) dying before her, she tells of her travels to Italy and around Europe, a classical cosmopolitan landscape emerges

I loved Oliphant’s The Ladies Lindores and am anxious to read the sequel, The (later) life of Lady Carr. It’s a mix of a sensible and saturnine meditative insightful text (recalling Trollope repeatedly) within a deeply Scottish world from a quietly feminist standpoint. The story-line is complicated, with (like Scott’s) several divagating turns, a back-story set of characters who emerge to become the central figures, and then cannot forget back stories we never see dramatized. We begin with a great Scottish house, Dalrulzian whom John Erskine, a young Scotsman who has been brought up to be English, has come to live. For years Robert Lindores, a younger son living on a limited income in a cheap French spa, suddenly inherits a title and another grand house in the neighborhood, and proceeds to try to make his two daughters and son’s lives the means for him now to become well-connected, in power. The most memorable story dramatizes how he bullies his sensitive daughter Lady Caroline Lindores into marrying Pat Torrance, a man who ferociously bullies, mocks, and terrifies her. His wife’s values remain humane, decent, and she is appalled by the changes in him, but years of passivity, her real dependence, and not having values to oppose his with, has not the strength of character to oppose him. The third Lindores lady is the wry, sceptical Lady Edith, who escapes his Net, just and marries Erksine. A son, Lord Rintoul, by accident causes Pat Torrance to topple over a cliff, and Rolls, Erskine’s servant ends up confessing, thinking he is protecting his master, Erskine. Lady Car is enabled to marry Beaufort, the man she met at the spa, and has dreamed of ever since, seemingly congenial, sensitive, but like Erskine, Rintoul, he turns out to be less than admirable, and Lady Car’s marriage filled quieter tense dissatisfactions. An English young woman, living in Scotland, Nora, with a wise spinster Aunt Barbara, accepts Rintoul knowing what he has done. There is a disabled character (in effect), Millefleurs, an awkward wealthy cousin the father wanted Edith to marry grotesquely short; the irony of the novel is he is the best husband material of them all. The Scottish servants are the loyal and constant characters, keep the whole order steady, and together with the bourgeois characters (lawyers, doctors) and rescue the upper class ones from calamity.

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Horatio McCullough, 19th century Scottish landscape painter

Margaret Rubrik has written deeply engagingly about Olipant’s sceptical and unromantic attitudes, especially toward marriage, and about the Caroline story in The Ladies Lindores:

“Only wishful thinkers refuse to accept the unpleasant insight that even the beloved is a simple person with warts. Wherever idealists are not willing to cut their dreams down to size and accommodate themselves to all too human flaws, marriages end tragically, as in the case of Lady Car, whose career Oliphant pursues through two novels -— The Ladies Lindores and Lady Car -— and two unhappy marriages.

Unlike the docile things whom time teaches to cherish the “proper” feelings for their husbands, Lady Car continues to view her brutal first husband with unabated repugnance. Her feelings of nausea and sexual violation, as she had to comply with her repulsive husband’s desires at his bidding, are illustrated by her overt jubilation at his death and symbolised in the image of his trespassing into her room.

“To think I shall never be subject to all that any more—that he can never come in here again— that I am free—that I can be alone. Oh mother, how can you tell what it is? Never to be alone: never to have a corner in the world where— some one else has not a right to come, a better right than yourself. I don’t know how I have borne it. I don’t know how I can have lived, disgusted, loathing myself.” (The Ladies Lindores, II,14, 232f.)

In her second marriage to her childhood sweetheart Car does not find the hoped-for happiness either. She secretly blames Beaufort for letting her marry someone else first; for allowing her to be forced to perform sexual acts with a man she hated and for allowing her children to be fathered by a brute. All of these humiliations are so completely beyond a man’s scope of perception that he cannot understand them.

“Why expose me to all the degradations which nobody could impose on you?” (Lady Car, 7,123)

Beaufort cannot grasp the horror she feels at any association with her prior life, and thoughtlessly relishes his deceased rival’s luxury.

However, it is bitterest for Car to share the insight typical of Oliphant’s heroines that Beaufort is not the epitome of the crusader and social reformer she first fell in love with. She, who, like Dorothea Brooke, wanted to act as a muse for her husband’s magnum opus, attempts desperately, but in vain, to reawaken his enthusiasm for the visions he has lost all interest in.

Don Quixote disenchanted, ready to burn all his chevalier books, and see the fun of his misadventures, but urged to take the field by some delicate Dulcinea, could not have been more embarrassed and disturbed. (Lady Car, 4,74)

Car is one of those dreamers who seek perfection and do not content themselves with less than the absolute. In her analysis of the novel, Showalter reproaches Oliphant for identifying with Car’s disappointment at her indolent husband and her dull children, and for wanting to solicit pity for a passive, indeed even parasitic form of life.

Mrs. Oliphant never fully faces the dangers of a social myth that places the whole weight of feminine fulfilment on husband and children … [and] The tone of the book is certainly pathetic at times. However, it would be erroneous to believe that Oliphant sees her heroine uncritically or fails to recognise the fallacy of the domestic myth. On the contrary, she realises the problematic nature of Car’s immature idealism, and in many other novels she draws women who are not dependent on marriage and the family for their self-esteem. Car, on the other hand, must fail in her attempt to achieve the Victorian ideal that expects a woman to find complete fulfilment in marriage and her children.

The question as to how a relationship can work without admiration or even respect for one’s partner is posed time and again in Oliphant’ s novels because of her unconventional view of gender roles.

It must be admitted this is not a novel where a post-colonial perspective is of much help; it is rather deeply rooted Scottish landscape from which its visual poetry comes. In the novel I am especially drawn to her disillusioned axioms about life: such a we all live alone no matter how surrounded by others. Quiet convincing. Her tone so immediate and strong, with a real voice coming through.

Persephonebook
Persephone books cover

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Walter Scott (of course): The Surgeon’s Daughter has a pattern I see repeated over and over: a woman is swallowed up by the traditional culture: she either elects to marry or become a mistress of the non-western male, or she is threatened with or actually raped, traumatized, never the same again. The result is the same: retirement, retreat from the outward world. Who thought Scott would link to Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s Heat and Dust and Ahdaf Soueif’s Map of Love. But so it is, with Smith’s two texts (Ethelinde, Young Philosopher), a first or early formulation. In the case of the poets, the women poets become sympathetic ethnographers and mythologers. In Scott’s novella, What I enjoyed best are the two ironic prefaces: these stumbling made up older male characters Scott writes as — it’s funny and melancholy about publishing and writing issues. Also a brief retelling in swift effective tones of the story as found in some newspaper or chronicle. Rob Rob has a similarly chilling retelling of a bloody set of murders — these are by Scott himself people forget. I also liked the opening where we meet the Scots country doctor, his son, who also becomes a doctor, the villain-protagonists, and our prosaic heroine. Our moral compass is found here, in the home-y early rural scenes. Maybe one way of accounting for the richness of Scott, how much can be taken from him is that his “filler” counts so enormously too and is so varied.

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John Frederick Lewis (1804-76), The Reception (1873) — Scott’s vision is orientalist

The interesting thing about the text is that the threat of being a sex slave hovering over our heroine begins at the outset as in the older editions of the 19th century, the chronicle tale where the kernel story is told in less than 2 pages was put first. I have an old Everyman of rob Rob where a bloody chronicle tale is put first. It is important to remember that Scott wrote these too, supposedly paraphrasing with great concision. Yet we get back to that so circuitously. Another one is Kenilworth: I have an old Everyman where the poem Scott cites as his inspiration is put first. Then suddenly at the end of the novel we have this gorgeous barbaric scene. The inference to be drawn (as is common in Scott’s novels) is how irrational and ruthless are men, how prone to horrific violence, which they constrain by their ceremonies. After all as with Ivanhoe and other of Scott’s novels, the surgeon’s daughter though at the end the crux of the issue (will she become a sex slave of a son of a powerful Indian prince), is a minor character in the book. She is rarely on stage, and when she is we do not get much individual insight into her: she remains archetypal.

I know that those film adaptations of Scott I’ve seen often zero as quickly as they can on just those immediate active evens which lead to one of his denouements, stripping away introductions, prefaces, and especially those (often long) parts of the story which dramatize prosaic “ordinary” scenes which are nonetheless essential to understand what is going on, what to infer and what is the inference. From a post-colonial standpoint Scott shows us how as a group the Europeans are viciously exploitative so that individuals can come away super-rich, but also that the native people in power are just as bad to their people. We have the usual very few virtuous characters, many ambivalent ones and a presentation of what power does. We also how people’s characters can change as they cross borders of different cultural groups.

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I don’t want to be overlong so end on a few thoughts gleaned from Bohls and Sassia, and a poem by Margaret Gillies Brown, “Emigrant Journey.”

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Women dancing around the stones (paratexts of Outlander 2015-16)

How can we present and read landscape so that it is not equated with nature and thus women’s bodies? Women dominate the landscape, and women’s medical magic is drawn from botany and particulars of Scottish landscape, but they are punished for this as witches, so their rituals at the stones, their dance may be turned against them. Their individual identities dissolve away as stories of women from the 19th century and before are read by 20th and 21st century female relatives, or just readers; they cross borders and belong nowhere (connected only by connection to a man within a family structure). Thus (like Jhabvala’s Heat and Dust, Soueif’s Map of Love) Atwood’s Alias Grace blends the several women, not from different times, but classes and places: Susannah Moodie who wrote of Grace accused of murder: aliases.

Emigrant Journey

There was the comfort and the all mod-con of home
With its recognisable dangers;
There was the journey,
1he endless coming on of the same wave,
The no-land time of ocean and high hopes
Until the icebergs rose
Like crystal palaces …

There was the moving days
And weary nights of train-hours overland,
The trees, the lakes, the straight and rolling plains
Until time stopped in sheer fantasy
Of a pre-dawn winter morning –
Gloved hand swinging the iron-hard handle

Of a frozen water pump
At the edge of a bark-rough cabin;
Above, the sky, moving strange magnificence,
Voile curtains of colour
Changing, shifting imperceptibly;
Below, the star sparkled snow –
A virgin’s looking glass
Where spruce trees shot the only shadows
That made no movement –
Silence, immensity of silence,
Oil fires were burning brands
Reaching for chiffon robes
Of an aurora of dancers
Repeating dream sequences …
I tried to wake from unreality,
Felt my spine freeze,
heard coyotes howling down the night.

—Margaret Gillies-Brown (poetry published 1970s-80s)

CrossingtheHighlands
Jamie (Sam Heughan) and Clare (Caitronia Balfe) crossing the highlands to Lallybroch (Outlander)

Ellen

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Overherbrothersbody
Antigone grieving over her brother’s body lying there in the sun, all exposed (Juliette Binoche, translator Anne Carson, director Ivo van Hove)

screenshotKajaki
As the fourth soldier of the group endures what is done to his body by an exploding buried bomb, and fifth, a buddy administers morphine, the two begin to realize they are in minefield (Tom Williams and Paul Katis’s Kilo Two Bravo, the US title)

Dear friends and readers,

I had just been thinking to myself how egregiously pandering are most movies in theaters just now and (paradoxically) grateful for the development of HD broadcasts which could potentially make great plays done well available in my area, when this weekend I found myself caught up in two extraordinary productions. Both take up ultimate issues of life and death in terms the ceaseless war and impoverishment, immiseration inflicted on a huge percentage of people across the globe since the 1950s (Back to before WW2; Tactics, etc.).

Ivo van Hove, the director has shaped Anne Carson’s deeply meditative translation to produce an unusual trajectory for Antigone. I have seen the play in two different versions. One long ago on the stage, and a number of times as a film, part of three play series made by the BBC called the Theban plays (Paul Roche, the translator, Juliet Stevenson, Antigone). In these a traditional dramatization was presented. The first 3/4s of the play are done as highly dramatic clashes, characters talking using strongly rhetorical gestures and tones, all reaching a crisis, until the threatened death of Kreon’s son, Haiman, persuades Kreon he must compromise — but it is too late. The last quarter was done as a form of deep mourning, lyrical ritual grief played out as each character is found dead until we reach the body of Kreon’s wife, Eurdike. The emphasis was political: the right of a citizen to protest an unjust amoral law (using an inward knowledge of God’s ethics as criteria) versus the right of a leader to demand obedience on behalf of stability, order (or because he says so for everyone’s safety and his desire for power).

It was not done that way here. As I’ve seen before the stage-director used movie techniques: across a screen in the back we saw Antigone crossing a desert to where her sister, Ismene was waiting (as in Sophocles’s text whoever the translator) but then instead of this strong outward set of demands, anguished refusals, debates, the whole tone and the words chosen made the play into something inward, psychologically motivated: at first it’s just Antigone and Ismene who are grief-struck but as the play progresses and decisions are made, individual character after character is shattered by memories, by what happens when another character acts out of fear, horror, grief, love for self or another.

A scene from Antigone by Sophokles, directed by Ivo van Hove with Juliette Binoche, in a new translation by Anne Carson, at the BAM Harvey Theater on September 24, 2015. Actors: Juliette Binoche-Antigone Obi Abili_Black man Kirsty Bushell_Ismene_young women in skirt Samuel Edward-Cook_Haimon- Young bald man Finbar Lynch_Teiresias_Small thin wiry Patrick O'Kane_Kreon_bald man in suit Kathryn Pogson_Eurydike_older woman Nathaniel Jackson_dead body Credit: Stephanie Berger
Guard (Obi Abili) terrified he will be tortured reports to Kreon (Patrick O’Kane) that Antigone has buried her brother, Polyneices

The chorus’s lines were broken up and they spoke of their helplessness, they pleaded with Kreon to follow compromise, to give in, to forget, not to desecrate bodies, sweep across blood ties. They cannot accept what is happening and side with Antigone, even if it means forgiving, forgetting traitorous acts. They debate what is patriotism (in effect). Kreon’s way is utterly destructive. An interesting aspect of the direction is how often Kreon seems affectionate to Antigone (I’d never seen that before)

Kreon
Kreon trying to appeal to Antigone’s ties to him (Patrick O’Kane was dressed as a modern dictator, bald, in a suit and tie)

Tiresias’s speech then reinforces this turn from a debate over how a state should be run: the cause is in Kreon. As Kreon folds and cracks, I had the distinct impression the director’s idea was Sophocles long ago was giving the Greek people a rare treat to see their tyrant brought low. It was as if someone would write a play today where we could all enjoy George W. Bush writhing on the ground. The point seemed to be to make this all=powerful politician a broken man.

Antigone’s appeals to Ismene (Kristy Bushell) and explanations to Haimon Samuel Edward-Cook) emerge as some kind of whistleblower who is surrounded by informers (Ismene) or people who will give in to whatever is the latest turning of the populace:

Ismene

but Haimon is better than this. He tells his father despite his father’s incensed rage that the people are against him before fleeing before his father’s edict to join Antigone in her walled up grave.

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Of course she is mad too. She will not let Ismene get any credit for dying. She makes the argument that a brother means more than a husband or father because you cannot get another.

Katharine Pogson who played Eurydice (and chorus) stood out for the power of her utterances. All the actors but Binoche and O’Kane doubled as choral voices.

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A choral moment: there was above the players a moon or a sun on and off

Obviously the play was done in such a way as to speak home to us today, 2015. It was often very quiet: Antigone’s line: “I’m a strange new king of ‘inbetween thing, aren’t I?/Not at home with the dead or the living” seems to be about the plight of many people today hit hard by war or disease (cancer?) or just not sure what life is or about. The actors spoke their lines against a quiet backdrop of changing scenes evocative of the modern world, mostly in deserts, but by the end in a great metropolis at night. When the play ended each of the characters was back at a desk or structure, typing, looking at a computer, intent on some task. There was little overt movement throughout except at moments of high climax. And then they shouted. They were positioned in parallel ways.

Anne Carson is a great poet, a great translator — I’ve read her poems to her brother (who died alone and far from her) which she did as a kind of play upon Catullus’s love poems.

Through foreign seas and over foreign lands,
Brother, to your sad graveside I have come
To lay the gifts of death with my own hands
And speak, too late, some last words to your dumb,
Unanswering dust. Poor brother, who was torn
Brutally from me by ill fortune, take
All I can give you now-these few forlorn
Offerings made for ancient custom’s sake
And wet with a brother’s tears. There’ll be no other
Meeting; and so hail and farewell, my brother.

Atque in perpetuum, frater, ave atque vale is so famous. Literally it means “And forever, brother, farewell forever.” So Carson could be also writing about her relationship with her brother.

I admit I noticed this was a Barbican play. I was not so envious of those who saw Bernard Cumberbatch as Hamlet there these past weeks. London productions do occasionally come to the Kennedy Center. I was aware that a couple of people nearby fell asleep; one of them I spoke to briefly; he was puzzled by the whole play, didn’t know anything about these characters to start with. The program notes provided full explanations but he had not read them.

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It’s even harder to do justice to Kajaki: as this site shows, there will be a tendency to present the film as an action-adventure war movie, heroism everywhere, sacrifice, apocalyptic violence. It’s anything but that sort of thing. The thing to take notice of is the producer/distributor who was at the Cinema Art theater with Gary Arnold this past Sunday where I saw the film, with its US title, Kilo Two Bravo (the code name of the unit used in electronic communication), knows very well that he has not made a stupid glorification of war or death.

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The film opens with a British soldier swimming in the sea; he is shot at and frantically begins to swim for shore; he makes it, and jumps onto the sand to find himself confronted by two young Afghan boys and an older man; they have powerful rifles but it was not they who shot at him. His ferocity of anger at them shows how terrified he was — rightly — to lose his life. He begins to walk back to his unit and two men like him with even bigger weapons than the Afghans had join him. They are all part of a unit of British soldiers establishing itself on a mountain top in Afghanistan. They walk off and he tries to hitch a ride, but is laughed at by other soldiers from other units riding past him.

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When he reaches where his group is settled, we watch the different men adjusting to life there; settling their places, taking on their jobs, receiving mail, and get to know them. A couple are more intelligent or educated and reading books; most of them have these sex-magazines; they curse a lot, kid a lot, eat and drink. There are officers who can be distinguished only because they tell the others what to do. There is medic (a doctor) who is given respect. They survey the landscape, and see Afghan people driving by; watch one set of Afghan people extort money from another, women and children are seen. The next day they are to go on some kind of mission. One problem the film has is the dialects of the Brits are so thick that I for one couldn’t get all the details of what exactly was being said, but since no one was especially subtley articulate this didn’t matter much. Still subtitles would help as they were bitter and ironic references to leaders like Blair, to lies told they now are aware of, to their own lives intimately.

So the next day they walk down to wherever they are going and what happens is in a flat circle area one of them steps on a bomb. It explodes and it is deeply terrifying as the computerized cameras, sound and other equipment make you feel the shock and instead of just showing the person at a distance we see him writhing and his body deeply maimed — it’s horrible and distressing. Then someone else steps on a bomb, same result.

They begin to realize they have inadvertently stepped into a minefield left by the Soviets perhaps in 1980s, perhaps in 1950. The men do not desert one another: they follow a protocol for saving one another’s lives. They walk on the same line others have walked to try to avoid bombs, they use techniques of looking at the sand. Several gather around each man – by how there are four lying in profound pain. A couple of people have morphine, the medic is sent for, and the drama ensues. Insofar as this can be done in real time it is. In huddled groups they try to help one another, but before the episode is over, about half the group is lying out there half-destroyed, bleeding, screaming, moaning and then turning quiet as the others try to help.

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They sent word through their electronic equipment and people from other units begin to show up – they do not walk in that area where the men are. American accents are heard, Australian. A heliocopter gunship comes within ten minutes but frantically the medic forbids it to land. We feel its power by the strong noise, the sand moving over everything. It has no equipment but itself and if it lands it can blow itself and them up. They must have an evacuation helicopter. Some of the men who are not hurt clearly would like to leave but dare not; they are angry at the medic for insisting on the evacuation vehicle. In the film time this takes over 40 minutes, representative of about 3 hours. We see them talk and realities of their lives emerge. For some their bodies begin to rot before our eyes; they begin to sink. They need more morphine and run out. They are running out of water. are variously desperate, brave, self-harrowed, pitying, mocking. The script is brilliant, deeply involving. We see little domestic dramas. There is humor as they joke, a kind of parody of making the best of things which continually breaks down.

It reminded me of Danger UXB which I’ve now watched twice through. In the 1970s this 13 part mini-series (written by the best writers of BBC dramas at the time, the best directors doing them) follows the adventures and lives of a bomb disposal unit in World War Two: it is as profoundly an anti-war film as I’ve ever seen. The way tension is built up is in each episode at least one bomb is disposed of and it’s done in as real time as they dare. The tension and fear and difficulty of the task are enacted and sometimes the man is killed. Unlike this new film, when death occurs, the camera moves away and we only see the explosion from far, and then we only see the body under a blanket with only the face shown, and sometimes it’s been cleaned up (supposed) by the time we see it. They didn’t dare or couldn’t for TV programs for the BBC show the realities of what we mean when we say someone’s body and mind is wounded.

watching

In Danger UXB the soldiers are clearing out bombs inside the UK, so we see no overt war. In Kilo Two Bravo what we are being shown is how war is conducted in the year 2015. The opening scenes, what they see by their binoculars as they watch for the 2 hours (they could be killed by a sudden assault) tell us war in Afghanistan is not open battles. It is competition through technology in slow motion but when the action happens you are as hideously or partly wounded and killed as you were in open battle.

6th July 2007 Kajaki, Helmand Province, Afghanistan A Chinook helicopter brings much needs supplies of food, spares and mail to the soldiers at a remote base in Kajaki, Helmand province, Afghanistan on the 6th of July 2007.
Above is a photo of a real helicopter arriving in Kajaki, Helmand Province, Afghanistank, bringing food, spares of all sorts and mail to the soldiers at a remote base (6 July 2007)

Finally the evacuation helicopter arrives and with it two specially equipped trucks with long range platforms they are stick out over the ground. All of this clearly built with mines and bombs in mind. One at a time a powerful man on a chain is let down from the helicopter and either brings an iron long basket into which the other soldiers put the wounded man, or he himself somehow puts his arms about the man and hugs him tight and the chain is pulled up again. This is done for each of the wounded. For those who are still whole they are helped to make it into the trucks. Everyone flies or drives away; no one is left behind. The medic is seen in a kind of catatonic prayer body posture for a moment when all are gone; then he is seen in the helicopter too. He was obeyed throughout and his self-control saved them all — insofar as he could.

Mark_Stanley_plays_Paul_Tug_Hartley_in_the_new_film_Kajaki

I noticed as I watched that some of the audience began to leave; when the film was over, I’d say half the audience left. I don’t know what that meant: did they not want to hear any talk about this movie; they had sat through it. They were mostly older people so I don’t think boredom was the problem. Don’t go to it if you are expecting fast action (see this Hollywood reporter). I was a rare person in my section to scream and writhe (I couldn’t control it) each time someone stepped on a bomb and it exploded. It came home to me that violence should be distressing; there is something morally deeply wrong when violence is not distressing. I had a hard time staying about 3/4s of the way as I began to worry whether the evacuation ship would make it, or if they’d be shot to death or what. Apparently this is a well-known incident in the UK so UK watchers might know that the group was rescued.

I said “insofar as he could.” As the plane took off and the film was coming to an end, you got a five minute or so series of inter-titles telling you what happened to each man. Most of them lived — not all, two died. The photos of the real people the actors played were displayedAlas, there was an emphasis on how they returned to fighting (!) for those who did, but if you counted, many did not return; some we were told went to work for charitable organizations. We were not told if any began to work against these wars. This reminded me of the ending of Danger UXB where our hero who is badly wounded comes back to duty at this same bomb disposal unit and we are to cheer over this. He now feels useful — though for most of the hour he has been talking of the waste of the men who died, of the uselessness of all the destruction in Britain he has seen, all the terror. That is not forgotten nor in this film is the central hour and 3 minutes.

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The whole unit (or cast) of Danger UXB: within the film they all pose for a group of local people to take a photograph of them as “heroes”

I admit that in the discussion time afterward when I instanced Danger UXB as a precursor, I was pleased when Gary Arnold replied that Danger UXB was one of his favorite films. He said he agreed with all I said of it. Do we ever get over liking to have the “authority” figure praise us?

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Ashe
Anthony Ashe after a bomb has exploded and someone has been killed (Danger UXB)

Speaking for myself since Vietnam I have regarded helicopters as fearful machines which can drop napalm bombs and destroy people from the air with the people helpless to defend themselves or strike back in any way. Groups of these machines flying over the Pentagon or anywhere else are ominous. I know that the way they can land makes them hospitals or supermarkets coming to anywhere in the world where they will not be shot down. The helicopter gunship is the first helicopter to arrive and we can see it’s a weapon with guns to protect and kill any “enemy.”

This is an important film because it shows the person watching what this war is like for the people fighting and the people near them. Of course these men volunteered, and if they had not volunteered to fight (which means they are trained to kill and do kill) for whatever delusion, they would not be in danger. Maybe they fell for the thrill of adventure and war. Let’s not forget that. They are not innocents. I taught for many years in senior colleges and over half my students by the end of my time there had been in the military, many had also volunteered because they said that was the best or only job they could find. Or the military offered to school and train them. The US gov’t will not put money into much else — so we see soldiers used in first aid crises. The soldiers in this movie were not shown to know much about this war they were fighting

To see Kilo Two Bravo as an expose of the horrors of using bombs would be absurdly narrow (one way Danger UXB has been marketed). To talk about it as about sacrifices turns it into a kind of senseless religious propaganda, a modern Kreon play. I did find one apposite review in the Guardian.

Kilo Two Bravo is a film that may be said to show why the UK should not go to war — for no reason that helps anyone but arms manufacturers and the powerful and wealthy. It is a semi-documentary intended to make people see, experience, realize, think, and perhaps like Antigone draw back and say no, we are not going to do this or do it to others, or allow these things to be done to us.

JulietteBinoche-The-ENGLISH-PATIENT
I did love Binoche as the nurse in The English Patient

Ellen

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