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Friends and readers,

Our second Trollope novel for spring and early summer was another novella, the very late Dr Wortle’s School. Not quite as little read as The Golden Lion of Granpere, it is written more in Trollope’s familiar vein: we have an intrusive self-reflexive ironic narrator, and despite the single-story plot-design, a variety of tones, from earnest seriousness about damaging hypocrisy with respect to failed marriages and hidden partnerships. Trollope would not use the term for living together despite knowing the other person is not your legal spouse — the case of Mrs and Mr Peacocke. And from satire over how castes operate (church and school), to the experience of painful exposure of someone’s life and mistakes (to destroy that someone) in newspapers, through letters and mean insinuating gossip, in this case Dr Wortle and his school. The experience of Dr Wortle vis-a-vis the press is strongly reminiscent of The Warden, the very first of Trollope’s 13 novellas (novels “under 300 pages he called them), only Dr Wortle is an aggressive man determined to have the last word, stubborn, not to be fooled by cant, eager to convince, to vindicate himself. In this he resembles Dr Thorne.

The central issue or “dilemma” of this book is a couple takes up a position as usher and wife (where she will fulfill certain comparable functions, like eating with the students) who are in fact not married. The American Mrs (Ella) Peacock while living “out west” married a Mr Ferdinand Lefroy and in a brief time discovered he was violent, abusive to her, continually drinking, gambling, a cheat, cold and indifferent; much to her relief he deserted and then (she was told by his brother, Robert Lefroy) died. This around the time she meets a decent honorable and deeply compatible (congenial) Englishman, Mr (or the Rev. Henry) Peacocke, who is deeply supportive; they marry thinking Ferdinand Lefroy is dead, and then one day he shows himself to them. Horrified, Mr Peacocke is nonetheless deeply attached (as is she) and they flee to England and the obscure job at an English boys’ preparatory school. They are both uncomfortable (she much to my irritation refuses invitations to social events, thus enacting the idea she’s polluted) and think to tell the headmaster the truth, when they are forestalled by the arrival of Robert Lefroy as a blackmailer who when his demand for large sums is refused, proceeds to elaborate the story as hostilely as he can to Dr Wortle. Wortle (who has the same clear perception – I’m slightly ironic — as Dr Thorne), sees the man is a liar. Wortle is capable of irony: “Of course,” said he [Mr. Wortle], “if the lad turns out a scapegrace, as is like enough, it will be because Mrs. Peacocke had two husbands.” And then, not ironic: “It is often a question to me whether the religion of the world is not more odious than its want of religion.” Peacocke then confides the whole story to Wortle, and touched, admiring the man, Wortle just about agrees to keep them on — no matter what.

It would be a more complex work if the couple were not so virtuous and Dr Wortle so ethical at the same time willing to buck the public, risk his living; in reality people aren’t this good (more or less consistently) and why they divorce and how they go about separating at least is not straight forward. There is also no acknowledgement in the book how miserable these preparatory schools often were. Think of Dickens’s satire in Nicholas Nickleby, Bronte’s exposure of the sufferings of young women and girls sent to boarding schools by genteel (fringe often) people. One cannot but remember Orwell’s Such such were the joys (an usher’s wife also “does” the tea) and Trollope’s own wretchedness at school. The story of the boy who almost drowned does not give us the boy’s testimony, and so readily exculpates the school (a mere accident, and he is saved). We’re told how happy they are in language that casts an irony on “parents who love to think that their boys should be happy at school” (Chapter 2). Trollope is caustic over parents who want to think to be told or given the impression their boys are happy at school. Maybe he also sees how impossible that is for many boys, but in his Autobiography Trollope said it was good for boys to get into debt and trouble as it taught them lessons. The boy who was unhappy is presented as spoilt. The ammunition is aimed at his mother, Mrs (Juliana) Stantiloup who is presented as a horror.

In the introductory essay to the Oxford World’s Classics paperback, Halperin points out what a complex subject this is for a book of this length. This story of an illegal pair of lovers is set in a school, so is also about living in a community. According to Halperin, this is a rare book for Trollope where he sides with the unconventional (which means more than sex, you can be unconventional in all sorts of ways, Josiah Crawley is), for the alienated (in some way) individual against the social group. I don’t agree that this is rare: Bill Overton’s The Unofficial Trollope has made a strong persuasive case that Trollope’s books are about the struggle of the self to find some modus vivendi or space to exist in an often stiflingly conventional and obtuse social group. Nowadays this is talked about in general deconstructionist thematic and political terms, that Trollope (for example) undermines primogeniture in Sir Harry Hotspur of Humblethwaite, but this older way of seeing the crux at the heart of Trollope’s fiction in terms of social psychology and individual values is truer to the text. Halperin suggests the pervasive theme across Trollope’s works is the hypocrisies of religious. He is as interested in the risk to Mrs Peacocke she will be accused of bigamy as he is in revealing how ugly gossip can insidiously destroy someone. It’s rare novel for Trollope to be so explicit, but then this is explicitness and the examination of taboos is central to most of his broad-art novellas.


Elizabeth Armstrong Forbes (1859-1912): “School is out!” — a depiction of a school for boys — and girls

The novel is proto-feminist. One of Trollope’s narrator’s lines about Mrs Peacocke recalls the violence Lady Carbury experienced before her husband died (TWWLN): “That fate had betaken her which so often falls upon a woman who trusts herself and her life to a man.” This tone of empathy for women found across Trollope’s writing. For example, Trollope’s mid-career The Belton Estate has a Mrs Askerton who was married to brutal man, left him, and lived with the present Mr Askerston for three years before her first husband died. Mrs Askerton is much more ambiguous figure than Mrs Peacocke, her thoughts are hidden from us and suggestively subversive at moments– like Lady Carbury. But, like Mrs Peacocke, Mrs Askerton treats herself as a pariah, a forever polluted thing (the word “purity” as applied to women’s sexuality ought to be expunged from our vocabulary) and has hardly any social life because of what happened to her in the past. Today so many scholar critics want to claim Trollope for feminism; but I have thought that is not so, or it’s a super-qualified feminism when he’s not for the revision of the child custody act, seems against women going out to work for a living, traveling alone and so on. The double standard is very strong: Mrs Peacocke is blamed, and had Mr deserted and she ended up on the streets or a menially-paid occupation, the problem would have been solved! Dr Wortle’s response:

Dr. Wortle, when he read and re-read the article, and when the jokes which were made upon it reached his ears, as they were sure to do, was nearly maddened by what he called the heartless iniquity of the world

The book passes the Bechtel test: there are chapters on women, between women, where the concern is their lives. For example, three chapters with long dialogues between Mrs Wortle and Mrs Peacock: how moving are Mrs Peacock’s frank words: her distress, her love for this husband, the truth of her marriage, what a misery the first and her life then had been, and how much this well behaved intelligent kindly English man transformed her life. We could say this is an argument for allowing divorce on grounds of incompatibility. But the novel – through Mrs Peacocke moves rather to the idea that when in effect Mr P asked her to marry him, she couldn’t refuse — even if she had her doubts which she preferred not to state. Listening and identifying, Mrs Wortle at this point expresses a similar love for Mr Wortle. She also tells Mrs Peacocke “No body has condemned you here.” In fact Mrs Wortle at first did.


R. F. Delderfield (1912-72) — the atmosphere of Delderfield’s novels are the closest thing in films to Dr Wortle’s School when the feeling about the school is paramount

The chapters proceed through clashing intense dialogues whose effect is to examine all the beliefs and norms surrounding marriage’s sexual aspects, sexual possession, how society impinges on marriage, enforces and how social control through hierarchies of authorities and news operates. (The use of these bare dramatic scenes anticipates Henry James.) There is curiously little about children — it’s convenient Mrs Peacock has never had a child – neither Mrs Hurdle or Mrs Smith (another highly transgressive woman who lives with men outside marriage), two equally compromised women — nor does Mrs Askerton have any children come to that. Trollope avoids this important part of marriage and what makes breakups so destructive. Then we expand out to see Dr Wortle warring with respected high males in the community, the Bishop, a fellow cleric, Mr Puddicombe, people Mrs Stantiloup’s letters have managed to make nervous (and begin to remove their sons from Dr Wortle’s school. Trollope’s usual wisdom supports Dr Wortle’s perplexity — should he close the school? It appears he can do without the money. In fact to close the school is to close his life: he has poured his life into his work and his salary, and Trollope says truly anyone who denies that their career and their salary meant little (people do that and say their family means more or something else idealistic) is hypocritical. Wortle does not to close the school and he cannot get himself to.


From Andrew Davies’s Peculiar Practice (it’s about a medical unit within a school):Jock McCannon as the retiring handmaster (Andrew Davies has also produced meaningful film adaptations about school life)

Wonderful portraits of types in the hierarchies and coteries who we have met in the world abound: this seems to me Chaucerian:

The bishop was a goodly man, comely in his person, and possessed of manners which had made him popular in the world. He was one of those who had done the best he could with his talent, not wrapping it up in a napkin, but getting from it the best interest which the world’s market could afford. But not on that account was he other than a good man. To do the best he could for himself and his family,—and also to do his duty,—was the line of conduct which he pursued. There are some who reverse this order, but he was not one of them. He had become a scholar in his youth, not from love of scholarship, but as a means to success. The Church had become his profession, and he had worked hard at his calling. He had taught himself to be courteous and urbane, because he had been clever enough to see that courtesy and urbanity are agreeable to men in high places. As a bishop he never spared himself the work which a bishop ought to do. He answered letters, he studied the characters of the clergymen under him, he was just with his patronage, he endeavoured to be efficacious with his charges, he confirmed children in cold weather as well as in warm, he occasionally preached sermons, and he was beautiful and decorous in his gait of manner, as it behoves a clergyman of the Church of England to be. He liked to be master; but even to be master he would not encounter the abominable nuisance of a quarrel. When first coming to the diocese he had had some little difficulty with our Doctor; but the Bishop had abstained from violent assertion, and they had, on the whole, been friends. There was, however, on the Bishop’s part, something of a feeling that the Doctor was the bigger man; and it was probable that, without active malignity, he would take advantage of any chance which might lower the Doctor a little, and bring him more within episcopal power. In some degree he begrudged the Doctor his manliness.

Of Mr Puddicombe, Nancy (one of the members of our listserv) wrote:

Mr. Puddicombe is of a different order. When Dr. Wortle consults him on the subject of the newspaper article, Puddicombe carefully sorts out what is true and what is implied, to Dr. Wortle’s considerable discomfort. In Chapter V of Volume II, Correspondence with the Palace, we enjoy the letters exchanged by Dr. Wortle and the Bishop regarding the Bishop’s actions. Two days after he sends the letter to the Bishop. Dr. Wortle invites Puddicombe’s judgment. He waits because, “Mr. Puddicombe would no doubt have advised him not to send it, and then he would have been almost compelled to submit to such advice.” Although Puddicombe recognizes both the truth of the letter and the case for not sending it, he understands why it was sent: “Had I been in your case I should have thought it unnecessary. But you are self-demonstrative, and cannot control your feelings.”

Puddicombe’s analysis is pertinent: “Of course he [the Bishop] made a mistake. But don’t you think that the world goes easier when mistakes are forgiven.” And, very realistically, “I value peace and quiet too greatly to quarrel with my bishop, — unless, indeed, he should attempt to impose upon my conscience.”

Many of the objections to Wortle’s actions do not impress me because they depend on silly conventions or personal animus. This is different. Puddicombe sees clearly that Wortle’s sensitivity has caused him to lose all sense of proportion. That is, of course, the point of Wortle’s character. He is generous and honest and also somewhat self-righteous, and this gives him the strength to defend the Peacockes of this world.

As is so common in Trollope, letters play a key role in a number of the chapters and one chapter is given over almost entirely to “correspondence.” It’s partly told, not all epistolary narrative so the narrator can inject comments, show us the characters reading the letter are looking over the shoulders of the writer. I wrote a long paper once on Trollope’s uses of epistolarity. In this novel epistolarity is funny and anguished. The section where Dr Wortle becomes so exasperated and indignant and vexed over the newspaper stories and the Bishop’s collusion with them (as a source) did remind me of Mr Harding — only the last thing Mr Harding would do would be to write to the newspapers and be so pro-active. He’s have closed the school, quit his job — indeed he wouldn’t be running a school in the first place. At the end of the section when Wortle has not had a decent reply from anyone — meaning no one has taken his bait, for the bishop is too suave and controlled to respond personally but at first has an underling send a reply that is a refusal to reply on the grounds of Wortle’s discourteous tone — is when Dr Wortle discusses shutting down his school altogether. They are now down to 20 students and a lord who lives far away has written to say his two sons will not be returning. Then the bishop does reply one final time and Wortle calls it ‘beastly.” The bishop simply refuses to acknowledge any part in the newspaper and, from on high, a condemnation of Wortle as behaving in a way unsuitable to his office. Letters permit this kind of thing as face-to-face communications do not. What drives Wortle to exasperation is the assertion he is doing this (and visiting Mrs Peacocke while Mr is off to the US to find proof that Ferdinand Lefroy died since they saw him) because he finds Mrs Peacocke so attractive. She is, and he is drawn to her. The chapters delineating Wortle’s visits to Mrs Peacocke is title; “‘Amo in the cool of the evening.”

The book is drawing to a close when Mr Peacocke pays Robert Lefroy to travel with him to the US and find the needed documentation. The dramatic scenes between Lefroy and Peacocke caught me: Mr Lefroy is remarkably sordid and hard. Lefroy wants more money, and relentlessly goes after it: he invents a transparent lie: there were two Ferdy Lefroys. The reality of people is (we see this in the way the Trump followers react to the news do see) would dismiss anything they don’t want to hear and agree with what they do, however improbable. We have been given enough to see that the context for Wortle and Peacock is such that such a lie (two Ferdys) won’t go over. Wortle sees Lefroy as a liar upon seeing him (not only Dr Thorne comes to mind but the Vicar of Bullhampton, Frank Fenton, the father in Is He Popenjoy?, Henry Lovelace, Dean of Brotherton). Dr Wortle is just so much thinner as his book is so slender. Robert Lefroy after uttering this lie to Peacocke threatens to come back to England; they are alone in a hotel room and he takes out a loaded gun. Again given our modern cultural moment, and how rare it is in any British novel for anyone to pull out a loaded gun, I’m wondering how deep this custom of murdering people goes in this violent culture. Peacock has one too (we learn later it wasn’t loaded — which is cheating) but then two more men come in. At first one might be afraid they are Lefroy people and will murder Peacock but turns out they are law enforcement — come with guns.

Then we turn to Wortle who receiving the news that Ferdinand Lefroy has been dead for a while, sits down and writes an indignant self-justifying letter to the Bishop. He can’t resist it and it’s a good letter. Meanwhile Mrs Peacock is all abjection, how much she loves her lord and she will hurry to London — with Mrs Wortle turning into a happy doormat to Dr Wortle too (except in the case of her daughter’s marriage). We are given the letter but then comes Mr Puddicombe who advises Dr Wortle to write nothing. Silence is best and will contribute to bringing an end to what has happened. No closure but no more remarks. And Wortle does think the better of it, he and Puddicombe too go to London to countenance the Peacocks’ quiet re-wedding.


Frank Middlemass as Algy Herries, headmaster, hiring David Powlett as the shell-shocked John Dutting (another Delderfield book, movingly and comically adapted by Andrew Davies as a 16 episode mini-series, To Serve Them All My Days)

There is then a bad falling off. Trollope produces a weak fairy tale romance] as filler. Lord Carstairs who so admired Mr Peacocke, has fallen in love with the Wortle’s daughter, Mary. Lord Bracey, Carstair’s father is all humanity, impossbily idealistically reasonably easy about what Mary’s dowry could be as he has just tons of money himself. Perhaps Trollope in his old age felt a need for some counter thrust to the sordid. He couldn’t do without “normalcy” (a revealing comment about how Trollope’s viewed his everyday experience is that he uses this word of Mary and Carstairs years later — they had two “normal” children). It is weak stuff with no conflict, only happy anxieties as Mary worries she will not see Carstairs for 3 years, but then, accepted by Wortle, he turns up and before you know they are walking in a wood. Carstairs claims to have come to honor Peacock and we see in a dialogue he is just exemplary in every way. The Peacockes did nothing wrong, says Carstairs, but but we are not to forget Puddicombe once again who said it was wrong to continue to live together and give the impression they were married, wrong of Mr Peacocke to take the position. Fundamentally, Trollope doesn’t care about the story; he is going through a routine; for example, as narrator he says of Mary’s visit on Christmas to her coming in-laws: “of course she stayed at Christmas, or went back to Bowicke for a week.” Which is it? does it matter?

Trollope has not ruined his book — there is much to think about in its central chapters. I’ve heard Stuart Curran (editor of romantic texts, essayist) argue for many novels to see the real meaning ignore that last chapter. Look to see where characters are, which ones presented, in the penultimate chapter. It won’t really do here since the newspaper satire is central to the story too and at the close is brought back as well as the Peacockes settling in again. The truth to be conceded is Trollope did infinitely better in The Warden, Nina, Sir Harry Hotspur, An Eye for an Eye (a poetic masterpiece) and is fascinating in his Orwell-Swift fantasy, Fixed Period. There is too much broad humor now and again. Some readers were reminded of Wodehouse’s tone; others were reminded of Barbara Pym (who can do quiet anguish too, a Booker Prize winner let’s not forget for her Autumn Quartet). I thought of the Delderfield books and films (see above).

But there is just not enough depth of the type Mr Harding conveys; the strongest emotions are found in love and gratitude utterances of the Peacockes to one another, only these are scenes told of later in time. There is falling off here. A late novella. 1881. It anticipates later fiction but not seriously enough quite — I’m thinking of Hardy’s Mayor of Casterbridge 1885, Margaret Oliphant’s Ladies Lindores (an interrogration of marriage in effect) 1884.

Ellen


Dave Jones as Daniel Blake in front of a grafitti he drew, demanding his appeal occur soon

Friends,

Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale turned into an often harrowing grim mini-series is not alone this season. Two more films and one play, all magnificent of their kind, and all appropriate to the newly transparently cruel and hypocritical (at least here in US) regime that has taken over. Three concise reviews.

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Katie (Hayley Squires) driven out of the office, later accused of stealing in similarly focused humiliating scene (in fact she did steal as the money she was given was not enough for their needs)

I, Daniel Blake might be dubbed Cathy Come Home Redux. Cathy Comes Home traced the gradual degradation and ruthless abandonment of the young woman at its center: surely no one who has seen the final scene where Cathy’s children are forcibly taken from Cathy in a bus station where she is left homeless can forget it, no matter what your response. I, Daniel Blake, directed by Ken Loach, scripted Paul Lavery, is clearly a fictional story while Cathy Come Home is still taken as a documentary by some (so real does what happens feel) and ends similarly in a final memorable blow, slowly coming on over the last part of the film.


He’s not followed the rules; what he’s done is not good, it won’t do

The story: An old man, Daniel Blake (Dav Johns) whose wife has recently died, who spent his last years caring for her, has a heart attack and is advised by his physician not to work (to retire). He applies for a pension based on his sickness. He is given such a heartless round-around in the gov’t pension offices: the Forms he must fill out, and on line (to prove he’s looking for work he must apply online); inflexible criteria; with punishments of delay or ouster (no hope of any money ever), that we must gather, they are there to make him go away, and find a job — no matter if he dies of his sickness. It would be more humane to tell him in the first place. I can see some of the scenes as a modern Bleak House where misery of “Nobody’s Fault.” Only one employee of this pension place shows any understanding of his case, the absurdity of what’s demanded. The parallel plot is of a young London woman, Katie Morgan (Hayley Squires) escaping a brutal husband with her two children; she too applies to the same place for help Ha! she is thrown out as disruptive. There are very long lines in from of the food bank. Daniel is treated abusively on the phone by a prospective employer. She and Daniel meet, become a supportive team (he makes shelves for her, shops with her, shares his food with her children) until he discovers she’s succumbed to prostitution to make ends meet, and he has his application for disability funds (what we’d call) rejected. He finally cries out against this system which demands he find a job that doesn’t exist and he should not work at. He retreats in despair to his empty flat — he has sold everything off to have some money to stretch out. At the film’s close someone has hired a lawyer for him who assures him that he will now have the pension wrongly kept from him after a hearing (which does not look easy). Katie is there with, having become emotionally dependent, wants permission to go and live with him. Daniel nervous, under considerable pressure, goes off to the bathroom ….

I leave it to the reader’s imagination what happens next, only say the event leaves Katie howling.


Daniel, Katie, her two children constituted a family

Blunt, dignified and brutally moving says The Guardian. What struck me (see World Herald) is how many scenes were familiar to me — from similar phone calls I’ve made, similar attempts to get justice from a stone (where you thought there was a human being there), lies, what friends unfortunate enough to have to go to what once was called “Welfare” (now mostly abolished) went through. It played to a crowded audience at my local arts-movie-house.

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The answer if you’re black in America, is it’s not improbable and at any time you could be called to give evidence or arrests.

The above image taken from, 13th, commissioned, directed and written by (among others) Ava Maria Vernay, has a plot-design which allows a gradual realization (then enforced by some of the interviewees) that the present mass incarceration of blacks is a re-incarnation of slavery. Before mass incarceration, the lynching system and demand for utter self-abjection and apartheid policies were a re-incarnation of slavery; before thatafter the civil war the wide-spread convict labor system (men working in chains), and of course before that slavery was open and frank. As Ava DuVerney moves us from the present, back to deep past and then forward again, she interviews a set of extraordinary and ordinary people on the situation of black people and individual cases where a great leaders was outright murdered, or put in prison, or exiled (if he escaped). The 13th admendment is said to forbid slavery but it has this clause “except when the gov’t [decides] a crime has been committed.” What a loophole. How could it be that such a horror as slavery could have been tolerated? one person asks. Well, the horror of the prison system is tolerated — and it’s not kept wholly invisible. As I’ve become convinced every single person in the US or UK (maybe Canada too), the people I talk and write with has had him or herself, or a beloved relative or close friend cancer, so every black family in the US is has lost a relative and/or friend to this (now privately owned capitalist) devouring people machine.

It’s a deeply pessimistic film for at its end several of speakers suggest that this kind of re-incarnation is almost impossible to stop — unless you were to smash the central structure and beliefs of the US. People are living in hideous punitive slave conditions in many of these hell-holes. Sometimes decades of solitary confinement. Most committed no crime when taking a drug which only harmed yourself (and you should be sent to a medical center) is the basic cause of the sentence. When the old man lays dead on the bathroom floor, someone announces explicitly he died because of decisions of the state. A seemingly anonymous world. “Nobody’s fault, I’m just doing my job say all the authority figures but one

To see this you need only go to Netflix streaming, after which you can listen to an intelligent discussion of the film by Oprah Winfrey and Vernay.

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Ian Merrill Peakes as Timon seen through mirrors

A rarely performed play, I suggest that Timon of Athens (directed by Robert Richmond, and many technical people made the set and atmosphere), the play, I say, was chosen because like I, Daniel Blake and 13th, Timon is a profoundly indignant and angry work. Shakespeare just shows this more than Vernay and Loach; I hear him again as I did in Hamlet and Lear, indirectly in Macbeth, pouring his soul out throgh these tragic figures. Like the two films, it too is appropriate to what’s happening in our world today. Barbara McKay’s critique includes a concise summary of the nature and contrast between the play’s two parts. Kristin Franco’s review emphasizes the greed, hypocrisy, total lack of loyalty, hateful core of this society in the first half and the despair of Timon alone on stage with 5 visitors (rather like a Greek classic play, or anticipating Samson Agonistes). The dramaturgy is set up as an analogy. In the first half everyone overdressed, over-talking, neon lights, ceiling light, a light use of strobe creates this pervasive madness, which after a while others do not realize is around them (because they’ve produced normalizing discourses). People run about with ipads, there is a great deal of sheer flash. Everyone pretends, everyone on the hunt for best personal advantage. The one exception is the Jacques-like characer (AYLI), Apemantus.


Grovelling
Crowd-sourcing —

There is a Kent character too: Flavius, played by a black actress.

Everyone else lives off Timon, pretends gratitude. He loses all his money, his place at court, and no one will lend him money or help him. The noise, the extragavant dancing, the extroversion of the inner heart of the play was good. Effective theater. They sneer, say he must’ve deserves it. Things he cherished (books) mean nothing as he becomes disillusioned of his imaginary images of a better state, fine people, any chance for decent humane forgiving values to prevail. I thought of Coriolanus who had given his all to his people, but could not come down from his arrogance and when he fought hard and did not get the rank he deserved, he crosses over — only to find himself brutally murdered.


Individual moments show intensely good feeling – as if the actors knowing they would not be permitted to have generous hearts or the nobility of those black heroes risking their lives

I loved the second half. Now we are on a bleak bare stage. Timon keeps calling for a tree (you’d think he’s read Waiting for Godot). Timon the ultimate deportee, in rags, lucid raging, the great actor who made the production, Ian Merrill Peakes kneels, grounds himself to the ground. Here is the famous misanthrope. He is justified in his conclusions, but the play leaves open room that he had the responsibility to go under, to fight Trump and his gang. All he accuses his ex-friends for is what we hear praised and excused each day. He insists on his excuses: this made me anticipate a hard comeuppance, and so it is. His house, the natural world now turn on him. No friends. Timonechoes Hamlet: as in response he plays half-ironic anticks in word and deed, I was reminded of Lear on the heath. Timon does feels for the “unhoused.” Also of Beckett as Timon goes into another hell-hole, soliloquizing. They reject all the glitter and vanity of opulent riches. No one from the first half of the play is forgotten, all brought back and all exposed. But they are not forgiven because they do not repent. At end Timon dies of heartbreak, exhaustion, inanition from self-starvation.

A play, a documentary and a fictional film which feels like a documentary for our time.

Ellen


Marie and her uncle, Michel, in daily life together (F. A. Fraser, the original illustrator of Golden Lion)

Dear friends,

For a few weeks on Trollope19thCStudies we’re reading two of Trollope’s novellas, The Golden Lion of Granpere (written 1867, serialized 5 years later) and Dr Wortle’s School (written 1879, serialized 1880). From the sparse commentary on Golden Lion (my chapter on Trollope’s 14 novellas in my book, Trollope on the Net is one of the rare published criticisms of the story, Chapter 4, pp 95-96), and its infrequent mention, I fancy it is truly one of Trollope’s lesser known fictions. In general, Trollope readers much prefer his long (and very long novels), and I know I was unusual in defending these books as in many ways as interesting as the longer ones, just using a different set of artistic techniques. While I wouldn’t claim Golden Lion a masterpiece, after we finished reading and discussing (about 4 to 5 of us), I want to call attention to it as like other of these novellas and some of Trollope’s stories, it’s a sort of experiment and in this case offers (mutedly but there) a daring insight into human psychology. In brief it presents the story of a father, Michel Voss, who tries to prevent his son, George, from marrying as servant girl in the house, Marie Bromar, because he the father has become so attached to her, he cannot bear to see his son replace him. In this novella, although there is no overt incest, Trollope quietly explores incestuous feelings (as Michel looks upon Marie as a kind of daughter) as in others he explores other verboten areas of human psychology under pressure.

What has happened is George and Marie have more or less grown up in close proximity and fallen in love. The rationale Michel uses is that his son has no right to want to marry Marie until he has created a thriving establishment; although not voiced this way, Marie is also a servant girl (rather like, as one member of the listserv, Diane Reynolds pointed out, Sonya in War and Peace) and George ought to marry someone more in his class; the father waxes intensely angry, driving the son to leave immediately to take over the management of a nearby inn not doing very well under the management of a widow, Madame Faragon.

The qualification here is neither Michel nor his wife, treat Marie as an inferior; Michel shows delicacy towards her feelings (he looks upon Marie’s defense of her love for George as “gallant” and “made notes of it in the notebook of his heart,” p 20). He then sets about to find her a fine match and he does in the person of a successful linen-dealer, Adrian Urmand, who is (from point of view of status) condescending when he agrees. I had not paid sufficient attention to Urmand last time either: another member of our listserv suggested Urmand has gay traits (small, a “dandy,” dressing elegantly and, though the word is not used, effeminate, not masculine, not forthright, physically there in the way of Michel and George). Urmand in fact never cares deeply for Marie; he leaves after the engagement calmly to wait until she’s ready; his pride has become involved when he agrees to engage himself publicly to her, and he would give her up when he reads her letter telling him she does not love him, but that the putative father-in-law insists he must not lose face and come back and claim the fulfillment of the engagement. Last time round I saw mostly the Oedipal struggle between father and son; this material is mined for much more than that.


Michel, the father, telling George, his son, he will protect Marie from George

Trollope said of this novella it was written on the pattern of Nina Balatka and Linda Tressel (written 1865 and 67, published 1866 and 67 respectively), both of which have had strong defenders, including Henry James. Trollope insisted Nina was a better book than The Eustace Diamonds. It does not end tragically (as does Linda, a Clarissa story, and as Nina almost does), but it may be said to support the point of view Prof Jim Kincaid argued for in his brief intervention in the recent Routledge Research Companion to Anthony Trollope, where Kincaid suggests that Trollope “can be read as a tragic novelist,” who chooses plot-designs which most of the time don’t end in tragedy, and whose mood is part of the comic low-mimetic mode, but nonetheless participate in the same Dionysus-like emotions we find in tragedy and skirt tragic insights into the human condition (“Trollope’s Tragedy,” pp 137-41), in this novella’s case I’d say the same kind of perverse violations of human emotion engineered by social and economic norms Richard Holt Hutton found in An Eye for an Eye. Using 3rd person indirect discourse the narrator and Michel towards the end realize how perversely Michel is behaving: working hard to send Marie away to live with Urman when he’d be himself desolate without her, the household without its central vital spirit (he does say he “won’t have her hurried,” chapter 9, p 116), knowing (though denying) that she does love his son, and himself loving that son, and preferring him to Armand. Pride, a desire to control everyone else, to be seen to be master, and as (so he says more than once), Marie’s “keeper” (Chapter 18, p 227) drives him on.

Another aspect of its quiet power and Trollope’s originality comes out when one compares it to Lady Anna (a marvelous book, recently adapted into a play, my essay on it in my book is Chapter 7). In Lady Anna (written 1871, serialized 1873), one of Trollope’s medium length novels, Lady Anna rebels against her mother and just about everyone in her world to insist on marrying Daniel Thwaite a tailor to whom she has engaged herself. She has been told that her status as a lady is tenuous, and her mother insists that for the mother’s sake who has sacrificed so much for this daughter, she, Lady Anna, must marry someone who is (if she is legitimate which is questionable) her cousin, and lord (like Urmand, very handsome) in order to secure that status as well as hand the family money over to a male heir who comes from a branch of the family relatively without funds. When Lady Anna finally defies her mother, she does this on principle: she stands up for her right to choose for herself, for her identity and past and memories. She makes an ethical argument intended to free herself of her mother’s control (see Chapter 41 especially, “ten times again did she tell herself that were she to yield now, she would be a slave for life,” p 434).


One of the small vignettes: Marie writing her letter

Marie makes as forceful an argument, only in accordance with the deeply sexual angle Trollope is exploring, she actually insists on her right to marry for love, and not to be forced to marry someone she does not love (which in context does refer to going to bed with the man). First Marie (Chapter 18 of Golden Lion) and then George himself (Chapter 19) accost Urmand (and Michel) on the grounds how dare he insert himself into a situation where the girl does not love him. Urmand is an intruder; hovering over this is an idea that such a marriage would constitute a form of (however muted) rape. Michel explodes with his usual word, “nonsense;” and she will love Urmand after a while, but she insists on a sexual right, on her right to choose who she will know passion with. (Quite different grounds from Lady Anna, grounds the great Solicitor-General and other lawyers who become Anna’s friends might not have agreed so readily with as an ethical principle of liberty and identity.)

For me the fascinating aspect of a number of these novellas, the first two of which Trollope (Nina and Linda) insisted on publishing as by anonymous, is how they break taboos through the exploration of a brilliantly-conceived and then delved dilemma. Critics have famously (well among Trollopians it’s famous) why Trollope at the height of his career (he was the author of the Can You Forgive Her? publishing The Last Chronicle of Barset at this time) suddenly want to try himself out again, court failure again. Trollope offered as an excuse that he wanted to see if he deserved his great reputation and if his books were selling so well just because of his name (brand is the word used today). Was this some self-flagellating gesture, masochism? Perhaps he wanted to publish a different sort of book — one not Anglo-Protestant and upper-class centered? And indeed Nina takes place in Prague, Linda in Nuremburg. Trollope attempts lovingly to create a world of French bourgeois Catholicism bordering eastern France and Germany in Golden Lion. He does not go in for nuance, but large general paradigms in a kind of thick ethnography (the same kind of feel is found in his short stories taking place in French inns, for example, “La Mere Bauche” which ends in a tragic disaster).

I’ve thought he wanted to obscure his name because in many of them he dares to deal with questions of central psychological interest for his period in ways that might disquiet and offend readers. In the second novella we are going to read on Trollope19thCStudies, Dr Wortle’s School, Trollope warns the reader early on he has an unmarried couple and if the reader doesn’t like this, the reader should stop reading right now (close the book and go away). Sir Harry Hotspur of Humblethwaite has rightly reminded many readers of James’s Washington Square; Kept in the Dark (also very late story, written 1880, published 1882) is a tale of seething intense sexual anxiety and possessiveness (darker even than the central story of He Knew He Was Right); The Fixed Period is a Swiftian Orwellian satire, where a law decrees that people aged 67 must be deposited in aslyums and the next year killed. Even the old stand-by which most Trollopians know so well was remarkably daring in its references to real living church officials and attack on unmerited sinecures, the whole church caste system.


A beautifully shaded and lined illustration of George and Marie’s reconciliation

To return to this neglected (at the close) sunlit tale. Perhaps it’s neglected because it does end in a comforting way. If this were Cousin Henry (perhaps an even less known novella than Golden Lion) Urmand’s diffidence, sensitivity, hurt pride, and withdrawal would make everyone behave with strong contempt towards him. Not so in this story. As we all agreed, by the end the characters all behave justly towards one another, and throughout the tale too Trollope is utterly even-handed, generous in his treatment of them. It all ends in a picnic no one wants to go to, but is engineers to soothe the wounded ego of Urmand — who all agree has been “ill-used.” Michel does love his son; if Madame Voss is somewhat grated upon by Marie (after all she is much younger than her husband and did not marry for love and has accepted her lot), she yields (as so many of Trollope’s characters in these novellas will not) and never quite brings to the surface her jealousy of her. Madame Faragon wants the savior of her inn to be able to marry Marie.

This can make us overlook one area of thought and feeling which is not resolved away at the book’s close. A priest is hauled in to bully Marie into marrying Urmand by insisting she is deeply sinful if she refuses to marry Urmand. Urmand is Catholic and George Protestant. M. le Cure makes the mistake of equating deep sinfulness with obedience to Michel Voss (and himself). Marie sees through this at once as transparent unfair manipulation, false equations. She reminds him that the marriages he is talking of were made for money. At one point Trollope tells us Marie is a “better hypocrite” (Chapter 13, p 153) than most around her (ironically), but it’s really more that even if she half-agrees to marry Urmand and be a “good wife” to him, she never loses sight of her real feeling which is “that she loved another man” (Chapter 9, p 103). She agrees only to please her uncle; her uncle’s demands, her uncle’s pressure, her uncle’s feelings are what she most attends to throughout the tale; the original illustrations to the tale emphasize this relationship.


Marie and Michel, like to go on long walks together and talk

Overlooked, unemphasized but here is one of Trollope’s motifs throughout his books: religious hypocrisy. The priest is behaving as badly as the Proudies who also manipulate religion to inflict an abusive power; and he never does back away, only disappears. A sidelight here is how frequently in Trollope’s lesser known novels he can also present a deeply sympathetic portrait of a Catholic priest (the first and most moving in The Macdermots of Ballycloran, Trollope’s first and a tragic novel).

As I argued in my book, but here for different reasons, I think this is a fine novel by Trollope, and have written this blog to recommend it to readers who have not read it and suggest rereading to those who have. Among the older forgotten studies of Trollope that would illuminate this book is L. J. Swingle’s Romanticism and Anthony Trollope: A Study in the Continuities of Nineteenth-Century Literary Thought. The novel turns Arcadian in the close but it uses lyrical rhythms in many passages of description throughout; at the same time Trollope shows a real interest in ecology in this book. In its happy ending the characters are enabled to follow an inner innate nature and find contentment in life.

Ellen


Florence Lacey, Kaleidoscope (A review)

Friends and readers,

Probably a coincidence which I’m noticing because I’m aging, but aging was and is the topic of the two plays and films I’ve gone to or been watching this week: this past Thursday, Matt Connor and Stephen Gregory Smith’s moving musical (a world premiere at Creative Cauldron, an Arlington night-club, place for musical and other events), Kaleidoscope, about an aging successful (Broadway?) singer now degenerating because of Alzheimer’s. Florence Lacey, the central singer-actress, had a long distinguished enough career on Broadway and now works in the DC area: it began strong with her singing effectively in a musical, and takes us through the early stages of a journey into loss of her memory, mind, abilities. An especially moving number came from the character’s memory of her mother: Mother Stayed Home Alone. The audience had a lot of older people and I saw tears on faces. A friend was ushering; that’s how I heard about the production.


A rehearsal photo of Foucheux as Lear, Magee as Gloucester, Sara Barker Edgar

Tonight, Saturday, I’ve just come back from Gunston Center, a local American pair of theaters set in a local junior high, where I saw a bare and simple and all the more powerful acting out of Shakespeare’s King Lear. The acting company now call themselves Avant Barde, another Arlington group, who have a long history (30 years), going back to theaters around DC, then a theater in a garage on Clarke Street, then briefly in an arts building where an arts center is slowly filling the place, coming to life now and again. they once called themselves the Washington Shakespeare Company (WSC). I was sitting next to another older woman who became friendly and we shared memories, reminiscences of the WSC over the years.

I assume I need say nothing about the story and characters. This is another quiet (non-spectacular) winner: sheer acting, appropriate costumes and a minimal set (using lighting and music effectively). The great local older actor, Rick Foucheux was Lear, Christopher Henley was there as the fool and one of the kings suing for Cordelia’s hand. I was struck by what a gentle soul he is. Dylan Morrison Myers (Edmund) and Sara Barker (Edgar) could have memorable careers ahead of them. Some of the most effective black actors from this winter’s The Gospel at Colonnus, provided ensemble interchanges of characters. Myers grinned at me, we exchanged eye contact when I stood up to clap. They all worked very hard. I was very touched by the older actress, Cam Magee (she’s been in 19 Avant Bard productions now) played Gloucester (now Duchess); the change of gender fit very well in this production. Alas, the auditorium was less than half full. You had to want to listen to Shakespeare’s words and this time (I don’t know how many times I’ve seen Lear) I felt comforted towards the end by Gloucester’s occasional stoic lines:

This world I do renounce, and in your sights
Shake patiently my great affliction off:
If I could bear it longer and not fall
To quarrel with your great opposeless wills,
My snuff and loathed part of nature should
Burn itself out

And over the past week and one half, I’ve watched the five episodes of the first season of the deeply effective, rich, nuanced, beautifully acted, costumed, written, BBC mini-series, Cranford Chronicles (scripted Heidi Thomas, directed by Simon Curtis, adapted from Elizabeth Gaskell’s marvelous book of short stories of the same novel, little known but superb novella, My Lady Ludlow, and thrown in to have a love romance interest swirling about a young man, Gaskell’s long short story, Mr Harrison’s Confession), illustrated by my favorite Posy Simmons (yes I have The Cranford Companion). Although there are several story lines, and two are about young men beginning life, with some hope of success, pride, self-esteem (Alex Etel as Harry Gregson has to break through Lady Ludlow’s prejudice against an agricultural poacher’s son learning to read; Simon Woods as Dr Harrison establishing himself in the community, gaining his love, succeeding in medicine), much of the production is about aging single women. Not that I do not bond with Philip Glenister as Lady Ludlow’s wise well-meaning, powerless steward and Emma Fielding as Lady Ludlow’s milliner, Miss Galindo (the couch-ridden narrator of Lady Ludlow, another disabled person). Thomas is aware of how central disability is to Gaskell as she had Lady Ludlow declare she is supporting a mute person by keeping her household very large (justifying expenditure to her steward). Cranford Chronicles is not only woman-centered but aging-centered. Matty (Judi Dench) and the poetic soul, Mr Holbrook (Michael Gambon) begin to become a couple too late: he dies before they can marry.


A favorite moment: Gambon as Holbrook, Dench as Matty, Lisa Dillon as Mary Smith (our narrator in the text)

All three gain their focal strength from their depiction of aging in society. I fancy though that the choice of all three to concentrate on crises de-emphasizes but cannot omit what is hardest about being old, looking at time past, with limited choices forward. Judy Dench is particularly effective capturing that in her still contemplative face she sits in her parlor after her sister, Deborah (Eileen Atkins)’s death. In all the works several characters die. A story about aging is a story about the irretrievable. Thomas has softened this by bringing all the characters who left back to the knit community at journey’s (mini-series) end.

I’ve written about this mini-series elsewhere and more than once (Return to Cranford). I began re-watching it because I’ve had another proposal for a paper accepted, giving me a summer project: this one for a volume on Animals in Victorian Literature: my contribution will be “On the interdependence of people and animals in Elizabeth Gaskell”

Several still unusual and dominant concerns across Gaskell’s fiction come together when we study her fiction from the point of view of her depiction of the interdependence of people and animals. Scholars have written about disability in a few of Gaskell’s fictions, but not its pervasive presence (part of her awareness of our continual risk of death), from blindness to illness, from birth conditions and a baby’s needs and aging, to specific variations of need or limitation, to a condition of mind or body brought about by economic and social causes. Similarly, readers have noticed her exquisite humor when it comes to how people treat beloved animals or (conversely), her appalled horror at Emily Bronte’s wildly brutal reaction to her dog having dirtied a clean counterpane on a bed, but not her characteristic awareness of the presence of animals, of startling abuse and (conversely), and their valued place in human (often single women’s) economy. Nor has it been brought out how the two are present together because Gaskell views our culture from her woman’s experience. Martha Stoddard Holmes has suggested an intransigent discomfort with investigating human dependency is one reason for the silence; another might be trepidation at re-stigmatizing Gaskell’s fiction as “feminine.” I propose to write an analysis of Cranford, Cousin Phillis, and Gaskell’s lesser known fiction and characters to show that this triangular interest is central to Gaskell’s achievement and important in understanding why 19th century texts seem to speak so crucially to us today.

There are some exquisitely funny incidents involving animals in Cranford: the cow whose life is saved by covering her in flannel, the cat who swallows a piece of lace and has gently to be made to barf it up. I had tried to find something beyond fox-hunting in Trollope (as “horses” was taken by someone else) but could not find he ever took an interest in animals for their own sakes; on the contrary, shows an indifference bordering on utter dismissal (he makes jokes of breeding foxes), except an occasional deeply felt metaphoric use (then he is creating pity for or criticizing a character). He is also not interested in disability.


Claudie Blakeley as the strong servant girl, Martha, and her loving “follower,” Jem Hearne (Andrew Buchan)

So I will continue my love affair with Gaskell and read yet more of her fiction and in a new way; I’ve listened to all of Graham’s Black Moon read aloud in my car and am near the end of The Four Swans. I delight in Claude Berry’s extraordinarily sensitive effective Portrait of Cornwall and can hardly wait for the BBC to begin the third season of Poldark.

Today was a hard day for me to live through: more or less solitary, not yet up to, unable able to travel alone (go on a Road Scholar tour which is what I shall have to steel myself to learn to do if I want to see any more of the world), bereft of the very basis of my security, and my “enabler” (Jim), I ought to have avoided the happy pictures on face-book, but could not, so much do I need to be in contact with friends. Gentle reader, I remember the woman at the window across the way from Mrs Dalloway’s party, glimpsed by her at the end of her novel.

Ellen


The fens, marshlands of East Anglia (from Waterland 1992)

Children [are those] to whom, throughout history, stories have been told, chiefly but not always at bedtime, in order to quell restless thoughts; whose need of stories is matched only by the need adults have of children to tell stories to, of receptacles for their stock of fairy-tales, of listening ears on which to unload, bequeath those most unbelievable yet haunting of fairy-tales, their own lives … quoted from Waterland by George Landow in an essay on the novel (Studies in the Literary Imagination, 23:2 [Fall 1990]:197-211)

Friends and readers,

One of my kind Net-friends, someone who writes to me and whom I write back to a lot, we read together, share thoughts, asked me tonight if I could recommend some gentle, gentle movie and how hard they are to come by. I did have one, I watched it over the past two nights, as well as much of the voice-over commentary and a feature on the music: Waterland, directed by Stephen Gyllenhall, scripted by Peter Prince, based on a profound and inexhaustible novel by Graham Swift: Waterland. Yes, another Booker Prize book, this one merely short-listed. I listened to Christian Rodska read it aloud on an MP3 in my car on and off for a few weeks. So you can say it’s provided much imaginative and spiritual and intellectual sustenance for me. I gave the course I did this season on these books, because they are themselves inexhaustible, so many and still coming, and yet there is a core similarity among most of them, one that answers to needs in my lonely soul.

My excuse was I was teaching my beloved Last Orders — and I re-watched that deeply resonant film too, and showed some of it to the class, wrote about it again in the form of notes for a lecture. What can I say about it? Shall I begin with what what reached my soul last night: Jeremy Irons’s voice as Tom Crick, a history teacher, telling his students stories, opening up to them his vulnerability, that aching gentle elegant voice, tall thin and tortured was the way his body was once made fun of (he’s the narrator-center of the truly great mini-series, Brideshead Revisited), but in this film becoming deeply genial whenever an opportunity opens, listening to others and accepting what they say (sometimes tough, often lies, but occasionally out of their inmost soul a need), and then coming back with a response that elicits from most a reasoned reply


In the classroom

I can’t say it’s a hopeful over-story, for he is being fired, forced out because who wants to know history? what use is what is called history, asks one arrogant student in a love-revenge relationship with him, Price in the book, played by a very young Ethan Hawke. How dare he tell personal private stories (about his adolescent sex life, married life, treatment by the principle of teachers) instead of what’s in the curriculum?


A dream vision where suddenly (as happens a lot) Crick’s story turns into “reality” and we are in a dream vision back in an earlier time so here Crick is showing Price the bedroom his mother died in, where he grew up afterward

Swift was accused of plagiarizing Faulkner in his Last Orders, and readers persist in this pairing (plus Thomas Hardy and Dickens) to explain literary sources for Waterland. Swift doesn’t deny them, but he cites as often Virginia Woolf, her Waves, her To the Lighthouse: her landscape is the same East Anglian marshlands where she finally did away with herself, the center of the second book a meditation on time equivalent in magnificent stasis and meditative richness as the whole of Waterland. For Swift water, the sea, is a central image for life and for the unanswerability of death, the silence when people disappear (as my Jim has forever), and so too Virginia Woolf, from The Voyage Out, to her slighter sketches along the Thames.

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The windmill — where important events in all three stories take place ….

“Real solemn history, I cannot be interested in…The quarrels of popes and kings, with wars or pestilences, in every page; the men all so good for nothing, and hardly any women at all.” — Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey, Chapter 14

The book and film ask the question what is history? in the book as narrator Swift asks, why is this set of events put in history books and not that? Why do we learn about who was murdered at the guillotine and not who was building a system of locks in the marshlands, who was draining the lands in France or East Anglia? Which after all had the most lasting useful effect? And anyway (not mentioned explicitly by Swift, but it’s assumed we know) numbers of the French landowners and relatives guillotined were killed because they enclosed the lands their peasants had farmed, overcharged to drive them away, in order to drain it and make huge sums from large agriculture. In England the story of Crick’s great-grandparents, the Atkinsons who reclaimed the land bit by bit. In Waterland there is as much about drainage and how to make good beer from hops (a subject at least alluded to in Last Orders) and how to beat the competition out to be a successful business and distributor as there is in Moby Dick about whales. Some might find this tiresome, but Rodska manages to put it across.

The story of the film and book are the same — this is a film which means to convey the book as nearly as a sellable commodity in filmic art can. It needs unraveling and only gradually unfolds (as in Last Orders). Del Ivan Janik (“History and the ‘Here and Now’: The Novels of Graham Swift.” Twentieth Century Literature, 35:1 [Spring 1989]: 74-88) provides a good retelling:

The novel’s structure is rambling and recursive, intermixing episodes from three major elements. The first of these elements is a history of the Fenland and of the prominent entrepreneurial Atkinson family and the obscure, plodding Crick family, from the seventeenth century to the marriage of the narrator’s parents after World War I. The second consists of events of the 1940s: Mary Metcalf’s adolescent sexual experimentation with Tom, Crick and his “potato-head” half brother Dick (who in his demented father/grandfather’s eyes is the “Saviour of the World”), Dick’s murder of Freddie Parr, Mary’s abortion, Tom’s revelation of Dick’s incestuous conception and Dick’s consequent suicide by drowning, Tom’s return from the war and his marriage to Mary. The final element involves events of 1980, the narrative present: Mary’s religious visions, her kidnapping of a baby (whom she calls a “child of God”) from a supermarket, her committal to a mental institution, and Tom’s loss of his position as a history teacher. The structure is not chaotic, for each of these three major elements, as it comes to the forefront of the narrative, is treated more or less chronologically; but as a whole the novel conforms to Tom’s characterization of history: “It goes in two directions at once. It goes backwards as it goes forwards. It loops. It takes detours” because “there are no compasses for journeying in time.”

Mary Metcalf is played by two different actresses, Lena Headley as the young Mary who is aggressively sexual with four boys, and becomes pregnant by Tom (Grant Warnock, the young Tom), and is driven to obtain an abortion which seems to have deprived her of the ability ever after to have children. (As with Last Orders, you cannot avoid two different sets of actors to play the characters at widely disparate decades of their lives). I much preferred Sinead Cusack in her role as the older Mary, she had the same mesmerizing presence as Irons, told her delusions, held on to them for dear life with the same persistent gentleness.


The older Mary and Tom standing together after their nightly walk (for decades, like Jim and I in NYC at the top of Manhattan and then here in Old Town Alexandria) looking over Pittsburgh (a senseless substitute for England, probably done on the theory you need something American to attract an American audience)

We never see Mary put into an institution nor the institution. the last scene of the movie has the older Tom, now retired and with no company, wandering in marshes with a dream of Mary seeking a baby in front of him. The book ends with Tom’s memories of his mentally retarded (the term used in the 1930s and even the 1980s) older brother, Dick (played almost unrecognizably by David Morrissey), in a boat sailing down the river with Tom, and his father (played in the movie by the ever memorabley Peter Postlethwaite). The three together, the family left. A comforting image but underneath is violence: mocked and jeered at, Dick falls in love with Mary (who does wrongly go after him sexually) and when the arrogant rapist-criminal type, Freddie Parr, claims he is Mary’s lover, Dick murders him through a clever ruse of accidental drowning. Dick thinks the baby he, Dick, should have sired, was sired by Parr. Perhaps good riddance? Tom admits he fears his brother. Dick is never thought of as a cause of Parr’s death, and we can see his mostly isolated life is punishment enough for him.

Swift repeatedly has autistic characters in his novels: disability is often at the core of Booker Price books and films (as for example, The Sense of an Ending, when we discover the child our aging hero (played in that film by Jim Broadbent) sired by another aggressive femme fatale type (I don’t claim feminism for Swift) turned out to be a gently autistic baby. Broadbent has spent decades alone because his wife (Harriet Walter) and others know that (in a moment of jealous spite) he cursed the young woman without knowing that the curse could be seen to have come true.


The class trip — made funny by the flags and stacking of the students


The country house they arrive at

I like hard stories — for me comfort and strength emerge when the matter put before me is believably life and the characters somehow or other cope, survive, that is my sort of contented ending. I think Last Orders is a directly comforting book — the way the characters remain friends as they betray, prey on, love and help and support one another; while Waterland is not even if it has its comforting scenes. What Waterland offers is indirect strength by putting before us how history doesn’t stop and taking us through the different lives and eras, including the day-long talks to the students as Tom takes them to old country houses (in England, how this happens from Pittsburgh is explained as dream visions by him which alternate with the students in a comic bus on a tour), to villages, to pubs, to someone’s house for dinner, to remembered rooms, a windmill, into trains and out, to the classroom, to the auditorium where the principle hypocritically congratulates Tom on his wonderful career now (forceably) coming to an end, to a supermarket where a frantic mother is so relieved when Tom and Mary return her baby.


The train when young

In real life Cusack and Irons married and have been married for many years: here they are at a recent demonstration on behalf of laboring people, the National Health, against war and imperalism:

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Graham’s novel’s real vindication of life, and the film’s is in the telling of these stories. We harken, we listen, we feel things are made some sense of, we express ourselves, we come into contact with deeply imagined and thus known and understood presences.

Children [are those] to whom, throughout history, stories have been told, chiefly but not always at bedtime, in order to quell restless thoughts; whose need of stories is matched only by the need adults have of children to tell stories to, of receptacles for their stock of fairy-tales, of listening ears on which to unload, bequeath those most unbelievable yet haunting of fairy-tales, their own lives (from the book).

The importance of stories seen from the perspective another Booker Prize book: when I was lecturing, discussing with a class at the OLLI at Mason The English Patient, we talked of Kipling, an important influence (intertextual source) for that novel and book. I have never read Kipling’s Kim, nor most of his colonialist stories, only seen a film adaptation of The Man who would be King. But Jim enjoyed Kipling (scroll down to read a Kiplingesque poem written for Jim when he retired), once read a story by Kipling aloud to me to comfort me when I came home from the Library of Congress crying. I thought a rare novel by Charlotte Smith I had located and put on my shelf (inside a rotunda for those with reading desks) had been stolen. I remember feeling better by the end. I told the class of how Jim read aloud several of Kipling’s Just So stories to Laura and I in front of a fire in this house (he had made) and paraphrased the loving endings Kipling as narrator voices to the child as his “best beloved.” To my surprise about 3/4s of the class knew these stories, had read them as children. I never — until when Laura was 6 or 7 he read them aloud to her and me.

Today was not such an easy day. It was Mother’s Day but for Izzy and I it was a usual Sunday: we shopped in the morning for food, and in the afternoon went to a movie together: a remarkable one I’ll blog about later this week: A Quiet Passion about Emily Dickenson. We had good talk about the movie and poet afterward. Laura, my older daughter, wished me a happy mother’s day by sending me a photo of her cat attempting to lick the person on the other side of the photo

Thao, who lives in Canada, and I used to call my third daughter, an ex-student who visited me shortly after Jim died, sent me a card and loving words.

I am reading two wonderful books, Oliphant’s Kirsteen, and Claude Berry’s county book, Portrait of Cornwall, which I will also tell of separately. But it takes strength to hold together when I know others are out enjoying themselves in clubs, dinners, traveling. A 70+ year old widow’s life. I watered my flowers tonight. I have my two cats near by — one squatting on my lap, the other playing with a string. Tomorrow I will resume going to the gym for a class in strengthening exercise which attracts some 50+ people around my age. It’s cheering for me.

I have yet to pick my movie for tonight. I am trying to do without sleeping pills now, to rid myself of all drugs. So I need to be sure to get one the right amount of time and tone.

My Iranian friend who has translated Woolf into Farsi and runs a small magazine sent me this poem by email too today:

After You’ve Gone

After you’ve gone, the rhododendrons
of Anacortes remain fully in bloom,
the islands are still deep green
in their blue-green sea, and the gulls
wheel and turn in breezes that never die,

but I am alone like the shell
of a bombed cathedral, a precious ruin.
— Sam Hamill

Ellen

My day’s journey has been pleasanter in every respect than I expected. I have been very little crowded and by no means unhappy. –Jane Austen, Letters (24 Oct 1798)


Closing moments of the play

Friends,

It’s more than possible if you live near a theater or movie-house taking in the HD films sent to the US from several different theaters in London (the Old Vic, the National Theater, the Barbican) and elsewhere (Stratford-upon-Avon), you’ll see this Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler as directed by Ivo Van Hove, setting sand lighting Jan Versweyveld, advertised. Suddenly this old play, a semi-museum piece becomes astonishingly good and fresh. As I left I felt that even the best TV mini-series (the on-going Handmaid’s Tale makes a good contrast because both are feminist) can’t be as pander free as this. This is subtler and more riveting for that, for me especially over the precious manuscript and hope for recreation.

Not that the players were not made to strain to some extent for shock value — Dr Brack (Rafe Spall, the powerful actor-son of Timothy) has a soda can which spits blood and after Hedda (Ruth Wilson. remarkably feelingful face and body) has driven Luvborg (Chukwudi Iwuji) from the room with a pistol to kill himself, Brack keeps pouring it on Hedda, here, there, everywhere eon her body, slip, across her face. It seems we are inured and to hit us strongly all public art must compete against spectacles. With this proviso, I felt I understood the play for the first time; it really reached me as it had not done before. Of central importance is the colloquial translation by Patrick Marber — with precise enough words too. It was as if I’d taken in the speeches for the first time viscerally. I wish I could read the script and then re-see the play (also compare it with older translations).


Hedda and Tesman

It was acted in a wide space that looked like a loft; what was so striking was the acting out of the lines physically and with gestures. The simple stark images; so a fire in a grate in the middle of the room before Hedda burns Lovburg’s manuscript.

A piano. One couch which Tesman (Kyle Soller, extraordinary presence in Poldark and made a minor role in Hollow Crown, major, unforgettable) and Hedda sit on, is also a bed. Hedda (Ruth Wilson, a brilliant actress, strong and feelingful) had a slip on and at first a robe — like Maggie in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.


Hedda listening to Mrs Elvsted

Mrs Elvsted played by Sinead Matthews (also remarkable), in a tight knitted garment and very high heels. A story of how she took the husband of the woman she was working for as governess (a reverse of Waterford paradigm), the wife died, and then when she found herself saddled with him and his children she fled with a passing tutor, Luvborg and has found an occupation in life by living by his side and catering to him, especially his writing project. Lovborg, an actor with less British credentials but spotted by the national theater. (Iwuji “trained in Wisconsin said the moderator more than once in a kind of inverse snobbery — one has to endure a hype but brief preface). All in stark simple outfits: ordinary trousers (black, jeans) and shirts. Only Brack had something which made him feel more like an authority figure, Tesman an intellectual.


Hedda and Brack

They conveyed how Hedda became an evil force through never giving her any outlet; how twisted and manic she was, how Brack bullies and terrifies her and she kills herself partly because at the end she is in his power, while Tesman finds a new lease on life by taking fragments and notes Lovburg’s mistress has in her deep bag, enough to recreate the book with, Hedda will be left to the intense presence of Brack. It is deeply feminist even though the two key female roles are women with less than admirable traits, and are not beaten or attacked directly. There is a silent maid in black, sitting gazing, watching, sometimes smoking, ready to hand with things needed (Eva Magyar) referred to as an aunt, and a very tall housekeeper (Kate Duchene) with choral-like utterances who in another production would be taking care of the children.

On Trollope19thCStudies, we read these classic 19th century novels and most of them show couples who are basically living very conventionally — occasionally illegitimacy is seen, off stage a mistress. What’s striking about all Ibsen’s 19th century plays is he shows this is a false veneer of how individuals actually lived. In the version of the Richardson Pamela story by him the servant was driven away and her baby taken from her long before the play began. A Doll’s House is the opposite of what Dickens wants us to accept as a good contented ending of Our Mutual Friend. It is a very 19th century work too — that’s what might be forgotten as people watch and then they go back to their older novels and not connect.

A couple of good reviews: Lyttelton from The Guardian; Dominic Cavendish says it’s one of the great productions of the year; Alan Franks of LondonTheater1.com: a crew of people seeking personal fulfillment with no compromises turn self-destructive and destroy what they can of one another because they do not reign in their anarchic sexuality and emotional cravings.

There are many quieter scenes; here is one:

Ellen


Hana (Juliette Binoche) looking around villa wistfully before moving in with her patient (The English Patient, 1996, Anthony Minghella)

Echo is the sound of the voice exciting itself in hollow places — a phrase from Christopher Smart’s poem to his cat Jeffrey which repeats across the novel. Smart was put into an insane asylum by his family, exiled, displaced, left to rot. He was kept company by his cat Jeffrey: For I will consider my cat Jeffrey is an extraordinary masterpiece of a touching poem.

Dear friends and readers,

I am increasingly remiss about writing to my wider circle of readers and friends. I will try this summer to return to more frequent blogging, especially about the books I’ve been reading.

This spring I have been having such a good time with all three of my classes of retired adult readers at two Oscher Institutes of LifeLong Learning, pouring myself into everything that leads to a good lecture and discussion as a teacher, and what’s necessary to participate as one of the “learners.”

One book that for me functions as an absorption into beauty through extraordinarily poetic rich literary prose and loving compassionate comfort from the believable relationships among the characters who are presented up close to us is Ondaatje’s The English Patient: the charred remnants of the witty, humbled Almasy, the as yet undefeated by death mothering-nurse Hana, the desperately seeking meaning, once tortured Caravaggio, the utterly self-sacrificing figures of true integrity, the bomb disposal soldiers, Kirpal Singh and his lieutenant Hardy. Turned in Minghella’s movie into a wildly unreal romance of death between a Scarlet Pimpernel kind of hero (again Count Almasy, Ralph Fiennes now heroic adventurer in the desert) and self-deprecating warm-hearted Rebecca (Katharine Clifton). One admits in the film the actors present characters so deeply well-meaning and humane, in a film of unsurpassing visual beauty (the desert becomes sheer color), soaring music, that I could never cease from watching. The DVD had a second disk whose features about the making of the movie are (put together) longer than the 2 hour film story. It was such a commercial success (as has been the book) I’m just going to assume, you, gentle reader, have read the book and seen the movie.

So what can I say that might be of interest? Well we read it in my course called the Booker Prize marketplace niche. It is a quintessential example of the best kind of literary masterpiece that wins the prize. It speaks to us in our present political and economic predicament. for the characteristics of these books, see my blog On Using a Long Spoon: the Booker Prize (scroll down).

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Count Almasy (as yet unnamed, Ralph Fiennes) listening irritatedly to Katharine Clifton’s chatter as they drive through the desert

No book occurs in a vacuum and like so many Booker prize books this one has a rich context, which nowadays includes the movie in our emotional memories.

I begin with Ondaatje, as the book, the source of our talk and the film’s script comes out of the soul of the author: multinational multicultural, family divorced. While the elite of a colonialist nation – a colony – often lose out when the imperialist government in the “center” departs, which partly accounts for why his family left Sri Lanka, and moved to Britain and then Canada, he went to the upper class elite type boys’ public school. born on 12 September 1943 in Kegalle, fifty miles west of Colombo, the capital of what was then Ceylon (sehLOHN) and is now Sri Lanka. His family owned a tea plantation, members of the Eurasian élite. Name tells you the originals are probably Dutch — the Dutch early colonized the Spice Islands (as they were called).

When he is 2, his parents divorce (his father violent, alcoholic) and his mother and he go to live in Colombo where he goes to a boys’ school modeled on upper class British schools: St Thomas Boys’ College. Many of the countries Britain colonized took some form of this and you can find versions in US prep schools. So British/English background very strong. He moved to England in 1952 (age 9) and goes to Dulwich College, an old public school with strong academic record and long literary associations. In 1962 he moved to Canada (age 19) where his older brother was living and enters another school rooted in British traditions, Bishop’s University, only it’s in Quebec which is French speaking and strongly French in culture. He’s lived in Canada ever since — with time out for visits to Sri Lanka.

As far as I can tell his novels are set either in Canada or Sri Lanka except for The English Patient. He has written a memoir; In the Skin of the Lion is a powerful historical novel (set in earlier 20th century and Canada). His novels are discussed as Canadian and compared to other Canadian novels. He calls himself an someone with a migrant’s perspective, and it’s one that is more than double

When independence comes to a colonized place, the old élite often loses out badly, not only in terms of money and property but in the sense of their identity. They don’t belong in the “old” or mother country. They are themselves then the marginalized and deprived. Which is what happened to Ondaatje’s father and his mother in a double sense (divorced too). This marginalization of the previous bosses now aging is the subject of an early Booker Prize winner: Staying On

His background is that of the commercial writer, someone who makes his living through writing, not writing and teaching in a university (which many writers do as most people can’t make enough money from writing to support themselves). He left a university post when he didn’t do a Ph.D. thesis; he’s on his second marriage. He’s also a poet; in fact his earliest successes were as a poet. There’s a Trick I’m learning to Do with a Knife is a book of poems. His education is that of the upper class élite, but his homelife one of a displaced person. He seems to have a penchant for admiring the adventurer male, for finding release and romance and meaning in the lives of those who live on the social edge and are unconventional. An early book of poems and narratives is called The Collected Works of Billy the Kid: Left Handed Poems. Billy the Kid was a psychopath, homicidal, and not really a conventional hero whatever cowboy stories might make of him.

Booker Prize books are deeply rooted in history, the past, meditate the unknowability of history at the same time as uncovering its layers through memories of the characters and in depth presentation of the story’s cultural nexus. The books to read are: Saul Kelly’s The Lost Oasis: The Desert War and the Hunt for Zerzura, Paul Carrell’s The Desert Foxes (1960, from German point of view, non-fiction), and H. O. Dovey’s Operation Condor: Intelligence and National Security (1989, an M15 Man based in War Office in Middle East).

Who was Count Laszlo or Ladislaus Ede Almasy? He was a Hungarian count from an ancient family; born in deepest Hungary; he was educated as an aristocrat and his politics were deeply reactionary. He was an anti-semitic Nazi; he sold secrets to the Germans which probably led to deaths of spies on the Allies’ side. That is one way he lived. He also spied for the Soviet Union and he spied for England. He had to have done the latter as it’s the only way to explain his escape from a prison for Nazi spies which someone helped him escape from. Almazy was the kind of person you can’t buy; they are only for rent. He was probably not a nice man. Indeed he was probably a bad man in many ways, amoral. The world of spies is still a dirty and nasty one; it is still filled with amoral types. The world is I’m afraid made up of such people and they sometimes end up running countries nowadays — if they can spout piety at people and have control of the military.

Almasy’s was a marginalized family (like Ondaatje’s). By the 1910s aristocrats were out and his family was cash poor. The way to grow rich was not to go on adventures through the desert which is what he did. The way to grow rich is become an investment banker, to go into industry, build railroads and interconnective communications, be in short bourgeois, self-controlled and dull. You do like Donald Trump – buy and bankrupt companies and sell early; Romney did that too. You don’t spend all your hours hanging out in Shepheard’s Hotel in Cairo reading poetry and getting very drunk. Almasy was your adventurer-explorer. He was also homosexual. He left a packet of intense love letters to another man. He was passionate and romantic; the homoerotic aspect of his character is hinted at in the relationship between Madox and Almasy in the book and the film.


Madox (Julian Wadham) as yet not aware his friend a possible spy, is angry over Almasy’s apparent carelessness over the maps and papers detailing plans

Elizabeth Pathy Salett, the daughter of a Hungarian diplomat posted in Egypt in the 1930s, said that the count had planned a desert museum as a front for German espionage. She lived in Washington, DC and her father, Laszlo Pathy, was Hungarian consul general in Alexandria, Egypt; she wrote an article for The Washington Post that outlined how Almasy sought revenge against her father. After the count’s museum plans were scotched in 1936 because the Egyptian king learned that the museum was planned as a cover, the count blamed her father, Mrs. Salett said.

Six years later, while in Rommel’s service, the count sneaked into Cairo for 10 days, Mrs. Salett said. On his way out the British confiscated his briefcase and found a list of the people Rommel planned to arrest when he occupied Egypt. Among the names, she said, was her father’s. For Mrs. Salett, and other Hungarians who have seen “The English Patient,” the movie portrait of Almasy is “amoral and ahistorical.” She said that by ignoring the count’s work for the Germans, Ondaatje, who won the Booker Prize for his novel, trivialized the “significance of the choices men like Almasy made.”

Almasy (as in Ondaatje’s book) cultured, well educated in among other things geology, and he become part of a group of people living in or continually visiting Africa between the 1910s and 1940s who were interested in exploring the desert. Some were archaeologists (Louis Leakey was one of these), some big-game hunters, some plantation builders. He was an important member of the Royal Geographical Society in North Africa which was international in membership; he wrote a couple of important monographs on the desert. He did heroic research and deeds. He crossed the desert alone under very extreme circumstances more than once.

There was no such person as Madox — though Almasy’s had lovers. He is fictional but there was a Geoffrey and Katharine Clifton. It’s not clear whether Geoffrey was a spy; he might have been. He was also a genuine explorer; he died young and Katharine was an adventurous woman. She died during World War Two in a plane crash. A whole group of them in Kenya found in Isak Dinesen’s Out of Africa. West with the Night a classic book by Beryl Markheim, bush pilot; like other women people have claimed she didn’t write her book. She did not die in a plane crash but lived in poverty for a while until her book was rediscovered, she gained back friends with her money and became a horse trainer. Plane crashes were not an uncommon way to die among the members of this group. The Royal Geographical Society threw up another political figure probably much more important than Almasy; he’s mentioned in the book and I think in the film (though I’m not sure): Major Ralph Bagnold. Post-modern history prefers to tell of the subaltern, the marginalized.

Bagnold is said to have helped the British take over much of the desert and succeed in beating the Nazis in the desert. Like Almasy, he had at his fingertips and in his brains solid knowledge of how to live in the desert, how to survive, how to carry on a campaign, and he headed important groups of military people in the mid 1940s. He was awarded all kinds of high medals at the end of the war. Almasy was awarded the Iron Cross for his actions by Field Marshall Rommel and died in 1951 of dysentery.

Ondaatje must’ve done enormous research both on the desert, on this Royal Geographical Society (all sorts of small details turn up which are transformed into the fiction) and into Almasy’s own life. This beyond the literary intertextuality that is continual. A certain kind of Booker Prize book is like this: Wolf Hall by Mantel is this way.

He also researched the way the way was fought in Italy, landmine bombing; there is much transformed information about World War Two, about the migrations of peoples across Italy. Italy was a melting pot people moved up and down and ravaged the place; amazing anything left except that it was not bombed from the sky in the way Germany, England and Japan were. Japan suffered by the way horrendous losses even before the two atom bombs. Much of England’s old structures on the ground were destroyed; a couple of German cities were firebombed to the point that you probably could not have killed more people had you dropped an atom bomb. Back of book, credits show he read up on experience of Canadians in World War Two. The descriptions of the defusing of the bombs is utterly accurate and as I said you could worse as background for this book than watch the 1970s mini-series, Danger UXB.

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Kip (Naveen Andrews) and Hana’s first encounter — in the ruined library which he rightly worries is landmined

The book’s deep archetype is (perhaps unexpectedly seeing the above background) home: the characters we learn to know and love rebuild themselves a new family, and a home: in the movie we do see Hana (played in the movie by the lovely Juliette Binoche) gardening a lot; several times a family is formed and it’s destroyed or can’t last under the forces of war, colonialization and the way society is structured which pulls everyone hither and yon. The book to me – you may disagree – has this deep motif of retreat which I see in A Month in the Country (the second book we did in this class on the Booker Prize) – the world of art, science, thought imagination and without stretching it one can say The bookshop (the first) stands for that with its wonderful set of books as originally set out and described by Florence Green.

The English Patient is deeply post-colonial: a protest on behalf of the marginalized subaltern person subject to the economic and political and military domination of the patriarchal imperial west. In an interview Ondaatje is quoted as having said: “There are a lot of international bastards roaming around the world today. That’s one of the books (and film’s) main stories or themes.” It is also post-modern, characterized by high scepticism towards the idea that people really believe in enlightenment moral values and act based on these, and that these values will save our civilization from horrific self-destruction.

As the novel opens we meet two exiles, Hana and Almasy (Ralph Fiennes), then a third, Caravaggio (William Dafoe), and finally a fourth, Kip or Kirpal Singh (Naveen Andrews), with sidekick, Hardy (Kevin Whateley): who’s not that much a felt presence in the book; he is made much more of in the film, but he stands for all that is decent in the normative). They are living in an abandoned house which was built in the Renaissance, the house of a great poet and learned man, Poliziano. Repeatedly the novel connects present time with the past to show how much what we experience today and do is continuous and built upon what others experienced and did in the past. While far fewer and less varied, the war scenes are as realistic, seriously felt and realized as Tolstoy’s in War and Peace.

All displaced and exiled characters; at the same time they are rooted in their original cultures and don’t forget their earliest experiences. In England we find people who are deeply rooted: Madox, Lord Suffolk, Miss Morden, Mr Harts, who form an English family for Kirpal or Kip (named so as to allude to Kipling’s Kim) and the Cliftons (Geoffrey is played by Colin Firth) who are very upper class British.

It’s a novel about attempts at healing too. They find comfort in one another, read together, listen to music, the deepest wounded take morphine and drink condensed milk. The character Cavavaggio is especially important when he decides not to murder the English patient. The villa is a kind of Eden, an escape, a primitive garden, a cul-de-sac. The people come together without technology.

The beauty of the figures in the Cave of Swimmers is repeated in the beauty of the figures on the church walls in Italy, the songs from the old fashioned record player, the piano. What does sex become in the villa? Not this violent challenge, this devouring of one another. But nurturing. I’m attracted to the character of Hana and Caravaggio and their friendship: niece and uncle. He and Hana are my favorite characters. Displaced daughter/father lovers; “You have to protect yourself from sadness. Sadness is very close to hate”; each of them in their “own spheres of memory and solitude”; “To rest was to receive all aspects of the world without judgement. A bath in the sea, a fuck with a soldier who never knew your name. Tenderness towards the unknown and anonymous, which was a tenderness to the self” (p. 49). I find Hana a beautiful character; so too the way Cavaravaggio is presented — in the novel.

In novel Almasy says he hates ownership. In film this idea is scotched because he is turned into a sexually jealous man who wants to own Katharine. But in the book it’s a significant theme. Who owns who? Does anyone? Whom do we learn from? Ondaatje has said a central relationship in the novel is that between Kip and Almasy: the colonialized and the elite European male. Kip learns to respect the man but he demurs at the books which argue for colonization and marginalizing his people. Why are they paired?

Rudyard Kipling’s Kim is an ultimate colonialist text; there’s a deliberate echo of the name Kim in the nickname Kip. I’ve never read Kipling’s famous novel, Kim, though I have read his The Man who would be kind; Jim my husband read aloud his children’s Just so stories to my older daughter – how did the elephant get its trunk, the camel its hump, Rhinoceros its skin – they all end with this loving coda to the child being spoken to. Tone at end reminds me of Randall Jarrell’s Animal Family. Kipling has a bad reputation today but it’s unfair. It has poems by Kipling, original book had glorious and interesting illustrations.

Herodotus, the book Almasy clings to, puts his photographs and letters in, was an early Greek historian; called the father of lies. He tells a very slanted history. He is known for his folk stories and mythic geography. Great chronicle with world wide scope.

It’s a novel about a world in ruin but also asserts that the world has always been in ruin. We cling to these roles because we don’t know what else to do. Cultural identities are given people. People insist English patient English. Why? Because of his culture. We see our characters make alliances based on individual affinity and congeniality of outlook and taste not biology and cultural ritual. Body as a site of resistance is very frail in the book. People smashed easily, burned up. Now you are here, now you are not. Lord Suffolk trinity; Hardy. Violence important in book: barbarity of people to another another; indifference of natural world.

Its meditation on the place of memory accounts for the rearrangement of time to be subjective. The language gorgeous: a voice of his own. Splendour of imagery everywhere, songsong lyric quality.

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Katharine Clifton (Kristen Scott Thomas) telling the story of Candaules and Gyges (voyeuristic husband turns murderous over lover) from Herodotus as the other men listen …. in the desert

It’s useful to compare a film adaptation to a novel since you have much of the same story matter. By seeing what’s omitted you can gauge both the thematic resonances the film wanted to avoid and the new ones they put in place. The same goes for looking at what’s added. On average another statistic at 37% of the original story matter remains; the rest is added. This is a case where the movie has gotten so intertwined with people’s memories of the book I have now to differentiate the movie from the book.

Minghella’s film reverses the emphasis of the book: specifically the romance story of Almasy (Ralph Fiennes) and Katharine Clifton (Kristin Scott Thomas) with adultery and the jealous rage of Geoffrey Clinton (Colin Firth) takes over the movie. If you look at the book, after the initial seeing of the airplane in flight over the desert, the shooting down by Germans, the burning of Almasy and trek through the desert, we do not return to the story of Almasy and the woman we saw in the plane until the middle of the book’s 4th section, Cairo (1930-38), of ten, and don’t get into it in earnest until the 5th called Katharine. In the film this material is continually there, moved up front, woven into the story of Hana, Almasy as charred patient, Caravaggio, and Kip in the Villa San Girolamo (presented as once the home of Poliziano, a Renaissance prince and writer), is added to, and forms an important part of the final ending when the initial scene is finally explained. In the book the explanation for the woman in the airplane (we are do not know she’s a corpse when we first see her) is finished at the end of the 9th section, “Cave of Swimmers,” (where we see the ancient drawings of swimmers inside a cave) which contains also considerable material on Madox (Julian Wadham), implicitly Almasy’s lover, whose suicide matters in the book and is hardly mentioned, much less explained in the film (from horror at the church worship of the war, from loss of Almasy’s love, from Almasy’s betrayal of the British as a German spy); after which we the 10th section, “August,” move back to life at the villa, Kip and Hana’s love affair, Kip disposing and defusing bombs at great personal risk, the atom bomb, and Kip’s strong revulsion, and coda in Sri Lanka and Canada, where Kip has returned to his home culture to become a doctor and family man, and Hana retreated from the world to an island with her aunt, while Caravaggio resumes his role as wanderer, which coda is left out of the movie altogether.

Kip’s building of an English family in Sussex with the delightful Lord Morden (who never left Sussex in his life), his secretary Miss Morden (the name alludes to death), and their loving butler, with the thermos and sandwiches — they explore the geology of Britain together — all omitted. If you do not read the book you may see Kip simply as Hana’s lover. In the book he is not only a Sikh, but also an Anglophile, risking his life endlessly to save the Allies and people of Europe. His affair with Hana is counterpointed against the affair of Katharine and Almasy with more resonances and depths, and neither the major story. He does not break away because of Hardy’s death but because of the dropping of the bombs on Japan. His people were regarded as dispensable, wiped out in minutes.

The true model for the Almasy-Katharine story is Baroness Orzcy’s The Scarlett Pimpernel crossed by DuMaurier’s Rebecca. Think The Prisoner of Zenda. A band of English gentlemen dedicated to rescuing innocent aristocratic victims of the French revolution. The hero whose name is Sir Percy Blakeney appears to be effete (subtle, sensitive, impeccable manner, has read the classics) but is in fact a determined man of action. I hope no one needs me to summarize Rebecca, a femme fatale (it’s actually a misreading of the book but that’s another blog). It is simply factually true that Rebecca was used as a code book by the Nazi spies: it was carried about by Almasy’s men into Cairo. It’s just the sort of thing that might have appealed to the real Almasy who thrilled to adventure and romance.

Hana is no longer central; Katherine is — though they are treated as a double figure. In the book Almasy tells Hana about the winds; in the film, he tells Katharine.
The inimitable Kevin Whateley as Hardy — carrying Kip’s boots to be cleaned

Nonetheless, there is much gain too. The film ends differently: the film stays true to the transnationalism of the rest of the book. By showing torture you bring it home to people. The way the film opens and closes on the plane, desert and cave of swimmes, with the desert and the incessant maps assuming the function of presences, characters. Almasy chooses to die in the film; Caravaggio is given more intensity against Almasy in the film.

Actors enrichen a work: William Dafoe is particularly good, and Fiennes through his makeup. Hana too has inner beauty. With his small role as Madox, Julian Wadham does very well. He has presence and overshadows Kip as someone in relationship to the English patient.

Let’s not be snobs: there is a splendid visual quality. From Allen Stone’s review on line (“Herodotus Goes Hollywood”):

The English Patient is stunning, filled with archetypal, exotic, and oneiric images. The film contrasts the browns of the desert with the greens of Northern Italy, the scarified face of the burned English patient with the handsome profile of the Count. Constantly finding creative camera angles and perspectives, the cinematography intrigues and fascinates from the opening scene. And it sustains that intensity for more than two and a half hours.

The English Patient begins with a close-up of a painter’s brush drawing exotic figures on a textured surface. We have no idea who the painter is or what the figures represent. Eventually we will learn that Katherine Clifton is the painter and that she is copying figures from the walls of the “cave of swimmers”–a real cave discovered by European explorers of the desert between the two world wars.

Minghella makes them into a team whose members are of diverse nationalities; he does not want to deny the possibility of love which is what the book does. At the end in the desert Almasy paints the corpse and does not weep. Hana returns to her family; so too Kip.

The film ends with a sad but hopeful image of Hana in that truck with the child beside her, clutching Herodotus.

Ellen