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Posts Tagged ‘Booker Prize’


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)

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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

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An Arthur Rackham illustration of Undine

Friends,

How all things come together (with or for me). I’ve embarked on teaching Booker Prize novels: a marketplace niche for good books? I include two historical fictions: J.L. Carr’s A Month in the Country and Michael Ondaatje’s English Patient. And today my proposal for teaching a course I’m calling Romancing 18th century historical fiction (scroll down for syllabus) this summer at the same place has now been accepted: the books, Daphne DuMaurier’s King’s General and Susan Sontag’s Volcano Lover. The reality for me is both courses and my interest in the Winston Graham Poldark world, Outlander, seem to swirl around the same compelling immersion: historical fiction.

Is this genre just so much pastiche? I hope not because I wrote a good review of Martha Bowden’s fine book on the subject, and it’s been published in a fine periodical I’m proud to appear in, The Intelligencer (NS, Vol 31:1 [March 2017]:42-45). In order to give my essay more circulation, to tell the contents of this book, I’ve placed the essay on academia.edu.

Ellen

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