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Posts Tagged ‘Claire Harman’


Roger Fry — typical painting

Dear friends and readers,

Some notes on behalf of two qualities I find draws me into books — and movies too, though this inward source is less obvious. A still center of quiet, of thoughtfulness out of which the fiction or biography (I’ve been reading a number of these lately) grows. In a book say good for other reasons (vision, form, richness of knowledge) such moments in a dialogue here or description there, and when I find myself immersed in reading, I know I’m in a thing of value. Accurate rendering of what is, acutely faithfully attended to provides a foundation for such moments.

I’ve experienced both lately in books I find myself liking so much. Virginia Woolf’s meditative biography, Roger Fry, and Frances Spalding’s companion (as it were) art historian biography of Fry, due I think to the criticism and pictures by this remarkable man.

I think we are all agreed that we mean by significant form something other than agreeable arrangements of form, harmonious patterns, and the like. We feel that a work which possesses it is the outcome of an endeavour to express an idea rather than to create a pleasing object … the effort on the part of the artist to bend to our emotional understanding by means of his passionate conviction some intractable material which is alien to our spirit (Fry, 232).

Claire Harman’s strongly written, mesmerizing biography of Charlotte Bronte (the best one on Charlotte alone thus far since Elizabeth Gaskell’s Life), and Richard Holmes’s perceptive biography of Samuel Johnson’s biography of Richard Savage, Dr Johnson and Mr Savage. Holmes and Harman are great biographers, she for the books she’s written, Robert Louis Stevenson, Sylvia Townsend Warner, Fanny Burney, Jane’s Fame (somewhat lighter), he for understanding of the the form that informs his writing (Footsteps: The Confessions of a Biographer) and his Shelley. I was reading Harman all this summer past, in the early morning Charlotte, her and me, how I love her work.

I read a very long article in the New York Review of Books by Alice Spawls (39:2, 16 November 2017), deeply sceptical about of truths about another person that a biographer can offer, and her particular instance, Harman’s CharlotteBronte; I find Spawls unfair: you can pick anything apart if you’ve a mind to. My sense is the great core of such moments in art is the letter written by someone in the throes of a genuine reaching out reverie. Harman ends her biography with a letter from Heger (the man Charlotte loved in Belgium) to Charlotte (which she never saw):

In thinking it over you will have no difficulty in admitting that you yourself have experienced a hundred times that which I tell you about communication between two distant hearts, instantaneous, without paper, without pen, or words, or messenger, etc., a hundred times without noticing it, without its having attracted your attention, without anything extraordinary.

One novel too: Winston Graham’s The Stranger from the Sea (yes, the 8th Poldark book) — he describes a midsummer eve’s picnic in Cornwall by a beach, the exact Celtic customs, the sky. The talk between Ross and his son about an engine, a relationship the son has experienced afterward.

I sensed this contemplative order left over from the characterization in Graham’s books in this still of Eleanor Tomlinson as Demelza picking apples with a small girl child:

confirmed by finding the paradigm in Mary Cassatt’s Modern Women

The movie, Agnes Varda’s Visages Villages (Englished Faces Places): truly respectful of people and their lives, their ordinary surroundings, sordid, ruined, anonymous manufacturing places, she put photographs of the people she met and their faces all over these buildings. We looked into their faces as they talked to her. Bachelard for our broken ugly 2017 worlds of docks, yards of plastic boxs, steel pipes, cement walls, and the blessed park space. I’s worth saying here too that Varda felt she needed a young male with her to hold an audience. Her subjects though are as often women as men.

This pair of qualities – quiet, order, realism — is what I value also in poems. The thing to remember is these harmonizing qualities far from precluding active, frenetic life, even agons, suprised joy, can encompass such, and this sense of deep order and truth provide stability for healing, as in Patricia Fargnoli’s Hallowed:

Winter Day in New York City, 1973

Just divorced, a crazy year, everyone sleeping with everyone,
friends becoming lovers and back again, all of us filled with need.

“That’s the way it was when Marty and I, in my Karmann Ghia,
drove down to New York City from Hartford.

Washington Square strangely hushed that January afternoon,
stunned quiet by the harsh cold, the weight of gray sky.

Marty played chess with a local on a stone table as I shivered
beside him for what seemed like hours.

Snow started to fall, millions of pieces of glitter
through which we drove uptown until he found the bar

from the movie he’d seen. There he wandered away from me
into the crowd to try his luck with the city women.

Later on a side street, I changed into disco clothes in the car
while a doorman walked in circles in front of an apartment building.

Under purple strobes ~ a club named Wednesdays
we danced together and apart until we were steamy and breathless.

When the place closed, Marty swiped one of their black balloons.
It floated us to Second Avenue where he tried to tell a homeless lady

how to find the Second Avenue bus, though at 2:00 a.m. there were no buses.
Back then, it seemed like magic, snowflakes lit by building lights,

Marty in his beard and Russian greatcoat, his arm sheltering my shoulder,
as we rushed downtown, uptown, the buzz and sparkle in the zero city air.

I drove us home as dawn was rising over skyscrapers and along the highways.
Marty slept. The radio played something I’ve long forgotten.

Jim and I lived in New York City in 1973; we were there that winter. We experienced this feeling world, which is no more.

I may here over-emphasize this quiet the calm at the sacrifice of realism, but this giving body to what is concretely there, experienced is crucial, to have life spring out at us. So a second movie, a New York Times reviewer almost rightly called perfection, Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird: it’s pungent

Admittedly a male coming of age in reverse, the story mirrored in the Sondheim musical they were acting out, “Merrily We Roll Along, bleak and bitter because it begins at story’s end when the hero has top success but dropped all his friends or betrayed them, his wife, ignored his children, hard and alone. Lady Bird (aka Christina, Saoirse Ronan) aggressive, driving, wants to be rich, with a super-prestigious house, the best fanciest dresses, not just a local college, but Ivy League on the East Coast, and she judges falsely — rejects the kind talented well-meaning young man who is gay, the girlfriend who is fat and lives in an apartment! But she has better impulses and doesn’t betray any one, helps her friend go to the prom, does not allow phony snobbery (like not going to the prom itself) to ruin a good time. She is in fact her mother (Laurie Metcalf’s) girl, for the mother wanted success and is bitter without it, taking her lack out on the daughter. she works two jobs; she will have to take out a second mortgage. Her idea of fun is on Sunday to go from super-rich house to house as if she and Lady Bird were in the market for buyning one.

I cannot overemphasize how wrong the actual crucial structure here is. This is how boys are told to see themselves, as the orde of their lives: the aggression, ambition, the seeking of the big opportunity, after which if you don’t have, you won’t live the same life. What is a girl’s actual trajectory as she grows up? far more embedded in friendships, not seizing opportunity and moving from one group to another. Sex would have been much more fraught, when all LadyBird endures is the brutal words of a boy she has (as if she were a boy) gone after. No one ever sexually harasses her; she never gets her feelings hurt over her body; if anything she is the aggressor. What a lie about women’s lives. The importance of mother-daughter was kept, but to do this Gerwig seemed to think she had to demote the father into a worldly failure and depressive. Chantal Thomas has a book on girlhood I unfortunately lost before I could finish it where she told of girlhood, much less outward, indirect (like Lady Bird’s true friend), about being in groups of girls. (Not that I was.) Vie Reelle Des Petites.

Most of the 1970s feminist studies follow Simone de Beauvoir with her admiration for the “transcendant” point of view, and dismissal of the “immanent.” Books by Lyn Mikel Brown, Michelle Fine, and Carole Gilligan are honorable exceptions, but these too are dismissed by the “constructionists:” there is no innate female psychology. There is definitely a typical girlhood; that is barely captured in individual books, e.g., Mary McCarthy’s Memoirs of a Catholic Girlhood because sex, weight (your body maturing) are passed over in silence. Or the book presents the experience as illness, trauma, instead of natural reactions to intransigent conditions. Nicole Holofcener has tried to give us movies about women’s real trajectories — but none have been about girlhood. All about young women — like Walking and Talking. So this is genuinely original in what Gerwig aims at: the depiction of a girl growing up and her refusal to sentimentalize.


Mother and Daughter shopping

Leaving the movie together on Thanksgiving Day, Izzy and I understood Lady Bird and her mother spoke to us, about a version of our relationship. As I walked out I said, “I can’t even get you to join a choir” (she sings so beautifully, composes semi-originally and makes YouTubes of herself singing), and for once I got no glare.


More Bloomsbury, Omega Shop type object, Duncan Grant painting

I used to feel I met this central strong calm, quietude and adherence to realism in Trollope’s Dr Thorne, and it was Dr Thorne which sent me on my path of reading Trollope. This is in my introduction about how I came to Trollope:

My second introduction to Trollope occurred when I was around twenty-one and in my third year of college. I took a course in the nineteenth-century British novel, and one of ten novels assigned was Anthony Trollope’s Doctor Thorne. I didn’t forget this one. The memory of some amused calm in Trollope’s voice remained vivid to me. It would make me smile to remember how he kept making all these excuses for himself because he was forced to take two long chapters to tell us the previous history of all the characters in Doctor Thorne before his book could officially begin. I reread the green-and-white 1959 Houghton Mifflin edition I bought for the course, and Elizabeth Bowen’s introduction to it, more than once.

Ellen

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