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Posts Tagged ‘mystery-murder book’


Bossiney Cove — the central sections of Strangers Meeting takes place in Trembeth Cove, Cornwall

Since coming abroad something of the subterranean disquiet which existed everywhere had affected his imagination and he quite often awoke from dreaming … No Exit, Chapter Two, p 27)
… in the midst of a police raid, a crowd gathers and “an old woman, her head wrapped in a black shaw, drove a derelict donkey-cart across the cobbles and disappeared down an alley … Chapter Six, p 75)

Friends and readers,

This is a coda to my survey of Graham’s pre-Poldark suspense novels: I’ve read two more, and, as I suspected, one can group this man’s novels by chronology rather than genre. Here I relate a group of them to the immediate lead-up to and early phase of World War Two. Beginning in 1939, his books dramatize stories of political murdering where the senselessness, serendipity, and sadistic enjoyment of allowed non-personal (unmotivated) killing becomes the thing the books glimpse or deliberately fully uncover. The protagonist now has to work at keeping him or herself from being murdered as a bye-blow of events. The earlier atmospheric regional books, with their legacies from Agatha Christie, Anne Radcliffe, large country houses or hotels, gothic stories with their autobiographical roots give way to stories which anticipate or resemble Graham Greene or LeCarre: Keys of Chance (1939), No Exit (1940), Night Journey (1941, revised 1966), My Turn Next (1942, reworked as Cameo 1988); later books of this type include Night without Stars (1950), Greek Fire (1957).

The private stories gain in depth of feeling and open melancholy and despair: Ross Poldark (begun 1940, published 1945), The Forgotten Story and Demelza (1946), Take My Life (1947) and thereafter, especially say After the Act (1965). there’s also the kind of book I’d call morally earnest as if he is trying to conjure up some individual morality specific individuals might heroically hold to: I saw this in the first (and maybe only) book he won an award for, The Little Walls (1955). Another turn or transformation comes with Marnie (1960), where ironized alienated and psychologically pathological characters enter his stage, especially true of The Angry Tide (1978 — Mark Adderley), The Walking Stick and Angell, Pearl and Little God (1970). All of this latter group except the historically past ones lend themselves to film noir.

It’s then for me understandable that Graham might be embarrassed by the earlier books and discount them as juvenilia, child-like, perhaps effeminate, giving himself away too and his own inner world, and work to suppress or re-write them, but he was wrong. Again, seeing these as belonging to regional Cornish books rooted in marginalized places helps bring out their thematic and psychological-social themes. The two I read were one of the early type, Strangers Meeting (1939), and one of the World War II type, No Exit (1940). I quite liked both; both are all the stronger for not having been revised or reworked, so there is no distraction.


Original cover for Strangers Meeting

Strangers Meetings is one of thesse revealing or telling pre-World War Two books, just. It has a intricate story-line with lots of intimate details very like the 1930s British murder mysteries or Daphne DuMaurier novels (for the plot go to Profiles One or Discard in the online Winston Graham Reader, and falls into three distinct acts, perhaps the result of its having originally been written as play the year before (Forsaking All Others). As with The Dangerous Pawn (1937), The Giant’s Chair (1938, ruined as Woman in the Mirror, 1975) and The Merciless Ladies (1944, revised 1979), and the first seven Poldark novels, several of the central characters of Strangers Meeting and fleeting characters we get to know less well but are there and count are likable, appealing. We have three couples who come to Cornwall to get away from their ordinary environments; a kindly disabled and ill young man and a factory girl fall in love; a married couple is in effect attacked at their core when the wife’s sister turns up with a amoral corrupt and cold fiance who was the wife’s lover (perhaps even her second husband) years ago and has come to grab the sister’s legacy and blackmail the wife for sex (or money). The atmosphere, the descriptions of the places, the working out of a personally fulfilling ethical outlook by the characters is absorbing, offering a piquant comfort. Piquant because the solution for the married couple is to accidentally kill the fiance (he falls or more probably is pushed off a cliff during an altercation with the husband). The artistic arrangement of the slowly developing relationships and revelations for the reader, the uncovering of the vicious intentions of one character and the anguished past of another, and for me, and how three of the characters (disabled young man, factory girl, husband) emerge as genuinely thoughtful individuals was part of the pleasure of the text.


Jane Wymark as Morwenna escaping (1977 Poldark)


Keven McNally as Drake upon seeing her come to him, finally, suitcase in hand

The value of these books (Dangerous Pawn, Giant’s Chair are two others) is they attempt to present the inward trauma of the isolated person directly — we have mentally retreating and disabled characters; characters whose unconventional conduct their society would reject — sympathized with. One can grasp this when one reads the later revision or re-working which silences or erases these earlier characters, marginalizes them, puts them at a distance. In the Poldarks the one character where this kind of thing is put fully before us is Morwenna (especially Four Swans and Angry Tide); Drake attempts to and finally succeeds in rescuing her; unfortunately after that (their marriage and retreat) she and he are both kept from our view.


Original cover for No Exit

No Exit is a book that anticipates recent crime novels like LeCarre’s A Most Wanted Man (2008) and Our Kind of Traitor (2010). Night Journey, which I outlined in my previous blog, is more like Tinker Tailor (1974): a whole world of amoral spies, politicians and just desperate people swirl around the quiet, plain hero who has expertise, insight, some sense of ethics. No Exit is set right around the time of Hitler’s invasion of Czechoslovakia and the central action takes place the day the Nazis invaded Prague. Our English bridge engineer hero, John Carr, first come to Budapest; he becomes involved when he realizes someone has been murdered in his hotel and has asked him to take a message to someone else. This is the trope of the innocent bystander who takes responsibility and becomes almost against his will a detective, and then a rescuer and finally a co-conspirator with other people become revolutionaries in flight or resistance movements. He moves to Prague where much to his immediate surprise he finds himself in the midst of an invasion, one he becomes aware is happening as he observes the reactions of people all around him to some deeply frightening development say a few streets away.


Nazi Invasion — by the Charles Bridge — Graham’s hero walks by the bridge several times

The word “terror” is appropriate, except that here it’s a matter of people doing the bidding of different Nazi gov’ts and agents of aspiring gov’ts to terrify the vast majority of people by wantonly rounding up and snatching, disappearing (the verb “to disappear” is used in this book), torturing, killing and imprisoning all sorts of people at will. It evokes a justified paranoia. The character discuss how what is happening is suppression of all individual rights by ruthless minority setting up an aggrandizing state backed up by militarization and a “demented” world. A “dictatorship” in “the modern sense” using “concentration camps” as one tool, religious institutions another. It’s the first of Graham’s books to use the method of the Poldark books: thorough extensive research so Graham recreates for the reader effortlessly — you never feel a card index is thrown at you but what the characters are experiencing as several levels of action coming together by different people and forces in closely related places. You walk the streets of Prague with Carr as the hours go by. One man is murdered; with the unexpected help of two women (one a journalist) he is able to flee with three people and we then get this ordeal of escape by train, car, foot as they move through checkpoints and finally an “eerie snow filled silent forest” (rather like the closing scenes of Grand Illusion they come up a cottage with friendly people who harbor them).

This one is also given a detailed plot exposition at Profiles One or Discard. I disagree with the verdict of the writer: for me the unheroic nature of the protagonist makes the book more powerful (think of Ralph Fiennes in The Constant Gardener) and love the Demelza-like heroine and ordinary mother he returns to at the novel’s close. I find the hero resembles Dwight Enys. The point is he is lucky to live where sanity still has a hold.


Richard Morant as Dwight Enys — he was pitch perfect in the part; here he is telling Clive Francis as Francis Poldark he has really come to care for his patients and not grow rich off the poor; Francis is all ironic surprise (1975 Poldark,scripted Paul Wheeler)

I can quite see my way to writing about these corpus of work against a backdrop of political as well as aesthetic developments between 1934 and 2003 (the span of Graham’s career). I’d love to know as much about him as I can and will try for a library, but if I lack private letters, there is much autobiography in all his journalism and two-life writing books. I’ve bought a copy of the 1945 original text of Ross Poldark and have a copy of the 1947 original text of Demelza. I’ll be reading them soon.

A second point I want to make about Graham here is he seems never to cease revising his work. He didn’t just rewrite and/or revise some of the early books; he may be said to have abridged the original Ross Poldark, he cut down the original Demelza, and made changes in Jeremy Poldark and Warleggan. All his writing life, he was more or less continually tinkering with already printed works, revising this or that sentences or sentences for a new publication. One can disagree on how “private” a man he was. He socialized far more probably than he needed to do to publish, promote and see his books distributed, filmed, and create opportunities and stimulation for himself to write more, but he was not pretending when he presented himself as living long stretches in the solitude of writing and research — and rewriting.

And his texts are beautifully written. The style of conversations and thought are direct, naturalistic, flowing. He loves animals and his favored characters are kind to, fond of, surround themselves with animals. At the close of Strangers Meeting, Peter Crane, our disabled young man, and Sheila, the factory girl from London who will now spend her life in Cornwall rescue a rabbit from a trap, bind its leg and set it free. Sheila is another Demelza-like heroine. This kind of depiction is a symbol or site for expression of vulnerability in the earlier novels and passages in the Poldarks.

It was a small fluffy brown rabbit with a tuft of white tail. It was caught only by one black leg. A nasty wriggling squeamishness grew up inside Sheila, and she wanted to turn and run. Instead she knelt down and looked at the gin.
It was one of those what you press down at one end to open up the other. There was a large spot of blood on the curling front of brakcn underneath it.
The rabbit now stopped screaming and concentrated on giving horrible forward jerks in an attempt to get free. She put a hand on its head, and after a momentary wriggle it lay still with its ears back. She could feel the hard skull under the soft brown fur.
She stroked it a moment, and put her other hand awkwardly round its neck. Then she brought forward her foot and trod upon the far end of the gin. A second later she was standing up with the rabbit wriggling in her arms. It was a most peculiar feeling.
She waited until it went tolerably quiet again, and then lifted to see the damage … Strangers Meeting, Part Three, Chapter Six, pp 307-8)

Graham seems particularly fond of cats, but all animals are treated with sensitivity by his good characters. It’s a mark of Demelza’s intelligence when early on in her relationship with Ross she tells him (in effect) the torturing of roosters for entertainment is deeply perverse, ignores the animals’ true body (they come without the irons) and impulses; very cruel.

Well that’s all for tonight. I’ve had several deeply satisfying days in the Library of Congress working on Winston Graham’s oeuvre and hope to continue and return if I can to this library and others. I’ve a few crime novels to read and have picked out Cornish authors and books Graham cites and clearly knew about as colleagues and aligned works. A work in progress.

Ellen

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Helen Mirren as Jane Tennison (Prime Suspect series)

I, too, dislike it — Marianne Moore

Friends,

I’ve embarked on a reading journey through an area mostly unfamiliar to me, and Polonius-like, can come up with only the clumsiest of labels: the mystery, detective, suspense, gothic, spy thriller, crime, murder novel. Most of the time even with the most generally admired, about half-way through I grow tired of the formulas, and either give the story up altogether, or skim-read to the end. That’s what happened yesterday when I read for the first time Dashell Hammett’s much-bepraised The Maltese Falcon. Or I get to the end, and think what a good book this has been, until three minutes thought assails me, and I see it for the claptrap anti-feminist thing it is and become seriously annoyed. That’s what happened the other day when I finished Winston Graham’s Merciless Ladies.

I admit I can be hooked by a film serial; especially late-at-night, with a female hero, be drawn intensely in by its mix of ingredients blended into my more favored fare: that’s what happened with the film adaptation of P.D. James’s Death Comes to Pemberley. I can like the “Golden Age-1930s mold” even with a wholesome male at the center and a sermon at close: my favorite time for watching James Norton in Grantchester was 1 in the morning.


Typical cheap paperback cover illustration for the era …, now published by the New York Review of Books as a worthy book, became a remarkable 1950s movie by Nicholas Ray

But I’m no more fooled than Raymond Chandler in his debunking “The Simple Art of Murder,” or Julian Symons in his truly brilliant and entertaining Bloody Murder: “it is an inferior thing, but a thing with its own particular and unique merits. Nobody condemns Restoration comedy outright because it lacks the profoundity of Jacobean drama” (20), as with most film noir and ghost fiction.

I’ve embarked on this because I’ve embarked on a book on Winston Graham, his Poldark novels and Cornwall (working title). I don’t intend to read every work he ever wrote, or study every film made from said work (some in each kind are dreadful). To understand the man and his genuinely creative books, one cannot ignore 30 odd volumes of suspense set in our contemporary era, a few of which have been much admired, with one famous title (even had an opera made of it last year, i.e., Marnie, and some time ago a very good play by Sean O’Connor). One chapter I’ve told myself.

I’ve been reading these desultorily, out of order for a few years now, depending on what I thought I could stand: The Forgotten Story, written the same year as Ross Poldark, historical Cornish, deeply reflective of the trauma of WW2, Angharad Rees starred in the now wiped out serial; The Walking Stick, with its fine movie with David Hemmings; The Little Walls, won prestigious prize; Angell, Pearl and Little God, despite its godawful title, said to have been considered for a movie with Brando in a leading role. Graham has a number of novels with (to me) unappetizing titles, many first published with embarrassing covers.


I like this 1960s Bodley Head cover illustration of Demelza used on all four of the Bodley Head publications of the first four Poldark books

But now it will be my project, give me some kind of goal for a biographical book of my own, one I think I can do for real, and which is called out for — there is no book on this man whose work is so well known, liked, has made a great deal of money for so many. And I’ve corresponded with his son who for now has no objection. All the reading and love I’ve put into my study of biography and continual reading of literary ones (now there is a genre or book type that when done right I don’t tire of but read on however slowly to the end) — could just emerge in one of my own.

So I’ve begun steadily working through Graham’s early ones in the order they were written, and when revised, cut down, rewritten (several were) even comparing the two texts. And I’ve found myself engaged, e.g., The Giant’s Chair, 1938, became Woman in the Mirror, 1975. Alas (for Graham’s mature judgement of his own work), the earlier version is much better. I’ve heard this said of the first 12% longer version of Ross Poldark. The Giant’s Chair set in 1920s Cornwall, with attention paid to geology, geography, local feel, has an idiosyncratic charm, a traumatized secondary hero, disabled son, unjust death (not by murder), with believable heroine who has Radcliffian adventures, lesbian sexuality, becomes a weak hard-boiled thin bloody murder read, albeit with some stronger lines and passages — and more coherent clarity.

Tomorrow if I can get through the byzantine “security” procedures of the Library of Congress (whose real effect is to curb research, lest the cowardly congress be at risk as they place their iron heels on 90% of us), I shall read the relatively rare 1937 The Dangerous Pawn. It fetches $2000+ on the open market.


Jeremy Brett — the 1980s Sherlock Holmes

For tonight I thought I’d introduce one aspect of this fantastically successful genre, which the reader may not know or not mind being reminded about. (Beyond how necessary it is to find delight and solace in its central detective figure0. How flexible it is all the while keeping its recognizable furniture. It can accommodate so many kinds of stories & materials because one can tell anything to Sherlock. Two weeks ago I watched a remarkable modern-type BBC film adaptation of Wilkie Collins’s real novel of quality, The Woman in White (1860), arguably one of the pattern forms. I remember reading it in two days when I lay sick with flu — 1973 that was, we lived at the top of Manhattan with our dog, Llyr. The Italian Fosco was the origin invention that gave rise to the book of Marion Halcombe, the spinster who I defy anyone not to like. About the subjugation of women. The lady gone mad is not in the attic but wanders from her asylum across moors.

I had thought a genre I am familiar with, have long loved in the dyptich, historical romance, historical fiction, was very far from suspense novels. I was wrong. As in Graham’s oeuvre, characteristics, motifs, character types slide across one another co-terminously. It is not that uncommon to alternate between them. Police procedures can combine with women’s subjective novels, which historical romances are a version of in disguise. The great Breaking Bad belongs to this genre.

And today LeCarre is one of those who have made of them philosophical politically engaged books. I suppose the road was opened for this first by Hammett (1931, The Glass Key is not far off his rewrite-collaboration with Lilian Hellman from stage to film, Watch on the Rhine, 1941). I remember first reading LeCarre’s early, A Small Town in Germany (1968) which I thought was a fable about integrity very like Trollope’s The Warden (a similar retiring male at the center).

Trollope by the way knows the drill. In his parodic dark The Eustace Diamonds he has the de rigueur fuss about key, locked room, weapon (depends for working on some mechanical device), not to omit the importance of the exit/entrance and mappable space. By reverse logic, it stands to reason Trollope had no feel or urge to write historical fiction. He didn’t care what happened at “exactly half-past two o’clock on Tuesday morning” fifteen yards beyond the fourth milestone.


A Nancy Drew introspective cover, as Umberto Eco says at the opening of Il nome della rosa,

Naturalmente, un manoscritto

I have almost written myself into admiring this stuff. As I write myself into wakefulness and a feeling of cheer. Now if only I could find real pleasure in reading it. It can be fun to read about it on the train and watch it obsessively at 1 in the morning.

Ellen

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From Bergman’s Wild Strawberries (1957)

In terms of sexual politics, however, to borrow Lee’s own phrasing, women are also getting kind of funny about other people telling their stories — Thomas Chatterton Williams, a NYTimes Magazine semi-fluff piece on Spike Lee

Dear friends and readers,

My last was about this past year’s life in reading; this is about this year’s life in and through films and stage-plays, except I doubt I can remember all the films I saw this year. I watch late at night and into the morning hours (that’s how I saw the first season of Grantchester — fascinating for what it mirrors of our culture just now). I probably can’t distinguish those I saw this past year (2017) from last (2016). While books are surely also dream matter, for myself I have to admit no matter how absorbed and intensely engaged I can get, the experience of a movie (especially large screen, in color, up close, with strong appropriate music) is just ontologically visceral. Two of the first books I read when I began to study and write about film were Parker Tyler’s The Hollywood Hallucination, and Magic and Myth of the Movies.


Nicholas and Smike on the road of life (Nicholas Nickleby 2002)

At the same time one must keep hold of the understanding these are unreal ratcheted up works of art which are not imitations of life, but emotion-creating, emotional sharing technological concoctions. I try during daylight waking hours; I don’t vouch for what I let my mind do when I’m in bed falling asleep, nor here tell my movie dreams. Sometimes waking I am coming out of a dream world made up of one of the TV serial dramas I’ve watched; they can make a bigger impact because I live with them over weeks of watching. I wrote about only a few of these: Poldark, The Handmaid’s Tale, Outlander (1st season; 2nd & 3rd seasons). I’ve yet to write about the Anna Karenina films (I’m just finishing the book) and The Crown. I was glad when I saw that Elisabeth Moss, Caitriona Balfe and Claire Foy were all nominated for Golden Globes for the best actress in a TV drama series. A 2002 BBC adaptation of Nicholas Nickleby (Charles Hunnam; Juliet Stevenson, Jim Broadbent, Romola Garai, Anna Hathaway, Christopher Plummer, Timothy Squall, Tim Courtney — oh it had everyone). How important these star presences are. I do (fingers crossed) mean to write on The Crown and Anna Karenina.


Pamola Baeza as Bathseeba (we read Hardy’s Far from the madding Crowd this summer — no it was not one of my favorites)

Favorite individual films this year (excluding HD opera screenings) seen for the first time, in no particular order:

Baldwin: I am not your Negro
Ashgar Farhadi’s Salesman and A Separation
Mrs Dalloway and To the Lighthouse (older movies seen on DVDs)
Wadja’s Afterimage
Two Far from the Madding Crowd movies: the 1998 BBC with Nathaniel Parker, Paloma Baeza and Jonathan firth, Natasha Little; 2013 with Carey Mulligan, Michael Sheen (the famed 1967 with Julie Christie and Alan Bate is over-rated)
Kedi — the street cats of Istanbul
Lucky
Neruda (post-modern political film, superb)

Favorite Re-seen movies: Last Orders, Barchester Chronicles (perfection), North and South.

This excludes this year’s about eight HD operas, which included a few which were I admit superb precisely because they were films, permitting subtitles, close-ups, great acting. The finest and moving Eugene Onegin; astonishingly intelligent Exterminating Angel

I also took my first course in film, “The History and Aesthetics of” (at the OLLI at AU) a deeply grating experience since every single film we saw (10) and every single one the teacher (retired from teaching in a private high school) mentioned were by a man and about men. There was not one which even focused on a woman. I did tell the professor about this, but it took 2 emails, one of which was a comments on the course type, and weeks before he brought this up. Five men and over ten women in the class and only then did a few women clap and say “hurrah, Ellen.” These women were all aware of this then but none would have spoke up for me; nonetheless, all his lists of famous films carried on being by and about men even after that, no matter what type (French new wave, African-American). Talk about erasure and marginalization, for of course these films had women in them — as sex objects, mothers, nurses, nuisances, victims, not one all term long had any ambition but to be wife or mother. The teacher’s talk about these was very educational, context, close reading of techniques, biographies, remarkably intelligent conversation in the class. My guess is he never watches films by women — though he’s seen some made by men about women and knew of Jeanine Basinger’s great book, A Woman’s View: How Hollywood Spoke to Women, 1930-60 (he was able to cite her high position at a university, which I could not have done, would not have thought of), which I read with a group of women on Women Writer through the Ages @ Yahoo several years ago.


Jean Arthur and Ronald Colman (1942, Talk of the Town, never got near being mentioned, one of my favorite films of all times; as the wordpress search engine does not go back before 2012 I see I shall have to rewrite that blog)

The teacher’s choices were Modern Times (Chaplin and Paulette Goddard towards the end), Fritz Lang’s M (Peter Lorre, a troubling film made during the Nazi era because its content readily confirms the pathological paranoia towards anyone but white “upright” males), Welles’s Citizen Kane (fascinating but in the experience too jocular, and thus pandering too often), the Hitchcock Rear Window (artistically remarkable but the usual mean voyeurism, also paranoia from the point of view of white males), The Graduate (moronic), Casablanca (at times hilarious and yet at times the intensity of Boghart’s performance carries it), Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, Ingmar Bergman’s Wild Stawberries, and Francois Truffaut’s 400 Blows (all phases of men’s lives). It was a course in male classic films; the male canon of films.

It was a sort of shocking experience. To be amidst a group of people where the existence, outlook, experiences of some 2/3s of them were ignored, distorted, marginalized. It was like being in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. Not that I have not had this experience. I taught for 23 years at George Mason University: in no catalogue was my name ever cited, when I left there was nothing recorded about it. But that was long range, done ever so cleverly, indirectly. However it’s such experiences that make African-American films and their political outlook undersandable to me; often there I can guess how they will vote. The highest ratings I ever had as a teacher occurred when my classes were predominantly African-American. One summer, the summer Barack Obama was running to be nominated for president for the Democratic party for the first time I had a class of 11 students for Advanced Composition in the Natural Sciences. I had two European-American (white) students in it. I got a 5.10 out of 6, and my only letter of commendation in all the years I was there signed by Rick Davis, then dean of humanities (or some such title).


Tracy Camilla Jones in She’s Gotta Have It (1986)

So a little, however inadequate, and here too women were secondary, basically chorus or scolds, on Do the Right Thing. First the full context I’d give it is bell hooks’s take on She’s Gotta Have It: “Whose Pussy Is This: A Feminist Comment, Hooks described Lee’s protagonist as “ ‘pure pussy,’ that is to say that her ability to perform sexually is the central, defining aspect of her identity.” The film, in Hooks’s view, was contaminated by “the pervasive sense that we have witnessed a woman being disempowered and not a woman coming to power.” See Chatterton’s paragraphs describing this film which is about a promiscuous female who finds herself by finding the right male partner. His great film, said the teacher, is Malcolm X, who in Haley’s rerwrite in acceptable English (readable) of Malcolm’s autobiographical diary notes frequently uses bitch as a synonym for women, though it is reserved especially for white women. It was the English freshman community text for adjuncts to use one term I was teaching at American University (as an adjunct); need I say, I didn’t assign it? You could find a substitute: mine was James Baldwin’s The Price of the Ticket; now I’d use Ta Nehesi-Coates Between Me and the World.


Closing moments of Do the Right Thing (1989)

Of the group the most contemporary alive films still seemed to me Lee and Bergman’s. Lee’s Do the Right Thing is a depiction of the lives of black people seen angrily and harshly (the women berate all the men continually), also allegorical (with Ossie Davies and Ruby Dee as allegorical figures of compassion. Like the others, it’s been written about so much, I can hardy add to the great criticism and studies, my take is Mookie (played by Spike) destroys Sal (Danyl Aiello) the decent white owner’s pizzeria because it’s the only way he can get himself to stop working there. All film long his girlfriend berates him castigatingly for having such a demeaning job (that’s her one function beyond being the mother of his son), but as far as we can see it is all he has been able to persuade anyone to offer him. And the title is ironic as in this situation these people have been coerced into and kept no one can do any right thing at all. So fundamental and sweeping and decades long must be the changes done across the whole country-society to educate everyone together, to allow African-Americans to build self-esteem, make good incomes as a group, be free from incarceration and/death as daily risk.

Ingmar Bergman’s Wild Strawberries, also analyzed and described in so many places, gives me a chance to talk about the second of two good plays I saw this year, one by a woman: Private Confessions, Liv Ullmann’s directed play out of Bergman’s script from his movie. The film, Wild Strawberries, is about a tough old physician’s inward journey (depressed, angry, isolated, unaccepting) to face up to the central mistakes he’s made all his life through a series of dreams he has on the way to get a life-time achievement award with his daughter-in-law driving him. It put me in mind of the (by contrast) child-like A Christmas Carol where the old man faced with death and visited by three spirits who show him his past suddenly reforms and retrieves what has gone before. Borg feels his life has been a failure no matter what others see or think. What we see is the almost near impossibility of retrieval. So many he hurt or who hurt him centrally have died or turned away so finally and unforgivingly. We see his son has become a hard mean detached man to protect himself (ironically mirroring his father). Like Do the Right Thing and so many great films (and books) Wild Stawberries is highly autobiographical. Bergman had a harsh cruel hypocritical pastor for a father; he himself had affairs (as did Borg in the film — one of his mistresses functions like the benign ghosts in Dickens’s tale). Bergman is searching to make a meaning in life now that we know there is no god, and the ethical values you once thought could hold sway you now find are a veneer for giving a pretended order to the chaos of reality. My father took me to see this movie when I was about 11; he had identified with the man.


Private Confessions (from the production I saw last week, 2017)

The play, Private Confessions, is not listed in the wikipedia entry for Liv Ullmann, probably because she didn’t write it. I saw the play Friday night week last at the Kennedy Center: it was as if Ullmann had plucked out the deep core center of Bergman’s films and we watched in an almost bare stage the sheer internal memories and life, this time, of a woman who found she had married a man she didn’t love; she has an affair with a much younger man, almost leaves the husband (a pastor who is cold in nature), but decides not to. The cast includes her mother and her friend. It was acted with subtlety at the same time conveying hard intense passions. It was superb if filled with much suffering — I can see why Bergman is made fun of. This one without the film apparatus did not come across as allegorical in the way other of his films do. The film’s cast list is the same, though the description on IMDB emphasizes the roles of the priest, husband and lover. As the play the character on stage all the time whose point of view we are is the woman, Anna. The actress was Marte Engebrigtsen. Like other of Bergman’s films it is a transposition of his own autobiography: this time (or again) about his parents Like other of Bergman’s films it is a transposition of his own autobiography: this time (or again) about his parents.

The other great play I saw this year took three nights, it came in three parts (like the Norman Conquests), The Gabriels, which I began the year with, last January. (I did see a few stage plays done by N.Va repertoire companies when the friend who has now dropped me drove us to the Fairfax and Arlington community centers they played in.)

So all these are this year’s memories. They help me though my days — dream matter given structures (designs of visions) to experience and and significance contemplate by how they are made and put together in their media. The very best steady me through a kind of perspectival moral compass. Like The Roofmen of this Patricia Fargnoli’s poem:

Over my head, the roofmen are banging shingles into place
and over them the sky shines with a light that is
almost past autumn, and bright as copper foil.

In the end, I will have something to show for their hard labor –
unflappable shingles, dry ceilings, one more measure of things
held safely in a world where safety is impossible.

In another state, a friend tries to keep on living
though his arteries are clogged,
though the operation left a ten-inch scar

and, near his intestines, an aneurysm blossoms
like a deformed flower. His knees and feet
burn with constant pain.

We go on. I don’t know how sometimes.
For a living, I listen eight hours a day to the voices
of the anxious and the sad. I watch their beautiful faces

for some sign that life is more than disaster –
it is always there, the spirit behind the suffering,
the small light that gathers the soul and holds it

beyond the sacrifices of the body. Necessary light.
I bend toward it and blow gently.
And those hammerers above me bend into the dailiness

of their labor, beneath concentric circles: a roof of sky,
beneath the roof of the universe,
beneath what vaults over it.

And don’t those journeymen
hold a piece of the answer – the way they go on
laying one gray speckled square after another,

nailing each down, firmly, securely.

As I say I know this is illusion and underneath these structures, all around them, shut out sufficiently so as to maintain control in my journey’s spaces are abysses …

Ellen

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Publicity shot for Marnie (Tippi Hedron, Sean Connery)

Friends and readers,

I’ve embarked on a study of Graham’s writing beyond his Poldark and Cornish historical fiction, with a view to perhaps writing a literary biography of this author. While my emphasis will be on the Poldark series (12 novels and a couple of short stories) and Graham’s deep drawing on his 30 years of life in Cornwall, I feel that since the man wrote 27 other books, including stage and screen-plays, a non-fiction history of the Armada as it hit Cornwall in the 16th century, travel writing (about Cornwall), life writing, not to omit scattered pieces in magazines (about gardening, poetry on a cat, about Cornwall from a historical point of view), I ought to look at some of this. I’ve read the travel- and life-writing, a few of the historical novels (set in Manchester where he grew up, Cordelia; Grove of Eagles, Elizabethan Cornwall; The Forgotten Story, set in Cornwall on the sea, 1898; on his art and craft), but am woefully lacking on the mystery-thriller-suspense books. He not only wrote 27 such books, but several were seen as good material for a movie, and two made into films today highly respected: The Walking Stick and Marnie.


Publicity shot for Walking Stick (Samantha Eggar and David Hemmings)

I chose books from his mid-career which won prizes or he has been especially commended for, or I’ve come across essays praising them: The Little Walls (1955); Greek Fire (1957, in the opening recalling Greene’s The Third Man); The Tumbled House (1959, very revealing of Graham for its attack on how privacy of authors is not respected, the son seeking to vindicate his father who turns out to have been plagiarizing); Marnie (1961, in its use of sexual sickness in the character at the center resembling Nabokov’s Lolita and because of those who’ve studied it with subtlety worth reading so one can read these studies); The Walking Stick (1967, deeply about disability). I remember read/skimming Take My Life (1967, novelization of a playscript). I’ve just begun After the Act (1965) because it’s about a man who murders his older wife and then lives intensely to feel guilt for his actions and then find that after all he loves his wife far more truly thad the young woman who has tried to take her place. My last will be Angel, Pearl and Little God (1970, Marlon Brando was among those approached when a movie was in the planning). I probably should push myself to read Strangers Meeting and Night Journey (for the sake of the titles, and what I’ve read about them, but have no copy of the first); and know Graham spent a lot of time on The Green Flash (1986). There are a few interesting looking stories in The Japanese Girl (1971) .

These are not cheerful books. They often end implicitly or explicitly bleakly. Yes unlike today’s blood thrillers, there in attempt in several (The Little Walls, The Tumbled House) to reason an excuse for why the characters take their lives, self-destruct, and to look for a stoic acceptance philosophically, but in final scene after final scene, doubt as to what happened is sown, our chief character is about to be arrested. I can see thoughtful police procedurals made from some of those I’ve now read, with their repeated uses of treachery, or film noir. I’ve watched a couple of embarrassingly dated movies made from his earlier books: Night Without Stars (1950); Fortune is a Woman (1953), mildly film noir


Take My life (the earliest movie made from his books, 1947)

There is a truly excellent study of Marnie by Tony Lee Moral: The Making of Marnie (2005). Moral argues that Hitchcock’s film may be watched as a feminist expose of the way sexuality was then and is today conducted. I can see the film could be interpreted this way much more if the original screenplay (by Evan Hunter) had been used: Hunter wrote a rape scene (the husband rapes the wife — a not uncommon motif in Graham’s books) which condemned Sean Connery’s character in no uncertain terms, but Jay Presson Allen (a woman) professed herself wholly unbothered and also (as is done by some readers of Graham’s novels) said she did not consider what happened a rape! Marnie is terrified, angry, resists, and the curtain is pulled down — these are books meant for middle brow readers – but when the next chapter opens there is no doubt that Marnie hated every minute of what had happened (there is doubt about Elizabeth Poldark and as with the rape scene of the princess daughter in Downton Abbey in the first season’s suggestions that after all Mary wanted this though she said no …)

The fascination of the material is that Evan Hunter, an intelligent sensitive writer of screenplay objected strenuously to the rape and said if Mark rapes Marnie, his character will be so debased and the act so ugly, he can’t come back from it. Given Marnie’s vulnerability to this powerful rich man who can put her in jail and her terror, if Mark loved hre he would abstain. As (my allusion) Randolph Henry Ashe does for Ellen for years in the backstory of A. S. Byatt’s Possession. Evan Hunter wrote a screenplay in which Mark is patient, does not rape Marnie but they begin to understand one another — at least he does her (a father figure is the most charitable interpretation as Mr Knightley is for Emma, Rhett Butler is for Scarlett). It’s a very plausible humane reaction and could be used to justify describe the objections to Ross raping Elizabeth — which are ceaseless even now. Hitchcock wouldn’t listen and simply fired Hunter. Hitchcock justified his use of rape off-tape: he kept all tapes off when he directed some of the scenes And there is this horrifying statement someone remembered: he wanted a close up of the actresses face as “Mark sticks it in her” (in the fiction). This is not the only such statement from Hitchcock.

I cannot say I like this material however I may get caught up in the psychological conflicts of the characters, and suspenseful scenes (he seems to favor robbery of antiques, archaic jewelry and furniture): the style is “hard-boiled,” totally without poetry (beauty, leisure) of language. As a rule I usually couldn’t care less about working out clues, or who killed whom for what. How can anyone can regard some of the more recent entries which unlike LeCarre do not have a serious political critique? Graham differs in managing to make us care for his characters. but beyond that the whole genres endorses hierarchy, punitive responses to people in desperate trouble with no opportunity to rise and take others with them, admire glamor, celebrity, luxurious hide-away places. Graham uses these but in his finest fictions these fall away.

As Wayne Booth in his Rhetoric of Fiction also argued (long ago), the genre is more than implicitly misogynist: women are unfaithful, deceitful, men exist to conquer them and anything else that gets in their way. Graham (and LeCarre and others) modify this, but when you see a full-blown version of this in Marnie and her terrible sick mother (who either had men just like this when her husband is out fighting a war, or supports herself as a prostitute and gets her own child out of bed to do it, and also strangles a newborn who is born out of wedlock), I am surprised any woman can read this aggressive male material. In the last couple of decades women have been writing it by putting females in the male roles and exposing ugly crimes against women, but the underlying endorsement and even sympathy for the present competitive cruel order remains.

From Lyn Gardner on Sean O’Connor’s close adaptation as a staged play of Marnie: But for all his stylistic flourishes, O’Connor – like Hitchcock before him – never really gets inside either Marnie’s frozen heart or her strange, forced marriage to Mark Rutland, the boss from whom she steals and who then traps her like a wounded animal [as Warleggan traps Elizabeth]. Just as most of the attempts to explain Marnie’s behaviour look ludicrously simplistic to a modern audience — the workings of the subconscious are infinitely more understood than they were 40 years ago – so the failure to explore Rutland’s equally bizarre behaviour and motives in marrying Marnie create a hollow centre … Gardner says Sean O’Connor belongs to kitchen-sink angry young man school

What can I say about this mass of writing. Their strength is in Graham’s gift for psychological complexity of some of the characters; his evocation of a place or milieu; his and the reader’s occasional deep bonding with the vulnerable, powerless, disabled, economically distressed. I have been noting some similarities of themes, character types, uses of a triangular love, with the Poldark books; most can be explained away as a trope of formulaic of generic fiction except for this kind of thing: at the core of several or a crucial incident is marital rape.

Robin Wood made the most interesting remarks (he wrote a book on Hitchcock’s films): Wood says Hitchcock ignores much else in the book and concentrates on sexual and emotional problems of men and women. Marnie’s rape scene, for Wood, offered “one of the purest treatments of sexual intercourse the cinema has given us; pure in its feeling for sexual tenderness. Yet what we see is virtually a rape. To the man it is an expression of tenderness, solicitude, responsibility; to the woman, an experience so desolating that after it she attempts suicide. Our response depends on our being made to share the responses of both characters at once.” A gender faultline all right.

This is not a common theme — the first cited is usually Galsworthy’s Man of Property (Solmes rapes his wife). What to make of it, I’m not sure: the feel in Graham is not voyeuristic misogyny (except in the case of Hitchcock’s famous film of 1965), but an awareness of women’s powerlessness, compassion for some of the raped women (though none submit more than once, and certainly not night after night as with Morwenna in The Four Swans); lack of class status and gender leads characters to be treated or behave in Graham’s books at times like hunted animals.

I also find in Graham an almost obsessive depiction of a husband or wife drawn to love for someone outside their marriage and this might have personal resonances, especially when the deserted character is disabled (he has numbers of disabled characters). In Marnie, the woman who played the crazed (sick) mother, Louise Latham said it was a challenge for her to act because (seeing the “terrible mother” sympathetically which no one else may have) “’it made you wonder why this terrible relationship occurred [between mother and daughter] and what was the cause of all this pain and anger.’ Latham began investigating the role by the coldness, fear and isolation and defensiveness that existed inside Bernice Edgar” (p. 62). Well this coldness, isolation, defensiveness is found in Valentine of the Poldark books, who grows up to become a psychologically cruel man who exploits a sexually vulnerable mentally disabled girl (Bella), but we learn (eventually) is a deeply lonely man who buys himself an orangutan for company, to have as a loving friend:


Photo of an orangutan (empathy for non-human animals seen throughout Graham’s writing)

How has this happened? during Valentine’s childhood his legal father George had been so suspicious Valentine is Ross’s biological son that he withdrew all love (from The Four Swans on) , Elizabeth his mother dies in The Angry Tide. In the 2015 films of the new Poldark, Elizabeth is cold to her baby, Valentine; not so in Graham’s book or first 1977 series — she favors Geoffrey Charles but she does not neglect her baby (script by Alexander Baron). But for years Ross refuses any acknowledgement and this comes to a disastrous final scene in Bella (Poldark 12, the last) where Ross is made to realize his profound error. The hero in Walking Stick is a similarly perverted man taking advantage of a lame girl. Perhaps all this is material comes from an underside of dark thought and feeling of the author’s encouraged by the misogynistic spy-thriller/mystery suspense genre?


This is a touching still from the film

Conversely and in quite a different spirit, some of Graham’s later short stories are touching and sweet: as when in one of his last Graham meets Demelza, or her spirit, and she is still grieving for the loss of Julia and Jeremy.

I blinked. In spite of the moon it was becoming very dark. I looked back, and in place of the house there was only some may trees, a pond, and the bubbling stream.
“It is very dark,” I said to her. “We’ll have to go careful because of the rough ground.”
She did not reply. I looked round and she was not there. Where she had been were waving grasses and some bracken and hart’s-tongue fern.
I was suddenly very lonely. But the pressure of her hand in mine, the pressure of her fingers, was still warm.

On the gathering night
From the faint harmony of an errant dream
I woke and found the moon’s quiet light
Quiet in the gathering night
Echoing its theme.

Then in the early dawn
Sadness was mine and the desire to stay
Lest the rich theme so young new born
Fading in early dawn
Wither away.

Now in the clamorous noon
Nothing is left me but an empty husk
Yet do I wait and hope for soon
Gone is the clamorous noon
Welcome the dusk
— from “Demelza”

An opera might seem a stretch in another direction: Nico Muly’s world premiere of Marnie, as an opera. The talk about the opera does not broach its central issues, only the symptoms and circumstances surrounding them. And the emphasis again on the deceitful woman. Let us remember that it was okay for Trump to be a fraud, but Hillary Clinton could not get past the accusation she is dishonest.


Sasha Cook, said to be the mezzo-soprano for the role at the Metrpolitan opera (2017)

I’m glad I have only two left on my list and will then return to the 12 comparatively sunny Poldark books. However, one must remember that the same man wrote in these two different genres and all the cross-overs in the two kinds of fiction there are to be found.

Ellen

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Cumberbatch in the 1890s costume (and the expression on his face in the contemporary scenes match)

Friends and readers,

Once more on these Sherlocks: my general assessment and a recap have been ably set forth by both my daughters (general assessment by Miss Izzy; perceptive recap by Anibundel). As Izzy says, the scenes were far too short, the lines ludicrously overproduced and action made over-melodramatic as movies and TV too are becoming more and more as a matter of course (or it would be not so oddly abruptly comic) aka script is crude. So far I agree. What interests me in Anibundel is the word “oddest:” “this was quite possibly, the oddest episode of Sherlock I’ve ever seen.”

I explore some of these odd elements in this exhausted reprise/coda of the third season of Sherlock (many months after the previous three, Last Vow, “Camp becomes Sentiment”). I suggest that at heart the series has all along had a gay sensibility, which, because the writers have now used up anything they had really to riff off of the original stories and films, faute de mieux came out very strongly in this coda. Rather like Alice in Wonderland everything else has shrunk or grown impossibly large.

First, as a retrospective on all we’ve had before (from A Study in Pink to The Reichenback Fall) this New Year’s special reduces the dazzling center of all of them to a drive to be super-clever, cleverer than any other costume drama on the block. As I think back I find the first season much better than that, and the second, especially actually having contemporary thematic relevance, though the obsessive repeating scenes of this and thus its overt central theme, hatred, fear, retreat, and paranoia have real purchase on what is displayed as news in public media this past year and enacted by the armies of many states.

But look at what that hatred is embodied in: an abominable bride herself, a dreadful creature, over-made-up, with dripping red lips, who appears to be a riff on one of the more memorable horror movies of the 1930s, sheerly on the basis of the bride’s appearance:

Sherlock-The-Abominable-Bride-Emelia-Ricoletti.

The team outdoes The Bride of Frankenstein, and Natasha O’Keeffe is given a camp opera diva name: Emilia Ricoletti. Remember Have Gun will Travel where Matt’s gun was all phallus? What an enormous one is here.

This is not just an outbreak of male insecurity (alluded to it when people refer to the misogyny run wild of this episode)? This mad image reappears several times, and is matched by Amanda Abbington as Mrs Watson turning up in a bridal outfit as elaborate and detailed and lacy as Diana Spencer’s, only she’s in black and with her head and utterly covered. No eyes to be seen even. Is this an allusion to the Muslim burka? Or is it fear of brides. Or, as in the Pride and Prejudice and Zombies book, a send-up of quintessential heterosexual sexual customs?

sherlock-opening-titles-1895
Open screen, all dissolving away

Structurally this is a time-traveling film which begins in the past, then fast forwards to now, then reverts, and then fast forward, revert, fast forward with a final revert: at first the 1890s are the reality, and then the 1890s are a dream/nightmare endured by a 21st century Sherlock, then the 1890s erupt again (like some Jekyll), take over for a while, and then suddenly Sherlock awakens, and we are to take this crazed past as dream, only the camera moves so swiftly and blends the time capsules so that when we end in the 1890s the inference is the contemporary age is the dream.

periodtwists
Periods twisting like a mobius strip

Within this moving remit, there are continual self-reflexive remarks about the events we are seeing, those remembered and those to come as written by Dr Watson, who is himself controlled (it seems) by an illustrator who has invented ludicrous hats and mustaches, as well as some inexorable material forcing him to keep Mrs Hudson to the margins of the text. Una Stubbs complains in the form of a caricature of her role in Conan Doyle’s stories:

MrsHudson

Mrs Hudson: And I noticed you’ve published another of your stories, Dr. Watson.
Dr Watson: – Yes, did you enjoy it?
Mrs Hudson – No.
Dr Watson: Oh?
Mrs Hudson: – I never enjoy them.
Dr Watson: – Why not?
Mrs Hudson: Well, I never say anything, do I? According to you, I just show people up the stairs and serve you breakfasts.
Dr Watson: Well, within the narrative, that is, broadly speaking, your function.
Mrs Hudson: My what?!
Dr Watson: Don’t feel singled out, Mrs. Hudson, I’m hardly in the dog one.
Mrs Hudson: “The dog one?” I’m your landlady, not a plot device. Do you mean The Hound Of The Baskervilles? And you make the rooms so drab and dingy.
Dr Watson: Oh, blame it on the illustrator, he’s out of control! I’ve had to grow this moustache just so people will recognise me.

What she could complain about more cogently with respect to this episode and the whole of the third season is this: the inset story is though one dependent on mad femme fatales, with a crazed bride wants to murder her bridegroom and succeeds. None of this has any serious reality. Where there is some is in thee women at the margins of the film and they function as mainstream reassurance: they stand and wait for and on their men. That is the use of Mary Watson (as we all know, Freeman’s partner in real life). The film-makers use the recurring woman characters in this series for reassurance of emotional warmth and continuity, stability — a sop to the mainstream audience oddly out of place. I’ve read the Mary Marston will be killed off if this series ever recurs again. Because the shows don’t care in the least about women

InNormalclothes
One of her piquant gestures

This includes Molly Hooper (Louise Brealey) as a woman in the 1890s living as a man, dressed, acting as a man (tranvestite anyone?) in order to have the active male career she was denied in 2015. it’s reassuring to recognize her. Remember how hard she was slapped, anyone? Some women viewers have kept asserting how the women in this Sherlock series are strong. If so, they are hardly ever there, getting 5% of a typical program (an exception was the episode which featured Lindsay Duncan as a Mrs Thatcher type), and continually as mainstream conventional as the males are individually questioning norms of all sorts.

There is also the attempt of Watson humanly to reach Holmes. To reach the depth of gravitas somehow conveyed by Bernard Cumberbatch now and again, and more frequently by Freeman (especially when he’s given lines from Conan Doyle as he is several times). This sort of thing could have been the heart of the story and given it some meaning, especially when because there are some telling stills and a dialogue between Watson and Sherlock at a still central point of the whirling:

Watson: Holmes, against absolutely no opposition whatsoever, I am your closest friend.
Holmes: I concede it.
Watson: I am currently attempting to have a perfectly normal conversation with you.
Holmes: — Please don’t.
Watson: — Why do you need to be alone?
Holmes: If you are referring to romantic entanglement, Watson, which I rather fear you are, as I have often explained before, all emotion is abhorrent to me. It is the grit in a sensitive instrument.
Watson: — The crack in the lens.
Holmes: — The crack in the lens.
Watson: Yes.
Holmes: Well, there you are, you see, I’ve said it all before.
Watson: No, I wrote all that.
Holmes: You’re quoting yourself from The Strand Magazine.
Watson: — Well, exactly.
Holmes: — Those are my words, not yours!
Watson: That is the version of you that I present to the public.
Holmes: The brain without a heart. The calculating machine.
Watson: I write all of that, Holmes, and the readers lap it up. But I do not believe it.
Holmes: Well, I’ve a good mind to write to your editor.
Watson: You are a living, breathing man.
– You’ve lived a life, you have a past.
Holmes: — A what?!
Watson: — Well, you must have had
Holmes: — Had what?
Watson: — You know.
Holmes: — No.
Watson: Experiences.
Holmes: Pass me your revolver, I have a sudden need to use it.
Watson: Damn it, Holmes, you are flesh and blood, you have feelings, you have You must have Impulses.
Holmes: Dear Lord, I have never been so impatient to be attacked by a murderous ghost.
Watson: As your friend, as someone who worries about you. Wwhat made you like this?
Holmes: Oh, Watson Nothing made me. (DOG YELPS) I made me.

Throughawindow (Large)2
In this still it would seem Sherlock is a figment of Watson’s mind

Their words suggest that Gatis and Moffatt have fallen for the shallow view of the Doyle’s hero that he is cold, inhuman, and somehow sick because not sociable. The cant of the last 30 years has been that people only come alive when socializing. So this moment is not developed into anything beyond the literal surface meaning at all. Yet the 1st and 2nd seasons of the series showed they were much more intelligent and aware than that. So they kept this superficial. If you can credit third grade psychology Sherlock is a horrible person, but the world has been filled with all sorts of people who lived and thrived and wrote and created mostly for long periods alone. Thoreau, anyone? Is he disabled? He denies it and this dialogue certainly gives us nothing to suggest he is. If it had been delivered less abruptly, it would have been witty.

The only depth of emotion permitted is fraternal: implicitly if it were allowed (as it was in the 1st and 2nd seasons) between Watson and Sherlock, between Rupert Graves as Lestrade (yes) and Sherlock, affection strong. We have two Mycrofts, and here is the core of this piece, the give-away. The startling reconfiguration of Mark Gatiss as the caring Mycroft in 2015 as the indifferent gross obscenely fat Mycroft of the 1890s. The grotesqueries of his hands, his face, his stomach are insisted on; we watch him eat like some spider and it’s made disgusting, the actor or computer image of Gatiss filmed so as to arouse recoil. I’ve seen this in Sondheim: the grotesque male or female body: made hugely large (as in Sally Potter’s lesbian Orlando out of Virginia Woolf’s book). He matches the bride’s overgrown gun. And he seethes with hatred of Holmes. Gatiss’ hidden nightmare self.

So the scenes with Moriarity seem oddly beside the point, not worked into any of the stories: Andrew Scott like some dead wax figure. The scene beside the falls can be seen as sheer contrast to all the concern (moving into the sentiment of the third season) the other characters display for the alienated Sherlock. Or its another hallucination, matching the crazed murderous bride. All coming out of whose mind? From where? in the third season we met quite a conventional pair of parents for Sherlock (the father played by Cumberbatch’s real actor father) and Gatiss as the caring brother (recurs here).

One obvious explanation for the existence of this curious on one level inexplicable travesty of all that went before is money and advertisers. I understand an enormous number of people tuned in to watch in the UK and US and wherever else the show reached. Appointment TV returns. It’s to be rerun on PBS and to be put on their website for 10 days (“only”) starting a week from now. The film-makers themselves invite us to see it this way. They tell us this was a chance to dress the actors up in Edwardian dress. They want to feel they made a crude, abrupt comic soup, ratcheted up by computer techniques, in the background the usual clanging music. Camp.

But if you watch and pay attention, Freeman as Watson has the same longing disquieted look he had in the first season. The key is to relate this to all the grotesque imagery found in many gay works, the gravity with which we are given bizarre camp images. The disability is not to be found in any character of this series. It could be located in the society around them, only the film-makers elected not to allow us to believe in any outside society (the way we do in Conan Doyle and most of the Sherlock films, including the most recent, Mr Holmes). So they are condemned to go ricocheting round and round because their target is closed off.

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A typical expression of Watson not only in this episode but throughout the series, from his first psychiatric session on …

Ellen

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‘What the deuce is it to me?”‘ he interrupted impatiently: ‘you say that we go round the sun. if we went round the moon it would not make a pennyworth of difference to me or to my work.’– Sherlock Holmes, A Study in Scarlet

Mr-Holmes-train.jpog

Dear friends and readers,

Mr Holmes has a couple of obstacles or problems to wide-spread acclaim. It is melancholy. Its themes include how to cope with aging and its losses, death, stigmatized class status (a no-no). For those brought up on the action-adventure of Robert Downey, Jude Law, Michael Strong and Rachel McAdams, it will not answer your expectations; for those still wedded to Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce (to say too little of the justified paranoia of WW2), it will make fun of the 1943 fanatical adherence to the deerstalker hunting cap and pipe (Holmes goes to a black-and-white simulacrum of such a movie and just cannot sit through it); it lacks the giddy pace and surrealism of the first 2 seasons of the BBC Cumberbatch and Freeman Sherlock concoctions; but to say it’s not Holmesian (as the New Yorker guru critic in residence, Anthony Lane means to insinuate) is just not so.

I concede fully that the perspective is post-modern (conventional thought and cant, especially about death and grief be damned), that there is something deliciously Jamesian (Henry) about it. Characters have deeply traumatic encounters on park benches while wearing impeccable hats.

MorahanMcKellen

Hat
Close-up of hat

They fail to understand one another, cannot bear one another’s emotions. It moves slowly, with shots that capture a poetry of stillness and costume drama in its green landscapes, seascapes, the sina qua non steam train rushing serpentine and noisily through. More than twice, though in one climactic instance it matters as someone is (reminding me of a Trollope scene in The Prime Minister) voluntarily smashed to smithereens.

But that it’s not Holmesian is unfair. Once you try to drill down to what could be the psychological or thematic or even political motive or moral explanation of at least two of its flashback and front story plots, you end up with ideas that will not bear any scrutiny. Convention defeats me here: I do not claim to be writing a consistently post-modern blog so allow me to explicate and show at least miminal story consistency.

There are three time frames: the present, 1947, Mr Holmes, aged 93, losing the last vestiges of memory from the past, living on the south coast of England, cared for by a housekeeper (natch) Mrs Munroe (Laura Linney) and her son, Roger (Milo Parker) who turns to Mr Holmes as father figure because his own father died in WW2: a bitter moment of memory has Linney as Mrs Munroe remembering how, like herself, her husband, was corroded by the stigmas of lower class status, and for his efforts to become a pilot in WW2, was blown to bits immediately (his mates, content to be menial mechanics all survived the war).

laura_linney_in_mr-holmes

Miloparker

A story from thirty years ago is painstakingly put together (& dramatized as flashbacks) by Mr Holmes about Ann Kelmot (Hattie Morahan) who had two miscarriages or stillborn children, cannot accept this and whose grief is only moderated by lessons she eventually finds for the glass harp (Frances la Tour, the crook teacher), whose intensity bothers her husband to the point he cuts off her money-supply and refuses to set up stone monuments for the never-developed nor born children. It is not giving away the story to say she plots to kill her husband.

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Holmes (McKellen) remembering (a difficult feat in the this story) Ann Kelmot (Hattie Morahan)

It’s not true though that there is no sense to this story. The moral is the husband was wrong; he should have allowed his wife to be deluded by the crook teacher — this reminded me of Woody Allen’s frequent defenses of fortune-tellers in many of his movies and there is a fortune-telling scene here.

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The glass harp medium (Frances de la Tour, aka Mrs Western in the 1997 Tom Jones)

Another backstory told through interwoven flashbacks is set in Japan: Holmes has gone to Hiroshima (1946?) to obtain a promised solution of which is said to restore the memory, only to find himself confronted by a Japanese man who accuses Holmes of seducing his father away from him and his mother through the stories of Dr Watson (The Study in Scarlet is the culprit), all the while we know that Holmes now deplores Watson’s fictions a providing false gratifying endings and heroism, with many details so wrong they are embarrassing. Of course this story “falls to pieces in your hands” (as Lane says). Worse, the explanation is reactionary defense of “national” and family secrets, of absurd honor which one sacrifices one’s life for? What Conan Doyle story does not do something like this?

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It is Holmes’s self-imposed mission in the film to retrieve: to retrieve the memory of who his Japanese man was (until near the end Holmes believes the man a liar, coward, and that he never met him — the man just deserted his family); to compensate for how inadequate, insensitive, absurd, selfish was his Jeremy Brett-like behavior to Anne Kelmot (the way this Kelmot thread is dramatized is closely reminiscent of the 1980s BBC Holmes movies), something which depends on memory and rewriting Watson’s story.

Much of this is done through the techniques of filmic epistolarity: voice-over with Holmes writing out new texts to replace Watson’s. Part of the fun of this is withholding. We do not see Mycroft (who explicates the Japanese story) until near the end of the film and it’s John Sessions (for me memorable as Henry Fielding, also in the 1997 Tom Jones); we do not see the bumbling inspector (played by Phil Davis, great in sinister, threatening roles in Dickensian film adaptations, now Jud in Poldark), until near the end. There is fun in recognizing these character actors from other costume dramas quietly semi-parodying the roles.

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Indeed the uplift at the close is the same fantasy Dickens plays upon in A Christmas Carol. We are asked to believe that people can make up for what they did wrong in the past, find a new person like the one you so hurt now to do better by. We do come near searing calamity in the present, brought on by both Mrs Munroe and Mr Holmes. I can’t deny that sometimes people (as characters) are lucky. The film is as Dickensian as it is Jamesian.

Hattie Morahan was once again “emotionally aflame” — Lane talks of her in A Doll’s House in BAM, but she was astonishing in Duchess of Malfi and I still watch her as Elinor refusing solace. I felt bad for Laura Linney(unbeatable in Love Actually, unforgettable in Hyde Park on the Hudson) that she was given the howling role. I found myself crying at the close because I couldn’t believe in the self-reproach and better behavior of our principal trio: Mr Holmes and Mrs Munroe, to say nothing of the maturation of Roger.

If I had anything to object to in this film it was that both Ian McKellen (too many great films and plays to begin to cite) and Laura Linney could have been given much more deeply nuanced moments. She is literally kept behind bars, looking out from windows:

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The film-makers were chary about releasing stills of McKellen showing the ravages of old age in the film, as he falls, eats, puts down stones for those who have gone before him. There was a pandering to the sub-genre of old man-and-hopeful worshipping-boy

OTOH, the beautiful loving feeling at the close of the film was authentic. Doyle’s ever-cool, ever witty, impatient Sherlock is now taking the risk of giving of himself; entering into loving relationships directly. Mr Holmes will leave the property to Mrs Monro and her boy when he dies. We see Mrs Munro and Roger in the garden working together and we see them walk off hand-in-hand too. The boy is now respectful of his mother under an eye of approval by Mr Holmes. He is 94, and we last seem him putting down stones (as Ann Kelmot did) for each of his friends now gone to the earth. He bows before them murmuring a lullaby. McKellen himself is very old now. It is a summer movie because through Jeffrey Hatcher’s marvelous screenplay McKellan as Mr Holmes is believable and comforts you.

Ellen

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Demelza (Eleanor Tomlinson) and Garrick arrived at Nampara (2015)

Dear friends and readers,

As you doubtless know if you’ve been reading this blog, the new Poldark mini-series is garnering much attention. Among remarkable items of interest suddenly turning up on-line are five texts by him read aloud sensitively, beautifully by two actors. One reason the Poldark novels have not been acceptable to the establishment is that while Graham is alive to this post-modern aspect of his fiction: how you can’t know the past, memory is failing, the universe itself unknowable, much relative, he does not make it central to his historical fiction and mystery larger structures — he mentions it now and again and there is a strong gothic undertow — well this idea and a gothic feel is central to these:

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In Cornwall

Meeting Demelza: a story written late in life where Graham meets his character at last; she tells what still hurts, we feel his ghostly desire: read by Ewan Bailey

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b03yqp4r

Ross and Demelza: one of the most powerful and visionary all chapters in Graham, where shortly after they are married, he takes her to an all night pilchard harvest in a brilliantly lit cove — read by Ewan Bailey, from Ross Poldark

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b03yqfx1

Three stories, all three abridged:

The Cornish Farm: set in the 20th century, a couple come to live and work a Cornish farm, a haunting marital suicide tale read by Nicholas Farrell

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b03ynmf3

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Click on the drawing to enlarge it

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Other places

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Claude Monet, Vetheuil Winter

At the Chalet Lartrec: One not set in Cornwall but the Swiss Alps in the 1960s where the narrator seeks shelter from a blizzard (I thought of Robert Louis Stevenson’s “A Lodging for the Night”); another haunting tale of apparent murder. Read by Ewan Bailey

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b03yngnh

The Old Boys: two now grown up boys meet on the grounds of their school, a meditation on how we re-interpret our past, how what for one is now amusement, for another is deep trauma. Read by Nicholas Farrell

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b03ymztf

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If you’ve listened through, you’ll have experienced a shared set of themes, moods, character types and peculiar similarities, down to the man who claims to have strangled his wife resembling Mark Daniels (who in the Poldark books does), the throwing of precious things deep down a well.

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Caeria Israel, a painting inspired by Trollope’s “Malachi’s Cove,” set in Cornwall

These feel dark and the snatches chosen are apolitical. The Poldark novels have a strong element of intermittent sunshine and hope and are political, left-liberal, just now in public media beginning to be talked about for the first time. Read this short essay by Stephen Fielding, a professor of political history at Birmingham:

http://nottspolitics.org/2015/03/11/sexing-up-cornwall-but-theres-more-to-poldark-than-good-looks/

Poldark was actually one of the most radical period dramas of its day, reflecting the influence of the novels written by Winston Graham on which it was based. The first Poldark novel was published in 1945, the year Britain elected a Labour government intent on building a more egalitarian society. Graham’s work was shaped by that context.

His villains are the Warleggans, described in the novel as the “new aristocracy”. These financiers-cum-industrialists are the “the people of the future”, monopoly capitalists in all but name, intent on destroying communities to earn a profit, and able to exploit a legal and political system that reflects their interest. Against them stands Poldark, who, as an impoverished squire, gestured to a more classless past in which squire and tenant shared the same economic interests. As Graham wrote in Ross Poldark (1945): “All men were born in the same way: no privilege existed which was not of man’s own contriving” …

Ross Poldark was, then, one of literature’s classic figures on the fringe, a man of noble birth who identifies with the people rather than with his own class.

I wouldn’t call him Robin Hood, rather a combination of the old romance hero of the Gainsborough films (remember Stewart Grainger in the UK, Errol Flynn in the US) and Che Guevara. Robin Ellis captured this latter aspect of the mood of Graham’s hero in this moment in spades:

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Robin Ellis as Ross Poldark — Drawing by Hope James

Ellen

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