The very air I breathe and see around me is filled with his absence … [my own play upon, rewrite of a line in Toibin’s Nora Webster]
…. hope is a tease, designed to prevent us from accepting reality …. [one of Violet, Lady Grantham’s tougher quips, Downton Abbey, Season 5]
Dear friends and readers,
Tonight over our supper Yvette and I were listening to a beautiful piano channel on Spotify or Pandora (on her ipad), and Vitamin String quartet played a tune I recognized. I went over to look and it was “Wake me Up,” one of the dances this past summer at Dance Fusion Workshop, only we danced to the rock group Avicii whose lyrics don’t do justice to the music’s depth of pulsing relentlessness and wild abandonment. Here it is made light:
I’ve been reading, writing, watching moves, writing, listening to music, writing — what else shall I do in this great blankness? on this road stretching out ahead of me. Alone with pussycats. This enforced ritual time an intensification of the experience of loss. (Curious that it includes expensive deluding of small children.)
One of my books is a novel by Colm Toibin, Nora Webster, which offers an extraordinarily truthful imagining of what it’s like to be just widowed after a beloved husband has been horribly sick in a hospital.
Nora Webster has made me remember how before the cancer metastasized into Jim’s liver, he smiled at me when I had come to the hospital and was just sitting there, feeling useless and perhaps showing it, and he said “I like to have you near me, it makes me feel better.” For that alone I value it immensely.
When I bought it I had no idea this was its topic; no wonder, the couple of the reviews I read managed to avoid focusing on what the book is focused on, or denied it’s what matters in the book; one jackass from the New York Times says it’s about “the stern heroine’s” “gradual re-wakening; how she gains the power to face” what? He doesn’t say. Another fool talks of how with her friends she finds employment. She gets but $6 a week for a pension and is forced to work for a mean bitch but after a while proves she can do valuable things in the office and so gets to stay half-a-day. What astonishes me is I can find nowhere in Toibin’s life an analogous experience. The thing is the other novels and poems I’ve tried show the experience is just this side of an hysteria, but that’s not the way it feels day-by-day. That’s what Toibin nails down. A great silence in which you carry on.
From Nora Webster:
“he would long for the comfort of this house and for her, as much as she longed for the past year of her life to be wiped away and for him to return to them” (62) “People would not think well of her … if they knew she thought such things were funny” (75). “Conversation was a way of managing things” (86). “But there were no other things. There was only what had happened” (86). “The problem for her was that she was on her own now and that she had no idea how to live” (86– a very rich page, 86). “Maurice had wanted her with him when he was in hospital in Dublin after his first heart attack … She remembered his eyes watching out for her … (128) “It was the world filled with absences. There was merely the hushed sound of water and stray cries of seabirds flying close to the surface of the calm sea” (150). “But he was already far away from them, so far that they might have been like shadows, people already lost to him. Maybe he could only imagine them all as vague presences, he ones he had loved, but love hardly mattered then, just as the haze here now meant that the line between lines hardly mattered” (151). “… watching every scene, every moment, for signs of what was missing or what might have been” … (141). Nora can’t tell her children what she’s feeling; she scarcely knows herself: “so this was what being alone was like, she thought” (204).
Others want to shut out the reality of her. Toibin’s lines are so perfect when I can’t find them and try to repeat them I know I have lost the equipoise. There are lines about the “long great sleeplessness” as he lays dying but I can’t find the exact words. So too on her rage against the the doctors who run away, the one who will not give him some drug for pain because his heart is weak. What? is the doctor afraid the patient will die? She watches Ingrid Bergman and realizes Bergman can never have done comedy well and says how glad she is of it and will watch Gaslight. Lost Horizon catches her — Ronald Colman’s presence.
Like all great fiction it teaches deeply moral ones, good moral lessons, usually unexpected and different from conventional thinking. Don’t tell your children about your deeper feelings and don’t expect anything from them. Live in and on yourself. Its flaw is the fantasy that she’s integrated again, but then she has 4 children, her husband had 2 siblings who were close to him; she has 3 sisters and they have children; she lives in a real community so she is in a crowd at any rate. I have 1 daughter who cares for me and I see; no hope of integration as there is no community in this continually moving and competitively aggressive N.Va area (NYC is as a place better that way, you can connect through public social events). I have this: the courtesy and kindness of strangers, or friends and a couple of far away relatives (on the phone every few months). I do have enough to live on and be free; she no longer is. She has lost most of all her freedom because he left her without enough money to survive without a job. She had 21 years of freedom she says (her life with her husband who earned their money) and now she must cope with meanness, grind, manipulation, lies of the sort people practice daily in the workplace. I don’t keep silent the way she does but I learn from her who not to talk to. And how much falseness there is in the depiction of widowhood. I didn’t put into the blog (but now have added) that like his other books and all good books I detail these in the blog (live in and on yourself, don’t expect anything from children or tell anything … ); its fantasy is a slight integration of the woman into the community but it may be Ireland in Enniscorthy has a community; there is none in the N.Va area where I live .. But you walk away having learned things … at minimum you see how common what you are experiencing is among those who have lost a beloved partners I’m not yet finished and can see there is a kind of final turn.
It’s astonishing how he knows.
Yes Nora Webster fits into the terrain of the novels I’ve read thus far, even has characters who are shared memories from The South, Blackwater Lightship, Brooklyn. With Jim, an enjoyable evening listening to Toibin; on Toibin’s other books.
Then read an intelligent review about a fashion book where the people recorded expose themselves– so there was the experience in reverse.
The glamored-up fat volume, Women in Clothes by Sheilda Heti, Heidi Julavits, Leanne Shapton et al. The reviewer Nicola Schulman (a scholar feminist I’ve read before). I can’t just link it in because TLS has worked out an effective way to stop subscribers downloading. I have an online subscription but they provide no help to learn how to use it.
The compilers got together a group of upper middle class women, often in careers, but if not, educated types, and asked them to answer a series of questions about their attitudes towards their clothes, towards clothing themselves, towards make-up, shoes, &c&c. what are you trying to achieve when you dress? with whom do you talk about what you wear? how has your cultural background influenced how you dress? Is this for real? Shulman exposes how utterly unexamined most fashion talk is, how unaware. What if you had to throw out all clothes but one garment? I’d answer I need at least 4 to cover myself: bra, panties, top, pants. Then I could pick out 4, only I’d be missing shoes and that’s not acceptable. I need to cover my feet. Schulman quotes to great effect to show how embarrassed most of the women are to tell their real motives for the clothes they buy (they’d like to look good); a couple may mock lunatic obsessions (as when one loses a pair of gloves one liked), none will admit to vanities or the real mortifications of having to have a real woman’s body in a culture relentlessly imposing on you false ones: frail, thin, but full breasts in low-cut blouses; actresses in their 20s made to play women of 30 against actors of 50 who are made to give the impression of being under 40. Most of the women do talk about what they try to avoid, stains, spills, looking too awful. One lawyer said she is still using the same lipstick from 7 years ago — that resonated, me too I’m still using a lipstick from 10 years ago. Most reviews on line give no idea of the content. Just reprint glamor photos. Trying to achieve? not to be dressed wrong, not to be seen not fitting in, or too conspicuous for something.
I should not omit I went to an appalling movie, The Imitation Game. BBC stars play musical chairs dressed in outfits from the 1940s and 50s? I admit fully the brilliance of Cumberbatch’s performance at the close (where he easily drove me to similar neurotic crying) and his overvoice throughout. How brilliantly the three levels of time were interwoven to make for quick pace (lest anyone be bored): Turing as a boy in public school, 1930s; Turing in war, 1941, and then Turing arrested for homosexual behavior and visited by Keira Knightley just before he kills himself in 1951.
Just awful — by which I mean the melodramatic overproduction, the values it endorsed and its faux camaraderie and patriotism.
First an ignorant and semi-hostile depiction of autism. False; that is not how autism presents itself in public except among very low functioning people. Most of the time autism is not quite visible. From what I have seen and experienced of autism, the person might well be all alone much of the time but it does not result from behaving the way the movie presented it. It will only create more discomfort for these “abnormal” people; worse more attempts to make them “normal,’ just like the movie showed was being done over homosexuality (Turing is taking hormones to rid himself of homosexuality in 1951). Funding is non-existent to help adult people who are autistic; most are un- or underemployed, never promoted — basically they are not liked because they are too sensitive and don’t work well in groups. It is though a disability not a personality trait, and one of its facets is this ease in getting lost — not being able to cope with space coordinates (some people not all — Turing as a math man would be good at space). Such presentations just encourage dopes today who dislike anyone who is not social to enforce normalizing techniques as cruel as those enforced on gay men.
I see that what I perceived as wholly horrible treatment of Turing openly in 1951, and by intuitive stealth in social bars in 1940s (these wonderful “normal” men like to tell stories of how women suck their penises), with little shown on how one should treat all others could be seen as critiquing. That expects a supersubtlety the rest of the movie doesn’t expect. Far from it. Homosexuality in the film is treated as pitiable, a sort of sickness.
Then the justified secrecy and surveillance. What is shown is nonsense claptrap about soviet-spies, with one boss played by Mark Strong, something out of James Bond. In fact the real Turing never met the Scotsman who was a communist (Allen Leech was playing the same type he does in Downton Abbey) so there was no mutual threatening (I’ll tell them you’re homosexual if you tell I’m a communist). The movie seemed to forget Russia, the UK and US were fighting together against the Nazis and Germany, that Russia won the war largely in Stalingrad. At great price. But here it’s heroic for these few men to decide this group will die and not that to protect their knowledge of this enigma code. Then they all hug one another like some simplistic pro-war propaganda film.If this did happen that way (I doubt it felt like that), rather they were instead mirroring the US/UK use of drones, of bombs today, and justifying today’s secrecy and surveillance. The paranoid atmosphere of the movie’s 1941 is a mirror of what is used to justify secrecy and surveillance today.
Suicide a complex act arising out of a life’s experience. Turing lived alone in 1951. What was it like for him in that university? the movie showed a close male friend died when he was in public school so he lost someone precious to him who he probably never replaced. The presentation here too quick, too exploitative of Cumberbatch’s, so a travesty.
Keira Knightley has gone thinner again — her role was that of Dale in Roy Rogers or Belle in Gunsmoke; she doesn’t want to give up her parents she cries out as Turing tries to persuade her to stay with them thought she’s the only woman there and 25 and not yet married. Her wig for 1951 was atrocious.
As to the history, a friend wrote concisely: “the Enigma program took 2 years off the war, when of course the atom bomb would have ended it quickly in August of 45 had it dragged on–so–maybe they saved 4 months on the outside? The hyperbole was ridiculous. They would have done much better not to try to overstate the role of this computing machine.”
I thought to myself what would Trollope have thought of this political and social culture, but then remembered the horrors of Victorian melodrama on the stage and penny dreadfuls. This is a Christmas movie, people, designed for uplift, for us to congratulate ourselves we have gone beyond 1951? to feel sorry for Turing?
I don’t know why the review are so tactful. The various fine actors thrown away (Charles Dance among them). Dan Rockmore basically says everything you would have wanted in such a film is not there. Read the biography by Andrew Hodges (1983) that does justice to the real man.
I finished my edition of Ethelinde for Valancourt, 5 volumes, 119 annotations, introduction, bibliography, sent it off — and of course got no response from the editor. Had Jim been alive he’d have congratulated me and felt good for me; now I just worry lest the guy now not want the book after all. Jim used to call this sort of thing “waiting for the splash.” He made it sound part of the universe.