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Archive for July, 2018


The central reading room of the Library of Congress

A university is just a group of buildings gathered around a library” — Shelby Foote

Second-hand books are wild books, homeless books; they have come together in vast flocks of variegated feather, and have a charm which the domesticated volumes of the library lack. Besides, in this random miscellaneous company we may rub against some complete stranger who will, with luck, turn into the best friend we have in the world. — Virginia Woolf

Friends and readers,

On July 9th I began to join on a meme where you were asked to name a book that strongly influenced you, or had a real discernible impact. You were to find the cover illustration of the book as you remembered it, and do no more. Well I couldn’t see why you should not tell why or how the book had this impact; without that, the meme seemed to me to be contentless. So often cover illustrations are misleading if not downright distortions of the book’s content. So I began to list my 10, and found that I was writing an autobiography of sorts. Just about all of them made a strong impression on me before my mid-20s, and many had linked books and led to life-changing experiences. And here they are:

Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility (1)

Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa (2)

Suzanne Therault’s Un cenacle humaniste de la Renaissance autour de Vittoria Colonna, chatelaine d’Ischia (3)

Anthony Trollope’s Dr Thorne (4)

Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind (5), along with Bronte’s Jane Eyre, DuMaurier’s King’s General, Austen’s Mansfield Park

Lousia May Alcott’s Little Women (6), along with P.L. Travers’s Mary Poppins in the Park, and the Nancy Drew series

Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale (7), and all the rest of Shakespeare too

The Letters of Julie de Lespinasse and Madame du Deffand (8), and the women memoir & gothic writers of the later 18th century ….

Samuel Johnson’s Journey to the Western Islands, along with Boswell’s A Tour of the Hebrides (9), and books Scottish

Kenneth Graham’s Wind in the Willows to Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time (10), Jim’s favorite books, books that influenced him, that he kept reading.

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How better to introduce my in praise of libraries.


One of the several books discussed in the series above ….

Gentle reader, I’ve not been blogging here as I have been writing the above series and spending three days a week in the Library of Congress reading scarce books by Winston Graham, author of the Poldark books. I renewed my Reader Identification card earlier this summer, and found myself by the afternoon of all the days I was there in a semi-circle of readers around a central area where the librarians are still located. There is no longer a card catalogue but the old habits of spacial arrangement die hard. When I’d begin around 9:30 am there would be few people there, and by 4:00 pm when I’d leave off, the place would be humming with activity.

As in so many projects before how much I enjoyed sitting there among these people, now and then watching the different librarians and librarian helpers at their tasks, bringing books on carts, taking them away, leading groups about quietly to show this or that. Downstairs in the lobby groups of tourists and students going on tours, or off to hear a lecture or look at an exhibit. The different reading rooms. I brought my lunch, a soda and went outside to eat on a bench and then watched people go by near the Congress, on the mall, over at the Folger Library. I’ve learned much of value about Graham in exploring these early works of his.

This kind of activity has been going on in some form or other for centuries. I’m especially fond of the Library of Congress because it is fully public: you need only describe your project to a librarian and you get a card: no need for letters of introduction, for institutional affiliations; no exclusionary practices going on. No money is asked.

Which are the books or authors I’ve made treks of considerable trouble for weeks or months and even years on end to read about and to read in research libraries? Samuel Richardson, Charlotte Smith, Anne Finch, Countess of Winchilsea, Vittoria Colonna, Veronica Gambara, Anne Murray Halkett (17th century autobiographer, spy, Scots by birth), Aphra Behn, Anthony Trollope, and now Winston Graham. Which libraries have I loved and haunted, rummaged in the world’s attics in:  Once at age 15 Degas’s illustrations for a performance of Hamlet for a paper on 19th century art — a library on 51st street off Park Avenue in NYC. For long stretches the New York Public Library, the Library of Congress, the Folger Shakespeare; by letter and through microfiche, the British Library. I’ve at least visited and read at the Chawton House library.

Gentle reader, these are my life’s events; this are crucial events in what my life has been.

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From the cover of Wilkie Collins’s Rambles Beyond Railways, a book about his travels in 19th century Cornwall, a book that cannot be spoilt by knowing what’s in it and has no particular ending

And how better to link in a topic of considerable importance on the Internet: spoiler warnings. Since the advent of the Internet, these have spread to the introductions of printed books, and turn up in the most preposterous places or discourses. You are in a class where a book has been assigned and the class is to discuss it, and the teacher apologizes for telling the class what is in the book! A long while ago Stanley Fisher placed on essay on the Net explaining his objections to these, declaring their use often absurd.

I won’t do that here but rather explain why I dislike using them and for myself would prefer people not use them and am grateful when someone tells me freely about the story or about the characters or themes or whole of the book and its ending too when we share our experience of a book.

Here goes:

First off, what is told is not what I read for. Not at all. I read for the unfolding of an experience. How can anyone replace or substitute for that by telling me the literal story matter. I saw a movie today called Gavarai which was described as being about a German businessman who tries to hire someone to take him in a tour of Norway! ludicrous: it’s about a man grieving for the death of his wife who links him to another estranged from the world, and the journey they take through one small rainy part of Norway’s countryside, and that doesn’t begin to tell what it’s about.

During group reads or discussions, people put summaries of the content at the beginning of a week. Is that a spoiler if you haven’t read the stuff? what it functions as is a redaction saving those participating the trouble of reading carefully or at all. It’s superficial, the surface that doesn’t count. I read for companionship for depth of thought and feeling to be in contact with the best of someone’s mind or heart, to learn about the author’s inner life, an earlier historical world, and how can that be spoilt? most people don’t begin to convey it — I try for that in reviews and my blogs sometimes, but only in spurts. It used to be called close reading. If they quote the text, they can get closer but most of the time what I read for is not there in the person’s redaction at all — it’s them, their personality, their ideas.

Now I grant sometimes that does spoil a text because their inferences are so awful that they can color the text when I return to it or remember it and make me dislike the text. “Oh omg if this is what people are led to think or feel when they read/watch this text, how awful this text must be.”

I grant that while some texts are set up to have a surprise at the end, most writers don’t manage to make me care or have a revelation which upon the second reading makes one read the text differently. My reaction to mysteries which do make me wonder what happened without caring about the characters much is irritation – I try to discover what it is to save myself the trouble of reading. I don’t enjoy most games. They are no fun because it’s unpleasant to cope with the other person’s desire for triumph. Anyway what a waste of time.

Again I grant there seem to be more people reading to discover what happens next and not want to know than the way I or others like me read but then I think of how Forster lamented the way most people read and wished it were otherwise because he’s an author.

Still I don’t think I’m that unusual. I am unusual for admitting this — in 1995 in the early days of the Net I was on a listserv where the listowner/moderator had a rule against spoiler warnings — she regarded them as a form of censorship, and as imposing a certain way of reading on us. My older daughter who runs groups on face-book thinks they are weapons for controlling others — and has lots of anecdotes to show they are used that way. To attack and shut someone up because what that someone wrote is displeasing to others, intimidates them in some way. If she could get rid of them where she is she would — but it’s too tempting a tool (she says) for others. Spoiler alerts are for me and those like me an irrelevancy, an distasteful word which I’ve been coerced into submitting to, and signals social and mind policing.

I’m rereading and rewatching the Poldark matter. It doesn’t matter to me how many times I read these books, each time I read the story through I become just as anxious for Morwenna, maybe more upset because I know what we have to go through before we reach the ending of this phase of her existence; if I know the character I care has a bad ending, I become even more upset. It doesn’t matter how many times Verity is cut off from Blamey it seems for the rest of her life, I grieve for her all over again. In the case of Austen I’d say I’m deeply invested int all the heroines, but cannot like Emma or Mary Crawford and feel Emma didn’t deserve her happy ending nor Mr Knightley; at the end I grudgingly feel for Mary left with her sister for life. But that she doesn’t marry makes me respect her since no one around is worth marrying — that we’ve been shown and she can like.


The first 1945 edition of this book which took Graham five years to write, and which he cut down effectively again in 1951

Austen’s Emma is one of those texts where one reads differently the second time, but like most intelligent versions of this, on even the first reading so long ago I began to suspect that Jane and Frank were engaged and Emma a dupe at the alphabet game and then when Knightley tried to warn the complacent snob Emma I felt yes that “something is going on.” The deepest pleasure is the second and third and subsequent readings as one sees more and more.

One final example from movies: I don’t care for and am not invested in any of the Handmaid Tale characters. I never was. I feel that I could love Nick, the man the heroine comes to have deep affection for and a baby with, but I am not shown enough — I feel the actor conveys kindness. For some of the handdmaids (Emily) I see glimmers of what I can respect and like and recognize, I’m terribly sorry for the poor thing who loses her eye and then her vagina’s clitoris. The rest of them are mostly thin or awful. I know I’m supposed to be anxious for Offred but I have not been able to even in the first season. She leaves me cold. I just don’t recognize her; I think the character is set up to behave morally but she has become hostage to the idiotic values all around her (and repeats them as in the Stockholm syndrome). So each time I don’t care enough what happens to her and if I’m told the ending it saves me the trouble of reading the book or watching the hour.

I’ve come to think that a movie communicates its expressive content to us through the actor-character’s presence, and if a bonding doesn’t happen that can carry you through deeply, the movie won’t perform its most important work. One problem I’m having with the new Poldark films is none of the actress types presented to me touches me deeply …

Now I think bonded with Caitriona Balfe as Claire Randall immediately, deeply from her opening soliloquy about people disappearing all the time and her regret that she had never had a fragile vase: the key is she is a 1950s figure, the years of my girlhood

Ellen

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A photo I took of one of the small bushes in my front garden still flowering this summer

Friends,

Today has been a usual fourth of July for me for the past 20 years or so:

Memories of long and not so long ago: when Jim and I were much younger, say 50 years ago, we would as a couple go out in the heat to a concert in Central Park; for a couple of those early years we were away from home and at a beach. After we had children and I felt we were supposed to be doing something, because for a few years we belonged to a military Officers Club (by right of his job working for the Defense Department), which enabled me to take my children to a nice pool and send them to day camp cheaply, we were able to go to a barbecue held by the people running the club. I remember three picnics in the evening with them. Jim did not care for fireworks, and the one time we took the children aged 7 and 1, to the center of DC both became hysterical at the noise. Sensible he said.

So he and I and Izzy began staying home together, keeping cool, me reading and writing or watching a movie and he on the Net, Izzy watching sports on TV and reading or writing on the computer, sometimes sending what she wrote as a blog to the world. Laura usually contrived to find friends to go out with.

I think fireworks have a certain beauty against the sky, and since the world beyond the earth is so meaningless and blank, dark, there is a certain pathos in throwing up these mechanically induced showers of color. So after hJim said or let me know he was tired of trying to do something special, and wanted to stay at home at peace in he quiet cool,

I would in the evening try to take Izzy to where we could hope to see the fireworks from Alexandria Park. Both times failed. We could see nothing. We discovered up on top of a high hill in Alexandria on the 14th when the city had its celebration, we could watch them. Other than that unless there was a good film on at the local cinema, I began to ignore the day too. One year Laura took Izzy to a party and I remember how Izzy came home having enjoyed herself, and her standing at the window waving goodbye looking so wistful at the good time over. Laura said the kind of people there were good kind liberal types, talkative and so Izzy could be comfortable with them. How I wish for her she could have had this more often.

Then Jim died and I became friendly with Vivian. She said, why didn’t I and Izzy and she go to the Alexandria city birthday party on July 14th, and we did that for three years. On a huge meadow, the city sets aside an arena for picnics; it’s by the Potomac. Ringed round are vendors selling snacks and drinks from carts. At 8 o’clock a free concert starts; usually well-known movie music and at 9 fireworks. We did that together, we three, three times. Below you will find a video of the fireworks from 2013, we were there that evening

Now Vivian is gone and so Izzy and I are back to staying home together. She watched tennis mostly, wrote fiction, a blog. So hers was the usual day. Morning I read Trollope’s Ayala’s Angel, Kamilla Shamsie’s Home Fire, finished reading Voltaire’s Candide in translation, wrote to friends, posted to my three listservs, and to face-book chat and about books. But then I had a treat. At the OLLI at Mason on Tuesday after I finished teaching or talking with the people in the class of Virginia Woolf and her Orlando, my new friend, Panorea and I, were told by another friend in the class of a movie, Xavier Beauvois’sThe Guardians, a literally beautiful film, filled with Cezanne like shots of the French countryside. we had told her we enjoyed so a local exhibit of Cezanne’s portraits. See Marion Sauvebois’s review:

“I can’t find him,” cries Solange, staring at an atlas trying to locate the German town where her husband is being held prisoner. Her mother Hortense picks up a magnifying glass and points to a dot on the map. “There,” she says sullenly, turning away arms protectively clasped against her chest. At least, she consoles her daughter, they can find solace in the knowledge he is alive, unlike her two sons languishing in the trenches somewhere in northern France. This all-in-all restrained scene truly captures the essence of The Guardians.

Far from playing up the inherent pathos of their situation, Xavier Beauvois’s matter-of-fact and subdued storytelling is as unnerving as it is affecting. We’re lightyears away from Hollywood’s maudlin war-time epics: these dauntless women have neither the luxury of grief nor time.

I met Panorea at 1 as afterwards she was to go to a barbecue with relatives. The Guardians is about characters like those in a Hardy novel: farming class. It takes place during WW1 when the men have to go away to war; we watch the women perform very hard work, grieve when a male relative is killed or taken prisoner. Our heroine is a Tess figure who works very hard, and is a very decent person. She is taken in by a family and thinks she is beloved and becomes the lover of the son, but the mother then betrays her by suggesting to the son she is having sex with the American soldiers and he immediately rejects her and tells his mother to get rid of her. She finds another yet harder job with a kinder poorer woman. She is discovered pregnant but not thrown out. She has great reserves of strength and after returning to a near relative, she cuts her hair to look better, gives birth to her baby, christens it properly and keeps it to love and be loved. In the last scene she has become a singer (she sang beautifully to the people at these farms at intervals) in small nightclubs in the area. She kept her child, survived and still knows some joy from daily life. it was a French film, and I could understand much of what was said, because these were not articulate peasants. Feeling and thought was conveyed by facial and body expression and what they did. What I loved best was how the film-makers respected the characters for themselves, valued them for themselves, especially the heroine. You didn’t need to be rich or high status or supposedly admirably successful in some way. You were valued for your nature and goodness and cooperation and the meaning you made out of your life by making some order and beauty and helping others and yourself to survive

Home again by car in the searing heat: a couple of hours later Izzy and I had good meal together. I drank too much wine for myself as usual and then found I kept falling asleep so for the third night gave into myself and took a couple of hours nap so here am I writing and reading what I had longed to read earlier: friends’ letters, more on Candide. I am listening to a beautiful moving reading aloud of Graham’s 7th Poldark book, The Angry Tide, and was almost unbearably moved by the story of Drake and Morwenna. These two characters are among my favorites in the Poldark books.

The vicious corrupt vicar, Whitworth is killed and one of our heroes, Drake breaks off what could have been a good marriage with the disabled Rosina (who I like so much too) because he finds irresistible his original devotion to Morwenna, a frail sensitive good young woman: he cannot desert her in her dire need, and risks everything to reach her, to pull her out of her deep depression and despair and away from the cold cruel people she has been forced to live among, and renew his life by renewing hers. The first time I read this part of the book I could hardly bear the suspense I was so anxious for him lest he be blamed for the murder of Whitworth and in her case lest she not get to live her life by Drake’s side after all. I am Morwenna (as I am Demelza and in some phases Elizabeth in these books)


Morwenna (Jane Wymark) finally reaching


Drake (Kevin McNally) — from the 1977 iteration

I wish Graham had not dropped them (basically) after this novel but that we had been permitted to have a full story about them afterwards. It’s as if he is so tender towards them, he leaves them in privacy. I like that she never really recovers — at a party years later the very sight of her son by Whitworth is enough to shatter her again: it’s true to human nature and helps us as readers remember that such cruelty that she knew is not to be trivialized by the idea the person will heal. She never fully does. I regret other characters I like so who are dropped eventually: Verity is not important in the later novels for example.

On the novels in general: What I have noticed that WG loves non-human animals and has his favored characters love them too. Like dogs, cats are mentioned over and over where other authors wouldn’t, and kindly interesting central characters are kind to their cats. Demelza will be my example of disliking all cruelty to animals and picking up on language which shows that the human being has not thought out how he or she is not attributing to animals a real consciousness of pain or attachment, which WG repeatedly shows they have. The culmination in the Poldark novels is the orangutan Valentine adopts. This deep empathy across species is part of why I like the suspense novels too. I just finished a rare early suspense book, Strangers Meeting, it ends with one of the heroines freeing a rabbit from one of these cruel traps and trying with the help of one of the heroes to mend the poor creature

It’s at such moments, with a friend who values a movie that has beauty, peace, decent values, or reading a book that conveys such experiences, that I know some happiness.


After my coming trip to the Lake District (UK) this August I shall not leave them for more than a few days at a time again


This year upon her reaching 40 Laura posted a photo of herself with one of her beloved cats

I called this for July 4th since I wanted to register some kind of decent values today — and I hope I have now done that — against what I realize the USA has again become under the gerrymandered corrupt regime of Republicans upholding a harsh corporate state: a society whose people are limited by deeply unjust unfair cruel laws, customs, who are perpetually overworked, underpaid, cheated of their labor’s value, hurt by shame, and except the lucky (by birth to people who can help them, in a place where there is some opportunity for all for a modicum of comfort) kept impoverished. It is as I type being turned back to a racist disguised dictatorship of a few powerful groups of whites, and gains that everyone had benefited from between the 1930s and 60s eviscerated utterly. Frederick Douglass’s famous speech applies to far more than black people now. Here is the whole speech introduced by David Zirkin:

It speaks to our every frustration spurred by the gap between the ideals of the United States and the reality we witness every day; between the Bill of Rights and our decaying civil liberties; between the USA’s international declarations of human rights and the ordered drone attacks backed by presidential “kill lists”; between the words “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” and a nation that leads the world in jailing its own citizens

“What to the slave is the fourth of July?”. Here is part of it read aloud by James Earl Jones:

Izzy and I were not able to go to the demonstrations all over the US this past Saturday, because we had already bought tickets for an opera at the Barns Theater at Wolf Trap. We go but twice this summer to this place because my eyes are grown too poor to drive that far at night. We saw Mozart’s Idomeneo: Kim Pensinger readily turned this opera with its beautiful music into a play about a tyrant doing all he could to destroy refugees, whose cruel state he was partly responsible for. The staging was minimal, she allowed the figures of the fleeing, the victims, the war scenes their full plain predominance.


From Mozart’s Idomeneo, sung and staged at Wolf Trap this past Saturday, June 30th

Ellen

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