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Archive for January 9th, 2020


Saturday, January 4, 2020, the last day — the beautiful old reading room

In the reading room of the New York Public Library
All sorts of souls were bent over silence reading the past,
Of the present, or maybe it was the future, persons
Devoted to silence and the flowering of the imagination,
When all of a sudden I saw my love,
She was a faun with light steps and brilliant eye
And she came walking among the tables and the rows of persons.

Straight from the forest, to the center of New York,
And nobody noticed, or raised an eyelash . . .

The people of this world pay no attention to the fauns
Whether of this world or of another, but there she was …

Everybody was in the splendour of [her] imagination,
Nobody paid any attention to this splendour
Appearing in the New York Public Library,
Their eyes were on China, India, Arabia, or the Balearies,
While my faun was walking among the tables and eyes
Inventing their world of life, invisible and light,
In silence and sweet temper, loving the world.

— Richard Eberhart, lines from “Reading Room, The New York Public Library”

Friends and readers,

The first important event of this new year for me and others who have inhabited and done research in the Folger Library — as well perhaps as those who regularly go to the plays, concerts, and poetry readings in the Folger Theater — is the closing of the building for two years for various renovation projects — in and outside the building. On one of the listservs I’m still on that is productively active, EMW-L (Early Modern Women), one of the scholars remarked “if ever there was magic in modern scholarly space, it was there.” I felt that, and used to stay on the side of the desk you see photographed, the old side; another much more modern space, much more brightly lit, light weigh desk areas, with many plugs and outlets for PC computers, laptops, ipads, cell phones, never beckoned to me. All of us who wrote in agreed “it was very sad” — because although we know the library will open again, it will not be for some time, we’ll miss it, and have to go elsewhere, and because when they open again, they will renovate the look of that old room out of existence.

I chose Eberhart’s poem because I don’t know of an equivalent for the Folger; I first came across it when I was doing research at the New York Public Library for my dissertation, reading (as I recall) rare 18th century novels by women, with my own “shelf” tucked away with books kept for me, and “my own” carrel desk, mine as long as I got back to it within a week. The trouble was — for my memory’s sake — the research for that dissertation didn’t last that long, maybe two years. I have been going to the Folger, since the early 1990s and although I stopped going regularly about 15 years ago (in a way alas), for some 15 years before that it was a very familiar place indeed. I did my projects in Italian Renaissance poetry translation, the biographies I wrote, the texts I produced for Vittoria Colonna, Veronica Gambara, and Anne Finch there. I did research in Trollope: yes his books of Jacobean drama are there, and a book on his annotations in them. My last project but one was the autobiographical writings of Anne Murray Lady Halkett. My last two weeks ago, a long full day reading what’s left of Catherine Clive’s letters towards a book review I’m doing, plus now planned blogs and some developing study of 18th century comedies, mostly of the more sentimental kind, as well as burlesque after-pieces. I can think of nothing I like to do better.

It’s not wholly closed as yet: Izzy and I have another theater play there, The Merry Wives, I have an HD screening of The Winter’s Tale (Kenneth Branagh as Leontes, Judi Dench Paulina). But then we will be bereft for two years. I hope whatever they do will take no longer than that. I imagine the staff also hopes for as short a time as possible – they don’t want to lose their general public either.


At opening of 1999 BBC film of The Clandestine Marriage, Fanny ((Natasha Little) and Lovewell (Paul Nicholls) marrying in Fleetwell prison, then half-way through talking aside privately in the sunny landscape

I could tell you about less gratifying things I’ve done over the last week than two evenings of full-length movie watching & study. The first, coming out of the research project: after reading carefully through a splendid Broadview edition of George Colman and David’s Garrick’s The Clandestine Marriage, followed by Catherine Clive’s The Rehearsal, or Bayes in Petticoats, finally watched the 1999 BBC version, director Christopher Miles, of Colman and Garrick’s Clandestine Marriage. Maybe I’m in a weak state but they managed to touch my heart. I felt my eyes shining with happiness for the benign kindness at the end. This one was believable. The play itself had been (in the 18th century mode) ironic and rough-house, everyone blatantly mercenary, innately selfish and would doubtless soon return to being so again. The joy was an erotic bless, in terms of an immediate future (the play historically speaking is defying the 1753 Marriage Act as the couple marries in Fleetwood prison) and our heroine is pregnant; beautiful landscape, music effective, acting very well done. Stellar cast, especially Natasha Little as the convincingly sweet innocent Fanny, Nigel Hawthorne (getting very old), Timothy Spall, Tom Hollander (early in his career). Paul Nicholls as Lovewell drop dead handsome. Trevor Bentham screenplay:


Nigel Hawthorne as the lecherous aging but finally benign Lord Ogleby, Joan Collins taking the Catherine Clive domineering older woman role, Mrs Heidelberg

I could find nothing in print on it (George Mason database), though articles on the 1753 Marriage act and its relationship to such plays. Tom Hollander in the Sir John Melvile part trying to pick which daughter he wants!

I believed in the ending because I knew something like this joy once — and after a life time of “digging in” together here is no substitute for my husband. I find many activities I enjoy and I throw myself into these — mostly reading books and writing projects that find fulfillment on the Net; also nowadays watching and re-watching, thus studying film, and then writing them film sometimes. I have not been able to sustain any close friendship locally — maybe one at a time. And as I age I deal less well with stress. OTOH, I’m getting better in some ways — more self-reliant and pragmatic in feel and slowly accepting my lot in ways I had not before. I want to watch again, read more and write a blog-essay. One cannot have too many holds on [what] happiness [comes our way] (saith Henry Tilney from Northanger Abbey).


New York versus Los Angeles

The other directly related, a kind of modern contrast, Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story, also nearly 3 hours. I did not realize it has finished its movie-house release (functioned as an ad?) and is now on Netflix. I was very aware it’s by a man and felt as I watched that it was done very much from Charlie’s point of view (Adam Driver). That conceded, nonetheless (to be candid) to me it seemed at the end to be about a divorce that need not have happened. That this wife (Scarlet Johansson’s best performance, brilliant) put her husband through hell for no good reason but that she wanted out of the marriage situation. She just didn’t want this way of life any more. Nor the hardness of the city environment in NYC. Ever so much more comfortable in her LA rich person’s house. It was about a young woman who prefers to be single and live with her female relatives, to control her situation. I thought the depiction of the lawyer (Laura Dern) showed one of the most bitch-y women on screen, this utter hypocrite performative horror – a caricature but Dern carried it off — to be truthful more convincingly than she did the stereotypical Marmee of the (mostly very good) latest Little Women. The wife did not in the least give the husband any hint of what was to come, who she was for real. Real problem is no husband would be that abject and acquiescent and the ending would be bitter.

The two Sondheim songs at the end summed up the movie in much the way I have only in the softened mode of an acceptable commodity movie. Watch her song (all frivolity, escape, all about boundaries around her) and then his, “Being Alive”.

This too became involved in my subconscious dream life. I dreamed of Jim that night; it was a dream where there were other people, and I no longer remember the story. But there he was facing a long wall length window; I went over to him so rapidly and we hugged so strongly. The dream placed him in this weird atmosphere, I’d like to call it luminous except that is to elevate the sense of light as poetic when it was more like metal from some artificial light fixture. When I woke, at first I was still under the influence of this memory, and then of course I realized it was a dream, he is dead and is never coming back. I woke feeling cheered and looked about but then I realized I had had this dream and the morning was very bleak. A widow of four years told me today she used to have three presences in her life, three effective souls, him, him-and-her acting as one, and then her. Well said, yes. I was me, some of my acts were me-and-him, and some of what I lived intently through was him.  She feels like a knife has shorn off half her body.

***************************************
Closure of Christmas happened a few days before this movie-watching and read — on Monday, Twelfth Night — we put our tree out.

My last Christmas movie, John Huston’s The Dead, out of Joyce’s story, I watched on the Sunday. Here’s the Economist explaining why “The Dead” is a miraculous movie. I accompany it with Niall Williams’s contextual essay, “Is anyone happy anyway?” to the latter the answer is of course many people are or say and think they are, and the world has ever been filled with people who don’t appreciate small things.

We then had our first full winter storm, heavy damp white flakes covered the world lightly, then melted away from all but the grass. Coming home, Izzy took pictures, out of our dining room window and of Ian taking his first look from the side of her computer.

Two of us finished Simone de Beauvoir’s Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter this week on WomenWriters@groups.io (talk about a woman finding meaning in a man at the end; another destroyed by her mother); and three will go on for Toni Morrison, Margaret Drabble and then the Polish writer, Olga Tokarczuk’s Flights. Would you believe we are reading Trollope’s Lord Palmerston on Trollope&Peers, soon to begin The Last Chronicle of Barset. I’ve begun another riveting novel by Oliphant: A Country Gentleman and his Family; the title doesn’t begin to suggest how the book centers on a brilliant but domineering male who with his refusal to compromise has lost an academic career, a widowed mother stifled and yearning for liberty, a widowed sister-in-law whose lout of a husband, betrayer, incompetent has died of an accident (she manages to tell us how he had affairs) — all set in this utterly real environment, moving slowly with naturalistic speech, inner intensities. I carry on listening to the immensely emotional deeply felt Night and Day (Woolf), how I love her heroines, the only ones I now realize who have come alive for me in her novels (Katharine Hilbury and Mary Datchett) and even more Juliet Stevenson for reading it aloud so wonderfully well and Julia Briggs for her notes. I find myself hurt for Wool when I read Katherine Mansfield’s strictures upon this book: it’s like someone has sneered at your soul for not coming up to her petty goals; although the comparison is unfair, since “Bliss” is a short story, it is in comparison mere gimmick. Woolf has poured heart and soul into Night and Day, she is genuinely exploring issues of young women trying to invent and live fulfilled lives, broaching all kinds of serious issues for the two male protagonists too.

And this week winter courses began. On Tuesday afternoon I went to the first session of the course I’m taking in World War II books — we were to have read Olivia Manning’s The Great Fortune, the first of 6 novels now known as the Balkan and Levant trilogies.

I’m also re-watching another (more forgotten) masterpiece, the 1987 BBC Fortunes of War (Alan Plater scripted, James Cellan Jones, directed — he recently died), with its haunting music and superb cast. Book and film chilling and closely relevant to what is happening in the US, both those in power at different levels, and how people (civilians) in reaction are behaving. This first novel takes place in Rumania in 1939 to 1940 — we see the beginnings of the extermination machine going public. The novel ends with the fall of Paris, before which we have effective allusions to Dunkirk. It is seen out of the lens of an implicit private unhappiness of Harriet Pringle, the heroine-surrogate, though importantly unlike the author, Harriet has no job, no profession or occupation of her own, so her husband Guy Pringle’s tendency to forget she’s there for long periods (he a part surrogate for Reggie Smith who ran parts of the BBC eventually very effectively) is far felt directly than (cumulative in life). That Manning was Anglo-Irish is also important; she wrote novels set in Ireland and Palestine. She is just terrific in evoking atmosphere — I feel how cold it was in Rumania in 1939-40 in winter (probably still is) as I read the book.


The movie begins with the dark landscape of Rumania and the train, Guy and Harriet (Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson, then newly weds) Pringle already facing from one another ….

One delicious part is that the British colony put on a production of Troilus and Cressida, rather brilliantly Manning brings out how what is in Shakespeare’s play tells us about political behavior in 1939 — good as it is (as literary criticism to bring out the real qualities of a text), David’s book overlooks the significance of 1970. The first book of The Balkan Trilogy is written in 1970 and is also about that era — historical fiction has many resonances. You could do far worse in seeking a relevant text to what is happening today in the US gov’t (a small gang or junta of people around Trump running an erratic gangster gov’t) than Shakespeare’s T&C — I’ve seen it twice as well as read it.

As to the first two hours at Politics & Prose course: it has the faults of another course they gave a while back on WW1 books. The explanaton for the war is utterly top down, and they accept the consensus narratives of today. They did have very particular information about Rumania I did not know at all. But unfortunately, the two women took the point of view that Manning’s fiction is not truly superior: we are reading it because it’s so accurate in what it shows and she has some terrific gifts for narrative and characters and dialogues. Women denigrating other women. One of the women is older and herself dogmatic and they are forthright when they don’t approve of sex lives — and just apply modern ideas at times and also notions of conventional marriage. They blamed Guy, the hero, for taking Harriet to Rumania. What could he be thinking of? What. Also did not like Manning, couldn’t sympathize with her. I did speak against these pronouncement.

Manning is much better than the way they framed her: there is a vision at the core of these books commensurate with having a single heroine lens: an ironic presentation of the unbound nature of individuals within cultural milieus, and how helpless they are against such powerful juntas with vast armies and fearful bigotry to back them up.

They didn’t even like Deirdre David’s marvelously intelligent (if aggressive) literary biography to all. I am especially fond of women biographers writing superbly about women writers. Manning was good friends with Stevie Smith, whose poems of friendship are unbeatable:

The pleasures of friendship are exquisite,
How pleasant to go to a friend on a visit!
I go to my friend, we walk on the grass
And the hours and moments like minutes pass.

I was told on a Face-book where I told a little of all this (a Fine Literature group page) to read Bowen’s The Heat of the Day: I have taught it a couple of times. Unfortunately, she was probably a fascist (a spy perhaps) and this shapes some of the presentation of the hero, but it’s an effective book. Also Henry Green; he’s often cited as very good; the one time I tried he seemed so affected but I should try again.

I’d love to go off on a WW2 women’s memoirs reading bout: from Marguerite Duras to Iris Origo to Naomi Mitchison, Women enduring war and making what is on the ground about them livable. Historical fiction by women in this era is also about WW2.

I live in worlds of older women: today I saw Gertwig’s Little Women for the second time in a movie-theater auditorium where every single seat was taken, most by women and most of them older; most of the people in this P&P class are women. I had lunch with three friends, two of us widows, one divorced twice.  Where have all the men gone by 70? They don’t form groups easily.

I have bought tickets for myself and my friend, Panorea, to go to the In-series, La Cabaret de Carmen (raw power, anyone?) next Saturday afternoon. I’ve seen Carmen done from Juan’s point of view (Roberto Alagna).

*******************

To end with, I was looking for something this morning, I scarce knew what, but I realized I had found it when I read Patricia Fargnoli’s “Old Woman Dreams.” I have three of her selections, but found this one in my The Widow’s Handbook (anthology of poetry), ed. J Lapidus and LMenn, under “Memories, Ghosts and Dreams.” It begins:

He came to her finally in his torn jeans and soft
tan jacket, came from feeding the horses,
their sweat still on his palms,
came redolent of hay, honey from his hives —
Solomon’s Song on his lips.
Came with the old scar on his cheek where
she left the chaste imprint of a kiss.
Younger, impossibly younger,
He told her what she wanted to hear.
But only in dream, night, the color of his black hair.

Around him, her arms wound like his branches,
his eyes were a garden she ached to lie down in.
They met in a wind-rush, and what she remembers
is a craving to follow where he was leading.
Also the impression of dissolving
against the astonishment of his chest.
Her desire seems to have its own life and will not be
expelled o matter how often she tries to banish it.

Somehow an old woman feels all this. Is it so odd?
She’s heard a dream embodies a message
from the totem spirit, like the fox
who emerges in flame from the forests
and goes to hide in the morning hours.

She is nowadays my favorite poet; and here is “A note PF’s work” by Ilya Kaminsky:

Someone asked me if I read 24 hours a day. No, said I.

I go for walks myself.

Another year.


Laura spotted this post-card perfect photo on twitter the afternoon of the storm

Ellen

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