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Photo taken by Izzy at the Tidal Basin in Washington DC this week

She who sups with the devil should have a long spoon

Dear friends,

I’ve not been writing here because I’ve been so busy with trying to keep up with my teaching, reading with friends on a listserv, on good reads, and seeing if I can develop a project on a literary biography of Winston Graham, author of the Poldark novels — I’m listening to a good reading on CDs of Warleggan.

If this were all.

I’ve also been involved with enclosing my porch, again trying to renovate or improve or alter parts of my house (the doors once again, electricity): among other things, a deeply spiteful neighbor apparently researched records available to discover I and the contractor had not taken out a permit to enclose said porch and registered a complaint with “code administration.” Or so I think — this man has done similar things to others, and once before said something to me which suggested he had been researching my title to my house! I am told he is an ex-FBI agent, retired; he was urging me to move. Maybe my house was bringing down property value — especially the kind of modest renovation we are doing. So today the contractor and I spent a long day at City Hall “pulling a permit” by proving to the city what the contractor was doing was adequate work, although it does need to be upgraded to prevent damp from destroying the room. Sigh. The truth is I’m not sure that this man will do the job and I don’t know how to get back to the screened porch. Jim was against enclosing the porch because it would cost far too much for the small room we would get out of it. The plain truth is also I have not that much use for it: yes another bookcase, a comfortable chair, lamp, table, maybe an exercise machine. I was trying no longer to be the neighborhood eyesore. I may (as last year over Expedia) have lost a lot of money. It won’t result in anyone wanting to buy the house for a larger sum; whoever buys it will regard the house as a tear-down.

So who has the heart to write?

The question that emerges in this newly rotten environment — that humanity, decency, privacy, reciprocal loyalty, obedience to human, civil, legal rights are ignored are nothing to the renewed resurgence of murder of hundreds of people and more to come in the middle east — so what’s a little local tyranny — is, how do I — how do you, gentle reader — avoid the rot.

The rot seeps in
The rot seeps in everywhere

Nowadays the best, maybe the only way to reach my friends as a group is through my own timeline on face-book. It’s time-consuming to click on one at a time and I’ve over 250 friends — all of whom I know in some way, many well. My general “feed” is filled with ads. I read the Republicans and Trump are signing away our privacy: if you use any large company for your email, they have the right to sell your data. Who would have their soul sold? My gmail is filled with junk in two categories. Commercial values, commodification shapes all experiences and people rightly flee back to exclusive pre-set-up groups. Face-book pages on topics seek to belong to institutions and rules are set up to control interchanges which put a damper on what can be said, what can be shared: rules make sure only what’s socially acceptable to belong to the agency or institution, or “on topic” is allowed and that is hemmed in. Only the NSA can read our private emails (we hope)– only! People I meet and talk to live these apart single lives as they obey the demands of capitalism today — for a job, a scholarship, as a groundwork for belonging. Adorno was accurate, prophetic is Patrick Wright on Journey through London’s Ruins. Time is money is no innocent utterance.

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This past week I shut this out by the classes I was teaching in and the class I am now attending: in Virginia Woolf, with a professor who is a better teacher than I am. She has strong self-confidence and doesn’t need to have extensive notes to talk from and is able to coax gently and create an atmosphere of trust and mutual respect whereby a lot of the people in the room exchange views, high-minded on a great fiction, Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway.


Rupert Graves as the rightly suicidal Septimus, Amelia Bullmore, Rezia


Vanessa Redgrave as Mrs Dalloway who says it was the only way to protect one’s soul …

I’ve seen three great films: (on a DVD on my computer) Ashgar Farhadi’s The Past (the film is searingly honest about people’s utter selfishness, sudden turns of intensely hot temper and resentment, spite without being judgemental); (on another DVD) the extraordinarily subtle Merchant-Ivory Mrs Dalloway, screenplay Eileen Atkins, where the filmic art captures the verbal art and meaning of the novel exquisitely; at my local Cinema Art with a friend, the moving film adaptation by Ritesh Batra and Nick Payne of Julian Barnes’s latest great novel, Man Booker winner for 2011, The Sense of an Ending.

I’ve kept up my friendships on-line.

This was Izzy’s week home: she’s started a new (if brief) touching song; as I watched her watch the World Championship Ice-skating contests at Helsinki, I suddenly asked, where is the next one: why in March 2018 it’s in Milan, Italy we learned. So she and I are going together next year: we’ll take two full weekends on either side and I can take buses and trains to nearby Italian towns and cities I’ve wanted to go to for years: like Brescia, Veronica Gambara’s home. Laura “signed” on and said she’d come and go to the fashion shows going on at that time. Milan —


Galileo as painted by Giusto Sustermans — but see Galileo’s Daughter by Dava Sobel (better yet, read it)

Tonight I spent 3 hours traveling by public transportation (and on foot) to go to the Folger to see an hour and one half staged reading of excerpts James Reston and Bonnie Nelson Schwartz’s Galileo’s Torch: a series of scenes showing Galileo joyous with discovery with his aristocratic friend-supporter in Venice, gradually driven when he leaves for Rome and Florence (why we are not told) by the power of the relentless church authorities to recant publicly (the threat is torture). The great actors (Edward Gero as Galileo, Michael Toylaydo as the Grand Inquisitor), the accompanying Renaissance music by the Folger Concert, a soprano singing two early 17th century songs, with a screen showing drawings and passages from Galileo’s Starry Messenger as well as beautiful shots of our universe (prettied up of course) — it was worth the travel, gentle reader. This was my second of three times this week at the Folger. The first was to see the HD screening of The Tempest from Stratford-upon-Avon. Sunday matinee Izzy and I go to the Folger for the full concert called Starry Messenger.

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


Those are canines, people: as men legislate women’s health care and don’t want to pay for pregnancy …

Shutting the rot out: well here’s a meditation on where we see it continually and how to walk around it.

I admit for the ironic semi-amusement as well as edification of the people in the second course I’m giving (the first is on City and County Victorian novels, plus one Victorian Gothic) here is part of my opening gambit on the Booker Prize niche:

In the last 30 or more years ours has become a prize obsessed culture. Not everybody has won and not everybody’s prize is as good as others, but many win and they are advertised. It’s not just books: I asked Izzy if there are any ice-skating shows any more not connected to prizes? She replied: hardly any. From films, to sports, to classical music, to tattoo art; a concept of art as everything a contest. It does debase the art or sport or whatever: it’s about the relationship of any art to money first and foremost: prizes equate art with money and they enable art and artists to make more money. Then politics of all sorts, power, social and cultural agendas, power, prestige. Ironic that as inequality is still growing apace – or maybe to be expected that an art work is valued by its social capital – that’s a Bourdieu phrase. You can trade in the world with money as capital, but trading cards and chits also include your rank, status, institution, the red carpet extravaganzas are just an obscenely obvious edge of it. BAFTAs, Oscars, Emmy, Grammies, as each one is co-opted the prize is less given for the quality of whatever it was but who the artist is, who connected to. So once upon a time a Golden Globe may have meant a good movie, now it’s just like the Oscars.

It might seem and is a natural human activity but not to the extent it’s taken over. How this has come about and why tells us about our communications industry I suppose, but it’s more than that. Any comments or suggestions. There’s no correct answer. We could give Hitler a great fascist dictator. No one has come near him as yet. As our esteemed tweeter would say “tremendous.” Now in each profession probably a different set of circumstances could and would be produced to explain why.

In the case of books, in mid-century there was this problem distinguishing “serious fiction” from genre and junk fiction as TV and other medias spread and as paperbacks spread. Yes one explanation for the booker is the invention and spread of paperbacks which put books in the hands of people who could not afford hardbacks. The marketplace was flooded with low and middle brow paperback books. There suddenly was a collapse of a number of understood agreements where people didn’t undercut one another. Some of these protections still hold in Germany plus German federal policy works to protect bookstores among other businesses in Germany and not reward them for destroying themselves. – NBA the Net Book agreement – these are policies and practices of major chains of bookstores.


All winners must stand holding their book with the words Booker Prize winner prominently displayed


Short-listed do very well too

What happens is people stumble into things – they also conspire but sometimes they stumble; or one person has the idea and has no sense how workable and efficient it will be if done right. Todd’s Consuming Fictions gives the extraordinary figures as the early success of the Booker was felt. It was a coterie: an in-group of linked people living in and attached to London. It was the brainchild of Tom Maschler, a “rising” young celebrity editor at Jonathan Cape. Booker Brothers were a post-colonial agrobusiness company seeking to diversify and improve their public image with the collapse of colonialism as acceptable. I’m not saying colonialism collapsed; far from it, but it was no longer openly praised to steal another country’s natural resources and put the people into forms of servitude. A couple of other prizes from the 1960s: America Hawthorden and James Tait, Guardian fiction prize 1955.

Nothing remarkable about the Booker in its first couple of years; nothing unusual about their books, venture close to collapse. It’s said in-house correspondence of 1970s reads like a Black Box from a crashed airplane. 1970S a turning years: some extraordinary post-colonial books very like English Patient: V. S. Naipaul. In a Free State. JG. Farrell The Seige of Krisnapur. Books like The Bookshop: Susan Hill, the Bird of Night. Doris Lessing. Briefing for Descent into Hell. Movies helped: ruth Prawer Jhabvala: Heat and Dust is wedded to Merchant-Ivory type films (ah). They included books like Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor – imagine Lady Edith grown old and poor and living in a hotel. Iris Murdoch. The Sea the Sea. Kingsley Amis: Jake’s Thing (just what you think. Barbara Pym with her church jumble sale fiction: Quartet in Autumn – profoundly movingly sad. They cottoned onto the importance of planting stories, of announcing long list, short list, glittering prize ceremony. Series of scandals. J. G. Berger Ways of Seeing accepts his prize by insulting everyone as elite, corrupt, useless. The person who refuses to come pick up his prize – Dylan Thomas who sends the inimitable, unforgettable Patti Smith in his place. . This person gets a prize and that one not and it seems that the one who didn’t wrote the better. Who did she know? Then things like the Ayatollah Khomenai puts out a fatwa on Salmon Rushdie who won for Midnight’s children and has been long and short listed again and again.

All the talk buzzing around the Oscars is just a repeat of this early innovative group. The year of English Patient there were in the end two prize winners; Barry Unsworth no where near as dazzling and about slavery in a intense way ought to have won: Sacred Hunger. English Patient is more fun. Wolf Hall is set off by cult of Anne Boleyn and the marvelous acting talent of Mark Rylance (who can make a whole film come alive with the quiet question when you say shall I do this, “would it help?” So they gave her the prize for Bring up the Bodies. It’s not that good a book at all.

Possession in 1990 was a tremendous moment. It made Byatt’s career and made the prize. The movie wasn’t the center even though Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle were paired again. I find I’m not as enamoured of it as I once was. I prefer Atwood’s Alias Grace – a Jane Eyre immigration story: governess type goes to Canada, based on real woman and murder – Grace Marks accused — in a household of servants. Behind it a classic Canadian memoir: Susannah Moodie’s Roughing it in the Bush and Moodie’s career as journalist where she interviews Marks –- and of course the Brontes’ art.

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

What are some of the characteristics the Bookers share which do set them off. I suppose that’s the work of this term. What qualities are found in “serious” fiction that set it off from (sorry for the “terribly snobbish term”) middle brow books? I thought I’d call attention to just a couple in the hope of startling or creating interest or maybe opposition.


Luke Strongman: Booker Prize and the Legacy of Empire: nostalgia, he says, the “clue” theme

After reading through our four and reading desultorily and listening to some of them read aloud on tape: beyond the historical turn accompanied by a deep questioning of what passes for history and why we want these stories told:

The central figure in The English Patient and a number of the events swirling round him: the deeply reactionary erudite adventurer, a Hungarian count Laslo Almasy: Ondaatje may have written an anti-colonialist, anti-war book but his hero is something out of The Prisoner of Zenda, related to royals in middle Europe: born 1896, he was a member of the Zerzura Club, desert explorers and adventurers, outlier types, presented themselves as explorers, lovers of fancy cars and women, looking for ancient cities in the desert, loses oases, but like communist spies inside M16 and Oxford in the 1940s and 50s, the Zerzura club were mapping the desert as spies for the fascists and Nazis, as military people in WW2, traitors some would say, Almazy died of dystentery in 1951 in Austria – never would take care of himself – he was awarded the Iron Cross by German Field Marshall Erwin Rommel. People might remember the romantic film Out of Africa based on Isak Dinesen’s book with Meryl Streep and Robert Redford (now married in earnest): the hero there was Anglo and part of a group from Kenya. Dinesen wrote great tales, gothics, but was as reactionary (crazy) as Ayn Rand. We have just two of this type but often when you dig a little in the background of a Booker Prize you find really interesting history, characters, authors events.

To continue: stream of consciousness as a central immediate confrontation of imagined mind with imagined reader; anti-colonialist (the legacies of empire) and anti-war: at some deep level –- and not so there is this perception of life, existence at terrifying. You never know what is going to happen next and you often can’t explain why so as to prevent next time. The Judgement scene in A Month in the Country. In the old English of Moon, a dreamer-archeaologist digging up the savage Saxons

And he shal com with woundes rede
To deme [judge]the quicke and the dede … (p. 34).

But as Amy Dodds puts it on the upper level of her twice weekly bus ride to her profoundly mentally disabled daughter, The thing is not to take it as a punishment.

If you are not terrified by the torture and landmines of Michael Ondaatje’s English Patient, you are not reading what’s in front of you. Water and sand as killers. Deep melancholy. But they are also for lack of a better term “quirky” – Mrs Palfrey at her Claremont is quirky, odd, unexpected. All these people living on houseboats, the book that won Fitzgerald her one Booker (all the others were short lists), Offshore seems to be about eccentric people. Fitzgerald’s point is they are not. But they seem to be. She was shortlisted a remarkable number of times: Human Voices about the power of radio really; In the spring time of the year, a kind of condensed Tolstoy. The Blue Flower.

I asked myself why did these two books by Swift win or were shortlisted and not these others. This works better with authors who keep getting short listed but don’t win a lot – egregiously given the number of authors there are some who win twice. So Ian McEwan is short listed frequently, winning for Amsterdam, but what is different about the books that don’t win. To ask such a question is to be non-cynical and say something in the quality of the book counts.

Last: the embedded narrative, the use of a central picture often one that really existed or exists: as in Girl with the Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier which won other prizes. They are haunted fictions, sometimes by real banging ghosts as in the Poltergeist in The Bookshop or psychological projection. Memories. In The Sense of an Ending, a repeating motif: as you peel the onion, at the center is a mentally disabled person whose existence offers enigmatic explanations for the world of some key characters in the book.

And they are often turned into spectacularly good movies, commercial successes with screenplays occasionally vying in quality, adding to, enrichening the novels.

So the Booker Prize books reach us via people who know how to manipulate the rot use a long spoon.


And Izzy and I may make it to Milan ….

Miss Drake

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Lovelytulips
Home again

Dear friends and readers,

The temperature going down to freezing here; I’ve flowers in all three patches, white tulips, soft lavender, clumps of different flowerets and buds.

For these weeks I’m feeling I am moving in and out of peopled worlds in Pittsburgh and here in DC and Alexandria, where I abide. Who knew there were so many constantly reforming clouds of people. And then Izzy finds herself over the moon after several 10 hour days watching ice-skating at Junior World Championship in Boston.

For myself: Around Thursday noon I started off. So many miles. Thanks to my “garmin,” which talks to me with a bland American women’s accent, I had little trouble driving from Alexandria, Va to the Omni William Penn Hotel. The voice is most important at these transition moments when the highway gives out, you have to come off and drive through some series of low-cost gas stations, “family” food restaurants, and motels that have grown up precisely because this the highway gives out here. She tells you a few minutes ahead to bear left or bear right, cites the sign accurately, and with ease you get back onto said highway going in the right direction.

The route in the city reminded me of old highways in Brooklyn, and then I had simply to drive up a wide street, turn left twice and there I was, in front of the hotel. Nearly 5 hours each way. Homeward I worried intensely at one point because my gas was low and I had to realize that there were no on-highway gas stations. I got off said highway and nearby filled “‘er up,” and back on I went. I began to feel dizzy once I was near home, so got off the highway and found myself in a traffic jam around an accident.

This led me to stop off at Noodles and Company for a pasta dish to bring home; I downed it with Shiraz wine while watching yet another episode of the very well-done 1972 War and Peace scripted by Jack Pulman and the 2nd episode (Of 3) of the utterly inadequately adapted Dr Thorne, scripted by Julian Fellowes: a friend has likened him to Popplecourt; it’s as if Popplecourt were explaining Trollope’s art to us. I’ll write about this film adaptation separately too: coming to and going from I had listened half-way through Trollope’s Dr Thorne as read dramatically well by Simon Vance. I collapsed into bed, by that time my pussycats staying close by.

I had a good time while there: it was rejuvenating to go to sessions filled with varied intelligent talk and papers on new aspects of a subject matter I’ve spent my life reading about, studying. I’ll write of these separately. I was at two nights of receptions. I renewed old friendships during the first night’s dinner and first day’s lunch

2015EllisasHalse

2015AidanasRoss
40 years on Robin Ellis returns as the deeply reaction Halse and Aidan Turner defies him (2015, scripted by Debbie Horsfield)

My paper, “Poldark Rebooted: 4 Years on” went over well; the three other papers were from different points of view and done differently yet all linked as about recent TV and movie films (Outlander among them). The audience was not too small and we got good questions. The second night I seemed to gravitate towards the Burney group, and spent the second night’s dinner time and the next day women’s caucus with them. I can’t say I participated in intellectual political talk (as I do regularly now at the OLLI at AU in DC), but I did hear about local politics in different places from friends as well as happenings among books and writers and coming conferences (at Chawton). What people were working on, their topics of special interest and told of mine. One woman on sabbatical reading Burney’s manuscripts in the NYPL, living in Brooklyn for the year.

omni-main-lobby

The William Penn Omni hotel is a beautiful building: art deco central hall or lobby downstairs, and the grand ballroom beautifully carved. It was the second time I’d been there: before with Jim I arrived at 11 at night and remember we got a meal!

As a memento I found on sale Norma Clarke’s probably highly readable biographical Brothers of the Quill: Oliver Goldsmith in Grub Street — its cover takes the left-hand side of Hogarth’s picture, enrichens the browns and yellows, suggestive of Grub Street life.

hogarthdistressedPoet
William Hogarth, The Distressed Poet (1736)

The experience occurred in the context of the two OLLIs, going to the Jewish Community Center, Smithsonian, the Folger, so I felt how I enter into and float out of differently peopled worlds. How different this is from the way I lived by Jim’s side. It’s like a quiet merry-go-round or roundabout. You get off and find under this pavillon a set of numerous people having adventures, stay and talk in whatever form is appropriate, then you go back to the path towards the merry-go-round and get on and off at another place. Interesting and informative discussion over lunch at Temple Baptist Church (one of the AU OLLI locations) by a retired lawyer and an economist about the importance of the supreme court, how much of US civic life corporations through their control of media is being poisoned.

But how and why do all these people keep it up? Cheerfully too. I feel so aware of these worlds’ fragility. That’s the strange and built-in dangerous thing: the necessary disconnect between casual friends and other people all the while you renew what you can or just have fleeting good talk. Here’s a question: how do you define friends?

Snow
Outside Izzy’s window in Boston: celebratory and commentating snow ….

Izzy had taken a 10 hour train trip to Boston via Amtrak. She had a long trip there and back and there was an accident at Philadelphia the day before she came home. No money in the US for public transportation. Fortunately her trip back was only (only) 40 minutes longer, so it took 11 hours. But she was comfortable the whole time. A decent seat, decent enough food available (real sandwiches with people to serve it), free wi-fi. She was not continually photographed or scrutinized as in a airport. She did not have to sign up for “paid privileges” which allow a cell phone or ipad to work, and separately for any music or movies (as in abusive airplanes).

She stayed in a hotel in Boston, from the which there were trains each day going back and forth from hotel to convention center. She found herself coming back to the hotel with the same people each night. Her day sometimes started after 10 or 11 or once noon. She often returned at 11 at night, once much later.

Flags

Rink

She got herself to the Museum of Fine Arts twice (it was a stop on her train), and explored the first floor. She said it was huge:

HUge

She saw a sign outside “to the Isabella Gardner museum,” but did not have the time for it. She walked in the city commons, on three different mornings, and late in the evening ate in different places around her hotel room, mostly Italian restaurants. Those nights she did return early it was very cold out; her window high and the winds strong. So she stayed in with her ipad and books.

Boston

Since she had the same seat for all but one day (as did most others), she sat behind the same group most days: British women who talked to one another and briefly to her too. Her sense of ecstasy as she watched and watched and the experience mounts she captured in a phrase she used to my question, “How’s it going?” “I’m over the moon.”

Miss Drake

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DangerUXB
From Danger UXB (one of the great anti-war mini-series)

This is the anniversary of Jim’s dying two years ago. He has lost the ability to speak back as of October 7th and on October 8th he was beginning that terrible ordeal/agon of literally dying.

I feel I’m living through these days for a third time: the first two years ago, as he lay dying; the second last year when somehow I kept the sense of it all at a distance; and now:

On October 3rd this year when Jim would have been 67 I felt how uncanny it is that he is not here, how weird is death in comparison to how we feel about someone’s existence. We have to feel deeply that the person we are attached to has deep reality, and yet they are no more than 98?% water (as I’ve read in different places). I felt haunted the way I had for a time after my father died. Then it was the irretrievably of never being able to make contact again, and I felt such a strong desire to I projected psychologically a presence hiding somewhere, invisible, silent.

It’s not like that for Jim. I have this sense of the unbelievability of existence itself. I can hardly believe I am here concretely if he’s not. I don’t know why I don’t vanish away softly in the night — like one of Lewis Carroll’s mad figures — if he could so vanish.

I’d call such feelings are one of the origins of religious belief. Tonight we would have been married 46 years, met 47 years ago.

I remember Shakespeare’s lines as Prospero: we are such things as dreams are made on, and our little life is rounded by a sleep.

And also that 90th sonnet: Do not drop in for an afterloss … in the onset come; so shall I know the very worst … which compared to loss of thee will not seem so

Jenny Diski’s latest entry as she moves into death is devastating. Her cancer is for now (what a sardonic joke in such words) in remission, for how long (ditto) the doctors can’t say (as they know nothing). Like the heroine in Wit, she is dying in immiseration because of the effect of the treatments on her, her lungs gone, she has (like Hilary Mantel) been made to look awful so that she is alienated from her body. at once feeble, unable to walk steadily and fat. Why should she care say the heartless neat doctors and nurses. She opens with talking of letters she has received; I was almost tempted to write. We learn in this one she has two grandchildren and we know the father of her daughter, once her partner-husband died a couple of years ago. So her daughter parentless.

People have asked me (well one person) what is gained by telling of Doris and me, well the same thing that is gained by her telling of these dreadful symptoms, her pain, her feebleness, how others will not help except for the Poet. Insofar as you can stop people from mouthing nonsense about triumphs, conquests, and bravery and instead tell what cancer is, you help a little in the pressure to do fundamental research. The research that is done is expensive surgery to prolong life and pills that cost huge sums — all garnering profit. What they discover fundamentally is a bye-product and not much sought. The TTP was signed yesterday: a key provision fought over was the US on behalf of the pharmaceuticals (like the fascist gov’t it is) to give them the right to charge outrageously for 5-8 years; 12 was what was wanted and the “balance” is it’s just 6-8 and uncountable thousands excluded because of the price at least until then.

I omit all the provisions which supercede workers’ rights and hand a good deal of the world over to corporations (with military backing) to exploit and immiserate everyone who is not in the elite genuinely rich and well connected.

Cancer is our great and ever spreading plague — like the engineered (in effect) famines and mass diseases of early times — India, Ireland. Settler colonialism now exterminating the Palestinians a little at a time — punctuated by the terror of lethal bombing.

Diski speaks for us all — she says don’t talk about bravery so instead I’ll say she writes what she does because she cannot help herself and thinks truth has a function in the world that helps others– if only by saying see here I am, is this the way you are? if so, we are not alone.

JennyDiski
Diski (before cancer)

She does say it’s hard not to feel what’s happening to her is a punishment — like it’s hard not to feel the death and disappearance of someone is uncanny. But what it’s vital to remember is not to take what happens ever as a punishment. That is your psyche doubling in on itself and wanting to find some reason, some ultimate meaning for what is happening. For me not comfort, but that way madness lies.

Miss Drake

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IanonIzzysHutch

Evenings Ian will leap up high to the hutch (bookshelf) on top of Yvette’s extended desk-like furniture set. You see him looking startled when he realized Yvette was photographing him:

https://msisobel.wordpress.com/2015/09/13/singing-taylor-swift/

Do click to see and hear her.

Are we out of the woods? is anyone ever out of the woods? Remember Sondheim’s lunge Into the Woods.

I like how clearly the words of Swift’s song come across in Yvette’s rendition. In Swift’s rendition I cannot hear them so cannot get the situation. (I am more than a little deaf I sometimes surmize.) I also like the high notes Yvette hits towards the end. Have a look at her hutch: it contains her favorite books: all Patrick O’Brien, all and much Austen (and Persuasions periodicals); her music and Latin and Roman culture and history books: she majored in music, with her voice as her primary instrument, her trumpet her secondary; she minored in Latin and by extension the classical ancient world under Rome. Librarianship came later.

bakerswifeemily-blunt
Emily Blunt as the baker’s wife in the Disneyfied Into the Woods — nonetheless going it alone …

Miss Drake

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ClaryCatandaLeaf
Clarycat looking at leaf (she has a passion for them): not one tough motherfucker, but then she’s not had to be

If man could be crossed with the cat, it would improve man but deteriorate the cat. —Mark Twain

Dear friends and readers,

A particularly beautiful poem:

The History Of One Tough Motherfucker

he came to the door one night wet thin beaten and
terrorized
a white cross-eyed tailless cat
I took him in and fed him and he stayed
grew to trust me until a friend drove up the driveway
and ran him over
I took what was left to a vet who said,”not much
chance…give him these pills…his backbone
is crushed, but is was crushed before and somehow
mended, if he lives he’ll never walk, look at
these x-rays, he’s been shot, look here, the pellets
are still there … also, he once had a tail, somebody
cut it off … ”
I took the cat back, it was a hot summer, one of the
hottest in decades, I put him on the bathroom
floor, gave him water and pills, he wouldn’t eat, he
wouldn’t touch the water, I dipped my finger into it
and wet his mouth and I talked to him, I didn’t go any-
where, I put in a lot of bathroom time and talked to
him and gently touched him and he looked back at
me with those pale blue crossed eyes and as the days went
by he made his first move
dragging himself forward by his front legs
(the rear ones wouldn’t work)
he made it to the litter box
crawled over and in,
it was like the trumpet of possible victory
blowing in that bathroom and into the city, I
related to that cat — I’d had it bad, not that
bad but bad enough
one morning he got up, stood up, fell back down and
just looked at me.
“you can make it,” I said to him.
he kept trying, getting up falling down, finally
he walked a few steps, he was like a drunk, the
rear legs just didn’t want to do it and he fell again, rested,
then got up.
you know the rest: now he’s better than ever, cross-eyed
almost toothless, but the grace is back, and that look in
his eyes never left …
and now sometimes I’m interviewed, they want to hear about
life and literature and I get drunk and hold up my cross-eyed,
shot, runover de-tailed cat and I say,”look, look
at this!”
but they don’t understand, they say something like,”you
say you’ve been influenced by Celine?”
“no,” I hold the cat up, “by what happens, by
things like this, by this, by this!”
I shake the cat, hold him up in
the smoky and drunken light, he’s relaxed he knows…
it’s then that the interviews end
although I am proud sometimes when I see the pictures
later and there I am and there is the cat and we are photo-
graphed together.
he too knows it’s bullshit but that somehow it all helps.

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

The Biblical allusion is probably to Joshua and his army bringing down the walls of Jericho by sounding ram’s horn trumpets and shouting. People blow trumpets to get others to pay attention, as signals of victory or defeat and when someone dies (the haunting Taps). The poet’s cat functions as a trumpet in our world. Our poet has had it bad, but not as bad as the (against people especially) helpless cat. This cat has been so mistreated he has had it worse (been treated worse) than Bukowski. But he survives. All the symbolism is of course bullshit but somehow it consoles to look out at others and let them see you enduring on together.

BukowskiCat
Charles Bukowski and his rescued friend-pussycat

On Bukowski and his tender affectionate nature, often obscured: “She is a joy. I look at her and light goes all through me.”

Charles_Bukowski_smoking
Charles Bukowski smoking

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

Did you know there is such a thing as a cat cafe?

Nekokaigi,_a_cat_cafe_in_Kyoto_-_March_16,_2010

In areas where those who own and or control spaces one can buy or rent to live in will not allow pets these cafes have grown up as safe havens for cats, places people can come to play with and become friends with a particular cat, bring their own cats to stay. Such places serve coffee and tea. My friend put it this way: People come, by tea or coffee, caress the lonely cats and pay money to the owners for more support of more cats. The cats are said to be well-treated: kept clean and healthy.

Caroline tells me she has been trying to “jumpstart” one in DC for quite a time. A friend who lives in Torquay told me of a cat cafe in Totnes. I have been told of areas in the world where the people are so starved and miserable if you do have a well-fed and well-treated cat, you must protect the cat from these people. Such is the state of the world. A YouTube of Nekkoaigi, cat coffee cafe in Kyoto:

Miss Drake

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Mourka
George Balanchine with Tanquil’s Mourka

    Let night come
with its austere grandeur,
ancient superstitions and fears.
It can do us no harm.
We’ll put some music on,
open the curtains, let things darken
as they will
— Steven Dunn, poet

Dear friends and readers,

I’ve written no content since October 19th because I’ve been that discouraged and disheartened: teaching is not going to be for me what I had hoped. I had not realized what a hard prescription is Robert Louis Stevenson’s: “There is indeed one element in human destiny that not blindness itself can controvert. Whatever else we are intended to do, we are not intended to succeed; failure is the fate allotted. Our business is to continue to fail in good spirits.”

No one who reads this blog will believe I’ve been putting up a brave front, but I have. So I must fill this blog with other lives, other adventures.

One of Gary Arnold’s recommendations (from the Sunday once-a-month film club I’ve been attending) was Afternoon of a Faun. I watched it two nights — using a DVD from Netflix and want to recommend it strongly.

It’s the story of one of the central ballerinas of Balanchine’s life: at the height of Tanaquil’s powers, dancing extraordinarily at the American Ballet Theater, and married to Balanchine, she came down with polio. She spent time in an iron lung and never regained her ability to stand much less dance.

afternoon of a faun 1
Dancing Afternoon of a Faun

Tanny-Ballet-SymphonyC-Split
A more classical ballet symphony

It’s very much a woman’s film: a sensitive retelling of this woman’s life from the time and milieu of the 1950s in NYC and the building of American ballet theater: Le Clercq had a ballet mother who had come from a middle class family and enrolled her daughter in the Manhattan ballet school at Juillard; Tanaquil caught Balanchine’s eye one day in the corridor after she had been thrown out of the class. He discovered the way she danced suited his ballets exquisitely well. She collapsed suddenly in one of the Scandanavian countries. She was 26. After this terrifying ordeal, from which she came back in part sufficiently to sit comfortably in a wheelchair and allow him to try to manipulate her into standing, dancing once more. She could not. Surprisingly (to others), Balanchine was far more loyal to her than one might expect, stayed with her much longer,

Together

HelpingHer

but eventually he tired of trying to bring her back, saw it could not be, and moved on — as they say — to Suzanne Farrell. Took Farrell over, married her; yes Tanaquil was very hurt. She then lived alone for 25 years, never remarried. The story of the movie is done partly through interviews with those who remained her friends, including a rival of Balanchine’s, Jerome Robins; a loyal friend, Patricia McBride, another Barbara Horgan. Exquisitely appropriate film clips as it moves back and forth through older memories and then forward through her life. Tanaquil did have enough money to live a physically comfortable life in a fine apartment in Manhattan; we see her at a picnic with friends; and she publishes a book on her life with her cat,

Mourkabookcover

reminding me of Doris Lessing, Olivia Manning, Marge Piercy, Elsa Morante and Remedios Varo, and their books and poetry and pictures of cats, only the photos I could find were all of Balanchine and Mourka.

Late in life the African-American dancer turned choreographer, Arthur Mitchell, who ran the Harlem ballet theatre was willing to give her a job teaching ballet classes and mentoring individual ballerinas there — from her chair.

Teaching

It’s the story of a disabled woman’s life. She is photographed in all its stages across the film, and looks as poignant in her later years with her hair thinning and her body increasingly frail as she does at the start. There was something ethereal about her wiry strength when she was young, and when she ages there is something plangently ethereal yet strong from her waist up and through her arms when she ages.

Ethereal

A touching and yet real account of the life of artist bereft of her gift. Gary Arnold connected it to the film Casa Verdi — the realities of lives in the “high culture” theater and the aftermath when they can no longer exercise their talent.

How difficult it is to claim one’s right
to living honestly. The honesty
you taught was nothing quite as true
as death, but neither was it final
—–Rafael Campo, poet

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

Fence

A absurdist funny (if you are not involved) story of a friend’s fence. Let’s call her Sharon: Sharon lives in one of these controlled “developments” of townhouses which allows a Homeowners Association’s petty tyrants to reign supreme over all that can be seen outside of the houses. Sharon and Don’s fence needed replacement and because they have cats, they decided to have a fence precisely 6 feet high (the highest allowed) to try to keep the cats inside their back garden/terrace. After it was built with a shed attached to one corner, one of the people in the area snuck round and measured said fence and discovered it was 6 feet 3 inches or so and reported this to the HOA. You’d think Sharon and Don had committed a felony. What power the HOA has over them I don’t know. All this is about more than property values (money); it’s about insisting on a narrow image of middle class respectability. It’s about those given petty power.

The situation was most people have fences of 5 feet and the previous fence had been 5 feet. So this was daringly unconventional. Sharon’s mother-in-law was actually going to go round the fences in the compound and measure others to show others were slightly over 6 feet. That is, she was willing to think and act the way this HOA did. But such measurings got nowhere. So should they pay to cut it by 5 inches along the top — expensive. Finally it was decided to bring in dirt to raise the level of the ground.

I’ve been told there are communities where you are not allowed to have a line of rope to hang your clothes out in your backyard on a sunny afternoon. Rules for how many bushes and how high and where. If you can have a basketball circle. It seems to me this kind of thing also shows insecurity about class, for the higher and richer and bigger the houses, the less you see people allowing others to police them in this way.

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

Why I wanted to escape experience is nobody’s business but my own,
but I always believed I could if I could

put experience into words
Now I know better.
Now I know words are experience
—– Vijay Seshadri, poet

And pictures and colors. Don’t miss Michael Gorra deep into green.

Remedios Varo
Remedios Varo

Miss Drake

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WidowsTale

Dear friends and readers,

For years now I have found relief and snatches of some inexplicable gratification when I have landed in a novel I can read anywhere and at any time, late at night, on a train, waiting for a bus, one to carry around with me so as to be a friend. The first four of the Winston Graham Poldark novels worked that way for me. Austen did that for years and years. I am one of those people for whom books are my friends. Such books are not easy for me to locate as reviews are often so distorted (often omitting the very feature that makes the book most worthwhile), it’s difficult to pick out just the sort of thing I’m after.

Well, for the past couple of weeks or so, I’ve had two, have been alternating between P.D. James’s A Time to Be in Earnest and Mick Jackson’s The Widow’s Tale. Tonight I’ll recommend Jackson’s drag-heroine — a term used sometimes when the author is male but personates centrally a female so well that you forget the author is not a female (Colm Toibin pulls this off again and again, e.g., The South, Brooklyn); come back another day for James’s diary-as-autobiography.

The Widow’s Tale is flawed but the truest text I’ve read about what it is to lose a beloved partner-, companion, husband, wife, friend who’ve you been with for a long since I read Didion’s A Year of Magical Thinking and Donald Hall’s Without. Nuland’s How we Die, a great book about the experience of death and intense loss, is more like a science sermon, author-as-modern pastor-doctor helping you go through stages of death in order to understand and by doing that accept. Nuland seeks to assuage, Didion and Jackson act out. Jackson has caught what are the real feelings of a person grieving over the death of a beloved partner of many years — at the same time as he makes acceptable comedy. I found myself laughing.

I can talk about it best by pointing to Hilary Mantel’s unfair review for the Guardian.

Norfolk-Britain
Norfolk where our heroine escapes to

After recording an initial very favorable response, and describing the novel’s qualities well, by the time Mantel gets to the end, she is dissing the book utterly. I did not realize how harsh it was until I read it the second time — and had finished the novel. My gut response is to say — yes what Mantel pointed to is a flaw at the same time as her hostility comes out of some deep mainstream longing for the sensible (which comes down to enacting the normative).

First where she’s spot on. The novel is coy. Mantel complained we are not told where the widow has escaped to. At first I thought it didn’t matter — the experience was universal or general thought I. We are never told the heroine’s name. So maybe this is realism — like in the 18th century when one had dashes. But when at no time do we learn how John, the husband died, only that it was sudden, that’s too much. That Jackson won’t tell us that deprives him of real content. Widows and widowers think about how the person died, incessantly. Maybe that’s why he had to substitute the affair – where we do learn the lover’s name and the husband’s.

Mantel, however, did not complain about the bringing in of an affair — with one Paul — that she remembers. The affair rang false. I just didn’t believe the character as presented would have done this, and felt or remembered suddenly this was a fiction. It feels like a memoir up to then, like it’s non-fiction. I thought this male author fears not enough is happening, I’ll get bored, he needs to entertain me — or this discourse is too much of one thing which just may arouse contempt and impatience. And that’s what I suggest Mantel’s response ended up being — scornful, impatient.

It ends well — at least I thought so. It becomes apparent that the marriage was not happy. What an irony that she should grieve so anyway, be cut off anyway, shunned, reduced to the widow’s exclusion, the individual’s life with cats. That’s why we are told that she had an affair — and John seemed not to know: they were semi-estranged. Then she was dumped by Paul for a previous girlfriend who had left him, and now she thinks she is seeing him from afar with his new family. It could be, but it turns out not so.

She (I keep thinking of the author as a she) is showing the lengths desperate cut-offness from other people that the world inflicts on widows within a few weeks, at best a couple of months, after the death, is so intolerable. She wanted this to be a family she was deprived of, some group to relate to deeply. It’s when she realizes she’s been following a family she doesn’t know at all that she decides to return to London.

Jackson then cannot resist a mild but effective affirmation as she stands looking out at the water one last time, the sand, remembers maps of the city she is now returning to. Here is the passage which is also representative of the quality and tone of the novel, its stance:

The sand was firm now, and I could hear the sea way off in the distance, booming and roaring. A quite incredible sound. Halfway there, I remember stopping and taking my shoes and socks off, so that I could actually feel the sand, cold and damp beneath my feet. And, another ten or fifteen minutes later, I could feel how the sand had formed into ripples. Could feel the balls of my feet catch them as I walked. And the booming of the waves was an almighty noise now, and you could smell the salt and dampness in the air.
    Then suddenly I was at the water’s very edge and cold, cold water was under my feet and rushing round my ankles. Thirty or forty yards out the waves came crashing down and the foam came in, spreading over the flattened water. Came sweeping in all around me.
    I still don’t know what I was after. I was all tangled up inside myself. In fact, I think I started to pick over the things I’d been worrying about back at the cottage. Started to rake over the embers of my anxieties. And was doing a pretty good job of breathing some life back into them; – when something happened. As I stood there, watching those huge waves rolling and crashing, at the very end of my tether. Just when I felt that I’d had quite, quite enough … It was as if I had the briefest glimpse of some universal force at war incredible power and infinite grace, which obliterated thought or worry I might ever have. I might almost, in that instant, I finally found myself obliterated — or removed. Which was not the least bit terrifying … And that there might be a place for me in it.
    This morning, in the cold light of day, I could rationalise the whole strange experience by saying that, standing before the waves and beneath the stars, I’d simply been overwhelmed or reassured … Or that when one is panicking there comes a point when one’s mind and body have simply had enough, and the panic suddenly runs out of steam. Some chemical is released into the bloodstream … But that’s not it … It was over in a fraction of a second. It was just that I’d had this glimpse of something. Then I was back there, with my feet in the water, clutching my shoes, and wondering what on earth had just gone on.

And she goes back to her cottage, continues her packing thinking when she goes home she will have the goal of getting through each day to sustain her. That’s how it is all right.

I regret the novel didn’t win the Booker, was only shortlisted, but suspect many ordinary readers’ reactions would be worse than Mantel so like the attempt to create understanding for autistic people and more acceptance and help (which has backfired and made the average person use the autistic label for their idea of the wholly unacceptable or monstrous) telling reality will end in hostility, dissing. If more attention were paid to what it is showing it’d do no good. Didion and Hall are respected as they have the cover of non-fiction; Nuland was a physician. Better give the prize to Beryl Bainbridge (which they do one year for a feeble book) after all she knows the right people who will be pleased and praise the prize.

Sylvia

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