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Faye Vanderveer — an idealized Alexandria City street

Dear friends,

One should not be astonished either at what people are willing to do to one another nor what they will accept as living conditions. Only a realization that conveniency and self-interest when it comes to economic circumstances conquer all objections can explain how Washington, D.C. has grown to this large metropolis when every summer we have weeks & weeks of weather that is hard to breath in. I’m told not that it’s just as hot in New York City, but that you can be miserable there too — indeed 89 degree with lower 70s humidity is not fun, but it’s still not as deadly as temperatures in high 90s with 81% humidity. That’s what it’s been for over a week now and we are promised temperatures in the 100s this weekend.

I dream of Maine, and look forward to my 10 days in Inverness, Scotland in August. I tell myself if I find I like the Road Scholar program truly, next summer not only will I go to the Lake District in August but if I don’t go on a Jane Austen tour in June (that’s when most of them are), I will find something for a widow with no friends to travel with for June to New England — one of the packages which include many plays. That’s what Jim used to concoct for him and me — with Izzy sometimes. Rent a Landmark house from the 19th century in Vermont, go to a lake for swimming when not on the road to a good play in the Berkshires (including one summer Lillian Hellman’s Summer Garden, other years Stoppard, Turgenev, Shakespeare, Shaw …)

Road, a feminist blog I follow included one of more perceptive essays on “ages of grief” I’ve read. It seemed to be my case: once surrounded by parents, with husband, two daughters, now alone with memories

These days when I read or hear about the death of anyone at any age and think about those who loved them, I have more than a glimmer as to how those left behind might be feeling. One of the many wonders of old age is what happens when your mind encounters sad, perhaps devastating, events. It sweeps over your knowledge of such things, whether personal or through friendships, like a strong breeze passing over a variety of prairie grasses: Big bluestem, salt grass, bottlebrush, porcupine, rice grass, foxtail, timothy, cupgrass, tufted lovegrass, wild rye. You ask, Which one is this? And then comes a moment when a known grief springs up green and fresh. Oh yes, this kind again.

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Here are the two extraordinary experiences I hope you can reach:

I’m writing to recommend daring the heat — enduring it — and going to the Richmond Museum of Fine Arts or wherever the next place the exhibit of Yves St Laurent’s extraordinary art in dresses, costumes, jewelry, accessories, shoes, hats, headdresses, capes, cloaks, just about everything you can dress a woman in, which art includes the cloth he himself makes a first version of, the weave of each material, the designs and colors of the objects. I am naturally inclined to be sceptical and see “fashion” and “high couture” as commercial art (which it is) aimed at making huge amounts of money from the super-rich. That would take attracting the lowest common denominator in that class’s taste. But that’s not what this man did. Over the course of a long life-time he invented deeply appealing costumes for women. He begins as a homosexual boy making cut-outs (yes dressing paper dolls), which his parents don’t discourage him from.

Quickly he learns to sew, make patterns and his first fashion costumes. His parents were upper middle class people with good connections in Algeria, and before Yves was in his twenties he had a central position in Christian Dior’s firm. He lived a highly unconventional life in Paris, traveling, partying with all the important people in the arts, and so his artistry, talent, and by this time intuitive ability to make costumes that mirrored the spirit of each decade or helped create it brought him within a few years management of the firm when Dior died early unexpectedly. I’d say the exhibit has at least 8 rooms of mannequins which take you through the phases of his career, the different emphases of fashion.

Along the walls one sees his drawings and designs; the items are numbered so you can follow along with a free slender catalogue. There are on-going films of famous fashion shows here and there — like when Laurent broke with the constructed clothing of the 50s


Not that these are not fashioning the self

Or the costume-like fashions of more recent decades..

Within each staged presentation of a kind of fashion, the costumes are arranged to reinforce and contrast with one another. Two huge staged presentations of earring, necklaces, chokers, bracelet jewelry, from the beautifully tasteful to gorgeously bizarre. I was with a friend and we discussed and talked as we went through: we could see he didn’t lived a troubled life (he succumbed to drug addiction for periods).
It was the poetry of fashion. I kept coming across a dress, or full outfit, or cloak I could see myself not only wearing but quietly reveling in.

It was a 2 hour trip by car there — in the broiling heat — we got lost at one point. The museum does have a good cafe (and better restaurant but by the time we got to lunch, well after 3:30 it was closed). Then 2 hours back by car. This museum (like the Brooklyn Academy of Arts), specializes in the unusual so that it draws people to come from all over. A few years ago Jim drove us down to the museum to see a huge exhibit of Picasso’s art. The collection is not big but what they have is well-culled — and this time smaller exhibits (Tiffany art glass).

Then two nights ago I saw at the Folger the RSC Live production of Antony & Cleopatra, from Stratford-upon-Avon. It started slow and in the middle of the first act seemed to drag, but as it move on (it was three full hours, with one brief intermission) the actors playing Antony (Antony Byrne), Cleopatra (Josette Simon), their entourages, her women, his men, Enobarbus were viscerally deeply affecting, engaged. I had read the play as erotic, imagined aging wildly adoring and playful lovers, who cut down, rise to heights of ecstatic poetry. Also that it was a political parable about the effectiveness of cold ambition, hypocrisy, ruthlessness, heartlessness (Caesar). But I had not taken into account how it explores the lives of women (Octavia is not a small part), their relationships with one another. More important I didn’t know it dramatizes defeat at length. Yes it’s about characters who make bad self-sabotaging decisions. As if they wanted to blow away public life. I was so moved by Antony’s speeches berating himself, Cleopatra’s turn to suicide, and all the other characters’ failed attempts to rescue this pair or themselves. It explores the inner anguish of tragedy spread out before us. An black English actress played Cleopatra, and dressed exotically; the older great male actor (I’ve seen him many times before) was self-ripped up loss in dignity. Their costumes terrific; doubtless what would draw S Laurent to go.

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My class at the OLLI at George Mason this summer ended Tuesday around 1:30. All those who stayed the course, and that included nearly 25, said how much they enjoyed the two contrasting historical fictions, DuMaurier’s King’s General and Susan Sontag’s Volcano Lover. They said they loved how I choose books slightly off beaten path. I had found on the Internet a YoutTube of a remarkable lecture on why Sontag wrote and lived the life of a radically activist public intellectual as well as writer, poet, film-maker. I summarized for them the content of this remarkable lecture on Sontag’s work by Savanna Illinger which I here share with you:

Brief high points: Sontag felt literature should advance our understanding of the real, and denounce things which conceal human misery under the cover of sentimentalism. What Mary Wollstonecraft said was the justification for literature (poetry) to extend the sympathetic imagination in Sontag’s words is we have a duty to reveal other people’s true reality, warts and all, and suffering. Very hard because we have a hard time taking the sufferng of another as real. We cannot understand what war or battle is unless we have lived in a war zone. Photographs often constitute a barrier because while they acknowledge what is seen, they offer no understanding of what they picture, no admission of how photos are artificially framed; they promote emotional detachment and thus inauthenticity. For the imaginative contemplating the art work to be a fully ethical experience, you should be moved to translate your empathy into action. Early on, she thought essays, discourse, verse were much better at conveying reality, reason, against sentimentalism; but around time of Volcano Lover and In America, she saw in stories an ability to lead readers to enter into, ponder the lives of others. In the 18th century the significant moment pictured occurred just before or after the trauma; nowadays the deeply traumatic, wildly violent without dignity is what we show to disturb our readers. There is a superb essay on Sontag by A. S. Byatt.

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One good enough experience, and one thrown-away opportunity

With Izzy this past Sunday night I went again to the Kennedy Center. This time to see Cabaret, in the Eisenhower theater in the 2nd balcony where we remembered sitting with Jim for Sondheim many a time, and our last New Year’s Eve together — a group of actors/singers imitated the rock stars of the 1950s, with “Elvis” the chief personality. The terrace was again beautiful, but now too warm to walk much. We’d never seen this famous musical: it is very much mainstream Broadway (or at least this production was), all gussied up and partly disguised by the imitation of German Weimar culture of the 1920s. It was a very humdrum production and I could see through to where its numbers resembled all sorts of others in other mainstream sweet and sentimental musicals. For example, “Money makes the world go round” is the equivalent of “Money doesn’t grow on trees in Oliver Twist. Now I know the context for the different songs: so “What good is sitting alone in your room” is sardonically ironic in context. I knew it was based on stories by Christopher Isherwood with an invented Bohemian heroine, Sally Bowles, who becomes involved with one of your white, blond virtuous American males (as appeared in this production). I had not realized there is a poignant story of an aging German landlady who is frightened out of marrying a deeply tenderly kind aging Jewish tenant. I now know why the musical appeals.’

Tonight I betook myself to the Smithsonian for what looked like a good lecture on George Orwell in the 21st century but most unusually the speaker was dull: Andrew Rubin was very cautious and all qualification, so I wondered who he was worried he was offending. He read his paper without attempting to reach the audience; he was disdainful of said audience too — not that their questions did not show utter misapprehensions, likening ISIS for example to the Republicans in Spain who were for a decent humane secular life — showed real obtuseness. As Rubin said, ISIS is pathological destruction. Read The New Yorker on the destruction of the Mosul library, or irrelevant an about their own identity, such as was Orwell anti-semitic?).


What’s left of the millions of wonderful books, ms’s, art, several heritages found together — now a site filled with landmines

I thought of a question I didn’t get to ask: on surveillance. Winston Smith is famously being watched, monitored, is in danger of being destroyed. Ruben didn’t broach this topic. I wondered what specifically in Orwell’s era was he worried about, and was he ever threatened. He broadcast for the BBC, and perhaps had had his fill of timid and political censorship. Despite this disappointment, I saw in the catalogue the institution has some good lectures on literary (one on a Sylvia Plath exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery in London) and film people coming up (Mingle with Marlene Dietrich), and I’ll try to go in the coming summer evenings.


Susan Herbert

And that’s the news from this Lake Woebegone, where my cats are my good companions and my younger daughter my beloved. Still listening to Gaskell’s Ruth read aloud: what a painful book. Next up: Woolf’s Night and Day.

Miss Drake

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Evelyn Dunbar (1906-60): In the garden gardening

You did it for yourself, for you to be comfortable and take pleasure in — my therapist about this year’s renovations

Dear friends and readers,

I realize I’ve not been posting regular diary entries. As I’ve said (doubtless too often) I am probably in yet another phase of learning what it is to be a widow like me (not all that individual as a number of aspects of my situatio are found across the population). For me another fuller sense of what my loss means in terms of what my life is and can be like. Jim was my fortress of friends, and at my age, given how social life is organized, and my own particular version of if, the invisible ignored adjunct, I find I end up shaking some days after an unbroken period of literal aloneness. I am fortunate in having a deeply companionable online life; other widows have more family or career relationships. In the US generally people rely on their churches (or synagogues, meeting houses, mosques). I’m an atheist. I would be so much better off with a pub culture for the evenings. More prosaically until tonight I have not found a day when I could say definitely I have succeeded in my goals for renovation. This is something you can find older widows doing: renovating their houses. I try for each of my blogs to have something good to tell of.

So, as of several nights ago (about a week) I am the possessor of two items Virginia Woolf says I must have to be a woman writer of fiction. To be fair, I had a room of my own since the later 1980s when Jim and I turned a small room meant to be another bedroom into my study. It had become overloaded 10 years ago: too much stuff, too many projects, not orderly in its central thought-through core. But now I have a second room, and the fitted in porch space turned into a room crosses the yards of the house space. My study in 9 by 12; the new “sun-room” (it has two very large windows facing the front street — very old fashioned that) stretches out to something like 12 by 20 feet. It is colored light green with white trim. A very 18th century color scheme (as I discovered this is not popular when I paid for) shades a very pretty soft green. A photo would not capture the feel of this space. It does not fit most definitions: I find the workmen and contractor didn’t know quite what to call it and settled on sun-room. So I have taken my term from them. In the morning this room faces east and the sun comes shining in as it does in my dining room.

I also have a floor at the entrance to my house — a side door which is the culmination of something I have been unable to think of a better word for than a stoop (indestructible cement — well if someone dropped a drone on it I could see it shattering). This is a long impossible to explain story.

Only the surface events: we move as tenants into “this old house” in December 183, and discover a cast iron tub with feet leaks across the vestibule to the entrance of the house and probably hither and yon, meaning it loosens the once splendid parquet floors across a large front room area. We are able to buy said house four years later (June 1987) and hire a plumber to stop leaks, discover there were termites and get rid of them (but not before some base boards were devoured in this central wettish area). In a closet right next to the tub this plumber fixes said tub (he says don’t throw out cast iron even with feet) and rebuilds the floor with plain (but real) wood.

We are told in later years (1990s) twice to do anything about the vestibule where the tiles are can be regarded as a puzzle. one must put back into order every once in a while, we would have to remove all our bookcases from the front half of said house, and practically move out to replace the whole floor. How many times in this house have I had contractors tell me the house is about to fall down, or any small job is somehow an enormous one. But after Jim died, a kindly older man nearby (father to the chairwoman of the Home-Owners Association) fixed my fence after snow did some damage and told me “nonsense, you can certainly replace this small area of flooring.” I didn’t forget that remark, and when the contractor who succeeded in (in effect) doing my sun-room for much less money than a permit would have demanded (the requirements make money for the building industry) said, what else do I need done and I showed him this floor he gave me 3 small businessmen.

None of all this could have happened but that I made a friend who told me of these small businessmen contractors. Jim and I knowing no one fell back on these larger companies, and they do what they can to fleece you while cutting corners on fundamental upgradings.

Nonetheless, making a new floor for the vestibule was (like so much else in this house) a bad trial. The young man discovered asbestos riddled everywhere in a floor whose glue was 70 years old. He tried to remove the asbestos and glue in an inexpensive way and the result was a poisonous muck in the front area of my house. He worked on it for two days but since Izzy and I are living here (apparently the done thing is to lodge elsewhere) at night he had to leave the area somewhat cleared. Quarrels, he blamed me, and (as with enclosing the porch after the city got after me and my contractor) I began to despair. He found another option and (not as good) he “floated” a new wood floor using 3 strong pads on top of the dried concrete. I assure my reader it is a beautiful looking floor: a honey wood, he make all sorts of new baseboards, interim wood for thresholds. It’s as if for the 1st time in 33 years I have floor at my entrance. He also replaced a 30+ year old outdoor green carpet on the stoop (vile by this time) with a much more expensive silvery-brown one that is glued to the stoop! and a welcome mat. I did ask myself, “Why I waited this long?” I did say to myself no wonder people who came into the house were put off.

I’ve used the opportunity to have fewer bookcases in this new vestibule and in my dining area. I moved four bookcases into the new sun-room. It is by no means overwhelmed. One is a low wide one containing all my DVDs and books on CD and notebooks of films studies, another a narrow one for women’s studied. Two crossing one wall (and hiding a door) come from the dining area which is now less oppressed by having too much in it.

I hope I am not boring you, gentle reader. I will claim the authority of tradition. I’ve read enough early modern diaries by women to know that it is this kind of detail Elizabethan and 17th century women provide concretely when they are comfortably (because no fear of publication) writing of their life experience. Nothing the enormously wealthy (I’m not) Elizabeth Hardwicke and Anne Clifford like better to do than make a new sound floor. And they love to rebuild the outside of their houses. I can’t compete but my pièce de résistance is my whole house is now a beautiful, stunningly if I may say so myself, cream color. I was astonished to see that in fact power-washing does remove the previous coat (Jim doubted it would and feared we’d spend another $7000 for a worse color — maybe the compounds have improved). The dark red maple in the front and the white flowers and silver ferns are eye-pleasing enough for someone who can handle their cell phone camera better than I can. Gentle reader, rest satisfied with my words.


More by Evelyn Dunbar — in lieu of photographs of my house, which will not impress my reader. The simple modest changes I made and their beauty can only be seen in the reality (after all two of the walls are still brick outside walls in my sun-room, it’s the contrast of what was on the stoop; a hardwood floor is not glamorous; and the cream color itself somehow does not hit the eye strongly in my photo

Looking back, then, since Jim and I got hold of the money my mother unexpectedly left me, it’s been on and off renovation after renovation, starting with rebuilding 2 1947 bathrooms in March 2013. Summer 2013 rebuilding chimneys and major machines in the industrial closet (cleverly disguised as the back of a fireplace/hearth by an architect, Joseph Beach, whose work based on Wright has largely been destroyed across this neighborhood). Then starting in October 2016 redoing a good deal of the kitchen (though not replacing the large appliances except for the dishwasher), including pipes rebuilt, electricity recovered up to “code” in the attic (I have an attic), ending in November. Then starting up again in March for this new room of my own (porch transformed to a comfortable living space), all sorts of small but significant improvements (getting rid of unnecessary doors – yes houses from the 1940s had meandering halls and unnecessary doors), a smoke detector system, new lights in the ceilings (no more pull chains). A ceiling fan! — very pretty in the my official “front” or living room where the TV, piano, what passes for two sofas, and is a honey wood coffee table resides. On the two occasions since Jim died I have had guest, we’ve sat in that area and I’ve had a couple of women friends now and again there.

My latest therapist, a decent well-meaning intelligent young (in her 30s) cognitive therapist said in response to my plaintive I wish I had someone to invite and come into the house and “warm” it with praise, and I only will see it, that one fixed one’s house for yourself. And I’ve not had any kind of party or people for dinner over since the 1970s. I don’t know how any more (not that I ever did). I am thinking of trying for a dinner for my neighbor across-the-street who introduced me to all these contractors and had Izzy and I over for Thanksgiving dinner with her son.

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Eileen Atkins performing Woolf in a reading of A Room of One’s Own (she wrote the screenplay for Mrs Dalloway)

My teaching and being a class member are going well: in one we have moved from Gaskell’s masterpiece, North and South to Trollope’s, Framley Parsonage; in the other, from Penelope Fitzgerald’s Bookshop to JL Carr’s Month in the Country onto Ondaatje’s English Patient). As class member I reread Mrs Dalloway, to the Lighthouse (and watched the two marvelous films), A Room of One’s Own and many of the essays in the first Common Reader. The class is fun as the teacher knows how to coax people into revealing their views of these books.
Virginia Woolf’s Monk House — a country residence

How Chekhovian is Woolf? I went to Chekhov’s Three Sisters at the Kennedy Center. It was not just performed in Russian with English subtitles (in 2 inconvenient places if you are trying to take in much nuanced movement and acting and words). The production taught me I don’t sufficiently appreciate how hard subtitles are if you really want the audience to understand who is speaking to who and what’s happening — because you must epitomize. I leaving with a new feeling: along side the desperation of these aristocrats to find something to do: for the first time I saw Chekhov as comic. the players were half-mocking the intense melancholy, delivering the lines so differently. Attitudinizing funnily. This may not be Chekhov as his stories translated well are not like this. Cheknov’s Three Sisters is aimlessly, feelingly inconsequential much that is done. This is closely aligned with the movie, To the Lighthouse, which uses many of Woolf’s dialogues and words. The film with Rosemary Harris and Michael Gough as Mr and Mrs Ramsay is not funny or mocking but there is this utterly Chekhovian life going on feel — if only she could have been thrown off somewhere into deep (a cliff). One of Woolf’s essays in her Common Reader, “From the Russian Point of view, ” concentrates on Chekhov who she does discuss as intensely melancholy but she would have been aware of this aspect of his art which resembles hers. No imposed patterns.

I did wonder if this was rather the reaction of a common wider harder sensibility which finds the Chekhovian point of view ludicrous because in his prose (as translated) I’ve never seen much of this parody. And for me it didn’t work, quite. Apart from the inadequate subtitling, the play seemed to make no sense. If they weren’t grieving, frustrated, bitter and so on, then what was this all about: happy family pictures (because several times all the actors get together and have a happy family photo)? or sudden out bursts of dancing (this too happened). Some scenes of love-making were presented seriously but there was no over-arching idea.

So I’m not Cheknov is comic but it’s clear that the cast presented it this way and in the audience many Russian people were laughing. At the same time while people were not leaving in droves at the intermission, I was by no means alone going down the escalator to the garage for my car to go home. But it’s clear that Woolf in her To the Lighthouse (and its film) is the serious Cheknov

It’s been something of a Russian week: I saw the HD screening of Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin.

We are not told the librettist most of the time, and a plethora of writers including Pushkin are cited in Wikipedia. I went because of my reading and discussion of Tolstoy’sWar and Peace the last half year has excited my interest in Russia Literature, and what I enjoyed most or what held me truly was the story: this inward story of twisted people. I have not been able to carry on reading the biography of Sophia Tolstoy I started but I hope to return to it when we finally get back to Tolstoy and Anna Karenina. The story moves slowly in Deborah Warner’s production (Fiona Shaw the director) but the sets are what they should be and not overdone. But I did stay the whole of the performance: I’ve not been doing that lately. I know this is very unusual but I find Anna Nebtrebko dull, unable to act, stiff, and any scene she’s in feels somehow tedious in places, but I admit she has a gloriously beautiful voice and can sing for hours. The conventional costumes suited her too. Still for me when she’s in something it is never what it could be since acting counts.

Still I stayed. I just loved Alexey Dolgov’s plaintive (poignant) rendition of Lenski’s aria before the duel (fatal to him). I had never heard it before and thought the man sung so poignantly. Mattei is very great: handsome, beautiful voice, he can act. I’ve seen the movie of Onegin with Fiennes in the role.

Someday maybe I’ll read the novel in verse. I’ve only an old copy — not a good modern translation at all. The interviews felt phony over the source — Renee Fleming would ask the Russian singer how much the poem had meant to him or her, and they would say ever since a young child. Haaa…

Nineteenth century English novels in verse include Aurora Leigh, The Ring and the Book, the form was used: George Eliot’s The Spanish Gypsy, which is good and I’ve even read! It’s good I’m remembering that this morning.

At home I watched on DVD, a marvelous 2002 film adaptation of Nicholas Nickleby, scripted by Douglas McGrath. I was deeply moved and for the first time had a real feel for what this famous book by Dickens is. My father thought NN the most characteristically Dickens of all his books. I had realized that Smike (Jamie Bell) was another of Dickens’s disabled characters and he dies of the world’s treatment of him. Nicholas (Charlie Hunnam) befriends but cannot save him. I had not understood who or what the Cheerybles or Crummies are. By unashamedly and boldly dramatizing the simple goodness, or exploitation and suffering of the characters, the burlesque-like caricatures against the sheer evil of the Squeers (inimitable performances by Jim Broadbent and Juliet Stevenson) and hypocritical insidious venom of Ralph Nickleby (Christopher Plummer), McGrath crossed the wide range of emotion. The women cast included Romolai Garai as Kate Nickleby, Anna Hathaway as Madeleine Bray, for comic good people Timothy Squall, Tom Courtney (the butler who betrays Ralph), Sophie Thomson as Mrs Lacreevy, and a rare ambiguous presence. Phil Davis.

I have a beautiful illustrated edition of the book from my father’s collection, and perhaps if we all are here and the destruction of Net Neutrality does not thrown the last wrench at Yahoo, we could as a group read the book together. It’s be the only way I’d read it 🙂


Nicholas and Smike on the road of life

Another brilliant use of over-the-topness is Ozon’s Frantz.

Not much else notable. I listen in my car to good dramatic readings of the Poldark novels (the dark Black Moon right now). but it seems I may not be able to throw myself into a literary biography of Graham.

The first half would have told Winston Graham’s life, where I would bring out how important Cornwall was to him but not dwell on this at length, keep it in perspective across a whole life. I would be discreet as large numbers of the people involved with various aspects of your father’s life are still living. In this first half of the book I would then discuss his non-Poldark books as a group, mostly the contemporary novels. I would bring out those elements in this which connect them to his historical fiction (the characters, the archetypal situations), situate them in their eras, evaluate them (I am aware of how much rewriting there was). The second half of the book would begin with how much Cornwall meant to him, be about Cornwall, and also historical fiction. A fairly long section (proportionate to the book’s size) on the Poldark novels, the couple of historical fictions set in Cornwall, would come then. I’d end on a film study of the two mini-series.

I’ve now written Winston Graham’s son, Andrew twice (email and snail mail) and he doesn’t even deign a response; my next try will be the assistant of the man who was Winston Graham’s agent for many years. I can’t begin to do research unless I know I will have permission to quote sources in the library, and a contact with an editor at Macmillan say would perform a miracle. I’ve never had many miracles in my life: the only I can think of was meeting and marrying Jim. It was to be Winston Graham, Cornwall and the Poldark world (or novels):

Consequently I’ve begun reading as a book project (early stages) on “The anomaly” and am so enjoying Oliphant’s Kirsteen. How anxious and involved with the heroine I am. Women to include Margaret Oliphant, Geraldine Jewsbury, Anna Jameson, Julia Kavanagh ….

I don’t know that I have it in me to write fiction but I could write about fiction, through literary lenses on fiction. That way I can express myself indirectly.

On our Trollope19thCStudies yahoo listserv, we are just finishing Mary Shelley’s The Last Man, about which I’ll blog separately — bringing in Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale which I’ve managed to see the first terrifying episode of on Hulu.

Tomorrow is the Climate Change March in DC and I am going. I’ll be on the trains on my way to a concert with a friend (!) at the University of the District of Columbia (lovely classical music if I make it), and on Sunday, the Folger Concert again, this time The Play of Love, about which I’ll write in my next diary entry.

Miss Drake

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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.

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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.

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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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My front yard this morning after a night and morning long rain of icy-snow — daffodils in snow!

If you live to be a hundred, I want to live to be a hundred minus one day, so I never have to live without you — A.A. Milne, Winnie the Pooh [he speaks for me now when I think of Jim whose Latin copy of this book I have in my house]

Friends,

About a month ago I wrote about an Iranian film by Ashgar Farhadi, English title, Salesman (2016); I praised it highly and urged people who wanted to begin to learn something of Iranian and Muslim culture to see it. Last week I watched another earlier film by Farhadi, A Separation (2011). It won many awards, and is a better film because it’s not shaped by a “whodunit?” format (who assaulted the wife), and there is no climactic pathetic denouement. In this case I had rented a DVD which enabled me to change the language so I could listen to the actors speaking in French and as the film went on began to pick up a good deal (as I cannot from Farsi) partly using the subtitles. Reviews more or less uniformly credited the film with presenting a portrait of a modern nation during a troubled period attempting to live under Islamic or religious law


The opening shots: the two are facing the judge, she reasoning with him …

The story is quite complicated because so much nuanced reality is brought out: we have a couple whose marriage is shot; Simin (Leila Hatami) wants to leave Iran in order that her daughter, Termeh (Sarian Farhadi) be brought up in a culture with different norms; Nader (Payman Mooadi) sees his father’s needs as primary (the old man has advanged Alzheimer’s disease). When she files for divorce and it’s not granted (her complaints are said to be trivial), she goes to live with her parents as she does not want to leave without her daughter. Nader hires Razieh (Sareh Bayat), a devout Muslim woman desperate for money to stay with his father and care for him all day; the work is arduous, she has a small daughter with her and it emerges is pregnant. He comes home in the middle of the day to find her gone, his father seeming near death tied to a bedpost to prevent him wandering out of the house, and a sum of money equivalent to her salary gone. He goes into a rage and when she returns and has no explanation, he shoves her out of the house. A little later Razieh’s sister informs Simin that Razieh has miscarried. So this is the core event about one quarter into the film. The rest is consequences.

Razieh’s husband, Hodjat (Shahab Hosseini), a violent man initiates a prosecution for murder. A long series of scenes brings a number of witnesses to a judge (a teacher, neighbors, the daughter) and among other suspicions, it may be Hodjat hit Razieh, she may have gone to a gynecologist on her own (regarded as very suspicious); we learn Hodjat is vitriolically angry at his lack of a job and incensed at his wife at every turn (she never asked permission to work), and he is pressured by his family into accepting “blood” money, only to lose it when Nader asks Razieh to swear on a Quaran that she believes he caused her miscarriage. Razieh cannot get herself to tell a lie lest God punish her. Continual bickerings go on, the judge’s attitudes towards the men (Nader begs the judge not to jail him), the inflexibility of the laws, all around these people the busy streets, cars and bikes everywhere, the run-down buildings, the expensive schools (with girls kept in), everyone else seeming to be on the edge of quarreling, male shouts, women in burkas following behind men in modern clothes; little girls with covered heads following the mother. As with Salesman, these people live in these tight-knit groups, almost never apart. As with Salesman we see how human nature works its way through and is exacerbated by Muslim norms. No one is seen as criminal (in the way the man who assaults the woman in Salesman is). The film ends with similar ambiguity: it seems the old father is dead, Simin is again asking for divorce and permission to take her daughter out of the country; this time divorce is granted and Tehmen is asked which parent she chooses. She won’t speak in front of them. We see them waiting on the opposite side of a corridor with a glass wall between them. The film has come to its end.


Razieh — characteristic shot


She also stands so silently and often from the side

The characters are granted a depth of psychological reality, the circumstances fully developed sociologically and culturally; it’s superior to the American trilogy I saw in January, The Gabriels, because there is no urge towards allegory; you cannot fit what is happening into a particular political point of view. For my part since the wife was not centrally part of the action much of the time, I didn’t bond with her as her intimate self was not seen; it was Razieh who occupies the center of many scenes of around whose conduct or presence everything swirls. One is driven to enter into the mindset of this Muslim woman who herself tells as little as she can get away with.

I mean to rent his The Past next. This also a critically-acclaimed film, and it too can be listened to as a French film with subtitles. The very least one can do now is to try to understand Muslim culture in the middle east. I have read the monster who is now the US president is hiring yet another 10,000 immigration agents to prosecute the military action of ejecting 11 million people from the US, and banning as many Muslims as the law allows him to from ever entering.

I’ll mention in passing that on Saturday night I managed to drive to see at an Arlington Theater a black spiritual music rendition of Sophocles’s third Oedipus play as The Gospel at Colonnus. I say manage because when I arrived, I discovered the wrong address, a different theater had been cited, and to go I had to rush out, using my Waze software on my cell phone (programmed by a young woman at the box office) following directions half-madly (it was dark and I kept not being able to read the street names so missing turns) to reach another theater where it was playing. For similar reasons to A Separation, everyone, especially everyone of white-European heritage should see it.

I got there late (really just on time with several others rushing over) and one of the ushers actually helped me to a much better seat as I could not see from the back, and then another patron exchanged seats with me so I could have a chair with a back (I do not look young or strong, gentle reader). It’s not great, but the depth of earnest emotion and intelligence, the strong reaching out in song, the beauty and well-meaningness of the anguished lines and powerful acting (they gave it their all) should be experienced. It’s not Hamilton but surely some of the feeling of a black ensemble was so analogous. They wore typical suits one sees young black men sometimes wear, church gowns for the choir, Ismene and Antigone exotic kinds of headgear with gorgeous gowns, the preacher well preacher-clothes and Oedipus clearly blind, a heavy man, with gravitas. I feel so profoundly ashamed to be a white person living in America today and stood to applaud as my way of endorsing all of us to live as equals, equally safe together.

So much harm is planned: to deprive 24 million slowly of health care. To cut off mental health services yet more. Many more people will now kill themselves: separated from their families and friends and lives with no recourse or help; snatched out of churches, streets, for paying their taxes; isolated. At least three Muslim and/or Indian people have been shot dead by white supremacists. Bomb threats and desecration of Jewish graves and institutions occur daily. The Ku Klux Klan wants a public rally in a major town center in Georgia. LGBT people and children in public schools now going to be subject to bullying and given less funds. This is what Trump and his regime (this is no longer called an administration) want: the Syrian president directly murders, bombs, tortures people who live in the land he wants to control; this new rump are more indirect but just as unfazed, unashamed and determined. Destroy as far as they can a whole way of life. I’ve known for a long time the Republican point of view is one which disdains compassion (why Bush fils called his brand compassionate conservativism); their scorn for protest is caught up in the word whine. Joy only for the super-rich. Beneath it all hatred for people like us.

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Emma (Kate Beckinsale) painting Harriet (Samantha Morton) (1995 Emma, scripted Andrew Davies)

This has been a very stressful week. My doctor suggested to me a 10 hour trip was dangerous; consider the 8th hour of driving, consider, he said, the 9th; how easy to tire, how easy to lose your way, and then tired and anxious, it’s a risk; even a 5 hour trip on two days was something I needed to think about and plan for by being sure to have a comfortable place to stay overnight half-way. Then when I finally looked again into taking a plane, I discovered that there was one flight to and from Burlington, Vermont, on Saturday it occurred half an hour after I was to give my paper; and I had to go through Expedia to buy the tickets. And someone from the conference drive there to pick me up and deliver me back. I worry about my cats again as a contractor and his workmen may be here while I’d be gone for 4 days. I might have to board them. Still, I almost bought that ticket but was advised by the conference head as “an older sister,” maybe not. So I finished my paper, “Ekphrastic Patterns in Jane Austen,” and think it is splendid and sent it to the organizer of the Jane Austen and the Arts conference at Plattsburgh, New York. She offered to read it aloud, sparing me a difficult arduous trip.


A watercolor by Turner of Lyme Regis seen from Charmouth (as in Persuasion)

I am turning my attention to my teaching, delving the Booker Prize phenomena in the context of modern book selling. I might set aside some of my on-going projects — though I will still write a full summary review blog of an important book, Julie Carlson and Elisabeth Weber’s Speaking of Torture and feature it in my central blog as something I can do against the present deeply harm-causing regime.

I am seriously thinking of trying a new book project, even begun work on it: a literary biography of Winston Graham, author of the Poldark books and by extension, the films; and am doing preliminary reading before writing his son to see if he would be agreeable to such a project and if he would help (for example, I would need to see Graham’s letters or private papers, the life-blood of biography). I would focus in the second half on his Poldark novels, so relationship to Cornwall, and finally the films.


The lizard, full sunlit — a paratext for season 2 of the new Poldark (2016)


One of the actresses’s cloaks …. for Demelza (Eleanor Tomlinson)

The man I hired as a general contractor has begun work on my house, and already the porch is at long last enclosed by four walls, and has two windows which match the other windows in front. The whole process, all that needs to be done, will take about 2-3 weeks he says. (At most?) My beloved cats have to be put away once more in Izzy’s room while he and his workmen are about.


Kedi (2017, film about hundreds of thousands of Istanbul cats, genre: post-modern historical)

So I end on another film I saw with Izzy and my friend, Phyllis, this Sunday. I liked it so much I’m going again on Thursday with another friend, Vivian: Kedi. Kedi is ostensibly a film about the thousands of cats who live on the streets of Istanbul. We are told the story of at least 20 different individual cats and/or groups of cat (mother and kittens), usually (this is important) by the person who is providing food and care and often affection. The emphasis in some stories is the cat, in others the cat-lover and why his or her deep kindness and the good feeling and love he or she receives in return. I imagine much filming was necessary to capture the cat’s lives, and real social effort to get the caring people to talk to the director and film-makers .The film tells as much about these individuals and why they have taken it upon themselves (some of them go to vets for medicine or seemingly regular check-ups) to keep these cats alive and thriving — as far as one can thrive while living on a street: most of the adult cats look thin, and the babies are tiny, feeble. It’s really about Istanbul and its culture: vast areas of the city are impoverished, people living on the edge in a modern city. Erdogan’s name everywhere. A thriving garbage culture. The sea central to the feel of the place: I remembered reading Orphan Pamuk’s wonderful book about this world of Istanbul he grew up and lives in now.

It’s a movie made out of a deeply humanitarian spirit: real compassion for those who need the cats (the cats are therapy for some), identification and pity for some of the cats’ actions (one grey cat never goes into the restaurant, just bangs on the window in his or her need, stretched body reaching as high as possible). One of the sweetest moments (for a person like me who values language) was when one of the cat-caretakers in talking of the cat says in the middle of his Turkish a word sounding much like our English meow. So to Turkish ears cats make the same sounds. We watch cats doing all sorts of things, climbing high, fighting, eating, drinking, seeking affection, seeking prey, far too high up on a building, hiding out in cardboard boxes set up for them. By the end the cats are us; they stand for our own hard and at times fulfilling existential lives. I loved the one man on the ship who said he was so grateful for his cat’s love. Another who felt some divinity in the whole experience of life with cats in Istanbul. I, my friend, and Izzy were touched, vivified; for myself I knew some moments of shared joy as I watched so that tears came to my eyes. I just felt better about life after it concluded.

Of course I told Izzy about Christopher Smart, wrongly put into an insane asylum, treated cruelly, his only companion, a cat, Jeffrey, and read aloud to Izzy the famous lines:

For I will consider my Cat Jeoffry.
For he is the servant of the Living God, duly and daily serving him.
For at the first glance of the glory of God in the East he worships in his way.
For is this done by wreathing his body seven times round with elegant quickness.
For then he leaps up to catch the musk, which is the blessing of God upon his prayer.
For he rolls upon prank to work it in.
For having done duty and received blessing he begins to consider himself.
For this he performs in ten degrees.
For first he looks upon his forepaws to see if they are clean.
For secondly he kicks up behind to clear away there.
For thirdly he works it upon stretch with the forepaws extended.
For fourthly he sharpens his paws by wood.
For fifthly he washes himself.
For sixthly he rolls upon wash.
For seventhly he fleas himself, that he may not be interrupted upon the beat.
For eighthly he rubs himself against a post.
For ninthly he looks up for his instructions.
For tenthly he goes in quest of food.
For having consider’d God and himself he will consider his neighbour.
For if he meets another cat he will kiss her in kindness.


One of Laura’s cats looking at her with loving eyes (very well taken care of)

Miss Drake

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openingshot
An shot early in The Salesman before Rana has been attacked

Dear friends and readers,

In my mostly literally solitary widowhood — though I’m online with friends a good deal (letters) and participate in reading groups, Future Learn courses, and these blogs to the point I feel companioned and some of what I do regularly are these joined-in activities (more reading, more writing, occasional f-t-f meetings) — in my mostly solitary state (as like some Defoe character, I say), I’m finding that the love of characters so many readers attest to when they talk of what they read has come upon me more strongly than it used to. I feel this especially when I watch a great film adaptation of a great novel where there are many episodes. Good films, moving books. Beyond these imagined congenial souls, I have my cats — such my topic this week.

shahab-hosseini-and-taraneh-alidousti-in-salesman
A close up

I burst into tears at one point while watching the Iranian film, The Salesman, written, directed, produced by Ashgar Farhadi’s (2016): fine sensitive intelligent (keep adding good words). I saw this in a nearly empty theater late yesterday (Thursday) afternoon — a first it seemed I and one couple were the only people in the audience, but by the end of the film there were about 10 people I saw when I got up at the end and turned round to look. I urge you to see it if it comes near you. It is a touching realistically done story of a couple in Iran who are part of a theater group putting on Miller’s Death of a Salesman. Emad Etesami (Shabab Hosseini) teaches English in what seems the equivalent of an American high school, except all boys. Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti), his wife has no job or occupation beyond being his wife — though she is very capable one can see, even well educated (how I don’t know). Emad plays Willy, and Rana Linda. The play is acted in English and it seems everyone in the audience understands without subtitles.

[It has proved impossible to find any shots of the play within the movie; frequent shots are of Rana looking out a door from the side, through glass-y barred windows; standing behind Emad — these reinforce stereotypes.]

I asked about Iranians’ knowledge of English on two listservs but no one answered. I know few Americans can speak or read Arabic; even the state department under a decent president had limited resources this way. Miller’s is also apparently a story Iranians are familiar with. Does anyone who reads this blog know if Iranian education includes a thorough grounding in English? I used to have a loving friend on the Net, an Iranian woman and poet who shared my love of poetry, of Virginia (my friend has translated Woolf into Farsi), of books, and cats. She no longer can reach me by email. A great loss for both of us. She wrote beautiful English and Arabic and Farsi are both “Greek to me.”

As the movie begins, the building Emad and Rana are living in collapses, and they must move hurriedly, and get into an apartment where the previous female tenant’s things are still there. One afternoon while he is gone either teaching or rehearsing, she goes to take a shower and thinks he has buzzed her from the ground floor. She buzzes back without checking to see it’s him, and goes off to the shower. We stare at the door ajar — an allusion to Hitchcock’s famous sadistic scene. We hear screams, see a shadow. When Emad comes home she is gone, blood all over the floor, on the stairs. Cut to the hospital: he has learned she is there, her face badly bruised, arm wrenched, back sore, but apart from these ailments physically unhurt. She was taken there by a neighbor, Babak (Babak Karimi), also part one of the players. He found the apartment for them we later discover.

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After the assault

So that’s the initiating situation. The results in their emotional and economic (the play doing, the teaching) causes havoc. We see the problems in calling the police; she can’t tell. She is terrified to be in the apartment alone; she won’t let Emad near her at night. The rapist (? — we are not sure what he did, the wife seems to indicate not) left his pick-up truck downstairs. This furnishes the clue for the husband to find the man is a set of keys and pick-up truck downstairs; the keys are in the apartment and they fit the pick-up truck. Since Rana won’t go to the police (she’ll be blamed she says for opening the door to let the man in), Emad begins to have a need to find the man and punish him himself. It’s a telling detail (to my or American eyes) how no one in the apartment building appears to get excited over this pick-up truck. The women seem to turn a blind eye; the men say ignore it. Slowly we (and he) realize that other male neighbors, especially Babak,, were also this woman’s lovers. Babak (and everyone else) knew the woman supported herself by having lovers. Emad becomes furious: why did you not tell me? The film is not explicit but it seems that men are casually promiscuous in this society but they are also intently hypocritical and hidden and they do all they can to hide such behavior from wives and families. When wives find out they wax fiercely angry. The men seem to dread shaming of any kind.

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Emad pacing on the roof — he has much more active visible agency than Rana but she has power over him because he needs to be a respectable married man with seemingly loving respectful wife

The sex and family lives of these people is a different combination of hypocrisy and interwovenness than our own, and we are studying Iranian society from the angle of this situation. Rana cannot bear to be in the apartment alone; she wants to go everywhere with Emad. She appears angry with him and won’t let him near her at night (he says, accusingly); she can’t eat. One of the women in the cast who plays Willy’s on-the-road mistress, Sanam (Mina Sadati), is herself divorced with a child. Or separated. Sanam has accused the cast members of disrespecting her for the role she plays: Willy’s casual mistress upstate for whom he buys stockings. It hurts her reputation further to play such a role. She has her child with her always and it is a relief when Rana offers to take him home one night to keep Rana company. We see a family-group when Emad comes home and the two attempt to have a decent evening because the child is there. They are cheerful; she has cooked some food she bought in a store, but soon the pretended cheer breaks down when he realizes she uses money she found in a drawer that must’ve been this intruder’s. The marriage is now under terrific strain as he asks her to go to the police, and she says no, and she won’t leave him alone. He follows the pick-up truck to a restaurant and finds Majid (Mojtaba Pirzadeh), the young man who drives it. This is his rapist; Emad has to corner and pressure him to get him to work for Emad at a wedding (Emad claims — weddings appear to be sancrosanct and all bend before its needs and demands).

The play and teaching carry on. Emad can’t sleep and falls asleep as his class and he are watching a movie. The young men begin to cut up; we saw they were not disciplined much before. Their gender makes them all important. Maleness must be allowed aggression? Emad is now ridiculed by them, but he holds his own when he threatens to tell their families. At the theater, Emad and Rana are having trouble carrying on with their roles. Emad moves into a rage at Babak at one point — Babak is one of the characters in the play. Rana’s speech over Willy’s dead body was what hit me. Her grief let loose as Linda’s grief, mine at hers. I began to keen and sat there silently shaking and weeping.

At one point, cut to a new apartment Emad and Rana have found. The next day or so, not Majid, but his father-in-law, an old man shows up at this new apartment. And again slowly it emerges this old man knows is there as a substitute for his son-in-law because it was he who was an ex-lover, angry at the woman for something, who came into the apartment and then “tempted” attacked Rana. The confession is tense with shame; Emad is determined to make the man’s family know, especially his wife. We see how important are family ties in this society, far stronger than ours. The old man tries to run away, but Emad locks him in and he has a heart attack.

When Emad returns, with Rana (from another day of playing theirroles), they find him semi-paralyzed. Emad is still determined to humiliate the man before letting him go, and calls the family to get him. The family arrive, Majid all tender loving care for this old man, and the old man’s daughter, and a hysterical wife who says the old man is her whole life. Rana takes Emad aside and says if Emad tells them the truth, she, Rana, will leave him. She will go home to her family. She is making this family’s harmony more important than anything else, including her terror. They are at first grateful to Emad for saving their father as they know nothing it seems of this history of the man, but when Emad demands he take the old man into a separate room, they begin to be frightened. Emad is unstoppable and when he gets the old man alone Emad hits him hard. Another heart attack ensues. Emad had claimed to call an ambulance but hadn’t, now Rana or he does, and the family follow the instructions by phone to revive this father.

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An intense emotionalism characterizes the behavior of this family — yet in dialogues with the old man it seems that underneath there is distrust and all demand strict conventional behavior from one another; my father used to say among naive people emotionalism is prevalent (one reason for Dickens’s popularity)

The last scene shows us Rana being dressed for her part as Linda and Emad for his as Willy. They have stained unemotional looks on their faces. They have not broken up, but they have not made up. It’s probably significant that Rana has had no child, but I am not sure what how this would be read by an Iranian audience.

I was startled at the overt sentimentality of the families towards one another because at the same time the women overlook the men’s promiscuous behavior as long as they are not told or do not have to learn explicitly the men are unfaithful. The society is so interwoven and desperate economically (most buildings are aging, supermarkets are full but it’s clear that lots of better goods are not on the shelves for most people). Many people make it by odd jobs — taking in one another’s laundry I used to call it. Family members utterly need one another. They have no one else to turn to.

Best of all it made Iranians utterly human. I hope the empty theater is not the result of Americans not wanting to be associated with Muslims lest they somehow get into trouble. The Trump administration is demonizing these people so such a film is important. Iranians are so dependent on family members because the US among other powerful gov’ts and the leaders of factions in Iran prevented a social democratic gov’t which was elected in the 1950s from developing. A coup put back a dictatorial theocracy; then the Shah tried to develop capitalism, freeing women as a sop and as necessary for a modern society. We know where that went. A huge proportion of people were left in poverty. Men find keeping women submissive, under their control, soothes and bucks up their ego and pride. Today in our gov’t the Republicans are removing or trying to all our social helps outside the family, including a meritocracy through education so that they can keep their enormous, take in more, live off us more, and in the process destroy outer non-religious (and thus free and progressive) social world insofar as they can.

Don’t miss it! It won awards and is nominated for an Oscar for Best Foreign Film. The director is famous, his films are events, so are the leading cast members stars.

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William Wordsworth when young — endorsed as strongly accurate by Kenneth Johnston in his Hidden Wordsworth, which I’ve been reading also

So, another week or so and now on bonding with characters in fiction. Take Wordsworth’s Prelude: it brought back memories. The natural world for me as a child. Not very much. I grew up in the Southeast Bronx. When I think of nature, I think of how Shakespeare says when we live in an artful world, the art comes from nature. Say the word nature to me and I remember a terrifying hurricane my family drove through when I was about 3 — my father’s family had a sort of cottage, home-made where we stayed for a few weeks in summer, on the north shore of Long Island, Suffolk county, a pump in the yard for water, an outhouse. Hurricane Carol hit not far from where we were, and the water coming miles up and high as the cliffs, roofs coming off, trees ripped.

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Turner’s Buttermere Lake — this image is the cover illustration for my parallel texts of two of Wordsworth’s Preludes (1805 and 1850; there’s a third, a short plain evocative 1799)

[I have no pictures of myself when young by a pump in Long Island, no photos of myself climbing up and down fire-escapes in the Southeast Bronx, anyway the block I lived in was torn down decades ago after it was (in my father’s words) abandoned by people, left to the dogs. Now it is rows of small private houses with hispanic families living in them. There is a Crotona Park, in bad disarray when I lived there. In the 1980s, my father meet other older white men from the suburbs there who once lived in these communities, and eventually these other white men brought their equipment from the suburbs and rebuilt the handball walls. Those playing, all male, all hispanic were grateful.]

When he gets to university, Cambridge, wow, the son of a high level agent of a ferociously mean high ranking super-wealthy man, his father dies and the lord refuses to pay the legacy the man had garnered up, so the boy or young man now has a precarious future. Still he is among the privileged boys of his era. As I read I see him as coming there with a group of expectations and a sense of his place. Myself I think how we measure our success or what we define as success comes from where we started out, and what we expected from life from that place. When I went finally to Queens College at age 18, public though it was, I was ecstatic, so relieved. College was not assumed in the cards for me at all. I never thought about — really — the lack of status or where I was going to go afterwards. To me this was a height. I didn’t want it to end. I was there to study, not to get somewhere. It was probably too painful for me to think about what might be my future. I did so much better than others in the class not only because I chose an area or areas that I find myself good at (English, humanities, history of art) but because I valued what I was doing. I knew all around me at the time many didn’t. Dorothy didn’t get to go.

He also says that when he was supposed to leave, maybe he was better off not to have a place to go to. He admits he missed out on something — did things he regrets, but doesn’t say what. For me I grieve not; happy is the man/Who only misses what I missed, who falls/No lower than I fell. Happy is the man is an old Horatian formula.

Well for me years after being in school I knew that I had not profited from “learning” forced on me,for which I had no aptitude — like math, physics — which I did poorly in. Rousseau in the 18th century says we must follow the child or person’s bent. That was a radical idea then: you were paying attention to the individual and saying he (not she in Rousseau) matters; you weren’t forcing them to do or become something for the family’s sake, as part of the family business. Rousseau also says that’s the way a child learns.

I wasn’t badly off in my undergraduate years. I was naively happy in my studies, though it took shutting the future out from my mind. I liked all my courses (even some of the required ones outside humanities) but the honor courses I found myself simply in in my last and have to agree I did read more interesting books in such courses. The shock was to come back and see this institution which had meant so much to me — it did free me, it gave me the scholarship to England I did leave the social class I had been born in basically forever — and that to another (my daughter) it was irrelevant as a place and worse. She couldn’t learn in it even if it’s academic program in music for a librarian was excellent. The social world mattered in her case.

We’ve also talked of Coleridge this week on Trollope19thCStudies: I’ve long loved best “This lime-tree bower, my prison” to Lamb, but as others spoke of Coleridge rhythmic ballads I conceded:

It’s both hard and easy to get back to an earlier self. I’ve said a few lines in Michael confirmed my resolve to be an English major, to go and study British literature for the BA. In that term where I first read Coleridge too I was swept away by the intensity of the “faery” side of his poetry, the unfinished romance, Christabel was it called, also loved and reread over and over Frost at Midnight. And Kubla Khan started — especially with the story about it. But I remember this and cannot feel the same today. I don’t mean to say they are at all inferior to the contemplative type poem only that as I look at them now, I remember how naive I was. I admit I was never “gone” on The Ancient Mariner. Him stopping one of three and the rest of the ritual type chant, even the moral with the albatross at the end seemed something imposed.I grant though lines have stayed with me all my life . Ah sleep it is a blessed thing/Beloved from pole to pole. How many times I’ve repeated that one. It is a mismemory I’ve just discovered: “it’s gentle thing ….” For me until I began with my nightly trazadone it was something often out of reach, only gotten in 3 hours snatches at best. Coleridge ended his life living in a kindly person’s attic, giving free lectures to those who could appreciate great literary criticism, among others of Shakespeare

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Kay Spark: Virginia Woolf or Seraglia

I’m now read/skimming and listening in my car to Woolf’s The Voyage Out as read by Nadia May. I remembered my “voyage out” as I read/listen. Over on Trollope19thCStudies I said going to Queens College transformed my life, but I was plucked out of the limited frustrating environment to which I was born by a scholarship offered through Queens: to go to Leeds University, half paid by Queens and half by a Chancellor’s scholarship from the UK. I took a boat trip that took 12 days. For 12 days I was aboard a boat loaded down with students my age — I had been married and had some adult experiences they hadn’t, but they had had all sorts of social experiences I hadn’t. Fine art films all day long, one of 4 in tiny rooms (Bunk beds). I’ll never forget that experience and coming up the channel to see the white cliffs of dover. Much as I didn’t understand was going on round me, and had a week long nervous collapse in Leeds as result of what to me was also an ordeal — I was with a group of 12 students shepherded by an British history teacher teaching at Queens for the great salary — but fascinating, all so news, 3 weeks in London, arrive at Leeds, a flat shared with another student in a private house (attached), Leeds itself and then I met Jim.

It’s a book much influenced by Austen — as her next, Night and Day, is much influenced by the Brontes. There is a trek the characters take up a hill to look down. It’s not that they go on donkeys or that the breaking into groups is uncomfortable, some of the conversation (though some sublime and refreshing), but Woolf’s characterization of the whole long incident as a group of people “very dull, not at all suited to each other,” and not really wanting to come (some of them). There’s a scene strongly reminiscent of everyone sitting on blankets in a circle and talking. At the end as in the 2009 Emma for some they’ve had too much of a good thing. Then there’s a dance, how Rachel loves dancing, the partners — just very like. She has Austen in mind.

And for a backwards proof, as with male critics writing about Ferrante’s fiction, so Mitchell A Leasla, resentful of Helen (shepherding Rachel in something of the spirit but much smarter, more generous, for the girl’s interest) of Emma with Harriet, Leasla cannot understand what this book is on about.

As for bonding with characters in films that go on for episode after episode and are taken from deeply felt realistic fiction, see my latest blogs on the new and old Poldark films and the 1972 BBC War and Peace (Anthony Hopkins Pierre, Morag Hood, Natasha, Joanna David Sonya …. )

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A Caturday entry: on bonding with my pussycats:

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We don’t credit animals the way we should. To my mind this is part of our defense from treating them with equal respect and affection. Since becoming so close with my cats my understanding of animals has improved and my general behavior. I now buy only “free range” chicken, and I look at labels where I ‘ve read the packaging or company treats their pigs or lambs decently — or not cruelly anyway (so it’s claimed). I try to eat much less meat. I wrote a couple of blogs on books that tell the history of the increase of animal protection laws and companionate relationships. For years when I taught Adv Comp in the Natural Sciences and Tech I had a unit where we read Jane Goodall, and a couple of times showed Wiseman’s Primate. We are such a cruel species it’s hard to get my mind around what scientists do to chimps: primates to other primates.

I was thinking that one of my narcissistic impulses is when I feel glad to see my cats react to things that are recognizable that seem more like a human reaction, something we wrongly do not expect from animals. So for example, when a car drives up to my part of the sidewalk — not close to my house, my boy growls and often the girl will get off her perch and trot to a front window — or she’ll scurry away. They know immediately when someone is coming down the path.

For a couple of weeks I lived with a woman friend who was vegetarian: her diet included cheese and eggs and she was wonderful cook so we had all sorts of vegetables and pasta. I didn’t mind being without meat for the time. I’ve never tried it otherwise but I nowadays understand the logic of the position. You’d have tobe careful to get the vitamins and nuitrition you need. I “use” far too much sugar, wine but we don’t eat much processed food. When we first brought our kittens home, they had one another and (it’s hard to remember) it seems to me pretty fast the problem was how to keep them out of the bedroom. They were too lively to sleep all night and Jim was very bothered by the whole thing. I somewhat forced the cats on him with my older daughter — I wanted them for myself, to find common ground with this older daughter (didn’t work) and to provide Izzy with more creatures to interact with. At the time she was not working and having a very hard time.

My two have been with me since birth. They are frightened to go out the door and start away from it. I know if I were to leave it open they would go out and so keep all doors shut. They both twitch with intensity when they see birds, squirrels outside but I doubt they’d know how to kill them. The boy, Ian, does stalk and by playing with kill insects and occasionally he has brought one to me to show his stuff. It is all routine. I wake with them cuddled into me. We get up when it’s fully light.Into the kitchen where I top up their dry food. Then they just stay round me all day as I go about my routine. They know when I’m going out of “our” workroom from when I turn off the computer or put on my coat. Clarcat looks sad then. They can tell time duration; when I’ve been away on trips, at first they are not friendly and then get intensely affectionate. Usual times away — say an hour or so or 4 at most – one or both come to the door. Around 5 or so they seem to know it’s time for wet food. They do know their names I think; at least they respond to them They know “wet food” I think. I go open a can and pour myself a glass of wine. So all are content. I do differ routines in food: sometimes I give them tuna with or instead of the wet food. About an hour before I go to bed, they go into my room and wait. I have a high cat bed near mine and Ian sleeps there. We have play periods and sitting on lap periods, and he presses himself against my chest and nudges my head. She thinks I’m another cat and licks me industriously sometimes.
Going to the Vet is an ordeal I have described here before.

They do love string. They can’t resist playing with me with string — like people, me, in front of a movie.

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New Yorker Cartoon

Last night I knew a strange moment of intense peace, highly unusual. I had read hard all day, written, and when I drank that glass of wine, and this mood came over me. My mind collapsed. I could no longer read or write. Suddenly I felt so deeply in my gut, What did it matter if I didn’t want to put myself through an ordeal of travel to a Jane Austen and Arts conference. I felt I could choose to not go without telling myself, where does it stop here? Lose contact? what am I talking of? what mad dreams obeying? I just relaxed into myself. I shall have no grandchildren. I re-watched Last Orders, the film I watched the day of Jim’s funeral as it only lasted for 3 hours and by 3 I was home alone again. i’m going to teach the book this coming spring, listen to it read aloud by Juliet Stevenson when my MP3 comes. I sat and tears came and went as I wiped my eyes. And went to bed.

I am now in the fourth year of widowhood and have no words for the kind of grief I live with all the time. Nameless because society refuses to recognize this, give it a vocabulary.

Next up: Penelope Fitzgerald’s Human Voices, on the BBC radio worlds. I’m nearly to the end of her nearly perfect The Bookshop: desperation as courage who loses out to the machinations and human instruments of silent ruthless power enacted, controlled, by one blight of a woman. Any hope I ever had of a full-time contingent position at Mason was destroyed similarly years ago by Rosemary Jann, the chair of the department. So bonding again …

Miss Drake

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