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Archive for the ‘seasons’ Category


Laura and I — she often looked serene


Izzy and I – at her happiest laughing

To ache is human — not polite — Dickinson

I do like to be beside the seaside — Music Hall song

Friends,

Our holiday — me, Laura, Izzy — was not all we had hoped as after the first super-hot afternoon, the beach was chill, and subject to high winds, as were the central roads leading to said beach, but we managed to have a good time and even (stubbornly) sat there both days, the first near 2 hours in the morning, the second after noon. Izzy tried to go in as far as her knees, jeans pushed up, I tried to read a Daphne DuMaurier novel. We returned to walk along the boardwalk in the later afternoon the second day, and evening time, and in the darkness on the third where we said we wished we could believe Jim or Dad were looking down from somewhere.


Late twilight — the inscrutable sea

You should know we four had been to Rehoboth many years before: our first true family vacation probably in 1993 in a house rented inexpensively in Milton — the next year we went to Rome for 5 weeks. We did one year rent a cottage just off Lewes Beach and we remembered the ferry at Cape May; another year briefly a cottage in Duck, North Carolina (but a hurricane blew us away). So there were memories. This holiday was originally conceived as a mother’s day gift for me.

Luckily our hotel was filled with good service: a hot tub we sat in three times, two pools — we swam in one on the first day, a garden, and the third and last morning, a strong fire in the hearth in one of the two library-looking rooms. I sat by the fire two early mornings. There was an on-going huge puzzle on one table of that room where different people over the day sat and filled out the picture. Izzy did some for an hour. Each day a sumptuous breakfast (very good), all day coffee and snacks downstairs. We found outside much shopping (surprising amounts of clothing) — little side alleyways as malls, a splendid bookstore (really) with toys (one of which had a snoopy dog toy Laura and Izzy remembered from their childhood). We had some excellent meals for dinner, one unpretentious in a pizza place bar, the other rightly “awesome,” French, exquisitely well-cooked dishes (I had a rabbit dish, Laura lamb), a pile of ice cream for desert for all, lovely wine

I taste a liquor never brewed —
From Tankards scooped in Pearl —
Not all the Vats upon the Rhine
Yield such an alcohol!

all the while a pianist played familiar tunes. People could be heard making requests.

We talked at lot, confided, read: in the room, Izzy her fat Chernow biography of Hamilton, me Claire Harman’s Charlotte Bronte while Laura blogged — she is now free-lancing. We watched some TV together. Our room had three TVs and I watched on the computer with Laura chosen selections from the (to me) slightly astonishing amalgam fantasy, pseudo-cynical and amoral American Gods. There were a couple of prologues or interludes which were telling: one of a slave ship come to the US in the later 17th century, with the focus on the slaves’ anguish fast forwarding to today’s anguish over killing of black people with impunity in the streets; the other the death of a Muslim woman living somewhere in Queens, circa perhaps 2017. Ian McShane was very amusing as the central “God” (Odin in disguise as a crass businessman I’m afraid), and (in a minor role) Chloris Leachman (not much disguise), providing affection.

And so we escaped a little, had a time away.

We hope to repeat this again, perhaps next spring for a much longer time (2 weekends and a week) in Milan where there will be a World’s Ice-Skating Championship. Laura and I will not spend all our time at the ice-skating rink, but use the trains and buses to see a bit of northern Italy.

I admit the cats did not enjoy their time at the Pet Boarding place — though they had a penthouse sized cage (3 linking ones, next to a window they were said to have looked out at)


A reproachful Ian brought home — at first Clarycat stood off from me, but later she could not kiss (lick) and cuddle up and play enough

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After great pain, a formal feeling comes –
The Nerves sit ceremonious, like Tombs …

There’s a certain Slant of light,
Winter Afternoons –


Cynthia Nixon as the strained Emily

Just before going off, Izzy and I went to see the film about Emily Dickinson’s life, A Quiet Passion, written and directed by Terence Davies. The older I become the harder it is to understand how Dickinson could have chosen so to isolate herself from her later 20s on. I have some reservations about the movie. It begins way too slowly and solemnly. The actors are made to enunciate lines as if they were reciting memorized passages from in a school play, and it seems are trading witticisms done so slowly it’s tedious in feel if the puns are if thought about well-taken. For a while the pace of speech stays the same, as serious psychological and other kinds of immediate content are read into the growing story, and then the story line of betrayal and sexual pain, of power relationships gone awry take over, and the film became for me gripping, mesmerizing and especially towards the end when the family is in internecine bitter quarrels over Austin’s life with his mistress, Mabel Dodd (Noemie Schellens), right in front of them all, including his wife, Susan (Jodhi May as ever so plangent), who however we see hates heterosexual sex, is a closet lesbian, and it’s suggested built a close relationship with Emily (Cynthia Nixon deserves an Oscar). In life they exchanged letters and poems across the space of the houses: “open me carefully” says one.

Perhaps the father was not as much a tyrant as is shown, but the mother’s life as a dishrag conforms to the passive abject lives of such women (Henry James’s mother seems to have lived similarly). The civil war’s disastrous slaughter is not omitted, but it felt as an interlude in this life (however abolitionist the family’s sentiments might have been). We see the father refuse his son permission to join the fighting, lest he lose his life. The father uses his power of purse over children, then Austin uses it over his sisters. A few friends Emily made early on, marry and depart this brooding place. You will come away with a sufficiently historically accurate portrayal of this family whose stifling hypocritical ritual but also genuinely self-flagellating ways seems central to Emily’s decision to retreat from life.


Duncan Duff as Austin Dickenson, Jennifer Ehle as Lavinia, Keith Carradine as the father, Edward, a visiting pastor, and Joanna Baker as the mother

The trajectory is Emily rebels in school and then at home this way and that,, refuses to compromise, and gradually is ostracized and then ostracizes herself. Girlfriend after girlfriend marries. Lavinia (whom I felt for as I have before) is left with this difficult sister; Emily appears to have been all Lavinia had to aid her in having a some sort of social life. Jennifer Ehle is too sweet, too forgiving but she fit the role as envisioned by the film. Emily is hard, difficult, stubborn, will not see people, will be rude. She seethes at Mabel as an evil mistress — what would she have said had she foreseen that Mabel would be the person that first saved her poems, published them. Lavinia to Todd and Higginson: “But for Mrs Todd & yourself, ‘the poems’ would die in the box where they were found.” An irony the movie hoped we realized. But by the end when Emily dies and we hear the famous “Because I could not stop for death,” followed by “I wrote a letter to the world who never wrote back to me,” I became slightly hysterical and started to sob violently for this woman’s grief and loss and strangely thwarted existence as voiced through this poem.

This is my letter to the world,
That never wrote to me,–
The simple news that Nature told,
With tender majesty.
Her message is committed
To hands I cannot see;
For love of her, sweet countrymen,
Judge tenderly of me!

This prompted Izzy to cry too. Others around us as I got up I saw had been moved.

On the other hand, there was much too much suffering: did we have to have lengthy dramatizations of each person’s deathbed (father, mother) and then Emily’s slow decline, the excruciating pain of Wright’s Disease. The choice of poetry was too religious for my taste — everyone recites it as part of dialogues — but they included “wild nights” and some other striking subversive ones. Not enough beauty, gaiety, seasonal nature poems, the thoughtful questioning ones.


Nixon as questioning Emily again

I worry unsympathetic people if they sit through it will come out with prejudices reconfirmed: we see her refuse to talk to people except through a door at the top of the stairs — this to an admirer of her poetry of which only 7 were published with punctuation changed. Austin reads a cruel review of women poets writing of their misery, a mock, but I doubt it was aimed at Emily, but women’s protest poetry — they had a raw deal. They should have perhaps included the content of Susan and Emily’s poems and letters — it is slightly comic they should communicate this way. No comedy comes through, though the audience had people who persisted in laughing (the early puns, whatever could possibly be interpreted as meant to be funny. Anne Badlands as Aunt Elizabeth provides a few comic moments, worth a smile maybe. I didn’t detect anyone laughing at the film, but perhaps I was mistaken. I have read how Dickinson has been used as a conservative icon (apolitical, the solitary genius). I recommmend Anthony Lane’s review for the New Yorker.

At one time these two stanzas were among my most repeated Emily Dickinson lines:

Success is counted sweetest
By those who ne’er succeed.
To comprehend a nectar
Requires sorest need.

Not one of all the purple Host
Who took the Flag today
Can tell the definition
So clear of victory

So there was enough for me to identify with (yes I can bond with Emily beyond the poetry) or anyone who cares about art and wants to understand the peculiar circumstances from which an original artist has emerged.


Emily Dickinson’s letter from The Dinner Party

After we returned home, we did pull down my volume of The Complete Poems and looked at a few. I read the opening article in a recent Cambridge Companion and discovered people are still arguing over how to punctuate the poetry. Who knew Jerome McGann’s return to the holograph manuscripts is doubted by some. The earliest editions by Todd and Higginson sold very well and she was popular as a 19th century poet, but she was lost from view during modernism, held no interest for socialist writers of the 1930s; the first elevation of her was due to the ultra-conservative white poets of the 1950s (John Crowe Ransom) and she came to the attention of the “close-readers” and humane people like Randall Jarrell. So it was in the 1960s (the same era that saw the first “rise” to real fame of Virginia Woolf) that Dickinson began to achieve the stature of Whitman’s counterpart that she holds today. She was no feminist darling until the 1980s, the discovery of her life-long affair with Susan and the attempt to carve out a l’ecriture-femme. She did make the cut for Judy Chicago’s Dinner Party. Some of this may help account for the peculiarly neutral point of view of the film.


On the beach in the morning birds

Ellen

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Photo of my newly painted house — gentle reader imagine a much lighter, whiter cream color ….

Friends,

Eleven days since I last wrote, and I and Izzy and my older daughter, Laura, are off to Rehoboth Beach on Friday morning to stay in a hotel on the beach front, a suite of rooms where we hope to relax. Sun, wind, fresh air, sand, a boardwalk, I just hope it won’t be too hot — as it has been today.

I’ve had a new pleasant experience — I attended my first face-to-face book club where the people discussed the book for real, Ian McEwan’s Amsterdam, such that I wanted to go back and reread because I realized as we talked the book had more depth and varied rich passages and characters than I had given it credit for (Booker Prize winner or no). It’s organized by the OLLI at Mason: serious fiction, with a moderator, all in circle on plain chairs. It’s a bit far for me: Reston, but then I learned how to get there now and it felt worth it. I am listening to a reading of Winston Graham’s sixth Poldark novel, The Four Swans, a fully mature stage within this continuing cycle of novels, about to be dramatized this coming June on the BBC (the third season, which will begin with fifth, The Black Moon). So however tiring, the time in the car is not wasted at all. I look forward to going again; the club meets from September to May. I’m getting better at finding places by car (with my trusty garmin and printed out maps).

I’ve also — unhappy this one — been again astonished by the irresponsibility of doctors at Kaiser when it comes to prescribing drugs (pills). A doctor knowingly prescribed a sleeping pill he must’ve know was addictive and then showed no concern if I was addicted to it. Paid no mind to this aspect of what happened at all. And in true Trump-style manifested a shameless disregard, denial, of obvious truth. After three years and some months of taking a mild depressant each night to help me sleep sufficiently to be able to drive and live my days, I discovered the pill a doctor prescribed is no longer working. I’ve become inured; to make me sleep, I have to take say two pills and they don’t always do the trick — or as much heavier, addictive pill, Restoril, becomes necessary. As my widowhood and the contour of a life that will be mine (with my disabilities over travel, circumstances, placement &c), on my own (as they say) — a long, long road stretching out before me, years I must walk through, I was understanding Julian Barnes’s word for his wife’s “disappearance” as a death-time, since he didn’t and couldn’t forget her, shaping this aftermath; then growing so tired of coping with all sorts of things, deep angst.

So I tell a little of this to the psychiatrist and his reaction: prescribe a pill (new drug!) said to make the patient sleep and provide release from anxiety, Remeron it’s called. He seemed to care that I have a bleeding problem at first; was going to send me to hematology but when he contacted them, he recontacted asking me about bleeding episodes “so so we are on the same page.” Then behaved as if I had had no hemorrhages in my life (when I’ve probably had 4-5). In effect he refused to question an old diagnosis from the oncology and hematology people at Kaiser that I have no hemorrhage problem after I have experienced 4, twice coming near death. That’s not his area. I took one Remeron Tuesday night and found myself in the grip of a trauma, a kind of intense trance where my feelings were no different but at a distance, my body feeling sickened. It was harrowing. I came near a car accident! Not until Thursday noon, did it wear off. I tell this to the psychiatrist and what does he say, Oh, we’ll try another anti-depressant in a couple of days when this wears off. This should be astonishing. Is it? Well, in a mood of self-preservation (what happens when I grow old, I must maintain independence as long as I can), I instead for the next three nights I went “cold turkey,” and took no pills. I felt better physically, more alert than I had in a long time. But I am not sleeping enough — 2-3 hours is not enough.


Vanessa Bell (18791961), gorgeous (just look at that hat) Lady with a Book — from later in her career

I simply returned to segmented sleep, which is my natural pattern, sleep four hours (if I’m lucky), up for a couple where I read in bed, and then hope for another hour or so, from new tiredness. I won’t take any more of these drugs. So a new pattern of daily life is emerging. I’m reading good books at night, and then again just after the second awakening. I might not make it to the gym the way I had been this past winter.

I need a good doctor. Responsible. Looking after my health as an individual.

Leave Kaiser? If I did, I could never go back as I was not the federal employee, it would cost me so much more (I am grandmothered into an earlier deal), and I know from experience when I find myself facing lists of doctors from say an insurance hand-out I don’t know who to go and end up with no one. More than half the time before the HMO I had bad encounters, and no regular doctor. And was fleeced, often disrespected. I remember years ago being charged $37 for five minutes of man’s time – he laughed at me when I said I was suffering from headache. The American health care system is indeed a joke, even when they are not outright fleecing and bankrupting you. I did frighten the present Kaiser psychiatrist by my email to him on the Kaiser site; he phoned me (!) and talked of how he was so concerned, how much thought he had put into this, did I want to come and “chat” (that’s his word for what passes for serious talk with him), and I heard him typing, taking down every word I said lest I sue. That’s why he cares about: his career. (Addiction doesn’t concern him at all. Like some dentists’ attitude towards teeth: the real ones are not as good as the pretty crowns.)

Outside Kaiser I am told this prescribe-drugs and send the patient to a social-worker therapist is the protocol. I did have a good psychiatrist when I went to the Haven for a few months after Jim died — pure luck. She did talk of my past and deeply and helped me see things I had not before. But I lost her when the DMV removed my “driving privileges” and harassed me for months over it (invisible computer monitoring is the way they use the cops to stop people from driving — in the state of Virginia there is a class action suit against the DMV for egregious use of this technique, among other things impoverishing people who can’t get to their jobs) and I couldn’t reach her any more. American institutions, American lack of public transportation. Deep culture here? from many practices followed, isolation structured in.


An interesting mid-20th century painter, John Piper who I read about recently in the LRB: Chicester Cathedral from the Deanery

Just one small life — insignificant against the unfolding of the Trump regime (stop gentle reader and watch this two-part Dutch documentary). Today I spent some 5 hours altogether at the OLLI at AU anniversary party/luncheon (they have been going for 35 years) where Diane Reims spoke. While she is a decent woman I can see, intelligent I did discover why I never listened much: too schmaltzy, too mainstream, and they applauded her for her sentiments a couple of times. What a group these people are. Many went to private colleges, even Ivy League and this in the 1950s, or early 60s. Many of them slightly older than me, most just luckier than me. Many came from genuinely middle class families which led to their careers. So many were lawyers — the men of course. All with grown children, two to four, grandchildren, traveling as a pair to them in say Switzerland or Florida. Though I know there are some single women there (divorced, widowed).

I sat with the good intelligent woman who was the teacher of the Woolf class I attended, who herself used to teach at University of Maryland. It was good talk — of the Brontes, the neglected Anne, the greatness of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Emily Bronte’s poetry, DuMaurier’s powerful Branwell Bronte (a biography) and Gaskell’s Life of Bronte. She and her husband used to go sailing down from Cape May to Bermuda (never did get caught by pirates); she described wonderful evenings after a day’s sail, friends where their crew. She travels regularly; rents apartments in Italy, there for art biennales (the Venice one), goes on hiking trips to Maine with him (at 80); he was a tenured professor of chemistry, Emeritus. I was again berating myself for when Jim suggested we learn to sail decades ago, somehow we never did it — he had found a flyer about lessons; maybe it was my fault; my nervousness; there was the problem of having a boat — we couldn’t afford to own one and Linda and her husband did own a boat.

Through it all I felt how lucky this woman has been. She attributed to her husband the sailing expeditions. He knew how. (Jim could have learned; it would have been good for him.) I was wishing too how I had bought some summer house when he suggested that — somehow we’d go out and look and not do it, not buy — they were another mortgage. He did love boats — or the idea of boats from his growing up in Southampton. I remember one year he said let’s go to this Renaissance conference in Italy and I demurred. Why? shy? in Florence it was. Had we done that would we have begun to go to Italy regularly? with what money? well, he was making enough to go to England and Landmark Trust houses. My fault he and I didn’t live the life we could have?

Others at this table and elsewhere were talking of their Road Scholar vacations and casual holiday in historical places, and I can’t do this — to go on a tour by myself I will have to get up immense courage, to the Lake District and just beyond, it’s 14 days and $5,000. The places to look at sound alluring. Do I want to go to this schedule, I’d have to buy some clothes, sit down with others to 3 meals a day and so on. Would I enjoy this? strangers. What would they be like? I’m told by people that you make acquaintances, even can get sort of close, but then the trip is over, the relationship ends.

But I long for a good life: it’s like I died just as I retired. Jim had been retired for 8 years or so and then I retired, but my life depended on his and his ways, so his dying within a year of my retiring is in effect the death of the life I would have had — it might not have been like these people probably, but in that direction. I had a sort of revulsion or came home from it exhausted. Nervous. I left a little early, had endured enough I felt — everyone talking of the courses we teach or take. Meaning well. It was relief to leave. I said to myself I am over 70 and I don’t want to be pressured — felt so just intensely reluctant at what profession I had had (the offer of that adjunct at the Georgetown place in an innovative BA program for older returning students, the first year I was widowed which I flubbed, couldn’t seem to cope with the dean). I’d have to learn Blackboard, or some other latest technology and cope seriously with students. Eagerness comes from youth, from hope. And my learning curves in tech are so deep.

What life would I gain this way? Tired after a lifetime of in my way trying hard, repeated perhaps making bad and wrong decisions but not because I didn’t care and didn’t mean to end up well — because at the time they were what seemed best, what I could do, what I was led to do, yes by Jim’s advice too; he would say why beat your head against a wall driving two hours to get to this job? I hoped I would somehow know some fulfillment and I did for a time, after I came onto the Net and for say 15 years. I did fear so, that he would die youngish, but turned away from the possibility this disaster would happen. Dreaded it too much. He did leave me solvent, in this comfortable house, with 10,000 books …. our lives history.

Julian Barnes’s phrase is deathtime — a person has a lifetime and then afterward a deathtime in the memory of the life left behind … and in the memory of others (in say books).


A dream picture: put on face-book for another FB friend, Harold Knight (1874-1961), Morning Sun

I finished Oliphant’s Kirsteen this week, in the end a flawed satisfying book, like others of hers (deserves a separate blog). I tell myself I’m still working towards a possible book on “The Anomaly,” and serious reading there has shown me there were very few women living alone until 1850 (in any kind of comfort or safety). Not possible. Not allowed an income to do it on, not allowed the security of knowing no one can break in. And I’m reading a delightful Portrait of Cornwall by Claude Berry. Wonderful black-and-white, grey, photos from all over Cornwall.

Teaching has come to an end for now. I did have a wonderful findal session with the class group at the OLLI at Mason over the profoundly moving Last Orders by Graham Swift. They loved it too. Since then I returned to Waterland, the book and film. Soon I’ll start preparing for this summer’s course: historical fiction, old fashioned first, DuMaurier’s King’s General, which I remember as so erotic, lyrical, so melancholy (the heroine crippled in a wheelchair), and then the post-colonial, post-modern, anti-foundational type, Sontag’s immensely brilliant The Volcano Lover. My review work includes Nick Holland’s In Search of Anne Bronte.


One of Laura’s four cats, either they cooperate more or she is better at capturing them in a photo ….

Since Nine O’Clock

Half past twelve. The time has passed quickly
since I first lit the lamp at nine o’clock,
and sat down here. I’ve sat without reading,
without speaking. With whom could I speak,
all alone in this house?

Since nine o’clock when I lit the lamp
a ghostly image of my adolescent body
came to me, reminding me
of closed and scented chambers,
and past pleasures – what brazen pleasures!
It brought before my eyes
streets now unrecognizable,
bars once filled with movement, now closed,
cafes and theatres that once existed.

The vision of my body in its youth
brought sorrowful memories also:
the grieving of my family, separations,
the feelings I had for my own kin, feelings
for the dead, whom I little acknowledged.

Half past twelve; how the time has passed.
Half past twelve; how the years have passed

— C. P. Cavafy — one of Jim’s favored poets — I have the book of his poetry in my house

Too late, too late, too late, turning to see too late.

Probably I ought to start signing Ellen

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This is the maple tree you see through the window in my new room of my own ….


Perennials in my front garden

Dear friends and readers,

Izzy and I passed a pleasant the spring Sunday holiday (call it Easter, say it’s still Passover, its beauty is the spring renewal) together and apart today. We went together to see a remarkable post-modern political film, Pablo Lorrain’s Neruda, one of whose main actors is a favorite with both of us. Naturalemente, a blog soon: every film I’ve seen with Gael Garnia Bernal I’ve blogged about. In the later afternoon I alternated from rereading Michael Ondaatje’s extraordinary The English Patient to Anthony Trollope’s Framley Parsonage, and she watches ice-skating and/or tennis, and blogs on Anibundel’s I should have been a blogger. She is now in a sense an equal blogger there. Two sisters together. Our garden is blooming with flowers. We had a good meal last night and this evening left-overs. She cooks, I wash up. Then I walk in the neighborhood, different blocks different nights.

My porch is now a small livable space, a very pretty room, light green walls, white trim, soft carpet (wall-to-wall, first time for me on this kind of thing, a sort of rusty color), and I’m beginning to move furniture into it. Its first small bookcase filled with CDs of books read aloud and DVDs of film adaptations, a cat bed (necessity) a fan on the floor, a ladder to reach high bookcase going to be put against one of the walls … I am not going to try to make it a conventional room for visitors to come, to please other people, but an extension of my study. It’s more living space, more breathing room, more light and air and access to the outside of the house. I’ll take down the shutters from two of the windows in the kitchen and on all four windows facing east have light weight pretty shades easy to pull up and down.

I am happy to be able to hope you have had a good day by sending along her latest song:

Here are the lyrics:

She says “wake up, it’s no use pretending”
I’ll keep stealing, breathing her.
Birds are leaving over autumn’s ending
One of us will die inside these arms
Eyes wide open, naked as we came
One will spread our ashes ’round the yard

She says “If I leave before you, darling
Don’t you waste me in the ground”
I lay smiling like our sleeping children
One of us will die inside these arms
Eyes wide open, naked as we came
One will spread our ashes round the yard

She is playing on her Yamaha PSR-185, Voice Setting #51.

I’m still reading a book which upsets me some: Abigail Tucker’s The Lion in the Living Room. I believe it’s a stealth attack on cats as ruining our environment. Rather like Kate Chisholm’s Hunger Games was a ferocious attack on anorexics; except Tucker pretends to be a cat lover. It insists my sense of my cats as loving me and part of a relationship is a delusion. I know how Jane Goodall would reply, and have to find another book to refute Tucker. It hurts me to be told my cat is not attached to me, not happy, but just wants sex and hunting. Not so. Clarycat grieved over Jim’s death, truly grieved. I saw it. And nowadays Ian Pussycat is my friend-cat-companion too.

Miss Drake

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treeputout
January 2nd, 2017

… as to be hurt is petty, and to be hard
Stupidity; as the economists raise
Bafflement to a boast …
… the flat patience of England is a gaze
Over the drop …
There is not much else that we can praise.
— Wm Empson, from Courage Means Running (not!)

Dear friends and readers,

Given that I live in a country where those who have the power to stop this a fascist regime from taking over its central gov’t, at its headed a narcissistic sociopathic man whose public positions veer like some weathercock, it’s hard to look forward to kind any of certainty in the future, much less count on or plan for a good one. I’ve spent the time since I last wrote a diary entry (nearly two weeks ago) in the usual ways of reading, writing, watching movies at home, punctuated by going to the gym, or shopping, two times out to lunch, once with a real friend. It’s been cold, rained, snowed.

(i)
As ghosts obscurely trail the past
She is posthumous
She haunts the future.

(ii)
Late in the night
The lit house she comes back to
Is empty, echoing
— “Widow,” Barbara Everett

What can I share? It’s that time that people assess where they’re at, and so here are a few areas of my continuing life I’ve thought about a bit.

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blogging-cat
A blogging cat …

Blogging itself.

The nature of blogging has changed over the 15 years or so since I began blogging and what’s called the blogosphere emerged. I find I blog less because more is expected: blogs like mine (literary, semi-political, life-writing) could be seen as a form of privately-run mostly unpaid journalism, especially if you write about books where your reader is probably literate and wants good information and insight. I try for four a week (one on each of my four blogs), and know I invent projects (women artists is my latest series)-— the way other bloggers join in web-ring marathons: a group of people who’ve met somehow or other all read but more importantly write about a specific author or books published in a specific year around a certain date; or they agree to blog about this kind of movie or by this director in for a given month. Then they comment on another’s blogs, link into one another’s blogs. These are planned and controlled performances where a social world you belong to is presented.

I’m not bored with what I do. I pick projects that I love to develop: read about, write about as I learn what I’m thinking, enrich my experience by writing, it’s almost as if I didn’t have the experience or make it real to myself unless I write. But it’s hard to balance this with say my teaching, or doing papers for conferences, or going out to do something. There is a conflict: I would read more if I wrote less, watch another movie. I find I also respond to the audience: so if a particular topic gets more clicks I develop it more: so for example, my Poldark blogs are responsible on some days for as much as 3000 clicks (hits!) — though I don’t read the books or watch the two mini-series to get an audience. I love them: last night I was much moved by the death of one of the heroes in Warleggan and its presentation in the new Poldark as well as Debbie Horsfield’s script.

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herbertshrew-jph
Susan Herbert’s Taming of the Shrew — the key to all of these is they re-contextualize by replacing people with cats, and are done with a slightly parodic feel

Teaching and offering readings of books and films

Since we already are suffering from a surfeit of false news-stories and popular entertainment which is becoming more frankly racist, sexist, intolerant pro-violence every day another topic to think about at this point for me is teaching. I choose to carry on teaching, if not quite for free, for very small sums. In a way writing blogs on books and films and the kinds of topics I chose (or postings to listservs and face-book) are forms of teaching, sharing insights and knowledge. I teach to get out and write to be part of a social world, but if I didn’t think these activities valuable in some way or other I would stop.

What should one do in such eras as a teacher? or writer? I re-watched John Berger’s famous four-part 1970s mini-series Ways of Seeing (he died recently) the other night and remind us all of what he said. (You can find and watch all four on YouTube.) I found I had forgotten or never realized some aspects of it.

I did not realize how quietly feminist it was. I say quietly because at no point is Berger overt about feminism, never goes near any of the terms associated. The first half hour seems t be the most famous: like people starting a book. Here he argues how the context of a work enforces how we see it, how hard it is to ignore this: it’s not just an imaginative understanding of the time of the work (he hardly goes into this) but how the era the person lives in, where they see it, how it is framed there (as a precious object in a museum), where it’s discussed, if reproduced what surrounds the image in the book. He has a funny imitation of the usual hushed tones within which the pictures are discussed. They are fetishes because sold for such huge sums. This contextualization and re-contextualization is so important that one must stop and consider it a bit.

Berger teaches us why a text that in itself is an enlightened and good one (teaching say good values or meaning) can in a different context, different era, different audience, have a pernicious effect. That’s what happened to the class I tried to teach Huckleberry Finn to. No matter what I said, the way they saw it was racist: several of the whites triumphing, the black kids feeling pain and (the one who gave a talk) anguish.

Trump is said to have read All Quiet on the Western Front (he seems to be a functional illiterate). I went back to it: it is characterized by very easy language, simple sentences, a very easy reading book, one you could give to junior high school students (12 and up). I remember teaching it — like HF fruitlessly to even most in a sophomore level general education literature class, though not with the same evil effect. When we came to the end of AQWF, a number of the students raised their hands (a number) and said how disappointed, dismayed, angered (!) they felt at the hero dying — I added so meaninglessly, hopelessly. Today I’ll add the same is true of the death of Francis Poldark in Graham’s Warleggan which I watched last night. I tried to tell them the book is anti-war, anti-heroism, that it fits the meaning; if I wrote that in huge letters and talked with examples till i was blue in the face it would not matter. Many in the class had actually read it; it was seen as a man’s book. But they had read the book in the context of 2006, many of them having fought or having relatives who fought in of our colonialist wars in Iraq or Afghanistan. It must be for them something
that was pro-war and pro-fighting people. They were able to read it literally but not able to understand what was meant in 1929.

What they objected to (even vociferously was not having an ending where the hero was rewarded. Again it was useless to argue a book can have ambiguous endings. I have been told most in American audiences do not accept ambiguous endings and British movies are changed to have them or the larger numbers in US audiences object, won’t go. I remembered how Hitler hated the book, burned it, and to take revenge on the author had his sister beheaded (literally did this).

As I stopped teaching ghost stories after I realized so many in the class believed in ghosts and I was reinforcing atavistic ideas, never assigned HF again, so after that I knew it was useless to assign All Quiet on the Western Front to class of American college students of average intelligence. I brought up Graham because I discovered that for reasons I don’t quite understand they did respond in the way intended to Ross Poldark (the novel); hence I assigned it again and again. Also Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons. Why they understood this one or were capable of understanding (empathizing with) Bolt’s play as intended by the author I never figured out.

Re-contextualization is inescapable Berger says. Learned books surround pictures with abstract discussions that deflect the reader’s attention from the content of the pictures and what the viewer might intuitively see accurately if left out unintimidated. Berger says it is also the whole context in which the work of art is experienced, the photograph, the sounds. Many people don’t read literary criticism because it asserts things about texts they can’t see themselves and in classrooms there are students who don’t believe or don’t like when teachers present readings of books — it’s elitist. They can’t see what you are saying or react negatively from their culture.

I know my attitude is not common in the academy. I have no faith I’ve made any difference whatsoever (like Leonard Woolf) and when I see a person in pain in classroom (as in the HF experience) I know in my gut I’ve done wrong to that person. I can see that. As in the movie adapted from LeCarre’s The Constant Gardener, the heroine (tortured, raped, murdered for her pains) says we can do good for that one person if we act like our brother’s keeper and the hell with the law so I can refrain from doing harm. Maybe there were people in the classroom who learned from reading AQWF but no one said. It was me talking and I won’t do it again. It was feeding the beast. One can find books where there is no harm done and something good in it. I mentioned two, another was Jane Goodall’s books on chimps.

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Edouard Manet, Dejeuner sur l’herbe

For the second segment Berger demonstrates and reiterates over and over how women are made to see themselves first and foremost as they assume (from this culture) how others see them which turns out to mean how men see them, and then a particular man. Their destiny is defined by how they look. The woman before the mirror is the truest way women see themselves. He shows so many pictures of women, how they do dominate advertising, how attention-grabbing they are made. Men he says are not self-conscious about their looks in the same way at all: they see themselves more generally in society as free agents. Naked women; he goes over Kenneth Clarke’s famous book filled with beautiful reproductions of naked women in European art where he said he was looking at nudes, not naked woman. The difference seems to be these are fine art, not coarse salacious calendars and presented as goddesses or Biblical figures in Bibles or high culture stories.

After this second half hour the third and fourth can be seen to have these images of women throughout, which I would not usually notice. He has made the point and now it lingers. And endlessly for four half hours the The pictures of women with unreal bodies (only gotten for a few short years after dieting, exercise, efforts of all sorts) to resemble a white European norm of sexual objectification (recently intense thinness is associated with youth) or nurturing women for strong agressive men.

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Herbert’s Lady Anne (seduced, enthralled, abused, murdered by Richard III)

The third and fourth had a series of themes: how pictures are still and silent. He reads aloud typical academic style literary criticism which ignores the relationship of the author’s life at the time to the picture, and is general and abstract and often erases what people are seeing in the content. He has a group of youngsters and then women simply give their uneducated responses – in one we are show the famous Manet where men fully dressed sit on a blanket with a naked woman (Lunch on the Grass). One woman frankly says how she hates the Manet. It’s mortifying. This lead to the most refreshing discussion of his famous cool portrait of Olympia (a prostitute) I’ve ever heard. The last ten minutes allow us to see (or he interprets for us — for he’s not neutral nor can anyone be) how painting and today most photography are about presenting wealth, most often people but sometimes landscapes and rooms and the point is see all the objects this person has and what they mean symbolically about the person’s prestige, the room and landscape as a symbol of wealth, power, control.

The last segment ends on advertising and shows modern ads all around us are utterly ideological, teaching us that we will be happy if we have all these wonderful things. The thing sold often has nothing to do with the image attached to it for real.

Nowadays when I go to museums I am so alive to the third perspective — all this is the patron showing off — I am sickened and need to go to rooms of paintings of landscapes or mythical figures or simply pictures which don’t do this, but I equally find deeply distasteful deliberate ugliness, over the top preaching (so that I need to read the card next to the object to understand why it’s there), grotesqueries. If our large and sometimes local social political and economic world is vile, and so the psychological one underneath this, presenting vileness doesn’t help. This does come out in the fourth half hour of series where he juxtaposes photographs of the powerful, of displays of luxurious food,dresses and so on with photographs of refugees and the poor, miserable, and imprisoned and tortured. These latter are not vile and grotesque; they are simply photographs.

What Berger does enable, encourage me to do (paradoxically) is carry on. His idea is to encourage people on their own to discover what they think and feel by becoming aware of how they are manipulated. The idea is to help them free themselves to feel and think. To show also how to go about conventional close reading. The task though thorny and often vexed can do a little good if genuinely throughout with the underlying notion of do no harm. So my last are trying to enact something of what Berger encourages.

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Two films: the HD Screening of Nabucco and Kenneth Branagh’s 1993 Much Ado About Nothing (on DVD)

Izzy and I went on that Saturday (January 7th) and left at the first intermission. I don’t say it wasn’t interesting — the opera is one of these museum pieces, and I felt watching it, How different from most previous operas, the music was different, and whole sense of some natonalistic seriousness. We probably listened to one of the best or famous arias. A soprano (Liudmyla Monastyrska) who has sung Santuzza (Cavaliera Rusticana) was Abigaile (she thought herself Nabucco’s daughter but has learned she is a slave) was powerful: seething, angry, and singing away. There was a man who was priest of some sort, Ismaele (Russell Thomas) with an aria like the one in Magic Flute — base voice. Very Verdi though. I noticed the parallel with Mozart’s Magic Flute: the women aria singers are all seething, spiteful, erotic, powerful; the men singing low base music, also powerful aria singers are singing of reason, enlightenment, and are commendable. The gender faultline never ceases.

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I couldn’t stand the story matter: wikipedia quoted some contemporary critics who were candid enough to express loathing of its material: rage, bloodshed, murder. If in modern context (a la John Berger) it could be seen or felt as pro-Israel, all it did was make me remember a video online I saw briefly of a Palestinian man lying on the ground and then a Israeli officer comes over and shoots him point-blank in the head; a towel is fetched to cover the eye-sore, and when the officer is not indicted even a judge protests some Trump-tweeter in training tweets how the judge should be cut up into pieces and fed to dogs. There are Bible stories where this happens. Izzy said it was Christian opera because we are to rejoice at conversions. The set an imitation of the barbaric — and seemed thus to connect to our present political era.

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Domingo sang the part of the aging Nabucco who has declared himself a God and is a murderous tyrant. He is now too old; his voice didn’t carry; he just doesn’t have the strength. I felt sad to remember another video (a feature in one of these HD operas where a young “Jimmy” Levine playing a piano and a young Placido singing next to him. Now we saw Levine already set up in that chair of his looking so weak. But I often do think such operas are better in concert form.

I felt sorry for Eric Owens who was host and trying so hard to be unnaturally ebullient and just going on about how ecstatic he found the whole thing; I know he’s paid very well so I must not be embarrassed for him. He repeated what one scholar has said is not true: that the audience was so deeply moved by an aria about freeing Israelis as a metaphor for themselves (“Va pensiero”), according to this scholar, it was another aria altogether, a hymn thanking God (for what I don’t know) TMI

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Susan Herbert’s Shakespearean Cats — this is too charming not to offer an enlargement

I had brought in the New Year in typical evening fashion. A kind friend had sent me a DVD of the Kenneth Branagh film of Much Ado About Nothing. As a film or interpretation of the play it didn’t work: he did all he could to eliminate the Hero-Claudio plot, downplay it, and what we were left with was a brilliant performance by him and especially good Emma Thompson of Beatrice and Benedict but it was not rooted in anything, they were deeply emotional in fact, more than these characters usually are. But all around all the actors were grinning for nearly 20 hours, hectic dances, silly pictures of Italian rural life as a happy place. Early on it seems Branagh liked to have a whole concept within which he would pour Shakespeare …

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

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My daughter, Isobel, with whom I am fortunate to live

The TLS carries on

I sometimes think that if I had to give up all my subscriptions and just keep one, it would be the Times Literary Supplement. When Murdock first took over, it took a bad dive: became 1/4 its size, the reviews began to be so reactionary that you could no longer trust the information. About three years ago, it changed back: never as long, but the reviews suddenly improved, went back to the previous mostly disinterested or at least seeming neutral point of view (literary) that had dominated. Recently the editor has begun to include more political reviews (with the excuse books on politics) but by no means do they overwhelm the issues. It’s not as good as being in London, but I do learn what has been on in all sorts of venues with a review that gives me a real sense of it. Where else can you learn the latest in academic politics about classics? Their bloggers are very good (include Mary Beard).

Last month they had a fine review of poetry published in pamphlets and by small presses: “Safe from Devaluation” by Paul Batchelor, two pages of four columns each: 12 books covered and much apt quotation. That was followed up by a “Seven Poems” by Barbara Everett. I know I must not quote the whole set but only a selection in good critic’s fashion. She was capturing the experiences of a day: who the poet might see (“Workmen”), what she might experience (“Storm”), a dog and his or her owner hard-put but happy because together). Here are three (the fourth is my preface): the first a tragic story, austerely told; the second reminds me of how I am now so close to my cats, we are one another’s company on and off all day, in communication, the boy daring now, he persists in keeping both Izzy and my doors open; the last how I feel when I come out in the morning to pick up my copy of the Washington Post:

Partners

Seeking answers, she
Plunged, and finding the water
Lethally cold, drowned.

Wiser, luckier,
He skated on thin ice, always
Upright, in motion

Alzheimer’s

(i)
He walked the streets by
Night, and when retrieved, asked the
Way back to Warsaw

(ii)
The loved dog saw no
Difference, or at least chose
Not to speak of it.

Snails

The world was sometimes
So empty the slow grace of
Snails stealing breadcrumbs

From the paving-stones
Outside in early morning
Was almost welcome

To conclude:

I have decided to hold off on enclosing my porch. Given the attitude of those in power to federal workers (Izzy’s job), to people on social security and medicare (me), the looting of the US treasury for corporations that is about to begin (justified as giving them tax breaks to hire people with no guarantee they will), it’s foolhardy. I have longed to do this for years. The porch floor is cement; it becomes filthy easily; the screens have again torn. Had Jim lived, even with my mother’s money, he might have said this is unnecessary: you don’t need the extra space for living. I know if I sold the house it would still be a “tear-down,” so I’d gain nothing there. I guess this was not in the card for the likes of me. I will still pay to have my fuse or “switch” box replaced later this spring as it is so old. I have been embarrassed for twenty years now about the blueness of my house. So I may yet pay to have it painted a decently unobtrusive cream color, but next year, and then I’ll put out for the first time a little sign with the house’s address (from Home Depot or some such place).

I am beginning to teach myself to accept my mostly solitary life. Sometimes I am quite cheerful. Almost at peace. Because of my real long-standing friends here, my cats, my reading presences, the Internet, my movies it doesn’t feel so solitary. Better than seeking elsewhere for what is not going to be there. I am trying harder to go to better plays, concerts, movies I might really enjoy, and if there is nothing out there I’m sure of, stay in.

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New Year’s Eve night this year — looking out my window

Miss Drake

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Susan Herbert for Anne Boleyn (her Shakespeare’s Cat)

Friends, readers,

It’s common to list the ten best new-to-me books one read this year as the year ends; my problems with this are

I often cannot remember what I read specifically this year, so at first I included Jenny Diski’s Apology for the Woman Writing (a historical novel centering on Marie le Jars de Gournay, her maid and Montaigne); Hillary Mantel’s Wolf Hall (a revelation of sorts);and Linda Porter’s Katherine the Queen [Katherine Parr, Henry VIII’s sixth wife], but they were what I remembered best from last year. Paula Byrne’s A Life in Small Things [Jane Austen] was the book I most remembered from the year before (no new good books on Austen, though some superb individual essays on Austen films): I so love Austen and she shed genuine new insight into Austen and her texts, taught me new relevant contexts, evidentially sound facts about Austen (though she’s wrong on her new portrait, it’s the only book on Austen’s texts to do this written in the last couple of years).

I reread a lot and in rereading I find new things, re-discover old in a new way — as I just did in Oliphant’s ghost story, “The Library Window;” and

It’s hard to choose and impossible to list in any meaningful order

Books are so different; genres, functions matter.

Nonetheless, to join in and look back on what I took real pleasure in: which books taught me, absorbed me deeply, I felt sorry when I came to the end, enjoyed so much. That’s a lot to ask, so let’s say did some of the above. In the order I remember them (which must say something)

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Herbert’s Russian Blues (Movie Cats)

My very favorites:

1) Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace (mostly Maude’s translation; spent best part of year if I include listening to David Case’s reading of Constance Garnett’s text, deeply satisfying text)
2) Susan Sontag’s Volcano Lover (most brilliant and relevant for politics today book of the year for me)
3) Anne Boyd Rioux’s Constance Fenimore Woolson: Portrait of a Lady Novelist (you are missing out on a great American later 19th century writer if you’ve not read any of her books)
4) Judith Cook, Melissa Hardie, and Christiana Payne’s Singing from the Walls: The Life and Art of Elizabeth [Armstrong] Forbes (moving, beautiful pictures)
5) Daphne DuMaurier’s Vanishing Cornwall: The Spirit and History of Cornwall (uplifted and told truths)
6) Charlotte Smith’s Collected Letters (about courageous abused woman alone)
7) Hermione Lee’s Virginia Woolf (for the first time, close to Woolf)
8) Angela Rosenthal’s Angelica Kauffmann: Art and Sensibility (on women’s art)
9) Jane Jill’s The Art of Carrington (revelation)
10) Miranda Seymour’s Mary Shelley (about 3/4s of Shelley’s life I hadn’t known and her other great writings)

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Herbert’s Adelaide Labille-Guiard with her pupils (a painting cat, imitating Labille-Guiard’s picture)

Runners-up or a not-quite my very favorites:

1) Diane Reynolds’s The Doubled Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (I won’t forget her portrait of Nazi Germany)
2) Carla Sassi’s Why Scottish Literature Matters (insights into how literature works, into an unusual colonialized people)
3) Virginia Woolf’s Memoirs of a Novelist (three brilliant novellas, historical fiction one of them: “The Journal of Mistress Joan Martyn;” the extraordinary feminist “Mysterious Case of of Miss V” (a woman alone, how thwarted, how silenced)
4) Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Bookshop (unforgettable, a middle class kind of Cathy Come Home)
5) Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge (taught me the mini-series distorted this deeply compassionate book about a wise woman not well understood)
6) Adhaf Soueif’s Map of Love (deeply Middle Eastern historical novel as Neo-Victorian epistolary narrative)
7) Charlotte Smith’s Marchmont (for its depictions of life in a debtor’s prison)
8) Carol A Martin’s George Eliot’s Serial Fiction (for reading Eliot)
9) Margaret Oliphant’s The Ladies Lindores, together with Lady Car (a continuation) (so rich and painfully insightful)
10) Elena Ferrante’s The Lost Daughter (I’m just now reading Frantumaglia: mothers-and-daughters her true theme)

Best new-to-me greats plays I read (and saw) — texts becoming plays and/or movies:

John McGrath’s The Cheviot, The Stag and the Black Black Oil (Scotland’s history, a masterpiece of song and words)
1979 Danger UXB (everyone should watch this profound anti-war mini-series once a year)
Debbie Horsfield’s Poldark Scripts for Seasons 1 and 2 (bit of a disappointment because no indications of camera work or thinking behind choices & themselves could have been better but drew enormous strength from where faithful to Graham’s historical fiction)

My favorite long poem reread this year: Charlotte Smith’s Beachy Head
My favorite (new) movie (not a mini-series): 45 Years
My favorite mini-series: 1972 Jack Pulman’s War and Peace (one of the best of the 1970s BBC and that’s saying something)
Undefinable: both series of the BBC The Hollow Crown (Shakespeare’s history plays, Wars of Roses and Henriade)

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Susan Herbert’s drawing for Duchess of York (Shakespeare’s Cats)

Old books made new, seen in some new way:

1) Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones
2) Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse

I did not like yet read to the end (worth citing because they are strong, possibly widely-read and/or reviewed texts as what is bad in them is importantly bad):

1) Henry James’s Aspern Papers and The Other House (I detested the cruel spiteful Greville Fane) (perverse in who he critizes and accepting evil)
2) Patti Smith’s M Train (she’s posing as a man, seems hardly to have heard of any woman writers or musicians)
3) Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander (pernicious in several crucial ways, pro-violence, and against women, seriously anti-LBGT, yet as women’s historical romance and about Scotland in others it sent my spirit soaring; the mini-series, especially from its adapted scripts & acting much better)

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Jacobite cats (Herbert, from Millais’s “Proscribed Royalists”)

I asked Izzy if she could name some new great best books for her this year, and she cited two I know she read and re-read slowly:

1) Lin-Manuel Miranda and Jeremy Caste: Hamilton: The Revolution [stageplay, music book)
2) Mary Beard’s SPQR: The Senate and People of Rome

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Herbert’s “Ice-Skating” (from Victorian Cats) — Izzy read and wrote a lot (professionally too now) about ice-skating

I promise you I omitted some: many good ones were rereads e.g., first five Barsetshire books by Trollope, read and taught; Rachel Ray; Shelley’s Frankenstein, read astonishingly eye-openly aloud by Gildert Jackson (and taught); several I didn’t finish but recognize I should have e.g., Adhaf Soueif’s very great In the Eye of the Sun; Norma Clarke’s Ambitious Heights on 19th century women of letters, especially on Jewsbury Sisters, Jane Carlyle; some I reviewed and wrote about for conventional journals and/or blogs (Martha Bowden’s Descendants of Waverley), a few more novels, literary critical books, film studies, biography, autobiography …

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Susan Herbert’s “Train Riding” (Victorian Cats)

Miss Drake

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Santa into the woods

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Beatrix Potter, Christmas Pudding

Dear friends and readers,

I have felt that I and all the people around me are living in some unreality, something I used to read about as occurring elsewhere, or in time past. A fascist gov’t takes power, a party brazenly determined to destroy democracy since their leaders and followers are a minority, where seemingly quite inexplicably (it’s not really) even a majority of the people living within the land mass where this gov’t will have a monopoly on legal violence and control of laws, courts, prisons, are against all that is happening. Yet the process continues to occur since there is no political will among those with some power to stop it so that soon the worst and corrupt decisions are about to be enforced. But we are all not in a novel about horrifying perniciousness though, since one need only take a train to Trump Tower on Fifth Avenue to see the circus and military-armed police there (forget Guy Fawkes). I probably assumed without admitting this to myself that it could not happen where I live. Encompassed. This is more than a winter solstice. More than a matter of short days and cold winds. I thought of a line from the author of Game of Thrones: Winter is coming.

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From the Disney movie we saw a couple of years ago on Christmas Day: Emily Blunt as the Baker’s Wife

Within this soon-to-be directly dislocated, yet more war-threatened (with a nuclear arms race according to a man who performs to his public through tweets) beleaguered world, Izzy and I managed a few cheerful rituals. Life goes on. She and I and Laura went to the Kennedy Center on the afternoon of Christmas Ever and enjoyed a performance of Sondheim’s Into the Woods, which seemed to have mostly understudies that afternoon. Izzy pointed that out saying we had a diverse cast. Then out to a restaurant where we had the yummiest Chinese food I’ve had and seen in a long time. As I’ve done before I began to cry

Sometimes people leave you
Halfway through the wood.
Do not let it grieve you,
No one leaves for good.
You are not alone.
No one is alone …

Careful the things you say
Children will listen.
Careful the things you do,
Children will see
And learn …

Careful the spell you cast …

Though it’s fearful
Though it’s deep, though it’s dark
and though you may lose the path,
Though you encounter wolves,
You can’t just act,
You have to listen …

Into the woods but not too fast,
Or what you wish you lose at last,
Into the woods but mind the path

The way is dark
The way is dim ….

The truth is I miss Jim more than ever. Now that this horror of a gov’t is taking charge and will do cruel acts across the world and inside the US (privatize and thus destroy social security, abolish medicare by whatever means they can, cut the federal govt where what jobs are good are), and their bully leader floods the media with poisonous, menacing lying tweets, I feel more alone and vulnerable. Into the fourth year without his loving companionship and the perpetual satisfaction with living he created. I have no substitute for him. Can find none. Books, good movies, my daughters, friends help to sustain.

The night before I had gotten through by watching once again (a yearly ritual for me) the exquisitely melancholy-comic Huston film adaptation of James Joyce’s The Dead. I’ve watched it now for a few years. I enjoy the party and love the ending peroration by Donal McCann:

A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.

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Closing images of Irish landscape under snow

And that evening Whit Stillman’s Metropolitan, an appropriation of Mansfield Park set during Christmas week, with very realistic NYC Christmas time scenes — ones I recognize, bringing in Christmas by watching a film of a fake yule log burning in a fake hearth. It reached only innocence soiled: Audrey goes shopping blithely enough:

audreyshopping

I was going to try for a third movie, Love Actually, but decided perhaps this year its fierce resistance to anguish, even accompanied by the brilliantly satiric Bill Nighy’s Christmas is All Around Us would no longer work. That is not what is all around us. Christmas day we didn’t do too well, but our Boxing Day sojourn at the National Gallery brought us into two good exhibits, one of drawings made by Dutch Renaissance painters for some good pictures,

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The painters did not paint while outside, but drew what they saw and brought in the drawings and proceeded

and another of photography (a few good pieces, the early ones by Cindy Sherman, one from a series on artists who restore pictures, but many pretentious as if seeking to make up for their show-offy “low” content), lunch out.

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What women made to look like in the 1950s

I thought of Jane Austen’s quip about a couple of days she passed in travel: “we were very little crowded and by no means unhappy.” Especially over our bowls of spaghetti at home on December 26th.

I managed to clear a space between our Christmas tree (sitting on its piece of furniture under a window) and said window so that the cats can look out the window again, and so they can be comfortable … staring out once again at the clear mild winter day scene …

We’ve decided for New Year’s Eve we’ll stay in once again.

Today I was deeply stirred by the close of what I now think a very great historical novel, Susan Sontag’s Volcano Lover: soliloquy diaries by three women: Catherine Barlow Hamilton (Sir William Hamilton’s wife, a man who wanted to be remembered for his collection and as having loved volcanoes though what he is remembered for is having married) Emma Hart, Lady Hamilton, her mother, Mrs Cardogan, and stunningly Eleanora de Fonseca Pimentel:

I feared I never would understand what would allow me to protect myself … I would lie to myself about how complicated it was to be a woman. Thus do all women, including the author of this book. But I cannot forgive those who did not care about more than their glory or well-being [modernized: their place in the organization]. They thought they were civilized. They were despicable. Damn them all.

I now see that showing a character after death as talking to us from the perspective of what happened later is a brilliant stroke. I’m seeing some of the fantasy conventions permit needed instruments for creating truths.

Fonseca Pimentel was a remarkable journalist, poet, radical, senselessly murdered, a historical novel about whom I will read next: Enzo Striano, Il resto di niente. Storia di Eleonora de Fonseca Pimentel e della rivoluzione napoletana del 1799, Napoli, Avagliano 1999; Milano, Rizzoli 2001 (available on Amazon for $4.91). I had only heard of her vaguely before: the novel almost exists to tell her story finally. Nell and her 20th century author (in the novel too) require a separate blog as did my watching of the BBC The Hollow Crown; this week too. All so newly relevant.

My plan for New Year’s Eve: read Jonathan Bate’s book on Shakespeare, Soul of the Age, dip into two I’ve been meaning to look at: Lynch’s Becoming Shakespeare and Rosenbaum’s The Shakespeare Wars, Randall Jarrel’s poetry, then a favorite mini-series. Or shall I subside into a favorite Jane Austen movie? or continue with the new Poldark?

We (two of us on Wwtta) carry on reading Hermione Lee’s astonishingly deep biography of Virginia Woolf which has enabled me to come closer to her than ever I did, and over on Trollope19thCStudies a few of us Christmas stories, tonight for me the excitingly visionary ghost story, “Library Window” by Margaret Oliphant: I entered utterly into her dream of a young girl writer who sees across the street in a window a vision of the inexorable demands, price, and rewards of writing, reading, as a way of sustaining oneself hour-by-hour.

It’s a nightmare story about being a writer; about what one has to give up to become a writer, and also what one has to let into one’s soul and allow that perception of reality (however much it’s trauma, however much it takes such hard work) to sink in; one must loose one’s moorings from the social world around and pick up the currents of inward life. Since it is one of Oliphant’s last stories it is her looking back from the perspective of what she was when she set out. There is a luminousness about the tone too. I felt deeply stirred by how she experienced the depths of imaginative reverie as shown in the story. There’s an allusion to Scott which suggests she did see herself as following him finally, not Trollope; the story is set on a street in St Andrews she visited many times when young.

On face-book Christmas day some of the facades were cracking, but not enough to register; a mother and daughter who loved one another dearly have died and twitter shows the grief some feel at the loss of Carrie Fisher, from a massive heart attack at age 60, a remarkably candid writer and iconic actress (Princess Leia, Star Wars) whose memoir, Postcards from the Edge, suggests a Dorothy Parker manque following Carolyn Heilbrun’s prescription to tell. I did not realize her mother, Debbie Reynolds, had phases of her career where she acquitted herself beautifully in serious plays and movies; I wouldn’t discount the brilliance of her performance in the the great “Singin’ in the Rain.” She was living next door to her daughter, outlived her but two days — the blow brought on a stroke.

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My daughters seem to feel about Carrie Fisher’s death the way I felt about Jenny Diski’s death from cancer this year. I am so touched over how the mother died of a broken heart, her grief was too much for her heart to sustain.

And on Wom-po, a poem by Dunya Mikhail as translated by Elizabeth Winslow, about how she turned around to discover she had lost the country she thought she had been living in, which I’ll quote these lines from:

Please, if anyone passes by
and stumbles across it,
perhaps in a suitcase
open to the sky,
or engraved on a rock
like a gaping wound,
or wrapped
in the blankets of emigrants,
or canceled
like a losing lottery ticket …

please to let her know, where, how it has gone, how find it again, who will return it.

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This week’s massacre: Aleppo

Miss Drake

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“The calm and polite unconcern [cold indifference] of Lady Middleton on the occasion [of Marianne Dashwood’s breakdown because of the public betrayal of her by Willoughby] was an happy relief to Elinor’s spirits, oppressed as they often were by the clamorous kindness of the others. It was a great comfort to her to be sure of exciting no interest in one person at least among their circle of friends; a great comfort to know that there was one who would meet her without feeling any curiosity after particulars, or any anxiety for her sister’s health. Every qualification is raised at times, by the circumstances of the moment, to more than its real value; and she was sometimes worried down by officious condolence to rate good-breeding as more indispensable to comfort than good-nature — Austen, Sense and Sensibility.”

Dear friends and readers,

All depends on your point of view. While for Izzy and me, graduating from last year’s indoor tiny tree to this year’s small tree was an expansion of cheer, for our pussycats it means they just cannot see out of the window over the credenza.

Shall I tell you how I acquired that credenza. Laura and I used to drive to a local Salvation Army center and buy used clothes, toys. This was when Izzy was around 2 and in a daycare school for a few hours each day. One day we saw this lovely cream-colored credenza and I know I needed some sort of furniture in the dining room besides the wooden dining table. It was $10. Cash down. Laura and I lifted it together, carried it along the pathway and somehow jammed it into my car, and I drove us home. It has sat under the window since then.

My cats have shown exemplary patience though.

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Clarycat in the afternoon

They are old enough to know we don’t want that tree to come down, and so they sniff hesitantly around it seeking to find if there’s a place they can sit right next to the window. I have thwarted them some more by putting a small stack of book on one side, and a glass decanter of wine on the other so there is no hope to get round — if there was they’d have long ago knocked the whole thing over. But as it is, we’ve lost but one hanging gold bell thus far. And it didn’t break when it hit the floor.

For the first time ever — since 2005 when my then next-door neighbor (she’s moved away since) bought for me a plastic Penguin dressed absurdly as a small child gussied up for winter to go sledding, whom if you plug him in, glitters away — for the first time I say Colin is illumed:

colin

I had no electrical outlet until last year when my now across-the-street neighbor helped me buy a long outdoor chord, and the year the previous neighbor who bought Colin as a gift came over the next morning to warn me not to put him out. It seems her partner had put up a splendiferous sleigh with reindeer, plugged it in, and went inside. The next morning, it was gone. Stolen. An inside job – within the neighborhood. He was shocked. Now he had to think badly of some neighbor, who couldn’t put the thing out on his or her lawn. Perhaps they gave it away as a gift or sold it. I worried about Colin, had an irrational affection for the piece, so kept him inside the house.

He’s still inside, inside the outside screened porch whose door is not easy to open (so safe I hope), and that seems to be enough. He looks like he’s waving to passers-by, so eagerly out there, all alone — I used to dream him the son never had, now I know he’s me …

Izzy and I did go to see an enjoyable Second Shepherd’s Play this past Sunday, and for the afternoon of Christmas Eve will go to the Kennedy Center for Sondheim’s Into the Woods. But other than that, it’s reading, listening to a book read aloud, movie-watching, time with pussycats — and of course writing.

A few nutshells:

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View of Eruption of Vesuvius on a Sunday night, 9 August 1799 by Pietro Fabris

Susan Sontag’s Volcano Lover for a book I’m reviewing on historical fiction; truly engaging, even possibly great. Soon Colin Simpson’s superb life of Emma, Lady Hamilton, one of the characters. In the book this inscription: “Being a Christmas Gift from Jim, 1992.” This inscription and the characters the book presents led me to three volumes Jim loved and would read in again and again: the journals and memoirs of Charles Greville, an MP, courtier, and brilliant raconteur of the 1790s and Regency world of England; he was nephew to William, Lord Hamilton, who married Emma (born Amy Lyon) after Greville “unloaded” her onto his collector-uncle. I felt so bad for an afternoon that I didn’t pay enough attention to Jim when he’d read aloud from it. I didn’t realize quite what Greville this man was; I would get him confused with Fulke Greville, Philip Sidney’s best friend, another poet. Small grief amid the larger.

The only character I have been able to bond with or care about is one monkey,Jack, whom William Lord Hamilton buys and at first loves him abjectly and shows it. Hamilton doesn’t want that and teases and is cruel to the poor animal who then does a turn-about and becomes the performing anxious doll-like creature Hamilton wanted. I felt the cruelty of Hamilton’s teasing and so bad for the monkey who died, partly of neglect (the servants would not care for it when Hamilton was away) and partly of a broken heart. Sontag has made this effect deliberately because she has Hamilton think to himself how he has been told to buy two creatures so they will not be lonely as they need their own species but he coolly will not do it. There are depictions of the slaughtering of animals on these false hunts (the animals have no chance, so that the king never misses a shot) and then the desperately poor jumping on the carcasses and tearing them to pieces to eat them. Horrible horrible oh most horrible. Hamilton’s first wife has died and that too is partly a broken heart – so alone the woman. So now we are set up for Emma to enter the stage.

Slowly at night Debbie Horsfield’s scripts for the new Poldark mini-series, the first season (and I have the second): like novels. I then watch the episodes one by one, book in hand. Alas they are insufficiently annotated (no camera angles told, not enough description of settings, and other film decisions). The texts are trying to approximate novels when they should much more like shooting scripts. I’ve changed my mind and find the new Poldarks better (if not different in theme and approach) than I felt originally. I was and am strongly attached to the 1970s conceptions (liking three of the screenplay writers’ work too), but find just watching the new ones and using the screenplays as intermediate texts for the novels, a woman’s and deeply egalitarian point of view emerges, bring home to me a thought-out vision of what is integrity and how should we live, for what, in a hard world. Little omitted in the British DVDs, nothing rearranged.

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Sophie Okenedo as Margaret of Anjou (Queen) mounts seething attack on Sally Hawkins as Eleanor (Nell), Duchess of Gloucester (Protector’s Wife)

Squeezing in very late at night: The Hollow Crown, truly remarkable. I have read all 37 plays (numbers of them several times and the sonnets and at least once the other poems, and at one time longed to major in Shakespeare and write my dissertation on Cymbeline; I taught Richard II, The Winter’s Tale, Hamlet a couple of times each. And i used to read the older criticism — not the last 20 years or so and I know “the conversation” as it’s put has changed a lot, and from what I’ve seen I can guess where it’s at: feminism, reading against the grain, the plays as theater and so on. I say this just to say where I come from (as we used to say). I just love Shakespeare and each time I read a play or go to one well-done I am astonished at how his achievement just towers in thought, language, dramatic interest, the characters, poetry and so on.

The new BBC films are making the plays so accessible: the actors speak the lines as if it were today’s English and yet they make clear what they are saying (by action too). I once saw the original 3 Henry VI plays done (at the Papp theater) followed by Richard III (an all nighter), and I’ve read the Henry VI plays through but once. I’d like to watch the older BBC series available on Netflix. What this one did was make the play far more shapely too. The two adapters turned it into a tragedy with the fall of Humphrey Duke of Gloucester as the central linchpin of the king’s weakness and turning to corrupt advisors. Hugh Bonneville was so good at this kind of part (he can do evil men too), and they somehow rearranged so Dame Eleanor was leading figure in this onslaught clearly. Sally Hawkins does the distraught and disturbed personality to a T; she did it in Persuasion. On the other side to Somerset, the Plantagenet Duke of York is made from the outset to be intensely ambitious and wanting to take the throne when Henry V died.It’s all there in Shakespeare but not so clear. The death of the Talbots (Philip Glenister outstanding) becomes another instance of how the ambitious destroy the good: neither Somerset or York would send men or money. Sophie Okenedo is extraordinary as Margaret of Anjou: of course they added the explicit sex. The way the play is done you don’t see Joan of Arc as opposed to her or a parallel (the latter is felt in Shakespeare) but sympathetically — which is startling but they are Shakespeare’s words.

It seemed so relevant to what’s happening to day as I watched the intense hypocritical councils. How astonishing is how dark Shakespeare is — an easy word but it does — even at the outset. People so rarely today (they used to in the later 19th century when biographical criticism of Shakespeare was common) talk of his relationship to his plays: but here he is at the beginning of his career emphasizing the tragedy of sensitive good people (he develops from that), weak (Henry VI and the actor was very good in it, he did it as a boy out of his depths). This melancholy perspective and the attack on the ambitious as deeply untrustworthy stays throughout the career.

Next “door” to Charles Greville on my shelf, Fulke Greville’s poetry — Greville was in the audiences to Shakespeare’s plays when done live in the 1590s:

In night when colours all to black are cast,
Distinction lost, or gone down with the light;
The eye a watch to inward senses plac’d,
Not seeing, yet still having power of sight,

Gives vain alarums to the inward sense,
Where fear stirr’d up with witty tyranny,
Confounds all powers, and thorough self-offence,
Doth forge and raise impossibility:

Such as in thick depriving darknesses,
Proper reflections of the error be,
And images of self-confusednesses,
Which hurt imaginations only see;

And from this nothing seen, tells news of devils,
Which but expressions be of inward evils.

Who says the humanities are not relevant to our world today:

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Anthony Hopkins as Pierre stalking, distraught, in frantic killing world of 1812, Moscow (1972, scripted Jack Pulman)

Coming to the end of our group read and talk on Tolstoy’s War and Peace and for me also a third time through Pulman’s 20 45 minute episode mini-series: what a rich pleasurable deeply moving experience these together with Andrew Davies’s 2016 6 75 minute episode mini-series (I just sit and weep over Andrey’s death done so well and realistically) and some few good books on the novel have been these 5 months for me.

This was on the Victorian Web this week:

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J.W. North: a city tree dreams it is in the country

And so we come to the mid-winter darkness
shivering while the killing goes on elsewhere
for now

Miss Drake

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