You can’t be forever blessed ….
Dear friends and readers,
Summer is undeniably here now (I went swimming in our Alexandria Community Center this afternoon), and I’ve kept up my usual busy schedule, trying to join in where I can. It seems to me I’m in yet a new phase of grief or living without Jim. Time is a tube I move through, some strange fantasy place, the time as this tunnel of space all around me, that itself has a floor that I keep moving on like some amusement park walkway. I wonder where I am on this road as I carry on. How far I’ve gotten. How far to go. It is continuous and feels slow during the day and yet the days, weeks, months now whizz by. No one to put the burden of being alive off on, no letting go, sharing it, but by myself to keep it up. For me being alone is tiring.
The lone widow. Vedovo parlando. Companionless. Above the women in Calendar Girls (one of my favorite movies, among the first I ever bought a DVD for): the movie shows us their individual stories and most of them are alone when we meet them (prophetic): that’s why the WI means so much. Divorced, separated, with a daughter, a few with husbands with whom there is little companionship. In the gym where I go, at OLLI, the women outnumber the men 4 to 1. (True, the manifestation of gender is skewed as many men don’t join such groups.)
Since I last wrote this way, I’ve been to Wolf Trap twice more after I so enjoyed Garrison Keillor’s last Prairie Home Companion show. I heard — barely saw — Jackson Browne with my neighbor-friend, Sybille. With her I buy lawn tickets and when we start from home, we have to leave too late to get a spot on the lawn near enough to see the show. I did buy a picnic supper for the first time in my life, and am glad to say it went over well with her (I managed to buy what she liked, a kind of pasta salad with artichokes in it, zucchini grilled, melon and other fresh fruits, white wine). The star singer was Jackson Browne. I recognized some of his music from the 1960s, beautifully played and sung, though it brought back no specific memories. These older and some new and latest songs testify to his having a humane outlook; he was biting over the monster Trump. But neither he or his band were varied enough to entertain or hold an audience for two hours; I thought he made the mistake of telling a story of how people fall asleep at his concerts or after the break don’t come back. It was a chilly night, and while, luckily for me, I had brought a sweater, my friend hadn’t, so we left early — and instead of an hour and more wait to get out of the park, it took five minutes (although we were not the only people leaving early).
I’m going again with her this coming Wednesday to (I hope) see as well as hear Bob Dylan. We decided to meet at the park so we can get there much earlier to be part of the lawn where we may see him and the stage.
With another friend who doesn’t mind spending more to sit inside the structure I saw and heard Paul Simon. I again succeeded with the second picnic supper I bought: she really appreciated all I tried to do (I bought a slightly less elegant sort of meal, and brought ginger ale and bread) and enjoyed herself I could see. I could get tickets we could afford only at the back and at the top, but we could see the stage clearly. Vivian pronounced them “very good seats,” and said she liked how we saw the stage immediately. I put one of his older songs (above) which he sang recently at an award ceremony; he ended his concert with that. And I was thrilled and moved as I seemed for a moment to be transported back each time he sang one of his and Garfunkel’s famous tunes. Jim and I were among the enormous crowd in the 1970s when he and Garfunkel sang in Central Park.
Yet I have to admit his new music is remarkable, it’s of this decade, edgy, menacing, filled with tunes and folk songs from Africa and other non-European cultures. A couple of members of his band played solo with strange-sounding instruments as well as the usual guitars and cellos — it was intensely rhythmic, alive. The band was compelling to listen to. Some of his new lyrics are timely-bitter: in one he gets locked out of his own concert, and cannot get back in because he lacks a magnetized wristband. He can be so comforting but this night rather than the anguish of existence as he and his partner once did, he brought out what troubles us in reality.
I have one more lecture at the Smithsonian for this summer: an all day, 4 part marathon (so to speak) on the Beatles. Wish me luck that I get there. I should as although starting this Tuesday, the two trains which go into DC from where I live will stop at a Virginia stop, and passengers must get out, go downstairs, and take a shuttle bus to a stop far away, just outside DC, and then resume travel again. It may take me more than as hour rather than the usual half hour to get to the Smithsonian, but given it’s an all day event it’s still worth it.
But I won’t be going to the Capital Fringe Festival this year as just about all the programs are an hour long and some might take me as long as two hours to get too. Four hours travel for an hour event which might not be that good would be an ordeal. Maybe it’s just as well since last summer and especially the first after Jim died I forced myself to go well outside my comfort zone to find places. Maybe I was proving to myself I could carry on living the life I did with him in part. I have yet to learn what parts of that life I want and can enjoy and what parts are too much for me — that I don’t enjoy them without him, or maybe (as it sometimes feels) at all.
Self, self, self. What I should be saying is this disgrace, that a major city in the US has an subway system which has become dangerous because no money has been put into it for upkeep shows just what “inequality” is about. The 1 to 10% pay no or little taxes and live with every luxury. I’m told I should take alternative routes. An Uber cab would be $70 into DC. I don’t have a chauffeur. And Mr Trump promises to cut billions more from corporate and wealthy tax-payers. Paul Ryan’s great agenda for which he endorses Trump? he means to destroy Obamacare, Medicare, erase Medicaid, and smash social security to bits.
I did manage to get to a marvelous lecture on Robert Louis Stevenson though. It took four trains and getting a little lost at one point, and two trains back, but they came quickly and travel time was still less than the length of the lecture. It was by Stephen Arata, chair of the University of Virginia English department, and chief editor of a complete edition of Stevenson slowly coming out. When they finish it will be 39-40 volumes. I don’t know if I can convey it: I took copious notes.
Stevenson is just so much more than the famous boys’ novels and Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde; he’s a writer of exceptional versatility and range, a virtuoso style, just under the surface acerbic, uncanny, unsettling, himself an intense spectral creature whose life was one long illness (he seemed to come near death so many times – he coughed blood all his life), yet he lived vibrantly in Edinburgh, across Scotland, London, France, the western US, and at the last the South Sea Islands. Arata talked of his travel writing, essays, remarkable stories of moral ambiguity, dark, letters, and in finally post-colonial condemnations of the way native people were treated. Of course his wife, Fanny Van de Griff Osbourne was part of the nearly 3 hours; her first husband alcoholic, violent; their affair in France, his crossing in steerage in an emigrant ship and train. Her son by her first husband became close to Stevenson in later life. He had illuminating photos of Vailima (the vast mansion he had built for himself and family). In the question section he talked of Stevenson’s relationship with other Scottish writers (including some words of praise for Oliphant’s Beleaguered City)
Stevenson’s texts hold a special meaning for me. My father would read aloud books he longed for me to like — because he liked or respected them. Among these were Stevenson’s “The Sire de Maltroit’s Door” and “A Lodging for the Night.” And when my father died I said over his grave the poem Stevenson had engraved on his
Under the wide and starry sky
Dig the grave and let me lie:
Glad did I live and gladly die,
And I laid me down with a will.
This be the verse you ‘grave for me: 5
Here he lies where he long’d to be;
Home is the sailor, home from the sea,
And the hunter home from the hill.
We had the second film for the film club: LeCarre’s Our Kind of Traitor, which I’ll re-see Monday (see Anthony Lane or Manohila Dargis). One could could read it as LeCarre for Brexit. We are in the vile world of the super-luxurious 1% making these global deals whose billions of dollars are (in a speech by Damien Lewis as our moral spy) the product of of millions of people’s blood and misery. It has not been understood but then neither was A Most Wanted Man.
Teaching is an important resource — I now recognize many of the people in the class. Many have been with me for more than 2 courses now. I find I have to refer to the 1st three Barsetshire novels (spring 2015) and Framley Parsonage (last summer) as we move through The Small House at Allington.
Small victories: I’ve begun going to the Farmer’s Market on Saturday once again. A thriving place. I’m now buying only free-range chickens and pork, and I buy from a stand of a local Maryland farm. I buy peaches, tomatoes, and find English cheese too (imported). Lettuce. I find in the supermarket that nowadays there are vew few fruit juice drinks. Much seems to be chemically flavored carbonated water with blended flavors; it tastes metallic. So I bought myself a six-pack of genuine pineapple from Amazon; I can find in Whole Foods Ocean Spray real grapefruit juice. I mix them together in a glass, put in ice and voila, something I can recognize as juice and drink, not over-sweet.
Days I read away; nights I watch movies. I have now gone through the 20 episode War and Peace by Jack Pulman, and the 6 episode War and Peace by Andrew Davies, and have begun listening to the novel as translated by Constance Garnett and read aloud so well by David Case. In two weeks we are on Trollope19thCStudies going to begin a long-time slow reading of War and Peace, with people invited to read biographies, criticism, watch movies. I mean even to write a blog advertising this to see if we can get other people to join us (for the first time in a long time I’ll do this).
I started to listen to this ahead of time: my text will be the Maude translation as revised by Mandelker and the new Oxford text/edition I have is unbeatable. Not just maps, but wonderful notes which bring home to me how much the novel is also sheerly history and how truly intertwined with history the story and characters are. It’s remarkably intricate. By reading the notes in the new Oxford you can a history of the period focused out of 1805 — the allegiances, the alliances. The focus is Napoleon in the notes as he is the pestilential mover here — reacted by utterly self involved inadequate people. The great man of the book, the General who does all he can to avoid killing and destruction, Kutusov, is as yet just mentioned in passing (Frank Middlemas was superb in the part).
I wish Case were reading aloud one of the other translations than Garnett: as I listen and them maybe compare I discover she is often general, or doesn’t name a character where Maude/Mandelker does. The latter text is more precise; it’s as if Garnett did not expect the reader to pay close attention to the history, to really take the novel to be part history. But I do love Case’s way of reading, his voice. I don’t feel so very alone because I can listen to DVDs in my car. The person reading the book meant for me to hear him or her. For a very long time I’ve used DVDs of great books read aloud this way (also good ones), even when Jim was alive. It has filled my world with presence. How perceptive Penelope Fitzgerald was when she names her book about the BBC radio Human Voices.
Still as I’m listening to this previous text, I find it’s all in English. I peeked at Maude and some of the text is in the original French (with translations into English at the bottom). It’s such a different experience and differently valuable. For now I’m comparing the novel to the films. I find that Tolstoy’s text is so much harder, so much less sentimentalized than either Pullman or Davies (very humane, adding kindly touches, making the characters so much more loving) and so much more there than Bondarchuk — from Anna Pavlova Sherer, the maid of honor to the Empress whose party begins the novel — a cunningly political woman, a fixer in social life, to say (importantly) Andrei Bolkonsky. The latter in all the film is made so much nicer, kindly really; we never know why he is so depressed quite. Davies’ hints that his wife, Lisa is so dumb and boring but not that Andre is just killed inwardly by this arranged marriage. He is so bitter and she is so desperate: she is characterized/compared to desperate frantic poignant animals; he is so bored, he is so frustrated, he hates the social life he finds he must go through. Tolstoy brings out how arranged marriages ignore the reality of marriage itself really so sharply this way. It is probably not acceptable to bring out this level of reality in a marriage in films: it makes this reader remember all the repressions one must practice, all one must give up to remain at peace in a marriage. I had to do that too.
I writhe with tears, my face suffused as James Norton as Andrei dies slowly in Davies’s film. I’ve watched it four times.
I’d like to go to a beach but have no one to go with. This is a place swallowed up by developers except for the parks set up in the early 20th century. So to go to a beach one must drive a full day and stay in a cottage – say Maryland, say way out in West Virginia, Delaware. I have to remember that except when we were in New York City and went to Jones Beach (a pretty place) on Tuesday or Thursday morning, setting out at 8:30, taking our dog Llyr who loved to play near the water and was allowed on one beach, one beach we found a long time ago in Rhode Island, once in Quebec, most of our attempts at beach-going were a misery. I have little tolerance for tourist traps. He had this super light skin and was in danger of burning so on a beach he’d lather up and sit under an umbrella covered with towels. He would go in the water briefly and rush back to the umbrella.
We did try some six times: we drove all the way to Maine twice, once to Mount Desert Island, telling Izzy we were following one of her novels where a characters’ family who live in Princeton, New Jersey, go to Mount Desert Island (Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing). We enjoyed that first time because the island was so quiet; we heard the loons. We three went twice to Vermont to stay in a Landmark trust house and we swam in a lake twice that week. We enjoyed best again the first time. The last time Jim and I went to the beach with both daughters once again, it turned out such a misery (I can’t tell how this came about, why), that he came down with excruciating pain in his upper thigh, and insisted on himself driving us home on the third day.
At first we hated the heat in Virginia and DC intensely — it is often ten degrees higher than NYC. How I envy the British whose weather I look at daily too. Gradually we accustomed ourselves, but we escaped to England a number of times once we had the money because there we could enjoy walking in the middle of the day, exploring landscapes, the beaches. otherwise went on long drives to plays in the Berkshires each day almost. Once to rent a house near Glimmerglass and that went well. Him, Izzy and me. We saw all four operas and we took long walks. The year he was so sick, he had planned a four day excursion to New York State near Glimmerglass, booked for a room in a pretty hotel, with tickets for 2 operas and 1 concert. We would have been gone 4 days. By the time that August rolled round he was deadly ill and there was no way he could make it, much less enjoy anything at all.
I have read half-way through Elena Ferrante’s La Figlia oscura (The Lost Daughter), Italian in one hand and English underneath as a crib. I just tonight realized it’s about a woman who goes to the beach alone one summer alone. She left her husband a number of years ago, and while she had two of her daughters with her at first (and acted abjectly before them, allowing them to use her as a doll — oh that makes me cringe, I’d never), they moved back with their father. A third has estranged herself altogether. But the novel itself is about her time on this beach, watching a family, and in her flat marking papers and grading for a course she had just finished teaching, and reading for her next course and dreaming, thinking, feeling. I’ve not yet finished. She steals the cherished doll of one of the children on the beach and has just been found out. The picture on the cover is the back of a doll with her dress opened at the top — like a patient in a hospital.
The whole of the painful focus has been on her past, on the cruelties and stupidities and also occasional kindnesses of the life she sees before her. But now I think maybe Ferrante should have focused on that beach time itself, the stillness of the air, the water, the courage to be there and then in that room. That’s what Jenny Diski might have done. Ferrante’s novella just misses greatness because it’s not on the past in the present.
Most of my time I’m here alone in my small room with computers, my good friends on the Net and my loving, playful, patient cats nearby — to keep me imagined company. I re-watch Calendar Girls (whence my new header) and Miramax films (Remains of the Day this week) very late at night. I find it so stressful to go to a new place or in a new way I’ve not been to or done before. This does not get any better. I drove to DC yesterday (Thursday), a trial run to see if I could do it, and became so nervous I took a turn I should not have and got a ticket from a police officer. Very distressing. A warning to myself not to panic and also take the Metro when I can or don’t go. Thus no Fringe Festival. No beach without a friend.
I should not forget before I seem too much to lament my lot: in 1916 on July 1st, something like 60,000 people were killed at the battle of the Somme. How could this happen? how human beings behave like this? How account for time and change from then, these years since, the horror of that day repeated in little endlessly. Have I said both War and Peace films I’ve been watching are deeply anti-war?
The sounds of silence …
But we’re all right …