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Posts Tagged ‘Virginia Woolf’

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An shot early in The Salesman before Rana has been attacked

Dear friends and readers,

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

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A close up

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

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

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

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

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After the assault

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Kay Spark: Virginia Woolf or Seraglia

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

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

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

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

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A Caturday entry: on bonding with my pussycats:

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

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

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

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

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

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New Yorker Cartoon

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

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

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

Miss Drake

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Standing Rock, this Thanksgiving Day: by Medea Benjamin the water protectors

Dear friends and readers,

For the first time since Jim died (and perhaps a few years before that), Izzy and I had a “proper” Thanksgiving dinner and with other people. A beautifully cooked turkey, mashed potatoes, a kind of puree of broccoli (with various delicious ingredients blended in), red cabbage (somehow made sweet), stuffing, muffins, for me wine, for her apple juice. My neighbor who lives across the street invited us over and made this dinner: I brought an apple pie and bottle of wine. We talked, and ate, and talked again with good music from NPR: like Aaron Copeland, while we sat around a table doing some serious puzzle putting together. I’ve no photos to prove it; you’ll just have to believe me. I did read an article in the Washington Post which had your regulation photos of turkeys (not cooked, but alive): Debbie Berkowitz told about the terrible conditions poultry workers (that’s people who prepared the unfortunate chickens too) endure (freezing cold, dangerous hard repetitive work, very low wages). A thought which might hinder the usual showing off by photographing the unfortunate bird.

We went across the street around 4 and were there about four hours. The generosity of this woman gladdened our hearts and made the coming winter time more cheerful to contemplate. I wish I could get myself to volunteer in a local homeless shelter where they make meals for people on Christmas day, but I hesitate each year since Jim died. They want me to fill out forms, to agree to have any photos they want, and this year $50 on top of that. So I don’t know again. At any rate, we came back me to read, and she to sleep because she’s promised to write for Fan-Sided another report on ice-skating (I think it is) which starts US time at midnight; she’ll watch, take notes, off to work at 7:30 am, and back again to resume work. Do not underestimate the great solace of writing. About mid-morning today I wrote four letters to friends who had written me, two because it’s Thanksgiving and they know I have birthday coming up.

Another is reading. Over on Wwtta @ Yahoo, about three of us are reading Hermione Lee’s Virginia Woolf, and we are into Chapter 24 or so where Lee writes of how important to Woolf was reading. I loved the chapter, but my companion in reading, Diane Reynolds, suggested there is something missing: Lee does not tell which were Woolf’s “touchstone” books (the word from Matthew Arnold’s famous essay on how he tells if a passage is great writing (he reads it against “touchstone” lines of greatness): “which books did she return to again and again in the course of her life.” And why these? In the case of Woolf, one problem is she read so much, it’s not clear she might have thought to write about this until until her immersion was such, she would probably talk of a kind of book (Russian, say, classical). Then as a paid reviewer, she’d have had to think about so many she was paid to read.

So I thought in this desolate, desperate and frightening time before Trump takes office (it’s hard to take in that huge numbers of human beings are willing to allow this corrupt bully monster such power — what a mass failure of imagination is here, Jim might have said), I’d cite the books that I’ve read and reread and reread and those that have changed my reading life and thus me profoundly.

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At 8 I’d read and reread P.L. Travers’s Mary Poppins in the Park — for the park: I lived in the Southeast Bronx and loved tracing the park on the end papers. I loved the quietly magical adventures where this enigmatic strict woman emerged as all kindness, courtesy, reciprocal love. In another of the Poppins books the children visited the Pleiade, the “seven sisters” Margaret Drabble called them and I remembered ever after the drawing of Maia skipping along on the sidewalk. Alcott’s Little Women over and over and I still think in terms of some of its parables. I was lured by The Secret Garden too. I read one copy of Gone with the Wind until it fell apart. All this around age 10 to 12.

From the time (same age) I’ve read Sense and Sensibility Elinor has helped me. She provides a way of thinking, a kind of (yes) self-control, self-protection, that I’d try to emulate and hold to. I remember doing that around age 17 and thought it helped keep me sane. Having spent 5 years on Richardson’s Clarissa it too has been central — though I wish I had known Mary Piper’s Saving Ophelia. It might have helped save me years of mental anguish — I probably would have practiced the same kind of guarded retreat as the best way for me to cope with aggressive heterosexual male culture. How I identified with Fanny, loved the melancholy neuroticism of Anne Eliot. I have never stopped reading Austen for long, especially the six famous books, even Emma which at least has the rhythms of deep heart beat with order and harmony in the sentences, rather like letting Bach or Handel get into the pulses of my blood going through my chest and heart Mansfield Park and Jane Eyre are books I read and reread in my teens. Bronte sent my pulses soaring with her comments about having a treasure within her she’d not sell away

These will seem strange and won’t resonate but this set of books has been as important: Lois Tyson’s Critical Theory Today: A user-Friendly Guide. For the first time I could understand what was meant by de-construction, all these “theoretical” outlooks put into words which were meaningful. It was Tyson’s book which made me a feminist. I am not a feminist out of a search for power, or influence, or about a career (none of which I’ve ever had), but as a liberation from the dark nightmare of the way sexuality is conducted in our society. For the first time I had words which did not shame me to discuss the experiences I had endured, and this book took me to others where I understood for the first time I was not only not alone or rare, but my experiences were commonplace. Lois Tyson’s book enabled me to utter my thoughts to myself clearly and at least think about them and then voice them (here on the Net mostly) to others. Emily White’s Fast Girls (about how such girls become “fast,” are stigmatized, treated horribly), Peggy Reeves Sanday, Fraternity Gang Rape (ought to be required reading for every girl) and especially Judith Lewis Herman’s Trauma and Recovery (wherein we learn why there is no recovery if by that is meant forgetting, going back to what one was). These did changed how I read.

Close at hand, near to heart: I have Trollope’s books and all sorts of secondary studies in a book case that stretches from ceiling to floor and is about 4 feet wide — he helps and certainly he changed what I do 🙂 The novel I read first and never forget was Dr Thorne I was 18, it was assigned in a college class; I wanted to write a paper on it but was discouraged by the professor because Trollope was (just) “a mirror of his age. Then re-hooked when the Palliser films were aired on PBS in the 1970s: Jim and I watched and read the books in turn as we went through the series. Then re-hooked in the 1990s with Last Chronicle of Barset in Rome (it got me through) and The Vicar of Bullhampton (given me by my father when I landed in hospital.) I have read and re-read Trollope’s books, and while his depiction of women leaves much to be desired, his attitude towards colonialism shameful, he does see the truth and is candid enough to suggest it. I give him the high compliment of saying he sees the same world Samuel Johnson does.

Over the years I’ve added this or that author who speaks home to me: there has got to be a strengthening offered, a way of coping as well understanding what existence is — especially for women and in books by women. There is a strong perpetual fault-line between women’s and men’s art. Lately it’s been Margaret Oliphant and Elizabeth Gaskell (yes I like older books) but before that Elsa Morante (in the Italian) as well as Elena Ferrante’s first couple of books (Days of Abandonment is astonishing), Chantal Thomas (Souffrir), Jenny Diski. Graduate school introduced me to Samuel Johnson (how’s that for a different voice), Anne Finch’s poetry, Charlotte Smith but she is so corrosive; she permits self-expression through her but not the calm acceptance and understanding of how this came to be; now and again in different life-writing, memoirs I find women who do this: Iris Origo, George Sand, George Eliot (though too much violation of natural impulses).

In the first few years after graduate school, I discovered Renaissance women wrote (who knew?) great sonnets, and loved Vittoria Colonna (why I taught myself Italian, though I first loved her poetry in fin-de-siecle French translation), Veronica Gambara, Gaspara Stampa, Lady Mary Sidney Wroth. I discovered Lady Mary Wortley Montagu’s letters, read all three volumes. Now and again I’ve clutched some contemporary woman author as yes yes yes: Rosamund Lehmann’s mistitled The Echoing Grove comes to mind (The Weather in the Streets might contain the first frank story of an abortion, had just around the time the heroine reads Austen’s Pride and Prejudice); Christina Stead’s The Man who Loved Children tells such good hard truth but offers not enough comfort.

Well of course each day (almost) I reach something which makes being alive worth while. I love reading about women artists, and reading women’s poetry. Today I was having a deeply enjoyable time reading Martha Bowden’s Descendents of Waverley, a stimulating book about historical romance and novels whose reflections criss-crossed with another set of post-modern historical fictions I had been reading about in another book I’m reviewing: Caryl Phillips’s Crossing the River and Cambridge. Between this book and others about historical fictions and films, and reading Booker Prize versions of these, thinking about earlier ones (Paul Scott’s Raj Quartet, even the Poldark novels, Walter Scott) I’ve come to the thought that we so love post-modern historical fiction with great dollops of romantic fantasy (time-traveling, re-enactment, erotic giving of the self to a beloved) because through intertextuality they include precious historical documents (books from previous eras), the remnants of a past that have survived which can open worlds of minds and places to us, cultures, while the 20th and 21st century authors, film-makers produce a perspective on this past and our present that is sustaining and comforting today.

Do you love the older images on Virago covers? often I do. Also black-and-white picturesque illustrations.

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This Monet is my header picture on Twitter

So that’s what I have been thinking and what I did this Thanksgiving day. It was a day where no further irrational (unless you believe everything must be set up for a few people to make as much profit as possible), vile (deeply inhumane) and despicable (choosing inept people who known nothing about the area except that they want to destroy what’s there) appointments were paraded by the president elect, not even one of his snark jokes. I’ve in effect praised the Post for one of its Thanksgiving day stories, so let me be clear: the rest of their page was advice to those who see what Trump is to be humble before those who voted for this man if we have to sit down to dinner with any of them: the overt theory is again they are good deluded people (the old shibboleth of “false consciousness”) and we are to blame for this horror about to unfold because we have been elitist: with such a conclusion, how can the paper’s staff hope ever to help those poultry workers they grieved for on the same page?

So I also remember the lesson of the 1930s when a segment of my then extant family in Europe was rounded up, send to camps and many of them exterminated or died of hellish treatment or were shot. I’ve saved for last two books, both slender. The first a sine qua non for a 20th century reader: Primo Levi’s If this be man and The Truce (if you can in the Italian, but if not the English translation is good). I read these (bound together as one book) when I was teaching myself Italian (I was about 44). Indirect, but saying the same thing is Virginia Woolf’s Three Guineas, which each time I was given the second half of British Literature to teach I assigned as our penultimate read.

Miss Drake

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New Yorker cartoon: On rereading together …

Gentle readers,

I’ve had one marvelous and one worrying experience since I last wrote: I braved the disrupted Metro services last a week and a half ago to spend nearly 7 hours listening to a lecture on and the music of Beatles, and wrote more fully about it on my other blog than the remit of this one allows; I found myself surrounded by huge number of people going and coming from a mass prayer rally (frighteningly delusional and non-questioning, ultimately a political demonstration if only the mass of people would or could acknowledge this).

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The last of this summer’s flowers

Summer teaching at the OLLI at Mason came to an end: Trollope’s The Small House of Allington went over very well, and I was taken out for lunch by some 14 people in the class today. I keep on teaching at two places because I enjoy and need them both for company and direction, though I don’t have time to present original material at both each term; today confirmed I’m right to do so. I finally finished Adhaf Souef’s Map of Love, whose last pages I found unbearably moving. There are at least four heroines, they blend together from at least four different periods, all indwelling in our narrator’s mind as she sits in her room reading and writing. I had to keep putting the book down as I would look away, or find myself tearing up, calm and then return. The 19th century heroine’s beloved Egyptian husband is murdered, and she returns to England with their son, and finds it in herself to retire from social life, staying at home bringing up her son, with her beloved father-in-law (from her first marriage) to whom she had written regularly across the novel. I so envied her ability to do that. I wish I could have when Jim first died, and wish I could be more like that now.

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But I’ve had a new invite, which I’ve almost accepted: to give a paper on Ekphrastic patterns in Jane Austen’s writing. A conference on Austen and the Arts (dancing, pictures, music) at a SUNY college in October.

Mirable dictu brought up an interesting topic to which I don’t have a quick answer: which authors do we reread? we don’t reread all authors we decide are truly great. And if we decide to reread, why do we reread this author over and over, and which of his or her books do we favor? Trollope is to me endlessly rereadable. I am ever finding something new, especially if I let a few years go by. That means that far from obsolete, his books “update” themselves, naturally. Anyone who feels like me (there are some I know who find it hard going to get through one Trollope novel, even Dr Thorne)? So too Richardson’s Clarissa. And of course Jane Austen: I’ve read her books so many times they are interwoven into on my soul. I am again re-reading Margaret Oliphant, this time about her novels. I find what she writes sustains me: her strong intellect and deep disillusion, and how she holds out seeing what is all the while. I spend a lot of time rereading — to teach too. With the right author it can give deepening satisfaction. On Trollope19thCStudies we are embarked on a slow reading of Tolstoy’s War and Peace, giving time for people to read other texts by, about, and related to him as we go. I know of two people there who have read and re-read War and Peace.

Also re-watching good films so as to draw more from them. Just now The Hollow Crown once again: I am persuaded these marvelous Shakespeare reproductions are really the old-style BBC mini-series, brilliantly updated but keeping the sterling qualities of the old: lingering pace, inwardness, profound acting, extraordinary dramaturgical brilliance. i am almost to the end of the first season of Outlander: this is my third time through.

It’s probably what one takes from this process of re-going that makes people say they could manage on this or that book for the imagined desert island. For me Austen’s Sense and Sensibility and Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale used to encompass all I needed. Jim used to say he’d want a manual on how to build a boat.

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Hubert Robert, The Gardens around the Louvre Palace (1802-3)

I also took myself to a one of these blockbuster exhibit of great art: at the National Gallery, at least 7 rooms given over to paintings and drawings of Hubert Robert (1733-1808), long one of my favorite painters of the 18th century. It made me meditative: not many people came to this exhibit; the pictures were quietly contemplative. This too I want to write at length about and provide pictures elsewhere (Austen Reveries).

I spend long hours alone. What intimate companionship I have is with a few friends here on the Net through letters. Jim had now been dead 2 years and 10 months. I’ve had people say (write) to me, he’s been dead a few years now. That is how they see it. The phrase feels so light. I used to see the world through him; he was my all. Now I see it through so many experiences, passing, closer up (some people talking with more details); I am still puzzled by insistence on some social phrases and emphases that puzzle me (such as to me the silly reiteration on the Republican convention that “members of the party are not here” with the implication of “many,” but that seems to reduce itself to the Bush family, Romney and those Trump treated with shameful derision, so why is this repeated?), but I assume now this emphasis is understood by those who understand social life.

Three of us (it’s down to three) on Wwtta are trying for a group read and discussions again: several years ago we had a real success with a Virginia Woolf summer. I read a good deal of her criticism, some of the life-writing, and The Years (which I loved). Everyone read slightly different books, overlappings of course. The fiction seemed to be preferred. I listened to To the Lighthouse read aloud in my car. Now we are beginning with Hermione Lee’s massive literary biography, reading a bit at a time, hoping that this will re-make a community of sorts slowly. I hope to go off on tangents now and again, read this or that by Woolf.

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Woolf’s working table at Monk House

A sad loss: I can’t find my Woolf files. I know I wrote and saved a large set and they have vanished. I probably by mistake placed them on a wrong stem. I’ve no idea how to search my computer efficiently (the engines I know of are crude) and cannot re-located them. I read the Death of the Moth for the first time not long ago, and made a blog of that meditation last year so do have that: Upon first reading The Death of the Moth. From that:

It is extraordinary. To me it seemed about how life is death, that every moment of living is a fierce struggle and exaltation of the particular creature to experience what he or she is capable of feeling. That in that is why animals, including people, carry on. We don’t live on for anything rational or any of the excuses we might give ourselves but simply the experience of being alive as comes deeply natural to our material selves (which includes our mind as part of our functioning brain and neurons). The moth is so fragile and its life so limited but there it is trying to get all it can. …

Moths don’t appear to have a consciousness — at least not one that is coherent and can express itself in any way we can reach. That’s what people so value and some use this to use badly other creatures who seem not to have as much mind — like cats or other mammals we come close to. Her short piece then includes a sense of all living being’s equal rights.

But I love best Woolf’s fierce uncompromising sense that life is death and in death’s wild moment we touch life’s electric essence — my words are inadequate as only poetic images can express this. Now that I’ve come as close as any in having held Jim in my arms in his last moments of being, of being alive, and felt his heart gradually stop and that moment when his being suddenly let go, I know life is death too. We are ever watchful once we awaken until we let go to sleep again, in a state of self-protection, ever keeping ourselves going, drinking, eating, sleeping, keeping warm (or cooler) …

Yet Jim gave in to death, saw it was coming soon, as of August and would not consciously engaged in the fierce struggle. His body did and he couldn’t stop it doing that. Had there been euthanasia available I thought in September that I would have helped him to reach release. The horrible doctors were horrified when I mentioned this. … I know now that I would have made the same choice as Jim did. I felt bad for him sometimes that he could not reach release but I wanted him so to be alive I couldn’t make that thought any more active than inquiring to these deeply inhuman physicians.

But not Woolf’s moth. It would not make this choice for death. Yet there’s Shakespeare’s Duke in Measure for Measure: Be absolute for death says the Duke in Measure for Measure.

I write blogs so I can return to what I wrote seriously.

I called this entry, Marcus Aurelius because one of the reviews of the Hubert Robert exhibit I came across (in the Washington Post) included these words by him:

Everything that belongs to the body is a stream, and what belongs to the soul is a dream and a vapor, and life is a warfare, and a stranger’s sojourn, and after-fame is oblivion.

Most of the time when I come across phrases from Aurelius’s writing, I cling to them; they resonante with me. One of the most profound books I’ve ever read is Eleanor Clarks’ Rome and a Villa (a sort of meditative-cum travel book) where she makes his consciousness her perspective again and again. Now there’s one I should reread.

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Miss Drake

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Moth

Friends and readers,

Another profound poetic text I seem never to have read until three days ago is Virginia Woolf’s The Death of the Moth. Please to take out a few minutes to read it if you continue on to read the reverie it prompted from me:

Extraordinary. She enacts through the moth her perception that every moment of living is a fierce struggle and exaltation of the particular creature to experience what he or she is capable of feeling. We don’t live on for anything rational or any of the excuses we might give ourselves. The experience of being alive is a violent passionate response of our material selves — which includes in people the mind as part of a functioning brain, a set of neurons attached to spinal cord which fans out. The moth is fragile and its life so limited in comparison but there it is trying to get all it can.

A vehemence, an anger is in this moth because it is so fragile, it’s life so limited, it so near death continually: there it is trying to encompass all it can. And so human beings, fragile, limited. So the inference is an uncompromising understanding that life comes out of the nearness of death and in death’s wild moment we touch life’s electric essence. Woolf’s poetic image expresses this. Now that I’ve come as close as I was capable to death in having held Jim in my arms in his last moments of being, of being alive, and felt his heart gradually stop and that moment when his being suddenly let go, I know she’s caught it. Life is death too. We are ever watchful once we awaken until we let go to sleep again, in a state of self-protection, ever keeping ourselves going, drinking, eating, sleeping, keeping warm, cool.

Remember Shakespeare’s Cymbeline song:

Fear no more the heat o’ the sun,
Nor the furious winter’s rages …

Golden lads and girls all must,
As chimney-sweepers, come to dust.

Care no more to clothe and eat;
To thee the reed is as the oak:

Fear no more the lightning flash,
Nor the all-dreaded thunder stone;

All follow this, and come to dust.

Ghost unlaid forbear thee!
Nothing ill come near thee!
Quiet consummation have ..

This brief meditation shows why Woolf wrote her later fictions the way she did — the envelope of consciousness was the thing itself, all else ephemeral — but not trivia for most of us at all.

Jim gave in to death, as of the first week of August 2013 saw it was coming soon, and when the misleading delusions those doctors persuaded us into his having an operation were over, he refused consciously to engage in any more heart- and body-rending false hope. Or to try to prolong the agony he felt partly as a result of this operation. He could not eat anything without nausea and pain.

But his body would not obey him — like this moth — and he couldn’t stop its ceaseless painful struggle against the painful devourer.

In September I too had the idea of euthanasia as the kindest act our human capacity could offer available I would have helped him to reach painless release. The morally imbecilic doctors turned away in self-interested rejection when I mentioned this — it’s against the law and they feared for their licenses. (May every single oncologist, every single physician I saw in the hospitals we found ourselves in during that time, most of the dense self-protecting hospice people, the hateful administrative people behind those desks, each and every one of them I saw know an awful death too. I can’t remember them all but I do that surgeon who is growing very rich, and both brutally oncologists.) I wanted him so to be alive I couldn’t make that thought any more active than inquiring to these deeply inhuman physicians.

I can face now that I would have made the same choice as Jim did, reach for release, for oblivion as I did during my first experience of full childbirth, when I said, just put me out, I don’t want to know this any more. And over my shoulder I heard this voice promising that and all went blank until I woke again having (I was told) “given birth.” (By someone else cutting open my abdomen, pressing down and pulling out the baby, called Caesarean section.)

But not Woolf’s moth. It would not make the Duke in Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure.

Be absolute for death; either death or life
Shall thereby be the sweeter. Reason thus with life:
If I do lose thee, I do lose a thing
That none but fools would keep: a breath thou art,
Servile to all the skyey influences,
That dost this habitation, where thou keep’st,
Hourly afflict. Merely, thou art death’s fool;
For him thou labour’st by thy flight to shun,
And yet run’st toward him still. Thou art not noble:
For all th’ accommodations that thou bear’st
Are nurs’d by baseness. Thou art by no means valiant;
For thou dost fear the soft and tender fork
Of a poor worm. Thy best of rest is sleep,
And that thou oft provok’st; yet grossly fear’st
Thy death, which is no more. Thou art not thyself;
For thou exist’st on many a thousand grains
That issue out of dust. Happy thou art not;
For what thou hast not, still thou striv’st to get,
And what thou hast, forget’st. Thou art not certain;
For thy complexion shifts to strange effects,
After the moon. If thou art rich, thou’rt poor;
… [and so on] Thou hast nor youth nor age;
But, as it were, an after-dinner’s sleep,
Dreaming on both; for all thy blessed youth
Becomes as aged, and doth beg the alms
Of palsied eld; and when thou art old and rich,
Thou hast neither heat, affection, limb, nor beauty,
To make thy riches pleasant. What ’s yet in this
That bears the name of life? Yet in this life
Lie hid more thousand deaths: yet death we fear,
That makes these odds all even.

As understood by Shakespeare, this takes great courage. But not Woolf’s moth. She says it cannot make this choice for death.

Burns’s “To a Mousie,” which I read two weeks ago now and printed on this blog (part of an online course) moves in this direction over the creature’s shelter that Burns has inadvertently destroyed. Burns is softer, with more seemingly humane feeling, kindly, rueful; he doesn’t go so far as to see the mouse’s death-in-life, only that in its struggle to carry on, it’s lost its shelter.

In her latest essay on her coming death, her grasp of death-in-life Jenny Diski says she’s “scared of dissolution, of casting my particles to the wind … of knowing nothing when knowing everything has been the taste of every day, little by little … and then I get to the nub of it? when great minds have gone to dust, what could it possibly matter what I know or don’t know … What will I not know when I’m not a knowing machine … ” (“Mother’s Prettiest Thing,” LRB, 4 Feb 2016). I think of how Jim has not known all that has happened since Oct 9, 2013 at 5 after 9 in the night. She’s been given yet another chance (more hope): another pill, part of a trial.

Jenny has had this much luck (we need not envy her) that her brain has remained alert, functioning; at first with the harsh strong medicine to kill the pain, and then the experience of this devouring cancer itself Jim lost his clear consciousness and his mental powers were only there flittingly. In the first weeks after the cancer metatasized he pretended to be much there than he was — this to maintain his privacy from me, maybe to keep his mind from himself as every time I ask, he would reply he didn’t want to die.

Moths don’t appear to have a consciousness — at least not one that is coherent and can express itself in any way we can reach. That’s what people so value and some use this to use badly other creatures who seem not to have as much mind — like cats or other mammals we come close to. But Woolf’s description suggests the moth has a consciousness if so unlike ours. A sense of living it wants to continue that it will burn itself out to live.

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Cave to Canvas, Dancing Couple by Vanessa Bell (1914)

From this to bathos: one hot summer in New York City in a kitchen that had no air-conditioning so the fridge mounted huge amounts of ice quickly in its top icebox (no automatic de-frost that one), we agreed we needed to de-frost and clean. We peered in and Jim said look there, the little bodies turned upward, frozen waving antenna. He asked me if I had the heart to remove them. They had struggled to get out of that place and hadn’t made it. “Lost among the frozen wastes” he said.
At the time I reminded him of Burns’s “To a mousie.” Remember, dear reader, that he and I commemorated Burns’ night each year and had 4 volumes of Burns’s books (poetry, literary criticism, biography). Burns was part of our shared world.

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Ian twisting round to look at me as I type this — he pulsing too, but seeming calm, absolute for life, for himself in me

Sylvia

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