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Posts Tagged ‘Widowed’


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

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

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

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

Dear friends and readers,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Nicholas and Smike on the road of life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Miss Drake

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

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

Friends,

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


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

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

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


Razieh — characteristic shot


She also stands so silently and often from the side

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

Miss Drake

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Baldwin on the Cavett show

It is very nearly impossible…to become an educated person in a country so distrustful of the independent mind.

It is rare indeed that people give. Most people guard and keep. They suppose that it is they themselves and what they identify with themselves that they are guarding and keeping, whereas
what they are actually guarding and keeping is their system of reality and what they assume themselves to be … both from Nobody Knows My Name

Dear Friends and readers,

As the Oscar Academy awards are given out tonight I thought I’d dedicate most of his week’s blog to a movie I saw this week: Salesman was duly awarded but I doubt I am not Your Negro will be noticed to the extent it should be — for someone having to live in the United States (as I must — for where could I go, since Jim’s death I have no second place I could belong to, return to –Teresa May has rescinded right of abode to spouses and widows of British citizens and yesterday a woman living and married for 37 years in the UK with grown children there was snatched up and deported) it is an important film: I am not your Negro, words by James Baldwin, produced and directed by Raoul Peck, mostly spoken by Baldwin in TV interviews, one of them on the late night Dick Cavett show, with Samuel L. Jackson supplying the narration and voice-over of those passages written or spoken by Baldwin which there is no film or audio for.

For quite a number of years I assigned texts by Baldwin in my classes. “Stranger in a Village” was once often found in textbooks for freshman composition: Baldwin comes to a village where all are white, where the environment is all snow, and he stands out as this terrifying object. It is a parable of growing up in America as a black man. I assigned his Notes of a Native Son; Nobody Knows My Name [More Notes of a Native Son]; The Price of the Ticket. I never did one of his novels or his memoir but rather his essays because I wanted to be sure his ideas got across. Mostly these are semi-literary criticism (the very great “Everybody’s Protest Novel”), sociological, and autobiographical. In reading his is an eloquent noble voice. So I was particularly eager to see which strings of quotations, which narratives were chosen.

This film gives us his life story, through an astute weaving together of film clips, it takes us through a history of black people in the US from the time they were forcibly brought here in huge numbers, enslaved and treated abhorrently so the whites here and in Europe could grow rich from their free labors and exploit their bodies, through the civil war (not much time on that) to where in “reconstruction” they were re-enslaved on new terms, through the early civil rights era, with film clips of the 1990s (the savage beating of Rodney King by a group of police officers) and now the common knowledge (though videos and cameras from cell phones and ipads) that every week in the US black people are murdered in the streets, in a mass incarceration system. The focus of Baldwin’s narrative are the murders of Medgar Evers (president of the NAACP), Martin Luther King Jr., and Malcolm X. Baldwin knew them all, the latter two to talk to. None of them lived until 40. These three men, their lives, why they were killed with impunity, is partly what he is telling us about in what seem to be mainly three live films: one where he, Martin Luther King and Malcolm X were interviewed on TV; one of him interviewed by Dick Cavett, and one of him giving a speech to at Oxford University in England. He is also seen talking in front of a fireplace before a group of fellow black people. We see photographs of the murdered men, clips of King speaking, leading marches. All three are seen dead.

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Medgar Evers

The thesis is basically for black people their position has changed very little since reconstruction. Yes a middle and tiny upper middle class has emerged; individuals with gifts, especially in music have lived fulfilled decent lives — Baldwin knew and we see clips and photos of Sammy Davis Junior, Harry Belafonte. The black man is given no place in American society; bitterly Baldwin says once he was not needed to pick cotton, he became superfluous and it’s astonishing, there are any black men left. Surely this is a nightmare vision, my reader might say, an exaggeration. Only somewhat. Baldwin is angry: how is it Bobby Kennedy has no trouble being Attorney General and has the gall to say as if this were progress to be thankful for that 40 years from now we could have a black president. We did, and we see clip of Barack and Michelle Obama walking down Pennsylvania Avenue hand-in-hand after he won the presidency. But it seems this was a blip in history and Obama was able to do very little to improve the general condition and status of all black people. Baldwin left the US to go live in Paris in order to protect his life, so that he should not have to fear murder each day as he goes forth on the streets; Ta Nehisi-Coates now lives in Paris for the same reason (he is also protecting his son).
So many photos of lynchings, so many clips of police in the streets beating black people up — some from Fergusson. The photos of so many young children, boys murdered. No police held accountable. How education is denied them; how the real estate and banking industries have prevented them as people from accumulating any money in most individual families.

One can only face in others what one can face in oneself. On this confrontation depends the measure of our wisdom and compassion.

The question is what we really want out of life, for ourselves, what we think is real… has to do with our social panic, with our fear of losing status. One cannot afford to lose status on this peculiar ladder, for the prevailing notion of American life seems to involve a kind of rung-by-rung ascension to some hideously desirable state — again from Nobody Knows My Name

The one caveat I have is it’s the story of black men and not black women. So Baldwin himself is guilty of exclusion, of (in effect) othering. Black women appear only as sisters, mothers, wives of murdered men. They have had an analogous history: used and abused horrifically sexually as slaves, kept as cleaning women, laundresses, cooks, housekeepers. Because their men were prevented from heading their families, many became perforce independent, and educated householders. They have held high office: we have had a black attorney general (under Obama two, Eric Holder and then Loretta Lynch): Truman integrated the military and we have had high ranking military officers, generals (Colin Powell) on down. Black women probably are by percentage doing remarkably well vis-a-vis white women who are not driven in the same way to provide for themselves and their families. But it has been and continues to be a very hard life for most: high mortality in pregnancy, huge percentage desperately poor.

I also regret that nowhere enough was given of his subtle readings of the texts and art and music of black culture. He is no false flatterer and delivers stinging criticisms of Richard Wright’s fiction, of the reasons for the respect given Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. He was apparently close to man black artists, among these Lorraine Hansbury, who died so young from cancer. She is the one black woman given individual treatment in the film. You can see her play in YouTube form on the Net.

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Lorraine Hansberry

It’s important to see this film in this era of Donald Trump’s attempt at a (thus far) semi-dictatorship. It is now unsafe to be black, Muslim or hispanic on the streets of the USA. You need not do anything and you can be stopped and frisked, and harassed and humiliated into answering back or doing just anything to justify the officer killing, imprisoning, accusing you of a felony. Then you lose your right to vote. If you don’t have papers to prove you have the right to be here and have been here for two years you are in trouble. You are at risk in schools if you are gay; if you are a disabled person far less understanding will be encouraged by school policies.

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A rescued cat

It’s been a very hard week. As I am a powerless individual in an as yet republic with a few understood human and civil rights — I have the vote, I can blog, I can speak, I have taught undergraduates. This past week I went to a rally in Northern Virginia in Senator Warner’s office: #resistTuesday where goals are being sought through pressure on Warner and his activities. I am now contributing regularly to ACLU, Southern Poverty Law Center, Planned Parenthood, Common Cause beyond my membership in WETA (small amount each month), DemocracyNow.org (ditto). But I have to watch the most vulnerable in our society at risk (literally, snatched up in the streets, in churches, meeting places, airports), under attack and know I and my daughters are targets in attempts to deny us our rights to form a society and together make life better for us all (through social security, medicare, public education, arts and science facilities). There is an on-going attempt to destroy a whole way of life, destroy the press, suppress truth. Each day I get upset when I read the latest news of who has been appointed to head an important agency (with the aim of destroying it). This morning the Sierra Club an ancient forest in Alaska is about to be cut down; Trump rescinded an order to protect an area in Alaska where there is much left of the natural world, with many animals, plants. I joined the Sierra Club.

Here are the first 100 lies Trump has managed to promulgate across US life

irst hundred lies: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/donald-trump-administration-lies-100_us_58ac7a0fe4b02a1e7dac3ca6

This is what we are in danger of from him: Timothy Snyder, NYRB: how the Reichstag fire was set and used.

A new attempt to let loose predators to fleece and cheat at will. No more protections anywhere — every effort is being made by the republicans to prevent all consumer protection and allow corporations and businesses to fleece the individual at will. Money for opportunity and self-improvement only at high rates of interest. I feel sick with new grief, anxiety and pity for people — wanton unnecessary cruelty for none of these people have hurt anyone. The super-rich will be more super-rich.

As to what’s called social media: while enjoying friendships and sharing online, one must remember on places like face-book there is a great deal of falsity, of showing off an acceptable social identity to make others admire you, to fit in, to reinforce conformity. Photos of people as successful surrounded by adoring families and friends, sometimes absurdly idealized, with money and ordeals left out. Pay attention to ordinary every day life insofar as it gets through. Pictures of our now hot February.

The center of my life used to be, its staff, was Jim; I have fought a hard fight to make a new life and have realized this is out of the question for a 70 year old woman. I cannot re-make myself and have learned how alone a widow in our society is made. In order to remain calm because this fourth year of being mostly alone is making me worn, so I must focus my mind on that some stable secure center of existence. I would like to reach people like myself but I’ve found travel deeply anxiety-producing and unless I have a companion, I suffer a great deal. The longer and further away the trip, the worse. Sometimes when I am there the experience is ambiguous; alone at night in a hotel is hard on me. Tiring. This is what people need one site I trust tells me: subsistence, protection, affection, understanding, participation, leisure, creation, identity, and freedom. Others might make a slightly different list, but the important concept is that meaning stems from addressing real human needs. Where it’s tenuous for me as yet is affection, understanding, participation. So for me what can I hold onto: books, writing, movies, study. In these I find some peace. In sharing them with others — reading online with others, talking, friendships, art I can find understanding, participation, friendship. How other widows fare I pay attention to also as I find many analogously like myself.

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Tom Story and Jacques Aaron Krohn were strong — melancholy the one, funny the other

I went to As You Like It (see Marshall Bradshaw’s far too favorable review) at the Folger Shakespeare Library this past Saturday. It was not a successful production: the director seemed determine to ignore the bitter and hard meaning of many of the words, the whole difficult framework in which the characters have to live, that the time in the forest is an interlude. Thus its kindness, generosity, love and forgiveness lose their heft and context. The actors did not know what to do with the enormous amount of wit; at times the play felt like Love’s Labor’s Lost without understanding. But some of the actors played their roles very well: especially the Touchstone, Jacques, and Rosalind.

goodmoments
Lindsay Alexandra Carter carried the play (Rosalind) with Lorenzo Roberts as Orlando and Antoinette Robinson as Celia her supports

It was such a relief to hear sentiments of trust, friendliness, cooperation in public after outside the building having to endure the continually spouted spite and threats of the US gov’t attempting to torment the majority of US citizens with fear. And it was lively, without pretension, with wit, music that was contemporary and effective dancing.

By contrast, my first attempt to go to the Shakespeare Theater Company the Sunday before landed me in front of Charles III: ludicrously reverential, so tame. The comedy was we were supposed to laugh at “Harry” as having unacceptable (black) girlfriends and being given the most juvenile advice by a street vendor. It was about Charles taking power he didn’t have in a good cause (on behalf of immigrants) but the slightest real knowledge of British politics would tell you he couldn’t begin to get away with it, of culture he wouldn’t care about was he was said to. It was for a naive complacent American audience. Embarrassing. I left after the first act.

My books for this week included many on the picturesque, Penelope Fitzgerald’s Human Voices, Virginia Woolf’s The Voyage Out, Kenneth Johnston’s Hidden Wordsworth. I’m watching Donald Wilson’s 1978 Anna Karenina, brilliantly well done, moving, adult (about 10 parts). I’m studying ekphrastic poetry by women. Adrienne Rich’s Matilde in Normandy, Love in a Museum. Marianne Moore’s Sea Unicorns and Land Unicorns. I spent an hour this afternoon reading her very great Transcendental Etudes. I was moved and comforted as I drank wine.

My pussycats are well. Nowadays Ian does not hide in the morning though he goes off to have his quiet private time: on his cat tree high in the front room where he can see what’s going on. The assistant to my IT guy came this Thursday to update my garmin (a GPS) for me and Ian didn’t run away! He growled as the young man walked up the sidewalk, but then quieted down. Around 2 each day Ian comes into my room to sit on my lap and for the rest of the day be with and around me.

Miss Drake

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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.

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

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

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

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

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

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After the assault

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Kay Spark: Virginia Woolf or Seraglia

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

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

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

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

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A Caturday entry: on bonding with my pussycats:

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

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

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

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

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

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New Yorker Cartoon

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

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

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

Miss Drake

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From Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1990 film, scripted by Harold Pinter, featuring Natasha Richardson and Elizabeth McGovern)

Dear friends and readers,

It’s probably not a pure coincidence that a new version of Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is going to be screened on Hulu, a new computer channel which shows movies, that they have chosen this distopian tale for their first venture. I’ve read that top sellers for this week at Amazon (which by the way operates with Trump businesses, so if you want to boycott these you can at least try to find other online stores to buy your books from), as listed in the New York Times Book Review include Orwell’s 1984 and Animal Farm, Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. If you want genuinely to understand what we are living through, what we appear to be watching happening at its final visible phase (it’s been mostly stealth or only seen in local instances for some 40 years) — the setting up of a dictatorship, you might do better to read a serious history of the first hundred days or say six months of Hitler’s regime.

I’ve not read It Can’t Happen Here, but have read the others, probably with the mistaken impression in my mind that in fact this is a democracy, people, real individuals in the millions, believe in voting and having their votes properly counted. I have now seen how such a certainly in the mind (I thought) of every American citizen makes it hard truly to believe in the dystopia of your choice. Trollope wrote one: The Fixed Period, taking place on an island that seems coterminous with New Zealand. All people at age 67 are required to “deposit” themselves in an asylum, a year later they will be killed. (His New Zealander, first published in 1972 in an edition by N.John Hall, is a somber analysis of 19th century British political culture as he so lucidly understood it.)

The roll out of destructions by the Republican rump and their ignorant malevolent shamelessly self-centered leader has been and continues to be done piece-meal. He’s putting it together with remarkable ease. His vicious people in the powerful places. Firing the staff just below. Slowly felt contradictory vague executive orders are an attempt to divide people by when they are hard hit – all the while lying. So I have not yet personally felt anything economically critical gone. Just heart. Just. The grief is hard to characterize. This morning I tried Dance Workshop again: they have a new woman, just relentlessly cheerful. Talks about the 45 minutes as a party. I wilt under such treatment.

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Kathryn Schulz

I recommend to my reader Kathryn Schultz’s “Losing Streak,” or When Things Go Missing, in this week’s New Yorker (13, 20 February 2017): she begins with the word loss, which apparently goes back to “Old English” and means “perish;” it was in the 13th century that “lose” meant failing to win; in the 16th century we began to lose our minds (so mental distress, trouble), in the 17th century our hearts. It’s been expanding so now it includes all those hundreds of losses of things we endure over the course of our lives, from “mittens” to money, to beloved people. Now we are feeling our whole future has been stolen from us, robbed by the gerrymandering, politicization of our courts, electoral college, insane campaign against Hillary Clinton; all that we could had in improvement is now reversed and our very republic, safety from all-out war, civil and human and women’s rights about to be lost and in a way that might be irretrievable for decades and more to come. Losing a beloved, losing her father, she talks of death, not of losing friends, which has been part of my losing streak this year.

But in the meantime I’ve met an honest man! My neighbor-friend recommended as a contractor, a German man, semi-retired, and he has offered to do all I want (enclose porch, and make a fully functioning room, paint outside of house cream color, update electricity in house &c&c) for what may come out to be less than the kitchen renovation cost. It seems the demand I have the foundation dug out is a way for builders to make huge sums; the way veterinarians to clean a cat’s teeth want to put them under anesthesia and stick a tube down them (risking their lives) in order to make $500. So after all I’ll have what I’ve longed for for so many years. Too bad Jim is not here now. I’ve no one to take pleasure in it but myself. Izzy approves but it does not mean for her what it does for me. The neighbors will like this as it will help property values. I will have more space for my books 🙂 and not be ashamed any more.

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I can link the two entertainments I’ve gone to over this week to our present dystopia. I was finally able to remember the name of the woman who ran an inexpensive and sometimes innovative and intelligent repertoire company in DC: Carla Huber; her group, The In-Series, located in DC just off 14th Street, a walk along U Avenue (from the Metro). It was a show made up of songs of Irving Berlin with a narration carried on by the performers situating songs in his life, his career, the particular musical or just song cycle. The songs were chosen to reflect some characterization of a type in one of his musicals, the actors and singers people one knew would put the material across. I conquered driving there and back by car, so learned where it was, and then going there by Metro on Saturday evening. One song prompted long, strong and extended applause: a black woman singer-actress, Krislynn T. Perry, sang “Supper Time,” in a deeply moving way, belting it out. I did not know before this that it’s a song by a black woman whose husband has been lynched. Here’s Ethel Waters performing the song:

I attended the first of our Washington Area Print Group’s lectures for this spring: Deirdre Johnson discussed popular series fiction by two American women: their circumstances and what they produced are typical of the era: Adelaide F. Samuels (1845-1941) and her much more upper class sister-in-law Susan Caldwell Samuels (1846-1931). Middling educated white people with connections to publishers, especially through a father, Emanuel Smith (1816-86, zoologist, botanist, collector) and Susan’s husband, Edward Samuel (1836-1908, naturalist). The stories focus on central characters who live individualist successful lives, attached to churches, looking now and again to their family for help. Although strongly teleological, the titles tell an occasional tale of lives stranded and broken (Adrift in the World). Susan and Edward’s divorce led her to concentrate on how the power a husband has can inflict cruelty and failure on those in his charge. Adelaide had come from much poorer people and when she was widowed, with one son, she listed herself as a “writer” and attempted to live off her earnings. Her stories are less moral than Susan’s. But (what the lecturer didn’t say) all these stories are a depiction of a large (taken as a whole) ceaselessly on the move culture treating itself as ever so moral. We got to talking as a group about children’s literature, how it’s changed in the last half-century, and how in contrast to American, British books for children were a melange of fantasy and realism (e.g., The Borrowers). What American children were give was imagined communities. British children were offered an escape from local reality.

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Robert Southey’s desk in Greta Hall as drawn/painted by Caroline Bowles Southey: it’s the world as seen from her husband’s desk; he had the biggest best room in the house; not entirely unfairly as he supported himself, his nuclear family and Coleridge’s, as well as women and children attached to other romantic and dispossessed poets and writers when needed

On Trollope19thCStudies we are into Wordsworth’s Prelude and I’m reading Kenneth Johnston’s excellent The Hidden Wordsworth (it’s really a history-biography of the realities of intimate oppression in the later 18th and early 19th century in Cumberland), and I’m trying to accompany it with reading a fine woman poet’s autobiographical poem, much less well-known, Caroline Bowles Southey: The Birthday: A Life in Verse. I hope by the time we finish I can wrote my first foremother poet blog in a long time. For now, in case you’ve never heard of her (talk about the enemies of promise), here’s a brief literary biography by me:

Caroline Bowles’s years were 1786-1854 so she crosses the 18th and 19th century eras. She was born to people with money but as when her parents died her guardian absconded with the money that was to support her, she grew up very poor. She was educated (she was a genteel hanger-on in a big family and I imagine might have loved Jane Eyre and identified readily with Lucy Morris in Trollope’s Eustace Diamonds or Kirsten in Oliphant’s wonderful novel of that name). She published other books of poetry; The Birthday was originally compared with Cowper’s Task. She does write in the poetic diction of Cowper. Wordsworth’s greatness is based on his original use of a natural spoken English not seen before. At the time Wordsworth’s Prelude was hardly known. Robert Southey met, introduced her to Wordsworth, and they collaborated on a poem called Robin Hood. It never saw the light (was not completed). When Southey’s wife died, Southey married Bowles, but he was very ill by that time and his illness blighted her later life. She received a crown pension in 1854. Unhappily too she has been blamed for marrying him, blamed for somehow getting between his wife and him (she didn’t) and then her own work seen as super-influenced by him — which it wasn’t.

There’s a wonderful essay on Bowles Southey in Romanticism and Women Poets: Opening the Doors of Reception, edd. Harriet Linking and Stephen Behrendt: Kathleen Hickok, ”’Burst are the Prison Bars: Caroline Bowles Southey and the Vicissitudes of Poetic Reputation,” pp. 192-213. There has been an edition of Caroline Bowles Southey’s poetry and a biography by Virginia Blain:, Caroline Bowles Southey, 1786-1854: the Making of a Woman Writer .

“The Birthday” is a longish blank verse poem telling of the growth and development of a poet’s mind through retelling her story. It’s called “The Birthday” because it’s imagined that she begins to write it on her birthday one year. “The Birthday” gives us a woman’s version of Wordsworth’s Prelude. It’s shameful “The Birthday” is not better known. Unlike Barrett Browning’s Aurora Leigh as it hasn’t got a melodramatic story at its center, but a real one. In the excerpt I sent the poet goes to a filthy shop in London where she meets a laboring man who loves to read and has aspirations to write. He can’t. He can’t begin to get the books he needs (shades of Hardy’s Jude the Obscure) and hasn’t got any time to himself at all. He must work from early morning to late at night. Wordsworth refers to poor people but does not give them reality; in her Aurora Leigh, Barrett Browning gives us this melodramatic story of the seamstress in love who has a baby out of wedlock and (in the poem) deserved to be dropped. Not Caroline’s heroine, herself.

To the reading and papers I’m working on (described in previous diary entries), tonight I begin the second of my chosen books for the course I hope to teach at the OLLI at Mason, Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Bookshop (short-listed), a kind of distilled Cathy Come Home, starting late March. I’m now listening to Nadia May read aloud Virginia Woolf’s first novel, The Voyage Out: it focuses on the coming into maturity of a super-sheltered, minimally educated intelligent young woman, Rachel Vinrace. Much water imagery. This from The London Scene which I read with someone on Wwtta last week:

A group of sketches, all at most 5-7 pages or so; like much of Woolf’s work, it’s a posthumous publication carefully staggered/staged and packaged by Leonard. I have separate thinnish books of non-fiction by her and for the first time I understand how they came to be and why they are so heterogeneous. This is a late book, first published in 1975, put together by Angelica Garnett and Clive Bell, niece and brother-in-law, published nominally by Hogarth Press but really a small press hired and in a limited edition. These feel bright, seemingly cheerful excursions — the sort of thing one sees in a magazine. I say seeming because the undercurrent leads us to her The Waves. Time is doing its work across the centuries and in single hours, days, weeks, years, all is going to rot or was once (so relics, remnants)

What strikes me as I’ve finished The Waves, and begun The Voyage Out, how water (as in Shakespeare) is central to Woolf, waterways of the world, oceans, rivers, streams. While the sun controls the seeming 24 hour structure of the Waves, the imagery is watery or about stream, life as ooze. Orlando crosses time as in a reverie: Eva Figes’s greatest novella is The Seven Ages of Women. Here we have a eye going through the river recording different phase sof English history by different classes at different times – in 8 pages the eye bypasses very different ships and boats, from Liner and streamers with crowds of ordinary people on the shore, to a dingy warehouse area (very Dickensian), to left over village, with a desolate pub (note desolation), church, a cottage or house gone to ruin, trees, bells once rung here. Then barges, rubbish and Indian, next to the Tower of London, commerce, the city, factories with chimnies. On we go to indefatible cranes unloading and loading according to exquisitely understood plans by mazes of peple. (Le Carre’s Night Manager shows all this replaced by these intensely dull boring containers and very few people employed.) I have read the ships which carry these containers can be dangerous for passengers if not enough of them. Jenny Diski traveled on one in one of her books. Then the beautiful things packed, the oddities, the jewels, sports of nature – Woolf imagines all this. Now we realize if we didn’t before this is a kind dream. Then the wine-vaults: Cask after cask. Customs officers. No smuggling here: stamped out in the mid-19th century by England’s first determined army of police effort.

The phrase “use produces beauty as a bye-product” could sum up all Jane Austen on the picturesque … Then words have been invented out of all we see.I don’t understand a couple of them, nor understand why flogging is there but that sailors were once flogged to get them to do this work, flogged if they mutinied and disobeyed. (Will Trump bring flogging back; there is nothing he can do which bothers his followers or the Republicans. I am waiting for him to beat the hell out of his wife, and the tweet: “I lost it – my temper.” ) Last: all we see is the result of us, of our bodies. All the things and animals that made these products were created and used by us – Australian sheep say. And this rocking rhythm and final peroration. L’ecriture femme with the full stamp of Virginia Woolf

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From my window where I sit most of the time there has hardly been any snow: very summery days, so here to remind us of winter: Pytor Konchalovsky’s Poet’s Window (1875-1956)

I handed in a proposal for teaching at OLLI at Mason for this coming summer (how relentless is time and it’s been just about accepted:

Romancing 18th century historical fiction

Our topic will be the nature of recent post-modern post-colonial historical fiction as well as how as a genre historical romance differs from historical fiction, and what happens when the two subgenres mix. We’ll read as examples the older traditional The King’s General by Daphne DuMaurier (1946) against the recent innovative The Volcano Lover (1992) by Susan Sontag. Bringing in as part of the discussion, other popular novels set in the 18th century (from Poldark to Outlander) and 18th century historical films (from Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon to Scola’s That Night in Varennes), we’ll explore these questions: How do such books use documents and relics (e.g. houses and paintings) from an era; landscape then and now, history, biography, life-writing; biographical fiction and fantasy, to reach and recreate the irretrievable, the unknowable past, to persuade us to imagine we are in the past as presences with the author. Why do we want to do this? Why is it important for the text or film to be authentic and yet familiar? For us to bond with the characters? And be fascinated by their era?

I end on yet another woman poet-writer, 19th century, American: Ella Wheeler Wilcox (1850-1919). In Cox’s case what’s telling is she was very popular, and part of the 19th century progressive or populist socialist movement (Bernie Sanders is a rare unashamed modern representative), which has been crushed since the advent of the FBI and ceaseless repression from the 1950s on.

Protest

To sin by silence, when we should protest,
Makes cowards out of men. The human race
Has climbed on protest. Had no voice been raised
Against injustice, ignorance, and lust,
The inquisition yet would serve the law,
And guillotines decide our least disputes.
The few who dare, must speak and speak again
To right the wrongs of many. Speech, thank God,
No vested power in this great day and land
Can gag or throttle. Press and voice may cry
Loud disapproval of existing ills;
May criticise oppression and condemn
The lawlessness of wealth-protecting laws
That let the children and childbearers toil
To purchase ease for idle millionaires.

Therefore I do protest against the boast
Of independence in this mighty land.
Call no chain strong, which holds one rusted link.
Call no land free, that holds one fettered slave.
Until the manacled slim wrists of babes
Are loosed to toss in childish sport and glee,
Until the mother bears no burden, save
The precious one beneath her heart, until
God’s soil is rescued from the clutch of greed
And given back to labor, let no man
Call this the land of freedom.

I just thought that I’ve never focused on Scarlett Johansson’s eloquent speech at the Women’s March, on January 21st:

It is still hard and brave for most women to speak before a huge audience, and she’s telling intimate realities of her life. Elizabeth Robins’s The convert is about how hard it was for the first suffragettes to talk before a crowd. It is harder yet to be sincere.

Miss Drake

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Leonora Carrington (1917-2011): Owls

Peace, where art thou to be found,
Where, in all the spacious round,
May thy footsteps be persued?
Where, may thy calm seats be view’d?
On some Mountain doest thou lie
Securely, near the ambient Skie,
Smiling at the Clouds below,
Where rough Storms, and Tempest grow;
Or in some retired Plain,
Undisturb’d does thou remain.
Whre no angry whirl-winds passe,
Where no streames oppresse the grasse,
High above, or deep below,
Fain I thy retreate wou’d know;
Fain, I thee alone wou’d find
Balm, to my ore’wearied mind …
Anne Finch (1661-1720), “An Enquiry after Peace”

Dear friends and readers,

I’ve not written here in nearly a week because I’ve been putting semi-autobiographical blogs on two of my other sites. Since I wanted my report on the massive demonstration in DC and Los Angeles (actually as big as D.C., both half a million people) and many other cities and towns inside the US and beyond (Europe, Asia) to reach more than my modest number of subscribers here, I put it on my Ellen and Jim have a Blog, Two site, where I have well over 300 subscribers, more email people and (unaccountable to me) some 2000 hits for periods of time on my Poldark and other blogs: The Rump versus Wall-to-Wall People: a few thoughts too.

Today I saw another great play relevant to what is happening in the US today: August Wilson’s Fences, the film starring, directed and partly produced by Denzel Washington where Viola Davis was nominated for an Academy Award: I was so distressed by how he treated his wife, and sons, as well as his own anguish, his brother’s disability, felt so vulnerable, and helpless, and then was confronted by the closing peroration justifying the vindictive irrational cruelties of the central male, Troy, on the basis that a man so crushed has the right to behave destructively to others. It was made plain the man was deranged by the way his society’s arrangements kept him from ever achieving anything higher than a driver of a garbage truck. He had had a great talent for baseball but as a black man had been thrown off the team it seemed for being so good at it — and black. He could not bear for his son to try to achieve anything out of jealousy but also in a perverse rational to protect him. Still the speech at the end was not about this, not about racism, but stood up for unqualified patriarchy within the black community for men. I left the movie distraught for the wife who this man had bullied and betrayed by having an affair with another woman and refusing to give it up; having a baby by her (she then conveniently dies). He won’t sign for her son to join a football team; he insists the boy stay with a demeaning job at a supermarket. Yet she justifies him as her God at the end. He was the only person who did and could protect her. But she could not escape him, for the only job she could have gotten was to a lowly paid cleaning woman. I was overcome with emotion.

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Viola Davis as Rose

Then I come home and felt another daily (sometimes it seems hourly) assault from the news — now Trump and his gang accuse those who reported on the protests inaugural day where pepper spray and tear gas were used against peaceful protesters trying to march — and read Rebecca Solnit’s starkly accurate analysis of the ceaseless misogyny behind Hillary Clinton’s inability to take power even with the majority of American voters voting for her. Read it and weep. Two hours ago that the man picked to head the FCC is determined to do away with Net Neutrality. Will I be able to write blogs? reach others?

I just don’t know how to live in fear, perpetually anxious. I’ve never experienced anything like this before. I did not realize what a dictatorship the US constitution potentially sets up. I can’t sleep as long as I should — maybe 4 hours at most, and then I will wake with a pain on the right temple, the whole of my right side sore and weak. Should I stop getting and reading the Washington Post daily, and the New York Times on Sunday. I want to support them as they are now becoming rare outlets for accurate news inside the US. I feel I need to know what’s happening. I’ve been reading a book by Whitney Chadwick about surreal art and the women artists involved in the movement and can see how their art is an attempt to express how living in conditions like ours today feels to women.

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Martha Rosler, Vital Statistics of a Citizen, Simply Obtained (recalls Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale)

Adrienne Rich, one of the great poets of the later 20th century put it this way in Contradictions: Tracking Poems:

The problem, unstated till now, is how
to live in a damaged body
in a world where pain is meant to be gagged
uncured    ungrieved over    The problem is
to connect, without hysteria, the pain
of any one’s body with the pain of the body’s world
For it is the body’s world
they are trying to destroy for ever
The best world is the body’s world
filled with creatures    filled with dread
misshapen so    yet the best we have
our raft among the abstract worlds
and how I longed to live on this earth
walking her boundaries    never counting the cost

In her powerful memoir, Almost There, Nuala O’Faolain quotes another poem by Rich:

You sleep in a room with bluegreen curtains
posters    a pile of animals on the bed
A woman and a man who love you
and each other    slip the door ajar
you are almost asleep    they crouch in turn
to stroke your hair    you never wake

This happens every night for years
This never happened . . .

What if I told you your home
is this continent of the homeless
of children sold    taken by force
driven from their mothers’ land
killed by their mothers to save from capture
— this continent of changed names and mixed-up
     blood
of languages tabooed
diasporas unrecorded
undocumented refugees
underground railroads    trails of tears
What if I tell you your home
is this planet of warworn children
women and children standing in line or milling
endlessly calling each others’ names
What if I tell you, you are not different
it’s the family albums that lie
— will any of this comfort you
and how should this comfort you?

I’ve been listening to Frances Jeater reading aloud (performing) Virginia Woolf’s great masterpiece of a novel, half prose-poem, The Waves, an attempt to get down the core experience of six lives through inside their minds impinged upon by all their outward experiences, what they read, where travel, some in war. Six begin in young childhood together, move across a lifetime where the turning points of years are represented by italicized sections describing a day from earliest to dawn across the morning to twilight to evening to dark night. To me it is superior to Joyce’s much lauded Ulysses: less self-indulgent, more humble, equally registering three women’s lives as well as men’s: from the central wife, mother, home-maker, Susan, sewing away in some scenes, putting her children to sleep in others (Viola Davis as Rose, the wife, in Fences spends her time cooking as well as sewing, washing, hanging out clothes),

“Vision begins to happen in such a life
as if a woman quietly walked away
from the argument and jargon in a room
and sitting down in the kitchen, began turning in her lap
bits of yarn, calico and velvet scraps,
laying them out absently on the scrubbed boards
in the lamplight, with small rainbow-colored shells . . .
Such a composition has nothing to do with eternity,
the striving for greatness, brilliance —
only with the musing of a mind
one with her body, experienced fingers quietly pushing
dark against bright; silk against roughness,
putting the tenets of a life together
with no mere will to mastery,
only care . . .” (Rich)

to Ginny, independent, lesbian, to Rhoda, terrified from a young age by the abrasive sexuality and competition, aggression she finds inflicted on her. Three males: Bernard, the writer (probably has a lot of Leonard Woolf in him), Neville, super-successful at signing, meeting in government, Louie, the dominating business man. Only Perceval, the old-time hero, gone to India, was thrown off by a horse pushed too far, and died. Inside the minds of people living according to or working against moulds.

This comes from The Waves: “I have lost friends, some by death… others through sheer inability to cross the street.”

Today I lost another friend over a political discussion. I was trying to say the comparisons between Bernie Sanders and Trump as “both populists” by centrist democrats and others are so misleading: two men could not be more unlike in their attitudes. She took great offence, began to accuse me of attacking her in some long ago blog, how dare I speak this way when I was supported by the Pentagon, and so on. How to remain calm? Without Jim I feel so vulnerable. I don’t understand my taxes — they are very complicated and I doubt unless I were to sit and study for 2 weeks I would not get it and if I tried to make them out I’d do it wrong. I was meant to and did live in Viola, Susan, Demelza’s way: as the wife of a loving man, in our case at the time, feeling in charge of his fate. I just don’t know where to find a place for calm, for feeling safe or secure. Each day I expect a blow on me or my daughter.

I fear above all losing this house and my books. This is my nest, my comforts, what I live life through: reading research writing. Others may regard my house as shabby, small, the neighborhood eyesore. My real atttidue is its a splendid solid house, large enough for so many books, comfortably for three and more people, two cats. I watched a cleaning maid come out of another house today: I hired a team too. I hired someone to mow my lawn. I can’t do that at all myself. I am so surprised and lucky and yet withoiut it now after all these years I’d know a personal death, it would be losing Jim all over again, losing my life, existential. Like the elderly woman in The Gabriels. I’m here too.

I just don’t know how to live in this atmosphere, I can’t live this way. Order, stability, social cooperation, courtesy, consideration, kindness, some feeling of safety are a core for me. I shall try to return to Jane Austen’s Emma tomorrow morning, but it is not easy to lose myself in my books any more. I shall now listen to Anne Finch in my blog on the poetry of retreat: how to do it for enough space each day to remain steady.

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Joseph Farrington, The Oak Tree (1785-90)

Fair tree! for thy delightful shade
‘Tis just that some return be made;
Sure some return is due from me
To thy cool shadows, and to thee.
When thou to birds dost shelter give,
Thou music dost from them receive;
If travellers beneath thee stay
Till storms have worn themselves away,
That time in praising thee they spend
And thy protecting pow’r commend.
The shepherd here, from scorching freed,
Tunes to thy dancing leaves his reed;
Whilst his lov’d nymph, in thanks, bestows
Her flow’ry chaplets on thy boughs.
Shall I then only silent be,
And no return be made by me?
No; let this wish upon thee wait,
And still to flourish be thy fate.
To future ages may’st thou stand
Untouch’d by the rash workman’s hand,
Till that large stock of sap is spent,
Which gives thy summer’s ornament;
Till the fierce winds, that vainly strive
To shock thy greatness whilst alive,
Shall on thy lifeless hour attend,
Prevent the axe, and grace thy end;
Their scatter’d strength together call
And to the clouds proclaim thy fall;
Who then their ev’ning dews may spare
When thou no longer art their care,
But shalt, like ancient heroes, burn,
And some bright hearth be made thy urn.

Another:

Kind birde, thy praises I designe,
Thy praises, like thy plumes should shine,
Thy praises, should thy life out Live,
Cou’d I, the fame I wish thee, give.
Thou, my domestick Musick art,
And Dearest Trifle of my heart.
Soft in thy notes, and in thy dress,
Softer, than numbers can Express.
Softer than love, Softer than light
When just escaping from the night;
When first she rises, unaray’d,
And Steals a passage, though the shade.
Softer than aire, or flying Clouds,
Which Phoebus glory, thinly Shrouds.
Gay as the Spring, gay as the flowers,
When lightly strew’d with pearly showers.
Ne’er to the woods shalt thou return,
Nor thy wild freedom, shalt thou mourn.
Thou, to my bosome shalt repaire,
And find a Safer shelter there.
There shalt thou watch, and should I sleep,
My heart, thy charge, Securely keep.
Love, who a Stranger is to me,
Must by his wings, be kin to thee.
So painted o’er, so Seeming Fair,
So soft, his first addresses are;
Thy guard, he ne’er can pass unseen,
Thou, Surely thou hast often been,
Whilst yet a wand’rer in the grove,
A false accomplice, with this Love.
In the same shade, hast thou not sat,
And seen him work some wretches fate?
Hast thou not sooth’d him, when in the wrong,
And grac’d the mischief, with a Song?
Tuneing thy Loud, conspiring voice,
O’re falling Lovers to rejoice?
If soe, thy wicked faults redeem,
In league with me, no truce with him,
Do thou admitt, but warn my heart,
And all his Slye design impart,
Lest to that breast, by Craft he get,
Which has defy’d, and brav’d him yett

These are texts in the manuscripts of Anne Finch at the Folger Shakespeare library; they are not the ones printed in the recent edition which consistently prefers the later often censored and somewhat inferior texts (FWIW)

He left me here among all these books in front of this computer 4 years 3 months and 16 days ago. If he were here, I’d have a better idea how to feel about what’s happening, how to think about it. Can a minority of people force the majority to lose their way of life?

Miss Drake

P.S. Someone just sent me this: How to stay outraged and yet not be torn to pieces, not lose your mind

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