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Archive for the ‘20th century’ Category

Friends and readers,

I’ve put off writing another blog on Ferrante since my first so long ago on her Days of Abandonment, I fear I’m too late to join in on the controversy that exploded in 2016 about her supposed anonymity.

Not bothering to disguise a vicious attack on this author, Claudio Gatti made a strong case that she was Anita Raja, known publicly thus far for her sympathetic translations of Christa Wolf (which she has written about), and then proceeded to do all he could to characterize her as a liar, someone trying to attract attention, and insinuate her husband, the Neapolitan writer Domenico Starnone, may have “helped” write her novels (see Alexandra Schwartz of the New Yorker, “The Unmasking of Elena Ferrante”). Reviewers and critics, especially when women, defended her right to be anonymous ferociously (Jeannette Winterson}: it was an attack on her as a woman writer; others said they couldn’t care less who the writer is, and it made no difference to know accurately the life or about the character of an author insofar as this is possible. People became mystic over how the mystery added to the books deepened them. Some said the novels are nothing but chick-lit, or they are the usual tired sentimental stories about women as victims. Look at the covers; in a more nuanced ways, objections were made to the paradigm of the abject, half-mad vulnerable heroine (Days of Abandonment), the raw language and anger (Troubling Love), the repetition of a very few motifs over and over (it was suggested this is common with a certain kind of woman’s novel).

Other praised the books strongly, showed how deep and nuanced each of the texts, how the Neapolitan novels were only pretending to be large depictions of a social world: Ye a the same time a depiction of a violent still fascist corrupt order; all agree elusive, with Ferrante’s abiding interest the inner life of women (Lidija Haas, TLS: “Closet Conservative or Radical Feminist?” — no longer available to the public).


Anita Raja

When the dust settled, we were still left with the troubling reality that Ferrante’s Frantumaglia, which she presented as truly autobiographical, is from a concrete standpoint, knowingly untrue in places; recent contradictions where she seems to want to be recognized (an introduction to Austen’s Sense and Sensibility where she said she was strongly influenced by Austen’s doppelganger and novels in general), and worse yet, continued repetition in respectable books that Ferrante’s texts could be written by her husband (Karen Bojaar who seems not to know that female friendship is a common topic for women writers).

I, for one, am glad to know who she is so as to throw light on her literary world, outlook, and also gladdened by her refusal to commercialize her life (I believe her as I notice many ordinary commentators do not), sell her books, alienation from the capitalist values of her society, value for privacy. Yet her attempts to shield herself and protest the norms and values of our violent patriarchal society have backfired; critics like James Wood read her all wrong because they want to de-gender her texts


Ann Goldstein who also translates Primo Levi

Put me in the camp of those who find true genius in her novels; who think she wrote them unaided by a husband, find in them the strengths of the best l’ecriture-femme (so she belongs to traditions of women’s texts, read Rebecca Falkoff), and am (alone may be) enchanted to think she translated Wolf’s great anti-war essays Cassandra, her autobiography, her touching historical fantasy set in the later 18th century, No Place on Earth into Italian. Yes they have some flaws: they are not intended to be Tolstoy-like depictions of society that finally neutral but the social order analysed and felt on the pulses of her heroines in the different stages of their lives.  I love reading Italian and have three of Ferrante’s books in the original Italian. I find Ann Goldstein’s to be good translations : she captures the elegance more than the raw but she gets enough there an has her own elusive tone too. When you think you are reading Primo Levi in the most recent English editions, you are reading Goldstein’s translated English.


La figlia Oscura

Since being so riveted by Days of Abandonment, I’ve read Troubling Love (a raw, bitter expose of the life of her mother, a woman continually beaten by her husband, taking revenge out on the daughter until the daughter escaped), The Lost Daughter aka La Filia oscura (quiet elegiac, a woman academic now divorced comes with her student papers to a beach after her daughters have chosen to stay with the father, fantasizes and steals a young girl’s doll) and The Beach at Night (a nightmare vision disguised as a child’s book), and some of the essays in Frantumaglia (brilliant political analysis of fascism in Italy, explications of her books and her stance for alienation).


The Beach at Night

A truly terrifying book. Masquerading as a children’s story, it is a kind of prose poem where a doll is left behind on a beach in favor of a kitten the child has been given a present of. The doll gets covered with sand, is treated badly by a Mean Beach Attendant, ends up laying next to a dead beetle with his feet up (shades of Kafka’s metamorphosis, is set on fire at one point, then doused with water, come near drowning. She is abandoned, deserted, motherless. I cannot imagine anyone giving this book to a child, European or not. I remember when by mistake (or not knowing) I bought the first Barbar book for Laura; she was traumatized by the sudden death of the mother elephant, shot wantonly and without warning by a hunter. It took hours for her to calm down. This is a distillation of Ferrante’s deeply powerful novellas before & her Quartet.

Now at last after having listened to My Brilliant Friend as translated by Goldstein read aloud, and watched avidly a couple of times all eight episodes of the recent HBO film, I’ve read this first book of the quartet slowly — as lovingly as I once read Elsa Morante’s Historia so feel I am qualified to speak, though I’ve not much to say: it’s a novel centered on a doppelganger (like Austen’s Sense and Sensibility) where the tragic heroine is Lila (Raffaele, and her counterpart, the luckier (because sent to school and then allowed to find an identity where she can try to fulfill her gifts an individual), Lenu (Elena).

As I read I recognized analogous events and experiences and thoughts and feelings to those I experienced as a girl-child growing up in the working class southeast Bronx and then Richmond Hill High School in Queens (both NYC). While at first I was turned off by Lila’s temptation to get back at the world through malice, wild anger, spite, withdrawal, even revenge on her friend, gradually I recognized the source for all this as the source I had known that turned me into an isolated teenager. Lenu too I recognized myself in. I had — as have so many girls — even read Little Women over and over and recently discovered so did other girls who now women I count as among my friends. So I became deeply invested in the book.


L’amica geniale (Italian title emphasizes the girls’ deep congeniality)

The awfulness of Lenu’s mother, the successful attempts of her teacher to rescue her, the experiences of the girls in the streets dominated by sexually and socially anxious-domineering males, what parties and schools are like, but above and especially the girls’ responses to one another amid all this take us through the childhood and young puberty of a girl. The sexual experiences Lenu has on the beach with Donato Sarratore, the older man who takes advantage of her after her luxurious and intellectually awakening summer at Ischia (she reads much of the time, learns not to be ashamed of her body, to swim too, falls in love with the intellectual Nino) re-taught me about my own. The climax of the book is a fireworks display on a roof after a dance where the each of the personalities and values of the different characters are exposed as they take a turn into young adulthood.

Since the common cover of My Brilliant Friend is now this stereotypical bridal gown and wedding party seen from the back, let me emphasize this: at its close the book mounts an uncompromising attack on everything having to do with a wedding, every hypocrisy, and how its meaning far from giving a girl access to a new wonderful life, cuts her off utterly from herself, and can be the first step in a life-long imprisonment.

Ferrante’s book is about how social life attempts to destroy, or repress or distort the best that was in one young woman innately and distorts the life of another) or she truly doesn’t mean us to care about these other characters as she, like Lila, silently cannot stand their norms and values.

A couple of incidents where I felt so moved and the film adaptation tried to capture. Unexpectedly (to Lenu), Lila wants Maestra Oliviero to come to her wedding. From the point of view of Lenu and probably everyone in the world Lila has done nothing to catch the woman teacher’s attention, compel her liking or respect, yet how badly she wants her to come. When she comes to the door, although Lenu has given us enough to feel Oliviero does remember Lila (because she says she dislikes her) she is very cruel, says you are not “Cerullo” I don’t know you, don’t want to come.

I identified and understood wholly how Lila could be crushed. In my life analogous incident have happened to me where in my mind I so admired someone for their intellect or position in a school and thought (naively) they valued me and was taught that no, unless you obey the world’s rules and do something to make yourself valued the world gives prizes too, you maybe insulted, cut off. I had some hard lessons in high school this way. Lenu is right to say Oliviero is “a mean old lady,” but we are given to know she would be miserable at such a wedding too. Lila might not see this.

I don’t know what a “speech master” is at an Italian wedding but guess it is a important function of announcing the people who speak. (These speeches are more than half phony and I wish the custom had not grown up recently.) Stefano, Lila’s bethrothed insists it shall be the chief crook of the neighborhood, the Solaro father, Silvio. At that Lila also breaks off the wedding altogether after all that has been done. Only Lenu can get her to change her mind, “seduce” her is how Lenu puts it. So she is acting as a Satan — the argument that persuades or seems to is they must not judge their generation by the older people, and Stefano is different. But from the dialogue we see Lila is sensing she is making the worst mistake she can. Stefano she says loves her “only when I don’t put real money at risk.” That’s important — money comes first. Lenu says she is able to rebel momentarily as she did in school as the authority of a religious teacher, but she caved, and what would happen to Lila if she returned to “the pale ponytailed Lila, with the narrowed eyes of a bird of prey, in her tattered dress.” She is admired by all now in her Jackie Kennedy icon look with dark glasses. During the (tellingly) long but boring ceremony Lenu knows her mother thinks Lila is doing infinitely better because at 16 she owns a flat, has this refrigerator and so on.


Lenu and Nino (walking together in school)

Everyone so overdressed, the only person not is Nino (who we are to have identified as the one true partner for Lenu apart from Pasquale who, fool in this wya, preferred Lila for her looks not her mind). But is he true to himself either dressed in such dishevelment? He comes so his mother overdressed can come; somehow she is slightly disgraced because her husband is blamed for the profoundly distressed Melina. Lila’s parents look well for the first time Lenu ever saw: the father’s Randolph Scott face (so many connotations there) and the mother all in blue. Note she kept away from most of the fraught conflicts. But one she invites: inward. She asks if her essay has been published, but discovers it was not included. Like Lila, she is a girl, comes from the wrong family or school, so it will take a lot more than the school certificate to gain a place in a community she might hope to fulfill part of herself in.

In that dress as Lenu dresses Lila she feels Lila is “the body of a dead woman.” what are they going to all this trouble for: so at night the young man can ram his penis into this 16 year old and perhaps ruin her beauty with a pregnancy.

A deeper incident which does not appear to crush Lila at the time is that these shoes she and her brother made so lovingly are not sellable – no one will buy them. They are dream shoes of young children wishing to have upper class stigmata on their clothes. No one in the neighborhood has the money; outside the neighborhood they make uncomfortable and they will not buy them. Stefano won Lila because he put all this money into the shop and now we see ahead that Rino who seems to be all important for real in Lila’s life will be a failure. Note that he was allowed to beat her

What will become of me, says Lila to Lenu. The answer is you will be destroyed — we see that in the opening chapters of the book where in older age she is vanishing in an attempt to escape a no-good son.

This is an extraordinary women’s book; it’s not recognized for what it is because it’s not explicit in the way Christa Wolff’s are — which books Ferrante translated.

Diane Reynolds wrote to WomenWriters@groups.io about this ending as follows:

The tragedy is that Lila has no other real options but to marry this awful man. The way the teacher rejects her reinforces that. Lenu does act the role of Satan—but what else is there for her friend? What Ferrante makes so relentlessly clear is that Lila would have been destroyed to if she had returned to the self in the tattered dress. The neighborhood/neighbors would have destroyed her. This is great literature because Ferrante shows us step by step that Lila is doomed—as doomed as Oedipus. It’s deeply poignant too. The friendship is remarkable—the one thing Lila has that is pure or as pure as anything can be in that world. I was so moved by the scene—which I did not take as sexual at all—when Lila has Lenu bathe her. She wants her friend as witness to what she was bodily before she is destroyed—she knows she is going to be destroyed by the marriage as much as any soldier going into a doomed battle. And yet the shock is that it happens faster than she imagined—at the wedding

As for the film adaptation: I’ll begin with Episode 2 (I won’t go through them all): The Money — and high brutal violence at the core of this world. Done in a muted black-and-white, it is in color but they are so muted. To give the impression of heat, chalk, lack of any beauty anywhere …. No trees, nothing to soften, make any beauty, or refreshment for the eyes.

I took the title to refer to how money is controlling much of the behavior we see. While the teacher feels that Lila’s family can afford just as surely (or just as little) to send her on to middle school as Lenu’s parents do, the money while an excuse is real. These people are poverty-stricken and the wretchedness of their existence comes from money, lack of it. The whole milieu reminds me of the southeast Bronx, where I grew up, circa 1950, only the patriarchy is so much more overt, fierce, the women more desperate and/or angry and taking out their misery on those they can prey upon or feel envy for: Lenu’s mother is awful and I for one am glad this portrait was not softened. In the book it explains some of Ferrante’s early deeply disquieted and troubled books: Troubled Love, the Lost Child. I wonder what was Ferrante’s relationship with her mother (and now her daughters – but that’s these other books and later in this series, the second). Lila’s mother is guilty but she is herself in accord with her husband, except when he throws the Lila out of the window.

What I like is it is a portrait of two girlhoods shared. Not like that movie this summer which gave a boyhood acted out by a girl with a mother there for disguise. Girls do let one boss another and Lila is the dominating one. she says let’s throw the dolls down the basement, now let’s see Achille, and then hide the money. I feared they would lose it and would not have give in to Llla then. The buying of Little Women is an allusions: girls’ book! we are told about girls growing up. I went back to the book and yes it’s Little Women all right: in the movie the Italian is back-translated into Alcott’s English. I have a copy of Little Women in Italian which I picked when in Italy in 1994 with Jim and my daughters — on a stall. It must be a popular book — well circulated. I was touched at how they read and reread — that’s what I did.

I would not have given in to Lila to walk to the sea – -I might not be a dominating girl in a relationship but I won’t be dominated. Still the whole sequence gave us a breath of fresh air, Suddenly the movie opened up. The houses are sets, and now we were on location somewhere. Alas Lila was trying to hurt Lena: she knew they couldn’t get there and hoped to get the girl in trouble. She succeeded. So spite. She is trying to one up Lenu so write a story, the blue Fairy. I feel for her because she does never have a chance to get out of this rotten culture. School here is seen as a central lifeline to a better world.

The episode was coherent, held together by the girls’ inner world together and their trajectory — and it began and ended on Achille, killed at the end, perhaps by a woman.

Yes high brutal violence is at the core of this society. And money. When the group finally is old enough to walk in Naples, they find they are outsiders, with not enough money to buy a meal in a restaurant.

For further episodes see comments: 3, Metamorphosis; 5, The Island; 7, The Engaged Ones.

Ellen

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Vivian Maier from the archive and film by John Maloof and Charlie Siskel (review by Manohla Dargis: “Nanny as Sybil”)


Yalitza Aparicio as Cleo in Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma (review by Richard Brody: “There’s a voice left out”)


Sally Mann: What Remains, a film directed by Steven Candor, reviewed by Ginia Bellafonte)

Finding Vivian Maier, a complex film about a complex woman surrounded by complex people. As in the film, Kedi, on cats in Istanbul, the portraits by interview of those Vivian lived with as remarkable as the couple-of-hours portrait and Vivien. Another great poet of the camera (Dorothea Lange, and Annie Leibovitz the two I wrote of earlier this winter season). I allude to Cleo in Roma whose voice is also unheard for the most part; I bring in Sally Mann, about whom at OLLI at Mason this winter we also saw a film about; I used an Emily Dickinson poem as suggestive explanation …..

Friends and readers,

This was a season for nannies, from the meretricious new Mary Poppins, to the (however silent) heroicizing of Cleo (the film has now won the Bafta for Best Picture), and at OLLI at Mason, John Maloof’s slow emerging portrait of Vivian Maier, a brilliant street photographer, amateur in the best sense: she took pictures as a vocation, as a quest to record the actual world around her, seemingly against being ignored. In life “we” may not have paid any serious attention or respect to her, but she paid alert attention, respected unsentimentally us. I’ve blogged twice on Ellen and Jim have a blog, two, about a course I’m taking in films about women photographers: the first on Dorothea Lange; the second, Annie Leibovitz. Last week was Sally Mann, and this Vivian Maier.

It is so hard to tell original fine sincerely-meant authentic art & a film about it from the exploitative (which I think Mann’s photos of her children may be, carefully, it seems, posed like Diane Arbus to arrest our attention, shock, voyeuristic); and from the well-meaning compassionate and true to memory and actual experience (Roma) film.  If the criteria is selflessness, impersonal and distancing, so varied and yet intimately observed, Maier’s photographs pass the test. Just look at some of them on Malouf’s website. I was by turns riveted, bemused, fascinated, put off (some are too Diane Arbus),


A common type by Maier: the older hard over-dressed rich woman walking in the streets: here our eye is made to look at the unfortunate mink whom her camera makes look so alert, alive, sad …

touched,


Young black man looking up with a sort of uncertain hope, Central Park

fascinated by the enormous unexpected variety of images. Like Dorothea Lange’s of a terrified horse, this one of young African American riding a horse down a New York City Avenue under a raised subway is a revelation, though quite what of I can’t say:

There are photos capturing tragic existences: a black man who is a beggar on the street and has no legs. Vivian can capture the self-satisfied arrogance, or hardness of a face, someone all body or all clothes whom we grasp is all carapace. The ridiculous. She was liberal in her politics. Asked by someone what or who she was, she said “a sort of spy.”


I’ve walked in just this square in Central Park (which I so love) many times, including during snow

Her story is now well-known: the film is set up as a sleuthing expedition so there are ironies along the way: the professor who invites us to read his Ph.D. dissertation which he suggests proves his point that Maier had a faked French accent is followed much later by Malouf finding that Maier was born in a small village on February 21, 1926, in France, traveling there, meeting what’s left of her family, photos of her and her mother. At first we feel for the exploited nanny who is low paid and over-worked but gradually it emerges her employers were long-suffering and generous too: they gave her enormous space for her hobby, one made friends with her, another let her be part of the family. She worked briefly for Phil Donahue. Then we learn that she could be mean and cruel to the children under her care, and probably had had some traumatic experience in her teens, perhaps from a man.


But here with her charges she reminds me of my aunt and my cousins (and me) circa the Bronx, 1950s

She sought out pain — as when she insisted on photographing animals about to be killed to be made into meat or clothes (sheep).


Avert your eyes


She still has pride and dignity intact

She was utterly silently gregarious, and at the same time solitary. Someone says she dressed like one would expect a working class women in the Soviet Union, 1950; I think she looks more like someone from a lower middle class village in France. She would have been in dire distress late in life but that two people whom she was nanny for supported her.

There needs some explanation for her insistence on utter privacy, her never trying to publish her photos that she takes obsessively and ceaselessly that they are the point of her existence. I know how hard it is to publish, how hard to interest people, negotiate, how they judge you immediately as to class, rank, self-esteem. But she never put herself forward in any way at all.

She died before Maloof found and sought out and put together her corpus; she left only a few precious written documents; so it’s just us, the gov’t and church records, and 100,000 photographs.


The pity for the child afraid and the child neglected is palable

There are just so many sites on the Net of her photos, and I’ve casually counted what looks like 6 excellent books. I am (as usual) late, this time four years: the film was produced and received its nominations awards in 2019.

The New York Times critic of the film is too hard on Maloof as a salesman. It is true that Maloof is now making a living from his find, but he worked long and hard — though my guess is he had money inherited or given to him at some point during the years of sheer gathering (including looking everywhere and anywhere, from flea market to garage, finally to those she worked for one of whom had kept the material in a huge container), archiving, scanning. Maloof began on line with a blog, then twitter. He couldn’t get museums to take an interest for years, and even now after some hugely successful exhibits, he has not found a permanent home for Maier’s legacy. I spoke of Roma on my Sylvia II blog, and don’t want this blog on Maier to go on beyond what’s necessary to alert someone who may not have heard of Maier.

I’m ceded, I’ve stopped being theirs;
The name they dropped upon my face
With water, in the country church,
Is finished using now,
And they can put it with my dolls,
My childhood, and the string of spools
I’ve finished threading too.

Baptized before without the choice,
But this time consciously, of grace
Unto supremest name,
Called to my full, the crescent dropped,
Existence’s whole arc filled up
With one small diadem.

My second rank, too small the first,
Crowned, crowing on my father’s breast,
A half unconscious queen;
But this time, adequate, erect,
With will to choose or to reject,
And I choose—just a crown
— Emily Dickinson, refusing to accept the identity imposed on her, choosing another; what did Vivian move around the world for?

I also ask the serious question of photography, when is it art, if always, what kind are Mann and Liebovitz’s work. Lange I think is beyond question a great poet of images and after looking at Malouf’s site I trust you’ll agree that Maier is an authentic sincere heartfelt and ironic poet too. I don’t want to be hard on Mann: read her site and you discover, one of her sons killed himself.


A rare color photo

Ellen

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Angharad Rees as Demelza (1975 Poldark, Jack Pulman’s adapted script the basis for the first four episodes)

Friends,

In early November of this year I began steadily reading the fiction of Winston Graham in chronological order, trying to gather salient points about each still extant text he wrote, beginning with the first The House with the Stained Glass Windows (published 1934), and ending on 17th/18th Take My Life (1947, first a screenplay, which unsurprisingly became a striking WW2 type film noir, then a tightly woven novel). I’ve read many of his novels before but not in order and in this scrutinizing way. This early phase of his career is made up of nineteen texts and one movie, all of the male fantasy suspense, thriller, mystery, spy kind.

I stopped with Take My Life for around that time Graham became absorbed in a second historical novel set in Cornwall, Ross Poldark: A Novel of Cornwall, 1783-1787 (published 1945), which lead to a long series of Poldark novels. (Graham’s first historical fiction, later recognized as signaling a change, The Forgotten Story, with its thoughtful reverie premise, and young boy narrator, is basically also another suspense-murder novel, with lurid elements, set in Cornwall in 1898.) With or in the unabridged Ross Poldark, much longer than any previous book and written over a much longer time, he made this astonishing and unexpected leap in quality — depth and thoroughness, thick realization of imagined world, truly suggestive and non-stereotypical characterization, and real subversity of theme. RP was begun just after Strangers Meeting (1939) and took five years to compose. After RP, I read the uncut Demelza: A Novel of Cornwall, 1788-90 (1946) written just after or around the time of Take My Life (like many working novelists he’d be writing more than one novel at a time); now known as the second Poldark, Demelza adds true complexity of many interacting characters, and a deeper more maturing of themes begun in the first


Eleanor Tomlinson as Demelza (2015 Poldark, Debbie Horsfield’s adapted scripts the basis for the whole series)

Strangers Meeting itself is one of the four early novels which show some real fineness and rich creativity; it’s no coincidence that it, and two of the others, Dangerous Pawn (1937) and Merciless Ladies (1944) are set either in Cornwall or partly a marginalized edge area of Britain (Cumberland); also that the fourth, set on the day Hitler’s armies invaded Prague, No Exit (1940), uses the technique of historical fictive accuracy. I’m coming to believe that Graham transcended his conscious gifts when he turned to the genre of historical fiction and set his books in Cornwall. But there is more to it than that.


Snapshot of painting I saw in a local museum in Cornwall in the summer of 2015

Walk Where They Fought. Battle of Waterloo. June 18, 1815. (Petho Cartography)

Since I have a paper due on the Poldark novels for an 18th century conference in March (ASECS, in Denver), and soon teaching will begin I put down my march through Graham time for the moment, and have fast forwarded to the second of the three Poldark fictions I’m going to write about: The Black Moon: A Novel of Cornwall, 1794-1795 (1973), the first of the second set of Poldark novels Graham wrote, what can be called the first of two trilogies. I couldn’t make up my mind which of these closely-intertwined and plotted three books to cover, so I read half-way through the second of this second set, The Four Swans: A Novel of Cornwall, 1795-1797 (1976) and looked into the dark conclusion, The Angry Tide: A Novel of Cornwall, 1798-1799 (1977), which I re-read two summers ago. Soon I’ll move on to the first of the two final singletons, The Twisted Sword: A Novel of Cornwall, 1815 (1990, or the eleventh Poldark of twelve), the third novel I’ve chosen for this paper. I suppose I’m immersing myself. Oh, the first of the three for the paper is Demelza.

For the interested reader, a fuller context: I now see the Poldarks as consisting of five phases, each of which has some distinctive features because each reflects the different era it was written in.

World War II and aftermath: RP, Demelza, Jeremy Poldark: A Novel of Cornwall, 1790-1791 (a much better title would be Francis Poldark) and Warleggan, A Novel of Cornwall, 1792-93, published 1950 and 1953 respectively.

The 1970s, which seem to explore themes of individual liberty and social responsibility: The Black Moon, The Four Swans and The Angry Tide

The 1980s, a turn to look at Thatcherism (capitalism as piracy, colonialism versus community): The Stranger from the Sea: A Novel of Cornwall, 1810-1811 (1981); The Miller’s Dance: A Novel of Cornwall, 1812-13 (1982); The Loving Cup: A Novel of Cornwall, 1813-15 (1984).

1990: anti-war, with a global or Eurocentric perspective: The Twisted Sword, A Novel of Cornwall, 1815 (published 1990)

2003: the pathologies of alienation, disability, culmination of pro-non-human animal themes: Bella Poldark: A Novel of Cornwall, 1818-1820 (utterly mistitled, it ought to be signposted Valentine Warleggan)


From the most recent adaptation, an opera by Muhly, Marnie (2017) — we see the villain-heroine and her psychologically twisted antagonist

I said there is more to this great leap than Cornwall and deep past dreaming and research. First let’s look at the results of Graham’s compulsive drive to produce and then re-write as a form of hiding or making (he thinks) more sellable masculinist fantasy material:

Three more suspense novels, one of which, Cordelia (1949) is another historical fiction (this time 19th century Manchester, the city in which Graham grew up) between Demelza and Warleggan. Two poor, Night Without Stars (1950) and Fortune Is a Woman (1952), both made into feeble film noirs.

Then after Warleggan, and before Graham resumed the Poldarks 20 years on with The Black Moon: eight suspense novels, another historical novel set in Cornwall (this time Elizabethan, The Grove of Eagles, 1963), one book of short stories and one non-fiction set in Cornwall (about The Spanish Armadas — there was more than one). And again these are highly uneven, though for among those few people who still read Graham’s suspense books, they contain his best in the kind (e.g., The Little Walls, 1955, with its Golden Dagger award; The Tumbled House, 1959; After the Act, 1965 and Graham’s favorite; The Walking Stick, 1967, made into a sensitive remarkable film, well written, featuring David Hemminges; and Angell, Pearl and Little God (1970, offered to Marlon Brando and interesting Dustin Hoffman as type actors this novel could project). They also contain the highly problematic Marnie (1961), fodder for Hitchcock misogyny, and two homosexual sensibility texts, Sean O’Connor’s play (2001), Muhly’s opera (2015).

And finally an autobiographical topographical Poldark’s Cornwall (1982), yet four more of these potboiler suspense, e.g., Tremor (1995), one a partly historical in Cornwall, The Ugly Sister (1998), and between TS and (or around the time of) Bella Poldark, a posthumously published memoir, A Private Man (2003),

I omit as hard to catalogue, and sudden, the short stories, a few of which have the sensitive merit of Cornish ghost and gothic fiction, e.g, his very last piece of writing, “Meeting Demelza” (2003), where near his death he meets her still grieving for the deaths of her children and as she invites him back to meet Ross and Dwight once more, the vision dissolves (podcasts have been made of three of this kind); attempts at screenplays, occasional journalism. He was involved in radio adaptations of some of his novels, but he wrote no literary criticism — though there are signs he did read it — as in his admiration for Frank Swinnerton’s The Georgian Literary Scene (Everyman, 1938).

I also omit another and crucial aspect of his writing: continual revisions of his work. Above I have listed only the first versions of his novels; several he thoroughly revised, usually by cutting, sometimes to the point he re-titled them. He also was continually making small changes. I’ve now read enough of this compulsion to be able to state categorically while some of the revised work has felicitous sentences, fresh ideas setting the book in its new time frame (for publication), mostly he ruins his work. He seems to have no conscious understanding of what makes his gifts valuable. This is not uncommon, but he goes further in trying to please the mass taste or some editor who wants to save money or have something this year’s fashions and shorter. Tellingly he is embarrassed and gets rid of what shows his own personal sensibility at play.


The whole of this little known film noir (includes Margaret Kennedy as one of the script writers): Take My Life

So what is the something more that makes eight of these Poldark books (the first seven and The Twisted Sword) stand out as one another level of creativity from his other work, and the weaker four and brief Cornish gothics far far more humane or rounded than the several better male genre books, which do come near them at moments. I’m going to suggest that they belong to what my friend, Diane Reynolds, named l’ecriture-humaine and (out of French sources mostly) I’ve been calling l’ecriture-femme. A love of animals and concerned for the disabled, important currents and providing touching images and incidents symbolic throughout Graham’s oeuvre are typically found in women’s writing. Insofar as the suspense novels have some of this (Strangers Meeting, Dangerous Pawn, Walking Stick) they participate and have this stronger level of open vulnerability to life’s griefs, a (not quite Proustian, more Anthony Powell) feel for the personal knives of hurt and memory seeping in — and probably Graham’s private life experience as he tells us in his last page of his autobiography. In his masculinist fantasies, such impulses early on come out luridly, and later are counteracted by ironies, and severe control by a superego in the form of hard mean & dense characters. That’s why Graham said he learned to become a novelist with Demelza. He wrote his first true l’ecriture-femme then. I’ve no doubt he is Demelza and Dwight, with Ross playing the deeply pained and renegade male forcing himself to participate in the world to protect who he can.


A cover illustration for the 1970s editions of Ross Poldark, to precede and accompany the first serial drama – note the centrality of the mining building, a central image for the second 2015 serial drama too


Typical opening shot for Horsfield’s new Poldark

Who he was influenced by and what he read is of great interest then and will constitute one half of my source materials and research base. Graham knows he was influenced by all that is imaginatively associated with Cornwall (he wrote about this again and again); Graham Greene’s disillusioned suspense entertainments (especially in his novels leading into WW2); and various lesser known Cornish writers e.g., Denys Val Baker (The Face in the Mirror). I have read some of the best criticism of these suspense novels e.g. Julian Symons’s Bloody Murder: most of these keep us only on the surface of what Graham writes, the literal least important parts of it albeit these were what enabled him to structure and work out as coherent rationales his dream material

Aligning his work also with writers like Daphne DuMaurier (also a writer of Cornish 18th century fiction), will be helpful because there is a critical tradition for some of these as well as Cornish culture and landscape, and for historical fiction that can be applied to Graham.  There is much to be learned about Graham’s work & attitudes from non-fiction books like John Keegan’s The Face of Battle, Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man (read assiduously by Ross) and Wendy Hille’s George Canning. And also his Memoir of a Private Man.

And finally, though perhaps I should have cited these first:  Graham’s Poldark’s Cornwall, DuMaurier’s Vanishing Cornwall, Claude Berry’s Portrait of Cornwall, Philip Marsden’s Rising Ground and nature-writing books like Jacquenetta Hawkes’s The Land and Philip Paytan’s Cornwall. And historical research books into specifics of 17th through 18th century Cornwall:  Graham himself says this material enabled him to fill his books with content, A. l. Rowse’s and (the contemporary update), John Chynoweth’s Tudor Cornwall and many many individual (long) 18th century books on medicine, prisons and mining. The one topic Graham left out was china clay.

But the key, the core, that which made the difference between these other books and the 12 Poldark when when he began to write l’ecriture-femme.  The leap is from Strangers Meeting to Forgotten Story to Demelza; the content filler Cornwall and history.


Winston Graham with his dog, Garrick — beloved also by Demelza

Ellen

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Kate Winslet as as Myrtle (Tillie) Dunnage sewing (The Dressmaker, written & directed by Jocelyn Moorhouse, 2015)


Annie Starke as the young Joan Castlemain “helping” her professor husband, Joe, writer (The Wife, directed Bjorn Runge, script Jane Anderson, 2018)

Friends and readers,

Finally at the end of summer, four good women’s films. Two weeks ago The Bookshop and Puzzle, where in each a heroine seeks a new life, and now, The Dressmaker (based on a novel by Rosalie Ham) and The Wife (based on a novel by Meg Wolitzer), where in each two heroines wrest back what they have lost. They were gripping because was kept happening next was unexpected as women broke through taboos to become or take back herself after a long endurance. I recommend going to The Wife and renting or streaming (or buying) The Dressmaker as strongly as I did seeing The Bookshop before it leaves the theaters. In order to convey why they are rivetingly or quirkily surprising as we move along, I tell the stories but it’s the acting out as each turn comes that will hold you.


Glenn Close as the aging Joan Castlemaine reading The Walnut, a novel attributed to her husband as fiction, but one she wrote about her life with him

The Guardian says Glenn Close delivers the best performance of her career. She does make the movie the emotionally affecting experience it is, but I can think of other movies I’ve seen her in where it was she who made them extraordinary (Alfred Nobbs, with John Malkovitch, Les Liaisons Dangereuses, Paradise Road, the box office winner Fatal Attraction).

It’s done through flashbacks with two sets of actors: we begin in present time with Joe Castlemaine (the character somewhat based on Saul Bellows) played by Jonathan Pryce, winning the Nobel Prize, and the couple going with their son to Stockholm for the award ceremony. They seem to be joyous over this crowning recognition, but have an intensely strained relationship as a couple. Through irritants, and promptings of memories at her husband’s bad behavior He denigrates and treats with mild contempt the son’s, (Max Iron as David Castlemain) writing; he incessantly controls her eating, drinking, smoking, being by herself at all, when he is the one who is ill, taking pills to stay alive, and (as we see) promiscuous with young women wherever he can be. Joan’s mind moves back to how they met (Harry Lloyd as the young professor and Starke as student at Smith College), how he seduced her while he was married, and their first successes: she is working as a secretary at a firm seeking good authors and brings his (it seems) books in. The cyclical weaving is very much a woman’s structure and we gradually realize we are seeing and feeling everything out of her older mind.


On the plane Christian Slater as Nathaniel Bone, biographer, approaches the Castlemains

The real story is also dragged out because the couple is stalked by Nathaniel a young man determined to write a truthful biography, to make a career out of exposing this celebrated author. He follows the Castlemains on the train, and begs for permission and is rejected, told to go away. He remains at the bar of the hotel they are staying at and when she escapes Joe for an afternoon she is lured into drinking and smoking with him, as we listen to him ask her to tell him the truth that she wrote the books, not Joe. Joe (we have seen) doesn’t even know central characters in the stories. Then when the son escapes, Bone insinuates himself into being a companion, telling the young man who then startled with this explanation for his bad memories, confirms Bone’s theory.


Nathaniel Bone talking with David Castlemain

Unfolded before is a Laura Ingalls and Rose Wilder story: what began as the husband writing poor novels and the wife being taught (perhaps wrongly) that women’s novels are ignored, not read, will not sell, or if they do, not be respected. This is conveyed by Elizabeth McGovern as the embittered women writer:


Elizabeth McGovern is memorable in her brief appearance

It at first seems the writing turns into collaboration and then (since he does not know what makes a good book, is dishonest about himself, superficial) an acted out lie: she hides away from children and world writing the novels while he takes (less than adequate) care of the children, cooks, makes money as a teacher, and takes all the credit for the books. What we see at first grating is the way he thanks her for enabling him to find time to work, devoting and giving up herself to his art, his creativity. The incessant gratitude as a cover-up drives her wild; it’s about as much as she can endure on top of his continual domineering demanding (he wants sex when she doesn’t) condescending ways. She has to smile and smile at the phony admiration, the adulation he receives so ecstatically.


In the car alone her face frozen, the husband trying to make up to her

Lying is at the core of this woman’s life, lying as an enabling and silencing mode of being. The movie made me think about what Rose Wilder might have felt because her books were attributed to her mother. The situation was so different: Rose Wilder chose to re-write and then write her mother’s books to project an Ayn Rand reactionary vision, to cover up the abysmal poverty of her childhood in rural America, and she got away with this because her publishers did all they could (as much of the media at the time) to castigate FDR’s turning the US into a more decent society for all (the New Deal, now in its death throes), to tell the false myth that anything is possible in individualistic uncontrolled capitalism. Closer are the faculty wives who spend years next to their husbands in libraries taking notes, typing his manuscript, perhaps “helping” him collaborating, who knows writing for him, and then thanked in a concluding line of acknowledgements. We see at first hand what pain this can be for such a woman, especially if he is someone who has affairs with his students or other faculty.

But there is continual ambiguity, different valid angles. The situation was more complicated than merely a bad husband, all self-sacrificing wife. As the days wear on, and she finally explodes and says she has had enough and is leaving him, they quarrel fiercely and it emerges she was complicit; he is accurate when he charges her with having liked being hidden, having liked getting rid of the children, of being rich (which as a woman writer and without a professorship she would have been), of him caring for the children, cooking and doing everything they pretended that she did. We see the beautiful houses they had.


Jonathan Pryce is pitch perfect in his easier role ….

We have seen how complacent she can be, and again how fierce in anger. How pained. She weeps at the end hysterically because when he suddenly as a heart attack. She is so persuasive and strong at that moment, I found the falling snow in the window behind her a false overdone note. Yet in the last scene on the plane with her son she tells the biographer if he tells the story of who wrote the books she will sue him as malevolent, and then turns with a look in her eye we see she is at the same time at long last free. She turns to her son and promises to tell him the truth of her life and the books when they get home. Will she? She fingers a notebook. Will she begin to publish under her own? or carry on writing producing books she will say were unfinished and are now coming out posthumously. She was ferocious with the biographer on the plane.

It’s arguable though that The Wife is a conventional movie in comparison with The Dressmaker. At the time it was in the theaters while it garnered many awards, non-professional and many professional critics alike lambasted it as peculiar, not making sense, erratic, unbelievable, and yes improbable and meandering (the last two charges commonly hurled at women’s movies). And at first I was startled and felt an urge to turn it off: why should this super-successive costume designer return to a filthy impoverished shack of a home with her hateful aging sick mother, Molly Dunnage played brilliantly by Judy Davis (a persistently fine actress, ever in good movies, unrecognized because not iconic).


Judy Davies when first pulled out of her lair by Tillie

Why go to a small town picnic dressed for the Oscars? What could be the point? Well give it a chance and you begin to see and then are on her side, wanting to see her get revenge on what was done to her and to her mother.

It’s a strange film, bizarre: Tillie begins to gain power because these dowdy jealous women want her to dress them the way she dresses, and she begins to make money as she determinedly ignores or over-rides her mother’s protests and cleans the house, her mother, and sets up a daily decent routine of life for them. What women seem to want, what they dream of themselves looking like is when seen startlingly artificial and grotesque


The movie ends with an album of all the actresses in all the (a cornucopia) dresses made and worn over the film (costume design Margot Wilson and Marion Boyce)

What emerges, in jarringly odd scenes is a female gothic story. When Tillie was small, she was bullied cruelly by a Evan Pettyman’s (Shane Bourne) mean stupid son, Stewart, and she was accused of murdering him in retaliation. She was hounded out of town and her mother disgraced. What gradually emerges is Tillie is Everyman’s illegitimate daughter by Molly; that Pettyman’s present wife has spent her life drugged by this husband before and worse after the son died. In flashbacks we see how the child was ostracized and harassed and when the boy tried to smash her head, she stepped aside and he rammed his head into a brick wall. Another reason she has returned, is she does not know what happened and is determined to discover how the boy died. The town is exposed as bigoted, hypocritical and brutally indifferent to anything but each person’s own ego pleasure. Tillie had a young man who was liked her; grown up now, Liam Helmsorth as Teddy McSwiney slowly reveals he has a mentally retarded brother whom the town despises and mocks, a mother who (like Molly) is impoverished and they live apart, in a tin shack with him making what money they have as a mechanic.

Needless to predict, Tillie and Teddy fall in love and become lovers, Molly emerges from her shell to show she loves her daughter after all, or can love her. They sew together:

There are wonderfully comic moments where Molly calls herself a hag and her daughter a spinster in need of such a man:

The three go to the movies and make fun of what they see: there is an older movie shown which probably is meant as an allusion but I couldn’t make out which one it was.

Wedding scenes, church, as the story is exposed, scenes of intense anger, scene where Pettyman hires another woman as a dressmaker to rival Tillie, only this dressmaker is nowhere as daring, bold, good a seamstress. But colluding and frightened people are exposed as knowing and hiding the truth, Pettyman’s wife awakened to the truth tries to cut his feet off (this reminded me of how Stella Gibbons’s mocked the gothic), and just as we think the evil people who hid everything will get their comeuppance and our trio (Teddy, Tillie and Molly) live happily ever after, Teddy too full of himself, slips down a man hole, gets caught in a vise and is killed. There is a moving funeral. This means his brother and mother can escape the town’s obloquy only by leaving. Molly determines to help her daughter and now dressed respectably, sets forth for help from those townspeople with hearts (they are some):

But in a tense tiring public scene, recalling or anticipating what happens to Bill Nighy as Mr Brundish assailing the witch power-center of the town in The Bookshop, Molly has a heart attack and dies before she can see justice begin to be done. So we have another funeral. The heart attack of the aging weakened person who sallies forth to help the heroine is not the only parallel with Fitzgerald’s tale as filmed by Coixet. In a final scene of rage, while the mostly indifferent town is caught up in another social public event, all of the women now dressed by Tillie, Tillie sets fire to the old cabin she and her mother had lived in, and takes a long red carpet and fills that with lighter fluid, hurling it out towards the town, where it slowly sets the central streets of the town on fire. The movie ends with Tillie re-dressed as the Parisian dressmaker she had become and leaving:

An important character in the drama is Australia itself. The film is made by an Australian film company and was filmed there. It’s filled with stunning shots of the bare and hard landscape, which the camera nonetheless seems to have a love affair with. We first see Tillie against this hard backdrop:

One of the good or remorseful characters, Hugo Weaver as Sergeant Farrat takes blame for Tillie as policeman, seen against the same landscape at another time of day:

A townspeople scene: they look up at Tillie and Mollie’s ruined home:

It is as deeply satisfying a film as one can hope to see, and it uses the power of a woman through one of her most characteristic skills: sewing. Moorhouse is unashamed to both caricature and celebrate high fashion and sexy dressing. It is also unsentimental in just the way of The Bookshop.

Two more women’s films not to miss, to revel in.

Ellen

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Mark Rylance as Thomas Cromwell (Wolf Hall, scripted Peter Straughan, directed Peter Kosminsky)
Wolf Hall

It is all very well planning what you will do in six months, what you will do in a year, but it’s no good at all if you don’t have a plan for tomorrow” — Cromwell to his son Gregory as they leave the princess Mary in her cold room at Hatfield, Mantel, Wolf Hall.

The past is not yet dead; it is not even dead — Wm Faulkner

A Syllabus

For a course at the Oscher LifeLong Learning Institute at George Mason University
Day: Eight Wednesday mornings, 9:40 to 11:05 pm,
September 19 to November 8
Tallwood, 4210 Roberts Road, Fairfax, Va
Dr Ellen Moody

Description of Course

In this course we’ll read Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall & discuss Bring Up the Bodies. Our context will be non-fictionalized biographies of the Tudor/Stuart courts, the better historical romance fictions, and the immensely popular film adaptations of the Henry VIII Tudor matter in general, with the first two books of Mantel’s trilogy focusing on Thomas Cromwell, and Philippa Gregory’s The Other Boleyn Girl our particular examples. Our goal is to explore historical fiction, romance and film, and biography and history and ask why this particular era, its politics, its culture, its characters have appealed so strongly since the Tudor stories emerged in the 19th century.

Required Texts:

Mantel, Hilary. Wolf Hall. New York: Henry Holt, 2009. ISBN 978-9-312-42998-0
(Mantel, Hilary. Wolf Hall. Audio CD reading by Simon Slater. London: Macmillan Audio, Unabridged, 2009. Recommended if you have any trouble reading the book.)


Claire Foy as Queen Anne Boleyn

Format: The class will be a mix of informal lecture and group discussion. Its material the Tudor Matter books & films.

Sept 19th: 1st week. Introduction: The Tudor Matter: History & biography, historical fiction & romance, Hilary Mantel. Linda Simon essay on Hilary Mantel’s life & works thus far (sent by attachment).

Sept 26th: 2nd week: Wolf Hall, Parts 1 & 2. Clips from Pt 1 of BBC WH. Serial drama. Early modern history: early modern women. For next week: Emily Nussbaum, a movie review comparing BBC Wolf Hall with HBO Casual Vacancy (Rowling)

Oct 3rd: 3rd week: Wolf Hall, Part 3; Clips from Pt 2 of BBC Wolf Hall. More on serial drama. Reading the text. For next week: Lettridge on a man for this season, and Mary Robertson on “the art of the possible” (sent by attachment).

Oct 10th: 4th week: Wolf Hall, Parts 3 & 4. Clips from pt 3 of WH; Bolt’s Thomas More, Mantel’s Thomas Cranmer; religion and politics.

Oct 17th: 5th week Wolf Hall, Part 5 & 6. Pt 4 of WH. Henry VIII and sexuality.

Oct 24th: 6th week Bring Up the Bodies, Part 1. Pts 5 & 6 of WH. Ghost stories. Beheading, treason trials. What happened?

Oct 31st: 7th week: Bring up the Bodies, Part 2. Philippa Gregory’s Other Boleyn Girl. Clips from the two Other Boleyn Girl. The psychodramas.

Nov 7th: 8th, last week: The Tudor mattter elsewhere; a clip from A Man for All Seasons; the as yet unwritten final phase of Thomas Cromwell.


Jonathan Pryce as Thomas Wolsey

Supplementary Reading and Films:

A Man for All Seasons. Dir. Fred Zinnemann. Script: Robert Bolt. Featuring: Paul Scofield, Leo McKern, John Hurt, Wendy Hiller, Susannah York. Columbia, 1966. Cinema release, adaptation of play.
Bolt, Robert. A Man for All Seasons. 1960; rpt. New York: Vintage, 1990.
Cavendish, George. The Life and Death of Cardinal Wolsey, in Two Tudor Lives, edd. Richard Sylvester & Davis P. Harding. New Haven: Yale UP, 1962.
Gregory, Philippa. The Other Boleyn Girl. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2001.
(Gregory, Philippa. The Other Boleyn Girl. CD Audio reading by Susan Lyons. Recorded Books LLC, Unabridged, 2006)
Groot, Jerome de. Consuming History: Historians and heritage in contemporary popular culture. London: Routledge, 2009.
Ives, Eric. The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn. Oxford: Blackwell, 2004/5
Mantel, Hilary. Bring Up the Bodies. New York: Henry Holt, 2012.
(Mantel, Hilary. Bring up the Bodies. Audio CD reading by Simon Vance. Macmillan Audio, Unabridged 2012.)
Mantel, Hilary. “Frocks and Shocks,” London Review of Books, a review of Julia Fox’s Jane Boleyn [a biography], 30:8 (April 2008):18-20.
Other Boleyn Girl. Dir, Script: Phillipa Lowthorpe. Consult: Andrew Davies. Featuring: Jodhi May, Steven Mackintosh, Natasha McElhone, Jared Harris. BBC, 2003. Cinema release. Adaptation.
Other Boleyn Girl. Dir. Justin Chadwick. Script. Peter Morgan. Featuring Scarlett Johansson, Natalie Portman, Kristin Scott Thomas, Eric Bana, David Morrisey. Cinema release. Adaptation.
Schofield, John. The Rise and Fall of Thomas Cromwell. Stroud, Gloucester: History Press, 2008.
Weir, Alison. Mary Boleyn. New York: Ballantine, 2011.
Wolf Hall. Dir. Peter Kominsky. Script: Peter Straughan. Featuring: Mark Rylance, Claire Foy, Jonathan Pryce, Damien Lewis. BBC, 2015. 6 Part Adaptation


Damien Lewis as Henry VIII

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Emily Mortimer as Florence Green in the meadow contemplating opening her bookshop (2017, The Bookshop)


Kelly MacDonald her first visit to Robert, sees she can indulge in her secret passion, doing puzzles from among many many that at home she stashes away (2018, Puzzle)

Reading books & doing jigsaws — what’s not to like?

Dear friends and readers,

Among the kinds of blogs I’ve not been getting to recently, which I used to place here regularly — women artists, foremother poets, translation studies — and keep vowing to return to, is the summer woman’s film. I have more excuse for this last than mere lack of time and finding myself holding to a higher standard of sheer information: I’ve not seen any women’s films this summer until very recently, and then suddenly, two: Isabel Coixet’s The Bookshop, adapted from Penelope Fitzgerald’s superb novella of the same name; and Puzzle, directed by Marc Turtletaub, scripted by Oren Moverman and Polly Mann. My jump off point: I take the opposite view expressed by Neil Minow about Bookshop, which he thinks “never comes together,”, and Christy Lemire about Puzzle, which she finds “a lovely surprize.”

I think differently. These are from the once hallowed Roger Ebert site, which is not what it was when he was alive and its most frequent contributor. In both cases, the writers begin with a set of expectations: The Bookshop is supposed to be about books themselves, and is missing (so Minow thinks) critiques of books: why do we not hear how good Lolita is? or what the young girl clerk who so grates on Minow’s nerves, Christine (Honor Kneafsey) thinks of it or other books:


Florence and Christine reading together

On the other hand, Lemire was not expecting the wife of this utterly conventional family: garage mechanic husband, stay-at-home housewife to leave her husband. She does not even know how to operate a cell phone nor does she understand why one would want such a gadget, and has brought up two sons who expect her to serve them hand-and-foot:


Bubba Weiler as Ziggy, Austin Abrams as Gabe, David Denman as Louie (the sons and father) staring expectant at Agnes

Lemire is therefore just delighted that we are not stuck in this family-centered story, but move out from there to follow the wife’s adventures alone.

Perhaps Neil Minow should have read Fitzgerald’s book, for then he would have understood the source is a story about how power works in a community: it’s about how a woman who has been exercising control over central experiences of people in her town, Mrs Gamart (played by Patricia Clarkson) uses her connections, status, and subtle manipulative techniques fostered by the nature of the usually socially dysfunctional get-togethers (I say dysfunctional if you thought the purpose of getting together was to form friendships) to destroy another woman’s desire to find a function in life by using what money she has to sell books. I wrote an analysis of this book and others by Fitzgerald when Womenwriters@groups.io was having a group reading and discussion of Fitzgerald’s novels and Hermione Lee’s literary biography of her: Penelope Fitzgerald: The Bookshop and Offshore; Charlotte Mew. It’s about how a widow without the least trace of malice (so Florence doesn’t recognize a determined hatred) and kind heart cannot preserve herself against hostile inexorable power. We watch Florence after years of solitude and withdrawal come out of her peaceful shell to invest in, create, and build up a thriving bookshop business, only to have it destroyed insidiously step-by-step by an elite woman who knows how to get a law passed to enable the local gov’t to take over the shop, how to pressure a banker, a solicitor, an unscrupulous BBC layabout to undermine and sabotage the shop to the point where Florence is left without any money or a place even to live.

The only person on Florence’s side is the reclusive Mr Brundish, who, unlike Florence, knows exactly what Mrs Gamart is doing, and attempts to stop her by confronting her:


Bill Nighy (brilliant as the nervous man with unusual tastes) demanding to Mrs Gamart that she leave Florence Green alone

Coixet’s film has flaws or difficulties. Much that happens in Fitzgerald’s book is not visible, and it is only after Florence sees the effect of Mrs Gamart’s undercover and underhanded endeavors in say the form of a letter, or a school inspector taking Christine away from the shop, or a court order about her window (with the offending Lolita in it) that she slowly realizes she is being strangled by an encircling malign octopus. A film cannot go on for hours and must be understandable so Coixet gives us dramatic (sometimes too melodramatic) scenes or visualizations that are not in the book. Nighy and Mortimer manage to keep their scenes to the awkward, piquantly and/or poignantly comic (they are directed to behave in stylized ways)


Far shot


Close up

But all too often the need for pace makes for a seeming “tear-jerker,” which the story isn’t. It’s paradoxically a story about courage; Florence shows remarkable strength, which is part of Fitzgerald’s point. All Florence’s courage avails her nothing. Commercialization also demands a happy ending, uplift, hope, so a scene is tacked on at the end of Christine having grown up and from her experience learnt to love books, to read, and open a successful bookshop. The real world of the novel has Christine pushed into forgetting about the shop and Florence ending quietly but in anguish standing with her one suitcase waiting for a bus to take her to another town. The worst change is Coixet has Christine set fire to the bookshop: Mrs Gamart’s excuse was she was going to open an art center in the old house. I asked a friend I was sitting next to, how that helped? or had any meaning except (exciting to witness?) arson, for Florence would lose all whether the building lasted or not. My friend who can grasp a coarser understanding said to many people this means that at least Mrs Gamart will not be able to get her hands on the building. That’s to miss the central idea: Mrs Gamart wanted control and power, not the building.

OTOH, to give the movie its due (and so often when one compares a book to its film adaptation, it’s an undermining process), a reader can come away from the book feeling a horrible witch-like woman malevolently destroyed another, a sort of misogynistic perspective (soap opera like). The movie makes sure we feel that Mrs Gamart could not have done what she did by emphasizing how all the various characters cooperated in the destruction of Florence. We see them at work while in the book we only gradually understand their treachery. The movie also brings back all the faces in juxtaposed stills just before we last see Florence carrying her suitcase to a ferry. Mrs Gamart could not have done it alone. In the movie even Christine’s mother participates in destroying Florence with less reason (the book brings in how Christine fails her 11-plus and how unjust the 11-plus system is).


Florence dreaming in one of the movies’ early cheerful scenes

The powerful fable hits us strongly in the gut because as with the book, Mr Brundish’s attempt to help Florence, the first time he has left his house in years, ends in his having a heart attack. He is that upset by Mrs Gamart’s performance of surprised innocence. And Coixet socks this loss of her one true friend to Florence as she adds Mr Gamart coming to the shop to lie to Florence to tell her that Mr Brundish had visited his wife to give her his support for an art center. Florence has no proof, and she becomes (at last) hysterical and screams “Get out,” and ejects the wicked old man forcibly.

There is a good movie about American black people making the rounds this summer called Get Out (which I advise my reader not to miss); also be sure and see So Sorry to Bother You.

By contrast, Puzzle is puzzling. It may be that I need to see the 2009 Rompecabezas from Argentinean writer/director Natalia Smirnoff (a woman) to grasp why for at least one-half of the film we are in time warp: Agnes is a Donna Reed character, dressing and acting like a woman of the 1950s. Why Lemire is not bothered by this unreality I don’t know.  It is improbable that in 2018 Agnes should be so obedient to her husband; it seems utterly in another era when we find that she and her husband are not determined both their sons should go to college, but that the notion of college is one that needs to be introduced. Agnes is also made into a bingo-playing priest-friendly church-going Catholic:

who hides her least unconventionality in dreamy vulnerable-heroine moods:

Agnes’s one outlet is to do puzzles, of which she has many secreted away for afternoon bouts. Now it is not improbable that she might answer an ad in the newspaper by someone asking for a partner to do puzzles with for a contest, but could this woman suddenly start to deceive her husband, lie all the time in all sorts of ways in order to gain free time to take the train into NYC and begin a partnership with a completely unknown Arab man. Irrfan Khan has been in so many brilliant Eurocentric films (Namesake, The Lunchbox), showing virtuosity (he is usually as in this film kind, attractive, reasoning but can be vicious as in Slumdog Millionaire) that he carries off the character as utterly non-threatening. I find him very attractive and have been told the actor is a type found in Indian films: the intellectual.

The insistence in the film on then bringing out how Agnes immediately resorts to lying rather than saying she is going to NYC to participate in puzzle contests, how her husband is utterly faithful to her and never distrusts her (he feels only she gives of herself to others and not him too much), and then is willing to sell his favorite summer house to please her to get money to do something in the career area for the sons, gives the game away.  Also the intense sympathy given the husband who we see as within all his capabilities as meaning well as possible and even forebearing for not beating her (that’s how it’s presented). He says he can’t do it because he’s just not like his father.

This is a film (like Ladybird [scroll down]) masquerading as a woman’s film or point of view when it is told from the male point of view. The review on IMDB asked if the story is not about selfishness (hers) and deceit. For in the second half, as she begins to enjoy life doing puzzles, enjoys being independent, and especially winning she does start an affair with Robert. It quickly emerges that he is lonely, having been left by his wife. All these hard-hearted wives, you see.


Look at the promotional shot above: is she not coyly flirting?

The looming climax comes when Agnes and Robert have won to the point they must go to Belgium to be part of the final contest. It’s then Agnes must tell her Louie, but we are led to believe that guilt stops her from being willing to go to Europe with Robert. She does not phone him when she is supposed to, she looks very reluctant.  We might think she won’t leave her sons, and is going make sure about half the money will be used to send Ziggy whom her husband had insisted work in his shop to college to become a cook. That is what Ziggy loves to do, and what his father regards as unmanly and therefore unacceptable. Some of the other half (we are to assume) will go to Gabe who wants to travel around the world or the US with a vegetarian girlfriend.

I say some because just as we assume she is going to stay with her long-suffering if dull husband, we see her waiting for a train to go somewhere. We then see an airport and think to ourselves she is after all joining the disappointed Robert. But no, she is going to Montreal. She has to keep aside some of the money for herself, no?

Now, Montreal? There is a dialogue early in the film where she expresses a desire to Ziggy to go to Montreal on her own. Why? we are not told. To do what? we are not told that. I happen to know Montreal is a little north from the borders of Canada and cold. The radical point is that she is not going to escape the husband by running to the arms of a lover. But we are not told what are her ambitions or why? the ending reminded me of Ibsen’s Doll House where it’s enough that Nora goes out of the house, slamming the door behind her. The problem is this is not 1879 and a satisfied sly smile on MacDonald’s face aboard a plane to Montreal is not enough.

I don’t want to condemn the film as it is filled with quiet nuanced scenes, and slowly builds to an interesting ending, but suggest those who are praising it are doing so as a contrast to the perpetual high violence, action-adventure fascistic point of view of so many movies nowadays. It’s a gentle film, intelligently done, slowly unwinding itself.  My favorite line:  when Louie finally asks Agnes, “Are you having an affair,” all she can say is she “thinks” she is (not sure which astounds Louie) because what she has been doing is puzzles with someone and yes they did have sex but she “didn’t like it very much.” Now those are a woman’s lines.

I thought of Margaret Drabble’s The Pattern in the Carpet: A Personal History with Jigsaws. Drabble turns to jigsaws to calm herself.

Are they a game? I think so: Drabble finds the earliest modern style puzzles are found in the Renaissance and first spread as a child’s game (think of the Alphabets in Austen’s Emma). Drabble suggests for the adult that you are working against the puzzle maker. You achieve something when all the pieces are in place.  I like to do puzzles and my method resembles Agnes’s: first she makes the frame and then she works on different portions of the picture. Of course the puzzle maker makes this second step hard and now you must follow the colors. For me since the competition is at a distance (I don’t go in for contests), it’s relaxed and I have aesthetic pleasure putting the puzzle together. It’s a rare game I enjoy.


A rehearsal shot

In Puzzle Robert teaches Agnes to follow the colors first, only when the competition begins she reverts. She trusts to her own instincts and methods — so there is a feminist “feel.” Robert also tells Agnes he does puzzles to give shape and meaning to life but does not elaborate on this idea, and it does not make as much sense as Drabble’s explanation.

Gentle reader, both these movies are worth going to see — as well as Get Out and So Sorry to Bother You. You can escape the Trumpite poisoned environment we live in in the US today to learn about living in normally hard worlds.

Ellen

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Early recording of Garland before the studios got hold of her: “Bill” from Jerome Kerns’ Showboat

Easter for me as a child was her voice singing “Easter Parade:” in your Easter bonnet, with all the frills upon it ….


As Dorothy (Wizard of Oz, never re-done)

Friends,

I’ve written only a very few blogs about women musicians, singers, composers. I am not myself technically musically educated, and there is so little readily come by of higher calibre, where the art of the woman is taken seriously, centrally. Opera composers yes, the occasional prima donna. Judy Chicago placed at her 39 women dinner table, Ethel Smyth (who became Virginia Woolf’s friend and for a brief time lover).


Ethel Smyth – pianist

I’ve written of Edith Piaf on my Sylvia blog after going to a lecture with clips, and of Kaija Saariagho’s L’amour de lion after seeing the opera on HD screening.

So it’s more than time I wrote about one of the most famous of the 20th century, an extraordinary singer and performer: Judy Garland. On Wednesday night I went to a 2 and 1/2 hour lecture by Robert Wyatt, accompanied by remarkable podcasts, clips, tapes. The auditorium was full, and I was told what a treat and how excellent is Wyatt. I have gone to one of his presentations on Gilbert and Sullivan: his talk is banal and sometimes to me offensive because he causes (to me) inexplicable laughter in the audience. Some of what I write here is from the few notes I took, a good deal from my own response to all the music and clips he played, the rest found on the Net or from memory.


For me an iconic image

The argument of this blog is that women singers have had a sexual story imposed on them, which they have succumbed to — not hard to understand since in life many interviews include a demand for sex. To make their way in a career they must negotiate their way through the male patriarchy and often end up marrying (as protection and as a platform) a male producer or director at some point (in Garland’s case most famously Vincent Minelli). Judy Garland’s life and the kind of presence her most frequently-played songs resemble are those of Edith Piaf.

What these are stories about are women with an extraordinary gift that could make enormous money and be fulfilling to enact out; they felt they had to submit to soul-destroying false archetypes; to keep up the show self-destructed from within. Each needed more self-esteem to start with, more education, and a higher status; then each might have been able to build a stable environment based on their innate self (yes there is such an entity or presence in us), and turning away from worshipping the siren calls of admiration to do what they apparently couldn’t stand. To endure this they had to drink or drug themselves into a stupor. Now this life enabled them to leave the plethora of work we have from them. Given the US environment Garland’s achievement was to do so much good work and leave behind many kinds of records of it.

One contrast I can think of: Joan Rivers managed to fulfill her talent, stay far more than solvent and possess and care for her soul (and her daughter), be true to a decent set of values her satire at least suggested. But she had to buy into (so to speak) capitalist ideals of ambition, competition, and glamor. Which she did. These desires were part of her innate self. So she claims in her bio-pic film.

Frances Ethel Gumm, the third daughter of two Vaudevillians, Garland appeared on the stage at age 2. Like Piaf, her extraordinary gifts of voice in the range and depth of emotional expressiveness, was quickly recognized and by the time she was a young teenager MGM had seen someone whose gifts would attract large audiences, and the process had begun of working her to the limit of her strength and tolerance for artifical commercial popularity.

Wyatt asserted Garland had a domineering mother and never learned to read music — she relied on memorizing.  While he suggested that Garland was abused because from the age of nine she was fed with heavy prescription drugs, he did not say why. As her life went on, the only explanation offered was the implicit,: see how weak she was, how uncontrolled; for several of her husbands and/or lovers he said how the man had “protected” her. Nowhere did he speak of the long hours MGM demanded, the high pressure (he said only that she hated Buzby Berkeley) to perform in a certain way, the demand she lose weight, look and behave a certain way; and that as she got older, the reward was large amounts of money for MGM and a (perhaps) a (thin) pretense of adulation all around her. Breaking down in private of course.

From this early decade of her life and career Wyatt told of a drivingly ambitious mother (he exonerated the father), and showed some clips, played some podcasts of her earlier effective performances on stages across the US. Tapes exist and they are musically pleasing, expressive of genuine and gay feeling. Her body type was (reminding me of Marlene Dietrich in her first years) was considered ugly (read: socially unacceptable) so she was forced into dieting, cosmetics, exercise to make her conform to the fake ideal of Barbie-ness (we see in all the Trump women today).


With Mickey Rooney

Once her appearance and name were changed, and she entered into the world of the filmed musical, she began to make huge sums for MGM. The Wizard of Oz was her earliest signature hit. She paired with Mickey Rooney again and again. One song that became a signature number was “Get Happy:” I’m not sure that any of the mainstream recordings capture what is at the core of this one: black spirituals. Listen to Judy’s words about Judgment day, getting rid of your cares and troubles, the Lord is going to chase all your cares away. It’s all so peaceful on the other side. The overlay is white male slickness, a pretense of flippancy, the male suit and tipped hat feminized.

Her years of contract under MGM showed her to emerge as a feature star whose presence commanded listeners. The wikipedia article absolved MGM of her addiction habit, but the writer does not cite the tremendously challenging (in every way) schedule wrenched out of her, nor the phoniness of the numbers — nor that she was continually berated by Buzby Berkley — nor everything draining surrounding such a career based on wide success, petty vanity and power struggles within the smaller circles. I could see how she promoted Gene Kelly, supported Mickey Rooney: they were all contending with the nonsense de-sexualized myths the public wanted to believe in. When you watch the clips, they mostly seem so pastoral , as in the famous trolleycar song from Meet Me In St Louis: bang bang bang went the trolley (trolleys were destroyed by large corporations in order to make US people dependent on the car).

There were years of great success, widely popular pleasing film after film with the same names performing with her, her husband Minelli the director and then others. She worked with the most famous and best of popular singers, actors, musicians. Wyatt showed a clip of her with Fred Astaire. But she also began to not show up for filming sessions, disrupting a making of a film repeatedly. It was inevitable that the studio would fire her. Wyatt seemed to delight in emphasizing how many husbands and lovers she had until she began to deteriorate in health under her punishing schedule, drug and drinking freely over the course of her day and night performances (on stage, in life). When she left MGM, she went on to other studios, to work on the stage, to recording songs, and at the end on TV. At a high point she owned a beautiful home in Hollywood, during a come-back she lived in London. Wyatt seemed to like to repeat she was living out of suitcase.  Wyatt discussed her times of great misery in a nonchalant way, saying (for example) how she threw something at her children and “so that was the end of her motherhood.”

She had altogether three children, Liza Minelli, something of a look-alike, the only one able to become a similar admired singing actress . Lorna Lufts had but a brief career. Garland couldn’t manage the relationships she was expected to, and would break away through breakdowns, suicide attempts, discarding who she had to, but also forming for life bonds with similarly suffering stars (e.g., Frank Sinatra), musicians, producers.  I remember her when I was young on TV looking dreadful (very heavy, her face over made-up, her teeth glittering sickly) and then very thin; later at Carnegie Hall, having become an icon for gay men — they felt a kindred spirit.

My favorite songs (and the one easiest to find) are those where she reinforces the myths; she is inimitable expressing anguish.

Except for the initial presence of a mother, Garland’s life resembled Piaf’s — and both conform to the stereotype of the woman in need of a man. Judy’s best known songs enforce this, e.g., “You made me love you.”

She lived but 47 years but the enormous amount of songs and recorded dances, movies, stage performances, military shows suggest a life twice as long with work never ceasing (NYTimes obituary).

The wikipedia article has a long description of her singing worth reading:

Garland possessed the vocal range of a contralto.Her singing voice has been described as brassy, powerful, effortless and resonant, often demonstrating a tremulous, powerful vibrato. Although the octave range of her voice was comparatively limited, she was capable of alternating between female and male-sounding timbres at will with little effort. The Richmond Times-Dispatch correspondent Tony Farrell wrote that Garland possessed “a deep, velvety contralto voice that could turn on a dime to belt out the high notes” … From an early age, Garland had been billed as “the little girl with the leather lungs”, a designation the singer later admitted to having felt humiliated by because she would have much preferred to have been known to audiences as a “pretty” or “nice little girl”. Jessel recalled that, even at only 12 years-old, Garland’s singing voice resembled that of “a woman with a heart that had been hurt” … Garland stated that she always felt most safe and at home while performing onstage, regardless of the condition of her voice. Her musical talent has been commended by her peers; opera singer Maria Callas once said that Garland possessed “the most superb voice she had ever heard”, while singer and actor Bing Crosby said that “no other singer could be compared to her” when Garland was rested …

Garland was known for interacting with her audiences during live performances; a New York Times biographer wrote that Garland possessed “a seemingly unquenchable need for her audiences to respond with acclaim and affection … The biographer went on to write that Garland’s performance style resembled that of “a music hall performer in an era when music halls were obsolete”. Close friends of Garland’s have insisted that she never truly wanted to be movie star and would have much rather devoted her career entirely to singing and recording records … Michael Musto, a journalist for W magazine, wrote that in her film roles Garland “could project decency, vulnerability, and spunk like no other star, and she wrapped it up with a tremulously beautiful vocal delivery that could melt even the most hardened troll”

Her TV show provides a cornucopia of greatness and evidence of remarkable stamina; she was on for a couple of years; here she is with Liza as Two Lost Souls:

For quite a long time in the 1970s I had a long-playing album of Judy Garland at Carnegie Hall. Jim loved it too and I would play and replay it at night. Now looking at it and the other citations from Wyatt, I see a major writer was a man blackballed as socialist: Harold Arlen. I did love “I’m gona love you, come rain or come shine.

One last: Her life in pictures in her last performance, Copenhagan, 1969: “Over the rainbow:”

It’s possible there will be a biographical film with Renee Zellweger playing the role. There is a fine American Masters PBS program.

And this shall be for music when no one else is near,
The fine song for singing, the rare song to hear!
That only I remember, that only you admire,
Of the broad road that stretches and the roadside fire
— R.L. Stevenson, “I will make you brooches”

Ellen

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