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Archive for the ‘20th century’ Category


Christa Wolf, Frankfurt, Germany, October 1999

A life, review-analyses of Patterns of Childhood and Cassandra and 4 essays. Patterns of Childhood is about growing up in a fascist state (what she saw), WW2, then the years of the East Germany, finally 1970s and global imperialism — in narratives of childhood, memories, meditations, and travelogue. The 4 essays are travel memoirs of Greece, meditations on literature, her Cassandra, & women’s writing.

Dear Friends and readers,

I’m delighted to able to say the curriculum committee at OLLI at AU has approved my course for 4 weeks this summer:

Retelling Traditional History & Myth from an Alternative POV

The course aim is to explore books which retell stories and history from unexpected and often unvoiced POVs. In War in Val D’Orcia, An Italian War Diary, 1943-44, Irish Origo retells the story of World War Two as a woman in charge of Tuscan estates who hides partisans, POWs & runs a school for evacuated children. Cassandra & Four Essays by Christa Wolf tells the story of Troy from her POV, no longer a nutcase but an insightful prophet. It is profoundly anti-war & emerges from Germany’s history 1930s – 70s.

For weeks before giving this course I devoted myself to reading both the set books and several others by and about both Origo and Wolf. I’ve written on Origo on this blog before (however inadequately I now feel), but I’ve never written on Christa Wolf’s magnificent books or said anything about her. One of the great and important woman authors of the 20th century — as well as absorbing, moving, an original thinker, a candid truth-teller who led a life where she became involved with harrowing and intendedly humanely productive events of our time. Of those I read, I found the most riveting and continually interesting and will speak of here were some of her books of life-writing, her historical fiction, and her essays: the misleadingly titled, Patterns of Childhood (it was originally ironically A Model Childhood), The Quest for Christa T (disguised autobiography), Cassandra and Four Essays, No Place on Earth, and Parting with Phantoms, 1990-94.

I only began her Medea (she completely transforms the tale), and read it compulsively but must reread — it reminds me tonight of Ferrante’s Days of Abandonment and Joan Didion’s Play It As It Lays, in her One Day a Year, 1960-2000 (it’s September 27th) and Eulogy for the Living. But this course will give me the impetus and reason/opportunity for these (as well as more Origo) and I will write two more blogs on both women. I cannot speak too highly of them in life and as writers.

First a little life:


Answering questions

She was born in to lower to middling middle class Germans who lived in a province that had been fought over by Poland and Germany for centuries, and it was just then German; her father was a grocer assisted by her mother. As happens to gifted children, even in a girl in a fascist country, her gifts were early on recognized and she was sent to good schools. What she thinks important in her Patterns of Childhood is that she was subjected to Nazi education and was for a while an enthusiastic member of Hitler’s Youth Camps. Patterns of Childhood (like Cassandra) is written from the vantage point of her older years, traveling with her husband, and growing daughter in 1974 back to places she grew up in or experienced the terrors of war and refugee life, when her mind moves into different streams of flashbacks, sometimes from very early in her life, then again her adolescence, and more than one severe disillusionment: there is her re-education as the horrors of Nazism became apparent, from the terrifying destruction of Jewish life and then Jewish people — to the disappearance of people into extermination-slave labor camps (including socialists, gay people, disabled). She saw her father bullied and threatened into obeying Nazism. The war came and she flees with her mother – father already a POW – and brother.

The dates that matter are of her publications and three more: 1951 she married to a like-minded journalist and it was a long happy and collaborative marriage: they wrote and traveled and lived together. There were two children

After the war she had a period as a socialist and journalist-editor where she rose to respect and prominence in the early and middle literary culture of East Germany. First novels are social realism; they are readable novels, but she wanted to break away and she found imposed on her communist dogma, gradually sees that the life supposed to be wonderful is not turning out that way. Yes people have jobs, houses, but those rising to power are increasingly corrupt, and this middle area of consumer goods does not emerge. She begins to write very modernist books and writing – more like Virginia Woolf and modernists, without herself having much access to them. She joins the campaign for nuclear disarmament. Many writers left – but she and her husband did not (reminding me of Anna Akmatova). She broke with the leaders of East Germany, and the second level of people who controlled who got good positions.

There was a 2-3 year period where she was an informer for the Stasi — a period, which when it came out after the two Germanies merged (after 1989), did her reputation so much harm, it never recovered — I see much misogyny in the continual attacks and demands for an apology. There are a series of what I’ll call wild unreal fantasy long short stories: These are not much mentioned in what is written about her in English: the political position overshadows all, unhappily. I’ll mention two: “The life and opinions of Tomcat”, and let me tell you Tom is one sophisticated tomcat whose references to philosophy and Marxism left me bewilderes, but she is clearly arguing comic style against all sorts of economic and metaphysical ideas. It’s not that common to write an animal tale with cat as consciousness; AN Wilson has a poignant one called Stray. “What Remains” is another comic paranoid fantasy, dramatizing what it feels like to be in a constant state of surveillance where your things are taken from you – you can’t go by a window, go out to your garage and pick up your car; hone calls are nerve-wracking. She wasn’t that keen on capitalism In Parting with Phantoms she tells of what it feels like to watch a socially cooperative business turn capitalist — how quickly attitudes seems to change. There are interviews where she is treated very hostilely. I find it like the way Hilary Clinton was treated, and Wolf (while she didn’t kill herself) was not that good at stonewalling. She went to live in LA – California where it was sunny but she didn’t stay

Then around 2000 there is what I’ll call a period of relative silencing (what often happens to women). She continues to writes seriously but seems to have been much less in the public eye. Most of the famous respected works come before 2000. She was made very ill on and off in later life. See also this moving synopsis of the hard time she had inflicted on her in later life and how much she did achieve.

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The narrator, Nelly Jordan, tells of her 1971 trip to her hometown–the former Landsberg, now part of Poland–with her husband, her brother, and her daughter Lenka; of her childhood during the Nazi period; of the three years she has spent writing the present book; and of her efforts to explain to Lenka how Nelly and her parents could have failed to oppose the Nazis. Daily middle-class life under fascism is described in detail, often by inserting authentic materials such as newspaper clippings. Such events as the limitation of the freedom of the press and the establishment of concentration camps do not really affect the family; they continue to operate their store and remain largely apolitical, as did so many Germans, not realizing that their disinterest is making possible the consolidation of Nazism. As a young teenager, a group leader in the “Young Maiden” section of the Hitler Youth, she idealizes a female teacher dedicated to Hitler. The memoir is presented as a novel and so is daring in suggesting–contrary to the official dogma of the GDR — that East Germans as well as West Germans share in the guilt of the Nazi past. The problems of the 1970s, such as Vietnam, Chile, Greece, and the Middle East, are referred as part of the contemporary context. The last part of the book is an escape narrative, as Nellie and her relatives flee across the Elbe, then are forced even farther west, and end up living half starved with several other families (28 people total) in a farmhouse in what eventually becomes a Soviet zone. They exhibit a full sense of German suffering and a deep sense of outrage at historic houses bulldozed, bombings, civilians being shot wholesale and other atrocities.

I was taken by the narrative immediately. Strong passionate prose intensely written. Ursule Molinaro and Hedwig Rappoli’s translation is gripping: it seems as if Wolf deliberately cultivates a distanced style while sweeping in to show us the ravaged emotional and complicated stories and social realities of the adults and children surrounding her as a child. The pictures of her dolls reminded me of mine. Of her relationships with cousins. chapter delves how her father was driven to allow himself to be drafted into World War 2. She also depicts the mother’s sudden half-hysterical protests and the use of the term or name Cassandra emerges. Her mother’s behavior is Cassandra behavior.

In the chapters there are are narrativs in the present, remembered narratives of the past, and meditations. She also uses epigrams to signal the change of theme. Two later chapters registering the full horror of this “final solution.” When she first heard the term, long after when she came fully to understand what these people were doing — IG Faben, a hideous company which I hope is historically remembered for a behavior so heinous it’s unspeakable without strong nerves as one writes. Also from POV of that time and now, 1970s when Allende is being overthrown and another monstrous conflagration going on. What must be grasped about fascists. Again her mother a Cassandra, to protect her daughter, is mean to others. And we met or see an original of Christa T.

When they have to flee: it seems that at the last moment irrationally Charlotte, Nelly’s mother, cannot bear to leave her home. She feels she is guarding. But when the truck sets off without her, she realizes she has nothing to do, she can guard nothing. She sent off most of the “precious stuff.” And what we see is her join forces with another person (a relative) to chase down the truck and re-find her children. I found I couldn’t face the idea of what was going to happen if it was that mother and daughter would never see one another again so I peeped forward until I managed to ascertain that after a long ordeal they are reunited. As Charlotte goes forward (on foot, there is nothing else) she hears of the truck and thinks she will find them quickly, but our narrator warns us not. So Nelly (young Christa) is to endured on her own with her younger siblings and an uncle — in the piece I found ascertaining that they are reunited, I gathered Nelly was for a time in a concentration camp.

In the summing up chapters of what we’ve learnt — she’s on about how much needs to be forgotten in order to continue in life, but also that “time is running out” somehow on humanity. I’m thinking it ought to have been called The Testament of a [1930s & WW2] Survivor. She ends in the remembered sections, on the time just after WW2: her father brought home in terrible state, his death, her mother’s mortal illness, and she is with people who have TB — who died, who didn’t expected and unexpected. Done to make it fitting. Modern time is 1975 and latest brutal coup engineered by US recorded. Then we are back on this trip of 1970s, with her husband, brother (her daughter’s uncle) and a daughter’s views.

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The story begins: She has arrived before Mycenae (gates of town Agamemnon is returning to) in a sort of cage, a basket and with her is her maid-companion, Marpesa and her children -– twins. In this version they are not Ajax’s after all, they are the children of another thug-rapist, Eurypylos, whom she was given as wife to by Priam in return for Euryplos fighting on the side of the Trojans; she is taken out of the cage. It does not matter whether they are Agamemnon’s, Ajax’s or another thug – it was forced. She knows when they go inside Clytemnestra will have axed the blustering wimpering Agamemnon, now by her side, to death, and not only she but the children and maid will go the same way. We then get a long series of flashbacks as she remembers how they got to this point.

First half several dominant themes emerge immediately. A society based on utter exploitation of women, no rights whatsover, often enslaved. She is forced to endure the Greek Panthous in bed, though he disgusts her. An elder of Troy, an old man. Like Nestor. Second half she is raped by Ajax in a fit of rage. Patriarchy based on war and aggression as necessary, cult of a hero. I mentioned in Origo’s work what we see is an ethic of caring, concern, refusal to retaliate, love. There is little room for this beyond the friendships of women. I don’t have it to hand at this moment but we are told about a group of huts the women retreat to, just outside Troy. They sew, cook, talk and even dance there – they have some liberty when they get to talk to one another. That is a theme in this novel (in Wolf’s Medea, Medea has been betrayed by her pupil, so the teacher-mentor motif as common in women’s novels as the mother-daughter paradigm is deeply perverted – as if Jane Eyre turned on Miss Temple or Miss Temple on her). The various women telling one another things. Confiding.

Significant changes from traditional story to emphasize: she and Aeneas are lovers; Wolf has given Cassandra the role of Dido, whom in Virgil’s Aeneid was queen of Carthage and lover of Aeneas. Only Aeneas is no longer something of a sneak (that’s not Virgil’s view), but a noble loving man who wanted to take Cassandra with him.

Two halves. Much of the first half does consist of Cassandra’s memories as a child, young woman, growing up with vignettes of all the characters involved – including importantly Aeneas, Eumelos, you might take him to be Kissinger (or Dr Strangelove in the famous movie, who was acted as an imitation of the very young Henry Kissinger crossed with a nutty Nazi in a wheelchair).

She was Priam’s favorite daughter and loved to sit with him as he discussed politics and matters of state. Her relationship with her mother, Hecuba, however, was never as intimate, since Hecuba recognized Cassandra’s independence. At times their interactions are tense or even cold, notably when Hecuba does not sympathize with Cassandra’s fear of the god Apollo’s gift of prophecy or her reluctance to accept his love. When she ultimately refuses him, he curses her so that no one will believe what she prophesies. When Cassandra is presented among the city’s virgins for deflowering, she iwas chosen by Aeneas, who makes love to her only later. Nonetheless, she falls in love with him, and is devoted to him despite her liaisons with others, including Panthous — indeed, she imagines Aeneas whenever she is with anyone else. It is Aeneas’ father Anchises who tells Cassandra of the mission to bring Hesione, Priam’s sister who was taken as a prize by Telamon during the first Trojan War, back from Sparta. Not only do the Trojans fail to secure Hesione, they also lose the seer Calchas during the voyage, who later aids the Greeks during the war. Menelaus visits, a complicated silly quarrel, Hesione taken and Paris follows returns (Cassandra intuits because Helen is not seen) with out Helen.

A beautiful happy moment where she becomes the lover of Aeneas. Pius Aeneas. Forgive me I could not come before now. She wakes upon a very bad dream and he takes her to her mother. Cybele a goddess of dance in a temple

Climax at center (this part of the story is in Shakespeare’s despairing satiric Troilus and Cressida): the Trojans get together to decide if they should go to war. Remember the narrative is not place in the order things occurred. Instead the segments are thematic and things are ironically juxtaposed. Like in an epistolary novel. There are three ships returned from the Greek islands and Greece. Paris is there and very angry and for war as is Troilus. Eumelos, guard, very untrustworthy, is manipulating for war. The problem comes out that if they are to fight for Helen, absurd some say, she is not there. Paris was so incompetent he didn’t manage to bring her all the way. All they have is this phantom. There is a version of the Troy story where she is spirited away to Egypt. One of Euripides’ plays has Helen landing in Egyptian with the cunning Egyptian tyrant. The allegory works very nicely if you substitute for Helen Weapons of Mass Destruction. There were no weapons of mass destruction We were going to war with Iraq (by the way there were no Iraqis on the 9/11 planes, they were Egyptians) because of all these weapons of mass destruction But when it was found out, we did not leave. And her Troilus and Hector object. So what? Our honor is at stake. Cassandra gets very excited, known to be excitable. Oh Woe is me Woe is me and Priam agrees to have her dragged away and chained.

In the second half all chaos breaks out and Achilles emerges as this senseless utterly dishonorable brute (as he does in most versions of the story since Euripides and then particularly the Aeneid. In this version Achilles brutally murders Troilus after Troilus attacks him for having murdered Hector and then dragged him in a chariot around Troy – desecrating his body. This is what happens in Homer’s Iliad, which is pro-Greek. But we are supposed to understand that Achilles was in this mad rage because his lover, Patroclus, has been murdered by Diomedes, another thug ( the whole of Homer’s Book 5 of Iliad is Diomedes murdering people)

The close: Cassandra tells of the final events: another Amazonian princess, companion-maid, Myrine, murdered, and the sounds remind Cassandra of Polyxena heard screaming by Achilles’ grave where she was murdered; Andron her lover had coward-like betrayed her. Hecuba she remembers called Hecuba (mother of Trojans) a “howling bitch.” Cassandra’s children are dead. “Yes, that is how it happened.” You are a hero. I don’t want to become a statue or hero. How are we to understand her refusal.

The four essays are travelogues, literary critiques and explications of her books (see what I wrote just above) and an essay on women’s literature. If you read Wolf’s first two travel reports to find something concrete out about Greece, you’ll be very frustrated. She does not tell us but she is in Metelyn, Germany because there is a group of people meeting there to stop nuclear armament, campaigning against building these huge arsenals of nuclear bombs whereby we can destroy the earth many times over. This is 1981 when she has come out as a political activist against the present German GDR and the Western one too

The story of the first two: here’s a strike in Copenhagen that gets in their way, they land, are taken by their friends to the friends’ apartment, lovely meal. Their friends take them for drives around Athens and out to the countryside, by the sea, they meet other people, friends of friends, they visit taverns, eat out. At some point they go to the Acropolis and wander about. Just what you’d expect. In the first report, the housekeeper-cook complains to Wolf about the mistress who treats her badly (says the house-keeper-cook). We get a lot about the food they eat, the drinks, and twice both in Athens and then part 2 they find they must go down to a police station (or so they are told and register themselves, answer questions). It’s not clear they must do this, but they do it twice. They are used to this presumably.

They make friends with two free spirits, Helen and Susan traveling together and become a sort of foursome or maybe six-some. The difference between the first travel report and the second is on the second they take a boat to Crete where some believe women were once powerful. In the second they no longer have a car, so they travel about on buses with irritatingly noisy (modern music) . They go to an amphitheater where thousands of years ago these plays were played – by men as far as we can tell, no women there. They participate in Easter Ceremonies. Much conversation and thoughts about the conventional history of what they are seeing and what they are seeing and imagining what was.

There are the barest of references to the complicated political history of Greece after WW2 and the1950s where the US CIA was involved in overthrowing a socialist regime, parties within Greece fighting ferociously, and at first a conservative regime put in place but eventually Greeks themselves worked out tenuous solutions. There were long-lasting premiers at times. The Greek orthodox church remained strong.

The fourth essay: I just love where Wolf attacks Aristotle’s ideas on tragedy or art, and quotes a male (p 278) who tells her “He does not understand me …. (p 278) I was so stupefied I could not answer him.” The female genres have been subjective novels. Ahe opens with an individual reverie I’ll call it on one of Ingeborg Bachmann’s poems where she first gives you one of the stanzas and only after that the full poem, and then her terms of reference are not the usual English and American women authors you might expect or be familiar with or at least have heard of, maybe a couple of French – so while there is a reference to Virginia Woolf – and remember I said that Woolf was not available in East Germany in translation until well into the 1970s, instead of say Susan Brownmiller (Against our Will), Adrienne Rich, Gloria Steinem, Erica Jong (I’ve never read Fear of Flying), popular novel or Simone de Beauvoir. Joan Didion, Susan Sontag, she cites Anna Segler, Ingeborg Bachmann, Marie-Louise Fleisser; she refers to their lives a bit, their writing but especially Bachmann who was a poet and whom Wolf knew, but then ends on a long passionate argument that the literature women read starting with earliest classics (Homer)is male-centered, women presented through male eyes, and proceeds herself to explain ancient classics from POV of women in charge – as if matriarchies really existed at one time and the present way we know these famous one is men having twisted the stories to suit them in charge.

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From Judy Chicago’s Dinner Party — the Renaissance Women section

Most women’s literature has been destroyed once it was written, re-framed (Sappho the only women ancient writer we know of for sure cut just to bits), only in the 18th century do we begin to hear women talking for and to themselves – the mocking and satiric Jane Austen among the first of these. I confess for those who made it to the end of the fourth essay I do not at all believe there was ever a matriarchy the way Wolf and some schools of feminism believe – Judy Chicago’s Dinner Party a huge display in museums of 39 famous and archetypal female figures having dinner together; the floor is covered with little biographies of hundreds of women in history. As far I’m concerned Chicago wastes the first 7 plates on women goddesses who cannot have existed. But throughout the history of the arts from the beginning there have been central women characters who play roles that have drawn women to them – and real historical women who have contributed to western (it’s mostly) society. A mostly Eurocentric table.

Cassandra is among these. I’ll name a few again since we don’t much hear them this way: still remembered today, Penelope (Odysseus wife) – knitting away, Medea, child-killer, Clytemnestra, nut case, Iphigenia, sacrificial daughter, Dido, seduced abandoned, a suicide, Cassandra, nut-case fast forward to Arthurian matter Guinevere, adulteress, Morgan le Fay, a witch, somewhat unhappily these queens who got their heads cut off – compensatory victimhood I call it – Anne Boleyn, Mary Stuart, Marie Antoinette, all of whom had their heads chopped off – warnings against wanting power – and among these I do include Hilary Clinton who I believe the other day in a rant Trump was saying should clearly have been executed.


Christine de Pizan’s Capital letter — she wrote books of imagined exemplary women

In my next blog on Wolf, I’ll write about Medea, No Place on Earth (if possible Anita Raja or Elena Ferrante’s Italian translation too, and Eulogy for the Living.


Mid-life from a conference of German writers

Ellen

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“She stood on the pavement, a thin shabby figure, so insignificant in her old hat and coat, so forget of herself in her enjoyment of the scene, that she might have been wearing a cloak of invisibility” (Virago, Chapter 1, near the beginning of the book).

Down in the drawing-room, Charles and Harriet sat without speaking. The wireless usefully filled in the gap. Charles read Persuasion — his favorite book, to which Harriet imagined he resorted when wounded … ‘What a novel to choose,’ Charles thought. ‘Only the happy in love should ever read it. It is unbearable to have expression given to our painful solitariness, to rake up the dead leaves in our hearts, when we have nothing that can follow … except in dreams, as perhaps Jane Austen herself never had but on the page she wrote’ … (Elizabeth Taylor, A Game of Hide and Seek. 1951), quoted in Katie Trumpener’s The Virago Jane Austen

Friends and readers,

This is a book that deserves a blog all to itself. Ending sometime last month, over a three week period a group of people on The Way We Read Now face-book page, read it three chapters a day seemingly (of course everyone is invisible on the Net) together. How many participated I do not know; I don’t know how many summarized the different chapters. I “did” the penultimate trio, Chapters 35-37 out of 40. During the course of the read, I sent along two essays on Miss Mole or E.H. Young, which I thought would give some desperately needed context within which to understand this woman’s realistic novel masterpiece: Kathy Mezei’s “Spinsters, Surveillance and Space: The Case of Miss Marple, Miss Mole and Miss Jekyll” and the chapter from Deirdre Lynch’s Janeites: Jane Austen Devotees and Disciples by Katie Trumepener” about the Virago “Jane” books of the 1930s. I discuss and link in these at the end of this blog. The one other of Young’s novels I’ve read is her Jenny Wren, a re-write or post-text to Sense and Sensibility. I once knew a woman who was planning to write a literary biography: Maggie Lane, who has produced four excellent books on Austen and one on Fanny Burney.

I cannot find a plot-summary anywhere: doubtless the result of repressive censoring spoiler warning policing (not to say terrorists, for you can be thrown off websites for telling any literal detail of a book someone might not have read). But if anyone would be kind enough to supply one I’d insert it into this blog. I just don’t have the patience, for the delicate and subtle twists and turns of the plot-design, are central to the experience. So just the main thrust:

Miss Hannah Mole is a lifelong unmarried woman. She survives by hiring herself out as a companion and/or housekeeper where her salary is so small, that if she is fired, she cannot carry on for very long w/o becoming destitute. She is the only daughter of a working class farmer, and housewife, who left her a cottage, where (we learn in the last quarter of the novel) for a time she lived with a WW1 veteran who fooled her into thinking he cared seriously for her. She has not been able to move him out and so herself moves from place to place. She is deeply ashamed of this secret, fears exposure would render her jobless for life. One female relative, Mrs Lily Smith-Spencer, is a 20th century version of the obnoxious harridans of Austen’s fiction: Mrs S-S won’t give Miss Mole a position herself but provides “character” references. During the course of the story Miss Mole becomes housekeeper to a dissenting minister, Mr Corder, a second mother to his daughters (his wife has died), Edith and Ruth, is fallen in love with by a man, Mr Blenkinsop, living in the house she previously was employed at (where she saved someone from suicide). Her greatest satisfactions come from playing the role of a strong mother/friend to the people in Corder’s household. She loves being alive, walking in th natural world. She seems not to enact a malicious or envious thought all novel long. Her reward is to be taken in as a partner (marriage is assumed but not enacted) by someone with whom she finds herself congenial. There seems to be no way for her to be independent. In life Young worked as a librarian, fell in love with a married man and lived with him and his wife until the wife left them. She never married. You can view her life and writing career here.

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So here are my contributions as I read the book with others:

Miss Mole has gotten through life by masking; by in effect leaving others to assume she thinks or feels like them when she doesn’t. What she needs is a real job, real profession and salary but her original start position is such there is little hope of escape except by marriage. And I can see why she wouldn’t want that. She would not be able to get herself fired. We are told she is thin, unattractive, shabby with sensible non-stigmatizing shoes (her one self-indulgence). She has a trick of immersing herself in the natural world and reveling in it.

From Chapter 5:

“Money was one of the best things in the world, used properly, used by Miss Hannah Mole, and all the way down Prince’s Road she was buying annuities for people like herself, settling some thousands of pounds on Mrs. Ridding” (‘the woman who seemed so ungrateful for the help Hannah gave her baby and her suicidal husband.). “The wind had risen strongly as night came on and Hannah crossed the Downs under swaying branches and swirling leaves. The football-players, the riders, the children had all gone home; lamps edged the roads, but, where Hannah walked under the elms, there was a stormy darkness. The branches creaked lugubriously or with shrill protest, and those which still kept their leaves were like great flails, threshing the winds, maddened by their sterile efforts, for it was the wind, threshing harder, that produced the harvest, whipping it from the trees and driving it before him. Hannah was driven, too; a wisp of a woman, exhilarated by the noise and the buffeting”. Chapter 7: “The image of the funeral procession at the beginning of this chapter is powerfully sad. “This was a very melancholy procession, a detachment of an army of women like herself who went from house to house behind their boxes, a sad multitude of women with carefully pleasant faces, hiding their ailments, lowering their ages and thankfully accepting less than they earned.”

Chapter 8: a large part of the meaningful content of this book is conveyed by its ironic tone. That likening of Miss Mole’s transplanting of herself from Mrs Gibson (her previous employer) where she felt some warmth towards herself as she’s there as a friend) to Mr Corder as a funeral procession is powerful: “a detachment of an army of women like herself who went from house to house behind their boxes, a sad multitude of women with carefully pleasant faces, hiding their ailments, lowering their ages and thankfully accepting less than they earned? What became of them all?” this and the rest of the paragraph (upon dying “a craving that there should be at least one person to whom her disappearance would be a calamity.”

In the context of Mrs Gibson, Mrs Rider, and the two daughters, the story of Miss Mole seems to me there to show us how marriage and children were forced on women. You were given few options other than that which might be fulfilling and to reach those you needed to be middle class definitely, and better yet well connected. Miss Mole rebels by her continual ironic abrasions; she knows some release that way (reminding me of Elinor Dashwood in Austen’s S&S). But the descriptive metaphor brings out the tragic undertones of this bleak vision. There is a complexity in these half-hidden stories too. The problem we have reading this book is its particular women’s tradition and 20th century context (like so many others from other eras where women similarly coerced) has been erased. See The Virago Jane.

Chapters 9-11 and 11-14: I felt that Chapter 11 took us past the kind of rebarbative suggestive scenes we’ve had and provided important background for Mr Corder. We have had Miss Mole’s past history and something of her cousin, Mrs Spencer-Smith but Corder is (like the widow before him) the linchpin person in this house, the one with control over money and who does what. He is our self-blind selfish patriarch; it’s a wonderful irony that his sister’s marriage was forgiven to the extent she was given enough money to live on and supply him. He has been something of a rebel but he sees everyone as there to serve him.

I found myself warming to Miss Mole in these chapters as she tries to make existence more comfortable for others and perhaps (gasp! — imagine this group having an Xmas party) happier. The incident over the child Ruth having candle lit in her bedroom as she falls asleep is indicative. The father wanted to stop it though its costs are negligible, I’d say on the grounds he is supporting a deeply punitive culture. It is brave of Miss Mole to stand up to him. I feel we as readers don’t get the full nuance that is referred to here without this context of women’s position and literature in protest at the time. I remember when I first read one of these: The Gentlewoman by Laura Talbot (a pseudonum for Lady Ursula Chetwynd-Talbot) and how I loved its seeming strangeness.

Up to Chapter 20. I see much of what Miss Mole says or does as ironic. She does not seriously entertain any thoughts of any love affair with Mr Blenkinsop or Mr Samson. She much prefers Mr Samson because he is unconventional but as to becoming any man’s, that’s not for her. Whatever happened between her and Mr Pilgrim (whom she fears will tell of her time with the WW1 vet, she wants no boss. Think of all the mortified heroines in Austen – her pride was hurt. To me the real feelings she has are for Ruth and Edith and herself as foster mother (we might call it). She does say to herself, quite seriously, “for the sake of one good baby, she would have paid for than that:” she is thinking of Mrs Ridding where the price for the baby was a neurotic husband.” But she, Miss Mole, can function as a mother through her position as housekeeper, and in these three last 3 chapters, we see her suddenly worrying lest she has insulted Mr Corder (by her abrasive irritated wit) and lose the place. I take her thoughts of doing what Mrs Corder would have done seriously. This, like many of these Virago books at the time, are a protest against demanding a woman marry and giving her no alternative. That’s why the heroines are so often life-long single women.

As to language, and what is a book but words, this book is pre-feminism the second phase (starting 1970s) when for the first time a vocabulary to discuss sex from a non-religious and women’s POV starts to emerge. It’s pre-Simone de Beauvoir. So the books have to use a vocabulary which is antithetical – the authors fall back on understood paradigms. One of the more moving moments occurs when Edith says how dreadful not to have a mother, and Miss Mole thinks of “all the women who waited for words they would not hear.” That is not a marriage proposal but some decent respect and understanding they are not secondary objects (coming alive only in relationship to men). These words Edith longs for – her mother’s understanding – will never come from her father or any ritual Christmas nonsense.


Anna Madeley as Mrs Hall

There is a Miss Mole among the current crop of TV shows from the UK: pay some attention to Mrs Audrey Hall in All Creatures Great and Small. The portrait of Mrs Hall shows how much ground feminism has lost since Miss Mole or the 1980s. She is not presented as a woman who has never married. For all we know she’s a widow. Her estrangement is also from her son, who we learn has done some criminal act which she turned him in on. So the establishment and its forms of punishment are endorsed here. Yet the outline of her life is that of the Virago heroine of the 1930s. None of this is in Herriot’s book, and in the 1970s series she was presented as impersonally there, a woman who needed a job. I will say the interest in her, the desire to give a woman a central role in and of herself, not there as a romantic interest shows the mild feminism of the series. She helps Herriot, she is the central staff of the house (metaphorically) and a very good person. But she is not driven to irony; she accepts her lot as Miss Mole does not.

Christmas time, 1st season, we learn that Mrs Hall’s husband came home from war a changed man, and not for the better. This is why we find her going from house to house as a servant. Her son did something criminal (funny how it’s not specified too – he stole something) and she, his mother, told on him. Maybe they were both servants somewhere – a typical job for lower class people especially women at the turn of the century. Son went to jail. He has never forgiven her. During the course of this conversation, Mr Farnon shows himself to be better than Cordelia near the end of Lear. Of course he will keep Mrs Hall on; he would not know what to do without her. He stands by her in church holding her hand as they sing, for this son did not turn up for Christmas.

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Painting by Harold Wright: an image supplied by one of the people who was part of the group read as Miss Mole

A second angle obviously there is class. Mr Corder is not CofE, but a dissenter of some sort (I use very old fashioned language) and part of what makes him so intolerant and seeming dense, is he feels he has to hold onto parishioners and is fighting a continual invisible fight with those who might just look down on him. See Margaret Oliphant’s Carlingford novels – if you have the patience.

Chapters 18-20: the “dirt” Mr Pilgrim (the name is now ironic) has is he sexually harassed Hannah, and she fears that whatever happened between them he can use to make her seem to be at fault. #Metoo. ome of her behavior might seem to compromise her and in a culture like this of course, he, the man, the guest, would be sided with. So we have here in this novel an early half-hidden story of sexual harassment, which no matter what the woman does is a threat to her position in the world and peace of mind. She was a sexually harassed woman in flight and at risk of being hurt by the very person who treated her with contempt and insult. Mr Pilgrim (the name allegorical of course) found out something about her and went to her house because as a preacher, he wanted to teach her the error of her ways… However he never got near her because she shut the door in his face… The last part of this trio is a poignant. Hannah is afraid to kiss Mr Corder’s youngest most candid and sincere daughter, Ruth. Is she inwardly fearful of becoming too close to this family because, again, she may have to leave them (just as she left her previous positions)?

Her relationship with these two girls is moving. She is acting as a replacement for Mrs Corder she tells us. Looked at from a distance, Miss Moles’ life is pathetic (filled with thwarting) but she will not acknowledge this openly. Maybe that funeral metaphor. Some day she could be broke with the tiniest of pensions.

Me: My mother-in-law was a lower governess in a great house just after WW1, sometime in the 1920s. It was like slavery. Up at 5, never given a moment to herself except when eating and then under constant surveillance. Woolworth’s in the early 1930s, 6 and 1/2 days a week with a real salary was liberty and some power (because you had some money, could even chose you own meal every two weeks). No you were to have no followers.

The opening of Chapter 23 is beautiful in thought and form (Virago, pp 166-67) Her acceptance of what is includes a reveling in the nature world, and through a Wordsworthian (maybe that’s a good term) perspective therapeutic. Complex poetry in prose. We can have a character very bad at heart, and Corder is at the present time (loss of his wife hurt) a mean and petty man in many ways. The sentences do that twisting and turning so it is hard to grasp where Young herself stands. Her dark dress reminds me of the sober Jane Eyre. She is comfortable with Blenkinsop but why?

Miss Mole has won me over for many reasons; here she is very ambivalent Christmas and it’s not only for the homeless and those w/o families. Well, me too. She is so tenuously connected to society; she’s not far from homeless and that may be why the group comes to mind. Where is her family? She might be looking to marry: Mr Samson is not that bad a choice if they are congenial and he has enough money to support them (and loves his cats). She is a prisoner in effect: her work never stops; she is not appreciated by the person who pays her; she endlessly has to worry about impressions she makes. There’s not much best in Mr Corder to be seen insofar as she or his daughters are concerned. He is a man intensely concerned with his status, resenting the money he does get because it’s from an older sister.

I’ve usually felt and experienced Christmas as an ordeal and Young is conveying this, and a very fraught one at that. Not everyone is good lying, and some people never get the knack, nor is it easy for them to see through the lies to what might be a sort of truth. Miss Mole is very clever in that way, but she is not a domineering bully so does not manipulate only self-protects through lying – and her lies are often kind jokes. Her stories (the non-existent burglar) are kind moral exemplums. Young conveys that the patriarchy, class status and the ability to bully put Corder and Mrs Spenser-Smith in charge but many of the other characters have such better traits than they and what’s valued in this book is kindness. I was struck how one of these boss-mistresses says to Miss Mole she has no trouble with servants because she never tolerates an iota of discontent: the servant is fired on the spot. Yes I am seeing that perhaps Young is setting up a suitor-courtship paradigm between Miss Mole and Mr Samson and between Miss Mole and Mr Blenkinsop. Alas. And a Cinderella paradigm is emerging: up to now Miss Mole is seeming very plain and she never gets to go out; suddenly she is elegance itself and cannot be kept out. It would seem she cannot live in her own cottage because she needs money to keep it up — beyond someone living there who does not pay her rent. So marriage is the way out of living on the edge of destitution.

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Young lived for a long time in Clifton, Bristol where several of her novels are set

As the story turns and Hannah has a worthy suitor at last, I offer the idea that nonetheless, Hannah’s blindness over Mr Blenkinsop’s intentions is a device – and to me improbable. Young felt his book needed suspense. So the suspense is we are to sit on the edges of our seats worrying whether Hannah will somehow ruin her chances with Mr Blenkinsop before he has a chance to propose (and thus reveal – our hearts are all pit-a-patting now – he loves and wants to marry her). And we are supposed worried about what Mr Pilgrim can tell (sexual probably given that Hannah has open-minded views about sex) to ruin her with Mr Corder.

Mrs Spenser-Smith is one of the more obnoxious characters in this book. Hannah has to placate her because she needed her for this job and might need her again. But she is awful – in Jane Austen’s hands we’d recognize her for the Lady Catherine de Bourgh she is. Will say anything outrageously insulting. She shows her power by doing things like paying for Howard’s education at Oxford. So he has escaped her too. On the shoes, we have to remember how shoes – poor shoes on people’s feet, especially children – were once a sign of poverty. Also you need good shoes to be comfortable. So Miss Mole having good shoes is a way of avoiding a stigma and being comfortably shod for her incessant work – in the house mostly but no less work than that. Have a look at Mrs Hall’s shoes in the latest season of All Things Great and Small. Attractive and sensible.

Hard to comment on the ambiguity of what we are reading until finally the two secrets — Blenkinsop’s pursuit of Miss Mole (or Hannah as she was called in the BBC film adaptation) and what happened sexually to Miss Mole (not clear with whom or how her giving up of her cottage to a tenant who does not pay his rent relates to this) – are revealed. But for my part I find Ethel sympathetic, all at sea as a teenager, and Mr Corder a male version of Mrs Spenser-Smith without the monetary resources. I compared her to Austen’s Lady Catherine de Bourgh; the closest male I can think to him is the selfish, obtuse, blind, fatuously cruel John Dashwood. What does it matter if John Dashwood does not know how he hurts his family members and those directly in his power? In both the essays I offered as context I have not read all the texts cited (I can’t stand Ivy Compton-Burnett and the only Christie I’ve been able to finish is her superb autobiography), but I’ve faith if I knew more of these Virago Jane authors (or remembered more of those I’ve read) I could cite parallels.

The self-reflexivity of the story is made plain. EH Young lived with a man she was not married to for many years and here he is indicted, though not named and a somewhat literally different story offered. The nameless cad at the center of the fiction in real life was married. I have to go outside my purview to cite what I feel is the moral of the book (by no means adequate to what it dramatizes about our lives in ordinary society, especially when it comes to women) and at work in this chapter – I’ve cited it before: “I believe unkindness is the worst sin of all” (Ch 38). My critique of this idea: it may be what is so excruciating in a daily way but it is not what has made the situation for all of them: apparently under Corder, Mrs Spenser-Smith and the other lying bullies of the book.

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So, in this chapter (35) we are told what happened between Mr Blenkinsop and Miss Mole on her day out with him. In a nutshell (I’m not going to paraphrase piece by piece) Mr Blenkinsop is taking Miss Mole back to where her child- and young girlhood occurred to the house she owns. He means to take her there and confront whatever it is. She goes to pieces. The chapter is really made up of her thoughts. She is remarkably unmalicious.

Some people might think to go over ground you once were traumatized by is to overcome it – I’m not in that school of thought myself nor EH Young. We see some of Miss Moles’s obsessions. The paragraph beginning “Ah, she thought, things were easy for people with an income they had not to earn.” She ceaseless broods (all book long) on how tenuous her position is, her dependence, her material bonds. I feel for her – I remember ceaselessly in the middle years of working as an adjunct (I did it for 27 years) how I’d brood. I forget why I stopped: I put this down to getting onto the Internet and beginning to write and then to publish so I had other things on my mind that overcame this position. There is nothing in Miss Mole’s life to provide a strong distraction of satisfaction. Mr Blenkinsop is presented thinking how he came to this house by accident. This is the sort of thing that irritates me. He cannot have come here by accident. But he is kind (see above) and does not press himself on her. He feels terrible he has made her so hysterical within. She thinks also about the people she thinks depend on her: the Corder children.

At the end of the chapter Mr B suggests why not start a boarding-house of your own. You could escape this perpetual distress. She says she’s thought of it but she hasn’t the money and has been told she’s too young.

At last the beans are spilled. She retires to her room and sits by the fire. I think of all the many Victoria illustrations of women sitting by the fire (or out on the moor) thinking of their miseries


Miss E Taylor’s depiction of Kate Vavasour, left with her arm probably broken by her brother, George.

We learn at length what was Miss Mole’s horrifying sin, which apparently Mr Pilgrim knows (and my guess from these three and before and after) that’s because she also offended him (by leaving his church?) What happened is during WW1 Miss Mole inherited a house and a man who had fought in the war came to live with her and became her lover. There you have it. His reasons for such behavior remind me of what (summed up) Willoughby told Elinor Dashwood were his motives for smashing Marianne Dashwood’s peace of mind (I refer to Austen’s Sense and Sensibility): “at no stage in their intercourse had he considered her as more than a temporary inconvenience.” Willoughby claims that he grew to love Marianne and felt remorse when his patroness, an aunt, kicked him out for impregnating another girl and deserting her . Right. The way he showed his remorse was to engage himself to an improbably wealthy heiress. Young’s fiction is more probable. Miss Mole does not have the strength of character that believing in yourself, having self-esteem, and backup in other’s people’s support would give. She can’t throw him – or couldn’t. So did the next best thing when she discovered what he was. She left. They had some agreement he would pay her rent and he never has. I’ve seen situations analogous to this.

Meanwhile Mr Pilgrim decides it’s in his interest to tell this tale to Mr Corder. Why? Maybe he thinks she’s in the way of his gaining control over (oops – marrying it’s called) Ethel. Luckily, Mr Corder’s very nasty mind on the surface rejects all Mr Pilgrim has to say as vile calumny just in character.

Since it’s through Miss Mole’s mind realizing what happened (we don’t get this – note that) we get some half-ironic thoughts about God engineering all this and how God and she, Miss Mole, know one another. Hannah gets some peace of mind thinking this but it’s as much exhaustion. This technique is third person indirect discourse so the author is there in and out talking to us too. It’s remarkable the metaphors Miss Mole uses for herself: she refuses to be the dog with the bad name …

Yes I think the double-self is a directly self-reflexive comment: of course Miss Mole has no cousin who has been living her secret life alongside er; the cousin is Hannah Mole herself, and not even a dream alternative but what lies under Edith Hilda’s own reality. Did she pretend to be the housekeeper when living with her lover lover and his wife? I agree with her that Uncle Jim is ruthless. I’d be careful what I told him too. I agree Howard is kept at a great distance. We cannot tell if it is good for him that he got away (gave up the position Mrs S-L got for him at Oxford) as we don’t know enough about his inner life or what he was experiencing at Oxford. Corder cares more that they are seeming to insult the benefactor (if she is that), Mrs Spenser-Smith than his boy’s future or even presence.

What a heartless crew many of these believable adults in this novel are, and Miss Mole knows it. It is not uncommon in 18th century novels for the housekeeper to be the master-owner’s mistress; it’s a cover or disguise. These novels often present the female character without sympathy.

Ethel returns who has been to see Patsy Withers (another of the book’s awful people): Miss Withers wanted to take over the club and certainly would like to see Miss Mole fired. Miss Mole asks why go to a woman who tells lies about you; Ethel says it’s because of that she went. People just gluttons for punishment. It’s here we learn something of the connection of Pilgrim (ironic allegorical name) to Miss Mole (also an allegorical name) Miss Mole was going to chapel at the time of her relationship with the nameless cad.

Miss Mole becomes intensely aware of how Mr Blenkinsop is walking about outside – it seems for hours, in quite a state. She goes out – to let him off the hook. To be kind. She tells him don’t worry, she’s fine – manifestly untrue except that it’s become obvious that Mr Corder is willing to overlook the past and keep her anyway. Well, gee thanks.

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Here is a typical picture of am English country cottage at the beginning of the twentieth century – much popularized as art by Helen Allingham, part of her worlds of women

Chapter 36: Mr B says he was told about the house by a colleague at work… he had not seen it before but thought it might be a good place for the Riddings, and wanted Hannah to see it with him to help him decide if it was appropriate … As soon as Hannah saw the chimney tops, she knew it was her house and could not stomach the idea of her story being revealed to him in all its sordid “glory”, so she ran off in the opposite direction with him following behind totally confused as to what she was running from … She was running from her past to keep the story sacred for as long as she could…it was only later that the scales fell from her eyes and she realized that it was no longer sacred…it was time to put it behind her for good…

“Then shame swooped over her like a great flapping, threatening bird, and the robin piped his gay derisive note.” The events in that cottage were deeply traumatic. It was much more than her lover refusing to marry her. As is very common with trauma victims, she blames herself. For allowing it to happen.

And for being romantic and believing him in the first place…she was a girl though and had no experience of men like him…she believed they would marry eventually while he had no such intention… Women beat themselves up like this even today…”why didn’t I know, why couldn’t I have seen etc.”

A wonderful interlude in this chapter is the conversation with Wilfred. “I think I’ll change my lodgings. My poor dear mother doesn’t pay three guineas a week to have her son’s nerves shattered.” I hope he does go to Mrs. Gibson. Her house is definitely the refuge in this novel.

Chapter 37: This chapter is interesting both for what it shows about Young’s art (by this time we can discern this) and what happens in it.

The opening has Hannah (she has become Hannah far more often than Miss Mole) grieving intensely over this lost love, this betrayal of some ideal of love and companionship embodied in the house or home . She remember how she disobeyed everyone and held onto her house (again we see how society is working to undermine her independence and not allow her to think she can have any, fixed it so beautifully and how the man she invested all this in felt none of it. She was no snob in choosing him. He was an ordinary soldier and farmer. So EH Young does not fool herself with DHLawrence and gothic reveling (remember the Mary Webb books – her dreams are actually nightmares) about getting back to nature and “real men.”

As is so often with this heroine, she sees the best (she reminds me of Austen’s Jane Bennet who tells Elizabeth she sees the best because the pain of seeing the world, here Darcy and Bingley’s family – sisters – and everyone else as heartless and mercenary is too much to endure). So she tells herself this man never understood how much he hurt her.

Well, long ago, someone told me that when people say malicious things to you, especially to other people and appear not aware of how much pain they are causing you, that’s nonsense. They know.

At the same time the pain here is worse for her because she is imagining that Mr Blenkinsop (first paragraph of chapter) is working at kicking this guy out and taking the house over because he wants to place Mrs Riddings and her babies in it (she watches Mrs Riddings in the meadow hanging out the clothes – quite like a rhyme). Now again we are to keep our distance and our ironic perspective – we know she’s got it all wrong. Mr Blenkinsop is doing this for her, and we know also from these opening paragraphs and others, she loves him.

Thus we are almost reassured that soon that proposal will be made and she will say yes. We are not permitted utter fevers of anxiety in this book, but we are never left off the hook (think of a hook put into someone’s stomach) and onto security. By this time we know that Mr Pilgrim’s telling Mr Corder will not result in Miss Mole having to return to the obnoxious cousin and find another place to live. Or it’s improbable.

This kind of maneuvering is done throughout the book.

Then we watch Miss Mole work very hard – things she has not done for months. I feel she is doing this to shore up in her mind Mr Corder will not fire her. How could he? And she is busying herself, feeling wanted, needed. On other other hand, surely there is something masochistic in her choosing to turn the sheets, a job she says she hates; she also does not enjoy using the sewing machine.

Ruth who by this time is a fully educated pupil of Miss Mole (worthy of her, intelligent) says of all this activity: it’s “rather like making a will and paying your debts when you think you’re going to die.” We can connect that to Miss Mole’s thinking Mr Blenkinsop is getting her house ready for Mrs Riddings or her worry still Mr Corder will or can fire her. Miss Mole says, oh, no, I’m “bad-tempered.”

Then they go for a walk. The mood of this walk is very like many of them. Miss Mole rejoices in life, and landscape, and the weather, being alive and activity around her – whether rural or city. Even better she has Ruth by her side. Mother-daughter and pupil-mentor paradigms here. This chapter is also serving to remind us that Ruth can now do without Miss Mole. This is clearing the way for what will become of Ruth once Miss Mole departs – for we do see that Mr Blenkinsop is preparing a halcyon refuge for himself and Hannah. The closing paragraph of the chapter is just beautiful poetry.

But we are not allowed to revel mindlessly because what metaphors does Hannah use to show her understanding of her place in this: the small ships alongside the big ones remind her of “sad widows in their pathetic dignity under their bare masts and yards, and tugs were like the undertakers, at a fuss about the funeral.” Maybe (like Alice Vavasour at the close of CYFH?) Miss Mole is not to be taken as moving into some kind of paradise when a particular man gets a house ready for her and is willing to live in it with her and support her.

We are also not allowed to forget Ethel. Ethel is in is in the midst of making a bad choice. She has opted for Pilgrim and we are reminded several paragraphs before the final one of this chapter that it was Mr Pilgrim who told Mr Corder about Miss Mole’s past so as to bond himself this way more deeply to Ethel. Wait – he was throwing an innocent woman (never hurt him) literally to possible destitution to place himself better in the eyes of Corder? Ethel sees that Miss Patsy Withers as stepmother is far far worse than Miss Mole as housekeeper (because she is a kind of minor Lady Catherine de Bourgh) and knows it’s in her real interest that Miss Mole stay

Finis. I’ve kept up and have finished Chs 38-39. So now (somewhat out of order) we are told what Mr Corder responded to what Pilgrim said It interests me that Ethel sees what a shit Pilgrim is, agrees she should not snitch on Miss Mole but then goes ahead to become his erotic target and to tell even the obnoxious Mrs S-s. I feel that Young means us to forgive and feel sorry for Ethel — too much a dullard to get beyond all conventions even when her mind can acknowledge they are stupid. There is no hope she can see these conventions are there to control and subdue women to men’s wills. We are seeing Ruth emerge to take control: Howard had a farm to escape to; she has Uncle Jim. Miss Mole has too much pride to crawl to Mr Corder and imagine what her existence would become on these terms. So are we are at the end of her tether and in the streets. Why can’t she go to Mrs Gibson? I don’t get it: because she saved Mr Riddings?

Some intuitive instinct now takes Miss Mole or our Hannah to Blenkinsop’s door. I remember Robert Louis Stevenson: two short stories, A Lodging for the Night, and Sire de Maltroit’s door — the poet Villon, homeless, happens on them and is taken in. So our heroine is happening on Mr Blenkinsop’s door. As Austen says at the end of NA, the “telltale compression of pages” informs us “we are all hastening together to perfect felicity.” Only unless you have not paid attention, this final refuge, however it could end in happiness, is a desperate compromise.

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This is a distinguished, uniquely written protest novel on behalf of women and vulnerable men in deeply punitive capitalist relentlessly repressive patriarchy. In these scenes Young shows she knows how people behave and she captures their obtusenesses to themselves very sharply — by having made Miss Mole so very perceptive and with a desperate need and impulse (from years of training) to make do and compromise. Not altogether perceptive because (reminding me of Austen’s Emma), she does not see (improbably given how sharp she usually is) Blenkinsop is trying to court her. A difference from Austen is that Austen would have let Mr Pilgrim be told somehow he had made a fool out of himself (like poor Miss Bates of Austen’s Emma). None of them would like to be seen through. We should remember at this point that Hilda was E.H. Young’s second name.

I find myself wanting to bring in (and read) yet another book: Elena Ferrante’s Lying life of Adults. I’ve often felt that the way a lot of people get through being with others is lying, little lies, big ones; perhaps the difference for Miss Mole is hers are not only self-protective and kind but when alone they shore her up. We’ve seen that with the tales she tells Ruth. Austen’s Catherine Morland: “But why he should say one thing so positively, and mean another all the while, was most unaccountable! How were people, at that rate, to be understood? …” (Northanger Abbey)

An essay by Kathy Mezei (“Spinsters, Surveillance and Speech”) should also be of interest to anyone who reads books by women written after WW1 and into WW2, especially once again published by Virago. This essay includes an Agatha Christie and Ivy Compton-Burnett book beyond EH Young’s Miss Mole. In all three the life-long unmarried and deliberately-set up vulnerable woman is defended but at the end of both books the establishment (as it were) closes in on them again. So they are mild protest novels. For my part the problem is the acceptance of the class, religious and capitalist system these characters live in a corner of. The author does show how awful the top accepted male is in all three cases. He’s murdered in at least one of them. What I liked about the essay is situating Miss Mole with two other spinsters, or life-long unmarried women — one a famous detective by a famous author, the other a dark caustic author. It helps pick up the intended tone or nuance.

More important for the large perspective is Kate Trumpener’s “The Virago Jane” in Janeites: Austen’s Disciples and Devotees, where she analyses a group of novels published by Virago in the 1930s, and shows how they are in continual dialogue with the deepest and more superficial aspects of Austen’s fiction. As I’ve written above reading Young’s book continually brought to mind analogues from Austen and by extension other women writers influenced by Austen. Trumpener supplies the full nuance and depths in Austen through these books, which the reader ca then (as it were) take back into Young’s books. There are two pages on Chatterton Square.

It is a real loss here is no single study of E.H. Young. The woman I knew slightly (still have a sort of memory acquaintance unless she’s dead), Maggie Lane (who has written and published 3 books on Jane Austen, 1 on Burney) said she was working on but never came through. She also said she was working on a book on Fanny Burney and Hester Thrale as “frenemies.” Not all things we study become books. The quietude mixed with profound disquiet of this book cannot attract any kind of wide audience now – but gender, class and money are still key factors for women who are still often made “secondary creatures” as Simone de Beauvoir wrote.

A stinging woman’s novel. Rosamond Lehmann wrote a great novel, woman’s novel type, called The Weather in the Streets (1930s, heroine has abortion and recovering reads P&P as a fantasy that cheers), available as a Virago. The group at TWWRN went on to read Chatterton Square:


Note how covers and titles resembles those on better women’s books today (her Curate’s Wife title puts me in mind of Joanna Trollope’s Rector’s Wife)

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It was made into a BBC 4 part serial drama, Hannah, but that has vanished decades ago. Have I mentioned that she worked for the women’s suffrage movement and was an air-raid warden during WW2. See Heavenali for The World of E.H Young: Upper Radstowe, with images from the cover illustrations of the green Virago editions of Young’s novels


A photo of Young in later life

Ellen

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From a recent essay on Brooks by Doreen St Felix (New Yorker, 2018)

To Prisoners

I call for you cultivation of strength in the dark.
Dark gardening
in the vertigo cold.
in the hot paralysis.
Under the wolves and coyotes of particular silences.
Where it is dry.
Where it is dry.
I call for you
cultivation of victory Over
long blows that you want to give and blows you are going to get.
Over
what wants to crumble you down, to sicken
you. I call for you
cultivation of strength to heal and enhance
in the non-cheering dark,
in the many many mornings-after;
in the chalk and choke.

Dear Friends and readers,

We cannot let Black History Month pass by on this blog without remembering, praising, attempting to characterize the wonderful poetic oeuvre of Gwendolyn Brooks.

What I want to say about her is I was all wrong, and the reason I want to start this way is to suggest to for many readers, and probably white especially, it’s possible the poems you have come across are from her earlier poetry more seemingly (and in truth) conventional in values and stereotypes than her middle and later periods. When it’s a case of one or two poems in an anthology or on a page of selections, inevitably you read her “the mother:” today it prompts anti-abortion religiously-rooted utterances, insisting on the centrality of motherhood to women, without any memory or awareness of how powerless women as mothers are in reality, and especially Black women whose sons and daughters can still be casually killed on the street with impunity. One comes across poems which, when read in isolation, seem to portray a picture of young colored girls sheltered from reality, seeking the most obvious treats, stereotypes which belong in a 1930s movie.

To me some of these early poems seem to accept the impoverished life inflicted on Black people. They are often written from a child’s point of view.

A song in the front yard (from her earlier period)

I’ve stayed in the front yard all my life.
I want a peek at the back
Where it’s rough and untended and hungry weed grows.
A girl gets sick of a rose.

I want to go in the back yard now
And maybe down the alley,
To where the charity children play.
I want a good time today.

They do some wonderful things.
They have some wonderful fun.
My mother sneers, but I say it’s fine
How they don’t have to go in at quarter to nine.
My mother, she tells me that Johnnie Mae
Will grow up to be a bad woman.
That George’ll be taken to Jail soon or late
(On account of last winter he sold our back gate).

But I say it’s fine. Honest, I do.
And I’d like to be a bad woman, too,
And wear the brave stockings of night-black lace
And strut down the streets with paint on my face.

In later years she was sarcastic over her Anniad (still said to be modeled on Virgil’s Aeneid, when in form and imagery it’s surely Chaucerian and reminiscent of medieval European romances): in one interview I’ve come across she says she won the Pulitzer for it and Annie Allen because its learning was snobbery. She calls its allusive techniques (which surely she worked hard on) pompous; she says to her the Pulitzer is a pleasant salute.

Brooks evolved; when you’ve read her middle and last poems, in retrospect these earlier ones read quite differently — she is first of all writing “seriously the inner lives of young Black women: their hopes, dreams and aspirations;” depicting how they become part of a community (painfully); the “day-to-day struggle” within European forms, genres. In her interviews and some quotations from her scattered prose, I find that like many another brilliant person, she hated going to parties, and struggled to find her own voice, and people she was compatible with, to discover what would be a good time for her. She also fits into Annie Finch’s perspective and defense of the poetess tradition of white American women from the 19th through mid-20th century — rhymes, strong formal elements, strong sentiment.

So I’ll call the sonnet-like sequence called Womanhood middle period and invite the reader to read and listen to this vimeo

These poems on womanhood for Black women are not paid enough attention to. What is preferred are the shorter poems or those about Black man.
They are superb and present a continuum of Black manhood as experienced in the US. Read her Negro Hero: to suggest Dorie Miller: the man who lived and died, a reading of the poem. She can take on a male voice, and speaks for central Black young men in the 20th century.

Paul Robeson

That time
we all heard it,
cool and clear,
cutting across the hot grit of the day.
The major Voice.
The adult Voice
forgoing Rolling River,
forgoing tearful tale of bale and barge
and other symptoms of an old despond.
Warning, in music-words
devout and large,
that we are each other’s
harvest:
we are each other’s
business:
we are each other’s
magnitude and bond.

Malcolm X
———
for Dudley Randall

Original.
Hence ragged-round,
Hence rich-robust.

He had the hawk-man’s eyes.
We gasped. We saw the maleness.
The maleness raking out and making guttural the air
And pushing us to walls.

And in a soft and fundamental hour
A sorcery devout and vertical
Beguiled the world.

He opened us –
Who was a key.

Who was a man.

And also in rage:

The Pool Players.
Seven at the Golden Shovel.

We real cool. We
Left school. We

Lurk late. We
Strike straight. We

Sing sin. We
Thin gin. We

Jazz June. We
Die soon.

In her last phases (last quarter of 20th century), she became a plain-spoken quietly angry, sarcastic poet, pithy, vivid, chronicler of African-American life using both its own development within literature, in the contemporary social roles chosen and inflicted, with an awareness of Black music (jazz) and visual art. I now find her a deeply moving urban poet, terse, epigrammatic, using free forms, speaking symbolically, allusively.

Read her Primer for Blacks.

To those of my Sisters who kept their Naturals
Never to look a hot comb in the teeth.

Then this late poem:

To an old Black woman, Homeless and Indistinct

1.
Your every day is a pilgrimage.
A blue hubbubb.
Your days are collected bacchanals of fear and self-troubling.

And your nights! your nights.
When you put you down in alley or cardboard or viaduct,
your lovers are rats, finding your secret places.

2.
When you rise in another morning,
you hit the street, your incessant enemy.

See? Here you are, in the so-busy world.
You walk. You walk.
You pass The People.
No. The People pass you.

Here’s a Rich Girl marching briskly to her charms.
She is suede and scarf and belting and perfume.
She sees you not, she sees you very well.
At Five in the afternoon, Miss Rich Girl will go home
to brooms and vacuum cleaner and carpeting,
two cats, two marble top tables, two telephones,
shiny green peppers, flowers in impudent vases,
visitors.
Before all that there’s the luncheon to be known.
Lasagna, lobster, salad, sandwiches
All day there’s coffee to be loved.
There are luxuries
of minor dissatisfaction, luxuries of Plan.

3.
That’s her story
You’re going to vanish, not necessarily nicely, fairly soon
Although essentially dignity itself a death
is not necessarily tidy, modest, or discreet.
When they find you
your legs may not be tidy nor aligned.
Your mouth may be all crooked or destroyed.

Black old woman, homeless, indistinct —
Your last and least adventure is Review.
Folks used to celebrate your birthday!
Folks used to say ‘She draws such handsome horses, cows
and houses.’
Folks used to say ‘That child is going far.’

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Wikipedia includes an account of her life and awards: all I can do in brief space is highlight a few events. She was born in Kansas, and brought up in Chicago, which remained her home, and to its cultural worlds she belonged all her life (like August Wilson remained a Philadelphian). She began to read and write well at an early age; her earliest poetry (as a young girl was published in the Chicago Defender (Black newspaper founded in 1905 by Robert S. Abbott). She did not fit easily into high schools; one too white, one where she was ostracized as too Black for the place; finally she settled in an integrated school, Englewood. Sending her work out brought her to the attention to James Weldon Johnson and Langston Hughes. She found a place with other Black writers in 1935 in WPA groups, e.g., Illinois Writers Project. In 1935 she went to Kennedy Key (?) College, joined the South Side Community Art Center; was married to Henry Blakeley Jr in 1939. From her you can slowly trace her ever-expanding circle of friend-writers and publications. A landmark was the 1945 A Street in Bronzville. Richard Wright wrote a commentary on her work. From this one we have

Kitchenette Building

We are things of dry hours and the involuntary plan,
Grayed in, and gray. “Dream” makes a giddy sound, not strong
Like “rent,” “feeding a wife,” “satisfying a man.”

But could a dream send up through onion fumes
Its white and violet, fight with fried potatoes
And yesterday’s garbage ripening in the hall,
Flutter, or sing an aria down these rooms

Even if we were willing to let it in,
Had time to warm it, keep it very clean,
Anticipate a message, let it begin?

We wonder. But not well! not for a minute!
Since Number Five is out of the bathroom now,
We think of lukewarm water, hope to get in it.

She was often the first African-American to receive this or that award. Her last years she is going to conferences, teaching at universities. She finally made public her own struggle for racial self-acceptance. She urged writers to create young Black protagonists who go counter to commercial  or best-selling tropes. In 1968 she was appointed Poet Laureate of Illinois.

She nurtured and mentored others; her very last volume was about children, poetry seemingly for them (they are bold, revealing for example, the problem of incest where males are encouraged to be aggressive and at the same time marginalized and poverty-stricken), Children Coming Home.

The standard biography seems to be by George Kent, A Life of Gwendolyn Brooks. The Library of Congress has brought out a slim volume of her poems edited and introduced by Elizabeth Alexander: The Essential Gwendolyn Brooks.


The Field of Angels memorial at the Whitney Plantation in Wallace, Louisiana, honoring the 2,200 enslaved children who died in St. John the Baptist Parish between 1823 and 1863

Ellen

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Rahil (Yordanos Shiferaw) Ethiopian girl living in Beirut (Capernaum)


Madeline (Martine Chevalier) and Anne, her daughter (Lea Ducker) — (Deux of Two of US is not just about the love of two aging lesbians, but the daughter of one of them)


Heloise (Adèle Haenel), Marianne (Noémie Merlant) and Sophie (Luàna Bajrami) in Portrait of a Lady on Fire (it’s a three-way relationship at its height: wealthy young girl to be sold to a husband, painter, and pregnant maid)

Animals welcome
People tolerated …

Friends and readers,

I’ve just spent four weeks teaching a course where we read two marvelous books by women, Iris Origo’s War in the Val D’Orcia, an Italian war diary, 1943-44, and Christa Wolf’s Cassandra and Four Essays, and want to observe, commemorate, act out Wolf’s argument (proved) in her book that there is a real body of literature by women, separate from men, superior, filled with alternative values, following different genre paradigms, only permitted to thrive in Europe and her cultures since the 18th century and that in marginalized ways, but there and wonderful — deeply anti-war, anti-violence, filled with values of women, a caring, cooperative, preserving, loving ethic. What better day than V- or Valentine’s, better yet against Violence Day, especially when aimed at women. A day yesterday when much of the US in the evening sat down to watched a violent-intense game, interrupted by celebrity posturing, false pretenses at humane attitudes, and glittery commercials (the Superbowl).

Last night I watched Portrait of a Lady on Fire (which I’ve written about already here), and the 6th episode (Home Truths) of the second season of All Creatures Great and Small (ditto), and the fifth episode of the fourth season (Savages) of Outlander, Her-stories (adapted from Diana Gabaldon’s Drums of Autumn)


Anne Madeley as Mrs Hall (housekeeper, and vet)


Helen (Rachel Shelton) and James Herriot (Nicholas Ralph)


Claire (Caitriona Balfe) and Adawehi

I delighted in my evening:

Home truths: shamelessly sentimental and ratcheting up lots of angst, yet nothing but good happens. Why? I’ve decided it’s a show with women in charge — for real. Mrs Herriot gives up James to Helen, Mrs Hall and the woman with the perpetually nearly mortal cows. Mrs Pumphrey is the local central goddess, and Tricky woo, her animal. A new woman came in, an aging gypsy who lives with stray dogs. Parallel to Mrs Pumphrey. I love it.

The men are the Savages: the crazed German settler who thinks the Native Americans are stealing “his water” so when his daughter-in-law and grandchild die of measles, he murders the beautiful healer of the tribe — they retaliate by murdering him and his wife and burning down his house. Claire had been there to help bring the baby into the world. The coming problem that most counts is measles. Jamie and Ian discover they can’t get settlers while the Governor and his tax collectors are taking all the profits from settlers and using it to live in luxury, and Murtagh is re-discovered. Very moving reunion with Jamie and Claire — keeping the estates, feeding animals. She functions as Mrs Hall.

The three women eat, walk, sleep, talk together; the two upper class ones go with their maid to help her abort an unwanted pregnancy among a group of local women meeting regularly to dance, talk, be together where they sit around a fire — here they are preparing food, drink, sewing ….

A brief preface or prologue to two fine women’s films: Capernaum and Two of Us, with some mention of Salaam Bombay and Caramel, ending on Isabelle Huppert as interviewer and Elif Batuman as essayist on women’s film art:

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Zain (Zain Al Rafeea) and Rahil’s baby, Yonas (Boluwatife Treasure Bankole)

One of the courses I’m taking this winter at the same OLLI at Mason where I teach is one recent fine movies, and the first we saw Capernaum directed by Nadine Labarki. She has another remarkably memorable film I saw years ago, Caramel, the stories of five women whose lives intersect in a beauty parlor). She and two other women wrote the screenplay. It’s an indie, in Arabic, set in the slums of Beirut: the title refers to a place on the northern shore of the sea of Galilee and forms part of the Jesus Christ stories. The word also means chaos. It makes Mira Nair’s Saleem Bombay looks into the semi-lark it is: both center on a boy living on the streets of desperately poor area who is cut off from any kind of help from parents. Nair’s film ends in stasis: with the boy on the streets still, having stabbed to death a cruel pimp who preyed on a prostitute who is one of the boy’s friends, and took her small daughter from her.

People write of Capernaum as heart-breaking but most of their comments center on the boy (Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian). It’s done through flashbacks. The gimmick complained about is the boy is suing his parents for bringing him into the world. Basically the boy, Zain, exposes the cruel treatment his parents have meted out to him — real emotional, social and physical abuse too. In fact, Hilary Clinton proposed many protections for children, a couple of which aroused the ire of conservatives because she proposed to give children rights which in effect included complaining about parental abuse. I remember how she was attacked fiercely for her proposals on behalf of children. As eventually passed it was about adoption procedures and administration, whether she succeeded in making the child’s welfare count for real I don’t know

What is seriously relevant is the continual filming of dire poverty and the imprisoning of helpless (stateless) immigrants, refugees with no papers and how the need for papers is used by criminals and some lower base businessman to punish and demand huge sums from these people willing to buy forged documents. Astro, the film’s villain, is trying to take Rahil’s baby from her so he can sell the baby, and we discover at the film’s end he had no good parents and home for the baby, only a transitory prison. Labarki takes the viewer through the jails such people end up in and the conditions there — although this is Beirut, you could easily transfer this to the borders of the US. I find the supposed secondary character, a young single mother end up separated from her child as important as the boy, Zain — the fantasy of the movie is this boy takes real responsibility for the child. We also see how Zain’s sister, Sarah was sold to a man when she was 11 and dies of a pregnancy, how his mother is endlessly pregnant with no way to make any money to feed her family or send anyone to school. We se how desperate circumstances have led the boys’ parents to behave brutally to him and to one another, to in effect sell Zain’s sister, their daughter, Sarah, age 11, who dies in childbirth (too young for pregnancy).

It’s an important movie for our time — Biden is continuing many of Trump’s heartless and cruel policies at the borders — not the separation of families. There is no excuse for this. This movie does have a sudden upbeat happy ending (sort of). See it.

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Then very much a Valentine’s Day film: Two of us, also on this film course’s list.


Nina (Barbara Sukowa) — much in love with Madeline, she has no family around her


Isabelle Huppert more recently (see her in the interviews just below)

Very touching. It’s about two lesbians who have grown old and one is nervous (Madeline), frightened of her two grown children (Anne and Frederick), never ever admitted how she loathed her bullying husband (who made a lot of money if her apartment is any measure). Nina lives across the hall and yes people outside them think they are just friends. But they are deep lovers and as the movie opens, Nina is pressuring Madeline to sell her apartment so they can move to Rome permanently, Rome where they have been so happy.

What happens: Mado has a stroke, and is parallel to a movie so long ago, The Single Man, for which Colin Firth was nominated for an Oscar where two homosexual men have deep true life and one dies (Matthew Goode) and the other (Firth) is closed out by the family. Goode leaves everything to Firth, an English teacher. Goode’s family know about the gay life style and enjoy spitefully excluding Firth and beating back the will. Firth comes near suicide, pulls back, just in time.

Here the women hid, and Nina has to break through a caregiver who loathes her as competition. There is much inexplicable imagery. As the film opens, Nina has a dream of herself as a child saving Madeline as a child. Black birds or crows come and go. Nina becomes violent and axes the daughter’s care to get the caregiver in trouble and fired. Gradually the daughter realizes there is something special here. When she first sees a photo of the two women together in Rome, she is revulsed, and puts her mother in a home where the mother is drugged into compliance. The caregiver and her son come and threaten Nina, and when she is out, destroy her things in her apartment insofar as they can and steal what money she has. My mother had a caregiver just like this desperate hard angry woman. Anne witnesses her mother try to come out of her stasis to reach Nina, and Nina try to run away with her. Anne thinks again, and chases her mother and her mother’s lover back to her mother’s apartment, where they are quietly dancing together. The movie ends with Anne banging frantically on the door, saying she didn’t understand.

There is hope. Anne has brought a kitten for her mother while the mother was with the caregiver. We see it in the hall and may hope Madeline’s money will be enough and they will be left alone again. Such movies do show up the ratcheted up cheer of All Creatures and Small – how much truer to life this. Real anxiety Real trouble. It’s about aging and loneliness. There are as fine reviews of this as The Lost Daughter.

And two thoughtful interviews conducted by Isabelle Huppert (a fine French actress. One with the director, this his first film. The other between Huppert and Sukowa: listen to two actresses talk shop It’s very unusual to talk candidly about the problem of enacting, emulating having sex in front of a camera.

Don’t throw your evening out to become an object sold by one company to another to sell awful products at enormous prices.

I conclude with an excellent essay-review by Elif Batuman of the film-oeuvre of Celine Sciamma. Batuman shows how Sciamma is seeking out and inventing a new grammar of cinema to express a feminist and feminine quest for an authentic existence as a woman experiencing a full life: Now You See Me. I quote from it on The Portrait of a Lady on Fire:

The “female gaze,” a term often invoked by and about Sciamma, is an analogue of the “male gaze,” popularized in the nineteen-seventies to describe the implied perspective of Hollywood movies—the way they encouraged a viewer to see women as desirable objects, often fragmented into legs, bosoms, and other nonautonomous morsels. For Sciamma, the female gaze operates on a cinematographic level, for example in the central sex scene in “Portrait.” Héloïse and Marianne are both in the frame, they seem unconcerned by their own nudity, the camera is stationary—not roving around their bodies—and there isn’t any editing. The goal is to share their intimacy—not to lurk around ogling it, or to collect varied perspectives on it.

Mira Nair (filming A Suitable Boy) and Celinne Sciamma

.

Ellen

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Il Figlia oscura as translated by Ann Goldstein (a rare pleasing cover for women)


Jessie Buckley as the young Leda Carusa in the film by Maggie Gyllenhaal

Friends and readers,

The writer (or writers) of the novels who uses the pseudonym Elena Ferrante has become a more complicated person (or two persons) and her books better or more widely appreciated since last I wrote about her and them. I’ve come to some conclusions about the people, the books, their translator, and the now at least five film adaptations made. I think it important to know the true author, context, and helps to have films meant to convey a book in trying to understand, and enjoy that book. I laid out the choices of author and stances we are presented with in the author controversy when I reviewed the first novel of The Neapolitan Quartet, My Brilliant Friend (L’amica geniale). I’ve finished the Neapolitan Quartet, read and re-read a couple of the novellas, and then a couple of good books of criticism: The Ferrante Letters by five women authors, and In Search of Elena Ferrante by Karen Bojar as well as the obfuscating hostile statistical essays on the books as a scam by Domenico Starnone (Anita Raja’s husband, also a novelist).

What decided me the author, the person who wrote all the material in Italian is Anita Raja are her Italian translations of Christa Wolf, the famous brilliant German, whose novels and memoirs I’ve been reading over the past two to three months while reading chunks of Ferrante’s novels in the Italian.  First, Ann Goldstein is (to my mind) a misleading translator of Raja’s books: Goldstein (like many another recent commercial translator) has turned dense, difficult and ever so richly suggestive Italian prose (very long sentences) into the kind of modern simple-to-read lucid English publishers press translators of older and recent more difficult books to use. Literally it is hard to accuse Goldstein of inaccuracy, but as to the experience of these novels you are losing much that makes her one of the important women writers of the 21st century. I was chuffed when late in Bojar’s book she says how alike are the characters and a number of the plot-designs in the Neapolitan Quartet and Wolf’s Quest for Christa T; Raja’s Lila (Raffaelle Cerullo) is in type and meaning a recreation of Christa T. What’s more the Italian in both books is close in style, feel, sentence structure, and that indefinable thing called presence.

I also read Domenico Starnone’s Ties (Lacci) and, as Bojar claims, it reads like the male’s answer to Raja’s Days of Abandonment (see my review). I felt like I was meeting Nino, the cad-villain of the Neapolitan Quartet, whom both Lila and Lenu (Elena Greco) fall in love with, have babies by, who rises in life to high positions in academia, parliament (with a stint in jail that ultimately does him no harm). Here is this man who thinks so well of himself, and treats women so dismissively (whatever he might say of them when their lover). I could not compare style since the translator is Jhumpa Lahiri (who has left her husband and children and made herself over as a writer of Italian, living in Italy): Lahiri make a hard book, nothing like the flexible fluid style of Goldstein but as to outlook it is a contrast to Raja’s: Ties is a witty book, often sarcastic and ironic; it moves quickly and simply one story at a time; rearrangements of time are clarified; the author is guarded. All very unlike Raja. I am not at all convinced by the statistical studies’ walls of numbers; such studies when applied to Shakespeare have concluded 17-18 of his plays are collaborations, or not written by him at all. But I do think this “answer” to one of Raja’s books, and what I’ve read of his other books and life suggests he has had input: mostly his childhood in Naples, his male outlook. Neapolitan Quartet is so much more outward, and more in control, more mainstream, polished, less raw and openly vulnerable.

It’s my view that Ferrante ought to come out and protect her name and her work – the way George Eliot was forced to when a male claimed he had read it. Perhaps some of the denigration, the condescension, and sheer resentment would be controlled. She is in the unfortunate position of Anne Radcliffe, the later 18th century gothic writer who is today still ridiculed because she could not bear to acknowledge, much less answer her critics.

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


Gaia Girace as Lila Carracci (nee Cerullo) in film by Staverio Costanza (among others, Elena Ferrante too)

To the last of The Neapolitan Quartet (Storia della bambina perduta) and Lost Daughter. The closeness in title is true to the content of the very long fourth book and the novella. All four of the novels (very mainstream with two central heroines who correspond to one another thematically) are one continued story (like Winston Graham’s Poldark books) and by the time we get to this fourth, there is so much to resolve, so many ongoing stories (see My Brilliant Friend and The Story of a New Name [Storia della nuove cognome] and Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay Away [Storia di chi fugge e di chi resta], that I can’t begin to cover them here (see supersummary and the New York Times review ).  What I’d like to dwell on is the central event (though it comes about 2/3s of the way into the book) that determines the final outcome of Lila’s life: her daughter is kidnapped from her, probably murdered at the behest of the Solares. On “an ordinary Sunday” she and Enzo and Lenu and (for just that day) Pietro are cavorting outside, and they suddenly realize Tina has gone missing.

The disappearance of Tina ruins the rest of Lila’s life. She just never gets over it, partly because despite her many successes in business (making money selling, conquering digital techniques) and her finding a real man worthy of love, Enzo; despite all this, I say, in comparison to all Lenu or Elena achieved (the education, the book writing, the belonging to more upper class and therefore interesting, enlightened, enjoyable worlds), Lila has been defeated. She was turning to her children’s futures vicariously. Her son, after all by Stephano, Rino, is a deep disappointment to her: he could not escape his patriarchal brutal and anti-intellectual environment; and she poured her hope and dreams into Tina. At the same time that Lila gave birth (child by Enzo), so too Elena, truly pregnant by Nino (this cad they have both over-rated), has had a daughter, who comes to be called Imma (Elena’s mother’s name abbreviated). When Tina, Lila’s daughter is (presumably) kidnapped and killed, and enough time goes by that Lila realizes she will never have Tina back, Lila discards the business; and causes (by her angry behavior) her loving partnership with Enzo to break up.  There is only so much punishment Enzo can stand.  Lila estranges herself from everyone but what she finds in her computer and the library. It’s poignant to me how she turns back to the library (so have I, more than once), now to read and learn and write of Naples. Elena/Lenu does try to get Lila to produce a typescript that she, Elena, can edit and give to a publisher.  But Lila will or cannot conform enough.  How I felt for Lila.

Towards the end of Perduta Bambina, in another permutation of this mother-daughter paradigm, Elena finds herself caring for her mother in her mother’s old age, and forgiving her mother, her cruelty, denseness, jealousy of Elena (which but for Maestra Oliviero would have precluded Elena’s education ticket out of working class women’s lives).  We also see that part of the reason for Elena’s success as an author is her mother-in-law’s nurturing of her, a mother-as-mentor – a very ambivalent relationship.  Maestra Oliviero, the spinster elementary school teacher, is responsible for getting Elena’s parents to send her to junior high (this is a US term so I refer to its equivalent in Italy).  Prof Nadia Galiani encourages and introduces Elena to the right people; and lastly, Adele, Pietro’s mother mentors her and publishes Elena’s first novel.  In contrast, no one takes an interest in Lila once she is taken out of school at fifth grade (her father throws her out a window when she demands at age 10 to go); her mother, Nunzia means well but is very weak.  Nunzia dies off-stage.  This mother-daughter paradigm is central to all Ferrante’s work, while the friendship exploration remains almost unique to the four books, however thoroughly gone into — there are other women friends in these books, sister relationships.


Margherita Mazzucolena as Elena — when my daughter Izzy is in her usual skirts, with her glasses on she reminds me of this actress in this part and I am so proud of her

I found myself more than any of the other three identifying with Elena. This changed after I read Christa Wolf.  I finally after I had read Christa T: Christa T is Christa Wolf as open angry rebel, deeply alienated, hurt, striking out, and I can understand that and indirectly have acted that way myself (to the point of destruction of friendships), but the character who came closest to me is Elena. Consequently I got angry with her as I rarely do for characters. I could not understand how she could leave Pietro, a good man, supportive and economic support; yes he did not help her with her work, sabotaged it in part, with him she began to lead the dependent wife-life, but I felt that was forgivable as there was still room for her to go to a conference say, have a temporary liaison.


Jack Farthing (Warleggan in Poldark) as Gianni-Joe in Lost Daughter would also be perfect for Pietro in the Neapolitan Quartet

I found The Ferrante Letters so satisfying to read because all four authors (Sarah Chihaya, Merve Emre, Katherine Hill, and Jill Richards) are open about this bonding; I had not come across this kind of talk about a woman’s book by women since reading Sheila Kaye-Smith and G. B. Stern’s Speaking of Jane Austen. There is not only such a thing as l’ecriture-femme, one of its signs is the woman reader gets into sincere earnest dialogue with the characters and reflects on central issues of her life.


Audible set of the four from the BBC

The end of the fourth book brings us right back to the beginning of the first; we return to the two small girls and their dolls; either Lila or someone else leaves one of the original dolls (or a facsimile) in Elena’s post box, a sign that Lila has not been murdered but chosen finally to find peace in retreat (rather like Mary, Lady Mason, in Trollope’s Orley Farm, which I am now engrossed by). The second book, Nuove Cognome, opens with Elena shockingly and beyond retrieval, throwing Lila’s hard-fought for box of diaries in the Arno, whence her writing of these four books. She acknowledges or believes that all her fiction writing comes out of Lila’s ideas, first child’s book, talk. I think the fourth is aesthetically the sloppiest and overlong. It meanders and repeats itself. It stops and starts — my feeling is Starnone was too much in it, making it too “normalized” with Ferrante struggling for ambiguity, circularity. I know I need to re-read all four and will discover so much more prepared for and anticipating what is to come and see so much more than the first time through. I am prepared to buy a full subscription for HBOMax when the third season of My Brilliant Friend finally comes to US TV.

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Movie Poster


Olivia Coleman as Leda Carusa now 48 at the end of the film (one of the best reviews I’ve come across of book & film by Kayti Burt)

The Lost Daughter is not a satisfactory translation of the Italian title: much closer is The Depressed or Saddened Daughter and it refers as much to Leda and her relationship with her crude unsatisfactory inarticulate mother (it reads like a precis for Elena and her mother). Leda is also identifying far more strongly with Nina, the beautiful young woman on the beach with the spoilt daughter, Elena (the name keeps coming back), whose doll it is that Leda takes away and plays with, abuses, dresses all summer. Nina (played by Dakota Johnson in the film) is headed for a frustrated life with a dense bully of a violent husband, watched over and controlled by the sister-in-law, Rosalia (actress not listed), who is ecstatic at having become pregnant after many years of marriage; Nina is too mindless, and has not begun to break away from a lying culture, so one might say she is a lost daughter too.

The book opening:

Leda is having, or in the middle of a car accident, as the book opens. She is exhausted, wearied (her teaching job is like that of a US adjunct, she never achieved any high appointment as did her husband from whom she is separated) and needs a break. To the hospital come friends, her two daughters, Bianca and Marta and even her husband, Gianni, whom they live with, and who, she says, was a wonderful tender father when he had time to pay attention to his daughters. He won their love far more easily than she has. She remembers as she decides to go to the shore (an Ionian beach, probably middle class, and for privacy), her mother working on her (through fear) to stay safe by issuing threats of how she’s going to get drowned if she goes too close to the water. At the close of the book as the film she comes near to drowning herself.

One there she sees this huge clan of a family, Neapolitan, they are part of the clan she has escaped from. She recognizes they are enjoying themselves, but also that they are godawful in their manners and the whole thing a powder keg waiting to erupt. They push other families to give them more room; she refuses she’s not quite sure why. They become hostile to her and when she leaves someone throws a hard thistle at her back, leaving a painful wound (it is also a plant which, for the superstitious, carries ill-wishes). Soon after she has made a habit of this morning “rest” (she brings papers and books), Elena goes missing; Leda finds her because she remembers the hat that Elena is wearing, her mother’s. Bu the child carries on whining (I find myself using this word for once) and vexing everyone because her doll has gone missing.
We learn in a last sentence of a section, Leda put said doll in her bag. She tells herself she’ll bring it back to the beach tomorrow, put it out there and it’ll be taken as found but she cannot get herself to give up this doll.

We then get a weaving of present time adventures with many memories. Here the book is much more successful because Gyllenhaal will not use voice-over and fears offending conventional women in the audience who have given up their lives to their children and now perpetually lie to themselves to make it seem a far happier and fulfilling choice than it ever can be.

Some of these memories:

An academic truly upper class woman named Lucilla (Dagmara Domińczyk in the film) visits and can cater to Leda’s daughters and win them over because unlike Leda, Lucilla doesn’t have to cope with them 24/7. “The woman did her enormous harm” Leda thinks now. Her children start to hit her and at first she doesn’t respond, then says stop it, and then hits them lightly but repeatedly. They do prey on her. They want her to be their doll, and I’m astonished at her that she permits this. They are jealous of one another and nag at her. At one point she becomes so over-wrought as she tries do her work, she puts Marta outside the room and then somehow the glass shatters in the door. Child not hurt, but the text quivers with her intensity of trauma and upset, she feels herself in continual crisis. But the woman also knew how to network and had connections and sent one of Leda’s papers to a Professor Hardy and at a conference, he praised her highly, got the paper published (of course they went to bed together). She remembers the difficulty of using opportunities at the university to work towards being considered for positions – how hard that is. Tell me about it. I never knew how. She wanted to act out rage but nowhere to act it.

Present time:

One day she actually tells the older pregnant woman, Rosaria about abandoning her children for 3 years. The woman of course is shocked. She actually longs to confide in Nina because she (mistakenly I feel) bonds with Nina and thinks Nina could be someone she could confide it. How wrong she is she discovers at the film’s end when Nina stabs her with the hat pin she bought for Elena. The older handyman, Gianni (Lyle in the film, Ed Harris) has come to visit and they discuss wives and husbands and their children. He offers to cook a fish he has caught; he is a good cook. He stays at first (she thinks) so he can lie to his friends about having sex. They end up confiding in one another about their relationships with their children, he boasts about how good his has been despite his early separation from his wife. He sees the doll, recognizes it, but chooses not to tell. Leda talks of how her own mother would disappear once in a while and scold the harder when she returned (this is a memory in the book transposed into this dramatic scene). In both book and film Leda tries to watch a movie one night and is made fun of by the young men who ridicule the film (one I couldn’t recognize, a sentimental one Towards the end of the story there is a dancing sequence with Nina dancing with her boor of a husband after having spent the afternoon having sex with him, and Leda, first Giovanni and then Gino (the young man who wants to go to bed with Nina and for whom Leda is ready to give up her room). It’s strange that Leda should see herself as in competition with this woman or even reach out to her –- it is so useless. But such is life.

The book returns us to the beach for her last day; she is warned that as she has produced the doll and given it back, she should get away as now the Neapolitan family will feel they have a right to have a grudge against her. The film has the near car accident that occurred at the opening of the book occur now, together with a near or acted-out suicide (to spite her mother who so threatened her not to go near the shore). In both she rolls back, and the very ending has her calling her daughters (or they call her) and we see the intense relief she experiences when they say they were worried about her. She is cheered, gladdened, and finds strength to sit there and gather herself together emotionally once more to return home to her apartment, probably in Turin — where Elena ends up, nowadays a center for Northern writers. Either way as in life nothing is resolved though much experience inwardly and some outwardly has been traversed, considered, perhaps understood better.


Naples, Old Neighborhood in My Brilliant Friend


The two girls as children reading Little Women together (same film)

Ellen

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For a course at the Oscher LifeLong Learning Institute at George Mason University
Days: Wednesday mornings, 9:40 to 11:05 am,
Jan 26 to Feb 16
4 sessions online, zoom meeting style (location of building: 4210 Roberts Road, Fairfax, Virginia) 22032
Dr Ellen Moody

Description of Course: F407 is Retelling Traditional History & Tales from an Alternative POV

We will read two books which retell stories and history from perhaps unexpected and often unvoiced points of views. In War in the Val D’Orcia, An Italian War Diary, 1943-44, Irish Origo (a British-Italian biographer and memoir-writer, and literary OBE) retells the story of World War Two from the point of view of a woman taking charge of her estates in Tuscany during the war. Then Cassandra & Four Essays by Christa Wolf (a respected East German author who won numerous German literary-political prizes) tells the story of Troy from Cassandra’s point of view, no longer a nutcase but an insightful prophet. The second book was written after the war was over and after a trip the author took to Greece. The immediate context for both books is World War Two; long range, they are anti-war (a particular aim in Cassandra is nuclear disarmament): they tell history from a woman’s standpoint; one mythic, the other granular life-writing.

During the time covered by Origo’s diary, she takes in and creates a school for 23 refugee children; she and her husband hide partisans, and protect various disconnected endangered people; a real problem is the German disproportionate and terrifying reprisals & their dropping of landmines everywhere across Italy. So one BBC serial (1979), Danger UXB, we will discuss is made up of a story of a bomb disposal unit and I may suggest watching a couple of episodes (TBA); among other parts of her life, Christa Wolf was coerced into becoming an informant for the Stasi, so I will urge people to see the powerful film, The Lives of Others directed and written by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck by the fourth week of term; the heroine’s story is said to be partly based on Christa Wolf.

Required Texts (in the order we’ll read them):

Origo, Iris. War in the Val D’Orcia, An Italian War Diary, 1943-44, introd. Virginia Nicholson. NY: NY Review of Books Classics, 2017.
Wolf, Christa. Cassandra: A Novel and Four Essays, trans. from German Jan Van Heurck. NY: Farrar, Strauss, & Giroux, 1984.

Note: War in the Val D’Orcia has not been out of print since it was first published in 1947; there are a couple of other editions, which could cost less, but this one has an introduction, notes and photos. Cassandra also has not been out of print since first published (1983, German) but this is the only edition; what’s happened is there are editions of just Cassandra available (same translator) but you miss a lot about the book if you don’t read the four afterpieces, two travelogues, one diary, and some thoughts on the book and other 20th century European women writers.


Iris Origo in later life


Christa Wolf, 2007 (Berlin)

Format: The class will be a mix of informal lecture and group discussion.

Jan 26: Introduction: Iris Origo, Life and Work, the Diary in the context of the war all around the estate

Feb 2: Her earlier diary, A Chill in the Air, an Italian War Diary, 1939-40; her essays on the fascism build-up in Italy; other diaries, e.g, Norman Lewis, Naples ’44; Eva Figes, Little Eden, A Child at War. The reprisals and landmines (Danger UXB)

Feb 10: Christa Wolf’s Life and Work, Cassandra and Four Essays, in the context of usual tellings of Iliad/Aeneid story, including Aeschylus’s Agamemnon (play where Cassandra and Agamemnon are killed by Clytemnestra), Euripides’s Trojan Women, Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida

Feb 17: More discussion of Wolf’s Cassandra, the four afterwards (especially travel in Greece and diary); women’s novels & memoirs from the era (historical fiction); The Lives of Others: on an autocratic gov’t and society (Wolf’s Patterns of Childhood, what living in a fascist dictatorship is like).


An actress playing Cassandra from recent translation of Aeschylus’s The Oresteia, as translated by Robert Fagles

Suggested outside reading or watching (a bibliography):

Du Maurier, Daphne. The KIng’s General, introd. Julie Picardie. 1946; rpt. London, Virago, 2006. Historical fiction retells history of seige of Menabilly and war in Cornwall 17th century.
Duras, Marguerite. The War: A Memoir, trans. Barbara Bray. NY: Pantheon, 1986.
Feder, Lillian. A Handbook of Classical Literature. 1964; rpt NY: Da Capo, 1998. Very accessible.
Figes, Eva. Little Eden: A Child at War. NY: Persea, 1978.
———–. The Seven Ages [of Women]. NY: Pantheon, 1986. Fantasy retelling of all history in England, from Neolithic to 20th century by unfamous central women types (e.g. midwives, one is an aristocratic woman, Lady Brilliana Harvey who really held out in 17th century siege of her castle-like manor house)
Finley, M. I The World of Odysseus. Middlesex, Eng: Penguin, 1954; 1984; rpt. Ancient History: Evidence and Models. NY: Viking Penguin, 1987.
Finney, Gail. Christa Wolf. Boston: Twayne, 2010. Short biography and survey of her writings.
Holden, Inez. Blitz Writing: Night Shift and It was Different at the Time, ed Kristin Bluemel. 1941; rpt. London: Handheld, 2017.
Lewis, Norman. Naples ’44: A World War II Diary of Occupied Italy. NY: Carroll & Graf, 1978
Lochhead, Liz. Medea: After Euripides. London: Nick Hern, 2000; rpt. Glasgow: Theater Babel, 2007.
Moorehead, Caroline. Iris Origo: Marchesa of Val d’Orcia: A Biography. Boston: Godine, 2002.
Nightingale, Florence. Cassandra, introd. Myra Stark, epilogue Cynthia Macdonald. NY: Feminist Press, 1979.
Origo, Iris. A Chill in the Air, An Italian War Diary, 1939-40. introd. Lucy Hughes-Hallett. NY: NY Review of Books classic, 2017.
———–. Images and Shadows: an autobiography. Boston: Godine, 1970.
———–. A Need to Testify, foreword Ted Morgan. NY: Books & Co, 1984. On history of biography, and portraits of people she knew in the 1930s, who worked as anti-fascists
Wolf, Christa. Medea: A Modern Retelling, trans. John Cullen, introd. Margaret Atwood. 1998; rpt. NY: Doubleday, 2005.
————-. Quest for Christa T, trans Christopher Middleton. NY: Farrar, Strauss, Giroux, 1970. Semi-autobiographical.
————-. Parting with Phantoms: Selected Writings, 1990-93, trans, notes Jan Van Heurck. Univ. Chicago, 1997.
————-. Patterns of Childhood (sometimes titled A Model Childhood), trans. Ursule Molinaro and Hedwig Rappolt. NY: Farrar, Strauss, Giroux, 1980.

Movies:

Danger UXB. Developed John Hawkesworth and John Whitney. Various writers and directors, based on stories by Maj A.B. Hartley. Perf. include Antony Andrews, Judy Geeson. Available on Amazon Prime.
A French Village. Developed by Frederic Krivine, Phillipe Triboit. Various writers & directors. 7 year French serial set in occupied Vichy France, 1941-1946, with fast forward to 1975; 2002. Amazon prime, also to buy as DVD sets.
The Lives of Others. Dir. Script. Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck Perf. include Ulrich Mulne, Martina Gedeck, Sebastian Koch. Independent. Available at Amazon Prime, as DVD on Netflix, to buy as DVD
Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida. Dir. Jonathan Miller. Perf. include Benjamin Whitlow, Anton Lesser, Suzanne Burden. BBC 1981 movie. Available on Amazon Prime.


Montepulciano, town, commune (history begins in the medieval and Renaissance eras) close to Origo estates, to which everyone who can flees & takes refuge during a particularly dangerous period

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Hung Liu, The Year of the Rat (2021) – this is one of the last portraits she did and it is downstairs in the lobby to lure you upstairs

Friends, readers,

Another woman artist, this time a woman photographer and painter whose work I saw in the DC National Portrait Gallery a couple of weeks ago. The following video where a curator takes you through many of the paintings and photographs in the exhibit, you learn so much about Liu’s life story, the images she made in the different phases of her existence, and hear Hung Liu talking about what she is trying to achieve in general, and what were her aims and circumstances in each of the works she is led to talk about — that the usual blog I would do for a woman artist feels superfluous. Click and see and hear. Hung herself talks in the interview clips of the importance of remembering people, especially to the person who remembers and the one remembered.



This is called Father’s Day: it is Liu with her father — he was taken from the family when she was five, imprisoned, enslaved, treated harshly and strictly for 50 years at the time when she learned where he was, and visited him. He told her that after so many years of such barbaric treatment that he can no longer show emotion.

She was proud of her mother and her grandmother’s stoicism in the face of such hardships:

All the information you need otherwise is provided in the marvelous catalogue book of the exhibition (Portraits of Promised Lands), with three essays and many beautiful plates, which I recommend buying. To be honest, and iconoclastically I think you can have as deep an experience as felt in the galleries, maybe more deep reading this book as going to the gallery. The difference is the size of the images and you have to imagine the thick impasto you eyes register as you gaze.

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Here I just suggest emphases and perspectives, single out the most striking images.

She seems to have derived her passionate devotion to the deeply hurt by society and the vulnerable, and desire to give all her subjects quiet dignity, from the way her family was treated in her early life: her father’s fate (see above) was the result of his having fought in the army of Chiang Kai-shek; the family destroyed all the photographs and memorabilia of their lives they had lest any be interpreted against them. They didn’t flee, rather marginalized themselves, hid their individual identities, and only gradually as Hung’s gift emerged sent her quietly to the best schools and then art college in China available. She had herself to do two years farm work, and traveled, everywhere she saw thwarted and hurt people, she painted, and then later took photographs and painted these in her own distinctive way (the film will tell you of this) within terms of the imposed social realism of China. Like many others in such a situation, she learned much but felt constricted, that she was not fulfilling her art’s potential. They are not just downtrodden people, but people whose identity is at risk, like this one:


Summoning ghosts — the woman is beautiful but she resists us by turning to the side, she is dressing her hair and wearing that outfit to please another

She was both fortunate and her family maintained some good connections (her grandfather had been a scholar and botanist), and was able to travel to the US, go to an art college in California, and become part of the art worlds there. She became a resident artist at Capp Street Project in San Francisco in 1988; she eventually married a fellow art student, Jeff Kelley, who became her curator. She went onto graduate school, became a citizen, a Professor Emerita herself, had a child, a boy. In her earlier life she took many photographs as she traveled around China tracing the changes or just the events and behavior of people working out the cultural revolution. These photographs have to be experienced in the order they are placed in a narrative. In the US she resumed such travels down south (where both white and black, but mostly black lived hard lives), to places Asian people made communities in.

Here are some of these: she identifies with a plow-bough young man (black, living down south),


A plow-boy in the American south

A hopeful African-American woman — see the way she swings dangling feet or shoes


Dangling Feet

She talked with ex-Comfort Women in Korea:


This is from the cover for the book cited above (Promised Lands)

Here is a less well known portrait of comfort women:

There is also a portrait of an aged woman with bound feet, who cannot walk — very distressing in its ordinariness.

Much more hopeful: I love her monumental portraits of children, here are two young ones, the one helping the other to eat. I love the small pictures of small creatures, and how her linseed application visibly drips:

Here are two leaning against a wall:

She has a large portrait very beautiful of a black woman with flowers all around her.

She is famous for painting over or up, the photography of Dorothy Lange, whose perspective is coterminous with Liu’s. So here is Migrant Mother made somehow less grim by the coloration and a slight change in the woman’s expression or face and also making the pair further back in the picture space:

Her Dorothy Lange types are when original with her more poignant, as in this Father’s Arms:

Another too distressing to reprint, but found in Promised Lands is of a half-starved woman, with very narrow breasts, who has a baby clinging to one of her nipples. She is dressed in an undershirt with work shirt over, to her left a sad-faced child, a man who shades his face with a hat, another looking to the right as if far in the distance ….

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I was strongly taken by this exhibit and went back a second time; that’s when I bought the book, the first large art book I’ve bought since Jim died. Hers is a redemptive art. She is paying attention to people others usually only register as a number who needs to be checked off, as it were “visible,” finishing what work they were given: it does not matter if their participation is active or genuine. There are few landscapes alone. Such images were thought very self-indulgent in her early training: consequently they are the circumstances against or in which the person pictured must live or work in most of her images.

But she did a series called My Secret Freedom, which are curiously pastoral, very conventional except for the objects and houses she invents (look at the grey boat):

Individual objects painted in her more usual way, very large, turn up now and again: Blue slippers; a bed; a comfortable desk chair with pillow; a grey phone, titled Telephone January 20, 2012:

This wikipedia article is useful. There are short insightful essays on-line on individual images. We are told of her crucial contributions, given thoughtful descriptions of the art techniques she uses to make her memorable portraits; how she’s summoning and commemorating ghosts

Ellen

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Nanci Griffith: 2012/many years ago (probably 1990s) (1953-2021)

I grew up listening to Nanci Griffith in my mother’s car. I still remember seeing her live. I’ve loved her music to this day. #RIP — Izzy on Twitter

I have to remember the next time I do a video and then watch once (I never watch more than once) and find myself wincing at the sounds of my voice and accent: “Your own voice is the voice that carries you through life best” — Nanci Griffith —

Friends and readers,

Yesterday when I read on Twitter (to which news comes the fastest) that Nanci Griffith had died that day, I felt — somewhat to my surprise — so grief-stricken. I began to cry. I thought of all the hours I had spent over the years listening to her singing first on audiocasettes and then CDs in my car. I used to spend a lot of time in my car, and often Izzy was with me (especially during her elementary and junior high school years). I just had to go over and listen to one of my favorite of her songs: “It’s a long long way from Clare to here:”

Now don’t misunderstand me — I am intensely relieved that I need no longer go back at all, the best day of my life was the one where I left the USA for England … and came back with Jim and an alternative life I could live as myself

I then rushed over to the New York Times for an obituary, and was fobbed off by a brief one, which said she had asked that no one write about her until a week after her death (I saw that on several sites yesterday), but today there is far from truly adequate, but at least an informed one about her life and her career. It is true to say that she never achieved the wide popularity others did. I think too that she hid her more troubling insights under “a deceptive prettiness.” Early on, like Willie Nelson, she presented herself as a innocent sweet young white girl who was just dropping these unexpected ironic and satiric remarks, and seduced by romance, as in her famous “Love at the Five and Dime:” her opening remarks are to be treasured too:

My British mother-in-law told me of how she worked from 5 am to 11 pm as a servant, a lower-governess in a great house (later 1920s), a form of enslavement, and when she finally fled, and got a job at Woolworth’s how liberating it was — just 5 and 1/2 9 hour days a week, a salary of sorts, all Sunday and evenings free and off. The real life details the New York Times writer refers to resonate in this way with ordinary vulnerable working people

Rolling Stone magazine had an obituary featuring her musical career yesterday. I know all the songs mentioned; my favorite album is Other Voices, Other Rooms. I also would play There’s a light Beyond These Woods. She did voice political points of view, mostly strong humane, leftist-liberal, from what I’d call a “soft” or emotional stance: she presented herself as deeply hurt at injustice, racism, and told stories of individuals variously stymied, thwarted, and then making do with what they had. An underlying thread, not made explicit ever, was about women, abused as girls, deluded themselves. A rare tragic song: “Tecumseh Valley:”

I can never listen to this too many times. Never tire of it. Caroline is what I could have ended as

Surely this next one — “The Great Divide” — is utterly characteristic and when I listen to it tonight tears come to my eyes – one of her themes is the pain of cherished memories:

While I found real variety in her songs and music, she had a particular personal feel to her angle on country music, which included yodelling (which I loved when she accompanied it) because she presented country in ways that felt old-fashioned, with the kinds of instruments, voice sounds, and stories one expected from early on. NPR says her original inspiration was Loretta Lynn (I’ll add EmmyLou Harris & Linda Rondstadt & Patsy Cline); that she was the interpreter of other people’s songs, but it is also true that a song she originally wrote or was the first one to sing became a hit when done by some more mainstream personality — for again she retained in her music a strong sense of her origins in Texas, and working class rural American life. “When you can’t find a friend, listen to the radio” speaks to us all in the cities too: from Austen City Limits: here she names some of her favorite female predecessors

Izzy came with Jim and I to the Berkshire in the early 1990s, when she could still not command a mass crowd: it was a small venue for people sat at tables eating and drinking (in Annandale) and her personal style, seeming unassuming friendliness went over very well. But we also went once to Wolf Trap, and she filled the Filene Center — that must’ve been not far off from summer 2000. She was a big hit in Ireland and often sang with the Chieftains — this Irish group is a real favorite of mine. I love listening to Irish and Scots music.

My friend, Nick Hay, wrote on Twitter: “She always said either ‘I will always believe’ or ‘I still believe’ which was I always found intensely moving. So I still and will always believe Nanci.” I agree with him that it is vital not to forget her political commitment which is summed up in “It’s a Hard Life:”

Ellen who grieves for the loss of her very much

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Ruth Prawer Jhabvala (1927-2013) when young

One has to convey in a language that is not one’s own, the spirit that is one’s own, one has to convey the various shades and omissions of a certain thought-movement that looks maltreated in another language — Raja Rao

Dear friends and readers,

I’ve been on an on-and-off long bout of reading Jhabvala, short stories (especially East into Upper East), novels (The Householder, A Backward Glance and Heat and Dust) and screenplays (Shakespeare Wallah and Howards End), as well as about her (older books by Laurie Sucher and Jasmine Gooneratne, and recent by Rekha Jha, Rishi Pal Singh, Ramal Agarwal), not to omit the great pleasure of watching Merchant-Ivory films, most of whose screenplays are by Jhabvala. I would very much like to read and see more of these. Her oeuvre is enormous, and her latest critics generalize about phases, from the early books where it’s a question of “western” or English eyes and characters trying to assimilate into Indian culture, and basically being destroyed; to the middle books and stories where there is a romantic entry into Indian life from a spiritual or imaginative, a quiescent passive point of view, to the latest stories, where we see cross-cultural clashes and exploitation between western values and behaviors and traditional Indian. Older writers compared her to Jane Austen (and point to Jane Austen in Manhattan, a Merchant-Ivory film), Chekov, Thackeray, newer ones to other Indian and Anglo-Indian writers: Kamala Markandaya, Naipaul, R. K. Narayan, Raja Rao — and E. M. Forster.

Her writings belong firmly in the colonialist and post-colonialist genres. She herself shows this migrancy – born of Jewish Polish parents who lived in Germany, numerous members of her family were killed in concentration camps, they moved to England where she got a degree in British literature, but then she married an Indian man and spent 25 years in India, last quarter of her life in America. I found myself very drawn to her autobiographical essay, “Myself in India,” where she tells the truth about the isolated existence she endured in India, the impoverishment of the people. It can be found in this collection:

For myself until two days ago when I led a class at OLLI at Mason in discussing her stories the best I could do was come up with generalizations. Jhabvala’s stories, novels, screenplays (original, not adaptations) are mostly set after 1947/48, Indian independence after the dissolution of the Raj. These are about Indian people trying to make it in a modern contemporary world – ambitious cool – whose roots though are in the traditional Indian culture. That’s the key – minds and bodies in two worlds. Jhabvala’s stories are also strongly feminist at times. Traditional cultures are very hard on women. Subtitle to some of them: Women amid snares and delusions. You might expect the women who emerge from these imprisonments (my view) to thrive far more, do better, and here in the US I’ve see it in students (but they are already living here with parents who brought them here), but in Jhabvala’s stories while many of her women thrive at first, are social successes, succeed at high management and political positions (often unofficial) eventually they self-destruct as the two did early in her famous Heat and Dust. The enemy of these women is internal (as Woolf said was the enemy of westernized women too – the angel in the house) – but it’s not angel that bothers these women. They find themselves in an exploitative, cynical and amoral world and retreat from it — to stasis, boredom, and illusion.


I think this is now the best book on Jhabvala — the older Sucher and Gooneratne are too western-oriented

Jhabvala is fascinated by the fake Guru, this manipulation on the part of supposed holy or tranquil or utterly unmaterialistic and spiritual people (I don’t have a better word) to draw to them the belief and trust of Indian people brought up in traditions seeking to experience some transcendent divine place, eternal, complete with notions of reincarnation, to release the soul into this divine (supernatural is my word) realm by various practices and rituals. Many of the Indian characters who don’t do well in Jhabvala and other Anglo-Indian writers (especially women also deprived of agency by law and custom) look for this non-individualistic realm and will pay money and support holy people they think put them in touch with these realms. Or they become a seer themselves. She also shows that westerners with a rational, pragmatic, scientific and materialistic set of assumptions can be equally taken in. It’s not such a funny comedy of delusions, because these patterns of behavior in her fictions are linked to what I’ll call masochistic patterns of behavior where people become dependent on one another (again especially women with a man in charge), some of these dependencies might seem bizarre, unmotivated, unexplained, gaining very little and giving up all. One explanation is Jhabvala is characterizing the social milieus of her stories, not probing individual psychologies – but some of this comes from this attempt to cross over – to get into this other culture while remaining in the modern one.

Her stories are epitomies or microcosms of the clashes between these world views. She looks around detachedly. Hers is an attempt at objectivity, yet so many of the stories are so sad. People are so betrayed, so hurt. Ironically several of the stories in East to Upper East present us with women as powerful people. Where they are held back it’s from marital customs found also in the patriarchal arrangements of the western world. The women who are most fulfilled are those who never marry, or if they do, end up (in effect) leading individualist lives based on their own agency.

I’m writing this brief survey blog posting tonight because of the class that went so well. I had dreaded it — three people who usually talk were not there (I knew they would not be), and I was not sure what to say about the particulars of the stories. I found their commentary and responses intelligent, sharp, with much understanding of the motives of Jhabvala’s driven ambitious characters. I’ll tell in brief concise form a little about the best stories we discussed from East into Upper East, “Independence,” “Progress and Development,” “A New Delhi Romance,” “Husband and Son,” and “Two Muses.” Sumitra, the heroine of the first, rose to heights of power, influence, and did some good in her time, but ends in angry despair. Her granddaughter wants to do a documentary about her life in order to record what was the truth of gov’t in India, but we see what kept the woman and the man she sustained afloat would never be acceptable in published forms. The four heroines and hero of “Progress and Development” begin life with high idealism; they will marry for love, have careers where they do good; they all end embittered and disillusioned, the male finding meaning in his family and children, only one of the women, Pushpa, a Mary Wollstonecraft kind of character sustaining the necessary illusions to keep going. The one who makes the best marriage as to status and the the apparent nature of her husband ends a suicide.

The last three are more domestic stories. “A New Delhi Romance” could be a story about two teenagers in the US, only it ends in an arranged marriage for the girl, selling herself to shore up her father’s scandalous fall from power and wealth. “Husband and Son” is about a woman whose society allows her no agency at all; she tries to find an outlook by becoming socially involved with a scoundrel dance teacher who when he seduces a young girl in the school is exposed for the fake he is; she ends caring for her profoundly depressed and ill husband who himself retreated from corrupt power. Last “The Two Muses,” the most autobiographical of the lot. The theme is here the distance between an artist’s life and his work, and how much an artist who is said to be creating masterpieces should be allowed to shirk his responsibility to others in real life; we watch a probably useless man being catered to by his wife, Lilo, who never reads a word he writes, and his mistress, Netta, who is responsible for his continued solvency and reputation.


I would like to read more of her autobiography and these stories are autobiographical

I feel I learned about the author in ways I just could not without live talk and give-and-take. At first Jhabvala is like this wall of guarded matter, but after a while if you persist and especially today I saw that they are in effect a real accurate commentary on the failure of Indian society to reform itself and provide meaningful modern and comfortable lives for most of its people. The politicians inhabit all the right roles, make liberal, well meaning comments, have wonderful luxurious times with one another on the tax money they get for salaries, but do nothing for infrastructure, land reform, re-distribution of income, general education. I found myself imagining Arundati Roy who won the Booker for her The God of Small Things written an invented language, half-way between a native idiolect and English –- as a candid and excellent journalist she writes for The Nation about India – very bitter at this recent turn of events with a religious bigoted dictator in charge. She would have no trouble recognizing what Jhabvala is realizing in words and exposing. As to moods, the stories can be felt as neutral or disillusioned ironic satires or melancholy bleak romances.

Next week we’ll spend a half hour on Mira Nair’s 2006 Namesake and Jumpha Lahiri’s 2003 novel of the same name.

I have put in a proposal to teach the following course in the spring at OLLI at Mason; I will do it at OLLI at AU too

Anglo-Indian Novels: the Raj, its Aftermath & diaspora

In this class we will read E.M.Forster’s A Passage to India, Paul Scott’s The Jewel in the Crown (Raj Quartet 1), Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s Heat & Dust, & a couple of short stories &/or essays by Jumpha Lahiri (from Interpreters of Maladies) & V.S Naipaul. We’ll explore a tradition of literature, colonialist and native cultural interactions; migrancy itself, gender faultlines, what we mean by our identity, belonging, castes. We’ll include in our discussions Anglo-Indian movies as a genre (e.g., Mira Nair movies, to wit, her Namesake out of Lahiri’s masterpiece), & specifically David Lean’s Passage to India, the BBC Jewel in the Crown (by Ken Taylor and Christopher Morahan), Merchant-Ivory’s Heat & Dust. We’ll take historical and contemporary perspectives on this rich material.


From David Lean’s 1984 A Passage to India

Ellen

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Dahlia Ravikovitch 1997 photograph (1936-2005)

A tweet I read tonight on twitter: “Tonight I put the kids to sleep in our bedroom. So that when we die, we die together and no one would live to mourn the loss of one another” Eman Basher @sometimes Pooh.” This reminded me of what I was told of a cousin of my mother’s in WW2. She chose to accompany her 6 children into the gas chamber rather than let them die alone.

Dear readers and friends,

This is an unusual foremother poet blog for me: most of the time I do not choose a woman poet because of the immediate political relevancy of her work; here in this time of another slaughter of Palestinians, yet more destruction of the open air prison they are forced to endure existence in, and the apparent indifference of all those in charge of gov’ts with the power to stop this shameless horror, I put forward Dahlia Ravikovitch’s poetry where she as a native-born Israeli, Hebrew-speaking and writing, eloquently cried out against what the Israeli gov’t (and the people who voted it in) inflict on a people whose country they seized by war (1948, 1967). Unless otherwise noted all the poems are translated by Chana Bloch and Chana Kronfeld:

In this poem Ravikovitch identifies as an Israeli woman watching as a young female Arab is about to be destroyed

Hovering at a low altitude

I am not here.
I am on those craggy eastern hills
streaked with ice
where grass doesn’t grow
and a sweeping shadow overruns the slope.
A little shepherd girl
with a herd of goats,
black goats,
emerges suddenly
from an unseen tent.
She won’t live out the day, that girl,
in the pasture.

I am not here.
Inside the gaping mouth of the mountain
a red globe flares,
not yet a sun.
A lesion of frost, flushed and sickly,
revolves in that maw.

And the little one rose so early
to go to the pasture.
She doesn’t walk with neck outstretched
and wanton glances.
She doesn’t paint her eyes with kohl.
She doesn’t ask, Whence cometh my help.

I am not here.
I’ve been in the mountains many days now.
The light will not scorch me. The frost cannot touch me.
Nothing can amaze me now.
I’ve seen worse things in my life.

I tuck my dress tight around my legs and hover
very close to the ground.
What ever was she thinking, that girl?
Wild to look at, unwashed.
For a moment she crouches down.
Her cheeks soft silk,
frostbite on the back of her hand.
She seems distracted, but no,
in fact she’s alert.
She still has a few hours left.
But that’s hardly the object of my meditations.
My thoughts, soft as down, cushion me comfortably.
I’ve found a very simple method,
not so much as a foot-breadth on land
and not flying, either—
hovering at a low altitude.

But as day tends toward noon,
many hours
after sunrise,
that man makes his way up the mountain.
He looks innocent enough.
The girl is right there, near him,
not another soul around.
And if she runs for cover, or cries out—
there’s no place to hide in the mountains.

I am not here.
I’m above those savage mountain ranges
in the farthest reaches of the East.
No need to elaborate.
With a single hurling thrust one can hover
and whirl about with the speed of the wind.
Can make a getaway and persuade myself:
I haven’t seen a thing.
And the little one, her eyes start from their sockets,
her palate is dry as a potsherd,
when a hard hand grasps her hair, gripping her
without a shred of pity.

This one makes explicit the aim of the Israeli gov’t and settler colonialist “ethnic cleansers”

Get out of Beirut

Take the knapsacks,
the clay jugs, the washtubs,
the Korans,
the battle fatigues,
the bravado, the broken soul,
and what’s left in the street, a little bread or meat,
and kids running around like chickens in the heat.
How many children do you have?
How many children did you have?
It’s hard to keep the children safe in times like these.
Not the way it used to be in the old country,
in the shade of the mosque, under the fig tree,
where you’d get the kids out of the house in the morning
and tuck them into bed at night.
Whatever’s not fragile, gather up in those sacks:
clothing, bedding, blankets, diapers,
some memento, perhaps,
a shiny artillery shell,
or a tool that has practical value,
and the babies with pus in their eyes
and the RPG kids.
We’d love to see you afloat in the water with no place to go
no port and no shore.
You won’t be welcome anywhere.
You’re human beings who were thrown out the door,
you’re people who don’t count anymore.
You’re human beings that nobody needs.
You’re a bunch of lice
crawling about
that pester and bite

If you are still reading, two more:

A Mother Walks Around

A mother walks around with a child dead in her belly.
This child hasn’t been born yet.
When his time is up the dead child will be born
head first, then trunk and buttocks
and he won’t wave his arms about or cry his first cry
and they won’t slap his bottom
won’t put drops in his eyes
won’t swaddle him
after washing the body.
He will not resemble a living child.
His mother will not be calm and proud after giving birth
and she won’t be troubled about his future,
won’t worry how in the world to support him
and does she have enough milk
and does she have enough clothing
and how will she ever fit one more cradle into the room.
The child is a perfect izadil« already,
unmade ere he was ever made.
And he’ll have his own little grave at the edge of the cemetery
and a little memorial day
and there won’t be much to remember him by.
These are the chronicles of the child
who was killed in his mother’s belly
in the month of January, in the year 1988,
“under circumstances relating to state security.”

The Story of the Arab who died in the Fire

When the fire grabbed his body, it didn’t happen by degrees.
There was no burst of heat before,
or giant wave of smothering smoke
and the feeling of a spare room one wants to escape to.
The fire held him at once
—there are no metaphors for this—
it peeled off his clothes
cleaved to his flesh.
The skin nerves were the first to be touched.
The hair was consumed.
“God! They are burning!” he shouted.
And that is all he could do in self-defense.
The flesh was already burning between the shack’s boards
that fed the fire in the first stage.
There was already no consciousness in him.
The fire burning his flesh
numbed his sense of future
and the memories of his family
and he had no more ties to his childhood
and he didn’t ask for revenge, salvation,
or to see the dawn of the next day.
He just wanted to stop burning.
But his body supported the conflagration
and he was as if bound and fettered,
and of that too he did not think.
And he continued to burn by the power of his body
made of hair and wax and tendons.
And he burned a long time.
And from his throat inhuman voices issued
for many of his human functions had already ceased,
except for the pain the nerves transmitted
in electric impulses
to the pain center in the brain,
and that didn’t last longer than a day.
And it was good that his soul was freed that day
because he deserved to rest.
— Translated from the original Hebrew by Karen Alkalay-Gut

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

To be accurate, Dahlia Ravikovitch’s oeuvre as a whole is not dominated by poems of protest on behalf of the Palestinian people or other groups the Israelis or their allies have decided to “take out.” While she appears to have been a peace activist, and sincere political humanist from the outset of her career, much of her earlier poetry is written in styles and imitation of Biblical and archaic verse; for a secular poet and independent woman (married twice, with her son born from a lover she did not marry), her allusions and content are (to me) jarringly from patriarchal sources: her mother had been a graduate of a religious teachers college who went on to train as a teacher of Jewish studies, and Dahlia herself became a a student immersed in Hebrew, Biblical, and Jewish studies. She also wrote prototypical “women’s verse” at first (fantasy, presenting herself as overwhelmed by the world) and only gradually does feminist verse emerge. While courageously outspoken against all the forced evacuations, land and house confiscation, abuse of Arab women and children in ordinary discourse and the groups of people she demonstrated and worked with, her earlier targets were the abuse of language, power and powerlessness itself.

For myself I find her poetry direct, forceful, but, except for the personal autobiographical poems, curiously detached from modern reality until half way through her oeuvre. My feeling is it was over time that she became passionately horrified by what she saw the state she lived in did to non-Jews living on the land mass it controlled. It was as she grew older she grew angry at the norms many women obeyed. Perhaps it was after she lost custody of her son (1989, a great grief for her), that she began her moving poetry about mothers.

She was born in 1936, the daughter of a Russian born engineer who emigrated from Russia to Palestine via China. When she was six, her father was run over by a drunken Greek soldier in the British army; one of her early successful (and a characteristic) poems registers the trauma she felt when two years later her mother first told her that her father was dead:

On the Road at Night there stands the man

On the road at night there stands the man
Who once upon a time was my father
And I must go down to the place where he stands
Because I was his firstborn daughter.

Night after night he stands alone in his place
And I must go down and stand in that place.
And I wanted to ask him: Till when must I go.
And I knew as I asked: I must always go.

In the place where he stands, there is a trace of danger
Like the day he walked that road and a car ran him over.
And that’s how I knew him and marked him to remember:
This very man was once my father

The use of repetition, the simple stanzas, rhymes, monosyllables, and plain blunt sarcasm are central to her most memorable shorter lyrics and feminist poetry, as in

Clockwork Doll

I was a clockwork doll, but then
That night I turned left, right, round and around
And fell on my face, cracked on the ground,
And skillful hands tried to piece me together again.

Then once more I was a proper doll
And all my manner was demure and polite.
But I became damaged goods that night,
A fractured twig with only tendrils to prevent a fall.

And then I went invited to dance at the ball
But they cast me me with the writhing dogs and cats
Though all my steps were measured and true.

And my hair was golden, and my eyes were blue
And I had a dress printed in garden flower sprawl,
And a trim of cherries tacked to my straw hat.

She must have been a difficult (as the common adjective used) child from the first. Her mother took her and her siblings to live on a kibbutz after the father died, but at age 13 unable to cope with the collectivist conformist atmosphere of such a place, Dahlia left and moved from foster family to foster family. She was lucky to meet and be mentored by a literature teacher in high school Baruch Kurzweil who praised the way she blended archaic and contemporary modes; with high grades (a story of an intelligent reading girl) and the encouragement of Avraham Shlonsky, the leading poet of the pre-State Hebrew Moderna, and Leah Goldberg, a major woman poet of the time, her verse was published when she was 18; she went to Hebrew University in Jerusalem, was awarded a scholarship for Hebrew studies at Oxford.

For a woman whose work received so many prizes over the years, she did not do well (I am not surprised) in the academic or publishing marketplace when it comes to positions or jobs, and at the end of her life she was living in what is described as “a modest apartment in Tel Aviv, near the Mediterranean, barely ekeing out a living” as a journalist, TV & theater critic, high school teacher, writer of popular lyrics. She translated into Hebrew poems by Yeats, T. S. Eliot, Poe and others, as well as children’s classics, such as Mary Poppins. She is said to have suffered from severe depressions; when she was found dead in her apartment, it was at first assumed she killed herself.

Medically speaking it was determined she died of heart irregularities (“sudden death”) but surely her serious emotional breakdowns, lack of a secure family life, peripetatic lifestyle, several relationships, and underlying moods in her poetry (justifiable anger, bitterness, anguish and just strong passion for whatever she is feeling) and poverty (which she is said to have worried about) helped bring on a relatively early death. Not that she was spiritually alone or neglected; she collaborated with other poets, musicians, and respected public figures seeking peace, justice, and equality for all in Israel.

If the interested reader wants to know more, I list in the comments a couple of websites beyond 5 more blogs (by me), and a few reviews of Szobel’s book. For this blog I read Hovering at a Low Altitude: The Collected Poems of Dahlia Ravikovitch, translated by Chana Bloch and Chana Kronfeld (where most of the poems here come from) and A Poetics of Trauma by Ilana Szobel. I find Szobel’s psychoanalytic and close reading approach to Ravikovitch’s poetry to be illuminating, useful — she will help the reader appreciate Ravokovitch’s poetry in all its layering. See The Poetry Foundation, Jewish Women’s Archive, an obituary from The Guardian.

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


From a series by Martha Rosler: House Beautiful: Bringing the War Home

So here are a few of the poems I find most successful and appealing. This first one is said to have been a favorite with her; and is often reprinte

Dress of Fire (The Dress)

You know, she said, they made you
a dress of fire.
Remember how Jason’s wife burned in her dress?
It was Medea, she said, Medea did that to her.
You’ve got to be careful, she said,
they made you a dress that glows
like an ember, that burns like coals.

Are you going to wear it, she said, don’t wear it.
It’s not the wind whistling, it’s the poison
seeping in.
You’re not even a princess, what can you do to Medea?
Can’t you tell one sound from another, she said,
it’s not the wind whistling.

Remember, I told her, that time when I was six?
They shampooed my hair and I went out into the street.
The smell o shampoo trailed after me like a cloud.
Then I got sick from the wind and the rain.
I didn’t know a thing about reading Greek tragedies,
but the smell of the perfume spread
and I was very sick.
Now I can see it’s an unnatural perfume.

What will happen to you now, she said,
they made you a burning dress.
They made me a burning dress, I said. I know.
So why are you standing there, she said,
you’ve got to be careful.
You know what a burning dress is, don’t you?

I know, I said, but I don’t know
how to be careful.
The smell of that perfume confuses me.
I said to her, No one has to agree with me,
I don’t believe in Greek tragedies.

But the dress, she said, the dress is on fire.
What are you saying, I shouted,
what are you saying?
I’m not wearing a dress at all,
what’s burning is me.
— translated by Chana Bloch and Ariel Bloch

She can express sheer sensual delight and pleasure; here is sonnet using the same devices of repetition and simple words and natural imagery:

Delight

There did I know a delight beyond all delight,
And it came to pass upon the Sabbath day
As tree boughs reached for the sky with all their might.
Round and round like a river streamed the light,
And the wheel of the eye craved the sunwheel that day
Then did I know a delight beyond all delight.
The heads of the bushes blazed, insatiable bright
Sunlight striking the waves, igniting the spray.

It would swallow my head like a golden orange, that light.
Water lilies were gaping their yellow bright
Mouths to swallow the ripples and reeds in their way.
And indeed it came to pass on the Sabbath day
As tree boughs lusted for the sky with all their might,
And then did I know a delight beyond all delight.

There is a series of poems where she expresses raw feelings as a woman involved with men who don’t treat her that well and whom she herself accepts because there is nothing better to calm herself with. I’d reprint “Cinderella in the Kitchen” but it is long so here is a shorter one from this type or series:

At Her Own Pace

A woman is holding a small photo.
She is no longer in her prime.
Travels a lot. Airplane. Suitcase.
For months on end, she stays
with relatives of hers.
“At your pace I couldn’t,” she says.
An introverted woman,
gentle in her ways.
People give in to her. She gives in too.
She’s on the move again. Airplane. Suitcase.
Nothing was set in advance.
The phone rang. She was flooded with a joy
that could tear the heavens open. He’s a man who’s not hers
in the full sense of the word.
She walks from room to room alone. An endless calm.
In the innermost circle of her being, she’s torn to pieces.
On the outside she’s calm. Doesn’t really seek
to take possession.
A small passport photo in her hand.
He’s wearing a tie. A featureless face,
I would say. For her he’s really
the world entire.
Apart from that, outside the innermost circle
she’s calm and recoiling
at her own pace.

Her poems on mothering are intertwined with her protests against brutal war — she saw mothering in war zones:

The quieter intense lasting grief of loss (this also includes typical sarcasm):

What a Time She Had!

How did that story go?
As a rule she wouldn’t have remembered so quickly.
In that soil no vineyard would grow.
A citrus grove stood there,
sickly,
stunted.
The single walnut tree blooming there bore no fruit
as if some essential life-giving element
were lacking in that soil.
Hard green lemons.
A balding patch of lawn.
A great tranquillity.
On the western side, the hedge went wild
and there was a honeysucker, of course
(today we’d call it a sunbird)
-if he were still alive
he’d be twenty years old.
In the valley, the army was hunting down human beings.
Fire in the thicket.
Summer’s hellfire blazing as usual.
Evening mowing down shadows, merciless.

Now she is a mother: On the Attitude towards Children in Times of War

He who destroys thirty babies
it is as if he’d destroyed three hundred babies,
and toddlers too,
or even eight-and-a-half year olds;
in a year, God willing, they’d be soldiers
in the Palestine Liberation Army.

Benighted children,
at their age
they don’t even have a real world view.
And their future is shrouded, too:
refugee shacks, unwashed faces,
sewage flowing in the streets,
infected eyes,
a negative outlook on life.

And thus began the flight from city to village,
from village to burrows in the hills.
As when a man did flee from a lion,
as when he did flee from a bear,
as when he did flee from a cannon,
from an airplane, from our own troops.

He who destroys thirty babies,
it is as if he’d destroyed one thousand and thirty,
or one thousand and seventy,
thousand upon thousand.
And for that alone shall he find
no peace.

Author’s note: This is a variation on a poem by Natan Zach that deals [satirically] with the question of whether there were exaggerations in the number of children reported killed in the [1982] Lebanon War.
Lines 1-2, He who destroys: cf. Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 4:5: “He who destroys a single human soul. . . , it is as if he had destroyed an entire world.”
Lines 16-17, As when a man: Amos 5:19, about the danger of apocalyptic yearnings.

This is the concluding poem in the volume translated by Boch and Kronfeld:

The Fruit of the Land

You asked if we’ve got enough cannons.
They laughed and said: More than enough
and we’ve got new improved antitank missiles
and bunker busters to penetrate
double-slab reinforced concrete
and we’ve got crates of napalm and crates of explosives,
unlimited quantities, cornucopias,
a feast for the soul, like some finely seasoned delicacy
and above all, that secret weapon,
the one we don’t talk about.
Calm down, man,
the intel officer and the CO
and the border police chief
who’s also a colonel in that hush-hush commando unit
are all primed for the order: Go!
and everything’s shined up like the skin of a snake
and we’ve got chocolate wafers on every base
and grape juice and Tempo soda
and that’s why we won’t give in to terror
we will not fold in the face of violence
we’ll never fold no matter what
‘cause our billy clubs are nice and hard.
God, who has chosen us from all the nations,
comforteth with apples
the fighting arm of the IDF
and the iron boxes and the crates of fresh explosives
and we’ve got cluster bombs too,
though of course that’s off the record.
Serve us bourekas and cake, O woman of the house,
for we were slaves in the land of Egypt
but never again,
and blot out the remembrance of Amalek
if you track him down,
and if you seek him without success
Blessed be the tiny match
that a soldier in some crack unit will suddenly strike
and set off the whole bloody mess

From Bloch and Kronfeld’s notes: “The Fruit of the Land” (Hebrew, zimrat ha-arets), zimra means singing; in biblical Hebrew it can also mean “produce, bounty”. Block and Kronfield capture the macho voice of the defense types we constantly hear in the media rhapsodizing about Israel’s superior firepower. But nowadays they wouldn’t acknowledge they have “more than enough” and would have answered the opening question – ” You asked if we’ve got enough cannons” – with a demand for more funds for the military. There is much allusion to the Bible.

Central to the poem is the reality that things do not have to be this way. Armaments ever worse do not have to be the fruit of the earth

I pull out separately this rare more cheerful poem: New Zealand is a colony which succeeded: not all countries founded by colonizer end in cruelty, brutality, hatred; we see in this poem her early Biblical allusions, her use of repetition, her personal voice, the irony and sarcasm, and a late turn to acceptance.

Two Isles Hath New Zealand

Africa’s not the place to go right now.
Plagues, famine — the human body can’t bear it.
Brutality. They flog human beings with bull-whips.
Asia — it would make your hair stand on end.
Trapped in the mountains, trapped in the swamps.
The human body can’t bear it,
There are limits to the life force, after all.

As for me,
He shall make me lie down in green pastures
in New Zealand.

Over there, sheep with soft wool,
the softest of wools,
graze in the meadow.
Truehearted folk herd their flocks,
on Sundays they pay a visit to church
dressed in sedate attire.

No point hiding it any longer:
We’re an experiment that went awry,
a plan that misfired,
tied up with too much murderousness.
Why should I care about this camp or that,
screaming till their throats are raw,
spitting fine hairs.
In any case, too much murderousness.
To Africa I’m not going
and not to Asia, either.
I’m not going any place.

In New Zealand
in green pastures, beside the still waters,
kindhearted folk
will share their bread with me.

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


Al-shifa Hospital, 2014

Which other women have written powerful political verse, including directly about war successfully (whose work I know)? Charlotte Smith, Anna Barbauld, Simone Weil, Alice Oswald. Who have pictured it? Martha Rosler. Novels and plays and memoirs: Ann Radcliffe (in her Summer Tour), Olivia Manning, Iris Origo, Lillian Hellman, Suzy McKee Charnas, Marta Hiller, Margaret Atwood, Adhaf Soueif

Ellen

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