Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Greta Gerwig's Little Women

I saw the latest Little Women last week and fell in love with it, but was not going to blog about it until I read it criticized for its use of flashbacks. I suppose the film will stand or fall on one's reaction to Gerwig's technique--and those who dislike it are surely held in respect--but I would like to make a defense, first, of Gerwig's flashbacks, and then of the film's larger vision.

As I child, I was given a copy of Little Women with a garish cover, and by the time I was nine, I had fallen in love with the book, in part with wonder at its strange (to me) sentimentalism. I reread it as an adult--my memory is that Roger and I read it aloud as newlyweds--and I reacted to the book in a  different way than as a child. This time I appreciated the deep drenching sadness and loneliness--the bleak depression--Jo faces as an adult when her family of origin breaks apart. It is all loss for her: Meg marries and leaves to begin her own life, Amy travels with Aunt March to Europe, and the lingeringly ill Beth finally dies. Jo stares into a black abyss of desolate loneliness, full of longing for times past, when she had place and companionship. It is as bleak and realistic a portrait as any of what solitary people, male or female, in real life face as props are pulled away. I began to see this as an adult novel--and I think it is no accident that I have been drawn to figures like Austen and Bonhoeffer who faced similar loss.

This bleakness, however, is left out--if I remember correctly--of all the filmed versions I have seen. These cover the basic plot points and the happy marriages (along with the tear-jerking death of Beth) but elide Jo's internal anguish.

By using a flashback technique, Gerwig is able to incorporate Jo's suffering into the plot. The plot moves back and forth between the losses of the "present day," and the jolly days when the girls were all at home together. We encounter Jo, full of the confidence of youth and still surrounded by family, able to tell Laurie the truth: that she can't love him the way he wants. Later, with Beth dead and the house empty of sisters and laughter, Jo is broken, and marriage with Laurie, even if she doesn't love him, seems better than the heartbreaking, soul-killing alternative of loneliness, as she tells her mother. She puts a letter to Laurie, soon to return from Europe, in the knothole of a tree, telling him she will marry him--only to have to retrieve when he returns with Amy as his bride.  This loneliness is central to the story Gerwig has to tell.

Gerwig is also able to avoid what I call the Hamlet problem through the flashbacks--in staging a story so iconic and well known, that has been "done" so many times, how do you avoid going through the predictable paces that cover the familiar episode set-pieces in a stale and predictable way? How do you keep it fresh? Flashbacks are Gerwig's answer--and I felt she handled them expertly.

On a deeper and broader level, I appreciated the humane vision that animated the film. It was beautiful in terms of costumes and settings, but also in terms of articulating generous and compassionate values. I loved, for example, the moment when Jo is urging Meg, more than half seriously, to run away with her rather than marry John Brooke. Meg says to her sister that they are different. The freedom and career Jo centrally hungers for is not the same as the love and domesticity Meg craves. Meg wants what she wants with the same fervor as Jo, and she tells her sister that both goals are worthy. One goal is not better than the other. One goal doesn't have to win, shriveling the other. One sister doesn't have to sacrifice her dreams for the other. The dreams can both coexist and both be good. I have never heard a better or a gentler rejoinder to the "Mommy Wars." Or a better rejoinder to triumphalism and hierarchy: Meg tells us we can all live and pursue our paths side by side and equally, and the world is richer for it. Meg is unthreatened by Jo's ambitions--and in the end Jo is unthreatened by Meg's. This is a world--fantasia though it might be at the present moment--that I would love to live in.

Gerwig also shows the four sisters as markedly different people and illustrates that all forms of being are acceptable. No one is judged. Meg wants husband and family: that is good and worthy. Jo is ambitious to become a published writer: ambition is good and worthy. Beth is a creative soul who wants to pursue the music she loves without any ambition to perform publicly or make a name for herself: that is good and worthy. Amy--an enormously well realized character in this film--wants material well-being because she knows what poverty and worry is: that is good and worthy. All of these woman achieve their goals--and all do so without selling their souls. They all love each other: whatever each one is is fine, and they don't have to be the same.

In this light, I loved Gerwig's handling of Professor Bhaer--made a young and attractive German counterpart to Laurie (though much poorer). Since I find the Professor Bhaer of the novel an overbearing, patriarchal jerk who takes it on himself to (very gently of course) to show Jo the folly of her ways as if she is silly child--judging her and finding her wanting--I derived intense satisfaction when Gerwig's Jo let's him have it with no holds barred. You go girl, as they say. And in Bhaer's (Frederick in the movie) defense, he did mean well--and Jo ultimately takes his advice.

Gerwig follows the plot of the 1994 movie in merging Jo the character with Alcott the author, and in the end, this Jo too pens Little Women--and the marriage with Bhaer is depicted as existing only in the fantasyland of literature. Gerwig's Jo stays, like Alcott, stubbornly single, showing the single path as another viable option for a woman.

The movie has been criticized for excising the Christian theme that structures events in the novel around Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress, a book each girl receives early on as her sole Christmas gift. I noticed that and saw it as a reworking or even distortion of the book, but in today's political climate, with so much of evangelical Christianity prostrated to violent authoritarianism, Gerwig at least has avoided muddying her message or being co-opted into something she is not.

Men are peripheral in this novel, despite Meg's love of John, and Laurie's important part in the girls' lives. The women live their lives on their own terms, pursuing their own dreams. It was quite refreshing to me, coming after so many films that still--even in the second decade of the twenty-first century--exalt the great man surrounded by female handmaids ready to sacrifice their being for him and put up with his rages, moods, and betrayals--Phantom Threads jumps to mind--there are so many others, and we are prompted to receive them as great cinema, repugnant as they are. Some men may not like this movie, as no woman is ever a handmaiden--not even Meg to John. But it is a movie men can learn from. If our grand leader could understand its compassionate core, the world would be a different place.

Finally, it is the compassionate core that matters. The folding in of pain and suffering that Gerwig is able to achieve through her flashback technique is integral to not sentimentalizing her vision. This is a work of sentiment, but it is not sentimental in a false way that erases pain: Jo, for example, cries in anguish after she sells her hair.

There is so much more to say--and the film is not without its minor flaws and rubs but this is a defense--and I will end here. The costumes, settings, beauty, and female energy animating the movie are breathtaking. The compassion and affirmation of woman, of equality, of space for different kinds of lives to coexist without rancor or violence, should receive our strongest support as a vision of a world where we can all have life, fulfillment and hope without having to tear each other down.

I have not yet read a review, blog, or interview about this movie, though I am aware Amy's character has been praised and that the film has been overlooked for awards. Perhaps now that I have written about it from my own heart I will look at what others--including Gerwig--have to say. 

Bride of Northanger, part I

I am reading Diana Birchall's The Bride of Northanger, a sequel to Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey.

I am a little more than a third of the way through the book as I write. It picks up as Henry Tilney and Catherine Morland marry and begin life together. If Austen poked fun at Catherine's Gothic pretensions and desire to bring the frisson of Gothic literature into a real abbey that is all too modern and prosaic to be romantic and frightening, this novel turns that trope entirely on its head.

Catherine and Henry now begin to experience some Gothic horror. Not only does Henry reveal a curse that says wives of the eldest Tilney son are fated to suffer misfortune (fortunately for Catherine, Henry has an older brother!), Catherine and Henry find a note stuck to a knife thrust into the door of their room while visiting Northanger Abbey. The note warns Catherine away from the abbey and tells her never to return. The knife is an open threat of violence. This is in addition to new china sent by General Tilney to their home that seems to have the word "maledict" written in tiny script amid the scrolling leaves of the china pattern.

The Gothic touches keep the pages turning, and more importantly, tap into archetypes from girls' literature that are deeply satisfying: secret curses, poison pen letters, even a (seeming) ghost. This is the stuff of Nancy Drew and other classic mystery novels (which I rate very highly), and it is delightful to see these elements transferred to an adult novel.

Another apt--and important--touch is General Tilney's  love of fine china. It allows for the introduction of sensuous elements into the book, but also advances the plot, especially when the general shows off his Medici goblet made of cobalt blue glass flecked with gold--a goblet that will shatter if any poison is poured into it. Needless to say, without giving anything away (and I do not yet know what will happen), the goblet does shatter, the general perhaps poisoned .... Add to that Catherine's sighting of the mysterious and ghostly Grey Lady and the plot has thickened greatly.

I look forward to seeing how the plot unfolds--and plan to post again when I have finished the book. I would recommend it thus far as a fine, old-fashioned, and entertaining read.

In the interests of full disclosure, Diana has been a cyber-companion with whom I have shared the Austen passion for more than a decade. 

Friday, December 20, 2019

Neptune's seashore, Emma, and A Midsummer Night's Dream

Part of the plot of A Midsummer Night's Dream involves the quarrel between Titania, Queen of the fairies, and Oberon, King of the Fairies, over a changeling child. The little boy is the son of Titania's close friend. Titania has promised the mother, a mortal woman, that should anything happen to her, she would adopt her son. The woman dies, and Titania duly adopts the little boy.

Fairies tend to Titania's changeling

However, Oberon wants the boy for his own entourage. Thus, he and Titania quarrel bitterly, upsetting the weather for humans. Oberon likes to have his own way, and it is clear he is a powerful figure who is not used to being thwarted. Therefore, Titania goes to some effort to try to describe why it is so important to her to keep the child. This includes a lovely description of the two friends laughing and bathing on a seashore of Neptune, watching the sails of the ships swell out like pregnant women, an allusion to the friend's pregnancy:

Full often hath she gossiped by my side,And sat with me on Neptune’s yellow sands,Marking th' embarkèd traders on the flood,When we have laughed to see the sails conceiveAnd grow big-bellied with the wanton wind;Which she, with pretty and with swimming gaitFollowing—her womb then rich with my young squire—Would imitate, and sail upon the landTo fetch me trifles and return again
We must imagine the sea off scene in this imaginative  image of Neptune

I love to think about this scene, and the two women enjoying the pleasures of a seashore together. But only recently did I connect this vignette to Austen's Emma.

It's no mystery that A Midsummer Night's Dream is a source for Emma. For example, Emma quotes directly from the play when she says the path of true love never did run smooth. In fact, looking back at that passage in the play, as Emma's quoting it might direct us to do, we can see that the rest of what Lysander says does speak to the novel's plot, such as one “too high” connected with one “too low” (Frank and Jane/ Elton and Harriet) as well as the problem of age differences (Emma and Mr. Knightley)—and if we go on, a melancholic possible framing for the novel in the proposal that love is momentary and “swift as a shadow.” (For more on A Midsummer Night's Dream as a source for Emma, one need only go to Jocelyn Harris' Jane Austen's Art of Memory.)

What struck me in thinking about the two women on Neptune in Midsummer in the context of Emma is Harriet's guessing Neptune as an answer to the charade: In response to the line:
And woman, lovely woman, reigns alone.

Harriet asks: "Can it be Neptune?"

Emma turns directly and imperiously to what she knows is the conventional answer to the charade: courtship. She quickly pooh-poohs Harriet's answer. However, Austen is not one to put idle chitchat in her novels, and as other critics, such as Colleen Sheehan, have shown, the charade is open to multiple interpretations.

Further, Emma in this very scene quotes "the path of true love" line from Midsummer, a strong hint that the play provides the frame for the scene: a play in which a lovely woman (Titania) reigns alone on Neptune, far from Oberon.

It's difficult to compact a decade or more of thinking and rereading and discussing this novel with others into a blog, but it is evident to me, first, that Austen was experimenting with form in ways that have yet to be fully understood. Second, I find ample evidence for the pregnancy subtext that Arnie Perlstein first proposed. Jane's sudden arrival to her impoverished aunt's home after years away living with wealthy friends, the length of her visit, allusions to her being ill, the illness that leads to her becoming suddenly bedridden and requiring a doctor near the end of the novel, and the surprise revelation of Mrs. Weston's pregnancy utterly out of the blue, ending with the birth of a healthy baby, coincidentally at exactly the same time Jane is bedridden and ill, all support the pregnancy theory. At the same time, all of these events can be plausibly explained by the overt story: Jane is in Highbury as a convenient place to carry on her clandestine romance, she really is sickly and becomes dangerously ill with stress from the situation with Frank, and it makes perfect sense that the newlywed Mrs. Weston would have a child nine to ten months after her wedding.

Yet A Midsummer Night's Dream as an allusive source brings us back to the concept of two realities as central to the novel: the play presents two worlds: the world of Athens, of law, patriarchy, and rationality, and the world of the fairies: natural, fanciful, and enchanted, ruled coequally by a queen and a king, a world of love and delight. Shakespeare even points overtly to the deniability of this fairy world, having Puck state:

If we shadows have offended,Think but this, and all is mended,That you have but slumbered hereWhile these visions did appear.And this weak and idle theme,No more yielding but a dream

Austen, I would argue, offers us an equally deniable fairy world, a far more submerged but not entirely hidden world that we, the reader can only glimpse, because Emma is blind to it.  Austen, in repeatedly referencing Midsummer, points us to her own fairies dancing next to and beneath the overt story.

The word midsummer repeats four times in the novel, and each time it introduces the fairy world of Jane (Fair(y)facts?) and Frank. In all of the other five Austen novels, the word midsummer only appears once, in Sense and Sensibility, though summer is often mentioned throughout the novels.  Three of the four references to midsummer in Emma relate directly to Jane Fairfax. All four point to the "fairy story" shimmering beneath and beside the overt story as told through Emma's eyes. In the first instance, we are pointed to Jane  as central to the fairy story as we learn that she is coming to Highbury. Miss Bates is, significantly,  the central storyteller: 

now the Campbells had promised their daughter to stay at least till Midsummer, and fresh invitations had arrived for her to join them there. According to Miss Bates—it all came from her—Mrs. Dixon had written most pressingly. Would Jane but go, means were to be found, servants sent, friends contrived—no travelling difficulty allowed to exist; but still she had declined it!

In the same chapter as the second mention of midsummer, we learn that Frank Churchill is coming to Highbury. The fairy cast (which includes Mrs. Elton)  is assembled. In the third midsummer reference, the dream aspects of the text start to shimmer very close to the surface. Right after this midsummer reference, Mr. Knightley has his dreamy musing in front of the fireplace in which he recalls Cowper's "Myself creating what I saw" in wondering what is going on between Jane and Frank. This is followed by the meeting in which Frank covers a blunder by pretending it is a dream, with the word dream repeated multiple times, and finally, the mysterious scene with the alphabet letters and the word "blunder," a bookend to the charade. Finally, as the fourth use of midsummer occurs, the liminal, dreamlike strawberry party at Donwell Abbey is beginning.

For a long time, I have pondered references to the sea in Emma. We learn that Emma has never been to the sea, though Jane and Frank have--we learn they were at Weymouth together--as have the John Knightleys.  The sea repeatedly enters the story from afar. Knowing that Austen never met a pun she didn't like, I believed Emma's  lack of travel to the sea was a pun on her clueless inability to see what was going on around her. Now I believe that references to the sea also refers to the fairy world dancing beneath Emma's consciousness, Titania's world of Neptune.

Returning to Neptune in both the charade and Midsummer, the charade may point us centrally to both the fairy world of Jane and Frank and the fairy world of Midsummer and hence to pregnancy. In both cases, a baby  becomes a changeling, dropped on the doorstep by fairies to someone other than his parents. And yet in both cases, we can, as Puck suggest, dismiss all of this as fantasy. 

Thursday, December 19, 2019

Cassandra's Persuasion Notation

It was a delight to go to an exhibit at the University of Texas Ransom Center that included early editions of Jane Austen's novels. I was especially thrilled to see Cassandra's copy of Persuasion, open to her marginalia commenting on a passage in the novel. It was hard to get a good photo, as the pencilled writing is faint, but here are two pictures:

Cassandra writes "dear dear Jane!" She then writes "this deserves to be written in letters of gold."

The passage marked is this:

How eloquent could Anne Elliot have been! how eloquent, at least, were her wishes on the side of early warm attachment, and a cheerful confidence in futurity, against that over-anxious caution which seems to insult exertion and distrust Providence! She had been forced into prudence in her youth, she learned romance as she grew older: the natural sequel of an unnatural beginning.

This is a warm passage, as suggested by the two exclamation points that Austen uses. Cassandra's comment also reflects emotional warmth, and points to the novel's biographical or autobiographical elements. We get so few direct glimpses of Cassandra that this is instructive. 

The exhibit as a whole was interesting, including the copy of the letter in which James Edward Austen-Leigh writes to friend Edward Cheney of suppressing material in the memoir:

In treating of a subject so mixed up with private matters, I have beenchiefly anxious, by no means to offend, and, if possible, to satisfy my ownfamily, & those old personal friends whom, next to my own family, I caremost for.

I am of the school that believes there must undiscovered primary source material pertaining to Austen scattered around--probably hiding in plain sight--waiting to be found. If someone has just found Milton's copy of Shakespeare's plays on a library shelf, what more is there to be discovered in the much more recent Austin world that might shed light on hidden relationships and tensions? If Barchas didn't discover the Cheney letter until 2005, what else have we overlooked?

Just as an added bit of whimsy, I enjoyed this bit of book art in the exhibit:

Monday, December 16, 2019

A quiet year: reads of 2019

In what turned out to be a gentle year of book reading, I primarily read quiet novels, but I also was fortunate to enjoy some non-fiction permeated with passion. It was an odd reading period: I discovered many very good books, but few outstanding books.

I have moved away this year from a "best books" framework to write instead about those that most interested me. Though not a time of many shattering or transformative reads, much of what I encountered was deeply satisfying.


Joel Edward GoraAmerica's Unholy Ghosts: The Racist Roots of Our Faith and Politics
This was the stand-out book of the year for me. Writing with a passion that is too often absent from contemporary nonfiction, Gora traces the deep strain of racism in Locke and Hobbes that has permeated the American consciousness and allowed racism to live alongside notions of freedom and equality. Gora shows how the philosophies of Hobbes and Locke reduced earlier and broader notions of freedom as social justice to the much narrower idea of freedom as property rights. Under Locke and Hobbes social freedom means that everyone else has to keep their hands off other people's property, and both thinkers were, at the very least, nebulous on the idea of other races as human beings with the same rights to autonomy as white males.  With Adam Smith, the other figure Gora covers, the case is more complex. Smith, though often reduced to a distorted stereotype as the "libertarian" who invented the concept of the "invisible hand," was, in fact, pushing back hard against the idea of defining social justice as property rights and, in fact, vehemently advocated for a redistribution of wealth to help the needy, grounding this in moral truth.
    The devil is in the details, and I don't have time to trace out Gora's arguments, but he shows how the ideologies of Locke and Hobbes have come down to us in the present day to create a citizenry that he calls "rational, sentimental, and hard-hearted."  Gora urges us to "rethink and rewrite our relationships and the rules of the game" daring to condemn present-day cruelties as policies that need to be exorcised. 

Eleanor Fitzsimmons: The Lives and Loves of Edith Nesbitt
The last biography of children's author and Fabian Edith Nesbitt before this was written in 2000, 19 years ago, so it was time for a new biography. This one is solid and crammed with details that make Nesbitt's life and times come alive. Nesbitt was a mix of forward thinking socialist and sentimental Victorian, and definitely a person who could never transcend her condescending sense of superiority of her educated middle class over the working class, but she did work to help those "beneath" her. A textbook case of one of Virginia Woolf's female authors who could not rise to greatness because she was so busy churning out prose to pay the bills, Nesbitt was a fount of energy and activity. I have happy memories of various vignettes--Nesbitt walking  in her hallmark Liberty print dresses with no corset (shocking) or selling flowers from her front yard to make ends meet during the hyper-inflation of World War I. I put this book on my list for the sheer enjoyment of reading it.

Helen Prejean: Souls on Fire 
Prejean is famous as the author of Dead Man Walking, and a longtime advocate of abolishing the death penalty. She's also a nun, and this memoir fascinates because she had the astonishing good fortune to bridge a time of immense shift in Roman Catholic Church history. When she started as a young sister in a convent in the late 1950s, the Church still ran as it had for a thousand years, with a debilitating harshness --a few years later, everything changed entirely as the Vatican reforms came through and affirmation, openness, and freedom took on new power. Prejean is fascinating, too, in her own right, not just the writer of a bestselling anti-death penalty book but as a person with the skills and intelligence to rise high (for a woman) in the Church hierarchy. It is seldom that a person straddles change so wholly and can write about it so interestingly

Catherine Meeks and Nibs Stroupe: Passionate for Justice: Ida B. Wells As Prophet for Our Times 
Meeks and Stroupe's book is a biography of Ida Wells, a journalist who tracked down, documented, and wrote compelling against lynching, a black rights activist, and a suffragist who experienced racism at the hands of white feminists in her period. Not only is it instructive to read about her life, but the memoir/dialogues on racism by white southern male Stroupe and black southern woman Meeks are deeply moving.

Hilary DavidsonDress in the Age of Jane Austen
Davidson's book was another solid read. She discusses fashion in Austen's life and novels through ever more widely radiating circles of society, from fashion's meaning in the home, in the local community, in the nation, and, finally, in a globalized world.  The book is full of beautiful and appropriate illustrations and shows a solid knowledge of Austen's work, both fiction and life writing.


E.M. Forster: Where Angels Fear to Tread
Continuing an E.M. Forster trend, I read and delighted in the 1905 Where Angels Fear to Tread.  A comedy about who should raise an Anglo-Italian infant son, I found it, like Howard's End, and A Room with a View,  a beacon call for  kindness, compassion, and generosity over stifling conformity and judgment.

I have yet to see a filmed version of Where Angels Fear to Tread, but this is a still.

Katherine Burdekin: Swastika Night
A book that has been on my to-read list, Katherine Burdekin's Swastika Night, finally floated to the top. Written in 1937 under the pen name Murray Constantine, it's the first novel to depict a world in which the Nazis have won the war. In this case, 700 years into their 1,000 year Reich, women have been debased to near animals, and Hitler has been elevated to a seven-foot tall blond Norse God. This is not a well-written book from a literary standpoint, but an important book for our times-- not only as the first alternative history on World War II (which had not even begun with Burdekin published the novel), but for the way Burdekin understands and parodies the Nazi ethos, especially its deep-seated misogyny. For more on this novel see:  http://janeaustenandotherwriters.blogspot.com/2019/06/swastika-night-violence-orwell-and-style.html and http://janeaustenandotherwriters.blogspot.com/2019/06/swastika-night-violence-orwell-and-style.html

Barbara Pym:  The Sweet Dove Died
 I first learned of Pym in 1982 as a young thing when she was in the first throes of her revival. I heard of her as like Jane Austen, and I quickly added her to my reading list. Only a mere 36 years later-- in 2018-- I read my first Pym novel, Quartet in Autumn, as well as her autobiography.
     This year, I read  three more Pym novels, from Jane and Prudence to Excellent Women to The Sweet Dove Died.  I enjoyed all three for their stories, their wit and pathos, and probably most for their precise evocation of the life of a British woman of a particular class in a particular period of history. One of the beating valves at  he heart of humane literature is an attention the lived details or texture of domestic life. Pym tells us what her characters eat for dinner, how they manage sharing a bathroom with tenants from the floor below, what flowers they arrange in a vase, or when they take a water bottle to bed at night.
   I found The Sweet Dove Died an excellent companion piece to Elizabeth Taylor's The Soul of Kindness. Both novels focus on a narcissistic woman arranging her life to be physically beautiful, as if by donning the right outward garments, they could fill the inner emptiness, but Pym's protagonist, being older and more sexually complicated, has greater pathos and nuance.

Phillip K. Dick: The Man in the High Castle
If not world class literature, this is a fine companion piece to Swatiska Night as an alternative history novel in which the Germans and Japanese have won World War II. In this case, they divide the U.S. so that the eastern two thirds is absorbed in the Nazi Reich, the Japanese control the west coast and a small neutral zone running through the Rockies provides a buffer between the two states. Like Swastika Night, it relies on the alternative history concept to carry the story.
    The book provides a good segue into The Man in the High Castle miniseries. Roger and I watched the fourth and final season in late November. Even more recently, I have done what I almost never do, which is to rewatch the series a second time (I am in the midst of season two now, rewatching with Roger), and I am more impressed than ever with it, particularly the drenching sadness that permeates the lives of characters caught in societies designed at every turn to thwart their deepest humanity. Particularly impressive is Juliana Crane, played by Alexa Davalos, a character who perhaps struggles more than any other to retain her humanity in bleak circumstances.
   The miniseries premiered in January, 2015,  a time when nobody was imagining a Trump presidency or the rise of neo-Fascism in the U.S., which makes the series all the more interesting: although firmly against Nazism and other totalitarianisms, its evocations of a genocidal, misogynist, and frozen white 1950s style American society could be a blueprint for what white supremacists want to implement. But on a deeper level, it expresses a sadness that is palpable in real life about the reality of  living in worlds of thwarted possibility.

Juliana, a gentle soul, leads a troubled life in a world where the Nazis won

Elena Ferrante: My Brilliant Friend
In another pairing of book and mini-series, I read Elena Ferrante's My Brilliant Friend as a result of the very fine filmed version which made by 2018 best filmed media list. Ferrante's book moved me deeply as I read it. Like The Man in the High Castle, it reflects the sadness of lives marked by the lack of possibilities. How, both series ask, do we build lives in the few crevices that are left for freedom, love, and creativity?

Reading Little Women.

Two other novels that jump out from the year's reading are Jean Rhys Wide Sargasso Sea, another book I read after 'only' having it on my list for 30-odd years, and Trollope's The Way we Live Now.

Woolf reading:
I continued with my intense study of Woolf this year, reading both novels, primary sources, and secondary sources. Two standouts are as follows:

Leonard Woolf: The Village in the Jungle: This is in many ways a remarkable book about villagers in Sri Lanka which tells the story entirely from their point of view. Woolf, however, in both this book and his other published novel, The Wise Virgins, does a lot of "mansplaining" and convenient arranging about how women feel and think, which I have to imagine helped fuel Virginia's breakthrough to a radically subjective way of novel writing that deliberately does not purport to tell us what to think. It is difficult not to read Night and Day as a companion piece to The Wise Virgins. Both have an overheated romantic quality, and both are ultimately, if well written, failed novels. Woolf's frustrations with formal conventionalities of Night and Day did, however,  help lead her to her stream-of-consciousness break-through, and if the weakest and most disappointing of her novels, it is still a Woolf novel, so replete with strengths. 

Virginia Woolf: The Partigers: This is a fragment and draft of The Years. Despite its limitations, I appreciated Woolf's effort to alternate a chapter of fiction with a chapter of explanatory prose about the feminist core of the fiction. I wish Woolf had not abandoned this experiment.

Tuesday, December 10, 2019

Cries of anguish in Orwell, Steinbeck, and Flannery O'Connor

In John Steinbeck's  Of Mice and Men, the mentally handicapped Lennie, a migrant farm worker, accidentally kills a young woman. Realizing what has done, he runs away to the natural pool by the Salinas River outside of the ranch.  His best friend George instructed him to do this if he ever got in trouble. At the pool, Lennie hallucinates seeing a giant rabbit who berates him and tells him he will be forever rejected by George for what he has done. In response, the tormented Lennie makes an anguished cry:

"Oh! George-George-George!"

In George Orwell's  1984, Winston falls in love with Julia, and this love helps him regain his humanity. After both are arrested and separated, Winston wakes in the middle of the night in his prison cell, crying out in his sleep:

‘Julia! Julia! Julia, my love! Julia!’

In Flannery O'Connor's "A Good Man in Hard to Find," the grandmother realizes her son has been killed:

there were two more shots and the grandmother raised her head like a parched old turkey hen crying for water and called, "Bailey Boy, Bailey Boy!" as if her heart would break. 

Each of these cris-de-coeur pierces through the pages of the text and directly into the heart of the reader. In writers given to understatement, these anguished exclamations of a single repeated name arrest us. We already know that Julia is the center of Winston's universe and George the center of Lennie's. In her hollow, anguished cry, we learn who the grandmother loves before all others.

In all of these narratives, the situations are dire. Winston and Julia are being tortured by a despotic, sociopathic state, Lennie has committed a murder, and the grandmother is responsible for the death of her son and his family--and is facing her own demise. The cries reveal the rawness of emotion when everything is stripped away but the desire for the absent beloved.

In 1984, explanation follows this raw, anguished utterance:

For a moment he [Winston] had had an overwhelming hallucination of her presence. She had seemed to be not merely with him, but inside him. It was as though she had got into the texture of his skin. In that moment he had loved her far more than he had ever done when they were together and free. Also he knew that somewhere or other she was still alive and needed his help.

In Of Mice and Men, as if to relieve an unbearable loneliness and pain, George immediately appears:

George came quietly out the brush and the rabbit scuttled back into Lennie's brain. 

George comforts Lennie--before killing him to save him from a worse fate.

In "A Good Man," the Misfit, the sociopath whose gang is killing the grandmother's family as he speaks, keeps on calmly talking as if the grandmother has not spoken, oblivious to her broken heart.

All three scenes have a hallucinatory quality. In Steinbeck and Orwell it is made explicit, while in O'Connor it is implied when the grandmother mistakes the Misfit for her own son and reaches out to him in love.

It seems striking to me to see this same technique employed by three writers, in works published in a twenty-year period between 1939 and 1958. I tried to remember any other instance of such an anguished call out and could only come up with only two others:

In the first, David hears that his rebellious but beloved son Absalom has been killed. He cries:

O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! Would God I had died for thee, O Absalom, my son, my son! 
This theme has apparently been with me for a long time, as I remember listening over and over to what I believe was Heinrich Schütz's "Fili Mi Absalon" (though in my memory the singing was much more anguished) as a college freshman for a music course and being so moved by David's suffering that I bought a Bible to look up the story. I still have the Bible.

Finally, I thought of another anguished soul in a dire situation:

My God, my God, why has thou forsaken me!

This cry shows that for all his love of his friends, Jesus' first love was God.

I am trying to think of such cry-outs in other pieces of literature. Can you think of any? I can't remember a point in Jane Austen when she breaks her cool demeanor, so admired by Virginia Woolf, to let a direct cry come through, though we feel Elinor's anguish when she thinks Edward has married Lucy and Fanny's as she awaits the letter telling her that Edmund is engaged to Mary. This anguish is no less intense but not given to us in the same form.

Who would we each call out to at the moment of rawest anguish?