Monday, December 7, 2020

Journal of a Plague Year: Walk of Shame, filmed media, rereads, and genre literature


Walk of Shame

Only two works make the Walk of Shame this year, both, sadly, for the same--and perennial--reason.

Hamilton was the greater shocker to me after all the hype about how groundbreaking and magnificent it was. No and no, no-no-no, unless the gimmick of casting Blacks as founding fathers is "groundbreaking." (I will note I saw a play about Mozart 25 years ago in which Mozart was played by a Black, so ...maybe not so groundbreaking). In fact, Hamilton is another play about the Great Man, complete with his struggle from being the son of a "whore" (HT: Rachel) to his being surrounded by a bevy of women (or two anyway) who can think of no higher honor in life than to service and extoll  his greatness. They turn on him for a time when they find out he has been sleeping with a "whore"--depicted as the seductress who broke down the defenses of the Great Man--but, naturally, his "women" forgive him and resume their handmaiden roles. After all, where would we be without himpathy, a term coined by Kate Manne to describe all the extra sympathy our society pours out on the male? How could he not be forgiven? After all, men can't help themselves can they? 

As I said to myself while watching it: I should have known. Of course, this is why people are falling all over themselves to praise this play: it exalts the Great Man and shows him serviced by his willing women. It depicts the women in their two traditional roles: whores and handmaidens--and that is it. What more could we want? Could there be, possibly, a straight line between plays like this and electing a Donald Trump?

I will give the following a slight break as it was written in the 1940s: Robert Heinlein's "By his Bootstraps." This is a reiterative time travel story, about a young man who repeatedly goes back in time on a loop. Not only does it's publication date many decades ago give it a break, Heinlein clearly means his protagonist to be seen as a jerk, both of which put it ahead of Hamilton. However, it is yet another incredibly tiresome iteration of male fantasy: when he crosses time, the male enters a society where he is the only male and beautiful female handmaids are waiting to service his every need. I don't think we need to rehearse how persistent this fantasy is, how much it is a fantasy, and how bad it is: as long as men subconsciously feel this is the role women should be fulfilling, they are going to be angry at women for failing to meet expectations. Literature clearly keeps replicating this meme because it is so deeply embedded in the male psyche. (It is even imbedded in Genesis.) The problem is, it is not real. This is not what women want, though they have conformed to the model to survive.

How do we start getting beyond this? A first place is to stop heaping praise on "art" that expresses this theme, from Hamilton to Phantom Thread to ... the list goes on. We have to start calling this stuff out for the false narrative that it is, as false as any "happy plantation" story. I have to say I feel for Blacks who have to fight the same racist battles over and over again. 

Filmed Media:

Moving on to happier topics, while I didn't watch any memorable movies this year--I can hardly remember the new Emma or Little Women-- I did see some powerful  mini-series.

Lila and Lenu: female friendship in My Brilliant Friend, season 2.

My Brilliant Friend, season two: Based on Elena Ferrante's Neapolitan Quartet novels, the first two seasons of this mini-series have been superb. If season two failed to catch all of the nuance of the novel--and sometimes flattened it to borderline chick lit--it still hewed extraordinarily close to the novel and was filmed with intelligence, empathy, and high production values. I greatly look forward to season three, which I am told releases in the U.S. at the end of  April. 

A French Village: Everyone is complicit

A French Village: This  series about a French town occupied by the Nazis in World War II is extraordinary in the way it makes everyone complicit. A marked contrast to many earlier good and evil narratives in which pure and heroic resistance fighters take on Satanic Nazis, A French Village illustrates the painful decisions and compromises everyone--and that is everyone--makes to survive and the way a war can do permanent damage to a psyche. The series shows the impossibility in real life of placing people into black and white categories of good and evil. It is gripping, heart-breaking, and astonishing in following many of the central figures into old age, where they are faced with the myths and misconceptions of what people think the war was like. It underscores deeply Dorothy Day's repeated contention that it is vital to create societies in which it is "easier for people to be good."

The Vow: Thoughtful people get caught in a cult

The Vow: This documentary about the cult NXVIM and its founder Keith Raniere was especially timely in a year that the political con of Trumpism was beginning to show its weakness. The documentary makers had an extraordinary wealth of resources in that NXVIM seems to have videotaped just about everything they ever did. Further, it deliberately played on successful people, often actors, so the key figures are attractive and compelling personalities. This series challenges stereotypes that cult members are troubled teenaged runaways to show how slick con artists can manipulate the best intentions of highly functioning people. 

The Undoing: The fabulously rich are not just like you and me.

The Undoing: What I love best about this series, without providing a spoiler, is the feminist twist. Beyond that, this mini-series is sleek, well produced, shows some of the pathology of the very wealthy, and features excellent actors and a suspenseful story with surprises along the way. 

The Crown: This highly flawed season is nevertheless notable for some hitting some high points as it introduces the dramatic and doomed marriage of Charles and Diana. 

Hannah Gadsby's Nanette: This stand-up comedy show is extraordinary in its honesty, humanity, and boundary breaking--and is a beautiful send-up of Picasso's misogyny.  It was one of the best shows I have ever seen. I can't recommend it too strongly--and urge people to give it time to unfold. 

As an aside, two seemingly inane comedy series show a trend from cruel to humane and thoughtful humor: Schitt's Creek and The Good Place


A prize reread was the book Rockwell Kent edited in 1939 called World Famous Paintings. This is a book of 100 art plates that my brother and I spent a good deal of time poring over as children in the boring days before the internet. I was delighted to find it, buy a copy, and revisit beloved old art. Needless to say, this  book does not reflect modern multicultural inclusivity about art, but it does have Kent's humane and progressive voice to animate it. He is quick to point out that he did not choose the paintings he was tapped to write about, but he writes about even those he doesn't like with intelligence and wit. It was such a treat to reconnect with this book. As chance would have it, my friend Jane lives in Maine near Kent's former home on Monhegan island--his museum/house is closed during the pandemic, but I look forward to visiting it when it reopens and look forward next year to finding a bio of him.  

As always, I reread Jane Austen this past year. I was "in" all the novels multiple times, but most particularly focused on Sense and Sensibility, Emma, and Persuasion.  I reread a few old Agatha Christies too, largely because I keep circling around a connection between Austen and Christie. I bought a copy of Katherine by Anya Seton, a historical novel I read at 12, and which helped start my fascination with English history. However, I just haven't been able to bring myself to reread it, despite its reputation for historical accuracy. I also have wanted to revisit Katherine Burdekin's Swastika Night, a book that reads more as a rough draft than a finished novel, but worth a second read. In addition, I'd like to delve back into Tokarczuk's Flights, but haven't yet done it. Rereads, I find, are difficult, as life sweeps along so rapidly. 

Genre Literature: 

For whatever reason, I read more genre literature--science fiction, mystery, even a horror novle--than I usually do, possibly because of the pandemic. I read two Elizabeth George mysteries for the first time, and reread several Agatha Christies, as well as E.C. Bentley's Trent's Last Case, beloved of both Dorothy Sayers and Virgina Woolf. I read two science fiction novels, both nominated for the prestigious Hugo Award and was very disappointed--surely there is better speculative fiction out there that isn't making it up the ladder? A young man who grew up in Barnesville, John Wood, whose father I know, published the excellent Lady Chevy, a horror novel. This pushed me out of my normal boundaries into a genre that meets the dysfunction of our times face to face.  

The most notable genre reading I did was Agatha Christie's Curtains, about the death of detective Hercule Poirot, a humane mystery based on Othello. What fascinates me about Christie is her concern with the people who do terrible things but in ways the legal system isn't designed to capture.

I was also delighted to read Pierre Bayard's Who Killed Roger Ackroyd and Sherlock Holmes was Wrong, recommended by Constance. Bayard, a French literary theorist, proposes a different killer for the Christie classic, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd in the first book, and a different killer for Doyle's The Hound of the Baskervilles.  If the Holmes book is more convincing, both are fascinating alternative interpretations that show how writers may hide truths from themselves (though I wouldn't put it past Christie to set up an alternative ending and leave it for the reader to figure out.)

As I reread several Christies this past year, including And then there were None, I was fascinated to pick up every more hints that Jane Austen was a central influence on her, reminding me of a quote from Elizabeth Sandifer's Basilisk book: 

The defeated operate from shadows and hidden places, and the legacies they leave are cryptic and secret.

Christie hardly ended her life defeated as she was one of the most successful mystery writers of all times, but the early death of her father (along with his financial carelessness) and subsequent struggles formed her-- as they did Austen, who came from the same marginal edge of the upper middle class. 

Sunday, December 6, 2020

Journal of a Plague Year: Best Non-fiction read in 2020

 While 2020 was thin on novels for me, it was a rich year for non-fiction reading, making it difficult to pick out only a few books. 

However, these were standouts:

Bob Blaisdell Creating Anna Karenina:  I found Blaisdell's granular approach to Tolstoy's creation of Anna Karenina utterly riveting: I could scarcely put this book down. If I did not agree with all of his interpretations of Anna Karenina and thought he cast Tolstoy's long-suffering wife in a slightly unflattering light, this is a gripping book and a remarkable achievement. I reread Anna Karenina several years ago, and found it extraordinary, but I had never been especially drawn to Tolstoy. Now, however, I feel I know him in a new way--and have a new understanding how the novel's depiction of sophistication appealed to early readers. Questions linger: how can the man who brutally raped his frightened bride in a train car be reconciled with the person so humanely concerned with writing a primer to expand literacy to the Russian peasants? Tolstoy comes across as a mixed bag of entitled aristocrat and emotional lover of his wife, family, and the common man--and definitely someone who didn't want to write the masterpiece that obsessed and repelled him for four years--and that he finished, he claimed, solely for the money it would bring. 

Elizabeth Sandifer, NeoReaction: A Basilisk: This take down of the alt-right is a dense read, and I struggled in an uphill climb before I began racing across its pages in gamboling leaps and bounds of enthusiasm. (Now, there's a sentence!) Scholar Sandifer, transgendered from Philip to Elizabeth, has a Phd in English literature, a background in gaming culture and a love of science fiction, making her as comfortable in Paradise Lost as Call of Duty. She is a Marxian transplant from England to the United States and has a probing, intelligent, and fearless mind. She does not write to pander to an audience. In one paragraph, she will offer  cogent insight into Stanley Fish's Surprised by Sin:

Satan argues that knowledge of Good and Evil will make doing Good easier, and that this knowledge is how God’s goodness is attained, such that defiance of God is actually a means of drawing closer to him. It’s obviously a flawed argument—that’s Milton’s point after all. But it’s got a compelling move at its heart, which is the way in which it uses the desire for holiness to create sin.


In another paragraph, she will designate certain people "fucking idiots"  or call a disingenuous argument a "dick move." She brings Paradise Lost into the modern idiom:

Satan opens by negging Eve, accusing her of looking at him “with disdain, Displeas’d that I approach thee thus, and gaze Insatiate, I thus single, nor have feard Thy awful brow,” which may be the earliest instance of telling someone they have resting bitch face.

Above all, Sandifer is done with stupidity, which she locates as the defining trait of the alt-right:

the key realization about the alt-right—one that’s been implicit through much of this book, but is worth making explicit as we come to a close: they’re stupid. I do not suggest this to diminish their horror. Far from it: the essential horror of the abyss is stupidity. That’s why it’s an abyss. The unique and exquisite danger of stupidity is that by its nature, it is beyond reason. There is nothing that can be said to it, because by definition it wouldn’t understand. It is an ur-basilisk—the one terrifying possibility that haunts every single argument that has ever been made. It is a move without response, playing by no rules other than its own, which do not generally include any obligation towards consistency. It is, in its way, the only approach that can never lose an argument. And in the alt-right and its affiliates we have one of the most staggeringly vast nexuses of raw stupidity the world has ever crafted. To be clear, my contention is not merely that the alt-right is stupid, nor even that its individual adherents are. It is and they are, but the problem is more fundamental: the alt-right is stupidity. It’s the elemental particle of which every part is comprised. To engage in alt-right thinking is to turn one’s self into a vacuous skinsuit animated by raw stupidity. There is literally not a single shred of non-stupidity in the entire thing. 

Is the above insightful or a mere ranting reprisal of what we already know? I would  say insightful. Sandifer does not just, as many of us might, state this opinion as an a priori, as a self evident starting point. Instead, she has spent hundreds of pages illustrating and dissecting with surgical precision, with logic, and with a startlingly humane clarity the stupidity she now condemns. She, of all people, has a right to her impassioned summation.  

I could go on almost endlessly about this book. It's written with Orwellian anger and intelligence, pulls no punches, and is especially strong in its evisceration of the Austrian School of Economics. As I been thinking recently about how we understand time, I will include a quote from Basilisk about time: 

The abstraction of time, enforced on humanity by the rule of capitalist production, is of course one of Marx’s major complaints. For the Austrians [monetary school] it is the basis of the rewards reaped by promethean entrepreneurs for their virtuous deferrals. ... To quote the monster [Marx, as Sandifer ironically characterizes the Austrian School seeing him] directly: “Milton produced Paradise Lost in the way that a silkworm produces silk, as the expression of his own nature.” Marx would like all labour to be like that, and sees no fundamental reason why it shouldn’t. For Marx, that would be humanity returning to nature. In nature, time would just be the playground.

I imagine much of the response to this book would be "I don't get it," along with a discomfort over her transgressive boundary breaking. I have the idea I will try to blog about the book for those reasons--we shall see. 

 Francesca Wade's Square Haunting: Five Lives in London Between the War.  This is a book I love from early this year, before Covid struck. In it Wade focuses on literary and scholarly women who lived in London's Mecklenburgh Square between  World War I and World War II: H.D., Dorothy Sayers, Eileen Power, Jane Harrison, and Virginia Woolf. I have blogged about this book three times already, so won't say much more. I have read some vitriolic pushback against it, because Wade shows these women in a progressive light, especially Power, Harrison, and Woolf, and that makes some people uncomfortable. Woolf is clearly a radical, as Wade shows her to be, not an effete elitist. Woolf's radicalism is an insight Erich Auerbach arrived at in the 1940s in his Mimesis--and Woolf, ironically, disturbed him as ushering in the rule of the mob. Though we might, on the contrary, welcome rather than fear her democratizing impulses, he understood her as many to this day don't. 

Wade, quite consciously, only focuses on a sliver of the lives she follows, catching these women as they intersect with the time they lived in the square. Wade writes out of hermeneutic of generosity, and  I deeply appreciated that, as well her placing these women within the broader social and political currents in which they worked and  interacted. 

Pam MorrisJane Austen, Virginia Woolf and Worldly Realism: I read this book, too, early in the year, before Covid hit. I found it an immensely satisfying analysis of similarities between Austen and Woolf's writing, rooting both of them in a Scottish Enlightenment outlook that values the concrete. It was a book I wanted to be longer: how often does one say that about a scholarly work? It is very expensive, a problem in and of itself, but I was able to find a low cost used copy in superb condition and assume others could. 

Heather Clark, Red Comet: As with Blaisdell's Creating Anna Karenina, I blazed through this new Plath biography in record time--at least after the  somewhat murky first part of her life. From the point  Plath arrives in New York for her Mademoiselle internship to her final days, I couldn't put the 800 page volume down (or more precisely, the laptop on which I was reading it). Clark at times gives Hughes too much of a break, but at other times skewers him, such as when as she quotes those who opine Plath's work will last while his won't. Clark shows Plath's dedication to her writing as a vocation, and  Plath's development from a sometimes cringe-inducing student poet to her Ariel days, in which her poetry breaks all bounds.  Clark also offers a convincing  theory as to why Plath committed suicide. As an aside, I read recently that Ted Hughes and Prince Charles were friends, uniting over a shared interest in environmentalism. It is not hard to imagine that these two entitled men bonded ever more strongly over both having wives who far overshadowed them.

Daniel Mendelsohn Three Rings: This is difficult-to-describe book but it delighted me in the way it brought together the OdysseyFrançois Fénelon's  seventeenth-century sequel to the Odyssey, called The Adventures of Telemachus, and Erich Auberbach, author of Mimesis, while weaving in the repeated circular walk in Proust's Recherche and Mendelsohn's family's encounter with the Holocaust. 

In a year in which politics brought con artistry to the forefront, I read several books that revolved around the theme of the con. The best was Veritas: A Harvard Professor, a Con Man and the Gospel of Jesus's Wife by Ariel Sabar, which uncovers how a man who ran a  internet porn site convinced a prominent Harvard School of Religion scholar to believe a crude forgery of a purported Biblical text was real--and exposed some of the unraveling of academe in the process. I'll also mention Marsha Gessen's highly readable Surviving Autocracy, a book that if fortunately fading from relevance, did a superb job connected the dots on Trumpism. 

Saturday, December 5, 2020

Journal of a Plague Year: Best Fiction reads of 2020

 As befits a strange year, my reading patterns deviated from the usual, leaning more heavily into non-fiction and genre literature. Given that a good stand-alone novel is what I love best to sink into, I was sorry not to have read more of these. All that being said, I encountered a wide range of extraordinarily good books. 

Best novels:

Elena Ferrante's The Story of New Name: Some six months after watching the second season of the superb series My Brilliant Friend, I read The Story of a New Name, the second novel in the Neapolitan Quartet.  I had previously read two other Ferrante novels: The Year of Abandonment and My Brilliant Friend. I appreciated both, but neither pulled me wholly into a world the way The Story of a New Name did. Although I had already seen the mini-series that adhered closely to the novel, the novel provided a level of nuance that the series, excellent as it was, flattened. 

If the televised version hovered towards chick lit at times--Lila's romantic frolicking in the waves with the handsome Nino, Lenu's triumphant ending as the successful novelist and scholar who has overcome her impoverished roots--this banality is missing from the pain-saturated novel.  The novel's characters are drawn with nuance--Ferrante never falls into caricature or stereotype. We even feel sympathy at times for the clueless, limited Stefano, despite being appalled at his rapes and beatings of his wife. And while Lila may end up working in a meat packing plant,  unlike in the series, she is never defeated--she, not Lenu, is the true center of the novel.

Ferrante successfully builds and fleshes out the world she began in the first Neapolitan novel. I felt I knew the characters and had a better grasp of the complex community dynamics. I found myself comparing it to some of the more episodic, experimental novels I read this year, such as Overstory and especially, Flights. Ferrante writes, unlike these others, in an old-fashioned, nineteenth century mode of sustained narrative intensity that moves more or less chronologically through time and keeps the focus on one distinct set of characters.  It is not episodic or aphoristic, it does not include trees for characters, it does not move back and forth across  time and space from a mythic Middle East to modern Poland. 

Ferrante pours new matter into an old form, reviving it. This is not a novel that could have been written in the nineteenth century, or more accurately, not a novel that was written. Ferrante takes the kind of nuanced character study writers like Tolstoy and James used on the rich and applies it to the poor. Nobody I can think of, perhaps with the exception of Chekhov in his long short story the "The Peasants,"could write then about the poor the way Ferrante does now. She is not hovering above, not sentimentalizing, not denigrating. These people are fully human and she meets them as equals. These is not Dickens' Cratchits, unrealistically good and deserving, or Oliver Twist--who, after Dickens rightfully excoriating anger, we find out was, after all of oops, sorry,  not really of the poor. Ferrante's are the poor as the poor and with the real (lack of) options poor people--especially woman--had in that time and place.

This is a primarily novel about poor women--it is a woman's novel that no nineteenth century woman could write, because these writers were above the class Ferrante describes, looking down, no matter how sympathetic a Mary Gaskell or a George Eliot might be. What particularly impressed me in Ferrante, because it so closely mirrored the plight of my own mother, and I suspect many women of that time period, is the intense anger Lila experienced at being thwarted in her desire for education. She is, instead, married off at an early age. Ferrante offers no happy ending, no miracle escape or triumphant ascension out of this state. Having to leave school after the fourth grade because her father won't fund her further education, no matter how brilliant she is, relentlessly marks her for life.  Nino shakes her off as too declasse: her class effaces her brilliance.  The power of the book is not, as in Dickens' writing about the "poor," the redemptive thrust, but the fabric of coping with what blows life has dealt you. Ferrante is relentless and unrelenting, fierce, and angry.  I have book three, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, on the table beside me, and I can hardly wait to read it. 

Vigdis Hjorth's Will and Testament. I finished this book very recently. It's a gripping, apparently semi-autobiographical first-person account of a Norwegian woman in her late 50s as she struggles with her family's inability to acknowledge the childhood incest she suffered. This is not a book so much about incest as about how families deny shaming secrets. It is also, concretely, a book about inheritance. Like Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility, it deals with the impact of the material world, the way some members of a family are rewarded and others punished through the apportionment of goods. 

Hjorth is like Austen too in her acerbic wit. As Austen does in her dead-pan rehearsal of how John and Fanny Dashwood talk themselves out of a deathbed promise to help John's mother and half sisters, so Hjorth mocks the platitudes of the sister who endlessly professes she "cares," while siding with power and her own self interest. She mocks the cliches:

Being an outsider makes you resourceful. Loss makes you resourceful. Poverty makes you resourceful, as does fighting with the tax office, being oppressed makes you resourceful. If you’re lucky enough to be successful, you mustn’t forget that, the skills you acquired when you were utterly miserable.

Hjorth, like Austen, is angry, and that anger drives the narrative.

As I connected this book to Austen, I thought about how books are typically, wrongly I often think, labelled Austenian. This year I watched and read, for instance, Sally Rooney's Normal People, because it was likened to Austen. It is a romance, but the chief point of connection people pointed to was Connell, the male protagonist, speaking eloquently about Emma in a seminar class, which for me is not enough of a connection. I found the novel thin; I did not find it particularly Austenian. 

Other novels of interest among those I read this year include Joseph Conrad's Secret Agent, Olga Tokaczuk FlightsStefan's Zweig's The Royal GameChina Achewbe Things Fall Apart, and William Morris's News from Nowhere. I read News for Nowhere in an on-line literature group: we agreed that Morris' socialist utopia, which feels more than a little like  Disney World with better food and without the carnival rides, is marred by Morris' sexism. Once again, it's important to reiterate that women don't, on the whole, have utopian dreams of becoming man's handmaidens. However, there is something deeply compelling in his vision of a garden world, ecologically sustainable and without money, in which people are healthy and content. 

Conrad's Secret Agent is also marred by sexism and by its mean-hearted caricature of revolutionaries. An appalling, destructive patriarchy alienated me, too, from the sympathy I felt I was supposed to feel for Achewbe's tormented protagonist in Things Fall Apart or the sorrow I was expected to feel for the loss of his social order. However, I appreciated the simplicity of its language, and the way the novel highlighted the destructive effects of a patriarchy where brutality towards women and children is normalized and saving face is all important--more important than life itself. And as I have been thinking much about the experience of time this year, I thought I would end with a quote from Flights, from a book ironically about the centrality of travel and movement  at a time we are all grounded:

". . . and perhaps it is possible,” she heard him say, “to look into the past, cast our glances backward, imagine it as a panopticon of sorts, or, dear friends, to treat the past as though it still existed, it’s just that it’s been shifted over into another dimension. Maybe all we need to do is change our way of looking, look askance at it all somehow. Because if the future and the past are infinite, then in reality there can be no ‘once upon,’ no ‘back when.’ Different moments in time hang in space like sheets, like screens lit up by one moment; the world is made up of these frozen moments..."


 Some of the notable short stories I read this year include the following:

I most enjoyed Sylvia's Plath's "Sunday at the Mintons," a pastiche of Virginia Woolf, written under the influence of To the Lighthouse. It won one of the Mademoiselle's two $500 first prize awards in 1952. To my mind, it may well have been influenced by Truman Capote's 1945 Mademoiselle story "Miriam," another interesting read. 

Nadine Gordimer's "The Moment Before the Gun Went Off" is an eviscerating critique of South Africa's apartheid written in a mode reminiscent especially of Woolf, but that I imagine Austen would have appreciated.

Margaret Atwood's "Death by Landscape" stuck with me powerfully, a tale of loss in an ekphrastic mode in which a woman, decades later, is still seeking a lost friend in Canadian landscape paintings. 

I read Alice Walker's iconic 1970s  "Everyday Use" for the first time,  still a powerful indictment of cultural appropriation. 

Sally Rooney's "At the Clinic" launched Marianne and Connell, the main characters in Normal People. It is notable for its coldness. The lack of security  Marianne feels with Connell mirrors the bleak isolation and desolation that lead Anna Karenina to commit suicide: today, apparently, they are normal for a relationship. The story is reminiscent of Mary Gaitskill's "Mirrorball" and Kristen Roupenian's "Cat Woman" and may have something to do with why aggrieved Incels can't get dates. 

As this has taken enough time, I will turn in the near to future blogs to the best non-fiction I read in 2020, the best filmed media I watched, genre fiction, and rereads