Thursday, January 31, 2013

January Cultural Roundup

An L.A. production based on Anne Carson's collection  
Men in the Off Hours

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy (please see review here)
Bring up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel (please see review here)
Men in the Off Hours by Anne Carson
Toby's Room by Pat Barker (please see review here)
Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck

Blue Valentine (U.S., 2010) directed by Derek Cianfrance 
Brave (U.S., 2012) directed by Mark Andrews & Brenda Chapman (review here)
Frankenweenie (U.S., 2012) directed by Tim Burton (review here)
Ethel (U.S., 2012) directed by Rory Kennedy
Les Misérables (U.K., 2012) directed by Tom Hooper (review here)
Searching for Sugarman (Sweden/U.K., 2012) directed by Malik Bendjelloul (review here)
Life of Pi (U.S./Taiwan) directed by Ang Lee (review here)

Launch of Descant's Winter issue - A Guide to Melancholia - January 23, 2012 at No One Writes to the Colonel

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Bring Up the Bodies

Bring Up The Bodies by Hilary Mantel (HarperCollins, 2012) 411 pages

We well know King Henry VIII's second wife Anne Boleyn's fate (it involves her body being separated from her head for those who don't know) ... yet it's intriguing to see how Henry managed to get rid of his second wife and finagle marrying his third, Jane Seymour, Anne's lady-in-waiting, through the eyes of King Henry's Chief Minister Thomas Cromwell

Mantel is amazingly descriptive in detailing King Henry's and Queen Anne's machinations here in the second book of the proposed trilogy. Please see the review of the first book (detailing the fall of the first wife Katherine of Aragon and the ascension of the second wife Anne Boleyn). The series will conclude with the third book in the series, the yet to be published The Mirror and the Light.

The trilogy chronicles the rise and eventual fall of Cromwell, who had a front row seat to these historic events in England: the dismantling of Catholicism in England; the succession of wives procured to produce a "legitimate" son and heir (Henry had a "bastard" son Henry Fitzroy who was prohibited from ascending to the throne); the gradual elimination of the successive wives ... until poor old Henry petered out himself, likely exhausted from all the bloodshed and sorrow he had caused. I don't want to spoil the ending but Cromwell only lived to see the first three wives appropriated, used and discarded.
Holbein's portrait

As intimidating and frightening as Cromwell appears to those around him (and to us at times as the reader), Mantel movingly conveys the insecurities that sometimes plague him, as a powerful man who comes from humble origins. True, he is harsh, Machiavellian and mercenary but at no time do we side against him as a reader - despite his duplicity and manipulation of both the King and those who surround him. Cromwell is by turns, nostalgic, tender, romantically inclined, progressive in his treatment of the poor, and by all accounts here a good husband and a better father. 

As the novel starts, Anne has been Queen for three years and has been unable to bear Henry a son although she did give birth to the future Queen Elizabeth I. And the king is getting twitchy for a male heir ... and amorous.

Anne and the Boleyns are clearly the villains here, pictured to be manipulating Henry - slandering Katherine of Aragon, the first queen; keeping Henry's daughter Lady Mary (once Princess Mary when her mother was Queen) a hostage with no access to her mother as she won't recognize Anne as Queen; hoping for Katherine's death and threatening Cromwell if he displeases the new Queen. 

And Henry, vain, petulant, over-stuffed and knuckle headed, must have what he must have whether that be a new mistress, a submissive wife, and a male heir.  

And all the while Anne (and Cromwell, our everyman hero) have their beady eyes on plain, submissive Jane Seymour whom they suspect, rightly, that the King has set his sights on as his next conquest. 
We see the chink in Cromwell's armour ... Cromwell, sometimes ruthless but seemingly uneasy in his role, at times fears that he looks like a murderer in his formal portrait by Hans Holbein (pictured above), to which his son replies innocently, "Did you not know?" He suffers the pangs and anxieties of a common man thrust into the apex of an enormous power struggle - between the King and the Catholic Church that wishes to see him dethroned for divorcing Katherine. The Pope is her nephew and has sworn to rally all of Europe against Henry. Upon Henry's orders, Cromwell bids Katherine, in her banishment from the court, to put aside her claims to the throne; sickly, bitter, she refuses and Cromwell returns to face Anne's displeasure:
She orders her women out: a vehement gesture, a child scaring crows ... the ladies gather their trains, flap languidly away ... Lady Rochford is the last to take wing, trailing her feathers, reluctant to yield ground.
The image of crows is significant and apt, a bad omen, foretelling disaster for Anne and her kin - the Boleyns and the Howards. 

When Katherine finally dies, unrepentant and still desirous of a union with Henry, Anne seeks a rapprochement with Lady Mary, the King's daughter, but only if she will recognize Anne as Queen. She does not and Anne vows to destroy her.

Katherine of Aragon, in her banishment, dreams of "the the gardens of Alhambra, where she grew up: the marble pavements, the bubbling of crystal water into basins, the drag of the white peacock's tale and the scent of lemons". Later, when speaking of Katherine's near death Cromwell tells the French ambassador who is advocating for mercy for the first queen, "Death is your Prince, you are not his patron ..." Cromwell eloquently admonishes: all must bend their knees before this Prince. 

At this time, soon after Katherine's death, a strange incident takes place, during a jousting tournament at Greenwich Palace on 24 January 1536, the corpulent Henry, falls, in full armour, from his horse and is presumed dead for some two hours - this is based on a true historical event. Cromwell, upon hearing the news, packs a dagger on his person in the full
Anne Boleyn
expectation that he will be attacked or killed or imprisoned by his enemies if the King is truly dead. The King revives and the court tries to suppress the incident to protect him from his enemies, who are numerous.  

Yet after the king's accident, Cromwell still feels that he is on the "wrong side" of a number of potential enemies: the Boleyns, the King's daughter Lady Mary, the Queen's uncle the Duke of Norfolk, the Queen's cousin the Duke of Suffolk, the King of France who supported Katherine and the Pope, among others. He observes: "The contest - every contest - is sharper now."

With the loss of a second son through a miscarriage, the King suspects that evil forces are working against him - that he was been bewitched and cursed and that his two key advisers, Thomas Cromwell and  Thomas Cranmer, might have had something to do with it, plotting to have him marry Anne against his better reason. In a menacing nightmare, Cromwell dreams that he hosts a sumptuous banquet for all his enemies who insult his hospitality, his background, his person. In the banquet hall he sees:
Up there are carved and painted faces of the dead: More, Fisher, the cardinal [all executed on the King's orders], Katherine the queen [banished from court, her marriage annulled]. Below them, the flower of living England. Let us hope the roof doesn't fall in.
Jane Seymour
The Seymours, too, are not above pimping out their daughters when they see Henry's interest in Jane. Real, or feigned, Jane Seymour does not seem to understand a simple question about her virginity or her role in enticing Henry - not that the family cares if she's not, they just need to know in order to fabricate it for the King. Tom Seymour advocates for his sister to become, at the very least, the King's mistress: "Why would one prefer a tough old hen [Anne] to a plump little chick [Jane]?" "Soup." is Cromwell's muttered reply. 

Mantel writes of Cromwell: His past lies about him like a burnt house. How should Cromwell proceed? Continue to support Anne and the Boleyns or Henry's newest interest Jane? Which is most politic? 

When Cromwell and others see Henry turning away from Anne, Cromwell sees to it that he gathers enough evidence to rid them all of Anne who has made no friends at court. He fishes for malicious gossip amongst her ladies in waiting - sowing and gathering seeds of dissent and ugly gossip - and then cements the evidence by torturing an effeminate and mild-tempered musician, Mark Smeaton, who is said to have had relations with Anne. Smeaton unleashes a torrent of names.

In many ways, the book shocks. Anne is rumoured to  have coupled with Henry in unorthodox ways (i.e. not in the missionary position). This baffles and plagues the King - where would she have learned to do that, from whom, from what source? Did she thus "waste" his seed when she should have been trying to procreate with him and provide him with an heir? I have no idea if this rumour about Anne is historically accurate but that it surfaces boggles the mind. The brutality it conveys towards women is like a punch to the solar plexus.

How quickly the Boleyns and the Howards collect to disown Anne and retain their privileges.
Princess Mary
Anne is taken to the Tower by a barge and imprisoned, accompanied by Cromwell and a host of nobleman who, it appears, are only too happy to dispose of her. Her crimes - real or fabricated - are said to be adulterous relations with a number of men, incest with her brother George Boleyn and treason against the King in wishing him dead so that she might be with one of her other lovers. And Henry weeps crocodile tears before Cromwell for being ensnared into two "illicit" marriages, railing against the perfidy of women and their scheming. 

Cromwell's interrogation of the half dozen men accused to have slept with Anne is one of the few instances where I dislike Cromwell, actively. You seen that he is wavering internally, when he weighs the logic of what is true and what is not in the men's testimony - none will confess but point the finger, subtly, at the others. But he pursues their (and Anne's) destruction regardless. 

Elizabeth I
Mantel's tongue is swift, sure and wicked - moving swiftly from elegant prose and descriptions to ribald dialogue that cuts to the quick and feels thoroughly authentic whether it is conjecture at court about Anne being unfaithful to the king or speculation on how Cromwell should prove, physically, demonstrably, that he is not a Jew. It's not pretty, nor should it be. The English do not yet possess an image of refinement and sophistication in the world court. By Cromwell's own admission, they are seen to be throughout Europe as "brawlers and looters and rapists and thieves".

If you are a monarchist, you perhaps will be enraptured and intrigued by the King's machinations. If you are not, then you might be secretly thrilled with the idea of noblemen being picked off like flies by each other ... one by one by one.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Una Regina Senza Re

Povera me,
Sono Regina senza Re

Poor me,
I am a Queen without a King 
~ Italian saying, origin unknown ~

One day, when my mother was recovering from her hip surgery, as she was perambulating about the condo on her walker, she gently started to murmur this phrase: Povera me, sono Regina senza Re ..." and I said, "What Ma, what did you say?" 

I asked her to repeat it. Even though I had heard her say it before I had forgotten it. It was so poetic and so apt ... as our mother, as a widow, has enormous influence over all of us. Alone, her suffering intensifies the guilt we feel when she suffers or when she is thwarted and doesn't get what she wants. Of course, if she is la Regina, we are her subjects and therefore subject to her will. 

I have not lived with my mother since before I left for university - decades ago. Having spent several days with her, alternating with my sibs, while she convalesces from hip surgery, I wrote a blog entry about our time together. I didn't like the tone of it so I wanted to rethink what was at the base of these feelings.

My mother, a septuagenarian, had her hip replaced, a surgery she feared and sorely needed after suffering for months with intense pain and lack of mobility. Mama lives alone, in a condo near my brother, and at the youthful age of 77 appears to be the designated driver for posse of old ladies in her circle, many of whom live in her building. She is active, lucid, social and ... sharp tongued. Hopefully, I might be described the same way. 

When we're together fireworks often ensue. 

She says I am too sensitive and wayward. I think she's insensitive and demanding but no more so than any of my female relations on my mother's or father's side - young or old. 

My interaction with Ma usually ranges from passive-aggressive ("People say I am coming to resemble you Ma." "Really, you mean since you've gained weight?") to the aggressive-aggressive ("Oh, so finally I see my daughter because I'm sick!" she says as I come for a two day stay.) But I am not asking for your sympathy because anyone who knows me, knows I give as good as I get.

But in quiet moments, she can be very thoughtful, very tender. 

She said to me recently, "What will I leave behind? Nothing ..." "Us, you leave behind us ..." I insisted, feeling really heartbroken that she felt this way. "Oh yes," she said with just a hint of resignation, "My children." "Yes, and my book ... I could not have written my book without you Ma!" [My main character, the fiery and tempestuous Seraphina in Made Up of Arias is largely based on my mother and myself I might add.]

Another time as I was tucking her into bed she said sweetly(?) in Italian, "Oh, I have such good kids ... all this time I thought I had bad kids!" 

So when la Regina comes home from the hospital over the holidays, the heavy emotional artillery comes out. On both sides. My sister and I have used all of our two weeks holiday over Christmas to take turns caring for her. My brother has done an extraordinary amount of chaperoning to appointments and legwork getting the condo ready for her return from the hospital and is staying overnight as well. Everyone has played their part.

However ... how to handle the division of labour now that she is at home?

The nurse assigned to care for her at home every two days (changing bandages, etc ...) asked if we had a caregiver for when we, her children, had to return to work. Of course we had not. Because this is how Italians roll ... we can't have a stranger help around the house because we take care of our own. Even though I live an hour away, work full time and have a child I am expected to accommodate this as is my sister - who works full time, is a union steward and a committed friend to a number of her circle with health issues. Hiring a caregiver would be seen as a dereliction of duty to my mother. 

As would, apparently, hiring a cleaning lady. As my mother said, 'Why should I have a cleaning lady when I have children (ahem, here read daughters)?"

I know exactly what the thinking is behind this. If my sister and I did not take care of this cleaning her friends and family would think we didn't care about her, that we have deserted her. It would personally embarrass her.

However dear reader I am tired ... tired. The idea of making a trip to another city to clean someone else's toilet exhausts me.

It was at the tender age of ten I realized that domestic servitude equals love in our household. After some petty argument with my mother (the issue now long forgotten), I decided that I would sweep the kitchen floor after dinner. That was my assigned daily duty and I hated it. It was simple, could be done quickly and was an easy task for a ten year old but even then I resented the expectation that it was my job. I knew why it was my job, because I was the eldest female child and I felt that for my whole earlier life I was being prepared for a life of domestic responsibility that I did not want to assume as a female.

When I picked up that broom my mother quickly embraced me and cried out, "You do love me!" I was absolutely flummoxed ... my sweeping the floor meant ... I love you? That's how I show my love? Even at ten I was shocked at the absurdity of this thought.

Another conversation ... many years later while she is still in good health and not in need of our assistance. An argument with my mother that it is the daughters' role to care for her aging parents. I took the position that the siblings should share it regardless of sex. This shook my mother, she was actually distraught and on the verge of tears. "A son can't do that ... a son can't take care of his mother." Likely she was thinking of more intimate care and didn't like the idea. But I remember her shock and disapproval that I did not agree - a sense of almost being betrayed.

And here I am decades later ... I am faced with a similar dilemma: should I pick up the broom (or toilet brush) to prove my love? Well, should I?