Tuesday, April 30, 2013

April Cultural Roundup

From the Transformation by Fire exhibit
Transformation by Fire: Women Overcoming Violence through Clay at Gardiner Museum, April 8, 2013

No More Parades by Ford Madox Ford (Please see review here)
Perfume by Patrick Suskind (Please see review here)
A Man Could Stand Up by Ford Madox Ford (Please see review here)

No (Chile) directed by Pablo Larraín

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

The Last Tory's Lament

Some Do Not by Ford Madox Ford (Originally published in 1924) - Part One of Parade's End 

Lured to the HBO series Parade's End, which recreates all four novels in this tetralogy by Ford Madox Ford, with promises that it would fill the lonely gap that the end of Downtown Abbey's third season finale left ... I succumbed to trying to watch the series and then decided the books had to be better. I was not wrong.

Is it not perfectly logical that a working class kid of Italian origin from a pretty rough town (like me) would be enthralled by Edwardian England in the pre-WWI years? Yes, it is inexplicable but ... there it is. And yes, I agree, it's nerdy and strange.

I confess I do not fully understand our hero Christopher Tietjens, described by some as "the last Tory"; he is sometimes so indistinct and repressed that I barely remember his name during my reading of the novel. And I admit that the morality of the pre-WWI English aristocrat is a mystery to me ... I study it as one would the mating rituals of a some obscure tribe on an inaccessible island sheltered from the world. 

When in doubt about the value of a literary work I turn to a more learned mind to determine why this is perceived as an under-appreciated classic. In this case I read Julian Barnes' essay on the books.

In short, the books detail one man's struggle (Christopher Tietjens') between his passion for a beautiful but unfaithful wife (Sylvia) and a devoted, politically minded and chaste suffragette (Valentine) who has fallen for him. This is set against the backdrop of England's entry into WWI and the chaos that ensues for Tietjens - stubbornly moral and devoted to conservative values who watches his world dissolve.

Our melancholic hero refuses to divorce his wife Sylvia, a Catholic, who quite possibly has borne a child by a previous lover taken just prior to their marriage. She manipulates Tietjens into marriage by proclaiming she is pregnant although unsure if it is his child. Sylvia and Tietjens' first encounter is a tryst on a train between two virtual strangers. Years later she leaves Tietjens to have another affair with a man named Perowne whom she eventually leaves as well.

Tietjens is a strange, lethargic, acerbic creature to our 21st c. eyes. He is described variously, as Julian Barnes noted in his own review of the books, as "a maddened horse, an ox, a swollen animal, a mad bullock, a lonely buffalo, a town bull, a raging stallion, a dying bulldog, a grey bear, a farmyard boar, a hog and finally a dejected bulldog". One wonders at the affection he elicits from the two women. He is sometimes immensely unlikeable but I believe that this is Ford's objective: "You see in such a world as this, an idealist – or perhaps it’s only a sentimentalist – must be stoned to death. He makes the others so uncomfortable. He haunts them at their golf."

Tietjens venerates the values of the 18th c., Toryism, his son of dubious parentage Michael, and in many respects, his unfaithful wife whom he will not abandon even though it appears to her mind that he has done so emotionally. But this is not the view that Ford espoused for his protagonist. He saw him as devoted to traditional values, honorable, and ultimately losing against the tide of modernism. As Tietjens says, "I stand for monogamy and chastity. And for no talking about it."

He is stubbornly committed to that which he believes this is vividly personified by his manual correction of errors in the Encyclopedia Britannica (an act that justifiably maddens Sylvia in the TV serial by the way).

That they wish to conceal Sylvia's infidelity is understandable, that Sylvia deems Tietjens "immoral" seems inexplicable - is it because he refuses to act against her and reveal her actions? Does she find his sympathy and compulsion to protect her unnatural? Unmanly? 
Lovely Rebecca Hall 
as Sylvia in the series
Sylvia returns to her husband but it seems she does so primarily to torture him with her past infidelity and her continued barbs. Before Sylvia's return from her tryst with Perowne, Tietjens falls in love with Valentine Wannop, a young suffragette, the daughter of a famous novelist once financially supported by Tietjens's father. They meet on a golf course where Valentine and a fellow suffragette are protesting for women's rights. Valentine is an intriguing character with a background that is rarely dealt with in British fiction.  

Despite Tietjens' obvious misogyny (which is casual and seems completely of its time) he has fallen for the chaste, independent minded Valentine. Here Madox is a bit maddening - fluctuating between barely concealed sexism  and sensitive portrayals of strong, complex women. 

Sylvia is overpowering and dominant, as many beautiful women can be; Valentine, likely in love for the first time, is more sympathetic and compliant, despite their combative first encounter. Tietjens reasoned thus: "If you wanted something killed you’d go to Sylvia Tietjens in the sure faith that she would kill it; emotion: hope: ideal: kill it quick and sure. If you wanted something kept alive you’d go to Valentine: she’d find something to do for it ... "

Tietjens and Valentine have an intense but non-sexual relationship in Book One. However, rumours abound painting Sylvia as the injured party in the marriage with Tietjens consorting with various women, getting Valentine pregnant and slowly depleting his financial resources, none of which is true. Still Tietjens says nothing to change this impression in society for: "It was better for a boy to have a rip of a father than a whore for mother!" He refuses to divorce Sylvia because he perceives himself to be a gentleman and doesn't want to malign her; she can't divorce because she's Catholic.

Tietjens enlists in the war in 1914 (perhaps, one sometimes wonders, it is to escape these two women) and leaves for France. He returns briefly in 1917, shell shocked and suffering from a loss of memory. He finds that one of Sylvia's admirers has conspired to ruin his reputation by spreading rumours about his alleged philandering and dishonoring his cheques, suggesting that Tietjens has run into money troubles. Oddly (do these people know each other at all?) both his father and brother Mark believe the various rumours and after his father's death his brother threatens to withhold monies from Christopher. 

Sylvia comes to believe that Tietjens has bedded Valentine too because of his close relationship with Valentine and her mother Mrs. Wannop ... but the postponement of sexual gratification between Tietjens and Valentine make the chaste relationship between the Twilight lovers Edward and Bella in the YA novel seem a veritable orgy.  

Rather than fight the accusations leveled against him, Tietjens resigns from his private club (that has the dishonored cheques) and returns to the front. 

Benedict  Cumberbatch as our 
beleaguered hero Tietjens
Perhaps as a reader I am too far away from this time to appreciate Tietjens' anxieties and sense of what a gentleman should or should not do ... his reluctance to divorce, his reluctance to clear his name, his desire to protect the sometimes odious Sylvia, as if it would be undignified for him to do so, are difficult to appreciate. 

Sylvia, in print and on screen in this series in the form of Rebecca Hall, seems to be one of the few dynamic aspects of the tale. True, she is brutal to everyone around her, especially men: "Taking up with a man was like reading a book you had read when you had forgotten that you had read it. You had not been for ten minutes in any sort of intimacy with a man before you said: 'But I've read all this before'."

The stream of consciousness narrative sometimes muddles the reader; it is challenging but effective enhanced by the profuse use of ellipsis as Ford segues from one thought to another. The book must be read with care. I barreled recklessly through Some Do Not (hence my resorting to Barnes to help me through it), much to my disadvantage, and have tried to be more careful with No More Parades.

Madox is sometimes maddening in letting the dialogue drag over topics - Valentine's challenging Tietjens over his use of Latin, the dithering about the dishonored cheques which amount only to a few pounds each (in book 2 there is endless mention of Tietjens having "stolen" sheets from Sylvia) - but he does have his moments of elegiac beauty largely in surveying a lovely woman or an English landscape. Tietjens loves both and through his eyes we do as well. 

The Parade's End novels include: Some Do Not (1924), No More Parades (1925), A Man Could Stand Up (1926) and Last Post (1928).

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Saturn devouring his son

Saturn and son ... appropriately.
At Last by Edward St. Aubyn (Picador, 2011) 264 pages

This is the fifth book in the Patrick Melrose quintet of novels and I have to admit that although I enthusiastically embraced the series last year, my interest started to peter out by the fourth book Mother's Milk. You may read reviews of the first three books here, here and here (I did not review the fourth).

Perhaps that fourth book was too painful, too bitter. In that novel, Patrick's mother Eleanor had decided to leave the beautiful Melrose home in the south of France to a new age foundation that she had been fanatically devoted to in the last years of her life. St. Aubyn has a good time skewering the new age ninnies that people that novel and rightfully so. 

It was painful to read Patrick's rants against his increasingly debilitated mother who suffered a series of strokes as he wrestles with what he perceives as another betrayal - firstly, and most importantly, her inability to protect Patrick from his father's sadism and then the bequest of the house to strangers upon her imminent death. That hatred is corrosive and unrelenting. I understood it but I found it toxic to read. 

Eleanor is a dismal, poorly equipped, horribly emotionally beaten down wife and mother. When Patrick confesses to Eleanor that he had been raped by his father, she can only reply "Me too!" to her astonished son. Patrick later learns that his procreation was also the result of rape and that his father, a doctor, attempted a circumcision upon the poor infant on the kitchen table much to the horror of the women in the household, all of them powerless to stop him. Mercifully he does not give us a great many details of that incident. Perhaps in atonement for her deficiencies and lack of will as a mother, Eleanor uses her great wealth to help the underprivileged and seek spiritual enlightenment.

Well, by book five the old gal is gone and the entire book is set on the day of Eleanor's funeral and all the pertinent persons are present: avaricious Nancy, Eleanor's sister; Nicolas Pratt, a caustic friend of Patrick's father David and a representative of the old order; pious Mary, Patrick's ex-wife who has made all the funeral arrangements; Johnny Hall, once Patrick's fellow addict and friend, now a child psychotherapist; the shallow, prickly Julia, Patrick's former mistress; the dorkish intellectual Eramus, Mary's ex-lover; and the boobish Annette, representing the newly wealthy Transpersonal Foundation, the beneficiary of Eleanor's largess. 

Patrick can be an insufferable snob in his own right but he rightfully skewers his avaricious, self-obsessed family personified by his aunt Nancy who feels cheated on her own lost inheritance:
She had no prospect for getting any cash for the rest of the month ... her heroic response had been to spend as if justice had been done by cheating shopkeepers, landlords, decorators, florists, hairdressers, butchers, jewellers, and garage owners, by withholding tips from coat check girls, and by engineering rows with staff so that she could sack them without pay.
Nicholas Pratt, Patrick's father's friend, serves, I think, as a sort of father substitute saying and doing things at the funeral that one imagines the old monster himself would say. When he collapses before Johnny, who served as a psychotherapist to Nicholas' own daughter, one begins to think the title of the novel might refer to the final elimination of the vituperative older generation that almost destroys Patrick.

Amazingly, St. Aubyn writes with discretion in naming David Melrose's abuse of his son Patrick. I say amazingly because the details are horrendously autobiographical; he (and we as readers) cannot escape this past. It colours every passage, every remark that Patrick makes. 

St. Aubyn is brilliant is elucidating the poisonous ills of inherited wealth:
... the raging desire to get rid of it and the raging desire to hang on to it; the demoralizing effect of already having what almost everyone else was sacrificing their precious lives to acquire; the more or less secret superiority and the more or less secret shame of being rich, generating their characteristic disguises: the philanthropy solution, the alcoholic solution, the mask of eccentricity, the search for salvation in perfect taste; the defeated, the idle, and the frivolous ...
St. Aubyn writes with artistry and sophistication - perhaps too much so at times - the dialogue can be overblown, overly intellectual, overtly elegant in a manner that is spoken by virtually no one. Thomas and Robert, Patrick's sons are preternaturally articulate and wise in their precociousness - and, therefore, unbelievable as children. 

Patrick himself is literate, eloquent and desperately unhappy throughout. Not even the surprise that he has been bequeathed a tidy sum of money from a hitherto unknown family trust created by his American great grandfather and has inherited the not immodest sum of 2 million pounds, can alleviate this pain it seems. 

Perhaps I am more forgiving as a reader of this last novel as I know we are approaching the end - the end, we hope, of Patrick's torment with the death of both of his parents, his divorce from the too good to be true Mary, his final break with alcohol and substance abuse (we hope). He has endured much and somehow survived. He has remained a decent, if painfully self aware, human being. 

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Jane Austen's Chair

English Regency Era Arm Chair, mid 18th c.
This day precisely marks the sixth anniversary of my first blog entry at A Lit Chick. Almost 600 blog posts and nearly 93,000 views later, I wanted to mark that occasion by talking about why I continue to write and why I think many other women write. 

It is my fate to be a geek clothed in the guise of a vixen. The things that intrigue me, preoccupy me, would likely surprise you ...

I often think back, sometimes inexplicably, to a trip that my family and my brother's family made to Dundurn Castle in Hamilton probably about ten years ago. Th Castle is an area called Burlington Heights near the Royal Botanical Gardens in the west end of Hamilton (see a virtual tour of Dundurn here). Our girls, my daughter J and my nieces B and M, were quite young, the two eldest being six or seven years old and the youngest three or four.

Dundurn Castle, a 72 room house in the style of the Regency era, was completed from 1832-1835 for Sir Allan MacNab, future prime minister of the united province of Canada from 1854 - 1856. It became famous for its grand entertainments and its uniqueness in the region. Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald and King Edward VII, Queen Elizabeth's great-grandfather, were feted there. It became the property of the city of Hamilton in 1900 for the modest price of $50,000.  

While we did our tour of the house the girls were likely mystified as to why we were there. My husband R and my brother C good-naturedly put up with my desire to see the Castle which I don't think I ever explored when I lived in Hamilton although I seem remember being on the grounds for some reason as a child. 

In any event ... I became a bit fixated on a certain feature of the house ... not the entrance hall, nor the impressive dining room that seated twenty and faced the lake, or Sir MacNab's writing desk and private library, the somewhat fussy but pretty ladies' bedrooms, the pink and plum-hued drawing room where guests were entertained. Neither Lady MacNab's boudoir nor the gorgeous grounds on which it stands captivated me. The rooms were not particularly elegant but rather serviceable, neat, not particularly glamorous or ostentatious.

But no, it was the furniture, specifically a chair in one of the parlors (similar to the one pictured above - which dates a little later than the era that Jane Austen lived in as she died in 1817 but bear with me reader) and the fact that, in all probability, Jane Austen had sat on a chair very similar to the one pictured. I kept staring at the chair and imagining Jane sitting there in her voluminous gowns and neat little cap.

When she wrote, Jane purportedly sat in the main parlour of the Austen home at a small writing table, scribbling on small pieces of paper that she slyly hid whenever anyone entered the room.

Why did she write in the main parlour rather than in the privacy of her own room? Why did she seemingly hide her writing? Did she feel it was a vanity for her to write? Did she do so, so that she might persuade anyone who viewed her that she was perhaps writing letters rather than fiction - a more genteel, ladylike occupation for that time? 

I started thinking of all the women who write ... at the kitchen table after the dishes are done and put away, at their office desks during after hours and at lunch, at the library down the street away from children and husbands, late into the night, early in the morning before their families wake, while the kids napped ... are we still in hiding, still working unobtrusively so that we disturb no one, alarm no one?

When I began to write I often felt guilt physically leaving the space my child and husband were in and moving to another part of the house to work. It seemed selfish, unfair to them. They were a bit resistant too ... sometimes following me up to the third floor bedroom to hang out with me. But writing a blog for the journal Descant, a literary quarterly, on arts-related issues changed that. I was firmer about the time that I needed alone and the space that I needed to do so. I had an obligation to the magazine that freed me somewhat from my guilt and inhibitions and then, based on my increased confidence, it inspired me to start my own literary blog soon after. 

Soon I started writing in the dining room, in full view. I learned to ignore the everyday noises of a shared space and no one was tempted to follow me around as I was there hiding in plain sight.

At that time I was having a great deal of difficulty writing fiction. I felt demoralized and uncertain, I feared I was losing the capacity to write and that no one was interested in what I had to say. Writing for Descant and my own blog, adhering to a strict bi-weekly schedule, forced me to keep writing. It didn't matter (somewhat) if no one read it, I needed to do it for myself. 

I love that image of Jane writing in the parlour, in full view of the family. Maybe I misunderstood her motives. Maybe she was thinking ... I have as much right as anyone to be here doing something that I love. Right here in front of everyone.