I've just seen a wonderful movie, The History Boys, based on a hit play by British comedian Alan Bennett about a likeable gang of characters in a British prep school. The smartest students in this idealistic working-class school yearn to be accepted at Oxbridge (Oxford or Cambridge University) rather than the more proletarian schools (Leeds, Sheffield, Bristol and Hull) that are their lot by class selection. This film follows their quest for one year.
The students' hero is an inspired History teacher, Hector. Hector is a marvel to look at and listen to, an obese, aging, bumbling apparition with a bowtie and an outlandish drooping belly, played by Richard Griffiths in a performance so good you may want to rewind the movie and watch it again as soon as it's finished, just to enjoy him some more.
History Boys is a performance-driven movie, but the storyline is rather sophisticated and complex. Hector is the best teacher any student ever had -- the excitement his charges feel for Latin and the Classics attest to this -- but he is also a serial pedophile with a known habit of gently touching his students while giving them rides on his motorcycle. The fact that his "crime" is a public secret among the faculty and student body adds richness to this story. Is it a crime, they wonder? He never takes his molestations far, and he only approaches students who expect and agree to it (they allow him this liberty, apparently out of appreciation for his teaching, even though most are not gay). Hector seems to have constructed an entire Platonic society, in all senses of the word, a modern agora. It takes an actor with the charm of Richard Griffiths (whose other roles have included Falstaff, as well as Harry Potter cameos) to make this fully believable, and he does.
I was most impressed by director Joe Wright's treatment of the book's first sequence, the chaotic and ultimately disastrous dinner party at the Tallis household. The film follows the book closely in these early scenes (the actress playing Briony Tallis even looks exactly like the girl on the paperback cover), but embellishes the story with lush photography and languid summery pacing. The younger actors aren't great (it actually is possible for a child actor to cry realistically; just watch Little Miss Sunshine), but the male and female romantic leads James McAvoy and Keira Knightley are quite good, and the sexual chemistry between them is palpable.
The Dunkirk battle scenes and London hospital scenes are captivating and well-intentioned, though they draw short of capturing the full wartime horror depicted by Ian McEwan in the book. The story's big finish is then completely blown off, inexcusably, by this film version. Vanessa Redgrave is fine enough, but what Hollywood lunkhead made the decision to replace that great family party with a cold, mechanical television interview? The family party ending certainly struck the better note. Still, every movie is allowed to make some mistakes, and overall I'll happily recommend Atonement to anybody who either has or has not read Ian McEwan's novel. Please let me know what you think if you've seen it.
2. On a far, far, far less refined front, the innovative comic writer Jonathan Ames is premiering a Showtime series, What's Not To Love? (based on this book and other writings).
The first episode seems to aim for a Larry David/Sarah Silverman kind of vibe -- quirky through the roof, sexually outrageous -- and actually Jonathan Ames seems to have a good shot at following in Curb Your Enthusiasm's wake and finding an enthusiastic audience for this series. I won't judge the show based on the first episode (which involved a "mangina" and a boxing match) except to say that I didn't like it as much as Wake Up, Sir!. But the television screen presents Ames's unique rodent-like visage to memorable effect, and I have a feeling future episodes of this show will grow on me.
3. Ed Champion, easily one of the best litbloggers on this planet, is closing up shop. I trust that this is more of a rethinking than a retreat. I think it's a good idea to shake things up every once in a while, so I applaud Ed's resolve to seek his muse to the fullest here, and I eagerly await his next moves, whatever they turn out to be.
4. A revival of Harold Pinter's play The Homecoming, a tense, puzzling and deeply discomforting look at family and sexual politics, is getting rave reviews.
5. The first phase of the return of Action Poetry on LitKicks is about to begin! I'll be putting up a review of all the poems published on LitKicks in 2007 in the next couple of days. New poems will be accepted again shortly after New Years Day.
I'm always glad when the Nobel Prize winner turns out to be an author I've actually read (and this happens less often than I like to admit). I've only read one Doris Lessing novel, 1989's The Fifth Child, but the book has stuck with me all these years.
The Fifth Child is a fable about a happy family. They have one child and everything is great. They have another and everything is great. Then another, and another. Now they have four wonderful children, but as they prepare to welcome a fifth several members of the family begin to suffer from unexpected feelings of dread. Indeed, the new baby arrives looking strangely primitive, almost monstrous, and he doesn't seem to be tuned in to the same sense of joy and togetherness that the rest of the family thrives on.
The story veers towards the disturbing and the tragic, and Lessing's message seems clear: there is an invisible line between blessed happiness and self-indulgent over-happiness, and this line is all too easy to cross. There's also the slightest suggestion that the fifth child is not actually intrinsically different from the rest, but rather that the perfect family found itself unable to extend its love to yet another newcomer.
Agnes Grey tells the story of its eponymous heroine who becomes a governess for -- how do I put this gently? -- a family full of complete asshats. The kids she has to teach are horrible and the parents aren't better. Seriously? The little boy? Sociopath. Observe:
"I observed, on the grass about his garden, certain apparatus of sticks and cord, and asked what they were.Yeah, serial killer in training, that one.
'Traps for birds.'
'Why do you catch them?'
'Papa says they do harm.'
'And what do you do with them, when you catch them?'
'Different things. Sometimes I give them to our cat; sometimes I cut them in pieces with my penknife; but the next, I mean to roast alive.'
'And why do you mean to do such a horrible thing?'
'For two reasons; first, to see how long it will live -- and then, to see what it will taste like.'
'But don't you know it is extremely wicked to do such things? Remember, the birds can feel as well as you, and think, how would you like it yourself?'
'Oh, that's nothing! I'm not a bird, and I can't feel what I do to them.'
'But you will have to feel it sometime, Tom -- you have heard where wicked people go to when they die; and if you don't leave off torturing innocent birds, remember, you will have to go there, and suffer just what you have made them suffer.'
'Oh, pooh! I shan't. Papa knows how I treat them, and he never blames me for it; he says it's just what he used to do when he was a boy. Last Summer he gave me a nest full of young sparrows, and he saw me pulling off their legs and wings, and heads, and never said anything, except that they were nasty things, and I must not let them soil my trousers; and uncle Robson was there too, and he laughed, and said I was a fine boy.'"
Unlike the other two Bronte novels I've read, Agnes Grey is a completely different kind of book than either Jane Eyre or Wuthering Heights. In Agnes Grey realism is where it's at, and it's a wonderful little book (my copy, not counting end notes, clocks in at 195 pages -- yes!). Anne Bronte has an engaging, clean style, which is refreshing (especially after Emily Bronte -- that was So Very Dramatic), and it's really a shame that her work isn't as well-known as that of Charlotte and Emily, because she was very good. There's a lot I could say about the book, and I debated with myself about whether or not I was going to write something much longer and more involved, but in the end I decided to keep it simple so as not to ruin it for anyone who may want to read it. (Go for it!) In short, Bronte's handling of the issue of the stratification of social classes in Victorian England is straightforward (she drew on her own experience as a governess) and she manages to pack a lot of hope, longing, disappointment and optimism in her narrative without ever veering into the territory of melodrama, which I think is a sign of a writer who has a lot of control over her prose. It really is a beautiful book with one of the most honestly human characters I've encountered in awhile. In fact, this may be the Bronte book I like best, so it's a good way to wind up this round of Jamelah Reads The Classics.
I'll be back with my list for the next round soon. (This time, it'll be 20th century classics I have managed to avoid up until now -- I seem to be stuck in the 18th and 19th centuries.) Stay tuned.
I've found a new novel to love, a slim volume called On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan.
This is a psychological novel in the classic tradition, like Washington Square by Henry James or The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot. McEwan walks us through the forbidden thoughts, logical formulas and (often) utter delusions that fill the minds of his characters, two forlorn young British virgins named Edward and Florence, as they approach each other in dread and excitement on their wedding night. They come together and blow apart in a cataclysm of fear that is, in McEwan's telling, terribly sad but also sweetly wistful.
I admire the tight focus of this small book, and I enjoy the warmly funny interludes with waiters and remembered family members as the nervous star-crossed lovers attempt (unsuccessfully) to avoid a spectacular disaster on their long-awaited night of love. I thought of Henry James and John Updike often as I turned these poignant pages, but mostly I felt the spectre of T. S. Eliot and his doppelganger J. Alfred Prufrock in every word of this book. On Chesil Beach is, in fact, almost a novelization of that great poem, though the era is transposed and the gender roles are different (here, the woman is much more frightened than the man). What reminds me most of Eliot's Prufrock is the concept of sexuality as a spiritual and psychological explosive, a cosmic trigger. Prufrock is a young virgin (I disagree with those who think Prufrock is middle-aged) who daydreams of sex and wonders if he could have the nerve:
to have squeezed the universe into a ball
Edward kisses his bride and:
As he looked into her eyes, he had an impression of toppling toward her in constant giddy motion. He felt trapped between the pressure of his excitement and the burden of his ignorance.
I'm not exactly sure why, but I'm fascinated by that conflation of sexual dread and existential wonder, that high-pitched keening yearning for the (impossible) ecstasy of contented togetherness, that drives both Eliot's poem and McEwan's novel.
T. S. Eliot liked to contrast the sexual anxieties of his characters with the political anxieties of his age, and Ian McEwan plays on the same equations here, making much of the Cold War/nuclear age furor that was the hottest global issue in the summer of 1962. McEwan maintains a stately pace throughout this book, introducing his themes and symbols in a neat sequence, one after another: an analysis of Florence's identification with classical music, a chronicle of Edward's parental trauma, a whole lot of gentle comedy involving unwanted plates of roast beef in the honeymoon suite. It's a delicious and simple story, though it will not appeal to anybody who doesn't like this kind of thing. If you can't stand Henry James and John Updike, there's no reason for you to even look at this book.
I had been treated to an early look at this book last year, but when I wrote that summary I had no idea how much I'd be impressed by the whole work. The only other McEwan book I've read is Atonement (which is rather similar to On Chesil Beach in its essential plot, though it has many more characters, not to mention the battle of Dunkirk), but I've just been told I need to discover Black Dogs, and I know I'll be reading much more from this quaintly classical but thoroughly modern writer very soon.
Fifteen years dead Larkin is still a looming presence so I will try and be terse. He writes with clarity and a determined ordinariness that does not exclude (and often underpins) the lyrical. He is always accessible, his language compact, though occasionally arcane. Fond of compound adjectives -- air-sharpened, rain-ceased, bone-riddled -- he shares this with Hardy, with whom he invites comparison though his sentiments are less gawky, what they have most in common a deep, unshiftable despair.
2. The Clarks of Cooperstown, a new book by Nicholas Fox Weber about a family of influential art collectors, has been getting lots of attention in the art world, though it seems the attention is unwelcome by those carrying on the Clark legacy. The book details an admirable long history of art patronage, but it also details some gay relationships in the family as well as a few interesting political associations. Word on the street is that parties close to the wealthy Clark family are leaning on major art institutions (including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which is running a major exhibition from the Clark collection right now) to not stock Weber's new book, published by Alfred A. Knopf, in their museum bookshops. All of which just makes it sound like a book I'd really like to read. You can't buy it at the Met, but you can buy it here.
3. I said that nobody seemed to care about Soft Skull's sudden announcement that it was being folded into a larger publishing company, but it turns out many do care. Soft Skull publisher Richard Nash posted a thoughtful explanation of the changes on Soft Skull's blog. There should be no mistaking the fact that this sale is not an attempt at creative or financial synergy, but rather a necessary consequence of a major book distributor default several months ago. There is a positive angle here, though, in that the merger gives Nash control over Counterpoint Books as well as the future Soft Skull. Richard Nash publishing Gary Snyder? Looks like that's in the cards.
Before now, I'd read one Bronte-sister novel: Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre. I read it for a class, and I loved every second of it. But for one reason or another, this also-very-famous Bronte-sister novel had eluded me before now. Because it is famous, I had some vague idea of what it was going to be like before I started it: sweepingly romantic with dark, brooding Heathcliff brooding darkly on the moors. And I would of course develop a crush on Heathcliff and all of his dark, brooding ways. (What? Like you've never had a crush on a fictional character before?) But then I started reading and I realized that, uh, wow. I was wrong.
My Barnes & Noble Classics edition has a critical introduction by Daphne Merkin, and it says, "The first thing you will notice about Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights ... is that it is like no other novel ever written. It reads like the work of someone who had direct access to her unconscious -- or, as the New Agers might put it, was able to 'channel' her unconscious. Perhaps the most striking triumph of the novel is that although it is a very particular fever dream concocted by one very specific and overheated imagination, it manages somehow to take over and become your own fever dream (which is, in essence, what happens with all great novels), the exact contents of which are hard to recall once you wake up." I don't know about all of that, because I mostly just found it weirdly constructed and hard to imagine why this supposed great love was so great.
It's like this. Wuthering Heights is not told from the perspective of either of its main characters, nor in a third person omniscient voice. It actually begins with a male tenant meeting a very inhospitable Heathcliff, and then he gets sick, and then he gets the story of why Heathcliff is such a bastard from a servant. So yeah, the entire story is told to an annoying, kind of wimpy guy by a maid. I have issues with novels constructed around people talking too much, I guess. I always find this device false. I probably can't quote verbatim things I said five minutes ago, so I doubt that I'd be able to pontificate for pages and pages about something that happened years and years ago with detail and exact quotations. I'm just never able to buy stories told this way. And yes, I get that it lends an air of unreliability to the narrative, which might perhaps be intended, but I still think there are better ways to do this, so whatever. I'm not getting the fever dream thing, in any case.
What of the love story? Well, okay, so Heathcliff and Catherine were childhood sweethearts and all, but really, I didn't like either of them, so I didn't care if it didn't work out for them. I thought Catherine was kind of a self-centered bitch, and Heathcliff? Well, yes, he was dark and brooding, but less in a hot way and more in a total asshole way. It's like, listen dude, I understand that you're dark and brooding and really busy brooding darkly about your dark pain, or something, but do you really have to be such a dick about it? For fuck's sake, go have some ice cream and a nap, Sparky. Good lord.
Anyway, I was not all that impressed with this particular Bronte-sister novel, perhaps because I was disappointed about the fact that it was so different from my expectations, but there it is. And seriously? Heathcliff is the most overrated literary hottie of all time.
Published in 1732, Jonathan Swift's poem, "The Lady's Dressing Room" (full text) follows a man, Strephon, as he goes through the unoccupied room of a woman named Celia (which means that he's an 18th century medicine-cabinet-snoop) and discovers that, though lovely in public, in private she's pretty much a disgusting pig:
And first a dirty smock appeared,
Beneath the arm-pits well besmeared.
Strephon, the rogue, displayed it wide
And turned it round on every side.
On such a point few words are best,
And Strephon bids us guess the rest;
And swears how damnably the men lie
In calling Celia sweet and cleanly.
Now listen while he next produces
The various combs for various uses,
Filled up with dirt so closely fixt,
No brush could force a way betwixt.
A paste of composition rare,
Sweat, dandruff, powder, lead and hair;
A forehead cloth with oil upon't
To smooth the wrinkles on her front.
John Osborne, the subject of a new biography by John Heilpern, has never been a household name on my side of the Atlantic Ocean. But they knew him well in England in the 1950's, when he and Kingsley Amis (father of our Martin) and Harold Pinter and many others bandied around London as The Angry Young Men, a close match to the Beat Generation writers in America, as well as the cafe-haunting Existentialists of Paris. But the fad of the Angry Young Men of London quickly fizzled out, and John Osborne's subsequent career deserves to be considered on its own terms.
His signature work is Look Back in Anger, which opened in 1956 and gave the "Angry Young Men" their name. It's the story of a fuming, flannel-shirt wearing London bloke named Jimmy who slaves away at a candy stand all day and plays hot trad jazz saxophone all night. He's married to a lively young woman, but he's too brutal and impulsive to keep her love or, ultimately, her respect. Which is okay with him, because he's more interested in her prim, conceited best friend, who drives him crazy much the same way Blanche DuBois drove Stanley Kowalski crazy in A Streetcar Named Desire. In fact, the film version of this play shows Richard Burton at his most Brando-esque as the rambunctious Jimmy (it also features Claire Bloom, Philip Roth's future wife, ex-wife and harshest critic as Jimmy's romantic nemesis, Helena Charles).
Unlike some of his Beat Generation counterparts in America, John Osbourne chose not to continue to milk the "crazy youth" image, but instead turned to the story of an aging, sad music hall singer for his next hit play, The Entertainer. This can be enjoyed in a canonical film version starring Joan Plowright and the great Laurence Olivier, who turns this movie into such a deeply personal statement that many viewers will forget John Osborne (or anybody other than Laurence Olivier) had anything to do with it.
Osborne withdrew further from modern times with his next big success, Luther, a biographical study of the German founder of Protestant Christianity, which opened in London in 1961. Osborne clearly related to the iconoclastic Martin Luther, whose boiling sense of permanent rage recalls the cruel saxophone-wielding Jimmy of Look Back in Anger. (Luther can also be enjoyed in a good 1973 film starring Stacy Keach).
Unfortunately, in his private life John Osborne all too frequently resembled the growling mad, self-pitying male heroes who graced his most successful plays. John Osborne's literary career was a proud one, but those who know him well speak of a personality marred by fame, self-doubt and selfish impulsiveness.
John Osborne died in 1994. He was married five times, and was said to have had a cruel and terrible relationship with his daughter. In his personal decline, the angry Brit does resemble his flannel-shirt wearing American counterpart, Jack Kerouac. Neither were ready for the ravages of literary fame.
Mary Shelley was born Mary Godwin in London, England on August 30, 1797 to remarkable parents. Her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, a feminist when feminism was almost unheard of, wrote A Vindication of the Rights of Women in 1792. Her father, William Godwin, a well-known critic of the British government and the founder of modern philosophical anarchism, wrote An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice in 1793. Sadly, eleven days after Mary was born, her mother died of puerperal fever, leaving William Godwin to raise Mary and her older half-sister, Fanny.
Mary's father believed in the progressive type of education prescribed by philosophers like Rousseau, which emphasized experience over book-learning. He took Mary and Fanny on trips to different places and often invited writers, philosophers, and scientists to his house. These guests included Charles Lamb, William Wordsworth, Humphry Davy, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. One night Mary got to hear Coleridge recite his poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner to a roomful of guests. Mary was writing her own stories by the time she was ten years old.