The Heart is a Lonely Hunter – Carson McCullers

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The Heart is a Lonely Hunter (1940)

You can interpret it any number of ways but in the end The Heart is a Lonely Hunter is a one-sentence summary kind of book: A bunch of sad-eyed social misfits in a sleepy Southern mill town cluster around the local deaf-mute to pour forth their troubles to an unresponsive, unjudging ear while the deaf-mute (burdened with the ironic name of John Singer) is occupied with confessing his soul to a dear friend of his… who is also a deaf-mute. Yes, it’s that sort of book. Loneliness and isolation are the words of the day. Every man is an island where no plants grow and all fruit falls incommunicably far from the tree. It’s a universe of pessimism, the habitual world of Carson McCullers (1917-1967).

As would be par for the course in her future career, the 23-year-old author took a black comedy premise and played it for full pathos. In 1940 this was the hottest book on the literary market and made her a critical sensation for a few years but, as her physical and mental health ground down, her reputation declined considerably (with the arrival of Flannery O’Connor probably not helping matters). The original ecstatic response to The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, combined with some high-profile booklists and an Oprah endorsement have made it McCullers’ go-to work. Now as I hold the somewhat rare opinion that Reflections in a Golden Eye is her finest work (though won’t be completely sure until I find a copy of The Member of the Wedding), Lonely Hunter appears accomplished yet overstuffed, unforgivably maudlin and twisted at a core level.

Dramatis personae: The unfailingly polite John Singer, above. Biff Bannon, owner of the local drinking establishment, a melancholy man with a special feeling for sick people and cripples and an uneasy attachment to adolescent Mick Kelly. Mick, an awkward misfit girl with musical ambitions who functions as a McCullers’ self-portrait and a reprise of the girl from her debut short story ‘Wunderkind.’ Lastly there are Dr. Copeland, a tubercular black intellectual, and Jake Blount, a mustachioed drunkard. Both want to rally the poor masses and worship at the altar of Karl Marx but are so aggressive in their approaches as to drive off any sympathetic ear, leaving Copeland alienated from his own children and Blount in a state of insanity. All four of these despairing individuals become fixated on Mr. Singer, who’s just too polite to shut his door to them.

McCullers visited time and again in her writings the concept that love can only go one way. In this case everyone obsesses over Mr. Singer, confessing their most private longings to him and seeing in his silence what they need him to feel, but nobody ever tries to interact with him. There is no communication or concern – everyone in the novel is too wrapped up in their own pain to notice anyone else’s. This lonely inability to connect is the loudspeaker theme of the novel and the end of the story is therefore baked in the cake and I am going to freely discuss or drop hints about most of the storylines, though not the denouement of part 2. I also caution you that if you plan to read The Heart is a Lonely Hunter for the engaging plot developments you will most probably be leaving a one-star review on Amazon.

The American Southern Gothic tradition is satisfied right away: this novel is unrelentingly bleak and the gloomy town in all of its decrepitude is splendidly, maddeningly evoked – cold, dirty streets littered with refuse, sick people dying or losing limbs or organs, dying trees, dying cats. And if anyone was going to write a death-world it had to be someone as ill-starred as McCullers, who had already suffered a number of strokes and would be wholly paralysed on her left side by the age of 31. Gothic writers usually give their morbidity a fashionable, theatrical cast but this was never really the case with her and least of all with this novel. Critics of the modern school love to say that she wrote about homosexuals and people of colour but she was writing all the time about sick people. Hers is a world of the terminally ill and this really best explains her characters’ complete inability to achieve companionship or experience even a momentary joy. “Every living thing dies alone,” to quote Donnie Darko. Reading it at the age of 23 (same age as the author was when she wrote it, incidentally) I longed to dismiss it as over-the-top and, although the allegorically bottle-necked setting of Reflections in a Golden Eye was more comfortable to my senses, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter really does a splendid job catapulting a young and healthy reader into the midst of death and decay. All five characters have some kind of rotting albatross around their necks: Biff’s wife, Mick’s sister, Singer’s insane friend Antonopoulos, Blount’s alcoholism, Dr. Copeland’s patients and his own failing lungs. Sickness is everywhere and I’m gonna hand it to her here: the atmosphere is first rate and perfectly sustained from start to finish.

But this underlying motif is not the novel’s primary focus. Death is just a given while loneliness is what McCullers devotes the book to exploring. It starts with Mick Kelly and here my admiration falters. She’s the girl from ‘Wunderkind,’ McCullers’ earliest story, whose pursuit of music proves unattainable – but now padded out to fill a book. Her dreams are childish, her behaviour brattish and her life is made out to be the very stuff of tragedy – as doomed to eternal loneliness as aging, sickening and silenced Dr. Copeland. The job she finally takes at Woolworth’s isn’t just an economic setback and it certainly isn’t depicted as her growing up and shouldering some of the family burden; no, it is the end of all her hopes and dreams, the quashing of that spark of individuality, all over at thirteen. Now no music was in her mind. All of the delicate inference of ‘Wunderkind’ can’t be improved on and that one short story felt far more universal because it had no ambition, it was simply a depiction of wounded adolescence and artistic failure that never tried to be anything more. With Mick, there’s often a cloying and manipulative “poor me” vibe, most noticeable in her attempt to fashion a violin out of a broken ukulele. Why not simply try to repair the ukulele and go from there? Because that wouldn’t be pathetic and doomed enough in its ambitions. The pathos is cheap, at least to my heartstrings. There’s Mozart and then there’s Mantovani. McCullers is going for Mantovani here.

Or take what is arguably the worst scene in the book, which concerns itself with the fate of Baby Wilson, a Shirley Temple lookalike whose chances of leaving town actually look pretty good at the start. Of course you know what’s coming in a book like this. There’s no real surprise here when the 20th Century wears its artistic nihilism on its sleeve. So we are introduced to the local kids straggling around with a loaded gun when Baby comes outside to practice her gymnastic routine. The curse of Chekhov’s Gun came into play immediately: I knew it was going to go off and before Baby even showed up in the scene I knew it would not be hitting one of the whining little street urchins. No, only a cossetted symbol of hope for the future would do and I groaned aloud when – right on cue! – Baby sauntered by all dressed in pink. Again, the pathos was on overload. It was so baldly telegraphed that it flew right past “shocking” or “tragic” and landed on “crass manipulation.”

Again and again the novel bypasses any sense of subtlety without the compensating strength of heartless irony. McCullers plays too heavily upon feelings and I am left with the ungenerous urge to laugh: The fact that Antonapoulos could not read did not prevent Singer from writing to him. He had always known his friend was unable to make out the meaning of words on paper, but as the months went by he began to imagine that perhaps he had been mistaken, that perhaps Antonapoulos only kept his knowledge of letters a secret from everyone. Also, it was possible there might be a deaf-mute at the asylum who could read his letters and then explain them to his friend. He thought of several justifications for his letters, for he always felt a great need to write to his friend when he was bewildered or sad. Once written, however, these letters were never mailed.

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter is at its best when looking at the actual interactions among the quintet. There’s not nearly enough of it, as McCullers prefers to keep them in isolation most of the time but it all works remarkably well. Biff tries to get Blount to open up to him but actual interest in his ideas makes the man cagey and guarded. Mick thinks Biff dislikes her when he’s secretly hypnotized. Blount and Dr. Copeland bond over an all-nighter discussing the problems of the country but it all goes straight to hell when they try to share ideas for “the way out. What must be done.” When all four converge on Singer at the same time, McCullers scornfully upends literary convention: Singer was bewildered. Always each of them had so much to say. Yet now that they were together they were silent. When they came in he had expected an outburst of some kind. In a vague way he had expected this to be the end of something. But in the room there was only a feeling of strain.

Biff is the only one who notices the spreading power the mute has over the townspeople and is easily the most observant of the bunch. He’s also the only one who gets to have a really Zen moment. The story ends appropriately with him alone in the night, meditating on human struggle and…valor. He could succumb to terror and despair, he’s as lonely as the next guy, but he pulls himself together and composed himself soberly to await the morning sun. It’s an excellent scene, perhaps the best in the book, and the only one to offer a message that inner strength has any purpose and can actually defeat the crushing nihilism of life that sends people into spirals of empty, abusive, suicidal despair.

Biff is not the most fully realised character, however. Nor is Singer, from whose mind we are deliberately kept at a distance. Instead it is Dr. Copeland. Educated yet wrathful, passive in life yet scornful of God, unable to accept the love of his community, full of fire and regret – all of this makes him an astonishingly real creation and his Christmas Day sermon on Karl Marx is one of the more memorable scenes in the novel. He despises religion as a sop to the masses and wishes to tear it down and destroy his people’s complacency, thinking this will free them once and for all. But religion fosters community and Copeland’s embrace of Marxism is also a tragic embrace of further atomisation for his people, though I doubt McCullers had any sense of this at the time. In fact, given her treatment of family and community throughout the novel, it is possible she would have seen this as a good thing.

Sometimes everything a novel stands for (or against) is revealed in a single passage and so now I take a look at what would, a year ago, have been the concluding paragraph of this review, which I have copied for posterity:

*I would like to conclude this review by drawing attention to an easily overlooked paragraph, part of a conversation Mick has with Harry Minowitz, a minor character serving as the “boy next door” in Mick’s miserable flat-lined America. Harry says: “I used to be a Fascist. I used to think I was. It was this way. You know all the pictures of the people our age in Europe marching and singing song and keeping step together. I used to think that was wonderful. All of them pledged to each other and with one leader. All of them with the same ideals and marching in step together. I didn’t worry much about what was happening to the Jewish minorities because I didn’t want to think about it. And because at the time I didn’t want to think like I was Jewish. You see, I didn’t know. I just looked at the pictures and read what it said underneath and didn’t understand. I never knew what an awful thing it was. I thought I was a Fascist. Of course later on I found out different.” In a novel so focused on the pain of loneliness it is interesting to see McCullers take a brief peek at the wider world and seem to conclude “there are far worse things than loneliness out there.”*

At the time of reading The Heart is a Lonely Hunter I accepted this without much thought. Moral isolation has a price but perhaps it is not always too high to pay. It’s a reasonable supposition. However, in this context it posits a world in which community has no place, where community fosters oppression and must be rejected – as it is throughout this book. Mick’s newfound responsibility is portrayed in a wholly negative light. Blount and Singer are adrift in the world. Dr. Copeland treats his family like fools even as they take him in and getting brought from his empty house to live with them is seen as the climactic failure of his entire life. For forty years his mission was his life and his life was his mission. And yet all remained to be done and nothing was completed. Says Grandpapa: “Yes, I glad to have you. I believe in all kinfolks sticking together – blood kin and marriage kin. I believe in us all struggling along and helping each other out, and some day us will have a reward in the Beyond.”

“Pshaw!” Dr. Copeland said bitterly. “I believe in justice now.”

As a doctor and father of four he’s the most successful person in the entire book (despite being a black man in the South) and none of it means anything to him. But hey, it’s better than fascism!

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter is a work of near-total despair. When you look at McCullers’ life you can see it writ large. In addition to her health and career troubles her marriage to James Reeves McCullers, Jr., was a complete disaster, both of them struggling with bisexuality, alcohol abuse and bouts of suicidal depression. They divorced, remarried and ended the second time with an attempted suicide pact from which Carson McCullers fled. Her husband did not.

Now compare her life with that of another invalid female writer: Anna Sewell. Sewell (1820-1878) sustained a severe ankle injury as a child that left her on a crutch for the rest of her life. Her health deteriorated throughout her adult life and she ended up having to dictate Black Beauty to her mother while dying of hepatitis. She was from a religious family and together with them spent her life doing good works, from establishing a working men’s club to campaigning for causes like abolition and temperance. She was compelled to write Black Beauty to raise awareness and promote humane treatment of the horses which were her chief means of transportation. Or look at the life of Flannery O’Connor (1925-1964) who was sustained in the grip of lupus by her strong Catholic faith, a faith which informed every story she wrote. Why wouldn’t McCullers’ writing be equally informed by her beliefs?

You might say these are unfair comparisons and indeed many of McCullers’ advocates latch onto her sexual identity, absolving her through the victimization that comes with being on the LGBTQ spectrum. Her individual self-destruction, including her disastrous repeat marriage, was thus imposed on her by the larger society. And then we see the New Yorker describe McCullers’ parents thus: “Unlike their neighbors, the Smiths weren’t very interested in religion, and promoted social awareness instead—a Yankee sensibility that was at odds with the town’s conservatism.” So here’s the thing that no one talks about. What sustains a person when he or she draws the short straw? Faith doesn’t have to be Christian to be a weapon against despair but it’s clear to anyone reading about the life of Carson McCullers that she made a tragic situation worse by her own decisions. She wasn’t the only woman writer with a hard and short life: O’Connor, Sewell, the Bronte sisters and Elizabeth Barrett Browning had something powerful, a personal conviction that is reflected in their writing and that clearly gave them strength in a hopeless situation of ever worsening health.

Of course McCullers had personal convictions of her own and these, including social awareness, are on full display in her writings yet what good is a belief system that does not support its own believer? Where is its value? Her novels and stories package despair, full stop. Life as she depicts it is bereft of love or communication and in her later Ballad of the Sad Cafe she expressly stated her belief that humans do not at heart wish to be loved and in fact can only find it oppressive. She did not voice this sentiment through a character; instead she interrupted the entire plot to make this blanket statement. That was her belief system and that was her life. And so she became a darling on the literary scene and now The Heart is a Lonely Hunter is held up as one of the greatest novels of the 20th century when all it really does is diagnose one its greatest pathologies: the death of community.

Carson McCullers

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The Big Sleep – Raymond Chandler

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LoA Chandler Vol. 1On the face of it, this is gonna be a short review. The Big Sleep (1939) is Raymond Chandler’s first Philip Marlowe novel, an acknowledged classic of the crime genre, eminently quotable and fun, though a bit lacking in the “subtext” game. Basically, corruption is corrupting. This seminar is over, let’s go talk about the green light on the dock in Gatsby instead.

We might also make mention of the Hollywood film adaptation of 1946, another classic of its type directed by Howard Hawks and starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. Both book and film are famously confusing and the mystery of the chauffeur’s death has never been solved. You just have to go with it. Because of the Hays Code the film had to be toned down, with references to pornography and homosexuality veiled, and because of the Bogie/Bacall sensation the character of Vivian Regan had to hog the screen and be redeemed in the end. You’d think this would be a recipe for an unmitigated disaster but the movie is every bit as good as the book, though with a very different aftertaste. Take my advice and fast-track both of these experiences. For quality entertainment with no explosions, you can’t do better.

“I like roulette. All the Sternwoods like losing games, like roulette and marrying men that walk out on them and riding steeple-chases at fifty-eight years old and being rolled on by a jumper and crippled for life. The Sternwoods have money. All it has bought them is a rain check.”

The Big Sleep is a remarkably cynical bit of work, perhaps the moreso for having a knight in tarnished armour as the main player: I agreed with Captain Gregory that Eddie Mars would have been very unlikely to involve himself in a double murder just because another man had gone to town with the blonde he was not even living with. It might have annoyed him, but business is business, and you have to hold your teeth clamped around Hollywood to keep from chewing on stray blondes. If there had been a lot of money involved, that would be different. But fifteen grand wouldn’t be a lot of money to Eddie Mars…

_____ was dead and Carmen would have to find some other shady character to drink exotic blends of hooch with. I didn’t suppose she would have any trouble. All she would have to do would be to stand on the corner for five minutes and look coy. I hoped that the next grifter who dropped the hook on her would play her a little more smoothly, a little more for the long haul rather than the quick touch.

Carmen is the star of the book, moreso than any of the toughs that Marlowe goes up against, and all of Chandler’s best writing comes out in The Big Sleep‘s emblem of corruption: A pretty, spoiled and not very bright little girl who had gone very, very wrong, and nobody was doing anything about it. To hell with the rich. They made me sick. A mad, moneyed nymphomaniac in L.A. is practically made to be exploited. Horrid as she is,  Marlowe tries to do right by her, perhaps even pities her a little, and all it gets him is foul language, hatred and monetary and sexual bribery. On the L.A. scene all a man like Marlowe can really do is get dirtied in his search to find some innocent to protect. There are no innocents. Already and without changing any ingredients, the tone here is much more bitter than in Chandler’s short stories. A lack of classy dames?

The giggles got louder and ran around the corners of the room like rats behind the wainscoting.

So The Big Sleep is perfectly pitched, paced and delivered. It receives my highest recommendation across the board and can, I suspect, entertain all but the most ideologically determined to hate it. It has in Marlowe an avatar of human decency up against all the ills of mankind and for the denouement only a haunting vision of innocence gone to the grave: “What did it matter where you lay once you were dead? In a dirty sump or in a marble tower on top of a high hill? You were dead, you were sleeping the big sleep, you were not bothered by things like that. Oil and water were the same as wind and air to you. You just slept the big sleep, not caring about the nastiness of how you died or where you fell. Me, I was part of the nastiness now. Far more a part of it than _____ _____ was. But the old man didn’t have to be.” This is certainly more artistic than what Hollywood came up with for a finale. Hollywood has always had more misses than hits but it has historically known what the people want to see. We want to see the hero win the girl, face the villain and bring him down and we want to see some form of justice done for Harry Jones, a small man in a big man’s world, whose dignity wins us over as surely as it does Marlowe (and moreso when faced with the brilliant casting of Elisha Cook, Jr).

Elisha Cook

If it’s all a little bit fake, it’s also undeniably satisfying to see. Forget your troubles and watch the good guys win. The film completely changes the moral of the story without shortchanging the quality. If it’s the loser, it is only because a bittersweet taste lingers longer and creates a texture that is more unique. As I said, the film is a worthy companion and even improves on the already razor sharp dialogue.

But that’s for a movie review, if I ever wish to return to the subject. Perhaps the only real failing of The Big Sleep lies in whether you see it as a mystery or a crime novel. Marlowe does trip through an investigation and start a second one, collecting guns and fending off women on the way. It’s all done in entertaining fashion but plotwise it feels ramshackle, and this was done deliberately. Chandler’s mission was to put crime back in the hands of those who commit it, so instead of too-clever, super-clued murders we’re given sloppy executions and sordid coverups which could be dismantled in a heartbeat were anyone interested in looking. This is a plus in my book, though I do wonder… if I hadn’t watched the film obsessively when I was fifteen would I have been lost among all the small-time crooks and offscreen characters? Regardless, I did not ever think to read it as a mystery, simply as outstanding crime fiction. Unless you are completely allergic, you should give Marlowe a chance.

Raymond Chandler and his cat

“The camera is EVIL.”

Anne of Green Gables – L.M. Montgomery

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Anne of Green GablesFor Anne to take things calmly would have been to change her nature. All “spirit and fire and dew,” as she was, the pleasures and pains of life came to her with trebled intensity. Marilla felt this and was vaguely troubled over it, realizing that the ups and downs of existence would probably bear hardly on this impulsive soul and not sufficiently understanding that the equally great capacity for delight might more than compensate.

Coming-of-age novels changed drastically over the course of the 20th century. At the time of Anne of Green Gables and its contemporaries, coming-of-age was driven primarily by inward character. There was maturity to be gained, sacrifice to be made, courage and integrity to learn. Anne Shirley, Laura Ingalls and the March sisters were all followed from their youth to adulthood (including marriage and children) and yet these novels were all meant for families to share and mothers could and still do read them to children of all ages, awaiting only the necessary degree of patience to become a bonding exercise for the whole family. Maturity in these stories did not come with “viewer discretion advised.”

As the 20th century arrived in full, children became an independent audience in the book market as youth culture grew and thrived. If they had questions they might not wish to ask their parents, they could look for answers in books and this, along with loosening restrictions on what could be said in print, ushered in the era of Judy Blume. Coming-of-age was now linked to puberty, sexuality and managing depression (or, as of the 2007 publication of Thirteen Reasons Why, succumbing to it). Transitioning to adulthood has become physical, chemical, literal. Margaret menstruates (Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, 1970), Melinda gets raped (Speak, 1999), Lyra and Will play Adam and Eve (The Amber Spyglass, 2000). The quality of the books might stay the same but the stories are no longer meant to be shared outside of their target age group. Parents can discuss the issues raised with their 14-year-old but not with their 9-year-old because the books aren’t meant for them. “Family” books are for the very young and after that everything is compartmentalized by topic and age: middle grade, young adult, new adult. Where does Anne of Green Gables fit into this continuum? No one really knows because that continuum didn’t exist when L.M. Montgomery (1874-1942) wrote it.

Anne of Green Gables (1908) begins as the kind of orphan story rather typical for the era: The Cuthberts of Green Gables, an unmarried brother and sister, send away for an orphan boy to help them on the farm and get sent an eleven-year-old girl by mistake. Unable to bring themselves to send her back to the orphanage they set themselves the task of bringing her up properly. In return the lovable orphan warms their hearts and charms the whole town. However, the plot soon ceases and is replaced by life in all its vagaries and the chapters follow the incidents of Anne’s youth: from being afraid of a haunted wood to getting her best friend drunk (quite by accident) to discovering a passion for schooling and finally to death and grieving. And Anne grows up.

I never read Anne of Green Gables when I was little (my orphan of choice was Sara Crewe) but reading it as an adult its appeal is obvious. Imaginative children would find it easy to identify with Anne, as she has enough flaws to balance out as a relatable character: a girl whose imagination preserves her soul in dreadful circumstances and also gets her into ridiculous scrapes; who only gets out of said scrapes by her good character (apologising when she’s wrong and standing up for herself when maligned). She’s charming, funny, hard-working, honest and clever – a role model, in other words, but never a goody-two-shoes. She nearly drowns reinacting the Lady of Shalott, she appalls surrounding adults with her temper and she has a disastrous tendency to drift off at critical household moments leaving ruined dinners in her wake. Marilla Cuthbert waits patiently for each new disaster to unfold and after a while can even sense when one’s getting overdue. Anne is not an easy child to raise and that keeps the novel grounded.

A strong secondary appeal is Montgomery’s romantic depiction of Avonlea, a rural paradise in a corner of Prince Edward Island where everyone knows everybody else, the four seasons march in beautiful parade and the hard shells of the stuffiest individuals can be melted away by an open-hearted little girl. The children of Avonlea welcome spring by gathering mayflowers and singing as they march down the country lanes.

children maying

I wish I knew what book this was from.

Everyone is Christian (the arrival of a new minister is a great local event) and yet the children, especially Anne, have a touch of the pagan about their outdoor roving and wreathing:

All the boys and some of the girls went to Mr. Bell’s spruce grove as usual, fully intending to stay only long enough to “pick a chew.” But spruce groves are seductive and yellow nuts of gum beguiling; they picked and loitered and strayed; and as usual the first thing that recalled them to a sense of the flight of time was Jimmy Glover shouting from the top of a patriarchal old spruce, “Master’s coming.”

The girls, who were on the ground, started first and managed to reach the schoolhouse in time but without a second to spare. The boys, who had to wriggle hastily down from the trees, were later; and Anne, who had not been picking gum at all but was wandering happily in the far end of the grove, waist deep among the bracken, singing softly to herself, with a wreath of rice lilies on her hair as if she were some wild divinity of the shadowy places, was latest of all. Anne could run like a deer, however; run she did with the impish result that she overtook the boys at the door and was swept into the schoolhouse among them just as Mr. Phillips was in the act of hanging up his hat.

The pastoral joys of Avonlea are pure and unspoiled but Montgomery tempers the considerable sweetness with doses of narrative sarcasm, with the natural results of letting the children run wild (they play ‘dare’ so vociferously that someone finally lands on a broken ankle – no surprise who) and with the inevitability of death. But most other misfortunes are comical or else relegated to Anne’s mostly unspoken past. This is above all a cheerful book.

And then there are the morals. This is where I’m going to part way with many readers who, if GoodReads and internet retrospectives are anything to go by, are exasperated by Anne’s decisions in life, especially in the later books when she becomes a “dull matron.” Indeed, most of Anne’s choices and Marilla’s teachings are at odds with the advice given to modern Western girls. Case in point: Anne’s own identity. Anne, like many girls her age, is terribly self-conscious. She hates her red hair and wishes she had raven tresses and a dramatic, elegant name like Cordelia to go along with them. Where a modern free spirit would simply insist she’d been given the wrong name, Anne learns to love being Anne of Green Gables and leaves Cordelia to the realm of make-believe. However, she does purchase hair dye from a passing peddler – hoping for black hair it instead turns a hideous bronzy green that won’t wash out. Marilla has to hack it all off while chiding Anne over her vanity and the lesson is learned: “I never thought I was vain about my hair, of all things, but now I know I was, in spite of its being red, because it was so long and thick and curly.” Anne then learns to appreciate her features – it’s a genuinely good example of much-heralded “body positivity” in a culture that can now peddle its green hair dye openly.

green hair

It’s not even surprising anymore.

Consider also the layers of meaning to Marilla and Matthew deciding to keep Anne. Anne does not ever attempt to be the farm boy they sent for and Marilla doesn’t require any help around the house so Anne is given no outlet to “earn” her keep. On the other hand, the Cuthberts never officially adopt Anne – though they grow to love her, neither of them wants to become a parent at the outset. Marilla expects a certain standard of behaviour from Anne but that’s as far as her wants go. Anne is therefore established as superfluous to their well-ordered needs and yet they might be good for her and so she stays. They sacrifice for her sake.

And then comes the end of the novel.

Spoilers

Anne has won a coveted scholarship and is going away to college, living the dream, when Matthew tragically passes away. Marilla, whose eyesight is failing, cannot afford to maintain Green Gables and so Anne resolves to postpone higher education and become a local schoolteacher instead. “I’m just as ambitious as ever. Only, I’ve changed the object of my ambitions.” She chooses home and family over career, directly foreshadowing her future (depicted in the seven sequels) as a married mother of six and dismaying many modern readers in the process. “Anne should never have grown up to become a conformist” says Jack Zipes in his introduction to the Modern Library edition, strongly implying she shouldn’t have grown up at all. What was she expected to do in this situation? Peck Marilla on the cheek as she dropped her off at a nursing home? “Bye, you’ll literally never see me again!” Would that have made her a greater heroine?

Zipes also quotes another children’s scholar, Perry Nodelman, who says that in the wholesome orphan stories of yore “childhood never really ends, the most childlike children never really grow up, and even terminally mature people can become childlike again. It is the secret desire of grownups to be children again that makes these novels so appealing to grown-ups, and it may be the secret desire of children to never grow up that makes these novels appealing to them.” That’s a lot of secret desires right there (are you sure you’re not projecting, Perry?). If children don’t want to grow up why do they consistently prefer their heroes to be older than themselves? You would think that there would be far more stories like Peter Pan if Nodelman’s theory was correct but in fact immortal children are vastly outnumbered by the other kind. And doesn’t becoming an orphan in fact destroy childhood, a la Sara Crewe in the attic or Harry Potter under the stairs? Why do the Pevensies get shut out of Narnia? Why does Travis shoot Old Yeller? For the same reason that Anne gives up her hard-won scholarship. Good children’s literature is about growing up, about surviving, because childhood is supposed to end. It has to. Anne of Green Gables is a particularly affectionate roadmap to that process, in all its sweetness and melancholy.

Anne of Green Gables miniseries

Megan Follows as Anne in the 1985 miniseries

And so the Parental Guide.

Anne of Green Gables is a Christian novel. Anne arrives at Green Gables and is first of all taught to pray and attend Sunday school. Although Anne has had no education in these matters she admires God’s word (as much for its poetry as anything else) and she covets a friendship with the minister’s wife. Although she is irreverent at times her questioning never leads her anywhere near atheism.

This is a story of the woman’s sphere of life and so Montgomery gives Anne a number of good role models as she matures: Marilla, with her sense of justice and well-bestowed sarcasm; the schoolteacher Miss Stacy, who holds nature studies and inspires her students; Mrs. Allen the minister’s wife who shows Anne that religion can be a “cheerful thing” and even Mrs. Lynde, the town gossip, has plentiful good advice and a kindly, if somewhat officious heart. The men are somewhat more flawed, making them feel more well-rounded than all save Anne and Marilla. Matthew shuns difficult decision-making and has no financial acumen but he has a good heart and won’t back down from his principles. Gilbert Blythe starts out as an obnoxious classmate but grows up to be quite the gentleman and scholar, and is the soul of chivalry when Anne needs it most.

Matthew dies of a heart attack at the close of the novel, and although it is lightly foreshadowed it may come as a bit of a shock considering how rosy the rest of the book is. Anne’s dismal past is handled very circumspectly and the dare game culminating in a broken ankle is as “violent” as the story gets.

Naturally there is no diversity to be seen. Prince Edward Island is so thoroughly sequestered from the world that Marilla shudders at the thought of acquiring a British orphan: “Give me a native born at least. There’ll be a risk, no matter who we get. But I’ll feel easier in my mind and sleep sounder at nights if we get a born Canadian.” There’s a strong sense throughout the book of Canadian identity and local pride in Avonlea.

Reading level would probably be called advanced and would certainly require and teach patience to a listener used to the pacing of modern books. Long considered an excellent read-aloud, it would be perfect for traditionalist parents to share with their daughter.

L.M. Montgomery

Like Water for Chocolate – Laura Esquivel

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Like Water for ChocolateAnyone who thinks Wuthering Heights wasn’t romantic really needs to read Like Water for Chocolate: A Novel in Monthly Installments with Recipes, Romances and Home Remedies, one of those novels whose marketing far eclipses its content. It’s got a quirky subtitle, it promises food, magic, love and female empowerment; it’s short and easy to read, and is written by a Mexican woman, giving it that patina of worldly sophistication that every so often inspires a translated mega-hit in the United States. It’s easy to see how this novel from 1989 was such a smash, with a translation by Carol and Thomas Christensen and a movie both arriving in 1992.

The trouble with crying over an onion is that once the chopping gets you started and the tears begin to well up, the next thing you know you just can’t stop. I don’t know whether that’s ever happened to you, but I have to confess it’s happened to me, many times. Mama used to say it was because I was especially sensitive to onions, like my great-aunt, Tita.

Tita was so sensitive to onions, any time they were being chopped, they say she would just cry and cry; when she was still in my great-grandmother’s belly her sobs were so loud that even Nacha, the cook, who was half-deaf, could hear them easily. Once her wailing got so violent that it brought on an early labor. And before my great-grandmother could let out a word or even a whimper, Tita made her entrance into this world, prematurely, right there on the kitchen table amid the smells of simmering noodle soup, thyme, bay leaves, and cilantro, steamed milk, garlic, and, of course, onion. Tita had no need for the usual slap on the bottom, because she was already crying as she emerged; maybe that was because she knew then that it would be her lot in life to be denied marriage.

This is quite an enticing opening, less magical realist, more folk tale embellished by a favorite aunt, and this crazy, congenial narration kept me turning the pages with some avidity even as it dawned on me that I hated Like Water for Chocolate. That’s worth a star by itself. So we’ll start with the plot of this, Laura Esquivel’s most notable contribution to Mexican literature.

In Tita’s family, there is a tradition in which the youngest daughter is required to forgo marriage and children, instead devoting her life to being her parents’ caretaker until they die. Tita is the youngest daughter of Mama Elena and when she falls in love with a local boy her mother forbids the match. Pedro then decides the best strategy for securing his beloved is to take up Mama Elena’s offer of her eldest daughter Rosaura’s hand. He then moves into the house with them. A foolproof plan, surely. What follows are eleven chapters of ghastly family dysfunction that took me by surprise. I understood that Hispanic culture places a greater emphasis on family than any of their northern neighbours, so to see Esquivel make a complete mockery of it somewhat took me aback.

The only tradition Esquivel seems to value is the preparation of food, with each traditional recipe carefully embedded in the novel itself, yet she betrays and mocks it alongside everything else, for most of the dishes produce disgusting results as the food takes on the properties of Tita’s own suppressed emotions, causing mass vomiting at Pedro and Rosaura’s wedding, summoning worms into the sausages and turning a regular meal into a destructive aphrodisiac – twice. I did not crave Mexican food during this read and was in fact somewhat queasy at the thought of it.

So Pedro sets out to have a wife and a woman on the side while Mama Elena spends most of her time arranging for Pedro and Tita to never be left alone together. Rosaura is trapped in an unhappy marriage but we’re not supposed to feel sorry for her and, to ensure our cooperation on this point, Esquivel makes her fat and gassy and she dies in the most humiliating way the author could devise. Middle sister Gertrudis gets infected by Tita’s accidental aphrodisiac, gets abducted by a rebel soldier and winds up working in a brothel but we are certainly not meant to feel sorry for her liberation.

The funniest thing about Like Water for Chocolate is the vaguely defined yet repeated claim that it is somehow a feminist text (probably because it is set during the Mexican Revolution and Tita and Gertrudis both rebel against tradition). I find this amusing when literally every time Tita seems ready to take her destiny into her own hands Pedro comes along with his suggestive eyes and gets her to throw her life away. Meanwhile the very traditions she rebels against are her mother’s. Mama Elena runs a female household, she scares off bandits all by herself and she says outright “I’ve never needed a man for anything; all by myself, I’ve done all right with my ranch and my daughters. Men aren’t that important in this life, Father” – she said emphatically (to the local priest, by the way). She’s a firebrand feminist and she runs a hellish household and makes her daughters miserable. When Rosaura and Pedro have a baby girl, it is Rosaura who decides to carry on the youngest daughter tradition even though she can’t have any more children – dooming the family line. Pedro doesn’t interfere or even seem to care because he wants to have bastard kids with Tita, but when Rosaura says no to that idea he quickly drops it. All of the men in this novel are incredibly weak, by the way, from Pedro, too craven to elope with the woman he desires, to the soldier and great womanizer Trevino, who is emasculated by Gertrudis and becomes only her watchdog, protecting her flanks, not letting her out of sight for a second, to Mama Elena’s late husband, who is carried off by a heart attack when he learns of his wife’s unfaithfulness. It is painful and it leads to a major problem with the narrative. This is meant to be a “traditional family,” with happiness granted only to the daughters who rebel against it but the family is matriarchal, creating cognitive dissonance all the way.

It is only the middle of the book, chapters May – July, that really escape the story’s general bizarreness. Tita escapes her dreadful situation at the apex of its tragedy and is taken in by the patient, reasonable, caring Dr. John Brown. He is everything the main cast is not: scientific, gentle and capable of respecting Tita’s choices. A love triangle develops: Tita was beginning to wonder if the feeling of peace and security that John gave her wasn’t true love, and not the agitation and anxiety she felt when she was with Pedro. A back and forth develops between lust and love, raw passion and tempered emotion. Will Tita become a wife or remain a mistress? The penultimate chapter leaves her decision a cliffhanger, cementing this for all time as a beach read, before the final installment engages in an incredibly lame time-skip bait-and-switch to wrap things up. And what an insane wrap-up it is, something I can only describe as “the Marquis de Sade for housewives.” Check it out below the SPOILER line!

Spoilers

Tita, it is revealed, has chosen to be a mistress, sneaking into closets with Pedro while keeping up appearances with the community and scrupulously avoiding pregnancy for twenty-two years. How fulfilling. The Wuthering Heights reference I made wasn’t entirely snark, as in both novels it falls to the youngest generation to correct the family faults and forge ahead to a good life. However, there is no redemption to go along with it in this case, and you could even say the older generations got exactly what they wanted. Tita follows Mama Elena’s instructions to never marry, while young Esperanza is only freed from tradition by her mother’s ignoble end. And there’s more.

At the wedding of Esperanza to John Brown’s son, Tita’s aphrodisiac strikes again, infecting all the guests except for John, who leaves without a partner. John should have found someone else when she refused him, but he never had. So the only rational character exits unaffected while everyone else grabs a partner and heads out for a massive orgy. Esquivel singles this out for applause, crowing that the uninhibited sexuality on display that day was some of the greatest creativity in the history of the human race. Meanwhile, Tita and Pedro are finally free to indulge their carnal appetites uninterrupted and it’s such an intense experience that it stops Pedro’s heart. Tita realizes she will never again experience such an inner fire and the narration completes its regression from an old crone spinning yarns to a seventeen year old girl’s erotic prose poem: Surely Pedro had died at the moment of ecstasy when he entered the luminous tunnel. She regretted not having done the same. Now it would never again be possible to see that light, because she could no longer feel anything. She would but wander through the shadows for eternity, alone, all alone. [Is she a vampire now? Seriously?] She would have to find some way, even if it was an artificial one, of striking a fire that would light the way back to her origin and to Pedro. The language gets vaguer from here but basically she masturbates to death and the ranch burns to the ground around her. Then Esquivel tries to invoke some cycle-of-life imagery with the ash left behind but what we really have here is the old sex-equals-death pathology, with Pedro and Tita dying of sheer satiation because that is passion for the ages, people, and Pedro was the superior choice to John Brown. It is deeply insane.

But that’s the whole book for you. The best reviews come from people whose comments boil down to “have you read this book? It’s CRAZY!” They were the ones who got maximum entertainment value from it. It’s like reading Richard Brautigan’s novels and I suspect Laura Esquivel is heading for the same quasi-literary plateau he’s on. The final joke goes back to the title: “Home Remedies,” it claims, when the only lasting remedy for this home is to burn it down with the over-exerted corpses of its owners inside. Now there’s a cure.

Laura Esquivel

When not writing books, Laura Esquivel serves in Mexico’s Chamber of Deputies for the left-wing Morena party.

The Return of the Soldier – Rebecca West

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The Return of the SoldierA slim novel from 1918, The Return of the Soldier is the first work of fiction by Dame Rebecca West, the most celebrated woman writer of her day who now drifts semi-forgotten in the shadow of Virginia Woolf. She was too great a contrarian, too independent a thinker for our politicized era and in consequence she is rarely read or talked about anymore. She was the first woman to write a novel about the First World War (for comparison, even Vera Brittain’s famous memoir Testament of Youth came out in 1933, while Woolf’s novel Jacob’s Room was published in 1922, since Woolf only wrote about the Edwardians while the war was on). The premise is really quite simple: Chris Baldry returns from the Western Front shell-shocked and unable to remember the last fifteen years of his life, including his marriage to the beautiful Kitty. He believes he is still twenty and in love with an innkeeper’s daughter called Margaret. Kitty and Jenny, Chris’s unmarried cousin, have to endure the pain of being forgotten by this man whom they adored, while wondering what will bring him back to the present.

Jenny is the narrator, although she has very little to do with the unfolding drama besides providing a sympathetic ear. She is an eyewitness to the quiet tragedy in its final act, as the past comes back to haunt the people who believed they had moved on. There is a strong class element to the interactions. Kitty and Jenny are so well ensconced in their orderly home at Baldry Court that they cannot stand the sight of Margaret, “seamed and scored and ravaged by squalid circumstances.” Margaret and Chris broke up in the past because of mutual distrust: “it struck me he wasn’t trusting me as he would trust a girl of his own class, and I told him so.” He then ends by marrying a woman of his own set, who picked up his conception of normal expenditure, and carelessly stretched it as a woman stretches a new glove on her hand. Yet as Jenny gets to know Margaret she begins to romanticize the woman’s hard life, constructing in her a visiting saint, spiritually greater than any of them. The psychological quality of this novel has little to do with Chris’s actual condition or its cure, being instead rooted in Jenny’s evolving consciousness.

The Return of the Soldier is primarily focused on the subject of beauty, treating it as a sustaining illusion, something needed and described in the most delicately moving terms as it contrasts with the nightmare that is the First World War – at the time of the novel’s publication still ongoing. Chris remembers his courtship of Margaret:

When there had descended on them a night as brilliant as the day he drew her out into the darkness, which was sweet with the scent of walnut-leaves, and they went across the lawn, bending beneath the chestnut-boughs, not to the wild part of the island, but to a circle of smooth turf divided from it by a railing of wrought iron. On this stood a small Greek temple, looking very lovely in the moonlight. … tonight there was nothing anywhere but beauty. He lifted her in his arms and carried her within the columns, and made her stand in a niche above the altar. A strong stream of moonlight rushed upon her there; by its light he could not tell if her hair was white as silver or yellow as gold, and again he was filled with exaltation because he knew that it would not have mattered if it had been white. His love was changeless. Lifting her down from the niche, he told her so.

And as he spoke, her warm body melted to nothingness in his arms. The columns that had stood so hard and black against the quivering tide of moonlight and starlight seemed to totter and dissolve. He was lying in a hateful world where barbed-wire entanglements showed impish knots against a livid sky full of blooming noise and splashes of fire and wails for water, and his back was hurting intolerably.

Chris’s women, Kitty and cousin Jenny, understand the importance of beauty and devote their time to arranging splendour for his eyes, meaning to soothe him and show their affection and give him something to fight for in France. It had lain on us, the responsibility, which gave us dignity, to compensate him for his lack of free adventure by arranging him a gracious life. But now, just because our performance had been so brilliantly adequate, how dreary was the empty stage! West clearly held a rational understanding of what is expected of men and what their role in civilization actually entails. For men, “privilege” is a temporary thing that must be sacrificed, as millions were sacrificing it one hundred years ago by their descent into the trenches. In truth, Chris’s life of leisure ended the moment he inherited Baldry Court, for nothing of value can long exist in a state of idleness and being the ideal Englishman is a role that has to be upheld, a job that must be performed.

Jenny insists that it is only beauty, only grace, that she and Kitty supply for their soldier, that I was sure that we were preserved from the reproach of luxury, because we had made a fine place for Chris, one little part of the world that was, so far as surfaces could make it so, good enough for his amazing goodness. But Jenny is deluding herself. As is revealed on the very first page, which takes place in Baldry Court’s empty nursery, there is a deep unhappiness in Chris’s life and Jenny’s use of the words luxury and surfaces betray the limitations of what she and Kitty bring to the table. When Margaret appears on the scene, without style, without riches, she reveals the paucity of their fabrication by the simplest of phrases, among them: “It’s a big place. Chris must have worked hard to keep all this up.” She is a poor woman yet she pities a rich man. She nurses whatever nice things come her way in the business of life while Jenny and Kitty try to staunch spiritual wounds with material acquisitions. And so Chris loses his memory and is drawn back to hopeful days, long before the horrors of war and the loss of his progeny left him working to support a grand yet empty house while Kitty remains baffled by his discontent to the end.

West treats this entire scenario with marvelous calm, weighing and balancing the scales without ever falling prey to polemic. The Return of the Soldier does not come down for or against the upper or lower classes, men or women, Chris forgetting or Chris remembering. Throughout she shows that beauty, though it can become the trap of luxury, is not a false concept in itself (a particularly noxious conclusion that many others would come to after first one, then two world wars). This slender novel thus acquires a remarkable poise and gravitas that cannot be faulted.

The return of the “soldier” can only bring with it self-awareness and its attendant sorrows. It is a return that has to happen for the sake of reality, but there is no cure for Chris’s troubles because he has lost the future, for himself and for the world that he has worked for; his retreat to the past is a tacit admission of that. It is a tragic story, enhanced by West’s precision of language reflected in the wealth of quotes I have lifted, and so I must conclude this review with a final passage as the troubled family sits down to an evening’s entertainment and the twentieth century settles in to stay:

I went to the piano. Through this evening of sentences cut short because their completed meaning was always sorrow, of normal life dissolved to tears, the chords of Beethoven sounded serenely.

“So like you Jenny,” said Kitty, suddenly, “to play Beethoven when it’s the war that’s caused all this. I could have told that you would have chosen to play German music this night of all nights.”

So I began a saraband by Purcell, a jolly thing that makes one see a plump, sound woman dancing on a sanded floor in some old inn, with casks of good ale all about her and a world of sunshine and May lanes without. As I played I wondered if things like this happened when Purcell wrote such music, empty of everything except laughter and simple greeds and satisfactions and at worst the wail of unrequited love. Why had modern life brought forth these horrors, which made the old tragedies seem no more than nursery-shows? And the sky also is different. Behind Chris’s head, as he halted at the open window, a search-light turned all ways in the night, like a sword brandished among the stars.

Rebecca West

The Venus of Ille – Prosper Mérimée

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Carmen, Hesperus PressThe complete text of Carmen, with footnotes and Crichtonian epilogue on the author’s studies on Romany runs to 60 pages. To make it a reasonable investment, Hesperus Press pushed it to 93 pages with the inclusion of Prosper Mérimée’s horror story ‘The Venus of Ille’ (1837), also translated by Andrew Brown. A tale of terror that proves once again how the French do love their schlock horror tropes.

I can’t find any meaningful background to the story so I’m going to devote this space to the achievements of Prosper Mérimée (1803 – 1870) himself, a remarkably accomplished and even heroic individual in the field of architecture. He served as Inspector General of Historic Monuments from 1834 to 1860. The monarchy had returned to France and they set out to protect and restore the symbols of the France overthrown by the revolution: the monarchic and religious buildings and ornaments that had been seized, stripped, melted down and vandalized by the revolutionaries. Historic France was in need of wide-scale restoration and Mérimée was perfect for the job, having an eye for quality and the patient charm and cleverness of a diplomat. There were no protective laws for historic buildings at the time – Mérimée could only fulfill his task by convincing the local authorities to maintain their unacknowledged monuments. I highly recommend this article by Julian Barnes for more detail on the subject but to encapsulate: he rediscovered the tapestries of The Lady and the Unicorn, moldering in the castle of Boussac and he saved the medieval ramparts of Avignon from demolition. He fought countless battles across the country and tirelessly promoted monument preservation. In addition he was a government worker, courtier, Russian translator, historian, ghost writer to Napoleon III and novelist, whose Carmen would inspire the greatest French opera of all time. He was an atheist who saved churches, a minor writer but a major player in French civilization, a truly remarkable man who should be far better known.

This background leads back to ‘The Venus of Ille,’ written early in his architectural career. The narrator visits a town where a statue of Venus has recently been unearthed by his host M. Alphonse de Peyrehorade. He stays for the wedding of Peyrehorade’s son and witnesses the statue wreaking terrible vengeance upon the family. When you think of Mérimée’s work and the battles he lost this story actually starts to make a lot of sense. How do you get up each morning and fight for something so many people don’t even give a damn about?

‘I just need to wish the idol goodnight,’ said the bigger of the apprentice boys, suddenly stopping.
He bent down, and doubtless picked up a stone. I saw him flex his arm, throw something, and immediately a loud clang echoed from the bronze. At the same moment the apprentice’s hand shot to his head, as he cried out in pain.
‘She’s rejected me!’ he exclaimed.
And those two scamps took to their heels in flight. It was obvious that the stone had rebounded off the metal, and had punished that young scoundrel for the outrage he had committed against the goddess.
I closed the window, laughing heartily.
‘Another vandal punished by Venus! May all the destroyers of our ancient monuments get a similar headache!’ And uttering this charitable desire, I went to sleep.

Knowing something of the author’s life gives this greater coherency and also explains his cutting portrait of provincial life and culture. I was deeply shocked to see a young man seemingly more enthusiastic about the dowry his future wife was bringing him than about her lovely eyes. Mérimée seems to feel unalloyed disgust at the lot of them. Venal, materialist, greedy, ribald, gluttonous and indifferent to any higher sentiments, the wedding party brings out nothing but a sense of distaste in the narrator and M. Alphonse de Peyrehorade masks his overweening pride (badly) with cloying humility. The only one spared from this portrait is the bride-to-be, whom the narrator pities. ‘What a shame,’ I mused as I left Puygarrig, ‘that such a likable person should be rich, and that her dowry should mean she is sought out by a man who doesn’t deserve her!’ Mérimée used this story to punish two types of people I assume he strongly disliked: the vandals of historic architecture and those who arrange marriages for profit. ‘What a hateful thing an arranged marriage is!’ I thought. ‘A mayor puts on a tricolour sash, a priest slips on a stole, and there you have it: the nicest girl in the world, married to a Minotaur! What can human beings who don’t love each other find to say at a moment like that, a moment which two real lovers would pay with their lives to obtain?’

Then there’s the horror aspect to all of this, which does start off quite well. Statues have an uncanny quality and this is effectively leveraged at the start, what with the Venus’ hand jutting out of the ground like a discoloured corpse, it breaking a man’s leg while being pulled out of the earth and its malignant stare – empty silver eyes in a blackened bronze face. The problem arrives with the end of the story, where ‘The Venus of Ille’ turns into something Hammer film studios or Roger Corman could have gladly filmed. I can actually see Corman slapping the name Berenice onto the bride and calling it another Poe adaptation.

Spoilers.

Young Peyrehorade is challenged to a tennis match and slips his fiancée’s ring onto the statue’s finger while he competes. The fatuous idiot discovers too late that he can’t remove the ring from Venus and that night heavy footsteps ascend the stairs as Venus comes to the bridal chamber and crushes the groom to death in her iron arms! The bride goes insane, no one believes her story and the statue is later melted down for a church bell…causing the church vines to wither away. OoooOOOooohh.

End spoilers.

Okay, if that had been made into a B movie it would probably have been a blast but that’s because I have always liked my horror movies nonthreatening. Books are another matter and I greatly prefer Stoker and Lovecraft (or even Radcliffe) over this ludicrous plotline.

It’s also strange from a propaganda point of view. Mérimée wanted to preserve ancient works so why write a story where an ancient monument brings horror and suffering to the town that dug it up? I mean, he’s not making a good case here and I certainly wouldn’t want that thing in my yard. Maybe he just figured none of the local officials would read his fictions, which he did seem to view as a recreational activity (nobody reads his monument writings anymore but at the time I suspect he was better known for his day job than his stories).

When it comes right down to it, the important thing about Prosper Mérimée was the work he did to save historic France. He didn’t save everything he set his sights on and he didn’t do it alone but he was a figurehead. As much as I love Bizet’s Carmen, this was his truly great achievement.

Avignon, wall, architecture

The ramparts of Avignon.

Mérimée died in 1870. Seventeen years later a man called Le Corbusier was born, a living instrument of the destruction of historic architecture, father of “urban planning” and all its attendant social decay, founding figure… of modernism.

unite d'habitation

There was a reason J.G. Ballard called his ‘Lord of the Flies’ novel High-Rise.

That’s only one of his design abominations. There’s more!

sainte marie de la tourette

Tree, lawn, building, bench. Only three of these things are in harmony.

Had Mérimée been able to see the future I think he would have wished far more than a headache on the vandals and destroyers of Europe. The picture above? That’s a monastery. My first thought was to go check and yes, Le Corbusier was an atheist. Instead of saving churches, he took revenge on them. I really don’t know what else to call that.

So I went to YouTube and typed in “modern architecture is bad” and the first thing that came up was this bloke:

Over 700,000 watched this video. There are also all kinds of internet groups tracking architectural tragedies and triumphs across the globe, calling for protection, restoration and revival and there are always local societies as well. You can find them, you can join them, you can name your son Prosper (it hasn’t charted in France since 1962) and defy the tidal wave of glass and concrete in whatever small way you can, because it isn’t permanent. A demolished tower block brings back the skyline. Prosper Mérimée would have known that.

Busy Farm – Kate McWethy

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Introducing a new Family Friendly subcategory to my blog, as my focus over the last year has turned from putting away childish things to taking them back up from the viewpoint of the parent I hope to become. Expect to see an uptick of children’s and young adult books in addition to my regular diet of adult literature.

Full disclosure: I know the author and received a copy in exchange for an honest review.

Busy Cover web copy

When children are very young they’re just learning about the world and don’t even know what a farm is or how it works, which is why you teach them the Old MacDonald song and give them books about tractors and farm animals. Busy Farm is for the next phase, when children know what to expect on a farm and are ready for a fresh spin on it, ready to see the ordinary turned upside down, ready for nonsense. This picture book takes the old phrase “the inmates are running the asylum” and applies it to a productive farm, with absurd results. One page mentions a new, normal chore that needs doing and the following image depicts the zany way the animals go about trying to accomplish the task without human assistance. For example, if you send ostriches to pick the apples they’re naturally going to eat them as well. It’s a cute, effective joke.

Busy Farm illustration

Kate McWethy uses digital photo collage for her illustrations, using carefully selected stock images and combining them into something new with filters and editing. The result is refreshingly cheerful absurdity, some of it hearkening back to old children’s tropes, from the farm setting to an image of counting sheep. It’s amusing and the humour is never cruel or crass.

Busy Farm is an ode to nonsense, which does come at the expense of world-building. The tasks are all things you’d have to do on a farm of sufficient size but the subversions march to their own tune. For instance, you’d expect there to be pigs and cows but ostriches, rubber duckies and even a mythical beast all put in appearances. Physics and proportion are only suggestions on this farm, not rules. Sometimes the style of art even changes gear before reverting to normal, which I think was a bridge too far. However, all of this does play to the book’s advantage because every time you think you’ve figured out the joke it changes. “Okay,” you think, “this is just animals with silly expressions on their face. No, wait, they’re also in silly situations…woah, that’s from Greek mythology…” Busy Farm is unpredictable and that adds value for parents. From visual puns to silly hats, it’s always trying something different.

Parental Guide: No humans are depicted. No educational value to speak of. A few of the scenes may make some children nervous depending on how they feel about tornadoes and aerial dogfights (other kids will undoubtedly find those the best parts of the book). Nothing gross or mean-spirited in the humour, just cute animal silliness that will have equal appeal to boys and girls.

If you want to purchase the Kindle book, you can go here.

 

 

Blue Velvet as Traditionalist Allegory (David Lynch, 1986)

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blue velvet david lynch

It was with some trepidation that I sat down to watch Blue Velvet, David Lynch’s most famous film, assuming from the reviews that it would be too brutal and depraved for my tastes but deciding to muscle through it anyway on the heels of the excellent Mulholland Drive. Blue Velvet was passed over by major studios for its graphic content and it eventually found financing with the independent Italian studio De Laurentiis Entertainment Group. This doesn’t sound promising so imagine my surprise when it turned out that Blue Velvet is actually reaffirming the value of traditional communities.

The surface reading of Blue Velvet takes the most obvious symbolism of the film and claims it for the whole intent. The punchline of the opening scene shows pristine flowerbeds before panning down to view the repulsive movements of ravenous insects below. Therefore Blue Velvet is a shocking expose of the rot lying beneath the hypocritical surface of small town life. From here the clichés can write themselves. Small towns, once seen as the ideal place to start a family, are constantly being reinterpreted on page and screen as seething masses of repressed sexuality, failed ambition, religious extremism, grotesque crime and plain unappetizing eccentricity.

Blue Velvet is a David Lynch film though, and it would be insulting to take such a simplistic view of one of his modern fables. Blue Velvet is actually one of his more straightforward films in terms of plot yet it is still so patently unrealistic that it can hardly function as a believable crime drama, even when compared to such unlikely films as Fargo or Leon. And so the critical interpretation claims it as a dark, sensuous, dreamlike neo-noir for film students to unpack. However, examining the subtext and soul of the film actually transforms it into a hard-to-watch but ultimately uplifting allegory.

The film is set in Lumberton, a fictional town with an overwhelming feel of the 1950s. You have your friendly neighbourhood fireman, friendly neighbourhood policeman, white picket fences, flower beds, local business, intact family units and a majority white population (although a couple of shots make it clear that the town does not actually practice segregation). It is portrayed as a good place to be and (although Roger Ebert saw all of this as a satire of 50s sitcoms) there is nothing mean-spirited in Lynch’s portrayal. The nice people in the film are not torn down by murder or humiliated by the director, nor is their decency ever revealed as some sort of sham front to help them sleep at night (all things you might expect of an actual satire). Lynch is not taking revenge on small-town America; he’s saying in some odd way of his own that their ways are good at heart. There’s a stability here missing from later films with ostensibly similar subject matter. Take Fargo (Coen Brothers, 1996): “Nice people” in Fargo are a running joke, a sideshow of yokels with exaggerated accents while the pregnant cop’s innate decency floats in a vacuum as she goes from corpse to corpse.

blue velvet jeffrey kyle machlachlan

Kyle MacLachlan has Scottish, Cornish and German ancestry

Blue Velvet begins with the clean-cut boy Jeffrey (Kyle MacLachlan) coming home from school to look after his father (who’s had a stroke) and his father’s hardware store. Walking through the fields, Jeffrey finds a severed ear and, being a concerned citizen, bags it and brings it to the police. He immediately asks if Detective Williams still works there, emphasizing community ties by bringing the case to a known family friend instead of a stranger (this decision inadvertently keeps the case from getting buried). I was dreading that Williams would be revealed as a crooked cop in the end but he turns out to be exactly what he seems on the surface – a just and devoted family man. He can’t share details of the case with Jeffrey but his daughter Sandy (Laura

blue velvet sandy laura dern
Laura Dern’s great-great-uncle was poet Archibald MacLeish

Dern) has no such restrictions and she tells him on a nighttime walk that the case seems to lead back to a nightclub singer named Dorothy Vallens (Isabella Rosselini). Jeffrey decides to investigate and Sandy goes along for the ride. They take it as an opportunity to engage in some semi-dangerous hijinks and maybe help the police. For a while it’s just a game with unspoken flirtation underneath but as they get deeper into their detective work Sandy has doubts about the whole enterprise. “I don’t know if you’re a detective or a pervert,” she says. Jeffrey glibly replies “that’s for me to know and you to find out,” but the truth is that he doesn’t know. And he’s about to be tested.

blue velvet kyle machlachlan jeffrey

Remember this when you’re remodeling your house

Entering Dorothy’s apartment and hiding behind the conveniently slotted door of her closet, Jeffrey watches the older woman undress, receive an ominous phone call and don a blue velvet bathrobe. She discovers his hiding place (the boy is skilled in neither stealth nor forethought) and enacts a mating ritual while holding him at knifepoint. It’s about as hot as watching a couple of praying mantises copulate. Interrupted by someone at the door, Jeffrey again in hiding, we meet Frank (played with somewhere below .001% finesse by Dennis Hopper). In the ensuing scene he beats and rapes Dorothy while huffing amyl nitrate. This done, he leaves. Jeffrey comes out to offer some sort of assistance to Dorothy, another twisted pantomime of sex is offered to him and Jeffrey finally flees the apartment in horror.

Several plot points become clear in this scene. Frank is evil. He is holding Dorothy’s husband (to whom the ear belonged) and young son hostage to force her into becoming his sex slave. Dorothy is being driven insane, having embraced guilt-fuelled masochism and wishing to die. As the film progresses we see Frank surrounded by criminals, crooked cops, prostitutes and degenerates but he sees Dorothy as special. There is no greater emblem of corruption than that of turning a mother into a whore. Frank rules and recruits an underbelly that will one day swamp and destroy Lumberton if left unchecked. He corrupts whomever he contacts.

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We’re not in a good place

A few scenes ago Jeffrey and Sandy were equals. Now Sandy alone is the innocent while Jeffrey stands on the razor’s edge contemplating the darkness he has unearthed and unable to convey his despair. If this can happen, what is the point? The kids park outside of the church where light comes through the stained glass windows and organ music filters through the night air. Sandy tries to comfort him by sharing a dream she had right before meeting Jeffrey. She saw the world covered in darkness and then she saw robins arriving, bringing with them the daylight. In her dream the robins represented love. There is nothing subtle about this scene – Sandy has an angelic, faraway gaze and it fits the allegorical interpretation of this film hand in glove.

blue velvet robins laura dern sandy

Hope is the thing with feathers

Jeffrey is not comforted by Sandy’s vision and starts having sex with Dorothy instead, who goads him time and again to strike her and finally succeeds. He starts romancing Sandy blatantly, causing her boyfriend Mike to break up with her. This is how corruption works, spreading from person to person. The boy (whose forebrain still isn’t working for shit) is finally caught cuddling Dorothy in the hall by Frank and his gang, who decide to take Jeffrey for a “ride” that is obviously going to end execution-style.

blue_velvet_frank_booth_jeffrey_beaumont_dennis_hopper_kyle_maclachlan

I’m sure we can work this out

We catch a glimpse of Jeffrey’s better self in his stoicism as these psychos make sport of him. They take Dorothy to see her child in a house of prostitutes but all we hear of it through the closed door is her desperate cry “No, Donnie, no! Mama loves you!”

Back in the car, Frank starts abusing Dorothy right in front of him and Jeffrey finally loses it, punching Frank in the face. An awesome gesture, if a futile one. He’s a dead man walking and from any logical perspective it makes no sense for Frank to let Jeffrey live after what he’s seen. Yet Frank instead bids his minions to hold Jeffrey still while he makes out on (if it can even be dignified with that phrase) and then pummels the boy unconscious, sparing him. If this is a crime story then Frank becomes an idiot who’s so unstable a rival gangster or underling should have rubbed him out long ago. Gangsters have to do business and you can’t do business with Frank. But as an allegory this entire scene makes perfect sense: Frank is the corrupter. Earlier in the car he turns around to look at Jeffrey and says “you’re like me.” It’s better to let the boy fall into the pit on his own than to kill him at the very start of his descent. And so Jeffrey lives to face another day in his fallen state, screwing the woman he wanted to save and lying to everyone in his life.

blue velvet kyle machlachlan jeffrey

We’ve all been there

We see Jeffrey sitting on his bed weeping as the epiphany strikes. He could huddle up there nursing his wounds, hiding from Frank; he could crawl on his belly and hope subservience saves him; he could turn his back on what he’s seen, split town and try to bury the memory in successive bottles of Heineken. Instead he puts his shirt on and goes to get help, coming clean about his investigation to Williams (he does leave both Sandy and Dorothy out of the story though). Now he turns his voyeurism into evidence, choosing to oppose a raving psychopath even knowing that he’s lucky to be alive after their first encounter. Good lad.

From here everything falls into place as a pattern of resolutions: Jeffrey and Sandy are hunted down on an evening drive by what turn out to be Mike and his friends (such a harmless posse after what we’ve seen) and their brewing argument is derailed by Dorothy, who has been thrown naked out of Frank’s car in front of Jeffrey’s house. Is this intimidation or is it an abhorrent gift? Why free such a damning witness unless this freedom is an illusion? Faced with a rapidly escalating situation Jeffrey mans up and takes charge. Note his demeanour against the confused and appalled boys in Mike’s group as they backtrack into apologies and he corrals the women and forgives Mike for his attempted violence. Jeffrey is truly coming-of-age here and it has nothing to do with sex.

The final secrets come out, as they had to. Dorothy the mad harlot stands shameless in the Williams’ kitchen, repeatedly saying that Jeffrey “put his disease in me” (I’ll let that stand without comment). As she’s taken away to the hospital Sandy gives Jeffrey a well-earned slap in the face.

Now the conflagration begins as Frank starts to clean house – maybe he’s just insane or maybe he’s realised that Jeffrey will defy him after all. Amid armed standoffs with the cops Frank sets out to murder all witnesses to his crimes, starting with Dorothy’s husband and the crooked cop. Jeffrey refuses to sit this one out and ends up cornered by Frank in Dorothy’s apartment. But after all he’s been through Jeffrey finally starts to think ahead and think fast. He misdirects Frank by walkie-talkie, arms himself

blue velvet jeffrey kyle machlachlan

Frank’s luck just ran out

with the dying policeman’s gun and hides in the same closet that began his voyeuristic descent. Without panic he watches Frank stalk through the apartment, awaiting the perfect moment to open fire and then shooting the fiend right between the eyes.

Now all that’s left is the aftermath, in some ways the most important part of the film: Sandy forgives Jeffrey, which might look naive on her part but we must remember that Jeffrey manned up and took charge in correcting his error. Taking out someone like Frank earns a lot of good will and without Sandy’s telephoned well-wishing, Jeffrey would have no reason to stay in Lumberton. So the scene in which the two families mingle on a sunny day, all on good terms and with Jeffrey’s own father out of hospital, is incredibly important. Sandy, looking out of the window, sees that the robins have indeed come to the yard. The quotidian humdrum of daily life has resumed, but it brings with it love. It enabled Sandy to forgive Jeffrey when his life was on the line and has brought their families together. How different would Blue Velvet appear if Jeffrey had walked away at the end, alone and embittered by what he’s seen?

As for Dorothy’s fate, the very final scene of the film shows her in the park, alone save for her son and happy for the first time in the film. Though she is now a widow she is free from Frank’s tyranny, free from despair, restored to motherhood and mental health.

blue velvet isabella rossellini

Relief

Blue Velvet is an incredibly powerful film. Contrary to what you might think from its reputation, it is not propagating degeneracy. Nor does it showcase the perverse as some kind of inevitable flip side to normality, “what you are in the dark” when all the healthy expressions of the id are repressed. Were that the case, Williams would have been the crooked cop and Sandy would have received the slap, not delivered it. But Sandy is not Dorothy and Jeffrey will not allow himself to become like Frank. In the end, however much evil has festered beneath the surface of Lumberton, Jeffrey chooses to stay in his hometown. He does not blame it for letting its guard down, allowing itself to be compromised. No, he fights for it when the time comes. The little town is a net positive and the film reflects that.

However, most people (with film critics leading the charge) seem to have missed the point of Blue Velvet. Consider the irony: In the role of a raped, beaten, brainwashed mother whose child has been stolen, who sees all sexuality as an expression of violence and who longs for death, Isabella Rossellini… became a sex symbol.

blue-velvet isabella rossellini dorothy vallens

Rossellini is the daughter of Italian director Roberto Rossellini and Swedish actress Ingrid Bergman

A Paean to Carmen, in Three Forms

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Carmen, Hesperus PressShe was wearing a very short red skirt that showed her white silk stockings with more than one hole in them, and dainty little shoes of red morocco leather tied with flame-coloured ribbons. She had pulled her mantilla open to show off her shoulders and the big bouquet of cassia emerging from her blouse. She had a cassia flower in the corner of her mouth, too, and walked along swaying her hips like a filly from the Cordova stud farm. In my country, everyone would have started to make the sign of the cross on seeing a woman dressed like that. In Seville, everyone addressed her with some ribald comment on her alluring appearance; she replied to each one in turn, giving them a sidelong glance, her hand on her hip, as brazen as the true Gypsy she was.

Old books don’t get enough credit for pacing. One thinks of the lengthy childhoods of Jane Eyre and David Copperfield or the thousand pages of Clarissa, when Carmen, within 50 pages of its Hesperus Press edition, slides from seduction to smuggling to banditry to cold-blooded murder without missing a beat or slowing down past a few footnotes. One day a pretty girl bats her eyelashes at you and the next you’re smoking your last cigar. It’s an archetypal story, powerful in its simplicity and yet enigmatic like the best Greek tragedy.

The novella was first published in 1847 by literary dabbler Prosper Mérimée and reprinted by Hesperus Press in a fresh translation by Andrew Brown, padded out to slim but respectable book length by the addition of Mérimée’s less-known horror story ‘The Venus of Ille’ (which I will touch on in a separate review). It has gained enduring fame through Georges Bizet’s opera, which departs significantly from the original work.

The story centers around two characters: Carmen the gypsy and Don José, a Basque and an Old Christian soldier. José abides by the law when it suits him but although his Basque identity is a source of pride it does not carry with it a strong moral code and his fall from grace is far too swift to blame wholly on a femme fatale as he tries to do. Every bad outcome he lays at the feet of ill luck and Carmen’s influence. I was like a drunk. The grand, gory climax of the opera was portrayed as a crime of passion, masked by the cheering crowds at the nearby bullfight. Prosper Mérimée’s scenario is coldly premeditated, an ultimatum taken deep into an isolated wood. The Carmen of the libretto was a free spirit without any guiding light, seducing and discarding on a whim. Here José remarks: She was lying, sir; she always lied. I don’t know if that girl ever said a single true word in her life; but when she spoke, I believed her; I couldn’t help myself. Yet she tells the truth when she warns José away from her, promising she’s bad luck. Throughout the book Carmen does acknowledge a set of laws that are quite rigid – it is Spain’s bad luck that gypsy codes of honour and conduct directly oppose their own. She says matter-of-factly to José: “By our law I owed you nothing, since you’re a payllo.” [non gypsy]. And in the end she holds fast to that.

One major difference between Mérimée’s tale and modern moral conventions is that Carmen is not done to death by Spanish customs in an abuse of power but by a Basque gone wholly native. “You’re my rom and as such you have the right to kill your romi.” This is the law to which Carmen submits in the end, not of the land she’s made her home but of the people who share her blood. Don José follows those laws to avenge himself on his unfaithful wife and then returns to Spanish law to enact justice on himself – with Carmen buried he has no further need to ignore the morals of his countrymen and goes quietly to the fate she had predicted for him. The jacket copy says this is a tale of “ominous undertones that lurk beneath the facade of civilisation” but civilization, as represented by the Spanish laws and customs of the time, is operating just fine. They used to call them rogues for a reason.

prosper merimee

Mérimée, a smart man.

So here’s Prosper Mérimée, a dabbler in the realm of fiction on the cusp of going on a 20-year hiatus with the form, playing effortlessly with morality, fate, freedom, self-assertion, self-destruction and other high-concept heavyweights and he wasn’t even a particularly good or serious writer. Certainly his most famous work does not put him at the level of a Hugo or a Flaubert. Such was the quality of the nineteenth century education system.

If Carmen and Don José are neither victims nor dashing rebels then their only virtue comes from their shared ability to look death in the eye uncowed. This doesn’t sound like much but if there’s one thing Western Civilization has always admired it’s the ability to die well. Christ and the martyrs, Socrates, Leonidas, Joan of Arc, Thomas More… Famous deaths, famous last words pepper our history books. Holding to one’s principles in the face of death is powerfully engrained in our culture. And so Carmen, defiant to the end, achieves a form of honour by her calm refusal of José. “You’re asking me for the impossible: I don’t love you any more; you still love me, and that’s why you want to kill me. I could easily still lie to you; but I really can’t be bothered. It’s all over between us. You’re my rom and as such you have the right to kill your romi; but Carmen will always be free. Calli she was born, and calli she will die … To love you again is out of the question. As for living with you, I don’t want to.”

And so evil undoes itself. Very philosophical (if evil is by its nature destructive than self-destruction is perhaps inevitable) but also rather pat. Carmen follows her private code to the doors of death and José submits quietly to the very laws he spurned for her sake. It’s all of a sudden neat and tidy, befitting a writer who thought fiction a rather frivolous medium.

But perhaps that’s not really the point. To a more modern pair of eyes than mine Carmen is the stuff of tragedy “where the recognition of otherness fails to lead to liberal acceptance and coexistence, but produces only catastrophe,” as Andrew Brown says in his introduction. After all, José takes on a gypsy life to win Carmen’s love but when he begs for the opposite in return Carmen would rather die. Harsh.

georges bizet

Young Georges

When Georges Bizet (1838-1875) and his librettists Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy adapted the novella they had to simplify things. All of these concepts of personal conviction, identity and order are thrown out lest the audience be confused. José is made more sympathetic by the additions of Michaela, his socially approved sweetheart (if he’d only married her everything would have been alright) and a dying mother whose deathbed he does not forsake. Instead of killing a man in jealousy he is forced to flee when the gypsies intervene on his behalf in a fight with his superior lieutenant. Had a Hollywood writing committee made these calls the result would have been an intellectual debacle and the commercial appeal would have interfered with the film’s artistic credibility. But opera is quite a different beast where the weight lies so heavily with the music that the librettists’ simplifications may even have helped, clearing the board to make way for a purity of tone and emphasis. And all of their little adjustments were otherwise for naught: In 1875 the immorality on display was still seen as utterly shocking and the opera was derided by audience and critics alike.

If you’re in the market for a rendition of the opera you can’t go wrong with that Carmen operaconducted by Thomas Schippers (1930-1977) at the Grand Theatre de Geneve, 1963. Regina Resnik as Carmen, Mario Del Monaco as Don José, Tom Krause as the toreador Escamillo and Joan Sutherland as Michaela (not her most memorable role). Schippers had a keen sense of performance and could summon the maximum level of energy from his orchestra at breakneck tempos without sacrificing clarity, capturing the irrepressible joy inherent to the opera (and which Nietzsche commented on) without losing the menace that underlies it. He presented Carmen as something exciting and alive, not a museum piece. His rendition makes the opera immediate again, without resorting to casting gimmickry or modernism, relying on passion, on love. We can only regret his untimely death, with so many performances still ahead of the man.

Bizet also died too soon, and his was a double tragedy for he passed on shortly after Carmen‘s debut performance, when the world at large dismissed his work and he believed himself a failure. Not only that, his death was also a tragedy for France, as Carmen was poised to revolutionize the medium, breaking with many of the traditional elements of the opera-comique common to the time and paving the way for the verismo style that the Italians would soon get all the credit for. Who knows what Bizet could have written had he lived?

Of course, any opera can have slow parts when you don’t understand the language and Carmen has its share but it also has an abundance of melodicity, panoramic soundscapes and moments of profound tension that cut through the levity of gypsy life, as when Carmen’s famous song of love is followed by the uneasy “Carmen! sur tes pas” which, with its laughter and tragic strings seems to seal her fate in an instant. The one drawback to Schippers’ opera is that the booklet contains only act summaries, not the full libretto, so you’re on your own there.

Carmen is the most famous of the French operas and originated out of a Frenchman’s novella, but the tale is steeped in the unique cultures of Spain. To gain an indication of how the Spanish respond to their neighbour’s creation I watched the flamenco Carmen flamencoproduction of Carmen, performed by the Compania Antonio Gades. Gades (1936-2004) was responsible in the late seventies for the creation of the Spanish National Ballet. His choreography eliminated the signs of tourism and sterility from flamenco, saying in 1984 about his newly created Carmen: “Our dance has strength, it has real life. It is not an academic dance, where what is shown is virtually a study, a technique, some forms… But rather our dance is a vital thing; it is the dance of culture, through which the soul of an entire people is expressed.”

The sets are stripped down, with chairs and mirrors the major props. The women wear long skirts, Carmen (played by Vanesa Vento) a fierce red dress. The men, aside from Escamillo, are in ordinary attire. All that matters is the dance. The flamenco guitarists sit among the gypsies, accompanied by traditional flamenco singers whose harsh voices contrast with the pure tones of the opera numbers included (from the Schippers recording so they obviously agree with my assessment of it). The subject has lost all of its shock value and so sympathy cards can now be dispensed with – no Michaela in sight.

The first dancers we see are expressive; there is overt power in a female flamenco dancer: the passion and emotion juxtaposed by discipline and stamina, the seductiveness of the movements that are yet, by contemporary “standards” poetic and restrained. When Carmen appears her dance is more expressive still, earthy and dangerous. Her competition with a fellow woman in the cigar factory slowly builds up to the sudden strike of a knife, destroying her rival’s face in an instant (she’s not a nice person). Don José attempts to bring her to prison but all too soon his hand on her arm becomes her scarf around his neck and it is she who leads him. The company nails these sequences. They also alter the placement of Carmen’s famous love song to after the fight, changing it from an establishment of Carmen’s character to Carmen rewarding Don José’s fall from grace. No wonder the man would do anything to possess her. She is the ultimate femme fatale.

An interesting addition from Mérimée’s story is the return of Carmen’s gypsy husband and the card game at which José goads him to a fight (here done with canes like murderous Fred Astaires) that ends in the husband’s death and Carmen disgustedly casting aside her ring. There is cruelty to her gesture and to José’s thereafter as he becomes more stiff and sullen, asserting his will over her until the bitter end. Each scene is done with such intensity and such beautiful dancing that there is no fault to find. So it was rather crushing to me that they completely misinterpreted the Toreador song.

The Toreador song is such a splendid example of pageantry and power, explicitly anthemic, masculine and so melodically delightful that I would never have dreamed of seeing it played for laughs. Escamillo does not arrive to the tune of the song here; instead the gypsies stage a mock-bullfight with a fat man for the bull. Far be it from me to defend the practice of bullfighting and perhaps the scene was meant to criticize the blood sport but unfortunately the scene is as tied to the beloved opera song as the nominal subject matter: To deconstruct one is to damage the other.

It is a powerful performance nonetheless, an act of cultural preservation. This is Carmen for Spain, for flamenco and for Gades this was a matter of national pride:

Antonio Gades

Antonio Gades

“We have a set of extraordinary countries within Spain itself, each one with its own marvelous folklore and culture… We have dances that are as rich as the Basque dances, as rich as the Catalonian ones, the Aragonese ones, the Castilian ones, the Galician ones and many more. With a suitable cultural policy, with direction and a scientific flowchart, an endless number of splendid things could be done.” To Gades this was not even patriotism, this was “knowledge.” And it is knowledge that is available to all of us at any moment, one opera, one folk song, one painting, one reprinted book away from a vast cultural inheritance that is ancient and alive.

If I have succeeded in piquing your interest you can watch the complete performance of Gades’ Carmen on YouTube below:

Pulp Stories – Raymond Chandler

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LoA Chandler Vol. 1

Got the generator.

Got the wi-fi.

Now I’ve got the laptop. Time to get back to work.

_______/\__/\__/\__/\__/\__

Raymond Chandler once said of his writing that he “wrote pulp stories with as much care as slick stories. It was very poor pay for the work I put into them.” A sad state of affairs for him, but his integrity paid off in the end, as there is no compromise to be found between Chandler’s status as prime entertainment and as an icon of American literature. Where James M. Cain over-reached himself in Double Indemnity, labouring on the symbols of boat, moon and surrender to fate and shredding what was left of the book’s logic on the altar of French symbolism, Chandler’s conclusions can be poetic and arresting without the least pretense or damage to what came before. He swiftly improved upon the style of Dashiell Hammett and his stories often sport vivid and unusual scenes that keep them from blurring together in the noir mass that even Hammett’s best Continental Op tales fall into. Everyone should read some Raymond Chandler and a collection of his pulp stories is a fine place to start.

There are a number of compendiums to choose from, including the rather ridiculous Vintage split (Trouble is My Business / The Simple Art of Murder – well, it’s hard to make money in publishing, isn’t it?). I got very lucky and acquired a Library of America volume featuring the thirteen pulp stories that Chandler did NOT cannibalize for later use in a Marlowe novel. Later material such as ‘Killer in the Rain’ were not given the greenlight to be republished in Chandler’s lifetime and are chiefly of interest to his scholars anyway. So in this edition readers can watch his style develop from the clumsy action of ‘Blackmailers Don’t Shoot’ (1933) to the Saturday Evening Post approved ‘I’ll Be Waiting’ (1939) without any fear of repetition when starting the novels.

The net effect of all these stories: Vibrancy. Skill at setting a scene and sketching a character. Observe Kathy Horne from ‘Goldfish’: She was a tall, seedy, sad-eyed blonde who had once been a policewoman and had lost her job when she married a cheap little check-bouncer named Johnny Horne, to reform him. She hadn’t reformed him, but she was waiting for him to come out so she could try again. In the meantime she ran the cigar counter at the Mansion House, and watched the grifters go by in a haze of nickel cigar smoke. And once in a while lent one of them ten dollars to get out of town. She was just that soft. 

And Chandler is just that good. Past one in the morning, a jazz band blows a ruckus in a motel hallway and the house detective is sent to sort it out… A man steps out of an elevator, gets rammed by a stranger with cocaine in his eyes and finds a blackjacked blonde on the hall floor… A guy waits out the Santa Ana wind in a bar when another man enters looking for a well-dressed girl and gunfire ensues. These are just three of the starting points for Chandler’s rocketships of plot. Are the stories improbable? You bet. This is the writer who, when wired about a minor death in The Big Sleep adaptation, couldn’t even say if the character was murdered or not. Are there too many murders? Guilty as charged. If whatever Marlowe-prototype he’s using rings a bell and there’s no answer it’s a safe bet there’s a body on the other side. It becomes both predictable and ludicrous when murder is the only fix.

His plots are a wild ride up and down and all around 1930s LA but they aren’t meaningful by themselves. For that, the best ones are populated by splendid characters whose fates actually seem to matter – all centered around the Marlowe prototype: the cynical tough guy with a soft streak, riding into battle in aid of some sad-eyed dame who “looked like a nice girl” (or at least didn’t look dead), sidestepping cops and raking through other people’s muck while bodies clutter up the road.

Possible caveats: Meaningless (though by modern standards not gratuitous) violence. Large doses of 30s slang.

And now the rundown, which I will attempt to keep colourful and spoiler-free.

‘Blackmailers Don’t Shoot’ is a very bad intro to Chandler’s style. I got about ten pages in before jumping ahead to the much more satisfactory ‘Trouble is My Business.’ Problems include a spoiled screen star who talks like a reject from a Djuna Barnes story (“The people are dissipated without grace, sinful without irony” – well, don’t YOU have problems, lady!), tough guys who call each other “sweetheart” and “baby” and a complicated plot full of doublecrosses between barely established characters. When the bloodbath starts, it is impossible to care and the dialogue lacks zing, though by the conclusion we can see glimpses of the real Chandler’s ironies and elegance even in this apprentice work. When asked to explain how RandomGuy got killed, forgettable Marlowe prototype Mallory pithily summarizes: “He crossed everybody up and then he crossed himself. He played too many parts and got his lines mixed. He was gun-drunk. When he got a rod in his hand he had to shoot somebody. Somebody shot back.” But this only hints at how good he’s gonna get so hang in there.

‘Smart-Aleck Kill’ is already an improvement, putting more emphasis on scenes that shine in or out of context (his specialty) rather than A-to-B-to-C plotting. Scenes here include a shootout with a police squad and a wild and crazy party in the best 20s style, peppered with phrases like a bottle of gin in each hand, slopping liquor out of her glass and shooting craps on the floor. Meanwhile the shootout is like a scene from an old Hollywood movie: the red spotlight with Jean Harlow frozen in the glare, then everyone in the room takes cover and the machine gun lets loose. I should mention that it’s a simple matter to take Chandler’s characters and match them to the Hollywood legends of your choice – part of the fun, as it were.

‘Finger Man’ ditches Mallory (thankfully) and takes up the first person, the plot unfolding far more smoothly as a result. Chandler inserts a black Persian cat – because he can (adorable). The building blocks are all in place at this point and Chandler rises from this capable tale of gambling, a femme fatale and a big politico to become the king of the crime story.

‘Nevada Gas’ offers the first memorable cold open I was talking about. Instead of an expository conversation in an indifferent room we get a politician in a deathtrap car. The gambling hero of the story, De Ruse, has an oft-repeated metallic smile and is so forgettably calm and competent that I had to picture him as James Marsters to feel any interest in his fate. On the other hand Chandler does include a fun set of subversions of the usual device of killing off helpful people.

‘Spanish Blood’ is a complete mess plotwise, involving a thatch of unnecessary murders. Good news is it contains the first of his strangely haunting final scenes, an increase in Chandlerisms (racket beer is “tasteless as a roadhouse blonde”), a tough as nails Spanish detective and an understated and creepy scene at a lakeside cabin: He opened the back door with another key and stepped out on a small porch flush with the ground, near a big pile of cordwood and a double-bitted axe on a chopping block.

Then he saw the flies.

In 1936 Chandler’s first truly brilliant story appeared: ‘Guns at Cyrano’s.’ Perfect atmosphere of pouring rain, boxing matches, a sexy floor show and blackmail but what puts it over the top is that the characters actually matter. The rich hotel owner Ted Malvern and gun-toting tramp Jean Adrian might have more in common than they at first realize. There’s romance and redemption and when the inevitable body appears it has some real impact because Malvern knew the victim and they had some scenes together rather than a cheap introductory hit-and-run. It’s emotionally solid, entertaining and highly accomplished.

So I don’t know how his evolutions in excellence got derailed by ‘Pick-Up on Noon Street.’ Other than ‘Blackmailers’ it is easily the worst story in here. First of all, it’s the only story with a predominately black cast, making it extremely noticeable when he proceeds to kill off said cast with as much gusto and even less logic than The Walking Dead. At its most gratuitous (mild spoilers), the hero Pete Anglich is knocked out and comes to in a room with a prostitute (seen briefly at the start of and only tangentially related to the story at hand) who has been murdered solely to frame him for the crime. Senseless violence, lack of panache, forgettable villains so eager to kill each other you have to wonder what the hero’s even there for and a tediously helpless damsel in place of the usually strong-willed Chandler dame. I don’t know what happened here but it’s a disaster.

Pearls show up and revitalise Chandler’s imagination in ‘Goldfish.’ The fellow from ‘Finger Man’ reappears, now called Carmady and feeling more and more like Marlowe. We shook hands, grinned at each other like a couple of wise boys who know they’re not kidding anybody, but won’t give up trying. There’s some nice contrast between Kathy Horne, a softhearted woman, and cold-blooded killer Carol Donovan – with Mrs. Sype as an unknown quantity showing aspects of both. By this point Chandler had outstripped The Continental Op both in literary style and vividness of character, wrapped up with a particularly eerie denouement – a still tableau of guns facing off surrounded by peaceable goldfish tanks is not something I’ll forget in a hurry.

Then there’s ‘Red Wind,’ 1938 and justifiably lauded as a classic of the genre. From the first paragraph it’s a nonstop treat: There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot dry Santa Anas that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands’ necks. Anything can happen. You can even get a full glass of beer at a cocktail lounge. This one represents Chandler’s artistic maturity, sidestepping shootouts and finding suspense in the moment before the gun goes off, when the situation can still be saved. The final scene poetic, elegiac and understated, befitting a classic. Go read it.

‘The King in Yellow’ is comparatively flawed but memorable and bizarre. The king of the title is an arrogant, vile-mannered jazz god with a fondness for yellow pajamas, but it’s also the title given to the classic weird tales of Robert W. Chambers, involving a book called The King in Yellow that brings madness and misfortune to those who read it. This connection is never explained. And then the murders start piling up and they feel targeted in a way that’s more serial killer than gangster cover-up. “Tough on women, these guys,” he muttered. By the big reveal of chapter seven my skin was just crawling and then the villain confrontation happened at night…in a mountain cabin…with red drapes. I was filled with happy Twin Peaks horror but occult criminality has no place in the simple art of murder and just this once I wish Chandler had mixed his genres because he’d have been really good at it.

In his last year of pulp stories, 1939, Chandler concocted a spoof on Golden Age mysteries with ‘Pearls Are a Nuisance.’ There’s a rich old bag, stolen pearls, and an idler who talks “the way Jane Austen writes” reluctantly setting out to find them at his fiancée’s insistence. He teams up with working class Henry and there’s a great deal of odd couple humour, much drinking, another round of bait and switch pearls (Chandler got a ton of creative mileage out of that one) and plenty of fisticuffs with a refreshing lack of corpses. The narrative touch is a delight, lightly cynical and sentimental all at once. In a moment the door opened again and Ellen Macintosh came in. Maybe you don’t like tall girls with honey-colored hair and skin like the first strawberry peach the grocer sneaks out of the box for himself. If you don’t, I’m sorry for you. It’s silly and rather sweet, though I suppose real hard-boiled fans would never admit to liking it. Stereotypes aside, it’s one of my favorites.

As of ‘Trouble is My Business’ we have reached the fully formed, movie-worthy Philip Marlowe, still lingering under the assumed name of John Dalmas. From the very first line, every sentence cuts. If ‘Red Wind’ is the peak of Chandler’s plot mechanics and ‘I’ll Be Waiting’ of his craft, ‘Trouble’ is pound for pound the absolute triumph of his style. See here:

He wouldn’t pull anything crude, but if he pulled at all, something would pop.

I remembered the half-bottle of Scotch I had left and went into executive session with it.

He had the frowsy expression of a veteran cop who hadn’t got very far.

One of those perfumes you don’t notice until they are almost gone, like the last leaf on a tree.

It’s pure pleasure to read and revisit and yet the weird thing is it’s wholly forgettable. ‘Trouble’ was the first story I read but all I really remember of it is Marlowe’s (sorry, Dalmas’s) fantastic narration. The plot and characters stand up well but every interaction is filtered through this voice until he’s really the only thing on the page. The great scenes of earlier works aren’t forthcoming but the most inconsequential moments light up. Not a bad trade-off.

And so to conclude with ‘I’ll be Waiting,’ an elegant finish with the neat, reserved interactions of a one-act play. One o’clock in the morning, house detective Tony Reseck makes his rounds. There’s a redhead curled up in the radio room, a tall dark tough guy with the “trouble boys” on his heels, and Tony’s brother on the street outside with a warning. Later on there’s a phone call. All violence occurs offstage. A brief juncture of life and crime, recognisably Chandler’s world in vignette – a poetic distillation with the coarser elements of comedy, cruelty and cynicism removed. The mechanics of plot-mystery-reveal are done away with. Chandler never wrote another story for the slicks and ‘I’ll Be Waiting’ was the last one he wrote to stand on its own without cannibalizing for inclusion in a Marlowe novel. It can stand as a summation of his early art. He listened. Not to the radio – to far-off, uncertain things, menacing things. And perhaps to just the safe whir of wheels going away into a strange night.

In conclusion this is noir done right. Cherish it.

Raymond Chandler