Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Mary After All: Jersey City in the Spotlight

I got a copy of Mary After All because I live in Jersey City, where the novel is set; it rose to the top of my pile because, well, it’s fun to read books set in your neighborhood. Some of the novel takes place just blocks from our apartment—forty years ago, but still. Still, you don’t have to be looking for hometown trivia to enjoy this book.

Mary is a smart, beautiful Italian-American girl, a teenager in the early sixties, who knows the value of her beauty—it can help her get a handsome boyfriend—and can’t quite figure out the point of her intelligence. Her mother, once beautiful but very ill, urges college, but with no college-educated people around and no clear sense of the “point” of college, Mary skips down to the Jersey Shore one summer, meets a cute boy, 23, and gets married right out of high school. Soon, she’s in her early twenties with two little children and an angry, absentee husband who, when he is home, is emotionally abusive. She raises her sons while caring for her ailing mom who, like Mary, has a distant husband. He’s carrying on with a check-out girl from ShopRite. Still, Mary’s lot need not have been so hard had she not been so rash in marrying at seventeen. As her Aunt Dot says, after a long, long review of all the ways in which life for women can be burdensome, what with all the expectations of caretaking, “This—this you got into yourself.”

This comes at the end of a really lovely, long, familiar conversation. Half-listening, Mary thinks about people like Aunt Dot, people who talk all the time, who tell the same story over and over without ever tiring of it until “one day, out of the blue, the story changes” and you realize that “there’s a point, maybe, too.”

This lovely novel is all about voice and Mary’s voice is wonderful. It’s terrific and interesting to see the sixties through her eyes: to see her passing interest in race relations, in the deterioration of Jersey City, in the fringes of organized crime that involve her male relatives, in real estate and fashion. Occasionally I’d stop to think about how cool and interesting it was that a young man could so effectively channel this voice from his mother’s generation: the time and sex switch is hard to do. But mostly it’s so well done that I just listened to Mary, thinking back on her life, reflecting on how she got into “this” and how she pulled herself out of it.

If you’d like to hear more about Mary or Bill Gordon, pop over to Wendi’s place. The Happy Booker got him to program an iPod and his choices give you a little more flavor of the novel.

Monday, February 27, 2006

The Canonization

Call's what you will, we are made such by love;
Call her one, me another fly,
We're tapers too, and at our own cost die,
And we in us find th' eagle and the dove.
The phoenix riddle hath more wit
By us; we two being one, are it ;
So, to one neutral thing both sexes fit.
We die and rise the same, and prove
Mysterious by this love.

This, the third stanza of John Donne’s “The Canonization” (first published posthumously in 1633), celebrates romantic love as something both sacred and carnal and in defiance of the world’s priorities. The opening here, “Call’s what you will,” more gently echoes the poem’s fist-shaking defiance: “For God's sake hold your tongue, and let me love.” Here, the speaker is ready to just retreat to bed and, in spite of the world’s (mistaken) judgments and priorities, celebrate the miracle of love.

One of the great pleasures of metaphysical poetry is unlocking it, figuring out how the metaphors fit. It’s a pleasure akin to the pleasure of making up categories. Rooting around the web today, trying to learn something about this poem, I came across a delightful old (1965) PMLA article that takes the poem’s central irony very, very seriously—to a fascinating result. So, the first thing to say about this poem regards the title: this is a love poem that borrows its title from a serious, official theological procedure. Canonization, the process of declaring a person a saint, follows strict bureaucratic rules. John Clair’s 1965 essay argues quite simply and persuasively that, in Donne’s poem ironically borrows the five-step canonization process for its structure. Thus, each stanza corresponds to a stage in the process of declaring someone a saint. The process, as Clair outlines it was as follows: 1) Investigation into the subject’s reputation, 2) Inquiry into the subject’s practice of the heroic virtues (i.e. faith, hope and charity as well as prudence, justice, temperance and fortitude), 3) Investigation of alleged miracles, 4) Scrutiny of the subject’s writings, and 5) Examination of the burial place an identification of the remains or relics.

Thus, this lovely third stanza makes the fusion of two into one in love the miracle itself.

It’s a lovely, nerdy little observation, dutifully attentive to doctrinal theology and thus very out of fashion with contemporary criticism. I adore it. It deepens the poem for me. I have an even greater respect for the ingenuity of Donne’s conceit, which is intellectually satisfying as all such categorizations are. (Each stage in the process gets exactly a stanza; a five-step process maps perfectly onto a five-stanza poem.) But this intellectual pleasure, like a solved puzzle, is only part of it, for linking the stanza to the investigation of miracles enlivens and enriches the metaphors within it: the paradoxical combination of eagle and dove, the phoenix rising from the ashes, the more than miraculous stability of a love that persists.

Friday, February 24, 2006

Categorie Bukowski

T'es dans la cat├ęgorie
De celles qui lisent Bukowski
En trouvant super naze
De mettre les gens dans des cases—Vincent Delerm

There is such pleasure in putting people in categories—you’re the kind of person who reads Bukowski, the kind of person who thinks it's silly to categorize, the kind of person who listens to sentimental French music, the kind of person who has a pot of geraniums out front.

Part of what made the discussion of Rupert Thomson’s Divided Kingdom so lively over at the Lit-Blog Co-op was the fun that the bloggers with Thomson’s categories: this dystopia, my copy of which is currently zooming its way from some amazon warehouse to Jersey City, imagines a society 'segregated by personality type. There's the "Red Quarter," where the optimistic and sanguine reside; a "Blue Quarter" for empathetic phlegmatic types; a "Yellow Quarter" populated by impulsive and aggressive cholerics; and a "Green Quarter" where the melancholic and introspective live.'

While Thomson’s categories are familiar from Shakespeare (and no less delightful for that), I took great pleasure last night in coming across—thanks to my writing group, one of whom is writing on Coleridge—Coleridge’s categories of readers:
  1. “Spunges that suck up every thing and, when pressed give it out in the same state, only perhaps somewhat dirtier”
  2. “Sand Glasses,” whose “reading is only a profitless measurement & dozeing [sic] away of time”
  3. “Straining Bags, who get rid of whatever is good & pure, and retain the Dregs”
  4. and finally “the Great-Moguls Diamond Sieves,” whom he celebrates as “the only good, & I fear the least numerous, who assuredly retain the good, while the superfluous or impure passes away & leaves no trace” (Collected STC 5, 1: 65-66)

I get such a feeling of triumph reading a funny list like this. There, I think, it’s all sorted. The pleasure decreases, however, when it comes time to actually sort people into the categories. Things immediately get fuzzy again. Am I a melancholic spunge or a sanguine sand glass? A straining bag when it comes to some topics, sure, but can’t I lay claim to being, at least occasionally, a great-mogul diamond sieve? Then, this last--"the Great-Moguls Diamond Sieves"--is surely the most cumbersome term of praise for a great reader ever coined. Doesn't it sound more fun to be a sand glass anyway?

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Three Witches and a Carnival

So, I returned to The Bitch in the House and found three little things that amused me a good bit. First, from Elissa Schappell’s disturbing and interesting essay about what it feels like to really lose your temper at your children, this bit of dialogue:
’You’re writing about anger?’ my mother says with surprise.
‘Well—yes… About, you know, my anger and how can you teach your kids to express anger constructively, when you yourself never learned how to.’
‘What do you mean?’ she says. ‘You weren’t an angry child.’
This lovely maternal moment seems so typical to me. It put me in mind of the kind of exchange Deborah Tannen seems to be studying in her new book on mother-daughter conversations. Tannen’s interviewer (behind the Times firewall, sorry) zeroes in on apparent criticism of daughter’s appearances and Tannen rightly, academically, jumps in to correct the presumption, saying,”The mother feels she's caring. The daughter feels criticized. They are both right.” As someone who has known, thanks to my peerless mother, that there is a spot, exactly in the back of my head that remains perpetually uncombed, unkempt, I love these little moments of mild friction between mothers and adult daughters.

Second, Laurie Abraham’s lovely comment about her daughter: “There is no one in my life whom I’ve ever been so grateful to escape and so grateful to see.”

And finally, I loved Kristin van Ogtrop’s telling juxaposition between work and home:
“Here are a few things people have said about me at the office:
  • You’re unflappable
  • Are you ever in a bad mood?
  • You command respect as soon as you walk into a room
Here are things people—OK, the members of my family—have said about me at home:
  • Mommy is always grumpy.
  • ….
  • You’re too mean to live in this house and I want you to go back to work for the rest of your life!

This last one is my favorite. It’s also the saddest, because it captures such a painful truth: too often I’m a better mother at work than I am at home. Of course, at work,…no one charges into my office, hands outstretched, to smear peanut butter all over my skirt.”

As a magazine editor, she has her share of high-strung young people--writers, editors--weeping in her office, but the peanut butter smearing is, happily, something most of us avoid in those blessed hours at work. Thank goodness. Van Ogtop’s essay, “Attila the Honey I’m Home,” is good and funny and smart. It’s also one of the few to put her own situation into context, mentioning Arlie Hochschild’s 1997 Time Bind. That context—the work of a prominent sociologist (up there with Juliet Schor as one of the top in this field) on the work-family bind for women—is still pretty thin, but it’s a relief to see one of the younger contributors thinking of herself as part of a class of women struggling with a structural problem.

For a richer array of feminist thinking than this post—or this book—provides, hop over to Mind the Gap for the new Carnival of Feminists!


Just in over the wires. If you're in NYC and can make it, check this out:

The Africana Studies Program , The Department of Social and cultural Analysis and Africa House Invite You to a Celebration of and Readings from the Special February Issue of Granta Magazine on New African Writing:

  1. ALWAYS TREAT AFRICA AS IF IT WERE ONE COUNTRY. Don’t get bogged down with the precise descriptions. Africa is big: fifty-four countries, nine hundred million people who are too busy starving and dying and warring and emigrating to read your book.
  2. USE BROAD BRUSHSTROKES THROUGHOUT. But describe in detail naked breasts or mutilated genitals, or enhanced genitals. Or any kind of genitals. And dead bodies. Or, better, naked dead bodies. And especially rotting naked dead bodies.
  3. ADOPT A SAD, I-EXPECTED-SO-MUCH TONE. Establish early on that your liberalism is impeccable, and how much you love Africa. Africa is to be pitied, worshipped or dominated. Whichever angle you take, be sure to leave the strong impression that without your intervention and your important book, Africa is doomed.
  4. TREAT ANIMALS AS WELL ROUNDED, complex characters. They speak (or grunt, while tossing their manes proudly) and have names, ambitions and desires. They also have family values: see how lions teach their children? Elephants are caring, and are good feminists or dignified patriarchs. Elephants may attack people’s property of destroy their crops, and even kill them. Always take the side of the elephant.
  5. ALWAYS INCLUDE A STARVING AFRICAN, who wanders the refugee camp nearly naked and waits for the benevolence of the West. She must never say anything about herself in the dialogue except to speak of her (unspeakable) suffering. Moans are good too.

Featuring Adekeye Adebajo, Philip Alcabes, Daniel Bergner, John Ryle & Binyavanga Wainaina

Thursday, February 23
19 University Place
7:00-9:00, followed by a Reception

Monday, February 20, 2006

The Angel in the House

I use my amazon wishlist as a kind of holding pen for books I don’t want to forget. Some I’ll never buy; some I long for; others I just heard about on NPR and want to remember the name of. When the 2002 collection The Bitch in the House made its appearance at the top of the list, however, my sister recommended that I remove it or at least, move it down a little further to the bottom.

I was indignant. I explained that this was a widely-reviewed collection of new feminist essays about balancing work and family. Furthermore, I went on, its title, while aggressive, was an allusion to Virginia Woolf, who wrote about the necessity of women’s killing “The Angel in the House,” her term—from a Coventry Patmore poem of that name—for the myth of the all-giving, virtuous, Victorian uber-mom.

I took the book off my wish list nonetheless.

I read the book over the weekend. Gobbled all 26 essays, skimming here and there but mostly reading with some care. The cumulative effect was, unsurprisingly, a bit depressing, a bit too much like reading a younger Maureen Dowd. Even with twenty-six contributors, there is a numbing sameness to the selections. Over and over again, I felt like I was reading about how hard it was to share a huge apartment in Brooklyn with a really interesting man who just didn’t do his half of the childcare, even though both of us had novels to write and interesting jobs at high-circulation glossy magazines. Snore.

Some contributions are good. Some gave me a jolt of painful recognition. I may write a bit about those later in the week but for now, I’m in kind of a coma of homogeneity and complaint.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

In Praise of Dinner and a Show

Just a brief post to state the obvious: it is good, on occasion, to indulge in an old-fashioned date. We did last night. Much as the dear one is beloved, there is a certain spring in my step that only comes when I leave the house with neither her nor a bag full of books. She and the babysitter played with stickers and I ran into the city to meet my husband for a yummy dinner at The Spotted Pig followed by Pink Martini's amazingly festive sold out concert at Town Hall. This great Oregon band--part chamber music, part Carmen Miranda--was grinning ear-to-ear to have such an enthusiastic welcome to New York. We were not alone, at all, in enjoying them. (I can also highly recommend an amazing dish at the Spotted Pig: a spicy lentil salad with creme fraiche and parsnip crisps. This description, pretty much verbatim from the menu, omits the lovely wilted arugula and the spicy ginger tomato sauce. It also fails to capture the beauty of little circular ruffles of parsnip, fried to golden perfection, sprinkled all atop the plate. Heaven.)

Back to work now. But ah! Pleasure cannot be overpraised, can it?

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Jesus Land

I gobbled Julia Scheeres’ riveting memoir, Jesus Land. But now, a week or so after finishing it, I have to admit that what compelled me was the horrible story of multiple levels of psychological abuse and the energy and pluck in her voice. Since I’ve been blogging, I’ve gotten into the habit of dog-earing pages containing really striking language. I didn’t note anything about this book.

Nonetheless, as I wrote last week, I think it’s a good book and an interesting one. The story is strange and compelling: Julia is the fourth child of a strict Christian family. Her parents decided to adopt a child and, unable to quickly get a disabled child, took on—as their Christian duty—a black boy, David. He joins the family at 3 when Julia, too, is 3. Unfortunately for everyone, the family’s racism, compounded by their surroundings (rural Indiana, outside Lafayette--not exactly a bastion of diversity or tolerance), only intensified the already oppressive and abusive atmosphere at home. (The weeping and depressed mother, single-mindedly focused on saving souls elsewhere reminded me of that wonderful, insane mother in Jeannette Winterson’s terrific first book, Oranges Are not the Only Fruit.) Thinking David lonely, Julia’s parents adopt another black boy, older than David, Jerome. He arrives as a young child (not a baby) with an array of behavioral problems and grows to sexually abuse Julia. Reading about the shifting alliances in this evil, oppressive combination is gripping indeed. With the older children grown, these three form a small group against the parents. But when the beatings come round, the boys get it worse than Julia and racial tension within the family grow. At other times, Julia and David ally themselves against parents and their delinquent, difficult older brother. At other times, Julia distances herself from a socially inconvenient brother.

The second half of the book is even more incredible in the abuse it describes and here is where Scheeres’ abilities as a journalist serve her best. When Jerome’s delinquency and the parents’ pathology grow, the parents send David off to a Christian reform school in the Dominican Republic (all the harder to escape, my dear….all the harder to police, my dear...). Julia gets herself into trouble and runs away to join him only to find that it’s a horrible nightmare of a place. This part is incredible and if you go to her website you can see the activism that must drive her: lots of links dedicated to exposing the gap between what the Christian groups describe as a kind of “Outward Bound” reform experience and the abuse and neglect. Somehow, even in the face of beatings and blisters, overwork and inhumanity the notion of oatmeal made with kool-aid sticks in my head as particularly cruel.

Monday, February 13, 2006


Monday’s usually my day to stay home and write. This week, the prospect was particularly welcome. Alas, it was not to be. Two feet of snow make the daycare ladies reluctant to shovel themselves out of their driveways; daycare was closed and the dear one and I had to find some diversions.

So, we saddled up the little stroller and headed off to the mall for the noon showing of “Curious George.” With tons of snow on the ground, rapidly melting, this was a calculated risk. I allowed an hour. The walk was long and slushy, but the dear one eagerly accepted our game of having to hop out and walk through the slush and then hop back in when the sidewalks were clear. We got to the theater fifteen minutes early.

I must say, however, that movie-going ranks up there with airline travel these days. How did something once so glamorous become so jarringly uncivilized? I paid my $12 for an adult and a three-year-old and got eight singles in change. They don’t stock juice or even lemonade let alone milk, so we (? I) settled on water. I paid my $3.50 for a small bottle of got five dimes in change. We settled down in the theater with all the other parents and toddlers and, by 12:30, the film still hadn’t started. The projectionist was stuck in traffic. There was no announcement, no apology, nothing: only word passed, parent to parent, in patient exasperation. Finally, the movie began, a full hour late. (It’s an 86-minute film.) I did run into another family in the (dreaded) Disney store afterwards (likely also buying an overpriced treat to placate a patient dear one) and learned that the manager, if I could find her, was passing out free admission coupons. I rammed the stroller back up the escalator and got two.

The movie, by the way, is very, very sweet. The dear one loved it and laughed aloud often and wept inconsolably when it ended. (But that was partly from the combination of pleasure, exhaustion, and the huge bag of peanut M & Ms that stood in for the lunch we no longer had time to get.) The man in the yellow hat works at the Bloomsberry Museum—a nice touch—which looks to be about where the Museum of Natural History is in New York and, in another nice touch, takes a ship called the H. A. Rey to Africa.

Curiouser, and more to the point, also bookish, I’ve been invited to join the Lit Blog Co-op. Overcome and flattered, I accepted immediately. We’ll see what the next quarter brings. For now, I am awaiting my first assignments and ordering the current READ THIS selection, Garner by Kirstin Allio. As a longtime and, I thought, distant admirer of the enterprise, I feel a little like, well, I don’t know. I’m excited!

Thursday, February 09, 2006


The extent to which memoirs are true does matter to me. But, when I pick up a memoir, be it Moehringer’s wonderful The Tender Bar or Julia Scheeres’ riveting Jesus Land (about which I expect to have more to say next week), I find that one of the pleasures I seek is wholly narcissistic: I love reading memoirs by people my age, by people who went to one of my schools, came from my town.

The pleasure decreases, however, when I actually know the author. To me, hearing Dave’s beautiful podcast of his memoir and to know exactly where his dad took him and his sister to feed the ducks and talk about the divorce just hurts. I fed the ducks there, too. And, since we’re about the same age, I know that I fed the ducks there exactly then. That’s not a pleasurable identification but a distressingly uncanny one. I feel like I should rush back with a big bag of stale bread from the QFC and stand beside him, chucking hunks of it at the mallards.

In another case, I found myself changing my opinion of a newish friend upon learning how unethically she had once behaved. Still once more, I was confirmed and disappointed to see that I wasn’t even a separate character—just one of many—in the memoir of someone I had had a Titanic-sized crush on.

I asked for Scheeres’ book for Christmas and my motive, as ever, was narcissistic and impure: she had been miserable—truly, deeply, abused and miserable—in two places where I, too, have been unhappy. We’re the same age—a plus, as I said before—but we were not in these places at the same time, nor does my mild depression compare with the actual abuse she suffered. Still, part of what drew me in and pulled me through the book was the perverse pleasure in reading along and being able to say, wholly speciously—but privately—I knew that was a bad place…

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Spies by Michael Frayn

The book came out in 2002. I just read it last week. It’s wonderful!

Spies is a novel of an old man remembering back to his boyhood in London during WWII. In particular, he pieces together the consequences of his best friend’s declaration: “My mother is a German spy.” Unlike other boyhood games (Mr. So-and-so is a murderer; Mrs. Whatsit eats baby kittens…), this particular one takes on real moment: the boys get inflated with the potential importance of their “discovery” to the war effort and begin spying on her in earnest. Of course, any such spying is bound to uncover something. At first their discoveries are sweetly comic: an X in her diary every 28 days or so means, to them, a rendez-vous with a German agent but the suspense builds as they find odd things and terrify themselves with speculations.

As Adam Mars-Jones wrote at the time: “The key to the book's success is Frayn's decision to respect young Stephen's point of view without staking everything on recreating it. Stephen's older self frets over the past which is the boy's present, without claiming authority over it.” (You can find another review at Collected Miscellany, too.)

There’s much I loved about this moving, suspenseful, and poignant novel. But one passage in particular stands out for me: a great mini-essay on what it means to understand something, anything. Thinking back, remembering, trying to piece together what happened and how much of it he knew (and what kind of knowing he had—dim, partial, hidden from himself), he stares at a pot of geraniums that stands now where he had once played with his friend:
What do I understand? Now? About anything? Even the simplest things in front of my eyes? What do I understand about the geraniums in that tub?
Only that they’re geraniums in a tub. About the biological, chemical, and molecular processes that lie behind that flaunting scarlet, or even the commercial and economic arrangements that create the market in bedding plants, or the sociological psychological, and aesthetic explanations for the planting out of geraniums in general and these geraniums in particular, I understand more or less nothing.
I don’t need to. I simply glance in that direction and at once I’ve got the general story: geraniums in a tub.(152-3)

He takes us to the edge, philosophically speaking, and then pulls us right back to solid ground. Yes, the idea of what it means to understand is complex. We understand very little. If we really stop and consider how little we know, our ignorance is dizzying, dazzling. We can imagine the treatises, from every discipline, that would help explain how it came to be that middle-class English people tend to have potted geraniums. On the other hand, sometimes, “the general story: geraniums in a tub” is plenty.

I think that’s a key to being a great creator of fiction rather than a scholar. Frayn is smart—smarter than most, for sure—but he knows how to choose a single detail that, in a stroke, conveys a raft of information about class, place, attitude, degree of conventionality, aesthetics. He doesn’t get distracted by all that; he just knows that the people who would be living on that street now are the kind of people who would have geraniums.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Seventeen years ago: February 1989

In the spring of 1989, I was a second-semester graduate student. Once a week, I entered a locked courtyard and mounted the stairs to a tiny seminar room for my class in Anglo-Indian Narrative. Our professor—one of the greatest I’ve ever had—announced that she no longer taught the grab-bag “postcolonial” class. The specific conditions of colonization differed so vastly across and within the globe that a single course could not responsibly treat the Caribbean, Canada, Australia, South Asia, and Africa. Of course, she was right.

I remember a lot about that class. Of those early weeks of the term I remember two things. First, we were reading lots and lots and lots of Edmund Burke. I was reading Burke for another class at the time and, to be honest, that meant that twice a week I was humbled by how little of Burke I understood and (more shameful) how little I cared. I really tried, but Burke did not light my fire. Second, after Burke, after Kipling, after memoirs of “the Mutiny” a great, great treat awaited: a visit from Salman Rushdie. I tried to hang in there, eager to be one of the bright young grad students with a smart question when the great novelist visited our class.

Then, on Valentine’s Day, 1989, the fatwa against Rushdie was declared. (The Satanic Verses had been published in September of 1988; it was banned in India in October, weeks before Michiko Kakutani got around to reviewing it for the Times.) He went into hiding. He would most certainly not be coming to our class.

The protests—now deadly—that have erupted over a cartoon depicting Mohammed have put me in mind, again, of that troubled time. I find myself thinking, with weird nostalgia (is that the right word?), “Back in my day, the protests were over highbrow fictional blasphemy, not mere editorial cartoons…”

Ultimately, however, these culture clashes over representations of the sacred are really interesting. In the case of Rushdie, I think, he got tangled (to put it mildly) in the difference between his own perspective as a cosmopolitan Muslim and that of fundamentalist Muslims. The current protests, by contrast, revolve around depictions of Mohammed by a non-Muslim cartoonist: a much more common kind of offense, I think. But then, when the riots begin, these distinctions, these interesting conversations, have already ended. That's the sorry fact about violence.

You can find several smart posts on these sorry events over at Moorish Girl, of course. As Laila Lalami says: “’Leave the cartoonist alone! He has a right to his stupidity!’ And also, for the love of all that is holy, don't we have better things to do than to worry about a cartoon?”

Elsewhere, in more sorry literary events, J. T. Leroy’s identity has finally been unmasked by the writer’s partner (a man in search of a book deal) while, at the Times, one reader is shocked, shocked, to find some actual facts in a novel! What is this distinction between fact and fiction coming to? (Via Moorishgirl):
AFTER READING JOHN BANVILLE’S Man Booker prize-winning The Sea, a slim volume trumpeted as fiction, I was startled to discover, upon perusing my hefty atlas, that this supposedly fantastical place named Ireland was an actual island. While reading, I thought it sounded familiar, yet I let it slide, not wanting niggling particulars to ruin the experience.

Still elsewhere, and far more celebratory, the 8th Carnival of Feminists is up at Gender Geek. There’s a lot to peruse, admire, ponder, and love there. The next Carnival is being hosted by Mind the Gap, on February 22nd. Nominations should be sent to mindthegapcardiff AT yahoo DOT co DOT uk, to arrive no later than 19th February. Among other things, this Carnival ends with links celebrating the lives and work of Betty Friedan, Wendy Wasserstein, and Coretta Scott King as well as the work of Sandra Day O’Connor—lucky in her retirement, though we are hopelessly unlucky in her loss.

Monday, February 06, 2006

Two Othellos

I’m teaching Othello this week and next so I rented two movie versions of it to watch this weekend. Of the four major Shakespearean tragedies, I know Othello the least well and it’s fun and fascinating to return to it after many years. The films, however, have been a big surprise.

I was curious and excited about the Orson Welles version from 1952. Could I get over the weirdness of Welles in blackface to enjoy Welles in a role that I knew he’d be good in? Well, it’s a very good movie though I had to watch it in chunks. It’s starkly black and white, full of serious, European symbolist imagery. There are some visually stunning shots: I loved a particularly vertiginous moment where Othello backs Iago to the edge of a Cyprus cliff and the camera, over their heads, captures Iago’s fear and the crashing surf as Othello threatens to kill Iago if his insinuations about Desdemona prove false. It’s also nice to set the attempted murder of Cassio in a Turkish bath, a sword piercing through slats in a wooden walkway over the water. (Is it a sewer, as the DVD documentary suggests, or just a kind of canal serving the bath?)

Overall, however, it is a dark film. I don’t mean that metaphorically; I mean that it is often hard to see. Furthermore, I didn’t think much of Iago and sometimes found it hard to tell him apart from Roderigo. This is actually a big problem: Iago is the bad guy and probably the most important role in the play to think through carefully; Roderigo is a fool and a tool—an instrument through whom Iago can plan some of his villainy. Sometimes, when the blond actor playing Cassio (the second of Iago’s targets) was in darkness, I couldn’t even tell Cassio from Roderigo or Iago. Pair that with imperfect sound, a camera rarely on a speaker’s lips, and lots of expressivist angle shots, and you get a movie that is just kind of confusing.

What a nice surprise then, to turn to the Kenneth Branagh 1995 “Othello” (with Laurence Fishburne in the title role and Branagh hamming it up as Iago). Branagh is a ham but I like him and, frankly, it’s useful to have him looking straight at the camera to say, “I hate the Moor.” Got it.

I haven’t finished watching it, but, boy, I like it. It’s visually so clear. It’s not sophisticated as film but, to my shame, I think I have discovered that I don’t care as much about visual sophistication as I do about other things. Plus, the movie is really interested in Desdemona and turns her into something other than a new Ophelia. She is not at all like Ophelia in Shakespeare’s play: she is a brave, strong, confident young woman from go whereas the Ophelia we see is already confused and a little broken. Desdemona, by contrast, wishes she could have been such a man as Othello. And when her father disapproves of her marriage, she joins her husband at war. But really, I love just being able to watch the movie without straining after it, to enter more deeply into the situations because I can see that that guy on the right is Cassio and the one on the left is Iago.