Tuesday, October 19, 2021

What incredible things happen in this family!

A House and it Head – Ivy Compton-Burnett

Duncan is the head, or better, the despot of the Edgeworth family. Weak, rash, obtuse, and grumpy, spoiled by too many years of barking orders and getting his way, Duncan is the touchy volcano god all the cringing villagers seek to propitiate.

The novel opens on Christmas Day. Duncan not only burns nephew Grant’s copy of The Origin of Species (“inimical to the faith of the day”), but he treats his wife Ellen abominably.

“So the children are not down yet?” said Ellen Edgeworth.

Her husband gave her a glance, and turned his eyes towards the window.

“So the children are not down yet?” she said on a note of question.

Mr. Edgeworth put his finger down his collar, and settled his neck.

“So you are down first, Duncan?” said his wife, as though putting her observation in a more acceptable form.

Duncan returned his hand to his collar with a frown.

“So you are down first of all, Duncan,” said Ellen, employing a note of propitiation, as if it would serve its purpose.

Her husband implied by lifting his shoulders that he could hardly deny it.

“The children are late, are they not?” said Ellen, to whom speech clearly ranked above silence.

ICB sets this Victorian family story either late in the nineteenth century or the early twentieth century; it’s hard to tell for sure because near the beginning she mentions “1885” and near the end she has a character refer to “the Victorians.”

With her usual masterful attention to dialogue, ICB narrates the saga in demanding and pungent interchanges between the members of the Edgeworth family themselves and between themselves and friends. ICB provides no imagery, blocking, or business to assist us, beyond a few lines of physical description of room or age, face, build, and manner. When she describes clothes, pay especial attention; when a character is verbose and fluent, your bushwah detector should flash yellow. Reading ICB’s conversations is like being a time traveler suddenly whisked into the past and dropped into an unfamiliar culture where we can but listen and learn, depending on what little we know and suspect about the speakers and knowing they use words to blur meaning.

Family life flows almost entirely within the country house, with the exception of the mandatory attendance to Sunday church. It is precisely on this occasion that the events of the family are the subject of comment by all the members of the village. Like a Greek chorus in a tragedy, they express all their judgments in more or less explicit allusions and snippy dialogues, in which opinions mingle and merge giving life to a spontaneous chatter that calls the mind the overlapping dialogue of Robert Altman.

Dulcia, Beatrice, Gretchen, and every other character are differentiated based on their way of deploying words to present a persona and their propensity to thrust themselves into the life and events of the Edgeworth family. Each of them seems to find an exquisite pleasure in gossip, although each then tries to hide their insatiable curiosity and essential maliciousness behind a mask of selfless interest and sincere closeness. The unspeakable Dulcia, however, immensely enjoys the discomfiture of other people and gets kicks by laughingly confronting people “You really do hate me, don’t you.”

In the life of the Edgeworth family, as in every family, there are marriages, births, and deaths, but, in all circumstances, the only feelings that matter are those of the head of the family. The responses of the two daughters, Nance and Sybil, and of the nephew, Grant, are always overshadowed by what Duncan thinks. As usual in an ICB novel, there’s the sense that the more things change, the more life just goes on in the old familiar grooves. Because human nature doesn’t change. People play their little power games. People gossip. People blackmail. People commit murder. And people shrug and move on.

I should mention here that this is the fifth novel by ICB I’ve read since summer 2021. I’ve found that ICB’s obscure, idiosyncratic style is difficult at first, but as an ICB character wisely if bleakly observes, “People can get used to anything.” I quit worrying about plumbing the depths of the more opaque lines and passages. I think ICB herself was assuming that nobody, even if they read her novels in the Downward Facing Tree Pose with a head full of mescaline, would get to the bottom of some of the conversations.

My approach to ICB’s novels is to read the story once in order to get the characters straight, identify everybody’s strengths and weaknesses.  I need to get a bead on the lost characters and the harm they do. I get over the shivers and shudders that any normal reader feels when encountering depravity. ICB’s incidents are over the top but never unbelievable in the context of the internal and external pressures her characters have to deal with.  Then, I read it again immediately to see clearly what I previously missed, in terms of clues to the motivation of thoughts, emotions and deeds, horrid and otherwise.

ICB is an engaging writer – as long as one is not looking for normally dysfunctional families as in Matilda by Roald Dahl or Portnoy’s Complaint by Philip Roth or The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky. I pull for characters that maintain even a little integrity  against ICB’s tyrants but I don’t like them for their capitulation and ignoble patience. Though ICB is very funny in a dry ironic way, after I finish an ICB novel, a part of me wants to escape to Rebecca West's Aubrey family having fun with Mr. Morpurgo’s name.

Cheaper by the Dozen, here I come.

Reviews of novels by ICB

·         Pastors and Masters

·         Brothers and Sisters

·         Men and Wives

·         More Women than Men

Friday, October 15, 2021

The Ides of Perry Mason 29

On the 15th of every month, we publish something about of Our Fave Lawyer

Tribute to James Coburn

James Coburn is remembered for his tough-guy turns in action movies such as The Magnificent Seven (1960) and The Great Escape (1963) as well as the quirky The President’s Analyst (1968). During the period when I went to movies all the time – O Seventies, Pre-Reagan, Pre-AIDS! - I fondly remember him in two Sam Peckinpah outings, the revisionist western Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid (1973) and a war movie that combat veterans say is the real deal Cross of Iron (1977).

But Coburn was a worker so he made more than 100 television appearances during his 45-year career, including two Perry Mason episodes: The Case of the Envious Editor (1961) and The Case of the Angry Astronaut (1962).

Let’s discuss the second one first. The Angry Astronaut is the test pilot Mitch Heller. He has high anxiety that is controlled only by shots of placebo injected by Dr. Linda Carey (played by the under-rated Jeanne Bal). His stress - partly caused by overwork but also self-induced -  is making him to be late and absent, so much so that the million-dollar space project he works on is six weeks behind schedule. General Addison Brand is brought in to get things on track. Coburn screws up his face into a visage of dynamism and purpose. His general is a man determined do his duty by using the tools he's given to get the job done. If fulfilling that duty involves kicking ass and treading on sensitivities, that’s the way it is going to be. 

As the general, Coburn is completely persuasive as he barks orders and tells subordinates how it is going to be. When they we both in uniform, Heller and Brand had quarreled over Heller’s ability to perform his job, with Heller being messily terminated in the end. With his hectoring voice, Brand all but labels Heller an effeminate weakling in a convincing argument.

It is a refreshing contrast to the usual Mason victim, usually a despicable scamp doing crimes for base motives, so detestable that we figure he needs killing. Coburn’s general is the boss from hell, but his motives are commendable. 

Unfortunately, Coburn is in only two scenes before the good General is murdered with a .45 caliber slug from an Army pistol. It’s too bad because the episode falls flat once Coburn exits.

The Case of the Envious Editor (1961) is the better of the two because Coburn is in more scenes. He plays the part of the publishing mogul who is changing money-losing weekly magazines into exciting, sexy trash that will fly off the shelves. The opening scene in which he telling the staid board that he is going to publish a “magazine about sex from the woman’s point of view” is hilarious. One gets the feeling that the mogul doesn’t care so much about making money as making the prudes and complaint-wienies feel consternation. Holding dirt on everybody he does business with, the mogul also likes blackmailing people into doing his will.

This is an excellent episode, certainly in my Top 5 Favorites. Paul Lambert plays a poet and all round literary pro who recites "Richard Cory" by Edward Arlington Robinson to the former owner of the money losing magazines. The former owner is played by Philip Abbott, who is perfect as the decadent Philadelphia aristo easily shoved aside by the Coburn upstart. And what can we say about Sara Shane, playing the wife of the aristo and accused of sending Coburn’s bad guy to his just deserts? She’s great as the woman who does low things out of the fear of poverty, having been scarred as a teenage girl fending for herself in China in the Thirties, in other words, about the most vicious place in the world to have to do that.

Wednesday, October 13, 2021

Back to the Classics Challenge 2021 #19

I read this book for the Back to the Classics Challenge 2021.

Classic by a New-to-You Author: The 1992 movie adaptation of Howards End made it to an art house in Riga, Latvia in 1994, where I was teaching English at a university. My wife and I went to see it. We waved to my local – mainly female – colleagues in the theater since everybody in English-interested circles went to see it. In the office the Monday after, Ilze, Ieva, and Vineta expressed outrage over Mr. Wilcox’s indiscretion. Couple days later, feeling mischievous, I casually asked Ilze “Is that new German teacher married,” and Ilze, with forehead cutely furrowed , said, “Gee, I don’t know…” – then the penny dropped and she hollered, “Hey! Why do you want to know?”

Howards End - E.F. Foster

First published in 1910, this novel tells the story of three English families during the leisured reign of fashionable Edward VII. Modernity is beating impatiently on the door but generally speaking the culture is still conservative. It’s a stodgy unsympathetic England in which for a man to go hatless on the street is inviting insult:

   He discovered that he was going bareheaded down Regent Street.  London came back with a rush.  Few were about at this hour, but all whom he passed looked at him with a hostility that was the more impressive because it was unconscious.  He put his hat on.  It was too big; his head disappeared like a pudding into a basin, the ears bending outwards at the touch of the curly brim.  He wore it a little backwards, and its effect was greatly to elongate the face and to bring out the distance between the eyes and the moustache.  Thus equipped, he escaped criticism.  

Forster introduces us to three families. The middle class Schlegel family is made up of two sisters, Margaret and Helen, and brother Tibby. There is the upper middle class Wilcox family, made up of a father, mother and three children (two boys and one girl). The third family are the Basts, a newly married couple, of the lower middle class, so only an accident or illness or job loss away from the abyss.

The Schlegels, an Anglo-German family, are affluent, cultured, progressive, cosmopolitan, dedicated to an intellectual and independent-minded life. The Wilcoxes are wealthy, pragmatic, anchored to the conventions of English society of the early twentieth century. They are a family with a narrow dull mentality and a hypocritical personality, dehumanized by imperialism and economic power, assuming everybody is on the make, proving to be united only when the possibility of accumulating more money and property is at stake. Forster presents two kinds of culture, with two different orientations to life and asks and what does their country, their England, mean to them:

For what end are her fair complexities, her changes of soil, her sinuous coast?  Does she belong to those who have moulded her and made her feared by other lands, or to those who have added nothing to her power, but have somehow seen her, seen the whole island at once, lying as a jewel in a silver sea, sailing as a ship of souls, with all the brave world's fleet accompanying her towards eternity?

The Schlegels can easily see that the Wilcoxes are nihilists, with nothing but “panic and emptiness” to guide them through troubles. The Schlegels also like the adventurous but bookish Leonard Bast and want to help him get over his confusion (“[writers] are not to blame if, in our weakness, we mistake the sign-post for the destination”).

But good intentions, as usual, are not enough. Life is full of risks and twists that we can’t foretell

Looking back on the past six months, Margaret realized the chaotic nature of our daily life, and its difference from the orderly sequence that has been fabricated by historians.  Actual life is full of false clues and sign-posts that lead nowhere.  With infinite effort we nerve ourselves for a crisis that never comes.  The most successful career must show a waste of strength that might have removed mountains, and the most unsuccessful is not that of the man who is taken unprepared, but of him who has prepared and is never taken.  On a tragedy of that kind our national morality is duly silent.

Lots of hardcore readers into reading challenges and critics like Virginia Woolf say this novel lacks focus, that Forster tries to juggle too many dichotomies. Progress: Chum or Bogey? Empire: Noble Enterprise or History of Grab? Ideal: The City or Suburbia? The Motor Car: Threat or Menace? Howards End as Novel: Victorian or Edwardian or Experimentally Modern? Howards End as House: Love It or List It? More Potent Phallic Symbol: Umbrellas or Swords?

I read this novel, after putting it off for more than 25 years. I couldn’t get my arms around it. I let it bark and whine in the dingy kennel of my mind for a couple of months. And then I read it again.

Forster advises:

Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon. Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer. Only connect, and the beast and the monk, robbed of the isolation that is life to either, will die.

Ambiguous enough so that the veteran seeker and seasoned mystic will have to bring her own thinking to it. A lot. There’s also sentences like:

Life is indeed dangerous, but not in the way morality would have us believe.  It is indeed unmanageable, but the essence of it is not a battle.  It is unmanageable because it is a romance, and its essence is romantic beauty.

Don’t look at me, I’ve got all I can handle fighting off the dangers that morality has had me believe. Plus, I’m too agreeable to snipe at poor old romantic beauty, who’s taken a helluva beating in the last century from meaner sonsabitches than me. I think life’s essence is making the best use of what is in my power, my scope, what’s up to me, and taking the rest as it happens. But that’s me, who gets short of breath in rarefied air.

Not often up to the big ideas, I, however, found Howards End a compelling read, albeit vague at times. Both times I thought Forster unfolded the story in an absorbing way. Woolf said Forster had “a power of creating characters in a few strokes which live in an atmosphere of their own.” It’s true. The novel is worth reading for secondary characters who are their own people. Sweet caring annoying Aunt Juley Munt; formidable Mrs. Avery; dippy Dolly and her godawful baby talk; terrible sportsgirl Evie (“staring fiercely at nothing after the fashion of athletic women”); hungry-eyed Jacky Bast; brother Tibby probably an Aspie; and the odious snot Charles Wilcox, haunting the margins of this novel like an imp in the gloom of hell.

Saturday, October 9, 2021

The Man Who Wasn't There

The Man Who Wasn't There: Tales from the Edge of the Self - Anil Ananthaswamy

 This book of popular science is toward the harder end of the spectrum, in contrast to ‘gosh wow [long pause] let’s change [longer pause] the world’ TED talks. In this book Ananthaswamy studies how pathological conditions point to how the brain works.

For example, some patients feel that a limb is not “really” a part of their body and they arrange off the books amputations with a surgeon in another country. Some lose the sense of agency over their own actions. Alzheimer’s patients may lose their sense of self and say to their caregivers, probably the painful statement we would hear from an elderly relative “I don’t know who I am.” Other patients may feel they have died, other may feel depersonalized (outside of their bodies). The personal stories illustrating these catastrophic situations will call to mind Oliver Sacks’ way of explaining neuroscience.

In fact, the neuroscience is hard material, not easily comprehended though the cases are always presented with clear theories and research about what is going on with the brain, which makes the book rich and challenging.

Tuesday, October 5, 2021

Two Judge Dee Novellas

The Monkey and The Tiger - Robert van Gulik

This is Book #6 of the 17 historical mysteries starring Judge Dee. The unique stories are set in different Chinese provinces from about 663 to 681.

This volume contains two interesting stories whose titles are based on the Chinese zodiac and, in particular, on the characteristic differences of the Yang forces of the Tiger (might, nerve, luck) and the Monkey (cleverness, wit, creativity).

Both stories have a rapid development of the plot and details about everyday life in China during one of its golden ages, the T’ang era. The beginning of the first story (The Monkey) is atmospheric in that the author sets the tale in a tropical forest, like a fairy tale, while in the second story (The Tiger) Judge Dee finds himself in fortress besieged, like a feudal adventure story.

Without deep psychological descriptions, van Gulik still creates vibrant characters with human interest. In The Monkey is a man in the midst of a mid-life crisis. He falls for a young beautiful bandit girl and gets the notion to walk away from his humdrum life to join a band of highwaymen. In The Tiger, by observing the portrait and belongings of the deceased, Judge Dee gets insight into a personality and identifies the great obsession – the yearning for freedom - that had dominated a life.

Both short stories have their own attractions. In The Monkey, there are lessons on how to approach cases that Judge Dee imparts to his assistant Tao Gan. Although he is cunning and slick on the streets, ex-con man Tao Gan lacks the experience of his boss and inevitably inflicts his biases on the evidence. In The Tiger, the author successfully describes the aftermath of a flood of the Yellow River and the melancholy mood of Judge Dee.

In other stories, Judge Dee is always surrounded by tough assistants to provide muscle, sometimes beating and torturing information out of persons of interest. In the situation of The Tiger, however, he faces a dangerous situation in an isolated country manor, in a position of weakness and loneliness, his authority as a high-ranking official doesn't mean squat against a band of brigands called The Flying Tigers. The time frame of this story is only one night, so he doesn't have much time to conjure up a plan to save himself and other innocents from a catastrophic end. Professor van Gulik also slips in a warning about keeping love and desire firmly apart, since no man – not the smart, not the powerful, not the capable – is exempt from the proverb, “It's not the beauty of a woman that blinds the man, the man blinds himself.”

Dr. van Gulik was not blessed with a long life (he died at the age of 57 in 1967), but being Dutch, he was a demon for work. On top of his day job in diplomacy, he wrote the 17 Judge Dee novels. And he managed to produce scholarly items on such curious topics as the role of the lute and the gibbon in traditional Chinese arts. When he recommended the Judge Dee stories to the class, my Sunwui-born professor of Chinese history said that van Gulick wrote Sexual Life in Ancient China but that he never read it because the social role of concubinage and prostitution was out of his field. The class rather slumped at hearing that despite the exciting title, the book did not deal with the deep subject of Chinese sexual lore.

Thursday, September 30, 2021

Back to the Classics Challenge 2021 #18

I read this book for the Back to the Classics Challenge 2021.

Classic Humor: Hardcore readers often mention The Diary of a Nobody in the same breath as Three Men in a Boat, which I didn’t find funny at all. So I was leery of this one. But I saw this recommendation in George Orwell’s column: “I have always wondered what on earth The Diary of a Nobody (1892) could be like in a Russian translation, and indeed I have faintly suspected that the Russians may have enjoyed it because when translated it was just like Chekhov.”

The Diary of a Nobody - George & Weedon Grossmith

Our diarist Charles Pooter* is quite an ordinary man, whose only step away from the conventions is that he does not see why his thoughts and jokes should be less worthy to be written down as those of anyone else in late Victorian England. English to the backbone (as E. F. Foster’s Aunt Juley Munt would say), Pooter is truthful, modest, mindful of hierarchy and distinctions. He respects the dignity of others and expects the same courtesy even though but he himself is too little aware of bourgeois mores and commits blunders that make him the butt.

It’s not enough that he is assailed by his wife Carrie and his friends Gowing and Cummings, but he is troubled by his immature son Lupin who comes home after being canned from his job for laziness. Pooter tries to buck up his son’s ambition and build a base to a stable future, but it is no easy task to compete with clubs, theaters, and drinking establishments. Among  his daily office life, dreary but satisfying, his wife's bosom friend who always tries to bring Carrie up to the latest fashions and fads, and Lupin's escapades, Pooter describes his joys and trials with humility and sincerity.

It’s comic even for those of middle-aged enough to tire easily of the light comedy of embarrassment. It also stands up with those well acquainted with the high standards of Lardner, Thurber and Perlman when it comes to stories starring the Modest Bumbling Every Man.

One hesitates to read too much into an amiable comic novel. But. Pooter personifies the staid Victorian papa of the 1880s in contrast to his Edwardian son who unfailingly advocates modernity and the unavoidable adaptation to it. Lupin, too, knows that time and tide are on his side. I for one was on Pooter Senior’s side, not having the same touching faith in technological advances as an Edwardian like H.G. Wells did.

George Orwell saw Don Quixote as the source of this character, saying, “Pooter is a high-minded, even adventurous man, constantly suffering disasters brought upon him by his own folly, and surrounded by a whole tribe of Sancho Panzas.” This is well put and reminds us in our own popular culture the put-upon hapless male has been a constant presence: Chester Riley, Ralph Kramden, Ozzie Nelson, Fred Sanford, Homer Simpson, Peter Griffin, Ray Romano, and the doughy bearded bros, barely adult, in ice cream ads


*poot - British English child slang for a silent, airy fart.

Monday, September 27, 2021

Ah, well, words of that kind are words.

More Women than Men – Ivy Compton Burnett

This 1933 novel is set in the early Edwardian era. It certainly feels like it was written after World War I, which demonstrated to thinking people that complacent generalities about life were not true. Like other writers who explored the ironic disconnection between optimistic assumptions and brutal outcomes, ICB examines, usually in the context of unhappy families and their followers, pain, stress, scandal, cowardice, defeat and resignation, cruelty petty and not, fear and spite.

The upshot is, ICB studies tangled relationships, narrating in her peculiar style. The reader begins to see behind the cloak of convoluted grammar, the veil of simple words in intricate arrays. In surprises worthy of Miss Austen and Mr. Collins, these characters are shown to us as they really are. They doff the mask and we have to review their words and actions in a different light. When we read the novel a second time, we see that ICB told us crucial information, if obliquely, if we had only been alert enough to observe. My strategy, therefore, with ICB is to read it, get the characters straight, get over the jolts and shudders of the incidents, and then immediately read it again.

Anyway, the owner and operator of a girl’s school is Josephine Napier. Her husband Simon ostensibly co-runs the school, but in fact he is utterly browbeaten, sidelined, and probably clinically depressed. When young, Josephine stole Simon from her friend Elizabeth Giffard. Though Liz carries a grudge, she is hardly the blameless lamb since we get hints that back in the naughty old days her shilly-shallying wasn’t honest, designed as it was to keep men on a string.

Josephine has adopted her widowed brother’s son Gabriel Swift and sent him to Oxford. Josephine has complicated feelings about Gabriel, feeling more than a mother, more than a best friend.  Josephine is all benevolent generosity on the outside. But her goal, which she usually achieves, is to satisfy her own self-serving nature. Gabriel, manipulated and emotionally coerced since childhood, walks around with the hunted look, hungry to get out into the world, away from Josephine’s relentless giving.

Elizabeth - widowed, down on her luck, jealous that hers live lean while others live fat -   is employed by Josephine as a housekeeper at the school. Her daughter Ruth and Gabriel hit it off enough to plan nuptials, to Josephine’s jealousy and opposition. Her condescension in her remonstrance to the young couple reaches the astonishing. Josephine doesn’t see herself as an “ogress” – do they ever? -- but she is, rather

Josephine’s brother, Jonathan Swift (sic), is a former Anglican clergyman and struggling writer ahead of his time. He has carried on a liaison with drawing master Felix Bacon for 23 years, since Felix was 18 and Jon was 47. Influenced by turning 40, Felix feels change in the air. Besides feeling every minute of his 70 years, Jon harries himself with the notion that Felix has cocked his eye in the direction of Gabriel.

Hey, I never said ICB was for everybody, certainly not readers in search of a genial author or likeable characters. Always remember - we’re World War One away from Lily Dale eating her heart out over Crosbie in the sewing room. ICB challenges us to identify just what the hell she is doing, reconstructing values out of the ethical wreckage of World War I or denying there is any meaning at all to be had. Or talking about clothes so much that a character querulously asks, "Can we stop talking about clothes." Or putting in the good word for middle-aged unmarried women who surprise Felix by not fawning over him.

These attachments go through relentless change in the course of the novel. Readers and critics who claim nothing happens in her novels must have radically different conceptions of flux and unrest than I do. When Ruth clutched her hands in response to Josephine’s mad manipulative behavior, I clenched my teeth. When another character made a horrendous confession, as he pantomimed playing a piano, I held my breath.

Nothing happens! As the course of this novel plays out, there are two mysterious deaths, one death of natural causes and two marriages and a birth that provoke drastic change. Oddly enough, this story winds up with a happy ending, I mean, given, of course, no heteronormative prejudices make us squirm. It’s not me to go all meta but when I read ICB, I’m aware that she’s playing me. It starts simply enough – a straightforward examination of ordinarily dramatic situations starring over-civilized people -- but from about page 3 insensibly things change. Jabs become more ferocious. Spontaneous chances are ruthlessly exploited. And though one expects the surprises, they’re still shocking as hell.

Get played by reading:

·         Pastors and Masters

·         Brothers and Sisters

·         Men and Wives