Monday, May 13, 2013

Penelope Fitzgerald

As part of my recent interest in reading British women writers, I've just finished a novel by a great one - Penelope Fitzgerald. (A new author discovery! There are few things in life more thrilling!) I've been focused on writers of the early to mid twentieth century and Fitzgerald's first book was published in the '70s. However, her style and subjects (at least in her first few books) seem to accord with those of earlier authors I admire, people like Barbara Pym, Winifred Holtby, Dorothy Whipple. These women wrote stories about English village life and the lingering dominance of class and gender biases in a culture bumpily transitioning away from traditionalism. Fitzgerald's novel The Bookshop (1978) aligns with this description. Specifically, Fitzgerald shares with Pym a quiet but keen wit, a knack for observation, and a prose style whose straightforwardness belies its sophistication and basis in great intelligence.

Fitzgerald's The Bookshop is the first of four compact novels she fashioned directly from personal experience, the others being Offshore (which I just finished reading), Human Voices, and At Freddie's. Having explicitly, sufficiently mined her own past for material, she went on from there to write historical fiction. The Bookshop's spare story is set in 1959 and concerns Florence Green, a widower who resides in the East Anglian seaside town of Hardborough. It's a place of little industry or promise where change is attempted from time to time, and usually with thwarted outcomes. Upon deciding to “make it clear to herself, and possibly to others, that she existed in her own right," Florence takes steps to open a bookstore.

Even after living in Hardborough for a decade Florence is still a latecomer and encounters resistance to her plan. The Bookshop is an idiosyncratic, unsentimental depiction of small town life on the levels of both interpersonal relationships and bureaucratic policy. The grievances, tensions and common pleasures Florence attributes to Hardborough could be found anywhere. But her delineation of the specific ways these ingredients manifest in this particular town make it feel like a distinct place. Once Florence decides on a location - a house built in the fifteenth century that's been abandoned for decades - and involves herself with a banker and a lawyer, all of the local residents become aware of her intentions and have opinions about their merits. One example of the concision of Fitzgerald's language is her inclusion of supposed letters between Florence and her lawyer. They have the brevity of memos and taciturnity of law-speak but still ably convey a lot about the people who send them. Florence finds a rival in Mrs. Gamart, described as "the natural patroness of all public activities in Hardborough." She believes she should have been the one to introduce culture to the area via Florence's selected site. Mrs. Gamart calls on social connections and a recent Act of Parliament (underwritten by her nephew) to derail Florence.

The success of The Bookshop lies with Fitzgerald's language and characters. Certainty and confidence underlie both of these elements to the degree that every person feels full and actual and the word choices succinct and true. Florence herself is a compelling mix of steadfastness and naivete. When she expresses interest in having a shop assistant, ten-year-old Christine Gipping appears. She's one of several children belonging to the local, hardscrabble Gipping family, each of whom accept the exigencies of hard work as an inevitability. Christine is forthright, competent and shrewd such that Florence repeatedly forgets she's a little girl. The child designs the process for the store's lending library and then, in one of the book's more humourous passages, becomes flustered by her immaturity when the system strays from her vision into temporary chaos.

Also appealing is the reclusive Mr. Brundish, something of a local landmark in the town because his family's aligned with its history (his home, Holt House, is the only other building of similar age to Florence's bookstore). He has thorough knowledge and opinions about Hardborough's past and present even though he never leaves his house. Fitzgerald describes him thusly, "Shabby, hardly presentable, he was not the sort of figure who could ever lose dignity." He becomes Florence's only local ally, a surprising relationship given his aloofness.

Florence learns that a novel, Lolita, written by an author she's never heard of, has caused a sensation. She wonders if it might be lucrative to stock it in her shop. She doesn't read it herself but instead asks Mr. Brundish for his opinion, despite the fact that his apparent old-guard manner would make him seem ill-suited to appraise it. Besides, Hardborough residents, as portrayed by Fitzgerald, are unlikely to be open to Nabokov's moral provocation. What makes this incident so amusing is the fact of the interval between the late '50s setting of Fitzgerald's book and its publication in the '70s. By this time, readers know full well of Lolita's notoriety. That Nabokov's book should draw Mr. Brundish and Florence closer together is odd and also revealing of their individual natures. Mr. Brundish advocates in favour of the book saying that the townspeople "won't understand it, but that's all to the good. Understanding makes the mind lazy." Florence trusts Mr. Brundish's judgement to the point of making a dubious choice for her shop. Mr. Brundish shows himself to be an instigator with a taste for dissent.

In one of my favourite passages, Florence takes a walk along a headland overlooking the sea where a housing development was heedlessly attempted. "A whole estate had been built there five years ago without any calculation of the sea's erosion. Before anyone had come to live there the sandy cliff had given way and the houses had begun to totter and slide." For Sale signs linger and, in the case of one former villa left "right on the verge," half the foundation is gone with the living room exposed to the elements. Florence sits on an abandoned front step amidst the sea breeze and bird song. Her surroundings are like a ghost town, the edifices ground down perhaps as much by the widespread local tendency toward reaction and obstinacy as by natural processes. The enclave amounts to a kind of ruin in reverse resulting from the community's past being so entrenched that modernity can't get a foothold. Vision and change appear as remote as the distant horizon.

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

"I Know Where I'm Going!"

I can't remember when I wrote this overly long piece about the film I Know Where I'm Going! (When I say long, I mean that there's too much synopsis and not enough atmosphere or personal feeling). I think I tucked it away hoping I'd return to it and figure out how to fix it. But please don't let me put you off! It has some good moments. I just want to do this film justice. It's a favourite and Powell and Pressburger are among the filmmakers I admire the most. Like all of their work, I Know Where I'm Going! is incredibly moving and visually stunning. It offers well-developed characters who issue from, and are defined by, a distinct sense of time and place. (It's worth noting that Powell made another magnificent, black and white film in Scotland before forging his eventual partnership with Pressburger. It's called The Edge of the World (1937), and has qualities and themes in common with I Know Where I'm Going!.)


Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's foul weather romance I Know Where I'm Going! (1945) employs the raw landscape and storied history of the Scottish Hebrides to demonstrate there's joy in submitting to life's vagaries. The film features headstrong Joan Weston (Wendy Hiller) who acts deliberately and with such self-direction that she disavows chance completely. At the outset, she tells her banker father of her immediate plans to marry a wealthy, Manchester-based industrialist. She's more triumphant than besotted - the union marks the realization of goals outlined during the wonderfully humourous, inventive opening sequence in which Joan's pluck and taste for conquest are charted in rapid fire exposition from childhood to womanhood.

Joan's fiance looms large in the story despite not being shown. The fact that he's organized their wedding on fictional Killoran, a remote island she believes he owns, provides the film's narrative: She must travel north to meet him. Further, he's abstracted through footage of a churning manufacturing plant, and a doting, punctual staff who appear on each platform of Joan's piecemeal train journey. They present her with a map and a rigid itinerary, the final leg of which requires her to travel by boat from Mull to Killoran. Everyone presumes that if progress is scheduled nothing can impede it. In the 17th century, the British put roads through the Scottish Highlands in order to move troops through easily. They then mapped the entire area to remove any possibility the natives might withhold knowledge of particular sites or routes. Powell and Pressburger explore this same tension between intuitive locals and heedless interlopers, but set the film during the Second World War. Joan's eager to depart Mull but the collective forces of wind, fog and rain prove stronger than her will and make her crossing impossible. Consequently in limbo, she pitches between a struggling regional culture that doesn't initially attract her and the symbolic, distant "rich man," as he's called, whose security does.

The film's early sequences are exuberant, due to their comedic flourishes and fast-paced editing, and include a bizarre dream sequence in which Joan watches a train weave through tartan hills, envisions herself marrying her fiance's actual company, and luxuriates in a bubble comprised of her wedding dress's garment bag while money whirls around her body. Initially, Powell and Pressburger let Joan's internal life dictate the film's action and structure in order to convey her unwavering, heady sense of entitlement and impression that its impetus controls reality. Her outlook is shown to be born of the city, a man-made environment coloured by acquisitiveness and engineered to underwrite its citizens' drive. But once Joan arrives in Scotland, the film's screwball tone is replaced by a slower pace and contemplative images. Cinematographer Erwin Hillier lets his camera linger over northern Scotland's dramatic scenery, the characters often in relief against the ocean, the distant horizon, or the hills that climb up from the shore. Movement is constant - of grasses or clouds - and is generated by a dominant, diverting wind. This place and climate, as evidenced by the storm, emerge as entities in their own right that have the power to determine outcomes. For example, merciful coincidence places Joan at the same house as handsome Scottish naval officer Torquil MacNeill (Roger Livesey), also waylaid from Killoran. Still, local myths and legends illustrate the human need to interpret happenstance as providence, guided here by poeticism and natural beauty rather than by money. Within this framework, Joan and Torquil's chance meeting takes on the thrilling proportions of cosmic intercession, the kind that proves to lovers that their burgeoning romance is irresistible.

Obliged to fill their time, Joan and Torquil visit local landmarks together, including Moy Castle. These impromptu trips provide the foundation for their growing attraction, as well as Joan's conflict in response to it. Torquil refuses to enter Moy, insisting that a young woman placed a curse on the lairds of Killoran that takes effect if they cross the threshold. Joan shows impatience toward his superstition, as well as incredulity that he would expect to be blighted by the curse. Her fiance is the laird of Killoran! But it's revealed he's merely the tenant and financial straits have forced Torquil to both absorb his presence and forsake his own home. This predicament, as well as those of his neighbours, illustrate the difficulty of rural life in the face of greater mechanization based predominantly in urban centers. Further, with the nation at war, Hebridean men are away fighting. "The rich man" isn't obliged to serve and brings much-needed money he's made elsewhere to an area at a loss to generate it nearby. In one of the film's most moving passages, Torquil and Joan, along with the bulk of the local community, attend a ceilidh, a traditional wedding anniversary party. The couple they're celebrating have been married for sixty years. Some of the guests sing beautifully (actual members of the Glasgow Orpheus Choir), performing folk songs in gaelic that Torquil translates for Joan in what amounts to an electric, spontaneous profession of love. The celebrating husband sees Torquil watching the proceedings from a distance and moves to greet him. He's elated that their party's been elevated by the music of as many as three pipers. They were hired to perform at Joan's interrupted wedding but, like her, couldn't make the journey. Instead, they commemorate genuine commitment - between individuals and to a regional culture - rather than a purchased facsimile.
   
Overcome by her feelings for Torquil and the fact that they're interfering with her hard-won plans, Joan prays unproductively for the storm to pass. Since it won't cease, and neither will her restlessness, she takes matters into her own hands and heedlessly bribes a young man to take her to Killoran against all advice to the contrary. Torquil has warned her about the Corryvreckan whirlpool, a dangerous strait that's swallowed many boats. While it's a natural occurrence, legend also attributes its malevolent force to sadness arising from thwarted love. As Torquil explains, a Viking Prince once asked to marry the Lord of the Isle's daughter and was made to prove his devotion by maintaining his boat in the whirlpool for three days. He sought out advisers who instructed him to collect three ropes of wool, hemp, and virgins' woven hair. They successively broke, the latter because its contributor had compromised her virtue, and the whirlpool swallowed him whole.    

When Torquil learns of Joan's plan he attempts to stop her but realizes she's too bullish to be deterred. He elects to take part in the trip and all of his skills as naval officer are tested when the whirlpool inevitably wreaks havoc on their tiny vessel. The climactic sequence, a blend of location and studio shooting, superbly illustrates Powell's technical facility and condenses all of the film's themes and sentiments. Having rushed headlong into danger, Joan confronts the fact that her selfishness, once believed to protect her, actually undermines her well-being. While the group struggles to rescue themselves, it grows clear that individual strength is most successfully summoned by shared purpose and help. Fault also lies with Joan's tendency toward expectation. She persistently looks to the future, represented all this while by the dimly visible Killoran, rather than attending to the immediate moment. Battered by roiling waters, the trio must adapt to successive difficulties arising from the elements, the boat's decline, and their increasing fear. Joan may have been able to avoid addressing her feelings for Torquil, but immediate threat of death demands her attention.
   
Perhaps the greatest outcome of the film's climax is its insistence that we don't need to be hampered by history or the exigencies of myth. The Viking Prince's story suggests fighting against the whirlpool is futile but, in this case, love proves an able competitor against both nature and legend when the trio return from their battle, scarred but safe. The next day, the skies clear and Joan's at liberty to leave. Torquil seeks solace by entering Moy Castle in a brave effort to confront the fates that have, by turns, both protected and ruined him. Alone and raw, he's revived by the distant strains of bagpipes. Joan and the musicians are shown marching to Moy and, once inside, she levels another curse by taking the Laird of Killoran into her arms. The film's story is generous because it's doesn't wholly change its characters in the service of narrative or theme. Joan and Torquil both obtain valuable knowledge that results in subtle shifts rather than complete personal reversals. The great appeal of I Know Where I'm Going! is its advocacy for moving through life with respect for both self-actualization and chance. If you consistently work at developing yourself, you're better prepared to respond beautifully when fortune offers its many and varied opportunities. You're also able to accept the best kind of romance, a love based on mutual self-discovery. Joan knows where she is going. She's marrying the Laird of Killoran. She just didn't know who he was before circumstance intervened by lifting the fogs of covetousness and forethought to enable her to see him.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Marriage and "The Thin Man"

Our friends Vincent and Lindsay gave Sean and I the great honour of speaking at their October 2012 wedding. We had free rein apart from the general request that we provide insight into relationship longevity. Sean and I both chose to read something we'd written on the subject. Since our 15th wedding anniversary just passed two days ago, I figured it was worth posting the piece I wrote for our friends. To commemorate 15 years of marriage, Sean and I ate cake, hiked in Bon Echo Provincial Park and, inevitably, watched The Thin Man.

My relationship with my husband Sean began with conversations about books and movies and their ideas. These topics initially fed our curiosity about each other. Eventually, fortuitously they became the foundation of our affection. Recommending authors and soliciting one another's reactions to films make learning and developing more dynamic. They're significant to how we express love. Thoughts and feelings we once had individually have grown intertwined and are vivified by the other's involvement.

I met Sean in San Francisco when he was a committed patron of a film noir series at the Castro Theatre. He's thorough about his interests, so the knowledge he gained of pulp directors and screenwriters inevitably spread out to quests for the books and locations that inspired the films. Dashiell Hammett became a favourite. He lived in San Francisco in the twenties and depicted it as the quintessential hard-boiled town. Sean and I explored the city together as if it was a living Hammett novel or a film you could move through. Its hills, tunnels and spectacular bays seemed engineered to foreground our drama of finding each other and falling in love.

Admittedly, Dashiell Hammett is a peculiar subject for a wedding. He was a crank, and a tubercular, philandering alcoholic. The majority of his artistic output is known for its mercilessness and profound mistrust of society. But Hammett converted this darkness into something better than himself. In 1934 he published The Thin Man, his last book.

The Thin Man is exceptional in Hammett's body of work because of its optimism and levity. The book centers around the spirited couple Nick and Nora Charles, a casual but capable private detective and an unpretentious heiress who marry each other and have a wonderful time. The characters are enchanting, principally because of their repartee. Hammett is said to have based Nick and Nora on his his on-again off-again relationship with writer Lillian Hellman. Their thirty-year union was turbulent. But through his work, he attached the galvanizing effects of their intelligence and wit to a fictitious lifestyle that had much more peace than their real one. He located the security, appreciation and acceptance life CAN offer in marriage.

The Thin Man was quickly made into a movie starring William Powell and Myrna Loy, possibly the best onscreen lovers the cinema has ever produced. Though Hammett only wrote one book about Nick and Nora, they appear in six pictures and Loy and Powell always played them but with far less cynicism than Hammett might have meant. Powell is mustachioed and nonchalant with bulging features. Loy is statuesque - never a shrinking violet. They stand shoulder to shoulder and see eye to eye. The actors and their characters were adored by their fans - I'm far from alone in finding them so attractive. Most married couples have a song or a site that's tied to their sense of togetherness, to the origin story of how they came to be. For Sean and I, that binding agent is a movie because The Thin Man represents everything that's great about being part of a pair.

Nick and Nora constitute a meeting of equals who are madly in love and always having fun. They're more interested to talk to each other than anyone else around. Their backgrounds are dissimilar but they find their differences fascinating. Their's is a match of utter confidence, a whole-hearted fusion, but never at the expense of individuality. Nick Charles assumes a droll tone in The Thin Man, as though he needn't be ruffled or give in to seriousness because he has Nora and, therefore, he has ease. They encourage one another, laugh with one another, and bullishly provide the other's safety. It's a murder mystery, so there are police and gangsters in the hallways of their apartment building, but home is a sanctuary. I'd be remiss if I didn't say that part of the film's appeal is its thirties elegance. It's decidedly aspirational. But the desire it engenders is grounded too, based in the thrill of knowing that such earthbound, undramatic things as support, simplicity, and commitment can be electric when they're shared with a spouse.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Amy Lowell, Book Collector

The Friends of the Fisher Library were very kind and let me (a friend in spirit though not in funds) attend a presentation at the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library last week. As part of their regular lecture series, they invited Leslie Morris, a curator of Modern Books and Manuscripts at Harvard's Houghton Library to speak about poet Amy Lowell and her book collecting habits (Lowell's collection was gifted to Houghton in 1925, after her death). Lowell was born to a wealthy family who featured prominently in Massachusetts history - the town of Lowell was named for a relative and her brother Abbott Lawrence Lowell was a president at Harvard University. But the aim of Ms. Morris's presentation was to demonstrate that Lowell's immeasurably useful book collection was the result of decisive personal vision rather than mere entitlement or wealth.

Lowell grew up in Brookline, Massachusetts in a large estate named Sevenels for the seven Lowells who inhabited it. She was an avid reader as a child and collecting was always linked to the joy she took from books. Her first substantial purchase was a complete set of Sir Walter Scott's Waverly novels that her brother helped her buy from a bookseller in Boston when she was seventeen years old. They negotiated the price to accord with the amount she had to spend - Christmas money she'd been given to put toward books. (She would go on to be regarded as someone who drove a hard bargain and a forceful personality in general.) Lowell eventually inherited Sevenels and oversaw an expensive lifestyle, with a stable of gardeners to tend the estate grounds and frequent, elaborate trips overseas. But she had nowhere near the amounts of money available to collecting contemporaries like Henry E. Huntington and J.P. Morgan. Her books weren't purchased with disposable funds so much as with money that was carefully earmarked for what she believed were essential acquisitions. The late nineteenth to early twentieth century is considered the golden age of American book collecting. Assembling an impressive library was regarded as proof of intelligence and achievement, so captains of industry bought competitively with prestige and legacy in mind. Amy Lowell operated in this climate but her taste and mandate ran a different course. Her purchases were extensions of her individuality and meant to gratify herself. They were also, equally, tributes to the literature she championed.

My previous awareness of Lowell stems from my love of the Brontes. While conducting research for an essay I wrote about their early years, I learned that nine of the many tiny books they made in childhood had been given to Lowell by notable book collector and forger Thomas James Wise (a fascinating person in his own right). Lowell cherished the Brontes too and had several astonishing items in her collection. She owned a bible given to Emily Bronte by her father when she was nine years old, a special document since so few remain that memorialize her life and contribution to literature. Morris's lecture introduced me to the practice of selling duplicates in order to fund and improve collections. She detailed a dubious decision made at Houghton before her tenure. British bookseller Quaritch knew of Lowell's interest in the Brontes and offered her the opportunity to buy Patrick Bronte's copies of John James Audubon's The Birds of America, books peppered with his own inscriptions. Bronte acolytes are well aware of the influence of these books on the children. Still, since Houghton already owned copies of the Audubon set they improvidently sold this important piece of Bronte history.

As Lowell gained more experience, she developed clear parameters for her collection. She focused on literature and literary figures and prioritized autographs and "association books," of which Emily Bronte's bible and Patrick Bronte's The Birds of America are prime examples. "Association books" are typically volumes that belonged to or were annotated by someone of note, or passed between significant figures. For example, Lowell had a manuscript copy of Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Aurora Leigh that had been proofed and annotated by Robert Browning. Lowell was especially attracted to books that outlined an author's work or their relationship with publishers. She owned a document constituting a detailed plan of George Eliot's eventual Middlemarch in which the author listed chapters and the projected actions and characters they would include. Lowell also purchased the copy of Uncle Tom's Cabin that Harriet Beecher Stowe gave to George Eliot, including a letter Stowe wrote to Eliot, one author to another, outlining copyright issues pertaining to her novel's publication.

Since Lowell was a writer herself, it's perhaps the case that possessing works by esteemed colleagues enabled her to place herself in their lineage, to acknowledge a kinship to those who came before and illuminated her life and work. This effort was expressed most clearly in the case of John Keats, a poet Lowell had admired since her teenage years. Lowell identified herself as an Imagist upon reading work by contemporary poet H.D. She became an enthusiastic proponent of this school of poetry and part of her advocacy resulted in an exhaustive, two-volume biography of John Keats whom she claimed as a proto-Imagist. Lowell researched her account of his life by using her own thorough collection of letters and manuscripts (including a rare first edition of Lamia inscribed "to F.B. from J.K."). Her collection of Keatsiana is one of the best groupings ever assembled and has played an important role in Keats scholarship, generally. Morris allowed that there's something profoundly moving about handling a personal document issued from a great mind, such as a tender letter from Keats to Fanny Brawne. Lowell afforded herself this kind of immediacy by gathering items connected to artists she valued and installing them in her home library. Combing the details of how creative people express themselves brings their work closer. It humanizes their exceptionality by revealing that impressive works of art are a series of stages and brought about by everyday events like living in a particular place and being in loving contact with people. If you sit on the ground floor of the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library as I did, its stacks rise up above you for five levels encircling an open shaft of space. The starkly bright atmosphere typical of libraries is forsaken in favour of dimmer lights that protect books. As such, it feels hallowed. The walls lined with shelves house a prodigious output of documents covering centuries of human history. It conveys breadth of time but nearness too. After all, few activities are more intimate than holding a book in your hands, looking closely at its printed pages, and moving your fingers through its leaves.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Andrew Steeves and Gaspereau Press

Last week, Sean and I attended a lecture in Toronto given by the knowledgeable and supremely confident Andrew Steeves (my friend described him thusly, "His can-do attitude is off the charts!"). In 1997, Steeves co-founded the Nova Scotia-based literary publisher Gaspereau Press with partner Gary Dunfield in a shared desire to be self-reliant and make things with their own hands. Their business steadily issues contemporary Canadian writing using a successful mix of old and new technologies. Hardcover titles are bound by hand and covered in cloth. Their trade paperbacks are sewn, often embellished with covers printed by letterpress, and are designed and typeset with great acumen. Overseeing book production in-house began as a way for the press to reduce expenses. But the more valuable aspect of this decision, to my mind, is the care it affords in book manufacture. Producing volumes attentively expresses respect for both authors and readers. The pair's approach acknowledges the book as an object and reacquaints publishing with the history and techniques of the book arts. In his lecture, Steeves pointed to both Penguin under Jan Tschichold and England's Nonesuch Press as influences in this regard.

My admiration for what Steeves and Dunfield accomplish has many branches, including their commitment to operating a small publishing house in a culture that has supposedly turned away from literature and books. Principally, though, I'm fascinated by the fact that Steeves and Dunfield entered into their project without any previous experience in the book trade and that their combined, extensive expertise with regard to design, typography, and printing is entirely self-taught. This is the dream I hold for myself­­­—to build a career configured by writing, editing, bookbinding, printing, and publishing based on a set of skills I acquire myself, to shape a personal, life-long curriculum derived from my own vision. Yet, my confidence falters in the face of turning this ambition into action. It's a glitch that serves as the basis for my outsized interest in people like Steeves, who harness their unique abilities and face challenge and risk without succumbing to fear.

Nearly seven years ago I sent letters to various publishers seeking an apprenticeship opportunity. Gaspereau Press and a fine press based in San Francisco were among the businesses I contacted and were the only two to respond. Andrew Steeves kindly called me and we talked easily for almost an hour (which is notable because I don't like the telephone, much less using it to speak with people I've never met). His advice, to put it briefly, was that I should start out on my own, that I didn't need an external learning opportunity. I share his opinion. Still, I promptly ignored him and moved to California in a doomed, two-tiered bid to achieve my goals by shoehorning myself into someone else's enterprise, and to return to the more reckless self I'd been during my first stint in San Francisco.

Between then and now I moved to my current rural community in Prince Edward County, where I've made some misguided effort to be a kind of practicing bookbinder. This has taken the shape of producing handmade blank books of various sizes and attempting to sell them at craft and art sales ranging in size from the Milford Fair to Toronto's too-large, exhausting One of a Kind sale. However, it became increasingly evident that I began my tiny cottage industry for its psychological implications rather than its sound financial premise. Every conversation I entered into from behind my book display was a protracted, ruminative dialogue with myself.

I make all of my books with care and a fascination with the process. I enjoy it, for sure, and I'm happy when customers want to buy my work. But my trade and products are frequently met with skepticism of a particular and consistent nature. People claim to be afraid of a blank page, or profess to have no ideas. They say the books are too nice to be used, by which they mean of higher quality than their meager ability. I always urge them on, trying to persuade that all ideas are worthy chrysalises deserving of a strong, competent foundation. I say they shouldn't be intimidated, that attempting work you value is the important part. I advise starting without thinking, that books allow for writing or drawing to be private processes. Creativity is the best part of yourself and needs an outlet, I argue. Find out what you think. Be honest. I can't count the number of times I stationed myself behind a table of my empty, recriminating books before I acknowledged that to do so was a repeated, staged effort to talk myself into filling them.

Steeves' lecture was called "The Ecology of the Book" and served to outline both the philosophy behind Gaspereau Press and the role of literature generally. He explained, among other things, that "books exist where there are shared concerns," "books exist in a symbiotic relationship with the world around them," "books are the physical embodiment of thought," and "books are time machines." He invoked environmental thinkers like Wendell Berry and Aldo Leopold to describe how books intersect with precious concepts like community, relationships, and responsibility. For me, Steeves' topics and assessments broadened to reflect political issues where I live. My local government recently threatened to close a handful of the County's libraries because they're supposedly too costly to run. But we urgently need libraries because they foster community in an increasingly fractured, modernity-obsessed world. And I don't mean community in the limited sense of providing a room where people gather to use computers. Reading is valuable because it connects us to a shared, human past. If we acquaint ourselves with the writing of people who came before us, we enable ourselves to flourish. Their experience helps us decide how to live. I once attended a small meeting at my library and the group discussed how services could be improved. I asked how books are culled and was told that if titles haven't been borrowed in a certain time frame, they're eligible to be removed from circulation. I thought this was an inadequate method for assessing a volume's relevance. It's a practice that prioritizes currency and popularity. A book might languish on a shelf for years until it's borrowed and informs someone's life. This is the process by which a book becomes a time machine, as Steeves put it. Digital resources are important, but books must circulate freely.

Book history is remarkable for being a mix of opposites, meaning that while the form of the book has remained static for centuries, content has undergone sizable shifts over the course of human development. We live in a time of excessive homogeneity mostly due to a marketplace with unwavering emphasis on what's sellable to the largest number of people. I'm alive for a moment in time when a renewed diversity of ideas is imperative to illustrate the multiplicity of ways there are to think and be. Intentionally small publishing houses like Gaspereau Press reassure that there are distinct voices. The owners, in consort with their stable of writers, have a cohesive point of view. I'll attempt to be bolstered by deliberate voices like Steeves, or by the quiet, unfashionable Barbara Pym novel I've borrowed that may lose its deserved slot in the library stacks. I crave ideas—reading them and writing them—and they make up the bulk of my self-defined skills set. Stringing words together in an effort to approach insight, and maybe even artistry, is what I have to contribute.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

"I am retribution": Josephine Tey's Brat Farrar



I've recently developed a pronounced interest in horses but I haven't ridden one since I was a kid. I'm approaching my curiosity the way I always do - through books. I asked a friend - an avid reader fascinated by horse racing - to recommend fiction with equine subject matter. She helpfully suggested many titles, but singled out two of her favourites: Jane Smiley's Horse Heaven (2000), and the book I just completed, Josephine Tey's marvelous Brat Farrar (1949).

Josephine Tey was a novelist and playwright whose work enjoyed enormous popularity during the '30s, '40s, and '50s. She was scrupulous about her privacy, so disliked photographs or interviews. Consequently, little is known of her background or writing in terms of her ambition or process. In fact, the name Josephine Tey is a pseudonym, one of two she attached to her published work (the other being Gordon Daviot). These details might explain why Tey doesn't have greater renown despite her gifts for narrative and prose, her comprehensively drawn characters, and her great insight into human behaviour.

The author's real name was Elizabeth Mackintosh and she was born in the very late 19th century in Inverness, Scotland. As a young woman she trained and eventually worked as a Physical Education Instructor in England but returned to Scotland in 1923 to care for her dying mother and, subsequently, her widowed father. At this point she began writing in earnest, though it was an activity she'd enjoyed as a child. Tey, as Daviot, began publishing stories and poems in various newspapers and journals in the late 1920s. Her first novel, called The Man in the Queue, was initiated as a bid for a writing prize. She finished it in only two weeks. It was a mystery story, as are the majority of her eleven novels. Five of them feature the recurring character Richard Grant, an inspector for Scotland Yard. Tey didn't approach mystery as a formulaic genre exercise. Her writing evidences qualities genre practitioners often lack - style and originality. Mysteries engender interest by relying on the reader's need for answers to the story's questions, to sort out the logic at work in the book's own, separate universe. This is the source of Tey's pronounced talent for pacing too. But instead of merely approaching crime as a riddle in which characters are moved like pawns, Tey crafts fully-formed people in complex situations who struggle to define moral rectitude. Their thoughts and actions have relevance beyond the story's parameters. You crave knowledge of the book's outcome because you identify with its cast.

Brat Farrar incorporates three things Tey is known to have valued: concealed identities, horseback riding, and the English countryside. Titular character Brat Farrar was raised in an English foundling home and spent his youth working in stables in the American Southwest. His name is a misspelled version of a made-up designation - Farrell evolved to Farrar, and Bartholomew became Brat. His identity is as pliable as the fates allow. Upon returning to England, he's stopped mid-stride on a London street by Alec Loding, an actor who spent a pastoral childhood alongside the Ashby family. He's astonished by Brat's likeness to the Ashby clan. He deviously suggests that Brat pose as Patrick Ashby who, as a 13-year-old, was thought to have died by suicide. The child's body was never found. Simon, his remaining, younger twin, is poised to take ownership of the family's country estate Latchetts on his upcoming, twenty-first birthday. But if Patrick were to return, the estate would fall to him. Loding teaches Brat the family's history, as well as the layout of both the house and the surrounding villages. In exchange, he requests a regular stipend should Brat succeed. Family and home are attractive conquests for Brat, even if they're won through deception. Once his tutoring is completed, he contacts the Ashbys' lawyer.

Tey introduces us to the Ashbys and other local connections through Brat's attempt to insinuate himself into the family. In addition to Simon, there are three more siblings, Jane, Ruth and Eleanor. All are overseen by their Aunt Bee, who assumed guardianship of the children when their parents died shortly before Patrick's disappearance. Latchetts is a modest estate, as these things go. Maintaining the home in the absence of parents and in the lean years following the first World War is a challenge, but the Ashbys manage to generate income from the quality of their stables. The father was a talented horseman and this knowledge was inherited by his kids. In fact, it's Brat's affinity with horses that goes a long way to making his ruse operable. What we learn of the characters is transmitted through their respective reactions to Brat's arrival. Simon is the most reluctant. Among the book's greatest assets is Tey's use of Brat as a foil for the reader. He's in a foreign situation with a lot at stake, so he obligates himself to be quiet and watchful. He notices details, isolates curious facts, and perceives idiosyncrasies, particularly due to Simon's stubbornness. Many of Brat's observations relate to characters' attitudes towards horses. For example, Tey draws parallels between Simon and his arrogant, destructive racehorse. Brat wonders what kind of man would favour that kind of horse.

Since Brat is the individual perpetuating the deception, it's initially hard to discern where the book's mystery lies. We already know he's a culprit. But Brat Farrar doesn't perform like a typical "whodunit." Tey is more concerned with the complexities of human behaviour, like how unstated feelings come to light and what finally pushes characters to act boldly. Brat and Simon are paralleled for supposedly being twins, and it's through this pairing that Tey raises certain of the book's themes. Both men inhabit circumstances that allow fluidity in their identities. Since Brat is an impostor he can adopt and abandon behaviours at whim. Simon, on the other hand, has such a fixed role that friends and neighbours make assumptions about him. Aberrations in his conduct can therefore go unnoticed. Since Brat and Simon are free to craft their personalities, Tey uses them to consider traits like goodness and malignancy and which attribute will predominate in men unbound by ethics. A shared likeness and an adversarial position also mean that Simon and Brat serve as mirrors, each reflecting the other's actions and values back at him.

The fact that Brat Farrar is an impostor story made me think of Patricia Highsmith in general, and her Tom Ripley books, specifically. Highsmith, like Tey, is attracted to the idea that criminal impulses always issue from complex, interesting people. Her Ripley, a self-serving, duplicitous, shape-shifting character, raises juicy existential questions about what we owe society and whether or not that obligation should inhibit our appetites. Using Brat and Simon, Tey demonstrates that people can act well and poorly simultaneously, that some lies are more spurious than others, and that we can contain mixed, sometimes incompatible drives within us at once, all ideas that abound in Highsmith's work too. In short, good and bad are not mutually exclusive. But the essential topic in each author's fiction is the conundrum of interiority, the way the separating effect of individuality can lead a person away from empathy. In effect, Brat Farrar is an exploration of the concept of decency, if it's innate, enforced, or chosen like a name.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Marty (1955)




Sean had the presence of mind to record Marty (1955) last week, an ultimately moving film I didn't know but now love. It stars Ernest Borgnine and Betsy Blair. The latter had early success in musical theatre, during which time she met and married Gene Kelly. She continued on the stage, working for William Saroyan among others, before transitioning into film in the late 1940s. She almost lost her career-defining role in Marty due to her involvement with Communism and the investigation by HUAC. Husband Kelly threatened to pull out of his film It's Always Fair Weather if she was denied the part. Once Blair and Kelly split, she married Czech-born British film critic and director Karel Reisz. He was embedded in Britain's Free Cinema documentary movement and went on to become a central figure in the British New Wave. His feature debut Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960) typifies social realist filmmaking of the period, a mode associated with British cinema to this day. Marty possesses many of the genre's qualities - including depicting life as lived by average people - but precedes Reisz's seminal picture by five years.

Marty's story takes place over 24 hours and concerns a corpulent, still single, thoroughly decent 34-year-old butcher who lives in the Bronx with his Italian Mother. When it opens, he's preparing cuts of meat for neighbourhood customers who impertinently demand to know when he'll marry since all of his siblings have successfully partnered up and moved out. After work, he goes to the local bar and sits with his best friend Angie (Joe Mantell). They acknowledge that they could spend the evening inside drinking beers and watching Hit Parade or take another stab at meeting women. At home, his mother pesters him to go dancing until the otherwise patient, loving Marty, inflamed by frustration, yells that it's pointless and dispiriting to continue to try, that he's a fat, ugly man, and that he'll probably never marry. She successfully goads him, however, and he and Angie head out to the Stardust Ballroom. Blair's character Clara arrives with a friend who has paired her with a crass blind date. He's turned off by her plainness and coincidentally promises Marty five dollars if he'll pretend to like her and take her home. He refuses the money but his sympathy is ignited. He witnesses Clara crying, holds her in an embrace, and assures her she's not a "dog," terminology used liberally by his rough friends whose collective, juvenile vision of women is culled from Mickey Spillane and girly magazines rather than actual contact. Marty evinces a distinct lack of belief in romance, especially amongst the younger crowd whose dating approach is shallow, cold and strategic. Despite their acceptance that marriage is the inevitable endpoint, they presume it to mean a loss of selfhood and an end to fun. But in the midst of this, Marty and Clara hit it off and broach intimacy in spite of their friends. They spend the rest of the evening together dancing, talking animatedly, and walking around the city streets. Each noticeably teeters between excitement at finding long-sought companionship and apprehension that the other might not feel similarly.

Marty was directed by Delbert Mann and written by Paddy Chayefsky. In its previous life it was a television drama created in 1953 by the same authors but with a different cast. Both Mann and Chayefsky had a background in stage work with Mann graduating from Yale's drama school. During a stint in Nashville community theatre, he met Fred Coe who would go on to work for Philco-Goodyear Television Playhouse. His department employed such notable filmmakers as Arthur Penn and Sidney Lumet, and the television version of Marty was produced under its auspices. Techniques used on the stage translated well to television at the time since everything was live and the cameras were massive and couldn't be moved. For example, the television edition's ballroom scene comprised a static shot and everyone was choreographed to move past the lens or look towards it at precise moments. Mann later said that both renditions of Marty were inspired by the ballroom at the Abbey Hotel in New York City, where single people gathered to find dates. Chayefsky felt it was a suitable setting in which to explore the complexities of romance, a subject usually treated too simplistically. "There is far more exciting drama in the reasons why a man gets married than in why he murders someone." A burgeoning love affair between two ordinary people could supply the topic with sufficient fuel.

Unraveling the intricacies of romance and marriage is not limited to the central pair. In fact, Marty emerges as a kind of ethnographic document, a portrait of a particular moment in time, due to its representation of women and the ways marriage, motherhood, and old age affect them. The film evidences a culture in transition. Surrounding Marty and Clara are the aforementioned confused, rough friends, Marty's mother Mrs. Piletti (Esther Minciotti), his Aunt Catherine (Augusta Ciolli), her son Tommy (Jerry Paris), and Tommy's wife Virginia (Karen Steele). Tommy and Virginia come to Mrs. Piletti in distress because widowed Catherine, who lives with them, constantly criticizes Virginia's parenting and housekeeping skills. Virginia argues that she requires privacy and the right to raise her children according to her own standards. Mrs. Piletti, also widowed, convinces Catherine to move in with her and Marty. During Catherine's first evening at the Piletti house, the two women discuss how narrow a woman's life becomes when her husband dies and her children have grown. Without someone to provide for, her days are marked by a lack of purpose. It's a remarkable scene for its frankness and prioritization of older women's points of view. They're probably only in their fifties, but presumed redundancy has made them prematurely old. The passage is also lovely for granting Catherine dimension. It's easy to find sympathy for Virginia since she deserves to run her own household and, in their scenes, Catherine behaves like a harping, reproving mother-in-law. But by allowing us to see that her hostility is born of disappointment and a fear of change, Mann and Chayefsky show Catherine considerable compassion.

With the conflict and regret in Marty's family, it's possible his avoidance of marriage is due as much to apprehension as lack of opportunity. Reasons for marrying are shown to be primarily social, but the charm of Marty lies with the suggestion, through the central couple's example, that relationships can involve mutual admiration and a commitment to the other's betterment. Betsy Blair's Clara is on the fence between being independent - she teaches High School Chemistry - and just another unwed, sheltered daughter still living with her parents. She's offered an opportunity to teach at a new, suburban school which would require her to move from home. Marty tells her she's capable and deserves the heightened responsibility. Similarly, Marty's employer invites him to buy the butcher shop because he wants to retire. Clara assures him butchery is a noble profession and he's smart enough to run his own business. At the end of their night, Marty brings Clara to his house where they encounter his Mother. She bemoans Virginia's selfishness and aligns with Catherine. Though she urges Marty to marry, Mrs. Piletti has absorbed her sister's concern for redundancy. Composed, Clara argues that Catherine ought to accept her stage of life by developing new interests. She treats Mrs. Piletti respectfully, but not by forsaking her confidence or her opinion.

Beyond delineating Marty's particular circumstance, the film portrays the lifestyle and social mores of an entire neighbourhood. (All exterior shots are actual Bronx locations, which lends the movie another degree of veracity.) This simultaneity of the specific and the general is complimented by other instances of doubling, like the shared presences of the mundane and the beautiful, and the simple and the complex. Marty and Clara's refusal to accept commonly held beliefs about who to choose as a partner and the gender roles they ought to play are bolstering, not least because they prove that limiting conventions have the potential to budge. The beginning of their romance looks easy. But at the film's end, Marty is found at the bar still persuaded by the values of his peers and his parent. He fails to call Clara right away as he'd promised. His hesitation reveals the difficulty of altering accepted tradition. It can take generations to evolve toward new modes of conduct. Still, after admonishing his critical friends, Marty enters the phone booth and picks up the receiver. The film doesn't convey the result of his actions. It's satisfied to end with the thrill of an independent, self-gratifying act that has repercussions far beyond Marty's purview.

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