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.