28 February 2012

Nicholas Philibert's Être et avoir (2002)

Nicholas Philibert believes in making cinema out of everyday things, the apparently banal, and he sees the classroom as an ideal way to illustrate this. He states that he hasn't made this movie about, but with: it's a meeting place between the audience and the people on screen, not a slice of life but a construction, a story. And he feels that he's turning his back on conventional documentary film by not being didactic: we are not seeing something made by an expert, but by someone who has no answers to give.

Être et avoir (translated as To Be and to Have) was shot over ten weeks from December 2000 through June 2001 in a rural school in Saint-Étienne-sur-Usson, in Puy-de-Dôme, the Auvergne, France. There is just one class of thirteen kids up to eleven years of age, with the teacher Georges Lopez, who is reaching retirement after 35 years teaching, the last 20 of which have been at this school. He uses rather traditional teaching methods but has the respect of his pupils and of the general community outside the classroom.

For Philibert – and for the audience too – there are many dramatic elements in the movie, which shows us a whole range of emotions: anger, love, anguish, joy, boredom, sadness, etc. The director says the real subject is how difficult it is to for a child to learn, how difficult it is to develop a personality.

Fascinating.

27 February 2012

Debra Granik's Down to the Bone (2004)

Although she admits that she's simplifying, Debra Granik sees the traditional movie story as often having the shape of the letter V – the main character hits rock bottom and then climbs back up. But as she understands it, drug addiction has the shape of an ECG: it's full of ups and downs. That's not easy to depict well in a feature film, and it's doesn't make for a movie that's easily distributable.

Up to present, the theme of drug addiction based around the life of a woman with young children to look after seems to be Debra Granik's speciality. I wrote about her Winter's Bone here.

Down to the Bone is an amplification of Granik's 23-minute Snake Feed (1997), which had Corinne Stralke (who only plays a bit part and has a few behind-the-scenes roles in the feature) as Irene, an addict bringing up two kids and struggling to stay clean.

Down to the Bone stars Vera Farmiga as the (initially) married Irene, who also has two kids, and lives in upstate New York – where this was filmed – in the Catskill Mountains in Ulster County. It opens at the end of a snowy October in a dismal mall in a rundown area and moves to a supermarket checkout where the assitant Irene asks an unseen customer if she has an advantage card, and on her replying that she doesn't says 'I don't either'.

This sets the tone for the movie, which sees Irene through rehab and a relationship with supposed ex-addict nurse Bob (Hugh Dillon), but it's hard to stay clean when almost everyone around you is using. The use of the Thanksgiving turkey wishbone as talisman is a little corny, although the lingering images of the pet snake are powerful hints of sex and danger: often almost synonymous here.

This movie has a documenary feel to it, a little like some of Ken Loach's work although without the political agenda.

25 February 2012

D. H. Lawrence in Eastwood, Nottinghamshire

The D. H. Lawrence Birthplace Museum in Eastwood, Nottinghamshire.

' BIRTHPLACE OF
D. H. LAWRENCE
BORN SEPT. 11TH. 1885
DIED MARCH 2ND. 1930'

This is at 8a Victoria Street, Eastwood, Nottinghamshire, opposite The White Peacock café, of course named after Lawrence's first novel, published in 1911.

The pantry or larder is the first room on the visit.

The parlour, or front room, would be used infrequently, but especially for guests and special occasions.

On the wall is a photo of Lawrence's mother Lydia.

Lydia used to add a little to the family's income by selling from the window lace products she made.

Two views of the kitchen.

At the rear, an exterior view of the washroom.

The washroom itself.

The front bedroom on the floor above.

The back bedroom.

The attic room.

A note on this exhibit states that the Victorian mahogany pedestal desk was used by D. H. Lawrence during his short employment as a clerk at J. H. Haywood, surgical appliance manufacturer on Castle Gate, Nottingham, in about 1901.
 
An advert for J. H. Haywood's products from The Chemists' and Druggists' Diary, 1904.

Exhibited in the Lawrence Birthplace Museum are several paintings by the writer, of which I give two examples made while he was teaching at the Davidson Road School in Croydon in 1912, staying with the Jones family: 'Landscape with Haymaking', and...

'Landscape with windmill'.

This trunk was used by Lawrence and Frieda on their numerous travels. 'D. H. L.' is inscribed on the side. Lawrence's sister Ada Clarke gave it to a local scout group in 1948, and they passed it on to the museum. The museum describes it as 'visual evidence of Lawrence's "absolute necessity to move"'.

The tombstone or headstone, a representation of Lawrence's phoenix, from his grave in Vence, France.


The head of the phoenix in more detail.


'Whoever reads me will be in the thick of the scrimmage, and if he doesn't like it – if he wants a safe seat in hte audience – let him read somebody else.' This quotation appealed to me.


Beyond the museum, the former Beauvale Board School on the corner of Mill Road and Dovecote Road.

'D. H. Lawrence was a pupil here 1893-1898'.

The Lawrence family grave is clearly marked in the cemetery off Church Street, Eastwood.

Lawrence's mother Lydia, father Arthur, and brother William are buried there.

'HERE RESTS
"UNTIL HE COME"
OUR DEAREST SON
WILLIAM ERNEST LAWRENCE
BORN JULY 22ND. 1878,
DIED OCTOBER 11TH. 1901.
HE ASKED LIFE OF THEE AND THOU GAVE IT HIM
EVEN LENGTH OF DAYS, FOR EVER AND EVER.'

'ALSO LYDIA, WIFE OF

ARTHUR LAWRENCE
BORN JULY 19TH. 1852,
DIED DEC. 9TH. 1910.
"IT IS FINISHED."
ALSO ARTHUR,
HUSBAND OF THE ABOVE
WHO DIED SEP 10TH. 1924,
AGED 77 YEARS.
REST AFTER WEARINESS.'

And although Lawrence of course isn't buried here:

'ALSO DAVID HERBERT LAWRENCE,
BELOVED SON OF THE ABOVE,
NOVELIST, POET & PAINTER,
BORN SEP. 11TH. 1885,
DIED AT VENCE, MAR. 2ND. 1930.
UNCONQUERED.'

ADDENDUM: I've now made a long post on the D. H. Lawrence Heritage Trail here.

23 February 2012

'George Thomas and Ethel May in Saskatoon', by Robert Hughes

George Thomas went to Canada in 1920 in the hope of a better life.

He had been a vacuum-cleaner salesman in Walsall in the West Midlands of England according to the 1911 UK census, and there are letters from the time when he was serving in the Army in India, (dated in the late 1890s).

He married Ethel May Morris in 1906, and their only known child was George Albert, born in 1915 in Coventry. Elsewhere on this blog is an account of George Albert's tragic participation in the Spanish Civil War: he was 'missing in action' on the memorial of the Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion, which in the context of that war means he was killed.

Above is the obituary notice for Ethel May Thomas, inserted in the Star Phoenix newspaper of Saskatoon by relatives or friends, which tells us that she died on February 16th 1971.

She had been a matron at the YMCA for 37 years until her retirement in 1958, which means she took the post very soon after arriving in Canada. They had first gone to Wolseley, Saskatchewan, to join George's brother Frank, and it could even have been Ethel May's appointment which took them into the big town of Saskatoon.

Ethel May Morris was born at Holt, Wiltshire. Her father was born at Farleigh Hungerford, and at her birth he was a gardener on a large estate in the area. Ethel May started her working life as a housemaid, (1901 census), and later went to work in the Midlands where she met and married Samuel Thomas, who was by that time universally known as George, (but not on his marriage certificate of course). Samuel bore the name of his father (Samuel Thomas 1835-1912), and grandfather (Samuel Thomas 1807-1878); so it is easy to imagine why, for the sake of simplicity, he was accorded a different forename! 'George' was so fashionable then anyway: students of the Thomas family tree will see that Lilas Thomas (c.1868-1949) married a William Warwick, but he also preferred to be called George!

George Thomas predeceased Ethel May and died on 18th February 1946, when he would have been 73: a respectable age but not approaching that of his siblings Irza, who died at 92; Francis (Frank), who is said to have died at over 90 although this is as yet unconfirmed; Rosa (later known as Rose) who made it to 93 albeit having had 57 years in mental hospitals; Florence who died at 92; and Newton who died just nine days short of his 92nd birthday.

Many another woman would have crumpled under the weight of the loss of her husband and her only son, but Ethel May continued to work as Matron of the YMCA for twelve more years, and even after retirement she was active in fund-raising, bowling, and as a member of St John's Cathedral in the city.

She and George are buried in grave 99-L108-N1/2 in Saskatoon's Woodlawn Cemetery.

Anne Tyler: Noah's Compass (2009)

A little like Barnaby Gaitlin in A Patchwork Planet, Liam Pennywell in Noah's Compass is a loser. He's divorced of course, and his first wife killed herself not long after giving birth. And his grade-school just made him redundant. And he's downsized his appartment, thinking perhaps he can afford to retire at the age of sixty. And then he wakes up in hospital to another loss: his memory after being hit on the head by a burglar during the night.

After recovering, he feels his life is shriveling up 'like one of those mouse carcasses you find beneath a radiator'. And when suddenly the chance of transforming his life comes, with the 38-year-old Eunice who loves him and whom he loves, but he loses out again because she's lied and has a husband, and because his conscience won't allow him to accept it if she leaves him for him.

In a sense he makes himself the loser, one of Tyler's self-destructive characters, and the narrator italicizes the aftermath feelings: 'I am not especially unhappy, but I don't see any particular reason to go on living'.

Nevertheless, he continues.The links below are to Anne Tyler novels I've written posts on:

–––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––
Anne Tyler: If Morning Ever Comes (1964)
Anne Tyler: The Tin Can Tree (1965)
Anne Tyler: The Clock Winder (1972)
Anne Tyler: Celestial Navigation (1974)
Anne Tyler: Earthly Possessions (1977)
Anne Tyler: Morgan's Passing (1980)
Anne Tyler: Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant (1982)
Anne Tyler: The Accidental Tourist (1985)
Anne Tyler: Breathing Lessons (1988)
Anne Tyler: Ladder of Years (1995)
Anne Tyler: A Patchwork Planet (1998)
Anne Tyler: Back When We Were Grownups (2001)
Anne Tyler: The Amateur Marriage (2004)
Anne Tyler: Digging to America (2006)
Anne Tyler: The Beginner's Goodbye (2012)
Anne Tyler: A Spool of Blue Thread (2015)

21 February 2012

Anne Tyler: Back When We Were Grownups (2001)


Rebecca Davitch is having a picnic with her family on North Fork River, Maryland, celebrating the engagement of her youngest stepdaughter NoNo. The narrator says 'The Davitches' cars circled the meadow like covered wagons braced for attack'. But as this is Anne Tyler, most readers only vaguely acquainted with her work will be aware that any attacks are more likely to come from internal snipers than Red Indians. And sure enough there is some criticism of NoNo's fiancé Barry. And there's criticism of Barry's extremely shy son Peter, whose mother left them to join a group of Buddhists, rather similar to the way in which Joe's wife Tina had deserted him and their three daughters (of whom NoNo is one) with a view to being a singer in New York.

This is essentially Rebecca's story. She's a social organizer (continuing the job of her husband Joe, who died in a car crash as he's another of Tyer's bad drivers, and whose father killed himself), she prepares functions and makes sure everyone at least is giving the appearance of being happy. But is she that kind of person? As a young girl, a little like Peter, she 'tended to stay on the fringe of things, observings things from a distance, and she noticed that what she observed was often outside the normal frame of vision'.

It's not outside the normal frame of vision of Anne Tyler's characters to impulsively walk out of things, and that's just what the young Rebecca did, she walked out of the arms of the virginal Will, out of college without graduating, and into the arms of the less-than-virginal and much older Joe.

The older Rebecca starts to imagine what kind of life she'd have had if she'd stuck with the academic Will, who is now a university professor. She begins to see this lost life as her 'true real life' and the one she's been living as her 'fake real life'. The I that she now is sees her past I as a she, and Rebecca wonders if she can change that she back to I, and vice versa. But does she really want to do that, even if it's possible?

Many things, big and small, keep recurring in Anne Tyler's work: the inability of people to communciate with each other, alienation, the self-destruction of the family, the self-destruction of the individual, the importance of memory, celebration, the corrosion of time, the minutiae of everyday life seen through social, psychological and linguistic tics, impulsiveness/prudence, acceptance/refusal, the tyranny of the telephone, food as metaphor, the absurd, chance, the 'trying on' of different lives, the playoff between dream and reality, Ann Landers, etc. There's happiness too, but not an abundance of it. There are never any pat conclusions, and all her work is shot through with the difficulty of the business of living. When her grandchild Abdul is born, Rebecca imagines his thoughts, which might well be a mirror of her own, or our own:

'Who are you? What kind of people have I ended up with, here? How am I going to like living on this planet?'


The links below are to Anne Tyler novels I've written posts on:

–––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––
Anne Tyler: If Morning Ever Comes (1964)
Anne Tyler: The Tin Can Tree (1965)
Anne Tyler: The Clock Winder (1972)
Anne Tyler: Celestial Navigation (1974)
Anne Tyler: Earthly Possessions (1977)
Anne Tyler: Morgan's Passing (1980)
Anne Tyler: Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant (1982)
Anne Tyler: The Accidental Tourist (1985)
Anne Tyler: Breathing Lessons (1988)
Anne Tyler: Ladder of Years (1995)
Anne Tyler: A Patchwork Planet (1998)
Anne Tyler: The Amateur Marriage (2004)
Anne Tyler: Digging to America (2006)
Anne Tyler: Noah's Compass (2009)
Anne Tyler: The Beginner's Goodbye (2012)
Anne Tyler: A Spool of Blue Thread (2015)

19 February 2012

D. H. Lawrence and the University of Nottingham, England

D. H. Lawrence (1885–1930) was born in Eastwood, Nottinghamshire, and attended Nottingham University College in the town between 1906 and 1908. The College moved to the present University Park near Beeston in 1928, and became the University of Nottingham in 1948.

This life-sized bronze statue of Lawrence was sculpted by Diana Thomson and unveiled in 1994.

It stands between the Law and Social Science Building and the Hallward Library, and was sculpted by Diana Thomson. Thomson's website also includes a photo of her Lawrence sculpture Song of a Man Who Has Come Through, recalling another collection of his poems.

Thomson also made the Lawrence bust on the colonnade at Nottingham Castle.

Lawrence holds a blue gentian, which remembers his poem:

Bavarian Gentians

Bavarian gentians, big and dark, only dark
darkening the daytime torchlike with the smoking blueness of Pluto's gloom,
ribbed and torchlike, with their blaze of darkness spread blue
down flattening into points, flattened under the sweep of white day
torch-flower of the blue-smoking darkness, Pluto's dark-blue daze,
white lamps from the halls of Dis, burning dark blue,
giving off darkness, blue darkness, as Demeter's pale lamps give off light,
lead me then, lead me the way. Reach me a gentian, give me a torch
let me guide myself with the blue, forked torch of this flower
down the darker and darker stairs, where blue is darkened on blueness.
even where Persephone goes, just now, from the frosted September
to the sightless realm where darkness was awake upon the dark
and Persephone herself is but a voice
or a darkness invisible enfolded in the deeper dark
of the arms Plutonic, and pierced with the passion of dense gloom,
among the splendor of torches of darkness, shedding darkness on the
lost bride and groom.

‘Nottingham’s New University’ was one of a number of poems included in Lawrence's collection Pansies, and although far from being one of his best, it is nonetheless very interesting, if far from flattering either to the university or Nottingham itself.

In Nottingham, that dismal town
where I went to school and college,
they've built a new university
for a new dispensation of knowledge.

Built it most grand and cakeily
out of the noble loot
derived from shrewd cash-chemistry
by good Sir Jesse Boot.

Little I thought, when I was a lad
and turned my modest penny
over on Boot's Cash Chemist's counter,
that Jesse, by turning many

millions of similar honest pence
over, would make a pile
that would rise at last and blossom out
in grand and cakey style

into a university
where smart men would dispense
doses of smart cash-chemistry
in language of common-sense!

That future Nottingham lads would be
cash-chemically B.Sc.
that Nottingham lights would rise and say:
– By Boots I am M.A.

From this I learn, though I knew it before
that culture has her roots
in the deep dung of cash, and lore
is a last off-shoot of Boots.

17 February 2012

Anne Tyler: A Patchwork Planet (1998)


'I just can't stand to be one of those artificial fathers [...] with those busywork visits to zoos and smalltalk suppers at McDonald's', says Jesse in Breathing Lessons, but that's what Barnaby Gaitlin is (only it's a walk in the park and burger and fries at Little Pete's) in A Patchwork Planet, and the novel begins with him waiting at Baltimore railroad station for the 10:10 to Thirtieth Street Station, Philadelphia to spend the day with Opal, his daughter by his ex-wife Natalie. Barnaby believes he gives Opal 'a sense of whatchamacallit. Connection', and one of Anne Tyler's principal concerns is connection, or the lack of it.

On one occasion, after Barnaby's mother slams the phone down on him because he says she looks better without her hair dyed, he says: 'Just because we were related didn't mean we were any good at understanding each other.'

Even the most basic form of communication can fail here. Grace Glynn, a client of Barnaby's, mishears his name as 'Bartleby', which is a nice touch: the black sheep of the family, the social code-breaker seen as Melville's anarchist.

Sometimes a kind of claustrophobia can result from social difficulties.
 On the journey home from Thanksgiving dinner with Barnaby's relatives, Sophia can't understand why he (a poorly paid helper) didn't accept his mother's offer of taking back the large loan he's repaid, and he can't understand why she won't pick up the money Sophia's left at her aunt's in the mistaken belief that Barnaby stole it from her. He says: 'I grew extremely conscious of how closed in we were.'

The novel also begins and ends with Barnaby's sentence 'I am a man you can trust', the second sentence being written in a note he's written in an envelope with Sophia's money, which he imagines her opening in Philadelphia station. The sentence is preceded by 'Sophia, you never did realize'. 'Realize', of course, is very similar to 'understand', but I'm not at all convinced that Barnaby understands, as he still seems reluctant to relinquish the self-destruct button.
The links below are to Anne Tyler novels I've written posts on:

–––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––
Anne Tyler: If Morning Ever Comes (1964)
Anne Tyler: The Tin Can Tree (1965)
Anne Tyler: The Clock Winder (1972)
Anne Tyler: Celestial Navigation (1974)
Anne Tyler: Earthly Possessions (1977)
Anne Tyler: Morgan's Passing (1980)
Anne Tyler: Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant (1982)
Anne Tyler: The Accidental Tourist (1985)
Anne Tyler: Breathing Lessons (1988)
Anne Tyler: Ladder of Years (1995)
Anne Tyler: Back When We Were Grownups (2001)
Anne Tyler: The Amateur Marriage (2004)
Anne Tyler: Digging to America (2006)
Anne Tyler: Noah's Compass (2009)
Anne Tyler: The Beginner's Goodbye (2012)
Anne Tyler: A Spool of Blue Thread (2015)

16 February 2012

"Sam the Boulevardier!" by Robert Hughes

Seen from the rampart of the Arc de Triomphe, Boulogne-Billancourt appears a seamless appendage of Paris, seeping into its loop of the Seine as a well-digested meal into a medical student's night out.

On ground level, this proud township is far from eaten: since at least before the time of my great-great-grandfather Samuel Thomas, it has retained its own identity...

Today, a trip on Metro 'Ligne 9' will take you to Marcel Sembat, where a sign conveniently points you to 'Centre Ville': not however the centre of 'Gay Paree', but the admin area of the municipality, just about 300 metres up the road.

Sam Thomas (Junior) was either a 'remittance man', a 'rep', or both; but definitely the grandfather of Lionel Britton the famous, if eccentric, writer of 'Hunger and Love'.

Sam may have been a bit of a reprobate, or rather a saintly figure in contrast to his old Gradgrind of a factory-owning father; but these five new records from his time in Billancourt can hardly help but contribute to our understanding of his (and our!) family.

Samuel, and for that matter Marie, are described as 'Rentiers'. This term quite clearly defines someone living on a private income, and is surprising given our previous assumption that Samuel was in Paris actively promoting his father's business. In such a case, the appropriate term would surely have been something like 'commercant', 'negociant', etc. Eugene Bédé, who was in Redditch at the time of the 1871 census in Samuel Thomas' household, (and we may reasonably assume a fellow fugitive of the Franco-Prussian War with Samuel and family), was one of the witnesses at the registration of the birth of Henri Thomas in 1869, and for him the term 'negociant' was not apparently too shameful.

We had not previously found a marriage record for Sam and Marie, but it is stated on the birth record of Frank that his parents were married in 1870, in Jersey. So at least three of the children, (including Irza my great-grandmother), were born out of wedlock!

There seems to be a Jersey motif running through the family: Ernest Augustus was on that island for a long time, and Irza made a brief (and presumed disastrous) second marriage to Frank LeBreton, almost certainly himself from Jersey.

From the point of view of Samuel Thomas Senior, could it not have seemed that his eldest son was cheerfully fathering kids with his exotic Belgian fancy-woman, and sending him the bill? There is speculation that Sam Senior was an atheist at heart, and Frederick Charles Guillaume's scrawled tree mentions Jewish origins; whilst there must also have been Welsh forebears. Is it not likely that any mention of a convent, let alone some royal connection, would have been anathema to the old monster, as it seems he could have been an archetypal Victorian Radical?

For family legend has it that Marie-Antoinette married Samuel Thomas against the bitter hostility of her family, who considered him to be 'in trade' and therefore unworthy of her social status. They were said to be have been an aristocratic Flemish family and some kind of cousins of the King of the Belgians. She is said to have leapt over the wall of a convent and married him anyway.

Records obtained at the Hôtel de Ville of Boulogne-Billancourt, (with the kind assistance of a very helpful lady who operated the microfiche and interpreted the tiny script!):

Birth of Henri, (as Jean Henri): 25 Nov 1869, at Rue Napoleon No. 8.

Death of Rose, (born 1871 at Redditch, and not to be confused with Rosa born 1877): 17 Jul 1872, at Rue Nationale No. 17.

Birth of Samuel, (later known as George), 1 Jan 1873, at Rue d'Issy No. 1.

Birth of Ernest Augustus, 11 Oct 1874, at Rue Nationale 17.

Birth of Francis, 3 Jun 1876, at Rue Nationale 10.

Above is an extract from Frank's birth record, showing how Sam and Marie married in Jersey in 1870. Why have three children out of wedlock (with another on the way by the end of 1870), if it could only annoy old Sam Senior, who would possibly have left his eldest son Samuel a fortune if he had so wished? There is only one sensible answer: one or both of Samuel and Marie were already married and had no capacity to make an honest woman/man of each other! At the moment, we don't know (and I have tried to find out through Ancestry.co.uk and Familysearch.org) who was married; but it is a bit like astronomy.

My great-great-uncle Ernest Augustus Thomas (see above) had a book published about Cosmology, set in some schools as a textbook, (according to at least one source). There can be little doubt that Lionel Britton the wacky old writer about the 'Space/Time Continuum' drew heavily on his uncle's inspiration.

The scientists of the Enlightenment worked out the position of the planets, although I wouldn't know where to start! (Oh, and the Aztecs etc. managed it too). By calculation, someone figured out how to find the Planet Pluto, even though no-one had ever seen it even through a telescope.

OK, I don't know how they worked out that Pluto existed at all, let alone where it was; but what I can say is that it is very, very, likely that either Marie Goffin or Samuel Thomas were married before they repaired to Jersey and married each other!

Seen in this light, the story of the snobbish rejection of Samuel by Marie's family may still have been true but not the whole truth or even the principal reason: suppose she was already married and was packed off to a convent to avoid scandal? This is speculation of course, as would be the probable reasons for Samuel Thomas Jr to be in Paris as a kind of exile. If he were a remittance man rather than a hard-working rep. for his father's business, then why was he?

We might keep in mind a record from Ancestry.co.uk's Criminal Records collection (1791-1892). There is a long list of Samuel Thomases, but only one in Worcestershire in the whole period. On 26 July 1865 at Worcester Midsummer Sessions a Samuel Thomas was fined £5 for Assault. Now, this sum was so huge for the time that it would normally be applied to persons of substantial means. Could it be that this related in some way to another family legend about how Samuel Thomas meted out a beating to a young relative who had caused the death of a horse, leading to the lad going into the attic, taking a shotgun and killing himself? This record might have had nothing to do with the legend, which might have been apocryphal anyway; but suppose Samuel Jr. had witnessed an overuse of force by his father, or had himself gone over the top with someone, would not either case be a possible reason for him to go abroad with some assistance from his Dad?

15 February 2012

Anne Tyler: Breathing Lessons (1988)

Ira and Maggie Moran are driving from Baltimore, Maryland, to Deer Lick, Pennsylvania, to the funeral of Max, the husband of Serena, Maggie's longtime friend, but on the way Maggie orders Ira to stop the car as she's getting out. Leaving Ira for good, she is, she'll go back to the truck stop, ask the waitress if there are any rooms nearby and she'll find a new job, but, needless to say, Ira comes back so they can continue the journey to Deer Lick.

We're in the realm of the absurd, although Anne Tyler has a way of making the absurd, or the dysfunctional, seem normal. Serena throws Maggie and Ira out because she caught them in her bedroom, and then on the journey back Maggie (a bad driver) makes a deliberately incorrect sign to a bad driver that his wheel is falling off, but she's penitent when she sees he's old and black, so persuades Ira to go back and tell the man that there's in reality nothing wrong with his car, but he believes her signal and thinks there is, and even convinces Maggie that there is. Consequently, Ira takes the driver (Daniel Otis) to the garage to see his nephew Lamont, but they have to wait because he's out.

And during the wait Maggie learns that Daniel has – like so many of Tyler's characters – walked out of his home, but this time walked out because his wife Duluth is angry with him for something he did in her dream.

During the wait we also learn that Ira's father Sam had interfered with his son's dreams, and this begins one of Tyler's digressions, this time in which the narrator fills in a little backstory about Ira. Ira is from a family in which his (unnamed) mother is a religious obsessive and is never hungry so never bothers with food, meaning that eating has to be organized by his father as his two much older sisters also have considerable communication problems: Dorrie is mentally handicapped and Junie can never leave the house to buy anything (strong shades of Jeremy Pauling in Celestial Navigation). But then the father 'implod[es]', as Ira puts it, he just gives up his business and most things else, so Ira has to ditch his dreams of medical school to take over the family business and become a full-time parent figure. Like the daughter Lindy Anton in The Amateur Marriage, Ira despairs: 'Ah, God, I have been trapped with these people all my life and I am never going to be free'.

People have difficulty communicating in Anne Tyler's world, and third parties may feel they have to intervene, or be persuaded into intervening, in an attempt to avoid disaster or to mend the broken. Little things, seemingly insignificant, can be all-important, can make or break. But then, hell can be other people, in which case no amount of outside help works.

(Careful to use the double inverted commas, I Googled "Anne Tyler" with "dysfunctional families" and came up with 2860 hits. It figures.)


The links below are to Anne Tyler novels I've written posts on:

–––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––
Anne Tyler: If Morning Ever Comes (1964)
Anne Tyler: The Tin Can Tree (1965)
Anne Tyler: The Clock Winder (1972)
Anne Tyler: Celestial Navigation (1974)
Anne Tyler: Earthly Possessions (1977)
Anne Tyler: Morgan's Passing (1980)
Anne Tyler: Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant (1982)
Anne Tyler: The Accidental Tourist (1985)
Anne Tyler: Ladder of Years (1995)
Anne Tyler: A Patchwork Planet (1998)
Anne Tyler: Back When We Were Grownups (2001)
Anne Tyler: The Amateur Marriage (2004)
Anne Tyler: Digging to America (2006)
Anne Tyler: Noah's Compass (2009)
Anne Tyler: The Beginner's Goodbye (2012)
Anne Tyler: A Spool of Blue Thread (2015)

14 February 2012

Paul and Sandra Fierlinger's My Dog Tulip (2009)

At the beginning of the animated movie My Dog Tulip by Paul and Sandra Fierlinger, based on the 1956 novel of the same name by J. R. Ackerley (1896–1967), there is a quotation from the author: 'Unable to love each other, the English turn naturally to dogs.' The homosexual Ackerley sought what he termed the 'Ideal Friend', but never found one until later in his life when he adopted the Alsation dog Queenie, who formerly belonged to his lover Freddie Doyle, who was serving a prison sentence. The dog replaced Doyle in Ackerley's affection and remained his constant and demanding companion for fifteen years.

An extra on the DVD is a 25-minute documentary 'Making Tulip' by Marjorie Smith, in which Paul Fierflinger makes a number of comments about the movie and its background. He states that Ackerley wrote My Dog Tulip shortly after World War II, and calls it 'a strong condemnation of post-war British society and British middle-class life'. He identifies with the Ackerley quotation in the previous paragraph, as Fierlinger had a loveless childhood in foster homes and boarding school but grew to love animals, especially dogs.

Much of the book, and the movie too, is concerned with urination and defecation, and Fierlinger praises Ackerley's 'beautiful erudite prose' which frequently describes 'dog shit without ever actually using the word'. Copulation is also a major concern, as Ackerley wants to find a suitable dog for her to mate with, although in the end a rough mongrel does the job: is this a comment on Ackerley's sexual partners?

Peter Parker is an authority on Ackerley and assisted the Fierlingers with the authenticity of the dialogue. He notes that Queenie died in 1961, and that the author never completely recovered from it. My Dog Tulip is above all a delightful and touching story of an outsider at last finding love in the ostensibly most simple (but of course actually very complicated) relationship between a man and his dog.

12 February 2012

Anne Tyler: Celestial Navigation (1974)


I read Anne Tyler's The Amateur Marriage (2004) sometime last week and was quite logically expecting to find a few similar themes in her much earlier novel Celestial Navigation; yes, certainly there are some there. In The Amateur Marriage Pauline Anton (incidentally a bad driver like Maggie Moran in Breathing Lessons (1988)) meets a rather bizarre death by driving the wrong way up an exit ramp, whereas in Celestial Navigation Laura's husband (a hemophiliac) has a similarly unusual death from a scratch after opening a can of Campbell's soup; running away from home (and here there are analogies with several Reynolds Price novels) is a feature in both books, major events being Lindy's escape in The Amateur Marriage and Mary Tell's walking out on Jeremy Pauling in Celestial Navigation, in which we also learn that Jeremy's father had, many years before, left the family home to 'take a breath of air' and never returned; and then there is the lack of communication, which is a major theme in the Tyler world.

I've already noted Michael's introversion in The Amateur Marriage, but Jeremy's is extreme. He lives such an intense interior existence that he often has only a passing acquaintance with the outside world. The novel – which has five different first-person narrators who describe Jeremy from the outside, plus one third-person narrator who describes him from the inside – begins (in Baltimore, as usual) with the death of his mother in her boarding house when he's 38 and has never lived anywhere else: in fact his mobility is now circumscribed by the block his house is on, he becomes overwhelmed if he moves outside it, and collapses onto the pavement.

In Separate Country: A Literary Journey Through the American South (London: Paddington Press, 1979), Paul Binding writes about his late 1970s interview with Anne Tyler, who was for many years married to the Iranian psychiatrist and novelist Taghi Modarressi until his death in 1997, and says that she feels some empathy with Jeremy, for whom everyday acts of communication with the outside world – such as answering the door or the telephone, purchasing from shops, even opening the mail or leaving the house – are frightening activities. His perception of the world is not dissimilar, say, to someone under the influence of LSD, and life is seen in a series of flashes that resemble a photograph, between which there are darknesses during which he thinks about the flashes, and then forgets what he's been thinking about. When asked something, his response is frequently left unfinished.

An epiphanic moment comes on the arrival of the 22-year-old boarder Mary Tell with her four-year-old child: she has left her husband and is in need of some kind of affection to which Jeremy responds. For the first time in his life he experiences love, and although the hurdles he has to overcome are difficult and many, after a seven-year gap in narrative Mary and Jeremy are described living as man and wife with several children.

But Jeremy is far from completely 'cured', although his attempts to communicate via his art achieve considerable albeit unwanted success. However, he obsessively withdraws into his art, neglects all else and even misses his wedding day, whereupon Mary leaves with the kids, and despite his colossal, courageous efforts to retrieve the relationship, he is too late.

This is haunting.

(Addendum: Interestingly, in An Anne Tyler Companion (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1998), Robert W. Croft claims that the cooperative Quaker community in Celo, NC, where Tyler spent her early years and was mainly educated at home with her brother Ty, fostered an outsider's way of looking at the world. Croft states that Jeremy Pauling is 'closest to Tyler's own personality', but adds that she's far more socially 'adept and efficient'. Paul Bail's Anne Tyler: A Critical Companion (also published by Greenwood, in 1996) takes Tyler's The Clock Winder (published in 1972 and her first 'Baltimore' novel) as the point where more autobiographical elements come into play, citing Celestial Navigation as the most intensely autobiographical. Bail sees a tension in the novel between Jeremy and May that could be said to represent Tyler as a writer and as a mother respectively, which to me seems a rather bold thing to say. But then, Bail says Wendy Lamb quotes Tyler on the problem of writing Celestial Navigation: 'It took years and it made me sick all the way through.' This is powerful stuff, although in a 2004 email interview with Mel Gussow, Tyler states that none of her characters resembles her, but she thinks she 'once donated [her] geographical dyslexia to one of them'. Um.)


The links below are to Anne Tyler novels I've written posts on:

–––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––
Anne Tyler: If Morning Ever Comes (1964)
Anne Tyler: The Tin Can Tree (1965)
Anne Tyler: The Clock Winder (1972)
Anne Tyler: Earthly Possessions (1977)
Anne Tyler: Morgan's Passing (1980)
Anne Tyler: Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant (1982)
Anne Tyler: The Accidental Tourist (1985)
Anne Tyler: Breathing Lessons (1988)
Anne Tyler: Ladder of Years (1995)
Anne Tyler: A Patchwork Planet (1998)
Anne Tyler: Back When We Were Grownups (2001)
Anne Tyler: The Amateur Marriage (2004)
Anne Tyler: Digging to America (2006)
Anne Tyler: Noah's Compass (2009)
Anne Tyler: The Beginner's Goodbye (2012)
Anne Tyler: A Spool of Blue Thread (2015)

10 February 2012

Patrick Besson: Belle-soeur (2004)

Not everything is as might be expected in Belle-soeur ('Sister-in-Law'), including the title. The narrator is Gilles, a journalist in Paris and therefore, as his mother says, a fouteur de merde, or shit stirrer. It's the family that's of central importance in this novel, as the title indicates. Gilles is the elder brother of Fabien, a famous (but alcoholic and coked-up) film star who is (off and on) engaged to Annabel, with whom Gilles falls in love and over whom he obsesses. But Gilles's relationship with Annabel is slow to start and it seems she's playing with him at first.

And then Gilles takes Sophie (a girl he doesn't, indeed can't, love) to Hungary, where Fabien is on location for a new movie and staying with Annabel until she falls out with him again and Gilles takes Annabel back to Paris, leaving Sophie to spend the rest of the holiday in Hungary.

And for three weeks Gilles's dreams come true and Annabel welcomes him into her bed and he lives with her in her flat. But Fabien returns, Gilles thinks Annabel will go back to him, gathers his belongings and leaves the key in the letter box. To Annabel's anger.

When Fabien buys a place in Neuilly and Annabel moves in with him she finds she's pregnant. She's told Fabien that she had a relationship with a man far older than Gilles (just to put her fiancé off the scent) while they split up, and when the child is born Gilles advises his brother to have a DNA test: it proves negative, and Fabien throws Annabel out.

Meanwhile Gilles has gone back to Sophie (although of course he's never stopped loving Annabel), who gives birth at the same time as Annabel, and Gilles knows, but doesn't care, that the baby is really Fabien's, and he's still marrying Sophie.

And then there's a potential atom bomb when Gilles tells Fabien that Annabel's baby is really his, although he knows that she'll deny it. Gilles's mother Catherine disowns him, but then her affections are for Fabien anyway, and shortly after Catherine tells her younger son that his father is in fact not the man who brought him up, he dies in a motorcycle accident.

So Fabien is only Gilles's half-brother, his wife's baby is not his but his half-brother's, he's the father of Annabel's child, and as Annabel and Fabien never marry, the 'Sister-in-Law' of the title must refer to Fabien's posthumous relation to Sophie!

Gilles says that Sophie and Catherine know that Annabel's lied about the true father, but they just continue to make believe that he's the liar. Well, has the reader ever suspected Gilles as an unreliable narrator? What does Gilles care: he only loves Annabel, who's bringing up their son, and every day he gets to take care of his reborn (half-)brother.

(In an article published in the magazine Le Point on 1 December 2011 and entitled 'Eva Joly, présidente de la République', Patrick Besson mocked the French-Norwegian green presidential candidate's accent by writing the whole piece in a kind of mock-Germanic style which began: 'Zalut la Vranze ! Auchourt'hui est un krand chour : fous m'afez élue brézidente te la République vranzaise'. It was the subject of some debate, and Joly called the article a 'racist attack', whereas Le Point didn't see what the fuss was about, and spoke of 'the dictatorship of the politically correct'. Some internautes tried to defend Besson by turning to the world of fiction and pointing out that Balzac too made fun of accents, as in the Alsatian Schmucke in Le Cousin Pons. Besson's article (with comments)).


My other Patrick Besson post:

–––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––
Patrick Besson: Assessible à certaine melancolie

9 February 2012

Anne Tyler: The Amateur Marriage (2004)

Although born (of Quaker parents) in Minneapolis, Minnesota, Anne Tyler (1941– ) was brought up and educated in North Carolina and later moved to Baltimore, Maryland, where – with the exception of her first four novels – her books are set. She considers Baltimore to be a Southern city, as does Paul Binding, whose Separate Country: A Literary Journey through the American South (London: Paddington Press, 1979) contains a chapter on Tyler, and notes that her preoccupation with 'the delineation of individuals and spheres in which they find themselves' makes her a kind of urban sister to Southern writers such as Walker Percy, Reynolds Price and Eudora Welty (a seminal influence).

The Amateur Marriage is her 16th novel and is elliptical: it spans sixty years, from Pearl Harbor Day in 1941 through to after 9/11, in ten chapters, with irregular gaps in the time between them. Although framed between two major political events, politics is not a major motivating factor of the characters, and Michael seems to join the army more for personal reasons, to impress Pauline, than for patriotic ones. The fact that Michael comes from a Polish Catholic background and Pauline from an Amecican Protestant one is not a source of conflict: but the fact that they have conflicting personalities (Pauline extroverted, impulsive, and generous; Michael introverted, cautious, and thrifty) is of major importance.

Michael and Pauline marry, live with his mother over her local grocery business in the Polish district and bring up three children – Lindy, George and Karen. George and Karen are conventional types who grow up to have professional jobs, but Lindy is more influenced by cultural factors outside the home environment, loves Jack Kerouac (here Kerook) and Albert Camus (here Albert Caymus); she offends her parent by quoting some 'Language' from Ginsberg's Howl; and she leaves home definitively, getting messed up on drugs in the San Francisco drug scene.

Although they go to San Francisco to bring Lindy back after some years of absence, they only bring back her son Pagan, whom they bring up, but mainly separately, as they've been 'killing a frog by degrees', and Michael walks out on Pauline and later re-marries. Tyler's handling of the slow-budding relationship between Michael and Anna is almost painful to read and you want to give both of them a kick in the pants to spur them on: she can do young love and mature love so well.

She can also do funny. At 64 Pauline goes on an evening dinner date with Dun Osgood, whose wife has only been dead four months, and all he can talk about is the fun he had with her (mentioning her name fifteen times in nine pages), but through the 'vast grey fog' of the boredom Pauline finds amusement. Dun leaves her house after a cup of cocoa because nine o'clock in the evening is late for him.

Tyler does hate well too. Lindy eventually turns up in Baltimore and is married and living in North Carolina, but no one really knows why she left, nor how she could inflict such violence on the family. There are family reunions once or twice a year, and Michael, who experienced his first marriage as hell, asks if Lindy remembers the family trips. Lindy says she'll never forget the claustrophobia: 'Just the five of us in this wretched, tangled knot, inward-turned, stunted, like a trapped fox chewing its own leg off'.


The links below are to Anne Tyler novels I've written posts on:

–––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––
Anne Tyler: If Morning Ever Comes (1964)
Anne Tyler: The Tin Can Tree (1965)
Anne Tyler: The Clock Winder (1972)
Anne Tyler: Celestial Navigation (1974)
Anne Tyler: Earthly Possessions (1977)
Anne Tyler: Morgan's Passing (1980)
Anne Tyler: Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant (1982)
Anne Tyler: The Accidental Tourist (1985)
Anne Tyler: Breathing Lessons (1988)
Anne Tyler: Ladder of Years (1995)
Anne Tyler: A Patchwork Planet (1998)
Anne Tyler: Back When We Were Grownups (2001)
Anne Tyler: Digging to America (2006)
Anne Tyler: Noah's Compass (2009)
Anne Tyler: The Beginner's Goodbye (2012)
Anne Tyler: A Spool of Blue Thread (2015)

'Will of Samuel Thomas (1807-1878)' by Robert Hughes

Samuel Thomas (Senior) died in 1878, at 71 years of age. He was buried at his parish church in Redditch, but the New Town development in the later 20th Century required his grave to be moved. A photograph taken at this time by my cousin David Guillaume shows a fairly elaborate tomb, with the date of birth reasonably discernible, but that of his wife Mary not clear because of corrosion of the stone.

An intriguing (if possibly apocryphal) story has it that the old guy was by persuasion an atheist, and only agreed to contribute to the church funds if he could be buried in such a place as would require all worshippers to confront the atheist every Sunday: i.e. just outside the church door!

Samuel is generally regarded as having his family origins in Wales, and indeed a scrawled tree by his great-grandson Charles F Guillaume states that he was from a Jewish family 'settled in Wales', and a 'travelling packman' who 'founded the needle industry in Redditch'.

My grandfather Bob Britton spoke little of his family, but I vividly remember hearing from him on at least one occasion that the Thomas family 'founded the needle industry in Redditch'. Independent evidence suggests that numerous producers were in the town well before Samuel Thomas' time, but Samuel Thomas and Co were extremely prominent (the facade of The British Needle Mills their factory is to be seen in the town today as a protected feature), and it is clear that Samuel was responsible for some important innovations, such as a process where needles were machine-sharpened thus replacing the costly and unhealthy sharpening by hand. A letter from Ida Thomas, who died at 102 and was a great-grand-daughter of Samuel, mentions how there was hostility to the introduction of the process, even though the hand-sharpeners had suffered ill-health from their work!

Another cousin tells how Samuel Thomas needed 16 bodyguards to protect him as he walked through the streets of Redditch, so many had he put out of work through the mechanisation of what had been a cottage industry.

The tension between industrial progress and traditonal craft is of course a well-worn theme and the term 'Luddism' today marks the machine-breakers of the period beginning about 1811.

With this background we might expect that Lionel Britton, also a great-grandson of Samuel Thomas (Senior), made him a villain in his seminal work 'Hunger and Love'.

Dr Shaw is the world expert on the volume and indeed on its author, but it would be surprising if he would disagree that the generic Victorian factory owner such as Lionel's great-grandfather Samuel Thomas figures as a major-league bad guy!

In some recent posts I have speculated whether Sam Junior (1835-1912) might have been held in a completely different light by Lionel, who certainly never knew Old Sam, but apparently had Sam Junior as his guardian at least for awhile. There is good evidence that their world views were remarkably similar.

The turning point in Sam Junior's life may well have come when he was cut out of his father's will. Before 1878, he had the expectation (as the eldest son) of inheriting a huge fortune by the standards of the time, but for whatever reason (and this is a long discussion which must be taken up later) he was disinherited in favour of the third surviving son, Henry. The bitterness over this is reflected in letters from Ida Thomas, who recounts how Sam Junior spent all his remaining funds fighting the will.

Above is the record of the probate, the relevant passage reading: "Proved at Worcester the fifteenth day of May 1879 by the oath of Henry Thomas the Son the sole Executor to whom administration was granted_ The Right Honorable Sir James Hannen Knight_ the President of the Probate Divorce and Admiralty Division of the High Court of Justice having on the twenty sixth day of April 1879 by his final Decree in a certain cause or suit then depending in the said Court entitled "Thomas against Thomas" pronounced for the force and validity of the said Will."

7 February 2012

T. R. Pearson: A­­ Short History of a Small Place (1985)

I was vaguely aware of T. R. Pearson as a Southern writer, so I was pleased to find this book (Penguin, fourth impression, remainder mark to bottom fore-edge) outside a bookstore in Harvard Square, Cambridge MA. Barry Hannah is quoted as saying that the 'whole book is a sort of austere riot', and adds that he loved it. After a hard struggle reading it, I wish I could say the same.

A­­ Short History of a Small Place is set in the imaginary town of Neely, North Carolina, which Wikipedia suggests is closely based on Reidsville, and from the references to nearby towns (Burlington, Greensboro, etc) that makes good sense. The narrative loosely concerns Southern lady Miss Myra Anglique Pettigrew and her pet monkey Mr. Britches, from her suicide from the town water tower as an elderly woman to the death of Mr. Britches two years later, and many periods before this and many other people associated with her or not, in no particular order.

There is little dialogue, mainly long paragraphs descriptive of humorous behavior which is often not humorous, often digressive, often in long, repetitive, rambling sentences. The following is just one example sentence which is by no means atypical:

'Generally speaking, Mrs. Vestal attends all gatherings and viewings and funerals and burial services in the honor of an acquaintance, no matter how marginal, and she attends all gatherings and viewings and funerals and burial services in the honor of a relative of an acquaintance, and she attends all gatherings and viewings and funerals and burial services in the honor of a neighbor of an acquaintance, and she attends all gatherings and viewings and funerals and burial services in the honor of an acquaintance of an acquaintance, and when she is hard pressed for exhilaration she attends the gatherings and viewings and funerals and burial services of people whose names indicate to her that they might possibly have been related to and/or did know someone Mrs. Vestal could have heard of at one time or another.'

I was tempted to say that this book is a runaway train, but at least that would have to stay ontrack. But no, this is a mad monkey let loose, wandering all over, screeching loudly, causing havoc. There are patches of brilliance in this novel, and I think it must be those that made me continue to the end.

Claude Berri's Jean de Florette / Manon des Sources (1986)

The writer most popularly associated with Provence is not Frédéric Mistral, or Jean Giono, or Henri Bosco, or even Alphonse Daudet, but Marcel Pagnol (1885–1974). Pagnol was born in Aubagne, a small town to the east of Marseille. Although his family later moved to Marseille, they spent all their holidays in the nearby hamlet of La Treille in the foothills of the rocky Barre St-Esprit, an area with a great formative influence on Pagnol, and where, as a film director, he would buy land and make the original Manon des Sources (1952), a tale of greed and retribution based on a story a local shepherd told him. Following the success of this, Pagnol wrote the novel L'Eau des collines (1962), which is in two parts – Jean de Florette and Manon de Sources, which are the titles of Claude Berri's 1986 remake.

Jean de Florette is set after World War I and stars Yves Montand as the ageing César Soubeyran (or Papet) and Daniel Auteuil as his nephew Ugolin Soubreyan, who intends to make a fortune growing and selling carnations. He wants to buy nearby property from Pique-Bouffigue, who dies in a fight and with the death of César's former friend Florette the land soon passes to her son Jean Cadoret (Gérard Depardieu), the 'Jean de Florette' of the title. Jean is an outsider because he's a former citydweller and a hunchback, which by tradition means he's a bringer of bad luck.

Jean's plan is to raise rabbits on the land but his downfall is that he is led to believe by Ugolin and César that the land has no water, the two villains having blocked the spring in an attempt destroy Jean's plans and buy the property cheaply. Their plot succeeds only too well, Jean dies in an attempt to sink a well on the property and Ugolin and César buy the land cheaply, but before the credits roll Jean's daughter Manon sees the pair all too hastily unblocking the spring and rejoicing in thoughts of wealth.

Manon des Sources is indeed Manon's story, which shows a reversal of the fortunes of the Soubeyrans. The stupid, ugly, and pathetic Ugolin falls secretly and hopelessly in love with Manon, who has grown into a beautiful young woman and who of course detests the Soubeyrans. She publicly accuses the pair of effectively murdering her father, and as her words are found to be true the lovesick Ugolin kills himself and César, who discovers all too late that Jean was his son by Florette, goes into a sleep that he knows he will never leave, after bequeathing all he owns to his granddaughter Manon (Emmanuelle Béart).

The risks of melodrama are obviously great, but in what I believe is a faithful interpretation by Claude Berri, the director skilfully sidesteps them. Nevertheless, in some scenes that I have mentioned and some that I haven't (particularly where the locals are represented), it would be difficult to ignore certain elements of stereotyping, and this is an area in which Pagnol has come in for criticism. It's still a wonderful film though.